Sympathy for the Christian Right?

If you’re confused by the religio-patriotic political machinations of the Christian Right, you’re definitely not alone. Perhaps much of the reasoning and rhetoric of its key figures has you asking, ‘What…wait…what is…what?’  All very good questions. The group’s motivations are difficult to comprehend when you’re unfamiliar with its worldview and values.

chuck_taylorsThey say you have to walk a mile in people’s shoes to truly understand them. Well, I ran a 15-year ultra-marathon in conservative Christian shoes. From early childhood, I was ensconced in the Christian Right camp. Although I eventually tunnelled out, using nothing but my wits and a rusted dessert spoon, the memories die hard. For that reason, I feel I have some insight into the people and beliefs behind the movement – and that leads to sympathy.

The Dispensary of Dispensationalism

Two main forces have converged to precipitate the rise of the Christian Right. The first is dispensationalism, espoused by a great number within the group, even if they don’t realise it. Virtually unknown outside the United States, this theology is the creation of 19th century English-Irish preacher and smartest guy in the room, John Nelson Darby. His theories caught the fancy of American evangelist D.L. Moody, who through his disciples, disseminated them throughout the country. In short order, these ideas came to dominate the thinking of much of the American church.

Dispensationalists are fond of Old Testament law and prophecy and interpret the Bible literally. So while the apostles, early church leaders and even Jesus himself believed that prophetic promises regarding Israel found their fulfilment in Jesus, dispensationalists expect these promises to eventuate for the nation state of Israel at some point in the future. They’re certain, too, (from their unique exegesis of key passages) that God will bless any other nation that supports the government of Israel. Furthermore, according to their reading of the Old Testament, adhering to moral and ethical guidelines and remaining in God’s good books will lead to further blessing for that country.

Real American Heroes

continental-congressThis theological position easily incorporates and amplifies the tenets of the second major force behind the Christian Right: American nationalism. Accordingly, the United States’ economic prosperity is viewed as proof that it has passed God’s litmus test for righteousness and earned the Almighty’s favour. America is God’s blunt instrument to safeguard morality, democracy and the interests of the state of Israel. These perceptions can also be read backwards onto history. The ‘Founding Fathers’ morph from the products of the secular Enlightenment they actually were into holy, God-fearing believers who built the country on Christian principles.

Ah, but America’s position is ever tenuous. Should we lose the moral high ground (say, by allowing gay marriage or legalised abortion), God may strip us of our favoured status. The answer to warding off this disaster is to legislate national morality and for that, you need political power. That’s why the Christian Right fanbase wants a team that can go deep in the political playoffs. And they know the formula to build for a championship. You start with a rock-solid defence (wily veterans Pat Robertson on the mound and James Dobson at shortstop). Then, you recruit a few key offensive weapons – like slugger Franklin Graham. Add in a dependable all-around player like Jerry Falwell Jr. to patrol the outfield, and you can’t lose!*

All In the Family

Spending half my life in the ranks of the fans, cheering for the team was all I knew. Certitude in the credo of the Christian Right was reinforced at church (with the American flag nestled in one corner and the Christian flag standing in the other), from the front of the classroom at school and from the middle of my wholly-fundamentalist social crowd. That crowd was filled with honest, hard-working people of conviction. They were (and remain) family (a bit like the unfortunate uncle on the grog, who makes everyone uncomfortable at the Thanksgiving get-together, maybe, but still family)! That included my biological family – some of the kindest, most generous, most ethically responsible people that I have ever known (though air-mailing me that copy of Tim and Bev Lahaye’s The Act of Marriage was almost an unforgivable sin). Together, we knew no other world than the one painted by the Christian Right.

Until I attended an Anabaptist/Pietist college (holla, Messiah College!), I was barely aware that alternative Christian positions even existed. But they did. I discovered them through my new Mennonite friends, my new pacifist friends, my new – wait for it – Democrat friends, my friends on the Christian Left. Gradually, I came to distrust the stances I had espoused for so long. Spending over a third of my life outside of the United States helped to seal the deal.

No Exit?

I would love for my sisters and brothers on the Christian Right to disassociate themselves from blind subservience to one political party. I dream that they might build bridges with ethnic and religious minorities, both in America and the world. I hope that they can soon show greater solidarity and compassion to gay people, to the poor, to immigrants and refugees.

exit-signBut that’s where the sympathy comes in, because I have to ask, how can such a change be affected? When the Republican platform is preached from the pulpit? When teachers, friends and loved ones echo right-wing dogmas? When the community insulates itself from unwanted influences, with radars finely tuned to seek out and destroy dissenting ideas? When few venture outside that community to move in other circles? When non-conformity can lead to ostracism?  In this kind of environment, there are few exits that lead to a paradigm shift.

