Is There an End in Sight for the Culture Wars? Conservatives Reflect on the Future of the GOP

Is There an End in Sight for the Culture Wars?  Conservatives Reflect on the Future of the GOP

            In an interesting article for The Ticket, journalist Brenden James discusses the debate among conservatives over the role of religion in political discourse today.[1]  It is particularly interesting because the event that sparked the article is so backwards.  Senator Marco Rubio, rising star of the GOP, refused to say in an interview for GQ Magazine whether he thought the Earth was billions of years old or only a few thousand.  In response, Rev. Pat Robertson dismissed “young Earth” theories, saying, “If you fight science, you are going to lose your children.”

Let me repeat that, for it bears repeating: Sen. Rubio, an elected official of our officially religion-neutral government refused to accept the claims of over 99% of scientists worldwide.[2]  The Rev. Pat Robertson, a televangelist, founder of The Christian Broadcasting Network, who claimed the 9/11 attacks were the result of America tolerating feminism, Haitian earthquake of 2011 was caused by their acceptance of Voodoo, and linked Hurricane Katrina to legalized abortion, said it was a mistake to be too anti-science.  That is what the GOP has come to:  Pat Robertson is now the voice of reason!

When politicians embrace religious dogma and base public policy on it, and religious leaders reject dogma for political reasons such as not losing the youth vote, things are running backwards.  Politicians are supposed to be leaders of this world, and thus to seek this-worldly solutions to this-worldly problems.  That is not to say that they should not have religious principles; but when they seek to bring their principles into their politics, they have to be mindful of the worldly impact and have a worldly goal.  If I believe God wants us to be a morally committed nation, and that we should follow the moral principles of the New Testament, I can explain those principles and how they would be applied to society in terms that even a non-believer could understand.  I can say, for example, “As a Christian, I believe that the family is important and that we should support traditional marriage.  As a politician, I have read studies that show the deleterious effects of divorce upon children, and how children raised in single-parent homes suffer economically and emotionally.  Therefore, as a matter of public policy, I say we should try to promote marriage and discourage deadbeat dads and illegitimacy.”  We can have that conversation; even someone who doesn’t share my religion can discuss whether or not those policies will have a positive impact on society.  And if they won’t, then I may have to modify the policies to try to make them consistent both with my Christian principles and objective reality.  It is hard to see the scientific advantage to believing that 99% of all scientists who have studied evolution are nevertheless wrong, based on my personal religious convictions.

But what is much more remarkable in this backwards relationship is what it reveals about the influence of politics on religion.  We have a religious leader making a political calculation as to what would be the most politically advantageous, and then declaring that a particular religious belief should be abandoned because it is not popular with a particular voting bloc.  Why should fundamentalist Christians deny what they believe is the Truth for any reason?  And of all the reasons to deny the truth, isn’t majority opinion the worst?  What does it profit a man to gain electoral victory and lose his soul?  And yet, that is what the Religious Right has done.  The theological arguments against accepting the science of climate change were always dubious, to be polite.  No one ever said, “I believe green tech would be good for the national economy and good for the planet, but I will oppose it because God wants us to rule the world and have dominion over it so there is a divine command to pollute and destroy.”    The arguments against accepting the scientific arguments about man-made climate change were always economic and political:  it will destroy jobs, hurt profitability and competitiveness, interfere with our national sovereignty, and so on.  Religious leaders like Jerry Falwell had a natural desire to support the politicians who had been friendly to them personally and to their social causes; and they saw the environmentalists as aligned with their political foes.  Therefore, they found theological reasons to attack “the myth of global warming” from the pulpit, as if Jesus wants us to reject science even at the risk of destroying all life.  At the beginning of the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970’s, conservative pastors sought to exercise moral and spiritual influence on politicians; but over the years the flow of influence has become reversed, and now it is political and business leaders who sway the teachings of conservative pastors.

I believe there is a proper way for religion to influence politics, and an improper way.  When religion produces men and women of good character, love of neighbor, reverence for justice, and a faith that their own virtue will be rewarded in Heaven if not in the polls (and that their sins will be punished by God if not by the voters), and those politicians then try to solve political problems, how could that not be positive?  But when politicians try to use religious assumptions to save themselves from the tough job of thinking through political problems, or religious persons try to use political reasons to decide moral and spiritual questions, you end up with bad politics and bad religion.  The easiest example I can think of is Muqtada al-Sadr.  He was known as a mediocre religious student, more interested in video games than his studies.  His father was an important Shi’ite cleric in Iraq and an opponent of Saddam Hussein.  Despite his mediocre religious achievements, Muqtada had great influence simply because of his family background.  He used that influence to establish a political and military power base after the American overthrow of Saddam.  As a politician, his policies have led to increased violence and suffering for the Iraqi people; for example, his paramilitary fought against American efforts to provide cheap propane in Sadr City because it undercut his group’s profits selling fuel to the people at a higher price.  He has promoted and encouraged violence in a country that needed no encouragement, largely to the benefit of Iran, where he studied religion before the war.  He has used political methods to become a major religious influence, when neither his education nor his achievements merited such influence for one so young; and he has used religious fervor to generate support for counterproductive political policies that benefit foreign sponsors more than his own people.

