From the Archives: The Great Christian Religious Divide (Issue #6) and Creating Fundamentalist Politics: Fundamentalist Religion (Issue #21)

By Charles Bayer

The idea, maintained by constant media repetition, that the dominant religion in this country is by its very nature politically conservative is (and always has been) a piece of conservative fiction.

The conception of god for liberal Christians (and others) is not at all that of fundamentalist Christians (and others) – and therein are political differences.

There are many ways to look at the historic divisions among religious bodies. In our generation this divide is showing up in pointed examples of the gulf between right-wing evangelicals and left-wing progressives. A couple of generations ago it was fundamentalists and modernists. Similar debates have gone on since the inception of Christianity.

While each of the characterizations had linguistic validity during a specific historic period, I suggest that there is another way to look at the issue.

On one hand, there have always been those who viewed Christianity—and I assume other religions— as belief in the absolute truth of doctrinal statements. The early writers of our historic creeds focused not only on the nature of doctrine, but also on the proper way doctrine was worded. In Nicea, Jesus was declared to be the same substance as God, not simply similar substance. At the same time, there were others who saw Jesus as the servant working in roadside monasteries and in a multitude of simple ecclesiastical communities, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving sight to the blind and offering good news to the poor. While we might like to think that there were Christians simultaneously affirming both perspectives, a clear division most often existed. Heretics were not burned at the stake because they welcomed strangers, but because they varied in how they saw the sacraments.

Today’s division takes a similar shape. On one hand, there are the literalists who insist that the nature of right religion as described in the Bible—or at least in specific passages they choose to quote—is the essence of faith. Believing is a matter of adherence to biblical or ecclesiastical truths. On the other hand there are those who affirm that the Bible, and all religious sensibility, defines actions to be taken in today’s world.

The question arises as to the appropriateness of either persuasion being involved in electoral politics. Certainly there is no place for religious dogma or doctrine as the basis for political action. But on the other hand, can those who advocate action on behalf of the left out, the poor, the segregated and ostracized, justify their political support of these causes flowing from a religion-based ethic? Both evangelical conservatives and socially active liberals have a perfect right to be part of political discourse. Issues of justice, care of the nobodies, equal opportunity, support of the marginalized—or opposition to these matters—is not the sole perspective of any religion or religious group, but is shared with a great variety of persons of different religious faiths and those of no faith. Atheists,
agnostics, humanists of all sorts affirm, or deny, these values. They are not sectarian, and therefore, as social perspectives they have a proper place in any political discussion.

Conservative religionists have every right to support capital punishment, war, anti-gay marriage laws, etc. as long as they do not insist that these positions should become law because of the priority of doctrine. Once these matters are proclaimed to be religious dogma and therefore must be obeyed by society, a dangerous border has been crossed. Is religion, therefore, a set of doctrinal absolutes, or is it a moral compass that points those of many persuasions to responsible ways to live and to relate to one’s neighbors?

Perhaps the first amendment of the Constitution puts it most clearly. It details a prohibition against establishing a religion as part of the nation’s legal identity, but guarantees the free right of religious practice. Calling for economic justice or affirming the rights of gays and lesbians is not asking that some religious doctrine becomes law. Insisting that schools teach creationism because it is Biblical, clearly violates the establishment clause. Working for a just society, or even the opposite, may flow from a sensibility, but it is speech protected by the free exercise clause.

Does religion matter in issues involving public policy? You bet it does! One’s conception of god is a significant marker in how one views the issues confronting society.

If your notion of god is akin to that held by very conservative religion, you will likely espouse very conservative politics. Clearly those congressional districts and states that are dominated by the Tea Party have fundamentalist Christians as a significant source of right-wing support.

What makes for the relationship? For a long time I believed that conservative religion just got washed in with a political red tide. I am increasingly convinced, however, that religious commitments have been among the dominant influences in creating right-wing political systems, and that one’s conception of god is a determining factor in the creation of political views.

Biblical fundamentalists in the antebellum South were adept at citing Bible passages which justified slavery – the justification for it was treated as coming straight from god’s mouth. Following the Civil War and continuing through most of the 20th century, the Ku Klux Klan marched through America with the fiery “cross of Jesus going on before.” The issue, however, is far deeper than the simple proclivity to use biblical snippets to prove a cultural point. The fundamental issue is one’s understanding of god.

While today’s Christian fundamentalists no longer espouse slavery or segregation, the question is rather the way their notion of god determines the way in which other issues that have clear political ramifications are understood by those with a fundamentalist conception of god. The fundamentalists’ god tends to be a lawgiver, who sets down specific rules for life, blesses those who keep them and condemns those who do not. This god not only has a special set of demands and beliefs, but a special law-abiding people whom “he” blesses with both spiritual and physical abundance. God wants his followers to be prosperous, and will provide nature-defying miracles which he will lavish on the faithful. Financial abundance, therefore, becomes a mark of faithfulness. This prosperity gospel applies solely to Christians who have received Jesus as Lord and Savior. All non-believers are not only outside the ranks of the blessed, but are also doomed to eternal damnation.

The fundamentalists’ god has also selected the United States as his nation of choice. That is why one commonly sees the cross and the flag together. God blesses our wars, and is a particular advocate of American capitalism—divinely sanctioned economics. The nation’s sins are all sexual. It is not greed, violence or bigotry which activates his wrath, but abortion and homosexuality. Natural disasters can be directly attributed to a public violation of these sexual norms.

You don’t have to take my word for that view: just tune in to any of the TV channels which feature popular religion.

The conception of god usually honored by liberal religion, a group ignored by most political pundits, is universal in his/her love, not confined to a particular people or a particular nation. Condemned are sins of greed, inequality, bigotry, violence and lovelessness. This idea of god welcomes those many others who would be despised by the fundamentalists. Barriers become bridges and the nobodies get the best seats at the divine banquet. Liberal religion’s god, according to Catholic teaching, has a “preferential option for the poor.” All the spiritual laws are summed up in love for god and others—all others.

Beyond American Christianity, religious fundamentalisms are bad news in any society. It is fundamentalist Muslims who have created the violence which has caused terror in the Near East and elsewhere. Jewish fundamentalism is one of the primary factors keeping Israel from being willing to take even modest steps in solving the Palestinian question.

Many young people have left organized religion because they tend to believe that religion itself is a captive of narrow unloving doctrines and institutions. And who can blame them? The prominence of those doctrines are what gives religion a bad name.

Describe the nature of the god you believe in, and you will probably have defined where you stand on most of the issues confronting the world. It is not that religion doesn’t matter, but that it may matter far too much.