Thursday, June 24

Understanding the Religious Right … Or Maybe Not


OK ... 'fess-up time!

I'm sure this will not make anyone choke on their beer and pork rinds, least of all anyone who even superficially knows me, but ... well ... here goes ... I don't understand the religious right. OK ... that's it ... I don't understand the religious right. Four master's degrees, adjunct faculty (once upon a time) at 2 universities, published criticism of the poetry and prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins in some fashionably obscure postmodernist academic journals ... visiting Fellow at Exeter College, Oxford, 1988 ... so I’m good at understanding stuff. But I don't understand the religious right ...


Well ... OK ... here's the thing, or at least a Reader's Digest condensed version thereof. The religious right comprises Protestant denominations that, whatever their other historical and theological differences, had a common origin and to this day still hold certain principles in common along with all their other non-religious-right Protestant siblings. One of those principles is that there is no teaching authority above the Bible. Another such common principle is that each religious community -- in fact, each individual -- is free to interpret the Bible for herself, according to the individual dictates of her individual conscience. So, for historically and doctrinally grounded reasons of ecclesiology and theology and biblical hermeneutics, there is no Protestant / religious-right analogue or equivalent of the definitive "the-buck-stops-here" teaching authority (magisterium) of the Roman Catholic Church that is vested in anything like the Pope or the ecumenical councils. Rather, it is -- as they say -- sola scriptura all the way, babe!

Roger that! Understood … so far, so good.

Like the common musical scale that can support a plethora of musical forms and works, from The Ring of the Niebelungs to “Sleep Country, USA! Don't buy a mattress anywhere else!”, such initial principles likewise support a wide diversity of theological and doctrinal teachings on the level of abstract theology, both systematic and moral; church governance; sacramental practices and principles; etc., etc., etc. I have no heartburn whatsoever with a single smidge of that. Now, in a certain sense, being an atheist, “I ain’t got no dawg in ‘at ‘ere fight”. But as a rationalist and secularist, I passionately believe that, regardless of the subject matter and of one’s personal stake therein, rather than settle an issue without debating it, it is better to debate an issue without settling it, provided only that Messrs. Smith and Wesson are excluded from the discussion. So what is the source of my heartburn, the wellspring of my self-admitted bafflement?


In a nutshell, it is that, when one moves from the ivory tower of theoretical systematic and moral theology to the application of that theology to boots-on-the-ground practical matters of public policy and moral discernment, the pleasantly bewildering diversity of Protestant theological perspectives gives way, in the specific case of the religious right, to a kind of grim, grey, ossified, sclerotic, regimented – and above all, humorless – insistence on unanimity. (I boldface “in the specific case of the religious right” in order to emphasize that I am most assuredly not painting all Protestants with the same brush. There are vibrant, substantial, sophisticated, nuance-friendly, enlightened  communities of liberal / progressive United Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, et al. to whom the following remarks do not apply, and I would never wish those remarks to be interpreted as denying such.) If you have doubts in this regard, I would invite you to try an experiment. Log onto a conservative evangelical Protestant website – Christianity Today will do quite nicely – and, strictly as a lurker, read the posts containing comments about virtually any contemporary socio-politico-cultural issue like gay rights, marriage equality, women’s equality, inclusive language for God, abortion, sexual ethics, etc., etc. I have done this, and still do it on occasion. And every time I do, I am struck real hard upside the head by how often and how consistently conservative evangelical / Reformed Protestant posters make remarks about “the Church”; how often they refer to “the history of the Church”; how often they use locutions like “the Bible says” – in all such cases, using the definite article “the” to imply that there is only one such in each case, when, in actuality and at last count, there were, worldwide, roughly 41,000 denominations, Catholic and Protestant, each with its own history and its own interpretation of the biblical text. Estimates of Protestant denominations vary widely from to 33,000-plus to just over 8,000. Squabbles about precise numbers are irrelevant, because everybody agrees that there is a herkin' big bunch of them. Did the stalwart Protestants among these – irony of ironies! – not get the Twitter feed 500 years ago saying that a Reformation had occurred? In the light of such numbers reflecting such exuberantly lush foliage in the gardens of Christian theology, how can anyone presume to use a definite article about much of anything?

Religious Right Misc 016

Why? What happens to diversity, to that lovely discursive rainbow of perspectives and interpretations when one looks at the religious right and its common DNA with other Protestant movements?

