25 July 2007

The Religious Right

Caveat: This is meant to be an expression of personal opinion. I hope I reason fairly well. I do not, however, make any representation that my opinion has any sort of 'academic' or 'objective' basis. It is merely opinion from observation.

What is the 'Religious Right' and does it have anything to do with being a 'born again' Christian? Indeed does the American 'Religious Right' have anything to do with British Christianity? I think not for a number of reasons.

First of all, I don't think that the 'theology wars' as they are raging in US and UK Christianity are perfectly contiguous. There does seem to be one central issue (homosexuality), and there are intersections between the two battles but I don't think that there is perfect symmetry. That is, I don't think that 'conservatives' or 'liberals' on both sides of the Pond are necessarily battling for all the same things. Show me a conservative Christian in the UK, for example, who is in favour of the death-penalty. There might be an individual or two out there (there always is) but this is hardly a loud voice in conservative British Christianity.

But what is the 'Religious Right'? Let me quote one blogger who identifies as 'Religious Right' rather than quoting the myrid pejorative definitions of 'Religious Right' in cyberspace. This particular blogger thinks that the 'Religious Right' hold as core to their belief system that human beings have a God-given right to life, liberty and private property.

My whole objection to this approach is that it's not even Christian, let alone 'born-again Christian'.

First of all 'rights language' is hugely problematic in the context of orthodox Christianity. I believe (and someone more informed than I can correct me if I'm wrong) that rights language is based in Enlightenment humanism and not Christianity. It might be a reasonable secular translation of the Christian concept of prevenient grace; a secular humanist can hardly quote Psalm 139 or say that God loves everyone equally. But 'I have rights' is an ontological concept - about my very being - that belies what the bible tells us about our original sinful nature. In Christian terms, none of us has rights, but God does offer his love, forgiveness and salvation (grace) to everyone.

The other issue that have a huge problem with as a Christian is the idea that every human being has a right to individual property and individual wealth. This philosophy is the antithesis of the great commandment to love God and love one's neighbour and to be our neighbour's keeper. The love of individual property and the belief in an individual's 'right' (sic) to amass as much wealth as he or she likes is at the heart of the idolatry of American culture.

Note that I'm not talking about 'what economic system works best in a secular context'; that may very well be the political right to individual ownership. But I hope that this is the kind of pragmatism that I believe will be eliminated in The Kingdom when we are all able to follow God's commandments in perfect obedience.[1] My objection is that, in my experience, 'the right to invididual ownership' is truly viewed as a core spiritual value by both the Religious Right and much of American culture. I think it's genuine idolatry.

You'll hardly be surprised that I agree that 'The Religious Right is neither'. As someone who considers myself 'born again' and as someone who believes that the concepts of 'New Birth' and 'The New Creation' are absolutely central to Methodist spirituality and tradtion, I honestly believe that 'The Religious Right' is sub-Christian. Dare I invoke the famous statement: 'There I stand. I can do no other.'

[1] For the avoidance of doubt, I do not believe in 'works-based salvation'. I believe that The New Creation is eschatological and founded on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Kingdom is 'not yet' but it is also 'here and now'. The 'Religious Right' also disagrees with the 'the here and now' bit.

20 comments:

Peter Kirk said...

Thanks for this, Pam.

I by no means want to defend the Religious Right. But a case can be made from Acts 5:4 that individuals, even Christians, have the right to private property. The word exousia used here is as close as Greek gets to meaning "right" in this sense. This verse certainly implies that we have no obligation to hold property in common or give it to the church. The sin of Ananias was not in holding on to his property but in lying about it. The examples in Acts and the teaching of Jesus certainly encourage us to give away our property, but this is not because we have no right to it, but because as Christians we are expected to lay down our personal rights voluntarily for the sake of the kingdom of God.

My fundamental issue with the Religious Right would be that they seem more concerned with asserting their rights than with laying them down for the kingdom.

PamBG said...

I don't think I'm saying that Christians have to hold their property in common or to give everything to the church.

I'm asking for an emotional and spiritual recognition that everything we have is grace and gift from God.

I'm asking for some sign of awareness that societies and communities have some kind of moral obligation to take care of their most vulnerable.

And I'm asking that if these values are there, that they be reflected in the political agenda. Just some indication that there might be some moral complexity about the poor not having access to healthcare, about capital punishment, about the promotion of a self-interested foreign policy. I'm not asking that they hold my views, but for some indication other than the apparent 100% confidence that God wants the rich to have the best access to healthcare, that God wants America to control the Middle East for her own economic benefit etc. etc.

I certainly agree with you that the religious right is more concerned with asserting individual rights than in laying them down for the kingdom.

