"Can the Religious Right Be Saved?"
Isaiah 58 continues God's pointed comments against God's chosen people, leaders and everyday folks included.
The overall outline of the chapter is:
The nation goes through outward religious activities like they know God, and they seem to think that they do. God disagrees.
They're following religious practices as intense as fasting, in an effort to get God's attention.
God tells them why He's not paying attention and doesn't care about them going through the motions of religious practices:
a. Their fasting is paired with fighting and quarrelling, rather than truly humble hearts.
b. Their fasting is not paired with "loos[ing] the bonds of injustice...und[oing] the thongs of the yoke and let[ting] the oppressed go free...break[ing] every yoke."
c. They don't share their bread with the hungry or bring the homeless into their homes. They don't cover the naked.
d. They point fingers and speak of evil instead of removing yokes and offering food to the hungry.
The chapter ends in a fairly uplifting manner, with God describing all the good that would happen if they followed his list of what they should be doing--all of which has to do with caring for the needs of others.
Suffice it to say that this chapter is indicting of me and many of us in the United States for whom this entire chapter could be directed toward without any rephrasing at all needed.
In 2017, theologian Russell Moore delivered an Erasmus lecture, entitled, "Can the Religious Right be Saved?"(https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/01/can-the-religious-right-be-saved), which I'm quoting for the title of this blog post. Moore has impeccable conservative Christian chops: Baptist-trained, Calvinist, complementarian, believes in Biblical inerrancy. And yet, his heart is so troubled by the current Christian witness today that he has been increasingly outspoken on his various platforms against the cultural Christianity that pervades our pews (or, commonly, that is often observed among those who never even make it to sit in the pews in the first place). Here are some snippets from Moore's talk:
The cultural Christianity around me seemed increasingly artificial and cynical and even violent...I saw a cultural Christianity that preached hellfire and brimstone about sexual immorality and cultural decadence. And yet, in the church where the major tither was having an affair everyone in the community knew about, there he was, in our neighbor congregation’s “special music” time, singing “If It Wasn’t for That Lighthouse, Where Would This Ship Be?” I saw a cultural Christianity with preachers who often gained audiences, locally in church meetings or globally on television, by saying crazy and buffoonish things, simply to stir up the base and to gain attention from the world...
I saw a cultural Christianity cut off from the deep theology of the Bible and enamored with books and audio and sermon series tying current events to Bible prophecy... When these prophecies were not fulfilled, these teachers never retreated in shame...
And then there were the voter guides. A religious right activist group from Washington placed them in our church’s vestibule, outlining the Christian position on issues. Even as a teenager, I could recognize that the issues just happened to be the same as the talking points of the Republican National Committee. With many of these issues, there did seem to be a clear Christian position—on the abortion of unborn children, for instance, and on the need to stabilize families. But why was there a “Christian” position on congressional term limits, a balanced budget amendment, and the line item veto? Why was there no word on racial justice and unity for those of us in the historical shadow of Jim Crow?
I was left with the increasingly cynical feeling—an existential threat to my entire sense of myself and the world—that Christianity was just a means to an end. My faith was being used as a way to shore up Southern honor culture, mobilize voters for political allies, and market products to a gullible audience. I was ready to escape—and I did. But I didn’t flee the way so many have, through the back door of the Church into secularism. I found a wardrobe in a spare room that delivered me from the Bible Belt back to where I started, to the Lion of the tribe of Judah.
I agree with Moore that retreating from all of this into secularism is a cop out, both intellectually and emotionally (also, in his wardrobe reference, I see he's a huge C.S. Lewis fan like myself!). Just because this unholy mixing of the political and the spiritual has been on the increase and year after year becomes less and less connected to Biblical truth doesn't mean the answer is to turn to a generic spirituality, cynicism, and humanistic/secular approach. It's also important to note that the Religious Right is not and has never been synonymous with the Church. May it continue to be so.
So many heroes of the faith have lived during times where they were alone in upholding the truth. I've written about the Cappadocian fathers and sister Macrina before (see https://www.isaiahfortoday.com/post/trees-and-perfect-peace). Those who know church history are aware of the fight for theological truth when it comes to Trinitarian doctrine. Arius versus Athanasius. The Nicene creed. But, shockingly, having a council take an official stance on this didn't mean the the controversy ended then and there. Pockets of the church were embroiled in incorrect thinking, with hostile and even violent responses toward those who disagreed. Constantinople was one of these places, and we have the Cappadocian fathers (and mother!) to thank for almost single-handedly holding down the truth through patient teaching and writing.