My theory is that it is not a matter of doctrine or hermeneutics, or of “theological DNA”, but of political and moral psychology, a political and moral psychology that has a tendency to time-warp its adherents back to the 14th century (metaphorically), anyway to a time when there was, indeed, only one accepted and normative theological perspective, only one accepted and normative interpretation of the Bible, only one accepted and normative political and moral paradigm. The gross over-use of definite articles is a consequence of the fact that rhetoric follows Weltanschauung: in the 14th century (again, metaphorically), references to “the Church” and “the Bible” and “the history of the Church” would have been quite justified. There was only one. Certain strands of conservatism – not all strands, mind you, but many – tend to be pretty authoritarian. (A brilliant example of a non-authoritarian conservative is NY Times columnist David Brooks. Another was the late William F. Buckley.) Combine the authoritarian tendencies of such species of conservatism with the incipient authoritarianism of monotheistic religion – which I insist is common to all monotheisms – and … note the following critical qualifier! … remove the moderating influence of the European Enlightenment of the 18th century that drew the fangs of monotheism’s endemic tendency to goose-stepping regimentation – and … voila! … you have the political and moral psychology of the religious right. In certain prominent and especially influential cases, this more or less unarticulated psychology is even codified into an explicit ideology. As examples, I give you the works of the late evangelical / Reformed guru Francis Schaeffer, e.g., How Should We then Live?, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, and A Christian Manifesto. The religious right has its own Bonaventures and Aquinases.


Why does all this matter? The short answer is that it matters because many folks in the religious right vote – and not only vote but engage in activism. They may not constitute the political force they did in their halcyon days of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the Moral Majority, but politicians and policy-makers still ignore them at their peril. The regimentation and authoritarianism characteristic of the religious right fundamentally contradicts the principles of free people whose beliefs stand in the public square as equal before the law, and which compete as equals in the democratic process. In very many instances and with regard to very many issues, many elements of the religious right, not content to compete and to debate legitimately in the “marketplace of ideas” with others who disagree, make a hidden-in-plain-view “secret” of their desire to take their own sectarian religious teachings on abortion, homosexuality, and education … and write those religious doctrines into the civil law in direct contravention of – to name just two examples – the “establishment” and “free exercise” clauses of the First Amendment, be it by legislating heterosexual marriage as the exclusive legally binding norm or introducing creationism and intelligent design into classrooms, not as exercises in comparative religion and mythology, but as legitimate, empirically substantiated science. They have a perfect First Amendment right to agitate and campaign for these policies. But they should understand -- and even more importantly, the rest of us should understand -- that their success in this regard would amount to a de facto repeal of both "religion clauses" of the First Amendment. Nevertheless, they call these goals “returning America to Christian principles”. The more I read the history of the Reformation, the more convinced I am that some leaders of the movement rejected, not the Pope per se, but rather rejected the fact that they were not Pope. (Think "John Calvin in Geneva" here.) So also with the religious right.  Failing that, and not to put too fine a point on it, having rejected the authority of the Pope 500 years ago, they hanker for the Government to act on their behalf as “surrogate Pope” today.

Now they have a perfect First Amendment right to advocate for this. The same First Amendment they seem not to understand gives them an unalienable right to reject understanding it. That is entirely as it should be. Nothing in the US Constitution forces people to be free.

OK … when I said, at the beginning of this post, that I did not understand the religious right, I think maybe I was wrong. I think maybe I do.

James R. Cowles



  • James, since Ed Setzer is going to slap our hands if I continue to respond on his Obscurantism blog, here is my response to your last comment, for what it is worth.

