The Return of Christian Terrorism
April 8, 2010 9:44 AM   Subscribe

Threats of right wing violence have doubled in the past year. What is behind the latest upsurge in the movement to create a Christian theocratic state?

An interesting look at the various motivations of militant Christian organizations in the U.S.
posted by reenum (94 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
"The Southern Poverty Law Center... declares that threats and incidents of right-wing violence have risen 200% in this last year — unfortunately coinciding with the tenure of the first African American President in US history."

Understatement of the Year Award nominee right there.
posted by rusty at 9:51 AM on April 8, 2010 [24 favorites]


Though these new forms of violence are undoubtedly political and probably racist, they also have a religious dimension.

Religion1 is a great way to manipulate/motivate the right wing, because it is basically designed to control dumb people who love authoritarianism. Which is probably all the clue you really need to know where this is "coming from". Christians aren't looking in their bibles and finding literal instructions to kill Democrats. They are hearing it come from people in authority. And where are those people getting it? From higher up the chain. People who themselves are not religious, but are using the opposite-of-an-opiate of the people for their own ends.

Yes, I'm talking about a Vast Right Wing Conspiracy.

1I'm talking organized religions here. Mysticism and/or spirituality or whatever may be a separate issue.
posted by DU at 9:53 AM on April 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


What is behind the latest upsurge in the movement to create a Christian theocratic state?

Obama's census-form choice: 'Black'
posted by dhartung at 9:54 AM on April 8, 2010


What is behind the latest upsurge in the movement to create a Christian theocratic state?

Don't leave me in suspense...

Is it gas?
posted by felix betachat at 9:54 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, if that uppity negro would stop trying to turn the country into 1940s Russia then I'm sure tax-conscious theocrats would have no need to exercise their constitutional right to protest.

/ Rush Limbaugh dog whistle mode
posted by MuffinMan at 9:54 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


"unfortunately coinciding with the tenure of the first African American President in US histo"... it ain't no coincidence, folks. It would have happened with any Democrat president, but the black makes it worse.
posted by Daddy-O at 9:56 AM on April 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Meanwhile, the Missouri House gives preliminary approval to state sovereignty measure

Which is total dogwhistle theater, but underpins the whole Civil War bit.

You know everyone talks about the "wisdom of the founding fathers", but they sure as hell left enough uncertainty to cause no end of grief.
posted by edgeways at 9:57 AM on April 8, 2010


unfortunately coinciding with the tenure of the first African American President in US history.

Umm, sorry guys: This ain't no coincidence. We're seeing this surge in right-wing violence exactly because we've got a black president in office.
posted by dunkadunc at 9:59 AM on April 8, 2010


This was predicted two years ago. I even made a FPP post about it (the prediction) with a link to the Southern Poverty Law Center, but it was taken down as a "single link blog op-ed politicalfilter". Of course, now that events have transpired as predicted by the SPLC, these types of posts are now allowed, unsurprisingly.

These wackos were around before Obama, they just still held out hope with Bush - now with a black Democrat in office, they have lost hope and moved to more militant answers. The real fear is of the "Lone Wolf", independent actors on the fringe who come out of nowhere. Holocaust Memorial shooter for example or the OK bombing.
posted by stbalbach at 10:01 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


You know everyone talks about the "wisdom of the founding fathers", but they sure as hell left enough uncertainty to cause no end of grief.

I'm not so sure they left that much uncertainty. It seems pretty clear that most of the time people who speak of the wisdom of the founding fathers haven't actually read much of what they really wrote and are basing their ideas on some fairy-tale in their head. Perhaps the founding fathers' biggest mistake was expecting some level of reading comprehension from the country's future population.
posted by wabbittwax at 10:02 AM on April 8, 2010 [8 favorites]


There are two questions I would like to ask in response to this article:

1) What is the breakdown of threats and violence? Tallying them together to get 200% could conceivably be a convenient, lazy way to inflate an increase.

2) When was the last time we saw a rise in right-wing extremism?

This one we can answer, but it only gives rise to further questions.

The rise in extremist violence has a historical precedent: militia groups flowered in the early 1990s, only to wither after the Oklahoma City bombing.
So, right after the last Democratic president was elected, then? Also during a recession? Why does the article in the FPP not mention these details? I would think they're rather important.

More to the point, what is the primary difference between the surge in militias in the 1990's and the present surge in right wing extremism? Is the surge larger now than it was in the '90's?
Unlike the 1990s, the Patriot movement's central ideas are being promoted by people with large audiences, such as FOX News' Glenn Beck and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. Beck, for instance, reinvigorated a key Patriot conspiracy theory - the charge that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is secretly running concentration camps - before finally "debunking" it.

The growth of Patriot groups comes at a time when the number of racist hate groups stayed at record levels - rising from 926 in 2008 to 932 in 2009, according to the report. The increase caps a decade in which the number of hate groups surged by 55 percent. The expansion would have been much greater in 2009 if not for the demise of the American National Socialist Workers Party, a key neo-Nazi network whose founder was arrested in October 2008.
Racism and religion seem to only be part of the story.
posted by zarq at 10:03 AM on April 8, 2010 [7 favorites]


The Next American Civil War: The Populist Revolt against the Liberal Elite
posted by stbalbach at 10:05 AM on April 8, 2010


What is behind the latest upsurge in the movement to create a Christian theocratic state?

Radio talkshow hosts.
posted by fire&wings at 10:06 AM on April 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


"Jesus at War" kind of looks like he's got a pair of massive, extraordinarily low-hanging breasts peeking out of a boustiere. I wonder if that's what the artist was going for.
posted by gurple at 10:07 AM on April 8, 2010


What is behind the latest upsurge in the movement to create a Christian theocratic state?

Is it Ghostbusters II?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 10:08 AM on April 8, 2010 [25 favorites]


Religion1 is a great way to manipulate/motivate the right wing, because it is basically designed to control dumb people who love authoritarianism.

Dude, not all of us are Southern Baptist. Nice generalization.
posted by prototype_octavius at 10:09 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Last time around the aura of fear and paranoia brought us the X-Files and made listening to Coast to Coast entertaining. (I remember Pat Buchanan coming on C2C to talk with Art Bell about some North American Union nonsense. A caller asked him about bigfoot. It was awesome.)

It doesn't seem as fun this time.
posted by charred husk at 10:10 AM on April 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


The Next American Civil War: The Populist Revolt against the Liberal Elite

I had to click this to see if it was satire or what. Yes, that's right, the fat cats running things are liberal. When thinking of CEOs, who doesn't naturally also think of civil rights, freedom and public-spirited cooperation?
posted by DU at 10:11 AM on April 8, 2010 [9 favorites]


Dude, not all of us are Southern Baptist. Nice generalization.

This is the most amazing thing I've read all day. I am amazed.
posted by cheap paper at 10:14 AM on April 8, 2010 [16 favorites]


I, too, was not aware that the only religion is Southern Baptists.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 10:19 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Next American Civil War: The Populist Revolt against the Liberal Elite

Ah yes. The reactionary anti-immigration, anti-globalization, pro-isolationist, pro-theocracy, conspiracy-loving "party of the common people" versus the progressive pro-gender equality, pro-gay rights, pro-separation of church and state, pro-healthcare "elitist, hippy limousine liberal" party.

That "Civil War" has been going on for decades. Nice of them to notice.
posted by zarq at 10:20 AM on April 8, 2010


Nor that Southern Baptists are all dumb people with an appeal for authoritarianism.

These crazies came into their own during the Clinton Years, the leftover from the days of the Cold War when the Soviets could come a callin' at any point. (Though, Bush I was the beginning - esp. with his "New World Order" catch phrase). There's just a set group of people who are crazy, and unfortunately, they react even more when they perceive themselves to be more vulnerable (i.e. black democrat in office).
posted by Atreides at 10:25 AM on April 8, 2010


Are Catholics a division of Southern Baptists? Because if so, we should sue them too.
posted by MysteriousMan at 10:27 AM on April 8, 2010


Just wait 'til Barack Hussein drafts up the "take all your guns away" bill. JUST WAIT! Then you'll see why they're so ornery.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 10:28 AM on April 8, 2010


Religion1 Fearmongering is a great way to manipulate/motivate the right wing, because it is basically designed to control dumb people who love authoritarianism.

FTOGFY (Fixed That Over-Generalization For You.)

