News Intelligence Analysis
Originally published by Dissident Voice
Heartland Morality, American Politics
by Gregory Stephens
May 4, 2004
Many have written about the chasm between conservative and liberal, or religious and secular America: the starkly divided red and the blue spaces of the United States. Yet few seem to fully grasp the nature of the private morality in the American heartland that is driving politics at home and abroad. I live on this fault line in Oklahoma City. I hear it every time I talk to my family in Texas.
After Empire Page editor Peter Pollak visited Oklahoma in April 2004, he wrote me: Unless one visits the heart-land and hears what honest, hard-working and moral people hear, read and believe, one cant understand American politics. 2004 is not going to close the gap.
This gap seems to be growing wider, in fact. It is one thing to observe from a distance that millions of Americans who are President Bushs strongest supporters are in the throes of an extraordinary delusion, with their faith leading them to seek an apocalypse. It is another matter to witness how private morality in mid-America shapes the conduct of people in often admirable ways. Trying to connect or balance the salt of the earth personal warmth and generosity of mid-Americans with the political intolerance many of them support is a great challenge.
To understand how people here in mid-America look at the world, it helps to recall an extraordinary polarity in the last presidential election. 60% of Oklahomans voted for Bush in 2000. Only three states voted in a significantly larger percentage for Bush: Wyoming at 68%, and Utah and Idaho at 67%. Move over from the Rockies to the Great Plains, start at the Canadian border and move south, and the percentage of support for Bush is almost identical: North Dakota 61%, South Dakota 60%, Nebraska 62%, Kansas 58%, Texas 59%. This is the bedrock of the doctrine of American pre-eminence.
When you see only slighter low majorities for Bush in the South, it is astounding that Gore actually outpolled Bush by over half a million votes. That support for liberal or progressive politics is confined primarily to small urban pockets on the West and East Coasts, and in the upper Midwest near the Canadian border.
During 11 years in California, when I told my university peers that I had moved from Texas, many condescended, or reacted as if I had a dread disease. I have lived in several progressive urban centers like the San Francisco Bay Area, and I know that it is impossible for most people in those blue oases to imagine, in human terms, what people really believe, and how they act, here in conservative mid-America.
When I returned to my birth state Oklahoma in 2000, it indeed felt like going back in time, culturally and politically, about 25 years. That was not all bad. If you have car trouble in this neck of the woods, some people will still pull over to help. There is a general big-heartedness and community-mindedness here. When I was going through an expensive custody trial and did not have enough to make ends meet, several of my fellow school teachers raised collections at their churches to help tide me over. Women at the local barber shop treat us like family, give their best hand-me-downs to my children. These are people, mind you, who often have Pat Robertson on their TV.
Traveling between Texas and California during the 1990s, I came to realize that people like my family often put into practice the communitarian ideals that my leftist friends were so good at talking or writing about. They are fundamentalist Christians, which puts us on different planets, politically. But repeatedly I have seen my parents and other conservative Christians put Biblical ideals into practice: visiting the sick; giving away money or food to almost anyone who asked for it; being honest to a fault.
This anecdotal evidence is born out by polls showing that evangelical Christians are most likely to give to charities. Christians are the backbone of existing health care in Africa and other destitute regions of the world.
When I married an African American woman, my parents had no problems with this, because the scriptures are clear that out of one blood God created all nations.
Yet this Bible-based worldview had its limits: when the husband of my oldest sister announced he was gay and left her, they had absolutely no way to process this.
I have three sisters who got degrees in Home Economics from Abilene Christian University. A remarkably insular background, and yet the troubling issues of our day have touched our family: race, homosexuality, divorce, and chemical dependency.
After a rebellious youth, I gained a truce with my family by not talking about religion or politics. I distinguished between the way they lived--stewards of their land; generous with their neighbors--and how they voted. The politicians they supported put in practice policies I abhorred: support for the Contras (U.S. funded terrorists in Nicaragua), environmental degradation, runaway militarism, and various forms of intolerance.
