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The Christian Right in Context, Part 4: The Obama Years

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The election of Barack Obama in 2008 as the nation's first African American president suggests that the Christian Right -- at least as defined and shaped by leaders like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, D. James Kennedy, Paul Weyrich and James Dobson -- was falling into disarray.

Contributing to that disarray were the deaths of Falwell and Kennedy, both in 2007, coupled with the often bizarre statements of Pat Robertson that made both him and the Christian Right something of a laughing stock in the larger public square.

Seeds of the American Crisis

It seems clear, however, that following Obama's election, the Christian Right still exerts power by supporting and merging with other explicitly Christian organizations like Values Voters USA or with less explicitly Christian organizations like the Tea Party.

People like Sarah Palin, a devout fundamentalist Christian, and Glenn Beck, a Mormon, now give the marching orders to the great army of the faithful that would still identify with the concerns of the Christian Right.

It may seem strange to many that Glenn Beck would emerge as a leader of the Christian Right since, after all, he belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a tradition many conservative Christians view as a non-Christian cult.

But at his "Restoring Honor" rally on August 27, Beck preached to a crowd dominated by conservative Christians, and his message was the traditional, standard fare for the Religious Right: America can survive and prosper only if it returns to God and to traditional religion. As Beck put it, Americans must go to "God's boot camp."

Including a rendition of the honored Christian hymn, "Amazing Grace," the rally both began and ended with prayer. Most agreed it was "like a big revival," and few if any of the conservative Christians who participated questioned Beck's right to provide leadership for this new incarnation of the Christian Right.

If the leadership of the Christian Right is in transition, however, many of the strategies remain firmly in place. And in its attempt to shape the soul of the nation, the most important strategy on which the Christian Right has relied -- and continues to rely -- is falsehood and misrepresentation.

The seeds of the current American crisis, as I indicated earlier in this essay, lie in the fact that the Christian Right has convinced so many Americans of the truth of the falsehoods it proclaims. For when the possibility exists that the religious "glue" that provides a nation with its deepest meaning is defined by misrepresentations and falsehoods, that nation is clearly in crisis. And that is the state of the Union today.

By using terms like "misrepresentations" and "falsehoods," my intent is not to accuse either the leaders or the rank and file or the Christian Right of blatantly lying, for there can be no doubt that most in that movement firmly believe the messages they preach. But the fact that they believe them does not make them true.

Nor is it my intent to attack Christian people. After all, I am a Christian as well.

But I do wish to hold the Christian Right accountable for its falsehoods and misrepresentations. For at two important levels, the message of the Christian Right is clearly deceptive: the way it portrays the Christian faith and the way it portrays the nation. And that is the truth that a nation in crisis must hear.

The Meaning of the Christian Faith

Paul Raushenbush, religion editor of the Huffington Post, helps us understand how the Christian Right so badly misreads the meaning of the Christian faith in an article that contrasted the most recent census data on poverty in the United States, released on Sept. 15, with the concerns that drove the Values Voter Summit that began just two days later. "According to data released ... from the Census Bureau," Raushenbush wrote, "one in seven Americans are living in poverty. This means that in 2009 a staggering 43.6 million people live in the degradation of food, health care and housing insecurity." Then, Raushenbush made the telling point:

With a startling lack of self awareness, the Values Voter Summit began their conference two days after the census report on poverty levels was released. However, poverty is not what concerns these "Values Voters." According to their website, their values instruct them to: "Protect Marriage • Champion Life • Strengthen the Military • Limit Government • Control Spending • Defend Our Freedoms."

Raushenbush pointed out that Jesus' values "don't include strengthening the military." Nor do they include limiting government, controlling government spending or defending our freedoms. Instead, as Raushenbush correctly notes, there is nothing that dominates Jesus teaching more than justice for the poor, a concern embodied in Jesus' vision of "the kingdom of God."

Time and again, Jesus hammered that vision home. Indeed, that phrase -- "kingdom of God" -- appears in the New Testament more than 100 times, and in almost every instance, the context deals with clothing the naked, feeding the hungry and caring for people impoverished by the self-indulgent policies of the empires and nations of this earth.

In his book, God's Politics, Jim Wallis tells about an experiment he and some seminary friends performed on the Bible. With a pair of scissors, they literally cut from the Bible the several thousand verses that side with the poor and demand that God's followers extend justice to people who suffer from want, hunger and other forms of economic oppression. What was left was a mere fragment, only a shadow of the full biblical text.