Thank goodness they did. How sad that we're in the midst of this same exact fight again, under the auspices of maintaining a conservative agenda's "gender roles."
But this particular blog is not on the anti-Trinitarian heresy running rampant in conservative circles right now. It's more broadly on the situation we find ourselves in, where we are reliving Isaiah 58.
How did we get here? Many books have been written on this topic and many great minds right now are analyzing this further. How did a great evangelical movement, that was a theological accurate response to the increasing secularization of the church, become so enamored of political power that it now has an agenda that is more set by political celebrities than theologians and pastors, let alone the scores of quiet, devout peace-loving believers who are just trying to live their lives in continuity with the Way of peace?
First warning is that the leaders the conservative church has been following often do not have theology degrees and have not served actively within a church, the exception being Jerry Falwell (senior, not junior). And yet, we see them as experts and models in the faith. I like psychologist/philosopher Dallas Willard's books and I myself am writing quite a bit on theology and scriptural interpretation. C.S. Lewis also is a spiritual juggernaut who was a humanities professor rather than a theologian. I'm not saying that those of us without theology degrees are disqualified from speaking on faith and trying to teach others. This is part of our call as Christians to serve as lights. I'm saying that the level of respect, power, and authority we have given to a handful of men over the past few decades who clearly abused that power and lacked discernment generation after generation regarding their interactions with political figures was a huge problem, and it's unclear why these men had any credentials, experience, or specialized knowledge that made them worth following into a political arena. Also, I think it is pretty apparent that many of these men do not come close to displaying the levels of Biblical knowledge and spirit-given insights that Willard and Lewis had. Nothing can replace time with the Lord and His word. Practicing presence with the Lord touches you and changes your heart so that the draws of this world are less and less of, well, a draw.
A second warning is that there is clearly a lag that often occurs in between a cultural shift and religious backlash against it. This is well-documented. It happened with evolutionary theory and it happened with abortion. That is, a cultural shift happened, but it took a long time for the church to get up in arms in a political way about that. Just read Mere Christianity (I often suspect that many who say they love Lewis haven't read this book. Lewis' take on evolution and many other topics wouldn't resonate very well with many right wing Christians these days). Perhaps some think that the church should have responded faster, but what's fascinating is the means by which individuals and groups mobilized Christians who historically were fairly apolitical.
For example, Roe v. Wade was was decided in 1973. Right around that time (1971), one of the most conservative Christian groups, the Southern Baptists, affirmed at their convention the possibility for abortion for cases of rape, severe deformity, or harm to the mother. Affirming all three of these areas today would be unthinkable in Southern Baptist circles, and yet it was the official stance in the 1970s...until Roe v. Wade! On top of that, there was a lag. Not until 1979 did abortion become a rallying cry of the religious right. What was happening in 1979? The Carter-Reagan presidential election. There was a clear political agenda to put weight behind the suddenly pro-life Reagan rather than Carter. There are some varied perspectives on how and why abortion became the central issue. As Moore puts it,
The religious right—whether we trace it to the school prayer skirmishes of the 1960s or the segregation academy controversies of the 1970s or the response to Roe v. Wade and the sexual revolution—was always a multifaceted coalition. After all, Jerry Falwell adopted Paul Weyrich’s language of a “moral majority” because the movement encompassed not just born-again Protestants but also many traditional Roman Catholics and Latter-day Saints and Orthodox Jews.
Paul Weyrich mobilized pastors and religious leaders through a particular political agenda. This article in Literary Hub (https://lithub.com/how-fringe-christian-nationalists-made-abortion-a-central-political-issue/) puts it this way,
The most popular origin story of Christian nationalism today, shared by many critics and supporters alike, explains that the movement was born one day in 1973, when the Supreme Court unilaterally shredded Christian morality and made abortion “on demand” a constitutional right. At that instant, the story goes, the flock of believers arose in protest and threw their support to the party of “Life” now known as the Republican Party. The implication is that the movement, in its current form, finds its principal motivation in the desire to protect fetuses against the women who would refuse to carry them to term.
This story is worse than myth. It is false as history and incorrect as analysis. Christian nationalism drew its inspiration from a set of concerns that long predated the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade and had little to do with abortion. The movement settled on abortion as its litmus test sometime after that decision for reasons that had more to do with politics than embryos. It then set about changing the religion of many people in the country in order to serve its new political ambitions. From the beginning, the “abortion issue” has never been just about abortion. It has also been about dividing and uniting to mobilize votes for the sake of amassing political power....
