Recently I was talking to a mixed group of business acquaintances about the question of liberality. It was the tired old discussion that always arises when a Christian in America admits to Christianity. The immediate leap the average person makes is to political and social conservatism, as well as moral relativism vs. objective values (values based on an external fixed point of reference which is immutable and absolute). The tragic thing is the laughable way these very different continua are typically merged and blended into a confused self contradictory whole in the mind of the critic.
For example, a critic of conservative Christian faith might argue something Like the following:
Christians are so intolerant. Look at the way they judge everybody else’s religious beliefs. For hundreds of years Christians have perpetuated the colonial system by sending representatives and provocateurs (i.e. missionaries/apostles) to spread western values. These missionaries tell people their own traditions aren’t good enough and try to shame them into changing into westerners. What’s worse, Christians have no social conscience. They don’t try to help the poor and the homeless and they don’t believe in social change. Christians are evil because they start all the wars in the world and they… and they…
Well you get the point I hope. I could go on with this composite tirade that I have had to endure repeatedly from Jews, Buddhists, Neo Pagans/Wiccans, Muslims, Hindus, Native American shamanistic believers from various first nations, and best of all the lapsed Roman Catholic or Baptist. But, the argument presented above is enough to demonstrate the lack of rational thought involved in this merger. If break it down we see that Social conscience is supposed to be important, and the critic equates social conscience with believing in social change or programming in order to improve living standards and protect the homeless, and the poor, and one would presume other disenfranchised groups like orphans, single moms and the list goes on.
So we can gather from that, the following proposition, that 1 (good or not evil people believe in social change) and 2 (social change is attempting to change elements of society that cause disenfranchisement and suffering).
Another earlier passage in this tirade criticizes believers for trying to change traditional elements in other cultures and presumably blocking trends that the critic supports in our own. In other words sending missionaries in an intolerant ploy to change peoples and societies. What is a little known statistic is that believing Christians are 90% more likely to give to charitable causes than the base population. This charitable giving is a huge part of the intolerance cited by my hypothetical critic. More, the missionaries who work in other countries tend to focus on building infrastructure, teaching reading and the sciences, and improving agriculture. This is the teach a man to fish doctrine.
In fact, our master, Jesus, taught us to be fishers of men and to then impart this knowledge to new recruits. This spreading the gospel with a social component of improving practical living conditions is the basis of Authentic Christianity. Jesus taught us to care for the sick, care for the orphaned and to care for the single mom. These commands can be found unambiguously preached in the new testament. Christians believe in social change for he betterment of the individual soul and the community.
This can be laid out as 2 (Christians believe in changing elements of society that cause disenfranchisement and suffering)
With these three facts we can lay out an interesting logical chain in the midst of the critic’s own tirade:
A (a form of goodness) = B (social change for the betterment of disenfranchised and suffering people)
D (Christians engage in social change for the betterment of disenfranchised people)
A = B AND B = D THEREFORE A = D (Christian behavior in the world IS a form of goodness)
Essentially the critic has argued against his own point without even seeing the contradiction. Now some might argue that the TYPE of social change Christians favor is what is at fault and the above argument is a fallacy for that reason. Well the relative merits of Christians as a force for social change (light and salt/food preservative as Jesus called us) is a question for another letter. However I believe the preponderance of evidence lies well in favor of the conservative Christian. But that leads into the point I’d like to make about the above illustration.
In this letter I’d like to look at how people get so confused in their thinking. A sociology professor of mine had an interesting take on the issue. He claimed that there were three different continua that are perpendicular and generally unrelated to one another that govern religious and social identity. His first continuum was Social responsibility and he labeled the vanishing points on his line as indifference vs. codependency. The second was biblical interpretation which he labeled as allegorical vs. hyper-literal. And the last was political which he labeled as totalitarian vs. anarchic.
Now you have to understand that is has been over 10 years since the class and his precise terminology was different but I have captured the essence here. These are an illustration of the continua at work:
Social indifference codependency | C PG vs.P RC | <|---------|-|--|----|-|-------|----|----|> Theological allegorical hyper literal | RC C vs. P | <|-----|---|--|------|----|----|---------|> American Political totalitarian anarchic | RC C vs. P | <|-----|---|--|------|--|------|---------|>
C == Reformed, Baptist, Calvinist or Protestant Catholics (e.g. Anglican, Lutheran etc.)
RC == Roman Catholic
P == Neo Orthodoxy (e.g. Pentecostals, Quakers, Wesleyans, Anabaptists, etc.)
PG == Pagan (not appearing on last two continua due to the fact that they fall randomly across the spectrum in a way that no mean value can be arrived at.)
Now granted, the positions on the continua I have posted are hypothetical but I invite you to study the data gathered by Barna Research, in Ventura California, regarding American religiosity. While Barna uses a very loose and debatable definition for what constitutes a believer, the raw data are eye opening and resolve themselves into something approximating the chart above.
What we find in this professor’s diagram is that Roman Catholics lie left of center theologically and politically in American terms, but far to right in terms of social involvement. While churches that arose directly from the protestant reformation tend to lie left of center in all three continua. The Neo orthodoxy that got it’s impetus from the teachings of Joseph Arminius falls somewhere in the middle with a right wing leaning. No the teacher in question tried unsuccessfully to draw a correlation between biblical conservatism and social liberalism but as you can see he failed in that.
