Category: abortion

Why Billy Graham is down with a Mormon president

Romney and the Grahams work things out

By Alan Bean

Evangelist Billy Graham has tacitly endorsed Mitt Romney’s presidential bid and his website no longer characterizes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) as a cult.  This is just another sign that a major realignment is underway in American religion.

Evangelicals defined themselves in opposition to Roman Catholicism until the late 1970s when activist-preachers like Francis Schaeffer and Jerry Falwell built a new evangelical coalition around an unreconstructed version of Catholic pro-life theology.  This informal evangelical-Catholic coalition was driven by a fear of liberalism in both its secular and religious expressions.

Throughout the 1970s few evangelicals gave much thought to the abortion issue.  In fact, the Southern Baptist Convention essentially endorsed Roe v. Wade at its annual conventions as late as 1976.  A decade later, a thoroughgoing pro-life position had become a litmus test among American evangelicals. (more…)

The ungodly history of Smackdown Jesus

By Alan Bean

Fred Clark’s Slacktivist blog is aimed at recovering evangelicals; particularly ex-devotees of the commercially marketed Christianity that hit its stride in the early years of the Reagan revolution.

I always know when Fred links to one of my blog posts, the usual number of hits increases by a factor of five.  Slacktivist posts regularly garner hundreds of comments.  Few mainstream website generate that kind of interest.

There are three reasons for Fred Clark’s success.  First, he writes extremely well.  Second,  his work is carefully researched and edited, he approaches blogging like a full-time job).  Finally, there are a whole lot of recovering evangelicals out there.

Some of these folks remain in the big-tent evangelical camp but are looking for authentic alternatives to a narrow and increasingly irrational tribalism.  Fred Clark also ministers to a large cadre of atheists and secularists who grew up addicted to with-God-on-our-side religion.

When you grow up born again you never really get over it.  A certain subset of the atheist-agnostic community appreciates Fred Clark’s blog even though he remains a committed Christian.  He  has deep insight into a slice of their experience that genuine secularists can never understand.  The Slacktivist is a form of therapy, an opportunity to work through painful memories and thorny issues.

In a recent post, Clark uses a music video from the 1980s to examine the toxic world of “evangelical tribalism”, the “us-against-them” mindset that has characterized commercial Christianity for the past quarter century.  The video features Carman, a smooth-talking white rapper who always reminded me of the post-Vegas Wayne Newton and Petra, a Christian 80s band that transformed the power chords and vocal hooks of early metal music (think softcore  AC/DC) into a highly marketable form of “Christian contemporary” entertainment.

Here’s the video version of “Our Turn Now”

And here’s Clark’s summary of the contents:

The lyrics begin by lamenting the 1962 Supreme Court decision ending state-sponsored establishment prayers in public schools. Carman, rapping like MC Neil Diamond, offers a litany of post-hoc argumentation, blaming everything he considers bad on the court’s ruling. He calls it “religious apartheid.”

“It’s our turn now” proclaims the chorus — a rallying cry for the tribal rule of sectarian religion. And everyone else, everything outside the tribe, is on the side of the “devil.”

I was introduced to Carman by a member of the ecumenical (nominally American Baptist) congregation I pastored in the early 80s.  The young man who played the song for me (assuming I’d be thrilled) was in his early 20s, a highly intelligent high school band teacher.

The basic idea was that Jesus and Satan are starring in a WWF-style Smack Down main event.  Satan (like every good wrestling heel from that era) enters the ring full of strutting, ranting bravado, but after the Savior gives him the thrashing of his life, Satan’s bold baritone devolves into a whining, emasculated falsetto.

Carman ended the song, as I recall, with an oblique reference to the book of Revelation.  Message: our side wins.

The message of “Our Turn Now” is much the same.  In professional wrestling, “the face” (or crowd favorite) gets slapped, kicked, gouged and mangled for a good twenty minutes before he shakes off the cobwebs and turns the tables to the appreciative roar of the crowd.  “It’s our turn now.”  Carman’s message never transcended the crass world of wrasslin’ melodrama.

But who, in this us-against-them world, is “us” and who is “them”?  In Our Turn Now, the heels, the bad guys, the spawn of Satan, were the justices of the Supreme Court who tossed God out of the classroom, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, liberal “Christians” (who generally supported the court’s decision), secularists, atheists like Marilyn Murray O’Hair, secularists of every stripe; in short, everyone who is not a card-carrying, washed in the blood evangelical Christian.

