Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Religion and American Politics

Screen shot of Lonnie Frisbee captured from YouTube video from a Katherine Kuhlman broadcast uploaded by wam957.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as vice presidential candidate for the Republican ticket. Palin was raised as a member of an Assemblies of God church, a Pentecostal denomination. Palin described herself as a non-denominational Christian in a Time Magazine interview. I'll certainly take her word on that. It's not at all surprising to imagine that she doesn't want to get into the contentious area of Fundamentalist Christianity, preferring a claim to broad unity. Certainly Pentecostals consider themselves Evangelical Christians, but there are real fissures especially in regards to ideas about the place of women in the scheme of things.

I'm not religious. I am a baptized and confirmed Christian, which has some theological significance. But in my adult life my views can accurately be called agnostic. I want to be quick to say that I'm not hostile to religion, at least in any deliberate and overt way. Indeed my religious training in the Episcopal Church permeates my views in many ways, often surprising me. Another part of my growing up was becoming a Jesus Freak while in high school in 1970.

Once a secular Jewish friends reacted to my saying that I wasn't a Christian: "You can no more chose not to be Christian than I can chose not to be a Jew." I have to give him that point. What he was talking about is something bigger than just ourselves. In fact, he added that by virtue of growing up in a small Pennsylvania town where almost everyone called themselves Christian, that even he couldn't chose not to be Christian. This is a far different idea from what many Christians think, but there is something to the idea.

Following along with this weak meaning, America is a very religious country, a very Christian country. Oh, but what diversity! And this diversity is built into the fabric of the American Experience. It goes back much further, but take for example my own family's denomination, The Episcopal Church in The United States of America. That's a long name with a story. The Anglican Church was The Church of England. The American Revolution caused a bit of a problem for members here, they worked the problems out and suffice it to say The Episcopal in The United States of America is not The Church of England. But part of the blame or credit for the diversity of Christian expression in the USA has to go to The Church of England. They never were able to send enough priests and Americans got used to not having Church authorities tell them what to do. So even the Anglicans were restless, not to mention all the break away religions that found a home in this bastion of empire.

Punctuated over time there have been several periods of intense religious interest, often referred to as Great Awakenings. Great Awakenings are "great" because they're on a national scale. But these periods of awakening owe a great deal to more modest and local movements whose influence isn't always more broadly felt, only sometimes are. Pentecostalism in the USA is relatively recent, with it's beginnings in the early part of the 20th Century. Few mid 20th Century predicted how big it would grow, but it surely has.

Pentecostalism is a rapidly growing religious movement in the developing world. Mike Davis in his book Planet of Slums points to Pentecostalism as an important religious movement in the masses of rural people moving into the mega cities of the 21st Century. In an interview with Davis at BLDGBLOG he makes the point:
I think many people on the left have made the mistake of assuming that Pentecostalism is a reactionary force – and it’s not. It’s actually a hugely important phenomenon of the postmodern city, and of the culture of the urban poor in Latin American and Africa.
Pentecostalism is less identified as an urban phenomena in the USA, nevertheless the self-organizing movement of poor people which Davis describes holds in the American experience. As does Davis's observation that it is "overwhelmingly, a religion of women." The Wikipedia article on Pentacostalism provides a short overview.

Sarah Palin is clearly an ambitious Republican politician and very much politically right. Sarah Palin's preference is to be called a non-denominational Christian rather than Pentecostal leads to a branch more gentrified and tamed than the broader movement. The Evangelical Movement has been gentrified, or associated with middle and upper class interests through millionaire media giants like Pat Robertson and James Dobson along with the rise of suburban mega-churches. Evangelical Christianity has become tightly entwined with Republican Party politics.

I do not think that the very politically right wing connection with populist Christianity is inevitable. I certainly don't think it reasonable to paint with a broad brush Evangelical Christians as a lunatic fringe. Although on that second part my thinking is that humanity in general suffers from our crazy beliefs. People stand on the threshold of destruction of life on our blue planet. How can we be so crazy? To some extent the political spectrum reflects personality and temperament, but all of us question how come we're so crazy and try to invent ways out of it.

The flash points in American politics can often be traced to views about reproduction. The arrangements we make for our children shape society in powerful ways. Palin's connection with Penetcostalism is interesting to me because women are so important in Pentecostalism. Their role is a fundamental difference and area of great contention among the other myriad of religious points of view in the Evangelical Movement.

I chose the picture of Lonnie Frisbee to illustrate this post first to remember that Christianity can be a counter cultural force. Second to show that the roots of the Christian right in the USA are more diverse than religious agnostics like me like to imagine. Sarah Palin's selection as the Republican vice presidential candidate brings many interesting issues into the spotlight which I hope to explore in future posts.


Pingting said...

Grrreat!!! series of posts John~
when are you going to start podcasting?

Daisy said...

Hey, thanks for the heads up on Frisbee, trying to find the documentary about him!