X-tians: The Last Stand

Tim Watkin says the Republicans are hoisted by their own values. James Dobson’s announcement that the religious Right will not support a pro-choice candidate is more than a blow to Rudy Giuliani’s candidacy, he says. The statement also “shows just how the Republicans have gotten themselves tangled in knots over all things moral and signals a turning point for the religious right in America.”

But for the religious Right, the only “value” that seems to matter is sexual purity, rigidly defined. Is that to be the sole measure of a leader?

Studies over the years have repeatedly shown that integrity is core to successful leadership; the hard part is deciding what integrity means to us as voters. A lack of hypocrisy seems to be the gold standard these days. But what about a willingness to admit and apologize for mistakes? Or simple honesty? Is an entirely untainted virtue now required? I’ve spoken to university students whose wanna-be politician friends even in their early twenties abstain from anything with even a whiff of controversy. Is that really the best preparation for wise leadership? In political terms, is it worse to tap your foot under a bathroom door, cheat on your spouse or start illegal wars? These are all moral judgments.

The left tends to scoff at the right’s emphasis on morality, but it has its own set of moral no-goes – just look at their criticism of presidential lies, illegal wars and torture, and politicians denying women the right to choose an abortion.

Still, it’s true that those on the religious right have made “character” a core issue in US elections and placed a disproportionate weight on “values” over policy. Their stands on candidate morality are now so entrenched, and their obsession with sexual purity so deeply embedded, that it seems no one among them has the ability to step back and see how insignificant those demands may be in terms of leadership performance.

The great leaders in US history would all trip over one moral hurdle or another. Washington had slaves, Roosevelt had a mistress and Jefferson had both.

I disagree that we lefties “scoff” at morality. Rather, we prioritize morality differently. Starting illegal wars is a serious offense against humanity; consensual sexual acts ain’t nobody else’s business. In any event, Watkin says, the religious Right’s quest for absolute purity has reached a dead end.

They elected a president who ticked all the right boxes but turned out to be an inept leader, while the candidates who tick the boxes this time are proving to be too bland, too lightweight or too out of touch with modern life. They have chosen sexual morality as their defining issue. Politically, they’ve painted themselves into a corner.

The truth is that other values are going to win next year’s election – sound judgment, competence, team-building, compassion. After dominating American politics for a generation, the religious right finds itself out of step with mainstream American, and even with many of its conservative pals.

I’ll take compassion over morality any day. In fact, I’d say that a person without compassion cannot be genuinely moral, no matter what rules of conduct he follows. But a compassionate person generally will do the right thing by his fellow human beings, rules or no rules. Sound judgment and competence sound pretty good to me, too.

Steven Thomma of McClatchy Newspapers says the power of the religious Right within the GOP is on the wane.

Today, their nearly three-decade-long ascendance in the Republican Party is over. Their loyalties and priorities are in flux, the organizations that gave them political muscle are in disarray, the high-profile preachers who led them to influence through the 1980s and 1990s are being replaced by a new generation that’s less interested in their agenda and their hold on politics and the 2008 Republican presidential nomination is in doubt.

“Less than four years after declarations that the Religious Right had taken over the Republican Party, these social conservatives seem almost powerless to influence its nomination process,” said W. James Antle III, an editor at the American Spectator magazine who’s written extensively about religious conservatives.

“They have the numbers. They have the capability. What they don’t have is unity or any institutional leverage.”

The Religious Right never had absolute power in the Republican Party. It never got the Republican president and Republican Congress to pursue a constitutional amendment banning abortion, for example.

But it did have enormous clout in party politics and a big voice in policy, and it’s lost much of both heading into 2008.

Worse for the religious Right, there may be an anti-Christian backlash brewing. David Van Biema writes for Time:

Back in 1996, a poll taken by Kinnaman’s organization, the Barna Group, found that 83% of Americans identified themselves as Christians, and that fewer than 20% of non-Christians held an unfavorable view of Christianity. But, as Kinnaman puts it in his new book (co-authored with Gabe Lyons) UnChristian, “That was then.”

