Wednesday, November 15, 2006

What If God Should Lose?

Sara Robinson

There's been a lot of musing in the press the past week over what the election meant to the GOP's religious right base. Reading the chicken bones, many pundits have divined that strange things are afoot. It's obvious that Karl Rove no longer holds the keys to Evangelical hearts; and the election revealed some faultlines that didn't even appear to exist as recently as August. Could this signal the end of the fundamentalist political juggernaut, the opportunity for some real d├ętente and change, and the long-awaited last act of the Culture Wars?

Yes. It could.

In the past, I've talked about the fractures and factions within the movement, especially the gradients when it comes to various individuals' commitment to the underlying authoritarian cause. To recap (and overgeneralize grossly), religious authoritarians come in three basic flavors. There are the amoral, high-social dominance leaders; the hard-core right-wing authoritarian followers; and a much larger group of people who've been drawn into the movement for specific reasons of their own. This election revealed, for the first time in decades, that there's some real daylight emerging between these groups -- and the distance between them is growing.

Garry Wills described the essential conundrum the movement faces in the New York Review of Books this week:

There is a particular danger with a war that God commands. What if God should lose? That is unthinkable to the evangelicals. They cannot accept the idea of second-guessing God, and he was the one who led them into war. Thus, in 2006, when two thirds of the American people told pollsters that the war in Iraq was a mistake, the third of those still standing behind it were mainly evangelicals (who make up about one third of the population). It was a faith-based certitude.

These evangelicals followed God's hand-picked President (selected by divine intervention at the Supreme Court to override the electorate's mistake) into a spiritual war they believed would bring about Jesus' final return. Organized by spirit-filled moral paragons -- men like Ted Haggard and Tom DeLay -- and with the cross of Jesus going on before, they took control of the world's most powerful government; and invested campaign labor, votes, money, prayer, and their own sons and daughters into the cause of defeating Satan on the plains of Baghdad.

And now it is all a shambles, a ruin. The war is a disaster. Their children -- more than anyone else's -- are dying. Victory is farther out of reach than ever. The corruption of their own leaders has been exposed, humiliating them before the nation. Their 30-year effort to purify America's politics has been soundly rejected by the rest of the country. Gay marriage is happening. The end of abortion is not. They are now having to think the unthinkable: What if God should lose?

The coming split in the evangelical right will be fueled by the different ways its various factions adapt to this new reality. The possibilities are likely to take two main forms. On one hand, we'll see the amoral authoritarian leadership fade away, and the hard-core authoritarian followers in retreat. On the other, however, are growing numbers of Christians who are already beginning to moderate -- some of them to the point where we may start seeing them in the progressive mainstream.

Evangelical participation in American government has always ebbed and flowed. The fervor usually emerges, burns brightly for about 20 years or so, then ends in disillusion and retreat. There's good reason to believe that, in the coming year or two, we're going to see widespread rollback, both politically and culturally, that signals the end of this most recent wave.

To see how this might look going forward, let's take a quick look backward. The last Evangelical emergence began just after the turn of the 20th century, when the Holy Spirit touched down in Los Angeles (of all unlikely places). The Charismatic Movement found its strange and ecstatic tongue in an LA warehouse church in 1906. The Scofield Reference Bible -- the first one that really promoted the End Times eschatology -- and "The Fundamentals," the books that put a name and a theology to Protestant Fundamentalism, were both brought forth in 1909. From there, the movement took off and went national.

By 1920, Aimee Semple MacPherson -- founder of the Foursquare Pentacostal churches (also based in LA) -- was touring America with her miracles-and-healings tour (which are recreated in absolutely perfect fidelity by Benny Hinn to this day). The movement's emerging political arm had scored its first victory with the passage of Prohibition. As the 20s began to roar, the whole country seemed to be on fire for the Lord.

But in the latter half of the decade, it all seemed to run out of steam. In 1926, the Scopes Trial provided the era's own version of the Schiavo debacle, forcing the movement's willful ignorance and superstition into the national consciousness. The country took one look, shuddered, and rebelled. That same year, Sister Aimee rigged her own kidnapping as cover for an affair with her sound engineer. As the 20s wore on, movies and radio gradually distracted the vast audiences that had once turned out for tent-show luminaries like Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday and Bob Jones. By 1933, amid the deep real-world concerns of the Depression, Prohibition was repealed, putting the final "amen" on the last Evangelical era. The last holdout was radio evangelist Father Coughlin, a racist demagogue whose souring rhetoric through the 30s mainly served to remind America why these people should be kept out of power at all costs.

They didn't go away. But they did take their subculture out of the public spotlight, and kept to the shadows for the next 40 years.

The 2006 election may prove to be a similar season of reckoning. Their leadership in disgrace, their political ambitions hard aground, their social agenda rejected, their foreign policy discredited for the next two generations, this may be the moment that the hard-core followers decide to beat a strategic retreat from the worldly corruptions of the public sphere, as former Bush aide David Kuo is recommending.

This retreat may gain further momentum as the GOP tries to disentangle itself from its near-total embrace of the fundamentalist cause. Tom Schaller at Salon argues that that backlash against the GOP's tight association with the religious right has put the party at risk of becoming a Southern regional party, with waning influence outside the fundamentalist heartland. As the West, Midwest, and North turn blue, the Republicans' long history of catering to every Evangelical whim will increasingly become a crippling liability.

We'll need to keep an eye on them -- they're not going away, now or probably ever -- but the days in which they had the ears of presidents and senators are behind them, and public attention can now begin to turn toward our growing list of far more pressing issues, many of which Isaiah could never have foreseen.

