Thursday, July 06, 2006

Thoughts from the field...

Well, I'm deep in the heart of Poland this week, attending a scientific meeting at which all the other attendees are forest pathologists and entomologists. In other words, biologists, most from Canada and EU. Not surprisingly, its a pretty "progressive" crowd. I feel like a real hayseed around all these enlightened folks. Fortunately, the Polish hosts are a pretty conservative bunch of Catholics. Unfortunately, I can't communicate very well with them, so Christian smiles have to say it all.

Heard lots of derogatory comments about Pres Bush, JesusLand, religion this week. I think a few have noticed me praying in the spirit at meals, cause they've toned it down around me. Funny thing, though, a few have come up to talk privately, and one chap from Australia and I had an interesting discussion around the campfire a couple of nights ago about the revival in Sidney. He seemed surprised to hear that we in America have heard of it...didn't know news of nuts traveled that far. Seed planted, it's between him and Our Lord now :-)

Speaking of that terrible thing religion, I heard this website advertised on the Christian radio as I drove to the airport last weekend. Check it out, let me know what you think. Now, you long-time Knights know I'm not the strictest of legalists, :-) but I have to admit the long-running trend of bad-mouthing religion concerns me. Seems to me Christ without religion is a just a one-night stand. Maybe its just semantics, but couldn't it be that inviting people to Christ under the guise that it's "notreligion" sells the faith short right from the beginning?

Sir C, loving my religion and longing for more of it!

9 comments:

  1. "I think a few have noticed me praying in the spirit at meals, cause they've toned it down around me."

    Hang in there Chuck. Never be ashamed of Christ. I am proud of you.

    Sir John, encouraging a brother

    ReplyDelete
  2. It is annoying that "not a religion" thing. I don't think we should use that in witnessing: Christianity is certainly a religion in common usage, and useing such advertising tricks is rather dishonest and rather unworthy. It also seems slightly unmanly to be ashamed of being a religion.
    However a lot of people associate the word "religion" with ritual and self-righteous orthodoxy and that is what people mean by not a religion. Personally I think evangelicals have more of a problem with self-righteous iconoclasm and over-mysticism then with self-righteous orthodoxy. Avoiding one error can lead to overstraing in the other direction.
    Christianity is a relationship. It is also a religion. And I see know reason to be ashamed of the fact.

    see below
    --------------------------------
    Relationship vs. Religion?


    Gregory Koukl

    Greg comments on the often-used phrase "Christianity is not a religion; it's a relationship."


    I'd like to pick up today where we ended yesterday. The last call mentioned that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. Jesus practiced a relationship with God the Father and then offered that to us. The Jews offered religion; Jesus was different.
    First, we ought to walk softly in condemning the religion of the Jews. By and the large, the religion the Jews practiced was the religion that God had given them. It wasn't religion itself that was the problem. It was something else, something that makes the offer of relationship with God appealing in contrast to what seemed like the empty rigors of religion and ritual.

    This slogan has been a rallying cry of 1970's and 80's evangelicalism. The emphasis on having "a relationship with God," I think, is a new phenomenon coming out of the sixties. It smacks of T-groups and sensitivity training, emphasizing freedom and feeling rather than form and content.

    The crux here is what is meant by the words "religion" and "relationship." If "religion" means a body of truth pertaining to God and the afterlife and the unseen world, combined with a way of life informed by that truth, and a community of faith seeking to follow that way of life, then Christianity certainly is a religion.

    But I understand the motive behind the distinction. Christians meant to combat the notion that liturgy and doctrine captured everything that Christianity was about. Young people in the 60's had grown up in the church dutifully practicing religion in this sense, yet having no reality of God in their life at all. That was my experience.

    And I think this distinction is very helpful in that sense. When we tell someone about Jesus--as my younger brother Mark did with me--we're careful to distinguish what we're offering from what they had in the past. "No, it's not like that," we say, "not all those rules, all those do's and don'ts, all that religion. This is a relationship."

    Yes, it's a very valuable distinction, but at this point we have to be very careful not to mislead by replacing one error with another, equally as bad. The fact is, Christianity does have rules, it does have do's and don'ts. It is a religion. But it was never meant to be just information, and that's where this slogan touches on truth.

    When you read the New Testament there simply isn't any rift between accurate knowledge about God and profound experience of God. In fact, the second depends on the first, as I'll point out in a moment.

    Classically, true knowledge of God necessarily entails the experiential. A man knows his wife well not just because he can rattle off a series of facts about her (even a stranger can do that), but because he's deeply acquainted with her person on a day to day basis. Yet even so, there have been periods in the history of the church when true knowledge of God has given way to mere information about Him--a dead scholasticism of sorts.

    Following the spiritual vitality of the Reformation came a period of high orthodoxy. It was characterized by very elaborate systems of theology which, for some, replaced knowledge of God (along with spiritual intimacy) with mere information about Him. The pietistic movement was a reaction to this. But it didn't mend the breech. It just substituted one extreme for the other. True spirituality came to be defined not by right knowledge of God, but by profound and intense experience of the mystical. (Notice I didn't say "experience of God," but rather "experience of the mystical." Much of pietistic experience--then and now--never includes God at all, because it's not informed properly by truth.)

