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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The religious right deserves criticism as well

Both the secular left and the religious right have their shortcomings, and Os Guinness in The Case for Civility is an equal-opportunity critic and encourager of both. He seeks to find the best of both worlds as well, urging us to acknowledge each other and admit that another point of view may have merit in a number of areas. I am reminded of Speaker Tip O'Neal and President Ronald Reagan, who wrangled passionately over issues and then, arm-in-arm, went off to share food and beverage.

Today's part of Guinness' even-handed critique gives pause and ponder to the religious right.

Psychologically, victim-playing is dangerous because it represents what Nietzsche called “the politics of the tarantula,” a base appeal to resentment. But worst of all, it is spiritually hypocritical, for nothing so contradicts their claim to represent “Christian values” as their refusal to follow the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth by playing the victim card and finding an excuse not to love their enemies. Shame, shame, shame on such people; and woe, woe, woe to such tactics.
To go deeper and to put the point bluntly: as these few examples show, many in the Religious Right are more obviously fundamentalists than they are Christians. By that I do not mean that they are not Christians, but that the overlay of their fundamentalism has so overpowered their Christian faith that the substance and style of their political action have little to do with Jesus. They have lost their Christian core and become a political movement that at times has little discernible Christian remainder.
As such, fundamentalism is not traditional; it is an essentially modern reaction to the modern world.
While it has a religious identity, it is as much a social movement. What it does is reassert a lost world, a once-intact but no longer taken-for-granted cultural reality; and in doing so, it both romanticizes the past, with its messiness airbrushed away, and radicalizes the present with its overlay of psychological defiance and cultural militancy. In the process, Christian fundamentalism grows more and more alien to the way of life to which Jesus of Nazareth called his followers.
This point about Christian fundamentalism being a modern reaction to the modern world carries a double warning about the perils of extremism—and the fact that “my enemy’s enemies” are not always my friends. 
On the one hand, such a reaction to the modern world has betrayed the church in the past. The German Christians who fell for the siren sounds of Nazism were the very ones who had set out to fight for “the order of God as the standard for the shaping of common life” (in the words of a Protestant theologian), over against the forces of corrupt individualism and liberalism, represented by the Weimar age and its permissiveness, abortions, decadence, and dismissal of traditional marriage. With such an impulse, it was all too easy for Hitler to corral their support in coming to power. “The national government will regard its first and foremost duty,” he declared, “to restore the unity and spirit of our People. It will preserve and defend the foundations upon which the power of our nation rests. It will take Christianity, as the basis of our collective morality, and the family as the nucleus of our People and State, under its firm protection.”
If the lost world of the American Religious Right lies in the nineteenth century, the lost world of Islamists is the seventh century, when Muhammad and his followers swept everything before them. Salafism, the word used of Muslim fundamentalists, literally means a “harking back.” But Islamism is far more than just a throwback to primitive or medieval Islam. Its view of its advocates as a revolutionary vanguard, and their belief in the power of violence to remake humanity, are highly modern ideas and closer to the views of nineteenth-century anarchists and nihilists than to those of their Muslim forebears. As such, Islamism is truly a modern reaction to the modern world.
In the same way, the Religious Right’s references to its enemies and its use of tactics such as direct mail, talk radio, and victim playing owe more to fundamentalist reactions to modernity and to overheated fictional visions of the end times than to the good news of Jesus of Nazareth. As an observer quipped of the “Left Behind” craze, which has intoxicated and diverted so many fundamentalists and become conflated in the public mind with the Christian view, “For God so loved the world that he gave us World War Three.”
In short, many of the tactics of the Religious Right serve only to illustrate the cynics’ quip “The Christian Right is neither,” and to underscore the sad wisdom of Erasmus, who witnessed the insanities of Christians in his day: “If we would bring the Turks to Christianity, we must first be Christians.”
In writing critically of fundamentalism and the Religious Right, I do not write as a skeptic toward faith or as a supporter of the strict separationist view that would confine faith to the private sphere. I write as a Christian who takes my own faith seriously with all the integrity of classical, historic orthodoxy, just as I respect the right and duty of others to take their faith seriously, too, whether religious or naturalistic. But when all is said and done, I have two further objections to the Religious Right.
First, the Religious Right has politicized faith, a cardinal error that is wrong in both principle and practice—again, not as a constitutional matter but as a matter of Christian integrity that has political consequences. Historically, evangelicals have a distinguished record in politics, exemplified by their broad contributions to liberal reforms and by leading individuals such as William Wilberforce, “the little liberator” who, among many historic reforms, led the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire and stands as the greatest social reformer in all history.
Fundamentalism, by contrast, was originally inward-looking in faith and inactive in politics. It was disinterested in politics just as it was generally world-denying in its cultural stance—exemplified famously by Jerry Falwell’s 1965 sermon in which he contrasted “ministers and marchers” and called his hearers to “preach the Word” but not to “reform the externals.” Fundamentalism’s recent engagement with politics, especially after the late 1970s, is therefore uncharacteristic.
[The Religious Right] should never be equated without remainder with any political party or ideology, or fall for the fallacy of “particularism”—the idea that there is a single, particular party or policy that is uniquely and fully Christian. There are parties and policies that are not Christian, but there is no one party or set of policies that uniquely is. The City of God coincides but is never conflated with the City of Man, and the people of God can never be identified exclusively with any state or party.
This means that, for Christians, there is a vital difference between proper political engagement and the danger of politicization—the subservience of the Christian faith to the political agendas and political styles of its day, so that faith loses its integrity and independence and becomes the reflection of politics.

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