Tag Archives: christianity

How Jerry Falwell Changed the Republican Party

By Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

Jerry Falwell “stamped out” anti-Semitism in the Republican Party, said Michael Sean Winters, a reporter for the National Catholic Reporter—and no Falwell sympathizer—at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC earlier this week.

By making Israel a concern for conservative Christians, Falwell ensured anti-Semitism “has no political currency,” Winters explained. “Although he himself and many people in his pews had some anti-Semitism, there’s no political oxygen for those kinds of attitudes to reach any expression—and I think that’s undeniably a good thing.”

Winters, author of the new book, God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right, appeared at CAP on Monday with Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne to discuss how the controversial figure has shaped both Christianity and politics in America.

Falwell, who grew up in a non-religious household in Lynchburg, Virginia, converted to Christianity shortly after starting college, and six months later, enrolled in seminary. As a fundamentalist Southern Baptist, Falwell was initially resistant to politics. “Fundamentalists have a long tradition and teaching called the spirituality of the church, that the church should not be involved in moral reformation,” Winters explained. “This obviously has its roots going all the way back to the Reformation and the discussion between faith and works, but was also a direct response to the social gospel movement.”

Even though he condemned Martin Luther King, Jr. for “politicizing Christianity,” by the 1960s and 1970s Falwell had started to engage with politics—first with the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, and later with gay and lesbian rights and the 1978 IRS guidelines that determined whether a school had sufficiently desegregated. The next year, in 1979, a group of Republican operatives came to Falwell, asking that he “galvanize the base” on behalf of the Party, and in the same year he established the Moral Majority, which became one of the largest lobbying groups for evangelical Christians.

With his jump into politics, Falwell created a new brand of Christianity, Winters said. “In the 1950s and 60s, as Jim Crow was being pulled apart, you see the first explicit ideas about Christian nationalism and American exceptionalism coming to the fore,” he explained. “If they were no longer going to be racially superior, they had to feel that need to feel superior elsewhere—and that gives rise to the real hyper-patriotism and the sense of American exceptionalism that you didn’t find in the South previously…Southerners were not always too proud to be part of the Union.”

Bringing fundamentalist Christianity also brought new attitudes to conservative politics. “Republicans now tend to view all issues in terms of this absolute, fundamentalist view,” said Winters. While politics used to be about competing interests, now “it’s about ideology, and if you disagree, you’re not just wrong or have a different interest or have a different perspective—you’re a heretic, you’re a Republican in name only. And you just don’t see that attitude before Falwell.”

This development has been evident throughout the Republican primary season. Speaking on Fox Business Network Monday night, Mitt Romney argued that he is even further to the right than fellow Republican candidate Rick Santorum. “Rick Santorum is not a person who’s an economic conservative to my right,” Romney said. “His record does not show that he has the fiscal conservative chops that I have.”

Santorum hit back just hours later, telling voters in Alabama—which handed Santorum a surprise win in its primary yesterday—“If you look at the state that just voted on Saturday, Kansas, there’s no more rock rib solid conservative state in the country than the state of Kansas, it’s about as red as they get. Oklahoma, about as red as they get. And who won Kansas and Oklahoma?”

“This really is his contribution to the Republican Party, and in that way, shaped it more than Reagan,” he said. “I do think that today’s Republican Party is more heir to Falwell than it is to Reagan.”

Although Falwell may have brought the notion of conservative orthodoxy to the Republican Party, he also helped “get evangelicals over the idea that they could not be ‘yoked’ with non-believers” if they were pursuing a common cause. It is this development, Winters added, that may actually be helping Mitt Romney with evangelical voters.

“I think that Romney not only relies upon the idea that it’s okay to do business with Mormons, who they would consider heterodox in religious matters,” he said. “But I actually think Romney’s Mormonism helps him with evangelicals, because without that, he’s just a moderate former governor of Massachusetts…What evangelicals know about the Mormon Church is it’s conservative and it underwrote the campaign in California against Proposition 8. I’m not sure that it plays the way current narratives sense that it plays.”