I can understand why those who are convinced that their theology is 100% God's will will be cock-sure confident about their own orthodoxy and everyone else's heterodoxy. My problem is that this cock-sureness apparently extends to the political arena as well. 'God told me to invade Iraq' being the most frightening indicator.

crystal said...

I didn't realize that conservative christians in the UK were different than in the US - interesting.

I think the trend of prosperity theology is kind of creepy.

crystal said...

Oops - here's the link :-)

Methodist Preacher said...

Congratulations on making the distinction which I think many "liberals" and some misguided "evangelicals" in the UK seem to miss - that being a "born again" Christian automatically places an individual on the politcal right.

Within weeks of becoming a Christian (when I was seventeen or so)I felt that the Labour Party and the trades union movement was my political home. I was one of the handful of members who stood their ground when Tony Blair moved the party to a neo-liberal stance. I paid a heavy personal price for that stand.

I have never understood how reading the Bible can make some people so "right wing" and always resent the suggestion - freely made by people who should know better - that the classic Methodist theology to which I adhere automatically places one on the right.

Now I will freely admit that I have difficulty with some issues - often cultural, sometimes theological, sometimes from a real uncertainty in discerning the mind of Christ on a matter. Many Christians can fudge these issues, but as an elected politician I've had no choice but respond to questions on issues such as abortion, homosexuality, nuclear war, animal rights, draugs. Some Christians are called to politcal office. At certain points we have to make decisions - to vote yes or vote no. We don't always get it right and there's not the luxury of a sub-committee or a working party or a consultation where the issue can get lost.

When it comes to being "right" or "left" it is always a good idea to "follow the money" rather than dwell on a few specific issues.

If people back the rich and powerful against the weak, poor and oppressed I know where they are coming from and many socalled "Liberals" are a long way from the real battlegrounds of social action - the trades union movement and left wing politcal parties. These are the sort of people who think they are being "radical" when they turn down the heating in their church to save the world from global warming. Talk to them about the pressures of gobalisation and capitalism and they run a mile.

Dave Faulkner said...

Pam,

Excellent post. It has stirred some anecdotal thoughts I'll probably post on my blog when I've finished typing this.

In the meantime let me just say I thought your comment on 'rights' was bang on. Lesslie Newbigin observed (I think it was in 'Foolishness To The Greeks') that talk of human rights only entered language in the wake of the Enlightenment, and it made human beings, rather than God, sovereign. As such it is idolatrous. I'm sure, of course, that Peter Kirk doesn't mean that in his comment on exousia possibly meaning 'right' as well as 'authority'. I suspect you and he would be on common ground with talk both of grace and probably stewardship?

PamBG said...

Methodist Preacher (MP?) / David: thanks for your comment. Not sure what to say in response. Certainly Methodist individuals were active in the founding of the Labour movement, so you stand in good company. I respect people who have to make the hard political decisions and I hear what you're saying about the difficulty of taking them. Such a vocation is certainly not my own. You've been a Methodist longer than I have so I'm not challenging your on facts but I have hardly run into a Methodist of any theological ilk who is politically conservative; it is interesting to hear different people's experiences. [P.S. Today is my day off. *grin*]

Dave, I think you are right that Peter and I are broadly on the same page. I'll look forward to your comments on your blog.

Turbulent Cleric said...

I agree with much of what pam and others have to say. In the UK being an evanglical does not place a person on the political right.

However, I was brought up in a circuit where I eventually had to leave because I opposed the Zionist stance taken by our evangelicals (admittedly under ministerial inspiration!). this was linked to Internation Christian Embassy Jerusalem. It opposed all efforts at a peace in Middle East which would have involved Israeli territorial concessions. Armageddon was welcomed as a means of bringing on the second coming.

not only did I leave my Circuit but I nearly left Methodism. If it was not for a conservative evangelical preacher in the isle of Man, I think I would have lived out my life distrusting those who carried the evangelical label.

By the way, I know that there were prayers that the evil spirit would leave me!

This was unrepresentative but there are moments when the religious right can be a reality even here (I will email you a link with your neck of the woods which would be wrong to share).

Like David, my faith has played a part in leading me to a position on the left concerning the overwhelming maojority of issues.

Dave Faulkner said...

Turbulent Cleric, I've received the same treatment from certain circles for also opposing Zionism, and from an avowedly evangelical stance. It's astonishing what beliefs get invoked as touchstones of orthodoxy. I'm sorry you went through this. I'm glad I learned Theology under people such as Colin Chapman (see his book 'Whose Promised Land?') who put a broader perspective on that issue in particular. (I also owe to Colin my love of Newbigin as cited above, and my concern for relating the Gospel to culture.)

