Popular history plays up the Puritans seeking religious freedom in the New World but downplays what happened after they got here. They wanted the freedom to practice their religion but were unwilling to share that freedom with others. They suppressed other Christian expressions of religion – particularly by Baptists and Quakers – and they maintained a theocracy where the boundaries between church and state were practically indistinguishable.
Of course, the colony ultimately failed to thrive under those conditions and only after secular rule removed the yoke of governance from the churches did Christianity revive under the Great Awakenings. The reality was far more complex than the picture I am painting in these few sentences but in general the First, Second and Third Great Awakenings were precursors to revolutionary or reform movements and all operated outside state power. Contemporary Christianists (a.k.a. the religious right) have turned evangelistic Christianity on its head by seeking political power through governance and becoming a reactionary force in our society. They are becoming the modern day Puritans.
Randall Balmer is a professor of religious history and is an evangelical Christian. He is quite upset by what he sees going on in the name of his religion. He has a book scheduled for publication later this year and an essay from that book was published the Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday.
I do not share Mr. Balmer’s theology but I can understand the distress of evangelical Christians as to how their movement has been taken over by rightwing political power brokers. It distresses me that rightwing elements in our society have run moderates out of the Republican Party and use the cloak of evangelical Christianity to give their actions the impression of some sort of purity. The wolf in sheep’s clothing seems quite welcome by the flock.
Balmer discusses some of the issues taken by the religious right:
And what has the religious right done with its political influence?
Judging by the platform and the policies of the Republican Party — and I'm
aware of no way to disentangle the agenda of the Republican Party from the goals
of the religious right — the purpose of all this grasping for power looks
something like this: an expansion of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the
continued prosecution of a war in the Middle East that enraged our longtime
allies and would not meet even the barest of just-war criteria, and a
rejiggering of Social Security, the effect of which, most observers agree, would
be to fray the social-safety net for the poorest among us. Public education is
very much imperiled by Republican policies, to the evident satisfaction of the
religious right, and it seeks to replace science curricula with theology,
thereby transforming students into catechumens.
America's grossly disproportionate consumption of energy continues
unabated, prompting demands for oil exploration in environmentally sensitive
areas. The Bush administration has jettisoned U.S. participation in the Kyoto
Protocol on climate change, which called on Americans to make at least a token
effort to combat global warming. Corporate interests are treated with the kind
of reverence and deference once reserved for the deity.
The Bible contains something like 2,000 references to the poor and
the believer's responsibility for the poor. Sadly, that obligation seems not to
have trickled down into public policy. On judicial matters, the religious right
demands appointees who would diminish individual rights to privacy with regard
to abortion. At the same time, it approves a corresponding expansion of
presidential powers, thereby disrupting the constitutionally mandated system of
checks and balances.
The torture of human beings, God's creatures — some guilty of
crimes, others not — has been justified by the Bush administration, which
also believes that it is perfectly acceptable to conduct surveillance on
American citizens without putting itself to the trouble of obtaining a court
order. Indeed, the chicanery, the bullying, and the flouting of the rule of law
that emanates from the nation's capital these days make Richard Nixon look like
a fraternity prankster.
Where does the religious right stand in all this? Following the
revelations that the U.S. government exported prisoners to nations that have no
scruples about the use of torture, I wrote to several prominent religious-right
organizations. Please send me, I asked, a copy of your organization's position
on the administration's use of torture. Surely, I thought, this is one issue
that would allow the religious right to demonstrate its independence from the
administration, for surely no one who calls himself a child of God or who
professes to hear "fetal screams" could possibly countenance the use of torture.
Although I didn't really expect that the religious right would climb out of the
Republican Party's cozy bed over the torture of human beings, I thought perhaps
they might poke out a foot and maybe wiggle a toe or two.
I was wrong. Of the eight religious-right organizations I
contacted, only two, the Family Research Council and the Institute on Religion
and Democracy, answered my query. Both were eager to defend administration
policies. "It is our understanding, from statements released by the Bush
administration," the reply from the Family Research Council read, "that torture
is already prohibited as a means of collecting intelligence data." The Institute
on Religion and Democracy stated that "torture is a violation of human dignity,
contrary to biblical teachings," but conceded that it had "not yet produced a
more comprehensive statement on the subject," even months after the revelations.
Its president worried that the "anti-torture campaign seems to be aimed
exclusively at the Bush administration," thereby creating a public-relations
I'm sorry, but the use of torture under any circumstances is a
moral issue, not a public-relations dilemma.
Balmer then writes about some of the individuals either representing the religious right or associated with them:
In addition to distorting the teachings of Jesus, the religious right hasYou can read his entire essay here.
also been cavorting with some rather unsavory characters in its quest for
political and cultural power. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who last year pleaded
guilty to accepting $2.4-million worth of bribes, had earned a 100-percent
approval rating from Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition while a member of the
House of Representatives. During more than two decades as a member of the state
Legislature, Jim West, a former mayor of Spokane, Wash., sponsored various bills
aimed at curtailing the rights of gays and lesbians, as well as a bill that
would have outlawed any consensual sexual contact between teenagers; the voters of Spokane recalled West last December, after he admitted to arranging gay sexual liaisons over the Internet and offering city jobs in exchange for sexual favors.
For the better part of three decades now, we've been treated to
the moral sermonizing of William J. Bennett, who wrote The Book of Virtues and
served as Ronald Reagan's secretary of education and as one of Bill Clinton's
most relentless critics. We now know that Bennett is a compulsive gambler. Ralph
Reed, currently a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor of Georgia — the
first step on his road to the White House — has always preached against gambling
as part of his "family values" rhetoric. He has also done consulting work for
Enron (which engaged in other forms of gambling) and accepted as much as
$4.2-million from Indian tribes intent on maintaining a regional monopoly for
their casinos. "I need to start humping in corporate accounts," he wrote to the
lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Tony Perkins, a graduate of Jerry Falwell's Liberty
University and head of the Family Research Council, arguably the most
influential religious-right organization aside from Focus on the Family, has had
ties to white-supremacist organizations in his native Louisiana.
The purpose in ticking off a roll call of rogues associated with the religious right
(and the list could have been longer) is not to single individuals out for
obloquy and certainly not to suggest the absence of moral failings on the other
side of the political spectrum — though I must say that some of this behavior
makes Bill Clinton's adolescent dalliances pale by comparison. The point,
rather, is to argue that those who make it their business to demand high
standards of moral rectitude from others ought to be able to approach those
standards themselves. My evangelical theology tells me that we are, all of us,
sinners and flawed individuals. But it also teaches the importance of
confession, restitution, and amendment of behavior — whether it be an adulterous
tryst, racial intolerance, or prevarication in the service of combating one's
enemies. We have seen nothing of the sort from these putatively Christian power
"Do not be misled," St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians. "Bad
company corrupts good character." Jesus himself asked: "What good would it be
for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul?" The coalition with the
Republican Party is blasphemy, pure and simple.