Required Reading: Christian Jihadis and Presbyterian Ayatollahs

The Christian terrorists are coming for you.

That has long been the hysterical message about “dominionism” present in American media and even academic writing.  But is it true?

In an illuminating recent article in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Michael J. McVicar analyzes the ways “dominionism” has been used as a rhetorical cudgel over the past thirty years.

Though McVicar specifies he’s not trying to offer an authoritative biography of dominionism, nor a prescription for handling dominionism, his article still offers a helpful guide to the ways this bogey has developed, among evangelical Protestants and among the broader culture.

As McVicar recounts, in the 2012 presidential primaries accusations of “dominionism’s” influence flew fast and furious.  Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry in particular stood accused of close ties to dominionism.  For many in the media, that implied a vague sort of theological imperialism, a desire to impose religious strictures on American public life.

McVicar traces the talk about “dominionism” back to criticism by evangelical writers in the 1980s of two Christian movements, Rousas J. Rushdoony’s Christian Reconstruction movement and Earl Paulk Jr.’s Kingdom Now movement.  Leading evangelical authors insisted that such movements did not and could not represent mainstream evangelical theology.

Most important, McVicar argues, these evangelical criticisms served to propagate the labels “dominionism” and “dominion theology.”

Soon, writers outside of evangelical circles appropriated evangelical critiques.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, McVicar writes, secular critics “appropriated much of the evangelical press’s criticism of dominion theology while simultaneously reframing it within the discourses of political progressivism and cultural pluralism.”

Soon, McVicar argues, scholar/activists such as Sara Diamond popularized a caricature of dominionism as the “central unifying ideology for the Christian Right.”

Much of the treatment of “dominionism” in these journalistic and academic treatments has contributed to a frenzy over the connections between conservative Christianity in America and violent, militant religion in other parts of the globe.  For some, “dominionism” serves as proof that all conservative Christians secretly want to take over secular institutions.  For others, “dominionism” is nothing but a bogey of progressive nightmares.

McVicar pushes a more subtle line.  There is such a thing as dominionism, he avers.  However, talk about dominionism usually tells us more about the speaker than about the subject.  Evangelical critics have defined dominionism out of bounds for evangelical belief.  Secular and progressive critics have defined dominionism out of bounds for civil American culture and politics.

Of course, as regular readers of ILYBYGTH are keenly aware, these issues of definition and boundary construction are central to school politics.  I’ve argued in these pages that anti-dominionist rhetoric is more often a blunt instrument than a real effort to shape policy.  If conservatives want to establish schools that include prayer or Bible reading, for example, critics can accuse them of anti-American “dominionism.”  If conservatives want to restrict the teaching of evolution or of sexual information, critics can accuse them of creeping “dominionism.”

Such talk doesn’t help make better schools.  But understanding this kind of talk and the way it has developed historically does promise to help us understand how American education really works.

McVicar’s website tells us that he is working on developing these arguments in a book under contract with the University of North Carolina Press.

We’ll look forward to it.

Further reading: Michael J. McVicar, “‘Let Them Have Dominion:’ ‘Dominion Theology’ and the Construction of Religious Extremism in the US Media,” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 25.1 (Spring 2013): pp. 120-145.




Cross-Dressing for Kindergartners: A Fundamentalist Cause?

Are there fundamentalist activists out there who promote what they call the “radical homosexual agenda?”  It doesn’t seem to fit, but a survey released recently by the fundamentalist activist organization Concerned Women for America raises some puzzling questions. 

The organization claims to be the largest public policy women’s organization in the United States.  Its founder, Beverly LaHaye, tells the story of the day she decided to start her own fundamentalist women’s organization.  She was watching Betty Friedan on TV with her husband, the prolific fundamentalist author Tim LaHaye.  It was the late 1970s, and Friedan promised to keep working until American had embraced “humanist” values.  LaHaye remembers jumping up and exclaiming, “Well, Betty, I’m going to spend the rest of my life seeing that American doesn’t become a humanist nation.”

The organization that resulted from that resolution has become a leading voice in favor of traditionalist family structures, Biblical values in the public square, and other fundamentalist causes.  CWA now claims 500,000 members who have joined LaHaye’s fight for the values of fundamentalist women.  One of the most influential has been Michele Bachmann, who attributed her start in conservative politics to the influence of LaHaye and CWA

So when this leading fundamentalist women’s activist organization released the results of a poll of its members recently, it is not surprising that overwhelming  majorities of CWA’s members oppose what they call the “homosexual agenda” in public schools.  What is surprising is that there are a significant minority of CWA members who seem either ambivalent or even supportive of homosexuality as part of public-school curriculum. 

