Revolution in Jesusland?

Take away the question mark and that’s the name of a blog maintained by Zack Exley. I came across it by following links from BoingBoing and Andrew Sullivan.

Exley’s premise is that “secular progressives” ought to take a second look at Evangelical Christianity. He writes:

Right after the 2004 elections, a cynical map made the rounds of progressives’ inboxes everywhere, separating “Jesusland” from the “United States of Canada.” Several other self-righteous riffs followed.

The image was a hit because it expressed a sinking feeling in the hearts of many progressives that America had been taken over by an incomprehensible cult of ignorance, intolerance and hate–a cult they knew as “evangelical” or “born again” Christianity.

Most secular progressives are comfortable with mainline liberal Christianity. But when it comes to evangelicals, many can only think of anti-gay ballot initiatives, clinic bombers, street preachers with megaphones and corrupt televangelists. And they tend to be confused and disturbed by a movement that reads the Bible “literally” as the “inerrant word of God.”

Personally, I’m not so comfortable even with mainline liberal Christianity, and I’m not at all confused about how Evangelicals approach the Bible. Otherwise, Exley has presented an accurate picture of my own views towards Evangelical Christianity. Spend some time living in Central Kansas and it is difficult to have any other view.

But here’s the real reason I linked to this post:

There are two really big reasons to come along on this tour:

First, progressives will never achieve their goals as long as they are hostile toward and ignorant about the faith of 100 million of their own people who are born again Christians.

Second (and we know how difficult this is to believe) there is an incredibly large and beautiful social movement exploding among evangelicals right now that stands for nearly all of the same causes and goals that secular progressives do. Those goals include: eliminating poverty, saving the environment, promoting justice and equality along racial, gender and class lines and for immigrants–and even separation of church and state.

I’m afraid point two completely contradicts point one.

For the moment, let us accept Exley’s premise that large numbers of Evangelicals support progressive causes. Why, then, should that support be threatened by the presence of progressives like me who are hostile to their religious beliefs? I have yet to meet an Evangelical who was not hostile towards atheism, but this fact has no bearing on my own support for progressive causes.

Progressives may generally be hostile towards Evangelical religion, but all we want the government to do about it is to keep religion separate from government. According to Exley, that is what large numbers of Evangelicals want as well. So why should the hostility of some progressives towards Evangelical faith make it impossible to achieve progressive goals?

If the argument is that Evangelicals go running to the anti-progressive Republican party because of a perceived hostility emanating from the Democrats, then I would suggest that they are not progressives at all. Instead, they are people who have decided on their priorities, and who have decided that their support for Exley’s list of progressive causes is less important to them than having political leaders who pay lip service to supporting their faith. Forgive me for not wanting to walk on eggshells to appeal to such folks.

Exley seems to be parroting the old and ridiculous argument that somehow atheists are hurting the cause by being too uppity about their beliefs. I’m afraid the reality is far simpler. The Evangelical left is not a large and beautiful segment of the Christian population. It is, instead, a beleagured minority within the community of Evangelicals generally. For the last twenty-five the government has pursued anti-progressive policies on virtually every front. They have done this in large measure because Evangelicals have been fanatically loyal to the Republican party. They have voted in large numbers for people who do not support Exley’s list of progressive causes. Progressives perceive Evangelicals as mostly hostile to their causes because their voting behavior bears that out. Add to that the fact that the most prominent and powerful Evangelical leaders for the past two decades, people like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, D. James Kennedy, Ralph Reed and many others, have been uniformly anti-progressive.

There are some hopeful signs that things are changing. The resurgence of the Democratic Party in Kansas, for example, or the apparent loosening of the stranglehold of the religious right on the current crop of Republican Presidential candidates. I hope Exley is right that a revolution is brewing in “Jesusland.” But so far the evidence for it is thin on the ground. Perhaps instead of lecturing progressives, Exley should instead find some time for scolding the majority of Evangelicals for ignoring what their religion says about the proper treatment of the poor. Perhaps he could remind them that they are not absolved from having a social conscience just because there are other people with consciences who do not like their religion.

When Evangelicals start voting in significant numbers for progressive candidates, then I will take another look at the merits of their faith. Until that happens, I’m afraid I will have to view reflexive support for the Republican party as something that arises naturally from this especially blinkered and irrational sort of religion

Comments

  1. #1 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    October 8, 2007

    Pastor Chosen to Lead Christian Coalition Steps Down in Dispute Over Agenda
    By NEELA BANERJEE
    Published: November 28, 2006
    WASHINGTON, Nov. 27 � The president-elect of the Christian Coalition of America, which has long served as a model for activism for the religious right, has stepped down, saying the group resisted his efforts to broaden its agenda to include reducing poverty and fighting global warming.

  2. #2 Coin
    October 8, 2007

    But when it comes to evangelicals, many can only think of anti-gay ballot initiatives, clinic bombers, street preachers with megaphones and corrupt televangelists. And they tend to be confused and disturbed by a movement that reads the Bible “literally” as the “inerrant word of God.”

    I find it interesting he never really seems to make any effort to dissuade concerns about any of these things. The idea seems to be that if you put question marks around a thing when you mention it, it goes away?

    I mean, to be fair, this is the “about” page. Perhaps the site itself has more substance. Having glanced over the site, though, I am not really seeing much clarification on these issues. The site mostly seems to focus on talking about various anti-poverty initiatives by Christian groups, and how great the author says all these things are. Okay, that’s neat, I guess. It is good to see religion focused on some productive end, like charity, rather than focused on attacking others. It’s definitely the case that helping those in poverty is one of the causes recently identified as “progressive”, and I could see there being real value in a blog following politics and activism from a progressive Christian standpoint, even if the approach to “progressivism” only comes from the anti-poverty angle.

