Tuesday, July 10, 2012

God's Own Party, continued

Now some thoughts on the larger story Daniel Williams tells. First, humility is called for. It remains much easier to point out how misguided and counterproductive the Christian Right has been than to explain exactly what conservative Christians should have been doing differently these past few decades. If I had an obvious solution for how Christians should approach politics I would be broadcasting it far and wide. But Williams' book does raise several thoughts.

What unified the Christian Right, drove it forward, and continues to give it coherence today? I maintain that it was not school prayer and Bible reading, evolution, the civil rights backlash and defense of the "segregation academies," abortion, or homosexuality. All of these mattered a great deal. But beneath them all was a commitment to America's civil religion, to God and country, to America as the new Israel, to America as a chosen nation to do God's work in the world.

With those basic assumptions in place, the Christian Right rallied against things like "taking God out of the schools" and gay marriage, things that, on the surface, may seem arbitrary and unconnected. But what they tend to have in common is that while affirming America as a place of pluralism and freedom of conscience, they threaten it as a "Christian nation." The past 50 years have brought many changes that make the United States, more than ever before, a home for all people, where we are free to make our own decisions about how to order our lives. But the Christian Right does not value this pluralism and freedom of conscience. It has consistently fought for a country in which the rights of those who aren't conservative Christians will be restricted.

Wait, you say, "I'm a conservative Christian and vote conservatively, but I'm certainly not against freedom of conscience and pluralism!" Good, I'm glad to hear that. Now wake up and realize the movement that represents you has been working against these things for decades. Tell them to stop. Stop supporting them.

As someone who grew up immersed in the world of the Christian Right, I think many good people have been duped by their leaders. There are lots of decent people who just have a vague sense that they want their country to honor God, and they feel that maybe things haven't been going so well lately. And then these demagogues come along and say, "It's the secularists fault! They took prayer out of schools! It's the multiculturalists! They're not teaching kids American values! It's the homosexuals! They're undermining traditional morality! Help us and we'll restore America to its Christian roots!" And decent people who are busy living their own lives, without really thinking in any depth about these issues, kinda nod and say, "Oh...Ok, I guess...Here's a little money..."

The results of this, as David Campbell and Robert Putnam document in American Grace, have been devastating, as an unprecedented number of Americans disavow any religious affiliation, in part because of its toxic association with conservative politics. This raises a glaring question because, of course, shortly before the Christian Right there was another political movement, largely Christian, that transformed American society, and did so without tarnishing the image of Christianity. The question of why black churches succeeded where white conservative Christians have failed may seem obvious or silly to some, but to me the answer is not at all clear. I hope to get into this later. In the meantime, as Ta-Nehisi Coates says, talk to me like I'm stupid: why was the civil rights movement a good and legitimate assertion of Christian values in a contentious political question, while the efforts of the Christian Right seem like a power grab that has damaged the reputation of Christianity?

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