Friends of Padre Steve’s World
This is a topic that sadly I am again forced to return to in light of the incredibly vocal and strident calls of leaders of the Christian Right in response to the Supreme Court ruling on Marriage Equality. The tragic thing is that these men and women seem not to care about the long term damage they are doing not only to the political system, but the witness of Christians and the continued viability of the Christian church in the United States.
Nineteen years ago today, when I was ordained as a priest I was a part of a church that was heavily invested in the political machinations of the Christian Right so I do understand from experience the mindset of some of these leaders. This is not to say that everyone in leadership of that church were like this, but some were, and they held important positions.
I write this on the anniversary of my ordination because I do care about the witness of Christians and the long term viability of the church. Since I am a historian I do understand what happens when church leaders allow their insistence on maintaining or gaining political power and influence to override the words of Jesus and the mission of the church. I want to point out, that while I certainly fall on the progressive to liberal side of the Christian faith that I know many wonderful conservative Evangelicals who while maintaining the their beliefs, still do all they can to be gracious and loving to all, and in their actions show that love and respect to people that they disagree with on doctrinal, social and political issues. Sadly, the actions of the leaders of the Christian Right are obliterating the efforts of these really good and caring Christians to maintain a witness of love, and that offends me. I was talking to one of these pastors today, an old friend from the Navy Chaplain Corps who is now retired and serving as pastor of a Baptist church here in Virginia, and we commiserated about what the actions of these leaders are doing.
Barry Goldwater, the man who was one of the most responsible for the resurgence of American Conservatism, had a keen sense of the danger faced by the conservative movement if the Christian Right ever took control of the Republican Party. Goldwater whether you liked him or not or disagreed with his political thought was no fool. In 1981 after the Christian Right had risen to power and helped Ronald Reagan win the presidency, Goldwater realized that the Christian Right was not content with being part of a conservative coalition but wanted control of the Republican Party. On the floor of the Senate Goldwater spoke these words:
“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”
Goldwater was right and the takeover of the Republican Party by the Christian Right is an accomplished fact. The Republican Party is now the party of the Christian Right and the party of religious conservative culture warriors. It is unbending, uncompromising and many of its leaders, including most of the announced presidential candidates believe that they are acting in the name of God.
It is an incredibly dangerous situation, not just for the nation and our political system, but for the Church itself.
Our current political climate reminds me of the movie Inherit the Wind, the fictional portrayal of the Scopes Monkey Trial. In the movie one of the most stalwart critics of evolution, the former presidential candidate and preacher Matthew Brady played by Frederic March, led the city where the trial is being held into an anti-secular fervor. At the beginning of the trial he encourages the townspeople to attend a “prayer meeting.” The meeting becomes quite heated as the town’s preacher, Reverend Brown, played by Claude Akins launches into a full assault on all that oppose Brady, and therefore God.
The preacher works himself into a frenzy, condemning the accused and all that would defend him, including his very own daughter:
“Oh, Lord of the tempest and the thunder, strike down this sinner, as thou did thine enemies of old in the days of the Pharaohs! Let him know the terror of thy sword! Let his soul, for all eternity, writhe in anguish and damnation!”
His daughter, who is engaged to the accused cries out: “No! No, Pa! Don’t pray to destroy Bert!”
Then the reverend utters words which remind me so much of what I heard in Iowa this weekend:
“Lord, we call down the same curse on those who ask grace for this sinner—though they be blood of my blood, and flesh of my flesh!”
At this point, Brady, realizing that the situation is getting out of control stops the preacher and says:
“it is possible to be overzealous, to destroy that which you hope to save — so that nothing is left but emptiness.” He then quotes from the book of Proverbs: “Remember the wisdom of Solomon in the book of Proverbs. “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.”
To me this seems to be analogous to the current dilemma faced by the Republican Party. For decades has helped to create, sustain and institutionalize monster of the Christian Right. Old leaders see the danger but cannot admit their culpability in its rise and takeover of that party. As such they continue to enable it. Goldwater was one of the very few Republicans to see this coming and now, as he feared, the preachers have taken control of the party. Like Reverend Brown they will damn all who do not agree with them, even those of their own party.
The leaders of this political-religious movement have been overzealous, and will continue to be so because like Matthew Brady and Reverend Brown and their supporters, they cannot acknowledge that their zeal may be misdirected and malevolent.
Like Reverend Brown, they are consumed by their hatred for non-believers, that they are even willing to destroy the people closest to them to do so. I know this is true, because when I expressed doubt and did not tow the party line of my former church I was thrown out. Sadly, most of the men that I had previously counted as my closest friends abandoned or even condemned me.
I find the similarities amazing. But even more troubling I find the fear, hatred and paranoia the leaders of the Christian Right display all too reminiscent of church leaders in Germany during the 1920s and early 1930s. Those leaders, Protestants and Catholics alike supported Hitler, because Hitler promised to fight against the things that they hated; Jews, Socialists, Communists, homosexuals, immigrants, and of course atheists, agnostics and other non-believers.
