Readers Write: The Growing Threat of Right-Wing Christians
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In 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, faced hundreds of thousands of Americans, and spoke of faith in his dream of equality:
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
It is undeniable that the effectiveness of King's words, his ability to create and unite an audience, was rooted in his faith. Indeed, the "religious left" has been instrumental in the civil rights and anti-war movements, in uniting people for a cause. Yet, to speak of faith today, in the era of the second Bush administration, so often works to divide Americans -- particularly among the left.
AlterNet's recent interview with Michelle Goldberg goes a long way toward explaining why. Goldberg, the author of " Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism," spoke about the handful of politicians and religious figures who are leading the Christian Nationalist movement. Under the banner of "religious freedom," the Bush administration is creating policies that espouse exclusive privileges for Christian organizations. While Goldberg discussed this phenomenon as it exists in the shift in faith-based program hiring, it is evident throughout this administration's policies.
With over 300 comments, Goldberg's interview struck a nerve with AlterNet readers. Kym525, a gnostic Christian, noted the importance of reclaiming the meaning of religious freedom: "When we say religious freedom, we don't mean just freedom and respect for certain beliefs, but for ALL of them, even the ones we may not practice ourselves."
It's an important distinction, on par with the acknowledgment that, when we talk about a handful of fundamentalists claiming Christianity as their banner, we are not talking about Christianity at large. Kym525 continues,
Yes, it can be tough to read about the rise of fanatical so-called Christianity, but just because you don't like the message doesn't make it any less valid ... as long as we in the 'silent liberal Christian majority' say and more importantly DO nothing, those who totally misrepresent our beliefs will continue to divide and conquer.
While hundreds of comments were posted to the interview, only a fraction directly related to the substance of the text -- the effects of the rise of Christian Nationalism. Rather, they rehashed a difficult dialogue that occurs nearly every time AlterNet publishes an article about religion: the legitimacy of religion and faith itself.
MatthewSavage wrote: "If you go by the comment section of many of the articles on AlterNet, the many in the secular left have a burning contempt for all people of all religions. I have seen comments denigrating anybody who claims any religion insane, childish, stupid, moronic, ignorant sheep, you name it."
Jesse agreed, stating, "Just a look at the comments section after [Sen. Barack] Obama's speech or [AlterNet staff writer Jan] Frel's piece a few weeks back shows that there is hostility out there. And it is kind of unnerving -- a lot of people have the old Arthur C. Clarke view that religion is a kind of insanity or superstition that will disappear if everybody is rational."
Polly, a self-described atheist stated, "Believing in a god or gods does not mean a lack of intelligence," but then goes on to say, "People look for ways to understand the world and to find meaning in their lives ... I think if the general population had more access to a scientific education there would be less religious belief in this country." YogiBear addressed the notion that there is a negative correlation between education and faith, and offered this qualifier: "I'll agree if by 'less religious belief,' you mean 'greater spiritual beliefs.'"
Reader comments flirted with the notion of two forms of faith -- one that takes the place of knowledge, and one that is inspired by knowledge. The function of faith varies by what an individual seeks.
Michelle Goldberg, in the original transcript of the AlterNet interview, addressed whether she thought congregants of some of the larger megachurches were aware of the connections their churches had with conservative Republicans. Goldberg said, "I don't think people experience these organizations as primarily political. The political side is just the kind of general ambiance, but I would suspect they experience them primarily as personal, social and spiritual. They come because there's some kind of deep existential need, not because they want to support the Republican Party."
AlterNet reader Jesse addressed the appeal of more fervent branches of Christianity, noting that "the Left has never offered the same sense of comfort that the right does ... I myself know that when I go to a Unitarian church, for example, it sometimes just feels so wishy-washy and as rational (and unreligious) as I am, I understand the pull, the power, of evangelism. Especially in a world that is complicated and scary."
It is this uncertainty -- and fear in the face of uncertainty-- that Christian fundamentalists have so effectively addressed. Goldberg gives this analysis of reconstructionists:
You can think of Christian reconstructionists like the neocons: They're a very small group of people, but they've created an intellectual system that is very influential. It is based on Rush Dooney's idea of a biblical exegesis that can provide the answer to every public or private question -- very specific manuals for government and community life.
The faith that the Bush administration has exploited is that which grows from fear. From the extensive commentary following Goldberg's interview, it's clear that AlterNet readers want to continue exploring the role of faith in politics. As King's speech over four decades ago suggests, some form of faith, be it secular or religious, will be at the core of our ability to effect change and banish the fear and fundamentalism that currently thrive in our country.
Onnesha Roychoudhuri is a former assistant editor of AlterNet.