"Jeebus. Wouldn't America be better off if religion would just disappear?"
It's a question that many in the progressive movement ask and quickly answer, "Absolutely yes!" They're thinking of Jerry Falwell's gay-bashing. They're recalling Operation Rescue's extremist rhetoric, and those who execute it in murderous ways. They're remembering Pat Robertson's depiction of a zealous God visiting punishment upon a wayward America via 9/11.
Such wishful thinking among secular progressives is foolish and self-defeating. All polling data indicates that more than 90% of Americans think of themselves as religious. Despite some progressives' preconceptions, fewer than half of that 90% would call themselves evangelicals or fundamentalists, while progressive Presbyterians, moderate Methodists and open-minded Mormons would all include themselves in that overwhelming majority. Pro-choice and pro-life, pro-gay marriage and anti-gay marriage, anybody-but-Bushies and pro-Bushies would all be represented. But one thing this very diverse group has in common: They think of themselves as religious.
And progressives must accept the fact that people who are religious might dare to apply the moral concepts they derive from their faith in the public square. After all, progressives would claim that morality does have a place in public policy whether it applies to a declaration of war or the enactment of legislation to care for the poor or the ill. Once upon a time in America, religious progressives who derived their moral views from their religion urged upon America things like an end to discrimination based upon race and withdrawal from Vietnam.
With the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts and the end of the Vietnam War, it seemed as if the religious progressive movement faded. In its place, there arose another religiously-based movement that cared little for peace and social justice, but insisted on imposing its sexual mores and patriarchalism on the rest of society. Appealing to those made fearful by the rapid economic and social changes brought on by modernity, the Christian Right has threatened America's societal maturation and political stability through sensationalist appeals to bigotry and especially masculine insecurity.
What's the antidote to America's fundamentalism problem? The solution doesn't lie in wishful thinking that religion would disappear. With the advent of the Enlightenment three centuries ago, western Christianity has been armed with the tools most effective against Christian fundamentalism. At the core of the fundamentalist worldview is the claim that there exists an inerrant, God-given "scripture" that timelessly answers all questions without the need for further human input. Fundamentalists believe that ancient texts pre-empt debate and eliminate any evolution of thought.
The problem with that approach to morality and truth is the texts themselves. With respect to the Christian canon, which has been the subject of my practice and study, any close and honest reader of the Bible knows that it is full of bizarre claims and internal contradictions. It is, in short, exactly what it appears to be: a collection of writings of the faithful who wrote from the perspective of their time and place.
Those who currently exhort their listeners to support American crusades, demean gays and lesbians, and ignore the needs of the hungry and sick on the basis of "Christianity" do so based upon a foundation of sand. Their proof-texting ways depend upon the ignorance of their listeners about the very source of their authority, the Bible. Religious progressives are equipped to expose this fraud and challenge Christian fundamentalism so that even its adherents begin to question its assertions.
Why has this not happened over the course of the last 30-plus years that the Christian Right has been in the ascendancy? First, the tools employed by religious progressives have largely been the possession of academics. Pastors trained in critical approaches to the Bible are sometimes afraid to approach their flocks and the wider public with such knowledge. Second, the courageous leadership of the "established" Christian Left that accomplished so much in the '60s has aged and lost the initiative as the Christian Right has gained influence. They fear taking bold stands on issues like same-sex marriage.
There is a "new" Christian Left that considers issues like equal rights for the GLBT community in both the church and the state to be a core concern of those who are called by their faith to "do justice." We hope to challenge the fallacies that "conservative equals moral" and "Christian equals Republican." We face dual obstacles, however. The mainstream press enjoys the simplistic dichotomy between a secular left and a religious right, and that makes it easier to ignore a Christian left that doesn't fit either stereotype. On top of that, there are some progressives who hold a "you-must-believe-as-I-believe" atheism as fervent as any fundamentalist evangelist, and these folks are offended by any Christians, even those whose political views are to the left of theirs.
It would be a tragedy if these obstacles were not overcome because this new Christian Left can play a vital role in the progressive movement. Already, scores of us have had letters to the editor and op-eds published in our own hometowns challenging the Christian Right's claim that all Christians oppose same-sex marriage. And we would happily write to wider audiences and appear before Congress and TV cameras to go face-to-face against the Lands and Mohlers and Grahams of the Christian Right if given the opportunity.
It's not as if the progressive movement and its campaigns are overburdened with theological knowledge. We've had Job placed in the New Testament and coronated Pope Pius XXIII already. We must use the resources available to us. Let's confront one of the three legs of the Republican stool -- the Christian Right -- with people who can challenge them on their own turf: theology and the Bible. The talent and willingness are there. All it will take is a little open-mindedness on the part of the leadership of the movement that claims open-mindedness as one of its core beliefs.
The Rev. Allen H. Brill is a Lutheran pastor (ELCA) in South Carolina and founder of The Right Christians (www.therightchristians.org) to provide a voice for Christian progressives. He is also a member of the South Carolina Bar. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.