We all understand that America is divided; but the source of our division is less clear. Reduced to its most basic elements, the American culture war, evident in our politics, media and religion, is about the fruits of a revolution in human rights. This revolution dates back to the beginning of the American experiment, but has accelerated and expanded in recent decades.
The contours of the human rights revolution are well known: religious liberty, civil rights, voting rights, women’s rights, minority rights, gay rights and workers’ rights. I could elaborate, but you get the idea. When I speak of a human rights revolution, this is what I have in mind.
We are divided because white America, on the whole, has mixed feelings about the human rights revolution. Except at the most elite levels, the American Christian community has actively resisted each of these revolutions, and the very concept of human rights. To resist is not necessarily to reject or oppose; I am talking about a failure to embrace, an unwillingness to celebrate.
In America, progressive Christianity has been shaped by a rapidly evolving human rights revolution (as I shall call it). We preach a gospel of liberation. The human rights revolution, in this view, is a logical consequence of the Christian gospel.
The gospel of liberation emphasizes the Exodus account and the call for social justice sprinkled throughout the prophetic scriptural tradition. Even the history of Jesus, including his death and resurrection, have been rendered in terms of existential philosophy and human liberation. In this view, Jesus was crucified by an oppressive system and his resurrection is understood as a triumph over that system.
But this is a minority view. American popular religion has, at best, arrived late to the human rights celebration, coming around, somewhat grudgingly, after the zeitgeist has been irrevocably altered. Which means that the zeitgeist, outside the elite communication media, has not changed as much as we once believed.
Popular opinion, obviously, has evolved over time. Few Americans believe that racial hatred is acceptable. But if you ask questions intended to tease out racial resentment, a different picture emerges. The critique of the human rights revolution is indirect. American liberty is commonly defined as my ability to do whatever I choose. The extension of fundamental human rights to women, workers, people of color and the LGBTQ community is either ignored or indirectly critiqued. We don’t oppose the women’s movement, per se, but we decry the breakdown of the American family, with the not-so-subtle implication that the entry of women into the mainstream life of the nation is highly problematic.
Conservative politicians focus on abortion rights for a number of reasons. Few Americans are pro-abortion and most favor some limitation of the practice. But politicians emphasize the “rights of the unborn” to disguise their manifest opposition to the human rights revolution. Similarly, references to “religious liberty” deflect attention from a thoroughgoing rejection of minority rights.
I refer to popular religion because, increasingly, American religion is a commodity. Religious professionals have all become what Paul called “peddlers of the gospel”. Ideally and theoretically, the gospel is not for sale. But some iterations of the gospel are more marketable than others. In particular, the indirect critique of the human rights revolution gets a better reception in most of our churches than the unqualified celebration of human rights.
As a consequence, the term “Christian” is now routinely associated with opposition to the human rights revolution, while “patriotism” is commonly associated with a critique of the human rights. When people speak of “the real America” or “real Americans” they invariably mean that portion of the population that sees the human rights revolution more as problem than promise. The MAGA revolutionary defines itself in opposition to the human rights revolution. MAGA leaders say they only wish to return to traditional American values; by which they mean, America as she existed prior to the human rights revolution.
Liberals just don’t get it. Why would we want to curtail the rights enjoyed by labor, women, the LGBTQ community and racial minorities? And why, after a disastrous of Trump presidency, the events of January 6th, and the increasingly bizarre antics of conservative politicians, is the GOP projected to win a smashing victory in November?
The answer is tragically simple. The enthusiasm behind counterrevolutionary politics is much greater at the moment than the enthusiasm for the human rights revolution.
So, why do the counterrevolutionary fires burn so brightly in our day?
It all comes back to the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and these stories are all tangled up in where we came from. If you make a clean distinction between Jesus and Church while accepting the separation of Church and State, the American origin story becomes problematic. Christians have been poor representatives of Jesus. America is not now, and never has been, a Christian country.
But this creates uncomfortable tensions. We prefer to think better of ourselves. And this means harmonizing our patriotism with our religion. To make this happen, we have intentionally concocted a religion that has no political, economic or cultural relevance at all. The gospel, as we have come to understand it, is counterrevolutionary to the core.
