For my write-up today on David Marshall’s The Truth Behind the New Atheism, I will blog about Chapter 10: “What About the ‘American Taliban’?” As is often the case, I cannot do complete justice to Marshall, for there’s a lot in this chapter. But I will focus on some issues that he brings up.
Marshall refers to a survey that he conducted of two conservative Christian churches, an evangelical Presbyterian church and Cedar Park Assembly. Marshall found that most of those surveyed agreed with the statement that “The Old Testament legal system was for a particular period in history and should not be applied wholesale to modern America.” At Cedar Park, a church that has fought same-sex marriage in Washington state, only 20 per cent thought that homosexual acts should be prosecuted, and Marshall states that “Far fewer of the evangelical Presbyterians did” (page 181). On page 182, Marshall outlines what he believes is the Christian conservative agenda: “(1) Marriage is best carried out between people of opposite sexes; (2) the birth of children is preferable to their deaths (this from the same religion that outlawed infanticide and lions shredding people in the arena); and (3) students might usefully be informed that there are books that express skepticism toward purely material explanations of origins.” Marshall goes on to say that “Leaving the rights and wrongs of these issues aside, it seems to me these are legitimate public policy issues for people in a democracy to discuss.”
There has been other research that has been done along the same lines. In Christian America?: What Evangelicals Really Want, sociologist Christian Smith argues on the basis of surveys that American evangelicals are much more moderate and tolerant than some may think. (Well, Smith may express his thesis a little differently from that, but you can click on my link to Amazon to get an idea of what his book is about.)
How does what Marshall say gel with my experience? I’d say that it does and it doesn’t. Let me start with where it does. I’ve met many Christian conservatives, and (with some exceptions) they don’t believe that American society should execute practicing homosexuals. (Good for them!) I’ve even met a Christian Reconstructionist—-someone who wants for Old Testament law to be applied to the United States—-and he told me that we as a nation are a long way from this happening, and that it would only work if the vast majority of the population in the U.S. recognized the legitimacy of Old Testament law. One time, I was on a plane with a Christian conservative lady who publishes a newspaper, and she told me that she’s against gay marriage, but that she favors gay rights in such areas as employment and housing.
But here’s where what Marshall says does not gel with my experience: A common Christian conservative talking point has long been that homosexuals fighting discrimination in employment and housing are seeking “special privileges” or “special rights”. I have read Christian conservative literature that praises Bowers vs. Hardwick, the Supreme Court decision that legally legitimized anti-sodomy laws. Maybe the religious right is becoming more moderate on this issue. I certainly hope so. Jerry Falwell later in his life told Tucker Carlson that equal access to housing and employment for homosexuals was equal rights, not special rights (see here). But I remember living in Cincinnati during the 2000′s, and I as a voter continually was voting on measures to protect gay rights in housing and employment, measures that were often in response to some ordinance (or something like that). That tells me that we’re not in the clear yet.
The attitude of many Christian conservatives I know towards Muslims also disturbs me. I’ve read some who say that the First Amendment doesn’t even protect the right of Muslims to practice their own religion. Some, when defending the view that America is a Christian nation, quote scholars or authors who hearken back to the days when the states had religious tests to hold public office. I wouldn’t say this about every member of the religious right. I remember listening to Ralph Reed decry the days when an atheist was not allowed to testify in court. But I am disturbed by some things that I have read by Christian conservatives whom I know, and I hope that they truly are extreme examples.
Overall, my hope is that Christian conservatives would just respect the fact that not everyone believes or lives as they do. I think that there are many who do understand this, but there are also many who don’t. The ones who make a big stink about saying “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays”, for example, don’t seem to grasp that not everyone keeps Christmas. And I wonder if those who blab on about “God’s agenda” for the United States and treat the U.S. as the equivalent to Old Testament Israel take into consideration the diversity of this country.
It also annoys me that Christian conservatives are one-sided on the aspects of Scripture that they want to apply to the United States. Sure, they’re pro-life on the abortion issue, and I applaud them for that. But they’re also for cutting welfare. Whereas the Torah has such ideas as the cancellation of debts, Christian conservatives by-and-large did not support renegotiating people’s loans so they could keep their homes. I once got an automated call from Mike Huckabee (whom I ordinarily like) urging me to vote for a measure that would protect the emergency loan business, which charges exorbitant interest rates. What happened to the biblical frowning upon usury? And, while Marshall does well to cite statistics about Christians giving to charity, I wonder how this meshes with the attitude of contempt for the poor that I have observed among many Christian conservatives—-an attitude that assumes that the poor are poor because they’re lazy. I applaud Christian conservatives, such as Dan Coats, who have sought to ameliorate poverty through conservative means. But I wish that more conservative Christians would include concern for the poor somewhere in their list of what constitutes “God’s agenda”.
So am I for applying the Bible to American public policy, or not? Some Christian conservatives have implied to me that I’m inconsistent to decry the Christian right, even as I support the Christian left, which also wants to compel people to abide by certain standards. I’m not sure how to answer that question. I think some ideas are good whether they are supported by the Bible or not. I include a social safety net in that. There’s more than one can say about this complicated issue, but I’ll stop here.