Where are the Progressive Christians?
Where are the left-wing Christian voices in American politics? The rise of Rick Santorum to a contender position in the GOP primary race, alongside the current debate over contraception has shown proof positive that Christian conservative politics are near the height of their power in guiding the national conversation.This month, while questioning President Obama’s Christianity, Bill O’Reilly said, “A Christan wouldn’t be telling other Christians that you have to put your belief system aside and do what the government tells you as far as birth control or anything else.” On every front it appears that this year’s Republican political race will be defined by theology, but why is the Christian perspective so one sided?
I, like nearly one in four Americans, am not a Christian. In fact, I was raised as secular and my understanding of the Christian faith has been an education from afar. I have never belonged to a church and likewise I have never seen any reason to deny anyone of any faith their right to worship. Over the past decade I have to admit that my primary source of information about the Christian church has been through mainstream coverage of fundamentalist talking points. I know that by human nature there must be a difference of political opinion within Christianity, if there wasn’t then numbers alone would dictate that the 78% of Americans who are Christian would continually out-vote liberals. But where are they in the national media? Why do these Christians allow conservative fundamentalists to dictate the popular perception of their faith? The answer is more complicated than it would seem.
In some schools of thought Christians are not supposed to, by virtue of their faith, publicly disagree with any church leaders. This is a bible-backed mandate based upon interpretation of scripture. In a February 14th, 2012 sermon on the nationally syndicated radio show The Gospel Truth (1), Rev. Andrew Wommack is quoted as saying:
“God calls people to be leaders in the church. He raises up apostles, profits, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. So god ordained this governmental system in the body of Christ. But does that mean that every pastor functions exactly the way god wants them to? Does that mean every one of them is perfect so therefore you have to just submit to everything that they say? No. This isn’t saying that people don’t make mistakes and that there’s not room for improvement, but I’m telling you this... that rather than you go in if somebody does something wrong as a member of the church and splitting the church and coming against the government system and saying I don’t like the way you’re doing it so I’m criticizing you, you’re worse than the person and what they’re doing wrong.”
This thread of ambiguous punishment for criticizing church authority is only one in a variety of issues facing the rise of a left-leaning Christian movement. Another set of obstacles is in the insular nature of the Christian community itself. If you are not inside of the Christian religious community you may be largely unaware of the amount of media outlets that cater specifically to the faithful. In every part of the United States you’ll find numerous radio and televisions stations that deliver information directly to their target audience. Aside from broadcast media, the local Christian infrastructure often includes multiple churches, faith-based civic organizations, Christian business coalitions, and after school programs. The need for national media outreach may seem unnecessary to liberal minded Christians when there are so many options for them to make themselves heard within the religious spectrum.
I asked the operators of the blog community, “Christians Tired of Being Misrepresented” (2), about this and received the following quote in email:
“Jesus never demanded attention, prominence, recognition, influence or wealth. He went about doing the will of the Father, touching lives one by one. While the Religious Right cloaks itself as the "Christian Choice" merely because they are anti-choice and loudly proclaim selectively chosen scriptures from the Bible as their political platform, it seems like they get all the attention. Generally, Christian Liberals are less interested in the attention and more interested in changing the lives of their neighbor through love and social justice.”
It may have the best of intentions, but the local action agenda may not be enough to combat the conservative media machine. The belief in ground-level insular politics is not shared by well funded right-wing organizations like The Speak Up Movement of the Alliance Defense Fund (3) which offers guidance and legal assistance to churches who wish to preach a fundamental political agenda while maintaining their tax exempt status. This goes hand in hand with methods employed by the Christian Coalition of America who regularly circumvent the issue of individual churches maintaining their tax exempt status by being a third party entity which supplies agenda pamphlets and other supporting materials directly to church members.
Although their mainstream reach may be limited, some Christians are breaking the mold and speaking out against fundamentalists. I posed the question of why politically liberal Christians have not gained the kind of media traction that their conservative counterparts enjoy to the organization “The Christian Left”. They are a movement-based organization that fosters a growing Facebook community of over 60,000 members. Their CEO, Charles Toy, referred me to a recent radio interview on KLAV AM’s The Practical Christian (4) program in which board member Rev. Mark Sandlin is quoted as saying:
“One of the reasons why the right is so connected is because they’ve been around for so long and they kind of naturally formed these connections; and then you look at our side, in terms of if we’re naming who’s on what side, the Christian Left is, at least in comparison, a fairly new movement.”
