Friday, April 29, 2005

The War on Christians and Christianity

I recommend that you check out David Limbaugh's column from today. In it, he encourages Christian conservatives to stand up to the secular Left and for us not to be intimidated or afraid to express our worldview in the public square.

David writes: . . .

If Christians are to honor Christ's Great Commission of spreading the Gospel to all nations, they must engage in the political arena and governance if for no other reason than that the Gospel cannot flourish as well in the absence of political and religious liberty. Christians have a duty to be involved to promote liberty.


At Sunday, May 01, 2005 4:08:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have great respect for those who engage in discussions about our communal life and the welfare of our nation, and I hope rather to encourage a respectful conversation amongst all voices of goodwill. That is to say that, far from the puerile, ignorant accusations of conservative and liberal, right and left, Christian and Democrat, these terms do not help us establish common ground. They do, on the other hand, enable us to sustain an absolutizing environment that chokes off thoughtful consideration. Beyond this pragmatic concern, however, one wonders whether the usual terms, so long mere instruments of reactionary opposition, retain any currency. What is a liberal, for instance? A conservative? To cite just one example of the difficulty, consider the various factions within our contemporary Republican coalition: libertarians, fundamentalist evangelicals, fiscal conservatives, the Klan, evangelical Christians, pro-business, anti-government voices, anti-desegregationist, Log Cabin Republicans, and a seemingly inexhaustible number of others. A similar variety of honorable and disreputable elements combines within the Democratic Party.

Perhaps history will disclose that our contemporary discourse was merely the temporary attempts of one generation to avoid discussion of what remain, throughout time, difficult and contentious issues. Why should we believe that one program or system of thought will address, with greater understanding, each matter of public concern? Should we believe that, suddenly sometime in the Seventies, one group of Americans finally struck the first pure chord in history? And that, depending upon your interpretation, this group called themselves Republicans or Democrats?

There is, to be sure, more to be said about the irresponsible use of political language, but when will there not be? So let me return to your column dated April 29, 2005.

There is no reasonable evidence to suggest that any sort of ill-conceived campaign against Christians is underway. There is, I believe, a wealth of evidence to support the claim that a vigorous battle has been joined against fundamentalist evangelical Christians. What I find disturbing about Mr. Limbaugh’s most recent column is the failure to make this distinction, a failure that obscures important aspects and resources of your more basic concerns. The vast majority of elected politicians confess their Christianity. To maintain, therefore, that there is “a war being waged against Christianity and Christians in the United States” raises a dire question: is this conviction about persecution sincere, or is this merely a rhetorical device?

Keeping in mind that he sheathes his sword in the final paragraphs—shrewdly noting that “the secular Left wants to do is marginalize Christian conservatives”—I sense that he is conscious of a tension within his own thought; namely, the distinction between fundamentalist evangelicals Christians and, simply, Christians. I suspect that the term “Christian conservatives” indicates the nature of the actual concern. I wonder how this term “conservative” helps us identify individuals and communities. What is a “conservative Christian”? For instance, the terms evangelical and fundamentalist evangelical signify well-understood confessional practices, even if evangelicals can hardly be considered a homogenous community.

I fear that Mr. Limbaugh’s tremendous gifts and platform serve more to confuse, rather than clarify, our understanding. At the risk of being repetitive, it seems more helpful to describe the Christian community you have in mind with the term evangelical and fundamentalist evangelical. Of course, though these communities overlap, neither can be reduced to the other. (Mark Noll, the historian of American Christianity at Wheaton College, is a helpful guide. Perhaps most relevant here, though, is George Marsden’s short book Fundamentalism and American Culture. Marsden is an historian of Christianity in America at Duke.) Moreover, evangelicals are a notoriously heterogeneous community. At one extreme there are fundamentalists, and there are “lite” Christians at the other.

There is, I believe, a profound sense in which your concern about the disregard for Christian truth is appropriate. But, as a matter of public affairs, there is enough blame to go around. As an historical question, it is arguable that the “secular left” is more appropriately described as non-sectarian. There is, quite clearly, a strong, though quite marginalized tradition of strictly secular thinkers. Amongst 20th century intellectuals, the names H. L Mencken and Lionel Trilling come to mind, but neither of these men influenced public life to the extent that Reinhold Niebuhr did. You mentioned Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman, but for every Dowd there is a Cal Thomas. That is to say that, for each writer who caters to a narrow, insulated constituency, another poisonous voice spews words to equally insulated troops. More to the point, it seems more reasonable to suggest that the ideological nonsense with which these marginalized groups berate each other has created a perversely intoxicating dialectic for the warriors who, drunk on the power of certainty and blind with rage, ceaselessly aim arrows to eradicate evil of the other camp.

