Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Standing in the Middle

"Now standing in the middle has its advantages and disadvantages.  Common sense tends to pull people to the middle of issues, so those standing in the middle usually have peer support.  Those in the middle, however, don't have the luxury of having to defend only a single flank - they get shot at from both sides." - Ric Machuga, In Defense of the Soul, What It Means to Be Human
This was only a passing remark made in the book I am currently reading, but it caught my eye because the older I get the more often find myself occupying the middle ground on so many issues.

Standing in the middle is what often happens when you give both sides of a matter a fair listen. Both sides usually have at least part of the matter right.  If to the left of you the right hand is correct, you take hold of it.  If to the right the left hand holds truth, you take hold of that. Next thing you know you're standing between the two, holding hands with them both.

A happy picture, is it not?  You have a friend on either side. But what you also have on either side is the enemy of the other.  You in the middle bear a heavy weight of responsibility.  You are what stands between the rivals and their mutual destruction. You represent the common ground and the potential for peace. Those on either side of you have a couple of choices.  They can, if they respect you, each respect what you see in the other and let you help bridge the gap, or they can continue to tear each other apart and destroy you in the process.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." Mt. 5:9

Friday, March 16, 2012

Book Talk: Kingdom Coming, The Rise of Christian Nationalism

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.  2 Peter 3:8-13
"Since all thee things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be?..."

Those words hung in the air as I read Michelle Goldberg's 2006 journalistic work about the rise of Christian nationalism in America.  Indeed, I found the entire book unsettling in many ways.

I originally purchased my copy of the book a couple of years ago after hearing an interview with the author.   Though she is a secular writer, her discussion of the topic was so fair and reasonable, and so compelling that I was intrigued and ordered a copy even though I knew that the interview and the book were already a few years old. It then took me another two years before I finally made time to read it a couple of weeks ago.  Considering it was written in the second term of the Bush presidency, it is still surprisingly relevant.  It contains many names, organizations, and causes that are very familiar to me as an evangelical believer.  A few of the players have changed, some have dropped out of the limelight, some have gained even more influence.  One shocked me by turning up in the course of my reading shortly after he turned up as a front-runner in our current G.O.P. primary race.

Goldberg describes "Christian nationalism" as "Christianity as a total ideology" -
"The people who live inside this reality often call it the 'Christian worldview.' The phrase is based on the conviction that true Christianity must govern every aspect of public and private life, and that all - government, science, history, culture, and relationships - must be understood according to the dictates of scripture.  There are biblically correct positions on every issue, from gay marriage to income tax rates, and only those with the right worldview can discern them."
Furthermore, she asserts that this ideology "is what drives a great many of the fights over religion, science, sex, and pluralism that are now dividing communities all over the country.  It is a conscious refutation of Enlightenment rationalism..."

Speaking as an evangelical Christian, I would say this is a fair assessment of the mindset of a significant segment of American evangelicalism.  I can also easily imagine many of my brethren reading much of her book and responding with a puzzled, "She says that as if it were a bad thing".    (In truth, I found myself during the course of my reading spending a lot of energy puzzling out how it is that so many people with whom I agree about so many things could have ended up with such different objectives.)

I found little to fault in Goldberg's observations. Other than a misunderstanding* or two, which seemed to stem simply from not being a Christian herself, her treatment was, by and large, fair.  Not painting with too broad a brush, she carefully emphasized that the Christian nationalistic movement is not representative of Christianity as a whole, or of all American Christians, or even of all evangelicals.  She was also open about how helpful and genuinely nice so many of the Christians she interacted with were.  But the fact that she was  speaking from the perspective of a non-Christian gets to the heart of why I found her observations and concerns so disturbing.  Through her eyes I was able to get a glimpse of what American Christianity in its loudest and most visible form sounds and looks like to an outsider.