For those of us outsiders who are trying to understand what we’re calling Fundamentalist America, the results of this survey are truly perplexing. 

For instance, consider this question.  The CWA claimed to have “uncovered proof that children in grades as early as kindergarten are being taught that cross-dressing is an acceptable practice and may be encouraged.”  The CWA asked its membership what kind of impact this would have on children.  Not surprisingly, 84.6% of CWA thought this would have a negative effect on kids.  But here’s the stumper: 6.2% of CWA members answered that this would have a positive effect. 

Here’s another example: the CWA asserted, “The overriding interest of the radical homosexual agenda is to change the moral character of our young people and the moral landscape of our nation through the schools.”  When the CWA asked its members what effect this “radical homosexual agenda” will have “on our nation and the next generation leading it,” almost all CWA members (91.4%) said “negative.”  No surprise there.  But again, a puzzling 5.2% of CWA members answered that the “homosexual agenda” will have a positive impact!

What are we to make of these results?  Is it possible that roughly 1 in 20 CWA members–for a total of roughly 25,000 nationwide–support the homosexual agenda in public schools?  Who think that teaching cross-dressing to kindergarteners is a good thing?  That just doesn’t seem possible.  After all, the CWA’s self-declared reason for existing is to “bring Biblical principles into all levels of public policies.” 

But then how are we to understand these survey results?  A few possibilities spring to mind.  The first is that this survey is simply fake.  The CWA could have simply added in a few minority voices to make their survey results seem more credible.  They might have wanted to project an image as a diverse organization.  But such a fake seems far too obvious.  After all, who could believe that a full 5% of CWA members think that “sexual activity between minors and adults” will have a positive impact on children?  I wouldn’t think that 5%–or even 0.01%–of the American public as a whole could support such things.

Could it be that some CWA respondents did not understand the questions they were being asked?  They might have thought that they were being asked different questions, such as, ‘do you think a fight against cross-dressing curriculum will have a positive impact?’ 

The most difficult of all to believe is that there are a sizeable minority of CWA members who support what the CWA calls the “radical homosexual agenda” in public schools.  That would confound our understanding of what fundamentalists want in American culture, politics, and education. 



Reds Under the Bed? Christians Under the Couch!

Conspiracy sells.  Just ask Dan Brown.  But unwarranted anxiety about conspiracy also poisons our shared public life.

Source: The Guardian

Conspiracy hunting used to be a sport dominated by conservatives.  Think Joe McCarthy waving his sweaty lists of communist infiltrators.  In recent years, though, politicians and commentators have found a new subversive threat: the Religious Right.  A new book by former GOP functionary Mike Lofgren, for instance, warns of the ways his Republican Party was infiltrated and taken over by “stealthily fundamentalist” religious conservatives.

This kind of “paranoid style” has a long history in American public life.  Witches were fiendishly difficult to detect in seventeenth-century New England.  Scheming Catholics worried nineteenth-century WASPs.  Communists emerged as the primary subversive threat in America’s twentieth century.

Leaders of the Religious Right have often worked up convincing conspiracies of their own.  As historian William Trollinger has described, this tradition started with the first generation of American fundamentalists in the 1920s.  One of the most prominent leaders of that Scopes generation, William Bell Riley, finally blamed evolutionary theory on a far-reaching plot of “Jewish Communists.”

In 1926, as I describe in my 1920s book (now in paperback!), one of the new grassroots fundamentalist organizations, the Bible Crusaders, announced the root of the evolution problem.  “Thirty years ago,” the Bible Crusaders revealed,

“five men met in Boston and formed a conspiracy which we believe to be of German origin, to secretly and persistently work to overthrow the fundamentals of the Christian religion in this country.”

A generation later, writing in the magazine of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, one evangelical writer shared his experience with the famous progressive educator John Dewey.  This writer told a cautionary tale of secularist conspiracy, with a story of Dewey’s eighty-fifth birthday party in 1944.  Our evangelical witness had been invited to the celebration, the other guests unaware of his theological commitment.  Celebrating the life of the prominent progressive educator, the guests proudly recalled their efforts to transform America’s schools from Christian institutions to secular training centers.  “A generation has passed since that birthday gathering,” reported the evangelical spy to the MBI readership,

“and the plan has been immeasurably advanced by a series of court decisions that have de-theized the public schools.  As a result, American state-supported schools are as officially secular and materialistic as are their counterparts in Communist countries.  Are we awakening?”

