When most people talk about “the Religious Right” or “the Christian Right,” they’re talking generally about theologically and politically conservative Christians who can be relied upon to vote a particular way (most of the time) and otherwise participate in politics (through donations or working on campaigns) in a particular way (most of the time). When they state specifics they often resort to breakdowns by denomination; the “Christian Right” consists of conservative Protestants, conservative Catholics, evangelicals, and Mormons. Never mind for the moment that this misses conservative non-denominational types (Calvary Chapel, Vineyard Christian Fellowship, etc.) and considers Mormons Christians; the former is complicated and the latter makes sense because Mormons in one part of the country (the Mormon Corridor, AKA the Jello Belt) can be identified as consistent, significant voter blocks.
Anyway, the history of the Christian Right over several election cycles has experienced a sea change: initially the issues and leaders came from Protestants and evangelicals and the coalition-makers tried to sell them to Catholics; now it appears that process has mostly reversed. See e.g. the Manhattan Declaration. I think this is because initially the analysis focused on the big numbers (there are more Protestants than Catholics) but now it focuses on smaller numbers (there are more Catholics than Southern Baptists or conservative Lutheran or what-have-you). Never mind that Protestants seem to be short on idea leaders and charismatic leaders, while Catholics do at least have a scholastic tradition that can occasionally manage more than a soundbite.
Dinesh D’Souza’s book (the whole title is Falwell: Before the Millennium: A Critical Biography [link]) is from 1984, and while it is mostly a straightforward biography of Falwell through about 1983, and is reasonably well-written, it’s important to understand that at least part of what D’Souza is doing here is attempting to make Falwell palatable to his Roman Catholic brethren. Here’s a quick rundown:
- About 70 pages putting Falwell in context in American history (the Scopes trial, etc.) and another telling of his conversion story. There are several good versions of Falwell’s conversion story, each with differing anecdotes but for the most part consistent with one another. This is a pretty good one.
- 40 pages or so explaining Falwell’s fundamentalist credentials, his entrance into national politics, and how those two things were at variance.
- 40 pages or so describing Falwell’s involvement in Moral Majority, national politics, etc. through about 1983.
- 50-60 pages of miscellaneous topics, including a visit to Lynchburg, a description of the various ministries circa 1983, etc.
- A rundown of the 1970 FCC decision that changed the way religious television was regulated, making it possible for some TV preachers to become popular without various media outlets being required to provide equal time to their less popular counterparts/brethren. Dinesh D’Souza says Falwell was especially grateful to FCC Director (and Reagan appointee) Mark Fowler. I’d never heard that one before.
- The claim on the part of D’Souza that Falwell believed that the Watergate break-in should never have been exposed. I don’t know that I ever heard Falwell say anything like this, and it struck me as a Republican article of faith that sounded weird in 1984 and still sounds weird today.
- A theme regarding Falwell’s disagreements with various people affiliated with the World Council of Churches/National Council of Churches. It’s easy to forget that WCC people were the voice of Establishment Christianity in the United States circa 1975 or so.
This is mostly a brisk read and an interesting period piece. Sometimes it gets bogged down with inside-the-Beltway (or is that inside-the GOP?) minutiae, but that’s to be expected given D’Souza’s perspective at the time. I do kind of wish he’d delved a bit deeper into Falwell’s racial past (e.g. his supposed relationship with Lester Maddox) or his relationship to the right-wing fringe in Republican circles (e.g. his supposed relationship to the John Birch Society), and while a book like this would have been a safe place to do so D’Souza has other fish to fry.
I’d recommend it to people who are interested in the history of the Christian Right and its entanglements with the Republican Party.
Here’s a quick grab bag of topics, each of which probably merits a post in and of itself, but will probably present itself again in due time.
A couple of weeks ago Brian D. linked [link] to half of David Sessions’s list of “The Ten Worst Christian Media Hacks” [1-5, 6-10], for which I am grateful. These two articles are well-written and for the most part his ten hacks are well-chosen. Here’s the description from the article:
The following are the top 10 Christian commentators you’re most likely to waste your time reading. Chances are high, perusing any random piece of their work, that you’ll find worn-out political banalities, repetitive tropes, or a general absence of anything that might enrich a reader’s mind. In a couple of cases, they’re egoists and opportunists. You’ll immediately notice that many of them are conservatives…
If I were picking a list of top ten baddies in Christian media I’d probably pick a different organizing principle for my list; I’d be more interested in people who seem totally devoted to selling out conservative Christians for political purposes, to confusing political conservatism with Christian orthodoxy, etc. At the risk of trading empty Enlightenment values for ambiguous theological concepts, I’m more concerned about people selling out the gospel than in their failing to enrich readers’ minds. Nevertheless, Sessions makes a good case for his rogues’ gallery:
- Dinesh D’Souza
- Joseph Farah
- Frank Schaeffer
- L. Brent Bozell III
- David Limbaugh
- Albert Mohler
- Michael Novak
- Chuck Colson
- Jim Wallis
- Michael Gerson
I’m not familiar with a couple of these names, but I can’t disagree with the ones I know. I’d probably substitute Richard Land for Albert Mohler (seriously: who is more guilty of selling out the Southern Baptist Convention to the Republican Party and getting nothing in return than Richard Land?) and I’d rank Colson ahead of D’Souza. Perhaps I’ve grown tone-deaf in my dotage, but it sounds to me like everything Colson does has the intent or the effect of either lumping Evangelicals into a Catholic voting bloc, pressing Enlightenment values onto Evangelical thinking, or both.