    So I understand how there could be a perfunctory religious practice without any life in it that would cause one to hunger and yearn for something much more personal. And the offer of relationship touches that hunger.

    But here's the problem: "having a relationship with God" in this sense is not at all unique to Christianity. Virtually every religion, it seems to me, has as its goal something intensely personal.

    And this is why this distinction actually weakens our message if we're not careful. It's a version of "try Him you'll like Him." People can easily say, "No thanks, I'm trying something else right now and I like that just fine." In fact, that's been the response I've frequently gotten when I've offered Christianity to a non-believer with the appeal that it's not religion but a relationship. Their response: "I've already got a relationship with God, thank you."

    The core of the Gospel isn't having a relationship with God, but being rightly related to God. The prepositions are absolutely critical here. Another way of putting it is you must have peace with God before you can have the peace of God, and there's a profound difference.

    "Well, Koukl, now you're just fussing about words." Yes, I'm fussing about words because words often make all the difference in the world.

    In Romans 5 the first verse, Paul makes this important statement: "Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God."

    There are two kinds of peace in the New Testament, ladies and gentlemen. First is the feeling of peacefulness. It's mentioned as a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22, and is the feeling that guards our hearts and minds after prayer that Paul talks about in Philippians 4:6-7.

    The second kind of peace is the cessation of hostility between two parties. Nations at war declare a truce and then enter into a period of peace. They're not fighting with each other any more.

    This, by the way, is the meaning of "peace" that's in view in the frequently misused passage, Colossians 3:15 where Paul says, "And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts." This is not a peaceful feeling that's meant to guide you in figuring out God's will. Paul is saying that the Christians in Colossae should quit fighting. Instead they should, as he mentions in the verse just above, be "bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone."

    This is also the sense of "peace" that Paul is speaking of in Romans 5. Jesus introduces us, by faith, into God's grace ending the conflict between us and God. In short, Paul is saying, "God is not angry with us anymore."

    Do you realize that? Do you know that God is not angry with you anymore, that through Jesus we're at peace with God, that the war is over? Think about it a few moments. Chew on it a little. The war between you and God is o-ver. God's not mad at you anymore. Isn't that a wonderful truth! How does that make you feel? This is such a profound reality that when it sinks in it produces something wonderful. Paul goes on to say that the resulting exultation in hope allows him to face his tribulations with joy.

    All this not because He has the peace of God but because He has peace with God, not because He has a relationship with God but because he's rightly related to God.

    Do you see how the two begin to work together, right knowledge and experience? This is a perfect example of what I mentioned a moment ago that accurate knowledge about God is the foundation for profound experience of God. Paul knows that the enmity--the hostility- -between He and God has been destroyed through the forgiveness that's in Jesus Christ, and this produces exultation.

    Yes, Christianity is a religion, but it's true religion. True religion produces right relationship to God which leads to right experience and right intimate relationship with God.





    This is a transcript of a commentary from the radio show "Stand to Reason," with Gregory Koukl. It is made available to you at no charge through the faithful giving of those who support Stand to Reason. Reproduction permitted for non-commercial use only. ©1995 Gregory Koukl

    For more information, contact Stand to Reason at 1438 East 33rd St., Signal Hill, CA 90755
    (800) 2-REASON (562) 595-7333 www.str.org




    Resources for Additional Study

    Title Author Contents Price
    Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology William Dembski 304 pages, Hardcover $14.40
    Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible James W. Sire 177 pages $13.50
    Jesus, The Only Way Gregory Koukl 25 pages $2.00
    The Case for Christian Exclusivism (Master Series 1997) Doug Geivett 2 cassettes $8.95








    © 2005 Stand to Reason ARR | 1438 East 33rd Street, Signal Hill, CA 90755
    -----------------------------
    Sir Jason the Longwinded

    ReplyDelete
  3. As a side note, secularism is often held in a fanatical way. Someone long ago ridiculed Americans for "believing in the Virgin Birth more fervently then they believed in evolution." He didn't seem to catch that whether or not evolution is true, it is not really something to be believed in "fervently".
    A lot of secularists are in fact anti-religious and as Christianity is the most powerful religion they are anti-christian. Actually it has all been heard before-Tacitus didn't really sound much different although the details of the accusations were different in his day.
    Actually it may be that secularists are simply embarrassed about being human. It is a painful reminder that after all the "glories of the enlightenment" the West still shares many things with savages. These things are often inherant with being human, but can be hard to admit. It is also noticable that the same people who are rabidly antireligious are also rabidly antimilitary, for the same reason. It is a painful reminder that one can only raise oneself up so far.
    Yet nature abhores a vacuum, and when secularists deny the rational validity of religion, they often get not sterile hyperrationalism, but superstition. They are by turns either purely intellectual or purely emotional to the detriment of both.
    Also many of them were simply the type of cold-blooded and introverted-even mildly autistic-"superintellect" people that always gain grudging respect but seldom love and often ostracism from their fellows. That is a fammiliar stereotype from school stories but it does exist in real life. According to one psychological study I read those types are about one or two percent-in other words about one for every school. Few can understand such including family members. That sort of thing hurts and those who are not broken by it often rebel-against everything sometimes. The type of people that become great in high prestiege academic fields, are often the type that would be angry at humanity.
    Moreover another thing is actually a virtue of their profession-but only a virtue when applied in a certain way. They are trained to test everything and to not blindly follow what they consider to be common opinion. That is fine as far is it goes as there is much foolishness in common opinion. But there is also much wisdom and sifting wheat from the chaff is difficult and often their is not enough information to do so logically. A curious wrinkle to that of course is that what is iconoclastic generally is often the prevailing opinion in a specific group at a specific place and time.
    Which adds another complication.