Like most people, blood is thicker than water for me. Yet sometimes ideology is thicker than blood. Religious contagions made our truce uneasy. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the Christian Right obsessed about secular humanists as their common enemy. When I heard some of this talk from my parents, I began chewing on the undigestable reality that they hated people like me, although they loved their son unreservedly. As ripples spread out from fundamentalists into the political world, I realized that although I loved and respected my parents, people like my parents were my political enemies.
Although I am not a Christian, for a few years in the early 1990s I would go to church with my parents while visiting, in order to keep the peace. The friendly members of their congregation showered my children with affection. But when I heard their preacher take a hard line about women being submissive to men, I had to think like a parent. This was not a message I wanted my daughter, or my son to hear.
In my family I was seeing the surface of a fundamentalist Christian movement called Reconstructionism, or in its more specifically political, and non-denominational form, Dominionism. What Frederick Clarkson called a stealth ideology in 1994 has in the early 20th century come close to realizing a goal to replace democracy with a theocratic elite.
An Obsession with Blood Sacrifice
A little child shall lead them, the scriptures say. I took my children to Mexico several times, and my daughter Sela expressed a visceral distaste for and opposition to images of a bloody Christ. The last time I went to church with my parents, I was acutely conscious of how much of the worship was centered on blood.
While respecting the right of all peoples to worship as they see fit, I began to ask myself: what are the social and political implications of this fascination with sacrifice? In my book On Racial Frontiers, I wrote: The sacrifice of prophets to appease the collective soul does not seem like a legacy that I would want to teach to my children.
Liberation and social justice are in fact core ideals of Judeo-Christian scriptures. The teachings of the actual Jesus, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan, are something that I do teach my children. Yet it seems to me that many American Christians have focused on a crucified Christ and apocalyptic final days fantasies rather than the practice of social justice. I for one have been unwilling to cede issues of morality to fundamentalists. So I have remained in dialogue with Christians all these years.
I respect the power of faith in others. But when the practice of faith results in violence, suffering, and environmental destruction, I voice disagreement. All too often, the effort to find common ground with fundamentalists has seemed like an exercise in tolerating the intolerant.
A confluence of eventsa right-wing takeover of political, educational, and media institutions in the U.S., the claim that God has sanctioned our invasion of Iraq, and the display of the conservative Christian obsession with blood in Mel Gibsons film The Passionhas compelled some of us to speak more directly about the political implications of private faith. As Diane Christian has observed, there is a big leap from the liberation of Exodus, when Jews sprinkled blood on their doorposts, to the salvation proposed by Christians, in which blood is drunk by a community of faith. The Christian community not only lives after death by the blood of their Christ; but they feed on it in life. What can this mean, to drink blood?" asks Christian.
There is another mythological group who achieve eternal life by drinking blood. If the blood sacrifice of Jesus that Christians celebrate was a private faith, a belief system that led them to reach across the boundaries of religion, ethnicity, and nation, like the Good Samaritan, and to embrace an ethic of personal sacrifice in order to care for those in need, then we would have no need to think publicly about vampiristic parallels.
But personal faith has become political profession in ever more explicit ways. Voters who attend religious services more than once a week support the messianic militarism of the Bush administration by a margin of nearly 2-1. Those who never go to church voted against Bush by the same margin. Even more striking, among evangelical, Born Again Christians, who are 40% of the American electorate, support for Bush is almost 3-1.
When Fundamentalist Faith and Pre-Emptive Politics Join Hands
When I went to my parents house in Texas for Thanksgiving 2001, my childhood friend Mac joined us at the table. He offered a prayer thanking God for giving us strong leaders like Donald Rumsfeld during this crisis. Mac works for an Israeli oil company with offices in Big Spring. We exchanged a few emails, but our sources of information were so different that it soon became obvious that meaningful dialogue was impossible.
During the buildup towards war, I exchanged points of view with my brother-in-law David. As the chair of a Communication department at a major Texas university, I figured David would be the one family member with whom I could talk directly about the connection between religious morality and political violence.
A couple of months before the invasion of Iraq, David and I got to talking on the phone about the sorry state of public education in Texas and Oklahoma. I offered that if most people were given the choice, they would rather spend billions of dollars on the education of our children, rather than on the invasion of Iraq. That depends on whether they listen to Rush Limbaugh or Tom Brokaw, he said. That was his idea of the right and the left of American discourse. During our email discussion, he expressed the view that ABC and NBC were extreme examples of liberal bias in the media.
