By John R. Anderson - January 1995
When our focus is on the problems of society rather than on the people, it becomes easy to neglect what is really important. And when politics are mixed with religion, there are those who manipulate sincere people on religious grounds. Because our emotions are involved, we jump on the bandwagon and become zealots.
I want to look for a few moments at the revival of religious conservatism in America over the last 30 years and its relationship to contemporary Christians. The areas I will cover include; where it started, how it developed, and what effect it has had on Christian thinking. I am myself a former religious conservative and this allows me to understand religious conservative ideology, both from the standpoint of scripture and as an observer. Several years ago I began to question whether I was attempting to put out the fire of immorality while feeding the flames with unscriptural attitudes and conduct. I came to the conclusion that the ideology I had accepted as a conservative Christian lay in the letter of the Law, and not in the Spirit of the New Testament. The Apostle Paul referred to the church at Corinth as "able ministers of the New Testament; not of the letter, but of the Spirit: for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life," [2 Cor. 3:6].
My goal is to take a candid look at religious conservatism in America and what lies behind it. I invite my readers to search out scripture and Church History, to discover for themselves whether or not, I "provide things honest in the sight of all men," [Rom. 12:17]. I do not doubt the sincerity of most who call themselves "religious conservatives," however, history has shown that sincere people can be wrong.
According to one man, "Political activity of almost any sort, is virtually worthless compared to spiritual activity of almost any sort." I agree.
After the Nixon era, a group of activists arose who were known as the "New Right." One of them was Paul Weyrich, a Catholic. His concept was to merge right-wing "idealism" with "religious" conviction into what would become known as the "pro-family" issues. This merger consisted of right-wing politicians, pro-life Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists.
It was not until the elections of 1976 that pro-life became an issue for conservative politicians. The pro-life sentiment presented a unique opportunity for Republicans and was utilized to their advantage. Leaders in the Republican party suggested that America could be reformed according to a single Christian viewpoint. Emphasis was placed on the concept that sin could be restrained by political action. Dr. Billy Graham as well as other religious leaders warned at the time that the political right should not be allowed to manipulate religion.
The first nationally known minister to make the connection between religion and politics was Jerry Falwell. Oddly enough it was Falwell who stated in a sermon that religion had no place in politics. He preached this in a sermon on the same day that the Selma civil rights march took place. Falwell later went on to found Moral Majority, a religious/political organization.
The union of religious conservatives and Catholics over the last 15 years is an odd mixture to say the least. The religious right has, for the most part, been made up of Republicans. Even though Catholic doctrine is pro-life they traditionally are Democrats and their politics are that of social liberalism.
Until the mid-seventies the question of pro-life was mostly the concern of Catholics. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops was created in the 1960's and its first official act was to denounce the government for their support of family planning. Family planning was limited to contraception and sterilization at that time. This was well before the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. Once abortion became legal they adopted what is known as the "Pastoral Plan for Pro-life Activities." The plan advocated a specialized public education effort directed at Catholics and non-Catholics in order to develop pro-life attitudes and influence public policy. This plan would later provide a format for the Christian Coalition in their goal to "recruit conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians with a three-pronged approach: to educate, activate and groom political candidates." In addition, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops gave birth to several pro-life groups and one of them was the National Right To Life Committee.
Abortion in the Catholic Church was not considered a murderous act until after 1889. In that year Pope Pius IX enacted Apostolicace sedis which laid the groundwork for the future position that abortion was murder. St. Augustine condemned birth control because it broke the connection between intercourse and procreation. St. Thomas Aquinas did not view abortion as murder but rather as a sin hostile to marriage. Abortion was socially accepted in America until the late 18th century when large numbers of Catholics were coming to America as immigrants. Early American advertisements indicate that abortion was a common practice. It is estimated that prior to 1860 there was one abortion for every five live births and religion played no part in the abortion decision.
Religious conservatism demands obedience to political doctrine before obedience to God. One example of many is when Dr. Billy Graham was invited to go to the USSR and preach the gospel. The religious right railed against this as a sell-out to the godless communists.
When Christianity and political causes are combined, the result is always a perversion of the gospel. C.S. Lewis warned Christians not to get entangled with "Christianity and...." because the "and" will end up taking over.
Ronald Reagan was the great communicator, the deal maker and the ardent anti-Communist. He was a conservative who sounded "religious" to religious people. Reagan has been epitomized by Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy, and others as a model of moral leadership. Yet a closer look at the Reagan family would not suggest anything of the sort. He is a divorcee who never had a fatherly relationship with his children. His wife and family would hardly qualify as "religiously" conservative. His son, Ron, appeared on Saturday Night Live in his underwear, and daughter Maureen has bared-it-all in porno magazines. Nancy has admitted that she relied on the advice of psychics to make crucial decisions after the assassination attempt on her husband and has long been a supporter of abortion rights.
