Martin Luther, turning the other cheek to the Church—with a hammer and 95 Theses.

  Roll Over for the Religious Right?
That's not what Jesus would do.

By John D. Spalding

“For the faithful, fighting back isn’t an option.” So read a headline in the Oregonian last week, and it sounded very Jesus-like, I thought. Good advice for kids who smack each other around the playground. But as I read on, I realized it was un-Jesus-like advice, urging liberal Christians to roll over for the Christian right.

The article, an interview with Christian author Donald Miller, began:

“If the gospel of Christ has been hijacked, abused and buried by moralists on the Christian right, Donald Miller has bittersweet counsel for those on the Christian left: To be faithful to your God, fighting back isn’t an option.”

Boy, I mused, if Martin Luther thought like that, we wouldn’t have Protestantism.

In the interview, Miller, the author of Blue Like Jazz and Searching for God Knows What, doesn’t explain what kind of response is an option for the Christian left. He merely suggests that we must love and accept those who’ve usurped the name of Christianity and bound it to prejudices and precepts that distort Jesus’ message.

“If the gospel of Jesus doesn’t give us reason to love our enemies, we don’t understand it,” Miller told writer Steve Duin. “If the church has a movement that wants to fight back, it’s going straight to the top. If churchgoers want to obey Jesus, they won’t rise to the top—any quicker than Jesus or any of his disciples did.”

Of course, Jesus’ teachings opposed the moral conventions and ruling elites of his day. As biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan wrote, Jesus’ “ecstatic vision and social program sought to rebuild a society upwards from its grass roots but on principles of religious and economic egalitarianism.” Consequently, scholars like Crossan argue, the Roman government executed Jesus as a social and political agitator, and his followers formed a movement in his name, preaching a social vision (i.e., the Kingdom of God) that countered intolerance, injustice, and oppression.

The idea that liberals should do nothing but turn the other cheek to the right is as dangerous as it is prevalent. In Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, Bruce Bawer shows how fundamentalists and evangelicals have co-opted Christianity and redefined Jesus, “condemning the principles he really stood for and instead identifying him with their own ugliest tendencies.” And as this unfolded, most liberal Christians (and I use "liberal" reluctantly here because it suggests a political perspective and an outdated theology that doesn't mean much to a lot people who oppose the religous right) either cast a blind eye, believing conservative Christianity was a dying movement, or held their tongues. But the right has gained too much power and influence to be ignored. If left unchallenged, Bawer argues, the religious right threatens the health of Christianity, of America, and of the world, which the right so aggressively evangelizes.

Ironically, the cowering of the Christian left brings to mind the fundamentalists in the early 20th century. Feeling beaten by the defeat of Prohibition and the advance of science and biblical criticism, they saw the direction America was heading and believed that, even with God on their side, they were powerless to do anything about it. So they retreated from the public square to await Jesus’ Second Coming, and they didn’t return until recently—with a vengeance.

One reason that mainline Christians have been reluctant to challenge the religious right in any substantial way (we all know about the Christian Coalition, but how many Americans are familiar with The Interfaith Alliance?) is that they tend to view religion as a private matter. “Christianity as a religion is about political power, morality and us vs. them,” Donald Miller told the Oregonian. “Christianity as spirituality is about acceptance, love and grace.”

But Christianity is also about social responsibility. One of my mentors was the late James Luther Adams, a minister, theologian, activist, and professor of ethics at Harvard Divinity School. Adams’ theology linked faith and works, religious ideas and social action. He believed that “every personal problem is a social problem, and that every social problem is a personal problem.” Adams didn’t accept injustices like McCarthyism and segregation. He fought against them.

He also fought against fundamentalist Christianity. Adams was raised fundamentalist, the son of an itinerant preacher, and he grew to consider fundamentalism a threat to democracy and pluralism. When I knew him in the mid- to late-1980s, Adams, who died in ’94 at the ripe old age of 92, feared there’d soon be a rise of “Christian fascism” in America. It didn’t seem possible to me then.

If he were alive today, I believe Adams would say that liberals are obligated to stand up to conservative Christianity and reverse the harm it’s done. He often spoke about the “prophethood of all believers,” according to which all of us, he wrote, “share the common responsibility to attempt to foresee the consequences of human behavior (both individual and institutional), with the intention of making history in place of merely being pushed around by it.” (Italics are mine.)

For Harry Emerson Fosdick, a Baptist minister who stood at the center of the fundamentalist-modernist clash in the 1920s, the key to confronting conservative Christianity was to proclaim the true message of Jesus without sinking to the mean-spiritedness of the fundamentalists.

In “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” a sermon that’s as relevant today as it was when he delivered it on May 21, 1922, Fosdick said that though “just now the Fundamentalists are giving us one of the worst exhibitions of bitter intolerance that the churches of this country have ever seen,” modernists need to respond “not by controversial intolerance, but by producing, with our new opinions, something of the depth and strength, nobility and beauty of character that in other times were associated with other thoughts.”

One organization committed to the kind of principles that Adams and Fosdick espoused is the aforementioned Interfaith Alliance, which was founded in 1994 on the belief that religious and political diversity is a source of strength for our nation, not a liability. The Alliance “confronts all who exploit religious language and symbols to further political agendas that are hostile, narrowly self-serving and intolerant,” explains the New York chapter’s website. “TIA ensures that the mainstream religious community has a say in the current political dialogue, offsetting distortions and demonization with a constructive and healing response.”

Today, the real question isn’t whether the Christian left should fight back, but whether they’ve got the spine for it.

More than 50 years ago, Adams wrote an essay asking religious liberals if they had the religious resources—the prophetic foresight and the will to action—necessary to confront the challenges of the present.

“If not,” he wrote, “the time will come when others will say to us what Henry IV said to the tardy Crillon after victory had been won, ‘Hang yourself, brave Crillon! We fought at Arques, and you were not there.'”

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John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com, and the author of A Pilgrim's Digress: My Perilous, Fumbling Quest for the Celestial City.


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