Although David is an academic, he is also a pre-millenial Christian who believes that the Almighty is working through the Bush Administration. (Thus he is probably sympathetic to the Reconstructionist goal of abolishing public schools, as a producer of secular humanists). I tried my best to find common ground, using a scriptural basis. But it was impossible. In the midst of the competitive flag waving on the networks, I asked David who he viewed as a reliable source of information. Sometimes more communication is not better, he responded.
But I already knew the answer. Former Christian Coalition Chairman Ralph Reed, now a regional chairman for the Bush-Cheney campaign, confesses that he never watches the networks, but relies on Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Fox News for most information about the world. During the invasion of Iraq, I watched a televangelist in San Antonio, John Hagee, a Dominionist whose sermons mixed last-days Apocalypse Fever and what I can only describe as militaristic fascism. During a sermon in which Hagee described opponents to the war in Iraq as agents of the Antichrist, he thundered: Thank God for Fox News! (Strange bedfellows, given Foxs rise to prominence via gratuitous sex and violence). And he repeated a core belief of the hard right: The United Nations out of the U.S., and the United States out of the UN.
April 2004 polls showed that 82% of Americans still believed disinformation about an Iraq-al Qaeda link. 60% still believed the erroneous claims that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction prior to the 2003 invasion. Of those who had the mistaken impression that experts still believed Iraq had WMD, 72% supported Bush. So there is a clear link between religious belief, an isolation from accurate information, and support for militaristic politics.
In times of stress, peoples gut beliefs come out. President Bushs first reaction after 9/11 was to call the War on Terror a crusade. He has not been able to live that comment down in the Islamic world, despite backtracking. And no wonder, given the public statements of his base. Just after 9/11, Ann Coulter wrote that We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.
Lt. General William Boykin got a lot of press by speaking to church groups in military uniform, and describing the U.S. military as the Army of God. Confronting a Somali soldier, he had the blessed assurance that my God was bigger than his. Muslims are our spiritual enemy, he tells patriotic Christians, which will only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus.
In truth, neither Boykins comments, nor Franklin Grahams description of Islam as a very evil and wicked religion, can be explained away as aberrations. The gut reactions of people like Graham, Boykin, Coulter, or President Bush demonstrate that the Crusade mentality is alive and well. American Christian pre-millenialists like Hal Lindsey have been warning about the Islamic peril for a long time. In the last quarter of the 20th century, there was a growing tendency among American Christian conservatives to describe Arab leaders as the Antichrist, or at least as a precursor to the Antichrist.
U.S. conservative Christianity has been hijacked by dispensationalists, who have only the thinnest of Biblical legitimation for their doomsday aspirations. The Seattle Methodist pastor Rich Lang has bluntly described Apocalyptic-Dominionism theology as Christian Fascism. It is a form of Christianity that is the mirror opposite of what Jesus embodied, he insists. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong writes that the Christian right today has absorbed the endemic violence of American society. These Christians seldom if ever quote the Sermon on the Mount, Armstrong notes, but base their xenophobic and aggressive theology on Revelation.
The Bush administration has embraced this worldview with sufficient fervor that some, such as columnist Kim Antieu, have been troubled by the uncomfortable parallels between the Bush team and its enemy, al Qaeda. Both are fanatical in their belief that they are right, they are guided by the divine, and those who disagree with them are the enemy. As is all too common, we become like what we hate.
What millions of honest, hard-working, moral people in mid-America are hearing, reading, and believing is that their messiah can only return to earth after an apocalypse in Israel. They are doing everything in their power to hasten that Armageddon, and demonizing those who disagree with them. Thus, a phobia of the Christian right is the false peace offered by agents of the Evil One. Because peace cannot lead to The Rapture and the 1,000 year Reign of Christ that dispensationalists believe in, those who promote disarmament and peace are their enemies. Only the anti-Christ signs peace treaties with Israel. Thus, some millenialist Christian writers viewed Henry Kissinger as a possible Antichristnot because of his duplicity or the violence he fomented in many parts of the world, but because of his supposed role as a peace-maker!
