By Roland Boer
Roland Boer previously taught at the University of Sydney, McGill University, the University of New England, the United Theological College, Sydney and the University of Western Sydney.
There seems to an unquestionable assumption that the religious right is in bed with the political right. In fact, the very name “religious right” is an indicator of this type of political alliance. On a range of issues, right-wing politicians have been able to mobilize this religious right: abortion, gay rights, sex before marriage, drugs, divorce, foreigners, and, more recently, Muslims.
This alliance between the religious and political right is based upon a distinct approach to the Bible. Most of us have met such an evangelical (understood in the English rather than the German sense of the term). They come from a “Bible-based” church, which means that they focus on the central issue, namely their personal walk with Jesus. If you have accepted Jesus into your life – as the language goes – then you will want to learn more about him from God’s word to us, the Bible, as well his gift to us, the Church. This Bible is of course inerrant, the inspired word of God (2 Timothy 3:16), and to question any detail, even the smallest, is to question God. Further, in this language of right-wing Christianity, your individual life of faith must be nurtured by a daily “quiet time,” when you read your Bible, with the help of one of the myriad guides so that you read it correctly, and pray. Social justice issues are just that, “issues,” and not central to the Gospel. On some matters, the Bible is clear, such as the condemnation of gays and lesbians (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13; Romans 1:26-7) and the subordination of women to men (1 Timothy 2:11-12), and on others we should not waste too much time, such as indigenous justice or environmental issues. Rather, what is really important is the spiritual battle between Satan and his evil spirits on the one side and God and the angels on the other. This is the vital conflict, and as a Bible-believing Christian you are a foot-soldier in God’s army, overcoming evil wherever you might see it.
However, the religious right and the political right have not always been riveted together – or rather, the “religious right” has not always been “right.” (I do not mean the small but extremely important groups such as Sojourners.) If we look at a few moments in history, that relationship turns out to be a marriage of convenience of relatively recent date, for evangelical Christianity has not always been the religious soul of the political right. Back in industrial England of the 18th and 19th centuries, when evangelicals as we know them today first saw the light of day, they were the scourge of the establishment, when that establishment was the aristocracy and the established church with its venal and much-despised parsons.
One of these was the Tory, William Wilberforce (1759-1833). For Wilberforce, evangelical Christianity meant basing his life on the Bible, and that meant taking on injustice wherever he saw it. An evangelical by the time he entered the British parliament in 1784, he saw a program of social reform as a natural part of his faith. Texts such as the words in Jesus’ mouth in Matthew 25:35-36 were crucial for Wilberforce: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Although he is most famous for his persistence in halting the slave trade (for 14 years he brought bills before the parliament before succeeding in 1833, although the bill was passed a month after his death), he also vigorously campaigned to improve the condition of the working class, bringing in measures to counter inhuman working hours and atrocious living conditions, and he was one of the founders of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).
Yet Wilberforce is by no means the best or only example. He was, after all, a Tory and one of the establishment. He may have occasionally had his boots splashed by mud as he rode through working-class districts, but he would go for weeks and not catch sight of one of the millions of British workers. These were people who worked 14 hours a day, including children, who were told that they could just as easily live off the cheaper potatoes and tea rather than the favored beer and bread, and whose bodies were broken by the time they reached their 30s.
It is in this context that the evangelical preaching of Charles Wesley took hold. Amid the widespread disdain of Church of England parsons who cared more for their own comfort than the concerns of their flocks, Wesley’s open-air events attracted thousands. They learned to read their Bibles, attended the hastily built chapels in droves, and above all tended to the radical side of politics. This was a time when all of the workers – both industrial and rural – were denied the vote on the basis of property requirements. They were even denied for long periods the right of association, trade unions, or gathering for political purposes. But that did not stop them. In fact, it only increased the desire for agitation – and this on top of the harsh working conditions.
