How important is religion in politics today? Foreign Affairs reports, America is "God's Country!"

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Fri, 09/01/2006 - 00:31.

"Self-identified evangelicals provided roughly 40 percent of George W. Bush's total vote in 2004." This startling statistic, from a thorough overview of the role of religion in US foreign policy, published in an article in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs titled "God's Country", makes clear the shift in power in American politics and foreign policy leadership in America today. Further, this article reports, "Evangelicals have been playing a major role in congressional and Senate elections as well, and the number of self-identified evangelicals in Congress has increased from around 10 percent of the membership in both houses in 1970 to more than 25 percent in 2004."

The article begins with an introduction right our of a George Bush stump-speech: "Religion has always been a major force in U.S. politics, policy, identity, and culture. Religion shapes the nation's character, helps form Americans' ideas about the world, and influences the ways Americans respond to events beyond their borders. Religion explains both Americans' sense of themselves as a chosen people and their belief that they have a duty to spread their values throughout the world".

The author goes on to explain "Yet the balance of power among the different religious strands shifts over time; in the last generation, this balance has shifted significantly, and with dramatic consequences. The more conservative strains within American Protestantism have gained adherents, and the liberal Protestantism that dominated the country during the middle years of the twentieth century has weakened. This shift has already changed U.S. foreign policy in profound ways."

The focus of the article is a breakdown of the structure of Christian power in America, with a focus on Protestants. "Why focus exclusively on Protestantism? The answer is, in part, that Protestantism has shaped much of the country's identity and remains today the majority faith in the United States (although only just). Moreover, the changes in Catholicism (the second-largest faith and the largest single religious denomination in the country) present a more mixed picture with fewer foreign policy implications. And finally, the remaining religious groups in the United States are significantly less influential when it comes to the country's politics." Regarding Protestantism: "Three strains, however, have been most influential: a strict tradition that can be called fundamentalist, a progressive and ethical tradition known as liberal Christianity, and a broader evangelical tradition."

I never really understood the differences between evangelical, and liberal and fundamentalist Christians, and that analysis alone is informative. For example, "When Darwinian biology and scholarly "higher criticism" began to cast increasing doubt on traditional views of the Bible's authorship and veracity, however, the American Protestant movement broke apart. Modernists argued that the best way to defend Christianity in an enlightened age was to incorporate the new scholarship into theology, and mainline Protestant denominations followed this logic. The fundamentalists believed that churches should remain loyal to the "fundamentals" of Protestant faith, such as the literal truth of the Bible."

Further: "The three contemporary streams of American Protestantism (fundamentalist, liberal, and evangelical) lead to very different ideas about what the country's role in the world should be. In this context, the most important differences have to do with the degree to which each promotes optimism about the possibilities for a stable, peaceful, and enlightened international order and the importance each places on the difference between believers and nonbelievers. In a nutshell, fundamentalists are deeply pessimistic about the prospects for world order and see an unbridgeable divide between believers and nonbelievers. Liberals are optimistic about the prospects for world order and see little difference between Christians and nonbelievers. And evangelicals stand somewhere in between these extremes."

"But the difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals is not that fundamentalists are more emotional in their beliefs; it is that fundamentalists insist more fully on following their ideas to their logical conclusion. Fundamentalists are more interested than evangelicals in developing a consistent and all-embracing "Christian worldview" and then in systematically applying it to the world. It is one thing to reject (as many evangelicals do) Darwinian evolution because personal experience leads one to consider the Bible an infallible guide. It is something else entirely to develop (as some fundamentalists do) an alternative paradigm of "scientific creationism," write textbooks about it, and seek to force schools to teach it or withdraw one's children from those schools that will not."

"If fundamentalists tend to be pessimistic about the prospects for social reform inside the United States, they are downright hostile to the idea of a world order based on secular morality and on global institutions such as the United Nations."

