On Changing Culture 4

Screen shot 2010-04-12 at 7.51.22 PM.pngJames Davison Hunter, in his new book, (To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World
), examines the Christian Left, and he opens with a quotable line:

After observing the the Christian Right is shaped by the Mythic Order and Decline Story, the progressives have a different one:
“progressives have always been animated by the myth of equality and community and therefore see history as an ongoing struggle to realize these ideals” (132).
How true/accurate is this sketch of the two sides? Are Dobson and Wallis mirror images of one another? Is the Christian Right trusting in power too much? Trusting too much in politics and the political process?
The progressive myth of equality/community emerges out of Augustine, the Waldensians, St Francis, St Thomas More and yet its distinguishing features today are clearly a legacy of the Enlightenment. In particular, the French Enlightenment of liberty, equality and fraternity with an emphasis on justice. Secular progressives focus on individual autonomy and freedom; the religiously shaped progressives focus on community and liberation from oppression. Hunter sees the progressive vision of the future as a secularized version of biblical eschatology.
The movement reached its peak in the middle of the 20th Century, according to Hunter.

But I would argue its influence, while maybe seeing its most visible in the 1950s and 1960s, remains pervasive: its liberationist ideals have become encoded more in DC than the Christian Right, for whom it is still largely a struggle to be heard.
Hunter then sketches the rise of the Evangelical progressives — think Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Brian McLaren, Sharon Gallagher, Tom Sine, Randall Balmer etc. They gained traction with the Democratic loss to Bush in 2004, and now are in a young but significant place. 
Deep in the heart of Evangelicals Progressives is the belief that the Christian Right has bastardized the gospel and the church. The language and rhetoric make this clear, and Hunter cites it judiciously — Wallis and Sine and Balmer…. their ressentiment is that they are reacting to the Christian Right.
Hunter traces this rhetoric and energy to the eclipse in power of the progressive Christian voice; they have been marginalized. They are fighting back in order to get power (here’s Nietzschean theory again). So the goal — good citations here — is to take back power or share the stage of power.
Again, the theory is the same as the Christian Right: politics is the solution. Hunter says Wallis is as much connected to the Democrats as Dobson is to the Republicans. Hunter sees this as a faith-based extension of the Left’s discourse. Hunter thinks Wallis’ style is as much civil religion as is Dobson’s, but uses different texts than does Dobson. 
The Christian Left, Hunter argues, imitates the Christian Right.
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  • “Again, the theory is the same as the Christian Right: politics is the solution. Hunter says Wallis is as much connected to the Democrats as Dobson is to the Republicans. Hunter sees this as a faith-based extension of the Left’s discourse. Hunter thinks Wallis’ style is as much civil religion as is Dobson’s, but uses different texts than does Dobson.”

  • joanne

    I think there is some truth to that. I wonder sometimes if because we have not created Jesus band communities that reflect the gospel message and the new humanity formed in Christ, we have focused outward to the political realm.
    If I understand the scripture, new communities formed to reflect the new humanity were to be the reform movement. Not going to political power.
    However, on the other hand… there is some role for the church to play in speaking to the powers. And resisting the powers.

  • Both sides are fighting over the dying rump of American civil religion.
    “Hunter thinks Wallis’ style is as much civil religion as is Dobson’s, but uses different texts than does Dobson.” I would also quote Nietzsche here, “the text has disappeared under the interpretation.”

  • mick

    I wonder how Hunter would view Bonhoeffer’s views and approach in all of this? Or, how Bonhoeffer would respond to these two approaches compared to what he believed the Christian in community is called to be in our culture?

  • I think the difference is that Wallis seeks to be in partnership with the government to achieve his aims. Dobson, on the other hand, wishes to be the kingmaker, to control the process. Both have political agendas, but I think that the methods are very different.

  • I am puzzled because I have viewed the “religious left” as the ones trusting too much in power and wanting to legislate their idea of morality and equality (except for the right’s abortion & gay platform).
    I do not see the progressives of today promoting individual autonomy and freedom. It seems to me that the government is their solution to the problems we face – which is very clear in the president’s book “The Audacity of Hope”. I have not read any books by Wallis but I do frequent Sojourners so I think I grasp his leanings.
    I think that the right would much rather be left alone.
    It is clear from the Constitution and views of the Founders that the role of government should be a limited one. That’s what they wanted. It appears that we want something different today???
    I don’t know if I would say the right has bastardized the gospel but from my church experience the gospel has been limited to personal salvation and going to heaven. Nothing was ever mentioned about bringing heaven to earth. Either way, legislation is not going to do that.
    I hope more churches follow the idea that it is not the government’s job to take care of people – it is our responsibility as the body.
    Thanks for making me think!

