Politics, philosophy, religion, and other things

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Christians: Are They the Moral Majority?

As I'm sure most people are aware, Jerry Falwell died last week. I only ever knew him as a famous Christian "spokesman" who said some things that people found embarrassing. That, and as the popularizer of the term "Moral Majority." Phil Nugent points out that this term seems oddly inconsistent with the Southern Baptist culture of Falwell, and with slight differences related to their more individualistic and anti-authoritarian attitude also inconsistent with the normal Evangelical culture of the Northwest. He says:

Having grown up in the rural Southern Baptist culture that Falwell came to represent, and having grown up in it during the last few years before it became fully owned and operated by the Republican Party, I've always believed that there was no way anyone who was really of that culture could have come up with the term "Moral Majority." When I was a child, our preachers and Sunday school teachers (and our teachers plain and simple, because in what I suppose was a violation of law, the teachers in my third and fourth grade classes used to lead us in prayer and Biblical-related discussions, for all the good that it did in my case) didn't tell us we were a part of any majority. Quite the opposite; it was always made clear that only a tiny fraction of the people on Earth at any given time would finally prove good enough to make it to Heaven and see God's smiling-Santa face.
I think this illustrates a couple of the oddities of the religious right's political involvement. Christianity has a long history of seeing itself as the "hidden city," as a separate society within society. This derives from the division between the world of spirit and flesh and goes back all the way to Jesus telling the Pharisees to give to Caesar what is his and to God what is God's. Since this is partially understood in terms of moral and spiritual purity, there is always this sense that the world of flesh--of which the state is a, perhaps the most, powerful manifestation is trying to distract and pull us away from true Christianity. This attitude seems to me to encourage a permanent notion of Christianity as the minority view. It doesn't matter what people say, or even what they do. What is fundamentally of importance is your relationship to God. Since this limits you to solely trusting the few people you know personally, or those who know and engage in the essentially religious (and hence exclusionary) markers of this relationship, there is always a limit on the size of the group that will qualify.

But yet, the Christian right is politically mobilized, and politically mobilized as Christians. They constitute one of the most vocal blocs of one of our major parties. What is the political justification provided for trying to make religious ideas binding on people? Here it became necessary to bring in the idea that actually Christianity constitutes in fact a political as well as religious majority. In other words, it is a re-making of religious ideas over into political and moral ideas. But this seems to provoke a serious tension in how we are meant to treat religion.

Take abortion. Why do Christians try so hard to make it illegal? After all, they know that non-Christians are evil and do evil things. So why are they attempting to prevent them from doing this one? Or, in the popular pro-choice refrain, if they don't want abortion, don't have one. Why should they be worried about the morality of those outside their religious communities? In other words, why is this a legal/political rather than a religious issue for religious people?

It seems to me that the simplest answer is that American Christians have largely adopted forms of reasoning more characteristic of Enlightenment liberalism than strictly fundamentalist ideas warrant. Liberalism characteristically tries to universalize their moral principles and so must treat all humans as essentially equal and indistinguishable. But if we are to treat all humans equally, it seems that we (roughly) must treat all religious beliefs as also being equal as the major religions on offer are not universalizable across all people (Liberal Christianity, which was an attempt to sketch out a picture of this universalized religion, is what led to the rise of fundamentalism).

So to argue against abortion, religious people must step outside their religion and use liberal reasoning against it. And I think the rhetoric is consistent with this claim. After all, according to those against abortion a morally significant human life begins at conception and so a properly universal liberal moral reasoning would include their rights as well. Hence the popularity of the "right to life" as an argument against abortion.

But the concept of a right to life is a creation of Enlightenment liberalism. It is not really to be found in the Bible. For instance, the image of the "vengeful God" of the Old Testament is a result of the passages where God commands the Israelite leaders to kill another nation--sometimes absolutely--even those we would normally consider innocent, such as the woman (non-combatants), children, and even their livestock. In fact, in a startling turn-about, King Saul loses the blessing of God because he decides to spare some of the innocent Amalekites. And as for the New Testament--what little political thought is contained there says nothing about protecting the rights of innocents. It is striking in light of the contemporary political scene that as far as we can tell neither Jesus, nor his immediate disciples felt it was necessary to try to effect social change through political means. In fact, while Jesus had much to say about the society he lived in, his invective was primarily reserved for the religious leadership of his own religion--a very different attitude from that of contemporary Christians.

These are difficult questions. Many early Christians, and some of the more libertarian type Christians I knew growing up had the view that Christians should not be involved in government or politics at all--but rather should keep themselves separate from the dirty doings of the world. Other seem to think that religion and politics are both good and necessary things, but should be kept as separate as possible. Others, and this is more characteristic of the religious right, try to combine the two. I am not sure that they are very successful.

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