My experience suggests that even amongst people of good faith, we too often speak past one another. I was raised in a Southern Baptist church and family, and the cries against moral degradation resonate. But, a speck in our eye: our divorce rate appears higher than the national average. Even Dr. Richard Land agrees with this estimate ( Moreover, the South and Southeast regions in which the vast majority self-identified fundamentalist Christians live also have higher than average divorce rates. Even the evangelical’s favorite Christian villain, Catholics, have substantially lower rates of divorce.

Of itself, these statistical facts do not show more than a basic fact. Dr. Land clearly believes that there are good reasons for this higher rate of failure. At the same time, non-evangelical Christians and non-fundamentalists react angrily when they those same Christians, guided by their leaders, hammer away at the culture and liberals and Democrats who are to blame for parading godless ideas in front of their children, all the while, as good Christians, purporting to hold the Truth and Salvation of America and the world in their words and deeds. As if the proper interpretation of the Bible was given by Dwight Moody or William Jennings Bryan rather than Jesus. As if the sickness were not within one’s own soul but rather cast upon us from the evil around us.

Neither do the divorce statistics argue against the goodness of fundamentalist and evangelical communities. What it might suggest is that there is more to the understanding of appropriate behavior and the mysteries of God’s ways than any one person or community will comprehend. Rather than claiming that their theology has been corrupted, as Dr. Land suggests, perhaps it is the case that fundamentalist theologies, whether Christian, Judaic, or Islamic, do not adequately understand human existence. In this case, the so-called attack on Christianity is more appropriately described as an attack on the Christian fundamentalists. Or more appropriate still, an attack on the GOP’s manipulation of conservative evangelicals and evangelical fundamentalists, a manipulation 25 years in the making.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the basic “attack” on fundamentalist evangelical Christians stems from the desire to re-create the state in what they believe is the image of God. The fundamentalist intellectual tradition—whether overtly confessional in the manner of Christians, Jews, or Muslims; or explicitly secular like Marxists, Communists, and Fascist—is inherently totalitarian. Fundamentalist Christians are absolutely, and primarily, committed, at least philosophically, to the literal truth of the Bible. Science and philosophy begin, not from a disinterested, objective examination of beings, but from an a priori world designed and organized by an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good God Who acts in and through history. This commitment marks a radical distinction between its adherents and other thinkers, including other Christian thinkers.

I admire this commitment, but I have yet to hear a persuasive argument for the position that this alternative understanding of the foundations and methodology of science and political philosophy does not require a commitment to a very specific understanding of Christian belief. To the contrary, fundamentalist evangelicalism explicitly demands tethering science and philosophy to a literal interpretation of the Scriptures. It seems to me disingenuous, therefore, to claim that there is an attack on those who wish to assert their religious beliefs in the public square. (Every President has repeatedly acknowledged and prayed for the mercy and blessing of God.) Rather, the concern about some professions of Christian belief have to do with the fundamentalist groups pursuing their interests in a more central role of religious belief in the formulation of public policy. That is, the formulation of public policy on the basis of science and philosophy that emanates from a literal interpretation of the Bible. Fundamentalist evangelicals profess that religious belief is a private matter, but their public policy, unconsciously or not, depends upon a narrow Christian. At least, that is the fear.

Of course, this is not how they fundamentalist evangelicals see it. Their understanding throughout American history has been expressed in terms of victimization: we, the keepers of God’s Truth, are under attack because we believe in God. Never mind that most others who believe in God, not least believers in the Christian God, seem to cope just fine with “modernity” and “the culture.” And this is real crux of the issue: the attack is not really an attack at all, but rather the re-marginalization of fundamentalist evangelicals by moderate, mainstream Christians, including evangelicals and secular humanists. If this is a battle, it is just another chapter in the continuing tale of non-fundamentalists against a sizeable (perhaps 15- 20% of the Christian population), but marginal community of very conservative and fundamentalist evangelicals. It is, in other words, a continuing argument about a more appropriate or faithful understanding of Jesus’ witness and existence.

Finally, I put the following questions to you: how do discern the original intent of the Framers of the Constitution? Thomas Jefferson, for instance, was a Deist, not a Christian. (He famously created his own bible by clipping Jesus’ words from the gospels, leaving the narratives behind. Moreover, John Locke developed described our moral wills based on his understanding of hedonism.) He was not the only one. Should we then say that only a percentage of the Constitution intended for Christianity to be the ground of American morality? Or should we, as the constitution says, understand by God, God without qualifying it as our Christian God? Or again, if the Framers really meant that God was, not only the Christian God, but the Christian God as understood by evangelical fundamentalists; if we believe that this latter interpretation is what the Framers intended, how can we discern their intent?

I appreciate your consideration.

Collierville, TN


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