The population and leadership of the United States may be more sincerely Christian today than it was at the nation’s founding. Despite, or perhaps because of that, Christianity is on the brink of being driven from public life.
When the nation’s most prominent self-proclaimed “Christian” is probably Katy Perry and most effective policy advocate is Lady Gaga, it’s nonetheless remarkable to consider the strength and relative militancy of Christian belief in this country. The United States is unique among developed nations in the persistence of religious feeling. Solid majorities of every faith believe that “it is important” that a presidential candidate have strong religious beliefs (regardless of what they are). While poll takers either don’t care (or don’t want to talk about) their views on the racial makeup of their grandkids, almost half confidently say that if their daughter brings home a date with a Darwin fish, he’s going to be sent packing. Every single American President of the recent past, including Obama, has made sure to meet and pray with Billy Graham and publicly affirm their Christian beliefs, if only as a political maneuver.
Let’s go further. Can anyone imagine any of the presidential candidates, Republican or Democrat, writing a version of the gospel that had taken out the miracles and explicitly denied the divinity of Christ? Furthermore, can one imagine such a book being presented to every new member of Congress? While among movement conservatives it is fashionable to claim that the Founding Fathers were actually religious conservatives, this is the same kind of revisionist history that tells us that Martin Luther King Jr. was actually a great intellectual conservative, that only conservatives are truly against racism, and that the real victims of affirmative action are Blacks on the liberal plantation.
Of course, it was the author of our Declaration of Independence who wrote the aforementioned “Jefferson bible,” which was printed by and presented to members of Congress early in the last century. Jefferson contemptuously classified the Virgin Birth as a fable to be “classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter” and doubted the divinity of Christ. While Jefferson claimed adherence to the teachings of Jesus, he seems to have ignored, or not cared, that these moral teachings only make sense if Christ was the Son of God, else they were simply the ravings of a lunatic.
Passionate Freemason George Washington believed in an active Providence in human affairs but almost never mentioned Jesus Christ in his personal writings and used the more restrained (and Masonic) language of a Great Architect, an invisible hand, or a benign parent of the human race. The Unitarian John Adams, though he was open to the idea of “revelation,” denied the Trinity, heaped scorn upon Roman Catholicism, and said that the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount were his religion. As for Benjamin Franklin, he affirmed himself as a Deist and held to the position that Christ was a great moral teacher but not divine.
George Washington as Christian (Arnold Friberg, 1999)
If the bare bones definition of Christianity is the John 3:16 position that faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God is required for eternal salvation, committed Christians have to believe that the Founding Fathers were not Christian (and are, presumably, in hell.)
Nonetheless, it’s ridiculous to imagine Adams, Washington, or even Jefferson or Franklin making common cause with the likes of Michael Newdow, joining the ACLU to make sure the Boy Scouts are not allowed to use public facilities, or ensuring that the “Ground Zero cross” is kept out of any commemoration of the 9/11 attacks. All of these men explicitly believed that the Christian faith had a role in public life and that there were times when the state or the country should be called to prayer as a community.
President Washington proclaimed that it was “our duty as a people” to bend the knee to thank “the Ruler of nations” and remember “our obligations to Him.” President Adams issued a proclamation calling for national fasting and prayer as “the safety and prosperity of nations ultimately and essentially depend on the protection and blessing of Almighty God.” The old adulterer Ben Franklin stated, “it is the duty of mankind on all suitable occasions to acknowledge their dependence on Divine Being” and called for clergy to offer prayer at the Constitutional Convention. Even Jefferson, while avoiding such declarations as President out of Constitutional concerns, endorsed a day for “publick and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God” as Governor of Virginia in 1779, signed official government documents which contained language referring to “in the year of our Lord Christ,” and presided over treaties with the Indian nations in which the federal government directly supported Christian clergy tasked with spreading the faith to the natives.
While the Founders may have been less religious than many of our Christian leaders today, it would simply have not occurred to them to make sure that the federal government intervenes in every local school, town council, or federal building to make sure that every believer is thrown into the street or cross ripped out and tossed into the gutter. They could take for granted that a society in which even barely literate farmers knew the Psalms and the parables of Christ, where Christian symbolism permeated the entire culture, and where the church was the center of social, cultural, and even political life. In the traditional American understanding, faith in God is not a support to tyranny, but the final bulwark against it. The citizen’s duty to obey God, not the State, is a check on unlimited government authority and a mechanism by which the people can govern themselves. Restraint, duty, and what was once called decent behavior are cultural preconditions to the kind of ordered liberty that the American Revolution was designed to protect. To bend the knee to a God whose purposes no one truly knows and ask for mercy is not an act of intolerance but an act of humble solidarity with your countrymen as you try to build something together. To deny religion has any place in communal life at all is to deny that a national community even exists.