There are plenty of people who are members of the traditional organized religions who are neither right wingers, nor "dumb."

I saw few invocations of Jesus, fire and brimstone at the 2004 and 2008 Republican Conventions. But I did see a hell of a lot of fearmongering 'Vote For Us Or The Terrorists Win' rhetoric.
posted by zarq at 10:30 AM on April 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


In the months prior to William McKinley assassination in 1901 The New York Journal headed by proto- Murdoch William Randolph Hearst spearheaded calls of violence upon the president in the form of editorials, including this little bit by none other than Ambrose Bierce:
The bullet that pierced Goebel's breast Can not be found in all the West; Good reason, it is speeding here To lay McKinley on his bier.
The final bit, likely written by editor Arthur Brisbane, who also called McKinley "the most hated creature on the American continent." (despite McKinley having just been re-elected president)
"If bad institutions and bad men must be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done."
5 months later McKinley was dead

Now, to be fair, some argue Hearst tried to stem some of the editorializing and the assassin, Leon Czolgosz, credited Emma Goldman more than the New York Journal.

Following the assassination the press by and large suppressed any further incitements to violence against public officials.


There is a part of me that worries that it will take another tragedy, be it an OK city type event, or a successful or near successful assassination before certain news outlets learn this lesson again.

(lord help all of us if the first black president is actually killed in office)
posted by edgeways at 10:30 AM on April 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


What is behind the latest upsurge in the movement to create a Christian theocratic state?

I will refer to our friend, Mr. Kafka, when I say it's a particularly virulent form of jealousy and envy.

Granted, I'm speaking for my personal experience of being a very strict and very devout Catholic until I was 16, and I had some serious concerns regarding the concept behind the Holy Trinity (only to learn it was pretty much a committee arrangment somewhere in 436, I think).

When you are of the "faith", everything you do is judged by you two-fold, first by yourself and secondly by god. You do all you can to please god, you go to church, you avoid sin, and when you sin, you make yourself feel like shit and trick yourself into believing that you got a flat tire because you jerked off to a JC Penny catalogue two days prior. There are very few pleasures you enjoy, you ruminate over the 3 or 4 times a very desirable woman was practically begging you to sin with them at their grandparents camp at the pond when you were supposed to be at soccer practice (ok, it's not entirely hypothetical, just replace woman with whatever you're into and the circumstances with whatever applied), and then "it" happens...

"It" is some transgression you see that you have so much trouble ignoring, let alone forgiving as your religion dictates you should do. You see someone transgress, reap benefit from it, and it angers you to no end.

You're caught in a painful cycle of seeing this transgression for what it is, wanting to honor your faith, yearning for the offending party to be punished, seeing that they most likely won't, hoping for the rapture, taking little solace in the belief there will someday be a final judgment for that person, and so on... back to the beginning.

What you, perhaps intentionally, blind yourself to, is the fact that this transgression is representative of something inside you desperately try to ignore. You subconsciouly envy the person and their ability to act without any fear of consequences, and this makes you mad. Suddenly, you can't wait for the final judgment. You not only want to impose judgment upon them, you also want to unleash your years of internal discord and fear of every moment of your life when you even looked upon a woman and "sinned in your heart", or looked upon someone you hated and desired wrath.

This is where the god complex begins. You no longer are satisfied as a servant of god, you now delude yourself into believing that you are acting upon god's behalf, when in actuality you are making yourself god (the judge and the executioner).

Then the hypocrisy. You want to kill those who murder, you want to rape all of those who make you lust, and you covet what others are stealing.

At this point it is too late.

tl;dr - 'These people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me; in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.'"
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 10:32 AM on April 8, 2010 [63 favorites]


Just wait 'til Barack Hussein drafts up the "take all your guns away" bill.

Well, Confederate History month proves that first they take your negros, then they take your guns...

And without slaves or guns, how can you have freedom?!?
posted by yeloson at 10:32 AM on April 8, 2010


Actually DU, now that I'm re-reading your comment I realize that I misread what you were trying to say. Apologies.

You're right that the right-wing uses the masses' religion to manipulate them. I think we should just keep in mind that they've used fear to great effect as well.
posted by zarq at 10:34 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


What Zarq said up-thread. I don't doubt that something is going on, but it's not possible to tell what on the basis of the evidence (and I use that word very charitably) in this article. "Right-wing violence up 200%." Okay, I believe it, but a bit more information about that stat would be helpful because so much of the thesis of the article ("upsurge in the movement to create a Christian theocratic state") rests on it. Also, the author plays fast and loose with categories: thinking abortion is murder and wanting to create a "Christian theocratic state" hardly seem like the same thing. All in all, author seems to have his heart in the right place (IMHO), but not his head.
posted by MarshallPoe at 10:35 AM on April 8, 2010


Rising 200% is a tripling, not a doubling.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 10:35 AM on April 8, 2010 [6 favorites]


Bring it on. The harder these guys push, the closer they get to that faint little line in the sand... after which this "Christian nation" is going to make it perfectly goddamn clear that no, this is America and we're not buying your fucking theocracy. Now or ever.
posted by vorfeed at 10:39 AM on April 8, 2010 [10 favorites]


Man, if only we could take all the world's extremists and put them in some kind of sandbox where they could only hurt each other. I'm fairly confident that would solve all of humanity's problems.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:41 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I dunno... that's a pretty extreme idea, Afroblanco.
posted by vorfeed at 10:41 AM on April 8, 2010


Man, if only we could take all the world's extremists and put them in some kind of sandbox where they could only hurt each other. I'm fairly confident that would solve all of humanity's problems.
posted by Afroblanco at 1:41 PM on April 8 [+] [!]


I dunno... that's a pretty extreme idea, Afroblanco.
posted by vorfeed at 1:41 PM on April 8 [+] [!]


Even if it's a really nice sandbox? With a swing set? And everybody gets a bucket and a shovel?
posted by wabbittwax at 10:47 AM on April 8, 2010


Ooh! Ooh! Can I be the one who gets to decide who's an extremist? Pretty please?
posted by gurple at 10:52 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm only two or three degrees removed from a number of the authors name-checked in the article, and I think I can give a little insight into some distinctions that are really being missed here. A few years ago, Harpers published an article by author/journalist (and MeFite) Jeff Sharlet on exactly this sort of thing. Though I run the risk of self-promotion here, I made a blog post on the article which resulted in what I consider to be a pretty interesting conversation between myself, some friends, and Sharlet, who dropped in after I tripped his search agents.

I provide both links for a reason. The first is actually a far more in-depth and well-studied article than the one linked in this post. The second basically lays out what I think are the main problems with the article linked here, though the current article is far, far more guilty of this than Sharlet's was.

Specifically, what we've got here is a lumping together of people who aren't simply at opposite ends of the spectrum in a relatively narrow theological tradition, which is what Sharlet did, but the lumping together of people who may not even be aware that the others exist. For starters, this is a completely unfair portrayal of Bonhoffer and Niebuhr, neither of whom would have had anything to do with these wingnuts. Both were actually fairly pronounced liberals. Though Bonhoffer has attained a sort of hero status due to his execution, careful students of his theology will note this coming through. Niebuhr was a socialist for crying out loud. This is a sort of reverse-Godwin move, implying that Bonhoffer and Niebuhr, both important twentieth-century theologians, support this sort of right-wing extremism because right-wing extremists quote them. It's just not true.

Second, though it's true that the Reconstructionists figured highly in the early days of the Constitution party, most of the right-wing these days isn't postmillennialist at all, but Dispensational premillennialist. This may seem like a trivial distinction, but socially speaking it really isn't. Most postmillennial types can be found in confessional churches, i.e. Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists.* But the vast majority of Dispensational premillenialists are Baptists or non-denominational types. Speaking as one who has moved across a number of widely disparate Christian traditions over the course of my life, indeed, as one who has had tangential contact with a number of people given to this sort of nuttiness, I can tell you that there is almost no cross-pollination between these groups in any major way. Yes, there are some common origins, but they don't talk to each other at all. Most postmillennialists are at least vaguely aware that there are other ways of thinking about things, but most Dispensationalists aren't even aware that that's what they believe or that there are other options. They attend different churches, operate different schools, read different books, and essentially have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. Even where there are points of apparent intellectual overlap, it's the sort of connection that one might describe between French and Italian: yep, they both basically come from the same place, but their development has been entirely independent for a long time, even if there are still some basic similarities between them.

