Theological Malpractice

Theological Malpractice June 17, 2017

Barber Spiritual Malpractice Quote

The New York Times recently featured an article about the resurgence of liberal religion in the realm of politics. It included the quote that I have turned into a meme above.

“How do you take two or three Scriptures and make a theology out of it, and claim it is the moral perspective, and leave 2,000 on the table?” he said. “That is a form of theological malpractice.”

– Rev. William J. Barber II

I disagree that the religious left has been absent from the political realm for 40 years. It is certainly true that the Religious Right has overshadowed it to a remarkable extent. But the slow painstaking work that has continued throughout that time should not be forgotten nor neglected, however much we may appropriately appreciate the new direction that the religious and political winds are blowing.

The most important thing for the Religious Left to remember is a key lesson from how the tide is now turning, as a result of the Religious Right selling its soul and compromising its purported values – as well as actual Christian values – for the sake of political expediency. If religious political liberals do likewise in order to achieve power, they might be as “successful” in the short term – and lose all credibility in the longer term – in much the same way that the Religious Right now has for many, and has begun to for many more.

Of related interest, see Hemant Mehta’s post prompted by the same NY Times article, in which he argues that atheists and the religious Left are natural allies. He writes:

They need us for the numbers, and we need them for the organization.

And if we don’t come together, the forces that helped put Trump in office will retain control of Congress in 2018 and do it all over again in 2020.

The Christian Century blog had a piece about remaining “purple” as a congregation – in other words, diverse politically rather than “blue” or “red.” And the Chronicle of Higher Education had an article about teaching humility in an age of arrogance. Also of interest is the article on a mathematical approach to voting districts and the issue of gerrymandering in Nature.


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  • Gary

    It’s nice to know that the religious left will be more tightly coupled to the Democrats, and the religious right will be more tightly coupled to the Republicans.
    Just what we need.
    Especially since – “the Religious Right selling its soul and compromising its purported values – as well as actual Christian values”…
    Clearly, the religious left and the Democrats are the leaders in Christian values.
    And the religious right and the Republicans lack Christian values.

    You might as well label your website “Political Prof”.
    You have ventured way beyond “Religion Prof”.

    • Obscurely

      Speaking as a progressive pastor I have to agree with you! The liberal orthodoxy expressed in Dr. McGrath’s post above is to my mind an excellent example of Bacon’s “idols of the theater,” philosophical or ideological biases, especially those defended by the learned …

    • As you ought to know if you read my blog, my view is that many of the U.S. Democratic party stances related to economic justice are At least somewhat less abhorrent than those of the Republic party, but fall far short of any socialist ideal that might represent a genuine move in the direction of those principles that a true “Christian Left” shares with others concerned with economic and social justice. I cannot imagine how that stance could be considered one that thinks the Democrats are tightly coupled to Christian values…

    • John MacDonald

      The article says:

      “Frustrated by Christian conservatives’ focus on reversing liberal successes in legalizing abortion and same-sex marriage, those on the religious left want to turn instead to what they see as truly fundamental biblical imperatives — caring for the poor, welcoming strangers and protecting the earth — and maybe even change some minds about what it means to be a believer.”

      I’m a secular agnostic, but I am still sympathetic to this position.

    • jh

      “Clearly, the religious left and the Democrats are the leaders in Christian values.
      And the religious right and the Republicans lack Christian values.”

      Gary – just as a point of enlightenment, can you define the christian values that you commonly associate with the religious right? Please point out specific bible texts

      Please use recent* real** world examples of right wing conservative christianity in the US. (as a plus – please list the denominations that are most fully christian in your opinion)

      *Why recent? Are we really going to be talking about the Inquisition?
      **Why real? I’m not interested in delusions or what somebody was “thinking”. We need concrete evidence that anybody can see, touch, or sense.
      ***Why in the US? We are talking about the American political parties and American Christianity. Why would we be talking about the early gnostics?

      Naturally, I assume you are going to use verses of Jesus saying things that you associate with right wing christianity. After all, it is called Christianity, not Trumpity.

      • John Masters

        Are you serious. You haven’t noticed things like cutting back food stamps so children can go hungry, taking away healthcare from millions, establishing policies to transfer wealth from the poor and what remains of the middle class to the richest 1%, turning away refugees and children fleeing violence, and don’t even get me started on their “prosperity gospel.” These are, just to name a few, the things done by Republicans/Conservatives, all while claiming the mantle of Christianity. How about you show us in the Bible where doing these things is OK. I point you to Genesis, Ezekiel, and Jesus, which all state that the sin of Sodom, despite what Conservatives want to believe, was their ignoring the poor and orphaned, and being haughty and in-hospitable.

      • Ursula L

        The Christian Right has voluntarily taken on the role of “Goats” in the parable of the judgment. “I was hungry, and you took away my food, I was sick, and you prevented me from getting care, I was in prison, and you made it longer and harsher, a was a stranger, and you turned me away.”

        Only without the excuse of ignorance that the goats in the story have – they know that “as you do to the least of these, you do to me.”

  • Matt Woodling

    “How do you take two or three Scriptures and make a theology out of it, and claim it is the moral perspective, and leave 2,000 on the table?”

    It’s called cherry-picking the bits you like to support what you want to believe. Every Christian does that. Every Muslim does that. It’s how Christians and Muslims are able to justify with scripture the good or the bad they do. Why the bad stuff remains in the scripture without good theological justification or isn’t explicitly denounced at all stages of religious indoctrination is beyond me. We’re better than our scripture.

      • Matt Woodling

        I just read it. I pretty much agree. But since bad religious behavior is so visible now and since scripture is so publicly used to validate horrible behavior, I’d like to see all religions stress to the people they train that scripture isn’t the unchallengeable word of God and that one’s own moral sense is needed to evaluate scripture and to decide whether the god they believe in is good.

        But what they do is tell their trainees and children that God is good and to never question that. They let stand without comment the assumption most people adopt that scripture is the unchallengeable word of God. Finally, it’s common to train the flock that faith without reasoned challenge is a virtue. When one of the flock is conflicted and confesses that he doesn’t know God is real or reasonably questions why God allows evil or wonders why God doesn’t answer, he’s often told that more (or more fervent) prayer and faith is required. Essentially, he is taught to believe until he believes.

        • Who is “they” in your comment?

          • Matt Woodling

            “They” is “many church leaders and religious parents”