Barna polls conducted between 2004 and this year, sampling 440 non-Christians (and a similar number of Christians) aged 16 to 29, found that 38% had a “bad impression” of present-day Christianity. “It’s not a pretty picture” the authors write. Barna’s clientele is made up primarily of evangelical groups.

Kinnaman says non-Christians’ biggest complaints about the faith are not immediately theological: Jesus and the Bible get relatively good marks. Rather, he sees resentment as focused on perceived Christian attitudes. Nine out of ten outsiders found Christians too “anti-homosexual,” and nearly as many perceived it as “hypocritical” and “judgmental.” Seventy-five percent found it “too involved in politics.”

Not only has the decline in non-Christians’ regard for Christianity been severe, but Barna results also show a rapid increase in the number of people describing themselves as non-Christian. One reason may be that the study used a stricter definition of “Christian” that applied to only 73% of Americans. Still, Kinnaman claims that however defined, the number of non-Christians is growing with each succeeding generation: His study found that 23% of Americans over 61 were non-Christians; 27% among people ages 42-60; and 40% among 16-29 year olds. Younger Christians, he concludes, are therefore likely to live in an environment where two out of every five of their peers is not a Christian.

This is a healthy development for all of us. For example, at some point in the future the Republican Party might be forced to campaign on issues that actually matter to the running of government instead of by stirring up fear and resentment among various factions of whackjobs. This might bring the GOP back to some semblance of sanity and increase the number of politicians in Washington who give a bleep about good government.

And it might also be a good thing for Christianity. I dimly remember that there’s more to Christianity than stoning transgressors for unauthorized sexual practices. Maybe someone will look into that.

Update: See also “A Nation of Christians Is Not a Christian Nation.”

Update 2:Militant Atheists Are Wrong.” Clever.

21 thoughts on “X-tians: The Last Stand

  1. How right you are Maha.
    I await the day when Lock’n load Jesus is banished along with the closet perverts like Haggert and the end of times cultists like Hagee.
    I fear it will take an entire generation to repair what those crack pots have done to Christianity.(and politics in America)

  2. Maha, you and I grew up in the same neck of the woods. You’re a bit older than me, but boy, do the experiences seem familiar.

    Some years ago Tony Campolo said, “I feel like I need to find another word to describe me–Christian just isn’t doing it any more.” I’ve been active in my church all my life, but the last ten years has seen the connection grow more and more tenuous. It’s not that my faith in God has changed; it’s that what my tradition espouses has moved so far away from what I believe he is and desires.

    Keep up these wonderful posts. I really enjoyed the wisdom of doubt. More evangelicals could do with a little Buddhist study.

  3. I blame a large part of the christianists rise to Pope John Paul IIs visit to the United States in 1979. Horribly obscure, I know, but at that juncture, he had a choice in supporting a “culture of life”… he could have emphasized in his various sermons his opposition to abortion or his opposition to the death penalty (reactivated in 1977 after a 10 year hiatus). He chose to speak against abortion and made opposition to abortion a hallmark of his papacy.

    I was born catholic and I was, at that time, in the process of “giving it up for Lent” so I was still listening and hoping he would speak out against the reinstatement of the death penalty, but I do not remember hearing a word on that subject. The silence spoke volumes to me. It was not the last straw, but it was definitely another brick in the wall.

    Without the constant harping on abortion by the catholics, the first bug-bear of the christianists, the christianist movement would have had far less support and we *might* have rid ourselves of the travesty of the death penalty instead. Alas, it did not happen.

    I hope that with the continuing moves to the right of the christianists that more and more congregations will break up as some already have over issues of social justice and environmental stewardship. Probably a vain hope, but it’s all I have.

