Every few years, a political pundit comes along and proclaims that the Religious Right is dead or on the verge of dying. I started working here in 1987 and have heard it proclaimed many times over nearly three decades.
The latest theory goes like this: Donald Trump is such a divisive figure that he has split the Religious Right. The movement won’t recover from his candidacy.
I disagree. From where I’m sitting, it looks like the Religious Right is lining up behind Trump. Some groups and leaders may not be happy about it, but the thought of Hillary Clinton, whom they loathe, occupying the White House has sealed right-wing evangelicals’ fealty to the real estate mogul and reality TV figure.
Sure, there have been a few defections (Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention), but groups like the American Family Association that had backed U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) are already swinging over to Trump. One group, the American Pastors Network, has issued a stream of press releases arguing the “lesser of two evils” line.
Writing for Slate, Ruth Graham takes the argument a step beyond: The demise of the Religious Right, she opines, opens the door for progressive Christians, the “Religious Left,” if you will, to become a powerful force in the Democratic Party.
The subtitle of Graham’s article is “How Democrats could become the party of God.” I realize that writers usually don’t pen their own headlines, and this one has the feel of an editor well-versed in clickbait. It’s provocative, but is it accurate? More to the point, would it be helpful to American politics if the Democrats became that kind of party?
“Liberal Christians today can be found in those who use Jesus’ inspiration to advocate for criminal justice reform, in feminists who view him as a disrupter of the patriarchy, and in the everyday churchgoers who see their values better reflected by the economic and social agenda of the mainstream left,” Graham writes. “They are mainline Protestants, Catholics, and evangelicals. And if they are ever going to reinsert themselves into the heartbeat of American culture, this just might be their moment.”
Much of Graham’s article is a historical overview of progressive Christianity’s former influence and a lament for its decline. She says some things I find valuable. Few would dispute, for example, that progressive Christians ought to be involved in politics (just as all civic-minded people should) and that they played a key role in securing civil rights and ending other forms of injustice.
The concern I have is the explicit tying of political issues to someone’s understanding of the Scripture. I’m against that for two reasons: One, we’ve had enough proof-texting contests in the halls of government lately. A liberal argues that Jesus wants us to help the poor. A conservative comes along and says no, Jesus was actually for self-reliance. We’re left with another edition of Dueling Bible Passages.
It’s tiresome. When it comes to public policy, I don’t think the words of Jesus, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, etc. are relevant. If you want the American people to help or ignore the poor, enact strict or lax gun control, support or oppose the death penalty, etc. give us some secular reasons (and perhaps even some public policy recommendations based on – gasp! – empirical data, scientific research and peer-reviewed studies). Otherwise we’re just back to the same old arguments over what meaning (if any) sprawling ancient texts, many of which were cobbled together over hundreds of year by pre-scientific people, hold for modern life.
As I noted in my 2014 book Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You The Right To Tell Other People What To Do, politicians aren’t even arguing about the Bible or any other holy book. They are arguing about their interpretation of that book. That’s quite a different thing.
So should the Democrats become the party of God? I say no – because no political party can ever be the party of God. It can only be the party of what fallible human politicians perceive God to be. And isn’t it funny how the political views of that god always mirror those held by political leaders and their clergy allies?
What I want instead are political parties that don’t presume to speak for God. I want political parties that welcome all comers, people of faith and people of no faith. I want political parties that tell people to use moral persuasion, not government power, if they want to change the way people live.
I also want political parties and politicians that stop consulting holy texts when seeking to make laws for everyone to follow. I want them to consult another document instead. It’s called the U.S. Constitution.