Thus, we have been eager to bestow a measure of divine blessing on our national, economic and cultural life. We must be the kind of people Jesus had in mind, and we must have been so from the beginning. We are, as John Winthrop told his Puritan flock, “A city upon a hill”. Wherefore, “The eyes of all people are upon us.”
America, in this view, is a nation favored of God. A “Christian nation” in the sense that Christians have set the general tone for our national life.
Until quite recently, we have inculcated this kind of civil religion in school children. We have repeated it in sermons and in our political sloganeering. The concept of American exceptionalism is always gets a warm reception. It is as comforting as the reassurance we commonly hear at funerals that the departed is now reunited with loved ones of blessed memory. If it makes us feel good, it doesn’t have to make sense.
Those who celebrate the revolution that created the American Republic generally have little patience for the slow-rolling revolution in human rights that followed in its wake. And the same is true in reverse. When the champions of human rights speak of American beginnings, it is usually to point out how deplorable conditions were for everyone save a handful of propertied white males.
For passionate adherents of American exceptionalism, the human rights revolution have always felt subversive. The very suggestion that the poor, or people of color, or women, or working people, or LGBTQ folk were in need of a revolution registers in the American heartland as a slap across the face. For if this revolutionary talk is legitimate, America has been a haunt of oppression from the beginning.
Since the early 1960s, Democrats have gradually embraced the rhetoric of liberation while, increasingly, Republicans have defined themselves in opposition to such talk. It has been a slow process, but, in our day, the process is complete. It is now difficult for Republican politicians to show a flicker of enthusiasm for any aspect of the human rights revolution. On the left, in contrast, the entire revolutionary package must be affirmed, explicitly and repeatedly.
In the process, both sides have come to view the folks across the aisle as fundamentally illegitimate. So long as Donald Trump rejected the revolution while applauding those who shared his scorn, he can be forgiven anything. Including fomenting an armed insurrection.
If you affirm the human rights revolution, this all seems bizarre. If you reject the contours of that revolution, it makes all the sense in the world.
Popular enthusiasm for the human rights revolution has been cooling for decades. The spectacular achievements of this revolution are either disputed or taken for granted. Meanwhile, the awkward consequences of sweeping change are blamed for all the nations’ woes.
The longing for a harmonious world where everyone agrees on essential values is hardwired in the human spirit. If people refuse to endorse our values, they must be either converted or silenced. This kind of thinking may come naturally to us, but it is neither realistic nor moral. In our saner moments, we understand that. Listening to MNSBC or Fox News, it’s easy to forget.
American public opinion is unspeakably messy. Yet, those who reject the human rights revolution in its entirety, and those who rejoice in it without qualification, currently control the national debate. The rejection of the human rights revolution has become so central to Republican identity that political conservatives with more nuanced views have no future within the Republican party.
Most Americans, let’s face it, give little thought to the human rights revolution. Forced to choose, however, racial minorities generally break Democratic while most white voters favor the Republicans. This successful push for ideological conformity explains why, in the wake of a failed insurrection, Democrats are paddling upstream in advance of the 2022 midterms. Republicans have a simple and unifying message: an unqualified rejection of the human rights revolution.
The Supreme Court of the United States mirrors the American war over human rights. Six justices clearly have issues with the human rights revolution. Only candidates willing to champion either side of the national debate have a chance at nomination. As a consequence, it isn’t just Roe v. Wade that is in jeopardy. Overtime, the Supreme Court has placed its stamp of approval on every facet of the human rights revolution. That blessing can be revoked by a simple show of hands. The courts’ decision to sign off on radically gerrymandered election maps is chilling in its implications.
There are plenty of exiles from the Republican Party who wish things were otherwise. And there are plenty of Democratic strategists who wish their party would stop talk more about dollars and less about rights. But the cautious approach won’t work anymore. Nothing short of a full-throated, unapologetic, and consistent celebration of human rights in every form will get the job done. It isn’t a matter of “winning” the culture war. That’s a pipe dream for both sides. The question is whether public policy will mirror the triumph, or the negation, of the human rights revolution.
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