Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Bible and Politics, pt. 3.2

Here's the second section of the lesson on the Bible and Politics in the 20th century. I'll post a final section in the next couple of days on moves in recent politics.

2. Further Divide: The Civil Rights Movement and the Rise of the Religious Right

The next great outpouring of biblical language in American political discourse came in the decades of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. The Civil Rights Movement was at the forefront of efforts to engage political structures with a biblical message, but the Religious Right was not far behind. Both movements began at the grassroots as church-based organizations for social change; both also emerged from the grassroots to have significant voices in national and state governments; and both used the bible extensively to make their political points. Nevertheless, each group used the Bible in distinct ways and for distinct ends.

The Civil Rights Movement: MLK and followers

Martin Luther King’s speeches and activities were heavily informed by the Bible. King claimed Matthew 5:47—‘love your enemies’—as the basis of his refusal to use violence, and much of his rhetoric was explicitly pulled from the Bible. For example, the famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, draws on Amos 5:24 (‘let justice roll like a river…’) and Isaiah 40:4-5 (‘every valley shall be exalted…’) for its rhetorical punch-lines. Similarly, King’s last speech, ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop,’ uses numerous biblical references as it implores preachers to speak out for justice in a time comparable to the Exodus.

The fruits of King’s biblical politics are varied. During his lifetime, he propelled the initial dismantling of segregation laws and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (removing poll taxes that kept poor blacks from voting); he later began to openly protest the Vietnam War. King also opened the door for many religious figures to enter the realm of politics. The most famous of these figures are, of course, Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, both of whom staged unsuccessful presidential campaigns. Lesser known, perhaps, are activist John Perkins and Congressman John Lewis. In addition, King’s legacy has fueled a number of theological and church-based political movements. Among these we can count certain streams of black liberation theology, the progressive evangelical movements that started in the early 1970s (e.g., Evangelicals for Social Action and Sojourners), and several denominational justice programs. Like King, many of these followers use highly biblical rhetoric in their political advocacy.

The Religious Right
Although evangelicals and fundamentalists had mostly avoided the American political forum since the Great Reversal of the early 20th century, the conservative Christian political voice exploded onto the scene in the early 1970s. During the preceding decades, a series of legislation had begun to curtail Christian influence in education and politics, and the tide of dissent began to be ride. But it was the decision of Roe vs. Wade in 1973 that galvanized the then-disparate opposition into the movement we know as the Religious Right. Specifically, Jerry Falwell and others organized a grassroots network that eventually wielded enough power to play a significant role in national electoral politics. Falwell’s Moral Majority (founded in 1979) helped stage President Reagan’s first victory, and Reagan responded with speeches that included Christian and biblical language. (For instance, Reagan quoted Isaiah 40:29, 31 to explain God’s blessing on the war on communism.)

Later, Pat Robertson organized the Christian Coalition to help stage his own unsuccessful presidential bids, but also to oppose the influences of the liberal Clinton administration. The Coalition’s vision statement, as stated on their website, begins with a quote from 2 Corinthians 5:17—‘…all things are become new’—to illustrate their renewed quest to ‘defend America’s Godly heritage.’ Former Coalition boss Ralph Reed is currently running for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia on a platform that, among other things, advocates for the display of the 10 Commandments at courthouses and other political institutions. For the Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, and other groups on the Religious Right, biblical language is at right at home in the political discourse of this ‘Christian America.’


1. Take a minute to read Isaiah 40 ( How do you feel about the way King used it? About how Reagan used it?

2. Reflecting on section 1 of this lesson, do you think the different ways the Civil Rights Movement and the Religious Right use the Bible are influenced by the earlier fundamentalist-modernist controversy?


Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. (website of the Christian Coalition) (source for King’s speeches)

No comments: