Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Conservative Christians vs the Religious Right

With so much noise coming from south of the border, and many loud Christians condemning Same-Sex Marriage, we need to distinguish between conservative Christians and the Religious Right.

At first glance, the Religious Right and Conservative Christians look distressingly similar. They vote for the same parties. They read the same bible. They sometimes worship in the same churches.

But there are differences between the two. BIG differences.

The Religious Right are extremists. They believe the church is at war with the culture. They can’t distinguish between opposition and enemy. They have a persecution complex and fantasize about martyrdom. Their narrow political agenda looks more like a Republican playbook than the Gospel of Luke or the Letter of James.

Conservative Christians, on the other hand, are the first ones to open their wallet when a homeless person comes knocking on the church door looking for food. They’re the ones praying with the grieving strangers who come looking for words of comfort. They’re the ones who have deep–rooted convictions and moral lines clearly drawn, but also recognize that a moral life lived without love for neighbour is a tyranny that besmirches the name of Jesus.

Conservative Christians know that being pro-life means more than harassing terrified 15-year-olds who are trying to reverse a bad decision. It means helping people take responsibility for their behaviour and their lives. It means letting young girls weep on their shoulder after the operation. It means volunteering for groups like BirthRight. It means throwing a baby shower in the basement of the church when the young woman decides to keep the baby.

Being a conservative Christian means believing that churches can do a better job at dispensing charity and social services than government. This is not some nutty anti-government ideology because conservative Christians are the first ones to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. Conservative Christians put their money and their labour where their mouths are. They believe in people working together to help other people.

The Religious Right demands that government adopt their narrow agenda. Conservative Christians are servants. The Religious Right speak with anger and hate. Conservative Christians speak truth tempered by love. The Religious Right is moralistic. Conservative Christians are moral.

The Religious Right draws attention to itself. Like my three-year-old, it doesn't care if its good or bad attention. Conservative Christians work hard, but quietly and devotionally, because the gospel is something that is lived graciously as its witness. They know the gospel is not a soap-box for a partisan political agenda.

So, don’t confuse conservative Christians with the Religious Right. The two are not the same animal. Not by a long shot. Conservative Christians put “Christian” before “conservative.”

I should know. I have a congregation full of them.


Mike said...

Well said Kevin. You really know how to lay it all out there. I have tried to make this same kind of distinction when "debating" with certain folks about how I idolize Jimmy Carter, Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu for these very qualities. It really confuses people when an athiest and a Buddhist (in the philisophic, not the religious sense)says that.

You have spelled it out. I'll let Rick Barnes know, he was having some difficulties in this area the other day.

Keep it up kevin, you are fast becoming one of my favourite reads.

Psychols said...

I agree with Mike, this is very well laid out and is an important message after the relative bitterness among some in the SSM debate.

The distinction between conservative and activist behavior is significant. A program that I find inspiring is the Catholic Church's Project Rachel. The Catholic Church vehemently opposes abortion yet opens its arms to women who have had an abortion and seek help from the church. I have spoken with some of the leaders of this program and it is clear they approach it with love and compassion. They seek not to promote a political agenda, but to help women who are suffering from pain, loss, guilt or grief through love, counseling and Christian fellowship.

Bishop Henry’s activist words confused were a bit of an enigma. His negative language was inconsistent with what we usually hear from the Catholic Church. It was so lacking in a focus on love or Christianity that I even know a few Roman Catholics who were disappointed. I do not know why he chose to become so political as to send letters to parishioners telling them how to vote but I do know a few Catholics who voted Liberal, Green or NDP.

Rick Barnes had an interesting post on the phenomena of Christian activism recently. He suggested that it was not the church that took over politics, but politics that took over some churches. Clearly some unnamed politicians (that happen to like to use the initials GOP) have declared themselves to be the representatives of Christian values. No wonder Christians who would like their personal interpretation to become national law feel so emboldened.

Aaron Helleman said...

Great piece.

Only thing I think is at issue is the one line : 'Being a conservative Christian means believing that churches can do a better job at dispensing charity and social services than government'

I do believe that many conservative Christians believe this, but that doesn't necessarily make it true. I do believe the church has a role to play in perhaps 'opening up the debate' on this important topic.

I also wonder why so many believers assume this to be true? Is the Church preaching this?

Funds are required for works. If we limit the funds to Charities, we are doomed as a nation to serve all the needs that are out there. PERIOD.

Then, what becomes at issue, is giving public funds to religious groups. Last thing you want to do there. Read a great line from Campolo "Mixing public funds and Churches is like mixing horse-manure with ice-cream. It doesn't hurt the horse-manure much, but it sure does a number on the ice-cream."

