Why Conservative Christians So Often Fail the Common Good (Part 2)

Why do so many Christians -- especially fundamentalists and evangelicals -- so often fail to discern the themes of peace and justice that are so central to the biblical vision of the kingdom of God?
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This two-part series of articles is based on Hughes' recent book, Christian America and the Kingdom of God (Illinois 2009).

In part 1 of this article, we posed this riddle: why do so many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians -- people who clearly honor the Bible -- so often disregard the two requirements that are central to the biblical vision of the kingdom of God, namely peacemaking and justice for the poor?

Why Focus on "Conservative Christians"?

Some readers quite correctly pointed out that conservatives tend to be more generous toward the poor than liberals, but to frame the issue like that only muddles it. The Bible never suggests that we adequately fulfill our responsibilities through "generosity" toward the poor. Rather, the Bible summons Christians to radical solidarity with the poor and radical opposition to those demonic, systemic structures -- what the Bible calls "the principalities and powers -- that sustain the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and the dispossessed.

Historically, Christians in the United States -- both liberal and conservative -- have been extraordinarily reluctant to take up that battle. To appreciate this point, one need only consider the American church's long, 350-year complicity in slavery and segregation.

Further, to claim that conservatives are more generous than liberals sidesteps the fact that neither group is all that generous toward the poor to begin with. It also sidesteps the fact that neither conservative Christians nor liberal Christians are called to compare themselves with one another. Instead, if Christians are serious about following Jesus, the only meaningful comparison is with Jesus' picture of the kingdom of God, and when measured by that standard, American Christians across the board -- liberals and conservatives alike -- fall woefully short.

Why, then, would I write a two-part article that singles out conservative rather than liberal Christians for a comparison with that biblical vision. First, conservative Christians are typically far more adamant than liberals in their claims that they are "Bible-believing Christians" who take the Bible seriously at every point. It is therefore fair to ask how successfully they live out a theme that stands at the center of the biblical text -- the biblical vision of the kingdom.

The second consideration is perhaps even more important. For almost forty years, the most visible representatives of the Christian religion in the United States have been conservatives, not liberals. I have in mind the electronic evangelists -- those leaders of the Christian Right like Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, James Kennedy, Pat Robertson, and a host of others -- who have been extraordinarily vocal about their vision of the United States as a Christian nation. Not once have I heard any of those preachers define the Christian religion in terms of either (1) peacemaking or (2) justice for the oppressed, the poor, the marginalized, and those who suffer at the hands of the world's elites -- themes that are central to the biblical vision of the kingdom of God.

To the contrary, these preachers have often gone out of their way to support the principalities and powers that oppress marginalized people. Various televangelists at various times, for example, have told the American people that God has chosen the United States for a destiny of dominance in the world, that Jesus' followers should prosper and never be poor, and that Christians should rally to support America's wars against the enemies of God. In a word, most televangelists of the Christian Right have preached a gospel that is radically antithetical to the biblical text, and by proclaiming this pseudo-gospel, they have discredited the Christian religion almost beyond belief. It is surely time to measure their preaching by the biblical vision of the kingdom of God!

The Kingdom of God and the Common Good

According to the Bible, the kingdom of God and the nations of the earth -- including "Christian America" -- embody radically different values. The kingdom of God relies on the power of self-giving love while nations -- even so-called "Christian" nations -- rely on the power of coercion and the sword. For that reason, nations -- even "Christian" nations -- inevitably go to war against their enemies, while the kingdom of God has no mortal enemies at all. The kingdom of God is universal and those who promote that kingdom care deeply for every human being in every corner of the globe, regardless of race or nationality. But earthly nations -- even so-called "Christian" nations -- embrace values that are inevitably nationalistic and tribal, caring especially for the welfare of those within their borders. And while the kingdom of God exalts the poor, the disenfranchised, and the dispossessed, earthly nations inevitably exalt the rich and powerful and hold them up as models to be emulated. In fact, in the context of earthly nations -- even so-called "Christian" nations -- the poor seldom count for much at all.

In light of that comparison, it must be obvious that when I speak of the common good, I don't have in mind the American dream of a chicken in every pot or three cars in every garage or the American notion that freedom ultimately means freedom to shop. In fact, I don't have in mind anything uniquely American at all. Instead, when I speak of the common good, I have in mind what the Bible envisions for all humankind -- life and not death. But when the principalities and powers define the common good, they typically mean the good life for some, and the good life for some invariably means poverty, hunger, nakedness, and finally death for all the others.

