Tag Archives: Religious Right

Good Newsists

In the interest of avoiding conflict thereof, I cannot yet give a review of Randall Balmer’s Evangelicalism in America. Since I’m writing a review of it for Reading Religion, I’ll use it as a springboard into a topic that should concern all who believe in religious freedom. One of the resounding themes of Balmer’s treatment is that Evangelicalism, after it wedded to the Religious Right, lost its soul. Those are my words, not his, but the sentiment’s about right. For anyone who wasn’t politically aware in the 1980s, it may seem a surprise that religion didn’t enter into politics before that decade. With the exception of the fear of the Catholic in the case of John F. Kennedy, religion wasn’t used as a political wedge until the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The Religious Right, unhappy with the born again Southern Baptist in the White House, moved to solidify the Evangelical bloc.

Evangelicals had been an underground movement for half a century. Many had no idea what being “born again” meant when Carter first claimed the sobriquet. Balmer points out that it was the threat of the withdrawal of tax-exempt status to discriminating Christian schools that led to political action. Bob Jones University, fearful of racial intermarriage, didn’t admit African American students. Leaders of the Religious Right saw the loss of tax-exempt status as a move against their sacred segregated culture and a push that required a shove. Coopting the abortion issue (historically Evangelicals had supported women’s rights, including the right to abortion in many cases), they nailed together a platform for political activism which put women “back in their place,” kept racial “purity,” and romanced a total aberration in Christianity—the “prosperity gospel.” All of this is well documented. And well hidden.

Looking at Evangelical politics today, abortion—the control of women—has become THE issue. It’s hard to believe, as Balmer amply illustrates, that Evangelicalism used to be allied with the Social Gospel. It was a religious view with a conscience and it supported issues that are now polarized as “liberal” and leftist. This shift came about gradually, but not accidentally. There were political players—Balmer names names—who had one goal in mind, and that goal wasn’t Jesus or what he’d do. It was the sweet prize of political power. Evangelicals, you see, are born followers. A leader with a strong voice can lead them just about anywhere. Many Evangelicals today would deny their more liberal history, but it is right there for anyone who’s willing to learn something about who they once were.

True to Nature

A friend recently sent me an article on Jack London from smithsonian.com. As the article by Kenneth Brandt makes clear, London is an author for our times. Someone who might truly be called a populist, London, like many of us born in the working class, had an epiphany. Perhaps his came earlier than many, but at the age of 18, while working laboring jobs, he noted that he “was scared into thinking.” He decided, before the idea of sending all kids to college had caught on, that he should acquire an education. In the words quoted by Brandt, he wanted to become a “brain merchant.” Certainly London’s works need no introduction from a guy like me. Robust and masculine, his stories are those of man pitted against a nature that is often out to crush, freeze, or starve him. Today we need to loosen up those pronouns a bit. Women, who’ve arguably had it tougher than men for all of biological history, have had to struggle for survival too. In the current political climate we all need to remind those who substitute testosterone for brains that we all share human rights.

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The Religious Right, or “alt-right” as they seem to prefer these days, wasn’t always a fetus farm. It has been historically documented that it was Francis Schaeffer, erstwhile hippie and free thinker, who when he got abortion stuck in his craw, decided that men had to protect the unborn from women. He seemed to have forgotten whose gonads planted that seed in the first place. Prior to Schaeffer Christian saints tried to avoid sex all together. Among the original “abstinence only” crowd, some of the more zealous put their money where their testicles were and castrated themselves. Ah, men were real men in those days. Today masculinity means ganging up on women and grabbing them by the Call of the Wild, apparently.

Like London, I think we all need to be scared into thinking. We’ve let a wildly distorted view of humanity—one-sided and with dangling evidence of gender loyalty—to steal the White House from the woman who thoroughly won it from the vox populi. Where is Buck when we need him? London knew, as evolution repeatedly teaches, in Brandt’s words, “abusive alpha males never win out in the end.” I say that “swing states” should look carefully at that hanging chad. In the meantime, while the fat cats bicker and argue over the best way to suppress females to make themselves look bigger, I think we should all read again about what happens when Spitz meets Buck. If you haven’t read The Call of the Wild before, it’s time to do so now.

Love, American Style

If you’re going to thump the Bible, at least try to read it once in a while! Donald Trump, showing his true colors yet again, degrades women in the crudest terms imaginable and the religious right (what used to be called the Moral Majority) quickly falls in line. Videos swiftly emerged with conservative commentator Sean Hannity saying “King David had 500 concubines, for crying out loud.” Did he? David, I mean. Try to count that high and you’ll run out of fingers. But according to the Bible amorous King David stopped well short of 500. In fact, his affair with Bathsheba almost ruined him politically. And this was in the day when polygamy was supported by the law. I think Mr. Hannity was groping for the story of King Solomon, David’s frisky son. Solomon, famed for his 700 wives and 300 concubines, was underestimated by Hannity by half. And maybe if he’d read to the end of the chapter (come on, it’s only 43 verses) he might’ve stopped to think that the comparison did his candidate no favors.

