Aug 9, 2011

Mark Hatfield & Evangelicals' possible progressive politics

This, from the late Senator Mark Hatfield's critique of the Religious Right in 1971, still seems accurate:
"There is a theological 'silent majority' in our land who wrap their Bibles in the American flag; who believe that conservative politics is the necessary by-product of orthodox Christianity; who equate patriotism with the belief in national self-righteousness; and who regard political dissent as a mark of infidelity to the faith."
I first heard of Hatfield from GOP party activists in Washington state who were trying to purify the party and radicalize the base. It was at a Young Republicans group, held in the basement of a pastor's house. Hatfield's name was the name of an enemy: an anti-war, pro-welfare Republican, only ostensibly on the right side.

No one said anything about Hatfield being a liberal Republican because of his Evangelical faith.


But then, the NY Times obit does more or less the same thing, asking, essentially, "how is this possible?", without actually bothering to listen to the answer. It's not until the penultimate paragraph we find out Hatfield, nicknamed "Saint Mark," was a "prominent Baptist layman."

No info, though, on how that might have led him to the positions it did.

The Oregonian does better: "As a well-known Christian evangelical who often spoke to religious groups, Hatfield was a beacon for many who believed their faith called them to oppose war and to care for those in need."

Besides his importance for Oregon, and his historic role opposing the Vietnam war and supporting funding for medical research, Hatfield should be remembered as a theologically-conservative Christian whose politics were progressive. Alongside the several other American politicians who have done that, he should be an example of how it's possible to love Jesus in America today, believe in a literal reading of the Bible, oppose war, oppose McCarthite and Bircher methods and tactics, and support safety-net help for the poor.

It hasn't happened a lot. But it exists, despite what some on the right say about liberals and what some on the left say about religious people. Correct or no, this is a possible position to take.

It's worth noting, too, that Hatfield's critique of the Religious Right wasn't specifically about what they had done to the Republican name. He was much more concerned about what they had done to the name of Christ:
"Far right crusaders would deny that a man is Christian if he does not share their political beliefs. Their 'either/or' philosophy extends into the realm of religion, and they counsel that you can accept either the welfare state or Christ — but not both ... They have turned the scriptural tables and created God in their image."
Update: The obit in Politico is also oddly dismissive of Hatfield's faith: "'Saint Mark' — as some critics called him — was a devout Baptist whose prayer breakfast religiosity and friendships with evangelical leaders were real enough. But the anti-war, anti death-penalty sentiments that so marked Hatfield's political career were grounded too in grittier personal experiences."

Real enough? Religiosity? Grittier?

Update 2: It may be worth noting explicitly that Hatfield's critique of the Religious Right was not the same as the Religious Right's critique of Christians on the left. He wasn't just doing the same thing in the other direction. He was not saying that one couldn't be a real Christian and an American Conservative. He was opposing arguments that insist everyone on the other side must be in bad faith (in both senses of that).

He was opposing statements like "the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God," just to take a recent example, not saying people like the congressman who said that must really, deep down, actually hate God.