The marriage of the evangelical right and the political right was celebrated 35 years ago this month with the election of Ronald Reagan to the White House, and it has enjoyed a long honeymoon.
Its dream was the restoration of both the Christian faith and the United States from damage it saw resulting from decades of liberal-leaning – in theology, biblical studies and socially disturbing legislation.
The dream had a strong appeal among people who felt the foundations of their society straining under the weight of social and moral changes, of an increasingly pluralistic demographic with its intermingling of cultures and religious traditions, and the feeling of a slipping dominance of ways of thinking and believing that had been a framework of security before the emerging changes.
This alliance of religious fervor and political acumen has been a powerful force in the transformation of our system of governance over the past 30 years.
Its most visible consequences have been a crippling polarization of perspective, a dominance in the political arena of financial interests, and a suspicion and fear of the “other.”
Issues that require and deserve a response of careful discernment and collective wisdom are met with the quick application of a template of a “right” response that fits the ideology predetermined by a party line that is more in keeping with a political agenda that with any kind of deeper concern for a common good.
An obvious example from the recent horror of the Paris massacre is the response to the plight of Syrian refugees seeking to escape the danger to their families.
It has become rather easy to predict the responses of political voices, such as those seeking the favor of their “voting bases” – “Keep ’em out!” “Register the Muslims” “Close the mosques.”
The voices from the religious right have fallen into line, as well.
Franklin Graham, wielding the weight of his father’s legacy among evangelicals, called for preventing Muslim’s from entering the country.
Similar responses are observed at the local level. For example, a church in our neighborhood has on its marquee, “Secure Borders – God’s Design.”
A marriage that began with a particular understanding of Christian faith seeking the benefits of political power seems to have evolved into a relationship where the power it sought is now defining that faith and its responses to issues both local and global.
But the plight of families fleeing the madness of civil war and terrorism may be touching a nerve that has tended to be numb in the face of other challenges.
A recent opinion column in the Washington Post by Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, may contain a glimmer of a different way of thinking among some public evangelical voices.
Moore, and perhaps others, see a conflict between hardline resistance to refugees in the name of security and compassion for the neighbor in need called for in the biblical record.
Acknowledging a need for careful vetting scrutiny to prevent persons with evil intent from using the refugee process to gain entrance to the country, Moore says, “We can have prudential discussions and disagreements about how to maintain security. What we cannot do is to demagogue the issue.”
He continues, “While this kind of complicated geopolitical situation requires prudence, it also requires virtue. We should debate what it would take to ensure adequate vetting of refugees, but we should not allow ourselves to engage in the kind of rhetoric we’ve heard in recent days – about, for instance, requiring ID cards for Muslim American citizens or considering warrantless searches of their homes or houses of worship.”
For more than three decades, the evangelical right has faithfully delivered votes to candidates who have carefully wrapped a particular political agenda in the language and concepts that appeal to them.
It will be interesting to see what becomes of that agenda if those evangelical voices begin to demand more than lip service to the virtues and values that lie behind those words and concepts.
What the religious right has allowed to become its problem in the refugee crisis may be its most significant opportunity to be part of a transformation in the way we as a people respond to it. We can hope.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.