Some members of the so-called Religious Right have announced a desire to be called by a different name. The February 13, 20093 edition of Washingtonmonthly.com carried the following story:
“THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT WANTS A NEW NAME…. Prominent fundamentalist Christian leaders with deep ties to the Republican Party have, over the years, generally rejected the notion of being “politically correct.” It’s ironic, then, that they’ve decided “religious right” doesn’t sound good, and they’d prefer we stop using it.
Gary Bauer said this week, “There is an ongoing battle for the vocabulary of our debate. It amazes me how often in public discourse really pejorative phrases are used, like the ‘American Taliban,’ ‘fundamentalists,’ ‘Christian fascists,’ and ‘extreme Religious Right.'”
A Focus on the Family official added that the “religious right” label might generate negative impressions: “Terms like ‘Religious Right’ have been traditionally used in a pejorative way to suggest extremism. The phrase ‘socially conservative evangelicals’ is not very exciting, but that’s certainly the way to do it.”
The desire to name themselves something “different” shows a rather poor sense of history about the Christian faith itself. Not all names given to sects of Christianity have, after all, been complimentary from the outset. Names such as Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist and even Catholic first and foremost describe how those lines of faith came to be. They were named for the people or tactics behind the ideology and the practices associated with that particular brand of Christianity. They are brands in the most basic sense of the word, monikers stamped to the hides of all who follow them. Even the word “brand,” for all its modern day allure, has its gritty origins you see.
So we face the potential dilemma of what to call the Religious Right when it was Moral Majority leader and firebrand Jerry Falwell himself who helped select and promote the Religious Right brand name.
Perhaps it is a desire to separate themselves from the apparently failed legacy of divisive leaders like Falwell that drives modern day socially conservative evangelicals. But the first problem they face is finding a term that functions as a sound bite. No one in the media will embrace a long term such as socially conservative evangelicals. It doesn’t roll off the tongue, particularly on the 6 o’clock news when every second counts. More than likely that term would be shortened to something less descriptive and respectful, such as “So-Cons,” because that’s what modern and social media demands: a short handle for a long name.
Or, the Religious Right may have to come clean on its history of religious fundamentalism. The media might choose to start calling them “Fundies,” or simply “Vangies.” But those terms of course sound disparaging, not the goal of the post-modern socially conservative evangelical movement
Perhaps the Religious Right needs to accept its besmirched moniker as did the Impressionist school of painters, whose work is now revered but was initially branded by critics who thought their form of painting lacked depth and realism: “They are mere impressionists.” Of course Impressionism has gone on to become a darling of the art world, loved by many for its romance and connection to light and land alike.
The struggle for respect by evangelicals may have something more to do with the fact that they have had the faith all wrong from the outset. Principally their mission is tainted by the fact that they have dragged the good name of Jesus where it should not go. This is particularly true in the political sense, for while it has been fun for evangelicals to cozy up to politically powerful Republicans these last 30 years, it is plainly not possible to reconcile the philosophical extremes of free market capitalism with its tolerance and support for monetary greed–to the more socially liberal call from Jesus Christ to forgo wealth in favor of charity.
Socially conservative evangelicals also have the message of scripture wrong when it comes to the origins of life itself. The Gospels clearly and repeatedly document Jesus warning his disciples and the priests of his day to not take the word of God literally and turn it into law. Yet we see Christians using a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis to foster creationism. Then we find Christians seeking to have creationism and Intelligent Design theory taught in place of evolution in public schools. They would have us require time for religious prayer there as well.
On the social front, Evangelicals want to ban homosexuals from having equal rights. But our Constitution clearly protects equal rights for all, not a religiously selective alternative to issues of marriage or employment rights.
Some Christian evangelicals also would seek to impose a ban on abortion when the issue has never really been about abortions being legal or illegal, but about the choices made by women under duress with an unexpected pregnancy. How can religious conservatives so easily forget that these are issues of civil–not religious consequence? History shows that women will seek dangerous and illegal abortions when legal abortions are not available. That makes banning abortions both a civil and a moral error. The real moral battle must be fought before the issue comes to getting an abortion.
Deep down I believe the Religious Right knows the battle over abortion rights is lost before it is begun, which explains some of the stridence in their attempt to be heard. We can turn to the American obsession with sports to find a good illustration of the position in which abortion opponents find themselves in. Teams that know they have pre-emptively lost the battle–or are steeped in secret fears– are often known to use bluster to try to cow their opponent. There is a model for this in nature as well, of course. Many animals engage in aggressive displays when threatened. It may offend some religious minds to consider the idea that their behavior is evidence of an evolutionary response to threat, but the pattern certainly fits.
