February 2007 – It was apparently a case of the left hand knowing exactly what the right hand was doing – and then imitating it.
In 2004 Christian conservatives – the so-called “values voters” – claimed credit for the re-election of President George W. Bush. Many in the pro-family movement saw the importance of those values voters as a sign of the emerging power of what many in the media disdainfully called the Religious Right.
The recent mid-term elections, however, appeared to showcase the collapse of the power of the Religious Right. In November, Democrats surged at the ballot box to snatch control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate from Republicans and from the many conservative Christians who supported the Grand Old Party (GOP).
Ironically, it was another religious wing in America – the Religious Left – which made headlines following the Democratic takeover.
Jim Wallis, the president and executive director of Sojourners/Call to Renewal and author of the best-seller God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, said the 2006 elections were proof that not all evangelicals reside on the right side of the political spectrum.
“The Religious Right’s dominance over politics and evangelicals has come to an end,” he said. “I would say the Religious Right has lost, and the Secular Left has lost.”
‘Left-wing’ values voters
Today there is perhaps no man more influential within the evangelical left than Wallis. In his writings and speeches, Wallis comes across as earnest, humble and passionate, and his book makes a number of salient points. Certainly, while his assertion that the Religious Right is essentially washed up is undoubtedly premature, his belief that a new force has emerged on the religious-political scene is not.
Michael Gershon, former speechwriter and policy adviser to President George W. Bush and currently a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in Newsweek of “a head-snapping generational change among evangelicals.”
Many Christians, Gershon wrote, “have begun elbowing against the narrowness of the Religious Right, becoming more globally focused and more likely to consider themselves ‘pro-life and pro-poor.’”
Tom Krattenmaker, a writer and a member of USA Today’s board of contributors, complained in an op-ed piece after the mid-term elections that conservative evangelicals always seem to focus on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. He counted himself among those evangelicals on the Left “who turn our attention and hearts to other imperatives such as peace-making, poverty relief, environmental preservation and tolerance.”
The conservative monopoly is apparently over, according to Krattenmaker. “We all have values,” he said. “Let the majority of us who are not members of the ‘values voters’ club continue to take back the v-word and proclaim the values that we’ve always acted – and voted – upon.”
Krattenmaker and others are not only determined to be called values voters, but they are also intent on acting like their conservative counterparts. According to Christianity Today’s Sheryl Henderson Blunt, in anticipation of the mid-term elections, Sojourners/Call to Renewal mimicked the Religious Right’s strategy of distributing voter’s guides – 300,000 of them, in fact.
The effort, said Blunt, was meant to “thwart religious conservatives and prompt voters to think more broadly about what [Wallis] believes a biblical political agenda entails.”
A new wrong?
It is more than a little ironic, of course, that the Religious Left – that is, the evangelical version – is pursuing political power in the same way that the Religious Right supposedly gained it.
Then again, conservative Christians have always noted the irony – and perhaps downright hypocrisy – of the behavior of some on the Left. For example, when conservative church leaders encourage their congregations to register to vote, or when pro-family leaders hold rallies concerning judicial appointments or same-sex marriage, many liberals issue dire warnings of an imminent theocratic takeover.
But when liberal churches host political speakers such as Bill Clinton or Al Gore or John Kerry, or when popular evangelical pastor and writer Rick Warren hosts an international AIDS conference at his church and invites liberal senator Barack Obama (D-IL) to speak, liberals go strangely silent.
So it is not surprising that so much, well, irony abounds in this emerging Evangelical Left.
For example, critics frequently blast the Right for its hubris when it comes to values and morality. Krattenmaker bitterly complained about conservative rhetoric which suggested “that only those who share their positions on abortion and same-sex couples possess something deserving of the term ‘values.’”
Yet Wallis told Christianity Today that groups like his are trying to promote “a broader, deeper agenda that reflects a more Biblical political agenda.”
Hubris, it appears, comes in both right-wing and left-wing flavors. After all, to claim that Sojourners reflects a more Biblical political agenda is to assert that the conservative political agenda is less Biblical.
