A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Two Sides of the Same Coin: The Power Politics of the Religious Right and the Religious Left

James Hunter, in his wonderful book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, turns his critical gaze toward the religious right and the religious left and rightly concludes that they are close relatives who dislike each other and think they are not related. Such is the mythology perpetrated on both sides. As Hunter cogently argues, both the religious right and the left seek political power in order to fundamentally transform America according their understanding of biblical values while ending up being nothing more than faith-based extensions of the Republican and Democratic Parties.

Hunter understands that power is exercised in more than one way and that ultimately it is impossible not to resort to power of some kind. To use one's influence on someone else is to resort to power. But what Hunter argues is that the problem with both the religious right and the religious left is that they operate with an understanding of power that is derived from the larger and dominant culture of the late modern world (100). The implication of this is clear-- both sides derive their understanding of power politics more from modern displays of the rough and tumble of modern politics than from the New Testament.

The power motivation among the populists of the Christian right is the adherence to the mythology that America was founded as a Christian nation. Since the nation's founders were Christian they incorporated Christian principles into the nation's foundational political documents. America from the beginning was Christian. To turn the United States into a secular state would be to erode its foundations, not bolster them.

Those Christian conservatives who are knowledgeable in the area of American history and religion rightly reject the clear and direct claim that America is a Christian nation. Their power motivation is based on a more nuanced understanding of the place of religion in the early years of America. These members of the religious right argue that faith (both Jewish and Christian) was an active part of its history. Not only was it a personal reality of the majority of people, it also provided the motivation for public service, the language of public discourse, and the terms for the long pursuit of public justice (113).

But, even though the latter group of Christian conservatives have a more serious and believable account of religion in the public political arena, they still resort to the same modern modes of power politics because America belongs to people of faith.... it was their faith that provided the spiritual and moral foundations for America's greatness (114, 115).

If the power motivation of the religious right is to keep America a Christian nation, the power motivation of the religious left is to make America Christian. Of course, those on the left protest immediately that this is not their agenda, but Hunter clearly demonstrates otherwise. It is the emphasis on justice in particular as it is interpreted from the Old Testament prophets and in the teaching of Jesus that the religious left seeks to reshape America after this biblical image. Both mainline liberals and evangelical progressives have this power motivation in common. Hunter notes that some on the religious left forget the influence of mainline Protestantism on politics in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century. Hunter notes, Politically progressive Christianity achieved its apex of visibility and influence in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Most of the major mainline denominations had their social justice ministries that lobbied on behalf of particular public policy in Washington D.C., as of course did such ecumenical bodies as the National Council of Churches (134).

Evangelical progressives have now picked up the mainline progressive power agenda. In particular, Hunter turns his critical gaze toward the most visible figure of this movement, Jim Wallis. It has been the resurgence of the evangelical left in recent years that led Wallis to proclaim, the monologue of the religious right is over; a new dialogue has begun. But as Hunter notes, it was the liberals in the mainline churches that owned the original political monologue.

Unlike the religious right, which is honest and direct about wanting America to reflect Christian values, the religious left denies that such is their agenda Their actual words, however betray their denials. In his book, God's Politics, Wallis utilizes Scripture to commend what government should do, including referencing Micah 4:1-4 as the standard for American foreign policy and Isaiah 65:20-25 as the standard by which to measure the Federal budget (146). (Can one imagine how Wallis would have reacted had the late Jerry Falwell published a book entitled, God's Politics?)

Hunter refers to Katha Pollitt, who writes in The Nation (a politically progressive opinion journal) that Wallis is just as much a power player as Pat Robertson; and in Pollitt's own words, by a remarkable act of providence, God's politics turns out to be curiously tailored to the current crisis of the Democratic Party.

Hunter concludes with words that apply both to the religious right and the left-- their ideal is to spawn a movement that will create an irresistible "change in the wind." The framework by which change is enacted, however, is the State-- its rituals, practices, laws, policies, and procedures (145).

Thus, while the power motivations of the religious left and the religious right are somewhat different though related, both ultimately have the same agenda-- control over the power of the State (149). Both sides seek to remake America after their own Christian vision. The kingdom of God comes to earth, not through the mission and witness of the church, but through the political maneuverings of Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue. The Sermon on the Mount becomes irrelevant.

Indeed, the religious right and the religious left are simply two sides of the same modern political coin.

I am not finished with this subject. There are more posts to come.


Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to your reactions to his analysis and critique of Hauerwas and Yoder.

Ron McK said...

You hit the nail on the head when you say that both the religious right and the religious left are seeking control over the power of the state. This leads to a question of what should be the attitude of Christians to the power of the state.

There seem to be two other options. The first is to leave the power of the state to the people of the world, and indirectly to the evil one. This does not seem very satisfactory in light of the Lordship of Christ.

The second option is to reject the power of the state by declaring it to be immoral. That seem to be a more satisfactory option to me, but Christians will need to demonstrate that an orderly society can function with the coercion of political power. We have not done that yet, but I have tried to demonstrate how this might happen at http://kingwatch.co.nz/Law_Government/voluntary_justice.htm.

What do you think?