Friday, November 24, 2006

Changing Horses

Sara Robinson

The history of religion is characterized by fanatical movements that started out full of ecstatic zeal to change the world one person at a time. From the Wahabists to the Methodists, religions are usually founded in a rush of passion -- which (if it doesn't fatally fracture in the intensity of the initial torrent, which is the fate of most new faith groups) gradually subsides to a calmer, more intellectual and inclusive order. In this second phase, the groups typically become more outwardly-focused. They start dealing with the world as it is, instead of as their theology tells them it should be. Most of what we think of "mainstream" churches started out in the first phase, but have by now been in this second one for a very long time.

This calming typically happens around the time the second generation raised in the faith begins to assume leadership -- say, 30 to 40 years after the initial founding. However, per Karen Armstrong, it can also happen once the group has acquired some real temporal power, and begun to reckon with the limits of its theology.

For both those reasons, I speculated last week that the evangelical right in America is headed for that calmer stage of organizational maturity. I further noted that this was likely to fuel some schisms over the short term, mostly between hard-core religious authoritarians who thrive on high levels of fear, anger, and intensity, and want to stay the old course; and the softer core looking to expand their sights, so that they can live their values.
The coming split in the evangelical right will be fueled by the different ways its various factions adapt to this new reality. The possibilities are likely to take two main forms. On one hand, we'll see the amoral authoritarian leadership fade away, and the hard-core authoritarian followers in retreat. On the other, however, are growing numbers of Christians who are already beginning to moderate -- some of them to the point where we may start seeing them in the progressive mainstream. --What If God Loses? 11/15/06

Well, we didn't have to wait long for the first sign of the split. Here's Willough Mariano of the Orlando Sentinel, desribing one leading indicator that the strain between the evangelical hard core and the moderates is increasing:
Christian Coalition loses leader in dispute

The Florida pastor recently tapped to lead the Christian Coalition of America resigned his position in a dispute about conservative philosophy - more than a month before he was to fully assume his post, he said this week.

The Rev. Joel Hunter, of Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Fla., said he quit as president-elect of the group founded by evangelist Pat Robertson because he realized he would be unable to broaden the organization's agenda beyond opposing abortion and same-sex marriage.

He hoped to include issues such as easing poverty and saving the environment.

"These are issues that Jesus would want us to care about," Hunter said.

The resignation took place Tuesday during an organization board meeting. Hunter said he was not asked to leave.

"They pretty much said, "These issues are fine, but they're not our issues; that's not our base,' " Hunter said. A statement issued by the coalition said Hunter resigned because of "differences in philosophy and vision." The organization, headed by President Roberta Combs, claims a mailing list of 2.5 million.

Hunter's move signals more tumult for a group that has fallen on hard times. Members have complained the coalition's agenda has become too liberal and diffuse.

Hunter hoped to revive the group by expanding its agenda to include what he called "compassion issues." He also planned to teach evangelicals how to "vote with their life," or integrate and apply their Christian values to public life.

The coalition's rejection of Hunter's approach means it is unwilling to part with its partisan, Republican roots, Hunter said.

"To tell you the truth, I feel like there are literally millions of evangelical Christians that don't have a home right now," Hunter said.

These conversations are being had increasingly on the religious right -- and they are a healthy sign that the worst excesses may be behind us. Of course the Christian Coalition board doesn't want to change issues: Abortion and gays are the twin horses that have pulled them power over the past 30 years, and to them it looks like a huge risk to switch to fresh stock. They have no idea where these other issues might take them; but they know that switching focus after all these years will alienate their hardcore base -- which, by now, regards these two issues as the whole reason God wrote the Bible in the first place.

But Hunter gets it. The American people have seen enough of the cruelty and wanton disregard for people's boundaries that underlie these two issues. And they have, for the most part, rejected them. That 30% of the population the far right has now is all they're ever going to get. The other 70% have decided that abortion, at least on some kind of terms, is here to stay; and the demographics make it clear that gay marriage is only a matter of time. In the long run, both are losing issues. Hunter, it appears, was looking to preserve the group's future by re-focusing its energies toward places where the Coalition's members could do some real good, and sustain some real wins. And the Coalition's short-sighted leadership sealed its own fate by refusing to let him lead them there.

The Christian Coalition (and the rest of the religious right) can either accept their changing reality, and move toward more inclusive issues like poverty and the enviroment; or they can hold fast to their two dying old nags, and go down with them. Evidently -- at least for now -- they've made their choice. And, fortunately for progressives, what they've chosen for themselves is a future of increasing irrelevance.

Oh, and those "millions of evangelical Christians who don't have a home right now"? They're homeless because they're ready to talk about things like global warming and how we treat the poor. Memo to Democrats: These people are waiting to hear from us.

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