Which of course, today, it doesn’t. Whereas World War II propaganda showed the Nazis stabbing Bibles and crushing churches, progressive opinion knows now that the real SS was actually preaching from the pulpit. On August 6, Governor Rick Perry, in his buildup to a run for the White House, participated in “The Response,” a nondenominational Christian call to communal prayer for a “Nation in Crisis.” That the country is in trouble can hardly be denied and this kind of communal event has been sponsored by innumerable governors and Presidents; 30,000 people attended the rally, giving Perry the largest audience of any prospective Republican candidate thus far. Perry’s prayer was relatively standard, including a plea for God to safeguard President Obama and his family.
Nonetheless, mainstream media coverage focused overwhelmingly on the “controversial” nature of the event. There were dark prophecies of the Christian theocracy about to descend on the country. Such great theologians as James Moore of the Huffington Post gave learned expositions on how Perry is not actually a Christian because he thinks Christians have to believe in Jesus and homosexual sodomy is a sin. Of course, this is the same kind of ignorance and bigotry we saw from the reactionaries who denied the teaching of the great Islamic scholar George W. Bush that Islam means peace. The degenerate clergy of the mainline denominations were also trotted out to express their annoyance that the peasants who still believe this nonsense are jeopardizing their tax-exempt lifestyles of agitating for socialism, gay rights, and apologizing for existing.
The eye of Sauron based out of Montgomery, Alabama also got into the act. The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled the American Family Association, which sponsored the rally, and the Family Research Council, which had speakers at the event, as “hate groups.” As proof, they have some not particularly shocking quotes about how legalizing same sex marriage is evil, which is about what you expect a pastor or priest to say. They are also shocked—shocked!—at how the Founders thought homosexuality in the military was wrong (and not just in the military: the progressive Jefferson actually favored castration for sodomy.) The strongest case is pastors embarrassing themselves claiming that National Socialism was actually a gay movement, which is, charitably, a half truth, and ultimately reveals more about the defensive and desperate nature of conservatives who need to link everything bad to Hitler.
According to the SPLC, the AFA and the FRC are now the equals of the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis, with the only difference between them presumably that the latter groups are supported by taxpayer dollars (unless the debt crisis has cut off the salaries of the undercover FBI agents that make up the majority of the members). In actuality, even for cowardly movement conservatives and politicians, this was a bridge too far and a group of activists and Congressional leaders, including Speaker of the House John Boehner, condemned the SPLC by name. Nonetheless, both progressive groups and mainstream media accounts uncritically repeated the charges that dark forces and the ever present “links to extremists” were behind the event, and so “Rick Perry hate rally” now has 253,000 returns on Google. (For real hate of course, check out the comments at the Huffington Post every time a tornado hits a Red State or a White couple has more than two children.
American Christianity, mainly of the evangelical variety, sustains a vast subculture of movies, music, books, camps, schools, and homeschooling material that tens of millions of Americans participate in. This huge subculture and economy has almost no impact on mainstream politics and culture as presented by the media, except to be mocked. As with all politics, it’s about who, and not what. Evangelical Christians are in many ways the model kulaks, mostly White (strike 1), too prosperous for street cred but too poor to be celebrities and cool (strike 2), and heterosexual enough to be having families unlike heroes such as Amy Winehouse (strike 3). More than that, if leftism at its core is about egalitarianism, universality, and unlimited tolerance (and pretending not to notice all the contradictions within that), Bible-believing Christians infuriate and offend the Zeitgeist by holding to at least one standard—that there is one route to salvation and that they possess it.