One final introductory comment: several who commented on the first article also questioned the accuracy of my claim that the biblical vision of the kingdom of God is really all that central to the biblical text or, for that matter, to what Christians call "the gospel." But the Christian gospel always has two central components -- the unmerited grace that God extends to us and, in response, the unmerited grace that we should extend to others. I John makes this point as well as any other biblical text: "Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers." (I Jn. 3:16) That is as clear a picture of the kingdom of God as one is likely to find.

Resolving the Riddle

We want now to offer some possible ways to resolve the riddle, posed in part 1 of this article, of why so many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians -- people who clearly honor the Bible -- so often disregard the two requirements that are central to the biblical vision of the kingdom of God, namely peacemaking and justice for the poor.

Most of the answers to this riddle are rooted in the fact that millions of conservative Christians in the United States read the Bible through a variety of American perspectives that are utterly foreign to the biblical text. And they read the Bible in this way because they so often identify the kingdom of God with the United States of America. Based on that conviction, many confuse the principles of the Bible with the principles of the Constitution, biblical morality with capitalism, defense of the Christian religion with militarism, and fidelity to the kingdom of God with patriotism. Indeed, they often view the Bible as a manual on how to live one's life as a good American. With those convictions, it's no wonder they read the Bible through distinctly American perspectives.

American Individualism and the Life to Come

Chief among these perspectives is the American bias toward radical individualism -- a bias that quickly translates into a privatistic form of religion that essentially excludes concern for the common good. In this scenario, the Christian faith sustains one's own private and personal relation with Jesus and little else.

But there is more, for millions of American Christians have linked this radical individualism to an otherworldly bias that exalts the life to come and demeans life on earth in the here and how. In effect, they have turned their backs on the Hebrew worldview that life on this earth really matters, a perspective that informs the biblical text from start to finish. Instead, they opt for a Greek perspective that views this life as little more than a prelude to the only true life -- life in the world to come. Obviously, this perspective renders peacemaking and social justice utterly irrelevant.

The Christian experience in the slaveholding South greatly enhanced the bias that exalts the life to come and demeans life on this earth, since that was precisely the message that southern preachers routinely preached to the slaves. The fact is, white Christians in the antebellum South could not afford to admit -- either to themselves or to the slaves -- that the Christian faith held vast implications for freedom and justice on this earth. Had they admitted that truth, they would have had to grant both freedom and dignity to their slaves. They therefore took pains to conceal this great truth for over 200 years. And in the process of concealing it from the slaves, they also concealed it from themselves so that white, evangelical Christianity in the American South became profoundly otherworldly in its orientation.

This was precisely the bias that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. encountered when Southern preachers dismissed the Civil Rights Movement with the badly mistaken judgment that "those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern." This is also the bias that drives many American fundamentalists to welcome the prospect of nuclear annihilation. After all, they claim, a nuclear Battle of Armageddon would fulfill the biblical prophecies. But Christians, they argue, will escape this destruction through the rapture and the life to come.

If you find this unbelievable, listen to the words of John Hagee, a rapture theologian and pastor of the 17,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas: "Believers in Christ will escape doomsday! Mark it down, take it to heart, and comfort one another with these words. Doomsday is coming for the earth, for nations, and for individuals, but those who have trusted in Jesus will not be present on earth to witness the dire time of tribulation."

Or consider this example. A few years ago, I was discussing global warming with a class of first-year students when one of those students objected that, in his view, global warming was a farce. "But even if it's true," he argued, "why should Christians be concerned? God will rapture Christians away from this earth in any event, leaving the godless to deal with global warming."

It's pretty clear that when Christians understand their faith only in privatized terms, and when they affirm the life to come at the expense of the here and now, they negate concern for the common good. And, ironically, they also negate any meaningful allegiance to the Bible, the Christian faith, or the biblical vision of the kingdom of God, in spite of their claims to the contrary.

Reading the Bible Through the Lens of American Capitalism

If millions of evangelicals and fundamentalists in the U.S. read the Bible through the lens of radical individualism and a preoccupation with the life to come, they also read it through the lens of American capitalism. Thus, Bill McKibben reported in 2005 that "three-quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that 'God helps those who help themselves.'" The truth is, these words are not in the Bible but come from the mouth of Ben Franklin. And, as McKibben noted, "not only is Franklin's wisdom not biblical; it is counter-biblical," since the core message of the Bible focuses on laying down one's life for one's neighbor, not on helping oneself. But Christians who read the Bible through the lens of American capitalism will inevitably read self-help into the biblical text and will seldom discern in that text the biblical vision of the kingdom of God with its emphasis on peacemaking and justice for the poor.

