Sad. And Wrong.
HuffPo blogger Frank Schaeffer decides the Iranian crisis is an excellent pretext for making unfounded allegations against Republicans, Fox News, and the Tea Party movement. The burden of his thesis is that the Religious Right in America is the Christian version of the Iranian mullahs’ radical Shi’a Islam, and if their – well, I must use Schaeffer’s exact words, so that it is clear what he is conflating:
… if the Republican/Religious Right/Neoconservative agenda had come to full fruition over the last 35 years the Republicans would have plunged America into our own version of the misbegotten theocracy destroying Iran today. I know. As a former Religious Right leader I worked to make America “safe” for “Christian values” and dangerous to everyone else. Thankfully I, and those like me, failed.
“Republican/Religious Right/Neoconservative” is an absurd conflation in the context of both theology and cultural conservatism, and immediately caused my brain to riff on the Sesame Street jingle “One of these things is not like the others” – e.g., “Which of these things is not like the others? How about all three of them?” The flavor of Schaeffer’s irrational packaging effort – which shifts over the course of the column – can be evoked nicely with his allusion to Christian “Reconstructionist” philosopher Rousas John Rushdoony (I know you Christian out there all have him on your bookshelves), and a heroically inconsequent elision linking “Republicans/Religious Right/Neoconservatives” with Rushdoony, Tim LaHaye, D. James Kennedy, “Dobson, Falwell, et al,” and Fox and the Tea Parties.
It would be a grave insult to argument to call Schaeffer’s case one. He really has just taken all the names and phrases that most agitate the left (that is, those on the left who have heard of the names), thrown them any which way into a single piece, and called it the “lesson from Iran.”
“What,” he asks, “are the real lessons of Iran for the USA?”
1) Don’t mix religion and politics.
2) Thank God for the separation of church and state.
3) The Republicans are utter hypocrites.
Well. Q.E.D., clearly. What can you say about logic like that? “The Republicans are utter hypocrites.” What is particularly impressive is that this conclusion follows so well from the premises laid out before it.
As does this remarkable paragraph, explaining what America would be like if “Republicans” had their way:
“Picture the harshest Old Testament laws applied at home and the harshest neoconservative military policy abroad and that would be America if the Republicans had everything they wanted. We’d be in three wars now instead of two – Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. It would be open season on domestic surveillance. Torture would be legal. Habeas Corpus would be a thing of the past. Women would be in prison for having had abortions. Gay men and women would be hounded and if they were murdered there would be leaders saying they had it coming. The CIA and FBI would be operating inside the USA to crush dissent. Blackwater (and other companies like it) would be taking over more and more military duties and operating internationally as a mercenary death squad.”
Presumably, if one pointed out that there is not the slightest evidence of any actual Republicans advocating such a program, one would be directed to Lesson #3 from Iran: “Republicans are utter hypocrites.”
I’m not sure whom Frank Schaeffer was hanging out with in his days of being a charter member of the “Religious Right” – in the 1970s and 1980s – but it can’t have been that many Republicans, or a truly representative sampling of the “Religious Right,” or any Neoconservatives at all. Readers can get a flavor of his experience from the reviews here, of his book Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back.
One thing that strikes me as interesting is that Schaeffer apparently met Billy Graham, and described him in his book as “weird”; but the encounter does not appear to have been substantive. Graham has been the most apolitical of evangelists, never seeking to advance the kingdom of Heaven through politics – and that makes him different from Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, among others. That Schaeffer seems to have thought him “weird” makes me wonder how much Schaeffer really understands evangelicalism, which is not fundamentally political, and which, along with conservative Catholicism, is the main movement comprising the Christian right today.
I have no doubt of the reality of Schaeffer’s experiences, but for anyone who has been a conservative Christian in America for the last 40 years, they come across as narrow and very particular. They clearly do not represent the totality of a large and diverse movement. And I know for a fact that they do not reflect accurately the character or aspirations of a very large number of people who considered themselves Christian conservatives during the period Schaeffer had experience with – or who do so today, more than a quarter of a century later. Millions of worshippers in the Assemblies of God, Baptist churches of various affiliations (including large Korean and Latino evangelical arms), the Churches of God in Christ, and non-denominational Protestant churches, would find everything about Schaeffer’s description alien. And that’s just the Protestants; Schaeffer’s experiences would be alien to conservative Catholics as well.
