Do you ever wonder how American politics has become so polarized? Certainly, American politics has been contentious in other periods of our history when our nation faced many dangerous and complicated challenges—the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights. Political polarization today has taken a dramatic turn in the last 40 years, an entire generation of American politics with discernable outlines of a trajectory that in large part involves the relationship between politics and religion.
In the ancient world religious myth was used by rulers to coerce their subjects into complying with their wishes. Because religious myth made claims for the divine ancestry of the ruling classes, to resist the will of the ruling class was to resist the will of the gods and such resistance left one open to the terrors of divine punishment, usually and swiftly meted out by the ruling classes themselves. Consequently, the laws and commands of the ancient ruling elite were treated as divine law with citizens in subjected (forced) compliance.
This was generally true of the ancient East Asian cultures where dense populations experienced strident competition for material resources and warranted the development of religious traditions grounded in the desire to encourage ethical behavior toward one’s fellow human being. Karma came to be defined as an impersonal force driving the inescapable (and just) consequences of one’s actions toward others.
Karl Marx’s famous position on religion as the opiate of the masses was due in large part to his criticisms of the exploitative nature of Western capitalism and Christianity. Marx observed that Christianity could be engaged in such a way as to assuage one’s conscience in a world where exploiting one’s fellow human being through the colonial and capitalist practices of empire were justified in the name of a God who forgave even the most egregious of sins.
Saul of Tarsus, whom Christian scriptures describe as having been called by God to be Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, was implicated in the death of the church’s first martyr, Stephen. And if God can forgive a murderer, well God will certainly forgive my exploitation of my workers. After all, I pay them enough to have food and shelter. What more do they need? And religious folks, through the preaching of the gospel of the assuaged conscience, allow themselves to be lulled into complacency regarding human exploitation, both in terms of the exploiter and the exploited.
But religion, specifically conservative evangelicalism, transformed itself in the mid-twentieth century. The transformation found its way from Marx’s benignly patent but maliciously latent opiate of the masses to a more weaponized form of Christianity bent on storming the halls of power.
For centuries many conservatives viewed their relationship to political involvement as one of avoiding the corruption and impurity of the world. Withdrawal and self-preservation, by and large, was one of the hallmarks of conservative Christianity going back to Ulrich Zwingli’s social pacifism and his active resistance to Christians participating in state sanctioned war. Zwingli met his end in the meat grinder of war when his political enemies captured him, and then quartered and burned his body—the takeaway being, when you speak truth to power, those in power are aggressively invested in the violent suppression of their critics. Take as a clear example the recent Saudi Arabian scandal with the torture and bodily dismemberment of one of the royal family’s most strident critics, Jamal Khashoggi, and the morally ambivalent connections to US foreign trade and politics, cited explicitly by our current president.
In today’s context the weaponization of Christianity began in the 1970s and ’80s in response to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973. For twentieth-century conservative evangelicals the Roe v. Wade decision was the straw that broke the camel’s back of resistance to public engagement with political power. The world had become so corrupt that it was now time to do something. Sitting on the sidelines of the political arena was no longer a tolerable proposition.
Conservative theologians like Francis Schaeffer called for American evangelicals to take charge of their own destiny, essentially to make a complete transformation in the way they viewed their relationship to politics, to become one of engagement rather than withdrawal for the sake of preserving Christian purity.
The evangelical community embraced the call and quickly developed an appetite for consuming books like Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live (1976) and A Christian Manifesto (1981), or Rebecca Manley Pippert’s Out of the Salt Shaker and into the World (1979), or Peter Marshall’s The Light and the Glory: Did God Have a Plan for America? (1980). Greg Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics (1977) offered one of the more chilling prospects for the Christian right’s designs to take over the legislative branch of American governance, in order to apply literal interpretations of biblical law to American culture, including literal observance of Levitical prescriptions for punishments of legal offense. Bahnsen’s book is touted as a virtual tour de force of logic among conservative evangelicals still today. The recent 2017 book by Michael Medved, The American Miracle: Divine Providence in the Rise of the Republic, suggests the strength and tenacity of this conservative alliance of politics and religion.
All of this problematically ignores the evidence that the founding leaders of our nation were not all Christians and that they intentionally sought to base our constitution and laws on European humanist philosophy, not Judaeo-Christian foundational teachings. It also ignores the intent of our nation’s founding leaders to provide a high wall of separation between the church and the state, in order to protect religious freedoms for everyone, not just conservative evangelicals.