Methodist Preacher said...

I was very interested in what Tubulent Cleric and others had to say about Zionism. I have visited the Christian Embassy in Jerusalem and met the leaders of Israel's indiginous Christian minority durin the controversy over the anti-missionary law.

I was on the European Parliament standing delegation to the Knesst of the State of Israel. This meant that I met with Israeli politicians of all hues, including representatives of the Arab parties.

I made several visits to Israel and was actually there the day Rabin was shot.

Whilst I fervently support Israel's right to exist I don't think the uncritical Christian "friends" who always back the most reactionary elements in Israeli politics completely understand that this does not help the search for peace. Some agendas seem to despise the idea of peace in the Middle East, something that we are commanded to pray for in respect of Jerusalem (Psalm 122.

For a brief period in the 1990s peace came close to flowering - the most basic sign was joint patrols by the Israeli and Palestinian police forces, less well known were the ambitious plans to create high tech industrial and commercial zones together with a major highway from North Africa into Syria, Iraq and Iran.

I must blog about this sometime on my own site. Must go now. Seventeen year old's brithday.

Jim Baxter said...

Consider:
The missing element in every human 'solution' is
an accurate definition of the creature.

The way we define 'human' determines our view of self,
others, relationships, institutions, life, and future. Many
problems in human experience are the result of false
and inaccurate definitions of humankind premised
in man-made religions and humanistic philosophies.

Human knowledge is a fraction of the whole universe.
The balance is a vast void of human ignorance. Human
reason cannot fully function in such a void; thus, the
intellect can rise no higher than the criteria by which it
perceives and measures values.

Humanism makes man his own standard of measure.
However, as with all measuring systems, a standard
must be greater than the value measured. Based on
preponderant ignorance and an egocentric carnal
nature, humanism demotes reason to the simpleton
task of excuse-making in behalf of the rule of appe-
tites, desires, feelings, emotions, and glands.

Because man, hobbled in an ego-centric predicament,
cannot invent criteria greater than himself, the humanist
lacks a predictive capability. Without instinct or trans-
cendent criteria, humanism cannot evaluate options with
foresight and vision for progression and survival. Lack-
ing foresight, man is blind to potential consequence and
is unwittingly committed to mediocrity, collectivism,
averages, and regression - and worse. Humanism is an
unworthy worship.

The void of human ignorance can easily be filled with
a functional faith while not-so-patiently awaiting the
foot-dragging growth of human knowledge and behav-
ior. Faith, initiated by the Creator and revealed and
validated in His Word, the Bible, brings a transcend-
ent standard to man the choice-maker. Other philo-
sophies and religions are man-made, humanism, and
thereby lack what only the Bible has:

1.Transcendent Criteria and
2.Fulfilled Prophetic Validation.

The vision of faith in God and His Word is survival
equipment for today and the future. Only the Creator,
who made us in His own image, is qualified to define
us accurately.

Human is earth's Choicemaker. Psalm 25:12 He is by
nature and nature's God a creature of Choice - and of
Criteria. Psalm 119:30,173 His unique and definitive
characteristic is, and of Right ought to be, the natural
foundation of his environments, institutions, and re-
spectful relations to his fellow-man. Thus, he is orien-
ted to a Freedom whose roots are in the Order of the
universe.

That human institution which is structured on the
principle, "...all men are endowed by their Creator with
...Liberty...," is a system with its roots in the natural
Order of the universe. The opponents of such a system are
necessarily engaged in a losing contest with nature and
nature's God. Biblical principles are still today the
foundation under Western Civilization and the American
way of life. To the advent of a new season we commend the
present generation and the "multitudes in the valley of
decision."

Let us proclaim it. Behold!
The Season of Generation-Choicemaker Joel 3:14 KJV

semper fidelis
vincit veritas

Add/ Christianity: Collectivist or Individual? + + +

Will said...

This is a fantastic post. As an American living in the UK (and serving in the Methodist Church), I have been fascinated by the differences between UK and US evangelicals. Before I read your post, I don't think I would have ever described the difference between the two as being the right to private property. I am still not certain that's the root problem, but on reflection, I think of my many evangelical friends who speak about private property and I am hard to argue against you. Growing up in the stereotypical Republican/Evangelical Christian environment, we did speak of rights - e.g., the "right to life" in the abortion debate. It was this along with the Republican party's stance on homosexuality that me and many others might have given first as reasons. I think that Thomas Jefferson's 'right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness' (which he changed from 'property', and this was an English idea, I believe, before it was an American idea) is so firmly engrained in our consciousnesses that I don't think it ever made much difference in our voting – I don’t think too many “liberals” would have argued against it either. Many Christians may well have called themselves Democrats before Ronald Reagan came, using abortion as one of his draws (and the supposed debacle of Jimmy Carter).