Winters, a self-proclaimed progressive Catholic, said studying Falwell was like “waking up in a photographic negative,” but also credited the late pastor for two important political developments—“stamping out” anti-Semitism on the right and enfranchising millions of Southern voters. “I do think Falwell gets credit for bringing millions of Americans into the political process,” Winters said. “I don’t like the way that they vote—but that’s a different issue.”

“Ex-Gays”: Not Just for Christians

by Steven Philp

This past Saturday, people gathered outside Barnes & Noble in El Paso, TX to protest a book signing by Pastor Tom Brown, a local clergyman who gained notoriety during the midterm election for organizing a ballot initiative that stripped health benefits from unmarried partners of city employees. He was promoting his new book Breaking Curses, Experiencing Healing, a guide to healing depression, fear, anxiety, anger and homosexuality through the Christian faith. In an interview with El Paso Times, Brown referred to the last point, claiming that “through a step-by-step process of cleanliness” one can rid oneself of these unwanted feelings and “find healing through Christ.” Outside, 12 protestors from the LGBT-rights group El Paso for Equality waved signs reading “Homosexuality is not an illness” and “Keep sex and religion in the bedroom.” Drivers of passing cars honked in support.

Brown said he was surprised by the negative reaction he received from the LGBT community and their allies. “Once people read the two chapters that deal with homosexuality in my book, they will see that there is not a word of hatred in there,” he said. “It’s all about understanding those who struggle with the same-sex issue and how to find healing through Christ. For those marchers, I would first challenge them to read the book before making a prejudgment.” In an interview with NBC El Paso, Brown said that he is not attempting to single out the LGBT community – despite his book and his contributions to the controversial ballot measure – but is doing his job as a minister to “spread the word.”

“He takes the teachings from the Bible and misconstrues them,” El Paso for Equality member Daniel Rollings told El Paso Times. “I’m openly gay and a Christian myself, and Christ does not teach hate. Tom Brown uses the Old Testament verse and Jewish cleanliness laws to make things about how one can be healed of homosexuality.” This statement should give members of the Jewish community pause, as it implies that prohibitions against homosexuality are halakhic territory. When looking at the compiled Jewish and Christian Bibles we find three specific passages that refer to the forbidden nature of same-sex relations, one in Leviticus (18:22) and two in the New Testament (Romans 1:26-27 and I Corinthians 6:9-10, both Pauline letters to early Christian communities). The weight of prohibitions is spaced across the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.  Some have construed other passages as referring to homosexuality – such as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis – yet these contain oblique, rather than explicit, references.

The rhetoric concerning the “healing” of homosexuals is largely Christian. Organizations like Focus on the Family, the National Organization for Marriage, and the American Family Association are a tangible presence within national debate. This raises the question: Are there Jewish groups with a similar “pro-family” agenda? Are community leaders like Tom Brown exclusively a Christian phenomenon?

In 1998, two Jewish couples in New Jersey founded an organization called Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH). According to their website, they “[believe] that homosexuality is a learned behavior and that anyone can choose to disengage from their same-sex sexual fantasies, arousals, behavior and identity – if motivated and supported in that process.” This past year they debuted a new logo to reflect an “increased professionalism,” expanded services, and growing staff made necessary by high demand for their services.

Although there have been voices from within the Orthodox community who have expressed opposition to LGBT rights–take the rabbis who opposed repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell–JONAH is unique in its organization and its alignment with ex-gay Christian organizations. According to a July 2010 press release from Truth Wins Out–a group for LGBT individuals who have experienced ex-gay therapy–one of JONAH’s therapists, Alan Downing, who also worked for the ex-gay organization People Can Change, was accused of sexually harassing his male clients.

Where was our indignation when this case was brought to national attention? It is easy to lose sight of these conservative constituencies within the Jewish community; we populate the most liberal cities in America and boast a large, progressive presence on national media and within the blogosphere. It is tempting to dismiss people like Tom Brown as a Christian problem. Yet–quietly–organizations like JONAH have a real impact on LGBT members of the Jewish community. It’s time we take notice.