Such warnings shouted by Christian conservatives have occasionally attracted enormous audiences outside of religious circles.  In the 1970s, Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth became a runaway bestseller.  With his co-author Carole Carlson, Lindsey spun a premillennial dispensationalist reading of the Bible into a riveting tale of international conspiracy.  In the premillennial dispensational interpretation, popular among some conservative evangelical Protestants, the Antichrist will return in the guise of a savior, combining governments into a massive superstate.  What seems like secular salvation is quickly revealed as the ultimate cosmic conspiracy, dedicated to binding all of humanity to a Satanic anti-religion.

Image source: Wikipedia

These themes saw another burst of popularity in the late 1990s, when Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins repeated Lindsey’s feat.  LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ Left Behind series fictionalized Lindsey’s tale, again turning a conspiratorial interpretation of the apocalypse into beach reading for millions of Americans.

These Christian conspiracies have not been without cultural cost.  Though LaHaye and Jenkins carefully included a righteous Roman Catholic Pope among their fictionalized true Christians, other Christian conspiracy theorists, like William Bell Riley, have been too quick to implicate anyone outside of their circle of conservative evangelical Protestantism.

The dangers from conspiracy theorizing are not limited to the conspiracies imagined by conservative Christians.  Overheated accusations about the threat from subversive groups have long posed a profound danger to our public life, as any blacklisted Hollywood writer or interned Japanese-American could attest.  The threat is not limited to false conspiracies.  Satan may not have inspired Salem’s witch troubles, but historian Ellen Schrecker has argued that the communist-hunters of the 1950s often targeted real communist conspirators, if in a clumsy and overly aggressive way.

Similarly, Lofgren’s ominous warnings are not spun of whole cloth.  Lofgren warns vaguely of the “ties” of many leading Republican politicians to extreme positions such as Christian Dominionism.  This theology, associated most closely with the late Rousas John Rushdoony, wants to establish Christian fundamentalist control over American political life.  As Lofgren emphasizes, such thinkers approve the need to act “stealthily.”

Lofgren did not make this up.  Dominionism exists.  Prominent Republican politicians such as Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann really do work with groups who support such notions.  But the way Lofgren and other commentators discuss such threats from the Christian Right distort the public discussion over the role of religion in the public sphere.  As with warnings about President Obama’s connections to the “terrorist professor” Bill Ayers, this kind of conspiratorial rhetoric encourages a no-holds-barred approach to politics.

After all, as Lofgren intones, the “‘lying for Jesus’ strategy that fundamentalists often adopt” gives anti-fundamentalists a reason to punch below the belt in their culture-war battles.  If they did not, the warning goes, they would be helpless before the wiles of the Christian Right.  This is the primary danger of such breathless exposes as Lofgren’s.  They build a shaky and fantastic argument upon a foundation of authentic examples in order to convince the convinced.  Activists swallow the outlandish examples without demur.  Such true believers do not consider the real complexities of their opponents, but rather paint a simplistic and terrifying image to shock and motivate their own side.

As with the real communist movement, the real world of American conservative Christianity is not such a simple place.  Nor is it so headline-grabbingly power hungry.  Consider a recent leadership poll by the National Association of Evangelicals.  This organization, an umbrella group for conservative evangelical Protestants, asked just over one hundred of its leaders if the United States constituted a “Christian Nation.”  Sixty-eight percent said no.  One respondent told the NAE, “I hope others will learn to love Christ as I do, but that will happen more authentically through the Church and individual Christians sharing the Good News and demonstrating the person of Christ through our words and actions.”

This kind of statement from a conservative Christian does not sell books.  What does sell is a cherry-picked catalog of statements by Christian leaders revealing their plans to take over American politics and public life.  It was easy enough in Cold War America to discover evidence of a world-wide subversive communist movement.  But as America learned from Senator McCarthy’s outlandish claims, there is a danger in stripping down the image of subversives to cartoonish bogeymen.

I am not a conservative Christian myself.  I do not hope to apologize for the excesses of some conservative Christians.  Indeed, I believe denunciations of the schemes of conservative Christians have some basis in fact.  But when they serve only to encourage anti-fundamentalists to fight dirty, they do more harm than good.  When such conspiracy-hunters ignore the complexities and ambiguities of their targets, they attack more than their real enemies.  They smear innocent bystanders and poison the political life of the nation.

Barton and Evolution

You might be tired of hearing about David Barton.  I know I am.  But how about just one more point?  This morning, History News Network ran an essay of mine asking a new question about Barton.  In the essay, I ask what might happen if Barton was defending the notion of a young earth, rather than the notion that Thomas Jefferson was a devout Christian.

Thanks to the History News Network for running that piece.  Since I submitted to their editor, the Barton story has developed in ways that make me even more intrigued in the comparison between (some) conservative Christians’ views of history and creationists’ views of biology and geology.

