Friday, October 14, 2005

Prophecy Belief and Constitutional Boundaries

A group of ultraconservative political operatives have harnessed a particular reading of Biblical prophecy, known as Premillenial Dispensationalism, (embraced by tens of millions of evangelical Christians) and transformed these beliefs into campaigns to deny basic rights to groups of people framed as sinful and subversive.

Premillennial means a belief that Jesus Christ returns in the End Times and, after a series of confrontations and battles against evil, he reigns over an earthly utopia for a thousand years…a millennium. Therefore, Christ returns before (“pre”) the Godly millennial kingdom. Dispensations are epochs, or blocks of history, during which certain things happen. Premillennial Dispensationalists think that we are poised on the edge of that historic epoch during which the End Times preface the second coming of Christ and his millennial reign.

A large portion of Christian evangelicals who hold these specific theological beliefs also believe that devout and Godly Christians, before the tremendous confrontations or “Tribulations” that culminate in a huge global Battle of Armageddon, will be spared injury or death when they are brought away from Earth and held in God’s protective embrace in an event called the “Rapture.”

It is easy to poke fun at these types of religious beliefs, but it is deeply offensive and provocative in a way that undermines a serious and important public debate over the proper boundaries for religious belief and public policy decisions. It is not accurate to dismiss Christians who hold these beliefs as ignorant, uneducated, or crazy. Social scientists have thoroughly refuted these stereotypes with polling data and in-depth interviews. In addition, it is not fair to ask people of faith simply to abandon their beliefs when they step into the Public Square or political arena.

It is also not fair, however, for those in the Religious Right to use God as a trump card in public policy debates.

Premillennial Dispensationalism and a belief in the Rapture have only recently been steered toward a particular ultraconservative agenda. For many decades the evangelicals who held these beliefs were wary of too much political participation, which they saw as pulling them away from their religious obligations and devotions. Most felt that God’s plan for the End Times would reveal itself without the need for political activism. After all, God in the millennial utopia would ultimately reward devout Christians, and this was especially true if they believed the Rapture would protect them from all harm during the End Times confrontations.

In the 1970s a group of right-wing political operatives, seeking to rollback the economic policies and social safety net woven by the Roosevelt Administration, decided to recruit evangelicals into their political movement to take over the Republican Party. In doing so they pushed political debate in our country away from democracy and toward theocracy.

Evangelicals, however, require a Biblically based reason for their actions. Christian Right leaders, including Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, Paul Weyrich, James Dobson, and Pat Robertson, provided the justification by arguing that, according to the Bible, Christians had an obligation to struggle against evil in the political arena, and to purify and restore the sanctity of secular society.

The leaders of the Religious Right mobilized millions by arguing there was no compromise with evil. The political operatives provided long lists of who was evil and how these sinners were subverting God’s plan for America. They presumed to speak for God and country. Moreover, they created a politicized religious movement willing to strip away rights from persons categorized as sinful. This type of demonization and scapegoating is toxic to democracy. It erodes the concept of informed consent and masks prejudice and bigotry with a veneer of religious devotion.

Because the leaders of the Religious Right have mobilized such a large voter base, they regularly have meetings with powerful political leaders, including the President. Today the Religious Right plays a major role in shaping foreign and domestic policies.

We can change this situation. The Religious Right does not speak for all Christians or even all evangelicals. The leaders of the Religious Right sometimes argue for policy positions that make their own followers uncomfortable. In a constitutional democracy, the ideal path for the nation is always open to debate; and the idea of God is too big for small minds to shackle. If we want to defend the Constitution, we must learn the religious beliefs of those evangelicals who dominate the Religious Right, treat them respectfully, and yet engage them in a critical public conversation over the appropriate boundaries for civic political debate set by the founders and framers of our nation.

Ported from Campaign to Defend the Constitution

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