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Critiquing American Religion

American Christians are in a cultural war, a term that went out of popular favor after Pat Buchanan’s mean-spirited Republican Party speech in 1992. Regrettably, the phrase has returned with a new vengeance. Following President Bush’s re-election, religious right leaders have gleefully used the term. Secularists are analytically describing the national state with this phrase.

American Christians are in a cultural war, a term that went out of popular favor after Pat Buchanan’s mean-spirited Republican Party speech in 1992. Regrettably, the phrase has returned with a new vengeance. Following President Bush’s re-election, religious right leaders have gleefully used the term. Secularists are analytically describing the national state with this phrase.

Considering the bloody warfare in Iraq and the common unity in Christ, the war imagery is highly questionable in the Christian community. Nevertheless, some of the most brutal conflicts have been between different Christian expressions.

From my vantage point, our fight is not against Republicans or for Democrats. Political parties are neither thoroughly moral nor completely immoral. Some of the most high-visibility Republican Party representatives are known adulterers and deceivers. Other conservative leaders are drug addicts, gamblers and frauds. Some of the most high-visibility Democratic Party leaders are models of family leaders, truthfulness and integrity. Other liberal leaders are active church members, doers of good works and first-rate human beings.

Rather, our struggle is against those who offer a false vision of Christian faith and for an authentically Christian vision. We are striving for a new reformation which advances the integrity of the biblical witness and the well-being of the global community.

For 25 years, we have watched the religious right sever the biblical mandate to do social justice from what it means to practice genuine faith. Moderate and progressive Christians have framed ineffective and anemic responses.

During the presidential election, the religious right reached its most hyper advancement of twisted reductionism. The religious right reduced Christian faith to five non-negotiable issues—anti-abortion, anti-stem cell research, anti-homosexuality, anti-cloning and anti-euthanasia. They did this across their spectrum from Jerry Falwell to Rick Warren. Their reductionism was a shameful abandonment of the biblical witness.

The religious right ducked the crystal clear biblical mandate to do social justice, defend the weak, seek peace, care for creation, practice kindness and walk with humility. They dodged the model of the Hebrew prophets who kept their distance from those in political power. They denied Jesus’ warning that Caesar did not deserve complete and total loyalty.

Not only did they distort the biblical witness, they divided the faith community into red churches and blue churches. They said that real Christians were Republicans and non-Christians were Democrats.

They created an ethos in which some “know” that others were evil and this “knowledge” justified wrongful behavior, including the denial of a seat at the faith table.

For example, the religious right fostered an environment in which a church youth leader sent teenagers on a scavenger hunt to steal Kerry yard signs and then burned the collected signs. Fundamentalists created a context where members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at a Baptist college felt compelled to kick out a member who said he supported Kerry. At another Baptist college, a girl refused to share a dorm room with another girl who identified herself as a Democrat. At a third Baptist university, the school’s president showed up at what was to be a victory party for a Republican Party congressional candidate against the seated Congressman, who is an active churchman and a noted leader for the separation of church and state.

The religious right leaders placed the Christian mantle squarely on the shoulders of a single politician and party.

That weight will prove too heavy to carry.

Rather than watch with smug certainty the religious right’s inevitable stumble (or failure to deliver on their promise of a more moral America), moderate and progressive Baptists have their own heavy burden.

We must articulate our own compelling moral vision and demonstrate our moral muscle for the common good.

Robert Parham is executive director of the BaptistCenter for Ethics.

Also see: Personal Word About the Future