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Changing the Failed Strategy of the Religious Right Into a Winning Formula That Helps Heal Our Country

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Along with my late evangelical leader father Francis Schaeffer for a time in the 1970s and early eighties (long before I became a "secular left wing back-sliding" novelist) I was an instigator, propagator and founder of the anti-abortion hard right of the Religious Right. Today I am one of President-elect Obama's most enthusiastic supporters and wrote dozens of articles, blogs and opinion pieces supporting his candidacy. As a result I'm getting a daily dose of hate mail from the same people who used to regard my family as royalty within evangelical subculture.

Long after I left that evangelical/hard right subculture I converted to the Greek Orthodox Church (in 1990) and so I'm also getting to a few "how can you support the abortionist Obama" hate e-mails from some of the more right wing and politicized members of the Orthodox community. (Most of them are converts who brought their former evangelical and/or Roman Catholic right wing politics into their new church.)

All the hate e-mails have one thing in common: a disdain for President-elect Obama (some with vile overt racist overtones) and all refer to him as "an abortionist," or "in favor of infanticide," or "wanting to force gay marriage on America," etc., etc., etc.

Every single one of these hate e-mails assumes a basic premise: President-elect Obama has -- through some nefarious underhanded means -- tricked our "Christian nation" into following him so that he can secularize our God fearing people, impose "anti-Christian" laws, and generally drive the goodhearted, moral and Christian American people over a cliff of socialized sexual decadence.

Aside from the absurd inaccuracy of this oddly paranoid vision, stoked by the likes of talk radio's village idiots, half-truths, exaggeration and outright "he's a Muslim isn't he?" lies, there's an even more basic problem: the evangelical right wing, Roman Catholic right wing and their Orthodox, and Mormon counterparts circulating these hate emails don't seem to have noticed that--

A), We live in a pluralistic democracy that never was a Christian nation, in the sense that, say, Byzantium was when ruled by an Orthodox emperor in league with the Orthodox Church hierarchy of Constantinople, or that the papal states were in the Middle Ages, or even the way that the Massachusetts Bay State colony was under Puritan rule.

And...

B) Have any of these folks noticed that today they are in a distinct ideological numerical minority now whatever our historical American beginnings were?

America is a country with Hindus, Muslims, tens of thousands of splinter group Protestant denominations all over the map, both theologically and politically, a Roman Catholic Church split when it comes to politics, where some Catholics love Vatican II and want further liberation, and others regard the Middle Ages as a golden age. Then there are the Jews, divided into dozens of subsets, and many non-believers and on and on it goes. Whatever the argument about America's "Christian heritage" was there's no argument about the fact that today we are a polyglot, diverse society.

Let's suppose for a nutty moment that the evangelical/Mormon/conservative Roman Catholic/ultra-Orthodox Jewish and Muslim view of such issues as abortion, homosexuality, marriage (gay or otherwise) is correct. For one crazy instant let's even assume that God wants everyone in America to live as if all the injunctions of the Old Testament, New Testament, and Koran, when it comes to sexual moral behavior or not eating shellfish, are to be practiced literally, up and to including the stoning to death of homosexuals. How then to best get back to some sort of Promised Land of rectitude and God-pleasing ways?

Clearly the election of our new the pro-choice, tolerant, progressive President-elect, represents the sweeping aside of the Republican majority in Congress and their triumphal neoconservative American exceptionalism. It is also an utter repudiation of the evangelical right and their fellow travelers.

The Republican/evangelical right's world view has been replaced by a battered, it's-the-economy-stupid!, state of mind. Economic collapse and perhaps worse awaits us. We are losing one war, and the other war was clearly a mistake. And the fools who got us into this mess need not apply for any post higher than dog catcher for years to come. Most American know all this.

This knowledge signals not just a loss for the Religious right but a resounding and permanent defeat. It also signals (to anyone sane) that even if you except the Religious right's view that, for instance, all abortion is murder, gay marriage an affront to God's natural law and so forth, a change of tactics is in order. Obviously no one is getting convinced, but rather the culture is moving in the other direction. In fact the Religious Right has made its case so badly that with friends like them the right's causes need no enemies.

What might a change of tactics be? How to effect change at the same time as practicing love for one's neighbor without which love -- by Christ's standard anyway -- everything else becomes mere sound and fury signifying nothing?

Here's the answer. (Yes, I said the answer.) First, admit that the traditionalist view of matters sexual, reproductive and moral is now the minority view. Statistics on teenage sexuality and pregnancy, divorce, single parenthood, polls on how Americans view gays, statistics on premarital sex, multiple serial monogamy "marriages," the number of children being raised by stepparents (including in many so-called conservative evangelical homes), all point to the fact that trying to close the "barn door" on these issues through legislation is futile.

Take abortion. Polls show that most Americans feel that abortion should be legal but somewhat more restricted, in comparison to the permissive license for all abortions at any time and for any reason provided by Roe v. Wade. Therefore if Roe was ever overturned by the Supreme Court (which has been the stated aim of the 30-year futile pro-life effort), every serious student of this matter says that abortion would remain legal, if somewhat slightly more restricted in most states. That doesn't even account for the availability of abortion through the abortion pill.