Schaeffer speaks of something I have never encountered or heard of, here:
“When there are tens of thousands of Americans sitting in evangelical churches every Sunday wherein President Obama is vilified as an “abortionist,” a “Communist,” a “secret Muslim,” and even as “the Antichrist…” ”
… and this reference is of a kind with the following reflections, which pertain to no Christian group I have ever of that had widespread influence, either among Christians in their personal lives, or on the political right:
“If the far right of the Republican Party and we of the Religious Right had had our way by now there would be a constitutional amendment and/or laws forcing prayer in schools, disenfranchising gay men and women, banning all abortions under penalty of death, banning gay men and women from serving in the military, launching a neoconservative led and religious right backed holy war against Islam, fixing Israel’s borders permanently to incorporate all the land taken in 1967 forever into a “Greater Israel” based on the “fact” that “God gave the Jews” the land “forever,” capital punishment would be used routinely to punish a variety of crimes including being gay, civil rights for blacks, women, gays, unions would be in retreat, and — other than enforcing “morality” – George W. Bush’s style of “free market” non-governance would be permanent.”
Where is Schaeffer’s evidence for these charges? In what churches is the President being denounced in the manner described by Schaeffer? In over 40 years of sentient church attendance, in Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and non-denominational Protestant services provided by the Navy, I have not even once heard any President referred to in any but respectful terms. In many churches he is prayed for every week – for his wisdom and strength in leading the nation – and occasionally, if a President has recently said something particularly uplifting, the priest or minister will incorporate his words in a sermon.
But suppose we grant that there may be some elements of Schaeffer’s “Religious Right” out there, behaving in the manner he posits. To accept that those elements are animating such disparate entities as Neoconservatives, Fox News, and the Tea Party movement, we should require actual evidence, in specific forms.
Schaeffer should provide us evidence, not that 30 years ago some people he knew thought highly of Rousas John Rushdoony, but that today, there are people who sit in churches in which the President is disparaged as an “abortionist” and “Communist”; that there are people in politics who actually advocate the death penalty for abortion or homosexuality, or who advocate forced prayer in schools, “holy war” on Islam with a “Greater Israel” in view, or putting “civil rights for blacks, women, gay, unions in retreat”; and that these people are one and the same as Republicans, a unitary “Religious Right,” Neoconservatives, Fox News, or the Tea Partiers.
Astonishingly, Schaeffer makes his entire case without demonstrating any of these things with evidence. His case, in fact, has so many holes in it that it would embarrass Swiss cheese – and indeed, has probably been under the supervision of Sigourney Weaver for some time now. Schaeffer has been away from the segment of the “movement” that he knew for a long time at this point. One can only suspect that the key axiom – “Republicans are utter hypocrites” – is the substitute in his case for current evidence that what he once knew, in a singular role with the “Religious Right,” is not only the informing spirit of the conservative right 30 years later, but animates a news organization, a Republican Party that includes Mel Martinez, John McCain, and Olympia Snowe, and the ranks, both Christian and Jewish, of what was called – again 30 years ago – “Neoconservatism”: a movement that got its name from its unique marriage of social and cultural liberalism, with conservatism on national security and economic policy.
What Schaeffer does not seem to be aware of is how widespread the view is, among Christian conservatives, that it was Christianity itself that made “separation of church and state” a moral value. Theocracy has been the human standard over most of the earth, throughout most of human history, and it was actually the Christian West that devised the deliberate separation of government political functions from those of religion. The typical Christian conservative today would find himself perfectly in sympathy with the declaration of England’s Elizabeth I, that remarkable Protestant monarch, that she “did not want to make windows into men’s souls.” He would be equally in sympathy with England’s ultimate decision in the following century, that the path of Cromwellian religious authoritarianism, as a project of the state, was insupportable.
One way he knows where his sympathies lie is the study of his nation’s history, and the principles behind its ideas. That North America’s colonists from the British Isles, from the Netherlands, and from France came to this hemisphere originally to escape religious persecution, and to worship in freedom, is not some new idea being propagated by the Religious Right. It is the simple truth, and for most of the nation’s history has been taught in our schools. Freedom from compulsion by the state, in religious affiliation and practice, and in philosophical belief in general, has been a core motivation of the “American” ideal, and its original exponents and practitioners were Christians.
