Religious Right On Crutches, I
Longwood is one of those nondescript sprawls of flattish strip-malls and cookie-cut houses in the suburban steppe known as Orlando, not far from my own exurbian sprawl. It’s also home to Northland Church, titanic in size and membership, with the Rev. Joel C. Hunter for captain. Officially, the church feeds on the usual grist of subjugation, self-loathing and inquisitions that so many religions like to wrap like hair-shirts on the soul (“We believe that unbelievers will be punished with everlasting separation from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power,” and “man is subject to the power of the devil and has within himself no possible means of recovery or salvation,” says its “Statement of Faith”). But Rev. Hunter is among that more interesting breed of mega-evangelicals. A right-winger, to be sure. And a Christian. And a preacher. Ingredients that, in present-day America, where Christianity and Christ are like strangers in the night, only need a detonator to spread the bigoto-zealotry. Which he possesses, in the form of a Sunday mike.
The Christian Coalition’s Error
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, November 30, 2006
But there’s a trip-wire in the Reverend’s thinking: He’s just published a book called “Right Wing, Wrong Bird,” where he challenges the religious right’s fixations on narrow (and puerile-minded) obsessions like gay marriage at the expense of what the mass of Christian congregations are, or ought to be, interested in: more worldly concerns such as poverty, economic well-being and the environment, including global warming and AIDS. In mini-sermons, he takes on challenging questions: “Should all churches in America have the American flag displayed in worship?” (The quick answer: leave it up to each congregation, but the more pertinent, and dubious, point he makes along the way is the more conventionally seditious belief that Christians are “dual citizens,” with their primary allegiance to God. A caveat that explains felons like Ollie North and rogues like our own Lord and Savior president, in whose conveniently arranged constellation God comes before country).
Thankfully, the Rev. Hunter is more nuanced than a flag-wrapper. He also asked: “How can the church support our nation’s immigration laws but still show mercy and compassion to the aliens in our land?” You won’t find very many of our modern-day evangelical inquisitors willing to go as far as asking the question, let alone daring to answer it. And more impressively, he asks what issues have been unjustly ignored by the religious right. His answer to that one: Poverty, AIDS, justice issues—“it seems like sharing your wealth is somehow against the capitalist spirit”—and the environment, all of which have been wrongly “rationalized” by the religious right to be “secondary issues.” “But they are straight biblical issues, and we need to do everything we can to relieve poverty, to heal the sick, to share what we’ve been given by God and protect the earth.” The more one listens to him, the more intriguingly refreshing he gets. He ought to run for something.
He did. But like all men of good will and powerful means, he was bound to get rear-ended. Hunter was elected in July to be the leader of the Christian Coalition of America, the organization founded by Pat Robertson to push the religious right’s agenda wherever two or more politicians are gathered in its grasp.
An oddity, for Hunter? Well, yes, until this happened. On November 21, Voltaire’s birthday and the day the board of directors of the Christian Coalition met, Hunter was fired. (“Asked to resign” is the more polite way the coalition likes to have it, but let’s not bother with euphemisms.) Why? “He wanted the group to champion good stewardship over the Earth and relief for the poor with a passion equal to its views against gay marriage and abortion,” an Orlando Sentinel editorial said. “But the coalition did not share his vision.” In Hunter’s words: “I saw an opportunity to really broaden the conversation and broaden the constituency. I’m really over this whole polarization thing.” But the Christian Coalition board isn’t. It “just got scared.” And so it goes. Hints of progress within pseudo-Christian ranks are quickly stubbed out the moment faith in something real, something valid, something humane, risks subverting faith in safe-old bigotries. Since Pat Robertson left the coalition five years ago, the Times reports, “the coalition has struggled with creditors, defections by state affiliates and a dwindling presence in the capital.” Here was its chance to remake something of itself in a more enlightened image. But enlightenment, let alone Enlightenment, is to the Christian right what daylight is to Dracula. Its dawn alone transforms Christian Rightists into bats out of hell.
In there such a second dawn in America, where the Enlightenment has been in retreat? The suggestions are tantalizingly positive when the reformists are beginning to emerge from within the Christian Right. Hunter isn’t the first high-profile insurrectionist. Remember Gregory Boyd? Remember the 2006 mid-terms? Something is afoot here, and it bodes ill for the neo-crusaders. But they still have plenty of firepower left.
[This is the first part of a two-part essay on the Religious Right’s retreats. The second part is available here.]