I try to remember all this whenever a Christian Right media firebrand demonstrates once again how badly he’s lost the plot, whenever the rank and file are whipped into a religious frenzy, whenever a beligerent manifesto is unleashed via social media. I try to remember that positive voices and role models for a more holistic Christian faith are few and that the followers are taught to distrust them. I remember how difficult it is for anyone to break with his or her community. I remember what it was like to believe that I was doing God a favour and that even Jesus, barging in and overturning a few tables, would have struggled to convince me otherwise. I remember how long, unanticipated and sometimes arduous my own journey from super fan to iconoclast has been and continues to be.

In those frustrated, exasperated ‘face-palm’ moments, I remember these things. And when I do, I discover love, understanding, sympathy and compassion for my family, the Christian Right.


* I wrote a bit more about this aspect in No King but Caesar?

Image Credits:

  1. Featured Image – Sanctuary of Covenant Presbyterian Long Beach from Wikipedia
  2. Chuck Taylors Converse Shoes from Wikimedia Commons
  3. Continental Congress from Wikimedia Commons
  4. Hong Kong exit sign from Wikimedia Commons
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4 Comments

  1. Question: “Is Marxism compatible with the Christian faith?”

    Answer: Marxism is a political philosophy developed by Prussian (German) philosopher Karl Marx that focuses on class struggle and various ways to ensure equality of outcome for all people. Marxism and Marxian analysis have various schools of thought, but the basic idea is that the ruling class in any nation has historically oppressed the lower classes, and thus social revolution is needed to create a classless, homogeneous society. Marxism teaches that the best system of government is one in which wealth is distributed equally, there is no private property (ownership of productive entities is shared by everyone), and every citizen gives selflessly to the collective. The purported goal of Marxism is a government-run utopia in which the needs of each individual are always provided for. Ideally, the strong work hard, the inventive create technological marvels, the doctors heal, the artists delight the community with beauty, and anyone who is weak or poor or in need can draw on society’s combined resources as their needs demand. When this idealistic model is attempted in the real world, it is called “socialism,” “communism,” “statism,” “liberalism,” or “progressivism,” depending on the degree to which the model is explored and implemented.

    Thus far, Marxism has never worked in real life—and, without exception, in the places where Marxism has been the governmental model, Christians have been persecuted. That’s because there’s a foundational difference between Marxism and Christianity, a deep divide that cannot be bridged. There are several aspects of Marxism, as a philosophy, that put it at odds with the Christian faith. Here are a few:

    Marxism is, at heart, an atheistic philosophy with no room for belief in God. Karl Marx himself was clear on this point: “The first requisite of the happiness of the people is the abolition of religion” (“A Criticism of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right,” 1844). Christianity, of course, is rooted in theism and is all about God. In the Marxist model, the state becomes the provider, sustainer, protector, and lawgiver for every citizen; in short, the state is viewed as God. Christians always appeal to a higher authority—the God of the universe—and Marxist governments don’t like the idea of there being any authority higher than themselves.

    One of the basic tenets of Marxism is that the idea of private property must be abolished. Where Marxism has taken root, land owners see their property confiscated by the state, and private ownership of just about anything is outlawed. In abolishing private property, Marxism directly contradicts several biblical principles. The Bible assumes the existence of private property and issues commands to respect it: injunctions such as “You shall not steal” (Deuteronomy 5:19) are meaningless without private property. The Bible honors work and teaches that individuals are responsible to support themselves: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The redistribution of wealth mandated by Marxism destroys accountability and the biblical work ethic. Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:14–30 clearly teaches our responsibility to serve God with our (private) resources. There is no way to reconcile Marxism with the parable of the talents.

    Marxism is ultimately about material things; Christianity is ultimately about spiritual things. Frederick Engels, a close associate of Karl Marx, said that Marx’s greatest insight was that “men must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing before they can pursue politics, science, art, religion and the like” (“Speech at the Grave of Karl Marx,” Highgate Cemetery, London. March 17, 1883, transcribed by Mike Lepore). In other words, Marxism seeks to meet the physical needs of man and posits that, until those needs are met, man is incapable of any aspirations higher than an animal-like existence. Jesus taught, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? . . . Seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:26, 33). Marx taught, “Seek first man’s kingdom and the stuff of this world.” Jesus’ words are the antithesis of communism and Marxism, and it’s one reason why Karl Marx reviled Christianity.

    The utopia that Marxism seeks to develop is earthly and man-made; Christians look to the Lord Jesus to establish a heavenly, perfect kingdom some day. Believers understand that, given man’s sinful nature, there is no perfect system in this world. Greed and abuse of power and selfishness and laziness will taint even the purest motives.

