Friday, October 23, 2009

The Religious Right is the Taliban?

Listen to what Chris Matthews says at about 1:03 in this video:
So much for civil discourse. If this isn't bearing false witness, I don't know what is.

If there is one thing that I find frustrating it is when critics fail to understand their opponents. Sadly in our day smear rhetoric wins more points than actual thoughtful engagement--and that is shameful no matter what side of the aisle you are on. (N.B.: Christians on the right are guilty of such slander too.) The temptation to demonize the other side while holding yourself up as the paragon of morality and nobility leads to nothing more false representation and dishonest rhetoric. In the end, you demonstrate of yourself precisely that which you execrate in your opponents.

You don't have to be a fan of the Religious Right to realize they are nothing like the Taliban. D.G. Hart, a credentialed historian who is no fan of the religious right and is in fact quite a vocal critic of it, actually has a much more accurate portrayal of it here, after he quotes Susan Jacoby comparing the religious right to domestic terrorists:

There you have it, a neat bow on a frightening package – Old Testament law, presidential politics, opposition to abortion, and terrorism, all signifying the conservative movement. And liberals think Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck simplify the Obama administration. Granted, these radio personalities have a larger audience than Harper’s, the Nation, and the History News Network. But Limbaugh and Beck don’t claim to be scholars, and their listeners don’t claim to be experts about politics, religion, or history. If Susan Jacoby really wants to claim that conservatism has dumbed-down American culture, she may want to hold up a mirror to her reasonable and smart friends who can’t tell the difference between picketing an abortion clinic and flying a 737 into a skyscraper.

But the point of this kvetch is not to weigh the brain mass of conservatives and liberals but to bring up a subject that religious historians should be teaching to the rest of the American population from their lecterns, articles, books, and blogs – it is that the Religious Right is nothing new in U.S. history and that scaring citizens with the apparently bizarre proposals of Christian conservatives is bad scholarship. Prior to the Religious Right, Protestants, whether liberal or fundamentalist, concocted various schemes to preserve the United States as a Christian (read: Protestant) nation, from the Civil War, to Prohibition, to the civil religion of the Cold War. During that time, Protestants had access to all sorts of presidents, even the ones who had their finger poised on the button to drop “the bomb.” John Foster Dulles may have mingled with a tonier set than Carl McIntire (though Dulles certainly did not wear a better suit), but his anti-communism and God-and-country outlook were not substantially different from fundamentalist anti-Communists like McIntire.

What this historical perspective means is that the Religious Right is simply in continuity with a swath of American Protestantism that many religious historians regard not as extremist but as mainstream, tolerant, and respectable. Granted, the Religious Right had the bad timing to show up after many Protestants had capitulated to some sort of secular America, and they did not always show an awareness of how America had changed not just religiously but demographically after the 1960s. (This was actually the point of the Religious Right’s complaints – they didn’t like what the nation was becoming. Since when is complaining so scary or unAmerican?) But to portray people who differ little from previous generations of Americans as those who nurture terrorist ideas and actions is to show a real ignorance of the field in which you are supposed to be an expert.

This may be an odd point coming from a writer who regularly chastises the Religious Right. I have not changed my assessment of evangelical politics. I think it is flawed theologically and politically. But I sleep relatively well each night, despite my criticisms, because I know born-again Protestants, however mad they may be at me, believe in an important piece of Moses’ law – namely, the sixth (as Protestants count them) commandment. (Emphasis mine)

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