February 20, 2018—Elizabeth Bruenig, Washington Post columnist, discussed the role of Christianity in U.S. politics with Richard Parker, Lecturer in Public Policy, during a visit to the Shorenstein Center. Below are some highlights from the conversation, as well as the full audio. The Shorenstein Center’s podcast is also available on iTunes, Google Play, iHeartRadio, and Stitcher.
Commonalities between Christianity and leftist politics
“Christianity has a moral logic to it that a lot of scholars argue proceeds directly into the moral logic of the left: brotherhood, equality of persons, a more collectivist than individualist frame of mind, [and] in the New Testament specifically, an emphasis on mercy.”
“I like Corey Robin’s idea of the left as a very loose coalition of liberating impulses. It’s all people who are brought together with this intention of upending hierarchy or oppression in whatever forms it presents itself…Christianity has a very clear affinity, from the story of the life of Christ, with upending oppression, with raising up the poor…and not allowing the powerful to run roughshod over society, which is such a large part of Christ’s message.”
Leftist Christians in U.S. history
“In the 20s and 30s you had John Ryan, who was a Catholic priest. He had a very straightforward position, and that is that if productive labor is supposed to allow a person to flourish, then employers are obligated to pay a living wage…What does it really mean for someone to flourish? It means for them to be able to have time away from work, for them to be able to have a life outside of work, for them to be able to have meaningful social relationships and family relationships, and to take part in the sacramental life of the church. And if all of those things are going to have to happen for a person to flourish, then the role of the wage payer in society is to pay wages that permit that, and that’s not going to be a very low or poverty wage…these are proto-Christian social Democrats. The people who say that the government has a role in the world, has a part to play in the order of things, and that is to aid and assist and provide a floor for human flourishing.”
“There were certainly radical movements in American Protestantism and had been since abolition. You have always had the peace churches in American Protestantism—Quakers, Mennonites— that had always been skeptical of the U.S. government in certain ways. Then you had social progressives and the social gospel come up through the late 1890s, early 1900s and those people in large part moved into labor.”
“Mainline Protestants—Methodist, Episcopalians, Lutherans…they were big in the abolition movement, they were active in Civil Rights…they are very active right now, for instance, in the sanctuary movement—a lot of those churches who are holding people who are trying to stay in the United States.”
Evangelicals turn Republican
There has been an effort to construct a story about why Christianity is naturally hospitable to a free market, family values type of Republican government.
“Two issues that came up in the late 60s, early 70s pushed white evangelicals toward a realignment…a lot of them were based in the South. When desegregation was becoming an issue, they didn’t like it…This all comes to a head in the Bob Jones University case…they’re going to have to either desegregate or stop receiving federal funds. And this becomes a big, eruptive controversy in the evangelical world, and at that point, you start to see a lot of evangelical rhetoric around the state being a danger to religion and having to preserve a strong religious freedom, and a lot of it tracks back to that case.”
“The other one has to do with abortion. Abortion becomes an issue after Roe. v. Wade. Previously, you saw Protestants all over the map on abortion, and then after it becomes this highly-charged political issue, the Republicans pick it up as something that they will lead the charge on, and then you start to see this [pro] life movement crystalizing.”
“There has been an effort to construct a story about why Christianity is naturally hospitable to a free market, family values type of Republican government.”
The rise of the “nones”
Christianity became very publicly affiliated with right-wing social causes throughout the 80s and 90s—the Moral Majority—and young people just didn’t want to be caught with Jerry Falwell.
“These are folks who answer ‘none’ to religious affiliation. A lot of them still claim some kind of spiritual belief…I think that comes out of a number of changes that have taken place in American society, one of them that we can track really well. Christianity became very publicly affiliated with right-wing social causes throughout the 80s and 90s—the Moral Majority—and young people just didn’t want to be caught with Jerry Falwell. They didn’t have an interest in the anti-video game, anti-movie, anti-pornography, anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage thing. As the evangelical block more and more solidified the notion that that is the real Christian base in society…a lot of young people just said, well, then I’m not affiliated, I’m doing my own thing. The other half of the equation is that America, just being a liberal society, we have an individualizing ethos, and people are very inclined to come up with their own thing and do what they want separately…they have no real reason in terms of social messaging to stick with organized religion.”
On building a Christian left
“One of the problems with building a Christian left that matches the Christian right in terms of its political activities is that there’s just no funding for it. Who with a lot of money is going to fund someone who says ‘I don’t think you ought to have a lot of money?’ It’s not a reasonable thing to do. So you don’t see funding pouring into Christian left activism like you see funding pouring into Christian right activism. There is no Koch of the left, and there never will be. The Christian left does exist, there are plenty of them, it’s just difficult to find the funding to organize and to lobby.”
President Trump’s appeal among evangelicals
“There’s never been a politician whose had as major a platform as Trump has, especially on the right, who has openly not cared [about religion]. The fact that he still won evangelicals at the levels you’d expect a Republican to win evangelicals—there are a lot of reasons that that might have been the case. Lydia Bean, a great writer on evangelicals—her view was that Trump was at least honest with evangelicals, he was like, ‘look, I’ve paid all of these politicians, they’re all on my payroll…people like me are really the ones running the show’…that reflects a lot of disgruntlement that’s unfolded in the evangelical right over the years. They have gotten very frustrated with Republicans receiving all of their support and money and not necessarily focusing on carrying out the projects they wanted to. All these years later, Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land…there’s a lot of ‘what’s in this for me,’ going on inside the evangelical right, especially among the elites who interact more with politicians. Trump promised to destroy everything…and if you are a disgruntled evangelical who’s right-leaning but is frustrated with right-wing politicians who you view as too easily cowed, as too sensitive, as too wishy-washy, as too bought out, then Trump seems like an interesting figure, if for no other reason than you can’t bribe someone who has all the money in the world. You can’t bribe the person who’s doing the bribery.”
Article by Nilagia McCoy; photo by Allie Olympius.