    ReplyDelete
  4. It is also noticable that the same people who are rabidly antireligious are also rabidly antimilitary, for the same reason. It is a painful reminder that one can only raise oneself up so far.

    Excellent point, Sir Jason, and I think, on-target.

    They are by turns either purely intellectual or purely emotional to the detriment of both.

    Another accurate portrayal. I witnessed much of that swing this past week. Keep to the academic, but if challenged with fact that doesn't fit the theory, then turn to the irrational. I think these folks must have hated Mr. Spock, if they watched Star Trek at all.

    Sir C

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks for sharing the Koukl piece, Sir J. Very insightful...

    Sir C

    ReplyDelete
  6. August/September
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    American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion,
    Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century
    by Kevin Phillips
    Viking, 480 pages, $26.95
    To purchase this book, click here.

    The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us
    by James Rudin
    Thunder’s Mouth, 300 pages, $26
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    Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism
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    W.W. Norton, 224 pages, $23.95
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    Thy Kingdom Come: How The Religious Right Distorts the Faith
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    This is a paranoid moment in American politics. A host of conspiracies haunt our national imagination, and apparent incompetence is assumed to be the consequence of a dark design: President Bush knew about the attacks of September 11 in advance, or else the Israelis did; the Straussians took us to war in Iraq, unless the oil companies did; the federal government let the levees break in New Orleans, unless it dynamited them itself.

    Perhaps the strangest of these strange stories, though, is the notion that twenty-first-century America is slouching toward theocracy. This is an old paranoia: Back in 1952, the science-fiction libertarian Robert Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100 envisioned a religious tyranny toppled by a Freemason-led rebellion; in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale imagined America as a Christian-fascist “Republic of Gilead,” with its capital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and its public executions staged in Harvard Yard. But the fear of theocracy has become a defining panic of the Bush era, reaching a fever pitch in the weeks after the 2004 election, when a host of commentators seized on polls suggesting that “moral values” had pushed the president over the top—and found in that data point a harbinger of Gilead.

    Later, more cool-headed polling analysis suggested that the values explanation was something of a stretch: The movement of religious voters into the GOP played a role in Bush’s victory, but the uptick in his support between 2000 and 2004 seems mainly to have reflected national-security concerns. Still, these pesky facts didn’t stop Garry Wills from announcing the end of the Enlightenment and the arrival of jihad in America, or Jane Smiley from bemoaning the “ignorance and bloodlust” of Bush voters in thrall to a fire-and-brimstone God, or left-wing bloggers from chattering about “Jesusland” and “fundies” and plotting their escape to Canada.

    The paranoia hasn’t yet burned down to embers. The term theocrat has become a commonplace, employed by bomb-throwing columnists, otherwise-sensible reporters, and “centrist” Republicans such as Connecticut’s Christopher Shays, who recently complained that the GOP was becoming the “party of theocracy.” And now the specter of a looming Khomeini’ism has migrated into the realm of pop sociology, producing a spate of books with titles like The Baptizing of America, Kingdom Coming, Thy Kingdom Come—and, inevitably, American Theocracy, the Kevin Phillips jeremiad that shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list this spring.

    Most of these books aspire to be anthropologies, guides for the perplexed that lead the innocent reader through what the subtitle of American Theocracy calls “the perils and politics of radical religion.” There isn’t perfect agreement on what to call the religious radicals in question: Everyone employs theocrat, but Kingdom Coming also proposes Christian nationalist, while The Baptizing of America favors the clunky Christocrat. Others have suggested Christianist, the better to link religious conservatives to Osama bin Laden—and of course there’s the ubiquitous theocon, suggesting a deadly mixture of Oliver Cromwell and Paul Wolfowitz.

    But the various authors are in agreement about the main point, which is that something has gone terribly wrong with the separation of church and state in this country, and that America is poised to fall into the hands of people only one step from the ayatollahs. Today’s battles aren’t just a matter of ordinary political factionalism, they insist. The hour is much later than that, and nothing less than the republic itself hangs in the balance.




    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------



    To understand what, precisely, the anti-theocrats think has gone so wrong, it’s necessary to understand what they mean by the term theocracy. This is no easy task. The word is often used to connote government by a specific institutional faith—Shia imams in Iran, say, or Wahhabi clerics in Afghanistan—with the clergy writing laws and a temple guard enforcing them. But the clout of institutional religion is at low ebb in American politics. No prelate wields the kind of authority that Catholic bishops once enjoyed over urban voters, no denomination can claim the kind of influence that once belonged to the old WASP mainline, and the evangelical Protestantism that figures so prominently in anti-theocracy tracts is distinguished precisely by its lack of any centralized ecclesiastical government.

