>Culture, Politics & Faith

>Whenever I blog about religion and mention that not all Christians are intolerant right wing Republicans who bash gays and oppress women, inevitably a few folks come forward to sniff, “well I sure wish these liberal Christians would speak up, then.” The implication being: liberal Christians aren’t working very hard thus their message is not seen or heard.

That always pisses me off enormously because I happen to know some very amazing Christians who are powerful social justice activists. These folks are working very hard and making tremendous sacrifices for the cause of justice. People like my friend Rev. Stacy Rector, former Associate Pastor at Second Presbyterian Church here in Nashville, and now executive director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. I think of another Nashvillian, Don Beisswenger, retired Vanderbilt Divinity School professor who went to Federal prison for six months for his non-violent protest of the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia. I think of Nashvillian Father Charles Strobel, who founded Room In The Inn. It’s thanks to him that hundreds of Nashville’s homeless have food, shelter and access to other services every winter (and you don’t get more Nashville than Father Strobel: his brother Jerry was manager of the Grand Ole Opry for 30 years).

I’m sorry that you don’t know these people. They are a tremendous gift to Nashville and our city is lucky to have them.

On the national level, I’m sorry you don’t know of Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners and Call To Renewal. He recently took on Glenn Beck when Beck attacked churches which practice social justice. Have you not heard of Shane Claiborne in Philadelphia? Surely I don’t have to remind folks that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a preacher man and President Jimmy Carter referred to himself as “born again”?

Have you never read the writings of the late William Sloane Coffin? His collection The Heart Is A Little To The Left: Essays On Public Morality is the quintessential primer on liberal Christianity for those wanting an answer to the religious right’s claims of Scriptural authority. Reading that book changed my life.

It does annoy me that I know these folks and others do not. But then I remember that my secular friends can’t be expected to read the same things I do and visit the same websites I do. If you aren’t interested in religion, then Pastor John Shuck’s website probably has not crossed your radar. Shuck, a tireless warrior for GLBT equality, pastors a Presbyterian church in Elizabethton, Tennessee–not the stereotypical Southern religious leader. But there you have it. There’s more than one face to Christianity, even here in the mid-South.

My secular friends by necessity operate in the world our corporate media has created, and for much of the past 30 years that has meant Christian = Right Wing Republican. For the most part the media ignores liberal voices of faith in favor of the James Dobson/Pat Robertson/Ralph Reed model, in part because we do not fit the established narrative and in part because right wing Christians have built media empires like the “Christian Broadcasting Network” through which they disseminate their message. The Network of Spiritual Progressives is not on every CNN producer’s Rolodex.

During the Bush years it seemed that every news show included an interview with Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention or Focus on the Family’s James Dobson or CBN’s David Brody or any of the other mouthpieces of the religious right. And it occurred to me that this is because the religious right operates in the realm of politics, which is about power. The religious left for the most part does not do this. The religious left seems to operate in the realm of social change. This is an important distinction.

People on the religious left are quietly doing their thing, trying to end poverty and injustice and serve the homeless and end wars while the religious right is making a lot of noise for the cameras at events like “Justice Sunday.” And I really had to stop and think about why that is, and if it’s a good thing or if it even matters.

Thinking about this led me to revisit this post I wrote back in January, “Your Modern Conservative Inferiority Complex.” In that piece I quoted a column by Julian Sanchez in which he writes:

The secret shame of the conservative base is that they’ve internalized the enemy’s secular cosmopolitan value set and status hierarchy—hence this obsession with the idea that somewhere, someone who went to Harvard might be snickering at them.

That resonated with me then, and it still rings true today. Looking at the incoherent message of the Tea Party and the conservative flip-flopping on things like the budget deficit, which didn’t matter during Bush’s spending spree but suddenly matters very much as President Obama tries to rebuild the economy, it’s clear that the right is short on ideas and long on anger, and this anger comes from the right’s cultural irrelevance. The right might score political wins but it is forever complaining that it is oppressed, that “liberal Hollywood” or the “liberal media” treats it unfairly, that everyone is out to get them. Why is that? It’s because for all its political muscle, the right is culturally insignificant. The culture wars are over, and the right lost. That is increasingly obvious to everyone, including, in fact, the religious right.