I think the primary fallicy of this argument comes from the idea that only Christians can do 'real good' in this world, everyone else is just a poseur.

As a Christian, I struggled with this idea for many years, but after being exposed to many more ideas, people, and government systems, I do now believe that we do God a disservice to believe that God only works through Christians.

A recent quote from Jim Wallis : "od is acting in our culture. Artists and musicians are playing a critical role and a new generation of young people are committing themselves to this cause.

God is acting through new leadership in Africa where democracies are taking responsibility and acting in new ways to end corruption and create more transparent governance that makes effective aid more possible.

God is acting through the leaders of the world's wealthiest nations - the G8. We are here at an historic moment of great opportunity, and the world needs a real breakthrough. The recent agreement to cancel $40 billion in debt for the world's 18 poorest nations is a very important step. We urge our leaders to finish the job by canceling all the debt for all impoverished nations. "


God will work through nations, and through non-Christians. Good can occur. As Christians, we have a reponsibility to LEAD the charge, not be the only ones running!

Kevin said...


Of course, you're right. Folks need to work together to challenge consciences and raise resources to left folks out of poverty.

But the point I was getting at is perhaps appropriate to the culture here in southern Alberta. Many people here see gov't as an intrusion, and that gov't should pick up the slack where private intiative falls short (to mix my metaphors). Small gov't and strong community are values that these folks cherish. And they keep up their end of the arrangement.

And, you're right, God doesn't just work through Christians. But the question is always "what are we as Christians to do?"

Where does the money come from? Does it always have to come from gov't? Charities and churches have an excellent track record of raising cash. Christians are actually really good at raising funds (esp conservative Christians. It blows my mind how much cash these people can raise so quickly) when they put their minds to it.

But there's also the question of what constitutes a "success." Is it when children have a couple of meals? When the impoverished country is developing a sustained and sustainable economy? Whose criteria do we use to assess economic growth and effectiveness?

Churches, local and international gov'ts, charities, NGOs, all have different ideas as to what constitues a "win." So, I think its easy to raise awareness and funds, but tough to finish the job.


Meg said...

Really nice post.

This has bothered me for a long time. Because we use the words conservative and liberal in both the political and theological realms, it becomes hard to speak about both theologically conservative, politically liberal people (me) and theologically liberal, politically conservative people. There are plenty of people in both groups, and their presence in the body politic and in churches means things are not always quite as they seem.

It has long seemed to me that we need new words that will allow us to talk about all of this productively and begin to extract ourselves from the present mess.

What might they be?


Aaron Helleman said...

A win is the biblical standard of justice for all.

Christians should work for economic justice so that people who fall down can get up and have every chance of success.

Look at how we structure our welfare system in Canada for example. Almost every dollar you earn while on welfare is clawed back, and when you are trying to move out of dependance, what kind of message as people are we sending to those who desire to have a higher standard of living?

Also, as churches, we should stand by initiatives that clearly define a minimum standard of life for every person in Canada.

A roof over your head, 3 meals a day, access to free education from the earliest age to completing university. Access to services that improve your lives and expand your mind (library, health, arts), and respect from society.

If I had to pick the highest priority items, it would be housing (as it provides an anchor in which health, security and well-being are grounded in), followed by respect (teaching our buracrats to care for and be decent to those in need, not punish or disrespect), education (as it will be the way out for that individual in the future) and then an improved welfare system that offers opportunities, not hand-outs and put-downs (as it does now).

I speak out of some experience as I've been friends to and hopefully assisting with some mentally ill and other struggling people that I've met in my role as a deacon in my church and just as (hopefully decent) human being.

Can we do it alone as churches? No.

Does the money have to come from Government? I believe it does. If the programs benefit ALL Canadians (and it does as improving the lives of those in need, either for deserving reasons or undeserving means that in the future, there will be less dependancy and more productivity and a healthier nation) is the defining role of Government.

I think we often forget that WE ARE THE GOVERNMENT. People, even Albertans, make up the government - what I mean by that is that the values of individual people in turn become the values of the government because those people operate the government. Albertans may prefer small government, but that is only because they choose not to see the poverty and working poor who are around them, but unseen. They are the ones working at Tim Horton's part time, McDonalds, Walmart. Not to say we don't need service employees, we do! But we also need economic justice - for perspective here folks - the Bible has over 2000 references to the rich's treatment of the poor (a LIVING wage for a day's work) but only 7 to what might be perceieved as verses on homosexuality.

