Liberal Christianity Has Not Yet Risen to the Occasion
While dark forces have been taking over America in recent years, the institutions from which one might have hoped for a vigorous defense of what's best in America have thus far failed us.
It is hard to imagine how any group could have moved America further and faster in the direction of fascism than has this Bush administration-a news story historically enormous proportions. But the viewer of our mainstream broadcast media has hardly been helped to see this momentous story for what it is.
And while the forces behind this Bush administration have been systematically assaulting our democratic institutions and our constitutional system of checks and balances, the presumed opposition party has been anything but bold and courageous in denouncing these dangerous usurpations.
But there is another part of the American cultural and institutional system from which one would hope for a more powerful defense of our most basic American values: I am referring to mainstream liberal Christianity.
America was not founded as a "Christian nation" in the sense that some of the right-wing theocrats would have it. But Christianity is America's majority religion, and it therefore matters a great deal what form of Christianity becomes dominant in this country.
The many forms of Christianity incorporate, in one way or another, the wide range of disparate elements that comprise the sacred Christian texts. They can differ considerably, however, in which elements are given emphasis.
This difference in emphasis makes it possible for profoundly different spirits to express themselves. And when one of these spirits becomes the salient public voice of "Christianity" to wield power in America's national politics, it matters greatly to the whole country which spirit it is.
Will the voice of Christianity that speaks the loudest be one that emphasizes a God who smites his enemies or a God who says "Love Thine Enemies"?
When Christianity is heard in America's political arena, will the predominant voice be one that focuses on condemning those who diverge from the straight-and-narrow path, or the one that emphasizes more the teaching, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone"?
Which Christianity will help shape our public policies-the one that is pre-occupied with the distinction between those of right and those of wrong belief, or the one that is most concerned with protecting the most vulnerable and needy?
With what image of the sacred will the strongest Christian voice imbue the American culture?
Will it find the heart of the Christian vision in the "Book of Revelation," where God saves his own while not only destroying his enemies but also inflicting prolonged agony on? Or will it emphasize the teachings of Christ's Sermon on the Mount, with its blessings on the life-serving virtues of the merciful and the peacemakers, and its assurance that it is the meek who shall inherit the earth?
Will it emphasize, as the heart of the human relationship with the divine, the torturing of the flesh of the flogged and crucified Christ (as did Mel Gibson's disturbing and polarizing film, the Passion of the Christ)? Or will the predominant image of Jesus be of him comforting the afflicted and healing the sick?
Will the Christianity that helps shape our public affairs be a religion of guilt and punishment and revenge, or one of forgiveness and love?
Those Into God-as-Warrior Are Trouncing Those Into 'Turn the Other Cheek'
The issue here is not which of form of Christianity is more valid in religious terms, a matter which I would not presume to address. The issue, rather, is which form -which set of values and of narrative meanings-- is wielding power to shape the American polity.
Clearly the ascendant and dominant form of Christianity in the public realm in American today is that of the Christian right. Clearly the power of this salient form of Christianity has been aligned with the Bush administration, and the impact of that power has been, from the standpoint of people with liberal values, to erode some of the best of America's political values, and to jeopardize even the basic structure of our constitutional democracy.
Particularly under the influence of the falsely righteous political leadership by which so many have been seduced, this is a Christianity that cares more about wars against evil-doers than about the hypocrisies of the rich and powerful; it is a Christianity that identifies with the privileged and seems indifferent to (or even blaming of) the poor; it is a Christianity that believes in the wedding of religion with temporal power more than in the autonomy of each human soul to find its own relationship with God.
The right-wing form of Christianity that has seized the public megaphone, and has organized for political action, and has allied itself with a militarist and corporatist and lawless regime, is helping drive the United States down a dark road.
So where, in the face of this polarizing and intolerant Christianity, are the liberal Christians of America and their churches?
I know that many liberal Christians are involved in the grassroots movement to save our country from the dark forces allied in this Bushite regime. And I know that there are some efforts -such as Jim Wallis's book God's Politics-to advance a more liberal idea of Christianity into the public realm.
But what is needed is a movement on the liberal side of Christianity that is as energetic and as cohesive as that which has been mounted on the right-wing side of the Christian spectrum. And this has not happened.
We need also those prophetic voices that historically the liberal mainstream churches have given American in times of need. But in order to be heard in the larger country, those prophetic leaders often must be at the head of a movement. That ringing voice of Martin Luther King did not cry out in isolation, but rather at the end of marches and at assemblages of many thousands whose "Amens" amplified his voice.
There is nothing that harnesses the values and visions of liberal Christianity into a force such as the right-wing Christians created with Jerry Falwell's "Moral Majority," or with Pat Robertson's "Christian Coalition," or with James Dobson's "Focus on the Family."
It may be, of course, that liberals are less inclined to organize themselves into a "force" than their more hierarchically-oriented (supposed) co-religionists on the right. Like the famous image of herding cats.
But, as the liberal democracies learned when they were forced into World War II, there comes a time when the threat from the goose-steppers is simply too great to ignore, and when those whose liberalism emphasizes the value of marching to one's own drummer have to learn to march in concert with each other in order to prevail in battle-however unwelcome that battle may be.