Monday, October 29, 2007

Coming Home, pt. 3

The veil of objective journalism having been lifted long ago, reporters are often as guilty of reporting their hopes as they are the facts about an issue. As much may explain some of the coverage that has been seen as of late regarding the strained relationship between evangelicals and the Republican Party. What was a rumbling in the distance prior to the mid-term elections (as evidenced by a 2006 Washington Monthly story) has become a steady drumbeat as various media outlets have openly questioned the stability of the alliances between the religious Right and the GOP.

MSM coverage of the situation has careened between two narratives, one reflecting the external tensions between religion and politics, and the other examining the internal tensions between factions within evangelicalism. The former was exemplified by a recent Washington Post story concerning the disaffection of religious leaders with the GOP presidential candidates.

"At the moment, there's nothing but confusion every place I go," said Chuck Colson, who runs the Prison Fellowship, a national Christian ministry. "They lament the fact that there's no one candidate out there around whom evangelicals and conservative Catholics can sort of coalesce around and get excited about."

He added: "Nobody has rung the bell yet."

The Post article goes on to cite Bill Stephens, the executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida, who commented that voters in his organization "would rather stay home than vote for half a loaf of bread."

The latter media template was typified by a New York Times Magazine piece describing the fractures within the ranks of evangelicals.
Ever since they broke with the mainline Protestant churches nearly 100 years ago, the hallmark of evangelicals theology has been a vision of modern society as a sinking ship, sliding toward depravity and sin. For evangelicals, the altar call was the only life raft — a chance to accept Jesus Christ, rebirth and salvation. [Jerry] Falwell, [James] Dobson and their generation saw their political activism as essentially defensive, fighting to keep traditional moral codes in place so their children could have a chance at the raft.

But many younger evangelicals — and some old-timers — take a less fatalistic view. For them, the born-again experience of accepting Jesus is just the beginning. What follows is a long-term process of "spiritual formation" that involves applying his teachings in the here and now. They do not see society as a moribund vessel. They talk more about a biblical imperative to fix up the ship by contributing to the betterment of their communities and the world. They support traditional charities but also public policies that address health care, race, poverty and the environment.

The report highlights prominent evangelical pastors such as Rick Warren and Bill Hybels who are becoming more attentive to concerns that fall beyond the traditional conservative keystones of abortion and gay marriage. To be sure, this has not gone unnoticed.
Conservative Christian leaders in Washington acknowledge a "leftward drift" among evangelicals, said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and the movement’s chief advocate in Washington. He told me he believed that Hybels and many of his admirers had, in effect, fallen away from orthodox evangelical theology. Perkins compared the phenomenon to the century-old division in American Protestantism between the liberal mainline and the orthodox evangelical churches. "It is almost like another split coming within the evangelicals," he said.
The Times' reporting is buttressed by commentary by Robert Marus of the Associated Baptist Press.

Several years ago, [Baylor University Professor Barry] Hankins proposed the notion the Christian Right wasn’t dying; it was maturing. Rather than existing as a single, highly visible organization, it was becoming a movement with diverse influences.

Such maturation could be happening to the Christian conservative movement again, Hankins said, but it might end up looking fundamentally different as a result.

"I think you have this new kind of wider segment of evangelicals who are publicly oriented and politically conscious, but they’re not tied to the old Christian Right machinery," he said.

To be sure, the relationship between religious and political conservatives has been imperfect, and often more tenuous than the leadership of either side would ever want to admit. The fundamental point of variance between the two is the fact that politics is all about compromise, while religious fundamentalism in particular has little room or incentive to compromise its views or aims. Evangelicals of all stripes agree that "[w]hen you mix politics and religion, you get politics."

The main point of contention between religious conservatives and the larger Republican Party has been about the role of politics as a weapon in the "culture war." As the old bulls of the Religious Right began their ascendancy after the 1980 elections, they became more insistent that politics come into the service of their religious aims. Over the intervening decades, evangelical leaders became understandably disillusioned when they found political means to be an imperfect instrument.

But just as important, there has been something of a disillusionment on the part of secular conservatives with the Religious Right. As discussed elsewhere, recent embarrassments involving prominent evangelicals and others have diminished the appeal of fighting an enduring culture war.
By my lights, the culture warrior paradigm has always been inappropriate and unfortunate. Indeed, who are we rightly to make war against but our own avarice, our gluttony, our weakness and our entirely flawed selves? How do we strike against a now-ascendant secularism (or an increasingly secularized Christianity) without also tilting against Larry Craig's lewdness, Mark Foley's solicitousness, Ted Haggert's duplicity, Rush Limbaugh's addictions and Bill O'Reilley's loofah?

For better or worse, the culture warrior is dead from an elaborate hara-kiri of self-inflicted wounds. Moreover, it serves as a misrepresentation of what is required of conservatives in the new century. Rather than yield to the (simple-minded) intellectual shortcut of describing ourselves as kulturkriegers, we would do well to see ourselves as stewards of the culture. As conservatives - and as Americans more generally - our primary role is to superintend the culture such that it may be bequeathed to succeeding generations. We do not own the culture such that we can go to war for it; in as much as we have "borrowed" our culture from our predecessors, we must redeem it to to our progeny.
Doubtless, whoever would become the Republican presidential nominee will have to reconcile the competing factions within the evangelical movement, and will also need to navigate the winding path between religious and secular Republicans. But, as reported by the St. Petersburg Times, the Democrats are not without their cleavages.

Frustrated with the Democrats' inability to stop the war since they took control of Congress in January, some liberal groups are trying to recruit candidates to challenge sitting Democrats in the House who don't vote in lockstep with them on the war.

MoveOn, which raised millions for last year's congressional elections, has suggested it may throw its considerable weight into those efforts, and already has run ads blasting Democrats - including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland - for their positions on the war.

Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a longtime antiwar advocate and crusader for liberal causes, has found herself the target of protests in Washington and outside her home in San Francisco.

Allow me to make a fine distinction between the divisions that beset the Republicans vis-a-vis the Democrats. While the crystallizing of opinion within the evangelical movement may indeed represent a "maturation" as described by Barry Harkins, it is evident that what besets the Democrats in little more than a fit of infantilism. It is of a piece with the same pique that led liberals to support Ned lamont over Joe Lieberman, and it may yet lead the Left to anoint a nominee who will be so repulsive to the general electorate that even a splintered Religious Right will be able to rally in 2008.

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