Editors’ Note: This is the second of a two-part essay on Conservative Christians. Click here to read Part One.
The new craze in conservative Christian churches is to become a bit of a masked avenger, a spiritual action-figure, if you will. Perhaps in keeping with all the violent game shows, action movies and reality shows, not to mention the new fascination with war and "the army of one", conservative Christians crave a challenge they can sink their teeth into. That challenge is confrontational evangelism: Putting one’s intolerance into action.
But just as there’s always a bigger fish, there’s always a more conservative denomination, a stricter adherence to biblical traditions. What some people think of as conservative, others view as liberal. Activists who incite their flock to hostility and persecution towards "liberals" or sinners (one and the same, in their opinion) call themselves "conservative", but that’s not what we would have called them at our little church in the wildwood many years ago.
We had quite a few bones to pick with these so-called "conservative" churches that claim to be saving America from the liberals. In fact, we called them liberal. They’re just lucky we didn’t use their methods to impose biblical rules and standards by force, if need be.
In our Southern "holiness" church, we considered the Southern Baptists down the road soft on sin, and headed for trouble in the hereafter. Preachers warned, especially at revival time, of the encroaching tide of Christian tolerance (due to the "Jewish liberal Hollywood" influence, we were told) for things outlawed in various parts of the Bible.
Because our family was at church every time the doors were open, I heard what seemed a million sermons on the dangerous compromises that other denominations were making with worldly influences and thus with Satan himself. The list of Baptist sins, a long one, is listed here to illustrate the dormant disagreements within conservative Christianity:
1. Their women were allowed to wear makeup
2. Baptist women styled their hair according to "Jewish/liberal Hollywood" fashion (Some even "let their hair down" literally, allowing their crown of glory to flow down freely, attracting male attention, rather than keeping it off their upper potentially erotic areas-neck, shoulders, chest and back-in modest braids, buns or what we teens called "beehives")
3. Their women sometimes wore sleeveless dresses, and Baptist men often wore short-sleeved shirts
4. They allowed coed swimming at Jr. High and Sr. High church camp
5. Many Baptist men smoked cigarettes when not at church
6. At the Baptist church nearest ours, members were known to go to the movies, thus supporting the "Jewish/liberal Hollywood" industry responsible for America’s moral decay
7. On at least one occasion, their youth group held a party at the skating rink wherein their tolerance for bodily gyrations led to dancing
8. Baptist kids were allowed to go to prom, at which dancing is not just allowed but encouraged
9. Shamelessly coed youth activities mingled boys and girls-and some even included rock music (Many pregnancies resulted from these outdoor parties and Bible study classes, after which smitten teens, fighting powerful temptations of the flesh, drove someone of the opposite sex home afterwards, or trailed off together to pray in some secluded spot)
10. Baptist men were well known to cuss at their places of business
11. Every man, woman and child was almost certainly bound for hell because of their easy one-time-only "born-again" idea, like the one to which President Bush ascribes, which is assumed sufficient, technically speaking, for an entire lifetime; contrasted to our weekly repentance, this guaranteed backsliding
12. Some of their female children were allowed to wear "the clothing of men": pants or shorts
13. Certain Baptist men claimed that beer is not technically in the same category as "strong drink", thus can be allowed; some also played cards (the sin of gambling)
14. Their women dressed up for church like Jezebels with stylish clothes, sexy shoes, and even jewelry-not plain, unadorned and modest like the kind of woman who’s worth the price of many rubies
(With the unfortunate combination of pale skin and dark hair, I particularly resented Baptists girls regarding item #1, but that is not relevant to this discussion.)
Taking the list as a whole, one can readily see that the theme is "too much tolerance" for things of this world. The Baptists were trying to be good people, perhaps, but were making compromises with worldly things; they would pay the price, come judgment day.
Gimme That Ol’ Time Religion
Before the radical religious right took over American government, tolerance of sin and sinful influences was preached against, but with different methods and words than it is now. In the "old fashioned religion", we were taught to follow Jesus’ example in terms of witnessing, "hating the sin", and evangelism. The goals I learned in church, Sunday school, vacation Bible school, prayer meeting and revival were to:
(1) share one’s Christian beliefs when asked
(2) model compassion and faith in God for those who are suffering or discouraged (Mother Teresa’s work is an excellent example),
(3) go out into the world to preach the Good News (assuming one felt "called" by God to do this), and
(4) pray for sinners and backsliders (including and especially oneself).
I tried my best to follow these instructions. As a proud member of the statewide youth evangelism team, we were quite proactive, especially on sunny Saturday mornings. We went door to door handing out brochures, offering cute little New Testaments at strip malls, singing hymns on street corners, and generally making a nuisance of ourselves to busy shoppers and hungover homeowners.
People tolerated us pretty well. Some of them probably pitied us, particularly me with my dowdy clothes, pale face and overdone enthusiasm, but a few seemed genuinely interested. Maybe some lives were changed, who knows? That was the gamble (sorry, wrong word!)-the risk that we were willing to take. In our fight against sin and our desire to save souls by bringing them to God, we were brave young teens, willing to look foolish, have the door slammed in our face, and miss Saturday morning cartoons.