Rather than a people who, like their God, do not wish that any should perish, she found a people who would like to re-institute some version of the Mosaic Law, with its diverse death penalties and all, right here in America, and who are using whatever means they can - from local and national politics to child-bearing and homeschooling - to gain the power and influence needed to make it happen.  Instead of a people committed to living holy, godly lives, hoping and waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwell, she found a people seeking to impose the righteousness of God on this earth right now - on believer and unbeliever alike.
"The motivating dream of the movement is the restoration of an imagined Christian nation.  With the revisionist history that claims the founders never intended to create a secular country and that separation of church and state is a lie fostered by conniving leftists, Christian nationalism rejects the idea of government religious neutrality... the ultimate goal of Christian nationalist leaders isn't fairness.  It's dominion.  The movement is built on a theology that asserts the Christian right to rule.  That doesn't mean that the nonbelievers will be forced to convert. They'll just have to learn their place."
I find little to argue with in Goldberg's assessment not only because her findings are well documented, but because she well represents how I've found much of American evangelicalism to be. To flesh out her story, she selects several evangelical political issues as cases in point: the meme of a "Christian nation"; gay rights; the evolution/creationist education debate, the "abstinence industry", government funding of religious social service institutions; and the drive to remedy "judicial tyranny".  She was not, so far as I could tell, reacting to phantom threats. Neither, so far as I could tell, was she misrepresenting the facts.  In every case the Christian positions she presents are ones I am at least acquainted with, and in certain cases very familiar.  Some of the causes she describes are ones I am sympathetic toward.

Goldberg gave me a sense of how the political activity of the Religious Right looks and feels to outsiders.  I can clearly see how alarming all of this activity is to a non-Christian.  But I am a Chrisitan - and, truth be told, the behavior of the Religious Right has been disturbing me for almost as long as I have been a follower of Christ.  Before my conversion, I was a Republican, leaning toward Libertarian in my views. In fact that was my position at the time this book was written. I was not paying much attention back then to the machinations of the Religious Right, but if I had been, I would have mainly approved. As a nominal Christian I would have seen no problem with any of the political actions Goldberg describes in her book. But because I was a conservative before my conversion, I did not conflate my conservatism with my faith in Christ.  I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that being a Republican did not save my soul and that conservatism is not the way to heaven.  Unfortunately, in this I feel out of step with much of American evangelicalism, which seems to be under the impression that it can make America into God's kingdom via political power.
"Jesus answered,'My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.'" John 18:36
When I became a Christian all my hopes and dreams, and my loyalties along with them, transferred.  My kingdom is no longer of this world.  "He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." (Col 1:13:14)
Now my citizenship is in heaven, and my status in this world is that of a sojourner.  I am an exile here, and the Scripture teaches me to alter my life accordingly:
"Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 1 Peter 2:11-12
"...aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one." 1 Thess. 4:11-12
"Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life..." Philippians 2:14-16a
"Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor." 1 Peter 2:13-17
It grieves me that instead of living quiet lives, honoring everyone - even ungodly rulers - subjecting ourselves to human institutions, and letting our good deeds and honorable conduct stand in our defense, I see my fellow Christians loudly demanding control, disputing, grumbling, and attempting to subvert the powers that be. I find a great host, under the banner of Christ, striving with all their might to make this world their kingdom and to make the unbelievers the exiles in it.

I do not deny that this effort is often well-intentioned.  Many, as Goldberg rightly explains, believe that in doing so that they are obeying the "Dominion Mandate" of Genesis 1:26-27.  I am well aware that not all Christians share the same eschatology. However, regardless of whether one believes this dominion will ultimately be exercised in this world, or in the New Earth, the New Testament makes it clear that there is only one way to advance God's kingdom and only one legitimate source of God's power in this world: the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Never in the New Testament are we taught to advance God's kingdom through political force.  On the contrary, God chose to reveal His power through the humility and suffering of Christ.  The cross should remind us that God's strength is made perfect in our weakness,  The kingdom reign of Christ expands only through the faith that comes from hearing the word of Christ. When we exchange the weakness that is our strength for the "carnal weapons" of earthly power plays we are declaring our belief that the gospel is inadequate, that the Cross of Christ is is not quite powerful enough to secure the kingdom. Or perhaps we are revealing that it is not God's plans we are truly interested in, but our own.
"The anxieties that underlay Christian nationalism's appeal - fears about social breakdown, marital instability, and cultural decline - are real.  They should be acknowledged and, whenever possible, addressed.  But as long as the movement aims at the destruction of secular society and the political enforcement of its theology, it has to be battled, not comforted and appeased." 
Remembering that we Christians are exiles in this world, I found the title of  Goldberg's conclusion, "Exiles in Jesusland" sadly ironic.  In it she expresses her fear of religious tyranny - by religious fundamentalists - by us.  To an unbeliever (and to many thoughtful Christians as well), the imposition of Old Testament Law on America would be no less terrifying a notion than the imposition of Sharia Law would be to every non-Muslim. The alarm she expressed is no different than that which we Christians feel at the thought of an Islamic takeover of America.

