American politics and extreme religion

This week, the Guardian asked the question “Have extremists retaken American Christianity?”

On Monday, H.E. Baber wrote that she believes politics drives American religion not the other way around because of the consumer-driven (rather than theology-guided) nature of American religion, in particular evangelicalism.

Religion in America is at once pervasive and powerless. For Americans, half of whom have changed their religious affiliation at least once during their lifetimes, religion is a consumer choice. We shop for churches that suit our lifestyles, appeal to our tastes and support our agendas. When they do not suit us we take our business elsewhere – or start new churches. In the US religion does not drive politics: politics determine Americans religious consumption choices.

Evangelical Christians did not push American politics to the right. The religious right emerged in response to consumer demand, and so long as the demand for conservative politics and policies exists, evangelical churches, Republican demagogues and others who exploit the conservative working class – another American peculiarity – will turn a profit.

Stephen Bates wrote on Wednesday noting that the healthcare debate has re-energized the American religious right around their usual core issues. Asking “What kind of healthcare would Jesus want?” he writes:

…Certainly, at the moment, religious groups are far from standing united against the healthcare plans. Many more liberal Christians – and indeed Muslim and Jewish leaders – are also rallying to support the administration’s proposals. They are doing so on religious grounds themselves: that there is an ethical obligation to look after the weak and the sick. They are calling on their supporters to oppose the rightwing shock-jocks and commentators spreading untruths about the proposals and they have sponsored a television advertisement urging reform. The Rev John Hay of Indianapolis, featured on the advert, said current health provision “is no way for the most blessed country in the world to treat its most vulnerable citizens. This is as much a crisis of faith as it is a crisis of healthcare.”

But just as Republicans see destabilising the Obama administration’s healthcare plans as a way of undermining the Democrats and reviving their own political fortunes, so do some on the religious right – and in just as nakedly political a way. Professor D Michael Lindsay, a sociologist of Rice University, told the Washington Post: “Movements do better when they have something to oppose. It is easier to fund raise … easier to mobilise volunteers because you have an us versus them mentality and that plays very well right now for the Christian Right.”

Today, Sarah Posner notes how millenialism, which used to live at the fringes of even conservative mainline and evangelical Christianity, has now moved front-and-center in how many American Protestants see the world.

(Millenialism) says Matthew Avery Sutton, a historian at Washington State University at work on a book about evangelical political engagement, “was fringe among conservatives 150 years ago” but “is now mainstream. It’s just the air they breathe.”

Major Republican politicians, like Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, grew up breathing that air, and still do.

Although the religious right, with its crusades against abortion, gay marriage, and the separation of church and state, has been a major player in American politics since the late 1970s, in recent memory the eschatology animating American evangelicalism has been a sideshow to these efforts. Still, religious right architect Tim LaHaye penned the best-selling Left Behind series, and founded a centre for the study of biblical prophecy at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. And televangelist John Hagee mobilised his shock troops based on end-times prophecy, even as he lobbied the Bush White House under the guise of being a foreign policy wonk.

While end-timers have long-speculated in books, television, and conferences about which public figures might be, or at least be a sign of the antichrist, for the first time in recent memory such musings (about the president) have spilled out into the streets, in plain sight of all Americans.

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Category : The Lead

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  1. Michael Russell

    It is worth reading Cass Sunstien’s “Going to Extremes” about the tendency of like minded groups to move towards extremism.

  2. John B. Chilton

    It seems to me that the answer is not yet. But if the mainstream churches don’t forget out how to be an attractive alternatives to leaving and joining the “nones” they will.

    I’ll grant H.E. Baber her premise that Americans choose their religious affiliation and are active consumers. That’s a consequence of the First Amendment that favored no one religion and thus, probably as an unintended consequence, created a highly competitive religious marketplace. Do we really want to a lifeless state church like you find in most of Western Europe — propped up by an endowed or taxes? What’s worse — changing my religious affiliation to one that suits me (often b/c – here’s another feature of the U.S. – we marry outside our faith of birth) or sticking with the faith my parents raised me in, but whose creed I don’t believe? (Yes, I’ll, concede there’s a counter argument — sticking with the discipline of a church, not switching to the easy one.)

    The religious right has always been there. It’s just that for a long time it eschewed politics, and politicians distanced themselves as well [think the Republican party of Nelson Rockefeller]. I have to say, I believe the religious right watched the increasing secularization and decided at some point it must become active in politics.

    Now to the conservative working class. Liberals have always been befuddled about a group that seems to not vote its interest. Their only explanation is that they are easily duped. Condescending. Liberals forget that there is a very strong libertarian streak in the American mind. Or call it individualism. Whatever it is, there are plenty of people who honestly do not want government controlling more of their lives. Do politicians play on those attitudes? Of course they do. But that doesn’t make them any less real than the attitudes of others that government can do no wrong. Politicians play on those attitudes as well.

    Which brings me to Bates. Take out the politicians and would still be plenty of Americans who don’t want the government to mandate that they buy insurance. Sweden has a system much like one being proposed, and it’s hard to find a Swede who has a problem with the mandate even though insurance is expensive. The same libertarian streak does not exist there.

    Has millenialism become mainstream in American evangelicalism? I think that would be unfair to say. I don’t think Palin, for example, is an evangelical. It might be more fair to say Pentecostalism is growing at the expense of mainstream evangelicals.

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