War of the Worldviews
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Apr 13, 2006 at 01:57:31 AM EST
Amidst all the hoo ha over the slam dunk decision of federal District Court Judge John E. Jones against presenting intelligent design as science in the Dover, Pennsylvania public schools, it is easy to miss the point. The Dover decision was not only one battle in the struggle over the teaching of creationism and its variants in the schools, but one battle in the much larger and historic war of the worldviews. Even after most of the rest of society moves on, the religious right will never be over Dover.

This essay seeks to explain why.

You may think that I am about to describe a war between the worldviews of religion and science. But that is not the war of the worldviews. The war of the worldviews is actually between the worldview of the domination of religious orthodoxy vs. constitutional democracy and religious pluralism. That mouthful is actually simpler than it sounds.

Generally, conservative, orthodox religious worldviews sees the history of the world as the  unfolding of a religious drama. The story will vary according to who is doing the telling, of course, but it is still a religious story, and very often there are conflicts between the worldview and the actual facts of the history of the world. According to their view, the competing story is one of evolution, of science, which is agnostic about, or even hostile to religion. That there are many religious people who can easily accommodate scientific approaches to reality does not alter the religious right's insistence that the teaching of evolution is an attack on their worldview. Sometimes this is articulated as an attack on their religion, or even an attack on God.

This is important to underscore, because this same scenario is played out on issue after issue. It makes little difference to the dominionist wing of the religious right if some Christians are accepting of the ordination of women; accepting of abortion; accepting of homosexuality; accepting of other religions, and even the non-religious. That only means to them that those folks are not really Christians. Rather they are religious deviants guilty of apostasy; or heresy; or blasphemy.

For example, when the Washington, DC-based Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) and the groups in its orbit -- now in their third decade of attacks on the historic mainline Protestant denominations -- denounce acceptance of homosexuality, it is worth noting that many of these same retrogressives also oppose the ordination of women. For example, the newly appointed president of IRD, is an ordained minister in a tiny splinter sect, the Presbyterian Church in America, (PCA) that broke with mainstream Presbyterianism in 1973 over among other things, the ordination of women. And when the nation's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was taken over by fundamentalists -- it did not take long before women were denied ordination. It is easy to forget that this was a big issue in most of the mainline churches in the 1970s. Contemporary retrogressives are playing smart politics in not to talking about that. But one need look no farther than the the SBC and the PCA to see where the retrogressives of mainline Protestant "renewal" would go if they had their way. Their notions of Christian orthodoxy emphasize very different roles for women in the church and in society, among other things.

Homosexuality is the wedge being used to divide mainstream Christian churches. Thanks to the miracle of modern marketing and "message" development, old fashioned charges of apostasy and heresy are reworked as claims that retrogressives simply seek to "renew" or "restore" the mainline churches to true Christian orthodoxy -- as if the paid political operatives of IRD, bankrolled by the likes of Richard Mellon Scaife are the arbiters of the true faith. The historic churches of mainline Protestantism support religious freedom and the right to religious difference. They support the separation of church and state. They are moving increasingly towards the Christian equality of women and gays and lesbians and seek to be welcoming to all. Perhaps more importantly, the mainline churches have stood up to the excesses of big corporations, the military and intelligence community, and the federal government in general in recent decades. Their stances and their institutional resources and moral authority have made them targets of the neo-conservatives, the corporate right and the Christian Right. The attacks on the mainline churches come from these several sectors working in coalition -- the clearest expression of which is the IRD.

Clearly there are larger historic forces at work.

All of which brings me back to the Dover decision.

Jeffrey P. Moran, an associate professor and chair of the Department of History at the University of Kansas, writing in the current issue of The Public Eye, considers the Dover decision in light of the Scopes trials of the 1920s, the first big legal battle over evolution, and takes a look forward.

Although no one believes that we have heard our last from the Intelligent Design bunch, it may be useful at this resting point to take a longer view of the controversy. In the 1925 Tennessee Scopes trial, invoked ritually every time another squabble erupts over whether to teach Darwin or the Bible in the public schools, the antievolutionists still had the confidence to come out hot for Genesis in its narrowest interpretation rather than take cover behind "Intelligent Design" or some other linguistic squid ink.

