The Great Christian Religious Divide

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.

By Charles Bayer

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 ecclesial 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 ecclesial 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. We have discussed this in previous columns. 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.