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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Interesting article on American Christianity

This report by the Council on Foreign Relations was published in the New York Times. It's a relatively fair account of American evangelicalism, though the tone (as one would expect) is patronizing, and there are some silly mistakes (such as the characterization of fundamentalism as "ultra-Calvinist"). At least they don't think that evangelicals are pushing for a theocracy, which seems to be a common belief on the left these days. This is something I've been thinking about a lot, especially with the appearance of Randall Balmer's book Thy Kingdom Come. Balmer unfortunately has put his seal of approval on this nonsense.

I'm hoping to get back into blogging now that things are settling down a bit, and I want to write on this topic as well as on my usual ecclesiological subjects. I agree that there are a lot of reasons to be concerned with the Christian Right. But criticism of conservative Christians as "theocrats" gets the problem exactly wrong, in my opinion. Of course there are the Reconstructionists/Dominionists, and undoubtedly they have provided some intellectual heft to the generally not very thoughtful conservative evangelical political movement. It's probably true that many conservative activists are more indebted to these ideas than they realize. But the same could have been said of hardline Communism in relation to the broader left-wing movement of the twentieth century. And of course just this was said by McCarthy. The same vicious rhetoric is being used on the left today--a new "red scare" (with far less basis in fact than the old one, IMHO) that like the paranoia of the fifties tars an entire wing of American society with the brush of hardline radicalism. (And actually even the Dominionists believe in a form of separation of church and state, contrary to liberal propaganda.)

This is perhaps just part of the game of democratic politics. We always make our opponents out to be more radical than they are, so that we can position ourselves as part of the mainstream. But in times of great social tension this polarizing game can become an extremely dangerous form of self-fulfilling prophecy. We use the alleged radicalism of our opponents as an excuse to become radical ourselves, and thus prompt our opponents to follow suit, turning them into the monsters we thought they were all along (and so justifying further extremism on our part).

The CFR article, for all its faults, avoids this approach. Perhaps this isn't as surprising as I think. I don't know the political composition of the CFR--it claims to be nonpartisan and this may be true. Ironically, I heard it mentioned a lot on right-wing Christian radio stations as I was growing up--they were of the opinion that it was part of a vast conspiracy to bring about the "New World Order." So it's good to see that they don't return the favor (except for the silly label of "ultra-Calvinism").

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