But those are precisely the points that the Values Voters -- and indeed, the entire Christian Right -- fail to understand. And so, even though those voters claim they wish to inject the values of Christianity into American politics, the most prominent social value in the biblical text, concern for the poor, is essentially off their radar screen.

For that reason, the "Christian America" vision pushed by the Christian Right stands in stark contrast with the biblical vision of the kingdom of God, a point I elaborate at length in my book, Christian America and the Kingdom of God.

If we were to graph the concern for social justice -- or the lack thereof -- on the part of the major movements that have sought to Christianize the United States over the course of American history, the graph would reveal a steady trend downward.

The Second Great Awakening understood and embraced the biblical demand for social justice.

The Fundamentalist Movement ignored that demand.

The Christian Right, in its first incarnation, rejected that demand in practice.

And the Christian Right in its most recent incarnation has rejected that demand both in practice and in theory.

Thus, Glenn Beck claimed on March 11 that the terms "social justice" and "economic justice" are code words for Naziism and Communism. He therefore advised the faithful to "run as fast as you can" if you find those terms "on your church website," and "if you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish."

Here we find exhibit "A" of the kinds of falsehoods and misrepresentations that have become standard fare for the Christian Right.

But the faithful believe those falsehoods nonetheless, something underscored by the fact that the faithful showed up by the thousands for Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally.

They showed up, not to hear a sermon on social justice, but to hear a sermon on why America should embrace a god who is indifferent to social justice. But by biblical standards, that would be no god at all.

They showed up, even though Beck cynically held his rally on ground hallowed by Martin Luther King's March on Washington in 1963, a rally that focused squarely on the need for social justice in America, and by King's speech on social justice that moved the heart of a nation.

They showed up, even though Beck promoted his rally with the cynical claim that he and his followers would "reclaim the civil rights movement" because "we are on the right side of history. We are on the side of individual freedoms and liberties and damn it, we will reclaim the civil rights moment. We will take that movement, because we were the people that did it in the first place!"

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Leonard Pitts called this pronouncement "worse than nonsensical, worse than mendacious, worse than shameless. It is obscene. It is theft of legacy. It is robbery of martyr's graves."

Beck essentially laid hands on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., a legacy that had everything to do with social justice for the poor, and eviscerated that legacy of any concern, any consideration and any compassion for the poor at all.

And that is the worst kind of falsehood, since it is the kind of falsehood that perpetuates hunger, nakedness and homelessness among the poor, even though it cloaks itself in the guise of the Christian faith.

Beck's is the kind of falsehood that prompted the ancient Hebrew prophet Isaiah (5:20) to render this judgment on people whose values were very much like Beck's: "Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter."

But there is more, for Beck's is the kind of falsehood that is robbing this nation of its historic sense of meaning.

It is the kind of falsehood that is dissolving the mortar that has bound this nation together for more than 200 years.

It is the kind of falsehood that is killing the nation's soul.

And for all those reasons, it is a falsehood that must be named and exposed for what it is.

The Meaning of America

Not only does the Christian Right misrepresent the meaning of the Christian faith, it also misrepresents the meaning of America.

It does this when it falsely claims that the American Founders intended to create a Christian nation.

It does this when it rejects the fact that religious pluralism was central to the Founders' vision.

It does this when it falsely claims that the doctrine of separation of church and state is a fabrication designed by latter-day secularists to obscure the Founders' real intent of creating a Christian nation.

And it does this when it falsely claims that even if the Founders might have intended to separate church and state, they did so chiefly for the good of the church, not for the good of the state.

The fact is, the Founders consistently directed their passion toward the common good, toward the public square and toward the welfare of all Americans, not toward the welfare of a special segment of the American public, even if that segment happened to be Christian and even if it happened to be the majority.

If one wants examples of the distortions I've mentioned here, one need look no further than the books produced by David Barton, the "historian" who serves the special interests of the Religious Right, especially his books, The Myth of Separation (1992) and Separation of Church and State: What the Founders Meant (2007).

If one doubts Barton's influence in the public square, consider that the Republican Party in Texas elected Barton its vice-chair in 1997. Then, in 2004, that same Party officially rejected church/state separation and affirmed in its platform that the United States is "a Christian nation."

A year later, Texas Governor Rick Perry praised Barton as "a truly national treasure" who "understands that America was founded on our Christian faith."

More recently, Barton was among the "experts" who advised the Texas Board of Education on how best to "Christianize" the history of the United States in the textbooks that are used to teach our children throughout this nation.

