Friday, March 03, 2006

The Question of the Christians

In a recent article I penned for The Carleton Progressive, I lauded Kansas Senator and staunch evangelical Sam Brownback for his aggressive stance on Darfur and North Korean human rights, and urged Democrats, on these issues at least, to "Be Like Sam." That article followed up on a prior blog post, in which I wrote that "If being a hard-right Christian Conservative makes you more likely to support a Darfur intervention, then I can't bring myself to indict the whole movement." But of course, on other issues, such as homosexuality, the Christian right is a massive barrier to progress and human decency. So the question is: what to make of the Christian Rights flirtations with progressivism?

In what appears to be a chance coincidence, two of my favorite commentators have written up thoughts on the matter today. First, Alan Stewart Carl argues in the same vein as my own aforementioned pieces. He notes that on some of history's most pressing moral claims (slavery, woman's suffrage, and civil rights, to name some), Christians and other religious actors have been on the front lines for progress. Remember, he's not just Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he's the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. Carl ties this in with the evangelical movements laudable support for Darfur intervention, condemnation of human rights abuses, and focus on the AIDS crisis in Africa. As a result, Carl condemns the reflexive anti-religious sentiment present in some corners of the secular left. And I'm hard pressed to disagree.

Another great recent example of religious faith being used for stellar moral ends (albeit in this case Catholicism, not Evangelicalism) was shown in a recent New York Times editorial on illegal immigration. Congress is thinking of passing a law that would greatly expand the definition of "alien smuggling" to include nearly any humanitarian acts of charity--caring for a neighbors baby, or working in a soup kitchen that serves illegals. In response, the Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony, issued a very simple response. If the bill passes, Catholics should defy it. Good old fashioned civil disobedience to an unjust law. How can we critique this?

On the other hand, Michelle Cottle's article in The New Republic today raises fair points of its own. Every few weeks, it seems, an article comes out in the mainstream press about how the religious right is going to step beyond its traditional focus on sex, sex, and sex, and start aggressively advocating for other Christian priorities as well. You know, those little things like environmental stewardship, caring for the poor, and ending racism. But, while they may genuinely believe in these values as well, their faith without deeds is meaningless. And at the end of the day, there are few to no deeds to go along with the words of mainstream evangelical groups.

Cottle gives the example of the latest evangelical effort to start focusing on global warming. In what seemed like a auspicious start, the Evangelical Climate Initiative quickly received a major grant from the (secular) Hewlett Foundation. The problem is that Hewlett also funds some family planning efforts. Theoretically, this "problem" isn't one, as environmental justice and contraception are clearly severable issues. But alas, the evangelical hard right went up in arms anyway, wondering--in what can only be described as paranoid delusions--if Hewlett's grant wasn't actually just a closet effort to fund more abortions. Aside from the question of how (and why) one would choose a global warming initiative to enact pro-choice policies, if one was to take that--shall we say, indirect?--route toward the end, why would one fund an unabashedly pro-life organization to do it? Alas, such protests fell on deaf ears. When it turned out that an evangelical film by an evangelical company starred a gay actor--same thing. No more focus on the uplifting message of the movie, or how it showed evangelicalism in a good light. All of that is swept aside to the tune of "no-promo-homo." In general, the organizations themselves, even as they pay lip service to other ideals, have and are maintaining a laser-like focus on a few conservative wedge issues.

The net result is that individual conservative Christians can--and, as Brownback shows, do--look past the "sexy" issues to advocate on human rights. But as an organized political entity, any proposal that doesn't relate to abortion, gay marriage, and abstinence is just spinning its wheels. To make one more Catholic analogy, consider efforts by Catholic legal scholars to take a more condemnatory stand on Bush's torture policy. Surely, this is a pretty clear violation of Catholic doctrine? And sure enough, Princeton Professor Robert George (one of most prominent right-wing religious Catholics--he's affiliated with The Family Research Council) announced he was game--if his fellows would group the announcement as part of a general "ringing affirmation of the Church's teachings on torture, capital punishment, abortion, and marriage and sexual morality." To which Eduardo Penalver, another Catholic legal theorist, responded:
I'm all for taking on sacred cows, but I don't understand the inability of many conservatives to simply acknowledge the evil of this administration's policies with respect to torture without bringing up abortion.

Prof. George would surely admit that the multiplication of issues he proposes would needlessly dilute the force of the truth he welcomes speaking to this administration about the evils of its torture policies. So I have a somewhat different invitation, which I offer as a friendly amendment: Why don't we sign a joint statement (now) condemning in the strongest possible terms the torture practiced by this administration (which was, after all, the topic of Michael's post), and when Democrats control ANY branch of the government or have any appreciable influence on national abortion policy, we can sign a joint statement about abortion?

As far as I can tell, the proposal has now stalled out.

So where does that leave us? The net result is that Christian values can, and often are, a source of support for progressive policies and forces around the world. That can't be ignored. Thus, anybody who condemns religion--even the very religious--solely on the basis of it being religious is wrong. Clearly, unambiguously, inarguably wrong. But the recent history of the evangelical and Christian right movement has shown pretty convincingly that they will not, as full political organizations, expand beyond their meat-and-potatoes "sex" issues to join hands with progressives on any major scale. I'm thrilled that many evangelicals support a Darfur intervention. But can you imagine what our nation's policy toward Sudan would be if they put even a quarter of the effort they put into barring all abortions into stopping all genocide? The ideals are there. The institutional will is missing. That's the bottom line.

2 comments:

nobody.really said...

Ironically, I understand that the origins of fundamentalist/ evangelical Christianity in America (1870-1925) were very much bound up with progressive concerns for the poor and immigrants. But the Scopes Monkey Trial signalled a breech between secular progressives (symbolized by Darrow) and religious progressives (symbolized by Bryant) that never mended. Resentments lurked until Nixon's "Southern Strategy" pandered to the alleged grievences of whites, starting the Republican Party's march through the South.

Of course, there are plenty of progressive Christians; they just aren't as politically potent as the other kind. But let's not marginalize them.

jack said...

I'd echo the above comment. We should remember that the current incarnation of right-wing evangelism is, historically speaking, utterly fucked up. Nothing like it has ever existed in the past. The movement has essentially ended up being a proxy for traditional corporate forces trying to maintain their hold on power: thus the (darkly) miraculous achievement of getting millions of people to vote only on cultural issue again and again while the party getting those votes does nothing to address the cultural grievances and does everything to undermine the economic welbeing of the people that put them there.

The fact that progressivism slips out now and then from underneath the Christian evangelist movement is a testament to the underlying values of Christianity more than the present incarnation of the system. When Fundamentalists attack genocide and global warming we're seeing the (excuse the rhetoric) "natural" state of Christianity in this country.