Christian Right Diverse, Polite, and Thoughtful
While I’m a huge fan of Christopher Hitchens as a writer, let’s face it, the man can be a jackass. And while I largely share his views on organized religion, I find his condescension rather mean-spirited. So when he penned a column for Slate articulating “What I’ve learned from debating religious people around the world,” I was expecting the worst. And was thus pleasantly surprised.
I haven’t yet run into an argument that has made me want to change my mind. After all, a believing religious person, however brilliant or however good in debate, is compelled to stick fairly closely to a “script” that is known in advance, and known to me, too. However, I have discovered that the so-called Christian right is much less monolithic, and very much more polite and hospitable, than I would once have thought, or than most liberals believe. I haven’t been asked to Bob Jones University yet, but I have been invited to Jerry Falwell’s old Liberty University campus in Virginia, even though we haven’t yet agreed on the terms.
Usually, when I ask some Calvinist whether he is really a Calvinist (in the sense, say, of believing that I will end up in hell), there is a slight reluctance to say yes, and a slight wince from his congregation. I have come to the conclusion that this has something to do with the justly famed tradition of Southern hospitality: You can’t very easily invite somebody to your church and then to supper and inform him that he’s marked for perdition. More to the point, though, you soon discover that many of those attending are not so sure about all the doctrines, either, just as you very swiftly find out that a vast number of Catholics don’t truly believe more than about half of what their church instructs them to think. Every now and then I read reports of polls that tell me that more Americans believe in the virgin birth or the devil than believe in Darwinism: I’d be pretty sure that at least some of these are unwilling to confess their doubts to someone who calls them up on their kitchen phone.
To be sure, he gets in a barb here and there. But what he’s discovered is that people of faith are often, if not usually, decent, intelligent folks with minds of their own.
Hitchens interprets this as a sign that religious faith is losing out to secularism, which he and I both consider “a wholly good development” and “part of the pluralism and polycentrism that distinguish the sort of society that we have to defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” But I differ with him a bit in assessing the degree to which religiosity is withering versus simply evolving. For a variety of cultural and psychological reasons, most Americans continue to be religious believers. But they’re also children (or, perhaps more accurately, great-great grandchildren) of the Enlightenment and the Reformation. So they hold onto the parts they believe or find comfort in and adapt the rest to fit the world they live in.