Monday, September 04, 2006

Evangelicals and the Christian Right

The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune offers us an interview of Randall Balmer, professor of religious history at Barnard College (at Columbia University in New York), regarding his latest book, Thy Kingdom Come. Here's some excerpts:

...I am a traditional evangelical Christian in that I honor the teachings of Jesus as well as the noble legacy of evangelical activism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Evangelicals throughout most of American history engaged in political and social activism on behalf of those on the margins of society. I'm thinking here of the antislavery movement, the temperance crusade (a progressive cause in the 19th century), public education, advocating equal rights for women and trying to mitigate the effects of predatory capitalism around the turn of the 20th century. Only relatively recently, with the rise of the religious right in the late 1970s, have evangelicals drifted toward the political right.

So, yes, I am a traditional evangelical; it is the right-wing zealots of the religious right who have hijacked my faith. They have taken the gospel, the "good news" of the New Testament, which I consider lovely and redemptive, and turned it into something ugly and punitive...

...Surprisingly enough, I think it's the environmental issue that may finally break the hammerlock of the religious right on rank-and-file evangelicals. Many of my fellow believers are beginning to sense, almost intuitively, that there is a fundamental contradiction in professing to believe, for example, in intelligent design and refusing to care for the handiwork of this intelligent designer. With few exceptions, the leaders of the religious right have been adamant in their defense of corporate interests at the expense of environmental protection.

In other words, they have sacrificed the created order on the altar of free enterprise. Many evangelicals, especially younger evangelicals, are beginning to challenge that contradiction...

...I want my fellow evangelicals to reclaim their birthright as biblical Christians and assess for themselves whether or not the agenda of the religious right is consistent with the teachings of scripture. Would Jesus, who summoned his followers to be "peacemakers" and who invited them to love their enemies, jump at the chance to deploy military forces, especially at the cost of so many civilian lives? Is the denial of equal rights to anyone -- women or immigrants or Muslims or gays -- consistent with the example of the man who healed lepers and paralytics and who spent much of his time with the cultural outcasts of his day? I suspect that when Jesus asked us to love our enemies, he probably didn't mean that we should torture or kill them...
It is becoming more and more the case that we cannot consider "Christian right" and "Evangelical" to be synonyms. Thanks be to God! Beyond that, we've also discussed before the difficulties with the term "Evangelical," due to its varied meanings around the globe. Let's be careful not to use this term to describe the Christian right within the Episcopal Church (the Network/AAC/IRD folks), as it is proving to be as much of a misnomer as "orthodox" when used to describe this new breed.

I came across another article related to Balmer's comments on Intelligent Design by Keith Ward, Gresham Professor of Divinity, and a fellow of the British Academy. It is entitled Beyond Boundaries: the Infinite Creator:

...So it is important to distinguish the American "intelligent design" school from the general Christian belief that the universe, and the evolutionary process as a whole, are indeed designed by a supreme intelligence. If the students surveyed were indeed confused by the question, then only about 12 per cent of students questioned in the survey were "young Earth" believers - that is, they thought the universe to be less than 10,000 years old. This is still very sad, since it is the virtually unanimous testimony of astronomers and cosmologists that the cosmos is 14 billion years old. It demonstrates a huge conflict between the best modern science and the Christian (or Muslim) beliefs of some students. It means that such students will regard modern science as the enemy of faith.

Modern science originated in a context of Christian belief that God had created the cosmos through reason, through the Logos, and that the human mind could discern the glory of God in the works of creation. It is regrettable in the extreme that some Christians have now abandoned this belief.

Neither the Pope nor the Archbishop of Canterbury nor the overwhelming majority of Christian theologians are creationists, so what accounts for this strange state of affairs? I think two main factors are at work. First there is a loss of a sense of the importance of metaphor and poetic language in religion. Nobody believes that the Earth is a flat disc floating on a great sea of chaos, or that the stars are lamps hung on the dome of the sky, above which is another great sea. Yet that is what the Book of Genesis literally says. So all agree that we cannot read the Genesis creation account (or two accounts) literally.

Once you have made that step, the obvious thing to say is that here is a piece of inspired poetry, depicting the dependence of all things on the creative wisdom of God. There is a literal truth expressed in the text - the dependence of all things on God - but the text expresses it in a poetic way that is both more emotionally affective and more evocative of associated ideas. The problem is that some people think poetry is not important, or cannot express things which go beyond what can be literally described. This is the death of religious imagination, and it is sad to see the profound symbols and metaphors of religion reduced to literal descriptions of purely physical facts.
"...a loss of a sense of the importance of metaphor and poetic language in religion...the death of religious imagination..." Very sad, indeed.

To get those imaginative synapses firing again, go visit Mark Harris, who has invited us all to try our hand in creating some Episcopal Haiku.


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