Sunday, April 5, 2009

Retreat of the Religous Right?

Following a lead from Liberal Values, I read an article in the Washington Post written by Kathleen Parker entitled “Is a New Generation of Christians Finished with Politics?” Partly because I hope the answer is a resounding ‘YES!’ I am interested in what Parker describes as a “generational shift” in the Christian Right’s attitude towards political activism to advance ‘Christian values.’

According to Parker, younger Christian fundamentalists believe their elders have compromised those values for a place in the political limelight – specifically within the Republican Party. These younger folks, and some older ones such as Cal Thomas, argue that “the heart of Christianity is in the home, not the halls of Congress or even the courts. And the route to a more moral America is through good works — service, prayer and education — not political lobbying.”

Indeed, Parker notes that James Dobson, former head of Focus on the Family, recently acknowledged that the cultural battles near and dear to the hearts of his followers have been lost. Thus, the compromise of principles has been for naught, in the eyes of many. She quotes Thomas as saying, “If people who call themselves Christians want to see any influence in the culture, then they ought to start following the commands of Jesus[,] and people will be so amazed that they will be attracted to Him. The problem isn’t political. The problem is moral and spiritual.”

I want to be honest, here: I am glad to hear this news largely because I am tired of the culture wars and particularly of the Christian Right’s prominent place in U.S. politics in recent years. While having a conversation with students after a class this past week, I realized that they cannot remember a time when politics, especially at the national level, was not permeated with religious language and religious ‘issues.’ The possibility of someone’s running for the Presidency and not flaunting his/her religious bona fides is utterly foreign to my students. That Americans have not always been politically preoccupied with school prayer, creationism, abortion, and same-sex marriage fascinates them. I, myself, can hardly remember what we used to discuss and dispute. Guns and butter, I guess.

Yes, I would like to get this stuff off the main page of our public life. And I would be very happy if our state and national coffers were no longer tapped to adjudicate the newest effort to undermine science education or to slip prayer-by-another-name into every school and public event. I would be thrilled to never again see Republican politicians and elected officials cravenly pander to the Christian Right; we might have a two-party system which offers us a choice worthy of serious reflection. Holy cow, we might hear no more of the Palin Family Circus!

But, I have other reasons for hoping this reported retreat from politics by the Religious Right is accurate.

One is based on a certain –brace yourselves – respect for religious faith. I’m a complete non-theist and not even vaguely ‘spiritual;’ nonetheless, I recognize that faith plays a profound role in the lives of many people. Further, for all the historical horrors we can trace to religious fervor, faith has also played a moderating role – even a civilizing one. Our increasingly secular world [parts of it] is an historical anomaly, and we have yet to see how it will all work out. My own guess is that it will be an improvement, but I still appreciate the place of faith in individual lives.

Thus, I have been sorry to see people of faith in this country falling over backwards to de-exceptionalize religiosity. I do not mean [here] what I regard as the vulgar tendency towards bumper-sticker religion. Rather, I have in mind the desperate efforts to substitute ‘moments of silence’ for prayer, to have religious monuments approved for public display on the grounds that they are merely historical artifacts or pretty decorations, and in general to deny that religious views are different in kind from non-religious comprehensive views. For whatever’s-sake, if you want to pray, then pray and be happy to do it where it is appropriate. If you want to keep the deep meaning of your monuments, let them be removed from public parks and playgrounds. And if you live in this country and feel you are excluded from public discourse because of your faith, do not argue for entry by claiming that evolutionary theory and atheism are just other religions.

My other reason for hoping that religion will gracefully back away from the public stage is personal, but equally grounded in respect for perspectives other than my own. I am afraid that I am becoming what I have previously derided as militantly atheistic, even anti-religionist. I’m going to be blunt: the ugliness, intolerance, and prejudice that have been prominently displayed by many on the Christian Right in recent years is turning me into an intolerant and prejudiced person; ugliness may yet be lurking in the depths of my psyche. I do not want to become such a person.

That I find myself resenting those whose discourse and political influence ‘make’ me feel intolerant is not helping. It has been a cumulative effect, and I have only recently become aware of it. No doubt, the rise of militant Islam is a factor, as I watch the world become infected with the same kind of religious antipathies that characterized – and haunted - Europe for centuries. But it is what has been happening here, in my country, that has most affected me.

So, please, young Christian fundamentalists, keep your faith and let us share our nation – if not for the sake of my soul, then for your own.

Photograph from The Reading Eagle

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