As the hard-core followers retreat into a shrinking number of red states and counties, the softer core of committed conservative Christians may already be morphing in the completely opposite direction.

In The Battle for God, Karen Armstrong notes that historically, fundamentalist groups who attain political power never actually rule from religious law alone -- at least, not for long. It invariably turns out (to the surprise of the theocrats) that ancient spiritual texts quickly prove to be inadequate handbooks for running a modern state. In the best case -- she cites Iran in the Khomeini years as an example -- wise leaders soon recognize the limitations of religious law, and begin to forsake strict literalism and religious utopianism for a more pragmatic way of governing.

The number of Evangelicals who voted Democratic this year, and the number of religiously conservative rural districts (particularly in the Midwest and West) that turned blue, are a strong indicator that this is already happening. When Pat Robertson cops to the truth of global warming, and pastors start preaching stewardship instead of the Rapture as the correct ecological strategy, you know something essential has shifted.

I've argued in the past that fundamentalists are most likely to leave their narrow black-and-white worldview when something challenges them to open their minds or brings them into direct contact with the larger world. Armstrong argues that the mere act of seizing power can be a very powerful mind-opener for a would-be theocrat. Having taken charge of the country, they're finally forced to reckon with reality in a way they never had to before. They're faced with real responsibilities -- and, very soon, there's the wrenching epiphany that the answers aren't all in the book after all. As they start to grapple with that, black and white start to dissolve into more complex shades -- not just gray, but all the true colors of the world.

Having tasted political power, many of these mobilized Evangelicals will not be retreating from the public stage. However, past history (in this case, that of the Social Gospel movement that fueled American Evangelicalism between the Civil War and World War I) suggests that, once they break through the isolation of the fundamentalist echo chamber, they'll start opening themselves to the deeper messages at the liberal core of their own faith -- which will, for many, lead to a revival and revelation of a whole different order.

If they follow the old form, in a decade we may look around and realize that today's more thoughtful fundamentalists have grown into inspiring and powerful moral leaders, endowed with a new community-mindedness that will lead them to go anywhere and make any sacrifice to create social and economic justice. Faced with the needs of a larger world (and always accustomed to thinking big), they may finally be ready to redefine "family values" in a way that includes living wages, health care, and industrial policies that sustain families. We may not always like the moral conclusions they come to (some of them may never be at peace with abortion or gay rights, for example), but they are here to stay -- and the strict secularists among us are going to need to get used to them. Mostly, their presence in our midst is going to be a better thing for both the progressive movement and America as a whole.

Newsweek's Michael Gerson laid out the implications of this shift last week:

While many evangelicals are impatient with the priorities of the religious right, it would be a mistake to argue that they are disillusioned by politics itself. The new evangelicals are not calling for cultural retreat, but for broader engagement. Politics, at its best, has the goal of serving your neighbor. Those who, in their own personal disillusionment, recommend a "fast" from politics are really recommending a "fast" from the pursuit of justice--which is not an option for Biblical Christians.

These changes in evangelicalism should be an opportunity for Democrats. But seizing it would require a philosophic shift. Modern liberalism has defined the belief in truth as the enemy of tolerance because absolute claims of right and wrong lead to coercion. And religious claims, in this view, are the most intolerant of all, and should be radically privatized so no one's morality gets "imposed" on another. It is difficult for liberals and Democrats to appeal to religious people while declaring their deepest motivations a threat to the republic. And it is difficult to imagine the history of the republic if this narrow view had prevailed. How does moral skepticism and privatized religion motivate decades of struggle against slavery, or lead men and women, step by step, toward the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma? If there is really no truth, why believe in, or sacrifice for, the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence?

This problem will not be solved with better, less-awkward religious language. Democrats will need to demonstrate a genuine openness to religious ideals and motivations. They could start by reopening their party to people with pro-life convictions--people who see the protection of the weakest members of the human family as an important measure of social justice. And, heading into 2008, Democratic candidates will have the chance to appeal to the new evangelicals with bold policies.

When it speaks, a new evangelicalism should be distinctive for its tone as well. The goal is not only to stand for Christianity's moral teachings but to emulate the manner of its Founder, who showed that kindness is not weakness, and had more tenderness for moral outcasts than for moral hypocrites.

Often the media miss or ignore this kind of new evangelical leader. There is a tendency to elevate the most irresponsible and strident religious figures, mostly because it makes for better cable TV. This practice reflects a stereotype held by many media decision makers, who view every orthodox Christian as a fundamentalist, and every fundamentalist as a theocrat. The stereotype is unfair and uninteresting. Evangelicalism is both more diverse and more idealistic than its critics understand. And that should be welcome news for Americans, religious and secular alike.

While I can't agree with Gerson on the need to compromise our pro-choice convictions (which I regard as a matter of religious and ethical freedom as well), his larger point is a good one. We've got a Crack in the Wall here, perhaps the biggest one we've had in forty years. Any strategy that positions the Democrats for the long term needs to speak to these people, sincerely and respectfully, in terms that resonate with their faith-based motivations -- and bring them on board for the work ahead. The best of all possible outcomes here is for the right-wing authoritarians to retreat; and the soft-core, thoughtful Christian fundamentalists to open themselves to a theology that repudiates the paranoid excesses of Pauline "spiritual warfare" in favor of the Gospel Jesus who fed the poor, healed the sick, and was hailed as the Prince of Peace.

The God of the GOP has lost. Which means He -- and we -- may finally have some real opportunities for change.

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