3. Religious Vision and Policy Advocacy

If populism rests in the positing of two bodies, one virtuous and the other threatening rights and identity, then much of the discussion rests in identifying this other, and the rhetoric by which the virtuous place themselves over-against this other. Of course, because the virtuous are virtuous, they look also to the good of the other and so include the rhetoric of protecting the marginalised as part of the virtuous self.

This week considers the relationship of the Christian religious voice, policy issues (religious freedom and abortion), and, by extension, the Supreme Court. One could focus on the particular policies themselves, but the key concern here lies in the rationale for such policies, one which links cultural myth and religious sentiment. Specifically, it attempts to tease out the question of cultural accomodation within the religious vote, and even forms of populism within theological discourse on these matters.

Rhys Williams initiates this discussion by examining the religious sources helping shape a political vision of a “good society.” Such sources have become secularised and “decoupled from their original social contexts and social group ‘carriers.'” Williams notes how these ideas have “become increasingly flexible and open to interpretation,” meaning that they have become new, and perhaps exist now only at a significant distance from their origins (p. 2). Yet, because the framing language might well remain the same, the notion of identity and connection remains.

  • Williams, Rhys H. “Visions of the Good Society and the Religious Roots of American Political Culture.” Sociology of Religion 60, no. 1 (1999): 1–34.

In November 1996, First Things conducted a symposium titled “The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics.” Its opening statement questioned whether “judicial actions” now amount to “an entrenched pattern of government by judges that is nothing less than the usurpation of politics,” leading to a “point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the ex­isting regime.” As the symposium unfolds, this outrage refers to quite specific moral questions: homosexuality, abortion, and euthanasia. Alex Schulman, in referring to this discussion, examines the entrance of “a broadly theocratic political theory into the United States” (p. 50). Notable in this regard is the paranoia framing the political activism of the Christian Right, a point to which we will return in a later week. It is important here both as an indicator of the populism framing the religious voice (two opposing bodies, with one virtuous and the other bent on removing rights), and how it informs such policy concerns as “religious freedom.”

  • Schulman, Alex. “Kulturkampf and Spite: The Rehnquist Court and American ‘Theoconservatism’.” Law and Literature 22, no. 1 (2010): 48–75.

In terms of abortion, this is most examined policy issue from a theological perspective. The statement “That They May Have Life: A Statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together” offers a good entry point due to how it sets theological comment in relation to the American Constitution and the political context. Of particular note is its use of the “culture wars” framework, and the binary opposition of the “culture of life” and the “culture of death.” After setting this context, it makes the following statement: “There is what is called a Judeo-Christian worldview, a worldview that was crucial to the formation of our civilization and is, we believe, clearly reflected in the convictions that inspired the American founding. To speak of American culture today is to speak of a culture marked by different worldviews in conflict.” What remains imprecise within this position is the possible relationship between the culture of life and the Judeo-Christian worldview, on the one hand, and the other worldviews which render contemporary American culture as one in conflict, on the other. One might also suggest that this culture war binary, precisely as a form of theological analysis, fits well within the definition of populism given in week two. The power of the position, in other words, lies in its populist framing.

For a clear statement of the problem and its theological significance, Russell Moore (one of the few anti-Trump Evangelical leaders), is clear: “Evangelical theology recognized that the ‘pro-choice’ worldview articulated in Roe v. Wade and omnipresent in American culture is, at its heart, a theological claim that must be confronted with a coherent, biblical theological defense of the goodness of life” (p. 52).

For further reading, Kathy Ferguson considers the role of grief among women of the Christian Right

  • Ferguson, Kathy E. “Bringing Gender Into the Evangelical-Capitalist Resonance Machine.” Political Theology 12, no. 2 (2011): 184–94.

Daniel Williams provides an interesting historical piece suggesting Evangelical pro-life movement may include some elements of an invented tradition, rather than being the pure theological response that it is often portrayed as.

  • Williams, Daniel K. “The Partisan Trajectory of the American Pro-Life Movement: How a Liberal Catholic Campaign Became a Conservative Evangelical Cause.” Religions 6, no. 2 (2015): 451–75.

The above concerns regarding judicial interference spill directly into the concern for religious freedom of the type articulated by Wayne Grudem in his advocacy of Trump: “The current liberal agenda often includes suppressing Christian opposition to its views. So a liberal court would increasingly nullify rights of conscience with respect to forced participation in same-sex marriage ceremonies or expressing moral objections to homosexual conduct.” This finds confirmation in a second statement issued by “Evangelicals and Catholics Together, titled “In Defence of Religious Freedom.” This document ranges from noting the relationship of the right of religious freedom to the US constitution, to the global persecution of Christians (especially in Islamic states), and setting this in parallel to the US experience. In confusing language, the authors note how, not simply religious belief, but “‘religious freedom’ is reduced to a private lifestyle choice,” and that in the US, “religious freedom if being encroached upon and reduced through the courts, in administrative policy, and in our culture” (p. 33).

Abortion aside, the paucity of academic theological reflection on much of the above mentioned policy consideration, suggests that the discourse remains at a popular level. Illustrative of this point is the notable silence on the relation of the religious vote to the Second Amendment. It is not listed as stated policy issue in the pro-Trump Evangelical voice (Grudem, as a single example, does not mention it), and yet it seems to be a staple for the Republican vote. What is the link between gun ownership and the Christian faith? Rob Shenck, who featured in the film “The Armor of Light” (this examines the question of whether it is possible to be pro-life and pro-gun), begins by declaring: “White evangelicals have one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the U.S. and are the least likely to support gun regulation.” (p. 14) Following this statement is an illustration of why guns seem important, and it is simple racism. One might guess that the silence and the underlying motivation are connected.

  • Schenck, Rob. “Should Christians Own Guns?” Sojourners Magazine 45, no. 5 (2016): 14–18.

Further Reading:

  • Hunter, James Davison. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Control the Family, Art, Education, Law, and Politics in America. Basic Books, 1992.
  • McConkey, Dale. “Whither Hunter’s Culture War? Shifts in Evangelical Morality, 1988-1998.” Sociology of Religion 62, no. 2 (2001): 149–74.