Back in biblical times things were different. Even a monogamous man might have several wives since childbirth claimed a disproportionate number of young women’s lives. The average fella only lived to be about 40 himself. Lust existed, to be sure, but marriage was a practical affair. For the average citizen, you needed children to help out around the farm where you grew your own food. No golden arches in those days. Attitudes towards women back then were just plain wrong, in any case. The marriages of Solomon were political affairs, not prurient in origin. There are those with Trump signs in their yards that would like to see us return to such days, although they have no idea what such days were like. The consensus is that David had about 8 wives, but who’s counting?

Photo credit: Jörg Bittner Unna, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Jörg Bittner Unna, Wikimedia Commons

Women are more than playthings for men. How have we ever reached the point where someone born in the last century doesn’t know that, and can get to less than a month before the election with that ignorant platform? This should make any American shudder. Make America great again? Treat women as equals. Treat people of color as equals. Treat those of differing sexual orientations as equals. Honor the principles upon which this nation was founded. Don’t just grab someone by the polls. And read your Bible, Mr. Hannity. The point behind King Solomon’s 300 concubines is that he died a sinful, disgraced king in the mere shadow of David. The next time you want to quote the Bible, try reading it first.

Rainbow Disconnection

The scene can be quite dramatic. A zoom out from a dead or dying Christian martyr as the moving music swells. There’s a sense of poignant heaven in the air as a human being breathes his or her last, lapsing into the hands of an unseen, waiting father. That’s a kind of typical ending to the particular genre of a martyr movie. We’re left feeling sad but somewhat inspired that someone cared so much that they would give up their very life for their belief. I can see the scenes already building as Kim Davis goes to jail for contempt of court. Davis is the Rowan County clerk in Kentucky who refuses to issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples. Although her action violates federal law, she has her conscience for a pillow at night. All she has to do is spend a day in jail before she will become a martyr/cause célèbre for the religious right. I’m sure it’s already started.

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I don’t believe anyone should be made to go against their conscience. I also believe that if you’re an elected official being paid a tax-payer’s salary of $80,000 a year, that you should do your job. I’m sure the case isn’t so simple as all that, but as someone who’s never made anywhere near that much money, I could see myself easily stepping down if asked to do something that I just could not, in good faith, do. Most of us spend our lives compromising a bit here and there when our employment pushes us in directions we feel uncomfortable going. Nobody would consider us spineless for trying to hold onto tenuous jobs in an economy that seems to be endlessly faltering as the wealthy suck up more and more of the free cash. We do what we have to do. Go to confession at the end of the day and live to die another day. The evangelical, however, has a soft spot for martyrs.

Historians tell us that early Christians were probably not killed off as radically as the early records suggest. It seems the numbers might have been exaggerated to make a point. No doubt, many did die, and some in very gruesome ways, but they faced an unspeakable compromise—to deny the creator of the universe and burn in Hell forever. Issuing a license to a couple whose right to marry you question doesn’t seem to fall into the same category. Standing before the great golden throne your defense would easily be, “it was my job. I couldn’t quit because I needed all that money.” If there’s another viable source of income, the argument becomes spurious. I’m sure there are those in Rowan County who feel they’ve got a hero in their jail. The rest of us just get dressed and go to do the job we’re paid to do.

Founding Principles

That feeling is in the air. Autumn began to stretch its melancholy fingers into August this year. Even before the month was half over the mornings had that chill in them that sparked the trees to begin their slow process of shutting down for the winter. Not wanting to admit that it was time to send my daughter back to college, I resisted what is one of the most compelling senses of self-abnegation that can be known—fall, in all its glory. When I saw a blog post on the Salem Witch Trials, I knew I wasn’t alone. The nights are already longer, and that sunset over summer’s beach comes earlier each day. Salem has a way of bringing that home to me. Innocent people murdered for fictitious crimes. Much of the fear that led to this miscarriage of justice was, of course, inspired by religion. The colonials had a great fear of new religious movements. Although it is difficult to believe, Baptists were such a new religion at the time. Considering how Baptist sensibilities now drive much of the Religious Right, it is difficult to imagine that once upon a time, being a Baptist could lead to accusations of being a witch.

As much as the Religious Right likes to make claims to a primitivism that is completely fiction (Christianity has always been this way), we have lost touch with what it meant to be a Christian in early America. States (still colonies) had their religious preferences, some even established. If you were a Baptist you’d be most comfortable in Rhode Island. If you leaned Quaker, Pennsylvania was for you. When these disparate colonies banded together into a country, it was quickly realized that religious freedom was the only way for them to work together. The government, the state, could not determine matters of individual conscience. Until, that is, that we could declare that the views of particular individuals on birth control—as informed by their religious authorities—could legally deny their employees full health benefits. Oyer and Terminer, anyone?

