Fallacies of the Christian Right

Mar 25, 2010

By Gode Davis, staff columnist – March 25, 2010

The Christian Right and their interpretations of Christianity have become a “given” in American society in recent decades. The current culture of Christianity boasts luminaries such as George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Tim LaHaye, and Joel Osteen among many contemporaries wielding pervasive influence and power. It goes without saying, according to such luminaries and their tens of millions of adherents, that Christianity and the principles of laissez-faire capitalism are synonymous with salvation and a well-lived life.

To varying degrees, the message is that success and prosperity breeds more of the same while altruism and empathy for the less fortunate is not necessarily a prerequisite for earning a posthumous berth in a celestial paradise. In fact, casting aspersions toward outcast “others” including “relativists” and secular humanists has emerged as a Christian Right staple. Since American “corporacracy” is now a “given” within our mindset, it all seems to fit.

The operative word is seems.

In actuality, historical Christianity has disagreed vehemently with such a message.

It can be argued that America has experienced three Great Spiritual Awakenings, as pertains to the Christian.

The First in this tradition’s history stems from mid-eighteenth century Calvinism. During this event, adherents passed into a state of sanctity through a theophany like that experienced by Saul of Tarsus (St. Paul) as he rode a donkey along the road to Damascus. Such a vision assured these American Calvinists of their salvation. Sweeping pre-Revolutionary America, the first Great Awakening became a model of revivalism. Although critics lambasted the degree of enthusiasm expressed by devout believers, any suggestion that salvation’s fruits could be had merely for the taking was a heresy railed against from thousands of pulpits.

The Second Awakening, which swept the Northeast during the early nineteenth century, laid the groundwork for other cultural and political threads such as the women’s suffrage movement, a revived temperance consciousness which one day would lead to Prohibition, and abolitionism. More caustically referred to by contemporary writers as “religious mania,” this revival too was based upon the belief of a reachable heaven – but only in the aftermath of an emotional/mystical connection experienced firsthand.

The Third Great Awakening is still in progress. It first began gathering its holy steam during the Administration of actor-come-President Ronald Reagan. Although divorced from Jane Wyman (1917-2007), Reagan was still considered a right-wing Conservative in good standing, helping to cement many Christian Right tenets in America’s collective memory. Many such tenets became entrenched for reasons somewhat divorced from religion, as the United States was again describing itself as “fundamentalist” – while still devoutly embracing every principle of laissez-faire capitalism. During post-1980 America, our nation began evolving into what one-time reformist politician John Edwards referred to as “two Americas” in a display of resonating populist sentiment during his failed Presidential run just a few years ago – prior to his very public personal failures. This characterization intended to describe a widening gap between the country’s richest and poorest, and was perceived as evidence of a misplaced social Darwinism, survival of the fittest, an attitude which never would have gained a foothold among Christians populating the first two Great Awakenings, but was and is deemed acceptable if not also preferable to denizens of the contemporary Christian Right.

In one of history’s more ironic twists, the First Great Awakening was inspired by another Edwards — Congregationalist minister and historical figure Jonathan Edwards. He believed that salvation occurred in a stand-alone, clear-cut charismatic experience which he called “conversion,” but which has come to be called being “born again.” Edwards’ signature sermon, the legendary “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” did not encourage his devoted following to believe in their own special sanctity.

The current Third Great Awakening seems to be asserting that very thing, loudly proclaiming a pious aversion toward “secular culture,” likely a code phrase with clear and present implications for those who dissent from positions embraced in lockstep by the Christian Right.

The human force spearheading the Second Great Awakening, the Presbyterian lawyer and abolitionist Charles Grandison Finney, placed a great deal of emphasis not only on slavery and its abolition, but also on the education of women – laying an early foundation for suffrage and temperance movements that followed. It became a natural progression for this Christian revival to address inequality in several familiar archetypes as assumed during that period – black and white, women and men, rich and poor.

