Monday, December 3, 2007

Are Christians Right? (Or Vice Versa?)

This one was written Monday, December 03, 2007, as the 2008 Presidential campaign was beginning to ramp up. I had barely heard of that young senator from Illinois at that point, and figured the race would be between Senator Clinton and one of these Republicans; my concern was, how bad would the GOP candidate be, and would we be stuck with her?

Let's recap some recent events, just so we're all on the same wave:

*My mom sent me a hoax chain email about atheists trying to ban Christian broadcasting. Here's a link to one site with several religious-themed urban legends. Here's the Snopes take on the tale.

*MA Governor Mitt Romney, tired of facing concerns about his fitness for U.S. President, plans to give a speech defending his Mormon faith to the nation some time this week, as AR Governor Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, has emerged as a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination..

*A British teacher in Sudan is convicted of insulting Islam because she allowed her students to name a class teddy bear Muhammad.
Nov 30 - story from (note the Muslim organizations speaking out)
Dec 3 story of her pardon (note the Muslim organizations speaking out)

Now, listen: there are number of conclusions about me that people draw when they hear me talk about Christianity in a political context. The first misconception is that I either have something against all Christians, or that I will automatically oppose anything a Christian supports. In reality, I admire much about the various Christian faiths and the many good things they have done over the last 2,000 years. And the vast majority of my family belong to what many would define as "fundamentalist Christian" churches. I may disagree strongly with some of the conclusions they draw from their scriptures and the world around them, but I still love them.

Sadly, many people who identify themselves as Christian - especially in the realm of politics - misrepresent Jesus Christ and the teachings he left behind. Whatever you believe about his divinity (and I refuse to take a position on that publicly) you have to admit that he essentially advocated the Golden Rule and extremely liberal attitudes towards tolerance and forgiveness.

The second misconception is that I know nothing about Christians or their varied beliefs. Bear in mind that until I was 17, I was a Southern Baptist, and a rabidly devout one at that. Not devout enough to ignore the questions that eventually led me to abandon any kind of public faith, but devout enough to enjoy regular Bible study and Christian radio from early in my childhood. Dr. Dobson, in fact, used to be one of my favorite speakers, and I was a regular listener to his "Focus on the Family" program. To this day, I still recommend much of his advice for parents on maintaining fair and consistent discipline.

The problem I have is not with the faith of the people who are lumped together and called the "Christian Right". Rather, it is with the parties that cynically pull on their political puppet strings, turning their deep feelings over complicated issues like abortion into hot-buttons on a huge Voter Vending machine. That distress is expressed better in this Essay by Garrison Keillor. (You can also preview 4 chapters of his book, Homegrown Democrat here.) However, unlike Mr. Keillor, I feel that the Democrats are just as guilty of fueling that fire and pushing those same buttons; and I feel it is just as wrong for them to do so as it is for the Republicans to do it.

I am also deeply offended by the consistent equation of the Christian Right with something called "moral values" - a phrase purposely calculated to imply that anyone daring to disagree with their collective political positions must be "immoral". (Ann Coulter has made a career out of stressing this concept.) Maybe I don't know what the compromise solution is when it comes to issues like abortion, but I do know that solution will not be achieved by declaring anyone who varies from the party line to be a murderer. Nor will it be accomplished by insisting that one persons' rights are superior to another person - however many cells that person may have.

And since I always seem to hear them mentioned in the same breath, I have to say that the close association between abortion and the other hot-button "moral values" issue, gay marriage, is positively un-Christian. I don't care how grossed out you might be by the thought of two men on their honeymoon or raising children together, it has nowhere near the same "moral weight" as the debate over whether removing a first trimester fetus is murder. It is more accurate to compare homosexuality with another Biblical sin that called for death by stoning: the consumption of shellfish. The near constant association of homosexuals with a variety of grotesque sins is uncivil, unfair, and is the opposite of what Jesus taught. You remember that silly old line of his... "love your neighbor as yourself"? One thing about Jesus, he usually put it pretty plainly.

So what does any of this have to do with email hoaxes, Republican presidential candidates or Muslims in the Sudan? Well, it's all about the idea of tolerance.

Republicans in particular have fought hard to introduce intolerance as a guiding principle of our society over the last twenty years. They've lobbied to make "multi-culturalism" seem like the next communism. They've yanked hard on the previously mentioned puppet strings of the Christian Right, and they've used their media platforms to push the buttons sure to cause outrage in otherwise non-political middle-Americans. "You good Christian people are under attack from people who are different from you," is the consistent message.

The "atheists are trying to ban Christian broadcasting" bit is not just an old hoax, it is also easily disproven by a quick Google search (which brings up the link above, and can also turn up the the official FCC denial). And yet, the hoax persists, because people are primed to believe that "others" are trying to steal their rights. Growing up, we used to hear similar claims that Christianity was under attack all the time; from Communists, from atheists, from Catholics... and from Mormons.

And now Mitt Romney wants to ask for the tolerance of the Christian Right as he tries to set himself up as the defender of their conservative values. I almost find it funny; except that the only way to prove himself is to "out-conservative" the other candidates. Which brings us to Huckabee; as a Baptist minister, he has a wordless counter-argument working in his favor among that segment of the base. He doesn't have to pay more than lip service to the puppet strings and push buttons, thus risking total alienation if he faces the Democrat nominee later on. He only has to stand up and not be Mormon.

And I have the distinct displeasure of having to face my own biases now, because he is the only candidate stumping for the one real solution I see to many of our long-standing economic and political problems: the FairTax. Do I overlook all of the positions on which I might disagree with him? Do I assume that his lip service is just that; or do I risk supporting a candidate that will really try to enact ruinous policies in the name of his religious beliefs... like Bush has? I have been asked already: how can you seriously consider supporting a Republican after the last six years? I don't have an answer for that; how much tolerance do I show to people who believe things that I don't? Where is the line between sound judgment and reactionary bias?

Which brings me to the Muslims in the Sudan. Here we are in the midst of a quandary about how much tolerance we can muster for the religious beliefs of our leaders, and the Sudanese give us yet another object lesson on the dangers of intolerance. Certainly, with "Mohammed" being the single most common given name for human males, the offending Teddy Bear couldn't possibly be named after anyone other than the Prophet; and for such tenuous "crimes" there were strident calls in the country for the execution of a foreigner who was there with the intention to help.

Fortunately for Ms. Gibbons, President Bashar saw reason - after two Muslim Members of Parliament traveled from the UK to plead her case. Muslim groups in America and England spent that tense week expressing outrage at the violent reaction, and condemning the conviction publicly. The result was a small victory of reason over fanaticism, and illustrated the point that Muslim groups have been trying to make since 9/11: that a small percentage of Muslims acting badly have given the other billion an unfairly blighted image. Much the way self-proclaimed Christians behaving badly in 15th century Spain, Nazi Germany, and the antebellum South give the other billion a bad reputation.

That's a long way to travel to get to the title question, and I thank you for wallowing through this far. So what am I asking? You tell me. How far do we go when we claim to be tolerant of different points of view? Do we tolerate even intolerance for fear of looking hypocritical?

The whole circus makes me wonder, too, how real these alleged demographics are, anyway. We've been told about the Christian Right being "owned" by the Republican party for so long, I think Christians need to ask themselves: do you really belong in that box? Do the values demonstrated by the right reflect the values taught by Jesus? Do you really know?

I think about it a lot, and I haven't got a good answer. But I think it's a great question.

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