I've watched the Religion Dispatches page for a while now, and I'm consistently dismayed at the extent to which the site's authors tend to throw these widely-disparate and indeed sometimes entirely unrelated groups together as if they represented some growing, monolithic right-wing terror engine. We're talking about completely independent, marginally organized (at best) groups who have almost no communication with each other. Many tend to think that they're unique; one certainly gets that impression about the Hutaree wackos. They pay some lip-service to this, using a metaphor of five interlocking rings, but that isn't how I would describe it. It's as if you drew five rings on five different sheets of tracing paper and then stacked them together to give the appearance of being interlocking.

Look, American Christianity is my background, and I've had fairly intimate contact with two major traditions and more-than-passing contact with four more,** and it's surprising to me the extent to which even major traditions simply don't talk to each other. Catholicism is probably the most broad-spectrum in its perspective, but even serious Catholic intellectuals frequently have no idea about the state of the conversation in major Protestant traditions. Many Protestants don't even have any real knowledge about other traditions other than that they exist, and sometimes even that's pushing things. But when you get down to groups like this, you're usually talking about completely independent churches that have no formal and few informal connections to any other groups. In its most extreme forms we're literally talking about people who pick up the Bible, read it themselves, call themselves preachers, and go on to found churches.

The Tea Party may be changing this somewhat, as it represents the first time that many of these groups will have even made contact with like minded people that aren't part of their particular group. I'm fascinated to see how that works out. But lumping these all together into a coherent group simply doesn't do justice to social realities.

*For a variety of reasons, Catholics have never been as interested in the details of eschatology to nearly the extent that Protestants are. Theirs appears to be a pretty cut-and-dried "Yep, world's gonna end one of these days" approach as far as I can tell, and that's about as far as they take it.

**Close contact: Mainstream evangelicalism, conservative Presbyterianism. More-than-casual contact: fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, Lutheranism, Catholicism.
posted by valkyryn at 10:59 AM on April 8, 2010 [45 favorites]


stbalbach : The real fear is of the "Lone Wolf", independent actors on the fringe who come out of nowhere.

The problem here, as I see it, is that the lone wolves who feel disenfranchised and alienated enough to commit violence are really just big versions of the emo/goth/punk set who buy their independent, anti establishment t-shirts from Hot Topic.

They feel like everyone is against them, they act like there is no one who hears their voice, while not realizing that there is an entire industry feeding them.

Except, in the case of the outsider kids, we get some black eyeliner and silly music. The right wing extremests poised to stage the next lone wolf event, are being fed by Fox and the like, who, when all is said and done, can walk away unscathed and keep encouraging the fringe.

I don't think previous iterations of this Christian militant phenomena ever had such a friendly mouthpiece speaking to them as they do now.
posted by quin at 11:00 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Afroblanco went to the sandbox along with the extremists for our sins!
posted by mccarty.tim at 11:02 AM on April 8, 2010


lord help all of us if the first black president is actually killed in office

Ah, he'll be fine. He wasn't elected in a year ending in zero, and anyway The Curse of Tecumseh is over as Bush Jr. (elected in 2000) survived, or the astrological cycles ended with Reagan (or Bush Jr).
posted by filthy light thief at 11:03 AM on April 8, 2010


It's easy to dismiss this article by getting pedantic about exact numbers and methodology. Fortunately, it is also easy to track down those numbers and where they came from. There's a lot of information there, plus links to further information. But the 200% thing probably came from this:
Now, the latest SPLC count finds that an astonishing 363 new Patriot groups appeared in 2009, with the totals going from 149 groups (including 42 militias) to 512 (127 of them militias) — a 244% jump.
posted by DU at 11:05 AM on April 8, 2010


They're acting nuts because they see the writing on the wall. They know they're losing. Our generation doesn't get disgusted by gays getting married. We feel that morality is a personal thing, and that religion is a live and let live thing. Hence, the grey areas should be left up to individuals. Social conservatism is going to kill conservative America, as they can't drop it (and lose their base) and they can't keep it (and lose young voters).

They know they can't keep winning through democracy, so they're banging on the walls, screaming, occasionally making threats, and hoping it will somehow work.
posted by mccarty.tim at 11:10 AM on April 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


FTOGFY

This makes me visualize a web 2 photography site featuring really mysterious flash navigation that breaks if you change screen resolution or font size.
posted by Babblesort at 11:19 AM on April 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


For starters, this is a completely unfair portrayal of Bonhoffer and Niebuhr, neither of whom would have had anything to do with these wingnuts. Both were actually fairly pronounced liberals. Though Bonhoffer has attained a sort of hero status due to his execution, careful students of his theology will note this coming through. Niebuhr was a socialist for crying out loud. This is a sort of reverse-Godwin move, implying that Bonhoffer and Niebuhr, both important twentieth-century theologians, support this sort of right-wing extremism because right-wing extremists quote them. It's just not true.

The linked article itself seems to be taking the same position, though. I don't see anything that implies that Bonhoffer and Niebuhr would condone these extremists' actions, and in fact it explicitly concludes the opposite is much more likely:

The more traditional Christian justification that Bray used for his violence was just war theory. He was fond of quoting two of my own heroes—Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Reinhold Niebuhr—in what I regard as perverse ways. Bray thought that their justification of military action against the Nazis (and an attempted assassination plot on Hitler's life in which Bonhoeffer was involved) was an appropriate parallel to his terrorism against the US government sanctioning of legal abortions. It seemed highly unlikely to me that Bray’s positions would have been accepted by these or any other theologian within mainstream Protestant thought.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:19 AM on April 8, 2010


valkyryn, flagged as fantastic. Thank you for explaining!
posted by zarq at 11:22 AM on April 8, 2010


Man, if only we could take all the world's extremists and put them in some kind of sandbox where they could only hurt each other.

The Fletcher Memorial Home for Incurable Tyrants and Kings
posted by rusty at 11:25 AM on April 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


Umm, sorry guys: This ain't no coincidence. We're seeing this surge in right-wing violence exactly because we've got a black president in office.

I think the truth is more subtle than that. stammer's analysis in the "Bitter Tea" thread rang truer to me. I'm sure Obama does turn some genuine racists out into the movement, and I'm sure even where overt racism isn't a factor, his race works on more subtle level as a signal of departure those whose vision of the nation is the one the composition and order they imagine from the turn of the 19th century. So I imagine it's an aggravating factor, but not the center of matter, which is a kind of tribalism orbiting either the vision stammer described or the vision of a theocratic order or both.

And the problem with calling it flat-out racism is that it gives grist to people who don't apprehend systemic or subtle racism. "You're saying I lynch black people and call them bad names and would never hire one.... that's not me, some of my friends are black. I'm being called a racist just because I disagree with your politics!" I think it's better to focus on the specific problems with the crazy going around, engage people on principle and policies when you can, and to call it partisan tribalism rather than racism when you discover people aren't arguing in good faith.

Which, incidentally, not everybody is. I have acquaintances who are unfortunately Tea Party and Glen Beck fans, but it turns out some of them are willing to discuss principles, and if you can make a good argument, you can get grudging respect if not a changed mind from some of 'em.
posted by weston at 11:26 AM on April 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


The Tea Party may be changing this somewhat, as it represents the first time that many of these groups will have even made contact with like minded people that aren't part of their particular group. I'm fascinated to see how that works out. But lumping these all together into a coherent group simply doesn't do justice to social realities.

Another clue to the fact that rightwing violence coming through religious channels is actually being manipulated by an external factor. I mean, Fox News isn't theologically connected to any of these churches either, but that doesn't mean they can't work for the same noise machine.
posted by DU at 11:29 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


DU: It's easy to dismiss this article by getting pedantic about exact numbers and methodology. Fortunately, it is also easy to track down those numbers and where they came from. There's a lot of information there, plus links to further information. But the 200% thing probably came from this:
Now, the latest SPLC count finds that an astonishing 363 new Patriot groups appeared in 2009, with the totals going from 149 groups (including 42 militias) to 512 (127 of them militias) — a 244% jump.
The source of statistic quoted in the original article is still unclear: (emphasis mine):
The Southern Poverty Law Center, founded by Morris Dees, which has closely watched the rise of right-wing extremism in this country for many decades, declares that threats and incidents of right-wing violence have risen 200% in this last year — unfortunately coinciding with the tenure of the first African American President in US history.
The presence of a new militia group should not constitute a threat. But even if it does, (to repeat myself,) "threats" and "violence" need to be divided into two separate categories, not lumped together. The difference divides the disgruntled and vocal from the terrorists.
posted by zarq at 11:30 AM on April 8, 2010


Look, American Christianity is my background, and I've had fairly intimate contact with two major traditions and more-than-passing contact with four more,** and it's surprising to me the extent to which even major traditions simply don't talk to each other. Catholicism is probably the most broad-spectrum in its perspective, but even serious Catholic intellectuals frequently have no idea about the state of the conversation in major Protestant traditions. Many Protestants don't even have any real knowledge about other traditions other than that they exist, and sometimes even that's pushing things. But when you get down to groups like this, you're usually talking about completely independent churches that have no formal and few informal connections to any other groups. In its most extreme forms we're literally talking about people who pick up the Bible, read it themselves, call themselves preachers, and go on to found churches.