But the notion that "God helps those who help themselves" has informed the social ethics of millions of Christians -- both liberal and conservative -- over the years of the American experiment. It has long been a staple in the American imagination that the poor are poor because they are lazy and the rich grow richer because they are good -- a platitude satirized by Archie Bunker on the popular 1970s sitcom, All in the Family. And today the conservative slopes of the American religious landscape are dotted with preachers who proclaim the American gospel of prosperity -- that in order to prosper, one need only believe! But however one frames the proposition, it all comes down to the same American conviction that "God helps those who help themselves." And once again, the poor get lost in the shuffle.

Reading the Bible Through the Lens of Power and Control

There is one more answer to the question of why conservative Christians so often fail to discern the themes of peace and justice that are so dominant in the biblical text, and this final answer points us back almost five hundred years to John Calvin's Geneva. Calvin made much of the biblical metaphor of the "kingdom of God" and sought to superimpose that kingdom onto the city where he served as pastor. Calvin wanted the kingdom of God to transform Genevan culture, Genevan politics, Genevan art, and Genevan family life until Geneva finally bowed to the sovereignty of Almighty God. Put another way, God's sovereign rule stood at the heart of Calvin's vision for Geneva.

More than anyone else, Calvin stands at the fountainhead of the Reformed tradition that has given this country its Puritans, Presbyterians, and Baptists. And more than any other expression of the Christian religion, the Reformed tradition dominated American culture for many years -- well into the nineteenth century -- thereby helping shape the character of the United States.

Much to Calvin's credit, he understood that God's sovereignty required compassion for the poor, and under his leadership Geneva erected elaborate structures to insure that no citizen would fall through the cracks. The tragedy in the history of Calvinism is that later Calvinists, especially in the United States, disconnected what seemed so obviously connected for Calvin -- God's rule on the one hand, and His concern for the poor on the other. In the hands of many later Calvinists, the sovereignty of God simply meant -- to put it crassly -- that Christians should control the social order. In this context, the themes of power and control slowly displaced the themes of peacemaking and justice for the poor.

This tragic tale is the story of American fundamentalism, for in the early twentieth century, when Christian America, built by nineteenth-century evangelical Christians, began to falter under the heavy weight of evolution and biblical criticism, fundamentalism emerged to reclaim America as a model kingdom of God. But unlike the biblical vision for the kingdom of God that exalted peace-making and justice for the poor, the fundamentalist vision for the kingdom of God exalted the domestic and global triumph of the Christian faith through the use of political power and, if all else failed, through American military might. The late Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority understood the kingdom of God precisely in these terms. And so does Ann Coulter, who claims to represent the Christian faith but who, in the aftermath of 9/11, argued that the United States "should invade their countries [Muslim nations], kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."

This definition of the kingdom of God as a kingdom of political power helps explain why so many fundamentalist and evangelical Christians lent such broad support to America's war against Iraq. It also helps explain the rise of the Christian Reconstruction Movement led by the late R. J. Rushdoony, a Calvinist who argued that Christians should control civil government and that biblical law should govern the United States. It also helps explain a large and thriving contemporary network, closely akin to the Christian Reconstruction Movement, called the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) -- a network that works through business, politics, religion, and the media to promote Christian control of the United States and even the world.

In his recent book The Family, best-selling author Jeff Sharlet explains in graphic detail what the "kingdom of God" might look like when fundamentalist and evangelical Christians define that kingdom as a kingdom of power, not a kingdom of peace and justice for the poor. Sharlet's book exposes what he calls "the secret fundamentalism at the heart of American power" -- an organization called "the Family," composed of United States senators, judges, generals, and wealthy entrepreneurs, "bent not on salvation for all but on the cultivation of the powerful 'key men' chosen by God to direct the affairs of the nation." Sharlet adds: "If populist fundamentalism takes as its battleground domestic politics, to be conquered and conformed to the will of God, elite fundamentalism [represented by the Family] sees its mission as the manipulation of politics in the rest of the world." In sum, Sharlet explains, what the Family wants is "power, worldly power, with which Christ's kingdom ... [can] be built, cell by cell."


So when we ask why so many Christians -- especially fundamentalist and evangelical Christians -- so often fail to discern the themes of peace and justice that are so central to the biblical vision of the kingdom of God, at least some answers seem clear: the common identification of the kingdom of God with "Christian America," the assumption that capitalism and the kingdom of God are compatible ideals, the assumption that the kingdom of God is essentially private and future with no meaningful implications for the common good in the present age, and the conviction that the kingdom of God is a kingdom of power, domination and control.

As long as notions like these continue to influence fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity in the United States, it is safe to assume that organizations like World Vision or the Sojourners network will be the exception, not the rule, in the world of conservative Christian faith. But if fundamentalist and evangelical Christians took seriously the biblical vision of the kingdom of God, they could help transform our globe into a world of peace that is built, in turn, on justice for the world's poor. And in this way, they would contribute immeasurably to the common good for men, women, and children throughout the world.

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