Shifting the Rhetoric on the Christian Right

[Note: This is Part One of a two-part post]

Last time out, I closed with these thoughts:

[L]iberals have not been as creative in their messaging and strategy as they could be. . .If we are patient and humble and willing to carefully study the groups we are attempting to enlist in our cause, then we may find greater success in the future.

Today I want to talk about one of the areas where liberals have suffered from a lack of creativity and effective rhetoric: the conflict with the Christian Right.

When I think about liberal perceptions of the Christian Right, I actually see a lot of parallels to conservative perceptions about radical Islam. In both cases, you have a political constituency that feels threatened by the explicit goals and achievements of a overtly devout religious group. In both cases, there are very good examples of the evil consequences that can occur when these devout religious groups pursue their agenda. And in both cases, the threatened constituencies have embraced a rhetorical approach that has little or no chance of reducing the power of these religious groups.

Let’s briefly review the failures of conservatives to come up with an appropriate response to radical Islam. Having (correctly) observed after 9/11 that radical Islamic forces like the Taliban in Af/Pak and the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia have little respect for the basic human rights recognized throughout the Western world, conservatives wanted to fight that perceived evil. Their strategy, however, has been to embrace a “total war” approach to Islam that regards every Muslim, regardless of his or her age, location, ethnicity, or citizenship, to be a terrorist sympathizer or operative. Therefore, conservatives have established a cottage industry of Islamophobia that sells a vision of Christianity and Islam as being in an unavoidable and total war of religious values.

But as any serious scholar of Islam (or terrorism, for that matter) can tell you, Islam is not a monolithic entity. There are many different strains and regional variations of the faith, and no centralized (earthly) authority that can resolve internal disputes among fellow Muslims. The greatest challenge of Islamic terrorists when building support for their efforts is convincing fellow Muslims that all righteous members of the faith are under assault from a corrupt Western world with colonialist intentions. By portraying all Muslims as part of a vast global conspiracy and attacking aspects of Islam that all practicing Muslims can identify with (like burning the Koran or trying to block the construction of a house of worship) conservatives are actually doing the terrorists’ jobs for them by providing evidence of a “War on Islam” that terrorists can use in their recruitment and fundraising efforts. Conservatives may think they are rallying Americans against a serious threat, but they have actually done more to rally Islamists against the West. In their rush to tar all Muslims with the brush of radicalism, conservatives have ignored less dramatic but far more effective means of exploiting cleavages within the Islamic world and isolating radical extremists from the broader Islamic culture.

So how does this correspond with liberals and the Christian Right? Liberals have also (correctly) observed that the Christian Right does not have much respect for the Equal Protection Clause (in regards to women and immigrants),  the Establishment Clause, or “positive rights” not embodied in the Constitution but (once again) widely recognized throughout the world’s democracies. But while most liberals have at least an intellectual understanding that not all Christians belong to the Christian Right, liberal rhetoric fails to make those critical distinctions. All too often, the implication of the phrase “Christian Right” is that “Right”, like the “radical” in “radical Islam”, is redundant. And almost without exception, the liberal obsession with the Christian Right has prevented liberals from thinking about or addressing those Christians who are either outside the Christian Right or on the periphery of the Christian Right coalition. Liberal attacks on the Christian Right are far too often either deliberately constructed or accidentally interpreted as attacks on Christianity itself, which serves to strengthen the Christian Right’s narrative of a secular war of extermination against all Christians and their religious values.

So how do we do that? How do we speak to those Christians? I would argue that first and foremost, liberals must do a better job of speaking the right language. In the fight against radical Islam, Americans are hamstrung by an inability to speak either the literal language (Arabic) of Islam or the metaphorical language of the Koran. Fortunately, liberals speak the same literal language as the Christian Right, but they have largely been unwilling or unable to speak the metaphorical language of the Bible.

When liberals speak about the Christian Right, they speak with language calculated to resonate with fellow liberals. That’s where we get the epithets “Jesus freaks”, “fundamentalists” (often shortened to “fundies”), “radicals,” and “Christian Taliban”/”American Taliban” (preferred by the creator of this blog). While I realize that these labels are typically used outside of mixed company, it should be noted that these labels have severe drawbacks when used in the presence of Christians. “Jesus freak” has actually been reclaimed as a badge of honor for devout Christians (it was even made into a song by  the Contemporary Christian Music industry). The label itself makes no distinction between different expressions of religious devotion, which makes it singularly unsuited for winning over practicing Christians. “Radicals” is just as bad, if not worse, because most Christians thinkers, regardless of their partisan leanings, would agree that Jesus preached a radical message. Radicalism is something that many Christians aspire to, and the label “radical” does not give any guidance as to what kind of radicalism is being described or condemned.

“Fundamentalists” is a little bit better, because it hints at a harsher, legalistic form of Christianity and is not a label that many mainline Protestants and Catholics would identify with. But it’s still a fairly generic label and one that can be “reclaimed” by Christian rightwingers who can retort that their opponents are secular atheists and “cafeteria Christians” who refuse to follow all of God’s fundamental rules. “Christian Taliban” also hints at a harsher, more legalistic Christianity, and does so by association with a religious group that is universally condemned in mainstream American culture, both religious and secular. But it does so by way of a false equivalency, because Christians have never taken over America’s government at gunpoint, outlawed the education of women, and handed down religious death sentences in public stadiums. It’s rhetorical hyperbole, and therefore unlikely to connect or resonate with a Christian audience that finds conservative narratives of more religion in government appealing. Even Stefan would have to admit that no one in his religious hall of infamy is calling for teenage girls to be shot in the head for speaking in favor of educational opportunities (so happy to hear that Malala is out of the hospital, btw). Such hyperbole is not uncommon, but it is not helpful if we are trying to fracture the conservative Christian coalition.

So we need a different sort of label, a rhetorical label that will condemn a very particular form of Christian belief and advocacy (judgmental, self-righteous, ostentatious, hypocritical and legalistic) in a way that won’t alienate devout Christians and can be backed up with language that resonates with Christian believers. So far, liberals have failed to seize upon a phrase that can serve as the centerpiece of a counteroffensive against the Christian Right’s political narrative.

But I think we can do better.

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