Dear Randall and David,
This has been a very enjoyable exchange. I think Randall is right about hitting a raw nerve with the mention of theocracy. As Shakespeare had a character say, “Me thinks they doth protest too much!”
Steinfels’ response to the recent spate of books about theocracy is fairly typical for people who lack full comprehension of the mindset of many of the evangelicals influencing the Religious Right. I witnessed the takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention by Christian Nationalists and I observed well organized bands of Christian Reconstructionists takeover the local GOP precincts around the churches that I pastored. In both instances, when I raised a hue and cry about these takeovers, I met the same kind of naÃ¯ve faith and “It can’t happen here” attitude exhibited by Steinfels remarks.
Henry Kissinger had a good grasp of the way that people typically respond to revolutionary powers that do not accept the legitimacy of the existing order. Here’s his analysis:
Lulled by a period of stability which had seemed permanent, they find it nearly impossible to take at face value the assertion of the revolutionary power that it means to smash the existing framework. The defenders of the status quo therefore tend to begin by treating the revolutionary power as if its protestations were merely tactical; as if it really accepted the existing legitimacy but overstated its case for bargaining purposes; as if it were motivated by specific grievances to be assuaged by limited concessions. Those who warn against the danger in time are considered alarmists; those who counsel adaptation to circumstances are considered balanced and sane. . . . But it is the essence of revolutionary power that it possesses the courage of its convictions, that it is willing, indeed eager, to push its principles to their ultimate conclusion.
We’ve seen a process like this slowly working its way out in American politics for about a quarter century now. We are dealing with patient revolutionaries. Reconstructionist goals have been advanced and implemented so methodically and incrementally that most of them no longer appear revolutionary. Here is an outline of the blueprint for civil society that R. J. Rushdoony laid out in his Institutes of Biblical Law:
1) Acknowledge the ten commandments as the foundation for civil law (Could that have anything to do with Roy ‘s Rock?).
2) Strengthen patriarchically ordered families (Could that have anything to do with opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and with new Baptist creeds that insist that wives must “graciously submit” to their husbands?).
3) Close the public schools and make parents totally responsible for the education of their children (Could that have anything to do with the incessant push for vouchers and the explosion of home-schooling — especially among Baptists?).
4) Require “tithes” to ecclesiastical agencies to provide welfare services (Could that have anything to do with ‘Charitable Choice’ and Faith-based initiatives?).
5) Reduce the role of government to defense of the nation and the defense of property rights (Could that have anything to do with the rhetoric about ‘starving the beast’ of government and policies that bankrupt the government with expensive wars while cutting taxes?).
6) Close the prisons — reinstitute slavery as a form of punishment and require capital punishment for all of ancient Israel’s capital offenses — including apostacy, blasphemy, incorrigibility in children, murder, rape, Sabbath breaking, sodomy, and witchcraft.
The only thing that still looks revolutionary in this list is the last one. All of them were considered extreme in 1973 when Rushdoony wrote his Institutes.
How sure can we be that this last goal will remain outside the realm of possibility?
All the best,
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I supposed there’s not much that can properly be identified as amusing about the actions and agenda of the Religious Right these days — especially their cooperation with the present administration to compromise civil liberties, prosecute an unjust war in Iraq and condone the torture of those the administration has designated “enemy combatants.” But allow me to inject a note of levity (well, almost) into this final posting.
The thing I find most amusing about the leaders of the Religious Right these days is the way fly into an apoplectic fit anytime anyone mentions the word “theocracy.” Kevin Phillips, of course, earned their undying obloquy for using it in the title of his best-selling book “American Theocracy.” To the best of my recollection, I used the word only once in “Thy Kingdom Come,” when I suggested that what the Religious Right wanted more than anything else was a theocratic order patterned after Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. I went on to say that New England Puritanism was a grand and noble experiment that ultimately collapsed beneath the weight of its own pretensions — precisely as Roger Williams, America’s first Baptist, predicted it would.
Despite my singular use of the term “theocracy,” the Religious Right went ballistic. Someone on a radio show (the same right-wing nut who pontificated at length about my unhappy evangelical childhood) yelled and screamed about my use of the word. And another soldier in the army of the Religious Right used the term “theocracy” three times in the title of his review — well, not a review really, more of a hatchet job.
One has to wonder why a single word provokes such a dramatic response. Could it be that it strikes a nerve? Hmmm. The Religious Right passionately denies that it seeks a theocracy, of course, but my view of the matter is that it’s appropriate to administer the duck test: If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s almost certainly a duck.
