A single fact reveals the strength of the conservative movement in America: uncompromising liberal zealots like Dennis Kucinich become fodder for late night comedians (Jon Stewart of the Daily Show included) while uncompromising conservative zealots like Rush Limbaugh have taken control of the Grand Old Party.
Put another way, undiluted conservatism sells; straight up liberalism smells fishy to a majority of Americans.
True blue progressives like to think that, if the Democrats painted a glowing portrait of a fair, inclusive, compassionate America the electorate would tilt our way.
We aren’t likely to see that proposition tested any time soon. Our progressive President got elected by contrasting a good war (Afghanistan) with a bad war (Iraq). He offers a soft critique of the war on drugs but keeps pouring federal money down the same black hole. He caved in on the off shore drilling issue in advance of an unprecedented disaster that will become a big part of his political legacy. He let the public option die on the Senate floor without a word of protest.
I have observed these developments with dismay. But Barack Obama got where he is because he learned the primary lesson of the 20th century: conservatives flourish when they stick to a simple America-first, pro-business, limited government mantra; liberals survive by cleaving to the pragmatic (and intrinsically boring) center.
This should be the best of times for progressive politics. The big issues of the day, the health care crisis, the banking imbroglio, the mortgage mess and the BP oil disaster, are advertisements for federal regulation. So, why are Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and the Tea Party Movement marching from glory to glory while progressives find themselves on the ropes?
It’s simple. The apocalyptic disasters befalling this country are scary. People are afraid. Fear creates an every-man-for-himself stampede to the life boats. Folks in the grip of a fight-flight complex snarl at moderation, balance, compassion and sacrifice.
Frightened people cling to old, familiar ways. They embrace the simple tenets they imbibed with their mother’s milk: unquestioning patriotism, biblical literalism, American exceptionalism and white hegemony.
Progressives are mystified by Glenn Beck’s quest for a lost golden age. In 1950, the freedom and professional aspirations of women and minorities were radically limited. Who’d want to go back there? Just look at the progress we have made!
Conservatives remember the sense of unity and common purpose created by World War II and the long, twilight struggle against international communism. Although they are loath to admit it in public, the architects of the conservative revival despise the civil rights movement for destroying the myth of national virtue. Rand Paul, fresh from his primary victory in Kentucky, told Rachel Maddow last night that he would have opposed laws designed to eliminate Jim Crow segregation in businesses. This concern was ostensibly rooted in Paul’s libertarian convictions, but there is a deep disdain on the hardcore Right for mushy words like “equality, justice, diversity and inclusion.”
Conservatives want to keep things simple: simple religion, simple economics, simple national mythology, simple moral standards and a simple system of social stratification in which everybody knows his place (and no one uses awkward phrases like “his or her”).
If Mexicans would go home, women would return to their traditional roles as primary parents and help meets, if the Bible returned to the classroom, if women and minorities would just be grateful we gave them the vote, if we could rebuild a common front against socialism, if little children could hear the glorious story of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism, and if entrepreneurs were free to make money and create jobs, America would once again control the world.
Old folks traumatized by rapid change, parents bringing children into the world, and suburbanites fleeing the crime and despair of the inner city are reassured by by the supermarket spirituality of the megachurch and by folks like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Ultimately, the line between Beck-Limbaugh Americanism and Christian piety is hard to discern.
Can the simple tenets of American conservatism triumph perpetually?
Traditional Christianity, evangelical and mainline, has hit a wall: even the Southern Baptists are experiencing negative growth. This trend will continue.
The need for increased government regulation is now too obvious to ignore.
The political clout of ethnic minorities will continue to expand.
Women will continue to demand equality in the home, in religious communities, and in the workplace.
The war in Iraq has exposed the limitations of military power.
The banking industry and international corporations are no longer seen as engines of national prosperity.
The health care debacle wasn’t fixed by the half-measures that survived the political process.
The BP oil spill will spark a new environmental movement.
The price tag of mass incarceration is too high, the war on drugs is too futile, and the racial disparities in our legal system are too glaring to be ignored.
These factors will keep progressive politicians in the game. Just barely. But high levels of threat will generate a desire for simple religion, simple politics, simple history, simple economics and a simple social hierarchy.
Most liberals recoil in horror from the Religious Right. America would be better off, they say, if the Old Time Religion went the way of the Dodo. In the ivory towers of the American academy, this opinion has hardened into orthodoxy.
Folks can go secular if they choose, but millions of Americans have developed a hankering for a new kind of Christianity.
I am one of them.
The old evangelical verities are too captive to fear-based politics to be of much help to people who care about justice, equality and simple fairness.
Unfortunately, liberal religion is too amorphous, arid and academic to instruct the faithful or inspire the young.
We need a new kind of Christianity. A stout, unapologetically biblical, non-dogmatic, ecumenical, justice-loving, Jesus-centered, truth-celebrating version of the old, old story of Jesus and his love.
This kind of religion won’t appeal to everyone, and shouldn’t try to. But as things presently stand, educated young people growing up in the faith are generally forced to chose between a morally compromised and intellectually indefensible brand of evangelicalism and a sterile secularism that provides little foundation for ethical reflection and practical compassion.
Let’s be clear, I’m not looking for a new-and-improved Christianity to take the place of last year’s model. The churches currently in existence have compelling reasons for maintaining a steady-as-she-goes approach. Megachurches are in the mass marketing business. As such, they have to keep things simple, hip and uncontroversial. The Bible must be viewed as a perfect book that is utterly free of error or internal contradictions. That’s what I mean by simple. But megachurch religion must be limited to the perceived needs of the faithful, and the faithful aren’t overly concerned about issues like economic justice, criminal justice or the plight of poor people. Ergo, these subjects are pretty much off the table. A vague form of small government conservatism is embraced by most megachurch pastors because it allows preachers to sidestep all kinds of application issues. How does Christian piety relate to the social issues of the day? It doesn’t . . . unless we are talking about abortion or homosexuality.
I am arguing for an alternate version of Christianity that asks the hard questions and struggles to live out the answers. Can such a church get big enough to support a pastor? I’m not sure. This may sound like an odd question, but it explains why this new kind of Christianity generates a lot of talk and very little practical action. In religion, as elsewhere, money drives the game.
The new kind of Christianity I envision would NOT be in head-to-head competition with the established church, and it wouldn’t be interested in questioning or supplanting non-Christian religious traditions. Adherents of this new Christianity would have little interest in arguing with athiests and unbelievers. The goal would be spiritual growth coupled with an honest attempt to apply the teachings of Jesus to the challenges of the real world.
Tragically, as folks like Brian McClaren, Jim Wallis and Bishop NT Wright have learned from painful experience, attempts to reframe historical Christianity attract critics from both ends of the ideological spectum.
Furthermore, you can’t build a megachurch or a popular movement on this kind of religious foundation.
The religious awakening I have in mind won’t crave cultural hegemony. Let’s be honest, a viable religious counterculture dedicated to biblical justice won’t gain wide popular appeal.
Here’s the real test. Religious people, white Christians in particular, must come to the grips with the spiritual wickedness in the criminal justice system. Can we stand up for the victims of wrongful prosecution?
If we can, we’re beginning to get it.
If we can’t, we haven’t grasped the radicality of the Gospel Jesus died for.