Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Bible and Politics, pt. 3.1

Since I tend to write a lot (see last week), I've decided to break up the lessons into three or four parts. Today's post represents section one of lesson 3, and the rest of the lesson will come in the next few days.

Few of us, I imagine, would disagree that something changed in the 20th century in the way the Bible was used in American politics. Even in this age of Bush’s ‘evil doers,’ it is probably hard for most of us to imagine a president giving a speech like Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, in which a number of Bible passages were quoted to call out the nation’s sin of slavery. Indeed, whatever has changed in the last 100 years or so is precisely why so many are uncomfortable with President Bush’s religious and moral rhetoric: for some it is not ‘religious’ (or ‘Christian’) enough, for others it is far too religious.
In this lesson we will examine the fate of the Bible in American politics during the 20th century. In effect, we will be looking at the historical conditions that have given rise to the need for a class like this one. On one hand, I hesitate to offer this lesson, because your comments during the past two weeks are perfect evidence of the tensions described herein. But, on the other hand, attention to recent history may help clarify our understandings of one another’s positions. It is with this goal in mind that I offer the following reflections.
This lesson is in a sense a reflection on the split between conservatives and liberals at the beginning of the 20th century. That split ostensibly occurred along theological lines, but it has enormous effects on what each of us perceives to be the relationship between religion and politics, and by extension the use of the Bible in politics. We will examine the split in successive stages, starting with the Social Gospel and evangelical quietism. Then we will look at the emergence of the black church as a political force during the Civil Rights movement, followed by the reemergence of white Christian conservatism as the Religious Right during the 1970s and 80s. Finally, we will look at moves made by recent political figures to adopt biblical language. As always, please feel free to fill in my gaps and correct my errors!

1. The Great Reversal and the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy
From 1900-1930, roughly, American Protestant evangelicalism underwent a ‘Great Reversal’ away from its earlier interests in progressive social change. Theological issues were important here, as an increasing interest in personal holiness and the ‘dispensation of the Spirit’ focused attention away from societal structures. But, as historian George Marsden argues, more important than those issues was the growing split between fundamentalists and ‘modernists.’ Originating in disputes over the divinity of Christ and, especially, the authority of the Bible, the ‘fundamentalist-modernist controversy’ soon spilled over into other areas. Because, at the time, social issues were primarily the provenance of theologically liberal Social Gospelers (discussed in last week’s lesson), many fundamentalists began abandoning social and political concern altogether.
For a time, though, theologically conservative Christians continued to exert political influence, but now progressive issues were given up in favor of attempts to defend the fundamentalist view of scriptural authority. Nowhere is this shift seen better than in the debate over Darwinian evolution. For many conservative Christians, evolution represented an affront to biblical doctrines of creation and providence. William Jennings Bryan, the former monopoly breaker and defender of the poor (as discussed in last week’s lesson), now signed on as the fundamentalists’ foremost defender of biblical authority, serving as the prosecutor of a rural-Tennessean school teacher who taught evolution (in the Scopes Trial, 1925). Though Bryan won the case, the defense made a widely-publicized mockery of his and other fundamentalists’ understanding of the Bible, and the intellectual legitimacy of fundamentalists was forever called into question.
Bryan’s fall, alongside other public embarrassments, severely restricted fundamentalist involvement in American public life. For several decades, fundamentalists chose (or were forced into) a quietist path in which they focused on building their own societal network of schools, churches, and businesses. Concern for larger society was regarded as ‘liberal,’ and most fundamentalists stayed away from what we have defined as American politics. Given that their reputation was severely damaged, however, it was highly unlikely that they would have been welcomed into American politics. Indeed, many liberal Christians felt it necessary to distance themselves from fundamentalists to the extent that they dropped explicitly Christian language from their public discourse. For a time at least, the Bible was more or less silent on the political front.

See especially Marsden's Fundamentalism and American Culture.

Where do you locate yourself on the spectrum between fundamentalism and 'modernism' (or liberalism)? Can you see how your theological heritage has influenced your opinions on the use of the Bible in American politics?


gathering said...

from Scott - This historical lesson is really interesting to me. I often wonder how it is that fundamentalist Christians (who so highly value a literal interpretation of scripture) manage to minimize such clearly biblical themes as various social justice issues. Jamie, am i reading you correctly in gathering that the abandonment of social justice has more to do with a reaction against modernists than it does with biblical interpretation?

And if so, does that mean that the very nature of the debate continues to drive fundamentalists away from social justice values which all Christians might otherwise be able to affirm?

jamie said...

Yes, my understanding is that much of the divide on social issues was caused by the split between liberals and conservatives, a split that didn't really have much to do with social issues at first. Of course, you could make a pretty good argument that each side's theology helped them down that road; but it is interesting that evangelicals who held the highest view of conversion-oriented evangelism were also leaders on progressive social issues for a hundred years or so. Only when other issues (Bible, divinity of Christ) were at stake did the partnership of evangelicalism and justice become a problem.

I do, however, think the two (or more) theological trajectories have now developed to the point where theology, not just circumstance, is a barrier to partnership. For instance, if you're in a church influenced by the holiness tradition (which practically all evangelicals and charismatics are), then you probably read most of the references to the poor as 'spiritual poverty.' The 'poor' that Jesus came to proclaim good news to are not the economically impoverished, but those that 'don't know Jesus' yet, the 'lost.' So when you try to talk to these people about working to combat poverty on Christian reasons, there's not a lot of enthusiasm--they'd rather be 'saving the lost.' These are of course gross generalizations, but I advance them because they were once somewhat true of myself.

This all being said, I do believe a shift is occuring in which evangelicals and other conservative Christians are reading the Bible anew and recognizing some of the justice imperatives for what they are. This can be seen in Rick Warren's efforts in Africa, and the recent evangelical statement on Global Warming. Of course, it's also what Sojourners (the group I work for) is all about. There's an interesting article that was passed around my office today that I'll try to post a link to. It basically argues that the Republican party and the leaders of the Religious Right are facing a grave crisis because the broad evangelical 'base' is shifting away from traditionally conservative social issues to place more emphasis on issues like poverty, AIDS, and the environment. It's an especially interesting article because it comes from a crisis-assessment firm, not a partisan journalist trying to discredit the Republicans.