Carol Platt Liebau: Religious Right a Spent Force?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Religious Right a Spent Force?

This LA Times story asserts that "aging evangelical leaders [are] split on the 2008 race and a new generation of pastors [is turning] away from politics altogether."

Hold on a minute. I'm not sure that I'd trust the Los Angeles Times to have its (lefty) fingers on the pulse of the religious right. The Times reflects a sensibility that neither knows, trusts, nor respects evangelical leaders and their political priorities -- so no doubt it's all too easy to decide that the religious right is a spent political force.

For one thing, the story seems to reflect some mistaken assumptions about the way that evangelical conservative politics works. Witness quotes like these:

Florida pastor Troy Gramling, 40, recently preached a series he called "My Naked Pastor," which involved airing his every thought to webcams that followed him around the clock. Make that almost every thought: Gramling said he would never announce to his congregation of 14,000 how he planned to vote.

"That would be putting pressure on them to agree with me, and I don't feel I have a right to do that," Gramling said. "God doesn't call me and tell me who's his favorite."

I'm not sure that anyone has ever credibly claimed that God is calling them and telling them who's his favorites. For the most part, evangelical pastors have only pointed out what the tenets of their faith are, and left it to their flocks to take that information and decide which candidate(s)' views are in conformity -- or pointed out whose are and whose aren't.

As this story implicitly concedes, that's no more than pastors in black churches have been doing for a much, much longer period.

Note also that the Times blames the disenchantment on old lions of the religious right:

[T]here's also shame at the often-bombastic, sharply partisan rhetoric of the traditional standard-bearers for conservative Christian values, including televangelist Pat Robertson, 77; the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who died this spring at age 73; and radio host James C. Dobson, 71.

It's worth asking -- is there shame because of these men's activities, or has the distaste (if there is any) been elicited through years of relentlessly negative coverage in the mainstream media, which has too often resulted in turning them into caricatures of which any Christian would be ashamed? Note that there are no examples of the rhetoric the Times is referring to; that's because it would be hard to find, especially with respect to Dr. Dobson.

And finally, why is their rhetoric characterized as "often-bombastic, sharply partisan" (without examples) while the truly divisive demagoguing of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton goes decently unmentioned? It's worth remembering -- however little the Times likes it -- people with conservative Christian values (pastors included!) have as much right to participate in the political process as anyone else.

No doubt it's tempting for Christians to decide to focus on the hereafter, rather than on the here and now. But that would be a terrible mistake. It would be ceding the political debate to those who are either hostile to or indifferent about religion itself and its role in our common civic life -- and the policies that people of faith care most about.


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