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?
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