19 February 2014

Don't Call It a Comeback: Christianity, Politics, and Political Shifts

A friend shared an article over at The Atlantic about the re-emergence of moderate and leftist Christian politics. After twenty-some odd years of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and the Religious Right, the author, Michael Wear, asks why we are seeing a shift towards more moderate and liberal Christian politics. Citing two influential texts, Wear concludes that the shift is a reaction against the co-option of Christian political activity by the likes of the Moral Majority. While such claims certainly ring true, there is more to it.

Overall, Wear raises an important question. All to often, the media is eager to ignore Christians who do not fit neatly into the narrative of the religious right -- a narrative eagerly embraced by both sides of the aisle. He is bringing attention to the fact that there are Christians casting off the reductionist politics of Pat Robertson. However, in doing so, he is eager to ignore two key facts. First is that the seeds for this shift, at least among the Millennial cohort, were sown in the early days of the Bush administration. Second, and more important, is that the dominate trend of Christian politics has been to fracture the simple right-left dichotomy.

Wear neglects a four year stint that saw the publication of Blue Like Jazz (2003), A Generous Orthodoxy (2004), Velvet Elvis (2005), and The Irresistible Revolution (2006). As a Millennial, these four books were heavily influential. I remember many late nights in the dining commons at UGA reading Shane Claiborne and wrestling with issues of just war. I don't know what it is that convinced Thomas Nelson and Zondervan to take a risk on moderate and liberal Christian authors. I suspect it was the success of Blue Like Jazz, relatively tame when compared to Claiborne's work. Regardless, it opened a floodgate, at least for those of us born in the late 80s. Shane Claiborne became the Jim Wallis of the new millennium. (I'm still waiting for a younger Stanley Hauerwas.) Don Miller went on to deliver a prayer at the 2008 Democratic National Convention and served on Obama's task force on issues of fatherhood. And the moderate Christians who weren't lucky enough to get book deals saw that they were not alone, that it was safe(ish) to speak against the religious right. Yes, the over-politicization of the Church helped to erode the foundations of the Moral Majority, but the rise of the Emergent Church movement ensured that there was an alternative for those searching.

Furthermore, Wear mis-represents the political atmosphere of Christianity at the end of the 20th century. In the US, we certainly saw a concerted effort to align American Protestantism with fiscally conservative politics, but this is not the whole story. In the States, Jim Wallis and Sojourners were still around. (In doing some quick research into this issue, I found a fascinating lecture on the "Evangelical Left," paying special attention to the work of Wallis and the like -- as well as Falwell's rather harsh and vocal criticism thereof.) Outside of our political borders, Blessed Pope John Paul II and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta embodied the same orthodox yet charitable faith that Wear finds so remarkable in the current Bishop of Rome.

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