Depths of Darkness, Glimmers of Hope

If you keep track of the religious right, you’ve heard of Christian Reconstructionism. It’s a subset of Dominion theology and advocates a particular kind of theocracy, what is known as theonomy.

Dominion theology is far from uncommon, although most support a milder form of it, not going as far as theocracy. Instead, the most popular variety is Christian nationalism. Dominionism is based on the belief that the American founders were Christian and so intended Christianity to dominate or at least define all aspects of society, maybe even the government itself (presumedly until the End Times; and, once the good Christians ascend bodily into Heaven, the Pagans would likely be allowed to takeover what is left of the world). Some Dominionists see the Constitution as a Christian document with the Bill of Rights as akin to an extension of the Biblical Ten Commandments.

They take this seriously. And they don’t see the claim of the Constitution being a slave document as being a criticism, per se. Nor that this contradicts it also being a Christian document. They do see racialized slavery as unbiblical, but not slavery itself. In fact, some of them argue for Biblical slavery.

According to the Old Testament, slavery is allowed under certain conditions. The intended audience, of course, were ancient Israelis; but that is a minor detail to the Fundamentalist mind. Anything and everything from the Bible must be applied to modern Christianity, except the parts that are inconvenient and problematic. The religious right believes they inherited the Jewish tradition and so the Israeli label. Also, in this framework, Pagan translates as non-Christian.

It is stated that Israelis aren’t as a general rule allowed to enslave other Israelis, but there are exceptions. As such, according to Christian Reconstructionism, it logically follows that Christians can enslave other Christians under precise circumstances, as long as it is voluntary servitude, except for criminals or enemies captured in battle who can be forced into servitude.

This is vague about whether a Christian captured in battle can be treated this way. In the ancient world, an Israeli was simply one who lived in Israel, as a Jew originally was one who lived in Judea (although over time such terms came to have other meanings), which leaves uncertain the labeling and treatment of various populations (such as Jews who weren’t Israelis or Judeans along with Israelis and Judeans who weren’t Jews); as another example, ancient Samaritans also used the same Holy Bible but weren’t considered Jews as they lived in Samaria, what was once the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Not that the fundamentalist mind cares about such complications. Anyway, none of this applies to Pagans (i.e., non-Christians) who can be enslaved involuntarily and permanently by their Christian overlords.

A number of things are disturbing about this. First of all, it is shocking to see slavery being discussed in this manner. Even among those who advocate Biblical slavery, there is disagreement about details, about who is allowed to be enslaved and in what way. But it’s messed up that this is discussed at all, as if moral laws and social norms in a modern pluralistic democracy is to be determined through legalistic minutiae decreed by priests of an ancient religion.

Even worst, this isn’t being discussed just by right-wing loons. Or rather right-wing loons have made major inroads into the mainstream. Many politicians and political candidates have been aligned with this Dominionism and related worldviews, including several recent candidates such as Ted Cruz.

Even Donald Trump, despite lacking any evidence of being a Christian or caring about Christianity, has won majority support of white Evangelicals and their leadership (prone, as they are, to Dominionist rhetoric that resonates with Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”). But to be fair he wasn’t their first choice. The Tea Party was taken over by this hardcore religious right, by way of the influence of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, and that is the movement that Trump rode to the Republican nomination. It was Beck, in particular, who brought the Tea Party into alignment with the old religious right, the paranoid reactionaries and Christian nationalists (e.g, the Mormon W. Cleon Skousen). It matters little that Beck now fears this monster he has helped to create.

It’s not just the fringe Evangelicals. I know some local Christians who read Stephen McDowell’s Monumental in their Bible study group (by the way, they used to regularly watch Glenn Beck). Living in the same respectable liberal college town as I do, they go to a mainline church with a liberal minister who recently began promoting gay acceptance. Their Bible study group is a mix of people, mostly moderate and mainstream as is found in a middle class Midwestern town — unlikely any Reconstructionist theocrats among them. Yet they were reading this text that comes out of the right-wing Dominionist movement, a text written by a guy who has advocated for Biblical slavery.