Instead, if evangelicals seek to win minds for the cause against abortion, they must engage in consideration of the more relevant, practical faith that lurks in the heart of scripture. This is not a faith of complicity or giving in to popular culture. It is a faith of reconciliation to the true directives of Christ, who indeed supported life and would likely counsel women not to choose to have an abortion. But Jesus also strictly warned against turning faith in God into a tool of politics, power and the means to manipulate society for personal preference of advantage. Jesus counseled that God moves the hearts of those who hear His word, but only if you get it right and are not distracted by motives (like a kingdom on earth, to cite the perceived understanding of some disciples) that have more to do with your personal triumphs.
This is the difficult truth evangelicals must face, that Jesus would have the battle over abortion fought on different fronts, far before the issue comes to a head. He would ask believers to acknowledge their shortcomings in how the faith is communicated from the outset. Where was the battle truly lost, and how? Is there some point at which the message itself was misdirected, thereby separating potential believers from the faith? Can people be brought to God in new and different ways? Have you let your friends convince you there is something more to your faith when in fact, through literalism and a political focus, it has become something less? These were all lessons taught by Jesus from the outset, lecturing both his disciples and the priests of his day not to get caught in short circuits of belief centered around legalism and law.
Jesus found ways to reach women that had more to do with the heart than the law. He engaged a woman at a well to ask her to consider the course of her life, not just the potential consequences of her recent actions. It is this deepe
r faith (communicated at a well, meaning “well chosen”) that we are supposed to pursue and promote to others.
That is why the secular movement that calls itself “Pro-Choice” is not a euphemism, nor a travesty. It respects the fact that women deserve control over their own lives. This is something also that Jesus supported, and in the face of much patriarchal manipulation in his day.
So then the true calling is to engage in the lives of women long before a woman gets in a position to choose an abortion. Here again, evangelicals seem dead set against organizations such as Planned Parenthood that take a practical approach to preventing the need for abortions by providing birth control to women. But through false and unrealistic moralism, some conservatives (especially Catholics) oppose birth control measures as well. So conservatives are at cross-purposes when it comes to real solutions for real problems.
Christians can’t even get on the same page on these issues, yet some want to impose their ostensibly superior moral alternatives as the law of a land when our Constitution already speaks clearly to issues of equal rights, but especially to an effective separation of church and state. No degree of contention that America is a Christian nation changes the fact that the Constitution protects both the right to practice religion and the right to profess no religion at all. Or that it protects the right of a woman to choose to have an abortion. If that is too many choices for you to consider confronting, then you do not really belong in the process of evangelicalism at all. You don’t really understand it as a social force first founded by Jesus Christ.
Socially conservative evangelicals continue to lose real ground in America because the breadth of their ideology is separated both from reality and from scripture itself. Americans are ultimately astute in sensing this confusion and hypocrisy. The desire for consistency in justice (and for that matter, in faith) is what gave us the will to form a nation in the first place. This directive continues to the present day.
But how did evangelicalism drift so far to the Right, and wind up on the wrong side of scripture itself? Why is it that a movement can claim so many followers and yet fail relative to the Constitution on so many social issues in America? The answer is simple: evangelicalism in its fundamentalist form is not the ultimate best expression of the faith known as Christianity. If evangelicalism has any relation at all to the United States Constitution, it should relate to the ultimate notion of individual and spiritual freedom, and the choices we must make based on free will, not the mere impositions of law.
Instead, there is something wrong in the formula of socially conservative evangelicalism, something that restricts freedom in the best sense of the word, rather than promote it. We all know that freedom does not mean lack of obligation, for true freedom comes from self discipline. But that should not be confused with meddlesome moralizing. That is what socially conservative evangelicalism has become. Something vital is missing in the connection between the holy brilliance of Jesus and the message of some of his most ardent preachers. Simply put, they’ve got Jesus and the Bible wrong and are thrashing about as a result. There is nothing so damaging as a faith built on the wrong foundations.
Socially conservative evangelicals have turned the faith of love and the choice to follow God into a faith of hate and divisiveness, along with a call to follow certain political parties. Until that break in conscience is rectified, and until evangelicalism does some soul-searching to find a more true and accurate core of faith in scripture, then fundamentalism will continue to draw some cynical name-calling.
This effort has to fix evangelicalism must take place from the ground up. Evangelicals could start by taking a few courses in the Bible as Literature, to learn that God is capable of using metaphor to convey truth. The infantile approach inherent to literal biblical interpretation does not automatically qualify us children of God. From the way the run around waving Bibles, you’d think that biblical literalists and their offspring creationists had discovered the Holy Grail. Far from it.
The Religious Right has from the outset been on the side of Religious Wrong. If you read the Bible closely you will find that Religious Right was despised by Jesus himself when it first reared its ugly head 2000 years ago. What Jerry Falwell and his kind created in the Moral Majority was a band of modern Pharisees. The sad thing is the movement continues to grow. Now they claim to want a nice new name for a bad old tradition? Jesus called them a “brood of vipers,” “hypocrites” and other bad names. Perhaps we should follow his example.
When a faith is headed the wrong direction, it matters not so much what you call it, but how you plan to set about to fix it.