5 October 2006

a long post where I out myself as a “liberal” but also criticize the rhetoric of the Christian left

Posted in children hug his neck unaware of their inheritance at 10:29 am by indecisive79

I recently received an e-mail from DC that asked me what I thought of the Red Letter Christians. I thought it would be worthwhile to respond on this site rather than merely by private e-mail. So here it goes.

Let me begin by saying that for a number of years now I have deplored the fact that faith and politics have been so aligned in public perception such that one party is seen as the natural and only possible home for Christians, a party that is interested in “returning” America to it’s “founding principles” of having government rooted in their very narrowly defined version of Christianity (newsflash: the founding fathers weren’t uniformly Christian, and they intentionally formed the US as a secular state to get away from the huge problems Europe was having with established state churches), a party that promotes “values” but for the most part mean only two issues (you know what they are), issues that they really only talk about and make pitiful attempts to legislate on if there’s an election within a few months (yes, wasting time voting on a constitional amendment that everyone knows will fail, again, is a suppreme waste of time from a legislative point of view, and only has meaning by identifying those in Congress who supposedly “hate family values,” which everyone already knew anyway). So it delights me to no end (note: I don’t delight to see negative consequences listed here; I delight that they’ve been finally opened up to public scrutiny for all to view) to see the wheels coming off the Grand Old Party: former House majority leader Delay resigned because of mounting ethics charges, former Illinois governor George Ryan getting 6.5 years in jail for corruption in office, a number of congressmen have been implicated in basically bribe-for-vote scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, federal spending by the supposedly “small government” party is way out of control thanks in large part to misguided tax cuts for the rich and poorly-planned war that has no end in sight, a recent CIA report indicates that they have evidence that future problems with terrorism will actually be much worse b/c of the recruiting and training ground known as the Iraq War (isn’t that quite the “Mission Accomplished”…?), Bush has recently pushed through the Senate (even with the support of former Vietnam POW John McCain) a bill that basically says he can torture anyone suspected of being a terrorist (even if they are ultimately innocent) as long as we don’t use the word “torture,” Bob Woodward just published a book that details infighting throughout the White House staff, with reasonable and respected voices like Colin Powell being shut out by warmongers like Rumsfeld, and the most recent scandal involves a congressman who resigned when it became known that he had sent sexually explicit messages to a page, followed by revelations that the House leadership, including Speaker Hastert, knew about the issue at least months if not years ago and decided to do little about it because it might hurt them politically (how long will it be before one of the religious right’s rhetorical shock troops (i.e., Robertson, Falwell, or Dobson) claim that this scandal proves that gays are pedophiles (which is complete rubbish) while ignoring the use of sex in the abuse of power on a scale worse (b/c the pages were minors) than Clinton-Lewinsky? I give it about 48 hours.).

(yes, that paragraph was two sentences long)

The current leaders of the Republican party have been revealed to be rotten-to-the-core hypocrites who are willing to use the language of faith to gain votes but whose main concern has been amassing their own wealth and power. Yes, there are certainly exceptions to this tendency, but even those exceptions have usually been cowed into silence, unable to criticize their party for fear of losing party privileges/seniority. The biggest tragedy in all of this is that there are millions of good moral people who have been convinced that this party works for their interests in promoting their deeply held moral beliefs, but evidence that they do so (rather than merely talk about doing so) is thin indeed. I’d speculate that the cause of this long record of hypocrisy is in part that there has been no one to keep them in check, to make sure that their political choices line up with their faith; if Reps are “God’s Own Party,” and if Dems aren’t associated with God at all, then no matter what they do the Reps will still be the party of Christians.