If someone like McDowell gets discussed in a Bible study group from fairly liberal church in a very liberal town, imagine where else in the country this gets a foothold. It’s not that these local Christians are going to seek to enslave me and my Pagan friends. But the Dominionist theology has many aspects that are as disturbing or simply problematic. The very premise of Dominionism is the opposite of a free democratic society. Still, you don’t need to go as far as Biblical slavery to see the dangers of reactionary politics, right-wing authoritarianism, and historical revisionism.

It makes one wonder how close we could easily come to the world portrayed by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale. This doesn’t require the majority of the population to be right-wing Evangelicals, much less ranting apocalyptic theocrats. Most authoritarian governments don’t come to power through majority support. The conditions just have to be right and the population has to be in a great enough state of fear, distress, and uncertainty. Some divide and conquer could help, along with perceived enemies to scapegoat, foreign and internal. Even the slow creep of authoritarianism is bad enough, as we’ve seen in recent decades. The stage has been set for a full authoritarian takeover.

It’s happened many times before in many countries. The United States isn’t immune to authoritarianism. And as it has been said, “When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Or as religious right leader, Russell Moore, recently put it, “The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about.”

I didn’t want to end on that note, though. I don’t feel like countering fear with fear. My motivation was more simple curiosity. It can be surprising to see what ideas make their way into the mainstream. If you look closely, you can see many possible futures we are facing. Ideas are seeds. They may or may not grow. But once planted it is unsurprising to see them sprout, as has happened with the growing power of the religious right over the past half century.

Still, there are other seeds that have been planted. If tended, those other seeds could grow. There is nothing inevitable about the path we’ve been on. The world could shift in any number of directions. Trump may be doing us a favor by giving voice to one specter of authoritarianism, his fascist-and-fundamentalist-tinged proclamations of making America great again. But that leaves other varieties that might be even more threatening.

Sometimes it’s the fears we don’t see coming that get us. While we worry about the religious right’s support of Israel, as part of their Apocalyptic aspirations of bringing on the End Times, we can forget that the mainstream political left has its own designs for Israel that may lead us to an apocalyptic World War III (or simply an ever more destabilized, violent world). Pick your apocalypse. Or maybe it’s the same apocalypse, with different rhetoric.

We create the future we imagine. Peering into the American psyche at the moment, one can see dark visions. The few glimmers on the surface of the dark depths only offer the smallest of hope. Still, there may be real reason for hope, however tentative, so it seems when looking at demographic shifts.

Among white evangelicals, the young have never been fond of bigotry and intolerance. The same goes for young Catholics. There is a generational divide that cuts across all religions. Also, because of revelations, white women Evangelicals are abandoning Trump. All that the Trump has left are older white male Evangelicals, but old white male Christians in general have always been stalwart Republicans, no matter how far right crazy the party gets.

I doubt the religious right was ever the “moral majority” in this country, at least not in living memory. But United States has a long history of political and economic power being held by various minority groups. Even WASPs have never been a majority. Looking back to early America, it wasn’t just a minority of rich white male landowners that controlled government; also, the federal government was initially dominated by the Southern states, some of which were majority black. How did this plutocracy that was a minority even in their own communities manage to take over political power of a vast country? Never doubt the power a minority can wield.

For this reason, it’s good to see these fractures forming among the religious right. And it is good to see younger Christians turn toward a kinder vision. Still, we are far from being safe from the threat of authoritarianism. Entire societies can turn authoritarian quite quickly when fear comes to rule people’s minds. And there are many fears looming on the horizon.

In the end, my own motivation is more that of curiosity. I don’t have it in me to sit around worrying about theocracy or whatever. But I am always fascinated by society and what is to be found, when one goes looking. It’s simply strange to see these kinds of ideas floating around in the main currents of thought, like any other idea.

What most interests me is the fantasies that play out around these ideas. The human imagination is a powerful thing. And those seeking power realize this. But imagination has a way of taking on a life of its own. It’s not easily controlled or predicted. We can try to force imagination to serve our ideology or we can allow our ideology to be guided by imagination, the former is rhetoric and the latter makes possible the visionary.

