07 June 2011

The Christian Right: theories of evolution

Reviewing two new books on "the making of the Christian Right" and "the rise of evangelical conservatism" for The New Republic, historian of religion Mark A. Noll notes that evangelical Christians did not consistently support the political right in the U.S. until a decisive period following the election of Jimmy Carter, an evangelical himself, as President in 1976. After splitting nearly evenly between Carter and President Gerald Ford, the evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and have supported Republicans in comparable proportions ever since. The two books Noll reviews -- Daniel K. Williams's God's Own Party and Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sunbelt -- go back further in time to explore the roots of right-wing evangelicalism. In the reviewer's opinion, the books complement each other, with Dochuk stronger on the Christian Right's demographic roots among Depression era Southern migrants in California, whose "plain folk religion" had affinities with the entrepreneurial Republicanism evolving in the far west. But Noll feels that neither book really "addresses directly what should be one of the most compelling questions about the political history they describe so well: what exactly is Christian about the Christian right?"

According to Noll's paraphrase, "Southern plain-folk religion was instinctively congregational, fiercely independent, usually preacher-centered, and largely self-taught." Their theology stressed "individual redemption, church culture emphasizing local independence, and social instincts trained by segregation to resist outside interference from Yankee do-gooders and intrusive Big Government." While noting that the migrants started out "militantly racist," Dochuk convinced Noll that "over time explicit racism gradually faded as a primary component of California's conservative Protestants," while the antipathy toward "big government" endured. None of this, apparently, told Noll what was "Christian" about the movement, but his review tells us that he has his own idea of Christianity and its social responsibilities, according to which he finds the Christian Right wanting badly. He faults the historians for not carrying out a "moral evaluation" of the right that Noll himself deems necessary.

Noll sees the modern Christian Right as a "merger of Jesus and Jefferson," a concept that might have made Jefferson himself ill. Noll's opinion seems to be that there's too much Jefferson in the Right's antipathy toward government and not enough Jesus in their sense of mission toward others. He notes a "great irony" in the migrants' initial dependence on government-generated jobs in their western promised land. The jobs, Noll argues, "were either created directly by government action or facilitated by government subsidies to oil, gas, aerospace and defense industries." He seems to feel that the Christian Right could not denounce government without renouncing these jobs. Their alleged inconsistency points to the Right's lack of anything Noll recognizes as a political philosophy, which also seems to explain their inconsistent application, as Noll sees it, of Christian principles. The Right's record, he contends, "deserves to be both applauded and denounced.

It can be approved in classical Christian terms for trying to protect the lives of unborn innocents, but criticized for not seeing the need to mobilize on behalf of other weak and marginalized members of society, such as those who are trapped in urban ghettos. It can be praised for efforts at protecting families from the ravages of modern sexual and gender revolutions, but criticized for not acknowledging the stress placed upon families by postwar economic growth, 24/7 advertising and runaway consumption. It can be praised for standing firm against atheistic communism, but criticized for treating the complex realities of the modern political world as a Manichean cartoon. It can be praised for insisting on personal responsibility in the face of Big Labor and Big Government, but also criticized for not exercising the same vigilance with respect to Big Finance, Big Insurance and Big Business.

But whether anyone shares in Noll's applause and denunciation in the proportions he demands depends on whether they agree with Noll's reading of Christianity. A critic might ask "what exactly is Christian" about Noll's Christianity, after all, and since a book review is no place to lay the theological or scriptural groundwork for Noll's social gospel, his bit of preaching here isn't likely to convince skeptics. The crusade pitting the social gospel against individualist salvationism has been going on for more than a century now, and Noll's book review isn't going to resolve the dispute. Some Christians read the Bible and feel themselves called above all to aid the poor, while others read it as a key to saving themselves. Since both sides would agree on the Bible being, more or less, the word of God, religion alone is unlikely to explain why one Christian goes left and another right. Likewise, looking to the history of religion alone won't explain why evangelicals shifted hard to the right in 1980, though Noll points to some interesting research on right-wing takeovers of denominations as a prelude to massive faith-based intervention in politics. Just as religion in itself doesn't explain political action, it most likely can't guide political action on its own. The debate between the social gospel and its opposite is unlikely ever to be resolved by some decisive theological insight. Instead, Christians (not to mention other believers) will go left or right based on concerns outside the realm of scripture, using scripture after the fact to justify their choices. In this way, "Christian Right" may be a misnomer, as Noll insinuates, yet not, as he also insinuates, because it's some sort of heresy, but because it has nothing really to do with religion at all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, at the very least, if one is familiar with the new testament, one would have to admit that Jesus himself concentrated on these themes:

Love (love thy neighbor as thyself)
Forgiveness (turn the other cheek)
Tolerance (judge not others lest ye be judged)
Renunciation of materialism (easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle...)

So any "christian" group which preaches hate, intolerance, bigotry; which supports war or greed; which makes a habit of judging others cannot, by any real definition, be considered "christian".