Thursday, May 19, 2016

Ruth Graham's"How liberal Christians can turn the Democrats into the Party of God" seems to forget that an evangelicalism that was progressive a century ago may have had it's day

Over at Mere Orthodoxy Jake Meador has proposed that there's a key shortcoming to Ruth Graham's piece:
But Graham’s piece, helpful though it is as a chronicling of the change, fails for reasons strikingly similar to the likely reason for the religious right’s failure—a lazy collapsing of right-wing political ideas and theological orthodoxy under the category “conservative” and an equally sloppy collapsing of left-wing political ideas and theological heterodoxy (at best) under the category of “liberal.” (Aside from a brief mention of the black church, generally politically liberal and theologically conservative, Graham collapses political and theological conservatism and liberalism down into a single thing throughout the piece.)

What I didn't see too much of is a point that D. G. Hart wrote a little book about, From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism, in which he argued two basic points: 1) evangelicalism and conservatism were only united for a short while during the Reagan coalition in which Reagan almost magically got traditional conservatives, libertarians and anti-communists to agree on a shared agenda that collapsed once the Cold War was officially over, after which religious conservatives began to discover their social agendas did not align with traditional political conservatives, let alone neo-cons and 2) that evangelicalism, taken for the span of its history, has been more steadily aligned with progressive causes.

Not all conservative evangelicals like the Hart book, since he fisks not only the likes of David Barton but also Francis Schaeffer in a chapter aptly christened "the search for a usable past", describing how in the absence of any truly compelling historical case that the Founding Fathers were conservative evangelical Protestants in anything like a late 20th century form, conservative Christian activists had to come up with a master narrative in which these kinds of people existed. 

It can be easy for those who don't already know this to never know, but Hart's book was a useful reminder that William Jennings Bryan, for instance, was at the forefront of the progressive movement even as he eventually became famous for the Scopes trial.  The pop mythology of Bryan being against evolution was easier for some to remember than his opposition to eugenics and his belief that wealthy elites were harming the goodwill of regular working class people. For those who grew up in Oregon it's not TOO HARD to remember Senator John Hatfield if you're old enough, who despite being Republican had some progressive causes. 

Election cycle propaganda for the right and the left has seen fit to paper over the history of evangelical interest in progressive causes that ranged from the 1920s to 1970s and arguably culminated in the election of Jimmy Carter, the evangelical president. Sure, thanks to contemporary political fights he might not be so labeled but one of the problems with Graham's piece and in some ways Meador's rebuttal is that both sides have found it waaaay too convenient to conflate doctrinal conservatism with political conservatism and vice versa. when a more honest and thorough history of religion in the United States could show us that the theologically conservative have been politicaly progressive while theologically liberal types could play more reactionary political roles in American history.

the dog whistling politics on the left and right has reached what feels like a saturation point.  It's not difficult to see folks on the right invoke Sanger's history of supporting birth control and eugenics to play that up as racist while over at places like Jacobin a master narrative of neo-cons as Jewish guys who would have otherwise supported civil rights for blacks if they weren't afraid they'd lose their disproportionate influence in academia to affirmative action quotas. While progressives and conservatives have made plenty of hay formulating propagandistic narratives aimed at persuading non-whites that each side is bad it ... might not be an altogether bad idea to view white progressives and reactionaries as equally bad at this point.  Who's to say that Sanders and Trump aren't BOTH populist agitators whose primary appeal is to angry whites on the left and right respectively.

In our current era when abortion is celebrated as a right on the left and wars on terror are celebrated on the right it seems what Americans left and right fundamentally have in common is a belief that for the individual or for the nation the liberty to use pre-emptive lethal force to take a life that would inhibit financial upward mobility for an individual and a society should ultimately not be limited. It seems that a consistent perspective would be that what is acceptable at the individual level is also acceptable at the national level (i.e. pro-choice and pro-war to preserve consumer options across the board, or, by contrast, being against abortion and pre-emptive use of lethal force to take down those whose existence or actions would impede our consumer options) but it seems that the left and right in the United States are mainly committed to selective contradictions.

