Every citizen of this country has the constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech and to support ideas and movements of their choice. So why have we become so concerned by the political activity of those who are politically and theologically conservative? Summed up, we are concerned about their intolerance to the ideas (and rights) of all those who disagree with them. Below are some of the reasons why we are concerned.
They have taken the term Christian and appropriated it as their own. They have made the term into a political code word, meaning someone or something that agrees completely with their political point of view. The term was never theirs to take. They ignore the fact that there are tens of millions of Christians (even using their definition of the term) who disagree with some or all of their political views.
The founders of this country went to great lengths to take religion out of politics and politics out of religion, because they had personally seen the results of hundreds of years of war in Europe with Christians killing Christians in the name of Christ. The worldwide Church of Jesus Christ is very diverse and no one person or group has the right or privilege to speak for all Christians, but that doesn't stop the Religious Right from trying.
They are absolutists. They know with absolute certainty that they are right on every issue. This largely comes from their belief in Biblical inerrancy (meaning that the Bible was written, word for word, directly by God). In practice, it means “the Bible, as we choose to interpret it.” Therefore they assume that they are literally speaking for God on every issue.
When you read their literature, you can see they view the political struggle as a kind of holy war for the salvation of mankind. They often characterize their opponents in religious terms, e.g. heretics, Satan, anti-Christ. They feel justified in being totally intolerant of the views of others because if they are right, then all others have to be wrong.
The whole democratic process is based on open and honest dialogue about the issues, trading ideas and solutions, and arriving at a final solution that is a compromise — a meeting in the middle that most people can support. But they can't compromise, because that would mean making deals with Satan. That means their negotiating terms are always the same: unconditional surrender.
Absolutism short-circuits the political process and is the basic reason why there has been so much religious persecution and so many religious wars in history. The Bible points out that there are dangers to crying, “Thus saith the Lord” (cf. Matthew 7:21-23).
They have a double standard: they love to play hardball when they are dishing it out but cry foul if anyone criticizes them. They are mean-spirited in their tactics with political opponents. For example, Jerry Falwell has been openly spreading vicious lies about President Clinton being responsible for murdering Vince Foster and also being the kingpin of a murder ring in Arkansas that has killed dozens of people. When Clinton objects to this and many, many other gratuitous insults, Cal Thomas accuses him of McCarthyism. Their tactics go way beyond fair comment; they are character assassination.
Their favorite theme right now is that all of their critics are guilty of Christian bashing and religious intolerance. It's ironic they should accuse others of being intolerant when it is their own greatest fault.
Jesus proclaimed a gospel of acceptance and love, willing to hate the sin, but to love the sinner. Listen to Rush Limbaugh, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the others. I've heard many things, but love, forgiveness, and tolerance are not among them. Most of what I've heard has been name calling, finger pointing, and abuse heaped on those they consider their enemies. So much for "love your enemy."
So how should we respond to all of the above? I have some suggestions.
Be sure we take the high road. While inflammatory rhetoric is their stock in trade, if any of their opponents reply in kind, they love it because it proves they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs. So for practical reasons (if not because we are ethical, moral, religious people), we need to take the high road and deal with the issues only. We must speak out aggressively when we believe they are misrepresenting or distorting the facts, but we must scrupulously avoid any and all personal attacks. The public is getting fed up with politics and politicians wallowing in the gutter and we will do our cause more good by not joining them down there.
Remember that they are us. The basic beliefs of people in the Religious Right are the same things we believe in: honesty, integrity, hard work, and a moral lifestyle. We all have relative and friends who are conservative and who are either members of the Religious Right or are sympathetic to their ideas. So they are us. These people are morally upright and want to do the right thing. The problem is that they are the new Pharisees. Their idea of the road to the salvation of humanity (both literally and figuratively) is to enact rigid laws and then rigidly enforce them. Therefore they are always long on punishment and short on prevention. While hardcore advocates are not going to budge on their hardcore issues, that doesn't mean that our chief operating tactic shouldn't be sweet reason. They honestly want to do what is right and Christian, so we need to give them other options that meet those criteria.
We need to watch what they do and say. Since they are convinced that they are in a holy war and that the ends justify the means, they are not adverse to stealth maneuvers. Like suddenly controlling a majority of the nation's school boards and many of the state Republican Party organizations. In this case, for us knowledge really is power.
David Heckenlively is a minister at Faith United Methodist Church in Racine, Wisconsin.