The first step toward creating a theocracy is to eviscerate the First Amendment and to demolish the line of separation between church and state. And this, of course, brings our discussion full circle. If you seek to undermine the Baptist principles that have served this nation — and the faith — so well for more than two centuries, you begin by undermining the First Amendment.
Once you do that, you’re well on your way to a theocracy.
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Dear Randall and Bruce,
Again, thanks much for this exchange. We’ve been going for the better part of a week now, and it’s still fascinating stuff. We’re due to wrap up soon, and was wondering if you two could give us some closing thoughts, and perhaps consider the following excerpt from Peter Steinfels’ book review essay in the latest edition of the American Prospect.
He doesn’t take up your book in particular, Randall, but does raise issues on which I think both of you would have opinions. Reviewing books from Kevin Phillips, Michelle Goldberg, and Jim Rudin, he argues:
But the idea, increasingly voiced by left-of-center activists and intellectuals, that religion is the driving force of the administration’s policies and the leading threat to American democracy is exaggerated and misplaced. Phillips, Rudin, and Goldberg themselves regularly stick qualifying phrases into their declarations of alarm. They know that fanaticism and nuttiness, including downright dangerous nuttiness, can be found all over the place in a religious and political landscape as vast and diverse as America’s. And they know better than to equate hardcore religious-right leaders and organizations, let alone the still smaller kernel of literal theocrats, with evangelical Americans in general, who constitute between 30 percent and 40 percent of the population and who have swung massively into the Republican camp in the last three decades.
The task, in other words, is not simply to shine light on faith-based antidemocratic currents but to map context, patterns, proportions, and trends, tracing not only real connections but also deep differences between what’s marginal and what’s central.
His point seems to me to be that we risk alienating the broad 30-40% of Americans who are evangelical if we overstate the degree of control that ultra-conservative Religious Right leaders exert over them. I agree with that point when broadly applied to the evangelical community, but based on the current state of the Southern Baptist Convention, it seems overly optimistic. Are there, to use his words, context, patterns, proportions, and trends that can give hope that a large chunk of Baptists is not actually under the sway of the Religious Right? And if so, how do leaders like yourselves go about trying to engage and inspire that community?
Thanks agian for taking the time to join us this week, and best of luck as your work continues.
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I agree. “Religious Right” is preferable to “Christian Right” as a descriptor for the movement. It’s actions and agenda are not Christian. It also preserves a space for non-Christians within the movement. Some non-Christians appear to fear secularization so much that they will support a movement that rejects religious pluralism and is working to establish the Christian religion. Ultimately, I think Michelle Goldberg’s characterization of this ideology as a form of “Christian Nationalism” may provide the most accurate description of the movement.
I’d like to return to our discussion of the rise of the Religious Right and “Christian Nationalism.”
I think one of the key leaders of the Religious Right is often overlooked. Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade, had a larger role than a lot of people realize.
In 1974 and 1975 Bill Bright convened a series of secret meetings with 20-25 key Christian Right leaders. They formed Third Century Publishers to publish books and study guides that would link a “Christian Nationalist” agenda with conservative Christianity. They needed a tax-exempt foundation to receive donations to help them support their for-profit Third Century Publishers. So, Bright with the help of Richard DeVoss, president of Amway Corp., and Art DeMoss, board chairman of National Liberty Insurance Co., took over the financially troubled Christian Freedom Foundation to solicit funds for their publishing company. They hired Ed McAteer to run it. DeMoss later publicly stated that the purpose of CFF was to elect Christian conservatives to Congress in 1976:
“The vision is to rebuild the foundations of the Republic as it was when first founded–a ‘Christian Republic.’ We must return to the faith of our fathers.” [John Saloma, Ominous Politics: The New Consevative Labrynth (pp. 53-54).
Ed McAteer, a Baptist layman at Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis where Adrian Rogers was pastor, later founded the Religious Roundtable (1979). As the Religious Roundtable was getting organized, Bill Bright, along with evangelist Billy Graham, called a meeting in Dallas with ten or twelve influential conservative leaders. Among them were Adrian Rogers, Charles Stanley, and Jimmy Draper. All three were leaders of a movement to takeover the Southern Baptist Convention. That movement began in 1979 with the election of Rogers as President of the SBC. Draper and Stanley would also be elected President of the SBC during the first crucial decade of the succesful effort to takeover the SBC. Other noteworthy leaders at Bill Bright’s meeting were Pat Robertson, Rex Humbard, Clayton Bell (Billy Graham’s brother-in-law), and James Robison.