Fact: abortion is going to remain available in America, with or without new appointments to the Supreme Court by President-elect Obama.

Fact: It doesn't matter one way or the other what any president says or does "about" abortion. It is here to stay, unless the population has a change of heart. So it boils down to changing hearts and minds, not laws.

The same goes for laws related to easy "no-fault" divorce.

The same goes for legal rights for gay men and women, whether those rights are called "marriage" or something else.

The horse is long fled, the barn door permanently open. There are no short cuts to change. It boils down to each heart and mind.

Religious conservatives should stop pretending that they are living in 13th century Rome, or 11th Century Byzantium, or 21st-century Saudi Arabia. Where conservatives, and especially religiously conservative people, are actually living is in the American version of Babylon, or, for that matter, on Jefferson's Monticello estate while he's busy with a pair of nail scissors cutting out the bits of the New Testament he doesn't like.

Deal with it!

That being the case what strategy can people who wish to change their culture to a more traditional one employ? Is it to, for instance, spend millions of dollars on California's Proposition 8 to outlaw gay marriage? Will this win long term when the whole of society is becoming more and more tolerant of gays? Or is that just a good way to make most Americans disdain and/or fear the Mormon Church and other conservative religious people and to make the gay community hate them and everything they stand for forever?

Note to my old friends on the American Religious Right:

Your new winning strategy begins by you acknowledging where you are living. Do you want to just talk to yourselves or change America? This is not the Bay State in the1600! Therefore writing the kind of political screeds that might have passed into law in 17th-century New England, is a dead end. All Prop 8-type overtures will eventually loose. Trying to overturn Roe, or roll back the acceptance of gay marriage by the force of law is futile. What makes sense is an entirely positive campaign of hope rather than negativity.

Rather than telling lies about your fellow believers, such as President-elect Obama - that he's a " secret Muslim," a "Manchurian candidate," a "Communist," a "child molesting, sex pervert," "that he will ban talk radio..." and so on and on, how about telling the truth? The truth is that President-elect Obama is a born-again Christian (just like you evangelicals are) but with progressive social views on certain social issues that you conservative Christians (Mormons) and other religious folks disagree with. However Obama has shown that he is sensitive to those who disagree with him, for instance on abortion, by saying that there ought to be government programs to help women and babies in a way that makes abortion far less frequent. Do you want that to happen or not? If so get on board.

Having once told the truth about those with whom you disagree you evangelical right wingers, and all your fellow travelers, should concentrate on providing both the inspiration for, and the means for, positive change of heart. You could do this in a way that would actually advertise religious faith as an attractive alternative to secularism, rather than making it seem that you are the sort of ignorant rubes who are about to pull a hood over your heads and burn a cross on somebody's lawn.

Positive action could change the dynamic of the American political debate. Instead of being labeled as professional haters you on the Religious Right would be seen as agents of compassion, consistent with what you say you believe.

What if right wing Christians, Mormons and others volunteered to work with the Obama administration in helping to set up programs to provide women with the means to have and keep their children? How about evangelicals leading the cheering section for Obama's health care reform? What if those same Christians set up programs to make sure that gay men and women in their communities are not discriminated against and protect them if they are? What if these same Christians work to welcome, care for and protect immigrants, instead as portraying them to as enemies and the "other?" What if instead of being against gay marriage you were for keeping all marriages together and worked to reduce the numbers of evangelicals getting divorced?

If the fight for the rights of the unborn became a positive effort to hold President-elect Obama to his word when it comes to health and welfare programs for mothers and babies, if the fight against gay marriage took the form of outdoing all other groups when it comes to fighting for the rights of gay men and women to be treated with dignity, and for all married people to find ways to make their relationships work, if the fight against illegal immigration took the form of reaching out to the immigrant community, both legal and illegal, with compassion care and love, educational programs and with the welcome Jesus commands us to have for the stranger in our midst... the entire enterprise of the Religious Right would turn from a bitter hate-inspiring (and now massively politically losing) effort, into what has always been the actual business of the best of Christian faith from time immemorial: missionary outreach to "the least of these" in the name of the Christ who, according to the Scriptures, "desires the salvation of all humankind."

I have a question: if your idea of fighting for moral change via political means is so great, how is it working out so far? Roe was 30 years ago. Closer to overturning it our we? Did the nation fly to Sarah Palin? How many abortions have you stopped since W. took office? How many gay men and women love Jesus more because they met your groups? And, by the way, why did you all give us 8 years of the worst presidency in our history, being that without your votes W. would be running a ball club now instead of running America into the ground.

Your born-again president has bankrupted our country, destroyed the Christian community in Iraq, and killed tens of thousands of innocent people, including over 4000 of our men and women? If you don't learn from these failures what will you learn from? Do you think America will ever trust your judgment again unless you change? And now you are putting yourselves on the wrong side of Obama, a man who is going to be one of our great presidents.

Conclusion

Members of the Religious Right wouldn't have to give up one iota of their principles, moral or otherwise if they took the advice set forth above. But rather than relying on the political and legislative process to force other people to comply with the right's American version of Sharia'h Law, their effort could be to make converts through generosity and love.

Frank Schaeffer is the author of CRAZY FOR GOD-How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back. Now in paperback.