By contrast, the current Awakening pays little mind to inequality of the sort alluded to by the lapsed politician John Edwards in the early 2000s. Instead, it embraces ideology espoused by the so-called “evangelical” and “born-again” President George Walker Bush – a myriad of economically-discriminating policies which unambiguously favored the wealthiest one percent of Americans – widening the dichotomy between our country’s wealthy and poor to historic levels resembling a South American oligarchy. According to some of the luminaries mentioned at this essay’s outset – poverty itself is benignly considered to be a social sin to be overcome.

A century ago, the great political leader and Christian orator William Jennings Bryan was a great champion of what were then known as “the fundamentals.” A Democrat, he was a pacifist and staunch opponent of economic structures that he believed created American poverty. His signature “Cross of Gold” speech equated the poor of America with the crucified Christ. Bryan feared the loss of belief in the sanctity of the human person as the only barrier against racism, colonialism, eugenics, and war.

If you listen to those on the Christian Right, circa 2010, the crucial tenets of Christian belief are the existence of God and the literal truth of the Bible. Born-again believers trumpet a “right to life,” but only in respect to abortion of the not-yet-borns, as for surviving conception and being born into poverty, it seems that post-slap on the derrière, reasonable expectations of health or happiness during childhood and beyond are not really a given so you’re on your own, kid.

While those spokespersons within the Christian Right like to assert that Christianity is under siege by liberalism, the passage in Matthew 25 where Jesus identifies himself with the poorest, and says, “I was hungry, and ye fed me not,” seems to have become irrelevant. To those who have not recognized him in the hungry and the naked, he says “Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels.” In Uzbekistan, dissenters under the current regime were said to be boiled alive. Ironically, the recent Bush-Cheney Administration simultaneously regarded Uzbekistan’s leader as a “friend” and his nation as an important ally in “born-again” Bush’s much ballyhooed but never-ending War against Terror.

In the earlier revivals, Calvinists and evangelical Christians predominately believed that God alone judges, and the hearts of mortals can be known truly only by him, in the light of his grace. But the current crop of believers, perhaps forty million strong in America (but not the disgraced Tiger Woods – he’s Buddhist), have checked their empathy and compassion for all those not like them – homosexuals, liberals, Democrats, David Letterman if you’re Sarah Palin – at the proverbial celestial door. While St. Paul’s verses are often cherry-picked by those passing for conservative Christians in the present day – perhaps they don’t realize, “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2) is actually a part of the New Testament where Paul was echoing and amplifying Christ.

Love or damnation is not stressed from pulpits the way it used to be. What is stressed is “the prosperity gospel” of Christian hawkers in the vein of Joel Osteen. A new phenomenon fed by technological advances and materialistic Christianity epitomized by this Third Great Awakening is mainstream nondenominational megachurches like popular TV preacher and best-selling author Osteen’s Houston-based Lakewood Church, the largest in America.

Osteen’s 4 million+ -copy best seller Your Best Life Now (2004) proved one thing – that Christianity packaged as greed sells even better than ‘The faith’ packaged as fear of the Other – as evidenced by Tim Lahaye’s Left Behind series of apocalyptic fiction never doing better than 3.2 million copies for a single title. While Osteen’s church is the Goliath of megachurches, prosperity preachers like Phoenix’s Tommy Barnett and T.D. Jakes in Dallas aren’t far behind. In fact, it was reported by journalist Hanna Rosin in the December 2009 issue of The Atlantic that 50 of the 260 largest U.S. churches are so-called “prosperity churches” – where the predominant core belief is that wealth will be granted to the faithful, in much the same way that motivational speakers have been promising riches since the days of Dale Carnegie and Zig Ziglar.

Worse perhaps, than the 19th century poet Emily Dickinson becoming despondent while considering herself a “no-hoper” during the Second Great Awakening because she’d been denied her own private theophany, is when financially-challenged members of prosperity churches confess their poverty and are often told, “You’re not praying hard enough” when riches don’t materialize. This message is eerily similar to that received by homosexuals attempting to “renounce their sin” or by others deemed somehow suspect from within the ranks of the Christian Right.

It all seems more than a little too convenient and perhaps, dare I say it in the wake of the traditional Christian ideology, not very Christian?


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