As Clark suggests, the mindset was binary, Manichean,  darkness and light .  They took the reins of government and did their worst; well, now it’s our turn now.  Soon evangelical Christians who love Jesus and Carman in equal measure will control Congress and the White House.  Godly laws will be passed.  The glory of Jehovah God will return to the classroom, drugs and sexual promiscuity will be abolished by statute, and national righteousness will be restored.

If you pay careful attention to the Carman video (yes, I know that means having to watch it twice–suck it up, this is important) you will note that although all the primary performers are as white as heavy metal, all kinds of black kids are shaking it to the music, witnessing to white kids, and giving their ultra hip stamp of approval to the ascendancy of Christian America.

In other words, when we talk about “us” we’re not just talking about white people.

Why then, are nine out of ten registered Republicans, by a recent estimate, non-Hispanic whites?

At the 2008 Republican Convention, 92% of the delegates were white while it sometimes appeared that half the folks on stage were people of color. Why are white people so much more excited about Carman’s vision of Christian America than the non-white minority?

Because the “us” celebrated in the video were really the folks who were humiliated by the 1960s–white, primarily southern, evangelicals.

The marketing magic behind Carman was the linking of popular culture (heavy metal rock, professional wrestling, Ramboesque violence) with Southern Baptist piety.  In the 1950s, Elvis was Satan; by 1980 he has joined the choir triumphal.  Young people were free to celebrate the values of the American entertainment machine as long as they were down with a Jesus who palled around with marines, corporate moguls, chamber of commerce presidents and was comfortable in the smoke filled rooms of the Grand Old Party.

Rock and roll, pro wrestling, and romantic violence got a pass because the Right needed a really big army to fight liberalism, particularly the brand of liberalism shaped by the civil rights movement.  In the South and the great American heartland, white evangelicals had grown accustomed to being in control, calling the shots and dictating moral standards.  Suddenly, and quite without warning, white evangelicals were being pilloried as nasty Jim Crow racists determined to deprive the Negroes of their civil and constitutional rights.

Evangelicals still haven’t recovered from the shock.  In the South, evangelicals (with Southern Baptists leading the way) climbed out onto the segregation limb until the civil rights movement, to the surprise of everyone, sawed it off.

The routine popular association of conservative religion and blatant racism was deeply humiliating.  By the mid-1970s it was no longer possible to defend the old Jim Crow system, but white hot racial resentment was creating rich opportunities for a resurgence of some kind.

The key was to rebrand the 1960s.  The big issues weren’t civil rights and Vietnam, the new argument went, it was all about two Supreme Court decisions: driving God out of the schools (1962) and Roe v. Wade (1973).  These two liberal decisions, the argument went, paved the way for violence in the streets, the drug culture, sexual promiscuity, perversion and every other evil imaginable.

But it’s Our Turn Now.

Why have African Americans and Hispanics been reluctant to jump on the bandwagon?  Because it’s too awkward.  The GOP is the unofficial Party of White and the Christian Right, though officially Neapolitan, is vanilla clear through.  Check out the crowd at the next Romney rally and see if you can find any people of color in the crowd.  If you got $5 for every one you couldn’t gain admission to a ticket to a $100 a plate fundraiser.

This didn’t happen overnight.  In 1973, most prominent southern evangelicals were big supporters of the separation of church and state and evangelical views on abortion tracked national opinion.  The big opportunity was raging white resentment, but neither leading evangelicals nor GOP strategists couldn’t admit as much.

Abortion was, and remains, a legitimate moral issue, but a particularly thorny one.  As the current tug-of-war between supporters and detractors of Todd (“shut that thing down”) Akin suggests, banning abortion for rape and incest survivors is about as popular as back alley abortions.  Hence, most Americans are unwilling to go all the way with the pro-life movement.

This is precisely why true believers, as defined by opinion leaders within the Religious Right, can tolerate no compassionate exceptions to pro-life orthodoxy.  Go down that road very far and pretty soon most Democrats will be agreeing with you.  The goal has never been to make abortion safe, legal and rare.  From a culture war perspective, the more abortions the better.  The tragic statistics feed an effective wedge issue.

The goal was to get rank and file evangelicals (mad as hell about being branded as racists but lukewarm on abortion) to stop talking race and start screaming about abortion, abortionists and the horrors of the sexual revolution.

At the same time, the Religious Right launched a campaign to convince southern preachers that the separation of church and state was a liberal abomination.

W.A. Criswell was pastor of First Baptist Church Dallas, in its heyday the largest congregation in Protestant America.  In 1960, Criswell used traditional southern support for the separation of church and state  to argue that John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic who was sure to take his marching orders from the Vatican, was unworthy to be president:

It is written in our country’s constitution that church and state must be, in this nation, forever separate and free.  In the very nature of the case, there can be no proper union of church and state.

