There is a great, basic contradiction in the teachings of Jesus. Jesus was one of the first great teachers to proclaim the basic principle of individualism -- the inviolate sanctity of man's soul, and the salvation of one's soul as one's first concern and highest goal; this means -- one's ego and the integrity of one's ego. But when it came to the next question, a code of ethics to observe ... Jesus (or perhaps His interpreters) gave men a code of altruism, that is, a code which told them that in order to save one's soul, one must love or help or live for others. This means, the subordination of one's soul (or ego) to the wishes, desires or needs of others, which means the subordination of one's soul to the souls of others.
This is a contradiction that cannot be resolved.
As U.S. politics hurtles toward 2016, our government is divided and incivility is rampant. Our basic two-party structure is at its worst, creating an essential binarism with hard edges and thick, unforgiving lines. The cool kids are at the extreme left and right, with the perception that the muddy moderates are gumming up the works for either of these otherwise sharp and distinct visions of America. The battles between the Republican-controlled Congress and the Democratic White House are viewed as a war that pits Big Government against Big Business.
Even within the parties--certainly with the Republican party and increasingly so among the Democrats--there is another binarism at work, pitting the Old Guard moderates schooled in the ancient and essential art of compromise against younger, angrier voices that would take no prisoners in their struggle for ideological purity. These lines of binarism always seem to grow stronger as presidential elections loom near, but it is actually difficult to imagine how it could get much worse in 2016.
I have heard the siren's call from both sides of the aisle. Essentially a moderate who can usually mine the value in polar positions and who tries to move toward common ground with others, I have admittedly dabbled in the politics of extremism over the course of my life, riding the political waves of my tribe.
The MEvangelicals are the noisy evangelicals you see on TV, memes that have--in an agonizing and reductionistic turn of events--come to represent all of evangelicalism, and sometimes even all of Christianity. Accustomed as they are to binary theology--heaven or hell, turn or burn--they have often unwittingly played into the hands of political strategists who have groomed them to adopt binary political views. In this ideological marriage of convenience, the world either leans right ... or is "left behind".
Here is my strong belief--and political camps of every stripe should take note--the heart of evangelicalism is not to be found among the MEvangelicals. What's more, in the words of the Brit band 10cc from their 1975 hit song, I'm Not in Love, I suspect that for many MEvangelicals, "It's just a silly phase (they're) going through."2
Consider, for example, the region of the country that includes "the Bible Belt", now subsumed by the more common designation, "the Sunbelt". In terms of party identification, 53% of evangelicals within the Sunbelt identified as Democrats in the 1960s and 1970s, with only 32% as Republicans. By the George W. Bush years, with the election cycles in 2000 and 2004, 59% of the Sunbelt evangelicals were self-identified Republican and 29% were Democrats.3
Clearly there were multiple factors at play in these elections, but Lyman Kellstedt and James Guth, in Sunbelt Rising, make the persuasive suggestion that religion shapes regional politics more clearly than other "cultural" factors:
... from the perspective of religious factors, differing regional politics are largely the effect of the composition of their religious communities--not the result of some distinctive "regional" culture on all religious groups.4
For older, white evangelicals and the children they raised (and sometimes home-schooled), Ronald Reagan changed everything, tapping into their natural inclination toward fiscal and social conservatism. Reagan's strategists were also the first to reach out to this "sleeping giant" of evangelicalism. Characterized by some as "a nominal Presbyterian whose wife was criticized for consulting astrologers"5, Reagan nonetheless had a knack for endearing himself to others, saying just the right thing at just the right time to just the right audience. Just a few years removed from Roe v. Wade, when Reagan aligned himself with the pro-life cause, it was a match made in heaven; the "Religious Right" was born.
From Right to Rand
Reagan-era conservatism is a far cry removed from the Ayn Rand-infused Libertarian ideals the MEvangelicals often flirt with these days. Evangelicals often speak of a "slippery slope" that leads to theological perdition, yet the MEvangelicals have failed to recognize the political slippery slope that has led from Reagan's "New Morning in America" to Ayn Rand's radical philosophy of self-interest: "To choose to follow reason, Rand argues, is to reject emotions, faith or any form of authoritarianism as guides in life .... The purpose of morality, she argues, is to teach us what is in our self-interest, what produces happiness."6
In part two, we will tease out some of the ramifications of Rand's philosophy for today's MEvangelicals, but for now let me leave you with this spoiler alert:
Bottom line: MEvangelicals are expert "converts". MEvangelicals can change.
Nickerson, M. M., et al. (2011). Sunbelt Rising: the Politics of Place, Space, and Region. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press. ↩