    Occasionally, the anti-theocrats flirt with the possibility that one institutional church or another might pose a threat to the democratic order. In American Theocracy, for instance, Kevin Phillips waxes paranoid about the Southern Baptist Convention’s role as the “state church” of the South, and he tallies, darkly, the number of Baptists who have insinuated themselves into the highest levels of American government. But for the most part, the sum of all secular fears is slightly—but only slightly—more plausible than a Southern Baptist caesaropapism. The real danger, the anti-theocrats suggest, is an ecumenical theocracy that would install a right-wing Mere Christianity as its established religion, subject unbelievers to discrimination, and enshrine the Mosaic code as the law of the land.

    In The Baptizing of America, Rabbi James Rudin—the American Jewish Committee’s “senior interreligious adviser”—offers a sketch of what America will look like if the theocrats get their way. “All government employees—federal, state and local—would be required to participate in weekly Bible classes in the workplace, as well as compulsory daily prayer sessions,” as would employees of any company or institution receiving federal funds. There would be a national ID card, identifying everyone by their religious beliefs, or lack thereof—and “such cards would provide Christocrats with preferential treatment in many areas of life, including home ownership, student loans, employment and education.” Non-Christian faiths would be tolerated, “but younger members . . .would be strongly encouraged to formally convert to the dominant evangelical Christianity.” Gay sex would be prosecuted, and “known homosexuals and lesbians would have to successfully undergo government-sponsored reeducation sessions if they applied for any public-sector jobs.” Political dissent would be squashed, religious censors would keep watch over the popular culture, and “the mainstream press and the electronic media would be beaten into submission.”

    Sadly, Rudin’s book is thin on examples of significant political actors who are proposing taking any of these steps, let alone all of them. What he has instead are the Christian Reconstructionists—the acolytes of the late R.J. Rushdoony—who are genuine theocrats, of a sort, and who also rank somewhere between the Free Mumia movement and the Spartacist Youth League on the totem pole of political influence in America. Yet this doesn’t prevent them from figuring prominently in nearly all the anti-theocrat anthropologies, playing the same role that international communism played for right-wing paranoiacs in the 1950s: the puppet master working from the shadows and the hidden hand behind every secular setback.

    Like a diehard John Bircher poring over Dwight D. Eisenhower’s speeches in search of the Supreme Soviet’s marching orders, Rudin scans the utterances of evangelicals and their allies for Reconstructionist language. Did Billy Graham once advise evangelicals to run for public office and take “control” of the various branches for government? Then he must believe, with the Reconstructionists, that “all adversaries must be completely eliminated from positions of authority” and that “to achieve a divine end by any means—including cruelty, deception, and brute force—is justified.” Did Antonin Scalia suggest that government “derives its moral authority from God”? Well, he doubtless intended to issue “a legal green light” to theocrats seeking “to destroy all existing political systems . . . and replace them with their own religion-soaked political regimes.”

    Perhaps most religious conservatives, Rudin generously allows, “are unaware of the potent ideology that calls for the dismantling of American democracy . . . and its replacement by an authoritarian Christian commonwealth.” But then, of course, most Eisenhower voters were unaware, in the 1950s, that Ike’s administration was infiltrated and controlled by Communist agents—and more fool they.

    Similarly, Kevin Phillips announces that “for all practical purposes, Pat Robertson is a Christian Reconstructionist”—not because Robertson has ever identified himself as such but because his start-up university bears the sinister sobriquet Regent, an obvious reference to the Rushdoonian notion of Christians as God’s viceroys on Earth. Phillips doesn’t precisely accuse President Bush of being a Reconstructionist, but he notes that Bush’s GOP gets an awful lot of votes from the Mormons—who have created “a de-facto establishment of religion in the inner mountain West”—and that the Bush family “has been close” to the Reverend Sun Myung Moon and his cultish Unification Church. And then there’s Bush’s habit of encoding “private scriptural invocations” into his speeches. Not only did the president use the biblically loaded phrases “hills to climb” and “seeing the valley below” in his 2004 convention acceptance speech, but he also mentioned the “resurrection of New York City.” The resurrection. Clearly something sinister is afoot.




    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------



    Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism is marginally less ridiculous than this, perhaps because Goldberg, a reporter for Salon, actually spent some time among the believers and even found herself liking them. “I was treated with remarkable openness and hospitality,” she notes, and speaks with sympathy of the Christian nationalists’ eagerness “to engage in passionate discussion about the meaning of life, and about how we understand morality and reality.” But within a page, she’s quoting Hannah Arendt on the origins of totalitarianism and warning balefully that “individual decency can dissolve when groups are mobilized against diabolized enemies.”

    Goldberg’s approach, like that of all the anti-theocrat authors, is to assume that the most extreme manifestation of religious conservatism must, by definition, be its most authentic expression. So she analyzes contemporary evangelicalism without once mentioning Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, or any other prominent pop theologian, and her description of mega-churches—at once “temples of religious nationalism” and “tightly organized right-wing political machines”—suggests a fairly thin acquaintance with the variegated world of entrepreneurial Protestantism. The continuum of conservative Christian belief, in her telling, runs from Rushdoony on the Right to D. James Kennedy on the Left. And the taint of theocracy is everywhere, infecting everyone from Timothy McVeigh (a potential harbinger of “theocratic authoritarianism,” despite his distinct lack of Christian beliefs) to Marvin Olasky (who “seems to be drawn to totalitarian ideologies”).

