Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Future of Fundamentalism: A Scenario

-- by Sara

A perspicacious commenter, Grep Agni, asks a great question in the previous thread:
This post and the one on Falwell suggest that the religious right will continue to seek power in the secular sphere. The final part of the Falwell article is especially clear:

Still, it was Falwell who gave American Evangelicals their first taste of political power -- and, having acquired that taste, it's doubtful they'll ever fully retreat into their quiet corner again.

Are you no longer predicting that the fundamentalists will become quiescent for a generation or two, or have I misunderstood?
I do strive for some consistency, so I'm going to seize on this as an opportunity to unpack this apparent discrepancy, and reflect a bit on the scenario approach in the process.

Grep notes that I've presented two somewhat different scenarios on the possible future of fundamentalism in America. One of these (discussed here, for one example) suggests that fundies may be heading into the same kind of retreat they've always beat when one of their periodic political forays comes to a disappointing end. The other, laid out in the Falwell post and the one just below this one, suggests the possibility that they won't go away at all -- and may move to engaging the larger culture in a more active and virulent (and violent) way in the years ahead.

Futurists long ago gave up trying to predict anything. (Anybody who tells you, "this is how it's going to go down -- bet the farm on it" is a fortuneteller, not a futurist.) Instead, we often use a storytelling approach that posits a variety of scenarios -- typically three to seven -- that cover the widest possible range for how given situation might play out.

If your scenarios are good ones, you can look back on them in time, and realize that while no one scenario was dead-on accurate (though there's typically one in the batch that proved somewhat more prescient than the rest); most of what did come to pass was predicted in bits and pieces across the various scenarios. Thus: if your plans account for the full range of scenarios, you're likely not to be terribly surprised by whatever does eventually come your way.

So, as a general rule, the actual future lies somewhere in the give-and-take between the various scenarios -- although it's always wise to expect a one or two completely unforseeable wild-card developments in the mix besides. In this case, I've come down to two strong scenarios, one suggesting a fundamentalist retreat and the other suggesting resurgence. So, as a thought exercise, it might be worthwhile to ask: Where are the connections and synergies between these two stories? What would a hybrid scenario look like?

First, let's start by taking stock of the past and present dynamics at work in this situation.

* We know fundies have always been with us. They've always a been a powerful voice in the American cultural dialogue (though they come and go from the political one -- more about this below), and it's unreasonable to expect that that's going to change within our lifetimes. (Many futurists, yours truly included, are quite convinced we're on the cusp of the biggest epistemological transformation the West has seen in 500 years -- fodder for another post -- and that fundamentalism will be particularly challenged by it. (After all, they're still trying to get themselves over that last one; and frankly, it's not going well.) But this shift will take a couple of centuries to play out; and in the meantime, they won't be going anywhere.)

* We also understand now, beyond a doubt, that the authoritarian right is implacably opposed to the very notion of constitutional democracy -- some subgroups more than others; but Altemeyer's work makes it clear that deep distrust of popular government is inherent in all conservative worldviews. Which means, by liberal lights, these people need to be kept as far away from the levers of power as possible.

Historically, it's evident that our worst moments as a nation almost all resulted when our native authoritarians somehow got let off the leash. Given what we're up against in this century, letting them loose this time could be fatal for us all. The whole world is running on thin margins now. We can no longer count on having have the deep reserves that are always required to clean up their messes and repair the damage done.

* It's also an unfortunate fact that extremists are usually far more energetic and focused in the pursuit of their goals than those of us who are more moderate -- which means it only takes a small number of them to create large-scale changes that affect us all. And, unfortunately, the constant vigilance required to keep them away from those levers is more of a full-time job than most moderate-to-liberal Americans are generally willing to make it. We've got lives apart from them. They, on the other hand, live to dominate us.

* We know the history. On at least three previous occasions, there have been enormous surges of religious fervor in this country -- times when evangelical churches exploded with new members, and then stepped forward to make vast changes in America's culture. In each of these cases, the fire burned brightly for 20-40 years, resulting in new doctrine, new communities, and new institutions; but then began to dwindle as the first generation of True Believers passed on, the practical reality of maintaining those institutions for the long haul set in, and people generally returned to their senses. A cycle-based theory of history suggests that we're nearing the end of one of these resurgences, and that it's not unreasonable to anticipate a coming fundamentalist retreat from national politics.

* On the other hand: this time, there's something different going on. I can't say for sure, but it seems possible that that they've never before built the kind of comprehensive national power structure that they've got under them now. As the previous post details, they've taken a far-ranging generational view this time, chosen their cultural targets carefully, and patiently built up a much larger and more deeply interlocked network of institutions that are working on every front of our society. They're also very carefully bringing up second-generation leadership that may be less given to retreat or moderation than their counterparts in the past were. All this suggests that whatever happens this time may indeed be different than last time.

* We also know this the best and brightest of this second-generation leadership is interested in going its own way -- away from sexual and racial politics, and toward environmental, community, and social justice concerns. While they will not abandon their own principles -- or turn entirely away from the public sphere -- they already seem to be re-interpreting their scriptures in ways that will lead them into very different forms of action in the years ahead.