In the U.S. we have few politicians who are also ordained religious leaders, so we don’t see such a pure mixing of the two spheres in a single individual.  We do see it, of course; but it is rarely so unabashed.  When it is, it is often punished at the polls.  For example, when Richard Mourdock said that the conception of a baby, even from rape, was a gift from God, he was stating something that makes theological sense.  If you believe that God is ultimately in charge of the universe, then it follows logically that the conception of that fetus was the will of God.  That does not mean, theologically, that God wanted that rape to occur; depending on one’s theological stand on free will versus providence, perhaps God allowed that horrible action to occur because free will is a necessary part of the world and that means that people are free to do horrible things.  God is, to put it anthropomorphically, trying to make the best of a terrible situation, taking the shattered shards of a horrific event and assembling something better.  I’m not going to try to follow this line out further, since I’m not endorsing it myself.  What I am trying to do is point out that, if you accept the theology that Mr. Mourdock seems to accept, and which is accepted by millions of Evangelicals, then his statement is logically consistent and even logically necessary.  But it is terrible public policy.  It is one thing for a person to say, “I will take this burden onto myself and nurture this child, conceived from violence against me, and try to do God’s work of turning evil into good.”  It is something entirely different to say, “You will take this burden onto yourself, nurture this alien presence in your own body, conceived by violence against yourself, and continue the work the rapist started, because I believe that is God’s will for you.”  And under the Bill of Rights, wherein the idea that the government shall establish no religion is enshrined as the highest law of the land, to impose one religious interpretation of the status of a fetus and to base public policy on that is simply unpardonable.  As the Supreme Court pointed out in Roe v. Wade, there is no religious consensus regarding abortion, and no scientific consensus when the fetus becomes a person with legal rights.  The Constitution may grant citizenship to anyone born in the U.S. but not to everyone conceived there (you thought anchor babies were bad; wait until we start seeing anchor honeymoons!).  What Mourdock, Paul Ryan and others have done is take their particular religious beliefs, and translate them from being personal beliefs which they gladly shoulder to being public policy which others will bear whether they agree or not.  “Rise, take up your cross, and follow Me” has become “Take your cross, and make another bear it.”

These politics have become self-destructive, and many in the GOP are questioning the influence of religious beliefs on their party’s policies.  But the corruption of religion by politics may perhaps be even more destructive.  As Brenden James points out, as the influence of the Religious Right on the GOP has grown, so too has the percentage of unchurched young people.  Rev. Robertson is not just sounding a warning to the GOP; he is warning his fellow Evangelicals as well.  Continue to let conservative politics drive Christianity, and Christianity will suffer as young people abandon politicized churches.  As James writes:

            “Young evangelicals don’t look at the country as a battlefield, but rather a mission field,” says James Wilcox, a George Mason University political science professor. “They’re are less scared than their forbearers: They see the ‘War on Religion’ narrative as nonsense; they see churches thriving, the outlets they have, and the extent of religious pluralism in this country.”

The new generation sees community activism, rather than electoral politics, as the means for their faith to shape the world, Wilcox argues. They may disagree with liberals about same-sex marriage, but they also believe that states have the right to determine such policies.

Many younger evangelicals are also serious about addressing climate change, even as many high-profile conservatives have expressed doubt about whether climate change is real—with nominee Mitt Romney cracking jokes about it at this year’s Republican National Convention.[3]

I would say that the Republican Party does need to retreat from religion if it wants to be a major political force in the future.  However, I think the most important question is not, “Does the GOP need a religious retreat?” but rather, “Does the Religious Right need to retreat from the GOP?”  In choosing to play the game of power politics, religious conservatives have debased their own message and weakened their ability to influence Democrats and independents.  While the GOP debates whether or how to become a “big tent party” instead of a special interest lobby for angry white guys,[4] Evangelicals have been debating for years how to fulfill the Great Commission to preach the Gospel to all people:  young as well as old, immigrants, women, and every ethnic group.  And while the NAE has taken significant steps to open its doors wider, the fact remains that the Religious Right does not speak to the religious or political convictions of many young Christians today.  The “spiritual, but not religious” numbers have grown even as Evangelical pastors have fought for the right to spout politics from the pulpit without losing their tax exemptions.[5]   Is it surprising that those who believe climate change is a problem, that poverty and hunger in the richest of nations is a problem, and that whether or not there is a mosque down the street is NOT a problem would be turned off by a religion that seems more interested in its right to defend corporate interests and bigotry while keeping its sweet, sweet tax breaks?  Jesus asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”  If Christians want the answer to be “yes,” then they should stop tying the Gospel to worldly politics, to scientific fraud, and to the corporate profit motives that drive both.


[1] Brenden James, “Does the GOP Need a Religious Retreat?”  The Ticket 4 December 2012 (http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/ticket/does-gop-religious-retreat-103526580–election.html ) accessed 12/4/2012

[2] For information on the scientific consensus, see “Claim CA111:  Many Scientists Reject Evolution and Support Creationism; The TalkOrigins Archive:  Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy, (http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CA/CA111.html) accessed December 4, 2012

[3] “Does the GOP Need a Religious Retreat?”

[4] Rosalind S. Helderman and Jon Cohen, “As Republican Convention Emphasized Diversity, Racial Incidents Intrude;” The Washington Post August 8. 2012 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/as-republican-convention-emphasizes-diversity-racial-incidents-intrude/2012/08/29/b9023a52-f1ec-11e1-892d-bc92fee603a7_story.html)  See esp. the quote from Sen. Lindsey Graham

[5] M. Alex Johnson, “Pulpit Politics:  Pastors Endorse Candidates, Thumbing Noses at the IRS;” NBC News 4 November 2012 (http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/04/14703656-pulpit-politics-pastors-endorse-candidates-thumbing-noses-at-the-irs?lite)

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One Response to “Is There an End in Sight for the Culture Wars? Conservatives Reflect on the Future of the GOP”

  1. jasonmsilverman Says:

    From a purely pragmatic point of view, religious values are more likely to influence overall politics in a meaningful way when they are not tied to a particular party a priori–a point made by CS Lewis years ago.

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