Reflections on the 2016 Erasmus Lectures - "Can the Religious Right Be Saved?"
This past Monday I had the privilege of attending the 29th annual Erasmus Lectures hosted by First Things in New York. The speaker, Dr. Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC), offered a timely message on the state of the religious right in America - "Can the Religious Right Be Saved?" This past year I've become familiar and appreciative of Dr. Moore's work in the areas of adoption, human rights, racial reconciliation, and religious freedom. Given that the political climate we find ourselves in this fall season is nothing short of mentally ill, his words were fitting - perhaps even prophetic. I strongly encourage you to give his lecture a careful listen (follow this link - lecture begins at 15:30). In the meantime, here are seven points Dr. Moore made that I found important (my quotes are often paraphrases from my notebook, so be sure to give the lecture a careful listen!).
#1 - Defining Evil in Lesser Terms
The religious right is hard to define, mostly because those who claim to represent conservative values may not be all that religious, or their religious sentiments may reflect a "God and country" kind of civil religion rather than the true gospel of Christ. Nevertheless, in the moral chaos ushered in by a growing secularism, some claiming the category of religious conservatism have dialed down their prophetic edge by excusing, ignoring, or "waving away" behavior antithetical of the Christian ethos. Religious conservatives are not alone in this - even Gloria Steinem would "put up with some groping" in the White House as long as abortion rights were kept intact. In the same way, some religious leaders in this current election cycle have ignored or downplayed outright misogyny and sexual predation by Donald Trump in order to avoid a Clinton presidency. Quoting Reinhold Niebuhr, Moore pointed out that just because the world is evil does not mean we are free to embrace another evil in defense. Overall, behavior that would have previously questioned the moral fitness of a candidate is no longer called into question. It would seem that many Christians, when it comes to politics, have become moral relativists on issues of their choice, making them more Machiavellian than prophetic in the public square.
#2 - Young Evangelicals Are Less Political But More Committed to the Gospel
According to Moore, your average young pastor today leans biblical, creedal, confessional, and gospel-centered. He has no use for voter guides or moral majorities, and no illusions of a Christian America. In Moore's estimate, the religious right and all it stands for (pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-family) remain incredibly strong in America, but at a grass roots level. The institutional religious right, with all of its "God and country" rhetoric, is conflicted and rotting at the core. "Joel Osteen is out, and Jonathan Edwards is in." Those who hold to traditional biblical values will function more and more like apostles than politicians or entrepreneurs, defined by "a catechesis centered around Christ and him crucified." However, young Christians are nevertheless still called to speak in the public square - a renewed commitment to the gospel should not be an over-correction that ignores our responsibility to the kingdom of the left.
# 3 - The New Pro-Life Movement is Compassionate Rather Than Reactionary
The institutional religious right approaches women and life issues with a rhetoric of judgment rather than as a compassionate plea. But the new pro-life movement is run at the level of local churches and crisis pregnancy centers, and is not at war with the culture. To paraphrase Moore, how can we be at war with someone with whom we're pleading - both for their well-being and the well-being of the unborn child? Such an approach has the promise of working for the good of society at the level of personal relationships rather than government policies.
#4 - The Prosperity Gospel is a Compromise - Not an Ally
So much of the institutional religious right has been driven and defined by that gospel which is no gospel at all - the health and wealth message of prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, etc. Moore calls this what it is - Canaanite fertility religion, but worse because it's shrouded in the name of Christ. But this deformed kind of gospel substitute cannot thrive well in a secular ecosystem, and will only remain on life support in pockets of the Bible belt where such teachings find a temporary refuge among nominal, culturally advantageous expressions of Christianity.
#5 - The Institutional Religious Right is Actually Liberal
Moore locates theological liberalism in the movement toward using biblical texts, theological teachings, and the inertia of the local church for the purpose of earthly ends. In the mainline Protestant church this liberalism is ordered around leftist political agendas at the expense of the gospel. Or as Richard John Neuhaus put it, "The mainline was left to sniff around for crumbs that fell from the tables of the cultural elite. Or, like an aged and somewhat eccentric aunt who shares the house, it was thanked for occasionally helping out with the tasks defined and controlled by others." In the case of the religious right, the same liberalism persists, but centered around civil religion, "God and country" nationalism, or the unquestioned application of the covenant promises of God to an entire nation that is not the referent of the biblical text. All of these movements, whether on the left or the right, are efforts to baptized the city of man and call it the city of God, and therefore represents theological liberalism.
#6 - The Institutional Religious Right Responds with Moral Relativism on Many Issues
Issues often embraced by the political left - racial justice, immigration reform, just compensation - these are all issues that matter deeply to God. However, in choosing to remain silent about slavery and segregation in the past, some religious conservatives functioned as moral relativists. In choosing to say nothing, they spoke for unjust institutions. Christians are called to live and speak outside of the boxes of political parties, never coddling injustice for the sake of "traditional values."
#7 - The Crisis of the Religious Right is Located in a Crisis in Congregational Commitment
Moore locates the collapse (and perhaps mental illness) of the religious right in a me-centered brand of Christian faith that is happy to exist outside of the accountability of a local congregation. In short, as commitment to local congregations decrease, so also does the cohesive witness of the church. True and lasting formation of young minds takes place at the level of a congregation rather than a "Christian America." Our best witness begins with a deeper commitment to God and one another in churches we gladly support and call our own for the long haul.
Overall, I deeply appreciated Dr. Moore's words, as well as the continued witness of First Things Magazine to "leaven" secular democracy with the ethics of the Kingdom. To all who approach these next weeks with deep concern for our nation as well as the desire to live faithfully as Christians, I heartily recommend giving this lecture a careful listen.
Pastor John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church