“The Politics of Jesus” from Newsweek

If you missed it, last week Newsweek ran a series of very good articles on how evangelicalism and politics have intersected, both in the past and in the present. In the past, I’ve been upset with Newsweek’s coverage of Christian issues and stories, but this set of articles is excellent.

Lisa Miller wrote the main feature article, "An Evangelical Identity Crisis: Sex or social justice? The war between the religious right and believers who want to go broader." It gives an excellent overview of the rise of the Religious Right in the 20th Century (from the rise of Fundamentalism to the Scopes Trial to Roe v. Wade to the Moral Majority). She also documents the change that seems to be happening in contemporary evangelicalism:

“For the first time in a long while, then, there is a serious rethinking of the politics of Jesus in America—or at least the efforts of different elements in the country, from believers of progressive, moderate and conservative bents, to claim they are acting in his name in the public sphere...Some Christians, exhausted by divisive wedge politics, are going back to the Bible and embracing a wider-ranging agenda, one that emphasizes reaching out to the poor and disenfranchised.”

In "Church Meets State," Newsweek writers explain how successful or not the Religious Right has had on public policy on these issues: Judges, Abortion, God and Schools, Foreign Policy, Gay Marriage, Stem Cells, Birth Control and Sex Ed, Public Displays of Religion.

In a very telling article from conservative evangelical Michael Gerson (a Wheaton grad, Gerson was once a speechwriter for George W. Bush and was named in the February 7, 2005 issue of TIME magazine as one of “The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals In America"). Gerson’s article gives insights from a conservative who is more than the stereotypical right-winger.

In the words of the The New Yorker,

“Gerson knows that he is an enigma to the liberal establishment of Washington. He is a churchgoing, anti-gay-marriage, pro-life supply-sider who believes absolutely in the corporeality of Jesus’ resurrection…Yet among his role models he counts Martin Luther King, Jr., and the radical evangelical abolitionists of the nineteenth century, and his chief vocational preoccupation is the battle against infectious disease in Africa. He has won the admiration of many AIDS and debt-relief activists, including the U2 singer Bono.”

Gerson writes how the change in political activism among evangelicals will change the political landscape in the Newsweek article, "A New Social Gospel: Many evangelicals are chafing at the narrowness of the religious right. A new faith-based agenda."

“It was not long ago that the three-time Democratic candidate for president, William Jennings Bryan—who championed legalizing strikes, giving the vote to women and a progressive income tax—was also a fervent, Bible-quoting evangelical. A politically progressive evangelicalism is not an innovation, it is a revival; not a fresh track in the snow, but a rutted path of American history.”

“Republicans will find it increasingly difficult to appeal to the new evangelicals with tired symbols like school prayer or the posting of the Ten Commandments.”

“These changes in evangelicalism should be an opportunity for Democrats. But seizing it would require a philosophic shift. Modern liberalism has defined the belief in truth as the enemy of tolerance because absolute claims of right and wrong lead to coercion. And religious claims, in this view, are the most intolerant of all, and should be radically privatized so no one's morality gets "imposed" on another. It is difficult for liberals and Democrats to appeal to religious people while declaring their deepest motivations a threat to the republic. And it is difficult to imagine the history of the republic if this narrow view had prevailed. How does moral skepticism and privatized religion motivate decades of struggle against slavery, or lead men and women, step by step, toward the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma? If there is really no truth, why believe in, or sacrifice for, the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence?”

Very insightful stuff there.

Even the “dissenting article” had something to offer. In Sam Harris’ "The Case Against Faith: Religion does untold damage to our politics. An atheist's lament," he disagrees with Gerson’s point of view. Harris’ point of view is that religion (no matter what kind) always is harmful to public policy.

“Religion is the one area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give good evidence and valid arguments in defense of their strongly held beliefs. And yet these beliefs regularly determine what they live for, what they will die for and—all too often—what they will kill for.”

I disagree with Harris’ general premise, but this quote, I thought, was very intriguing:

“Given the most common interpretation of Biblical prophecy, it is not an exaggeration to say that nearly half the American population is eagerly anticipating the end of the world. It should be clear that this faith-based nihilism provides its adherents with absolutely no incentive to build a sustainable civilization—economically, environmentally or geopolitically. Some of these people are lunatics, of course, but they are not the lunatic fringe. We are talking about the explicit views of Christian ministers who have congregations numbering in the tens of thousands. These are some of the most influential, politically connected and well-funded people in our society.”