If you want to know what Christian conservatives are reading, what arguments about man and the state are resonating with them today, I recommend the following three titles:
Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto, by Mark Levin
The 5000 Year Leap: A Miracle that Changed the World, by W. Cleon Skousen (republished from a 1981 version, and popularized currently by media personality Glenn Beck)
The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States, by Benjamin F. Morris (published originally in 1864)
We can note that all three titles rank substantially higher in Amazon sales than books by Gary DeMar, of American Vision, on the topic of America’s Christian heritage. I compare their sales with DeMar’s because he is avowedly a student of Rousas John Rushdoony, the “Reconstructionist” minister and philosopher alluded to by Frank Schaeffer. If you have not heard of either, you are in very broad company, including many Christian conservatives – who could not tell you what they think of Rushdoony, and perhaps even DeMar, because they have not read works by either.
It is important, however – while I don’t endorse Rushdoony or his Reconstructionist movement (and yes, I did know who he was, before reading Schaeffer’s column, and had even read one of his books) – to not misrepresent the movement. I encourage interested readers to visit the website of Rushdoony’s Chalcedon Foundation, and read the Foundation’s vision for themselves. From a page-long statement, which is worth reading in its entirety, it emphasizes the following passage:
“No government in any form can make men Christians or truly obedient; this is the work of God’s sovereign grace. Much less should civil government try to impose Biblical law on an unbelieving society. Biblical law cannot be imposed; it must be embraced.”
This is not objectionable, in my view. Where I differ with Rushdoony and his ideas is made plainer in the video of an interview he did before his death, widely available on the web, and linked from this site. In this interview, Rushdoony makes at the outset a case that many Christians would agree with:
“Now as Christians we believe that the basic starting point is the regeneration of man. Then man takes and applies that faith. For Christians the basic government is the self-government of the Christian man. Then the basic governmental unit is the family. This means that every father and mother will be more important in the sight of God than heads of state, because He controls children, property and the future. Then the third is the church as the government, fourth the school as a government, fifth your job governs you, then sixth society governs you with its ideas, beliefs and standards, and seventh, one among many forms of government, is the civil government.”
The subordination of civil government – its lower ranking as, in particular, a moral authority over men – resonates with many conservatives today. Secular, temporal government as a source of moral authority is a philosophical problem, and is routinely identified with the 20th-century political pathologies of statism, progressivism, collectivism, and fascism.
Rushdoony goes on to expatiate:
“Today, we are implicitly totalitarian. We speak of the state as the government. That’s totalitarian. So we have to rid ourselves of such things.”
Many of us will still be hanging in there with Rushdoony. Certainly we agree that there is, in America especially, an abstract concept of governance, an ideal type, that precedes the temporal state, and subordinates its claims to those of the “natural rights” that pertain, as our Founders articulated, to men endowed by a Creator. The inalienability of these rights, as respected in the American tradition, indicates an idea of moral compulsion binding on the state, not deriving from it. So in identifying political ideas that have an all-encompassing state authoring the rights and moral position of man, Rushdoony is not by any means out on a limb, when he invokes the characterization “totalitarianism.”
Then he goes full-frontal problematic:
“The Christian theonomic society will only come about as each man governs himself under God and governs his particular sphere. And only so will we take back government from the state and put it in the hands of Christians.”
The big, lurking question now is: When Rushdoony says “take government back from the state and put it in the hands of Christians,” what does he mean?
The Chalcedon Foundation website suggests that he does not mean using the apparatus of the temporal state to govern all men, forcibly, by Christian “theonomy.” This is inherently impossible, given Rushdoony’s definitions. As defined side-by-side with “autonomy” – self-government – “theonomy” cannot be imposed from without. It is, literally, God governing an individual from within.