Freedom is a beautiful idea. It is a concept that only works, however, if it is shared equally. When one faction claims liberty for itself while limiting it for others, we’ve fallen back into times when the Baptist at your door was more dangerous than the Devil in his Hell. And so we revise our history and make claims that America was founded as a Christian nation. Evidence can be ignored, or, failing that, revised. Nothing is written in stone. When you visit Salem, there is a quiet little park, off the beaten path. Under some weary old trees are a set of stone benches against a stone wall. On each of the benches are engraved the names of those executed for being imaginary monsters. The leaves on those trees are, I’m sure, beginning to turn. Soon they will silently fall, and only those who are made of stone will deny that autumn is upon us again.

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Great Caesar’s Cost

College has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Thinking back to my own experience, I chose a school, as a first-generation college student, based on what I knew at the time. It wasn’t much. I chose a school close to home, and safe. A place friendly to, in what I believed to be a world in open hostility to, “Christianity,” by which I meant the conservative, Evangelical variety. The school I settled on, Grove City College, was at the time a selective school. This was the early 1980s and the “Religious Right” was just beginning to appear on the political horizon. Grove City was a Presbyterian college, and the Reformed, although sometimes theologically conservative, have generally been a bit more socially progressive. I recall the admissions numbers being trotted out to the incoming class, about how elite we were (something I’ve always denied and find personally objectionable) at having been admitted to a selective, private enclave such as GCC (“God’s Country Club” as it was locally known). Many of the kids did come from monied families, but I was there on the basis of government subsidized (and unsubsidized, as if I knew the difference) loans.

When my daughter was considering colleges she had been warned about Grove City. One of her friends was contemplating it, but soon wisely cast her thoughts elsewhere. Nevertheless curious, I picked up the Princeton Review’s The Best 376 Colleges, a kind of Bible for the collegiate-bound, to see if my old alma mater rated a mention. Sure enough, Grove City was present. For those wishing to make it in the heartless world of business, it can be a good training ground. What caught my attention, however, was the acceptance rate. According to the 2012 edition, 74% of applicants were admitted. So much for selective! This figure swirled around my gray matter for some months as I started to sort out the implications.

Over the past few decades, Grove City College—which was always conservative—has allied itself closely with the posturing of Tea Party types. Herein lies a true dilemma for the educated bourgeois: how to be intellectually progressive and socially repressed at the same time. To accomplish this difficult trick, a non-negotiable bedrock is required, and since even the earth is spinning crazily on its axis the only true solidity in the universe is religion. Claiming that, despite the 14.5 billion years of this universe’s elapsed lifespan, only one thing never changes and that is a particular interpretation of Scripture, you can go ahead with your science and your arts. But most of all, with your business. Although black holes may exist, and textual criticism may indicate Scripture has its own gray areas after all, nothing counts much at the end of the day if you don’t have capital to back you up. Open admission policies can be interpreted in more than one way, depending on your point of view.

Photo by "the Enlightenment"

Photo by “the Enlightenment”

Just Plain Bible

BibleWithoutTheologyBack when I was teaching Hebrew Bible in a seminary for a living, I purchased a book entitled The Bible Without Theology by Robert A. Oden Jr. I had intended to read it as a sanity break from the over-compensatory theological glosses that even the slightest reading of the Bible had in that setting. As the years passed and the book remained unread, I came to think of it as a systematic deconstructing of theological readings of the Bible, which it is not. Instead, Oden has gathered in this useful little book several essays centered on the topic of how the theological reading of the Bible has all but drowned out any other interpretations and has secured the privileged position of the Bible not only in society, but also in academia. Naturally, many people see such privilege as a witness of undisputed truth, even though how that truth is interpreted remains an open question.

Scholars, however, have the obligation not to favor their worldview over the evidence. Oden begins by discussing how history itself is perceived differently among those of various mindsets. History is an important part of the Bible’s theological reading since many Judeo-Christian interpretations revolve around a sense of historical veracity. After illustrating how history and mythology both lay claim to the text, Oden points out that even obviously mythological episodes have been blockaded by a theological reading of the scriptures. With examples from socio-anthropological studies, he demonstrates that parts of Genesis are best understood by investigating how kinship structures work, as well as how clothing serves as a status marker rather than a hidden justification for sacrifice, or chilly nights outside Eden.

Although The Bible Without Theology wasn’t exactly what I’d come to suppose it was, it remains a proper prologue to the issue. When Oden’s book appeared in the 1980s, the Religious Right was just finding its feet, fueled by a hyper-theological reading of the Bible. Since that time, the Bible has been used as theological justification to repress everyone from women to those biologically inclined toward their own gender. Bible scholars have, in general, known this is wrong. However, theologically inclined institutions won’t pay instructors for honestly engaging the text. Bible scholars are expected to throw their expertise behind the theological outlook of their institution in a way that Oden rightly points out, no other academic discipline would accept. In reaction to the biblical abuses of the Neo-Con crowd, many Americans are wondering why this one holy book is so privileged. While it may not have all the answers, Oden’s riposte will help to explain why the Bible deserves better.