But in 1980, with the nuptials between Southern Baptists and Reagan’s GOP a done deal, Criswell opined thus:

I believe this notion of the separation of church and state was the figment of some infidel’s imagination.

How do we account for this amazing transformation?  Criswell got the memo.

By 2012 David Barton was arguing that Thomas Jefferson, the father of church-state separation, was an orthodox evangelical who dreamed of Christian theocracy.  Only when a holy host of conservative historians cried foul did Barton’s publisher pull the Jefferson book.  Not surprisingly, Barton’s good buddy Glenn Beck has agreed to publish the Jefferson manuscript.

As the Barton episode demonstrates, it has become painfully difficult for thinking conservatives to stick with the Religious Right or the GOP.  For the moment, few malcontents will leap into the reluctant arms of either the Democrats or liberal Christianity.

When Bill Clinton threw the unions under the bus in the 1990s he knew they would stay loyal.  “Where would they go?” he asked.  The same applies to conservative evangelicals who can’t abide the irrational excesses of their coreligionists.  They will stay with the GOP and the Christian Right because they have nowhere else to go.

The culture war has advanced to the point where the tiny strip of middle ground separating conservatives from liberals has become a barbed wire infested minefield.  The corporate interests that funded Carman and Petra like it that way.  So long as the American  melodrama is conceived as a pay-per-view Smackdown between Christ and Antichrist nobody has the luxury of genuine thought.   As the secular left screams in protest (“You can’t do that!  You can’t believe that!  You can’t say that!”) the easier it becomes for the Christian Right to define itself as a tiny island of godliness in a vast Satanic sea.

At war over the culture war: Dionne and Gerson go toe-to-toe

By Alan Bean

When two columnists working for the same newspaper address the same subject (the culture war and the contraception debate) you can learn a lot.  Michael Gerson accuses Barack Obama of sustaining our endless American culture war by forcing a conservative Roman Catholic Church to conform to “the liberal values of equality and choice.”  In Gerson’s view, the Catholic Church is an inherently conservative, indeed ‘illiberal’, institution.  Gerson endorses a pluralistic view of America in which a variety of civic organizations, some liberal and progressive, others illiberal and traditional, co-exist in a free society.  But this dream of a pluralistic America is being thwarted by an inherently intolerant “liberal” view of American life in which every individual and institution is expected to conform to the liberal values of equality and choice.  By forcing illiberal Catholic medical providers to provide free contraceptive services to their clients, Gerson alleges, the Obama administration is rejecting the pluralistic vision of America and stoking the fires of culture war.

Gerson believes it is a mistake to antagonize conservative institutions because, unlike their liberal counterparts, they encourage 

The habits of good citizens — attributes such as self-control, cooperation and respect for the law — don’t emerge spontaneously. They are cultivated in families and religious congregations. The health of liberal political institutions is strengthened by the success of traditional institutions, which often teach values that prepare individuals for the responsible exercise of freedom.

In Gerson’s view, Obama moved to the left on immigration and gay rights because he is an ardent culture warrior who disrespects the views of American conservatives.

Then comes E J Dionne, a progressive columnist who, unlike the evangelical Gerson, happens to be a living, breathing Roman Catholic in good standing.  Dionne agrees that Obama’s initial handling of the contraception issue was ham-handed and out of character.  Dionne’s Obama is no champion of the liberal view of America.  At his core, the president is an even-handed pragmatist who is generally eager to negotiate with his ideological opponents.

In fact, Dionne reminds us, six years ago Obama complained that

There are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word ‘Christian’ describes one’s political opponents, not people of faith.

Sounds a lot like Michael Gerson, doesn’t it.  Obama dropped the ball on the contraception issue, Dionne admits, but was able to self-correct by offering a compromise that was joyfully embraced by Catholic medical care providers.   

Unlike Gerson, Dionne refuses to define the Roman Catholic Church as an inherently traditional or illiberal institution.  The Catholic Church is a pragmatic and pluralistic blending of conservative and progressive impulses.  Dionne says he remains in the fold largely because

When it comes to lifting up the poor, healing the sick, assisting immigrants and refugees, educating the young (especially in inner cities), comforting orphaned and abandoned children, and organizing the needy to act in their own interest, the church has been there with resources and an astoundingly committed band of sisters, priests, brothers and lay people. Organizations such as Catholic Charities, the Catholic Health Association, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and Catholic Relief Services make the words of Jesus come alive every day.

