A comment on a previous post got me thinking. “Can we reference Christians less broadly?”, he wrote. He’s right. We should. And yet, there is a relentless parade of right-wing “Christian culture warriors” on the TeeVee and the various other media saying crap. What should we call them? Perhaps Culture Crusaders? That sounds religiously ominous enough but distances “Christ” from the referencing.
But, the lumping. Follow me below for my personal, but unacademic and probably unhistorical, history of the Church and the politics and the lumping.
I “became a Christian” (was “born again”; had a conversion experience) in 1977, in my mid-20’s. My co-workers were concerned that I was going off some deep-end so they would helpfully say crass and insulting things about me and Christianity showing 1) When you are saving someone from religion, nothing is below the belt and 2) the fact that I did not find their comments hilarious but instead mean and hurtful proved they were the only ones with a sense of humor.
The Church I started attending was an Independent Christian church in the Congregational scheme of things. My brother, who “became a Christian” about a year-and-a-half before me, already went there. The pastor was somewhat Baptist and was a very good man (still alive, last I heard) who encouraged me a lot. I got very involved there, showing up for all the services, hosting Bible studies at my house, etc.
This was about the time that Jerry Falwell was starting up the Moral Majority movement, but that was not part of my Church experience. I became aware that there were a couple of very broad factions within Theologically Conservative Christianity. Falwell was a Fundamentalist, the group of tightly wound rule-makers – mainly King James Bible only - who had The List. The List is that compilation of extra-biblical rules which were to rule your life, not to save you but to make sure you don’t offend people or cause them to stumble. In reality, The List was used as a gauge of your spirituality; of how close you are to Jesus. I could not fault their understanding of the Gospel, per se, but the constant (after conversion) moralizing, the incorporating of right-wing politics and adding to the Scriptures (even if, as they claimed, the rules “made sense”) made that faction unpalatable to me.
The second broad category was the Evangelicals, a not so wound up group who, I thought, was not so hot to judge others or to lay lists on people. They were far more tolerant and accepting of things which could be called matters of conscience. While the Fundamentalist tracts would end with the guy showing he was really right with God by asking where he could get his hair cut, well, the Evangelicals would mock the fundamentalist tract. As if hair-length mattered.
There was a time I got involved in a Fundamentalist ministry. I did so with eyes open and signed their List of what’s naughty and nice. They, for their part tolerated my wearing blue jeans, but not much. They presented The List as if it were a matter of quality control, not judging. “People who go to McDonalds expect McDonalds’ standards. When they come to us, they expect our standards.” Of course, in private they believed those who refused to sign The List had to have great sin in their lives. They once had a seminar “Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism: What’s the difference?” in which one of the differences was “Fundamentalists think personal grooming is important. Evangelicals don’t care how they look.”
Recently, what seems to have happened is that Evangelicals looked at Fundamentalists and decided one big pile was better that two little piles and rather than bring them over here, they would join them over there. And now “Evangelical” has the same sneer in the voice and legalistic baggage as “Fundamentalist” had in the 70s.
In 1980, the old pastor retired from the ministry and we got a new pastor with whom I became good friends. 1980, of course, was the election of Ronald Reagan and the success of Falwell and company in making right-wing politics – which had always been a part of Fundamentalism – more mainstream in the whole Christian Church. The new Pastor would keep politics out of the pulpit and the church. One time, a member of the congregation approached the leadership with the idea to post in the church a list of doctors in the area who performed abortions and the leadership unanimously rejected that idea.
Not that the pastor didn’t have opinions; I came to find out he was very conservative and given the zeitgeist it would have been very easy for him to hop on board. He told me that there was a time when he was not just opinionated but involved in conservative politics (John Birch Society politics). He walked into a room at his home church and overheard someone say “Yeah that guy is okay but his political opinions are way out there.” He realized that his politics were in the way. If he was called to teach Christianity, then the John Bircherism had to go. So the politics stayed out of his teaching. I admired him for that. I wish it were a far more common commitment and I should be far more astute myself concerning how I conflate the message of Christianity with my left-wing political views.
On other fronts, it was a mixed bag. One time I went to my brother’s house for dinner and when he and my sister-in-law heard I did not vote for Reagan (I don’t know why they would’ve been surprised at that), they seriously lambasted me for it and told my not-yet two year old niece to call me “Uncle Baby-Killer”. Showing 1) when you are so, so right about things, nothing is below the belt and 2) the fact that I did not think that hilarious but instead mean and hurtful proved that they were the only ones with a sense of humor.
At my work (different workplace than the one I “became a Christian” at), on the other hand, there were several people who hung together. Not that we did not hang with others, nor were no outsiders welcome, but sometimes in the lunch room I would see a Independent Congregationalist and a Pentecostal and a Charismatic and a King James Only Fundamentalist and a non-church going “just me and Jesus” guy at the same table and none of the labels meant anything. No bickering over politics or theology. We shared a meal and our lives. I look forward to a time when that is normal again.