Antidisestablishmentarianism (From the Archives)

Antidisestablishmentarianism (From the Archives) June 22, 2011

OK, although it proves I’m a nerd (as if any of you had any doubts) I will come right out and admit it: ever since I was a child and first learned about the longest word in the dictionary I have been eagerly awaiting an opportunity to use it in a sentence. I suppose that is the silver lining I can find in the religious right – they have given me the opportunity to use the word.

Establishment, as those who know the first amendment are aware, refers to having an established church or religion that is state sponsored and state approved. Disestablishment thus represents the removal of such a status, the separation of church and state (as Thomas Jefferson famously put it). Antidisestablishmentarianism is thus the point of view that is opposed to the separation of church and state, and thus the American religious right is very clearly (if I may be so bold as to try to outdo the dictionary in length of words) antidisestablishmentarianistically-oriented! 🙂

Back in 2006, I read Randall Balmer’s Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical’s Lament (New York: Basic Books, 2006), a book that eloquently takes the religious right to task for denying the historic values of American Christianity, undermining the foundations of both American democracy and the Baptist tradition to which many among the religious right claim to belong. Yet the Baptists historically were the key proponents of the separation of church and state, because they saw both the persecution and the empty formalism that resulted from state-sponsored religion, and realized that both were detrimental to the health of true Christianity. Indeed, it is hard for many who have experienced the Southern Baptist Convention in its modern form to believe that the words of George Washington Truett, spoken in 1920 from the steps of the Capitol, could once have been true: “Baptists have one consistent record concerning liberty throughout their long and eventful history. They have never been a party to opression of conscience” (quoted in Balmer, p.69).

Thomas Helwys famously wrote the following words to King James I of England in 1612:

For we do freely profess that our lord the king has no more power over their
consciences than over ours, and that is none at all. For our lord the king is
but an earthly king, and he has no authority as a king but in earthly causes.
And if the king’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all human laws
made by the king, our lord the king can require no more. For men’s religion to
God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may
the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or
whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least
measure. This is made evident to our lord the king by the scriptures (The Mystery of Iniquity 53).

This is the same King James under whose auspices the famous translation of the Bible was made. He imprisoned Helwys for speaking out in this way about the king’s persecution in particular of Roman Catholics. Helwys, like the American Founding Fathers, realized that in order for one’s own freedoms to be guaranteed, the freedoms of all viewpoints had to be guaranteed. It is distressing to see not only how many Americans and how many Christians, but how many even among Baptists have abandoned their confidence in the power of the Gospel in exchange for attempts to instead manipulate, harass, legislate and in other ways impose their views on others in a way that flies in the face of the spirit of both American democracy and the Christian message.

Balmer’s book’s strongest point, however, is in highlighting the irony of the religious right’s claims to be concerned about the Gospel, about Biblical values, and so on. In a famous instance from a few years ago, when asked where they stood on the issue of TORTURE, right-wing religious groups either said they had no particular view or statement, or parroted the rhetoric of the current administration. Appalling! How can you possibly claim to be a Christian and yet focus all your attention on matters about which the Bible says relatively little (e.g. abortion and homosexuality) and miss the overarching themes of social justice (one of the things that Amos decries Israel’s neighbors for is torture), of the evils of persecution, of loving one’s enemies and doing to others what we would have them do to us? I thank God that more and more voices are being raised by courageous individuals against the evil of the religious right. That is correct, you heard me correctly: it is not simply the case any more that the religious right in America is simply out of touch with the teaching of the Bible. They have become the very thing they claim to oppose. They have become what the Bible defines as evil. How did this happen? I would attribute it to one simple factor that the Bible warns us against. The religious right has become hypocritical, able to see sins in others while seemingly unable to spot the telephone pole lodged in their own eye. Self-righteousness is, as the New Testament warns, quite possibly the hardest sin to root out, and it has infected the whole movement of the religious right in this country.

Christianity Today decades ago warned of precisely where things might lead, but their warning was apparently unheeded. This quote is just another wonderful tidbit quoted in Balmer’s book (p.xvii): “Too narrow a front in battling for a moral crusade, or for a truly biblical involvement in politics, could be disastrous. It could lead to the election of a moron who holds the right view on abortion” (“Getting God’s Kingdom Into Politics”, Christianity Today September 19, 1980, p.10).

Antidisestablishmentarianism. The word you never thought you’d get to use. Today, it is a word we need to bring into our discussions more frequently, even though it is long and unwieldy, since it nicely summarizes the danger the religious right poses to our nation and our world.

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