    You can even be a totalitarian-theocrat-authoritarian without realizing it. Describing a speaker at a rally following the death of Terri Schiavo, Goldberg admits that the lawyer David Gibbs “is a Baptist, not a Reconstructionist.” But then comes the kicker: “But whether he knew it or not, Reconstructionism shaped his thinking, just as it shaped the thinking of the Christian nationalist movement as a whole.”

    These inanities are almost excusable, since Goldberg is such an obvious prisoner of her biases and preconceptions. Whereas Randall Balmer’s Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament is less forgivable, because Balmer ought to have known better. He is an evangelical Christian, a professor of religious history at Columbia, and the author of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, a largely sympathetic exploration of evangelical belief in America. Yet Thy Kingdom Come—a glorified pamphlet, despite its endless subtitle—is indistinguishable from the general run of secularist hysterics, save for a smug reference to Balmer’s spotless Sunday school attendance record and a patina of “real Baptist” outrage over how the Religious Right has supposedly hijacked his heritage.

    There’s certainly room, after thirty years of culture war, for an informed and evenhanded critique of Christian conservatism, and Balmer’s background would seem to make him an ideal writer for the job. But while he occasionally nods in the direction of intelligent criticism—noting the disparity between the Christian Right’s fixation on gay marriage, say, and its long-running silence on divorce; or zinging religious conservatives for writing the Bush administration a blank check in the war on terror—these arguments are quickly dropped in favor of the usual litany of anti-theocrat complaints, flavored with the usual apocalyptic rhetoric.

    “What would America look like if the Religious Right had its way?” Balmer wonders. “The best answer” is that Christian conservatism “hankers for the kind of homogeneous theocracy that the Puritans tried to establish in seventeenth-century Massachusetts.” A few attempts to insert Intelligent Design into public school curricula constitute an “insidious” plot to overturn the Enlightenment, while the campaign to allow voluntary prayer in public schools is an attempt “to dismantle the First Amendment.” In the debate over vouchers and homeschooling, Balmer (who opposes both) assures his readers that “the future of American democracy hangs in the balance.”

    Once again, all roads lead to Rushdoony. Reconstructionism, Thy Kingdom Come asserts, has driven evangelicalism’s “radical tack to the right,” influencing everyone from Pat Robertson to Richard Land to Jerry Falwell to Roy Moore. But unlike Rudin or Phillips, Balmer doesn’t bother to do close readings of conservative speeches, teasing out the Reconstructionist code words and theocratic allusions. He has all the evidence he needs: The Rushdoonian Chalcedon Foundation’s website, Balmer announces with the air of a lawyer delivering an airtight summation, once published a defense of Roy Moore, which was penned “by an associate professor at Falwell’s Liberty University.” So Rushdoony is Moore is Falwell: Case closed.




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    When the evidence for Rushdoonian infiltration of the Religious Right grows thin for even the most diligent decoder, the subject is usually changed to the Rapture, another supposed pillar of the emerging theocratic edifice. Premillenarian dispensationalism’s emphasis on the imminent collapse of all institutions, foreign and domestic, would seem an odd fit with Reconstructionism’s idea of hastening Christ’s coming by building his (political) kingdom on Earth. But every 1950s conspiracist knew that when Communists seemed to differ—Tito and Stalin, Stalin and Mao—it only concealed a deeper concord. Similarly, everyone on the Christian Right is understood to be on the same side, no matter their superficial disagreements.

    And the Rapture thesis has too much explanatory power to be ignored. Why did George W. Bush go to war in Iraq? The answers are all in the Book of Revelation—or perhaps on the “Christian fiction” aisle of your local Barnes and Noble. It is “eerie,” writes Phillips, “to see so many Bush administration foreign-policy qualities anticipated” in the Left Behind novels. One step further into absurdity, Balmer informs his readers that “the belief in dispensational premillennialism” explains the lousy church architecture of the last fifty years: “Why invest your resources in building or ornamentation when Jesus will return at any time?”

    Or again, why are Christocrats fiddling while the Late Great Planet Earth burns? In a New York Review of Books essay on “The Evangelist Menace,” Bill Moyers explained the theocrats’ reasoning this way: “Why care about the earth when the droughts, floods, famine, and pestilence brought by ecological collapse are signs of the apocalypse foretold in the Bible? Why care about global climate change when you and yours will be rescued in the Rapture?”

    Never mind that conservative Catholics tend to be relatively supportive of environmental regulation, that evangelicals are divided on the issue (and perhaps trending leftward), and that the Bush administration’s refusal to take dramatic steps to combat global warming—like the Clinton administration’s refusal before it—probably has more to do with economics than eschatology. Never mind, too, that the main evidence for the pernicious influence of apocalypticism seems to be the success of a series of bestselling thrillers, which is rather like trying to divine a widespread gnostic political conspiracy by tabulating sales of The Da Vinci Code.