    The Bible is both one of the simplest of books ever conceived and I am persuaded one of the most complex, multi-layered ever written. The real test is how would a completely uninitiated, foreign culture would read the Bible without mediation. When we read verses like “the wages of sin is death” or “The Gift of God is eternal life”, the Innuit at latitude +66 and the Australian Aborigine at latitude -16 all can read and grasp the simple meaning on the surface of the Bible. It requires very little mediation if any. What I find equally amazing is when hands are laid on the heads of people to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the Innuit receive just as easily, without coaching or teaching, as the Australian Aborigine, and their speaking in tongues sounds similar. Plus they experience an identical emotion of spontaneous, emotional worship towards the Creator God. This I have observed over and over for 43 years. Disputes come, as they do in almost every human endeavor, over authority.
    Of course Jesus said “do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ.” Anyone can read that verse and take it at face value. It’s meaning is simple. But for those struggling to gain authority and power (or money) an interpreter is needed. The Russian Orthodox incursions into the Northern regions of Alaska question the simple, surface reading of the Gospels and interpose a layer of completely foreign culture, tradition and authority. However, most of the Bible is quite simple requiring little interpretation unless one is making a case for authority.
    The proverbs are very basic aphorisms that require very little interpretation and are nearly transcultural. A proverb like “My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent. If they say, “Come with us, Let us lie in wait to shed blood; Let us lurk secretly for the innocent without cause; Let us swallow them alive like Sheol, And whole, like those who go down to the Pit; We shall find all kinds of precious possessions, We shall fill our houses with spoil; Cast in your lot among us, Let us all have one purse”—My son, do not walk in the way with them, Keep your foot from their path.” When a first time reader reads, “do not lie with a man as with a woman” it requires no elaboration. It only requires additional explanation if the interpreter is unhappy with the simple meaning and would like to aver the opposite. Most of the Bible is like this, the paradoxes are fewer than one would think and must be searched out with a great “AHA!” by antagonists. This is a hard concept for those from the authoritarian religious backgrounds (Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox) to grasp and it feels a little like operating without a net. The fear is that chaos will rule without the hoary weight of tradition. Most of the religious wars were not fought over doctrine, but over authority.

    • More later, but for now … you make too facile a distinction between doctrine & authority. I say this for 2 reasons: (1) the authority issue arose in many cases because of conflicting answers to the question of who has the authority to teach what, and (2) the question of authority was ITSELF an issue of doctrine: sola scriptura or papal / conciliar magisterium. Yes, in many cases, it was just a bunch of guys trash-talking one another by saying “Mine’s bigger’n yours … Is not! … Is so! … “, etc. but however it was trivialized, the doctrinal issue of authority was there.

  • Rick, James,
    Methinks you are both right . . .
    All humans (including me!) believe their perception is accurate and true. If we are smart enough we will always find ways to prove it. If we aren’t smart we will find ways to sustain it.

    • In many fields, that’s true. Also, “I don’t know & neither does anyone else” is a perfectly valid and honorable answer. E.g., if the question is “What is dark matter?” then “Nobody knows” is the only honest answer. But here’s the rub: conservative evangelical / Reformed Christians are great proponents of “objective” morality and “moral absolutes”. But if you ask what these “absolutes” are, you get 33,000 or 8,000 or pick-your-own-number answers. When I get 33,000-or-however-many conflicting answers to ANY question, I think the rational conclusion is “Nobody really knows”. Lotsa people BELIEVE, but nobody KNOWS.

      • “Four things are small on the earth, But they are exceedingly wise: The ants are not a strong people, But they prepare their food in the summer; The hyraxes are not mighty people, Yet they make their houses in the rocks; The locusts have no king, yet all of them go out in ranks” Proverbs 30.

        James, I think you exaggerate the divisions among evangelicals. I also think you don’t get the sociology behind denomination formation. I say sociology because that’s what it is, not ordinarily doctrinal disputes. I conjecture that you have a deep need for authority and are mystified by a people that share such doctrinal unanimity, yet have no teaching authority or magisterium such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope or ecumenical councils. The truth is, the Roman Catholic Church is passionate and unified about issues like the right to life. The Catholic Church is united in its opposition to homosexual marriage. That is a solid block of 1.2 billion people. The Orthodox church represents another 260 million and they are just as resolute on these two issues. Protestants represent another 800 million and are virtually united on the issues of homosexual marriage and pro-life. But it is this last audience that concerns you most because you cannot understand their basis of their authority. Curiously, you reserve your antipathy for this audience.

        The dissent on issues such as gay marriage and abortion is quite minor and gets exaggerated by the news media. A handful of tiny, shrinking, older protestant denominations have rejected the historical teaching of the church on homosexuality, abortion and the authority of the Bible. Methodism in the U.S. has lost membership every year since 1964, shedding over 4.5 million members. The Episcopalians have lost more than half its membership and now numbers under 2 million. The same for the United Church of Christ.

        A better way to understand the rise of denominations is to see them as affinity groups or tribes. For example if you examine denominations formed in the last 100 years, there is virtually no doctrinal difference between the Assembly of God, The Foursquare denomination, the Open Bible denomination, the Vineyard Church, most of the historic Pentecostal denominations and the 1000 churches of Harvest International Ministries. Some are predominately black like the Church of God in Christ, some are more emotionally cool and reflective like the Vineyard Church and some are more demonstrative like the Pentecostal denominations. The biggest points of difference between evangelical churches are issues like whether the gifts of the Holy Spirit are for today (as 1.2 billion Roman Catholics assert) or whether they have disappeared, as the Southern Baptists believe. Another issue would be whether one can lose their salvation. Yet all these differences are considered minor and in places like Oregon, we all share intimate fellowship and communion. Perhaps a better way to understand the evangelical church is to compare it to the Catholic Franciscan and Jesuit orders. The differences are cosmetic and cultural.

