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How to Hijack a Religious Tradition

Randall Balmer’s recent analytical biography of Jimmy Carter, titled “Redeemer,” offers a thoroughly researched and insightful review of an evolution in the evangelical narrative that coincided with Carter’s presidency.
With visible expressions in the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention and the rise and influence of the Moral Majority, which became the Religious Right, this change altered the climate of religious thought among evangelicals in the last quarter of the 20th century and into the 21st.

“Whereas antebellum evangelicals had pushed for the abolition of slavery, the Religious Right defended the racially discriminatory policies at places like Bob Jones University,” Balmer said. “Whereas nineteenth century evangelicals had sought the rehabilitation of prisoners, the Religious Right pushed for capital punishment.”

“Whereas evangelicals in the nineteenth century had been among the earliest supporters of public education as a seedbed of democracy and as a way to assist those on the lower rungs of society, the Religious Right sought to vitiate public education by supporting taxpayer vouchers for private and religious schools,” he added.

The outcome of this process is an evangelical narrative quite different from its roots in a commitment to justice and concern for the poor.

A significant branch of the Christian theological tradition has been captured and reformulated to fit the priorities of those who have captured it.

A still more recent online posting by Jack Schwartz is one of a number of observations that point to a similar phenomenon with the Tea Party’s reformulation of the Republican narrative to reflect an extreme right-wing perspective and a rigid non-cooperative stance with regard to governance.

Readers of EthicsDaily.com will be surprised at neither of these observations.

What is perhaps of significance to all perspectives is the apparent vulnerability of any theology or political philosophy to be redirected to serve needs that may not be consistent with its originating and sustaining values.

We might recall the effect of Solomonic political and economic success on the understanding of Israel’s covenant, the effect of Greek thought and the Roman Empire on early Christianity, the impact of medieval feudalism on that period’s understanding of the Church, or the many modern uses of the Bible to sanction expressions of injustice.

These remind us that this is a challenge and a risk that is always before us.

A tradition is a living thing, in a way, because it deals with life’s history and progress.

And a tradition, religious or political, must of necessity evolve over time as it faces new challenges to which its values and commitments must respond.

Still, there is a crucial difference between refining the values of a tradition to apply to new challenges and appropriating the concepts and beliefs of that tradition to undergird and promote an agenda that is at odds with its core values.

Discerning that difference is tricky because the will to manipulate and control, and the commitment to preserve a tradition’s integrity, can easily be confused.

Often it is hindsight that illumines and clarifies what has happened, as Balmer’s observations have done with developments within evangelicalism, and as other observers are doing with the recent and contemporary political scene.

Perhaps the lesson here is that people of faith, individually and in our communities, need to heed the admonition of the many prophetic voices that speak from history and, in the present, to “beware of false prophets” and those who come as “wolves in sheep’s clothing” to define for us who we are.

When we accept another’s definition of who we are, especially when that definition serves the purposes of the definer, we have surrendered an important component of the covenant partnership to which our faith has called us.

It is probably always wise, and faithful, to be careful who we let tell us who we are.

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.