April 13, 2009

Christianity Takes a Knock-out Blow?

A recent article in the UK newspaper, The Telegraph, carried the headline “US religious Right concedes defeat[*],’ and a synopsis stating: ‘America's religious Right has conceded that the election of US President Barack Obama has sealed its defeat in the cultural war with permissiveness and secularism.’
For a large constituency of American Christians, this story would be disheartening news, if believed, and hotly disputed by diehards. Did the election of Obama really signal a serious blow to the power of the ‘religious right’ in the US, serious enough to be taken as ‘defeat?’


What ‘Christians’ apparently overlook in this story is how Obama went to some pains to disavow the rumors that he was a closet Muslim, and to affirm his identity as a mainstream, moderate Christian. The issue hit the spotlight when his ‘former pastor’ (as he came to be characterized) attracted a storm of controversy with his stinging rebuke of ‘America’ and its hypocrisy and racism. After a tentative start, Obama had to make a full denunciation of his ‘former pastor,’ but the incident highlighted that he was a church-going Christian of some sort. The fact that the Christian Right seems quite unimpressed with Obama’s declaration of faith seems (to this outsider) to indicate the depth of the ‘liberalism = paganism’ thinking of these well-churched, staunch Republicans for whom only one of ‘their kind’ can be a genuine Christian.

Nonetheless, given the concessionary words of James Dobson and others, it is credible that the religious right did suffer a set-back from Obama’s presidential victory. In that light, I’d like to propose reasons why the Christian right is losing relevance, not just in politics, but in American society at large.

1) With their vehement backing of the Bush Whitehouse, evangelicals and their ilk demonstrated a complete failure in Christian discernment, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. One can understand how good church-goers might be swept up in patriotic fervor and initially support Bush’s neo-crusade against the Islamic hordes of terrorists. But, the story quickly got suspicious when, after declaring that 15 of 19 hi-jackers on 9-11-01 were from Saudi Arabia, the government decided to attack Iraq. If that didn’t temper their enthusiasm for war, the later revelation that Bush and co. lied to convince the world about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction should have. But, sober, objective thinking is not a hallmark of Republicans, especially when jingoistic patriotism and churchianity provide convenient substitutes. Just because a person calls himself ‘born again’ does not make him/her a Christian! Jesus told his disciples that on Judgement Day, some people will claim that they cast out demons in his name... yet he will respond that he never knew them (Matthew 7:21-23). Every American politician has enough grey matter to realize the political value of ending every speech with ‘God bless America;’ but what does that prove?

2) With their dogged focus on relatively ethereal issues that became primary battle grounds-- principally abortion and homosexuality-- the Christian right completely missed the more important priorities of basic justice and human rights; and in so doing they lost much moral authority. What sense does it make to protest abortions in sanitary US clinics... while the American government is killing children in overseas conflicts? Are they implying that American lives are more valuable than foreign lives? That abortion is worse than murder? How much energy does the Christian right expend in railing against the horrors of homosexual relations,... while ignoring the practice of torture in US military prisons? What are these ‘Christians’ telling society about their beliefs-- that the end justifies the means? Jesus told his followers to ‘turn the other cheek’ to the oppressor, but these followers want to strike back with all the weaponry available. You may believe that abortion and homosexual behavior are sins, but many erstwhile moral individuals do not. In the real world, real Christians know where they have to devote their efforts and choose their battles. The religious right is obsessed with righteous indignation and determined to impose its legalistic morality on everyone-- tithing scrupulously on their ‘mint and dill,’ while overlooking the most vile atrocities approved by their favored candidates. In this regard, they share remarkable similarity with the ultra-legalistic, Islamic extremists whom they hate with such vigor!

3) The leadership of the Christian churches in America have betrayed the values of their figurehead, and enervated the Church. We all remember the scandals involving high profile TV evangelists who scammed their flocks for millions of dollars in donations that they used to sustain a decadent lifestyle. However, forgetting those dark scenes, there are other behaviors of church leaders that do nothing positive for Christ’s cause. One of the flagship mega-churches in the world is the Willow Creek church of Bill Hybels and co. who proudly run their organization using the techniques of modern ‘management science.’ So what, you may enquire; isn’t WC one of the most successful churches around? Perhaps, if success is measured purely in management science terms, such as members, committees, ‘ministries,’ programs, etc. But in all that frenetic activity, there is scant evidence of any genuine presence and unction of the Holy Spirit. WC has a great structure... but little soul. Considering that the Christian right has had the ear of the president for eight years, how is it that American society continues to decline in terms of morality, crime, substance abuse, mental health, economics, and so on? What have church spokesmen been doing, and what have they been saying? Leaders like John Hagee have been delivering a message about the exemption of the Jews from Christ’s gospel, and creating something called ‘Judeo-Christianity,’ and with apparently little opposition from other leaders who ought to know better. While high-profile pastors build their empires and book franchises, they can’t seem to spare any time to proclaim a genuine gospel and to denounce fake, non-scriptural propaganda.

4) That brings us to the most essential reason for the defeat of the Christian right, which is their failure to proclaim the authentic gospel of Christ. As the Telegraph story indicates, by putting their energies into worldly politics, the CR have had little energy or inclination to promote the gospel. Yes, various pastors give good sermons on living the Christian life; yet that’s not the overall tone of what is reaching the wider audience of society. If the church can use management science to boost membership, why can’t it use media savvy to broadcast the Christian message of salvation thru Jesus Christ? One of the major problems, as I see it, is that for the most part they don’t even have the true gospel of Jesus! What the mainstream churches have been calling the gospel is a spurious hybrid of Old Testament legalism and New Testament grace-- the two just don’t go together! (Briefly, they tell people that we are saved by believing in Jesus’ sacrificial death for sin... and by obeying the Ten Commandments. In truth, it can’t be both!) This is exactly what Jesus warned about in his rebuke to the Laodicean Church (see Rev. 3); this is the lukewarm condition that baffles so many scholars! Paul clearly condemned this gospel that is no gospel in his letters (esp. Rom, 1 Cor 9, 2 Cor 3, Gal, Col 2, Heb) but our traditions create a veil over our eyes so that even pastors do not see it; and if they do, they are afraid to proclaim it because they understand the reluctance of their leaders to acknowledge the true gospel of grace. So the Telegraph article is correct in suggesting that the Church in America must return to an emphasis on the basics of the gospel if they want to regain some relevance. However, unless they re-discover the authentic gospel of Jesus, they are doomed to slither into continued, probably accelerated, decline.

Conclusion

Without a clear understanding of the gospel of Christ, the churches that claim allegiance to his name will never be able to exercise moral authority or attract critically-thinking adherents. They will continue to be defeated in the courts of public opinion as they are identified with support for ‘fundamentalist notions’ of a bygone era. As Paul wrote (1 Cor 1:18-25) the message of Jesus is foolishness to the ‘modern thinkers,’ the secular humanists of today, and is anathema to the ‘Jews,’ those who are stuck in Old Testament legalism, trusting fastidious obedience to rules over faith in the grace of God. It is a message devoid of real power, and the evidence is everywhere. It is vital that everyone who truly wants to be a follower of Christ must study scripture for themselves, and not blindly follow the interpretations of their denomination or their pastors. By interposing themselves between believers and (knowledge of) God, today’s churches are falling into the same satanic trap that caused Jesus to roundly condemn the Pharisees of his day (e.g. Matt 23). As prophet Hosea lamented, ‘My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge...’ His lament is just as appropriate today as it was back in ancient times.

[*] www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/barackobama/5136050/US-religious-Right-concedes-defeat.html

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