Christian conservatives across the country are worried about the fate of their movement. At the very least, a great deal of soul-searching is certainly in order as the old ways of finger-pointing no longer satisfy a suffering American public. James Dobson's withering 1950's demagoguery is overshadowed by Rick Warren’s hopeful charisma, despite Dobson’s attempts to position himself as Jerry Falwell’s successor. Ironically, the future of Christian conservatism may hang on the presidency of Barack Obama, who, ironically, anointed Warren as America's pastor. Even a modest Obama success might cripple the Christian right movement beyond repair.
that goes something like this: an astronaut returns from a
dangerous mission and claims to have seen God. Scientists from
around the world converge on the astronaut and ask him, “Tell
us—what does God look like?” and the astronaut says, “Well,
first of all, she’s black…”
The election of Barack Obama, a born-again, church-going family
man the religious right irrationally despised, as the 44th
President of the United States must be an enormous shock to the
system of the Christian right. He is liberal. He is pro-choice.
He is black. Racism has always seemed a silent component to
Christian conservatism. While not showing overt hostility toward
blacks, the Christian conservative movement has hardly been a
friend to the black church or black people in general. Their
preaching and teaching—their very appearance—has a kind of
violence to it. We Are Christians. You Are Not. And, yet, our
fate, as Christians, as U.S. citizens, has been in these
people’s hands for nearly a decade, as the Christian right’s
political machine has more or less owned Washington.
Where is the black leadership in the Christian right? Where is the Black Church Initiative at Focus On The Family? At The Heritage Foundation? Where is the African American Pastors Council at the Southern Baptist Convention? Why does the "moral" right seem uniformly white, thus suggesting the largely black National Baptist conventions are somehow less moral? The black church seems to have largely ignored the Christian right juggernaut, much as that juggernaut seems to have ignored the black church. With the hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in flux in the conservative Christian movement, few if any of those dollars flow to black churches, the majority of which are smaller, in disrepair, and in need of critical services. It’s possible that the Christian right is a reaction to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, wherein the black church was the very fulcrum of black power. Those emotional scars may linger, with white conservatives viewing black churches as reactionary or even threatening to their agenda. I suspect the vast majority of cash flowing through white Christian conservatism funds white Christian conservatism. The lopsided economic scale suggests that black Christians are not their brothers.
Conversely, black churches likely give nothing at all to white churches, as even small, struggling white churches are typically better privileged than most black churches. For black churches, I’m not certain that this is a race issue so much as an economic one: why give money to churches that are better off than our own?
The black church has virtually no political machine, mainly because we have no national leaders past professional cause-leaders Jackson and Sharpton, whom Washington hasn’t taken seriously for years. We also do not organize well. We fuss and fight, we’re too busy to care. We compete with one another. We’re jealous and lazy and immensely petty. Oh, but we’re Christians. Christians whose very futures we’ve ceded to these politically-active conservative groups who sacrifice their time, efforts and money for causes they believe in. Who work the phones, who march, who preach their values just like we used to do. I mean, these are things they learned from us, from our example. The black church, once a force to be reckoned with, has become a self-parody of a once proud tradition. We keep the form—the look and sounds and smell of the black church—but we are toothless and everybody knows it. We’re not going to show up. We’re not going to boycott. Generations past King, we have become selfish and self-centered while white conservative Christians mastered techniques for social change once effectively employed by the black church.
At the end of the day, the church should look like Jesus. Should sound like Him. Should model His behavior and embrace His values. The “moral” Christian right tends to look a lot more like the Sanhedrin, who saw Jesus as a threat, than like Christ Himself. There is a quiet smugness, a button-down, clean shaven tyranny of values, the very word now having a kind of insidiousness to it; “values” becoming a terribly divisive word. These are Pod People whose mark of the high calling is to look as much like a Fuller Brush salesman as possible. Dark suit, white shirt, necktie, pocket hanky, modest wristwatch. A plastic smile and a kind of Christian Emulation Mode that is more creepy than it is welcoming. The cookie-cutter mainframe of the religious right seems to miss, in its entirety, the reality of Jesus while buying into the fabrication of the commercialized Dino de Laurentis Jesus. The Hollywood Jesus. The historic Jesus was homeless. He had no money that the scriptures record, but depended upon the generosity of the townsfolk as he traveled. He likely had fairly long, unkempt hair. He was not clean shaven. He likely did not bathe for days at a time. Nor was He conservatively dressed. He wore the biblical equivalent of a pair of old jeans and a flannel shirt. The Sanhedrin, by contrast, tended to be pristinely groomed and uniformed along strict religious covenants.
