On the Religious Right

Matthew Lee Anderson picks up the issue of the Religious Right, and in particular its connection to racism. Is it, as Randall Balmer, Sarah Posner and others, linked to racism — is it the color line that drives its animus? Anderson has his doubts.

While evangelicals indisputably have a less-than-exemplary record on questions of race, their own history within the South is not necessarily identical or equivalent to the history of the Religious Right. The most charitable interpretation of Bob Jones is that the Religious Right defended the wrong practice for the right reasons, namely, the freedom of religious institutions to govern themselves.

It may not be race at all.

Ballmer’s thesis appears to underplay the impact of S California in the formation of the Religious Right. This sis the territory mined by Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt. Politically active Christian nationalism emerged from two deep streams: that of southern white protestantism, and the new right synthesis in Orange County. The latter grew from “Okie” immigration of the 30s, which brought Church of Christ fundamentalism and Southern Baptists together — what is most interesting for this story is its relative lack of racial animosity, It was not the color line but anti-communism and the embrace of free markets that shaped the thinking. This is the stream that found Goldwater and put Ronald Reagan into office . To Orange County and the Deep South, we can add the conservative upper Midwest, with its mix of Lutherans (LCMS and Wisconsin) and the Dutch Reformed communities. The Upper Midwest allowed the bridge-building to Catholics that the other two streams lacked.

Finally, one should note the role of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), as a sort of connector to all these strands. The PCA brought a mix of Midwest Presbyterianism from Reformed Presbyterian-Evangelical Synod of Francis Schaffer, a strong push to suburban evangelical ministry, and a more problematic heritage with the church square First Churches of the deep south that stood by segregation. It was from the PCA that we got the culturally assertive forms of faith, from christian education to Hobby Lobby, forms derivative of theology first developed by the Dutch Reformed. .

To add a further nuance, we can consider Peter Beinart’s article, “Breaking Faith” in The Atlantic. recent article on the Trump supporters. He notes that the President draws support from those who are culturally of the Religious Right, rather than from those who regularly worship. And there, the hypothesis that this population would end up in the alt-Right seems at least plausible.

 

Advertisements

Lost Opportunity

The ability of Evangelicals to tap popular trends has always been ambiguous. At once it makes faith available to many, and yet it always threatens to careen of track, to make faith less transcendent and more cultural. The movement needs its prophets.

Sharon Hodde Miller has been thinking about this in particular, and tapping into Walter Breuggeman, as in this quote

“I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic, U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence” (A Way Other Than Our Own, p. 3)

Evangelicals and the Loss of Prophetic Imagination

Chesterton, is that you?

Matthew Lee Anderson has a bone to pick with Donald Miller (he of Blue Like Jazz) over this quo

Personalities like Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and Kipling are gone now in the Christian world. Or at least they are unknown. Christian thinking is dominated by Americans who choose simplicity over reason. We like thinkers who pick an enemy and attack them. Lost is the humor, a winsome nature and even a robust intellectualism. The same figures who demand “thought” are hardly thinking at all, and instead attack those who do because they won’t submit to their linear, black-and-white view of life.

It may be Anderson’s own work on Chesterton, or something more hidden, but perhaps there’s more.

 it strikes me as, well, surprising that Miller is commending Chesterton so highly to us.  Especially given that in the same paragraph he chastises those inclined to exhort people toward thoughtfulness for attacking people because they “won’t submit to their linear, black-and-white view of life.”  Such titans are gone indeed, but Miller’s own approach isn’t going to bring them back.

This strikes me far more as an argument with a shadow that haunts Anderson’s path. Frankly, Miller’s purpose seemed much lighter than the reaction it provoked. This was not advanced as an argument so much as an introduction to a video, where Miller explained why he found it interesting (and why a reader might, as well).

That this should be read as a sort of casual introduction is further underscored by the commonplace nature of the observation as to evangelical polemicists. Simplistic, bombastic, lacking humor — maybe it’s the Reformed circles, but that critique sees to come with the territory. And one doesn’t have to look far to find the casualties. What  is more, such critics invariably do clothe themselves with the posture of a Chesterton or some other Valiant-for-Truth type.

Miller writes, Anderson aims to guard the walls, or at least fight a rear guard action as a later comment reveals.