It could certainly seem as though there's plenty of trouble for all sides.  The revelations of John Howard Yoder's sexual harassment of women has been something the Mennonites have been coming to terms with in the last few years.  Driscoll had his downfall, and Tony Jones' reputation should be in at least some doubt for his divorce of his prior wife.  I've already written plenty in the past about my complete inability to take Rachel Held Evans seriously.  It's too bad Ruth Graham has opted to take Evans seriously.  Back in 2012 it was handy to blog about how Mark Driscoll was a bully and to stand up to him but that was identity politics as usual.  Evans played no role in the 2013 plagiarism controversy that erupted because of Mark Driscoll's interview with Janet Mefferd. 

I'll say what regular readers already know about me, I'm not even remotely progressive in politics or religion, but I'm persuaded that it's far more important that progressives and conservatives consider whether their own team  members are living in accordance with stated principles than to fixate too much on the hypocrisy and evil of the other side.  We're the United States of America.  We have the military power to wipe out all life on the planet if we want; we have the informational technology to cause a lot of damage; we have an empire unlike anything the world has ever seen; so the idea that the United States will stop being Babylon a la the book of Revelation just because the red state or blue state voters manage to realize their dream of single party rule at a practical level doesn't change any of that.  The drift of the left and right on the internet has suggested to me that what internet activists for both sides want is functionally ultimately a totalitarian system in which ideological purity for the left and right causes becomes paramount.  But having said that I think that what we need to be on the lookout is not necessarily "their" impulses to tyranny but "our" impulses to tyranny. 

Long, long ago before the cult of personality transformed it into the Mark Driscoll Show, what I appreciated about Mars Hill was that evangelicals with politically progressive and conservative convictions could share Christian community.  Obviously that didn't last very long because nobody really wrote about it having ever happened.  I could hang out with people at Mars Hill who are huge fans of Doug Wilson and then the next week trade messages online with someone who's totally into the Christian anarchist writings of Jacques Ellul.  To the extent that progressives and conservatives have worried about the centralization of media ownership and federal power they actually have a common worry ... but thanks to the era of the internet the problem of what Ellul thought the near impossibility of easily creating horizontal/sociological propaganda has been solved by stuff like Twitter and Facebook.  In the previous century such totalizing propaganda for partisan views was stuff that had to be formulated and distributed from the top down.  Now people can feel the Bern and want to make America great again at a grass roots level.  Let's not worry so much about the Big Brother that we forget that we are Big Brother now.  When people can get fired from jobs over stuff they put on Twitter what top-down part of Big Brother does that?  Somebody had to read social media reactions at some point to get the idea to fire. 

So, yeah, I agree with Jake Meador about Graham's piece being a little disappointing, though my disappointment is that it seems that the left and right of today are so busy rewriting history so that everything fits the current arguments there's relatively little room for a more honest history.  If DG Hart's rebuke of the Religious Right was that it went out in search of a usable past to fit the political goals of their present, the attempts to re-found or revive a Religious Left seem likely to flounder because after a century of progressive Christianity allied itself to power in the first half of the 20th century someo f the trouble was that the civil rights movement and feminism brought to light that the problem with allying with power is that power doesn't want change to happen to  quickly.  Had the people running the Religious Right learned those lessons from more careful observation of the mainlines they "might" have learned to do things differently.  But it's not a given that those who don't know the past are doomed to repeat.  Maybe we can know the past intimately and are doomed to repeat it precisely because we tell ourselves that WE are going to be the exceptions.  Not everyone's going to like Hart's suggestion that we make peace with the permanence of the United States as a formally secular state but he might have a point, a point that neither the Religious Right nor the Religious Left will be very interested in taking to heart. 

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