* Lastly: we know that the American people (including many of their own followers) are finally getting a bellyful of the religious right's increasingly whackadoodle behavior. While their other institutions are still strong, their political machine is in complete disarray, the object of total national disgust. Their leaders know it -- and are, perversely, becoming more publicly extreme, not less, in an effort to marshal the faithful and keep them in line as their political stock tanks. (The thinking is: Fear-mongering always worked before. If it's not working now, that just means we need to do it more and louder. They don't realize that "more and louder" is only driving their own more moderate faithful -- and everyone else -- further away.) This extremism is actively scaring the rest of the country, and there are early signs it's getting those of us who actually like living in a democracy off the couch at last.

After the previous Awakenings, this kind of off-the-deep-end crazy talk has always been a harbinger of a fast-approaching end. Eventually, fundie leaders tip their hands, and everyone sees the hatred, bigotry, and fear that lurks at the authoritarian core. At that point, they become public pariahs, and their movements vanish from the national stage for a good long while.

From this list, it's clear that there are several important things all going at once here. Let's see if there's a way that can tie most of these together into a plausible scenario.

The widespread public disaffection with the religious right is real and growing. The first-generation leaders are dying off; and they're losing unusual numbers of their hand-picked successors (Ralph Reed, Ted Haggard) in corruption and sex scandals. Unless the Democrats really screw it up (always a possibility), they are going to lose the 2008 election -- and with it, most of their power to work their political will on the rest of us. Past history suggests that the religous right won't return as a political force for another 20-40 years; and that the actual length of that exile will depend almost entirely on how thoroughly we manage to discredit them and their ideas. They're falling all on their own; but once they're down, it'll be up to us to make sure they stay there.

However, being out of politics doesn't mean they'll be completely gone from our midst. Those institutions they've built now constitute an entire separate subculture. They've got their own media, schools, arts, resorts, hospitals, nursing homes, malls, and community gathering places. It's entirely possible to live from cradle to grave without ever having to step outside of this carefully-created Christianist reality sphere. Even if this alternate universe loses it worldly power, it doesn't mean its residents will need to ever step outside that bubble if they don't want to. In some form -- the same, or slightly diminished -- this culture will probably continue to carry on along its own separate path. We should not imagine that just because we no longer see them goofing on the air, they no longer exist. FDR-era liberals made that mistake; we should take pains not to repeat it.

Furthermore, they’ve built shadow organizations within our most powerful national institutions -- most notably, Congress, the military, and the legal system. Losing political power will reduce the resources available to this network, hurt recruitment, and weaken its clout; but we can't afford to assume that the whole thing will just vanish on its own. How much of it remains, again, is up to us -- in this case, how effectively we can root out these religious cabals and disentangle them from our public and private institutions. On this front, the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy will last precisely as long as we allow it to.

Also, as noted in the post below, they've already raised several million kids in this cultural hothouse, and carefully indoctrinated them to carry on God's work in spite of Satan's (er, our) efforts. So we need to ask: Where will these kids be in another ten or 20 years?

Statistically, at least one-third of them (perhaps considerably more -- the numbers on this are fuzzy, but we know they're high) will to leave fundamentalism as adults to join us here in the Reality-Based World. And if the Emerging Church movement succeeds -- and given the energy and intellectual quality of its young leadership, that seems likely -- another large chunk will become engaged with a more socially conscious vision of Christianity that has little interest in pursuing theocratic goals. (Internally, EC theology has strong themes of submission and authority. These are more evident in some parts of the movement than others, and not all of them are benign. But, generally, the movement sees itself in active opposition to the highly political Evangelicalism of the recent past, and focuses on goals other than worldly power.)

But, when those two groups have moved on, what remains could be a significant core -- perhaps including those Christian Soldiers mentioned in the earlier post -- for whom their early indoctrination will continue to be the defining fact of their lives. And these are the ones we will need to watch and worry about -- both because they are most likely to become the militants; and because any future re-emergence of religious authoritarianism will almost certainly begin with them.

And, compared with today, they'll be driving without brakes. Freed from the cooling, calming influence that more moderate fellow-believers provided back in the day when their churches were big and influential and concerned with their public image; and furious beyond words at their loss of cultural and political influence, there will be nothing to keep them from hurling themselves farther out to the extremes. There, they could readily meet up with white supremacists, anti-environmentalists, anti-choice terrorists, and the other groups on the far-right fringe who've already decided that violence is the answer. The coalitions that might form if the Christian Soldiers move right in large numbers could very well be the catalyzing force of a true American fascism.

As their goals retreat in front of them, the most violent ones of all might step up to avenge the loss, and attempt a return to former glory. What they lack in numbers, they may well make up for in organization, tactical ability, audacity, and the sheer will to destruction. And if the country really goes to hell -- through environmental dislocations or economic disasters, epidemics or terrorist attacks -- their numbers could easily swell again, as desperate people look for new authoritarian leaders to provide certainty in uncertain times. Some of them already envision themselves as warlords, taking rightful dominion in a world approaching its divinely-ordained and long-awaited end.

Like I said: There are a lot of variables in play. Nobody knows which ones will ultimately determine the future. But if we take stock of the possible ways things might go, we can at least make sure we're not surprised or overwhelmed by whatever outcome awaits. And more to the point: we'll be ready to take control of events as they happen, and make the choices that will move us toward the future we'd rather see. As always: so much of how this ends up is, in the end, up to us.

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