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.
They 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
This 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.
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.
But 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?
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