I went to high school with a group of kids who generally referred to themselves as Christians. Eventually, it turned out that they went to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So, you know, Mormons. But as far as they were concerned, they were Christians. Same was true of the Lutherans and the Presbyterians or the Methodists. And if you suggested to any of these people that Catholics or Baptists or Jehovah's Witnesses were Christians, they looked at you as if you were completely off your rocker. None of those people are Christians, look at their names! I never really got into these discussions when more than one bunch of them were around, so I don't know how they viewed each other; I suspect they didn't really put much thought into it.

I'm not sure what my point is, just that the paragraph I quoted made me think of that.
posted by Caduceus at 11:33 AM on April 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Caduceus, that's awesome. I totally didn't even think about Mormons, but if anything, that just demonstrates what I'm talking about. The LDS and their various splinter groups represent a major religious tradition in the US which 1) despite a life-long association with the American church in a variety of forms I know almost nothing about, and 2) has almost zero connection to any other major--or minor--religious tradition.
posted by valkyryn at 11:36 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


It’s short sighted to say this is only about Obama and race. He’s the target for the mouthbreathers, sure. But a lot of the same tropes that were trotted out under Clinton (the FEMA camps, etc) are making their way back. Those too are just part of the story.


Religion in (as discussed in this case) isn’t about control, but about mobilization. And Juergensmeyer alludes to that when he says: “Bray saw the legitimacy of using violence not only to resist what he regarded as murder—abortion—but also to help bring about the Christian political order envisioned by the radical dominion theology thinkers. In Bray’s mind, a little violence was a small price to pay for the possibility of fulfilling God’s law and establishing His kingdom on earth.”
You have to have an enemy, even if it's a fabrication.

“Why does the article in the FPP not mention these details? I would think they're rather important.”
Juergensmeyer’s a sociologist and his focus has always been more on religion.
I think he puts it together pretty well. Doesn’t look like his objective was a comprehensive history, but the role of religion (in this case within the U.S.) in enabling violence by proxy.
He's written about Islamic terrorists (specifically the 1993 WTC bombing) from a similar perspective.
Essentially - that the folks who execute the actual violence feel frustrated and powerless and doing the violence gives them a purpose and a sense of involvement (a lot of folks who participate in spectacular violent activity say the same - Lee Harvey Oswald, whatever one believes, had similar desires for grandeur, out here the Brown's Chicken killers wanted to "do something big" - etc.)
Abouhalima said as much himself, that there was this divine struggle going on and the souls in the U.S. had no idea so he had to blow something up and kill thousands of people to save them.
(Hey, you'd make that conclusion walking down the street or going to the store. Humankind is simply materialized color operating on the 49th vibration.)

So the violence is a way to - if I'm representing Juergensmeyer's thinking accurately - pull people into their world view.
As it is, their world view is this cosmic struggle with the antichrist. (who, apparently can mentally dominate the Earth but is vulnerable to random bombing? Not saying it makes sense here. See above re: inventing an enemy)

Anyway, not that those aren’t valid questions in the larger context. Wish I had more time.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:39 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


The source of statistic quoted in the original article is still unclear: (emphasis mine):

It will become more clear if you follow some links.
posted by DU at 11:39 AM on April 8, 2010


It will become more clear if you follow some links.

I read them. I'm still looking for a breakdown of violence separate from threats, and haven't found one.
posted by zarq at 11:41 AM on April 8, 2010


Seems like a good place for this link; an in insider's-eye view of a Christian who moved from happy-Jesus-freak-dom to angry conservative, and then back.

Slightly off-topib, but my favorite bit: Ted Haggard's church suddenly realizes some of their "masculine" angels and images were a bit...um...iffy, after he was outed.

Ted Haggard’s famous New Life Church was a few miles up the freeway from my office; we’d visited on several occasions over the years. On November 3, 2006, seized with morbid curiosity, I drove to New Life the day after Haggard had been exposed for his affair with male prostitute & bodybuilder Mike Jones, and for using Meth. The parking lot was jammed with major media vans broadcasting their stories and interviews. Entering New Life Church’s “World Prayer Center” on the campus’s east side, I noticed that the homoerotic paintings (macho, muscular, semi-clad men; one a blacksmith, another in chains, and an African-American angel), which I’d seen just a few months prior, were gone. It looked like a hasty job. No new paintings were in their places yet, and the picture hangers were still lodged in the now-bare walls, which had scratch marks from the rubbing of the frames over the years.

But it was impossible to remove the heavy sculptures with the same haste. As I went from the World Prayer Center over to the vast foyer of the church, the huge sculpture of an angel named “Exalter” was still prominently on display. It had the appearance of a steroid-sodden bodybuilder. Its massive arms were raised in adoration of the universe’s ultimate Alpha Male: the super-macho Christ of the Religious Right. Haggard’s consort, Mike Jones, had a physique quite similar to this sculpted angel...

posted by emjaybee at 11:58 AM on April 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Insider's. Off-topic.

Sigh.
posted by emjaybee at 11:58 AM on April 8, 2010


What is behind the latest upsurge in the movement to create a Christian theocratic state?

The exact same thing behind the desire for fundamentalist extremist Muslims to create an Islamis theocratic state.
posted by mikelieman at 12:04 PM on April 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Whenever there is a shake-up in the order of things... a black president, a female Speaker of the House... anything threatening the white fundamentalist status quo... there is bound to be backlash. It's happened before, but with the connectivity of the Internet facilitating the likeminded, and the inflammatory rhetoric being thrown on the fire by teabaggers, Ms. Palin et. al., it's bound to be faster, bigger and more scary than Father Coughlin or his ideological kin.

Will it take another Murrah building incident to instill a sense of reality? And will the media recognize this stuff as "terrorism," which much of it clearly is? We'll see.
posted by kinnakeet at 12:06 PM on April 8, 2010


I've always been amazed and saddened by all the "Christians" who seem to only have read the Old Testament and Revelations. But perhaps I shouldn't be, after all, Jesus never actually killed anyone and even told one of his disciples to put away his sword in the garden of Gethsemane. That kind of crazy hippy pacificism just doesn't get the blood boiling the way smiting and crushing your enemies does.
posted by tommasz at 12:19 PM on April 8, 2010


What is behind the latest upsurge in the movement to create a Christian theocratic state?

The exact same thing behind the desire for fundamentalist extremist Muslims to create an Islamis theocratic state.


This reminds me of the great West Wing episode when Josh explains to visiting school kids that Islamic terrorists are most akin to our KKK -- i.e. that being religious, or even wanting a theocracy, isn't the problem. It is the willingness to use violence for those ends that creates the threat to the rest of us.

As the article says,

Bray saw the legitimacy of using violence not only to resist what he regarded as murder—abortion—but also to help bring about the Christian political order envisioned by the radical dominion theology thinkers. In Bray’s mind, a little violence was a small price to pay for the possibility of fulfilling God’s law and establishing His kingdom on earth.

That's the kind of belief structure that makes me think that if we are worried about religious terrorists, we should be just as concerned about these folks as the radical Islamic variety.
posted by bearwife at 12:28 PM on April 8, 2010


One source of confusion is the use of the "Christian" label to intentionally confuse things. The "Christian Patriots" are neither Christian nor patriotic. "Christian Identity" is another intentional misnomer (you probably know it better as Aryan Nations.)

So the more violent margins of the right wing have a lot of people who've discovered they can get a pass by calling themselves Christians when they are actually Ariosophists or neo-nazis or white raging assholes.