  • Bob (#5):
    I disagree. The only difference is that Dobson is overtly clear that he wants to be a kingmaker. Wallis would never utter such a thing publicly, but given his clear track record– and then there’s the whole Matthew 25 crowd– which basically endepravedorsed Obama– You bet they want to be kingmakers just as much as the right.

  • The right has championed individualism be seeking absence of government limitations. The are free to pursue the own interests without govmt intrusion. The left sees a communal approach to achieving individualism. Everyone is to have their basic needs cared for. No one is to have too much more than others. With basic needs cared for people have the freedom to be whatever they want without constraints and without accountability. The Christian Right and Left are heavily influenced by these individualist ideologies. Neither camp articulates a vision that really escapes these pursuits of individualism. They are just masked in religious language.
    I resonate with Hunter’s view.

  • Alex

    Unfortunately, this is probably a somewhat accurate generalization. It is important to have your values inform your political leanings, but never trust any centralized power (gov. or otherwise because at this point it doesn’t matter how *big* the gov. is if it’s bought and paid for by corp. interests) as an ally to the Kingdom.

  • Scot McKnight

    Bob, Hunter’s big point is that both are in the will to power and shaped by ressentiment, and therefore are into domination of the other. I’ve been frustrated in each of his descriptions but the deeper I get into the book, I think it is clear that both trust too much in politicization processes (something I’ve said for a long time) and he also assails the neo-anabaptists.
    But I’m not completely done to see if his own theory of faithful presence is enough of a difference.

  • JD

    There may be some conservatives and progressives who’ve co-opted the Gospel for ideological reasons and to various degrees. I’d be reluctant to judge any given person in that regard. The Christian Right thread explored but did not identify any coherent theological underpinnings – Reformed vs Arminian vs Catholic (and I would not lump Buckley in with the neoconservatives from First Things). This made for some strange signatory bedfellows and interesting rhetorical exchanges when the Manhattan Declaration came out.
    To the extent that one is wary of coercion, in general, and political strategies, in particular, and thus follows the counsel of John Courtney Murray, whose thoughts largely informed certain Vatican II proceedings, political solutions should generally be reserved for maintenance of the public order and should not be employed to help establish the rest of the common good. Of course, one may then either more broadly or more narrowly conceive just what comprises the public order but the general idea behind Murray’s thoughts is that legislation does not make for a good school of public virtue, especially when a normative consensus is lacking in a pluralistic society. This may sound like an essentially jurisprudential argument but one might also choose to forego political solutions and coercive remedies with a vague appeal to the virtue of nonviolence or even to a certain resonance with some Anabaptist sensibilities re: church-state interactions.
    Within this framework, then, we can explore differences between the Christian Left and Christian Right. To the extent the Christian Left focuses on social infrastructure like health, education, welfare, environment and such, it has restricted its political strategizing to matters regarding the public order. It remains subject to critique, however, on a case by case basis, by the subsidiarity principle. The Christian Right, for its part, in its social conservative initiatives, precisely flirts with such a moral statism as Murray would guard against, especially when lacking normative consensus in a pluralistic society, and, in its neoconservative initiatives, would be seen as overreaching, for example, with its ambitions for global democratization (through destabilization, even). It also remains subject to critique by the subsidiarity principle, having a tendency to invoke it on economic and fiscal matters and to ignore it on social matters, pessimists on what big government can accomplish at home but optimists on what it can accomplish in tribalistic cultures overseas.
    The Christian Right thus more readily turns to political solutions to extend the common good beyond a more minimalist goal of maintaining the public order. The Christian Left might do better if it grappled more often with the tensions that inhere in subsidiarity. If Hunter’s analyses do not tease out such nuances, it is too blunt an instrument and too facilely characterizing and equating both Right & Left.