        I find it amusing that you assert conservative Christians claim to not just believe, but to KNOW, especially on “cultural” issues. They claim to KNOW abortion is always wrong, to KNOW gay sex / marriage is wrong. I think you may be confusing them with the authoritarian Roman Catholic or Orthodox church. The protestant believers, as you say, are much more independent and nuanced, arriving at their conclusion by individually studying the Bible and adopting at a position through reason rather than authority. I KNOW that I have a personal relationship with God. I do not, in the same way, KNOW that abortion is wrong in all cases. The life of the mother, medical complications and other factors weigh on the decision. Yet the church has always been united on its general opposition to the practice of killing the unborn. The Didache, which dates from the late first century is unambiguous: “Do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant.” Id. at II, 2. This is echoed in another didactic writing universally esteemed in the ancient Church, the Epistle of Barnabas, from the early second century: “Never do away with an unborn child or destroy it after its birth.” Id. at XIX, 5.

        The Bible does not establish its authority by proofs, but by appealing to reasoning, history, experience and faith. The key credibility text for the Bible is David’s, “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good.” It is an invitation to examine the human condition, observe the natural world, compare the wisdom of the Bible, draw some tentative conclusions followed by experimentation (faith) and sealed by commitment. Our “knowing” is based on the reception of the Spirit of God, it is not a belief system which can easily be dislodged or abandoned.

        • You can play down denominational / doctrinal differences only at the expense of rewriting history. The people who fought the religious wars of the 1500s & 1600s were certainly under the impression that they were fighting over issues that MATTERED … like the correct interpretation of the Bible, which I thought would’ve been a matter of SOME concern to Protestants, given their emphasis on the importance of the biblical text & its authority. It’s hard for a group of people to follow a road map if they can’t decide whether north is at the top or bottom. Besides, it is Protestants were always talking about the importance of objective standards. Now you’re arguing that the absence of objective standards for interpreting the Bible is really not such a big deal. With all due respect, Rick, you can’t have it both ways. More later.

      • The wars of the 1500s and 1600s were not religious wars, they were wars over authority and power. The Holy Roman empire ruled Western Europe as an arm of the church. The German, French and Dutch princes began gaining in political power during the 1500s. Although Luther did not want to leave the Roman Catholic Church, he was excommunicated and his independence became a signature feature of the rebellious German princes. The French Huguenots were persecuted by the Roman Church for their independence from Roman rule. King Henry the Vlll declared independence from Rome by declaring himself the head of the independent Anglican Church in 1533. The old Holy Roman Empire that had ruled Europe was fragmenting and this was a time of the rise of the independent nation-states. It was in the interest of the Roman Catholic Church to keep the populations of Europe illiterate. Preserving the Latin Bible protected the special knowledge and authority of the priests so every effort was made to prevent and eliminate English, German and French translations of the Bible. Thus the murders of Czech Jan Hus and Wycliffe and the persecution of Luther and Tyndale. The fighting was almost always instigated by the Roman Catholics as they tried to hold on to political and religious power.

        The translation of the Bible into the common languages actually served to democratize religious authority and the Sola Scriptura doctrine in particular served to undercut the power of religious demagogues and tyrants. You may view that as the absence of objective standards for interpreting the Bible. That is a very Roman Catholic view, whether you are an atheist or not. We don’t need “objective standards” for interpreting Plato, Shakespeare, or Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, John Donne’s Canterbury Tales or Milton’s Paradise Lost. And yet, the Bible is even simpler and its meaning apparent to all. The Bible is not overtly mystical and obscure like the Hindu Upanishads, the Buddhist Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita or the Tao Te Ching. Anyone can read the book of Proverbs, the Psalms or the four gospels without any interpretation to arrive at the intended meaning. That is why most of the evangelical Church shares the same doctrine and subscribes to the Nicene Creed.

        The problem comes when authoritarians, cultists and heretics, those with a particular axe to grind, attempt to twist the plain meaning of the texts. In truth there is little doctrinal difference between the 30,000 protestant Christian denominations. Most of those denominations arose in the last 150 years and are primarily cultural in their differences. Denominations do not have their own differing translations of the Bible. Most denominations have very cordial relations with other denominations and differences are rather minor and trivial, hence the National Association of Evangelicals. When a denomination begins to question the authority of the Bible, as the United Methodists and Episcopalians have done they lose the trust and confidence of other protestants. Or when groups introduce their own new authoritative religious texts, such as the Book of Mormon, that causes evangelicals to break fellowship.