I spent a lot of time fifteen years ago attending militia meetings (as a reporter) and "Christian" was just another way of saying white. In fighting the militias back then, it was embarrassing how often conservative ministers would come to the defense of these camouflaged neo-nazis and accuse human rights workers (many of whom were working through mainline churches) of being "anti-Christian."

Secondly, there is a huge difference between a Bible-based religion and Christianity. Mormons being just one example. Branch Davidians another. Christian Identity. Oh, and the Hutaree.

Finally, it's worth pointing out (for the umpteenth time) that Timothy McVeigh and Robert Mathews were followers of William Pierce (National Alliance.) And neither was a Christian in any sense. They were both neo-nazis. So neither of them had the least interest in a Christian theocracy of any stripe.

So the whole topic of right-wing domestic terrorism is sort of muddled by these sloppy distinctions. What is true is the "anti-government" -- or more accurately apocalyptically nihilist -- leanings of many of the violent actors have allowed them to form alliances of convenience between very different ideologies (religious or otherwise.) This convergence of actors and violent tactics began in the early 1990s and produced the merger of white supremacists, neo-nazis, homophobes and anti-abortion zealots that form the core of right-wing domestic terrorism.

It's a thick, chunky stew.
posted by warbaby at 12:47 PM on April 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


*For a variety of reasons, Catholics have never been as interested in the details of eschatology to nearly the extent that Protestants are. Theirs appears to be a pretty cut-and-dried "Yep, world's gonna end one of these days" approach as far as I can tell, and that's about as far as they take it.


This stems more from the regional origins of Catholicism, IMO. As you pointed out, there is quite a divide in the respective Protestant faiths, but I'm not sure if you were aware (or if you just avoided the issue altogether) that there is a bit of a split in Catholocism, as well.

There's Roman Catholicism and this is considered the umbrella, and most Catholics wouldn't even blink if you referred to them as such. But within the Catholic community, there is a recognition of whether your faith descends from the Irish, Spanish, or Italian community. Granted, all three defer to the Vatican, but there is a cultural influence in each of these groups.

The Irish Catholics tend to combine their faith with the Celtic tradition. In fact, you will hear many use the "I must reserve your right to fail" as if it were scripture, and some may even be mistaken into believing this is something Jesus said. With this, the Irish not only are "ah well, the world is going to end someday" but they welcome it because in the Celtic tradition, after the apocalypse ALL are given the opportunity for paradise as long as they spend a certain portion of their eternity in some sort of purgatory for their sins. Again, some even believe this to be in Revelations, though it is most definitely not. By nature, Irish Catholics are of the "Whatever, I'm a sinner, you're a sinner, the world is going to end, so I'm going to spend my days in love with my sardonic view of the world, and those who transgress against me are going to get it from somebody or the good lord himself, someday," disposition.

The Spanish Catholics are similar, but they almost invoke a mystical tradition into their faith. If they have a candle, a dead relative's photo, and an altar, they believe anything they pray over will be answered somehow. Again, no worries there. They'll see their deceased extended family when the end of the world comes, and this is just fine with them.

The Italians are a bit different. They too will be a bit more forgiving, but they almost welcome the apocalypse, and they are more than happy to remind those who transgress against them that they will burn in hell for whatever they did when it does. There's forgiveness, but they and god sure as hell won't forget it. This is where they get their solace. But, at the same time, they are very much into the confession-without-true-pennance deal. They will punch someone in the face or cheat on their wife, then go to confession, say the rosary a few times, and assume all is forgiven. They will certainly make an effort, in my experience, they are the ones who always remember the days of obligation... but they also tend to take everything as a binding condition. They welcome the apocalypse, but they also have their priest on speed-dial (on any one of their 6 cellular phones) for the first sight of a blood-red moon, or what have you.

Granted, I went to a church that was picking up the attendees from two other churches that had closed in the late 80's, where the once well categorized population suddenly had to interact, so gross-generalizations have been made, but I just thought I'd share.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 12:51 PM on April 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm no longer a Christian. But I still recognize Jesus as someone who ultimately sought peace in the turmoil of the human and political relations of his time, much like Gandhi and the Dalai Lama of more recent date. It doesn't make sense to me that a so-claimed Christian in the USA has turned Jesus into a terrorist, but then I'm not, thankfully, an American.
posted by drogien at 1:00 PM on April 8, 2010


I think it's better to focus on the specific problems with the crazy going around, engage people on principle and policies when you can, and to call it partisan tribalism rather than racism when you discover people aren't arguing in good faith.

Which, incidentally, not everybody is. I have acquaintances who are unfortunately Tea Party and Glen Beck fans, but it turns out some of them are willing to discuss principles, and if you can make a good argument, you can get grudging respect if not a changed mind from some of 'em.


A very close friend of mine is a right wing nut. Not teabagger - more Bushite aggressive war type (and lieutenant colonel in the marines). I've known him now close to 20 years. Since I'm about the polar opposite politically, you can imagine the screaming matches. However, for the past few years, our arguments last only about 2-3 minutes, before we understand that this is never ever going to go anywhere, and we have a beer instead. The guy is college educated, from a solidly middle-class family (not military family), from Chicago. He may as well be from another planet - the reason we never can get anywhere in arguments, is because we cannot agree on even the most basic of facts. That's it, really. I mean, it's bad - not quite "the earth is flat! no, it's round!", but not far from that. He refers to some historical precedent - I'm getting ready to explain to him how he must see the broader context, only first he actually got the historical facts wrong... so what to do - easy these days, right? Just go online - but hey, he won't take my sources at face value (liberal propaganda! you dispute stuff I show you from Fox News or Hannity, why should your sources be "better" blah, blah). So what am I supposed to do? Explain to him how to read historical documents? How evidence works? Friends, in order to reach any kind of common ground, won't take hours, or days - it would take years, and years of education. You cannot do that when you meet casually for a BBQ to celebrate 4th of July. IT IS HOPELESS.

So you say: argue in good faith. But that assumes we can have reasonable dialogue based on a common set of assumptions about reality, like two people playing a game of chess. But what happens when you present the chess board, and he takes the board and skates on it? He doesn't get very far, and you are on your knees looking to see where all the pieces scattered.

And that's even before you get into having different values - because you never get that far.

Beyond a certain point, it's hopeless, no matter how good faith your effort is - or that of your opponent. This is why they have things like "Christian University" Bob Jones and the like - after a lifetime of this, by design, they have no common ground with you... and then they revise textbooks for the nation. Scary times ahead - and I'm as willing to be openminded and argue in good faith and so forth as anybody.
posted by VikingSword at 1:02 PM on April 8, 2010 [8 favorites]


It's a thick, chunky stew.

Uh...that's not stew.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:03 PM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


rusty wrote: "The Fletcher Memorial Home for Incurable Tyrants and Kings"

Quoted for truth. May I please favorite this comment several hundred times?
posted by wierdo at 1:07 PM on April 8, 2010


Bathtub Bobsled, I'm generally aware that that sort of diversity existed within Catholicism, but it's not my tradition, so I'm pretty fuzzy on the details.

But from the perspective of the sorts of eschatological discussions which happen in most Protestant circles, the distinctions you point out between various Catholic regions' attitudes towards eschatology are essentially indistinguishable. Most eschatological discussions in Protestant circles are about what's going to happen when and to who. This is a classic example of the sort of charts Dispensationals come up with, trying to plot out the whole thing like a timeline or a chart. Think the godawful Left Behind novels. The very distinction between postmillennial and premillennial has to do with what you believe about the "thousand years" in Rev. 20, though the postmillennialists tend not to be given to the same sort of... literalist excesses that Dispensational premillennialists are.

Catholic eschatology by contrast is focused--properly I would argue--on the hope in the life of the world to come, and the details of how that come about are just not important. Distinctions in Catholic eschatology by region seem more focused on how they relate to that hope than on the details of how it's going to happen. They're mostly amillennial when it comes down to it, but generally aren't involved enough in the conversation to bother to call themselves that and are largely unaware of the massively heated discussions which surround these issues in many Protestant communities. I personally know someone who lost his job and was kicked out of his church because he wanted to make a relatively minor tweak to the eschatological "chart".
posted by valkyryn at 1:09 PM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


SMU Law Grad sues Supreme Court for $999 trillion, then tries to get restraining order against local police so he can use "deadly force" against a local women's health clinic that provides abortions. Is thankfully arrested by FBI.

