The Christian Right is often long on style and short on substance. Depending on the day many of its leaders may cast themselves as the second coming of the Founding Fathers, the living legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or even as facing penalties for their beliefs as grim and spectacular as Christian martyrs in history.
Since at least the publication of the 2009 manifesto, the Manhattan Declaration, the culture-warring leaders of both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and of conservative evangelicalism have been threatening massive civil disobedience if they don’t get their way. Some have called for “martyrs.” Still others have threatened outright religious war. For all of this rhetorical maelstrom one does not have to dismiss that there are real threats of political tension and violence to recognize that some top Christian Right leaders are humbugs and windbags.
Let’s take a look at some recent examples.
This past year we have seen the dark warning of government “persecution” border on self-parody. As we reported a few months ago, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee, and megachurch pastors Rick Warren and David Platt put on quite a show on the eve of the denomination’s 2014 annual national meeting.
According to Warren, personal sacrifices will be necessary in the face of this persecution. “And,” Warren declared, invoking Martin Luther King, Jr., the matter of religious freedom “may take some pastors going to jail. I’m in. I willingly said it, I’m in.”
Platt added, “I hear Pastor Rick say, ‘I’m in,’ and I’m with you. And I want to raise up an army, an entire body of members that says, ‘I’m in,’ who are in regardless of what happens in this case.”
While Warren and Platt were claiming that they were willing to go to jail in defense of their notions of religious freedom, Russell Moore said, “I’m doing everything we can to keep out us out of jail, but there is one thing worse than going to jail. And that is staying out of jail and sacrificing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
As marriage equality has advanced, Moore has already begun to back away from any whiff of Christian martyrdom. He recently told evangelical columnist Jonathan Merritt that even if the Supreme Court legalizes same sex marriage nationally this year, it will not make much difference to evangelicals.
If the court were to “redefine marriage,” Moore said Christians should “be ready to offer an alternative vision of marriage and family” that doesn’t include same-sex unions. Interestingly, his vision would be promoted primarily within the church rather than changing laws through political action.
That is an astounding turn around for a signer of the Manhattan Declaration.
We also have Rick Plasterer, a staff writer on religious liberty for the neoconservative Institute on Religion and Democracy which is best known for its decades-long war of attrition against the churches of mainline Protestantism. His rhetoric may be stodgier than the aforementioned Christian Right leaders, but he is no less resolute in his call for civil disobedience.
“It is understood that conscience can have requirements that may conflict with the law,” he wrote on the last day of 2014, “but the requirement that we do not sin is an absolute duty to God, one not open to discussion, regardless of the pain it causes ourselves or anyone else, and regardless of the penalty to ourselves.”
Plasterer claims that religious opponents of LGBTQ people—and not just marriage equality—must be “willing to take whatever penalty is prescribed for however long it is prescribed.” He goes on to compare those who refuse service in public accommodations to LGBTQ people to “conscientious objectors,” who decline as a matter of moral conscience to fight in wars. And yet, he does not call for people to decline to fight wars—only to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
Parenthetically, it is worth underscoring the Manichean false framing that defines his view of religious liberty.
“In denying liberty of conscience,” he claims, “the cultural left (secularists, homosexual activists, and feminists) are demanding that those unbending religious requirements be given up by religious believers in the personal lives.”
In fact, many mainstream religious bodies support the rights of LGBTQ people, and embrace marriage equality. We reported last year, for example, on the landmark federal court decision overturning a North Carolina law which made clergy performing same-sex marriage ceremonies subject to criminal prosecution. The suit was brought by the United Church of Christ, and joined by, among others, the Alliance of Baptists as well as the Central Conference of American Rabbis. There are “secularists” who both favor and oppose marriage equality, just as there are religious people and institutions that favor and oppose it.
No one can require anyone to change their beliefs, but people can be required to obey non-discrimination laws.
But for sheer rhetorical histrionics, it is it is hard to top the claims of Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. On the USCCB web site, Lori announced the annual Fortnight of Freedom, which next year will take place from June 21 to July 4, 2015. It is a campaign intended to highlight the alleged threats to the religious liberty of Catholicism in the context of the three themes of the Manhattan Declaration, life, marriage and religious liberty. It is scheduled, he says, at “a time when our liturgical calendar celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power—St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, St. John the Baptist, SS. Peter and Paul, and the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome.”
Unless Lori and his colleagues know something they are not saying, the sly comparison of today’s American Catholic Church to historical figures who were tortured and executed for their faith is beyond preposterous. The historian Tacitus reports that the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome, for example, were “Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”
And yet, for all the big talk and the false moral equivalences—as Christian Right figures like Moore, Warren, Platt, Plasterer, Lori, and their ilk fancy themselves and their constituencies as following in the tradition of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, and even those whose moral convictions required them to serve out jail sentences as conscientious objectors to war—these men by comparison lead remarkably comfortable lives.