"Fundamentalists, finally, are committed to an apocalyptic vision of the end of the world and the Last Judgment. As biblical literalists, they believe that the dark prophecies in both the Hebrew and the Greek Scriptures, notably those of the book of Revelation, foretell the great and terrible events that will ring down the curtain on human history. Satan and his human allies will stage a final revolt against God and the elect; believers will undergo terrible persecution, but Christ will put down his enemies and reign over a new heaven and a new earth. This vision is not particularly hospitable to the idea of gradual progress toward a secular utopia driven by technological advances and the cooperation of intelligent people of all religious traditions."

The author believes that: "Fundamentalists, despite some increase in their numbers and political visibility, remain less influential (than evangelicals). This is partly because the pervasive optimism of the United States continues to limit the appeal of ultra-Calvinist theology. Moreover, religious politics in the United States remains a coalition sport -- one that a fundamentalist theology, which continues to view Catholicism as an evil cult, is ill equipped to play. To make matters more complicated, fundamentalists themselves are torn between two incompatible political positions: a sullen withdrawal from a damned world and an ambitious attempt to build a new Puritan commonwealth."

"Liberal Christianity finds the core of Christianity in its ethical teachings rather than in its classic doctrines." "Liberal Christians are skeptical about the complex doctrines concerning the nature of Jesus and the Trinity that were developed in the early centuries of the church's history. They are reluctant to accept various biblical episodes -- such as the creation of the world in seven days, the Garden of Eden, and Noah's flood -- as literal narrative. And their skepticism often also extends to the physical resurrection of Jesus and the various miracles attributed to him. Rather than believing that Jesus was a supernatural being, liberal Christians see him as a sublime moral teacher whose example they seek to follow through a lifetime of service -- often directed primarily at the poor."

"Because most liberal Christians (with the important exception of "Christian realists" such as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr) discard the doctrine of original sin, liberal Christianity leads to optimism both about the prospects for a peaceful world order and about international organizations such as the UN. Indeed, liberal Christians have often seen the fight to establish the kingdom of God as a call to support progressive political causes at home and abroad. They argue that the dark prophecies of Revelation point to the difficulty of establishing a just social order on earth -- but that this order will nonetheless come to pass if everyone works together to build it."

"In recent years, however, liberal Christianity has been confronted with several challenges. First, liberal Protestantism tends to evanesce into secularism: members follow the "Protestant principle" right out the door of the church. As a result, liberal, mainline denominations are now shrinking -- quickly. Second, liberal Christians are often only tepidly engaged with "religious" issues and causes. Liberal Christians may be environmentalists involved with the Sierra Club or human rights activists involved with Amnesty International, but those activities take place in the secular world. Third, alienated from the Catholic hierarchy by their position on issues such as abortion and gay rights, and from Jews by their decreasing support for Israel, liberal Christians are losing their traditional role as the conveners of an interfaith community. Finally, the mainline denominations themselves are increasingly polarized over issues such as gay rights. Consumed by internal battles, they are less able to influence U.S. society as a whole."

"Evangelicals, the third of the leading strands in American Protestantism, straddle the divide between fundamentalists and liberals. Their core beliefs share common roots with fundamentalism, but their ideas about the world have been heavily influenced by the optimism endemic to U.S. society."

"Evangelicals resemble fundamentalists in several respects. Like fundamentalists, evangelicals attach a great deal of importance to the doctrinal tenets of Christianity, not just to its ethical teachings. For evangelicals and fundamentalists, liberals' emphasis on ethics translates into a belief that good works and the fulfillment of moral law are the road to God -- a betrayal of Christ's message, in their view. Because of original sin, they argue, humanity is utterly incapable of fulfilling any moral law whatever. The fundamental message of Christianity is that human efforts to please God by observing high ethical standards must fail; only Christ's crucifixion and resurrection can redeem man. Admitting one's sinful nature and accepting Christ's sacrifice are what both evangelicals and fundamentalists mean by being "born again." When liberal Christians put ethics at the heart of their theology, fundamentalists and evangelicals question whether these liberals know what Christianity really means."