The reason for his error was that he had made two fatal flaws in his reasoning. For one, he forgot that the European definition of Political conservatism is leftism for the American mind and the European idea of liberalism is rightwing fanaticism to the American. America was born out of a search for political, social and religious freedom that was not available in Europe and much of American political ideology comes from the political doctrines of the Iroquois Confederation. To borrow a term, European conservatism is the American equivalent of Anti-Revolutionism. This is what paints the gulf between the US and it’s neighbors to the North and to the south who inculcated European politics so thoroughly.
His second major error was in his definition of Biblical Conservatism. He had inadvertently placed the Calvinists on the right side of the spectrum along with the Fundamentalists. This is a common error and one that both the Protestants and the Roman Catholics perpetuate. It arises from the mistaken belief that Calvin’s TULIP — which was the measure of heresy in Holland, Great Britain and France during periods of the Renaissance — is a form of hyper literal interpretation of Scripture since it departs from the hyper allegorical stance taken by the Roman Catholic Church.
The proposition that my teacher made was valid, the problem was his skewed view of the centrist position with regard to theology. The Bible is filled, both Tanakh and New Covenant, with clear prophesy regarding the responsibility of the wealthy to the poor, the able to the disabled, and the powerful to the disenfranchised. A truly conservative theological position takes the intention of scripture to be the literal communication of God’s will and character to the people who follow his direction. It does not take every reference and passage to be literal when removed from the surrounding context. And it views these texts as a source of doctrine both for theological guidance and also political and social guidance. I would introduce a 4’th continuum, which would be morality. The extents would be license vs. legalism and of course the Biblical message would be centrist.
When one is guided by the scripture one tends toward the middle. As Paul said, “in all things moderation.” But that means not indifferent nor codependent. I like to term it interdependent. Interdependence with the rest of humanity, leads to helping with needs and that includes attempting to inculcate values and skills which may be at odds with native tradition, but which improve life for every individual.
It leads not to totalitarianism nor to anarchy, but to Federalism. As Jefferson put it, the ideal American (and I’d say the ideal Christian) is self sufficient, self employed and well educated. This sort of person neither submits to authoritarian nor conformist political dogma, nor does he foment open rebellion where such is not called for in order to correct social injustice. This is the sort of person who risked life and limb to smuggle slaves out of the south on the “underground railway” as the Methodist churches in America did.
This is the sort of person who went to martyrdom in Rome rather than accept the Universalist teaching that all religions are equally valid and a good citizen will pray to Caesar on his day and Jesus on his. And this is the sort of person who will stand against the persecution of a non Christian religious group, out of Love for God’s creatures, even at the risk of his or her own safety and freedom. This is the way that Corrie ten Boom’s family behaved, as did Gerrit J. ten Zythoff whom I have heard speak on the subject at length. This courage must be a part of the believer even today as we consider the policies of the American and British Governments and our involvement with our nation’s politics. Our politics MUST be informed by our faith and a true conservative will cry alongside the holocaust survivor, “NEVER AGAIN!”, even if when the subject is a group we do not accept or approve of.
Today American churches are being persecuted for expressing theological and moral opinions on candidates and issues that directly affect their parishioners. This is a clear violation of the 1st amendment — which was instituted specifically to prevent the gagging of clergy, and the use of financial pressures to enforce the dissemination of propaganda.
This comes back to the root cause of my hypothetical critic’s fatal error. He is the victim of propaganda. We face propaganda in the news media, in our advertisements and commercials and now even from our pulpits. Propaganda that says, a good and righteous life has no fear of inspection, therefore let there be unreasonable search and seizure. “Cause you won’t mind the invasion of privacy unless you have something to hide.” This is an old cry. It came up in the McCarthy era. Old “devil Joe” as I like to call him, taught us that there was a red under our bed, so even our bedrooms had to be subject to scrutiny. The dissemination of false information, or perjury as I like to call it, promoted an atmosphere of fear and paranoia that gripped this country till we couldn’t breath. It can’t be allowed a repeat.
Churches are being told that they can’t preach against sin such as homo sexuality or they will loose their tax exempt status, while “gay rights” advocates are allowed to teach that the church is evil and in effect sinful for opposing homosexuality. George Bush, the supposed advocate of American values and opposition to homosexual marriage, has permitted the IRS to do this. He is the Executive, they answer to him. He therefore is personally responsible for this extortionary policy against the Church.
Churches have been threatened with loosing tax exempt status on the grounds that they oppose Bush’s policies on the War in Iraq. They’ve been attacked by the IRS for criticizing the war and Bush’s policies. In a free society, Churches are free to practice their faith as they see fit. If that includes position statements with regard to political issues that affect their parishioners then so be it. Schools are nothing less than a bully pulpit for opposing views, gagging the church is a violation of the 1st amendment. Bush is the Executive, they answer to him. He is therefore personally responsible for this extortionary policy toward the Church. One which, I might add, he benefits from.
Lord help this nation. Save us from the foolishness that is leading us so far astray.