The best antidote is to imagine other visions, to explore other possibilities. And to do so with humility. The future will become what it will, no matter what we may wish. But in coming to term with our own imaginings, we can find meaning. The one thing that can overcome fear is a sense of meaning. Christianity, at its best, also offers that vision.

* * *

What is Dominionism? Palin, The Christian Right And Theocracy
by Chip Berlet

DOMINIONISM RISING: A THEOCRATIC MOVEMENT HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT
by Frederick Clarkson

KIRK CAMERON’S MONUMENTAL REVEALS SUBTLE INFLUENCE OF CHRISTIAN RECONSTRUCTIONISM
by Julie Ingersoll

BECK’S “DREAM”—OUR NIGHTMARE
by Julie Ingersoll

Cruz Super PAC Head Promotes ‘Biblical’ Slavery for Non-Christians
by Bruce Wilson

Mike Pence on the “American Heartland” and the Holy Land
by Shalom Goldman

Cruz Super PAC Head Promotes ‘Biblical’ Slavery for Non-Christians
by Bruce Wilson

“Biblical Slavery” For Non-Christians? Yes, Suggests Website of Mike Huckabee’s Favorite Historian David Barton
by Bruce Wilson

David Barton’s Plan for Biblical Slavery for America
by Hrafnkell Haraldsson

* * *

Books about Culture by Christians

Avatar: Imagination & Culture

Psychology of Politics, Development of Society

Southern Californian Birth of Salvific Corporatism

I’ve been utterly fascinated by the rise of the religious right and its bizarre relationship to neocons.

The social and political transformation happened because of a specific migration pattern. It was made most famous by the Okies, but was part of a larger migration. Beginning prior to the Civil War, many waves and streams of migration went to the West Coast from the Western South, including Texas along with what some call the Southern Plains or the Southern Midwest. This migration slowed down around the 1970s and shifted direction. Like others who left the South for the North, many of these Southern Californians and their descendants headed back to Texas and the Southern Plains/Midwest.

Combined with other migrations from the East, California was transformed. Most significantly, as the North/South divide began to take shape in the East, it also nearly split the California in two with Northerners in Northern California and Southerners in Southern California (see: The Golden State in the Civil War by Glenna Matthews, The Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War by Leonard L. Richards,  Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865 by John W. Robinson, and The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream by H.W. Brands). This set the stage for the 20th century migrations of Evangelicals.

What is interesting and truly strange is how vast the transformation was.

Even before the migration, these people were very religious, but it was a religion that was mostly grounded in rural farm communities. These people weren’t right-wingers. They were New Deal Democrats, labor unionists, socialists and other varieties of liberal and left-wing radicals. The region they called home was particularly a hotbed of agrarian socialism. The righteousness of their radicalism was born out of their religiosity.

They were on a moral crusade to save their way of life against corrupt capitalists and monopolizing industrialists, especially railroad tycoons. This began, following the Civil War and Reconstruction, in the Populist Era in the last decades of the 19th century. These people were further radicalized by the Great Depression which was when socialism really took hold. Oddly, this was when a mass migration began to set their eyes on California, but their native ideological roots were left behind for the most part. They were uprooted and when they were replanted in California soil new fruits would come forth.

There are two reasons for this.

First, they were independent farmers back home, but in California they became laborers for massive farms the likes not seen often back on the Southern plains. Their populist rhetoric romanticized the farmer. This very agrarian ‘free soil’ rhetoric made it hard for them to see the Californian farming elite as bad guys, even as they were being taken advantage of.

Second, as time went on, more of them got factory jobs. They were living in an area that boomed because of the vast wealth pumped into it by the federal government’s military defense funding. These former migrants became middle class and respectable. Their entire way of life, including the vast wealth of their churches, was dependent on government funding and the Cold War that fueled it all. This formed a marriage between Evangelical Second Coming eschatology and Cold War patriotic propaganda, a marriage that gave birth to a deformed child of a corporatist military-industrial complex that saw its purpose as saving all of the world’s soul.

