I can remember when Republican politicians realized there was untapped potential in the suburban white church. In the 1970’s, my parents were more concerned with raising our family on a blue-collar salary than what was happening in Washington. They voted, watched the Watergate hearings and my dad occasionally got into political discussions with my uncles. But union strikes, job security and rising inflation costs due to the energy crisis were their most pressing issues.
Both of my parents had a wary distrust of the federal government. My father’s family had lost their Tennessee land, twice, to eminent domain claims. The first was the 1933 Norris Dam TVA project which removed them from their fertile river farmland to a rocky hillside in Oak Ridge. Then, in 1942, “the gov’mnt” once again claimed the bulk of their land for “the war effort.” The Manhattan Project representative assured my grandmother, recently widowed with six children and two elderly parents in her care, that even though they were paying her much less than the land was worth, her land would be returned to her when the project ended. It wasn’t.
My mother grew up in the poverty of Appalachia. On her father’s Kentucky farm, she witnessed how federal regulations influenced their choice of crops – tobacco – and the resulting tax battles. She saw how the government backed coal companies’ targeted media campaigns against Appalachians in pursuit of strip-mining their hillsides. She felt the sting of those slurs and stereotypes. As kids, we watched the Beverly Hillbillies and Hee-Haw, not understanding how our laughter was enabling the ridicule of our heritage. Strip-mining not only devastated my mom’s beloved homeland but the resulting waste and flooding yielded no response from government representatives but empty campaign promises.
(If you’re interested in more on this subject, http://hillbillymovie.com/ is an excellent resource.)
In my teen years, between Vietnam and the Brady Bunch, we were told the Christian American family was under attack. We were wooed and frightened in turns by Christian leaders enamored with rising political power. The civic unrest of the 1960’s questioned long-accepted social hierarchies; the civil rights and feminist movements in particular were viewed as threats in our white denominational church. People were frightened by the anger displayed in protests, upset by sweeping change.
In April 2020, a woman held a sign proclaiming, “I want a haircut!” in a protest against coronavirus lockdown. The woman seems apparently unaware of her white privilege or how self-centered and short-sighted her message would appear to viewers. Like those people in my 1970’s church, she wanted things to go back to “normal” because that is where she feels confident.
For the past 26 years, since the dawn of our own Tower of Babel (the Internet), our world has shrunk and increased in a dizzying way. Living in Silicon Valley, I had a front row seat to rapidly-changing technology and I felt the anxiety that accompanied people who moved faster than their souls could keep up. Pandemic precautions have afforded us time to breathe, time to look. Similar to the 1960’s, our looking has revealed the cracks in our society. We were too busy to pay attention, we didn’t want to see… but now we do.
And now we have a choice. Do we choose to join those movements for social justice — even if they were begun by people who make us uncomfortable — because it is right, because it is what Jesus would do? Does Jesus agree that Black Lives Matter? Is Jesus concerned about the immigrant, the poor, the stranger? Does Jesus care for children (and grown-ups!) without regard to the color of their skin or gender or sexual choices? Does Jesus care about the born as well as the unborn? (if you’re struggling with these questions, I direct you back to the gospels.)
As a Christian beginning to lean toward progressive positions, I’m feeling called to move toward the front lines of these battles instead of the back (or even the opposition). The conservative foundations in which I was raised are actually the principles pushing me forward — to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
I also have the advantage of living history. My 1970’s denomination that forcefully denounced women in ministry as heretical, today has women clergy. The changes have been soft and slow, over decades, but their understanding has grown. This isn’t compromise, it isn’t loss. It is recognition of greater truth. The church which denounced the “heresy” of heliocentrism (the earth orbiting the sun) is no longer threatened by this idea. We have gained a wider view of both the universe and our place in it in the past 400 years, and it has enlarged, not diminished, our awe for our Creator.
In 1979, the Moral Majority movement filled convention centers. Nixon’s “southern strategy” had been countered by the election of Jimmy Carter, a southern Democrat and actual Christian. Republicans, desperate to convert southern white voters, found a willing partner in Jerry Falwell and his growing Christian right movement. Falwell ground into dirt the line separating church and state, justifying his actions as necessity due to evidence of impending “moral peril” — Nixon’s impeachment, Ford’s pardon, the crumbling economy, and Carter’s disagreement with him on key issues.
As a teenager, I watched my pastor’s proclamation of Jimmy Carter as savior sour. In 1976, we celebrated the nation’s bicentennial; I can still sing a few lines from our youth choir tour’s rousing anthems to the USA (and God, of course, of course…ahem.) The world darkened in the following four years.
Perhaps it wasn’t all my own adolescent angst. As I entered the adult world after high school graduation, I noticed it was not nearly as stable as in my childhood perception. Adults seemed frightened, cynical, wary. Reporters anxious to break the next Watergate, made scandal a household word. Disillusioned voters had lost confidence in government ethics. The civility and manners my mother tried to instill in us was ridiculed. Disrespect abounded; televised humor was primarily mocking insults.