Led by one of the most famous men in the United States, the Democratic politician William Jennings Bryan, the Tennessee antievolutionists in 1925 also made clear that the tension between the Bible and Darwin's theory of natural selection was not their sole concern. Although they surely felt their dignity tarnished by Darwin's assertions of a common ancestry between humans and beasts--especially monkeys --much of their animosity toward evolutionism grew out of its larger commitment to "materialism." Commonly used today to denote an unseemly attachment to consumer goods, "materialism" in Bryan's day conveyed more a sense that the scientific method--seeking material explanations for natural phenomena, such as explaining why species change over time--was literally "disenchanting" the world by removing a role for God to play. Darwin and his scientific allies seemed to have barred God from playing a role in the natural world.

Like many of his own allies, from the Vatican proper to the "Protestant Vatican" of Nashville, Tennessee, Bryan feared that a reliance on materialism had left us with a degraded, godless culture--and the conceptual connection he made in the 1920s from the Origin of Species to flapperism, jazz, and bathtub gin has changed today primarily in its form, not its substance. A culture that relies purely on materialist explanations is a culture that has given up on the possibility of the miracle, on the belief that God may intervene in the natural world through whichever mechanisms he chooses, including particularly the saving grace of Jesus.

Ah, but wait! Contemporary creationists not only have a worldview at odds with materialism, but they have an activist think tank with a long term mission. Moran continues:

... a look at the so-called "Wedge Document," a long-term strategic plan for ousting evolution and renewing America's Christian character developed at Seattle's well-funded Discovery Institute in the 1980s, also reveals the persistent vigor of the anti-materialist impulse as it funnels itself through the fight against evolution. Although no longer able to trumpet its religious goals as openly as Bryan did (and, in fact, the Discovery Institute initially denied having anything to do with the wedge document), in the end, the similarity in substance is paramount. The Wedge writers view "scientific materialism" as the very source of almost all destructive "moral, cultural and political legacies" of the past century and a half. What are these legacies? Bathtub gin has shuffled off the stage, originally replaced by Freudianism, utopianism, and communism, but now more recently supplanted by liberal attitudes toward personal responsibility, theology, and, in a nod to the Discovery Institute's well-heeled supporters, "products liability."

While the existence of the Discovery Institute and the wedge document is not news, it is important to understand their role in the war of the worldviews -- a war in which most people are unaware that they are even engaged. But in fact, the religious right's attacks on the mainline churches are not so much issues of religious "orthodoxy" but ways of fomenting dissention and instigating schism in order to diminish major institutional targets in the war of the worldviews. The same goes for efforts to teach creationism or ID in the public schools. The warriors of the religious right view the public schools as the educational system of the enemy: one that teaches respect for religious differences, scientific understandings of the universe, and ultimately constitutional democracy itself.

This brings us to the worldview of pluralism in a constitutional democracy. Pluralism in our American context means religious equality, which is to say that all citizens are equal in the eyes of the law, whether we are non-religious or religious, or a certain kind of religion. It is all irrelevant to our status as citizens. It is this premise that underlies a vast amount of law and public policy and stands in the way of the dominionist tendencies of much of the religious right.

The challenge for supporters of pluralism, whether they are mainline protestants deemed insufficiently orthodox, or public school curriculums deemed insufficiently religious, is what Christian Reconstructionist author Gary North described as "the dilemma of democratic pluralism." (Which I discuss in Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy). North astutely observes the difficulty faced by those who embrace democratic pluralism:  They are often confounded by their philosophical acceptance of those whose views oppose and activities undermine -- the very nature and system of pluralism itself.

Opponents of pluralism in the U.S. are becoming quite skilled at exploiting the "dilemma;" for example by mocking liberals for being "intolerant." We see this in operation when IRD operatives claim that conservatives are not tolerated in the mainline churches -- even as these same "conservatives" or "renewal" advocates, are actively subverting and seeking to divide the very denominations from which they demand tolerance. People on the receiving end of the charge often do not know what do say in response. Hence the "dilemma." Similarly, in the battle over teaching creationism or ID, we hear the charge that the schools are intolerant of the supposedly competing theory of intelligent design.