  4. Pingback: “Values voters” paint Republicans into a corner « Further thoughts

  5. 1 Timothy 4, on Republicans:

    The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

  6. hi Maha,
    the larger issues aside, I suspect Dobson is not so much cutting Giuliani off as possibly preparing his “flock” for an endorsement of Romney, but waiting to see if Romney catches on fire first(electorally, that is.).

    Of course I imagine if he does this and Romney subsequently fades in the stretch, Dobson will be more than happy to turn around and endorse Rudy if mister 9-11 makes the appropriate humble sucking-up noises.

  7. Obviously, as shown time and time again and now by none other than Oral who should be in heaven Roberts, his son and daughter-in-law, fundamentalists/evangelical religion is really about sex and money.

  8. “I’ll take compassion over morality any day.”

    Any Christian must make compassion their highest value, or they fail to make Jesus their model for life. The trouble with the “Christian right” from my perspective is that they are defending social values from earlier generations, not the values of their own religion. They are, in effect, making an idol of their ancestral traditions. Politically, this is their free choice. Religiously, this is a failure to practice Christianity.

    Best wishes!

  9. I suspect Dobson is not so much cutting Giuliani off as possibly preparing his “flock” for an endorsement of Romney, but waiting to see if Romney catches on fire first

    I don’t think so.. Dobson might put on a happy face of Christian brotherhood and tolerance, but Romney is a Mormon. And mainstream Evangelicals consider Mormons to be a cult, and lump them in the same category as Jehovah’s Witness’s and Scientologists. Dobson doesn’t have the power to sway Evangelicals into voting for a Mormon because the prejudice against the denomination is too firmly established. The Assemblies of God( a large chunk of the Christian right) actively preach that Mormons are well intentioned folks, but deceived by Satan.

  10. Great comment and great blog. It’s about time that these pseudo-Christians were hoisted on their own petard. That’s not to say that God doesn’t love them. As a progressive Christian, I believe that no one is outside the reach of God’s love. They are just sinners like the rest of us. However, that doesn’t mean that we have to put up with their sexually obsessed views creating our national public policy. I’m glad people are tired of it, I only wish they’d tired of it sooner.

    On another “moral bankruptcy” note: Conservative Evangelical Churches using the uber-violent game, Halo 3, for “youth outreach.”


    I rolled my eyes so much that they temporarily got stuck in the bad of my head. I’m sure they polish off the night with a sermon on how bad it is to be gay.

  11. The old saying was “If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.” It’s hopeful to see polling suggest that the Christianists might be feeling itchy, after decades of dragging their churches into political territory their predecessors had wisely avoided.

    I noticed that Watkin, in attempting a parallel between right-wing moral issues and left-wing ones, fails to note the obvious distinction between personal moral choices and public policy choices. Whole articles could be written on the differences there, and the significance of who focusses on which. Still, I’d be happy if he’s correct that the Right has reached a, forgive me, “come-to-Jesus” moment on its reliance on Christianist sexual morality.

    This morning I heard a radio report on an Iranian woman being stoned to death for adultery, and it occurred to me that Rudy (and McCain, etc.) should count his lucky stars that in this country we let adulterers lead Presidential campaigns, instead. (Though, as the man, he’d probably only get 100 lashes.)

    It’s quite fortunate for a lot of Republicans that, in fact, America doesn’t actually believe in traditional ‘Defense of Marriage’ acts. I think it’s about time we acknowledged that and dropped the pretense. The crisis facing the GOP candidates may force the issue.

  12. Swami, your right on the money about the “behind closed doors” speak by Evangelicals towards Mormons.

    My build there is that besides the fluff-a-ringa theology, the Southern Baptists for example, who hold sway on many, many voters and tithers, will never, ever scooch-over and make a space for such a power and influence competitor.

    And the thing about the Mormons is that they are mucho organized and, as an outsider I presume, mucho cohesive within their group. If they ever got a significant grip on the larger national stage they might bump some of the current big dogs back down the line.

