Monday, September 25, 2006
Theocrats are coming, theocrats are coming! Right?
At last, Peter Steinfels's American Prospect review of several much-discussed books about the dangers of the religious right is available to non-subscribers. Steinfels, the religion columnist for the New York Times and the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Catholic Church in America, pays particular attention to Kevin Phillips's American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, and James Rudin's The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us. And he sees two basic problems:
First, he argues that they significantly overstate the influence of genuinely "theocratic" fringe movements in the Evangelical world and in conservative Christian circles generally:
Christian Reconstructionism and its weird "dominion theology" probably play a greater role in the writings of the religious right's critics than they ever have in the wider evangelical world. That wider evangelical world is precisely what is missing from these books. Rudin has a chapter focusing on such matters as evangelicals' enthusiasm for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and the takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention by theological and political conservatives. But neither he nor Phillips nor Goldberg make any reference to the extensive studies of evangelicals and other conservative believers by Alan Wolfe, Christian Smith, and a raft of social scientists. Phillips tries to lend scholarly authority to his foreboding of theocracy with a blizzard of (selective) facts and figures concerning Christianity over many centuries and several nations, but when it comes to the present-day confluence of religion and politics he takes his cues from a familiar set of anti–religious-right articles, books, and Web sites.
It is symptomatic that of Phillips's hundreds of footnotes dealing with, for the most part, Protestant theology and politics, only one refers to Christianity Today, the flagship monthly of the nation's wider evangelical world. Theologically and politically, Christianity Today is unquestionably conservative. It is also moderate, reflective, and self-questioning, especially about evangelical ventures into politics. The danger of theocracy might look a little different if, alongside right-wing partisans and theological crazies, these writers had paid a little attention to this leading journal that in recent months has published articles like "Five Reasons Why Torture Is Always Wrong" and "The ACLU Is Not Evil."
Furthermore, over-emphasizing the Christianists within the Republican Party, Steinfels says, distracts attention from the factions that are really setting the G.O.P.'s agenda:
K Street and the lingering doctrine of supply-side economics, not Christian Reconstructionists and biblical inerrantism, drive the administration's fiscal follies. The officials sending the United States to war in Iraq — Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, Libby — did not come from the religious right, let alone the larger evangelical constituency.
There's another problem with these books, Steinfels argues:
They draw bold and broad lines between empiricism, science, tolerance, rationality, and democracy, on the one hand, and faith, theology, revelation, persecution, irrationality, and authoritarianism, on the other; and they assign whatever they like or dislike to one side of the divide or the other. This dualism disregards rational dimensions of faith and theology (as well as faith dimensions of science and rationality) and neglects the historical reality that the modern world of empiricism, science, and Enlightenment reason has produced its own irrational nightmares. Treating the moral questions that agitate conservative Christians as obviously settled beyond all reasoned argument does not just target theocrats. It sprays bullets widely into the ranks of moderate evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and even many centrist and liberal believers.
For Unitarian Universalists, the danger here is that when we allow our fear of others to overwhelm our interest in understanding them, we begin to demonize them, losing sight not only of their kinship with us but also misinterpreting the nature of our disagreements with them. There are important theological and political disagreements between theological liberals and theological traditionalists, of course, but secularist alarmists are not our best guides to these disagreements.
("Be not afraid," Peter Steinfels, American Prospect 9.12.06)
Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 25 September 2006 at 8:02 AM