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A helpful reminder of how the Gospels contradict the Religious Right
on October 4, 2005
I grew up attending the Geyer Springs Baptist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas and became a diligent Bible reader. I read it from cover to cover in a number of translations. The Living Bible first, then Today's English Version (the Good News for Modern Man version), the King James's Version, the NIV, and the RSV. Parts I read more than others, and parts I read by far the most were the Gospels, especially the sayings and sermons and parables of Jesus. I was not raised in a political family, but my politics were profoundly formed and fashioned by reading the New Testament.
I learned some amazing things in the Gospels. Jesus said that if you had two coats, take one of them and give it to someone who had none. If someone struck you, you were to turn and offer them the other cheek. Jesus was constantly reaching out to the poor, was profoundly suspicious of the religious (especially those who loved to prayer in public and put their religiosity on display), and had an extraordinarily low disregard for the wealthy. He displayed an affirmation of the worth of women that was simply unprecedented in the Middle East of the time. And while he sternly avoided the rich and powerful and respected, he spent all his time among the poor, the dregs, the lepers, and the needy.
All this stands in stark contrast with today's American churches, especially those in the Bible belt. My bet is that these people in the churches with parking lots filled with Mercedes and Jaguars and BMW are filled with members with lots and lots of coats, not just two. I vividly remember attending First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas where the famous W. A. Criswell utters the astonishing affirmation that the only economic system ordained by God was the free enterprise system. The gap between these teachings and these actions and the portrait of Jesus in the New Testament is gargantuan. Anyone intimately familiar with the Gospels can't help but realize that something has gone seriously awry.
I agree with the first reviewer that Jesus is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, but neither is he nonpolitical. But that doesn't negate the fact that Jesus made a host of utterances that, if taken seriously by a reader such as I was as a teen, lead one to a nonpartisan ultra left wing political position. But this all misses the point. While my religion leads me to an extreme left wing political position, I do not think that this should be somehow encapsulated in currently political structures. The founders, especially James Madison though also John Adams and Jefferson recognized that forcing a link between the political structures of society and religion is harmful to religion and to politics. I believe this will become progressively obvious in the decades to come, as the current political involvement of the Religious Right in right wing politics will cause both a repudiation of both. History has witnessed such coalitions before, and always when one goes down, the other is affected as well.
This anthology tries to provide some balance in the current discussion of the connection between Christianity and politics. All too often, the press presumes that the Religious Right somehow speaks for all Christians, and that all Christians are right wingers. This is simply wrong, and one of the weaknesses of the collection is that this isn't sufficiently brought out. In fact, most Christians are not fundamentalists, not right wingers, did not support the war in Iraq, are not supporters of George Bush, and not necessarily Republican. Only about 20% of the US fits the demographic that would be considered the Religious Right, and not all of them share the entire agenda.
The main value, therefore, of this collection is that it serves as a reminder and a corrective to general perceptions. The Gospels clearly and powerfully authorize a set of social concerns that are diametrically opposed to the general impression of the Religious Right, with its obsession on war, on promulgating wealth, on public expressions of religiosity, and unfettered free market capitalism. These are simply not Christian values, yet few in the press ever challenge these.
The writers in this book are from various points of view. My major complaint is the overall journalistic quality of the contributors. There are much better individuals taking up these same issues. I would have liked to see invited papers as well. And some of the more prominent contributors are people I find a tad superficial or wrongheaded. For instance, I have profound problems with the theoretical foundations of the work of John Dominac Crossan (he of the rather silly Jesus Seminar) and surely there was no need to quote so much of Stephen Mitchell's various paraphrases of the New Testament. Few evangelicals were included despite the fact that there are a host of them with left wing politics. Nonetheless, the book is valuable for presenting a wide body of opinion that is in sharp opposition to much of what is being said today about the link between God and politics.
A couple of the pieces deserve special mention. I especially enjoyed Rob Boston's discussion of James Madison's views on the separation of Church and State. Madison, of course, is the key figure in the forming of the U.S. Constitution, having participated in the debates in Philadelphia (keeping for posterity detailed notes that later stood as the major document of what happened in the convention), having written a number of the FEDERALIST PAPERS, including the most important in the bunch, Number 10, having pushed the Virginia statute for the separation of Church and State into ratification in his home state (though it was written by Jefferson--the statute was later the model for the Bill of Rights), a key figure in arguing for the Constitution's ratification, and the primary author of the Bill of Rights. In other words, Madison is the key figure where the Constitution is concerned, and he was also a passionate and persistent defender of the separation of church and state. Despite this, many on the Right out of complete ignorance want to assert that the wall between Church and State is a myth or even a lie told by later generations. But the words of all the major Founders contradict this, so do the words of those contemporaries who opposed the Founders. The major complete by these opponents was that the constitution clearly had no place for God. In fact, it was only in the very late 20th century that ANYONE ever started making the bizarre claim that the Constitution did not place a wall between church and state.
I'm very concerned for the fate of Christianity in this generation. The so-called friends of the faith have managed to align millions of Christians with a political agenda that most Americans find reprehensible. They unquestionably see things at this moment as a great time, but my fear is that when the reaction sets in--and reactions always set in--the result will be not merely the right wing political ideology that is causing incalculable harm to the nation and world right now, but to the cause of Christianity itself. Jesus warns of being stumbling blocks, but I believe the misguided political activity of the Religious Right today will have created the greatest stumbling block in the history of the faith.
More than every, it is crucial for Christians with a clearer understanding of the faith that the misguided millions in the Religious Right to step forward and offer an alternative, more Biblically-based understanding of society. We must be prepared to undo all the damage that our misguided brethren are currently causing.