I think the root may be seen in the gentlemen’s post above – the belief that each person makes her or his own choices, and that is God-given. This appears to undergird the Republican Party platform of less government – we don’t need the government telling us how to run our lives. This fits nicely with the individualistic understanding of salvation of many evangelicals (it’s all about my decision for Jesus). Since the early 80s, I think more ideology from the Republican Party has further entrenched itself into American evangelicalism. (I have no data to back this up – only since I began to change my political ideology have I been able to see differences in what I used to believe and what I now believe. I am happy to listen to those who may disagree!) Today, I cautious about calling myself an evangelical in the US because of the baggage that goes with it.

As far as the outward differences between US and UK evangelicals, I still get caught off guard when I see a Fair Trade logo in the windows or on websites of the most conservative (theologically) churches over here. Fair Trade is just not on the American evangelical agenda. I think the Zionist strain has more to do with dispensationalism and the Left Behind series that made it popular. I think rejection of that theology was my first break with the “Religious Right”. No matter how much I retain my orthodox beliefs about Jesus, the resurrection, and the uniqueness of his work, many will still say I don’t believe in the bible because I reject the “rapture”.

PamBG said...

Will:

I don't think I actually have a problem with Jefferson's 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' in the political arena. (Of course, I'd want to do ethical reflection in individual situations.)

As Methodist Preacher pointed out, politicians have to make difficult decisions. And I personally don't believe that there is a 'perfect' political decision in a fallen world. Christians have to reflect theologically as to how they will live out their Christian convictions in an imperfect world.

Thus, 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' may very well be values that a Christian wishes to uphold in a secular political context. The problem in my view is when the Christian begins to worship these things as gods and as wholley Christian values rather than seeing them as a good way to govern in a fallen world. The Religious Right, in my view, has conflated American Democracy with 'The Will of God', often with the absolute will of God and this is the big problem, in my view.

Rapture theology is in no way Methodist. I too have had American Methodists tell me that I was neither Christian nor biblical for not believing in the Rapture. On closer conversation, I got the impression that this person confused 'Rapture' with The Second Coming, which I do believe in.

I should say for transparency that I consider myself orthodox and not liberal but I do not consider myself theologically conservative. I don't use 'evangelical' either because even in this country there are many flavours of 'evangelical' (many of whom seem to dislike the others) and the word has lost any meaning, in my view.

Anonymous said...

Pam do you believe in the physical and Spiritual resurrection of the Saints at the Second Coming of Christ? Do you believe that some will be resurrected for life and others resurrected for death in reference to the "Judgement Seat of Christ"? dh

PamBG said...

Yes, dh. I do believe in those things.

Do you have any further comments / questions?

Will said...

Pam,
I'm not sure if I'm OK with Jefferson on this, though. He claims that those three are inalienable rights endowed by the creator. As we have already noted, rights may be a word Christians want to stay away from. Stanley Hauerwas responds to the whole "right to life" argument posed by the Religious Right by saying, "Life is a gift rather than a right." I'm not sure if Christians can use the language of rights even in a secular context (I’m still thinking this through). That leads to my agreement with you about many evangelical Christians that have somehow "sacramentalized" American democracy to where you can't really see where America ends (in particular a Republican Party version of it, at least I knew some who said you couldn't be a Christian and vote Democrat) and Christianity begins - the two seem conflated. What seems to have been a side effect of the whole Left Behind thing is that America has replaced Israel as God's Chosen People (OK, that may be an overstatement).

I think my point was that evangelicals tend to overstate their own sense of decision-making that seems to come out, “Only I affect what I do”. That leads to what I “earn” is mine, and that relates to our property discussion. I remember reading a sermon by Tom Wright where he spoke of the powers of principalities, not only as spiritual forces, but also things like “market forces” and such. If I had read that 10 years ago, I would have branded him some kind of leftie-commie (my liberal friends here get a kick out of me saying American evangelicals find Tom Wright too liberal). But, I think that the structures we live in also are sinful and affect our decisions. In the case of the abortion debate, both sides can get it wrong at times because some women really do not have a choice.

