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Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Inside the "Religious Right"

Faithful Progressive left me a very nice comment last week regarding a post I wrote about his characterization of the "Religious Right". I very much appreciate his desire for good dialogue rather than the typical stupid attacks back and forth that often happen with those of differing viewpoints. Fortunately we have a common bond as brothers in Christ that transcends any political viewpoints.

"Thank you for your thoughtful comments, I have posted them on my site. At some point I hope to answer them. "- FP

"I would also appreciate your thoughts on my continuing series on the Christian Right and the Enlightenment--there is no one bogeyman, but there are many Christian extremists on the right."- FP
FP wrote this post encouraging others to have this kind of dialogue.

I would like to give some perspective on the "Religious Right" for FP and any of his readers that might care. I have found that few people really understand the "Religious Right" or even try to.

I am sure that I am going to open myself up for some criticism of my past experiences but they are what they are and I want to be as honest as possible. I am probably as qualified as any to give an analysis of the "Religious Right".

I grew up in a Christian home in the South (although Atlanta is a tad different than much of the South). So I was immersed in the Christian "subculture" from an early age.

Robertson for President
Sometime in high school I become very interested in politics. This interest led me to start working on political campaigns and even attending schools on how to run campaigns. I ended up working on paid staff for Pat Robertson when he ran for president in 1988. Additionally, I worked for Congressman John Linder and former Congressman Pat Swindall, along with various local candidates.

Now that I have your attention with the mention of Robertson, let me give a perspective on that campaign. That campaign probably did more to bring evangelical Christians into politics than anything else in the past century. There were many discussions at that time as to whether Christians should be involved in politics at all. Most supporters and campaign workers were wonderful people who would be shocked to be called extremists. These people were valuable members of the community who probably volunteered in soup kitchens and homeless shelters far more than the average person.

The Robertson campaign had a huge effect on the Republican party that is still evident today. Prior to 1988, the Republican party was not particularly conservative on social issues. This all changed with the Robertson campaign using a grassroots effort to take over much of the Republican party apparatus at the local level. One of the results of this change isn't so much that the Republican party has become beholden to evangelicals, but that the tent is much wider now that it was pre-1988.

I also became very involved in the pro-life movement at this time. This involvement started by picketing local abortion clinics in Atlanta. Contrary to most impressions of picketing, I rarely if ever saw people yell or harass women going to these abortion clinics. We were usually silent and prayed. Many people that I knew in the pro-life movement felt strongly enough about their beliefs that they often adopted children.

Operation Rescue
Sometime in 1988, these two movements (the Robertson campaigns and the growing pro-life movement) started to attract people with more extreme ideas. I'm sure that some would say that Robertson himself was rather extreme but I will address that later. The biggest outgrowth of extremism was the arrival of Operation Rescue.

For those who don't remember (or are too young to remember), Operation Rescue was a pro-life group that felt that picketing wasn't accomplishing enough. Their goal was to physically block entrance into abortion clinics. Throughout the summer of 1988, Operation Rescue blocked access at many abortion clinics in Atlanta, resulting in the arrest of hundreds. These protests made national news and heightened tensions around an already polarized issue.

I ended up becoming quite involved in Operation Rescue to the point that the primary leaders of the organization lived with my family for most of the summer. I was at most of the protests in Atlanta, though at my parents request, I never actively participated to the point of being arrested. Regardless of your opinion on the issue, you can imagine how exciting all of this was to a teenager.

"Possession of Christian material"
The third event that put me deep into the "Religious Right" was a strange little episode my senior year in high school. To make a long story short, I was involved in a group called Fellowship of Christian Athletes. My brother and one of my best friends were suspended from school and I was threatened with expulsion for "possession of Christian material" at school. I know this sounds ridiculous, but those are the exact words that the assistant principal at my school wrote on the discipline note.

By chance, we happened to go to the same church as renowed Christian attorney, Jay Sekulow. I hate even including Jay in this discussion, because Jay is one of the nicest people I know and the furthest thing from an extremist. At the time Jay was proceeding with a similar case that went before the Supreme Court (the Mergens case) but he was very interested in our case. The resulting media storm was unbelievable (and quite fun to be quite honest). Within a short time of this incident, our story was being told on the 700 Club on a daily basis. Shortly after, our family was flown to California to be on Jay's television program broadcast by TBN.

Christian Coalition
The culimination of this event involved my brother and I being invited to be the keynote speakers at the very first meeting of the Christian Coalition in Washington DC. The list of people in attendance that day would be like the 1990 version of the Time's list of 25 influential evangelicals that just came out. The list included Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Chuck Colson, Ralph Reed, Gary Bauer, D. James Kennedy, Charles Stanley, James Dobson, and I'm sure a few others I forgot. Not only did I speak to this group, but I got to sit down and chat with each of them over lunch. Pretty amazing for a high school senior. Over the years I kept in touch with some of these people, including Gary Bauer who gave me financial support for a missions trip.