        • But that’s just the point: issues of authority WERE ALSO MATTERS OF DOCTRINE. The RCC would argue that the authority of Popes & Councils to interpret the Bible is EMBEDDED IN THE BIBLE ITSELF & IS TAUGHT THEREIN. Your division of “authority here” and “Bible there” is an artifact of our (relatively recent!) distinction between civil & ecclesial power, a distinction that came 200 years or so after th religious wars.

          The big difference between Shakespeare & the Bible, of course, is that no one believes that one’s eternal destiny depends on assessing correctly the character of Hamlet or Richard III. But there are people around who DO believe that one’s eternal destiny DOES depend on correctly assessing the Character of Jesus Christ (megalomaniac or God in the flesh). World-a difference, that! And since all we know of Christ is in the Bible, that makes how we interpret the biblical text — and who does the interpreting — crucial, as well.

  • 1. Humans BELIEVE they “know” (atheists BELIEVE there is no God and agnostics BELIEVE they know that nobody knows) – thus our ego-driven arrogance.
    2. God knows*

    *I used to be an atheist turned agnostic. I now BELIEVE in the Baha’i tenants (not a Baha’i member) – they make “INTUITIVE SENSE” (another form of dark matter).

    • Ahhhh … but conservative Christians claim, not just to believe, but to KNOW, especially on “cultural” issues. They claim to KNOW abortion is always wrong, to KNOW gay sex / marriage is wrong. You’re right that all atheists and other “evidence-driven” folks can claim is belief. Even as confirmed an atheist as Richard Dawkins concedes that there is a tiny sliver of a chance that there may be a god. Ditto me. Conservative religious folks are the real “KNOWers”. The rest of us just THINK. Personally, I’m with the “THINKers”.

  • I believe (figuratively speaking) that the definition of fanatic includes single-minded – fanatics are found in all religious, scientific, philanthropic, PHILOSOPHICAL persuasions – not just conservative Christians.

    I think (literally speaking) that only if the THINKers among us continually question our own thoughts and beliefs can we, too, escape our own hubris.

    • Oh I quite agree about fanatics. Their name is “Legion” for their many. There are also fanatical atheists who are absolutely certain that there is no God what’s 0% chance of being wrong. In fact this is the stereotype of atheists you usually find among conservative Christians. I called and “fundamentalist atheists”. For honest atheists, on the other hand, the word no is the biggest word in English language. Unless you’re talking about sentences that are a priori analytic, like “All bachelors are unmarried”, everything else is — to one extent or another — up for grabs, even if only by one / 1000 of 1% probability.

      It’s conservative religious folks — and not just Christians either — who most often use the word “know” promiscuously and carelessly.

  • OMG. WOW! I will answer this question much more simply (and I am qualified to know) having at one time had a “born again” experience.

    First, I am not a religious person, spiritual yes but not religious. Assuming that when one has a “born again” experience, it is both positive and above all things it is life changing. Ones life should change for the better. One should work hard to make it change for the better. Combine that conclusion with human nature’s proclivity for being right and for knowing it all and there you have it. You are confronted with the Religious Right’s “insistence on unanimity” as you put it, deriving for both this wonderful experience and the individual’s need to be “right” which then becomes “group think.” It becomes a sort of “my way or the highway attitude.” Then you, the observer are confronted with their insistence upon their own “rightness.”

    I was more than lucky when this happened to me. I knew that my spiritual experience was for “me alone.” It was the help for which I had asked. As a result, I took it for what it was and changed my life, something that took me five years to do. Since I needed about 30 years of counseling and had no funds … this was the next best thing. In reality it was actually the best thing. Beginning and end of story. I never went to church and I never mingled with those of like mind perhaps because I had nothing in common with them. And indoctrination somehow does not work for me. Although I am not an intellectual, I am a thinking person. And by the way at 28 years of age, I became celibate which was one thing that I took away from this experience. That act gave me the platform upon which to begin my wellness journey. The whole thing really worked for me. I became well, I became happy, contented and fell in love with my best friend. We have been happily married for 32 years. So I really must say that when one has a deeply spiritual experience – it is for them alone, no one else. Therefore this “insistence on unanimity” is sheer egotistical nonsense.

Leave a Reply