Prominent evangelical pastors led the way. Figures like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson wrote their own books, legitimizing for masses of evangelicals an entirely new market of literature for the newly enlightened. Falwell and Robertson (and many more evangelicals) even ran for political office, but it was not for local offices. They went straight for the top, signaling for all that this was really an authoritarian movement directed from the top down.
Early on in the collaboration of the “religious right” with Neoconservatives the political rhetoric shifted. When Newt Gingrich ascended to the position of Speaker of the House in 1995 he no longer referred to his colleagues across the aisle as political opponents. Gingrich shifted the discourse by referring to his House colleagues as enemies. I remember it clearly. I didn’t fully understand the ramifications of the shift then, even though it left a bitter taste in my mouth. Nearly 25 years later and the results of the extreme ideological trajectory Gingrich advanced are clear, and clearly alarming.
What we saw unfolding before our eyes was an alliance of Neoconservative pols and evangelicals, both conservative yet both with slightly different ends in mind. The Neocons willingly embraced the public identification with conservative Christianity mainly because they viewed evangelicals as a powerful voting block for keeping conservative pols in power. Neocons, however, were more interested in economic and corporate deregulation, as well as advancing Ronald Reagan’s union busting agenda already firmly entrenched systemically and rhetorically in the 1980s, all of which has had a profoundly negative impact on the diminishment of the livelihoods of American workers who receive only a small fraction of the value that their labor contributes to the vast economic wealth and prosperity enjoyed by American corporations.
These are the same corporations who today horde trillions in wealth, while they vigorously and defiantly refuse to contribute to the public good by withholding their tax contributions from society (public schools, health care, infrastructure, pensions, Social Security, etc., etc.). Noblesse oblige is dead. Exclusionary definitions of “patriotism” were bandied about as part of the rhetorical scheme, having an exclusionary force that also found a home among conservative evangelicals who viewed America as an exclusively Christian nation at the heart of God’s plan for the world.
Conservative evangelicals were more interested in the culture wars as this was being framed by evangelical theologians and advanced in the caustic rhetoric of conservative pols. Family values was an open rallying cry. Abortion and homosexuality were natural social issues for conservative Christians who read their Bibles as prohibiting such evils, and the appearance of AIDS in the early 1980s was taken as confirmation of God’s judgement against the Gay community. Conservative pols had little interest in such things except to use them as rhetorical wedge issues during election years, further weaponizing the church in their schemes to achieve and maintain even more political power.
Over the years the distinction between political and religious conservatism became blurred to the point of non-distinction. Conservative evangelicals whose political interests were almost solely focused on social issues paradoxically and energetically embraced the conservative Neoliberal political agenda—corporate deregulation, worker suppression, systemic racism, environmental exploitation, gerrymandering, voter suppression, xenophobia, unrestrained support for the military industrial complex under the guise of “patriotism” driven by the premise that it’s better to destroy the lives of people of color “over there” than to have to fight them in the “homeland”—and this is essentially due to the effect of corporate Neoliberal propaganda overshadowing the biblical text evangelicals so vigorously claim defines them.
Instead of embracing and identifying with the poor (economically marginalized) as the New Testament demands, conservative Christians have rationalized the adoption of Neoliberal narratives. These narratives demand that we judge the poor; they are in a position of having to receive assistance because of their own laziness. “Those who will not work shall not eat” is the rallying cry. These narratives hold the poor in contempt for endangering our economy, rather than corporations who aggressively craft policies to be voted as legislation, in order to increase their bottom line via legalized exploitation of their workers.
Progressive political and social pressures only recently forced Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos to raise his workers’ minimum wage to $15 an hour. Bezos did not willingly do this. The pressure has been there before. But what seems to have brought the pressure to the breaking point has been the growing awareness of the intolerable and obscene extreme of wealth disparity and the brutal impoverishment of America’s middle class. Have we finally reached the tipping point?
Neoliberal policies favoring corporate rather than public interests have become the norm. The expanded influx of money for political campaign contributions from corporate lobbyists since the 1980s has rendered distinctions between conservatives and liberals virtually irrelevant as liberals willingly embraced this shift in the system, with excuses like, “if we don’t do it, our political opponents surely will; we have to play on a level playing field.” And it has remained so to this day. The Clintons exemplify this shift among the Neoliberal left and establishment Democrats, rendering them virtually indistinguishable from their conservative Neoliberal counterparts on the right.