The Catholic Church Changes Gears on Interfaith Relations

By Gabriel Weinstein

Last week a group of twenty cantors from the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) serenaded Catholic officials in Rome with rousing renditions of Adon Olam and other Jewish liturgical melodies.  The concert was a part of the Interfaith Information Center’s conference on Catholic-Jewish relations. Monsignor Renzo Giuliano, priest of the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, said it was “very important to be here [at the concert] together and praising our god.”  While Jewish-Catholic relations have been steadily improving for decades, a new Catholic push to mend ties with Muslims is pushing the Church’s Jewish priority to second place.

For thousands of years Catholic Jewish relations were marked by antagonism and contempt. For centuries, central tenants of Catholic doctrine included Supercessionism, the belief God rejected Jews and anointed Christians as his chosen people, and Translated Responsibility, which holds Jews accountable for Jesus’ death. From the medieval era until the 19th century, the Catholic Church endorsed an array of discriminatory proposals against Jewish residents.

Catholics’ relations with their other monotheistic peer, Muslims, were marked by similar confrontational episodes. When Islam emerged in the eighth century, Catholic scholars were quick to pronounce the new doctrine as heresy. Catholics’ initial dismissal of Muslim doctrine foreshadowed the bloody Catholic crusades against Muslim rule of Palestine in the medieval era.

By the early 1960s the Vatican grew tired of having frayed relations with other religious groups and reformulated their millennia old interfaith policy. In 1965 the Church issued Nostra Aetate, their seminal document on interfaith relations. Nostra was the first time the Vatican advocated for interfaith dialogue between Catholics and other religions. One of the Vatican’s primary objectives with Nostra was to rekindle its relationship with Jews.  It is no coincidence that the section of Nostra discussing Jewish relations is the longest. Nostra renounced charges of Jewish deicide, acknowledged Jews’ covenant with God and decried anti-Semitism.  Some Church officials challenged Nostra’s detailed discussion of Jewish relations and were joined by Arab countries in protest. However, the Vatican’s insistence on redefining Catholic-Jewish relations cemented the section discussing Judaism.

Nostra also discusses relations with Muslims, acknowledging the frazzled history of Muslim-Christian relations, but noting that both view Jesus as a prophet and the Virgin Mary as a holy figure.  The Vatican pleaded in Nostra with “all [Muslims and Christians] to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding.”

In the 45 years since Nostra Aetate Catholic-Jewish relations have remained stable.  The Church has issued a series of documents on Jewish-Catholic relations ranging from 1975’s  Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate (No. 4) to 1998’s We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah. Three popes have visited Israel since 1964, with Pope Benedict XVI making the most recent visit in May 2009.

But all that may be changing.  According to National Catholic Reporter John L. Allen Jr., dialogue with Muslims is now the Vatican’s most important interfaith priority, perhaps displacing the importance of the Jewish-Catholic relationships.  The bulging global Muslim population, increasing Catholic presence in Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East are some of the major factors fueling the detente.

One of the main priorities of the Catholic-Muslim interfaith effort is securing freedom of religion for Catholic minorities in Muslim dominated countries. The Vatican would like to see the religious freedom enjoyed by Muslims in the West extended to Catholic minorities in countries with large Muslim populations.  For example, Pope Benedict has maintained steadfast support for Asia Bibi, a jailed Pakistani Christian who faces death for criticizing the Islamic prophet Mohammed.

The prioritization of Muslim relations has ushered in a change in the Vatican’s demeanor towards its Jewish relations.  Whereas the Vatican consistently sought to apologize for past grievances against Jews when Jewish interfaith relations were the priority, now Catholics no longer worry about critiquing their Jewish peers or voicing their displeasure.  For example, Pope Benedict XVI’s recent praise of Pope Pius XII has upset Jewish Holocaust survivors, as many believe Pope Pius could have done more to rescue Jews from the Nazi regime.

But Allen states that the Vatican’s Muslim interfaith efforts are redefining its interfaith relationships in a broader way. Catholic interfaith efforts have moved from “interreligious dialogue” to “intercultural dialogue” which emphasizes shared understanding of cultural issues such as religion’s role in civic life and eliminating poverty.  Hopefully, the Church can avoid the trap of swapping out good Jewish relations for good Muslim relations by focusing on the important cultural and humanitarian issues important to all three monotheistic faiths.