Wednesday, October 31, 2007

"Is the religious right dead?"

This question is the title of the first chapter of a book presently being co-authored by Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, the most prominent D.C. lobbying group for religious conservatives. Although Perkins and co-author Harry Jackson argue the answer to the question is "no," research by New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick has led to some different conclusions.

In the fascinating article "Evangelical Crackup," Kirkpatrick recounts conversations he has had with evangelical Christian leadership and laypeople over the past ten years. It seems that history is repeating itself for the conservative religious movement, which began its present marriage to the Republican party following disappointment with evangelical U.S. President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. Current disillusionment with evangelical President George W. Bush indicate that the years of evangelicals marching in lock-step with Republicans have come to an end.

The religious right is exhausted from its 25-year "culture war" against abortion, same-sex marriage, evolution, and separation of Church and State. Moreover, they are disillusioned by the results of finally achieving what James Dobson has called the "triple crown": simultaneous Republican control of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives. Although Republicans succeeded in achieving this goal in 2004, religious conservatives have not seen victory on any of the fronts of the metaphorical culture war. Instead, they have found America embroiled in the not-metaphorical-at-all Iraq war quagmire that seems to lack both moral high ground and a clear way out.
Today the president’s support among evangelicals, still among his most loyal constituents, has crumbled. Once close to 90 percent, the president’s approval rating among white evangelicals has fallen to a recent low below 45 percent, according to polls by the Pew Research Center. White evangelicals under 30 — the future of the church — were once Bush’s biggest fans; now they are less supportive than their elders. And the dissatisfaction extends beyond Bush. For the first time in many years, white evangelical identification with the Republican Party has dipped below 50 percent, with the sharpest falloff again among the young, according to John C. Green, a senior fellow at Pew and an expert on religion and politics. (The defectors by and large say they’ve become independents, not Democrats, according to the polls.)
But Kirkpatrick documents a change among evangelicals that is far more profound than political allegiance. Evangelicals' theological emphases are becoming far more progressive.
The pendulum in the Christian world has swung back to the moderate point of view.
There are many related ways to characterize the split: a push to better this world as well as save eternal souls; a focus on the spiritual growth that follows conversion rather than the yes-or-no moment of salvation; a renewed attention to Jesus’ teachings about social justice as well as about personal or sexual morality. However conceived, though, the result is a new interest in public policies that address problems of peace, health and poverty — problems, unlike abortion and same-sex marriage, where left and right compete to present the best answers.
In June of last year, in one of the few upsets since conservatives consolidated their hold on the [Southern Baptist] denomination 20 years ago, the establishment’s hand-picked candidates — well-known national figures in the convention — lost the internal election for the convention’s presidency. The winner, Frank Page of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., campaigned on a promise to loosen up the conservatives’ tight control. He told convention delegates that Southern Baptists had become known too much for what they were against (abortion, evolution, homosexuality) instead of what they stand for (the Gospel). “I believe in the word of God,” he said after his election, “I am just not mad about it.” (emphasis mine)
I wanted to highlight one of the "new" progressive theologies that is gaining traction among conservative religious folks: pacifism. I'll confess this is of interest to me because I've been a part of a Quaker church for the last year and have had my non-pacifist mindset challenged over and over again.
Most conservative Christian leaders have resolutely supported Bush’s foreign policy. Dobson and others have even talked about defending Western civilization from radical Islam as a precondition for protecting family values. But on the eve of the Iraq invasion, [Chicago megachurch pastor Bill] Hybels preached a sermon called “Why War?” Laying out three approaches to war — realism, just-war theory and pacifism — he implored members of his congregation to re-examine their own thinking and then try to square it with the Bible. In the process, he left little doubt about where he personally stood. He called himself a pacifist.

Hybels traced the “J curve” of mounting deaths from war through the centuries. “In case you are wondering about this, wonder how God feels about all this,” he said. “It breaks the heart of God.”

At his annual leadership conference this summer, Hybels interviewed former President Jimmy Carter. To some Christian conservatives, it was quite a provocation. Carter, after all, was their first great disappointment, a Southern Baptist who denounced the conservative takeover and an early critic of the Bush administration. Some pastors canceled plans to attend.

I think that a superpower ought to be the exemplification of a commitment to peace,” Carter told Hybels, who nodded along. “I would like for anyone in the world that’s threatened with conflict to say to themselves immediately: ‘Why don’t we go to Washington? They believe in peace and they will help us get peace.’ ” Carter added: “This is just a simple but important extrapolation from what a human being ought to do, and what a human being ought to do is what Jesus Christ did, who was a champion of peace.”
I like Carter's dream. I hope it is a dream that is championed by more and more evangelicals over time.

Hat tip: my boyfriend

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