Saturday, November 08, 2008

Politicized Christianity

As someone who grew up in conservative Evangelicalism and in a politically conservative home, I took it for granted that a basically conservative Republican perspective on voting was synonymous with a Christian one. As I got older, especially into my twenties, I began to question this due to a number of factors. After many years of wrestling with these issues I have come back around to a reclaimed conservatism with some leaning towards what might be called Christian anarchy. I do not think any earthly political party has a monopoly on Christ or is synonymous with Christ's kingdom or agenda in the world, though I do think it possible that one or another political party may be more closely aligned with a Christian perspective on things or more correct on issues of fundamental import.

In recent years, there has been a movement of many evangelicals, especially younger ones, towards the political left. I suspect that there are a number of reasons for this move, some of them better than others. One of the reasons, which seems to me to be a good one, is that many Christians have grown tired of the over-politicized Christianity of what is called "The Religious Right," and the narrowness, ugliness, and shrillness sometimes associated with it. Many of us have grown tired of seeing God's name too closely associated with a particular political party or agenda, and the often angry, defensive spirit that seems to accompany that association. We have been concerned about the way in which this politicized Christianity has been a turn off for many that has prevented them from seeing Jesus and which has made it more difficult for many Christians to love their neighbors, whoever they may be.

This brings me to the point of this article, however, which is the fact that a swing to the political left is not really a move away from a politicized Christianity. It is simply exchanging one set of issues or agendas for another, and then aligning our Christianity with them. The shape of the container remains the same, only the contents have changed. I fail to see how this is an improvement.

With the election of President Obama, there is much talk in the air of "change." While, on one level, I can understand the hope and excitement this has generated, I am, for the most part, extremely skeptical about this talk and wonder what it really means at a substantial level. I am particularly concerned about the life issues and the extremely liberal position Obama takes on abortion, which I view as fundamental to many other issues. If the weakest, most helpless and innocent among us are are not protected, and perhaps the most fundamental human relationship of dependence among us is viewed as essentially expendable, then on what basis can we argue for human obligations towards anyone else? This is just one example of how a swing to the political left among Christians does not seem to me to be an improvement over a too close association with the political right.

My point here, is that despite all the talk of "change," a swing to the political left, does not really strike me as a substantial change in any way. It still leaves us just as vulnerable to the dangers of a politicized Christianity, perhaps even more so, because there is the dangerous illusion that, having moved away from the politicized Christianity of the past we have somehow escaped it, when in fact all we have done is trade one task-master for another. Furthermore, as the abortion issue illustrates, it still leaves us just as vulnerable, again, maybe more so, to the dehumanizing forces at work in late modern Western culture. It can also become just as much of a constricting legalism and a possible hindrance to loving our neighbors as the Religious Right did.

What do you think?


thekid said...

Right on brother! If I could, I would spread these words far and wide. Your perspective on how we treat "the least of these" affecting how we are willing to care for anyone is spot on and of utmost importance for us to consider.

Have you heard any of Derek Webb's songs that deal directly with politics? This week was the first time I listened to "There's Never Been A Savior On Capitol Hill" and the whole Mockingbird cd seems to wrestle with this stuff. Check it out if you get a chance.

jzholloway said...

Excellent post!

ericpaddon said...

The problem I have with people who complain about how the Religious Right "politicized" Christianity is that it totally manages to ignore the fact that in the 1960s Christianity was first being politicized by the political left, not the right, for anti-Vietnam activism and the promotion of "social justice" issues. The Religious Right ended up coming into being as a *reaction* to this movement and the fact that the active presence of Christians in the public square was being dominated exclusively by the political left. If Religious Right Christians end up becoming synonymous with "narrowness, ugliness, shrillness" etc. I would submit that has a lot more to do with the spin placed on their activities by an elite media that is totally hostile to them on general principles, yet was more than willing to paint the Religious Left of the 1960s in glowing terms and not *once* ever raise the question of whether or not the activism of say, William Sloane Coffin, somehow constituted a violation of church-state separation or was an inappropriate mixing of religion and politics.

Gordon Hackman said...

Did you actually read my post here all the way through? It was actually expressing concern about the religious (specifically the evangelical) left far more than it was about the religious right. You comments give me the impression that you only read the beginning of the post but didn't actually follow through to the end.

I most certainly do not endorse the politics of the religous left. I do, however, stand by the things I said about the religious right at the beginning of the post. While the religious right may have started for good reasons (and my own politics are far closer to their's than they are to those of the left) that still doesn't mean there aren't significant problems with it that deserve pointing out.

ericpaddon said...

I do acknowledge what you said there regarding the danger of the pendulum swinging the other way. But my concern had more to do with the fact regarding how the Religious Right in general is and has been for many years often characterized as "shrill" and "narrow" and "ugly" and as someone who has studied American politics and culture of the post-WW2 era in-depth, it just always leaves me somewhat amused how this stigma became attached to them, when my own experience has been that their level of activism if anything has been no more or less prominent than a kind of activism that in the 1960s was openly encouraged and tolerated by the popular media with no concerns whatsoever about the propriety of whether a line was being crossed in the divide between religion and politics. Perhaps being a historian more by trade, I am more concerned about the "setting the record straight" aspect there since I think while the Religious Right certainly deserves criticism when its warranted, I think there is a deeper problem in which the aura of stigmatizing the giants of the Religious Right as "controversial" figures whereas Religious Left figures of the 1960s are not so regarded in the history textbooks I have to work with.

That's the context where I come from on this, insomuch as how it relates to my own profession. I should have perhaps made that more clear.

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