    The Reverend Dr. Richard Land was on Washington Journal this morning. BRRR-rr, that boy gives me the sho-nuff shiverin’ willies. But the blow dried Bible-thumpers like him bent their pick by hitching the wagon to a trustfund-kid from Midland who has never done anything on his own but clustersmooch–IMHO.

  13. I don’t often notice that the quality of the comments overshadows the quality of an excellent post. Here they did. Are the ultra-right-xians playing politics to manipulate a ‘moderate’ GOP nominee into extremeist commitments? Or will they really split the GOP with a 3rd-party anti-gay, anti-abortion, family-values candidate? Is there strategy here or only a tantrum? If they split the GOP party, how will this affect long-term party politics if the GOP is permanently maimed? Short-term this would benfit Democrats, but without the moderating effect of a strong opposition, will a Democratic majority be corrupt and impotent on real issues?

  14. For example, at some point in the future the Republican Party might be forced to campaign on issues that actually matter to the running of government instead of by stirring up fear and resentment among various factions of whackjobs.

    It would require prominent people in the GOP to step forward and take on the GOP from the leadership to the base to the media machine. They would also have to be courageous enough to withstand the vicious attacks the current GOP infrastructure and base would no doubt unleash.

    They’re stuck. Run a moderate campaign and lose. Run a hard right campaign and win the party nomination but scare the daylights out of the rest of the country.

    I think we’re seeing another one of those manifestations from the 1964 convention. Letting lunatics take over your party? Not a good idea.

  15. maha,

    I think we could be headed for the third great schism. Even out here in deepest Bush country (I still live in the Ozarks), more and more evangelicals are starting to see that the Richard Lands and James Dobsons of the world have made their choice and they have chosen to grab for temporal power.

    There are two other prongs to this trident. First, many Christians are starting to realize that the Bible is not a handbook for crony hypercapitalism. We are part of a functioning society, and we have obligations to that society.They see that if we follow the path we are on to its logical end, we will create a hellish world of all against all.

    Second, the realization is growing that people of good faith and intellectual honesty are best able to share their views in a stable, civilized community. They are starting to understand that their “leaders” are not serious about their issues, and that they are being used. Some are beginning to realize that an evangelical version of the Roman Catholic Church circa 1400 is not better than what we have now. Enforced piety is not the answer. Once we realize that, then we’re on our way to understanding that we are in the arena of persuasion, not coercion.

    That said, the hard core will become more recalcitrant and bellicose. Dobson, Land, Robertson, these people will never change, because they have inhaled the heady aroma of power. Richard Land has achieved heights unavailable to him when he was actually attempting to expound scripture. He’s like most people; he won’t let it go voluntarily.

  16. Dobson, Land, and Robertson indeed will not change, at least not as long as the money is flowing their way.
    Here’s a little observation, the right ( and a large part of the left) was beating up on Ahmadinejad for his remark about there not being any gays in Iran. I’ll bet many “folks” were thinkin’ ” well now, we’ll gladly send you all of ours”.

    A thinking person would realize that what Ahmadinejad really ment is there is no openly gay “culture” in Eye-ran like there is here.

  17. Dobson is a homophobe…It makes me wonder what he is running from or hiding from to be such a hard charger against homosexuals.Why the zeal to destroy other persons life? Dobson is like a modern day Saul of Tarsus who instead hunting down and persecuting Christians, he’s chasing down homosexuals in the name of religious duty. A service to God?
    I know Dobson has a doctorate in psychology, and presents himself as fairly educated, but I think his good ol’ boy Louisiana redneck roots is driving his current behavior. “Git um boys,he’s one a them types”

    I also wonder if he wears a necklace of wolfbane or garlic cloves around his neck to ward off homosexuals. The Garlic will ward off heterosexuals also.

  18. Swami,
    I juss loves da garlic!
    Not so much on Dobson. But, maybe on you, or maha, if you wore it… 🙂

    Interesting… Very! Give us more. You have an insight that I don’t have. I’d like to learn.

Comments are closed.