The Methodists actually found this tendency among workers an organizational problem, for Wesley was an arch-conservative, who frowned upon democracy and felt that the way God had ordered society should not be trifled with. However, at the same time, workers movements and societies were gathering strength. Perhaps the most well-known are the secret armies of the Luddites, who rose in parts of England, deliberately targeting only the machines and factories that deprived people of their meager livelihood. But there were many, many others. And there was a propensity for Methodists to become involved. There were Methodists among the Luddites (whose oath owed much to the Methodists), Jacobins, clandestine trade unions, the protestors at the massacre of Peterloo by government troops in 1819, the Plug Rioters, the Pentridge Uprising, the Topuddle Martyrs, and the great Chartist movement had Methodist leaders and even used their hymns.
These were not exceptions but were endemic to this early form of evangelicalism. We find repeated statements by the Methodist conference warning against the tendency of preachers and members from using the skills they had learned in open-air meetings, Bible classes, and training to speak in public. For example, there is a letter of 1819 from the chapel in Newcastle, England, to the Methodist leader, Jabez Bunting:
I am glad to say, several members have quitted their classes (for they have adopted almost the whole Methodist economy, the terms “Class Leaders,” “District Meetings” etc., etc., being perfectly current among them). If men are to be drilled at Missionary and Bible meetings to face a multitude with recollection, and acquire facilities of address, and then begin to employ the mighty moral weapon thus gained to the endangering of the very existence of the Government of the country, we may certainly begin to tremble…1
Here we find that Methodists moved all too easily from missionary and Bible meetings, using their new skills of public address and organization, into radical movements. Was it merely an accident of early evangelicalism?
If we go back before the evangelicals, we find a long history of revolutionary groups who read their Bibles very closely and found their inspiration there. For example in the great multi-volume work by Karl Kautsky, called Forerunners of Socialism,2 there are accounts of the Waldensians (deriving from the 12th century and still existing today in Piedmont; they hold to the model of Christian communism in Acts), Lollards (followers of Wycliffe who stressed personal faith, divine election, and the Bible and were involved in a series of uprisings in England), Taborites (a 15th century religious movement that championed asceticism, communal living, and the establishment of the kingdom of God by force of arms), let alone Thomas Müntzer and the Peasants Revolution in 16th century Germany, or Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers of 17th century England – peaceful Christian communists who drew deeply on the Bible. They were, of course, not evangelicals in the strict sense of the term, but they are certainly forerunners to those Methodists in England.
How do we account for this very different political alignment of these early evangelicals? I would suggest it has much to do with their careful attention to the Bible since one can find radical strands in that literature as much as conservative ones. For example, alongside Romans 13: 1 – “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities … anyone who resist the authorities resists what God has appointed” – we find the attacks on wealth, property, and privilege in the sayings of Jesus such as “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25 and Parallels). In a Hellenistic context where wealth meant power, where terms for “good,” “upright,” and “beautiful” were synonymous with “wealthy,” “powerful,” and “well-born” (and where “bad,” “base,” and “ugly” were synonymous with “poor,” “weak,” and “low-born”), this is nothing less than a cultural and political challenge.3 The examples could be multiplied endlessly, but the point is that anyone who reads the Bible carefully cannot escape such tensions.
I would suggest that the reason for such tensions in the Bible and the reason why Bible-reading evangelicals are not glued to the right or the left is that the Bible itself came together in a tension between such forces. It is a common move to argue that the canon was an imposition of ruling authorities on the texts, but that neglects the fact that those responsible for putting together the canon – Rabbis/Pharisees and the leaders of the early church – were disenfranchised community leaders who squabbled constantly among themselves and who were beholden to the pressures of very different communities and their own favored texts. Ultimately, these tensions are due to underlying difficult political and economic currents, especially the fraught occupations of Judea by foreign powers, but that is another argument.
1 Quoted in Edward P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage, 1966), p. 353.
2 Karl Kautsky, Vorläufer Des Neueren Sozialismus I: Kommunistische Bewegung Im Mittelalter (Berlin: J.H.W. Dietz, 1947 [1895-7]), Karl Kautsky, Vorläufer Des Neueren Sozialismus Ii: Der Kommunismus in Der Deutschen Reformation (Berlin: J.H.W. Dietz, 1947 [1895-7]).
3 G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World from the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), pp. 338-9.