  • Scott,
    Thanks for addressing this question. While I typically ID myself with Ron Sider and Tony Campolo, being a son of Philadelphia and an evangelical, I have often wondered if those on the evangelical left are in danger of capitulating to the demands of politics. Prophets aren’t usually welcome in the halls of government, and with access to power comes a demand to compromise. While some kinds of compromise may be acceptable, I wonder if that line is fuzzy and hard to find–to the point that once you’ve crossed it, you’re into the political end a bit further than you would have supposed.
    I don’t have any answers one way or the other on this one, but it has been on my mind a lot lately, and I’m glad you’ve tackled it here.
    It also reminds me that we need good critics giving good critique that can be discussed in a spirit of humility and redemption.

  • Wyatt Roberts

    “[B]oth trust too much in politicization processes.” Okay, that’s true but we’re discussing groups of people who are defined in purely political terms (i.e. Left/Right).

  • DRT

    Scot (and the other posters),
    Thanks for this series. It has made me think about this at a level I never had before.
    @8 Michael, I think I am going in the same direction as what you said.
    It seems easy for me to categorize the right as motivated by a self knowledge of greed and then a generalization of that greed to everyone. Therefore they don’t trust generalized good intent and also tend toward total depravity. The bar is set so low in their theology that they have no reason to try for a higher bar. They fight for no institutionalization of intent to fend off institutionalizing evil, which they view is the very nature of man.
    The left also believes that people are bad, but many have a self knowledge of good and therefore hold the belief that we should institutionalize the good to stop the bad. They hold on to the hope that institutionalization of good will allow good to prevail. They view the right as cynical in this paradigm while the right views them selves as practical.
    Neither of these are views taught by Jesus, IMO. He did not advocate for political expression, instead he advocated for individual responsibility. I can see how the right would view their efforts toward eliminating government programs as advocating individual responsibility as Jesus did. I can also see how the left would view their efforts toward enhancing benefits toward people as being what Jesus wanted (the effect not the effort is what counts).
    I also feel it is a trade-off as to which devil do you fear. The right fear the devil they don’t know and want to avoid allowing that devil an inroad, but the left fear the devil they do know and want to legislate its effect away.

  • John C

    Does Hunter consider the race factor? One difference between the Christian Left and the Right, I think, is that the Left were much more enamoured by MLK and the Civil Rights Movement, and by the politics of the Black Church. Of course, ‘the Black Church’ is not a monolith by any means, and there are Black conservatives, but the point still holds. The Christian Right was far more ambivalent about King and out of sympathy with the Democratic, welfare-state leanings of most African-American Protestants. Campolo, Wallis, Sider et al were inspired in part by figures like Tom Skinner, whose electrifying 1970 speech at Urbana (‘the Liberator has come!’) can now be heard online:

  • A problem I have with both Wallis and Dobson is that they will rejigger their respective theologies to accommodate the party line. I once got an e-mail from Sojourners asking me to obey the commandment to honor my mother and father by opposing Bush’s Social Security reform plan.
    And don’t get me started on Dobson’s bizarre fenestrations on behalf of Mitt Romney.
    In general, I would have more respect for both men if they were to deal with the difficult questions brought on my their ideological leanings. Wallis has offered no forthright explanation of why his political advocacy on behalf of the “least of these” does not lead him to a politically pro-life position. Dobson has no valid explanation for why common law divorce is less problematic than gay marriage.
    Neither makes any sense on economic issues. It’s Wallis’ “least of these vs. Dobson’s “the poor you will always have with you”. What a pedantic and facile exploration of the role of scriptures in informing policy. Blech.
    Suffices to say, I agree with Hunter.

  • All add this to about economic conceptualizations.
    The belief in the “invisible hand” (a phrase used by Adam Smith but distorted beyond recognition since WWII) as a quasi-deity that will give us peace, prosperity, and safety from the vagaries of life is present in varying degrees on the right. (And I’ll add here that I think the right frequently is correct in noting how frequently people do not understand and appreciate what a remarkable development markets are in human history.) This is the god that directs the world of Modernist individuals rationally deducing their best courses of action and through their enlightened will achieving self-actualization.
    The quasi-deity on the left is the “Great Mind.” In extreme cases, it tends toward personality cults where it is believed that their literally is a great mind (Stalin, Mao, etc.) who knows what is in the common good and directs all of society toward that end. In less extreme cases, it is a more vague sense that someone (or someones) out their have the whole picture and the only reason their are injustices, inequities, and vagaries is because the great mind (or a collective functioning as a great mind) has not acted or been blocked from acting. It can be expressed in terms of aristo-populism where aristocratic-like elites apply reason and enlightened benevolence toward achieving the common good. Or it can be expressed in a radically democracy of mob rule, where something like the invisible hand is proffered, believing that 51% of the collective using reason and enlightened benevolence knows how to achieve the common good. But at the core is the belief that the reason and enlightened benevolence of a “Great Mind” would create a world where we can achieve self-actualization.
    The Religious Right has tended to baptize the former, which dovetails nicely with individualized notions of salvation and ethics, and of God’s providence. The Religious left has baptized the latter with the idea of government as God’s oikonomos … household manager … directing and managing the affairs of the household for the owner, using reason and biblical ethics to direct all the affairs of society.