And this seems to connect to the religious left vs right issue. The religious right battled its cultural insignificance by providing its own alternative to the established culture: Christian music, movies, books and the like, sold at Christian bookstore chains. They have responded to the culture at large by removing themselves from it, at the same time it tried to exert more political muscle. This strikes me as odd and might explain why the right’s political wins are hollow ones, why their political leaders like America’s Vuvuzela Sarah Palin leave most of us scratching our heads. The religious right, like the political right, is worried about power. The political left is about power too, but the religious left is not. Victories for the religious left are not necessarily political ones, and therein lies the difference.

The religious right is vocal, but it’s become increasingly impotent, because it chose to remove itself from those areas of the culture where lasting change is made, and instead devoted itself to empty grandstanding. We need only look at the Justice Sunday events, which were all about not letting Democrats filibuster Bush’s judicial nominees. Today we have conservatives claiming it’s perfectly okay to filibsuter Obama’s judicial nominees, and if you Google “Justice Sunday” the second entry after Wikipedia’s is the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee’s spring human rights program. Despite all of the media hoopla, the religious right’s “Justice Sunday” events are no more than a Wikipedia entry–a footnote to history.

So the next time someone tells me they “wish the religious left would step up,” I’m going to hit the pause button for a moment to think about what it means. I’m not sure I want a religious left worried about power. I’d rather they leave the empty grandstanding to a culturally impotent minority, and instead keep fighting the good fight to end poverty, war, social injustice, environmental destruction and the like. Because political victories are temporal. Political winds blow right and left, but social change is lasting. And so far the left seems to have that battle won.


Filed under Christianity, liberals, religious right

19 responses to “>Culture, Politics & Faith

  1. >Very incisive post. Interesting how the cycle of cultural resentment on the right is what enables hucksters like Beck and Limbaugh to cash in quite substantially. They never achieve their political agenda but they sure do sell books and ad space…

  2. >I'm an atheist but I applaud you for setting the record straight. Being Christian certainly doesn't mean you are a bigoted wingnut, and the struggle for human rights owes a great deal to people of faith.The problem, it seems to me, is that the Christian wackos get the ink and air time because they are such useful idiots, much like the teabaggers. It's not the anti-gay, anti-porn, anti-choice religious beliefs of these people that get them so much air time, it's the fact that they support the same politicians who are pushing the pro-corporate, anti-regulation, pro-war agenda that the corporate media support.Jesus talked about the man who went into his room and prayed in private, but verily I say that if your protest, or your political meeting, or your movement leaders appear regularly in the mainstream media and are treated with respect and deference, then you are being duped. It's people like those you mention here that no one has heard of that are doing the great work of the people.

  3. >They never achieve their political agenda but they sure do sell books and ad space…True. I should have written that the religious right is about power and money. Because that is how it appears.

  4. > It's people like those you mention here that no one has heard of that are doing the great work of the people.Good point, Charles D, about "going into your closet to pray in secret." Wish I'd thought of it as I'd saved myself a lot of bandwidth!

  5. >SoBe: One terrific article. When modern day fundmentalists rant against social justice I can't help but think that if pioneers had felt that way our population would be about half of what it is today.

  6. >I would have to say, amazing article!!! As one who has experienced both the Religious Right and their political maneuvering as well as the Religious Left and their dedication to actually making a difference in the lives of individual people, I can say for certainty that the Religious Left is the one who will be remembered as the true heroes of Christianity. You are so very right when you say that the Religious Right have so enamored themselves with Christian music and Christian bookstores that they no longer exist within the culture that they are supposedly attempting to change. The Left on the other hand, seeks to be an active part of the worlds culture and hence they do make a difference.

  7. >I had the privilege of knowing a woman who was the personal secretary to a prominent Presbyterian Minister for most of the 20th century. I can't remember everything that I learned from her today. All I can really tell you is that through her, I learned about the long-standing association between the Presbyterian Church and the Southern Poverty Law Center. This was not the only socially conscious organization that she was intimately involved with.As I googled and read histories of the various Presbyterian denominations since the civil war, trying to figure out who it was that she worked for, it was extremely satisfying and amusing to read about so many radical priests. One who opposed the war in Viet Nam in the early sixties, one who ran for president as a socialist in 1928 and many more with a serious amount of cred. More than once, my searches brought me to the same site you referenced, "Voices of Justice in the Presbyterian Church." Back in the 70s and 80s we used to call the Presbyterians commies because of all the liberal causes they espoused in their national newsletter.Perhaps of more interest might be the demise of truly holy conservatives that once flourished from the mid to late 20th century. The more in tune with the teachings of Christ that they were, the less the divisive politics of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell et al mattered. It seems that breed of conservative Christian is very much in danger of extinction in the 21st century as politics trump all other considerations in the minds of Christians today.