According to David Chidester, in his book, Patterns of Power, Reagan advocated a particular form of "American Civil Religion" in which the state has come to represent that transcendent, supreme power for which individuals in the modern world would be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice."
While it may be feasible to legislate morality, it is impossible to legislate moral character. Moral conflicts are complicated. If they were easy, we would have solved them. Any morality that can be reduced to a slogan on a bumper sticker is wrong.
When it comes to so-called "moral" values, just whose brand of ethics do religious conservatives seek to impose? Is it the fundamentalist ethic that says, "God hates fags?" Or the Catholic ethic which turns a blind eye to the sexual perverts who serve in the Catholic church at its highest levels? What about the ever popular charismatic ethic of "scriptural" divorce? And what did Jesus say about divorce? "Although Jesus allowed divorce for adultery, He did not require it. On the contrary, He insisted that divorce disrupts God's plan for marriage and left the way open for repentance and forgiveness." In Mark chapter 10, he stated that divorce was the result of "hardness of heart." This is translated from the Greek word, aklerkardia, which means "destitution of spiritual perception." In essence what he was saying is that those who divorce are spiritually destitute. The airwaves are filled with the judgment of religious conservatives against homosexuals, the liberal media, the Clinton Administration, and so on, but is this the morality that Jesus called for?
Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, D. James Kennedy, and others have staunchly supported such un-Christian political structures as apartheid in South Africa and the dictatorships of Marcos in the Philippines and Samoza in Nicaragua. And let's not forget the continuing support for "divine right" policies of Israel in their barbaric treatment of Palestinians [including Palestinian Christians], as evidenced by the merciless killing of unarmed youths for "throwing rocks," and the bulldozing of Palestinian homes to make way for Jewish settlers. Religious conservatives have resisted all efforts by moderates to make peace in the Middle East. They withstand these efforts solely on the basis of their hit and miss "Armageddon" theology, an ideology derived more from the 6 o'clock news than from scripture. Falwell, Robertson, and Kennedy along with Uncle Sam, have contributed billions of dollars in support to the nation of Israel, a nation [perhaps the only nation in the world] in which Christians are forbidden by law to speak concerning Jesus Christ! One of the biggest lies that has been perpetrated on Christians is the idea of God's "favored nation" status on Israel. The blessing of Genesis 12:3 was directed toward one man, Abraham, and his Seed, Jesus Christ. It is important to understand that Jews were only one of several nations that descended from Abraham and that the promised Seed was Jesus Christ and not the nation of Israel. The Apostle Paul plainly stated [Gal. 3:16] that Christ, through Abraham, was the Seed whereby all the families of the earth would be blessed. There is no "bless Israel and be blessed," teaching in scripture.
In America, religious conservatives have a long history of values that are slanted. They develop prejudices and then turn to scripture for support in such areas as the subjugation of women [I Tim. 2:11,12], enslavement and segregation of blacks [Tit. 2:9, I Pet. 2:18], and the slaughter of the American Indian [Ex. 33:2]. This seems to be a pick and choose morality, one of self-interest rather than what is taught in the New Testament, does it not?
Today, conservative church leaders walk a thin line between religious dogma and political propaganda. Intolerance breeds hatred and hatred always brings tragic results. Sadly, instead of drawing closer to Christ, the religious conservative movement has rallied millions of well meaning Christians around a cause that can not be supported with the Spirit of New Testament teaching.
Saul [Paul] became a pattern for future generations of believers. The "chief" of sinners obtained mercy as an example of God's long-suffering "grace" towards sinful man. "Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all long-suffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to everlasting life," [I Tim.1:15,16].
Of those who would claim that, "God is on their side," how many are disciples who meet the criteria of blessedness found in Matthew 5:3-11? Are believers truly called to "shotgun" Christianity? Should we force an outward morality [Matt. 23:25,26] on the ungodly who have not the light of the gospel "within?" Or are we rather to love our enemies, bless those that curse, and do good to those who hate us [Matt. 5:44]? Are we not called to be followers of God, to walk in love [Eph. 5:1,2], to provide for the poor [Deut. 15:7,8, Is. 58:7], feed the hungry [Prov.25:21, Matt. 25:35, Rom. 12:20], visit the sick and those in prison [Matt. 25:36], and to love strangers [Deut. 10:18, Matt. 25:35] ?