In the late 1970s a curious combination of religious and political activists assembled to ponder the strategy of a new political movement, sometimes by letter or phone, and sometimes in conference rooms or at a hotel in Lynchburg, Virginia...
This was an angry group of men. “We are radicals who want to change the existing power structure. We are not conservatives in the sense that conservative means accepting the status quo,” Paul Weyrich said. “We want change—we are the forces of change.” They were angry at liberals, who threatened to undermine national security with their unforgivable softness on communism; they were angry at the establishment conservatives, the Rockefeller Republicans, for siding with the liberals and taking down their hero, Barry Goldwater; they were angry about the rising tide of feminism, which they saw as a menace to the social order; and about the civil rights movement and the danger it posed to segregation, especially in education. One thing that they were not particularly angry about, at least at the start of their discussions, was the matter of abortion rights.
You can see the direct line of this leading to where we are today. Maybe some of us should have seen it earlier. It seemed very innocent for a while, and many Christians were just going about their lives and trusting those in authority. I am pro-life, and I've been to the March for Life at least twice. I also focus quite a bit on late adulthood and end-of-life in my work and research and am a conception to death pro-lifer rather than a political one. It's tragic to me that a good cause was used from the get-go as a political agenda and then was wielded to guarantee that the largest special interest group in the Republican party stayed there. Now, we've moved on to the next phase, whatever we call this moment, and I am concerned.
I don't want to have to focus on this. I'd rather just read Isaiah 58 and look at the parts that I should deal with personally and submit more fully to the Lord's authority on how much I should be taking care of the homeless and hungry. And there are millions of Christians taking care of the homeless and hungry right now. I am joyous that most nonprofits in this space were founded by and are filled with Christians and other religious individuals caring for others.
But you wouldn't know it from the political vitriol, and we are letting our lamp get dimmed and snuffed out. We are letting anger and a concern over keeping some men in power misdirect our attention and focus.
Another warning--how consistent are the calls to arms with Scriptural witness? Are "rights" now the actual authority over Biblical inerrancy? One thing about getting older is to remember the contrast between the past and present. And I feel like I'm starting to see a change regarding the Bible. Where in the past conservatives have wielded Biblical inerrancy in both a good way (to uphold Biblical truth) and bad way (as a weapon against doctrinal enemies), we're now about to let that whole issue fall by the wayside, only to be trumped by "my rights" as the highest good. Just look at any online responses to what Pastor Tim Keller says on a given day, and you can see where the hearts of so many are...I see what others write on social media to friends of mine who are very conservative politically and theologically and yet dare to ask a question on social media that tries to redirect people in even the gentlest of ways. "It's brutal out there" (to quote singer Olivia Rodrigo).
Which is why I think it's important that more people speak up. "Be wise as serpents and as innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16). In my estimation, millions of Christians have been for awhile innocent as doves and let politically-driven leaders be (wordly)-wise as serpents. Numerous parables of Christ instruct us to harness talents, wisdom, and worldly influence for His kingdom. Those of us with gifts and positions relevant to speaking out neglect our gifts if we neglect these instructions and put our heads in the sand, placing our hopes in a human savior to come and clean up the mess.
We already have a Savior, and He is living and active. He doesn't need the help of a religious right to enact His Kingdom, and His ways certainly do not align neatly within any particular political system.
We supposedly follow a book that is literally an instructions manual, and we would do well to turn to it. We would also do well to get on our knees, not to compel him to act and save us from the unrighteous. We are so often the unrighteous (see Isaiah 58!)! We should be on our knees to confess our sins and seek His presence so earnestly that we are in much less error of going off track on our own.
As Moore concludes,
The religious right can be saved, but not by tinkering around the edges. Religious conservatives will need a robust religion and a sense of what is, in fact, to be conserved. This will mean abandoning an idea of a “moral majority” or a “silent majority” within the nation...It will mean institutions that have the vision, and the financial resources, to play a long game of cultural renewal, rather than allowing themselves to be driven by the populist passions of the moment. More than that, it will mean a religious conservatism that sees the Church as more important than the state, the conscience as more important than the culture, and one that knows the difference between the temporal and the eternal. We will make mistakes. We will need course corrections. We must remind ourselves that we are not inquisitors but missionaries, that we can be Americans best when we are not Americans first (emphasis mine).