A while ago Richard reposted “Can I have my word back please?” The word he was referring to was evangelical.
Words bleed and blend and spill into all sections of our lives, evangelical has been used by media (particularly - but not limited to the US) to identify and group people that are often concerned with what are called ‘wedge issues’; social and religious concerns that have been framed and co-opted for political gain.
The term religious right also causes great confusion especially since it has been identified and exploited in a political movement (and in a US political party) for over a generation.
Anyone who hangs around and belongs to religious communities knows the religious right is not a monolithic block, most of us can distinguish between what is known as hard or soft positions in our own countries and in others. If we aren’t clear, there is information available for study at our fingertips.
While people may believe they are being insulted when they hear the term such as religious right (often because they hold to orthodoxy in their faith and their denomination) the label may not have the meaning they ‘hear’ the user as giving it.
Someone from the southern US may hear such a label as a derogatory slur or a badge of honour for different reasons that someone in Canada might. Someone from Pennsylvania may perceive it as a slight coming from someone from Europe.
That someone will ‘hear’ or someone will ‘use’ many labels differently is a given.
Because politicians, media and the rest of us have used the term religious right for so long offense is often taken where no offense is intended, on sides of any issue that is under discussion. Letha Dawson Scanzoni:
…many people now associate the term (evangelical) with wealth, political power, militarism, judgmentalism, intolerance, and an arrogance that is totally contrary to the spirit of the gospel (and contrary to those who retain the original meaning of “evangelical”)
Baby steps. We can take back words one by one. And that means being clear, as Richard was in his post.
Many books from various disciplines have been written on the subject of the religious right and while groups and individuals find themselves frustrated in attempts to dialogue, there are some ways we can begin to move past wedges into thoughtful, meaningful and honest discussion.
While evangelicals can comprise sections of the religious right, so can many others, some who have little or nothing to do with faith or Christianity at all. Rather than attempt to break down the wide spectrum of religious right here, a basic look at group dynamics helps. Letha Dawson Scanzoni:
1) Aggressive combatants. These are the leaders who mobilize their followers to go to battle against whatever they consider to be the current threat
2) Loyal followers, who consider the Combatants to be their religious authorities, buying their books, tuning in to their broadcasts, accepting their interpretations of the Bible, and responding to their fundraising pleas
3) Thoughtful Questioners, who were drawn to the movement by its emphasis on a personal relationship with God and the importance of the Bible in their lives but are not convinced that all issues are settled or that all the answers are already in;
4) Hurting Strugglers, sincere believers who earnestly practiced their faith and followed the rules they had been taught, yet were faced with some circumstance that turned their well-ordered world upside down — a divorce, a gay child, a pregnant teenager, domestic violence, mental illness, job loss, bankruptcy, a suicide in the family.
Scanzoni is referring to a wedge issue that is playing out in US politics.
Leaders need wedges, they need to be able to frame debate, move public opinion, grow their power and achieve their agendas around hot button issues of the day.
What is important to acknowledge is that while leaders may be impervious to dialogue, questioners and strugglers are coming from a completely different place. And it is important that we approach people in our conversation with an openness and awareness where we can work to find common ground.
That is more probable on a local level, but since we have the internet and we bridge countries with a click, we are continuously learning to dialogue with people from cultures and experiences very different than our own, often stumbling when we seek commonality over even basic words and their meanings.
It does no good to dismiss everyone we think are coming from rigidity as impervious, and it does no good to assume sincere people of faith are ignorant bible thumpers. Nor does it do any good to give ground to leaders and loyal followers that wish to dismiss people that parrot with unquestioning obedience well used terms such as ” the bible is inerrant” the bible says X is wrong, ” the bible says…” Insert your own phrase of choice here.
If we fall into that trap of keeping the conversation around the wedge and not the individual, it is easier for leaders to continue the frames they want. Religious right leaders need to keep the mimes going that evangelicals, liberals and progressives who do not major on their minors are tossing out God, the bible, faith, the proverbial babies with the bath water. Likewise it is useful for those on the political left to reverse the wedges, labels and the accusations.
For those of us who have seen our words and our faith co-opted and have stood feeling helpless, frustrated and angry when bumping into ideas of various religious right groups, there are things we can do.
1. Homework. If we do not understand who we are talking to, where they are coming from and why this person believes what they do, we’re going to be left sputtering and silent. Distinguish. Listen. Learn.
Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates and many others in the US have spend many years learning about religious and political divides. He helps teach people how to distinguish the language, people and politics of faith and has studied US religious right groups for many years.
Leaders are often â€œprofessionalâ€ right-wingers. Theyâ€™ve made a career of promoting a rightist agenda and attacking progressives and progressive issues. Followers, on the other hand, may not be well-informed. They are often mobilized by fears about family and future based on information that, if true, would indeed be frightening. This so-called â€œeducationâ€ is often skillful, deceitful, and convincing. These followers may take positions that are more extreme than those of the leaders, but on the other hand, they may not know exactly what they are supporting by attending a certain organizationâ€™s rally or conference.
He’s right. To assume followers have full information is to do individuals a great disservice. To assume everyone who believes or repeats certain frames has the same level of commitment and loyalty is unjust.
Listening to each others concerns and grievances and being respectful sounds so simple. I can attest that it is not, there are times it is not possible to move through or past ethnocentricity in discussion with individuals. But I also affirm it is vital to keep trying, not only for continued heath of the political and social structures in our lives, our physical and virtual communities, but also for our faith and our well-being. From one of my readers at BDBO who is so willing and so able to look past labels and misunderstandings:
…we are here to reconcile the reality of the world with the reality of God.
We are not here to judge. We are here to save souls.
PSALM 46:10 (New International Version)
New International Version (NIV)
Copyright Â© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society
10 â€œBe still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.â€