In Bloomington, Indiana right off the main drag is People’s Park. It’s a very bohemian place, as my Mom would say. I’ve heard Bloomington police officers quip that they like having the park because it keeps all the rabble-rousers in one place where they can be observed and controlled. It’s a way to keep the peace.
Randy Balmer describes American culture similarly. He argues that the reason American politics are generally so conservative (and European politics are so not) is that the Founders sectioned off all the zealous creativity to religion and the private sphere when they separated Church and State so that the government could operate rather uneventfully.
But the church has not been so separated from the state in the last forty years. At least, not the conservative Evangelical church and the political Right. Here’s how Balmer remembers it all:
Then, a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher, Jimmy Carter, began to lure evangelicals (Southerners especially) out of their apolitical torpor. Televangelist Pat Robertson, for instance, claimed to have “done everything this side of breaking FCC regulations” to elect Carter in 1976. Four years later, however, Robertson and many other evangelicals abandoned Carter in favor of Ronald Reagan. By then, the Religious Right, this loose federation of politically and religiously conservative organizations that coalesced as a political movement during the Carter administration, had taken on a life of its own.
Leaders of the Religious Right threw their considerable heft behind Reagan in the 1980 election. In so doing, they turned their backs on Carter…The fact that Reagan, as governor of California, had signed a bill legalizing abortion didn’t seem to bother the leaders of the Religious Right; nor did the fact that he was divorced and remarried, a circumstance that had disqualified Nelson Rockefeller from any hopes of evangelical support in the 1960s. Although Newsweek had pronounced 1976 “The Year of the Evangelical,” that declaration turned out to be four years premature; all three major candidates in the 1980 election claimed to be evangelical Christians.
In fairness, not all evangelicals jumped on the Reagan-Religious Right bandwagon. One evangelical publication cautioned that “more space in the Bible is devoted to calls for justice and care for the poor than the fact that human life is sacred.” The editorial warned of the dangers of single-issue politics. “Too narrow a front in battling for a moral crusade, or for a truly biblical involvement in politics, could be disastrous,” Christianity Today concluded. “It could lead to the election of a moron who holds the right view on abortion.”
Pollster Louis Field determined that, without evangelical support in the 1980 presidential election, Reagan would have lost to Carter by 1 percent of the popular vote. This is not the place to argue whether Reagan’s policies were good or bad, Christian or not Christian, but rapturous leaders of the Religious Right crawled into bed with the Republican Party in 1980 and heralded Reagan’s election as a harbinger of the Second Coming. Indeed, Reagan’s election in 1980 and his reelection four years later cemented the political alliance between the Religious Right and the Republican Party. Ever since, shamelessly exploiting the “abortion myth,” the fiction that the Religious Right mobilized in direct response to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, leaders of the Religious Right have preached that neoconservative ideology and Republican Party policies offer the most compelling representation of the evangelical faith.
As I’ve processed the intense reactions to my single, relatively insignificant, so-far-one-time vote for a Democrat, I’ve come to realize that fundamentalism is not a religious movement that spills over into politics. No, it’s a political movement that uses religious devotion to make it stick.
That’s why every statement is read as overtly persuasive and even coercive when it may be nothing more than expressive.
That’s why the predictably first response to an Evangelical voting for Obama is “You think it’s gonna be any different over there with them?” It’s a flip in politics that’s assumed, instead of an entirely different and nonpartisan construction of how our faith informs politics.
That’s why, I’m coming to believe, the reactions to our voting for Obama are eerily similar to the reactions to our not spanking our kids. Both acts are seen as deviant, dangerous, disloyal, and unbiblical. Both invite boundariless lectures. Both are really just outside the tradition of the Religious Right.
And that’s why, I guess, people are, to my utter shock, far less bugged by our leaving BJU — maybe because BJU is really not as much at the center of the Religious Right as the GOP and punitive discipline (a.k.a. James Dobson) are. I’m just not sure yet.
But this melding of Faith and Politics, this Titantic of the Religious Right is heading straight for the iceberg. We all see it coming. Some of us have jumped off long ago. Like David Kuo. Some of us are trying to throw life preservers to those still on board. Some are trying to play hymns of comfort for the inevitable demise. Some may even stubbornly go down with the ship.
We all know, of course, this will give us a chance to comically correct our own tragedy and dismantle our calcified integration of our Faith and our Politics.
We need something new.
I got a glimpse of this something new the other day. I was corrected on this very point — that I inadvertently assume that my Faith is the center of everyone‘s political judgment — and by straight-up comedy no less. Aasif Mandvi appeared on the Daily Show to “comment” on McCain’s reaction to his poll worker who didn’t trust Obama because “he’s an Arab.” McCain responded with “No . . . He’s a decent family man.”
I personally was so relieved by McCain’s dispelling ugly rumors that I didn’t even see the obvious flaw in his reasoning. As soon as Mandvi appeared on screen though, I started to laugh . . . . and get the point — to ironically see my own blindness.
Colin Powell expanded on the same point but more deliberatively:
He’s right. It shouldn’t matter. In the United States, it doesn’t have to matter.
And it shouldn’t matter to those of us who passionately, whole-heartedly follow Christ either. This is not a plea for a can’t-we-all-just-get-along permissiveness that ignores obvious differences. It’s a plea to put aside the fear and act in power, love, and soberness like Paul advised Timothy.
If we follow Paul’s advice, if we work in our vocations like Luther advised, we’re not going to try to protect a movement or promote a party. We’re not going to get mad when someone steps outside of the cultural morés. And the government won’t have to worry about cordoning us off into a kind of “Preacher’s Park” where they can watch us, contain us, and check us off as supportive but irrelevant.
And our all-important faith in Christ won’t be reduced to the ghetto of civic life either — an ugly, amatuerish spray-painted scrawl that the world drives by at 70 mph.
I wrote my book to tell the Left they didn’t need to fear fundamentalism. So I’m writing now to tell the Religious Right to stop acting so scared and so scary.