Friday, August 4, 2017

Overcoming P.T.R.R.S.: Post-Traumatic Religious Right Syndrome

Last week I was outraged (justifiably, I think) about President Trump's tweet about banning transgender people from serving in the US armed forces.  As I shared in my "thoughts" last week, I really felt like this was scapegoating of the worst sort and a cynical ploy to change the news cycle from Trump's other problems. I was even further outraged when I read that this ban was precisely what conservative evangelicals urged Trump to do when they met with him in the Oval Office.  Remember that picture of these supposed faith leaders laying hands on Trump in prayer?  That was the meeting in question.

The rogues gallery of power hungry clergy surrounding Trump is grim indeed.  (Seth Meyers had a takedown of Trump's faith and his clergy friends that would have been hilarious if it wasn't so frightening.)  Given Trump is courting (and manipulating) megachurch pastors along with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Jr. and the right-wing zealots of the Family Research Council, I think I can be forgiven for feeling reactionary. 

Pretty much my whole life the Religious Right has been meddling in politics claiming to be building up Christ's kingdom while instead they built up their own kingdoms of earthly political power and wealth.  No small part of why I pastor the church I do is because I feel called to demonstrate a type of Christianity that stands as a refutation of such hypocrisy and religious abuse.  I guess I've got P.T.R.R.S.: Post-Traumatic Religious Right Syndrome.  

I haven't really known life without Christianity in America framed as hating LGBTQ people, opposing equality for women and condemning the poorest of our society for their own misery.  This current presidential administration feels like a bad sequel to a movie I didn't like in the first place.  Yet, I was forced to check my alarm when I read an interview with Robert P. Jones, director of the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington, D.C., who thinks the election of Donald Trump is the "death rattle of white Christian America."  (His most recent book is called  The End of White Christian America.)  He doesn't argue that white conservative Christians are going away completely, but he does compile statistical data to show that it is shrinking in its number of adherents at at amazing rate.  

Already white Christians of all persuasions (Protestant and Catholic, conservative and liberal) have become a minority in our country in less than a decade.  Jones says that when he wrote his book in 2015 he was using 2014 data, and it showed that the number of white Christians in America dropped from 54% in 2008 to 47% in 2014.  That percentage continues to drop: in 2015 the number was 45% and in 2016 the number was 43%.  That is an amazing cultural shift.

Jones cites "the three D's" as the drivers of this change in our culture.
  • demographic changes that are due mostly to immigration patterns since the 1960s; 
  • declining birth rates among whites relative to the non-white population;
  • and [religious] disaffiliation.  
The last item is perhaps the largest driver of the decline of white Christians in America.  Jones says, "There's an internal engine in the churches - mostly young people leaving white Christian churches in large numbers is really turbo-charging these changes. Nothing that the Trump administration could do is going to be able to affect that underlying engine and these changes. ... I do think the Trump administration is propping up the power of White Christian America but it may be the equivalent of putting it on life support and keeping it alive even as its vitality continues to ebb."

On the surface that seems like good news to me, however it becomes less positive when I consider that the decline in white Christians includes not just conservative evangelicals but also mainline Protestants.  In case you don't know the term "mainline Protestant" it refers to denominations that have historical roots in the founding of the country and that generally have chosen more liberal stances on social issues.  Generally by the term "mainline Protestants," denominations like the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the United Methodist Church, American Baptist Churches, Disciples of Christ, and (GASP!!!!!) the United Church of Christ!  So while I'd love to laugh at the demise of the Religious Right, the tradition I have claimed has been in decline to a greater extent and for a longer time.

What does that mean for Christians like you and me?  Well it means that it is no longer enough (and never was) to define ourselves in negative terms (i.e. "I'm a Christian, but NOT that kind of Christian.")  It is not enough only to show up after some hatemongering group of fundamentalists commit religious abuse and denounce them.  Oh, I firmly believe false Christianities that abuse and demean and oppress  those in the minority or with less political power should be condemned and denounced, but I believe we must do so much more.  

If our experience of God is real.  If the God we say we believe in--the God who loves and welcomes ALL people, charges us to care for the Earth, hates inequality in all its forms and calls us to acts of peace and justice--is more than just a fairy tale, then we must live out these values in ways that transform our own selves and the world around us.  Simply being "Plan B" to the Religious Right is not enough.  It never was.

It is an appropriate thing to be outraged by the hypocrites praying in the Oval Office, but we must be careful we do not spend too much of our emotional and spiritual bandwidth upon them.  They and their kind are dying out.  The vast majority of our emotional and spiritual bandwidth must be used for cultivating our own spiritual lives, strengthening our own community of faith, partnering with other like-minded Christians as well as people of other faiths and no faith who share our values, and working for a world that is just and peaceful.  If we fail to do so, we will die out as well--and justifiably so.

If you, like me, have P.T.R.R.S., let us together vow to spend as little time as possible upset about the Religious Right.  Instead lets spend as much time as possible living out the wonderful life together that God desires.
Grace and Peace,


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