God and Mammon

Dear Evangelicals: You’re Being Had

Why are you trying to solve a cultural problem with a political solution? Because the Republican Party is using you.

11.30.14 10:45 AM ET

Dear Conservative Evangelicals,

I drive a Prius, enjoy Vanilla lattes, and am married to a man. I know it’s unlikely for me to be writing you this letter, and even more unlikely for you to read it.

But unlike most of my Obama-loving, liberal friends, I am no longer afraid of you. It’s clear to me that “your side” is losing the battle for public opinion, and I know that many of you agree with that assessment.

So why am I writing you this letter? Because, also unlike my liberal friends, I’m actually on your side, in some ways. I’m an ordained rabbi, and someone deeply concerned with the vulgarization and sexualization of our society. You and I disagree about the solution to this problem, of course, but we agree that there is a problem.

The trouble is, you’re trying to solve cultural problems with political solutions—because politicians have convinced you to do so. I am referring here to establishment Republicans, which for 150 years have consistently been the party of the rich and ungenerous.

In the first half of the twentieth century, most Christians distrusted this party, controlled as it was by “urban bankers” and others opposed to the Jeffersonian values of rural America. But in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the switch began—and by Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, it was complete. Republicans catered to conservative social attitudes on racial integration, and eventually moved rightward on issues like abortion and feminism, too, although you know as well as I do that they never really believed in them. They just realized that they could gain power by uniting two very different groups: the same moneyed elites as always, and you.

Now, let’s see who has won, and who has lost, in the ensuing 34 years.

It’s clear that the rich—call them the 1 percent if you like, but I prefer to think of them as the moneylenders whom Jesus threw out of the Temple—have prospered enormously. In 1983, the wealthiest 1 percent were 131 times richer than the average American. In 2009, they were 225 times richer. In 2012, the top 20 percent made $13.5 trillion in income; the entire bottom 80% made $1 trillion.

These are disparities not seen since before the Great Depression. Whether for better or for worse, the ultra-rich have done extremely well in the 30 years you’ve allied with them.

How have you done, in the same period? Not well at all. Not only is gay marriage now the law for over two-thirds of Americans while the value of marriage in general has been declining for decades; not only are television, film, music, and video games more vulgar than we could have imagined in 1980; but more Americans are declaring themselves “Nones,” that is, people of no religious affiliation, than ever before in our history. Sure, some churches are expanding, but overall, your way of life is in steep decline. In short, you are losing horribly.

So, who is using whom here? Have the rich Republicans been good for you, or have you been good to them?

I look at the alliance you’ve forged with these people, and I don’t understand why you’re in it. Their agenda keeps winning, and yours keeps losing.

Moreover—and I don’t want to speak out of turn here—their agenda is even eating away at yours. What happened to the Christian concern to “love the least of these,” the most vulnerable, the most destitute? In my opinion, supply-side Republicans have convinced many Christians not merely that the welfare state is a bad idea, but that generosity itself is a vice, that public assistance equals dependence, and that giving the wealthy even more breaks is the way for benefits to “trickle down” to the rest of us.

That theory, by the way, has never been proven. When it’s been put into practice, it’s only made the ultra-rich richer. It’s done nothing for the middle class, the working class, and the poor. And its mean-hearted message, in my opinion, has corrupted the social gospel. Of course, prosperity is a good thing. But our current moment isn’t one of prosperity—it’s of inequality on the scale of ancient Rome.

Now, I’m not saying that you should jump on board with the Democrats’ agenda either. I’m saying that this Republican claim that you can build a Christian nation through politics is bogus, and only serves their goals.

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You’re fighting the wrong fight. You should be making your case in culture, not in Congress. Look around. Atheism is highest in Europe, where there are established churches involved in the political process. But according to most historians, America is the most religious country in the Western world precisely because of the separation of church and state.

That “wall of separation” that liberals like to talk about? The original metaphor was: erect a wall to keep the garden of the church free from the wilderness of politics. The more you try to force your beliefs on others, the more people dislike you.

Of course, there are now multi-billion-dollar organizations dedicated to Christian politics. But how effective have they been? What has all that money bought?

I’ve worked in the LGBT movement for 15 years. At first, we, too, tried a political approach, talking about equal rights, civil rights, and so on. But the movement’s PR people found these messages weren’t working. So, in the 2000s, we shifted. We worked in the cultural arena instead, with pioneers like Ellen and Will & Grace. We went into churches and synagogues, testifying about our lives and our families. We changed people’s hearts, not their laws.

We also found messengers who could communicate the truth of our lives. Sure, there are radicals in the LGBT community who really are opposed to mainstream values—and some of them are my friends! But there are also moderates, even conservatives. The LGBT movement looked for places where we could find common ground, and focused there.

But because the public face of Christianity is now made up of the political operatives who can shout the loudest, your “wingnuts” are in center stage. I know that most Christians are not bigots or homophobes. I read the data, and I have Christian friends. But you have to admit: you’re putting your worst feet forward. Many of your spokespeople are loud and mean, because they can turn out the votes.

This all feeds into that devil’s bargain with the Republican Party. They stir you up about social issues in order to get you to the polls, and then they don’t really do anything about them. Because, in fact, they can’t. These are cultural questions, not political ones, and they have to be solved in the cultural arena.

To be clear, I’m not alleging any vast, right wing conspiracy to hoodwink Christians into voting Republican. I know that many of your values do, indeed, align with Republican policies.

But from the outside, from my side of the aisle, the situation seems very clear. The Republican rich are doing very well, and you’re losing badly. There’s only one conclusion I can draw from that: you’re being had.