Moderate Catholics appreciate the president’s willingness to meet the Church half way on contraception and Dionne hopes the conservative wing will tone down its opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage because the American Catholic community is as divided on these issues as the rest of society.

Two views of the Roman Catholic Church; two views of the sitting president.  Who wins?

Dionne gets the best of this dust-up.  The culture war doesn’t separate illiberal traditionalists like a monolithic Catholicism from liberal, pluralism denying, culture warriors like Obama.  Obama has been deeply influenced by both secular liberalism and the traditional values sustained by the Christian Church.  Roman Catholics, like most Christian denominations, are split down the middle over culture war issues like gay marriage, abortion and, now, contraception.  Gerson’s neat divisions don’t fit either Obama or American Catholicism.

If the president has moved off the fence on gay marriage and immigration it’s because he sees no point in placating ideological opponents for whom the word ‘compromise’ has become the vilest of profanities.  Any politician on the right willing to meet the president half way on any contentious issue gets his or her (usually his) mouth washed out with soap in full view of the cameras.

Nice try, Michael, but you didn’t nail it this time.

Does it take courage to be pro-life and anti-gay in Baptist Alabama?

Confessing Church Pastors in Germany

Timothy George had recently departed Southern Seminary in Louisville when I arrived as a doctoral student in the summer of 1989, but people still spoke of him in hushed tones of respect.  At the time, George was a leading member of a new breed of Southern Baptist Calvinists who believed, among other things, that we are all born destined for heaven or hell and there ain’t a damn thing we (or God, it appears) can do about it.

Calvinism appeals to egghead evangelicals in search of a rigorously intellectual theological system draped in the mists of history.  And John Calvin, like the judgin’ exam in Peter Cooks Coal Miner sketch, is noted for his rigor.

Timothy George stirred a bit of excitement in 2009, when, in collaboration with luminaries like Charles Colson, he published a Manhattan Declaration, subtitled as “a call of Christian conscience”.  With a prison reformer like Colson on board, you might expect the declaration to touch, however briefly, on the shame of mass incarceration.  But no, the only topics deemed worthy of discussion were (you guessed it) abortion, gay marriage, and the purported persecution of the American Church.

Now, professor George is claiming that the 500,000 signatories to his bold confession are akin to the German churchmen who signed the Barmen Declaration opposing Hitler in the darkest days of the Third Reich.

Pardon me if I wince in embarrassment. (more…)

Progressives should be wary of Ron Paul

There is a lot to like about Ron Paul.  He opposes the war on drugs; he is anti-war, and he doesn’t like the Patriot Act.  Who could ask for anything more?

If you believe Adele M. Stan, progressives should be asking for much, much more.  Ron Paul’s libertarianism may overlap with the progressive agenda at important points, but it flows from a entirely different source.  Stan associates Paul with the anti-civil rights John Birch Society as well as the modern Reconstruction movement.  My research has reached similar conclusions.

Progressives contend that we’re all in this thing together; Libertarians say we’re all on our own.   Progressivism is consistent with religious altruism; libertarianism logically tends toward the moral nihilism of Ayn Rand. A philosophical difference that great can’t be mended with duct tape and baling wire.  Friends of Justice endorses a Common Peace Agenda that embraces the legitimate rights and needs of all people.  We aren’t satisfied with simply ending the war on drugs or reducing the size of the prison population; we seek what Martin Luther King Jr. called The Beloved Community. 

Those in search of the common good must choose their coalition partners with great care.  We don’t have to agree on every point, but we must be working toward the same broad goal.  What kind of America are we trying to create?  AGB (more…)

Fetal personhood and civil rights

William Wilberforce as portrayed in "Amazing Grace"

By Alan Bean

Personhood USA, the group arguing that personhood begins the moment of conception, is promoting itself as a latter day embodiment of the civil rights movement.  Days after a “fetal personhood” amendment was rejected by 60% of Mississippi voters, Personhood Florida’s Bryan Longworth is undaunted.  William Wilberforce didn’t end slavery in England the first time he tried, Longworth says, and his group isn’t about to give up simply because voters in the most conservative state in America aren’t buying the fetal personhood argument.

The reference to Wilberforce caught my attention.  Nancy and I saw Amazing Grace in an Amarillo movie theatre in 2007.  We were weighing our options at the time.  Did we really want to stay in the criminal justice reform fight?  Sure, we had won some important victories, but when you live in the Texas Panhandle you have few illusions.  Every struggling rural community of any size is sustained by a state prison and there appears to be zero support for ending mass incarceration.  When you have repeatedly slammed your head into a brick wall you sometimes think how nice it would feel to stop. (more…)