In American politics, this took shape as the Southern Strategy. Nixon, a native Southern Californian, began the Southern Strategy and used it to great success. Reagan inherited it and revved up this style of propaganda to levels maybe never before seen in American politics. He was a native Midwesterner with an easygoing personality of Midwestern sunny optimism which he brought to Hollywood. Allying with Southern Evangelicals, he was able to cross the boundaries between North and South in California and in America at large. He took the dark vision of Evangelical End Times and made it a capitalist salvific vision of unending progress and profit.

As the Cold War began to slow down and then ended, the migration pattern reversed. Many Southern Californians headed back to their cultural homeland. With them, they took their weird Californianized ideology and they Californicated Texas along with the Southern Plains. Former Democratic strongholds became Republican majorities. This was a new Solid South, but one with the most modern techniques developed in California.

Here is how Darren Dochuk describes it in From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (Kindle Locations 7783-7806):

Many Southern California evangelicals found the South’s new suburbs promising as well and played a direct role in populating (and politicizing) them. Indeed, as much as evangelicalism’s repositioning within Southern California dulled some of its power, a fourth force of change— more migration— blunted it altogether. This time, the migration was outward-bound. During the 1980s and 1990s, Southern California’s political economy underwent dramatic restructuring as a once spectacularly strong defense sector began to lose government contracts, its fight against inflation, and, generally, its luster. A declining tax base (exacerbated by Proposition 13) coupled with rising costs further tore up local neighborhoods. Orange County— once the epitome of California’s cold war boom— went bankrupt, marking a very real end to decades of unimpeded prosperity. Cold war defense suburbs that ringed Los Angeles County suffered similar burdens of adjustment, as did the evangelical communities that had banked their livelihoods on this economy. In reply, countless evangelical citizens and their institutions picked up and went east. Some , like James Dobson and his organization, Focus on the Family, were enticed by boosters and cheaper living to a newer defense community tucked away in the Mountain West: Colorado Springs. More often they simply returned to the place from whence they came: the western South. In a dramatic reversal, California began losing southern migrants in the 1980s, Oklahoma and Texas reclaiming them. Retirees, job seekers, and the homesick now steered their automobiles east on Interstate 10. Writing about this rising trend in 1983 that was remaking the Texas “oil patch,” social scientist William Stevens declared that the “great surge of post– World War II westing migration” had “bounced off the West Coast and ricocheted back to Texas.” He added that “both money and people” were making the trip. 13

This reverse migration was also primed to “Californiaize” Texas political culture and Republicanize Texas politics, pundits noted. To be sure, they overstated the case for the former, since Texas political culture was always protective of its character. And by the 1980s, Texas and the entire western South boasted a political and cultural authority that the rest of the nation now envied. This was the new epicenter of the new political economy , a home for NASA, Texaco, and Wal- Mart, emblems of the Sunbelt’s high-tech, resource-based, service economies and financial clout. In the late 1930s, Houston politician and philanthropist Jesse H. Jones had given an impassioned speech to students at John Brown University in tiny Siloam Springs , Arkansas , imploring them to take control of their region by applying a frontier mentality to its development. It was time, he said, for the western South to become strong and independent of northern industrialists’ grasp. Thanks to the work of educator-entrepreneurs like John Brown, George Benson, and R. G. LeTourneau, two generations of Christians had internalized this message and, with the aid of federal funds and venture capital, helped turn the western South into the colonizer rather than the colony.

Thus, the Great Amnesia took over American politics and the American populace. It was as if the Populist and Progressive Eras had never happened. Ignorant of the past, Americans became puppets whose strings were pulled by a plutocracy that had nearly all former restraints removed. They didn’t need democracy for they had Capitalism and God… or rather they had a Capitalism that was their God… along with some culture war issues to prettify his divine visage.

As Thomas Frank sums it up (What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank, p. 5):

… the Great Backlash [is] a style of conservatism that first came snarling onto the national stage in response to the partying and protests of the late sixties. While earlier forms of conservatism emphasized fiscal sobriety, the backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues-summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art-which it then marries to pro-business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends. And it is these economic achievements-not the forgettable skirmishes of the never-ending culture wars-that are the movement’s greatest monuments.

