Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Balanced View Of Evangelicals In Politics

The hysteria amazes me.

In the current political book market, it is more popular (because it is better-selling) to write polemics which "preach to the already converted" than to write books intended to convince those who are as yet unconvinced. So, to borrow a relatively fair-and-balanced pair (in that the excesses of one are matched by the excesses of the other), Al Franken's Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right and Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot, and Ann Coulter's Godless: The Church of Liberalism and Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism are big sellers, whereas Cal Thomas' Public persons and private lives: Intimate interviews and John Dickerson's On Her Trail: My Mother, Nancy Dickerson, TV News' First Woman Star, or pieces with topical or historical interest such as Eric Burns' Infamous Scribblers or Bernard Lewis' What Went Wrong remain comparatively unobserved, or less so.

So it is perhaps understandable that those outside the culture of Christians in the U.S., looking in through the window to examine the habits of its occupants, would not wish to write books with dull or merely topic-announcing titles. After all, one must sell a copy or two.

But what rubbish has emerged in the last several years!

Ross Douthat helpfully lists some of the offending manuscripts in First Things, in a piece titled, Theocracy, Theocracy, Theocracy. His list includes American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion,Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century by Kevin Phillips, The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us by James Rudin, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism by Michelle Goldberg, and Thy Kingdom Come: How The Religious Right Distorts the Faithand Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament by Randall Balmer.

The titles are the giveaway, especially Kevin Phillips'. These are not intended to be books which an Evangelical Christian could read and, in it, recognize himself and his co-religionists. These are intended to be read by non-Christians with little other contact with or reference to Christianity as practiced in the U.S., preferably all negative, who are in the bookstore actively searching for a diatribe to thrillingly confirm their existing dark suspicions about Christians. For only such an audience will be convinced by the hyperventilating text contained therein; other readers will either know better from experience, or find the authors' conclusions suspect on the basis of common sense.

Ultimately, the works listed above trace minor intellectual movements within Christianity, few of which are concerned with politics or weild any sort of clout in Christian circles, interpret phrases used by their adherents in the darkest possible way, match them to similar phrases used by conservative-leaning politicians, and make the following conclusions:

(1.) Evangelical Christians are harbor totalitarian tendencies; and,

(2.) Evangelical Christians, if they gain enough political power, will express those totalitarian tendencies by transforming American society and government into Margaret Atwood’s dystopic “Republic of Gilead” from The Handmaid’s Tale. According to James Rudin, as quoted by Ross Douthat...,
“All government employees—federal, state and local—would be required to participate in weekly Bible classes in the workplace, as well as compulsory daily prayer sessions,” as would employees of any company or institution receiving federal funds. There would be a national ID card, identifying everyone by their religious beliefs, or lack thereof—and “such cards would provide Christocrats with preferential treatment in many areas of life, including home ownership, student loans, employment and education.” Non-Christian faiths would be tolerated, “but younger members . . .would be strongly encouraged to formally convert to the dominant evangelical Christianity.” Gay sex would be prosecuted, and “known homosexuals and lesbians would have to successfully undergo government-sponsored reeducation sessions if they applied for any public-sector jobs.” Political dissent would be squashed, religious censors would keep watch over the popular culture, and “the mainstream press and the electronic media would be beaten into submission.”
As if.

The reality is that the closest thing to theocracy remotely likely in future of U.S. politics -- say, what would happen if the number of combined Evangelical Christians and Traditionalist Catholics were to double as a proportion of the population, and the secularists to be reduced to half their current numbers -- is rather more benign, if still not comfortable to those who disagree politically.

Let's assume that every conservative gets his wish list, now. What would America look like? Well, a lot like the 1950's, one supposes. Was that a theocracy? (The Taliban in Afghanistan is an instructive comparison. If anyone can recall an instance in the 1950's when the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the appropriate punishment for two men having homosexual relations was to have a stone wall dropped on them, crushing them to death, please drop me an e-mail or comment with the citation.)

No. First, keep in mind that the wish-lists of conservatives often contradict one another. Oops; a uniform crushing of political dissent is difficult when there's dissent in one's own ranks.

But let us assume what a secularist would regard as the worst-case scenario: Let us assume that, whenever conservatives' agenda-items conflict with one another, it's the least-secular, the least-libertarian, the "most hardcore" item that wins. Under those circumstances, what would we get?
  • Openly gay couples could not adopt children
  • Homosexual relationships would have no legal recognition
  • All abortions would be illegal, and so would most medical research with fetal tissue
  • Ceremonial events in public schools would often start or end with prayers of a Christian, though denominationally non-specific, nature
  • Pornography would be heavily restricted, and the definitions of profanity and pornography expanded, and the fines for producing/distributing/broadcasting them in ways that made them accessible to minors would become more severe.
  • Government would promote marital stability in economically meaningful ways
  • Charitable organizations with religious history or charters would not have to abandon or violate their beliefs in order to receive government funds commensurate with those received by non-religious charitable organizations
  • Theoretical sex-ed in schools would be more or less unchanged, but practical sex-ed would become abstinence-only
And that, basically, would be that.

And remember, that's the list which would result if, in all internal squabbles in the Evangelical Community, the "most hardcore" faction always won. What is more likely is that secular elements in the U.S. would find common ground with the more secular-leaning elements among the Evangelical Christian community. It is not inconceivable that the "most hardcore" factions would nearly always lose. So what would that look like?
  • Openly gay couples would be "back of the line" with regard to adopting children
  • Homosexual relationships would have no legal recognition, but gay individuals could of course use normal contract law to specify survivorship rights, power of attorney, et cetera
  • Many late-term abortions would be illegal, and early-term abortions performed on a minor would require parental consent except in instances where doing so would threatent the child, and medical research with fetal tissue would be heavily restricted
  • Ceremonial events in public schools would often start or end with prayers of a generically Judeo-Christian nature
  • Pornography would be more restricted than it is today, and the fines for producing/distributing/broadcasting profane or pornographic materials in ways that made them accessible to minors would be increased.
  • Government would promote marital stability and child-rearing in sufficiently economically meaningful ways to eliminate any perceived "marriage penalty"
  • Charitable organizations with religious history or charters would not have to abandon or violate their beliefs in order to receive government funds commensurate with those received by non-religious charitable organizations
  • Theoretical sex-ed in schools would be more or less unchanged, but practical sex-ed would become more abstinence-oriented than it is today
Is that the theocracy which causes such panic among the secular left?

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