    Some people attempt to combine Christianity with Marxist philosophy. Their attempts may be well-meaning, but they are impractical. The Puritans in the New World tried communal living for a while. When the Plymouth Colony was founded, there was no private property, and all food was distributed equally amongst all, regardless of one’s job (or work ethic). But that system, lacking any incentive to hard work, was soon abandoned as a complete failure. See “Of Plymouth Plantation” by Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford for the full story.

    Attempting to combine Christianity with Marxism also ignores their widely divergent views on sin, God, equality, responsibility, and the value of human life. Of course, some people point to Acts 2:44–45 as proof that Christianity is compatible with communism: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” Two things must be said here: first, this passage, as with much of Acts, is descriptive, not prescriptive; that is, this passage contains no command for the church to function this way; it is simply a description of what the early church in Jerusalem did to meet some unique and urgent needs. There is no indication that such extensive sharing was ever copied by other New Testament churches. Second, the communal arrangements in Acts were completely voluntary and motivated by the love of Christ. Any attempt to apply this to involuntary, secular (godless) communism really makes no sense.

    When Frederick Engels heard that some Christians were using Acts 2 to promote socialism, he wrote against melding his philosophy with Christianity: “These good people are not the best Christians, although they style themselves so; because if they were, they would know the bible better, and find that, if some few passages of the bible may be favourable to Communism, the general spirit of its doctrines is, nevertheless, totally opposed to it” (“Progress of Social Reform on the Continent,” in The New Moral World, 3rd Series, Nos. 19, Nov. 4, 1843, transcribed by Andy Blunden). According to Engles, the Bible and Marxism are “totally opposed.”

    In short, the Bible promotes freedom and personal responsibility, and neither of those concepts lasts long under Marxism. There’s a reason why, in Marxist states such as Communist China and Vietnam and the old Soviet Union, Christians are always persecuted—the ideas espoused by Marxism are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus Christ. The differences are irreconciliable.

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  2. It’s so good to be reading your writing again, Adam! How I’ve missed your weekly column in The Swinging Bridge these last 17 years or so. Your voice is personal and unique, and your perspective is mature and well-informed. Keep up the great stuff man.

    Regarding the legislation of morality, here’s my take: When I read biographies my response is a deeper understanding of the subject, usually a deeper respect for the subject (assuming the subject is/ was a respectable person), and a takeaway of how I might apply an admirable trait to my own life. First example off the top of my head: reading Sammy Hagar’s autobiography “Red”, it struck my how emphatically he stated that he never thought of himself as a natural-born star nor was destined from his early years to fame and success. Rather, he stresses that he is just a dude, like me, like all of us; he just realized his dream early in life and worked his tail off to make it happen, taking risks, rebounding from setbacks, and capitalizing on opportunity. What I did NOT do in response is wake my kids up from their sleep, tell them to go and practice their scales, drop out of school, curse me out and leave my house to strike out on their own with the best musicians on Long Island. That’d be ridiculous!

    I’m not proposing that we do nor should, read the Bible as we read some rockstar’s biography – clearly the “subject” is altogether different from any other book and our approach must also be altogether different. But if we read the Bible just to know the Bible better, we miss the first point – it’s subject, our Father! If we simply read his rulebook and play hall-monitor, not only will we be hated and probably cast out by our countrymen (like Joseph among his brothers), but we will lose much influence and potential for positive impact in culture and politics to begin with – the very goal we were to claim with that whole approach. Rather, if we are reading the true story of our Father whom we have yet to meet, or have just come to meet and are still getting to know; we are then far more likely to understand and accept his love, and what it requires from us.

    We read the Bible to know GOD, not to know the Bible itself, and I don’t mean to denigrate the Bible. But my goal in raising my own children is that when they are faced with a tough decision regarding others, they don’t just turn to a notebook containing all of the accumulated insight from my life; but that they rather remember the person I am, how I approached such decisions, and the example that I set for them. If they have noticed that those parts of me resulted positively, and they want the same result they should follow my lead . It starts with knowing me, not memorizing and repeating what I say. Being an imperfect, nay, FLAWED man, this analogy breaks down at some point, quite quickly in fact. But replace me with a perfect Father and…well, you get the idea!

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    1. Very nicely put, Andy! These thoughts on the proper purpose of reading the Bible really resonate with me. I think a lot of other Christians I know would also agree as strongly with you.

      And thanks for reading. It’s nice to be back writing again…Gives me an outlet and some stress relief when I really need it!

      Hope you and your family are well and great to hear from you.

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