Probably worthwhile to mention here that "acts of terrorism" against women's health clinics-sometimes even those that don't provide abortions--haven't ever gone away.
posted by emjaybee at 1:16 PM on April 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


“So the whole topic of right-wing domestic terrorism is sort of muddled by these sloppy distinctions”
People seem to lose their ability to make distinctions in these kinds of things.
Ahh, don’t get me started.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:24 PM on April 8, 2010


Distinctions in Catholic eschatology by region seem more focused on how they relate to that hope than on the details of how it's going to happen. They're mostly amillennial when it comes down to it, but generally aren't involved enough in the conversation to bother to call themselves that and are largely unaware of the massively heated discussions which surround these issues in many Protestant communities.

The bold part is about 50-50. A good chunk aren't aware, but those that are aware of the discussions kind of have their hands in the air about it. Through various community organizations, they've found themselves amidst these discussions and, not to say they don't understand the discussion, they are more than perplexed by the personal investment in these discussions.

Their question is (and this brings it back to our original question) why is this even a discussion, seeing as if the end of days were to happen in our life time, we'll get our answer, and if it doesn't, then who the fuck cares?

The metaphor my mother uses is when she told her students she would have a surprise for them at the end of the day, and there were nearly fights between several students whether it was going to be ice cream or a movie. With a twinkle in her eye, my mother recalls "Thanks to their arguing, I told them there wasn't going to be a surprise."

If there's a god, I wonder if that's the hold up.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 2:28 PM on April 8, 2010


It doesn't really matter if two people talk to each other; if their general beliefs and aims are the same, I'd call them both part of the same group generally, you know? If there were a lot of leftist violence and threats going on, and some of the perpetrators were Maoists and others were Stalinists and others were anarchists and others were, I dunno, Spartacists (Trots?), I wouldn't type a couple of hundred words explaining that there is no monolithic left-wing terrorism machine. I'd go "Yeah, while not all of the leftist terrorists agree with each other about anything, there is a swell of leftist terrorism and calls for revolution going on."

You can be so sharp you cut yourself.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:36 PM on April 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


Running around in the woods wearing camo and face paint with guns and calling each other by secret made-up names, and the plan goes: Step One: kill a cop and then all the other cops who show for the funeral, Step Two ???, Step Three: replace the toppled evil federal government with our own free state where we don't have to pay any taxes and we don't have to have people we don't like anywhere near us and WE goddamn well say what goes and what doesn't... Well, you can see the appeal there. I think the Christianity part is kind of tacked on as rationalization by angry frustrated would-be masters-of-their-own-domain as an excuse for doing what they want to do.
posted by longsleeves at 3:48 PM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


On a related note, June will see the publication of Glen Beck's first novel, which is titled (with supreme irony if you ask me) 'The Overton Window'.
posted by anigbrowl at 5:13 PM on April 8, 2010


I don't get why it's called the Overton Window. It's a tool the right wing uses effectively, while the left gets dragged all the way to the center.
posted by mccarty.tim at 5:30 PM on April 8, 2010


Tea Party Jesus
posted by homunculus at 5:33 PM on April 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


June will see the publication of Glen Beck's first novel

Glenn Beck's first novel was published in November 2008.
posted by Jahaza at 5:41 PM on April 8, 2010


Pope Guilty, you're missing my point, and the point of the article. The article was trying to show where these groups come from. My point is that it's doing a bad job.

Whether or not there is in fact an upswing in right-wing paranoia isn't something I feel the need to dispute. But the article gives a deceptively shallow analysis of the players, and if you really want to understand where they're coming from--and maybe you don't, I don't know--this article isn't a terribly good way to go about it.

Besides, though monolithic, inter-connected movements set everyone's conspiracy antennae tingling, isn't the fact that these groups might be coming out of the woodwork without any cross-communication or common origin even more disturbing?
posted by valkyryn at 7:26 PM on April 8, 2010


Religion is never about God or the prophets.

Religion is always about the egos of the practitioners.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:26 PM on April 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


What is behind the latest upsurge in the movement to create a Christian theocratic state?

Is it Ghostbusters 2?
posted by flabdablet at 12:57 AM on April 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


Tea Party Jesus

That's me!

posted by EarBucket at 6:03 AM on April 9, 2010


As valkyryn is pointing out, there are major theological differences among conservative Christians, not only between Catholics and Protestants, but also within the sprawling Protestant theological spectrum. And while yes, terrorism is terrorism regardless of the beliefs of the guy (or girl) holding the bomb, if you want to combat the root causes of terrorism, you have to understand the belief structures of fundamentalists.

Conservative evangelicals aren't mindless robots. They are humans. They have specific beliefs about what a just society (in theological terms, the Kingdom of God) should look like.

The roots of American evangelical Christianity in its current incarnation come from the 19th-century turmoil of industrialisation, higher (scholarly, objective) criticism of the Bible and Darwinist humanism. Basically the Protestant churches (the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Baptists, &c) were split over these issues: conservatives generally left their mainline denominations and founded new organisations. Whilst the mainline churches basically mirrored societal liberalisation throughout the 20th century, evangelicals created their own subculture, their own seminaries, denominations and models for the ideal relationship between the church and society.

H. Richard Niebuhr, writing in the early post-war period, categorised a couple ways, tendencies, in which Christian theologians have tried to understand this relationship (over-simplification follows):

--"the Christ of culture" -- basically, the mainline understanding which sees the kingdom of God as the story of human progress and civilisation, more or less similar to the humanist, Enlightenment view; and a view highly compatible with a post-millennial eschatology (end-times belief), wherein human reason works its way to the Kingdom of God guided by a pretty low-key Holy Spirit;

--"Christ against culture", a view taken to its extreme by such sects as the Amish and various hyper-conservative groups which basically saw no good in the wider society and worked to build their own sealed-off, pure societies; which (ugh, to grossly over-simplify, can be associated with pre-milllenialism, the belief that the world will get worse and worse (Tribulation) until Jesus Christ returns and transforms everything into the Kingdom of God. (various flavours of this include a Rapture of the faithful to Heaven before or during the time in which things are Really Really Bad);

--and "Christ transforming culture", a view traditionally espoused by the Reformed (Calvinist/Presbyterian) groups -- well, H. R. Niebuhr sort of stacked the deck toward this position which is a middle ground, acknowledging both the good and bad in secular society and working to transform it into the Kingdom of God while recognising that Big Human Projects are fallible and prone to failure, in need of the grace of God to perfect them. This view's more or less agnostic on the eschatology question, affirming the Second Coming but not too interested in exactly how it will come about.

Now, beginning in the 1970s, the very conservative Christians who had tended to be isolationist "Christ against culture" began to react to the secularisation of American society in that period (especially the issue of abortion) by migrating over to the "Christ transforming culture" position which had up to that point been pretty much the domain of theologically moderate, politically moderate-to-liberal Christians (see Martin Luther King, Jr., ++Oscar Romero). That's where you get the Religious Right, Moral Majority, et al. And they were reasonably successful in moving the Overton window, delivering up a solid conservative base to the Republican Party and ensuring that even under Democratic rule in the 1990s, policy wouldn't shift too far to the left (secularisation, apostasy).

And now 2006, 2008, and that holy mission to transform American society into the Kingdom of God is failing. There are three options left to conservative Protestants: 1) Give up. Possibly doom yourself to judgement for not fulfilling your calling to participate in the redemption of society. 2) Escalate violently. American society is running off a cliff and it must be saved from itself by any means necessary. 3) Come to a new understanding of the relationship between the church and society, one which sees stuff like gay rights, environmentalism, government anti-poverty programmes and religious tolerance as at least compatible with the Kingdom of God.

But to get to that Option 3), conservative Protestants have to do the theological work of reinterpreting Scripture (since conservative Protestantism is above all a Bible-based, not magisterium- or institution-based belief system) in ways that are compatible with secular understandings of these issues. It's not an impossible task. Protestantism has shown itself to be a remarkably flexible tradition, and at its core it possesses deeply progressive values and stories: the story of Martin Luther standing up for an individual's right to speak to God and hear God's voice even when the rest of the Church is against them; the story of William Penn creating a space for all people to worship God according to their own understanding, free from civil government's interfering; the gospel stories of Jesus Christ associating with the whores and infidels of his day.