Here’s James Robison’s account of the meeting:
“Billy Graham said, ‘I believe God has shown me that unless we have a change in America, we have a thousand days as a free nation . . . three years.’ Bill Bright said, ‘I know. . . . I do not believe we’ll survive more than three years as a free nation. It’s that serious.’ And Pat Robertson said, ‘I believe the same thing.’ Charles Stanley was standing there and I can just remember so well, he put his hand down on the table with resolve and said, ‘I’ll give my life to stop this. I’ll give everything I’ve got to turn this country.’ And I said, ‘Me too. I’ll die to turn this country. Whatever it takes. We can’t lose the country.’ And each man around the room said, ‘we’re going to get involved.’ Except Rex Humbard. He said, ‘I’m uncomfortable politically. I really am very uncomfortable.’ And Dr. Graham said, ‘I cannot publicly be involved. I can only pray. I’ve been burned so badly with the public relationships I’ve had. I can’t afford it, but I care so much.’”
Shortly after that meeting, Charles Stanley fulfilled the pledge he made at Bright’s gathering by inviting scores of Baptist preachers to meet at his church for a “Campaign Training Conference.” At that conference Paul Weyrich told them how to get their congregations involved in politics without jeopardizing their churches’ tax exemption. Weyrich fondly remembers the conference and noted the presence of Paige Patterson at this kick-off meeting for Southern Baptist involvement in secular politics. Paige Patterson was the chief organizer of the takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. Here’s Weyrich account of that meeting:
“I had [newspaper columnist] Bob Novak with me and he was absolutely in a state of shock. It was at that moment, he told me, that he decided Carter was going to lose, because minister after minister stood up and said, ‘I was part of Carter’s team in 1976. I delivered my congregation for Carter. I urged them to vote for Carter because I thought he was a moral individual. I found out otherwise, and I’m angry.’ This was months before the election, and Novak said, ‘I decided at that point that Jimmy Carter’s goose was cooked because I saw the intensity of those people.’ That was really an extraordinary moment. At one point, something was said about baptism, and Paige Patterson, who is now very big in the Southern Baptist Church, and some of his buddies lifted me up, physically, and started to carry me backwards to dunk me in the baptismal well there in the church. It was a humorous moment, and all the guys in the audience were cheering. But it was all done in good fun. It was a remarkable day, really.”
When the full story is told about the rise of the Religious Right and Christian Nationalism, I suspect that Bill Bright, Ed McAteer, and a host of SBC takeover leaders will be seen to have played a more prominent role than most chroniclers currently recognize and acknowledge.
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The causes you cite behind the rise of the Religious Right — the civil rights movement, Francis Schaeffer, Reconstructionism, and the like — are absolutely correct, though I think we can push it back even farther. (I might add to your list the reaction to the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s.)
William Jennings Bryan, probably the most identifiable evangelical in the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, would be considered a political liberal by almost any standard today. Bryan, three-time Democratic nominee for president and Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state, was involved in liberal and progressive causes.
Bryan, however, suffered a brutal character assassination at the hands of H. L. Mencken during the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in July 1925. He died in Dayton several days after the trial, and evangelicals thereafter retreated into a subculture of their own making. Evangelicals (at least those in the North) were largely inactive in political matters during those years, until the emergence of Jimmy Carter as a national figure in the mid-1970s.
During this half-century of political quiescence, there was a good bit of cold war rhetoric in evangelical circles, and this had the effect of nudging evangelicals toward the right. That tendency was abetted also by the very public friendship between Billy Graham and Richard Nixon, who formed a bond in the 1950s when they were both coming of age as anti-communist crusaders.
At that point, the forces you mentioned came into play, leading to the organization of the Religious Right as a political entity in the late 1970s. This coalition, as I demonstrate in the book, coalesced, not as a direct response to the Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, but rather in an attempt to defend the tax-exempt status of institutions like Bob Jones University, despite their racially discriminatory policies.
By the way, as you know from reading Thy Kingdom Come, I don’t much care for the term Christian Right to describe this loose federation of politically conservative evangelicals. I think Religious Right is far better. I find the term Christian Right offensive, because I detect little that I would identify as Christian in the actions and the agenda of the Religious Right.
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