After years of hearing panicked warnings from Christians of the threat posed by liberals, I found it eye-opening to read that secularists have similar fears of the Religious Right.  The "F" word, in both mouths is fascism, and, for good reason; ever since Hitler, it has been everybody's great fear. Six years ago, Goldberg still held out a ray of hope, "Tremendous crises would have to shred what's left of the American consensus before religious fascism becomes a possibility..."  She then went on to paint a worst-case scenario:
"Historically, totalitarian movements have been able to seize state power only when existing authorities prove unable to deal with catastrophic challenges - economic meltdown, security failures, military defeat - and people lose their faith in the legitimacy of the system....Such calamities are certainly conceivable in America...If there is a hard landing - due to an oil shock, a burst housing bubble, a sharp decline in the value of the dollar, or some other crisis - interest rates would shoot up, leaving many people unable to pay their floating-rate mortgages, and credit card bills.  Repossessions and bankruptcies would follow.  Many Americans would lose everything they have, including their houses.  The resulting anger could fuel radical populist movements of either the left or the right - more likely the right, since it has a far stronger ideological infrastructure in place in most of America.  Economic hardship incubates hate."
Does any of this sound familiar?  Considering this was written before the economic collapse, the Obama Presidency, and the Tea Party and Occupy Movements, I found her forecast to be unnerving:
"If current trends continue, we will see ever increasing division and acrimony in our politics.  That's partly because, as Christian nationalism spreads, secularism is spreading as well, while moderate, mainline Christianity is in decline... This is a recipe for polarization.  The religious divide in America isn't so much between the faithless and faithful - it's between those who want to maintain a secular pluralistic society and those who do not.  But the growing presence of non-Christians will exacerbate the frightened anger of those desperate to drag the country back to its mythical Christian roots....As Christian nationalism becomes more militant, secularist and religious minorities will mobilize in opposition, ratcheting up the hostility.  Thus we're likely to see a shrinking middle ground, with both camps increasingly viewing each other across a chasm of mutual incomprehension and contempt."
To try and head off a takeover by the Religious Right Goldberg suggests that the left fight fire with fire and use same strategy that has worked so well for the right: "try to build a culture," she advises.  "Political parties and social movements operate in different ways. Political parties address the beliefs people already hold.  Movements work to change those beliefs...A movement has to shape the culture before candidates who reflect its values will have a chance". At this point I scribbled in my margins, "Carnal weapons work in anyone's hands...If the 'Christian' tactics can be used just as effectively in secular hands then there is nothing uniquely Christian about them".  And this is what most alarms me about the Christian nationalism movement.  In taking up worldly methods, it denies the power of the gospel, and misrepresents the mission of Christ to the world.

As Christ did not come into the world to condemn, but to save, so we, His church are called to continue His work. And so, God has "made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." (2 Cor. 3:6)

Kingdom Coming remains, six years after publication a thought-provoking and worthwhile read.  As ambassadors of Christ in this world, I think it wise for Christians to pay close attention to the impact their behaviors, attitudes, and politics have on unbelievers, remembering that we are not called to condemn, but to be ministers of reconciliation and adjusting our behaviors and attitudes accordingly.
"From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." 2 Cor. 5:16-21


* In Chapter One, in which she discusses whether or not America can rightfully be called a Christian nation, Goldberg, in my opinion, reads far too much meaning into a statement by President G.W. Bush:
"...the president himself speaks the language of Christian nationalism... In January 2005 Bush told the Washington Times that, while religious freedom is essential to America, 'On the other hand, I don't see how you can be president, at least from my perspective, how you can be president without a relationship with the Lord.' A personal 'relationship with the Lord,' of course, is a central tenet of evangelical Christianity, although not of many other faiths.  Assuming he meant what he said, the president's statement implies that only evangelicals are qualified for his job."
To a Christian a statement like this generally is meant only to reflect humbly one's own sense of inadequacy and dependence on God's help in the face of an incredibly difficult circumstance or responsibility.  Bush felt he needed God's help to be a good president. I don't think he meant to imply there could be no effective president who is not a Christian.