Off to college
Shortly after these events, I graduated from high school and headed off for college. I had decided years before that I was going to study political science, go to law school, become an attorney, and then become a Congressman. Things started off well. I was even elected president of College Republicans my freshman year. But then a funny thing happened.

I started listening to God.

I started realizing that laws do not change people's hearts. Probably the biggest realization I had involved the issue of abortion. I started understanding that even if the pro-life movement got their wish of making abortion illegal, abortions would still happen. I realized that the only way that there would be less abortions would be for people's hearts and minds to change.

I realized that politics could not heal this world of evil. As a result, I swore off politics completely.

Mea Culpa
Even though I have not been actively involved in politics for almost 15 years, I have given a lot of thought as to how Christians should or should not involve themselves in politics. Looking back, I am quite embarassed about many of the groups I was involved in. I would never in a million years endorse the actions of an extremist group like Operation Rescue again. I think that it could easily be argued that Operation Rescue and some of its affiliated groups are domestic terrorists. Fortunately, most of the pro-life movement has rejected Operation Rescue. I also have very little in common politically with someone like Pat Robertson.

Many of the "leaders" of the "Religious Right" do indeed hold rather extreme views. I put leaders in quotes because I really question how many evangelical Christians view these people in the same light as they once did. Many Christians I know wince at the mention of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. When I hear someone like Jerry Falwell say that Tinky Winky is gay, I am concerned that instead of being "fools for Christ", sometimes we are simply fools.

I personally feel that this is a theological problem caused by years of preaching moralism as opposed to the Gospel. My life is a perfect example. I used to think that I had to do the right things (don't drink, don't smoke, don't have premarital sex, go to church every Sunday, etc) in order to have God's approval. I have realized over time that this view is the antithesis of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and that nothing I ever do will cause God to love me any more than He already does.

Current Landscape
My church is probably a good example of how there isn't a "Religious Right" monolith. My church would certainly be considered theologically conservative. We believe that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. However, our pastor often talks about our church being "purple". There are certainly plenty of members who tend to vote Republican. Yet there are also many Democrats, including someone who works for the state Democratic party. As far as I can remember, our pastor has rarely mentioned abortion, never talks about homosexuality, and refrains from talking politics from the pulpit. Many people in our chuch volunteer weekly at area soup kitchens and some members have moved into the inner city to help low-income families. We have also had Sunday School lessons on the environment and how Christians have a responsibility to be good stewards of the earth. My church is not an exception either.

I also think that the "Religious Right" as some know it is on the decline for a number of reasons. I think that much of the movement has been led by Baby Boomers and older that have a nostalgia for a golden age that wasn't. As a new generation of evangelicals moves into positions of influence, this vision is slowly fading away. Most evangelicals I know under 40 (and some over) recognize that America is not God's favored nation and that government is not the way to bring about God's Kingdom on earth.

People often point to the theonomy movement as proof that evangelicals want to impose Christianity upon all of America. However, most evangelicals have pretty major differences with the theology of theonimists such as R.J. Rushdoony, Gary North, or Greg Bahnson and view them as very much on the fringe. I would argue that the theonomist have little if any influence upon politics in America or evangelicals as a whole.

Personally, I have some pretty major differences from what would be viewed as the Religious Right political agenda:

  • I am opposed to prayer in schools. I can also guarantee that if there were prayers in school, it wouldn't be a prayer I would agree with.
  • I am somewhere between ambivalent and opposed to the Federal Marriage Amendment
  • I am opposed to efforts to ban smoking.
  • I am very interested in protecting the welfare of animals.
  • I am opposed to bans on shipping alcohol across state lines.

I'm certainly not the only Christian with conservative political leanings who differs from the "Religious Right" platform. Most of my Christian friends feel similarly on these issues.

When I was younger I would have argued vehemently that various conservative ideals were TRUE. Now I believe them to be true. Catch the difference. I would die for the fact that Jesus truly died and was resurrected. However, I am open to the possibility that I am wrong about political issues.

I'm sure that many will be disappointed that I didn't share more "dirt" or make this account "sexier". Even though I believe many of the leaders of the "Religious Right" to be wrong about many political issues, I will not impugn their characters or doubt their motives. I have certainly been wrong about many things in my life and I'm sure I will continue to be so. I am starting to embrace this lessening of certainty by looking to God.

I'm hoping that this post will do a bit to dispell some of the common misconceptions of the "Religious Right". I'm tired of reading such misinformed crazy talk about the "Religious Right".

I welcome any and all comments and dialog.

Update: Big thanks to James Taranto at Best of the Web for linking to me!

Update: I have recently written a post answering some of the questions that people have had about this article.