I just finished reading D’Souza’s 1984 or so book on Jerry Falwell; as best I can tell he was attempting to work in the opposite direction and the result is a readable mess. More about that later.
Anyway, I recommend the two Sessions articles; it’s never too late to become a careful consumer of media product, and one may as well start with what one already sort of understands.
Robert Jeffress is in the news again, this time with his “Grinch Alert:” a list of retailers who say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” more or less. I’m not sure I could do better than the analysis offered by David Head [link], with a couple of disclaimers. I agree with Head that shows of political or economic force are not the best expressions of Christianity in action; I’d probably encourage fellow Christians to just downsize their Christmas spending instead. To my ears the whole “War on Christmas” refrain has more to do with flexing middle-class buying muscle for the sake of an imagined social or political past than with Christianity per se. Christmas itself is such a vulgar thing I’m ashamed to have it associated with Christianity, so I’m inclined to say good-bye and good riddance to the whole thing, so I don’t understand why it’s something worth fighting a war over.
Perhaps I’m wrong; all I’d need to change my mind would be a reference in the New Testament showing that the early Church celebrated Christmas.
Finally, Chris Hedges has written another book (Death of the Liberal Class [link]) and put in an appearance on Alternative Radio [link] over the weekend (Yes, I’m an occasional NPR listener; about which more later). Sadly, while AR congratulates itself on its spotless Socialist values it doesn’t make its content available for free, so you’re going to have to take my word for what Hedges said unless and until you’re willing to drop $5 for the mp3.
Hedges is an acknowledged theological liberal (he counts among his avowed influences Paul Tillich and William Sloane Coffin) with a Masters of Divinity from Harvard University and writes from a perspective that seems stubbornly pre-Eighties: he really thinks e.g. the Berrigan brothers and the World Council of Churches should have continued to set the tone for Christian engagement on political issues. As a result he tends to mix helpful observations of what’s wrong with the Christian right with unhelpful critique of same tending to scorn and spite.
This time around Hedges points out that there’s no common ground between Christianity and corporatism [def], and there’s a great deal that conservative Christianity has failed to do by taking on the corporation as its model of incarnation, along with its values, etc. Unfortunately Hedges considers Marx to still be the last word on capitalism, so the result makes for occasionally painful and tedious listening.
I have to admit that while I can’t agree with Hedges moment to moment and point to point, I have to agree that something has gone seriously wrong inside the conservative corporate Church. I’m troubled that I have to listen to someone from so far Left to hear this disquiet examined and expressed.
Finally, it’s worth noting that both Hedges and Sessions are affiliated with The Daily Beast. I have no idea what it means that they both work for former New Yorker editor Tina Brown.
I’m offline much of the week, traveling for business and pleasure. Here are a few unrelated items to fill part of the gap until I get back:
- So the Pew Forum published a report on religious knowledge in the United States, and there was much discussion. The Immanent Frame got a bunch of people who are scholars in the field of the study of religion (primarily religion as a social phenomenon; there’s arguably at most one theologian in the bunch, and no pastors or other religious professionals) to comment on the report and (mostly) what it signifies [link]. There are some insightful comments and predictions here, but this sort of thing causes me to wonder if postmodernism is an inevitable result of modernism, or whether modernism itself is fundamentally incoherent.
- Author Sara Zarr recommends a writing workshop and talks about what it means to be a Christian author but not a “Christian author” [link], in much the same way e.g. David Bazan is (was?) a Christian-not-Christian-rock singer. I really have no idea what it means to be a Christian in the arts community but not involved in “Christian art,” and my field of study isn’t even on the radar of most religious professionals, so I can’t relate to or identify with what Zarr occasionally describes as being her experience, but her comments give me pause for thought.
- James White celebrates Reformation Day on The Dividing Line [link]. As someone who is not Reformed I tend to be put off by the unreflective self-congratulation that happens once a year in Reformed circles, and most of this episode is exactly that. It’s just plain dry and dull and awful. In the last ten minutes, however, White talks about the historical elements that were in place (printing, nationalism, etc. He doesn’t mention capitalism.) at the time of the Renaissance and made conditions right for the birth and survival of the Reformation. Fascinating and fact-filled if a bit overwrought; it’s hard to find a better example of “good James White” and “bad James White” side by side. He doesn’t deal with the obvious question of why all the ingredients of the Reformation would be merely of historical interest and not the Reformation itself.
- A long debate on the premise “Resolved: that Islam is a religion of peace” [link]. I don’t really know anything about Islam, but I think I learned more in this hour-plus than I could learn from many hours of listening to oh say Ergun Caner. The fundamental question in the debate boils down to this: Which is more appropriate: to judge a religion by its teachings, or by the behavior of its adherents? By the best of each or the worst of each? Also, Martin Luther makes a surprise appearance as a foil for an argument from one side; I won’t say which one.
- Marvin Olasky resigns his position as provost at The King’s College after Dinesh D’Souza’s appointment as president [link]. Are there really no Protestant evangelicals of sufficient stature to hold high-profile at this Protestant evangelical school?
That’s it. Please enjoy with my humble blessing. It’s not much: there are better Linkathons elsewhere.