While obviously we were on the far right side of conservative, in important ways the times were different, and church teaching reflected that difference. First, the goal of our evangelism was usually spiritual conversion, not political restriction. Second, going about things the old-fashioned evangelical way, we confronted sin not with hateful placards, threats of violence, bombings of clinics, or powerful political lobbies, but through prayer and our genuine if naïve attempts to model Jesus’ love for all.
It’s the method that makes the difference between the respectful evangelism of those days and the confrontational evangelism of today.
In the old days, if someone grieved us personally with behavior that interfered with our Christian lives or caused others to sin, we used Jesus’ conflict-resolution system, going first to the offender alone, then with a friend, then with others, and so on. The goal was something today’s Christian right knows little of: reason and persuasion-not litigation, castigation or legislation.
Any direct confrontation was reserved for those cases where someone’s behavior was directly interfering with our lives. For instance, one man developed the habit of snoring on the back pew at a volume that would envy a grizzly bear, such that nobody could hear a word the preacher said.
This individual, who shall remain nameless, foolishly thought that he could satisfy both his wife and the Lord by making a token appearance at church while still sleeping late. After much discussion, it was finally decided that an elder would approach Mr. X and point out his-well I don’t think they called it a sin-unseemly behavior that revealed his disrespect for the scriptures and the preacher, and deafened us all in the process.
When this didn’t work (and it didn’t), a few older people talked to him about the problem. Mr. X straightened up for a while, but it was eventually discovered that he had substituted smoking behind the church for snoozing! This led to many pointed sermons on the sins of tobacco, and Mr. X eventually stopped coming so often. Clearly, Mr. X interfered with our lives as Christians in a real way: we couldn’t hear the sermon, he was setting a bad example for teens who were all too eager to sleep during long sermons, and so on. To remedy and prevent such happenings, pastors preached against whatever it was in the person’s spirit that led them to act in such a way as to sin, particularly when that sin interfered with other members’ pursuit of righteousness.
But when it came to sins that didn’t directly interfere with our lives-e.g., when we saw sin, particularly on lifestyle issues, such as those Baptist ladies who wore "Jezebel" clothes and makeup-we were not to interfere, but to pray that the person would come to his or her senses and repent.
This is what has changed. Conservative Christianity’s new mandate is to forcibly prohibit any American from indulging in what they consider the worst sins-sins that used to be things like arrogance, selfishness, violence, greed, indifference to human suffering or even torture, but are now things like sex-ed, Halloween, cursing on TV, gay marriage, Harry Potter, "Happy Holidays" and Spongebob Squarepants.
Confrontational evangelism is the evangelism of choice in conservative churches today because it offers an outlet through which members can use their energy, passion and talents not to minister to individual souls (who may or may not be receptive or grateful), but to work with others in order to make a tangible difference in the way all Americans behave. The assumption-and it’s a big one-is this: If you change the behavior, the souls will follow. If you forcibly alter American culture, it will become more Christian. If you change the laws, it will lead to a change of heart for millions of Americans.
Since Mr. Bush became president, another related assumption has shifted from the fringe to the center of conservative Christianity: If you change American culture by whatever means necessary, God will protect it from harm. If you don’t, expect another 9/11.*
Leaders of the GOP churches in his service repeatedly stress that our culture is in a state of alarming decline and must be repaired, lest the entire nation become godless (no longer "one nation under God").
This may sound like a threat, but to conservative Christians it’s code for "get out there and change America!" This clarion call for fast, organized, highly visible political action is appealing to young people because it offers a more results-oriented short-term mission (e.g., get a law changed, a book banned, a Constitution amended) than the old "pray and hope the seed finds good soil" approach.
Conservative churches have all but ditched the old-fashioned non-confrontational "tolerant" evangelism, which carries the risk of ridicule or social rejection, and may not yield fruit for a very long time.
With the aid of elaborate marketing campaigns, they now have the option of spreading their "faith" (the euphemistic word for a particular denomination’s beliefs, prohibitions or rules) in ways that won’t make them look silly like we did out on those street corners, but will make them feel powerful, godly, triumphant and right.
So who’s a sinner and who’s not? If everybody took aggressive political action against those we consider sinners, we’d see utter chaos on the streets, the schools, the churches and the courts. Because there will always be a bigger fish-and a more righteous Christian-nobody, and I mean nobody, would be safe. Not even Southern Baptist ladies.
*This part of the bargain is particularly shocking to moderate Americans, but in fact it’s nothing new. This "spiritual warfare" obsession that’s gripping fundamentalist churches echoes the demonology and witchcraft beliefs that captured the imagination (and the hangman’s’ noose, not to mention the stake) of 17th century Europe and New England.
Dr. TERESA WHITEHURST is a clinical psychologist and writer. Her most recent book describes the nonviolent guidance of children, Jesus on Parenting, Baker Books, 9/2004.
You can contact her at DrTeresa@JesusontheFamily.org