Christian Political Activism
The FundamentaList (No. 77) | The American Prospect
The Times' Frank Rich, in his gloating obituary of the anti-gay-marriage movement, got a little ahead of himself on Sunday. Rich is right that, as Paul Waldman demonstrated last week, public opinion is trending toward legalization of marriage equality. Still, fundamentalist religious movements should never be counted out of American politics. Nor should their gentler cousins, whom the new president has embraced, be written off.
When I was doing theology, as an undergraduate, pietism was demonized. Authentic Christianity, we were told, was worldly, socially engaged and of its very nature political. Good liberal Christians recognized that true religion was a matter of acting politically in the secular city for the good of the other. Community organizing was a religious vocation and street demonstrations were liturgy. Conservative Christians, were wicked, irresponsible navel-gazers, obsessing about individual sin and selfishly cultivating a "personal relationship with Jesus" instead of working politically to establish the Kingdom of God on earth.
Then the conservatives went political. They captured the media, demonstrated in the streets and worked politically for social change. And liberals were horrified.
I used to be outraged by the endless moralizing about social engagement. Now I've mellowed out and suppose I understand the liberal moralizers' motives better. Churches are full of nice people who want to "do for" others, want to be useful and virtuous. Most have the idea that virtue consists in personal niceness and conventional charitable activities. Liberal clergy, surrounded by all these nice people, were trying to get across the message that there was no bright line between personal niceness and charity on the one side and political action on the other. Giving to charity and dispensing sandwiches to bums on grates is good but working politically for a more just society where there aren't any bums on grates is all of a piece with that and, arguably, more efficient. Working politically for social justice is a religious duty.
I'm fine with that but don't think that it's the essential business of churches to do either--particularly when it undermines the provision of specifically religious goods and services. Ideally churches shouldn't do either charity or political action: promoting the general welfare is the business of the state and political action is the job of political organizations. The poor are always with us, and there will always likely be dysfunctional people who hang around churches for both material and emotional handouts. But comes the Revolution most will be taken care of by the government and secular social service providers. To the extent that Christians are committed to "doing for" others, particularly others who are less well off, they should support that Revolution not only to establish more efficient mechanisms for making people better off but to relieve churches of the burden running do-good programs.
So now the fundamentalists are running, and financing, political campaigns to stop gay marriage and other social arrangements they find offensive, while liberal Christians are campaigning for gay marriage and a variety of other worthy projects. I agree with the liberals about the worthiness of these projects but don't think that it's the business of churches to promote them. Liberal churches' promotion of gay rights achieves nothing: no one cares whether the Episcopal Church blesses same-sex unions or whether liberal churches support any of the items on the menu of good liberal causes (which I myself support). No one takes their smarmy moralistic twaddle seriously--or should. All they've done is undermine their institutions.
On the bright side, the conservatives will sink themselves by opposing gay marriage and abortion and by taking the losing side on a variety of other social issues. They will not get their agendas through--the Zeitgeist is against them--and will only discredit themselves. Good!
The pity is that by campaigning for these moral and political agendas, liberal or conservative, churches will only undermine themselves and have fewer resources to devote to the provision of specifically religious goods and services.