Gibsons Passion, and the Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, read by over 60 million people, are evidence of a mass turn away from the Prince of Peace, and toward a darker, more martial, macho concept of the Messiah, believes Stephene Prothero, author of American Jesus. In this worldview, the United Nations is seen as an agent of the Antichrist, because it stands in the way of constructing Christian theocracies, beginning in the United States, but spreading world-wide. This theocracy is seen as being inseparable from unrestricted, unregulated free-market capitalism (itself a virtual deity), despite the rather socialist teachings of Jesus, such as in Matthew 20.
Many pre-millenialist Christians believe environmental destruction is a good thing, because it speeds up end days. And they have the support of politicians at the highest level of government. Their faith (both in Christs immanent return, and in Gods preference for unregulated capitalism) is behind the Bush administrations disengagement from the Kyoto accords, and other forms of flight from environmental responsibility.
Sometimes late at night I tune in to Christian talk radio, just to hear if anything has changed. On a show called Point of View, I heard Holly Swanson, author of a book titled Set Up and Sold Out, describing environmentalists as watermelon activists: green on the outside, but red on the inside, with lots of black seeds of anarchy.
These are not isolated voices: what Molly Ivins has described as the Shiite Republicans in Texas put a plank in their state platform advising party members to oppose global warming as a myth. Reflecting a worldview hunkered down within the self-contained Reconstructionist/John Birch Society matrix, members of President Bushs home-state party have also described free education as a Communist idea, and dismissed the responsibility of government to communicate with bilingual citizens.
Gary North, son-in-law of Reconstructionist founder John Rushdoony, notes that the ideas of the Reconstructionists have penetrated into Protestant circles that for the most part are unaware of the original source of the theological ideas that are transform[ing] them. And as Frederick Clarkson and Katherine Yurica observe, many fundamentalist spokespersons deny in public that they have been influenced by Reconstructionism or Dominionism. Yet Dominionism has achieved virtual hegemony over many forms of Christian fundamentalism, wrote Clarkson.
Most conservative Christians, until the Reagan era, were relatively non-political, focused on the after-life. So the politicization of Pentecostalism is one of the major stories of modern American politics, Clarkson writes. This movement is hardly stealth anymore. The Second American Revolution envisioned by Rushdoony and his Reconstructionist heirs is admittedly totalitarian. Their revolution would include the abolition of public education, and the eradication of environmental protection laws. Hard-liners would outlaw pre-marital sex, and implement an Old Testament-based legal system that they believe would authorize execution of homosexuals, adulterers, and perhaps even the insufficiently patriotic.
Authors and advocates of these ideas are no longer marginalized, although they still often see themselves this way. They consort with political leaders such as John Ashcroft and Clarence Thomas. The happy ending of their religious script would have saved Christian soldiers floating up to heaven in the Rapture, where they can have an unobstructed view of their Warrior Jesus annihilating the remnants of the human race. And the linchpin of the whole process: that most Jews will be wiped out, in order that the remainder can convert to Christianity. This is "a completely foolish and erroneous interpretation of the scriptures," former President Jimmy Carter says.
I do not want to be misunderstood. There are millions of Christians both in the United States and abroad who have not been infected by this religious and political pathology, which Katherine Yurica says has corrupted our churches. Many of those who subscribe to something like the Dominionist worldview are good parents, good neighbors, and in local terms, at least, good citizens. Sometimes I am inspired by the musical praise of artists from the Christian Right. They remind me of the importance of honoring something greater than ourselves. They force me to confront difficult moral issues such as abortion. And I am often appalled by the reflexive condemnation of conservative Christians by those on the left. It is so much easier to dismiss fundamentalists, which at this moment in time, is a meaningless gesture of self-marginalization, given the political power that fundamentalists have. It is so much harder to seek to understand their worldview, and to try to find a language with which to engage them in dialogue. Both sides end up being contemptuous of each other, and retreating to mutually exclusive sources of information, and legitimation.
