Guardian hails the “Rise of the Religious Left.” But is it legitimate to speak of a ‘Religious Right/Left’?
Grace Dalton considers the implications of the Guardian’s article of 21 May.
Whilst I’ve seen “Guardian reading” used as a slur on several recent occasions lately, I’ve been appreciating much of its content — however, hints of its readiness to affirm the stereotype of Christians leaning right politically has been frustrating. It was exciting then to see its recent headline “‘Jesus never charged a leper a co-pay’: the Rise of the Religious Left”.
“Co-pay”, of course, is an American term, relating to their insurance based healthcare system. Sadly, the article doesn’t extend beyond America, referencing only faith leaders and politicians on the other side of the pond from us. But readers anywhere will receive the message — Jesus was not right wing.
“The notion of left and right wing political leanings originates from the French revolution, 1789. National Assembly members divided into supporters of the king to the president’s right and supporters of the revolution to his left.”
US based media make it clear that “Christian” is considered partially synonymous with Republican — and, not infrequently, partially synonymous in turn with selfish. This is not to say that I believe Republicans to necessarily be selfish, of course — but this is very evidently the view of many. Those who lean right politically are more keen to cling to their heritage — and in the West, this includes the label of “Christian”. The notion of left and right wing political leanings originates from the French revolution, 1789. National Assembly members divided into supporters of the king to the president’s right and supporters of the revolution to his left. “We began to recognize each other: those who were loyal to religion and the king took up positions to the right of the chair so as to avoid the shouts, oaths, and indecencies that enjoyed free rein in the opposing camp” (Baron de Gauville).
The Bible and the Poor
But those who’ve studied the Bible know well that it includes many verses that would be considered left wing. Jesus’ teachings and example of compassion for those in need is well known — but there are verses imploring us to act for social justice throughout the Bible.
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.”
Leviticus 19:33-34 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.”
Leviticus 25:35 “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you.”
Deuteronomy 10:18 “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.”
James 1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
Galatians 2:10 Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
Galatians 5:14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
Jeremiah 22:3 Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.
Micah 6:8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
1 John 3:17-18 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
Matthew 19:21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
Proverbs 29:7 A righteous man knows the rights of the poor; a wicked man does not understand such knowledge.
More of such verses could be added to this list. Thus the apt statement featured in the article from Rev William Barber, a co-chair of The Poor People’s Campaign. “They say so much about the issues where the Bible says so little,” Barber said, repeating a refrain he often deploys to criticize the religious right. “But they speak so little about the issues where the Bible says so much.”
And yet, this error is in part a result of current culture. An article on Desiring God — very plausibly one of the ministries to which Barber refers — explains “Why Homosexuality Is Not Like Other Sins”: that sexuality which rebels against God’s design is now widely celebrated in the West. And sex sells — such that most occasions on which the mainstream media take interest in Christianity are when it relates to disputes about sexuality. Arguably, it was more necessary for the Bible’s authors to write repeatedly to command compassion than sexual purity, since during Biblical times, God’s guidance on sex was largely accepted by Jewish individuals, whereas reminders to enact with generosity were more prescient.
Can we box Christianity into right/left categories?
“The Guardian fails to consider why many Christians have serious reservations about some of the left’s causes. Indeed, the Bible says more about social justice than it does sexuality — but it still contains commands to sexual purity.”
The Guardian fails to consider why many Christians have serious reservations about some of the left’s causes. Indeed, the Bible says more about social justice than it does sexuality — but it still contains commands to sexual purity. Christians should indeed put more energy into urging help for the less fortunate — but instructions to purity should still be observed.
Ironically, the original usage of left and right in politics meant that it was republicans who were on the left. Of course “Republican” now refers to the right in US politics, but the primary meaning of right and left related to whether one wanted to support or tear down the existing structures of authority. The New Testament’s epistles teach that we should “Obey your leaders and submit to them” (Hebrews 13:17); “Honour the Emperor” (1 Peter 2:17); and that “All of you must obey those who rule over you” (Romans 13:1). Disappointing many of His contemporaries, Jesus refrained from rebellion against the political authorities, saying, “Give Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21); He told Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). Whether or not this applies universally, such that Christians today are compelled to adhere to all of the governments that we find ourselves under is an ongoing debate in the Church. In Acts 5:29, “Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’” And crucially, “The most important [commandment],” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31).