I understand that the root concern of the Christian Right is to remind Americans that belief in the Deity and a strong affirmation of religiously sustained morality were central to this nation during the Founding generation. In making that point, they could not be more on target.

But when the Christian Right seeks to translate the Founders' belief in God into exclusively Christian terms, when they claim that the Founders sought to create an exclusively Christian America, when they distort the meaning of the Christian faith and then, based on that distortion, seek to rewrite the history of the United States in Christian terms and to present those distortions to America's children, they have overstepped their bounds and waded into the murky waters of falsehood, misrepresentation and sometimes deliberate lies.

The Most Tragic Dimension of All

But the worst part of the legacy of the Christian Right is the way that movement has helped to shrivel the nation's soul.

Many years ago, Paul Tillich reminded us that any given religion is viable only to the extent that it breaks through its own particularities.

What Tillich meant, I am convinced, is that a religion serves the human family well only when its adherents place the welfare of people above the welfare of the religion itself -- a point routinely made by Jesus himself.

But when religious people place defense of the religion, its ideologies and its orthodoxies above service to people, that religion turns in upon itself and thereby risks losing its soul.

As we have seen in this four-part series of articles, that transformation stands at the heart of the history of the Christian Right, beginning with the birth of the Fundamentalist Movement in the early 20th century.

What makes that transformation doubly tragic is the fact that the Christian Right, by dominating the religious side of the nation's public square for a full quarter-century -- from 1980 to 2005 -- encouraged the nation to do what the Christian Right had already done: to turn in upon itself.

Tillich's famous comment that religion is the substance of culture while culture is the form of religion, sheds great light on this issue, for the Christian Right had become in many respects the substance of American culture by 2001.

Clearly, not all Americans adhered to the Christian Right, and many resisted that movement. But to the extent that the Christian Right, by 2001, dominated the nation's religious broadcasting, the nation's religious publishing, the nation's Christian population and even the American Congress, it is safe to conclude that the values embraced by the Christian Right had become in many respects the substance of American culture.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that by 2001, the nation would respond to a crisis in exactly the way the Christian Right recommended. Through its preoccupation with enemies, both real and imagined, the nation turned in upon itself. And the more it turned in upon itself, the more it lost the authentic meaning of the American experiment.

In that way, the Christian Right helped diminish the nation's soul.

Since 2001, we have seen evidence of America's diminished soul on almost every hand.

We witnessed it, first, in the way this nation responded to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that virtually everyone views as hateful, reprehensible and wholly without justification.

Still and all, those attacks offered the United States an opportunity to do what America has always done best: to help create an entirely new world order by sowing seeds of friendship instead of seeds of hate; by building alliances and forging bonds of reconciliation; and by using its vast wealth to build schools, hire teachers and alleviate hunger, poverty, suffering and disease around the world.

But America, whose soul had been defined for some 25 years by the defensive posture of the Christian Right, did none of those things. Led by a president who had personally embraced the religious sensibilities of the Christian Right, America sought vengeance and retribution and went to war.

Now, almost 10 years after those horrendous attacks, the nation's tendency to turn in upon itself seems caught in a never-ending downward spiral.

We witness that downward spiral in the nation's commitment to fighting wars that drain the national treasury.

We witness that downward spiral in the irrational fear and hatred of Hispanic immigrants here at home.

We witness that downward spiral in the growing national phobia regarding Muslims.

We witness that downward spiral when popular pundits seriously suggest, as Anne Coulter did, that the United States "should invade their countries [Muslim nations], kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity" -- a sentiment that, at least in some quarters, now grows in popularity.

More recently, we have witnessed that downward spiral in the frequent claims that President Obama is a Muslim or a racist who hates white people.

And we have witnessed that downward spiral when Americans have tarnished the President of the United States with labels like "socialist," "Communist" and "Nazi" in response to his efforts to provide health care for the poorest of the poor.

To return once more to Robert Bellah's analysis immortalized in his important 1975 publication, The Broken Covenant, it is clear that America's "third time of crisis" began in the 1960s, a fact we noted in the first of this four-part series of articles.

But it is also clear that that "third time of crisis" is with us still, thanks in large part to the defensive and reactionary nature of the Christian Right.

This current crisis is at least as severe as any threat from Muslim terrorists. It is at least as severe as any threat from a flagging economy.

For this essentially religious crisis now threatens to dissolve the nation's spiritual core. And that is a threat this nation will ignore at its peril.

This article concludes the four-part series based on Richard Hughes' book, Christian America and the Kingdom of God (University of Illinois Press, 2009). Hughes is Distinguished Professor of Religion at Messiah College.

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