In the staring contest between conservative and liberal Christianity in this country, the conservative side appears to have blinked.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the Religious Right, Christian Fundamentalists, right-wing Evangelicals, as well as the future of these movements. Needless to say, there has been a bit of a shift of the pendulum back towards the center over the past few months. There is an article in the New York Times (front page, top of the fold, no less)today that about talks this shift among the Evangelical movement. It is quite heartening to see that those who claim to speak for Evangelicals are moving away from a language of fear and hatred and taking a interest in the wider world around them.
One of the weaknesses of religious Fundamentalism and its secular counterpart, fascism, is that it relies heavily on very skillful oration and cults of personality with a great deal of financial backing. I’m referring specifically to entities such as Pat Robertson’s outfit, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, and the late Jerry Falwell (may he rest in peace), along with networks like TBN. Over the past 20 years or so, it has been very difficult to make the distinction between these guys and the larger evangelical movement which, while not as liberal as the mainline churches tend to be, is definitely more towards the center than their fundamentalist counterparts. They are becoming more interested in things such as the environment, AIDS and poverty than those further to the right, who seem to only be concerned with personal piety and waiting for a very unbiblical and unscriptural phenomenon known as the Rapture. The first is not necessarily bad in and of itself, but the second leads to an escapist and fatalist point-of-view where the primary concern of faith is getting to heaven. This is what I would call in very scientific and theological terms, “missing the point.”
Now, while Evangelicals are concerned with these things as well and many hold to a pre-millenial dispensationalist view of the parousia (aka the return of Christ), we are seeing a marked increase, especially in the younger folks, in interest about social issues which usually were the provenance of the Christian and secular left. Some issues, however, such as abortion and the full inclusion of GLBT folks in the body of Christ are still non-starters. Still, 20 years ago the idea of interracial marriage and an interracial church were largely non-starters. To a large extent that has gone away, though there is still much reconciliation to be done.
So, at first glance at least, there are all sorts of reasons to be optimistic about the Church. However, if you’re like me, you might beleive the ramifications of the involvement of the religious right in American politics will continue to affect us for quite some time. The good news with this shift in power towards the center among conservatives means that there is an opportunity to engage them and work together with them on things such as the environment, AIDS and poverty. The bad news is, even as the cults of personality go away in some form or another whether through their own gaffes (e.g. Pat Robertson) or otherwise, there still remains a very important thought in these circles … the idea that Christian religious doctrine should determine public and foriegn policy for the nation. And this idea, I fear, is starting to be used to a greater extent by the left.
The main reason why I have a huge problem with this is because the more and more our faith is tangled up with secular politics, the more we are in danger of setting up an idol. Put too much emphasis on Scripture and you run the risk of making the Bible an idol. Put too much emphasis on adapting your faith to culture, and you soon become a slave to culture, no different than pop icons of the day. In both instances, your faith becomes irrelevant. Too much emphasis on personal piety, and you ignore the basic mandates of the Gospel regarding the poor and so on. Too much emphasis on the social aspects, and you miss the wondrous gift of an Incarnational God.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ was never meant to be politicized. That’s part of the reason I believe why Jesus told Pilate “My Kingdom is not of this world.” By mixing our faith with the powers of this world (namely, politics and the institutions of government), we run the risk of succumbing to the same temptation which the Devil offered to Jesus during his sojourn in the wilderness. Satan takes Jesus to a very high place, shows him the world and says “I’ll give all of this to you if you only fall down and worship me.” The power brokers on the religious right have done just that, I fear, and it is a lesson that those on the left should heed as well. As Andrew Sullivan so succinctly put it in his recent article in Time, the last thing we need in the country is a “religious left.”
Neither we nor the Gospel are meant to be beholden to the ideologies of our age. Conservatives run the risk of being little more than fascists in ecclesial trappings, just as liberals run the risk of being humanists at a fancy dress party. In either case, regardless of whether the effects are benign or malignant, the Gospel is neutered.