There is something inherently attractive about pulling back the veil and exposing how something actually is. Mike Lofgren, a former GOP insider fancies himself something of an insider, a fly on the wall of Republican life. His piece in Salon, “Religion destroyed my party” evinces something of resentment and a victim mentality within Lofgren. I call bull. I too am an insider, though for evangelical Christianity, and while I am more than willing to grant the truth of Lofgren’s argument, he only presents half the story.
Throughout the piece Lofgren rightly harangues the religious right for hypocrisy, on the one hand spotlighting so-called ‘pro-family’ politicians who eventually show their true colors via infidelity, sex scandals, and divorce. When caught, apologies are given and the perps are let back into the fold. The religious right seems to have a short memory as this scenario has played itself out numerous times on the national stage. This, says Lofgren, is an example of cheap grace, a.k.a., forgiveness in the absence of any real repentance or change of behavior. Says Lofgren, “The religious right is willing to overlook a politician’s individual foibles, no matter how poor an example he or she may make, if they publicly identify with fundamentalist values.” The unspoken trade-off at work is that as long as religious true believers keep voting, GOP politicians will mouth vague platitudes in line with conservative Christian ideology. I don’t think future generations of evangelicals will make this trade, as it is increasingly the case that the self-proclaimed family men have skeletons in their closets.
But, the Republican Party is no innocent victim. I find the very title of Lofgren’s piece off-putting because he wants to play the victim, as if suddenly all these religious zealots rode in on horses and stormed the castle of Republicanism. If history really played out the way Lofgren wants us to believe, how would it even be possible that the Republicans could be overtaken by such slack-jawed yokels as he paints evangelical Protestants? The truth is whatever level of partnership that has existed between evangelicals and the Republican Party, the benefits have been mutual. Nobody put a gun to any politician's head and made him or her be a “social” conservative. No doubt many Christians looked to the political process to enforce their vision of the good on the world, but many politicians looked back and those Christians and saw votes, if only they said the right things and sponsored the right legislation.
Perhaps what I find most disturbing about Lofgren’s piece is that, whatever he thinks about religious believers, he doesn’t take us especially seriously. The spiritual and moral vision that powers religious conservatism is over his head, like a joke that utilizes logic he is unfamiliar with. Says Lofgren, “If the American people poll more like Iranians or Nigerians than Europeans or Canadians on questions of evolution, scriptural inerrancy, the presence of angels and demons, and so forth, it is due to the rise of the religious right.”
And yet, it was beliefs very much like these that fueled powerful movements such as abolitionism and the civil rights movement. It is a serious moral vision that fuels evangelical political life, even if the articulation of it leaves much to be desired. As theologian Russell Moore explains, Southern Baptist political action for instance was rooted not in some overarching political strategy, but most often in an Evangelical intuitionism — a sense of what ought to be … Southern Baptists were not co-opted by Republican politicians or professional culture warriors. As they reflected on their deeply held commitments to a biblical worldview and Evangelical conversionism, they found allies in others who understood that the culture wars were about more than just “culture” in the abstract, but about issues directly related to Christian worship and submission to biblical authority. In other words, when confronted with a culture hostile to the biblical understanding of the good and the true, biblically orthodox Southern Baptists spoke reflexively from intuitions rooted in a biblically informed worldview and joined with those who thought similarly.
The mistake many politically active Christians have made is being naïve about the motivations of many of the politicians they have championed. Another would be trying to make the work of the church the work of the state. And of course, the quality of evangelical discourse, in both popular and public spheres, leaves much to be desired.
Lofgren wrongly blames “religion” for destroying his party, but I’m not sure quite what he expected of religious believers. The intellectual content of social conservatism was always there, and therefore was always going to find expression in Christians’ political lives. Moreover, it was self-identified Republicans who partnered with the religious right. They made the bed. Now we all lie in it.