The Common Good

Four Lessons from the Religious Right

This Seattle Times article on the current state of the Religious Right union matches my own sense of things in my travels across the country. I've heard conservative evangelicals say almost word for word what people quoted in this article say ... The times are changing.

Here's what former RR leader and Assemblies of God Pastor Joseph Fuiten had to say in the article:

"I don't want the church to be viewed as oppressive, [and] as opposed to people living their lives and eking out whatever happiness they can."

He says he believes that different times call for different strategies and says that now, with the country less in sync with his traditional values, and many hurting because of the economy, people need to hear about hope, not about hell.

"God is not coercive," he said. "The idea that people ought to be free to live their life and live the way they want to - I don't object to that."

My prayer is that Christians of all sorts -- evangelical, Catholic, Mainline Protestant, Pentecostal, Orthodox, etc. -- will at this time of change do three things. No, make that four:

First, we need to learn from the mistakes of the Religious Right, which were legion. That requires us to get serious about a theology of civic responsibility and the common good, which, thankfully, groups like Sojourners, Faith in Public Life, Center for Public Justice, and others are (in their various ways) eager to help us do if more of us will pay attention. It's not just the RR tactics that were amiss, and not just the strategy: On a deeper level it's the theology that undergirded the whole affair that needs to be rethought.

Second, we need to seek -- prayerfully and humbly, and rooted in more seasoned theological reflection -- more constructive and wise ways to invest civic energy for the common good, because the antidote to bad political engagement is not no political engagement, but rather wise and effective political engagement.

Third, we need to avoid overreacting, baptizing an agenda of the left (or center, or whatever) with the same kind of naivete that the right's agenda previously embraced. The temptation to overreact will grow greater as the Religious Right II re-forms (as it will no doubt do), perhaps as a more extreme, fractious, reactionary, and perhaps even militant group than before.

Fourth, we need to avoid shaming those who now realize their efforts in the Religious Right were misguided. Many have told me they now feel misled and abused, both by political leaders and by their own religious leaders, and are ready to turn the page and move forward with those of us who never could stomach the RR attitude, tone, theology, or agenda in the first place. More and more are now coming to agree (as you could sense in some of the interviewees in the Seattle Times article): The Religious Right approach was disastrous ... but they don't need the rest of us to add insult to the injury they already feel with "I told you so's" and that sort of thing. Yes, we need to look back and frankly name what went wrong, and yes, we need to honestly assess the costs to Christian mission (not to mention the political process) the misadventure has inflicted upon us and the whole world. But at the same time, we need to move positively and constructively and hopefully forward.

If too many of us react to the failures of the RR with either cynicism or disillusioned apathy, we will only compound the fractures instead of heal them. There's plenty of good work for the common good waiting to be done.

Brian McLarenBrian McLaren (brianmclaren.net) is a speaker and author, most recently of Everything Must Change and Finding Our Way Again.

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