Saturday, February 28, 2009
The Bush Legacy: the Religion and Poltics of Division
Maybe in another world, another time, Bush might have made a decent president, but he was doomed to be divisive given his unwitting (?) alignment with evangelical Christianity, which in its many variations, tends to draw dark lines defining who’s in and who’s out.
Long a tradition focused on “the lost” and then efforts to convert them, most evangelical Christians have come to see the world in terms of their correctness, their closeness to God, and most everyone else’s error – an “error” that runs deep in all categories, suggesting there is little or nothing of value in anything related to “the lost.”
These firm boundaries of “lost and found” were hardened in the years following the Cane Ridge, Kentucky revival of 1801. Originally a celebration of God’s love and the joys of Christian fellowship, later decades witnessed the emergence of a hardcore fundamentalism, hardened all the more in late 1800s in the “fundamentalist – modernist” conflicts over science and the Bible. These conflicts intensified through the early decades of the 20th century, culminating in the Scopes Trial in Tennessee.
After the emergence of the megachurch movement in the 1980s and the earlier decline in mainline churches beginning in the 60s, there was a sense that evangelicals could do no wrong, being, in fact, God’s chosen force to uphold the gospel and maintain the purity of the faith. With their eager embrace of technology, evangelicals quickly stepped to the center of the stage while mainline Christians slinked away and sulked, scrambling to find themselves and a reason to be.
Within the evangelical movement, several strains: one, represented by Billy Graham, a gentle-souled person who unapologetically preached Christ and conversion in a simple and winsome fashion. But there emerged another stream represented by Dobson’s Focus on the Family and preachers like Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy with roots in a hardcore revivalism building in the south during much of the early 20th century. They began to draw hard lines defined by a few social issues: abortion, homosexuality and creationism vs. evolution.
These hardcore folks found the welcome mat out with Reagan’s election. The man defeated by Reagan, Jimmy Carter, represented the strain associated with Graham – a warm-hearted Christianity that loved Jesus, but without the rancor and judgment found in the likes of Dobson. With Carter’s defeat and Reagan’s victory, the death knell was sounded for this gentler version of Christian faith.
Though Reagan would not have counted himself in this camp, Reagan and his handlers quickly recognized the political value and power of this emerging hardcore Christianity.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, this religio-political alliance grew stronger, embracing more and more the strategy of division along the fault lines noted above. You were either in or out; gray areas do not exist in this kind of thinking.
With Dobson’s recent resignation and the death of Falwell and Kennedy and the election of Obama, we are witnessing a revival of an earlier politics and Christian faith – there are gray areas, and plenty of them, and we’re all in this together. We forge bonds with one another above and through the issues that would otherwise divide.
The gentleness and Christ-centeredness of a Billy Graham and the visionary leadership of a Jimmy Carter will likely be guiding lights for the next several decades as Christians pick up the battered pieces of a misguided effort even as we seek to heal ourselves politically.
Bush might have been a different man in another era, but we’ll never know, for he was both the product of and a cheerleader for a style of politics and faith that has proved dangerous, if not fatal, to the wellbeing of the soul and the state.