How the Religious Right Gets It Wrong
and What to Do about It
By Martin Thielen
February 1, 2024
When I was fifteen, I made a profession of faith at a religious right church in Oklahoma. The next Sunday I put on a white robe, waded into the baptismal pool of the sanctuary, and got plunged into the sacred waters of baptism.
That afternoon at a special family luncheon, my relatives celebrated my newfound faith, baptism, and church membership (where all of them were lifelong members). When he offered grace over the meal, my grandfather profusely thanked God for saving my soul and bringing me into the Christian fold. The baptism day feast then began, featuring fried chicken, pot roast, southern style vegetables, sweet iced tea, and homemade apple pie.
An Early Warning
Lunch conversation ranged from church to sports to politics. One of my kinfolks vigorously complained about the forced busing program being implemented to integrate our local schools, including the high school I attended.
He then began railing about (I remember the words vividly) “all those uppity niggers who are ruining our country and our community.” Nobody blinked an eye. Nobody took offense. Instead, his opinion summarized the family consensus.
The people sitting around the table that day celebrating my baptism were good folks with sincere faith and noble traits whom I loved and adored (and still do). But not one of them realized how incongruent their racial prejudices were with their professed faith in Jesus Christ.
Although I felt uncomfortable with the discussion, I wasn’t sure how to articulate my discomfort or even if I should, so I remained silent. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was getting my first lesson in the frequent disconnect between religious right Christianity and Jesus of Nazareth. It wouldn’t be the last.
The Disconnect Between Religious Right Christianity and Jesus
Today, many (although not all) religious right Christians believe Jesus dislikes LGBTQ persons, immigrants, liberals, elites, science, welfare, MSNBC, wokeness, critical race theory, Joe Biden, non-Christians, and Democrats. On the other side of the ledger, they believe Jesus loves America, churchgoers, capitalism, the military, conservatives, Fox News, guns, MAGA Republicans, aggressive masculinity, and Donald Trump.
The fact that the life, teachings, and example of Jesus challenge these assumptions doesn’t deter religious right Christianity one iota. In short, when it comes to following Jesus, the religious right, in the words of Jim Wallis, consistently “gets it wrong.” And these errors need to be challenged, just as Jesus challenged the toxic religion of his day (see Matthew 23). But first, two important disclaimers need to be made.
First, I’m not suggesting that every religious right Christian “gets it wrong.” Many (if not most) of them love Jesus, serve God, live ethical lives, care for their families, contribute to their communities, and make excellent friends and neighbors. This article is not a condemnation of rank-and-file, pew-sitting, religious right believers. Instead, it’s a critique of the overall toxic spirit of extreme right-wing institutional religion in America.
Second, other branches of Christianity also get plenty of things wrong, including the Roman Catholic Church, mainline denominations, and the Orthodox church, and I often write about it. However, the most dominant and visible expression of faith in America today is religious right Christianity. And sadly, its flaws are numerous, overt, and troubling. Several examples follow.
Eight Ways the Religious Rights Gets It Wrong
- The religious right is wrong about the Bible. It’s belief in biblical inerrancy, which is not taught in Scripture, leads to massive problems. And a 6,000-year-old earth, a God who condones genocide, and a literal bodily ascension of Jesus into the sky (to mention just a few problematic examples) is impossible to believe for most thinking people in the twenty-first century.
- The religious right is wrong about women. In the name of God and Scripture, it promotes second-class citizenship for women. For example, it tells women to submit to their husbands and insists that women cannot serve as ministers, even if they are gifted and called.
- The religious right is wrong about the LGBTQ community. It tells LGBTQ persons that they are an abomination to God. It constantly fights against LGBTQ rights. And it promotes hateful prejudice and cruelty toward LGBTQ persons, with tragic consequences.
- The religious right is wrong about science. It constantly rejects proven scientific facts including evolution, human-made climate change, and the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. It often shares anti-science conspiracy theories from its pulpits and social media posts, making the world a more dangerous place.
- The religious right is wrong about race. It enables white supremacist ideology in numerous ways including attacks on critical race theory and the Black Lives Matter movement. It resists teaching racial history in public schools and universities. It denies the reality of white privilege and systemic racism. And it supports numerous organizations with questionable racial positions.
- The religious right is wrong about politics. It engages in hyper-partisanship. It demonizes Democrats. It admires political authoritarianism. And it gives overwhelming and unyielding support to Donald Trump, who violates every value it claims to hold including character, decency, marital fidelity, truth telling, family values, and the preservation of democracy.
- The religious right is wrong about America. It conflates love of God with love of America. It supports an “America first” philosophy that ignores God’s love for all nations. It encourages the scourge of extreme Christian nationalism. And it assumes America is a new Israel, leading to bad theology, bad citizenship, and bad public policy.
- The religious right is wrong about Jesus. It violates the example and teachings of Jesus in dozens of ways, including his call to love, kindness, inclusion, grace, mercy, compassion, and justice. Although it likes to ask the question, “What would Jesus do?,” it consistently chooses to do the opposite.
Unfortunately, many more examples of the religious right getting it wrong could be given, including demonization of immigrants, prejudice against Muslims, neglect of social justice, and an overall spirit of anger, fear, negativity, and self-righteous judgmentalism.
In short, religious right Christianity has become a highly negative force, doing great damage to the Christian faith, the American church, and the common good of humanity. In the words of Obery Hendricks Jr., religious right faith has devolved into “Christians against Christianity.”
Do’s and Don’ts for Dealing with the Religious Right
I don’t have easy answers for dealing with the religious right movement in America. No simple answers exist. Although religious right Christianity (like other religious groups) is in decline, it still holds an outsized influence in today’s religious, cultural, and political arenas. And given the current polarized climate, it doesn’t seem interested in moderation or compromise.
As a result, coping with religious right Christianity presents complex challenges, especially for mainline and other nonevangelical Christians. After fifty years of living in “Bible belt” communities dominated by religious right ideology, I’ve developed a few modest strategies for dealing with it, as you can see in the following “do’s and don’ts” list.
- Do depart the life-diminishing environment of religious right Christianity. Staying will only poison your soul. And try as you may, you will not change religious right culture.
- Do find a new tribe of believers. Look for a community of faith that seeks to emulate the love of Jesus. Perfect places don’t exist. But reasonably healthy places can be found.
- Do try to be a positive example of authentic Christianity. Bear witness to your community that Christians can be kind, open-minded, and compassionate.
- Don’t argue with religious right believers. You won’t change their mind. Instead, you will only upset yourself (and them) for no tangible benefit.
- Don’t nurse superior or arrogant attitudes toward religious right believers. You are not better than them. You just see the world differently.
- Don’t ignore positive elements of religious right Christianity including biblical literacy and a commitment to reaching people for Christ and the church.
Offering a Positive Alternative
Over the past year, hundreds of Doubter’s Parish readers have shared with me a similar sentiment. They tell me that, given the overwhelming toxicity of religious right Christianity in America, especially in the Trump era, they no longer call themselves Christians. Instead, they identify as “followers of Jesus,” or something similar.
Whether you identify as a Christian, a follower of Jesus, or something else, one thing is overwhelming clear. The world desperately needs positive examples of authentic Christian living. In every community across the land, people need to see individuals and institutions who seek to follow the life, example, spirit, and teachings of Jesus. Perhaps you and your faith community can help meet that need. It would certainly help.
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