Even so, there arrives a moment in which different people of good faith have such starkly opposing worldviews that they cannot stand up for what they believe is right without creating further division. This seems to be one of those Rubicon, world-in-the-balance moments. Given the social, cultural, foreign policy and environmental implications of the Christian Rights ideology, it is hard for me not to agree with Karen Armstrongs reaction: It often seems that we might be better off without religion. Or to sing along with Ziggy Marleys song In the Name of God: All religion should be wiped out.
Yet I myself come out of this root. I know the scriptures like the back of my hand, and I have been inspired by Liberation Theology, and by the Social Gospel that motivated Martin Luther King, Jr. I am still convinced that this tradition can be redeemed. My experience teaches me that, however much this may horrify my secular friends and associates, Reverend Lang is right: Whoever controls the interpretation of scripture will control the future of this nation.
In his book The Secret Kingdom, Pat Robertson imagined the Almighty advising his faithful Christian soldiers to Rule as I would rule. Robertson believed his troops had a mandate centered on discipline: to exercise dominion over the unruly, and the rebellious.
Yet Jesus, whose example is supposedly the touchstone for Christians, was clearly rebellious, especially against the religious authorities of his day. The dominion he advocated was not of messianic militarism, but of service to the less fortunate. A growing number of faithful Christians are recovering the true root of these teachings, which have been so distorted.
Ruling as the Creator would rule can also be interpreted as a mandate for stewardship. This is what Stephen Kaufmann of the Christian Vegetarian Association means by advocating a God-centered approach. In his book Honoring Gods Creation, Kauffman argues that if we looked at the world from the perspective of the Creator, then surely we would have to love all of Creation. We would have to treat all people and indeed all that lives as our kin, instead of trying to wipe out those that lived a different lifestyle, or called on the Creator by a different name.
In an interview with me, Kaufmann insisted that this is in fact a conservative perspective, in the best sense of that word. At large Christian conferences and meetings across the country, members of CVA are passing out tens of thousands of copies of What Would Jesus Eat? and other literature. They are getting a mostly positive reception.
Christian treatments on the theme of animal rights have gone mainstream recently, as with a book by former Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. This growing movement, in addition to influencing lifestyle choices, is primed to challenge the political hegemony of right-wing Christian groups.
The What Would Jesus Drive? campaign, although it offended some and was laughed at by others, is also instigating healthy debate among conservative Christians. The group combines good science and a thorough knowledge of scripture in a way that directly contradicts many current right-wing Christian beliefs and practices. They insist: As followers of the Prince of Peace, Christians should strive to lessen circumstances that could lead to violent conflicts by reducing our consumption of oil. In 2003 Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network drove a hybrid Toyota Prius across the Bible Belt to dramatize this message.
These are the grounds on which the exceptions to the divide between conservative and liberal, religious and secular, red and blue are being carved out.
The political implications of actually putting into practice the Bibles emphasis on mercy and political justice are being voiced in ever more explicit ways. In June 2004 Continuum books is publishing Why Bush Must Go: A Bishops Faith-Based Challenge by Rev. Bennett Sims, Bishop Emeritus of the Atlanta Diocese, and a former Navy Officer. The political leadership of my country has become a menace, writes Sims, to human longevity and to the environment.
Human beings have become God-like in our powers of destruction. People in the United States in particular, as five percent of the human race, but consuming 25% of its resources, have an especially destructive potential. As Martin Luther King once noted, "The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve."
Such a maturity would require that we refuse to be a God, as Robert Jay Lifton, citing Camus, argues in The Superpower Syndrome. Rather than acting as if God were sanctioning our unlimited consumption and militarism, and our arrogance towards other nations, we should embrace thought which recognize limits. Learning to live within limitsabove all disciplining our own arrogance and over-consumption, rather than focusing on disciplining our enemies-- would in fact be a lifestyle that followed scriptural mandates.
In Matthew 12, Jesus told the religious leaders of his day that if they truly understood the scriptures, they would know that God requires mercy, not sacrifice. This is a reference to Hosea 6:6, one of many Old Testament passages that say explicitly that blood sacrifice is not pleasing to God.
One of Martin Luther Kings favourite passages was from Amos 6:23:
Let justice roll on like a river,
and righteousness like a mighty stream.
