Introductory Post: Jay, Amy Orr-Ewing, & the Christian Right
May 18, 2013 John Bowling

Introductory Post: Jay, Amy Orr-Ewing, & the Christian Right

Posted in Forum Post

Hello,

This is my first time posting (and visiting the site). I heard about the site from Justin Brierley’s UK radio program Unbelievable? It’s fitting, therefore, that my first post will be dealing with an issue that arose on that very same show.

Last week’s Unbelievable? program featured Amy Orr-Ewing fielding questions from some atheist callers. Amy did a good job answer the questions, but I wanted to make some observations on the third discussion that took place between Amy and Jay (starting at 43min into the show).

Jay frames his question as being concerned with civilities between Christian-Atheist dialogue and working together on world-problems. My first thought was that this is an odd question for the atheist to be raising for the Christian. Isn’t being disrespectful to religion and the religious or (the “religulous”–as one disrespectful atheists has popularly coined)  the modus operandi for some of the poster-boys of atheism? I don’t see that the same can be said for the poster-boys of Christian apologetics.

Thus, my first knee-jerk reaction was that maybe Jay should focus on cleaning his own “house” and that would do wonders for the dialogue and maybe build some bridges. But I suppose it’s possible that Jay also raises this concern with his atheist compatriots, in which case that’s fair enough to get both sides’ take on the issue. And it’s certainly the case that Christians are sometimes disrespectful with their interlocutors–even if that’s not modeled by lead Christian apologists in the same way it is by lead Atheist apologists. I know I have been disrespectful on plenty of occasions. It’s an area I need to work on.

That’s all I really have to say about the respectful dialogue issue. But as Jay continues to speak it becomes clear that his main concern is with political issues and, specifically, the “the Christian right”. Apparently Amy Orr-Ewing has a problem with the Christian Right too. Jay says,

“My whole effort here is that when I get up in the morning I’m looking to see what we can do with the world-problems: with globalization, with the introduction of technology, with the environmental issues, with unemployment and things like that. We really do need people to get along and try to solve these problems…”

But this is framed in terms of Christians feeling they are insulted by secularists and secularists feeling like Christians are talking down to them.

I think there are two issues here that should have been parsed out. One is the issue of division over the tone of our dialogue. Another is the issue of division over our worldview differences. It’s clear that these two issues meld together in Jay’s mind but, unfortunately, Amy doesn’t do anything to clarify what’s going on here.

Some of that melding is natural and legitimate. I used to talk to an atheist on Facebook a lot. On one occasion it was mentioned that telling a child to be scared of Hell is child abuse. Well suppose the atheist was right about Hell and is also right about the utter intellectual bankruptcy of religion. If these two things are true, then it seems like he could make a reasonable case for stories of Hell being child-abuse. Now child abuse is something we should be emotionally repulsed by. It’s a serious wrong that should illicit not just intellectual disapproval but moral, emotional disapproval as well. On the other hand, suppose the Christian is correct that there is a Hell is that all men have a sense of God’s justice (and, thus, that God will punish their sins). In that case, not telling a child about a real and present danger is itself a form of abuse, isn’t it? And, again, we shouldn’t be apathetic towards it. The point is that worldview division may lead to divisive dialogue. That’s a much harder problem to overcome. Suppose one is invited to dialogue with a member of the Klu Klux Klan on Unbelievable?. It’s harder to show respect to a position you don’t believe is respectable to begin with. What we’ll need to do in this case is find reasons to have respectful dialogue even on an issue we find unworthy of our respect.

But it’s not my purpose here to spell out such reasons. Rather, I’d like to continue to try and clarify issues that become remain confused (and maybe become even more confused) as the dialogue went on between Jay and Amy. So Jay says we need to get along and solve problems like globalization, the environment, or unemployment. But this is not an issue (primarily) relating to a lack of respectful dialogue. This is an issue of worldview and political differences. I suspect that the Christian Right believes unemployment is just as much an issue as Jay and the secular left does. What divides them is how to solve the unemployment problem. That won’t be disappear by talking nicely.

Amy’s response here is unhelpful. She says that she thinks the culture wars are reflective of the churches being co-opted by an angry political movement. She singles out the Christian Right for criticism. I want to address three things: (1) being co-opted by a political movement, (2) being co-opted by an angry political movement and (3) what political issues are these angry political co-opters about?