In practice, the religious right tends to oppress with a smile. Jesus was a liberator. He did not force Himself on us, but rather, offered us new hope, a new way to think about ourselves and about God. The religious right tends to behave a lot more like 13th century Crusaders, achieving what they believe to be God’s will by political means. Only, instead of wholesale slaughter, the religious right employs retail politics and fear-mongering propaganda to force God’s will on earth.
There is no scriptural basis for us forcing God’s will on others. He does not force His will on anyone. Jesus never spoke out against the government, never criticized Caesar or Pilate for the many, many cruel things the Roman Empire did. Further, there is no record of The Apostle Paul rallying the new church to vote down a ballot amendment or protest injustice. There is no commandment in the bible to get a haircut or wear a phony smile. No impetus for churches to raise funds to print political handouts or form picket lines. The political actions of the right wing are in many ways inconsistent with biblical models. Jesus, too, lived in an unjust society. A godless society governed by cruel, heartless men. Yet there is no record of His speaking out against Rome, which would have empowered Pilate to kill him. When one of His disciples raised his sword, Jesus rebuked him.
The main difference between the civil rights movement and the conservative Christian movement is the civil rights movement was about overcoming oppression and giving people liberty. The Christian right movement is about oppressing people and restricting liberty. As citizens, it is certainly our right and civic duty to vote our convictions. As Christians, it is important to realize our mission is not to change the world or to make the world look more like Christ. Our job is to compel men by the cross. The divining line between the two is motive. We should vote our convictions and our opinions. We should not vote to oppress people or vote to force other people to behave a certain way.
As I wrote about the 2004 election:
If you take Christ and the Bible out of this and replace them with Muhammad and the Koran, most of America, white and black, would be alarmed and concerned about this huge block of religious zealots distorting facts, parroting the GOP party line, and fusing religion into politics. We'd be up in arms if some huge national Islamic movement pushed their Islamic fundamentalist president into office and pushed their Islamic Fundamentalist agenda through Congress. But they are not Islamic Fundamentalists. They are Christian Fundamentalists. A lot of black Christians, obsessed with gay marriage and abortion rights, will be voting for the president, who all but wrote off the black vote. Many black Christians are, ironically, following an agenda white Christian conservatives have set, knowing only that the president is against abortion and gay marriage, the only two issues the religious right seem to care anything about. It was an unexpected bonus for the Republicans: black votes by default.
Most every person I saw polled on TV news, no kidding, sounded like a moron. One lady said she voted for [Bush] because he was, no kidding, “The kind of fella you invite over for supper. I'm not sure I'd like to have John Kerry over for supper.” Most other people, and all of these people were white and Christian, mentioned (1) gay rights (2) abortion (3) stem cell research. Not one word about the war. Not one word about the economy. The people I've seen were utterly clueless.
[I’ve discovered] that white Christians are at least as gullible, overall, as black Christians. The main difference being, from all evidence, white Christian conservatives will rally the faithful, organize their effort, and push their agenda. While, from all apparent evidence, the black church remains largely engaged in pageantry, like an army that parades around the field showing off its massive weapons and gleaming armor while never engaging the enemy, never firing a shot. Fractious and impotent, our most powerful spiritual leaders seemingly benched themselves during [the 2004] election, perhaps struggling to find their place in the Great Moral Right, or perhaps unwilling to risk their personal fortunes and ministries on a run at the truth. For, if they had, this administration would have come at them with guns blazing, rather than reward the House Nigger go-along with vague promises of faith-based initiatives and other watered-down ephemeral niceties.
The Christian right's hammering of “family values” resonated across ethnic and economic and political lines, and a great many Christian blacks found themselves conflicted: caught between a moral choice and a political one. This suggests a severe lack of education of Biblical matters and sound theology, as the Christian right's scrutiny of the president's claim to a relationship with Jesus Christ never reached a level where the president ever had to explain it more fully. The president has, at best, two sentences he can parrot about his faith before sputtering off into inarticulate Bushisms. He is incapable of quoting even one scripture or sharing with us, in any meaningful way, what his faith means.
