Is It Safe to Go Back to Church?

What is this strange fragrance in the air? Could it be Christian spirit? The president of the Christian Coalition is calling on his co-religionists to make environmental protection a foremost consideration in their election choices. Last February, 86 evangelical leaders signed a statement challenging Bush to do something about global warming. In the U.K., evangelicals are spearheading a campaign to "Make Poverty History." Just last week, right-winger and self-professed evangelical Dick Armey observed that:

Republicans are talking about things like gay marriage and so forth, and the Democrats are talking about things people care about, like how do I pay my bills?

Could it be that the erstwhile Christian right has found Jesus?

In the wake of the 2004 election, the word was that "values" and "morals" trumped everything else, with morality defined as staunch opposition to gay marriage, abortion and stem cell research. Democrats fell all over themselves declaring that they too had "values," sort of, and spend their spare moments in prayer. Hillary Clinton, for example, started backpedaling on abortion and came out against gay marriage. Even leading pro-choicers often seemed loath to mention the particular choice they were trying to defend.

They had fallen for the Republicans' most reliable trick, which, in a word, is distraction. How do you get people to vote against their own economic self-interest -- that is, for tax cuts for the rich, cuts in social programs for everyone else, and endless war? You tell them that the real threats to our well-being are abortionists, stem cell researchers, and matrimonially minded gays.

Tom Frank exposed the trick brilliantly in his 2004 book What's the Matter with Kansas?, but you could see it coming back in the 70s, when the political right decided to go populist. Populism is a stretch for a party whose economic program is blatantly elitist, anti-worker and anti-average person. But, with a lot of help from the mega-churches, the Republicans pulled off the trick for years. All the guy in the pulpit had to say was "vote pro-life" or "save the family from marauding gays," and the message was: vote Republican, i.e., vote to feed the fat cats straight from your wallet.

As someone once said, you can't fool all the people every single moment. It's hard to get bent out of shape about the fate of a zygote or embryonic stem cell when you can't afford to take your sick three-year-old to a doctor. It's demented to blame gays for the strains that arise in your marriage where one partner has to work days and the other one nights because you can't afford childcare. And of course it's even harder to believe gay-bashing Republican politicos when so many of their own family members and staffers are contently gay.

This doesn't mean that morals and values have no place in politics. On the contrary, what both parties need to understand is that economic issues are also moral issues. Poverty is a moral issue; 47 million Americans without health insurance is a moral issue. The same goes for environmental issues: Why fight to save a fertilized egg cell for a life spent gasping for air or fleeing the ever-rising coastlines? If you're going to be pro-life, you've got to be pro-environment and pro-economic justice.

As for the religious part of the Christian right's values: Show me the passage in the Bible that bans stem cell research. See if you can find the tiniest allusion to abortion (not.) Yes, there's a bit of homophobia in the Bible, along with endorsements of slavery and a weird obsession with animal sacrifice. Not a word, though, about gay marriage.

Poverty and economic injustice, on the other hand, get hundreds of hits in both testaments. Leftwing evangelist Jim Wallis once took scissors to a Bible and cut out all the references to economic injustice - and what was left looked a lot like confetti. Jesus was a hardliner on the redistribution of wealth: Remember what he told the rich man who wanted to get into heaven? Imagine what he'd have to say about the Bush tax cuts.

So welcome back to the fold, all you recovering rightwing evangelists! We'll still have plenty to argue about: I'm pro-choice, pro-stem cell research, and against anyone getting married when some people aren't allowed to. But at least we may have enough common ground on which to hold a meaningful debate.