  • Scot McKnight

    No doubt for me on this one. The Christian Left, since it is more concerned with equality, has more focus on racism and racial equality.

  • toddh

    Though Wallis is definitely more aligned with the Democrats, I think he and Sojourners do try to not become a shill for one particular party. You can see that in his “consistent ethic of life,” where he opposes anything that devalues life, including: abortion, euthanasia, war, capital punishment, poverty, etc. That list includes issues that have been co-opted both by Democrats and Republicans, and his stance slices across the left-right divide.
    You don’t find that kind of nuance in Dobson’s politics (at least not that I have seen). He is pretty much just a plain old Republican, through and through. In his world, Christian = Republican, and I don’t think you can say for Wallis and Sojourners that Christian = Democrat.

  • Tia Lynn

    I think if anyone read Jim Wallis’s God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get it, would see a huge difference in the kind of rhetoric, vision, and tactics that are employed by the christian right and an organization like Sojourners.

  • Scot, I would agree with ToddH#19 in his assessment. I don’t think that with Sojourners/Wallis etc. that they are in the same place as Dobson. In fact, I don’t think that the religious left is at all organized or in the same place.
    I think it’s instructive that Obama who would be a representative of the religious left has reached out across theological lines. In a recent Christian Century, in the list of Obama’s religous confidants, it is interesting that the two people he calls for prayer support are Sharon Watkins, the General Minister of my denomination (and on the left politically and theologically) and Joel Hunter (who was a Republican and to the right of center theologically). So, I don’t think this is monolothic. And as far as the African-American churches they aren’t monolithic and on some issues — homosexuality tend to be right of center.

  • I have read God’s Politics and… no… I don’t see a difference between the rhetoric, vision, and tactics employed by the Christian right or the left. But then again, I have no stake in either side.

  • toddh,
    Sojourners employs rhetoric that makes them seem much more even-handed than they are. The stance they take on every issue, from abortion to war, squares with that of a typically liberal Democrat. There is occasional dissent on issues like Afghanistan, but not to any greater degree than we would observe from Dobson and the Republicans.

  • Randy G.

    Just a few comments.
    1. I agree with Tia Lynn (#20). I also remember how hopeful and supportive Wallis was of George W. Bush in the early days when “Compassionate Conservativsm” and “Faith Based Organization” still had some life. I have never seen Dobson or others on the Right cross party lines that way.
    2. Also, think back to the emergance of Evangelical environmental concerns (2003-2006). The media did not know what to make of this. By the secular media’s narrative Evangelicals were “switching sides to Democrats,” when in fact they were merely advocating something new, and were willing to ally with whoever would address their concerns.
    3. No doubt some Christians who lean left were seduced by Obama’s campaign in the wake of eight years of W.’s presidency. But I see them launching far more small-scale/grassroots formation of action groups addressing concerns apart from political power or at least political parties.
    Randy Gabrielse

  • “No doubt some Christians who lean left were seduced by Obama’s campaign in the wake of eight years of W.’s presidency. But I see them launching far more small-scale/grassroots formation of action groups addressing concerns apart from political power or at least political parties.”
    The Matthew 25 Network was organized specifically to help get Barack Obama elected, and now joins Sojourners in advocating leftist policy (though more overtly, in the manner of Dobson).
    As for willingness to ally with whomever is will to address specific concerns, this is true of any political advocacy group. If a Democrat takes a genuinely pro-life stand AND matches that to his vote, James Dobson will assuredly support his decision.
    That doesn’t change the fact that these are political groups with an ideology to advance, and that both have affixed themselves to a party likely to advance same. Wallis loved Bush’s faith-based initiatives until they were largely unfunded in (the Democratic) congress. Then he reverted to form throughout the Bush presidency, finally calling for Bush and Cheney to be prosecuted for war crimes.

