Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Richard Hughes on the Riddle of Conservative American Christianity: No Room for the Common Good

As a supplement to what I just posted about the centrality of practical compassion—of “the wondrous process of saving all living things”—to the religious traditions of the world, I’d like to recommend today a marvelous two-part series of articles by Richard T. Hughes of Messiah College.  Richard Hughes is a scholar of American religion. 

In his recent two-part Huffington Post series on why conservative Christians in the U.S. so often fail the common good (here and here), Hughes tries to decipher the “riddle” of conservative Christianity in the U.S.

How is it that a group of devoutly Christian people who profess to take the scriptures seriously in every jot and tittle can so conspicuously overlook what’s absolutely central to the Jewish and Christian bible: concern for the oppressed and peacemaking?  Hughes’ insight: we American Christians have deliberately blinded ourselves to what is central to the scriptures, as we focus on what’s not central at all—having a “personal relationship with Jesus” and saving souls.  We have turned the Christian faith into a privatistic enterprise that bears little relationship to what faith is all about in the Jewish and Christian scriptures: building a world in which the poor count and peace prevails.

In Hughes’ view, we have ended up in this state of cultural captivity for three reasons:

1. We read the scriptures through the lens of American radical individualism, which “translates into a privatistic form of religion that essentially excludes concern for the common good” as we parse scripture.

2. We read the bible through the lens of American capitalism, as a large majority of Americans report that they follow the biblical teaching that “God helps those who help themselves”—a saying that is not in the scriptures at all, but comes from Ben Franklin. 

3. And we read scripture through the lens of power and control, in the belief that we have not only the right but an obligation to impose our privatistic, capitalistic-minded worldview on others—in the name of God.

Though Hughes is addressing American evangelicals (and those seeking to understand the worldview of evangelicals), what he’s saying can also be applied to many American Catholics, who are equally captive to a culture of radical individualism, unbridled capitalism, and lust for political power and control of those who see the world differently.  Hughes’s phrase “common good” is central to Catholic social teaching, as is the concept of solidarity that flows from that phrase.

But these concepts receive short shrift among American Catholics who began making common cause with the religious right in the final decades of the 20th century, and who now want to strengthen that alliance even more with the Manhattan Declaration.

I highly recommend Hughes’s insightful commentary to anyone trying to understand American religiosity and its considerable influence on world politics today.