Martin Niemöller, a man who now is nearly universally lauded for opposition to Hitler initially supported him. Niemöller, later regretted that support and wrote:
“I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.”
German Christians, like Niemöller, felt that their values were under attack by Communists, Socialists, and Jews and yes, even homosexuals. In order to maintain their influence and power they willingly allied themselves with the Nazis. After the Nazis took power, the only spoke up against the Nazi abuses it to defend their own ecclesiastical power and place in society, and seldom to speak up for the victims of the Nazis. When the war was over and young people began to question the actions of those that led the Church in Germany it began a process that has led to the de-Christianization of that country.
The current leadership of the Christian Right, especially those with yearnings to be the next President, are doing the same thing as their German brothers did in the 1920s and 1930s. The constant hate filled attacks of Christian leaders on those that are not Christians will come back to bite them. This is not fantasy, it is reality. One only has to look at the history of the Church to see it played out time after time. But then, unless we decide to re-write history like the fraudulent pseudo-historian David Barton does so well, why bother reading it?
The actions of many Christian leaders are dangerous to the faith as a whole, but it seems that they are willing to throw that away in order to gain political power, and as Ron and Rand Paul’s adviser Gary North wrote:
“The long-term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise. Those who refuse to submit publicly to the eternal sanctions of God by submitting to His Church’s public marks of the covenant–baptism and holy communion–must be denied citizenship, just as they were in ancient Israel.”
The actions of the leaders of the Christian Right are blatantly short sighted and ultimately will hasten the decline and fall of what we know as Christianity in America, but they don’t seem to care. These leaders have subscribed to an Imperial Church model that must take and hold political power in order to maintain their own political, economic and social dominance, even at the expense of the Gospel. Instead of the message of reconciliation they preach pre-packaged, focus group tested selections of “Biblical Values” which they and their political allies know are useful as wedge issues to win political power.
The leaders of the Christian Right rail against things they consider “sinful” such as homosexuality, abortion and birth control. At the same time they willingly turn a blind eye to the treatment of the poor, support efforts to disenfranchise poor and minority voters, even Christians that tend to vote for Democrats. They advocate wars of aggression and bless cultural and economic norms that go entirely against the Christian tradition as they go about with a Bible in one hand and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in the other.
The effects of this politicization are more and more apparent and the statistics don’t lie. The United States is not Christian nation and any sense of the definition, and this is not the fault of secularists. It is the fault of Christians especially those political partisan pastors and pundits of the Christian Right that for the past 40 years have sold their souls for political power at the expense of the Gospel.
A recent Barna survey noted that less than one half of one percent of people aged 18-23 hold what would be considered a “Biblical world view.” This is compared to about one of every nine other adults. Other surveys bear this out.
Think about it: The Barna Group in another survey of people 18-29 years old asked what phrases best described Christians: The top five answers “Anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical and too involved in politics.” This view was held by 91% of non-Christians and a staggering 80% of young churchgoers.
This hypocrisy is demonstrated time and time again. In 2013 these politically corrupted religious leaders turned a blind eye to and even cheered the gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 by the Supreme Court, or cheered that decision despite the fact that many of not most of those adversely affected by that decision are African American Christians. The next day they lambasted the same justices for overturning the Defense of Marriage Act and refusing to hear a challenge to California’s Proposition 8, dealing with the Federal recognition of Gay marriage. Just over a week ago the same leaders were apoplectic when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Marriage Equality and Gay Marriage, and upheld the Affordable Health Care Law.
The histrionics exhibited by them would be comical if the men and women ranting away were not so vehemently hateful towards their opponents, and some have suggested killing gays and their Christian supporters to root out evil. This isn’t just political theater for them, they really mean it. The real tragedy of their behavior is that even more people will turn away from Jesus. Mahatma Gandhi said it so well “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
The leaders of the Christian Right continue to wage the culture war, but what cost? Here I am not even dealing with the politics, as one can debate the merits of the Obama administration as well as its decisions and policies, and even Supreme Court decisions. Even many progressives criticize the President and the Supreme Court on a wide number of issues, so that is not the point.
The fact is that young people are leaving the church in unheard of numbers and it is very evident to me why they are doing so. The Church has embraced the culture wars over preaching the Gospel, which if I recall correctly is based on loving people, even ones enemies. Jesus said it so well: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35 NRSV.
In 2014 leaders of the Christian Right were able to bring enough culture warriors to the polls hold their majority in the House of Representatives and gain the majority in the Senate. But it was an election where less than 40% of eligible voters voted and most of the contested seats were in areas where they dominate, which magnified their strength. But in the coming 2016 Presidential election the demographics do not favor them and get worse in every year. The leaders of the Christian Right know this and still continue on and wage their culture war with greater zeal further alienating millions of people not just from their political position, but the message of Jesus himself.
Perhaps Christian leaders who have sold their souls for such paltry political gains should be asking these questions: What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul and what does it profit the Church to wield political power but lose its soul?
It is a question that Christians need to ask. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wryly noted “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.” Sadly, that train has left the station and the leaders of the Christian Right are not only on it, but they are driving it into oblivion.