I went to a conservative Reformed (Calvinist) university. The class that flipped my switch from moderateish conservative to flaming progressive was 'Justice and Reconciliation in South Africa', taught by an elderly Afrikaner, a woman whose father had been a cop in the Calvinist-fascist apartheid regime of Suid-Afrika, a fascism constructed on and intellectually defended by my own Dutch Calvinist tradition, justified by references to the very same theologians and philosophers that I was studying.

But, guess what? This same religious tradition also produced a powerful critique of apartheid. The black Reformed churches, along with the Anglican Church, turned the Christian tradition against the theologians of oppression. They pointed to the intrinsic relationship between gospel and liberation. And as apartheid fell, the Christian tradition also pointed the way to reconciliation, spoke the words of tolerance, understanding and justice in language that even strongly indoctrinated Boers could understand and accept. Not that South Africa's a perfect place now. But it wasn't wracked by civil war. There were no mass partitions, no genocides. It didn't draw the whole region into a potentially nuclear conflict. And in fact, South Africa's a progressive leader on the African continent--it even legalised gay marriage. There's a functioning, if not yet quite multi-party, democracy.

If South Africa can change from an explicitly Christian police state to a secular, free and tolerant society, there's hope for the conservative Christianities of the United States as well.
posted by tivalasvegas at 10:25 AM on April 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


and oh man, i accidentally wrote a thousand-word essay. oops.
posted by tivalasvegas at 2:20 PM on April 9, 2010


Man Attempts to Assasinate Obama, 'But Not Because He's Black or Anything'
posted by heathkit at 11:50 PM on April 9, 2010


Man Attempts to Assasinate Obama, 'But Not Because He's Black or Anything'

oops, sorry
posted by heathkit at 11:50 PM on April 9, 2010


tivalasvegas adds some really useful information, but I'd add another layer to it. This is tl;dr territory, and rather late, but I think it's important for the completeness of the thread.

The Christ-transforming-culture paradigm is actually a pretty sophisticated stance which requires an integrated reading of all of Scripture. Like most of the more delicately balanced Christian doctrines, it isn't something you can stumble upon accidentally. There are, as I understand it, two key insights of the Christ-transforming-culture model. First, it's Christ transforming culture, not us, and the emphasis is on his preferences, not ours. Second, this works through the action of the Holy Spirit changing lives and communities, not through the political process. Given these two things, the tradition does not naturally lend itself to large-scale political activism, and the neo-Calvinists' only major experiment there--Abraham Kuyper's rather disastrous term as Prime Minister of the Netherlands--hasn't been repeated by any theologically conservative heir of the tradition.

In part, this tension is why the Reformed intellectual tradition has been one of the most productive in Western history--the entire Scottish Enlightenment can be viewed as a response to Calvinism. But it also means that a viable understanding of what's really going on requires a fair degree of intellectual work, just like understanding Locke, Confucius, or any other major intellectual tradition does.

Unfortunately, the sort of Protestants who make up the Moral Majority, Religious Right, etc. are actually infamous for their lack of intellectual rigor. Where I did my undergraduate degree the "intro-to-college" class that everyone has to take, rather than being a "this is how you schedule classes and use a day planner" was "this is the current state of the academic conversation the faculty are having." We read some Dooyeweerd, some Wolterstorff, and some Marsden, all major neo-Calvinist thinkers of the sort of "Christ transforming culture" bent identified by Niebuhr.

Then we read Chuck Colson's How Now Shall We Live?, the title of which is a blatant ripoff of Francis Schaeffer's How Shall We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture, which was actually really important in the politicization of American Protestants in the mid-to-late twentieth century. And yes, we read the same Chuck Colson that went to jail for his involvement in the Watergate scandal. He's a huge player in conservative evangelicalism, and his book was obviously a journalistic take on this whole Christ-transforming-culture bit. But it was also an obvious hack job that laid none of the intellectual or theological groundwork for making the Christ-transforming-culture paradigm actually work. Colson, who had been doing conservative political activism for decades at this point, stumbled upon this whole Christ-transforming-culture thing, thought it was cool, and commissioned a ghost-writer to help him write a book about it, because that's the sort of thing that people in Colson's position do. But there's no real suggestion that any of Colson's thought or action has ever been influenced in any serious way by the Christ-transforming-culture paradigm.

Which is what's going on in American Protestantism all over the place. When the wide swath of American Protestantism, which really is interested in political power as such, has an inexcusably unsophisticated theology and no real intellectual life, and conflates the Christian and American identities to a massive degree, gets ahold of the Christ-transforming-culture model, what you get is Christ-of-culture, pure and simple. But instead of liberal mainline denominations, who took their cue from secular, liberal progressivism, the result is people who like FoxNews (which is designed, rather, cynically I would argue to cater to exactly this sort of thinking), who take their cure from secular, reactionary conservatism, to which they were predisposed anyways. From the Christ-transforming-culture perspective, these are just two sides of the same coin.

So here's a place where I'd differ from tivalasvegas. I would characterize both what the Dutch Calvinists and the Religious Right are doing as his "Option 3", just with different results. The left-wing of the Reformed tradition is reinterpreting Scripture so that they can be politically palatable to the Progressive culture they admire so much. The Religious Right doesn't have a rigorous enough interpretation of Scripture to resist the siren call of right-wing radicalism. In effect, "Option 3" is Niebuhr's Christ-of-culture category. Both progressives and conservatives tend to permit their theology to be driven by their politics, not the other way around. The liberals compromise away their stance on moral issues, particularly sexual morality, to fit in with secular liberals who appear to be doing good work on issues of social equality. But the conservatives roundly ignore their theology's implications for what a just and compassionate society requires to fit in with the nativist and nationalist voices on the right.

I think the whole sum of the problem can be seen in John 6. First, he feeds hungry people. Then, he refuses to permit the people to make him king. Then, he walks on water. Then, he refuses to feed the hungry. Progressives like that he fed the hungry the first time (social justice!), but sort of stop paying attention when Jesus refuses to do it again because they want food, not the kingdom of heaven. Conservatives like that he walked on water (miracles!), but sort of stop paying attention when Jesus refuses to seize earthly political power. Forcing Christianity in to either a Conservative or a Progressive mold misses the point: the only possible just society is one where God rules, but that this will not happen until the life of the world to come.
posted by valkyryn at 6:47 AM on April 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


valkyryn: "The Christ-transforming-culture paradigm is actually a pretty sophisticated stance which requires an integrated reading of all of Scripture [...] the tradition does not naturally lend itself to large-scale political activism, and the neo-Calvinists' only major experiment there--Abraham Kuyper's rather disastrous term as Prime Minister of the Netherlands--hasn't been repeated by any theologically conservative heir of the tradition.

The way I understand it, Kuyper was sort of (one of) the founders of the European christian-democratic tradition, which is frankly the sort of thing we need in the US (to drag this way back on-topic :) ) -- a political party which is centre-right, supportive of traditional faith and practice but also staunchly in favour of a mixed economy and a strong social net, and which is committed to consensus-building rather than dog-whistling, to a secular discourse. It involves the belief that Christians are not supposed to be using political power to impose theologically-derived beliefs on non-Christians: that in fact, in the Christian tradition the way to real victory is through selflessness, self-sacrifice, suffering on behalf of others.

valkyryn: "So here's a place where I'd differ from tivalasvegas. I would characterize both what the Dutch Calvinists and the Religious Right are doing as his "Option 3", just with different results. The left-wing of the Reformed tradition is reinterpreting Scripture so that they can be politically palatable to the Progressive culture they admire so much.

Well, I'd like to think my own progressivism is situational: that is, that the US is so far to the right at the moment that it needs people to shift left internally so that it can get back to a more moderate position.

But I don't think a false reading, or even a very controversial reading, of Scripture is required to believe, as I said a moment ago, that Christians are not to bring sectarian arguments into the public square. If Christians truly believe that God has created and structured the universe, they shouldn't have any fears about using evidence-based arguments to support their political positions.

I used to basically agree with you that "[Christ's transformation of culture...] works through the action of the Holy Spirit changing lives and communities, not through the political process." This is, as far as I understand, the traditional anabaptist position. And that tradition is indeed a powerful witness -- think of the Amish school shooting a few years back, and the way in which the community forgave the guy who'd shot their children. I think though that this position has to be tempered by the belief that Christians are also called to be involved in the political process, not as theocratic dictators, but as fellow-citizens hoping for and working toward a better world. It was Christians working through the political process who helped to end slavery, segregation and apartheid (although we can't allow ourselves to forget that there were Christians on the other side as well). No, the 'beloved community' that Dr. King so passionately sought is not going to come about by our own strength. But the attempt is still worth it.
posted by tivalasvegas at 9:06 AM on April 10, 2010


"But there's no real suggestion that any of Colson's thought or action has ever been influenced in any serious way by the Christ-transforming-culture paradigm.