    If that’s the point of the site, though, then what is the reason for the focus on “secular progressives”? The subtitle, the about page, various hints scattered through the posts, all scatter innuendo about some kind of point the guy wants to make to or about “secular progressives”– but nowhere I see actually delivers on this. The innuendo remains just innuendo, and “secular progressives” only show up to the extent he’s complaining about something they did– although, as it happens, that particular specific phrase does seem to come up again and again.

    It seems to me that if one’s aim is legitimately to build bridges, there’s probably a better way to do so other than starting out by attacking the people you’re trying to build bridges to.

    In the meanwhile I can’t help but notice that “Secular Progressives” is, as it happens, Bill O’Reilly’s chosen epithet for everything he doesn’t like, now that Bill’s noticed that nobody identifies as “liberal” anymore. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that this Jesusland guy is focusing on the same word, but I have to admit I can’t really see anything on the site where he says “secular progressive” as if that’s a good thing– or for that matter anywhere where he implies that, if there’s a rift between “secular progressives” and “evangelicals”, it’s anyone’s fault except the secular progressives exclusively…

  3. #3 steve martin
    October 8, 2007

    Hi Jason,
    Although I might quibble with some of your statements, I unfortunately have to agree with the overall conclusion: that as Evangelicals we have NOT been supportive of progressive causes. However, I think a stronger statement is in order: As Evangelicals we have not supported those causes that one would expect from followers of Jesus Christ. ie. We are not even acting as Christians.

    I am probably more hopeful than you that this is changing. Maybe unrealistically hopeful, but still optimistic. Large swaths of Evangelicals have joined the fight against poverty and environmental devastation. (Unfortunately we are still outnumbered & outmarketed by the majority). My own personal campaign is to engage Evangelicals in discussing evolution (thus the reason I follow this blog). On that issue, I think we are much further from achieving large support.

  4. #4 travc
    October 8, 2007

    I think your observation about Evangelicals (by and large) being more concerned with ‘leaders’ who pay lip-service to their faith is more astute than you may suspect. A strong core, if not the majority, of fundamentalists and evangelicals are authoritarians, and do indeed choose their leaders more by (often token or coded) group affiliation than any sort of semi-rational ‘I agree with them on many principles and/or policies’. As I often do, I suggest everyone read John Dean’s ‘Conservatives without conscience’ and/or Bob Altemeyer’s ‘The Authoritarians’… usefully online at:
    http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

    Movement Conservatives have played a very cynical game very well, and become the leaders of the Evangelicals… basically exploiting their authoritarian tendencies and then dictating many of their positions on issues. The focus on opposing abortion access and gay rights provides a useful way to keep other, arguably more substantial, positions from being examined by their followers.

    Progressives, especially secular progressives, have a real handicap when it comes to swaying Evangelicals which has nothing to do with ‘hostility towards religion’. Simply, we oppose authoritarianism as a central and tenet as such are not suited to exploit it (and become authoritarian leaders).

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    October 8, 2007

    Glad to see you back in action! :-)

  6. #6 Felicia Gilljam
    October 9, 2007

    Welcome back! Good post. Just one thing:

    When Evangelicals start voting in significant numbers for progressive candidates, then I will take another look at the merits of their faith.

    Um… why? A person voting for the “right” political candidate doesn’t really tell you anything about the merits of their faith. Their god will be just as non-existant as before, their faith just as irrational. The merits of a belief should not be judged by the actions of the believer – then we fall into the same trap as christians who think atheism leads to genocide because of Stalin.

  7. #7 Caledonian
    October 9, 2007

    Progressives, especially secular progressives, have a real handicap when it comes to swaying Evangelicals which has nothing to do with ‘hostility towards religion’. Simply, we oppose authoritarianism as a central and tenet as such are not suited to exploit it (and become authoritarian leaders).

    Bwa? The mainstream political left has never had a problem with authoritarianism – its concern has been with the nature and causes of the authorities, not any rejection of authority.

    There are certainly *some* leftist anarchists, but that approach has never been popular.

  8. #8 Jason Rosenhouse
    October 9, 2007

    Coin-

    I think Exley’s point was simply that while right-wing extremism is a very real part of evangelical culture, it is not the whole story. He is asking, I think, non religious folks to recognize that the evangelical community is not as monolithic as it sometimes seems they are.

    Like you, I also cringed at the O’Reilly-ism “Secular Progressive.” If Exley was knowingly channelling O’Reilly in writing that, then I would be less interested in his site. On the other hand, in context his intention might have been to distinguish Secular Progressives from Religious Progressives.

    steve martin-

    Thanks for the interesting comment. I hope your optimism is justified.

    Blake-

    Thanks for the welcome. It’s good to be back!

    Felicia-

    Even if Evangelicals start voting in large numbers for the sorts of political candidates I support, I will still think their religious beliefs are incorrect. But I would not worry so much that so many people hold those beliefs. I would be happy to ge back to merely disagreeing with religious folks on certain metaphysical questions, as opposed to feeling threatened by them. That’s all I meant by saying I would reconsider the merits of their faith.

  9. #9 Pierce R. Butler
    October 11, 2007

    Zack Exley: … progressives will never achieve their goals as long as they are hostile toward and ignorant about the faith…

    Uh, Exley? The less ignorant I become about evangelistic christianism, the more hostile toward it I grow.