Longevity may be a factor, but it’s not the whole story. Many Christians know that a ground-swell of conservative politics sprung up in their churches over the past thirty years, but not as many know how. To understand the rise of fundamental politics you need to understand one man, Pat Robertson. His position in the current world of conservative Christianity can’t be understated and in many ways he is the architect of it. In a playing field that included Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority and Robert Grant’s Christian Voice organization, only Pat Robertson’s political ministry has stood the test of time. Robertson’s influence extends not only into the media and church, but directly into American politics through campaign contributions and placement of his Regent University students in positions of government. He also actively fights the judiciary through his American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative counterpoint to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Robertson is one of the forefathers of televangelism, having started the foundations of his Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) in 1960 by buying a small rural UHF affiliate. It wasn’t until 1977 that cable television made his long-established dream of a national media outlet for conservative Christians a reality. His rise to celebrity came quickly and donations to his organization could now be solicited at the national level through his ever expanding cable television properties, making his ministry one of the best funded in the world. In 1986, when Falwell’s Moral Majority was in its twilight, he gained greater exposure by running for the United State’s Presidency. Robertson is the son of Virginia congressman / senator Absalom Willis Robertson whose collective political career in Washington lasted 33 years. Robertson learned first-hand the power of political office and how the fundamentalist agenda could be served by mingling religion with politics. His 1988 bout for the Republican nomination ultimately failed, but what was left in its wake was a new era for right-wing theologians. In 1989, Robertson, now flush with cash from his exposure as a Republican candidate, continued to operate CBN and The 700 Club, but began building a network of theo-political organizations to further his agenda. The first was the aforementioned Christian Coalition for America. That same year he renamed his small campus for theological study to Regent University, placed himself as chancellor, and established a distance learning program to expand its reach nationally. In 1990 he founded the American Center for Law and Justice to fight on behalf of his beliefs in the court system.
In the years that followed, Robertson continued to directly aid political candidates, including being a major campaign financier to Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley (R), who in 1999 refused prosecution of Robertson on charges of willfully misleading the public in solicitation of donations against the recommendation of the Commonwealth of Virginia's Office of Consumer Affairs. In 1994 Robertson’s Christian Coalition was sued by the Federal Election Commission for “coordinating its activities with Republican candidates for office in 1990, 1992 and 1994 and failing to report its expenditures”(5), after which the Coalition was fined for improperly financing current GOP primary candidate, and then Representative, Newt Gingrich.
Robertson’s acolytes have continued to foster the politicalization of Christianity with many Regent University graduates entering government under the Bush administration. These hirings came under fire in 2007 by The Boston Globe(6) due to George W. Bush’s appointment of Kay Coles James, former Dean of Regent’s Government School as Director of the Office of Personnel Management prior to the hirings.
In essence, a small group of well-funded, politically connected, conservative theologians have controlled nearly every aspect of the national Christian political message for over two decades. Robertson’s strategies for political organization in the name of Christianity have been used as a template to establish many modern conservative groups and churches.
Even though Christians may have their own religious conflicts with speaking against fellow believers, it’s clear that the system is rigged against them even if they decide to take a public stand. The statements from The Christian Left hold serious weight when examined against the history of the rise of fundamentalism. What makes things difficult for liberal Christians isn’t finding their voice, but finding the platform to broadcast it.The opposition to their message is well established. With conservative news organizations in close relationships with the fundamentalists, especially Fox who purchased Pat Robertson’s Family Channel in 1997, Christians who don’t share conservative political views are hard-pressed to get air time.
The left is also at fault. Many progressive news organizations consider faith-based commentary outside of their editorial mandate, and they may be doing a disservice to themselves by that. Perhaps the left oriented political press should be more welcoming of voices from Christianity who have a different point of view from what is presented by the fundamentalist lobbying arm of their religion. With three out of four Americans associating themselves as Christian, embracing the liberal voices from that community and giving them a platform might help to close the rift between secular America and believers; A rift that a select few conservative political organizations have fought so hard, and spent so much, to widen.