The final speaker in the 2005 January Series was also the best received. Fleming Rutledge, an Episcopalian Priest from New York with one of those genteel southern accents I’d only previously heard in movies, took on the most politically charged issue in modern America and did so impressively.
As she began to laud evangelicalism while critiquing theological liberalism I was rather concerned. In the context of a series which has had a clear conservative bent and a talk entitled “Christian Right, Christian Left: The Polarized American Religious Scene” the danger of an hour on the merits of legalistic theology was very apparent. Thankfully, that apprehension was quickly subdued as it became clear that Rutledge was not interested in tight definitions but was looking for theology that surpasses the narrow confines in which modernist liberalism and conservative evangelicalism both languish.
Noting the near-omnipresence of Jim Wallis in the popular media over recent weeks, Rutledge urged those on the “Christian left” to follow Wallis’ lead in being explicit about their engagement of faith and politics and declared that she was keen to try and engage the “Christian right” in dialogue. She talked of the dangers of a church that makes no public comment on the fact that a man recently jailed for his leading role in the Abu Ghraib abuses was a committed member of his local church, of the need to be humble in the wake of disasters such as the recent tsunami, and the need to be radically inclusive.
Rutledge has clearly thought deeply about the much-discussed clash of civilisations, and the forecast confrontation between Islam and Christianity in both the global north and south. She called for a faith that in its inclusivity, its respect for human life and its determination to be good news, did not enter any such confrontation as a belligerent party. At the same time, she didn’t hold back from pointing fingers, most notably at Dick Cheney for his many abuses of power. The talk clearly embodied the bold assertions she was making.
It is easy to be cynical about the possibility for reclaiming the name of Christian in America. As the voices of Richard Land, Jerry Falwell and James Dobson continue to ring loud, clear, and increasingly insanely, it is tempting to simply search for other battles. Despite Rutledge’s words I very much doubt that serious engagement can take place between evangelicals who remember the root of their label and the figureheads of the “christian right.” Perhaps if figures like Wallis and Rutledge continue speaking clearly there is some chance that they could chip away at the support for these mavericks. Or perhaps that’s just the memory of the standing ovation talking?