March 02, 2008

Piety and Paradox in Fire and Brimstone Politics

From 2006, on Campus Progress

I went to church with my parents over this year’s fall break. As we drove into the parking lot, something caught my eye and made me burn with the fire of a heretic at the stake. A bumper sticker has never evoked anything more than casual amusement or indifference, but this time was different. There, on the car of a church staffer was a sticker that angered and perplexed all at once: This masterful piece of blunt alliteration informed me that “Kerry Kills Kids.” I was angered by the fact that a staff member of the church not only ascribed to such rhetorical guff, but advertised it as well. But, despite my distaste for a church that fed me a steady diet of fear, guilt and shame from an early age, I admit to feeling a little sorry for the Christian institution that day. Couldn’t the followers of Jesus, a noble figure, do a little better than the aforementioned bumper sticker? Though it was just one person’s view, this sort of ideology evoked in me a sense of dread about the imminent election.

In the weeks following the parking lot incident, I wondered what made that person focus on Kerry as a baby killer, but fail to acknowledge the problematic policies of his incumbent counterpart, which were clearly worthy of some bumper sticker bon mots. It became clearer to me after the election why Bush and his campaign of “holier than thou” politics came out on top. We all know the story of the Religious Right and Karl Rove. The campaign was successful in resonating with millions of Americans who believe that abortion is murder, gay marriage is sinful, and that God needs their help to fight people who hate our freedom. With resolve, Bush pitched a faith-based vision of post- 9/11 America to an insecure heartland that found refuge from Kerry’s campaign, which lacked a certain “born-again” fervor. Bush was able to indict Kerry for his service in the Vietnam War, for his indecision on the Iraq War, and his campaign for the consumption of fetuses. In the process of defending his humanity, Kerry failed to take Bush to task not only for evading service in Vietnam and creating a quagmire in Iraq, but also for the theological inconsistencies that Bush employed to legitimize his mission at home and abroad. Now, an emboldened Bush administration flaunts its political capital in one hand and the Bible in the other. It employs scare tactics reminiscent of my 1st grade catechism class with Sister Mary Jogue, whose frequent tirades in front of a room full of 6-year-olds included threats like, “damnation awaits those who fib.”

It looks like Sister Mary Jogue’s sermon on deceit didn’t pan out; the men who fibbed their way into a unilateral invasion and occupation don’t seem to be facing damnation or a fiery hell anytime soon. They are leading a remarkable social movement that is rewriting our law books and tearing out the pages that stipulated the separation of church and state. This legacy of pluralism and individual liberty is under attack by a social phenomenon to be reckoned with. Some serious reflection is in order for religious leftists in America who oppose the continued hijacking of “moral values” in this country. Perhaps they can take a lesson from the failures of candidate Kerry, and start a movement of their own that promotes the universal values of human rights, egalitarianism, and tolerance of plurality.

The Christian Left is especially integral right now in holding the Religious Right accountable for a gaping disparity between their words and actions regarding the “culture of life.” Why are the Bush administration and other evangelical figures able to integrate religious rhetoric into policy decisions that affect a pluralistic society – even into the filibuster controversy? Perhaps the answer lies in the inability of Christian liberals to confront President Bush’s superficial pro-life campaign that selects which lives are worthy of preservation. Christian liberals, politicians, clergy, and citizens alike have been unable to check the paradoxes of an administration that frames unsustainable economic, environmental, social, and military policies in a pious light. Moreover, they have failed to offer frustrated religious Americans in the heartland another, more honest set of “pro-life” values to rally behind.

Granted, there might be problems with this nascent movement. Perhaps the Christian institution is not even a fit launching pad for a progressive political mobilization and change, given its troubling gender and sexual politics. Further, how can religious people on the left, particularly Christians, challenge their adversaries on the right without engaging in a war that would further threaten to destroy the line between church and state? Can a religiously based progressive movement serve the interests of plurality and minority rights?

I think it can because, quite simply, it must. While the questions I raise are real concerns, the religious left cannot afford to remain paralyzed in the face of an evangelical political movement that continues to exploit the political capital afforded by America’s Christian legacy. The Bush administration has wisely seized on the fact that religious beliefs resonate with many Americans and they will continue to curry favor with this demographic group until the left offers a real alternative.

The injustice is exemplified by the current political climate, which allows the indictment of any old moderate as a “Kid Killer” for his belief in abortion rights. While left-leaning Christians remain reluctant to forge a new vision founded on a progressive interpretation of Christian principles, the so-called “pro-life” Bush administration continues to deploy its shock and awe campaigns abroad and advocate for the execution of mentally retarded criminals at home.

Something is horribly wrong here. It seems that the answer to this injustice is a political movement that can scrutinize the “fire and brimstone” politics of the Bush administration by employing the egalitarian, golden-rule mentality espoused by a famous man named Jesus. I hear he is a pretty important figure in the church, and his opinions might hold some weight. Why not utilize these, the core values, as a starting point for frustrated Christians who have seen their religion co-opted for destructive ends? This Christian Left movement could mobilize tremendous progressive power from within their chapel halls, and have tremendous positive impact on political dialogue. However, if the Christian Left does mobilize a progressive voice within the chapels of America, the values of the movement must be universalized to protect the various sectors of the American public who choose not enter the chapel at all.

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