(1) First, I don’t think Amy could have a valid complaint when it comes to the church being politically involved. Amy goes on to talk approvingly about Martin Luther King, a politically active pastor, and about churches in England being involved in a political issue of debt-forgiveness in British foreign policy. So apparently Amy thinks it’s good that the church have a political voice. Perhaps Amy’s criticism then is that the church has been “co-opted” for the wrong causes. I’ll get to that in (3). But before I get to (3)…

(2) Second, perhaps there is something Amy finds disagreeable about angry political activism in the church. It’s not political activism as such (she seems to approve of certain cases) but the tone of the political activism. That can be a valid criticism, but as I suggest above it could also be legitimate to be angry over certain things. Indeed, wasn’t Martin Luther King angry over the social injustices perpetrated by racism? Wasn’t it Dr. King’s anger that drove him and his fellow abolitionists to be activists? I think so. I think Amy should agree that anger over social injustices and harms done to innocents is an appropriate response to have and an appropriate impetus for political activism. So if Amy’s criticism is with the angry political activism per se, I find that unjustifiable.

Now, maybe Amy would want to argue that her criticism does boil down to the adjective “angry” and she finds the kind of anger expressed by “the Christian Right” to be unacceptable. I’m not sure one could substantiate such a sweeping characterization of “the Christian Right,” but at any rate the solution to this (supposing it’s a real problem) would simply involve what I said above: being respectful and finding reasons to be respectful on positions we find unworthy of respect. However, I don’t think that Amy could say that this is her main concern because she says “It’s sad to hear that the Christian faith [in the US] is not associated with a passion for the common good.” Her comments don’t focus on tone so much as the issues. This leads to my third point.

(3) Third, having ruled out the other options, I think the real issue that Amy must have (and which no doubt Jay has) are the issues of political activism in the Christian Right movement. But what exactly are the issues? Presently I think it’s indisputable that the two biggest issues in the culture war are same-sex marriage and abortion. But it seems entirely misguided to think that the Christian Right is wrong to focus on these two issues. At any rate, my concern is not to set forth an argument that the Christian Right is right to focus on these two issues, but to mere clarify that the division is primarily a factual, worldview division and not an issue of irenic dialogue. Even though I don’t know much of anything about Jay, I’m willing to bet that he would be just as upset as he presently is with the Christian Right no matter how irenic it managed to be, so long as it continued to oppose same-sex marriage and abortion.

Why? Because these are wrapped up with worldview values for Jay. Disallowing same-sex marriage is probably a form of bigotry (at least that’s how virtually everyone in the secular left and even some on the religious left frame the issue). Disallowing abortion is a form of misogyny (again, this is how it’s largely framed by the left). Amy’s failure to expose that and stand in line with the Christian Right’s political activism in this regard is misguided. She laments that “the Christian faith is not associated with a passion for the common good” but that’s exactly the basis upon which the Christian Right believes it opposes same-sex marriage and abortion!

That wraps up my main concerns, but I’d like to make some further more sporadic observations on the rest of the dialogue between Jay and Amy.

Jay:

“The arguments that are presented, and I’ll just give you one example, that is evident within the Fundamentalist Right in the United States, somebody like a Mike Huckabee will stand up after the children were murdered up in Connecticut in the school–I mean riddled with bullets, little children riddled with bullets–and he [stood up] and said on TV ‘This is because we’re pushing God out of the schools.'”

Amy:

Wow. Well, Jay, I hope you’re encouraged to hear that most Christians who would here that would just think ‘Oh my goodness, please. Let’s not do that. Let’s not say that

Now I should qualify that I’m not a fan of Mike Huckabee. I wasn’t rooting for him when he ran for president in 2008 and I’ve never followed him or paid any attention to him since then. But what’s so disagreeable about his observation? Is it factually mistaken? Or is it just that his observation is not tactful? I suspect that Jay would find it both factually mistaken and untactful. But for a Christian apologist like Amy Orr-Ewing, I think a plausible case could be made that these sorts of moral atrocities are what we should expect in a society that wants to wash its hands of God and indoctrinate it’s children in a secular worldview which apologists like Amy have incessantly argued has no grounds for moral values. (I don’t know that Amy personally makes this argument, but it is certainly a popular argument among apologists like Amy and, if I’m not mistaken, RZIM which she is a part of.)

