The Fragmentation of the Religious Right?
The New York Times has published a lengthy article called “The Evangelical Crack-Up” which you can read here. Thanks to Melissa Rogers for calling it to my attention. I have noted the trends outlined in that article before: Most of the prominent leaders of the Religious Right are either retiring or dying off; congregations are firing pastors who overly politicize their pulpits; younger evangelical leaders are returning to a broader moral agenda than just anti-abortion and anti-homosexuality–an agenda that includes concern for the poor, the environment, torture and human rights–and sometimes even opposition to war.
This fragmentation of the Religious Right comes at a time of resurgent militism among some atheists and secularists (e.g., the spate of bestselling books arguing that religious faith is the root of all that is wrong with the world), but also at a time of resurgence for the evangelical left and center, of resurgence for the broader Christian center and left, and of increasing religious pluralism. But the Religious Right has been counted dead and gone and its funeral held prematurely far too many times since 1980. In the late ’90s prominent members of the RR itself were pronouncing it dead–such as when political columnist Cal Thomas and fundamentalist pastor Ed DobsonI(no relation to psychologist and Focus on the Family founder, James Dobson),both founding members and prominent leaders of the Moral Majority. co-wrote Blinded By Might: Why the Religious Right Cannot Save America. The authors detailed the ways in which fundamentalist Protestantism had lost its soul by becoming an adjunct of the Republican Party and adopting the tactics of cutthroath politics. Dobson stood by what he said–dropping out of the Religious Right and concentrating on his pastorate–and on the poor. By contrast, Cal Thomas’ relapsed almost immediately–rallying the fundamentalist troops to support the presidential candidacy of George W. Bush and uncritically supporting him since then.
So, we have to approach the current disharmony in the Religious Right with caution. It is too soon to count the likes of James Dobson as a spent political force or to relegate fundamentalism to the cultural backwaters it occupied from the 1920s to the 1970s. It is FAR too early to pronounce the triumph of the Christian Left or even the Evangelical Left (much less an interfaith Religious Left) or even center. And the growth of the “angry atheists” like Hitchens and Dawkins could easily lead to a backlash that renews the Religious Right. Theocratic and Christian nationalist forces are still a significant force–and the current fragmentation may only last one presidential election cycle (or maybe not even that–many think that if Sen. Hillary Clinton becomes the Democratic Party nominee, she will reunite the Right against her–even if the GOP nominee is Rudy Guiliani)–as it did from ’96 to 2000.
Still, this current fragmentation DOES offer an opportunity for Christians and other persons of faith with a progressive agenda to change the political debate. There are many signs that this opportunity is not being wasted: I have highlighted before the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and its evangelical counterpart, Evangelicals for Human Rights. Now, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action is leading a group of U.S. evangelicals to pressure the U.S. to do more to support a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian crisis–rather than the uncritical support for Israel that is typical of many evangelicals. The “Green Christian” movement of “Creation Care” is growing rapidly.
It remains true that the majority of U.S. evangelicals would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned and/or elective abortions made illegal. My own stance of support for the legal right to abortions while working to eliminate the causes that lead women to seek abortions is controversial–as a perusal of the comments on this blog under abortion posts will show. Mega-church pastor Rick Warren’s invitation for Sen. Barack Obama, known to be pro-choice, to join his conference on ways to combat the AIDS pandemic was widely criticized by other white evangelical leaders. It is also true that the majority of U.S. evangelicals continue to believe that sexual orientation is a choice, not a given, and to believe that all same-sex behavior is immoral. Again, my welcoming and affirming stance is not widely shared–not even by progressive evangelicals such as Ron Sider or Jim Wallis.
But the message that Sider and Wallis have been shouting for years–that abortion and “homosexuality” are not the only moral issues worth addressing, seems finally to be falling on fertile ground. I find that to be very hopeful.
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