The backlash is what has made possible the international free-market consensus of recent years, with all the privatization, deregulation, and deunionization that are its components. Backlash ensures that Republicans will continue to be returned to office even when their free-market miracles fail and their libertarian schemes don’t deliver and their “New Economy” collapses. It makes possible the policy pushers’ fantasies of “globalization” and a free-trade empire that are foisted upon the rest of the world with such self-assurance. Because some artist decides to shock the hicks by dunking Jesus in urine, the entire planet must remake itself along the lines preferred by the Republican Party, U.S.A.

The Great Backlash has made the laissez-faire revival possible, but this does not mean that it speaks to us in the manner of the capitalists of old, invoking the divine right of money or demanding that the lowly learn their place in the great chain of being. On the contrary; the backlash imagines itself as a foe of the elite, as the voice of the unfairly persecuted, as a righteous protest of the people on history’s receiving end. That its champions today control all three branches of government matters not a whit. That its greatest beneficiaries are the wealthiest people on the planet does not give it pause.

In fact, backlash leaders systematically downplay the politics of economics. The movement’s basic premise is that culture outweighs economics as a matter of public concern-that Values Matter Most, as one backlash title has it. On those grounds it rallies citizens who would once have been reliable partisans of the New Deal to the standard of conservatism. Old-fashioned values may count when conservatives appear on the stump, but once conservatives are in office the only old-fashioned situation they care to revive is an economic regimen of low wages and lax regulations. Over the last three decades they have smashed the welfare state, reduced the tax burden on corporations and the wealthy, and generally facilitated the country’s return to a nineteenth-century pattern of wealth distribution. Thus the primary contradiction of the backlash: it is a working-class movement that has done incalculable, historic harm to working-class people.

The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ, but they walk corporate. Values may “matter most” to voters, but they always take a backseat to the needs of money once the elections are won. This is a basic earmark of the phenomenon, absolutely consistent across its decades-long history. Abortion is never halted. Affirmative action is never abolished. The culture industry is never forced to clean up its act. Even the greatest culture warrior of them all was a notorious cop-out once it came time to deliver. “Reagan made himself the champion of ‘traditional values,’ but there is no evidence he regarded their restoration as a high priority,” wrote Christopher Lasch, one of the most astute analysts of the backlash sensibility. “What he really cared about was the revival of the unregulated capitalism of the twenties: the repeal of the New Deal.

This is vexing for observers, and one might expect it to vex the movement’s true believers even more. Their grandstanding leaders never deliver, their fury mounts and mounts, and nevertheless they turn out every two years to return their right-wing heroes to office for a second, a third, a twentieth try. The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining. _____

Backlash theorists,(as we shall see) imagine countless conspiracies in which the wealthy, powerful, and well connected-the liberal media, the atheistic scientists, the obnoxious eastern elite-pull the strings and make the puppets dance. And yet the backlash itself has been a political trap so devastating to the interests of Middle America that even the most diabolical of stringpullers would have had trouble dreaming it up. Here, after all, is a rebellion against “the establishment” that has wound up cutting the tax on inherited estates. Here is a movement whose response to the power structure is to make the rich even richer; whose answer to the inexorable degradation of working-class life is to lash out angrily at labor unions and liberal workplace-safety programs; whose solution to the rise of ignorance in America is to pull the rug out from under public education.

Like a French Revolution in reverse-one in which the sansculottes pour down the streets demanding more power for the aristocracy-the backlash pushes the spectrum of the acceptable to the right, to the right, farther to the right. It may never bring prayer back to the schools, but it has rescued all manner of rightwing economic nostrums from history’s dustbin. Having rolled back the landmark economic reforms of the sixties (the war on poverty) and those of the thirties (labor law, agricultural price supports, banking regulation), its leaders now turn their guns on the accomplishments of the earliest years of progressivism (Woodrow Wilson’s estate tax; Theodore Roosevelt’s antitrust measures). With a little more effort, the backlash may well repeal the entire twentieth century.