If I did that, in any pulpit in America, I would instantly lose credibility. But the Christian right rallied around this man and celebrated this man and canonized Saint George. And all of that sturm und drang echoed across ethnic lines into the Black Church where we, The People Who Do Not Read, absorbed it and processed it into our system until it became a matter of record: Bush Is Saved, John Kerry Is Not.
Christian Fundamentalists speak in code. “Family values,” oft repeated by most any Christian conservative— pastor or layman— is received by me as a chilling code for white family values. Ozzie and Harriet. Lame Music Values. The agenda is to mold America, all America, into their way of thinking. Into their way of dressing. Into their haircuts and their clothing and their music.
Every smiling puffy white guy I see in striped Hagar shirts from Sears talking idyllically about “family values” and George W. Bush chills me to the marrow. I know I am only welcome in his world as a subservient, non-opinionated, mild-mannered soft-spoken go-along Negro. And the minute I do not agree with him, I become an outcast, sneered at and condescended to. “Watch yourself, Jesse,” as The Reverend Jerry Falwell cautioned The Reverend Jesse Jackson on CNN.
I am not welcome in their world. My little nickel-and-dime website is not welcome in their world. To them, I am a sinner. An abortionist. A gang banger. These people want to mold all of America, all races, into their Hagar slacks and Sandy Patti lifestyle, and otherwise quarantine or deport all uppity types who don't conform to their view of America. Apple Pie America. Baseball in Summer America.
“Blow 'em all away in the name of the Lord,”
Falwell said during his dustup with Jackson. But, who's “'Em"? Surely he means terrorists, but his smirking sneer— and I can't imagine Christ ever being so pompous, ever smirking or sneering— offers a more insidious interpretation. Terrorists, surely, are “'Em.” But, maybe, liberals are also “'Em.” People who don't support the Bush agenda are most certainly “'Em.” Which means gays are certainly “'Em.” Scientists, what with their fancy stem cell research that encourages abortion (which is not at all true) are most decidedly “'Em.” Mexicans and other Latino groups, unless they are cleaning Falwell's mansion, are certainly “'Em.” Blacks are definitely “'Em.” And, I absolutely (and proudly) assure you, am most certainly “'Em.”
So, what went wrong this time? How on earth did the religious right cough up the ball so badly that we now have a black liberal in the Oval office? Well, first of all, they didn’t have the guy. John McCain likely loathed the religious right, embracing them only out of convenience. Jerry Falwell was dead and Rick Warren was emerging as a popular new symbol of Christian rationalism, which isn’t to say Warren isn’t a genuine conservative, but that he approaches his conservatism in a much more thoughtful, less oppressive way. Warren’s conservatism elevates and enlightens in ways Falwell’s did not. Absent a sure-fire Reaganite candidate and a glove-fisted Fawellian demagogue to focus the faithful, the Christian right could not muster the required decibels to get their troops in line. Focus On The Family leader James Dobson, whose demagoguery is overshadowed by Warren’s charisma despite Dobson’s attempts to position himself as Falwell’s successor, said: “I cannot, and will not, vote for Senator John McCain, as a matter of conscience,” and indicated that he would refrain from voting altogether were McCain to become the Republican candidate, echoing other conservative commentators’ concerns about the Senator’s conservatism.
Moreover, the right’s support of George W. Bush had backfired terribly. Not only did Bush’s claims to be born-again vanish, literally, the day after inauguration, but Bush failed to make significant headway into the religious right’s key (arguably only) issues: abortion and gay rights. Having not moved the needle on their rallying points, while being an enormous embarrassment of a president, the right’s credibility in such matters became fair game.
Christian conservatives knew McCain was no friend of theirs, and neither the Mormon Romney nor pro-choice Giuliani were options for them. The stake through the heart of the McCain campaign was, of course, McCain’s ridiculous selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin—who, incidentally, apparently skipped the Obama inauguration—as his running mate. Palin exploded upon the national political scene with rockstar-like thunder, overshadowing McCain, who became more or less her hand puppet until it was revealed that Palin’s teen daughter was pregnant, and Palin herself knew very little about, well, most anything. Coupled with McCain’s advanced age, the specter of a President Palin being sworn in during a time of war and economic crisis proved an insurmountable obstacle for her Hillary Lite candidacy. Additionally for the religious right, there was a lot of videotape out there of Palin participating in charismatic services, speaking in tongues being a religious right no-no.