My parents had always been proud to say “Independent” when asked about political affiliation. To me, it denoted a strength of character to look at each issue, each candidate individually, regardless of party. But now our devotion to God was being equated to our voting choices.
Jimmy Carter’s presidency was attacked daily, both by scandal-hunters and other Christians. Carter later wrote, “that autumn  a group headed by Jerry Falwell purchased $10 million in commercials on southern radio and TV to brand me as a traitor to the South and no longer a Christian.” (White House Diary, 2010). White House Diary
It seems to me now that the people who filled those Moral Majority conventions were looking for the same kind of stability I desired as a young adult. I was a spinning planet and even though I knew God was my sun, my orbit needed to be realigned. The Christian right provided philosophers and theologians, educated thinkers, to assure me of God’s backing. Some even proclaimed another “manifest destiny” of Christian dominance over American political and social life.
Republican Christian conservatism was all about preserving our family values. They made it simple without making us feel stupid for our political illiteracy. In fact, they courted uneducated voters like my parents. “Book-learnin’” paled in the struggle to survive the Great Depression. My parents were educated in the ways of nature, in solid, black-and-white reasoning. They had an experiential intelligence, a wisdom hard-won, and were not easily persuaded. They found safety in absolutes; relativism was seen as a leaky boat on a stormy ocean. They listened, but they didn’t join in.
I wasn’t as wise.
With an assurance of preserving “our values,” I was told which issues deserved my attention and my vote. I didn’t see that “law and order” politics was a cover for maintaining white supremacy (and white votes). I believed that chaos was around the corner if my vote didn’t forestall it. Rising feminism was challenging the claims of patriarchy (the idea that women should be subjugated to men) in every area from job markets to church leadership roles to sexual desires. I was told this was an affront to God’s design of “Biblical patriarchy,” (Biblical accounts interpreted – by men – from the creation of Eve to Paul’s instructions on church discipline). The fact that Jesus himself often broke societal norms to speak with women as equals, the fact that His ministry was largely funded by women, was never mentioned in any sermon I heard in those days.
I’ve sometimes wondered if some of the misogyny of 1970’s evangelicalism was in retaliation for the civil rebellion of the 1960’s. After all, it was the 1950’s housewives (that epitome of white men’s “good ole days”) who were solely responsible for child-rearing. Did their implied incompetence lead to those rebellious young people who flagrantly disregarded societal expectations and refused their duties of military service and celibacy until marriage? Was there an uncomfortable awareness that, as head of the household, the “failure” was shared by the husbands?
The vehemence of the church doubling down on traditional family values suggests that fear of loss of control had taken hold. “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” was applied liberally (pun intended). Faith was brought into the foreground of politics, dividing what had been liberal and conservative elements within both parties into single identities. In God’s name, faith leaders effectively dumbed-down civil discourse (oh, God, forgive us!).
Independent Christians like my parents were disdainfully confronted with Revelation 3:15-16: “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” (KJV).
There was a lot of spueing going on in those days. The Christian Right said if you identified as Christian, you needed to be Right. It was Us or Them. Right or wrong. “They” had bumper stickers that said, “Question Authority.” We were told the authority they were questioning was God and His church.
“Biblical authority.” Yet again, God’s design (interpreted by a select group of white men) imbued power to parents, husbands, pastors, civil leaders, etc. Biblical authority meant you responded to that person as to God, with unquestioning obedience and respect. (I had even heard a British revivalist insist that America still needed to repent for its rebellion against England.)
For someone so steeped in this teaching, I still hesitate to acknowledge how questioning authority is actually deeply woven into the fabric of American society:
“It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” – Benjamin Franklin
“To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.” – Theodore Roosevelt
“Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” – Albert Einstein
God’s authority? Unquestioned. By right of being our Creator and Sustainer of life, absolutely yes. But should any human, even if he claims to speak with God-given authority, be given unquestioned obedience? Church history is filled with despicable actions perpetrated by those who twist God’s words to suit their own agenda. We need leadership, of course. I’m not promoting anarchy; I understand the co-operative value of social hierarchies and the need for governance. However, a person who claims to represent my interests must earn my allegiance and respect; he must be questioned, especially when his actions are in opposition to my beliefs.
My parents were both brought up with the medieval proverb, “children should be seen and not heard.” It is horrible parenting advice (as was much of the parenting advice popular in my Christian homeschooling circles.) Authoritarian parenting seeks to break a child’s will; it emphasizes obedience over thoughtful conversation. (Authoritarian pastoring does the same.) It primes a person to disregard what they may feel is right in deference to a strong authority. When a person is raised with such contempt, without permission to have a voice, this self-disrespect does not disappear at age 18. Long before adulthood, these children have learned to internalize disrespect, directing their anger both inward as shame and outward in rage. (For those who still do not understand the anger in a Black Lives Matter protest, consider how four centuries of subjugation and disrespect cumulate in a person’s genes. That’s a glimpse.)
When I, and many like me, were told by educated spiritual authorities that we mattered, that our votes were needed to fight a war against drugs, a war against family values, we stepped up to fight. And it didn’t take long for an enemy to be named:
(see next post)