"Evangelicals also attach great importance to the difference between those who are "saved" and those who are not. Like fundamentalists, they believe that human beings who die without accepting Christ are doomed to everlasting separation from God. They also agree with fundamentalists that "natural" people -- those who have not been "saved" -- are unable to do any good works on their own."

"Finally, most (although not all) evangelicals share the fundamentalist approach to the end of the world. Virtually all evangelicals believe that the biblical prophecies will be fulfilled, and a majority agree with fundamentalists on the position known as premillennialism: the belief that Christ's return will precede the establishment of the prophesied thousand-year reign of peace. Ultimately, all human efforts to build a peaceful world will fail."

"The strict position is that Christ's sacrifice on the cross was only intended for the small number of souls God intended to save; the others have no chance for salvation. Psychologically and doctrinally, American evangelicals generally have a less bleak outlook. They believe that the benefits of salvation are potentially available to everyone, and that God gives everyone just enough grace to be able to choose salvation if he wishes. Strict Calvinist doctrine divides humanity into two camps with little in common. In the predominant evangelical view, God loves each soul, is unutterably grieved when any are lost, and urgently seeks to save them all."

This fascinating, lengthy report is packed with powerful insight worth exploring. For example, regarding US policy on Isreal: "For evangelicals, the fact that the Jewish people have survived through the millennia and that they have returned to their ancient home is proof that God is real, that the Bible is inspired, and that the Christian religion is true. Many believe that the promise of Genesis still stands and that the God of Abraham will literally bless the United States if the United States blesses Israel. They see in the weakness, defeats, and poverty of the Arab world ample evidence that God curses those who curse Israel." Further, Foreign Affairs reports: "Conspiracy theorists and secular scholars and journalists in the United States and abroad have looked to a Jewish conspiracy or, more euphemistically, to a "Jewish lobby" to explain how U.S. support for Israel can grow while sympathy for Israel wanes among what was once the religious and intellectual establishment. A better answer lies in the dynamics of U.S. religion. Evangelicals have been gaining social and political power, while liberal Christians and secular intellectuals have been losing it. This should not be blamed on the Jews."

The author goes on to look at the big picture and suggest: "The current evangelical moment in the United States has not yet run its course. For secularists and liberals in the United States and abroad, this is a disquieting prospect. Measured optimism, however, would be a better response than horror and panic. Religion in the United States is too pluralistic for any single current to dominate."

The author concludes: "Worrying that evangelical politics will help lock the United States into inflexible and extreme positions is a waste of time; working with thoughtful evangelical leaders to develop a theologically grounded approach to Palestinian rights, for example, will broaden the base for thoughtful -- though never anti-Israel -- U.S. policies. Similarly, engaging evangelicals in broader foreign policy discussions can lead to surprising and (for some) heartening developments. A group of leading conservative evangelicals recently signed a statement on climate change that stated that the problem is real, that human activity is an important contributing cause, that the costs of inaction will be high and disproportionately affect the poor, and that Christians have a moral duty to help deal with it."

"As more evangelical leaders acquire firsthand experience in foreign policy, they are likely to provide something now sadly lacking in the world of U.S. foreign policy: a trusted group of experts, well versed in the nuances and dilemmas of the international situation, who are able to persuade large numbers of Americans to support the complex and counterintuitive policies that are sometimes necessary in this wicked and frustrating -- or, dare one say it, fallen -- world."

So, that is a world view on American foreign policy and religion. Be real and deal with it.

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Evangelists and Environmentalists Join Forces

A friend sent me a link to an article from National Public Radio on "Evangelists and Environmentalists Join Forces" that is interesting - it is so important for the faith-based community to take a leadership role in protecting the environment! Quote:

All Things Considered, January 21, 2007 · A group of leading scientists and evangelicals have chosen to put aside their differences on how the world came to be and join forces to protect its future. They've formed a coalition and are lobbying Capitol Hill on environmental issues.

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