By Brian McLaren
In Tom Bandy’s insightful posting, his list of eight transitions spoke of a “coming paganism.” I’ll be interested when we meet to hear more of what he envisions this to mean.
But I’d like to propose an alternate concern to be considered as well: the possible resurgence of a militaristic Christendom via the civil religion of the Religious Right.
In one sense, I think the Religious Right may have hit its high-water mark. Pat Robertson’s recent statement about “taking out” the Venezuelan president may have marked the point at which the Religious Right can’t be taken seriously anymore. But the lack of vigorous repudiation of his sentiments by leading Evangelical leaders (with a few exceptions) suggests that Pat may have meant exactly what he said, and thousands of Evangelical leaders may secretly agree with him.
In other words, reports of the Religious Right’s demise may be premature. For example, let’s imagine that there are two or three terrorist attacks in the next year – not a pleasant thought, but certainly possible. How much would it take for the Religious Right to become even more agitated and energized toward a “holy war” mentality? How many pulpits and broadcasting networks in the U.S. would gladly support such a mentality? (The devastation caused by two hurricanes may reduce this possibility, since their cost will probably either force belt-tightening in the military, or in social programs … but perhaps we will hear a Religious Right voice calling for the latter rather than the former, which would have a set of effects of its own.)
This may seem extraneous to a conversation like ours, coming predictably from a guy who lives in the DC area, but the fact is, wherever we live, every time any one of us says the name “Jesus” or “Christianity” or “Bible” (not to mention “Evangelical” or “values”), our unchurched neighbors (especially in Blue States) do not immediately think of grace, peace-making, racial reconciliation, care for the poor, good news, and hope; they think of anger, judgmentalism, potential violence, holy war rhetoric, and the like. When we invite people to follow Jesus, how do they know that we aren’t asking them to join Jerry, James, and Pat? My Jewish next door neighbor frequently listens to religious radio, not for edification but for surveillance purposes: each time she hears “We’re gonna take this country back for Jeezusss,” she does not have a happy feeling.
So, I just wanted to submit the possibility that whatever a coming paganism is, it may be less of a threat than the unintended and largely un-assessed impacts of the Religious Right. These effects are felt in mission work in many parts of the world already (Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, Africa and Latin America – each in different ways). Many of our sisters and brothers in the global south are praying that leaders like us will not let what appear to be unreconstructed colonial-Christian voices win the day.
Perhaps it will be the misbehavior and bad judgment of the Religious Right that stimulates a coming paganism to identify Christianity in general as a culprit and threat. In this, they would, of course, be partly right – if you feel as I do that the Religious Right represents a dangerous syncretism of gospel and nationalism or neo-colonialism.
If there is any validity at all to this concern, it would underline Tom’s point about the need to reconnect and reintegrate evangelism and concerns for social justice – by which I mean a holistic social justice deeply informed by the Biblical prophets, and not just by American partisan politics. It would also speak to the need for people like us to take seriously the problem of Christian identity in the public square. That may be outside the range of our consideration at our gathering, but I thought I should bring it up anyway, for what it’s worth.
Local church work is essential. To use a military analogy (which I do with some pain!), it is like a ground war. It’s tough, and progress is slow, and casualties can be high. What the Religious Right has done so effectively in the last three decades is successfully launch an “air war” as well, skillfully using the airwaves (religious and secular) to create a spirit, atmosphere, and vibe about what Christianity is all about. All of us are affected by this influence, and we should be thoughtful and prayerful about how to respond