What’s Wrong with the Religious Right

March 1, 2008

That title get your attention? As a result of our current discussion on religion and politics, James and I have been doing some reading. First off, we started reading a book called God’s Politics: Why the right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It by Jim Wallis. I’ve made it about a third of the way through the book so far and while I don’t agree with everything he has to say I think he certainly provides some good food for thought. A second book I have started reading, which is good enough that it has halted my progress in reading Wallis’s book, is The Future of Faith in American Politics: The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center, by David Gushee. While I am only a fraction of the way through the book so far I can say that I don’t think I’ve seen a more reasonable discussion of evangelical involvement in politics. Either of these books is worth a read if you’re interested in these topics, but I particularly recommend the latter. A central idea in Gushee’s book is that the proper way for evangelicals to relate to government is in terms of a “public witness.” That is, the ultimate goal of our involvement with politics is to bring others to Christ. I think that in many ways this reflects our initial discussion on the purpose of government.

Now to the subject of today’s post, in the first part of his book Gushee embarks on a description of the current “evangelical right” and “evangelical left.” After describing each of these cultural groups he goes on to explain what he thinks is good and bad about each. Since probably most of the readership of this blog is right-leaning, I feel that the most useful way to spend my time in this post is in looking at Gushee’s criticisms of the evangelical right. His primary objection is that the evangelical right has become too partisan. He proposes that the evangelical right has begun to intentify the interests and values of the Church of Jesus Christ with the agenda of the Republican Party. His claim is that the American evangelical right acts as a bloc within the Republican Party and that therefore it acts both to promote the general values of the Republican Party and to promote its own power within the party. And what exactly is wrong with this? Well, a man cannot serve two masters. Therefore the Church cannot both be serving Christ and be a bloc within a political party. Simply put, the Church must declare allegiance to Christ and not to the GOP. He argues that the evangelical right have in many cases adopted the party line on matters that are not grounded in scripture. For example, he points out that in some cases evangelical right leaders have uncritically defended Republican politicians who were convicted in ethical scandals. As Christians we must enter politics with a fierce independence from partisanship and an unswerving loyalty to Christ.

This criticism harks back to a childhood memory of mine. I was probably in my early teens when the family was gathered at my grandparent’s house discussing an upcoming election. I was struck by a comment that my aunt (Carol) made. She said, “We don’t always for the Republican; we vote for the best man.” Given my child-like black-and-white view of politics, this statement made quite an impression on me (obviously since I still remember it). I could see the wisdom evident in it, but it somewhat startled my sensibilities. I had fallen prey to the trap of identifying the values of a political party with Christ’s values. When we approach politics as followers of Christ we must always keep our political allegiances in check. We must constantly ask ourselves whether the values we are promoting align with God’s. I challenge each of you to use the current election year as an opportunity to examine your political stances and ask yourself whether those stances are representative of Christ. Gushee suggests a litmus test: do you have the power to say no to your favorite politician or party?

A further criticism that Gushee has for the right is that their moral agenda is too narrow. Christians should be a voice and a witness in all moral matters. Again, this brings back the idea of a witness. What does it say about us as Christians if we devote all of our time to say…opposing gay marriage, while we ignore other big issues that are clearly of utmost concern to our current society, such as caring for the environment? After all, did not God call Adam to care for creation? What does it say about us if we spend all of our time campaigning against abortion and then turn our eyes as our government tortures other human beings? Others will see us as people who don’t really care about the common good and our witness will be damaged. They will certainly be unwilling to listen to our voice on matters that are more culturally controversial. Imagine if the Church could be a consistent voice for the common good, one that transcended political boundaries and special interests. That would be a powerful witness indeed. I hope that this post has gotten you thinking, and that perhaps it will start some discussion. In our remaining posts on religion and politics, James and I will get more into the specifics of what we think this “common good” is. That is, “What is the Christian platform?”

-Matt, the elder brother