Turning the Tables: Why Conservative Christianity Bears the Burden of Proof

By Derek Penwell

Word on the street has progressives engaged in a “war against religion,” or if not a war, then at least a Monty Python-esque call to “run away” from all that is good, Christian, and decent. A column by Russ Douthat in yesterday’s New York Times, as Diana Butler Bass points out in her wonderful response , rehearses the old trope that liberal mainline denominations are dying because they are liberal. Without naming it, Bass draws attention to the fallacy of the liberal-kills-churches meme, that is, the confusion of correlation with causation, by offering the reminder that conservative churches are also experiencing decline.

The tired charge that liberal mainline churches are dying is, ironically, itself difficult to kill off. This fact has caused liberal churches for at least forty years to find themselves always on the defensive. Underlying this indictment of liberal Christianity is the assumption that a progressive reading of scripture and its ethical conclusions are somehow an accommodation to a purely secular system of meaning, while conservative interpretation is self-evidently the gold standard of biblical faithfulness.

What I want to challenge is the persistent and difficult-to-kill assumption that conservatives occupy some kind of religious and ethical high ground, and that any deviation from a particular kind of conservative orthodoxy isn’t merely a matter of interpretation, but is tantamount to initiating hostilities against God, motherhood, and the flag—all of which, interestingly enough, are conflated in some people’s minds. But that’s another article.

The smug certainty with which some conservative religious and political types believe not just that they occupy the side of truth on every issue, but that they occupy the side of God’s truth is alarming—not because they believe these things of themselves so uncritically (self-righteousness is a time-honored religious and political posture on both sides of the ideological divide, after all), but because so many in the culture agree to cede them this authoritative land of milk and honey.[1]

In fact, I not only want to challenge certain popularly held assumptions about the rightful place of the Right at the center of theological discussion, I want to suggest that if a war on religion is being waged, it’s main combatants aren’t progressive Christianity, Barack Obama, or left-leaning political types at Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. I want to set down a more radical charge:

The real war on religion is being waged by those on the Right who read the bible not as the story of God’s saving interaction with the world through the unfolding of God’s reign, but as foundational for a conservative politics of self-interest or as a blueprint for a post-Enlightenment cult of individual piety.

There. I said it. The greatest damage to Christianity comes at the hands of those who display their devoutness with such practiced conspicuousness.[2] Jesus spends the better part of the Gospels crossing rhetorical swords with those who have arrogated unto themselves the mantle of God’s special emissaries for a publicly muscular show of religious devotion.[3] Ironically, Jesus, when faced with an opportunity to cash in on his religious popularity, always seems to strike out in the opposite direction.

I am weary of playing defense against fundamentalism, as if it holds some sort of privileged theological position that requires a special deference, as well as the expectation of an explanation from those who would deviate.

It’s not that I resent having to come clean about my own hermeneutical presuppositions, to be required to set down the story I’m telling about how I interpret scripture. What makes me unutterably weary is the popular assumption that a fundamentalist reading of scripture is somehow the hermeneutical true north by which all interpretations are to be judged. The assertion that the bible is to be read in a common sense fashion, as close to literally as possible, is not only itself merely one interpretative strategy among other strategies, it’s also a fairly recent development in the history of interpretation.

If, for example, one holds that LGBTQ people should be embraced and welcomed as full participants into the life and ministry of the church, the popular assumption among some is that one makes such moves in spite of rather than because of one’s reading of scripture. I have been asked on more than one occasion why I don’t “just quit pretending to be be a Christian,” since I “obviously don’t believe the Bible.”

Apart from the general incivility of such dismissiveness, claiming that Christians who don’t read the bible in a “literal” or “common sense” way are cynically attempting to circumvent taking scripture seriously is captive to its own set of prejudices, which are most often transparent to the speaker. That form of biblical interpretation (viz., “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it”) is question-begging in its most basic sense.

My hunch is that much of what gets put forward as the practical policy implications of fundamentalism have at least as much to do with conservative economic systems as with biblical interpretation. If progressive Christians have merely uncritically baptized liberal ethical systems when it comes to issues like homosexuality—as is often suggested by our fundamentalist brothers and sisters—why is it not the case that the conservative embrace of tax breaks for the wealthy, the adoption of a do-it-yourself attitude toward healthcare, welfare, and unemployment benefits, and the enthusiastic correlation of patriotism and militarism are merely a baptism of conservative (or worse, libertarian) ethical systems?

So, here’s what I’d like to see: A turning of the tables (or perhaps better, a “turning over” of the tables)—a rebalancing of the burden of proof.

  • I’d like to see a fundamentalist defense from scripture of such policies as cutting taxes for people who already have enough for several lifetimes. How does one “literally” read the prophets or the Gospels and come away thinking that protecting the ability to purchase another yacht or vacation home at the expense of those just struggling to feed their children is something Christians ought to have any stake in?
  • I’d like to see someone defend from scripture fighting for a healthcare system, the chief motivation of which is to figure out ever more ingenious ways to deny coverage to those who can least afford it.
  • I’d like to see a scriptural justification for treating undocumented workers not with Christian hospitality—if not as potential friends and neighbors, then at least as fellow children of God—but as an insidious threat to “our way of life” (in which “our” refers to American and not Christian).
  • I’d like to see how scripture works as a legitimator of arms stockpiling in the service of military adventurism in other countries (see, in particular, Iraq).
  • I’d like to see how the bible comes to the aid of those who would stand idly by while LGBTQ kids endure the dehumanizing and often deadly effects of bullying.
  • I’d like to see how the bible can be put to use defending the belief that our ultimate loyalties to flag and faith are interchangeable, that to have invoked one is ipso facto to have named the other.

I don’t see these arguments being made in convincing ways; and my fear is that this is so because these arguments don’t need making in our culture, since everyone already knows that if Pat Robertson, or James Dobson, or Gary Bauer, or Ralph Reed, or John Piper, Albert Mohler, or Mark Driscoll say it the burden of proof is on anyone who would disagree with them.

If Jesus is any model, turning over tables in the temple is a necessary, if potentially perilous practice.

  1. Before you start emailing me, let me just say that I know, love, and am related to some fine people who read scripture differently from me. I regret, however, that the hard won devoutness of these folks is a moral commodity traded on by religious entrepreneurs and politicians hoping to plant the victor’s flag on the cultural landscape.  ↩
  2. I am using Christianity and religion interchangeably, not because I assume that Christianity is predominant or that other religions are merely placeholders for the “real” truth of Christianity, but because some Christians do assume something very nearly like this. Other religions, generally speaking, stand to lose considerably more than Christianity when a “war on religion” has been identified in the United States, since certain constituencies within Christianity tend to protect a form of Christian hegemony against all other religious comers—often with deadly enthusiasm.  ↩
  3. See, for example: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:1); “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them” (Matt. 23:14); “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to sit at the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Mark 12:38–40). You get the point.  ↩