Bothered by this trend for a long time, Jim Wallis has been using his magazine Sojourners to try to change the conversation about faith and politics so that Christianity and moral values are no longer viewed as the exclusive property of Republicans. In 2004, they spearheaded the campaign “God is not a Republican … or a Democrat” to try to show people how legitimate Christian faith can also lead to political positions on the liberal side of the spectrum. They aren’t pacifist (I believe Wallis supported the war in Afghanistan), but they have argued against both the justification for and the abuses in the Iraq War from the start. Wallis has also tried to expand people’s views of what counts as a moral issue by saying that “Budgets are moral documents,” that we can see what a nation truly values by what they spend their money on. Wallis has also argued that the way to actually lower the number of abortions is not to pack the Supreme Court but to fix the root cause of a majority of them, poverty; abortion rates have gone up during Bush’s administration (after declining during Clinton’s) largely because poverty rates have increased.

I generally like what Jim Wallis has done. It is true that he often depicts himself as nonpartisan while basically backing a slate of issues that can be generally described as “liberal.” I usually don’t see this as that bad of a thing, primarily b/c there are so many organizations out there who imply that Christians are sinning if they don’t vote Republican; Wallis and Sojourners provide a bit of a ballast, and his growing popularity is a sign that his message resonates with a large number of disaffected Christians like myself. But I have a problem with this new group he’s starting called Red Letter Christians, and not only because I’ve never liked red letter editions of the Bible. I like what they stand for (fighting poverty, preserving God’s creation through environmental protection, promoting a consistent ethic on life (which also includes stands against capital punishment, while also trying to give people the ability to live life to the fullest by making sure there’s adequate access to health care), etc.), but I don’t like how they have named themselves. They are trying to say that they are following Jesus’ words, which is a good thing (for example, I can’t for the life of me figure out how one can condone torture and be a follower of the man who said “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”). They are also trying to be a corrective on mainstream evangelicalism’s tendency to concentrate primarily on a small subset of the Bible (i.e., Paul’s letters) in developing their theology (those evangelicals love to quote Romans 13, especially when Republicans are in power…). My objection is twofold, and both of them involve their using a bad strategy from their conservative opposition: first, emphasis on the red letters alone is as much of a foreshortening of the biblical witness as focusing on only Pauline texts. The upshot here is that they need not restrict themselves to merely the red letters, since their policy positions could actually be derived from the entirety of the Bible (and, quite frankly, it’s hard to get environmental protection out of the words of Jesus, whereas it’s quite easy to find in a holistic doctrine of Creation that takes into account the whole narrative of Scripture). Second, and more importantly, naming themselves as Red Letter Christians tends to identify themselves as the exclusive purveyors of Jesus’ ideas, which is quite untrue. This is the sort of rhetorical move that evangelical right has been using for years, with the most recent example that I’ve found being Focus on the Family’s rather arrogantly named The Truth Project, which name implies that what it teaches is all 100% truth and perhaps the only source one needs for hearing the truth, both of which are extremely shaky (at best) epistemological positions. I’d have hoped that Jim Wallis, with all his positive and earnest work thus far, would be above such rhetorical one-ups-manship. I hope and pray that the Red Letter Christians can do some good and can help change the discourse on politics and religion in this country, but I also hope that this isn’t the first step in Wallis becoming what he’s tried so hard to resist.


1 Comment »

  1. DC said,

    The problem I see is that most people who say they are Christian and try to align themselves with Christian ideals don’t actually know what those ideals are because they don’t have a good understanding of the bible. If I became a Christian right now, I would probably be in the same boat. It’s hard to motivate yourself to learn these things if you don’t have outside pressures (like parents in my case) that help out. Instead, the typical person will end up going along with the “popular opinion” of what it means to be Christian. Personally, I tend toward “conservative” views, but emphatically agree with your opinion on torture. However, the average person would probably not put much effort into considering the biblical motivations for allowing or disallowing torture – and how could they when they wouldn’t even know what parts of the bible to consider?

    So that’s all tangential to what you’re saying. Perhaps I can tie it together a little bit by pointing out that using a name like “red letter christians” is possibly one of the few ways that they can get the attention of the average person.

    Anyway, thanks for the response. Good thoughts to mull over.

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