Rick Perry, with Reverends Jackson and Patterson (photo: DallasNews.com)
This is not a testament to their strength. This is proof of their weakness. As the larger society has ceased to be culturally European and Christian, those who defend the actual tenets of the faith appear fringe and even threatening. Statements about the role of religion from less than 20 years ago appear positively shocking, such as Dan Quayle’s quote about Murphy Brown promoting single parenthood as a good thing or George H.W. Bush saying atheists can’t be good citizens. Or, to avoid easy targets, let’s borrow a tactic from the great conservative intellectual Jonah Goldberg and consider a representative scene from The Simpsons, “Homer the Heretic,” from 1992. Homer decides to skip church forever, leading Lisa to express concern about his “dedicating his life to blasphemy,” and Marge to pray for his soul, warning him “Don’t make me choose between my man and my God, because just you won’t win.” Strikingly, she tells Homer “I have a responsibility to raise these children right, and unless you change, I'll have to tell them their father is…well, wicked.”
Let us keep in mind that The Simpsons was condemned by then-President Bush for undermining family values. (Not that anyone watches The Simpsons anymore, but the show practically endorsed gay marriage in 2005. I didn’t see the episode, but neither did anyone else.) Let’s try to imagine what would happen if Perry had yesterday claimed that those who did not attend religious services were wicked.
Liberals are, of course, being overly paranoid when they imagine conservative Christians as a threat to the hegemony of the Zeitgeist. There were comically large majorities to bring back school prayer under Reagan and similar majorities under George Bush to ban gay marriage and in both cases, the conservative leadership did nothing. Even as leftists howl about creeping theocracy, a casual glance at pop culture or the emerging views of younger evangelicals suggest they have nothing to fear and everything to gain.
Those believing Christian churches that are left take their faith seriously, but it is an abstract, deracinated creed. It is not rooted in any people but is actively opposed to any kind of identification with any national tradition, except “America” as a vehicle for transmuting these abstract ideas and Israel because it’s “Chosen”.
Many conservative Christians, or at least their leadership, are more than willing to serve as useful idiots for the Left on issues such as immigration, with the Left strangely silent about the breakdown of the wall between Church and state. There is also an element of a battered wife type syndrome among the Christian Right, as they seek to compensate by being politically incorrect on gays by being über-politically correct on race and apologizing for slavery and segregation, campaigning to bring in non-Whites from around the world, and making sure taxpayers fund the population growth of Haiti and Somalia. Patriotic pastors such as Chuck Baldwin may speak to an older and more authentic tradition of American evangelism, but they are being streamrolled by the aggressively multicultural megachurches.
Group Prayer at The Response (photo: Ft. Worth Star Telegram)
Religion should serve as a check on tyranny and a way to bind the nation together, believers and unbelievers, in a shared culture. Even the non-religious should take religion seriously, as the Founding Fathers did, both as a necessary support to public morality and as the collective expression of the soul of a people’s and culture’s search for Truth. Instead, religion has been severed from any sense of national community. Leftists, of course, hate both. Conservative Christians have a faith that is half apologetic (in the Christian sense) and half apologetic (in the “please don’t call us haters, we’ll do whatever you say”). The decision by the well known group Campus Crusade for Christ to change its name to “Cru” because the name was getting in the way is typical.
The late Sam Francis once castigated the Christian Right for what he called a “false consciousness,” meaning that the religious right was blind to its own real motivation:
[T]he perception… that the culture their religion reflects and defends is withering and that that withering portends a disaster for themselves, their class, their country, and their civilization. Religion happens to be convenient vehicle for their otherwise unarticulated and perfectly well founded fears.
While this is perhaps a right-wing version of Obama’s “clinging to their guns and religions” slur, the difference is that the Right feels that these fears are legitimate and the disaster is upon us. The result is that the Religious Right not only failed to reverse the decline of traditional culture and the expulsion of Christianity from public life, but is drawn into tangents about foreign policy in Africa and left-wing stances on immigration because of its flawed ideology. These dissents from conservatism may win the occasional backhanded praise from the likes of Nicholas Kristof and George Clooney, but when Christians dare to act in their own name, the largely toothless Religious Right suddenly becomes the Falange.
If only! Rick Perry, even though he tried to back away at the last minute, has bought the loyalty of the Christian Right for the cheap price of doing what any American political leader of any other generation would have taken as common sense. He can now use the foot soldiers of the Christian Right as George W. Bush did—to carry out an agenda that will destroy his own followers for the benefit of the corporate elite and a GOP leadership that despises its own base. The only alternative—the only alternative right if you will—is an identitarian movement that places the concrete interests of specific ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic groupings first. Such a movement, by restoring pride in the West and its people, history and culture, will do more to restore the honored place of Christianity in public life than a thousand “Responses.”