Or consider this bit, which Miller has recently sent out and which fits Chesterton’s way of doing things about as well as wearing a Led Zeppelin t-shirt to the LA Phil:
The fundamentalists want me to trust their truth. But I don’t. I look for truth. They sell confidence. Truth won’t make me proud.
… Miller’s exactly right that the truth won’t make us proud, but he’s exactly wrong that it won’t make us confident.

Here, Anderson mistakes Miller’s purpose.  When polemics are  framed as a one-way conversation then the speech easily turns to externals of the message, a sort of nominalism that easily decays into externals, hence one sells confidence. It’s partisanship. By contrast, what good apologists like Chesterton or Lewis do is to open up a space for the other by wit and graciousness. Our thoughts, our words, our lives must all finally co-inhere.

Culture buildling as a political act

Matthew Lee Anderson takes stock of the election,

What people want is not handwringing when things don’t go “our way,” but hope.  And a sober and serious assessment of how things look along with something like a strategy to turn them around that stays true to our principles.  Or maybe I speak too broadly.  So let me narrow the scope:  that is what want from an evangelical leadership, not the sort of handwringing that we are currently experiencing.

Still, it’s not as if Evangelicals will abandon the Republican Party. The first reactions are less about policy than they are about disappointment and real grief. And in understanding  that this still part of a grieving process, several points come to mind.

As political scientists will remind us, political identity is rather stable; culturally evangelicals will continue to be a part of the Republican coalition, particularly in the South. That cultural identity is a trap as to the real transformational goals of the faith community (and this is what I hear you struggling towards). In this light, Evangelicals face something of a choice whether to reinforce this cultural and political identity, that is to take part as a political community, or to take part in something akin to culture-making.

I would opt for the culture making approach.

Evangelicals in the last election voted more intensely GOP than in 2008. If there is an electoral failure, it is not for their not trying. What is missing is their ability to find allies in the center. Here, the deep cultural identity as a wing of the GOP played against them, particularly in the polarized electorate and an election framed as a cultural war, a war the Right lost (per Jonathan Chait).

To advance a transformational approach will it seem, call for different approaches than those previously advanced. At the least, as you suggest, it calls for something like a cheerful engagement. I would suggest that you especially pay attention to Peter Leithart’s concern for justice; a second place to turn would be the sober approach of Alan Jacobs’ thinking on information deficits and global warming.

And Leithart is right in this also: culture making can only take place in the context of a deep faith in the sovereign God who claims our lives at the Cross. Sovereignty and sacrifice walk together, indeed are the proper fuel for hope. But if such hope were easy, we would have it already, wouldn’t we?

The language of churches

Keith Miller brings an interesting take on church architecture. Who needs, since the congregation that builds it defects?

Permanent edifices like church buildings belong to particular institutions which are not guaranteed (or even very likely) to maintain their fidelity to the pure Gospel. Therefore, since tomorrow’s true Christians may be forced to abandon the First Church of Centerburg for less Spirit-quenching climes, buildings whose usefulness is measured in decades rather than centuries are a better bet.

Let’s just say that this raises a point, but one that perhaps misses a few truths.

First, there is the problem of history. Evangelical churches too often have a  dissonance between their claim of historic orthodoxy and the use of space that seems altogether modern. The present tense of the reuseable and repurposed can be expressive of the moment and its convictions, but we are also people who travel through time. The spaces we inhabit pick up the imprint of memory. The humblest gym becomes sacred because of our worship and lives. Our buildings make a claim about our relation to the past and the stories we care.

Second, this evangelical worship space of Miller’s forgets the link between functionality and theology. Our spaces where we gather express a sort of theology as to what we consider proper to worship. The shape of the room, where and how we enter, the rhythm of spaces as we enter, the arrangement of the chairs ( In a circle or front to back?), the way we honor preaching in this space (pulpit, screens?), all these and more express our operating theology. We do not need to speak of aesthetics, simply the place and shape of things tells the story.

Here the primary critique of evangelical building comes to mind: it too often is simply indifferent to this space, any will do. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Continue reading “The language of churches”

If I’m a Christian, do I have to be a Republican?