The GOP continues to spin this, but any child can clearly see Mrs. Palin, an even more pompous, less-informed political dilettante than George Bush who, to this day, continues to excuse her anti-intellectualism as a “Soccer Mom” virtue, destroyed the meager hope of a 2008 GOP win. That meager hope rested in either Hillary Clinton being nominated so they could dredge up Monica Lewinski, or, in whites being reluctant to vote for a black man—which, in my opinion, accounted for the success and momentum McCain had. He was The White Guy. Absent Obama’s ethnicity, it would have been a blowout, as McCain’s entire campaign was oppressively negative, while Obama’s was poignantly optimistic. By rote, the Christian right aligned itself with pessimism and thinly—very thinly—veiled racism. Their lukewarm support for a guy who normally wouldn’t cross the street to spit on them likely made many uncomfortable, both with McCain and Obama. And that’s not how you win elections.
Add to the fact that the public at large had finally had enough of conservatives—religious or otherwise—leading us around by the nose. Million upon millions of people finally got off the sofa and worked hard to support Hillary Clinton and, ultimately, Barack Obama, while McCain’s support remained tepid at best.
“I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” —The late Paul M. Weyrich, conservative co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and the Free Congress Foundation, another conservative think tank. He was an ordained protodeacon in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. It was Weyrich who coined the phrase, “The Moral Majority”
Well, in 2008, the voting populace went up. way up. And we’d had enough of the circus.
Ironically, the future of Christian conservatism may hang on the presidency of Barack Obama, who’s been handed a statistically impossible task—head off a second Great Depression caused in major part by the religious right’s support for George W. Bush. There is no empirical evidence to suggest Obama—or anyone else—can succeed: this nation is in dire financial straits. But economics, like Christianity, is a matter of faith. Obama brings to the table an infectious confidence in the sheer power of faith. Ironically, this optimistic, charismatic, spiritual, clean-cut family man of faith is likely seen by many Christian conservatives as the great Satan. Why? Christian conservatives' cowardice in terms of hiding behind political rhetoric rather than dealing with their own moral indebtedness is, for me, the chief turn-off to their movement. They routinely, daily, violate their own stated values, using Obama's support for abortion and gay rights as convenient cover for what I presume to be his more obvious sin of being of the House of Shem. This is a guy the Christian right should be throwing their arms around. Instead, they're all but hanging the man in effigy. A Republican campaign manager here sent me campaign email imploring me to pray for "McCain, Palin, and all good conservative candidates..." A terrifying piece of hate mail, the hate being more implied than stated: that only conservative candidates are "good," and that we should only pray for "good" people, which misses the point that Christ not only prayed for sinners, but He allowed the flesh to be torn from His body in an effort to save them. That little missile was, perhaps, the least Christ-like piece of email I've ever received, and the hatred and bigotry sewn into the margins disgraced the God she allegedly served. Lady: Jesus prayed for everybody.
So, why does the Christian right despise Obama? Why aren't we admonished to pray for him? Stop dancing on the head of a pin and give me a straight answer. As Christians, our litmus test must be Christ. We don't need a divining rod or a guy in Hagar slacks to tell us who belongs to God, who is inspired by God. Political views have nothing to do with it. A Christian will demonstrate the qualities of Christ. A Christian will overflow with the love of Jesus Christ. By aligning themselves with cynicism and negativity, the Christian right has allowed itself to be fitted with a black hat if not a dunce cap, insisting that anyone who does not agree with them politically can't possibly be a Christian. Their fervent opposition to Obama—who, ironically, will likely do more to reduce the number of abortions in this country than George W. Bush ever did—has further alienated the Christian right from the mainstream of black America.
Ultimately, the status of the American economy—of the American people—is pretty much whatever we think it is. Obama’s first duty may well be Cheerleader In Chief, to inject hope if not optimism into the American bloodstream, to get us looking toward brighter days. Even a modest Obama success might cripple the Christian right movement beyond repair. Obama’s success tends to inexplicably benefit Warren, who is himself rather antithetical to the Dobsons and Falwells even while embracing much of their doctrine. But Warren’s ascension dooms the “moral” right as much as Obama’s does, as Warren tends to temper his conservatism with humility and intellect: two qualities typically missing from such conservative movements.
It’s a bit disconcerting to think there may be Christians huddled somewhere praying for Obama to fail, for gloom to overtake us, so they can get back to pushing their political agenda. It is that very quality—Christian conservatism’s ability to claim the cause of Christ while disgracing it at the same time—that makes these some very scary people.
Christopher J. Priest
1 February 2009
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