DH: You didn’t address your question to me, but I can’t pass up the opportunity to respond to a resurrection question. The New Testament doesn’t speak of a “spiritual” or “physical” resurrection (“spiritual” vs. “physical” dichotomy never really appears in the Bible at all). Paul proclaims the resurrection as the hope of our faith (as opposed to “going to heaven when you die”). The resurrection is bodily. While I’m not a universalist in that I believe some may ultimately choose they cannot have the life God offers, I don’t know how that plays out. I do believe those who choose to respond to the gospel will be resurrected and redeemed with creation. Regardless, none of this is the same as a “Rapture” which Jesus takes us out of the world – God created the world and will redeem it, not save us from it. That’s off topic, though. Maybe that’s best under another thread.

PamBG said...

Will:

I'm not sure if I'm OK with Jefferson on this, though. He claims that those three are inalienable rights endowed by the creator.

I think I see where you're coming from. Where I'm coming from is that I don't really expect any government to act as a theocracy or to make theologically accurate statements. I do not think that Jefferson's statement is theologically accurate (which is why I'd not want to worship the American Constitution or the Declaration of Independence). I do, however, find his views ones that I can live with as a Christian in a less-than perfect world.

I think my point was that evangelicals tend to overstate their own sense of decision-making that seems to come out, “Only I affect what I do”. That leads to what I “earn” is mine, and that relates to our property discussion.

Yes, I agree with this. I'm not sure I'd just lay that on American evangelicals, though. I think it's something that many of us in the West believe. It's probably a bit stronger in the US than in the UK, however. I do wonder, though, whether UK and European culture is also slowly getting to be as individually-oriented as the US. To the extent that individualism is seen as a Christian ideal and virtue, I think it's an abomination. (I'll convict myself of the sin of individualism but I don't believe it's A Good Thing).

Anonymous said...

Pam - Thank you for this, you were clear, thoughtful and it was refreshing.
I think you nailed the Manifest Destiny difference rather well.

BD

Anonymous said...

Well I DO believe that there is a distinction between spiritual and physical. Why else would Scripture mention "Love the Lord you God with all of your heart, with all of your soul and with all of your mind."? or the passage that mentions the seperation; "If you confess with your mouththe Lord Jesus and Believe in your heart that God has risen from the dead you shall be Saved." I believe there is a distinction between physical and Spiritual because many people believe in Christ but it is only head knowledge or in the flesh. Only when the understanding gets into our soul and heart (spirit) does it truly save us and give us eternal life as opposed to eternal death.

I also don't see how you don't know how that plays out when in Revelation it talks about the Judgement Seat of Christ and the Great White throne of judgement. It appears that those who names are not written in the Lambs book of Life are sent to hell (the desription seems pretty clear and even Jesus talks about "fear not the one who destroys the body but fear the one who is able to destroy the soul and body in hell" Wow even Jesus indirectly mentions the spiritual/physical seperation).

On the very last day when Jesus creates a new heaven and a new earth it appears that earth and heaven will pass away. Scripture even says "Heaven and earth will pass away..." To me it shows that sense of God creating a new heaven and a new earth and at the same time heaven and earth will pass away that your conclusion about the restoration of heaven and earth doesn't line up. That doesn't negate our responsibility to the environment because God tells us to be obedient by being good stewards with the environment. The point of helping the environment is obedience to Christ. It is also referred to as a "thief in the night" that seems a way different than the resurrection from the dead at the ultimate second coming of Christ. The first being for Believers in that we meet Him in the air. The second Coming is where He literally comes to earth at the Mount of Olives.

On individualism, we must balance the responsibility of individuals to God as well as the community as the Body of Christ to God. If we go overboard on one without the other we miss out on the entire responsibility and miss out on the other have responsibility to Christ. 100% individual responsibility without community responsibility is bad/ 100% community responsibility without individual responsibility is bad. Scripture mentions "except A MAN be Born Again He cannot see the Kingdom of God." at the same time "We are made up of many memeber and all members have not the same office so we being many are one Body in Christ." Do you see this dychotomy? Does this help balance the responsibilities as opposed to be mutually exclusive on these issues? DH

Jason said...

will wrote: This appears to undergird the Republican Party platform of less government – we don’t need the government telling us how to run our lives.

I guess I am unclear about how the Republican Party (despite former rhetoric) can really be said to support a platform of less government. I guess it maybe true in terms of less government regulations and bureaucracy, but it certainly isn't true as a general principle. I mean, was it a "less government" platform that led the US into Iraq and gave (more) fortune to the fortunate? Was it such a platform that passed legislation barring gays and lesbians legal recognition of long-standing relationships (in the form of marriage contracts or civil unions)? I just do not see this platform carried out by the Republicans. Personally—and I just left the USA this month and am now living in Israel—I think the government was getting a little too hands-on for my liking, but that's just my take on it.

What do you think?