    Never mind, because the Rushdoony-and-Rapture theory’s implausibility is crucial to its appeal. Just as a plausible account of American politics in the 1950s would have left no room for the fantasies of the John Birch Society, a reasonable account of the Religious Right would have to accept the possibility that religious conservatives are fairly normal American political actors, seeking to further their agenda through normal political channels. Or as National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru put it, in an essay written amid the “values voter” hysteria of 2004:

    It may be instructive to think about the wish list of Christian-conservative organizations involved in politics. They would generally prohibit abortion, and perhaps research that destroys human embryos. They would have the government refuse to accord legal standing to homosexual relationships. They would restrict pornography in various ways. They would have more prayer in the schools, and less evolution. They think that religious groups should be able to participate in federal programs without compromising their beliefs. They would replace sex education with abstinence education. They want the government to promote marital stability. . . . Nearly every one of these policies—and all of the most conservative ones—would merely turn the clock back to the late 1950s. That may be a very bad idea, but the America of the 1950s was not a theocracy.

    This reality poses no particular problem if you simply disagree with religious conservatives about abortion or gay marriage or prayer in public schools. But if you’re committed to the notion that religious conservatives represent an existential threat to democratic government, you need a broader definition of theocracy to convey your sense of impending doom. Which is why the anti-theocrats often suggest that it doesn’t take mullahs, an established church, or a Reconstructionist ban on adultery to make a theocracy. All you need are politicians who invoke religion and apply Christian principles to public policy.




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    If that’s all it takes to make a theocracy, then these writers are correct: Contemporary America is run by theocrats. Of course, by that measure, so was the America of every previous era. The United States has always been at once a secular republic and a religious nation, reflexively libertarian and fiercely pious, and this tension has been working itself out in our politics for more than two hundred years. It’s often been a mixed blessing, giving us Prohibition as well as abolition, Jesse Jackson as well as Reinhold Niebuhr, the obsession with free silver as well as the zeal for civil rights. But there’s no way to give an account of American history without grappling with this tension—and with the role played, for good and ill and sometimes both, by religious reformers from Jonathan Edwards all the way down to Jerry Falwell.

    Yet this is a history that the anti-theocrats seem determined to reject. The Christian Right isn’t just bad for America because of its right-wing misapplication of religious faith, they suggest—it’s bad for America because any application of faith to politics is inevitably poisonous, intolerant, and illiberal.

    “Religion in America has always functioned best from the margins,” Randall Balmer explains, urging Christians to retreat into a countercultural role that he claims is closer to what both the gospel and the Founders had in mind. (In Balmer’s world, homeschooling your children doesn’t count as being “countercultural,” but voting Democratic does.) “There is no such thing as a Christian politics,” Garry Wills intoned recently in a New York Times op-ed, warning liberals against trying to turn religion to their advantage. “If it is a politics, it cannot be Christian.” In a Time magazine essay defending his use of the Osama-inflected term Christianist to describe religious conservatives, Andrew Sullivan announced his opposition “to any politicization of the gospels by any party, Democratic or Republican, by partisan black churches or partisan white ones. ‘My kingdom is not of this world,’ Jesus insisted. What part of that do we not understand?”

    In Kingdom Coming, Michelle Goldberg dismisses any talk of a Christian influence on the American founding as right-wing revisionism and then offers a bowdlerized history of her own, in which we were bequeathed a pristinely secular republic that the fundamentalists have been chipping away at ever since. “Several times in our history,” she notes, “apparently innocuous references to God have been injected into public life during national crises, only to be used later to legitimate further erosions of church-state separation.” These erosions include the “In God We Trust” added to the currency in 1863, the elimination of Sunday mail in 1912, and the 1954 insertion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Obviously, the theocrats play a long game.

    Whenever politicians invoke religion, Kevin Phillips suggests in a characteristic passage, the people perish: “The newly Christian fourth-century Rome of the Emperor Constantine and his successors held up the cross as Rome faced military defeat and crumbling frontiers from Hadrian’s Wall to Assyria. So did seventeenth-century Spain, the proud but ill-omened command post of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Vestments of crusaderdom also cloaked imperial Britain’s overreach in World War I and its aftermath.”

    In addition to casting religious conservatives as mullahs, proto-fascists, and agents of American decline, this strict-separationist interpretation of world history frees the anti-theocrats from the messy business of actually arguing with their opponents. From sex education and government support for religious charities to stem cells and abortion, it’s enough to call something “faith-based” and dismiss it. Indeed, reading through the anti-theocrat literature, one gets the sense that the surest way to judge if a political idea is wrong, dangerous, or antidemocratic is to tally up the number of religious people who support it.




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    Except that nobody really believes this line. Just a few weeks before he announced that a “Christian politics” was a contradiction in terms, Garry Wills was in the New York Review of Books celebrating the role of the clergy in the civil rights movement and wiping a nostalgic tear from his eye as he declared that “there was a time, not so long ago, when religion was a force for liberation in America.” After years of blasting any religious encroachment on the political sphere as a threat to the Constitution, the New York Times editorial page awoke to find Cardinal Roger Mahony advocating civil disobedience by Catholics to protest an immigration bill—and immediately praised the cardinal for adding “a moral dimension to what has largely been a debate about politics and economics.” After spending two hundred pages describing all the evils that would pour through any breach in the wall between church and state, Michelle Goldberg suggests that liberals should hope that “leaders on the Religious Left will find a way to channel some of America’s moral fervor into a new social gospel.”

