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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

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Mike Hogue:

September 25, 2006 11:21 PM | Permalink for this comment

Very nicely put. I could not agree with you more about the importance of Steinfels critique of these books. It is alarming to me the number of liberals, and UU's high on the list among them, who simply invert and redirect the exclusionary logic they (we) purport to stand against. Thanks for your perspective.


September 27, 2006 11:09 AM | Permalink for this comment

Thank you for including this article. I agree that fears of an impending "theocracy' seem unfounded. My larger concern is that the conservative power brokers in the Republican Party and in the corporate world have exploited the religious outlook of many evangelical Christians, both reasonable and unreasonable, in order to cull their support for extremist foreign and domestic policies (i.e. creating a trillion-dollar structural deficit, starving safety-net programs that help the underpriveleged).

I appreciate that the author recommends that liberals read "Christianity Today." I go to their website often and find that the editors have a great amount of tolerance for diverse views and are skeptical of much of the "culture wars" political exploitation. The articles are usually well-reasoned and balanced, and quite frankly, I don't even think the magazine is "decidedly conservative" politically, only theologically. I also particulary appreciate and regularly check the weblog, which collects news articles and op-eds on religion from media sources around the world. I urge all thinking religious liberals to visit this magazine's website at You may not agree with everything you read but you will likely appreciate the temperment and learn some things.

Bill Baar:

October 1, 2006 11:16 AM | Permalink for this comment

This is way I dislike Lakoff's frames so much. They lock you into a binary model. This is something conservatives never do.

I've come to defense of Religious Conservatives on same-sex marriage. I'll say I favor it, but concerned about things like what happened to Catholic Charities in Mass pulling out of adoptions business. That will generate a "Thank you note" in my email from the Religious Right, and a comment that I'm a self-loathing-closeted-gay from a "Liberal".

Conservatives aren't stuck with a frame labeling me as authoritative or nurturing. Like any good politican, they look for common ground, for agreement, and try and build on it.

It's a huge difference between the way the right and left have been practicing politics lately.

Interestingly, a gay wrote me there are those against us, and those against those against us; but no one really for us. I think the Evangelical would have the better response for that person than many UUs.

Steve Caldwell:

October 7, 2006 01:34 PM | Permalink for this comment

Bill Baar wrote:
"This is way I dislike Lakoff's frames so much. They lock you into a binary model. This is something conservatives never do."


It's not my experience that only liberals engage in binary thinking. Here's one quote from President Bush:

"You are either with us or you are against us in the fight against terror."

Regarding the assertion that conservatives try to find common ground, check out what happened when the conservative Democrats involved with Democrats for Life tried to introduce legislation designed to reduce abortions by improving contraceptive access:

Meanwhile, Democrats for Life of America , which has eight members of Congress on its advisory board and works with 30 others, has devised a plan to reduce the abortion rate by 95 percent " by helping and supporting pregnant women ." Rep. Timothy J. Ryan (D-Ohio) was set to lead the charge.

Then Ryan looked at the data and realized that to get anywhere near that target, he and his colleagues would have to provide more birth control. That's when the squirming began.

Some of Ryan's antiabortion allies worried that "morning-after" pills might prevent embryos from implanting, so he omitted such pills from his bill. They opposed requiring private insurers to cover contraception, so he took that out, too. They complained that other pregnancy-prevention bills hadn't emphasized abortion reduction, so he put abortion reduction in the title. They wanted sex education programs to emphasize abstinence; they got it. The only troublesome thing left in the bill was birth control.

It broke the deal. Democrats for Life abandoned Ryan and began a contraceptive-free alternative. With them went Americans United for Life, the National Association of Evangelicals and 13 House Democrats, led by Rep. James L. Oberstar (Minn.), the Democratic co-chairman of the congressional Pro-Life Caucus. Ryan added his name to their bill, but they refused to add their names to his. Focus on the Family, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Rush Limbaugh and Rep. Christopher H. Smith (N.J.), the Republican co-chairman of the Pro-Life Caucus, excoriated Ryan's bill. The Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, based in Ryan's district, asked him to withdraw it."
Source -

This suggests to me a religious or secular political group that really wanted to reduce the number of abortions can find common ground with those who are pro-choice. Providing sexuality education like Our Whole Lives in our communities would be one step. Another step would be requiring contraceptive coverage in health care insurance.

Since conservatives don't indulge in binary thinking and try to find common ground in their politics, it should be really easy for those who are against reproductive choice and those who are in favor of reproductive choice to find common ground with easy access to birth control and sexuality education.

So why isn't this common ground happening?

Pat McLaughlin:

October 9, 2006 06:45 PM | Permalink for this comment

Nominated for most amusing thing I've read today:

conservatives don't indulge in binary thinking

Except when the devil makes them.

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