Church and State: How Bad Religion Gets It Wrong on Government5 min read

Competent journalist friends of mine have been doing good reporting lately on the unholy intersections between conservative religion and conservative political ideology within Tea Party and Republican circles. Whereas lazy corporate media types tried to convince us that the Tea Party marks a break with Religious Right dominance inside the GOP, it was always obvious to serious observers that an anti-tax gospel has been a major feature of Religious Right teaching for decades. And thus it was equally obvious that the smarmy Ralph Reeds of this world would surely find their place in any new Grand Coalition of anti-government activists.

As Jeff Sharlet has chronicled in two brilliant books, the single most powerful religious group in U.S. political life–the secretive conservative Christian group known as The Family–got its start by mobilizing powerful captains of industry to oppose the growth of unions and to resist pro-union legislation during the 1930s. It’s not really hard to show how bad religion and a virulent anti-government ideology have functioned as soul mates, if you can pardon the expression, for a very long time.

An interesting test case arose in Alabama eight years ago when conservative Republican governor Bob Riley, a born-again Southern Baptist, tried very carefully to make a biblical case for changes to a notoriously regressive tax system in that state. Gov. Riley’s changes would have benefited the lowest-wage paid workers in that state and would have made more affluent people pay a bit more. The so-called Christian Coalition rose up to crush Riley’s initiative like a bug.

Likewise, we don’t need to go far to find conservative religious leaders here in California who stand ready to rally the faithful against any move toward fairer and more progressive taxation. These leaders apparently believe that grotesque social inequality is part of “God’s plan” and that reforming a seriously flawed tax code that contributes to growing inequality is somehow satanic.

I have been calling this “bad religion,” but I should be more precise and call it what it really is: domesticated religion–religion that has become captive to peculiarly American ideas about the sanctity of private property and the unquestioned moral virtue of entrepreneurial culture. It is religion that forgets the essential point that we belong to each other–and that we truly are each other’s keepers. Noted environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben sometimes refers to American Christianity as “Franklinity” on account of the huge numbers of U.S. Christians who believe that Franklin’s “God helps those who help themselves” can be found in the Bible.

The good news is that the more toxic expressions of the anti-government gospel will be slowly losing their power. Younger white evangelical Christians are almost as likely as other young adults, for example, to see a positive role for government in lifting people out of dire poverty and in providing opportunities for all to thrive. Younger Catholics are rediscovering the noble social justice teachings of their faith. Conservative Christians in communities of color are consistently less hostile to government than their white counterparts–and their numbers are growing.

And there is more good news from the organizing front. Together with a number of interfaith partners, I have been working for the past year to create a “network of networks” called California Faith Action that will do two things. It will rally people of good will from all faith traditions to advocate much more powerfully for the needs of young Californians and of the most vulnerable Golden State residents. But California Faith Action will also bring communities of faith more directly into the arena of systemic or constitutional reform to ensure that an ideologically-committed political minority cannot continue to blight our state’s future.

We have already discovered that one of the most powerful tools in our Faith Action toolkit will be simple basic information on issues like wealth distribution, comparative tax rates and tax trends over time, and how various voter-approved initiatives and ballot measures that were perfectly well-intentioned at the outset have turned out to have perverse results. As I tell faith audiences throughout the state, our issue in California is not really a Left-Right issue, but a Top-Bottom issue in which enormous corporate and private wealth has effectively “seceded” from the state–causing the rest of us to fight for crumbs.

This is language that people of faith can understand. Among the Abrahamic faith traditions, Judaism and Islam have always put support for the common good at the very center of ethical concern. They have always challenged the power and prerogatives of private wealth. My own faith tradition, I regret to say, is the one that became excessively domesticated on these shores: subordinated to the deeper-level American creed of acquisitive individualism, with more of John Locke than of Jesus Christ in the mix. But moderate-to-conservative American Christians cannot escape the reality that Jesus preached and practiced solidarity with the poor and warned against the perils of private accumulation at the expense of the commons; Jesus did not show contempt for the poor while deferring to the rich and powerful. Somewhere deep down all Christians, even the more conservative ones, also recognize that private charity is ultimately no substitute for public justice.

What we will be saying through California Faith Action is that government, like private persons, cannot serve two masters. It cannot serve Mammon and be worthy of our respect, let alone God’s respect. It must serve the common good–and in so doing also serve the will and purpose of the Creator, who (according to the great Hebrew prophets) takes no delight at all in our ritual expressions of piety but is supremely delighted when human beings show solidarity for one another and thus honor the divinely-bestowed dignity of each child, woman, and man.


Rev. Peter Laarman is Executive Director of Progressive Christians Uniting in Los Angeles. He leads an interfaith team developing a new statewide network called California Faith Action. This piece is republished from Speak Out California.