And as you will see if you read the entire Rushdooony interview, he is at great pains to argue that our constructs of “government” and the “state” are not the ones to apply in answering this question. He is insistent that asking things like whether we can “legislate Biblical standards of morality on non-Christians” is asking the questions the wrong way. He argues that the thinking of Christians – along with everyone else – has been distorted over the centuries by wrongly interpreting the governance of the Church in light of the recurring phenomena of human government, as if all the sources of government over us – e.g., the ones he listed at the outset – must function the same way as civil government.
As an abstract argument, this one holds the promise of much food for thought. But when it comes to speaking in the terms of concrete examples, I have too often found Rushdoony invoking Oliver Cromwell, as he does in this interview.
“With Cromwell it was different [from John Calvin]. Cromwell was faced with churches who wanted an established national church still the old Roman model. The Presbyterians, who were the most powerful group, were emphatically for an established group. That to them was salvation. The Separatists disagreed with them, but the other groups wanted to command the establishment. Cromwell wanted not a church establishment, but a Christian establishment. He wanted England committed to a Christian faith, not to a church. That’s what he worked for.” [Emphasis mine]
The concerns one immediately has here are twofold. First, there is no getting around it: when the proposition for Cromwell became wanting England committed to a Christian faith, the proposition became inherently political and temporal. Second, of course, is the towering problem that in an enterprise nominally intended to achieve a commitment to Christian faith, there were an awful lot of cavalry and artillery involved.
I venture to assert that most people in the conservative right either (a) have no idea who Rousas John Rushdoony is (most probably the largest group); (b) repudiate him, based on a slight knowledge of his writings; or (c) find some common ground with him, but regard his ideas on a “theonomy” model, one that would affect or somehow intersect with temporal governance, as unrealizable given basic human realities.
Many evangelicals would even make the most Biblical of arguments against him, in the following manner:
1. Jesus set the principle of separated coexistence, of the kingdom of Heaven with earthly government, in his admonition to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God, the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:15-21) This principle, at the very least, has as an unspoken premise the continuation of Caesar.
2. Paul instructed believers to obey the earthly government (Romans 13:1-7), and Peter told believers, in addition to fearing God, to “honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17).
3. The whole purpose of Jesus’ role as Savior is to relieve men from indentured servitude to a temporally-administered Law – the Law of the Old Testament – that they are not, by their sinful natures, equipped to keep. (Romans 5-8, Galatians 2-4)
Jesus’ repeated refrain “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” is the quotation of an original Old Testament principle (Hosea 6:6), one that people under Law – temporal government – could not attain to: because sacrifice can be defined and prescribed by law, but mercy cannot. It must arise from the Spirit, and it is creative and unique in each instance – unlike sacrifice, punishment, or measurable performance, which are all susceptible of standardization, temporal prescription, and assessment. With Jesus, the standard of evidence shifted: from outward observance of the Law to the Christian evidence of “theonomy” at work – the fruit of the Spirit: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22) Both Paul and Jesus make the point that this form of evidence departs from the very realm of “law,” and cannot be defined or contained by it: Paul, by following up the list above with the words “Against such there is no law”; and Jesus, by telling his followers at the Mount of Olives that unless their righteousness surpassed that of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, they would certainly not enter the kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)
Without delving ever further into theology and exegesis, I hope I have conveyed some sense of the great gulf between the reality of Rushdoony and Reconstructionism, the popularizers of the Religious Right from a quarter century ago, the current reality of typical evangelical Christians, the politically conservative right (which has a diverse subscription, much of it either non-Christian, or not conservatively so), and “Republicans, Fox News, Neoconservatives, and the Tea Party movement.”
Frank Schaeffer had direct experience with only one cross-set one of these categories: early popularizers of the Protestant Religious Right political movement. His particular Calvinist, authoritarian background is not, by any means, the average background of Christian conservatives – either during his early years, from the 1950s to the 1980s, or since then. With all respect to him, and in the certainty that he is being as honest as he can about his personal experiences, they do not put him in a position to make proclamations about what all of Tim and Beverly LaHaye, Pat Robertson, James and Betty Robison, Alan Keyes, Richard Brookhiser, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, Jim Inhofe, Sarah Palin, Haley Barbour, Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, Norman Podhoretz, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Brit Hume, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, and my mother “want,” in a political sense.
Unless, I guess, we accept the Iranian crisis as demonstrating that “Republican are utter hypocrites.”