When the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer, is that a healthy sign for a nation? states as its conclusion: "For Canadian society, growing inequalities and divisions cannot be redressed by reducing taxes,since inequality is driven by who is cut out of the
action more than it is driven by who is playing the game.
For the poorest 10 per cent of families raising children, tax cuts completely miss the point: they have no taxable income. For the next 10 per cent, they have negligible taxes on minimal incomes.
How ironic that those families who most heavily paid the price of the war on the deficit now don’t get a cut of the peace dividend.
For the richest 10 per cent of families raising kids, tax cuts reward those who paid the least price of this decade’s social restructuring."

I believe Churches, even though they are great at fundraising, should instead be weaning themselves away from doing 'charity' and move into doing justice. We have been blessed. Let us bless others by doing JUSTICE!
There will always be a need for charity, and the church will continue to fill a role there, but if we want to help bring about and show the world what the kingdom of God looks like, lets bring them the vision of a nation that cares for all of its members, no matter economic class, race, sex or orientation.


Kevin said...

Aaron, I agree with much of what you wrote. Thanks for your insight and wisdom. A lot to think about!

However, maybe I've been out here in Alta too long (a year and a half), but I see a greater opportunity for partnerships between gov't and the social, and private sectors (I was a Bob Rae New Democrat. I left the party when he did).

Yes, the gov't plays a role in alleviating poverty. But not the only role, of course. And yes, the gov't represents the people. I have no quarrel with that. And yes, the working poor are the unrecognized casualities of mis-placed faith in the magic of free enterprise to lift folks out of poverty. But free enterprise does play a role by creating jobs.

I believe in the three branches of accountablity working together; gov't, business, and social sector to deal with poverty and other social issues. One cannot (or should not) function without being accountable to the other.

Churches ARE involved greatly in justice issues. But, admittedly, we could be doing more. But I think the dichotomy between charity and justice is a false one. Hungry people still have to eat while fighting for economic justice. But I think that was what you were saying.

But, I've learned the hard way that the language of politics doesn't translate well in the world of faith. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be politically engaged. But our politics is FIRST a politics of compassion for neighbour and love for enemy. That's what should distinguish us from other political organization. I have no idea what that might look like, however.

You end with:

"but if we want to help bring about and show the world what the kingdom of God looks like, lets bring them the vision of a nation that cares for all of its members, no matter economic class, race, sex or orientation."

Amen! Couldn't have said it better myself.

Grace to you and peace,


Aaron Helleman said...

Thanks for listening Kevin.

Free enterprise is the engine that creates jobs.

What happens when the hand that feeds the economic engine of Canada bites you back?

I'm what you would call a 'managed capitalist' - I believe that the economy exists to serve people, not people to serve the economy.

In a unrestrained market, people are a commodity, not a community. As church members, we either feed the free-market myth, or we support the community reality that God promises.

Isn't that what a nation is? Just a large community?

Everything we do as a nation must be examined through the lens of effectiveness of service delivery. I think that thoughtful people will find that there are certainly things that the government can do more effectively than partnerships or private business can do.

Politics of Compassion is something that can 'sell' across faith boundries.

Politics of loving enemies is a tougher sell, but we are at an interesting crossroads now with the London bombings.

The voices of thoughtfulness, reason and care are pointing out that perhaps military responses like Iraq have caused more damage than they have solved. Of course, as a thinking Christian I proposed bombing Afganistan with food as opposed to bombs (my plan would probably have been cheaper and gotten better results than what's happened in Iraq and Afganistan).

Where did I hear voices of reason, care and forgiveness, with the desire for justice but not revenge? Was it from my church?
No. I heard the most passionate speakers from the so called 'liberal left' - people of concience and rational reasons.

That's what's so dissapointing to me these days with respect to my expectations of the church community. I belong to an 'evengelical' church (the Christian Reformed denomination), and as you may or may not have heard, the evengelical church suffers somewhat of a bad rep these days, politically speaking.


Kevin said...

Great points, Aaron. I, too heard many compassionate voices coming from the so-called "lib-left" only to be dismissed by angry right wingers as unrealistic and even dangerous.

Bombing Afghanistan with bombs, eh? I think I read something about that once. Wasn't it Paul who said that if your enemy is hungry to feed him?

The idea of managed capitalism is interesting. But what we're talking about is varying degrees of management. Free trade isn't free. There is no such thing as lassie-faire capitalism. The question is managing the basest of human attributes: self-serving greed (Enron, anyone?), as well as making the economy "work" for everyone. Not just with jobs, but jobs that offer dignity to the worker and value to the community and the market.

Some conservatives have a blind faith in the magic of the marketplace. Some lefties have a deep aversion to it.

But the market isn't the problem of or the solution to injustice, people are.