Religion has taken a back seat to politics as we have conditioned ourselves to view our religious sensibilities and convictions through the lens of our politics rather than the other way around. When faced with a moral challenge in our public discourse, it is immediately and cynically dismissed as political gamesmanship. As I write this the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh as an associate justice to the Supreme Court is a done deal. And yet a proper legal vetting of the moral claims against Kavanagh’s character and fitness for the highest court in the land were forestalled by a cynical political ideology of elite white male privilege that is no longer grounded in the rule of law we value as Americans.
We find ourselves today in a world of cognitive dissonance, where those who claim to follow the teachings of Christ have abandoned those teachings, if not entirely then certainly in large part, in order to fight for the agenda of the political party they embraced decades ago, and have blindly rationalized their willingness to engage in ends-justifies-the-means politics. In July 2016 Pew Research indicated that more registered voters who were white evangelicals supported Trump in 2016 than supported Romney in 2012. Political compromise, which was once the bread and butter of getting things done legislatively, has now been replaced by refusal to compromise politically, no doubt a transference of conservative evangelical theology onto conservative politics.
Could this be viewed as one of the unintended consequences of the Neoconservative and evangelical marriage that took place in the 1980s? Unintended, but not necessarily unforeseeable? This is the only explanation that makes sense to me when I see so many evangelical Christians (not all of them, but so many of them) assert their loyalty to a political party and its leaders whose actions and policies are so antithetical to the gospel message of hope and restoration in our relationship with God and in our relationships with each other.
The gospels are filled with stories of Jesus feeding the hungry (SNAP?), healing the sick (universal healthcare?), teaching those who were open to what he had to say (public education?). The gospels are also filled with episodes where Jesus confronted those who were in power. He did not collaborate with the powerful. Jesus confronted the religious leaders in power.
Why did Jesus confront the religious authorities in power? Because these leaders collaborated with the Romans who imposed social and economic systems that were so exploitative and so oppressive that they had most of the population living hand-to-mouth, day-to-day, scratching and clawing a living where it was already near impossible to eke out one’s daily bread. As one New Testament scholar (John Dominic Crossan) has said, “there were the haves and the have nots.” And the haves were not willingly disposed to give anything of material substance to the have nots. That sounds disturbingly more and more like a description of the America we live in today.
The gospels are replete with Jesus’ criticisms of obscene wealth and unrestrained greed. And this is to say nothing at all about the numerous criticisms of the same in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Jesus tells the man who wanted to join Jesus and his followers: “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.”
To those who say social justice is evil, and not surprisingly there are many conservative Christians who say this, my response to them is this: social justice is an inescapable consequence of believing the gospel.
There are two ways of looking at the gospel, and they are not incompatible with each other. It is a both-and, not an either-or. We read the gospel as the early church’s message of God’s grace in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. It is certainly sine qua non for a Christian, but that’s not all there is to it.
It is when we read the New Testament as if this is the only aspect of the gospel, it is then that we fall into the trap of the gospel of the assuaged conscience. It is the kind of distortion of Christianity that drove Karl Marx’s criticisms in the nineteenth century and still drives criticisms of Christianity today.
My response to this kind of distortion of the gospel and Christianity is that there is another aspect of the gospel, and this includes the concept of social justice. The gospel opens our hearts to be transformed in the ways we act, to receive Jesus’s ethical teachings and his actions as examples for Christians to follow. This is the dual foci in the New Testament where Jesus tells us to love God AND love our neighbor.
Marx claimed that for earlier expressions of historic “exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, the bourgeoisie has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.” Conservative pols in America today, committed in their service to corporate economic policies, stridently engage us in a culture war by employing a now weaponized segment of conservative evangelical Christians who don’t realize they are being used. Clinging to the brutality of their naked aggression to exploit, conservative corporate pols do not yield willingly. Rather than collaborate with those who walk the halls of power, we must confront them repeatedly with the truth of the gospel in all that the gospel has to say to us.
As unrestrained greed tears at the fabric of our society and as naked aggressions to power with a militarized police force secure corporate interests, our nation moves daily closer to corporate control of every branch of our government and the alarming prospect of an inverted fascist state. Some prophetic voices have said that we are already there. As politically protected greed and aggression rear their ugly head in every generation, history repeats itself and we must never lose heart. Never lose heart. And always, always pay attention to what they say and how they say it, but especially pay attention to what they do.
We use our voice to speak the truth, even if the powers are violently inclined to suppress it. We speak of something greater than ourselves. And we are not afraid. We the people are not afraid.
James Waddell is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit, Michigan