The context, forgotten by most churchgoers, was that neither incessant songs of praise, nor blood sacrifice, were pleasing to God. It was justice that mattered most.
Again, the prophet Micah insists that blood sacrifice does not please the Almighty. He asks, what does the Lord require of you? The answer:
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (6:8)
If Christians want to use Biblical morality as a model to reconstruct political practice, then such passages ought to humble those who go in search of enemies, seeking with monumental hubris to rid the world of evil.
Instead, wrote Amos (5:14), seek good, not evil, that you may live.
Gregory Stephens has taught at the University of California and the University of Oklahoma, and is currently completing a book called Real Revolutionaries: Revisioning Kinship and Co-Creation. His writings and radio shows are available at: http://www.gregorystephens.com/. Contact: email@example.com.
SOURCES (those not listed are hyper-linked in text)
Gap between red and blue America: David Von Drehle, Political Split Is Pervasive: Clash of Cultures Is Driven by Targeted Appeals and Reinforced by Geography, Washington Post 4-25-04.
Percentage of votes for Bush in mid-America: Presidential Election of 2000, Electoral and Popular Vote Summary.
Extraordinary delusion: George Monbiot, Their Beliefs are Bonkers, but they are at the Heart of Power: US Christian Fundamentalists are Driving Bush's Middle East Policy," Guardian 4-20-04
Fundamentalist battle against secular humanists: Katherine Yurica, The Despoiling of America: How George W. Bush became the head of a new American Dominionist Church/State, 2-11-04
Humanism today is the common enemy of Christians. Gary North, Backward Christian Soldiers? An Action Manual For Christian Reconstruction (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), p. 136.
Church-going support for Bush: Steven Thomma, Voters split along religious lines, poll shows, Detroit Free Press, 11-27-03.
Church support for charities: Nicholas Kristof, Hug an Evangelical, New York Times, 4-24-04.
Re: how dispensationalists mainstreamed the ideology of last days, and cast foreign leaders, especially in the Islamic world, as the Antichrist, see Robert Fuller, Naming the Antichrist: The History of an American Obsession (Oxford UP, 1995), 131, 159-60; Bernard McGinn, Anti-Christ: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination With Evil (HarperCollins, 1994), 252-61.
Kissinger as Antichrist: David Webber and N.W. Hutchings, Countdown for Antichrist, rev. ed. (Oklahoma City: Southwest Radio Church, 1984), 121. Bernard McGinn, Anti-Christ, 260.
David Kirkpatrick, The Return of the Warrior Jesus, New York Times 4-4-04.
The compulsion to describe Arab leaders as the Antichrist is tied to the rise of modern fundamentalism and especially pre-millenialism. In a popular tract Jesus is Coming William Blackston identified all Muslims as types of Antichrist. (Chicago: Fleming H. Revell, 1908), 110. The view of Muslims as the Devils agents in end days took root after the birth of Israel in 1948, but only achieved wide popularity after the 1960s. See John Walvoords book Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisis, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1974, revised edition 1990). Hal Lindsey, who popularized key concepts of pre-millenialism such as The Rapture through his best-selling book The Late Great Planet Earth (Zondervan, 1970), warned of the Islamic Peril in The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon (Bantam, 1980), 51-63.
The hard rights opposition to the United Nations is both religious and secular. Richard Perle crowed Thank God for the death of the UN in essays published in the Spectator and The Guardian. Stanley Kutler, Perles New World OrderAnd Ours? Boston Globe 2-4-03.
Shiite Republicans, Molly Ivins, Bucking the Texas Lockstep, Washington Post 5-15-03.
Holly Swansons appearance was on KWCB, hosted by Kirby Anderson, 0-3-2000.
Glenn Scherer, Why Ecocide Is Good News for the GOP, E Magazine 5-5-03.
Gary North in Frederick Clarkson, Christian Reconstructionism, The Public Eye, Vol. VIII, No. 1 & 2, March/June 1994, Parts 1 & 3. virtual hegemony, Clarkson, Part 3.
Pat Robertson, The Secret Kingdom (Thomas Nelson, 1984), 201.
WWJD information from Campaign Position Paper."
John Kearney, My God Is Your God, New York Times, January 28, 2004.
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