Granted, apologists also argue that we can be good persons without god-belief. So maybe Amy would object to Huckabee’s observations on those grounds. But it doesn’t logically follow that if atheists can be worldview-inconsistent and, therefore, uphold moral values without God that we won’t see a decline in moral behavior as we see an increase in secularism. So while Huckabee may be rationally unwarranted to say with certainty that this event was caused by pushing God out of schools, it does seem like he could be rationally warranted in thinking that pushing God out of schools is a contributing cause to such events.

Amy:

I suppose what I would want to say to you is I’m really sorry that the church does misrepresent Jesus in that way.

I don’t think Huckabee speaks, or was intending to speak, for the church. So why is Amy, in relation to this issue, apologizing for the church misrepresenting Jesus? I’ve already said that I don’t think it’s clear that Huckabee’s comments are factually mistaken, given common apologists arguments about the link between God and morality. I would (and so would Amy) have to know a lot more about the context of Mr. Huckabee’s remarks to know whether they were untactful. It seems to me like Amy is willing to throw the church under the buss unnecessarily in order to appease an atheist. That’s not helpful because it simply makes the atheist feel justified in his misguided distaste for the Christian worldview.

Jay:

I just think we need an understanding, because whether you are a Christian or you’re a humanist or whatever faith you are, digging our heels in and circling the wagons to try to reinforce what our belief systems are doesn’t really serve any purpose.

Amy agrees with Jay here. But what Jay says is actually a bit confusing. How does it relate to earlier parts of the discussion? I would ask Jay if he means to imply that the political activism of the church is somehow “circling the wagons” or an attempt to “reinforce what our belief systems are” and, if so, how? Or is Jay just jumping to a different topic?

Amy:

I would want to go back to the early church and look at how the disciples lived, look at how Jesus lived, look at the principle of self-sacrifice and love of others and the kind of radical generosity that you see taught in the Bible and encourage you to look into that. And maybe to overlook some of the cultural trappings of … [cut off by Justin]

Given the context, I assume she means Jesus and the disciples weren’t involved in the issues of the Christian Right. The Christian Right represents the cultural trappings. But I don’t see Jesus or the disciples involved in the issues of Martin Luther King either, yet Amy finds that commendable. I don’t see Jesus or the disciples involved in the issue of the church in the UK that Amy mentions in regards to foreign debt, yet Amy finds that commendable. Why aren’t these cultural trappings that need to be overlooked on the same basis?

Jay:

We all say that we want to get back and we want to live a good life and we want to pattern ourselves after people, like the Christians who admire Jesus, and we want to do that. But there is something deeper behind this that creates this animosity and ‘it’s either my way or the highway’ attitude and it doesn’t seem to be getting better.

The deeper issue would be worldview.

Amy:

That’s an interesting observation. But I’m reminded of a report that came out here that was looking [inaudible word: numbers?] people volunteering charitably in the country and how many millions of pounds that saved our UK government. And seeing from the statistics how a personal faith in God and, really specifically, a Christian faith, did seem to motivate people to work for and serve their communities. So I’m sorry that that is the evidence that you observe in America, this sort of divided culture warring. And I know that that is the case, I’ve experienced that personally as well. And I think there are reasons for that–historical reasons–but I hope that the corner is turning. And I would want to suggest to you that that is not actually the global picture…

I’m tempted to ask whether a Christian in the UK is in a position to wag their finger at the church in the US, as Amy seems to be doing, given the state of Christianity in the UK (or rather lack there of). But it’s a shame Amy didn’t mention that a similar thing is true about charitable giving in the US. Maybe she just isn’t aware of it.

Amy again throws the (US) churches under the bus by apologizing on our behalf. So what solution does Amy have to the culture warring? What exactly is she apologizing about in regard to the culture warring? Does she think the culture warring model is ineffective and does she have a better UK model for us to follow?

 

Comment (1)

  1. christthetao@msn.com

    An excellent analysis. My experience of the church in Oxford, where I met Amy, is that it is lively, sincere, but tends to be unreflexively left-wing. I remember two speakers in a row at the Christian institute where I was doing doctoral research, preaching against Global Warming, and botching their facts in the process. (Including the former head of Social Sciences at Oxford University, who claimed that CO2 was the chief greenhouse gas in the atmosphere — forgetting about water vapor! — among other things.) Then a friend, a warm evangelical and man of prayer, seemed pleased when his son joined the demonstrations against government cutbacks in London — which turned into riots. What, do we simply assume it is morally virtuous for the government to spend us all into the poorhouse?

    And most irritating of all, the assumption is that left-wing zealotry is such an obvious moral virtue, that those who demur must be in sin.

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