“Christianity defies the left-right categorisation; we are called to refuse to be put into boxes by prioritising love for God.”
Thus, Christianity defies the left-right categorisation; we are called to refuse to be put into boxes by prioritising love for God. Perhaps this includes defending His design by opposing societal trends towards sexual impropriety and abortion — but this article is a valid reminder that we mustn’t vote on these issues alone.
Irksome though, is that the Guardian’s article veers off into discussion about opposition among traditional Christians — the “religious right” — to causes that the Guardian deems important. Whilst astutely quoting that traditionally Christians have expended too much energy discussing issues that are scarcely mentioned in the Bible, the Guardian proceeds to repeatedly mention abortion — which the Bible does not mention, nor which applies to the historical political left wing, nor features in the campaigning of William Barber’s movement. In the months preceding 2016’s presidential election, content and comments from American Christians convinced me that many of them would vote against Hillary Clinton, in no small part because they couldn’t countenance supporting a candidate reported to support access to late term abortion. Is the issue’s pertinence a media driven vicious circle? Secular media, keen to celebrate abortion, persistently baits Christians into taking a stand —despite this requiring them to vote for a “thrice-married billionaire accused of sexually harassing more than a dozen women and of paying off a porn star over an alleged sexual encounter.” I have no doubt that, were the issue of abortion discounted, Trump would not have received 81% of white “evangelicals’” votes.
The opening of the article also seems to me somewhat off topic, contrasting differing reactions to the recent opening of America’s embassy in Jerusalem. It’s presumed that “the evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress said Donald Trump was a moral leader who stood ‘on the right side of you, O God’,” evidences relationship with the right — but surely it primarily is a demonstration of seeking to cosy up to one’s President, and of Zionism? Is not the Israel-Palestine relationship too complex to be squeezed into a right vs. left narrative? Fortunately, the article proceeds to highlight Barber’s prayer vigil for the Palestinians killed in the protests accompanying the embassy opening — certainly exemplifying the overlap of left wing concern for the powerless and Christian concern for those suffering.
“It’s lamentable that the piece does not give mention to more of the charitable work that the Bible’s teachings have procured. The Guardian suggests, with “Rise of the Religious Left,” that Christian charity is somewhat new, neglecting the reality that many charities and state provisions were the fruit of Christians’ observance of the Bible.”
It’s lamentable that the piece does not give mention to more of the charitable work that the Bible’s teachings have procured. The Guardian suggests, with “Rise of the Religious Left,” that Christian charity is somewhat new, neglecting the reality that many charities and state provisions were the fruit of Christians’ observance of the Bible. On this side of the pond at least, I encounter the notion to “be Christian” not infrequently used to insinuate compassionate behaviour. Perhaps the Salvation Army, St John’s Ambulance, countless Christian run hospices, soup kitchens and other community initiatives have in fact been impacting society’s views. Perhaps history is a factor; Barber decries “slavemaster religion” — awareness of the past-held “strange morality that somehow you could worship on Sunday and still have slaves on Monday,” surely contributes to the erroneous belief of some Americans that Christianity is opposed to social justice. The article continues to quote, “those preachers were not practising religion. They were practising racism under the cover of religion.” — Oh, what I wouldn’t do to have that message throughout our media. Often fuelled by the media, many outside of the Church form their opinions of Christianity on the basis of the behaviour of self-proclaimed Christians, rather than on Christ. It is imperative that we encourage society to examine Jesus’ teachings and actions, and that we put Him at the forefront of our conversations. Debates about sexual ethics, and social justice, are both simultaneously important; yet unimportant by comparison to whether people find eternal life.
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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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