Good stuff in the November 13, 2006 issue of Newsweek!

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Byron said...

There is no doubt but what at least some of the preoccupations of the "Religious Right" (tho that animal is tougher to define than most people assume it is) have been wide of the mark. The posting of the Ten Commandments in school rooms was/is borderline inane, a non-issue, frankly, when there are far bigger fish to fry. Ditto the flag burning amendment, the school prayer amendment, and the like.

That said, some of the issues that the RR has tackled, we ought to be grateful that they have. Further, some of the issues that the current crop of more progressive evangelicals wants to tackle, we ought to be a bit careful to think through our means. Let's make sure that the strategies we employ to help the poor, for instance, actually help the poor. We get no points for good intentions if our policies and actions actually harm those we propose to help (as, by the way, raising the minimum wage does, to take one bighearted, wrongheaded policy).

Bob Robinson said...

Okay, Byron, I'll bite.

How is raising the minimum wage a "bighearted, wrongheaded policy?"

Sure, corporate America and libertarians don't like the gov't butting into their business, but sometimes gov't must do so for the common good. Sure, those opposing the minimum wage decry socialist moves like this, but our commonwealth depends on our gov't caring for those on the lower rung of the economic ladder. Sure, we hear cries of "people will lose their jobs!" but the evidence of such is lacking.

The AP reports on a recent study done by Washington State University
that shows "Washington already has the highest minimum wage in the nation at $7.63 per hour, and it is scheduled to go up to $7.94 Jan. 1. The study by WSU economics professor David Holland, obtained Wednesday, found the increase will have a mostly positive effect on the state economy... Washington's unemployment rate for the first 10 months of 2006 was 4.9 percent, which is the lowest annual average rate in the state since 1999... Numerous studies over the years have failed to reach consensus on whether higher minimum wages create more unemployment."

Let the debate begin!!

Bob Robinson said...


Let's make a blog post of this next week. With many states passing minimum wage laws last week (including my home state of Ohio), and with the Democrats who now lead the Congress saying that a federally-mandated minimum wage increase is their first order of business, I think Christians should weigh the pros and cons of this.

Byron said...

Hey, Bob,

Most economists seem to agree with my point, I think. The artificial inflation of the cost of goods and services will have a negative effect on the economy at one point or another, I believe. Sure, I don't doubt that there are places where there are exceptions, but you can't make a decision, like the arbitrary raising of minimum wage (to "correct", by the way, what is largely a non-problem, I believe), in a vacuum.

Most people who make minimum wage are not people who are trying to support families on their earnings, no matter what Teddy Kennedy would have us believe.

If I really believed that raising the minimum wage resulted in the "common good", I'd be much more inclined to support it. What I believe, though, is that it is one of those things that sounds good, and thus most Americans support it, but which in reality is a proven vote-getter for certain politicians (of both parties) that does more harm than good.

By the way, I don't believe that government is the best vehicle to "care for those on the lower rungs". If you haven't read The Tragedy of American Compassion, please do so. I think that the government, in the name of compassion, largely does a poor job of caring, and Marvin Olasky's book explains why.

Anyway, maybe we can get some posts going on the subject; I'm game, so long as I don't get caught up doing this instead of doing more productive things, amigo!

DLW said...

I've been having this debate with Michael Kruse over at the Kruse Kronicles.

I think the key points here are that, while theory and evidence generally are in agreement that min wages robustly reduce employment somewhat overall in the covered sectors, it is indefinite empirical question whether or not a give wage floor increase will effectively reduce poverty.

One can infer this better by using some randomization to select which districts will receive the implementation of a higher min wage sooner.

I think we need regional, not nat'l, min wages, we need to tie them to a cost index with annual adjustments and we need to set a global min wage of 60 cents an hour for all goods that are imported into our country.

This reflects my understanding that min wages are tools that are of limited anti-poverty influence and generally are more effective when the workers are more seriously impoverished. Economic analysis, by itself, cannot prove or disprove such a thing.