05/15/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Ultimate Contradiction-in-Terms: Right-wing Christianity

I have done a lot of writing, in my blog posts and my book, about the historic differences between conservatives and progressives in political battles, but almost equally fascinating to me is that between conservative and progressive religious traditions. The exact same fault lines, most importantly in terms of individualism vs. community, play themselves out in theological debates which sound very much like our political debates -- and indeed, a lot of the same people operate in both realms.

Glenn Beck and Jim Wallis got into this debate over the last few days, and because Jim actually knows something about the Bible, he easily won the debate. Beck's classic conspiracy-minded starting point -- that because both Nazis and Communists have used the phrase "social justice", that any religion that uses the term must be bad too -- has a similar logic to saying that if a really bad teacher said two plus two equals four, because he or she was a bad teacher it must be false. Or saying that if a politician you don't like says "God Bless America", then any politician who says that is terrible. But leaving aside Beck's incredibly stupid logic, the point he makes about "social justice" is in keeping with conservative ideology: it is all about a self-focused view of religion and politics that, like Beck's ideological hero Ayn Rand, proclaims selfishness as the ultimate virtue.

Conservative Christians manage to ignore the literally many hundreds of Biblical quotes about social justice by making Christianity a religion solely focused on one very selfish goal: whether they get into heaven or not. That's it, that is the entire goal and purpose and meaning of their faith. And because St. Paul argued that faith is more important than "works" (what you do good in the world), they think that believing a certain doctrine is the only thing that matters in terms of whether you make it into heaven or not. Since everything is about getting themselves to heaven, and the Earth will be destroyed soon in Armageddon anyway, nothing that happens here matters very much. The one thing that matters to their God is having more people worship Him, so they try to convert people, but all that other stuff Jesus and the Old Testament prophets and Moses and James and all those other folks in the Bible talked about in terms of kindness, mercy, forgiving debts, being your brother's keeper, helping the poor, and all that other liberal socialistic stuff just isn't much of a priority to them compared to: me getting to heaven, and (second most important) converting others to my God. These so-called "Christian" conservatives live in a state of paranoia that somewhere, somehow some dollar of their taxes might go to some undeserving poor person, ignoring the fact that Jesus' entire ministry was targeted to the "undeserving" poor.

Not all Christians think this way, of course. There is another kind of thinking about the Christian faith: one that actually takes what's written in the Bible (beyond the Book of Revelations) seriously. The Jewish Torah (for Christians, that's their Old Testament) and the Christian New Testament have a wide variety of ideas and voices in their pages. Written by scores of authors over a span of probably a couple thousand years, one of the things I love about the Bible is the wide range of beliefs and perspectives within it. A lot of fundamentalists are desperate to find ways to explain away the contradictions in the Bible, because they believe every word is inspired by God and it's all literally true, but in fact the authors of the Bible disagree on both the details of what actually happened and the interpretation and philosophy behind the events they write about. If you take the Bible seriously, you see the debates and differing perspectives. Some Biblical writers were more conservative in their thinking, and some were more progressive. But the most consistent and enduring theme that runs through virtually every book in the Bible is that we are expected to love and be kind to our neighbors, especially the poor, hurting, and oppressed of the earth.

From the God of Genesis punishing Cain for not being his brother's keeper to Nathan the prophet rebuking King David for taking from the poor; from the Psalms that over and over proclaim the need to help the poor, and condemn those who judges, government officials, and wealthy people who mistreat them, from the prophets like Isaiah and Amos who deride those who engage in ritual sacrifice while refusing to help the oppressed (Isaiah I: "Cease to do evil. Learn to do good, search for justice, help the oppressed, be just to the orphan, plead for the widow.") to Jesus very first sermon proclaiming that he had come to "bring good news to the poor" and "liberty to the captives"- virtually every book of the Bible demands justice and mercy and community.

People who take the Bible seriously and respect its words, as opposed to being obsessed with whether they personally will get into heaven by following a certain kind of dogma, understand that community and compassion are in fact far more central to it than any specific metaphysical belief system. And that is what the Pat Robertsons, Glenn Becks, Sarah Palins, and the other false prophets of conservatism don't understand.