    And just a chapter before launching into a florid denunciation of the Christian Right’s “lust for political power and cultural influence,” Randall Balmer celebrates Victorian evangelicals for taking on “the task of reforming society according to the standards of godliness,” and seeking “generally to make the world a better place.” He praises William Jennings Bryan for being “a political liberal by today’s standards” and even defends the Great Commoner against a “brutal character assassination at the hands of H.L. Mencken” during the Scopes trial—this from an author who devotes thirty pages to attacking Intelligent Design as a “battering ram” for theocrats bent on the “conquest of American society.” Bryan, Balmer explains, “had fewer qualms about Darwinism itself than he did about the social effects of evolutionary theory.”

    A Christian is allowed to entertain such doubts, in other words, and allowed to mix religion and politics in support of sweeping social reforms— but only if those reforms are safely identified with the political Left, and with the interests of the Democratic party.




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    There are ways to avoid this contradiction, but none of them are particularly persuasive. Sometimes it’s argued that what sets the contemporary Christian Right apart from previous iterations of politically active religion isn’t its Christianity per se but its unwillingness to couch argument in terms that nonbelievers can accept—to use “public reason,” in the Rawlsian phrase, to make a political case that doesn’t rely on Bible-thumping. As a prudential matter, the case for public reason makes a great deal of sense. But one searches American history in vain—from abolitionist polemics down to Martin Luther King’s Scripture-saturated speeches—for any evidence of this supposedly ironclad rule being rigorously applied, or applied at all.

    And besides, religious conservatives do, frequently and loudly, make arguments for their positions on non-theological grounds. Perhaps not as often as they should, to judge by the movement’s repeated political and cultural defeats (defeats that the anti-theocrats gloss over, since it would complicate their portrait of an all-powerful Christofascism on the march). But the evils of abortion, the value of heterosexual monogamy, the costs of promiscuity and pornography—all these issues are constantly being raised by social conservatives without appeals to the divine inspiration of the Bible. Tellingly, when a professor at Patrick Henry College explains to Goldberg how he teaches students to “use terms and facts that the other side accepts as reasonable,” she calls it a “rhetorical two-step” and casts it as yet another example of the devious Christianist project of political infiltration: Heads you’re a theocrat, tails you’re a theocrat.

    Again, perhaps today’s Christians are too comprehensive in their political aims; religious involvement in politics is acceptable, this argument runs, so long as it takes place on an issue-by-issue basis, but the more sweeping the goals, the stronger the whiff of theocracy. For Jeff Sharlet, for instance, writing a Rolling Stone profile of Sam Brownback, it’s the senator’s willingness to talk about a sweeping Christian renewal that makes him creepy. Brownback, echoing John Paul II, says he hopes for a “cultural springtime” in America, and Sharlet sums up this vision as “a theocratic order that is pleasant and balmy.”

    Except that it’s hard to imagine anything more sweeping than Martin Luther King’s dream for a Sermon on the Mount–style revolution in the South. King was a single-issue activist, in a sense, but his issue was the mystic renovation of an entire society. Similarly, the social gospel of Bryan’s era aimed at bringing an entire industrial society into line with biblical principles, making it easily as comprehensive as anything that Sam Brownback has ever dreamed up. So too with the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, whose bishops have over the years taken positions—often ill-advisedly but never theocratically—on issues ranging from marriage law to nuclear war to immigration. If anything, the single-issue argument is often used against Catholic conservatives, who are accused of being too narrowly focused on questions of life and death rather than the larger “seamless garment” of Catholic social teaching.




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    So maybe it’s not the issues, but the actors—the Christian Right’s narrow base of supporters, for instance, and its identification with a single political party, both of which contrast unfavorably with the supposed ecumenism and bipartisanship of the civil rights movement. This is the argument of Sullivan, among others; he admits that “the civil-rights movement was indeed a fundamentally religious phenomenon, but . . . it was also multi-denominational and included Democrats and Republicans. Its core religious principle was non-violence, and it drew enormous inspiration from Gandhi. It included Jews and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, atheists and agnostics. And it never, in King’s time, became a vehicle for one political party to win elections.”

    There’s a great deal of confusion here—the Religious Right is nothing if not multidenominational, for one thing—but also a grain of truth. No religion-infused movement can afford to be used by a political party as a way to gain votes and nothing more. That’s how the Democrats have used the Al Sharpton / Jesse Jackson–era civil rights establishment and, sadly, how the GOP has often used the Religious Right. But this is less of a danger to the nation’s self-government than to the integrity of religious witness. When Tom DeLay cloaks himself in the “perfect redeeming love of Jesus Christ” to brush off charges of corruption, it’s not the separation of church and state that’s in danger but DeLay’s own Christian faith. When preachers echo GOP talking points rather than shape them, they risk going down the same path trod by the liberal clerics of the 1960s, whose sermons became indistinguishable from the gospel according to the New York Times—until, as David Frum once put it, their parishioners began to wonder “why they should spend a Sunday morning listening to the same editorial twice?”

