NEW YORK (Nov. 23)
The current emergence of “the New Right Evangelicals” or “the New Christian Right” has elicited widespread interest and concern among millions of American citizens, among them, a great many Jews.
No responsible and fair-minded American questions the right of fellow Americans of Evangelical Christian or any other religious or moral persuasion to participate fully as citizens in the political process nor to advocate the adoption of public policy positions which reflect their ideological bent. Indeed, maximum participation by our fellow Americans in the democratic process can only be encouraged and welcomed.
During the past 15 months, however, there have been a number of actions and statements by spokesmen of this newly-forged alliance of several Evangelical Christian leaders and ultraconservative political organizers which have become deeply troubling to many of us, and which require, we believe, careful analytical scrutiny by political leaders, both major political parties, and by the American people. These concerns center around the following major issues:
1) A number of major spokesmen of “the new Christian Right” assert that their primary purpose in the recent national elections, and through related political activity on the local levels, was “to Christianize America,” and to establish “a Christian republic.”
A DANGEROUS MYTH FOR DEMOCRACY
That is a myth and it is an ideologically dangerous myth for American democracy which must not go uncontested. The only period in American history during which anything resembling a so-called “Christian Republic” existed was the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony after 1629. That colony was a Puritan theocracy which combined ecclesiastical and civil government.
As every major church historian acknowledges, the Puritan oligarchy sought religious toleration for themselves but did not believe in religious toleration for others, and that “Christian Republic” collapsed after about 50 years when dissenters such as Roger Williams fled persecution in order to find freedom of conscience in Providence, Rhode Island.
What is historically true is that Baptist farmer-preachers, Methodist circuit-riders, and dissenting Presbyterians become the foremost champions of freedom of conscience, religious liberty, and the principle of the separation of church and state. They suffered persecution, imprisonment, and ruthless harassment at the hands of the Anglican Establishment in Virginia and elsewhere to uphold those fundamental democratic principles not only for themselves but for all American.
It is both ironic and sad that some of the spiritual heirs of those Evangelical Christians in Virginia today and elsewhere have chosen either to forget or to ignore that historic achievement of American democratic pluralism.
2) A number of “New Christian Right” spokesmen regularly speak of the “Golden Era” of “Evangelical Christian America” when our forbears were supposedly deeply religious and highly moral people and by contrast, we today are convicted of religious and moral inadequacy.
EVOKING DOUBT AND SELF-GUILT
That is also a myth, and its repetition tends to immobilize us in unnecessary guilt and self-doubt, rather than energize us to face the truth about our past and our moral responsibilities in the complex, real world today.
As every major church historian documents, the great majority of Americans in the 18th Century were outside any church, and there was an overwhelming indifference to religion. Dr. William Warren Sweet wrote (“Revivalism in America”) that “taking the colonies as a whole, the ratio of church membership was one to 12.” Dr. Robert Handy states, “No more than ten percent of Americans in 1800 were members of churches” (“A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada”).
As a result of the vast labor and the rough, uncouth hardships encountered by the pioneers, frontier communities became course and partially wild societies, with little or no social restraints, and filled with law vices and brutal pleasures. The West was described as “the land off sinful liberty” with large sections of the frontier society debouched and whiskey-sodden. The violence and anarchy resulted in a breakdown of respect for emerging civic authority.