  8. >Sooo, when will we start seeing these lefty Christians on teevee? I'm guessing Rachel Maddow and Steven Colbert first, with a "wow, there's a liberal Christian" story popping up on CNN.Or is the SCLM so cowed by the Christianists that they can't even ask the question? Who's gonna piss off Pat Buchanan and still get invited back to (liberal) MSNBC?ThresherK

  9. >I'm not the least bit confused about the differences between christians and KKKristians. I do know of many of the people who are quietly trying to make life better for all. I tend to think of them as nice people and not dwell on their beliefs.

  10. >You've nailed it, SoBeale. I consider myself a protestant Christian (with the emphasis on the protest part) and I'm thankful that there really isn't much of a religious left, because the idea of religious ideologues repels me no matter who it comes from.The burden of the Gospel message was the loving fatherhood of God, and the brotherhood of mankind such a relationship entails. By definition, it's up to each generation to interpret what that means. Religion dies when it attaches itself to static social and cultural movements, and as such, a politically liberal version of Christianity would be just as cumbersome and useless as the Religious Right, or for that matter, nearly all of the church organizations of today.

  11. KEW

    >I believe that the religious right has internalized an individualized version of religion — JC as personal savior, what would JC do, etc. As such, the focus is not on collective social policy but on individual action. Yet, the trouble is that so many individuals do not follow the obvious JC actions! Silly people who are not religious, or follow a different faith, or "god forbid" worry about structural, systemic issues that require collective change not individual action chains from now until eternity. If an individual refuses to comprehend and follow the good news, well then the obvious thing to do is to compel them. The left, generally in this country, does not compel individuals. They may compel corporate individuals, or bureaucratic individuals. They may suggest secondary actions that compel individuals (i.e., higher gas taxes). They are loathe to say an individual is bad, or wrong, or "sinful" — they are misguided, ignorant, uneducated.Personally, I think it is disingenuous (at best) to stop at individual behavior or to make policy which expects simple solutions based on individuals doing what JC would have done.

  12. >KEW:But the religious right is always trying to legislate its invidivualized version of religion on everyone else, from posting the 10 Commandments in every courthouse to teaching Creationism in schools, banning evolution from the curriculom, banning abortion, homosexuality, gambling, pornography, alcohol, etc.If they believed in a true individualized religion they wouldn't feel the need to codify their personal religious expression into the laws of the land.

  13. >ADDING, that's why I say it's more about power than religion …

  14. KEW

    >Whoops — and I agree. Much more about power…

  15. KEW

    >But the religious right is always trying to legislate its invidivualized version of religion on everyone else,Yep, because those non RR'ers are silly people. They must be compelled to act as JC would act. I am not suggesting that is coherent…

  16. D.

    >Thank you!I made mention of this last year, but you have more current stuff. I'm linking to this. Possibly with more verbiage. 😉

  17. >My thought about the right or social conservatives is that they like to be seen and noticed for their deeds. They do not listen to Jesus or follow his teachings or they would know that their "good deeds" should be in secret but since they want to be noticed then they have their reward and that reward is a fleeting human thing that brings no peace of mind or happiness. That is the essence of their shortcomings and hollow victories…I found your post very informative and I appreciate all that you put into this. Again, thank you.

  18. >I think it's much more about the media than about Christians. The left tends to be invisible in the press, even when it is the majority. It's sort of why the media is insisting that Joe and Jane Blow are more concerned with the budget deficit than having a job. (Back in the 60s and 70s, the Christian left was a lot more visible what with Rev. Martin Luther King and the Berrigan brothers.)There's also that insistence that the only true version of a religion is the one that claims to be the oldest, so you get Orthodox Jews telling less Orthodox Jews that they aren't Jews, which is why a lot of them are Holocaust deniers. You get similar garbage with Christianity, even though the modern evangelical movement dates to maybe the late 19th century. In fact, religions change with time. Jews aren't polygamous anymore, and they don't sacrifice lambs at the temple. Christians are allowed to have sex within marriage and they can convert to Christianity even if they were gentiles.You've written well about the unfortunate side effect of this confluence.

  19. >thomas said:" They do not listen to Jesus or follow his teachings or they would know that their "good deeds" should be in secret but since they want to be noticed then they have their reward and that reward is a fleeting human thing that brings no peace of mind or happiness. That is the essence of their shortcomings and hollow victories…"Is it time for a new net neologism to describe these folks? Howzabout, "Pharipublicans" or "HypoKKKristers"?