Sunday, December 11, 2011

GOP, Family Values, and Faith: Mark Oppenheimer's Take

Mark Oppenheimer takes a look in New York Times at how questions of faith and family values are playing out in the current Republican presidential-contender debates.  I'm intrigued by what Oppenheimer has to say about the shift in recent decades in how the religious right and GOP view divorce.

Oppenheimer cites Randall Balmer, who teaches religion at Barnard (and is a biographer of Billy Graham), and who has done a careful survey of references to divorce in one of the leading American Protestant (and evangelical-leaning) journals, Christianity Today.  Balmer notes that after the election of divorced and remarried Ronald Reagan (a darling of the religious right), the issue of divorce "dropped out of sight" in Christianity Today.  While the journal published essays and arguments stigmatizing divorce for Christians up through the 1970s, it stopped doing so after Reagan was elected.

I'm intrigued by this information because it says two things to me.  First, it indicates the considerable extent to which political (and behind that, economic and social) considerations drive faith-based discourse about these family values and morality-centered issues.  This despite the claims of many right-leaning voters that they're voting their consciences and seeking to uphold unchanging, biblically grounded moral truths.

If Christianity Today thought divorce was a moral issue worth harping on up to the election of Reagan, but it stopped the harping after Reagan's election, what are we to conclude except that the moral teaching and family-values teaching of the religious right (and of centrists who collude with the right in shaping public discourse) is contingent on social shifts that legitimate what was once considered impossible to legitimate, in biblical and theological terms?  Particularly when the shift is occurring in the circles of the powerful.

And that brings me to the second point that I think is worth noting here.  As Balmer notes, by the time Reagan was elected, divorce and remarriage had become a fact of life among many communities of faith who remained, on the books, officially opposed to divorce and remarriage.  One of the reasons the church's discourse about these issues shifted is that it caught up with an irreversible sociological trend that made much of what pastors were saying in the pulpit appear beside the point, if not downright silly, when they talked about marriage and family values.

It made much that pastors were preaching, in fact, hypocritical, when they were pretending that the church communities to which they were preaching were practicing something entirely different than they actually were practicing.  Quite a bit like the way in which Catholic hierarchical teaching about contraception now appears not merely silly but overtly hypocritical, when it's proclaimed from the pulpit and by powerful centrist media mavens colluding with the bishops in making contraception an issue in the current presidential campaign.

I'm not arguing that the moral discourse of faith-based communities should be driven by sociological shifts.  I am arguing that it must pay attention to those shifts, however, and be honest about them, and engage them and the people living through those shifts, if it expects to be credible.

(P.S. It would be interesting to do a study similar to Balmer's to see what Christianity Today has been publishing about homosexuality in the same period in which Balmer does his probe.  I have an inkling--and this is, in fact, backed up by information a theologian friend of mine who's a Presbyterian minister and retired dean of a Methodist seminary sends me--that while Christianity Today dropped divorce from its list of family-values issues once Reagan was elected, it didn't drop the issue of homosexuality.  The journal has been timid to downright hostile, when it comes to endorsing gay rights.  And, as it continues this stance, it both reflects the considerable hostility to the gay community that remains in many evangelical churches, and it helps provide centrist cover for that hostility.)

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