    But any idealistic movement has to risk such compromises if it intends to leave the mountaintop and make a difference in the valley below. It’s telling that the obvious alternative, the purer-than-thou Christian quietism suggested, at times, by writers like Balmer and Wills, was often urged on believers by segregationist clerics in the civil rights–era South. The realities of politics don’t necessarily make for the most Christlike displays: “I’ve got all my votes, and I’ve got a suitcase,” Martin Luther King Sr. remarked after John F. Kennedy helped get his son released from jail, “and I’m going to take them up there and dump them in his lap.” But every moral crusade in American history has ultimately become intertwined with one or both of the political parties—because political parties are how movements get things done.




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    As for why the Religious Right has become so tightly bound to the GOP, rather than becoming as Democratic as the Populists once were, or as bipartisan as the civil rights movement was (albeit ever so briefly)—well, that’s a question that the anti-theocrats rarely address in any detail, beyond dark references to the nefarious activities of Karl Rove. Only Phillips has the honesty to analyze the political trends that have brought about this supposedly theocratic moment—and he does so with almost charming obliviousness, quoting experts such as John Green, Geoffrey Layman, and Louis Bolce, as if unaware that their arguments vitiate his thesis.

    What all these observers point out, and what the anti-theocrats ignore, is that the religious polarization of American politics runs in both directions. The Republican party has become more religious because the Democrats became self-consciously secular, and the turning point wasn’t the 1992 or the 2000 elections but the putsch of 1972, when secularist delegates—to quote Phillips, quoting Layman—suddenly “constituted the largest ‘religious’ bloc among Democratic delegates.” Yet having noted this rather significant fact, Phillips sets it aside and returns blithely to his preferred narrative, which is the transformation of the GOP into America’s first “religious party.” But that’s not what happened at all—or rather, it’s the second half of the story, the Republican reaction against the Democrats’ decision to become the first major party in American history to pander to a sizable bloc of aggressively secular voters.

    This was very much a strategic electoral move on their part. As Mark Stricherz pointed out last year in a Commonweal essay titled “Goodbye Catholics,” Democrats in the McGovern era were faced with the crack-up of the old New Deal coalition and made a conscious decision to jettison blue-collar voters in favor of what a 1969 memo called “a different political and social group with rising educational levels, affluence, and . . . greater cultural sophistication.” At the time, pursuing a coalition of younger voters, minorities, and affluent suburbanites seemed a better bet than trying to hang on to socially conservative voters, especially given that all the energy in the party seemed to be coming from the Left. But it required the Democrats to identify with a segment of the population—self-identified secularists and nonbelievers—that has grown rapidly over the past three decades and grown more assertive along the way. Which in turn has alienated the devout plurality of Americans and left the Democratic party stuck just shy of majority status for the better part of a generation.

    So the rise of the Religious Right, and the growing “religion gap” that Phillips describes but fails to understand, aren’t new things in American history but a reaction to a new thing: to an old political party newly dependent on a bloc of voters who reject the role that religion has traditionally played in American political life. The hysteria over theocracy, in turn, represents an attempt to rewrite the history of the United States to suit these voters’ prejudices, by setting a year zero somewhere around 1970 and casting everything that’s happened since as a battle between progress and atavism, reason and fundamentalism, the Enlightenment and the medieval dark.




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    The tragedy is that so many religious people have gone along with this revisionism—out of sympathy for the lifestyle liberalism of the secular Left, or out of disdain for the crudity and anti-intellectualism of some religious conservatives, or out of embarrassment in the face of a culture that sneers at anyone who takes their faith too seriously. In the process, they have become everything they claim to oppose: bigoted and hysterical, apocalyptic and self-righteous. What’s worse, they have corrupted themselves for the sake of a politics that cares nothing for their faith—that would tame it to suit the needs of secular society or do away with it entirely.

    Garry Wills is half-right: There is no single Christian politics, and no movement can claim to have arrived at the perfect marriage of religious faith and political action. Christianity is too otherworldly for that, and the world too fallen. But this doesn’t free believers from the obligation to strive in political affairs, as they strive in all things, to do what God would have them do. And the moments when God’s will is inscrutable, or glimpsed only through a glass, darkly, are the moments when good-faith arguments between believers ought to bear the greatest fruit.

    In today’s America, these arguments are constantly taking place—over issues ranging from abortion to foreign policy; over the potential, and potential limits, of interfaith cooperation; over the past and future of the Religious Right. But they are increasingly drowned out by cries of “theocracy, theocracy, theocracy” and by a zeal, among ostensibly religious intellectuals, to read their fellow believers out of public life and sell their birthright for the blessing of the New York Times.

    Ross Douthat is an associate editor at the Atlantic Monthly and the author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class.



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    From First Things

    Sir Jason the not Quite that Longwinded

    ReplyDelete
  7. Sir Chuck said...
    Thanks for sharing the Koukl piece, Sir J. Very insightful...

    Sir C

    10:33 AM

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    You're quite welcome.

    Sir Jason the Longwinded

    ReplyDelete
  8. http://www.str.org/site/PageServer?
    pagename=homepage

    is Koukl's site-but "Stand to Reason" would probably do.

    a site I like even better is "First Things"

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thanks, Sir Jason, great sites. Got them added to our RT list...

    ReplyDelete