In a piece that ran in the August 13 online edition of Glenn Beck’s Blaze newsletter, Barton defended his work.  According to the Blaze article,

“Barton seemed anything but shaken by the controversy when he spoke via telephone with TheBlaze. He freely answered questions about the controversy and explained that he’s prepared to respond to some of the critiques, while dismissing what he believes is an ‘elevated level of hostility that’s not really rational in many ways.’

David Barton Responds to Jefferson Lies Controversy and Warren Throckmorton

“While he stands by his central arguments about Jefferson, Barton isn’t pretending to be immune from error. The historian said that the book has already gone through three or four printings and that there have been word and text changes based on spelling or grammar errors along the way. Also, he addressed a willingness to amend historical items, should they be pointed out and proven wrong by other academics.”

What’s intriguing to me in this defense is the way it echoes the challenges posed by 1920s creationists.  Note the phrase “other academics.”  Barton here defends his position as one academic historian among others.

It has been a very long while since scientific creationists insisted that they were part of of the mainstream scientific establishment.  As Ron Numbers described in his classic The Creationists, after the Scopes trial in 1925 leading creationist scientists still fought for creationism’s acceptance in mainstream science.  But they quickly learned that such debates did not offer a real chance to convince mainstream scientists of creationism’s superiority.  Seventh-day Adventist George McCready Price, for instance, left one debate in London shocked and demoralized by the reaction of the crowd.  “Do not confine your reading wholly to one side,” Price pleaded in response to one scornful outburst from the audience.  “How can you know anything about a certain subject if you read only one side of the case? There is plenty of evidence on the other side, and this evidence is gradually coming out.”  After this debate, Price left the stage feeling humiliated, and he never engaged in another public debate. (Numbers, ed. Creation-Evolution Debates, pg. 186).

This does not mean, of course, that creationists gave up.  No, it demonstrates that creationists moved in the 1920s, in fits and starts, away from fighting for acceptance by mainstream scientists.  Instead, they built their own powerful institutions: schools, publishers, and research organizations.  By 2012 no politician needs to retreat from creationist belief.  Similarly, no creationist feels a need to prove his or her claims to an audience of mainstream scientists.

David Barton, on the other hand, is giving us what might be a new Scopes moment.  Forced to endure the public humiliation of having his book withdrawn, Barton has taken a defiant posture.  He has insisted, like Price in 1925, that readers do more than “read only one side of the case.”  He continues to claim his credentials as one academic historian among others.  I wonder if soon historians like Barton will embrace their outsider status.  If so, as I argue in the History News Network piece, we might be seeing another sort of 1925.

Bible in America: RAH interview with Robert Alter

Fundamentalists don’t always make the best historians.  American fundamentalists tend to insist on an American past that is far too rosy.  When she was still an up-and-coming Presidential nomination contender, for example, Michele Bachmann insisted that the Founding Fathers had “worked tirelessly” to end slavery.   Though she later tacked away from her statement, noting that she meant John Quincy Adams, it doesn’t take a slanted leftist historical perspective to notice that her claim is just not true.  The Founding Fathers may have accomplished a good deal.  Some of them may even have tried to improve the conditions of slaves, or to hurry the day when human chattel slavery would be abolished.  But overall, the issue of slavery was one that the Founders explicitly pushed off on a later generation.

However, as we’ve noted here in the past, one of the historical claims of fundamentalists in America lines up more neatly with the findings of non-fundamentalist academics.  On the Religion in American History blog, Randall Stephens recently interviewed scholar Robert Alter about his newish book, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible.

Alter’s book is focused on the ways Biblical themes and language infuse American literature and culture.  In the RAH interview, he makes the point that American culture in the past was thoroughly Biblicized:

“In nineteenth-century Protestant America, the Bible, almost always in the King James Version, was a constant companion for most people. They not only heard it in church, but very often it was regularly read out loud in the family circle at home.”

Fundamentalists often make the case that America is and should remain a Christian, Biblical society.  They insist on a vision of American history in which early European settlers and Founding Fathers planned to create a Christian Nation.  (For the leading example of these kinds of arguments, check out David Barton’s Wallbuilders articles.)

Academic historians have noted that these historical claims must be treated carefully.  John Fea, for instance, has argued that there was indeed a good deal of Christian intent among the founding generation, but this is often used by activists in unfair and ahistoric ways.

However, it is only fair to notice that in some cases, the vision of the past promoted by fundamentalist activists lines up neatly with that of non-fundamentalist scholars.  According to Robert Alter, at least, American culture in the past really was thoroughly infused with the KJV Bible.