Huh? From my Catholic perspective. Chuck Colson's had an impact in two ways. Neither of them is primarily intellectual. But both of them seem influenced seriously by the Christ-transforming-culture paradigm. Perhaps you just don't know him other than as a writer of books/columns.

First, Colson is the founder of Prison Fellowship which in addition to working with prisoners directly also does things like agitate for government action to stop prison rape.

Second, along with Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Colson was a sort of ecclesiastical politician as a convener of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. This group of Protestants and Catholics has sought to find common theological ground between the two groups so that they can better work together to put into practice the Christ-transforming-culture paradigm.

But I don't think a false reading, or even a very controversial reading, of Scripture is required to believe, as I said a moment ago, that Christians are not to bring sectarian arguments into the public square. If Christians truly believe that God has created and structured the universe, they shouldn't have any fears about using evidence-based arguments to support their political positions.

Of course that's a very controversial reading. You can see that it's very controversial because huge groups of people continue to controvert it. They argue for instance that there's no reason to think sectarian positions are not evidence-based. The whole "naked public square" argument has been going on for more than a quarter of a century.

It was Christians working through the political process who helped to end slavery, segregation and apartheid (although we can't allow ourselves to forget that there were Christians on the other side as well). No, the 'beloved community' that Dr. King so passionately sought is not going to come about by our own strength. But the attempt is still worth it.

But you'd have them exclude sectarian arguments in doing so? Certainly Dr. King didn't. "America, you must be born again!" is not just a metaphor, it's an argument.
posted by Jahaza at 11:08 AM on April 10, 2010


Jahaza: "Of course that's a very controversial reading. You can see that it's very controversial because huge groups of people continue to controvert it. They argue for instance that there's no reason to think sectarian positions are not evidence-based. The whole "naked public square" argument has been going on for more than a quarter of a century.

Fair enough -- on second thought, you're right: that reading is indeed still quite hotly contested. But I'm not saying that Christians should be required to accept secular beliefs in their own lives, churches or subcultures. We're free to be, and should be, true to our own beliefs. And if we believe a position to be revealed truth, we should have no problem with honest, fair-minded secular investigation into whether or not that position holds up.

Example: witches. According to the Bible, occult activity is immoral. Based on my theological beliefs, do I think witchcraft is wrong? Yes. Would I engage in it, or encourage it? Nope, it's against my religion. Do I, or should I, stone the goth kids with their satanic pentacles and their devil-worshipping grins? No.**

I really think that most American Christians would agree with me on this if they worked it through, although I could be wrong. What's the legitimate reason for accepting the legality of paganism, divorce, and Sunday labour, if Christians are justified in making laws based solely on theology?

Jahaza: But you'd have them exclude sectarian arguments in doing so? Certainly Dr. King didn't. "America, you must be born again!" is not just a metaphor, it's an argument.

I really don't think that's an accurate portrayal of what Dr. King is doing here. My reading:

Dr. King begins the address with a list of horrifying statistics about the conditions of Black America. He argues from history that emancipations and legislations are only partial solutions, and asserts that blacks need to actively affirm their own personhood in order to achieve true equality. What's more, blacks must unite economically and politically in order to combat the oppressive forces of "the white power structure."

He then makes an aside to those hearers who, because of their Christian convictions, may reject the idea of seizing power. As a Christian preacher making a side comment to a subgroup of Christian listeners, King briefly discusses why he doesn't agree with this theological stance: he argues that "power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love."

Next, he lays out his programme: a scheme to ensure guaranteed income and full employment. He discusses why he thinks this plan is needed, quotes economist JK Galbraith to argue that it is feasible, and argues from his own experience and from the testimony of history that non-violent activism is the best way to work toward it.

Dr. King says that he has found that love is the best way to fight oppression and injustice. He doesn't quote the apostle John's phrase 'God is love' as the proof, but rather as a text, an hypothesis that has been tried and found true.

He then argues that there are structural issues that must be resolved; but that neither capitalism nor communism are completely sound. There has to be a synthesis of individual freedom and communitarian goals. To illustrate the kind of overarching structural change that Dr. King advocates, he uses a story familiar to his audience. It happens to be from a religious text, the Gospel of John. But in fact, "America, you must be born again" is hardly a sectarian argument. He's not calling for the nation to receive the Holy Spirit. He's using a story the audience understands, the experience of religious conversion, as an analogy for the enormity of the paradigm shift that he's calling for.

In his conclusion, Dr. King does make a few explicitly Christian references: and that's OK. He's speaking to a majority-Christian audience (the SCLC) and is trying to convince them that his programme is compatible with the Christian story and the goals of this explicitly-Christian organisation. But even as a Christian clergyman speaking to a Christian audience at a Christian organisation's conference in a majority-Christian nation, Dr. King has propounded a basically secular argument.

This is not because Dr. King rejected orthodox Christian faith, or believed that Christians should sit down and shut up when they saw injustice and suffering, or thought that Christians should restrain themselves from demanding that the government abolish immoral laws.

It is because he believed in these things that Dr. King tried to appeal to the broadest possible segment of American society. We should do likewise.

*also if this happens I will eat my hat. yumm, hat.
**exceptions made, of course, for those pagans who WON'T GET OFF MY LAWN
posted by tivalasvegas at 2:32 PM on April 10, 2010


*also if this happens I will eat my hat. yumm, hat.

Uh, oops. This was the footnote to a very funny little side-thought-experiment I had going about the propriety and legality of excommunication-happy unitarian-universalist cabals.
posted by tivalasvegas at 2:41 PM on April 10, 2010


It happens to be from a religious text, the Gospel of John. But in fact, "America, you must be born again" is hardly a sectarian argument. He's not calling for the nation to receive the Holy Spirit.

I think I was a little less clear than I could have been.

I see three ways that the speech could use the recounting of the story of Nicodemus and apply it to society in terms of "America, you must be born again!".

1) He could mean it in the sense: America must be converted to Christian faith. I think we agree that this is not what he is arguing for.

2) He could mean it merely as an illustration. There once was a story about a man named "Nicodemus". A friend of his said, you can't turn your life around in one area without turning it around in others. Similarly our nation can't turn itself around in one area without turning it around in others. This is the metaphorical (I guess it's actually a simile) sense I was arguing against.

3) I think what he's really doing is using this argument from Christian faith, an account accepted as a true example of how change is accomplished (and accepted as a true account on a religious basis) as a way of arguing that true change takes place on a systemic basis and not merely piecemeal.
posted by Jahaza at 3:10 PM on April 10, 2010


Hmm. Upon another reading of the part of King's talk in question, I think you've convinced me. It's certainly not 1), probably at least 2) but quite possibly 3) as well.

Nevertheless, I don't believe King's wielding scripture in a way that I regard as illegitimate for the purposes of making an argument in the public square. He's not making an appeal to the authority of (say) a Levitical regulation, or a Pauline command; rather he is inviting the listener to hear his interpretation of a story. This is a story that Christians who hold a high theology of Scripture are bound by their own theology to accept as canonical, and if they are fair-minded they will engage King's reading of this parable; but even if they're the sort of Christian (or non-believer) who sees scriptural texts as interesting, potentially wise, but not infallible, they can certainly engage with the story and the interpretation King offers and decide for themselves whether (for whatever reason, sacred or secular) they find the appeal a compelling one.
posted by tivalasvegas at 9:45 PM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


ugh, tired. obviously the passage in question isn't actually a parable.
posted by tivalasvegas at 9:50 PM on April 10, 2010


Awesome thread.

Also, another take on Tea Bag Jeezus, which I'm pretty sure predates teabaggers.
posted by Decimask at 8:11 PM on April 12, 2010


Decimask -- yes. precisely. I think one of the first steps I took, maybe in high school, on the path I'm still travelling, was that realisation: there is Jesus, and there is American Rambo Republican Jeezus. And one of those two is a false god.
posted by tivalasvegas at 8:32 PM on April 12, 2010


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