A month ago, Kevin White at Mere Orthodoxy raised up the question about what it meant to be a social conservative. Terms get mushy when we speak about “cultural warrior” and even more so, when the conversation turns to the meaning of conservative itself.

So some conservatives are defined by one or another cultural ideology (not just the “Religious Right”), some primarily by an economic theory, some by a vision of American greatness. There is a conservative political movement in America, but it is itself a coalition of conservative movements, of varying mutual compatibility. They have more in common than an opposition to modern progressivism, but that “more” can be tricky to pin down.

He continues

Even social conservatism is a cluster of movements. Some are single-issue, others take on a thicker portfolio of concerns. Some threads have a positive vision, and others are reactive and based on resentment. Some care deeply about the proper role of each level of government, others see that array of governments as a jumble of available tools. Some loved Falwell, other social cons struggle still to distinguish him from Mephistopheles-minus-the-style.

So he opts out for a Mr Nice Guy philosophy.

So perhaps the question is not how to find a “non-culture-war conservatism”, but how to be a thinking, winsome social con who can self-present and be received as those things.

Perhaps it is as simple as this: there is no unified conservative worldview or approach. None. The very amorphous nature of those who would wear the label probably rules against its use save in the comparative sense (“this more conservative than that”) and of course as a political label. On top of this, so much of our own political and cultural thinking will be driven not by philosophy but by our particular social circumstances. We are as much conservative (or liberal) by birth as by our “coming to the light.”

As a matter of politics — this mass communication aspect —  the use of the term “conservative” is somewhat slippery, suggesting that one actually has a set of principles that will lead one to act independently on various political or policy decisions. A kind of semantic glue, perhaps, but also a sort of scrim hiding from us what the issue really is, that of power to determine the political agenda on the Right. Here, the social conservatives (for want of a better term) appear to be engaged in a two-fold struggle, first to enlist fresh soldiers from the Millennial cohort, and second to gain traction within political councils against the more economic and libertarian factions.

In a biblical moment, the only point of convictions is to be able to deny the politics, in the word from Proverbs, to swear to our own hurt. The charge of hypocrisy resonates as much for its sense that  “conservative” is merely another name for Republican and the settling for the politics of power and pragmatism, as it does for any failing of personal ethics.  The Christian political approach must always be one seeking to build across the social chasms rather simply stay content with one’s own side. However nice one puts it.

Taking a Step on Immigration Reform

Justice  Scalia left no doubt where he stands on immigration. And Keith Miller at Mere Orthodoxy approves. While Scalia’s comments have been roundly denounced (see this from Richard Posner), Miller embraces them as a corrective to the the stance of  Tom Minnery from Focus on the Family, which Miller sees as being especially soft on the issues of deportation and national sovereignty.

Nowhere in anything Focus or the “Table” wrote up was any recognition of Scalia’s principle of sovereign exclusion. Sure, there are allusions to the “rule of law” and “secure national borders,” but deportation is discounted as a non-starter due to the immigrant’s inherent human dignity. Without providing a philosophical defense of the exercise of the power to exclude, these Evangelicals are allowing national sovereignty to atrophy.

Far from being discounted, it is the scale and impact of present deportation policies that have repeatedly raised the issues for congregations, as Minnery’s article points out. Moreover as deportation is not humanely possible for the 10 to 11 million non-documented, deportation must necessarily be selective and so constantly prone to an erosion of the rule of law.

Further, it is the human cost to these deportations that in turn have been the basis for the statements of the Focus and of the evangelical round table above. The core issue, has always been working to have some sort of recognized status for workers, to bring them and their families from out of the shadows where injustices continue to fester.

As to national sovereignty being allowed to atrophy, what sort of national sovereignty is it that turns away young people who desire to serve the nation? Or discounts the desire of others to actually get on a path to citizenship?

In short, the Scalian / libertarian viewpoint so snarkily defended promises nothing by way of solution; it is a politics of denial, of Dives refusing to look outside his gate at Lazarus. This indifference is hard to square with Christian teaching.

And finally, if nothing else should catch one’s attention it is this: that the politically sectarian viewpoint evidenced by Mr Miller, a viewpoint so clearly affirmed by the GOP nominee Mitt Romney in the primary season, is a political non-starter. Particularly for those who would bring Christ’s lordship to the political sphere.