  • #19 Todd
    “abortion, euthanasia, war, capital punishment, poverty, etc.”
    Jim Wallis opposes abortion/euthanasia. Fine. Name me other issues where Wallis doesn’t not side with liberals in his take on the nature of the problem and the solution. The Christian left constantly beats the drum that all the right cares about are abortion and homosexuality, insisting there needs to be a much larger agenda. Certainly there is a much larger agenda. And what is that shapes Wallis’ much larger agenda: social progressivism/liberalism. Being with the right on abortion and homosexuality, and with the left on virtually every other critical issues does not make you transcendent of left and right. It makes you a progressive/liberal who parts on these isolated issues.
    Jim Wallis is a progressive/liberal. Brian McLaren self-identifies himself as a progressive/liberal.
    #20 Tia
    I have read and reviewed God’s Politics and I’ve been following Wallis for thirty years. I get Sojo weekly updates. I’m with Allan. I see little difference in the vitriolic rhetoric, values, and tactics.

  • JD

    Another thing. Too often, policy differences of an essentially practical nature that derive from prudential judgments get misrepresented as personal deficiencies of an essentially moral nature that derive from character flaws. And this is habitually done as a cynical ploy to motivate a political base by engaging it emotionally and with supposedly great moral impetus.
    For example, Bart Stupak held the same moral stance as others regarding abortion funding in the healthcare legislation, differing with them only on empirical and practical grounds, but one would never know this from some of the vitriolic rhetoric directed at him and others. But the same thing has happened to many who supported this or that military action, justifying it on prudential grounds after hurdling (to their satisfaction) other serious moral criteria, only to be labeled warmongers by some.
    It is not so easy to discern who displays the most consistent ethic of life because political stances are most often grounded in practical policy approaches guided by prudential judgments and not in bioethical (ethic of life) positions guided by moral reasoning. How to establish peace, reform welfare, reduce abortion, increase employment and such involve thorny empirical practical judgments even among those who agree 100% on the underlying moral realities.
    Neither the Christian Right nor Left holds the patent on moral grandstanding, oversimplifying issues that are vastly complex and playing to populist sentiments without exploring all of the seriously nuanced positions of all sides of an issue. What’s missing is a healthy self-criticism and worthy engagement of the opposition’s best arguments rather than caricatures of same. Are Immigration issues really as simple as some would have us believe, based on the rhetoric, from BOTH sides, in just the pass 48 hours? Gone are the orators who once knew the other side of an issue better than their antagonists in debates!
    re: racial and gender equality, yes, that track record is clear and our public order was at stake. And while I know that desegregation laws did serve to some extent as a school of public virtue allowing (forcing) folks to intermingle and thus get rid of some of their fears and misconceptions, what still stirs my spirit most is the witness and lasting legacy of a nonviolent civil disobedience that planted the seeds which allowed the legislation to bloom and public virtue to blossom in hearts cultivated by … a Spirit.
    re: quasi-deities, very well put! hence the alternate deification and demonization based on the pseudo-moral dynamism I described above.

  • danderson

    I think that, while Dobson and Wallis are on different ends of the political spectrum, their collective achilles heel is being too partisan. I wonder if it has to do with playing to their respective audiences. Dobson wouldn’t be caught dead talking about social justice issues, while Wallis plays lip service to issues of abortion, traditional marriage and other family value issues. Most of Sojo bloggers on God’s Politics are cut out of the same cloth.
    A question: does anyone know what Sojourners theology is? They pride themselves in being “progressive.” What does that mean in terms of orthodoxy of Scripture? Does Wallis agree at least in part with the Borg, Spong, etal, crowd?

  • Does Wallis agree at least in part with the Borg, Spong, etal, crowd?
    It seems to me that any answer to that question is incomplete unless one qualifies “which part”? For example, even Borg and Spong believe some orthodox doctrines (admittedly, such can be hard to discern in the midst of so much that is unorthodox about them, to be sure). You wouldn’t want to malign a person by suggesting that they agree with “Borg and Spong” only to later learn that the extent of the agreement is wholly uncontroversial, would you?