What also infuriates liberals like Krattenmaker is the tendency, as he sees it, for conservative Christians to cherry-pick which issues to emphasize – such as matters of morality and the sanctity of human life.
The Religious Left, on the other hand, simply obsesses about its own list of important issues. De-emphasized or sometimes even jettisoned are issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and the culturally polluting effects of the entertainment industry; embraced are issues like the minimum wage, racial injustice and global warming.
Unsurprisingly, the issues that are important to many conservative Christians make them natural allies of the GOP, which tends to be far more culturally conservative than the Democratic Party.
But that’s a sore spot, too, as it turns out. George G. Hunter III, professor of evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary and author of Christian, Evangelical and … Democrat?, has complained about evangelicals’ “monogamous alliance with the Republican Party.”
Fair enough. But in the very next breath, Hunter said that Christian leaders should “encourage evangelicals to become involved with Democrats.”
Why is a monogamous relationship with the GOP a bad thing, but a monogamous bond with the Democratic Party OK?
So, are we destined to see a political battlefield in which Right and Left compete to see which side can get Jesus on board first? After all, doesn’t it pretty much end the debate when you imply that the Son of God agrees with all of your public policy white papers?
For Christians, of course, the strategy begs the question: Is a particular issue something that is addressed by the Bible, and if so, how?
This is where conservatives have felt justified in emphasizing certain issues like homosexuality and the sanctity of innocent human life, because the Bible contains clear statements regarding these matters.
What about the Religious Left? When Hunter encourages evangelicals to focus on “the larger revealed ethic” espoused by Jesus, to what does he refer? “Scripture stands strongly on the side of justice, peace, reconciliation, and health – including the health of creation,” he said.
Such mantras are repeated constantly by liberal evangelicals, and few conservative Christians would argue with the proposition that justice or poverty, for example, are important concerns of Scripture.
But what is it exactly that the Bible says about such things? Surely a solid Scriptural case could be made against racism, but does that mean that Jesus Christ would personally favor affirmative action as a specific policy? And while a Christian should certainly feel compelled to help the poor, is it more Christian to support an increase in entitlement programs or to cut the capital gains tax to spur more hiring?
Wallis sometimes appears to believe that the Bible mandates liberal solutions to these social problems. In one particularly over-heated burst of rhetoric, Wallis said in God’s Politics that GOP tax cuts for the wealthy and “policy failures such as the denial of child tax credits to low-income families … would have brought the Biblical prophets to the White House lawn.”
The reason for Wallis’ conclusion? He starts with the prophetic denunciations of greed and carelessness toward the poor, and then assumes these prophets would agree with liberal policies and rebuke conservatives.
Of course, the problem with this approach is that, using the Bible as a guide, problems like poverty can be addressed politically only in general terms. When it comes down to specifics, it’s much more difficult to produce a peculiarly “Christian” policy solution. The poor should be helped – by individuals, the church, and government – but how that would best be done is a matter for open debate.
In any case, even if conservative Christians should expand their core issues to emphasize matters like poverty and justice – and they should – why does the Religious Left de-emphasize same-sex marriage and abortion?
It’s not like those are insignificant matters. If conservatives are obsessed with abortion and homosexuality, it’s probably understandable. More than 1.2 million unborn children are butchered in U.S. abortuaries each year, and radical gay activists are busily attempting to abolish the traditional family while propagandizing our children in public schools about the marvels of anal sex.
A bird with two wings
So must the church choose between the approach of the Religious Right and the Religious Left, being forced to conclude that one or the other must be wrong?
Maybe not. Perhaps what is happening is that the evangelical community as a whole has simply awakened to the full host of problems facing our nation. The dichotomy of focus may simply reflect the issues that burden each “wing” of the evangelical bird most deeply.
If that were so, then each side would have a responsibility to humbly nod in the direction of the other and encourage all members of the body of Christ to impact the culture as they see fit. Then the entire body would, in reality, be dealing with the full range of biblical concerns.
In that case there would be nothing wrong with the left wing knowing exactly what the right wing is doing, and vice versa.