Of course, there is nothing intolerant about thwarting those who would undermine pluralism and equality for all. Rather, standing-up for religious pluralism and constitutional democracy; defeating efforts by "renewal" groups to create division and schism in the churches; and refusing to teach religious doctrine dressed-up as science --means tanding-up for one's values and the values of the religious, constitutional, and educational institutions we hold dear.

The arguments that seek to exploit the dilemma of democratic pluralism are clever, but deeply disingenuous. Of course, they are not really arguments at all. They are best understood as tactics in a larger strategy of disruption and discrediting of mainstream institutions that support and respect pluralism of religious belief and actual intellectual thought. The Discovery Institute and the Institute on Religion and Democracy are centers that develop and utilize such tactics for deployment in the war of the worldviews.

In conclusion, here is an excerpt from Eternal Hostility, that surfaces one aspect of the war of the worldviews.

Rev. Charles McIlhenny, an anti-gay crusader and friend of [theocratic theologian] Rushdoony, wrote in his book, When the Wicked Seize a City, that "we are engaged in a very long war for control of our culture," a war between secular humanism, the religion of our dominant American culture, and orthodox Christianity." He believes that, "Christianity will eventually win the world for Christ, and I don't believe there is any compromise possible in this war."

McIlhenny, a Reconstructionist-oriented pastor of an Orthodox Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, believes not only that "the homosexual rights movement is God's judgment upon a fearful and ineffective Church which has not taken an active role in society," but that homosexuality is actually a "religion" that "clashes squarely and directly with the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament." He further argues that "faith is totalitarian" in so far as it "encompasses a whole worldview and life view," and that "[t]he gay rights movement is as totalitarian in its belief as is Christianity."

Of course homosexuality is not a religion, let alone "totalitarian." To most readers, it may seem to be stating the obvious to say that there are gay men and lesbians of all faiths and of all political persuasions -- but in the "totalitarian" worldview of Rev. Charles McIllhenny, there is no room for such a possibility.

You may never look at things quite the same way ever again.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Apr 13, 2006 at 02:24:27 AM EST

Thank you very much for posting this--this actually fits in with a discussion a friend of mine and I have been having for some weeks now.  

Very interestingly, he noted much the same thing--that dominionists have a triumphalist outlook on things and that dominionist theology is framed very much in the terms of an all-encompassing story in which the dominionists are framed as the conquering heroes.  (He's also been doing some reading on "mental mapping" in general, which is how this convo originally started.)

This fits in very well with that.  

by dogemperor on Thu Apr 13, 2006 at 10:35:21 AM EST

Being the friend mentioned, I have to say yes it does.  I would go further in some parts, though, and note the following:

First: Dominionists view the world entirely through the lense of "mythic truth".  The more symbolic and emotionally satisfying a story, the more triumphant and uplifting of them, the more true they find it.  This is how they understand the world.  So much so that they see science itself, and particularly naturalistic explanations of the origins of life and/or man and the universe, as simply being an alternative creation story.  This is the root of such things as "intelligent design", wherein they keep the terminology of science but attempt to swap in their own creation story.  It is also why they assert that "secular humanism" and "darwinism" (and apparently even homosexuality now, judging by the quotations in this article) are religions: it is a projection of their own approach to discerning truth onto others.

Second: This story is so pervasive to the dominionist mindset that it colors their perception of everything else.  History itself becomes a form of bible fanfiction for them, as they frame historical events in terms of their religion's triumph over the world.  This helps explain the movements we have been seeing in this country to re-write the history of america and assert that this was founded to be a Christian Nation.  That is actually the filter they choose to view their world through.  This also helps explain some of the weird statements we hear from the right these days about republicans and/or christians (often used interchangeably by the speakers making these claims) being more optimistic than liberals.  That liberals are always defeatist, and are giving "aid and comfort to the enemy" by taking a defeatist attitude.  And even the story popular in conservative thought that the US could have won the Cold War if it hadn't been for defeatist liberals at home forcing us to pull out.  The Dominionist worldview is so mired in a triumphalist view of Christianity that any story where the US (a great Christian Nation according to them) might actually lose while trying its best just doesn't compute.  Their slogan is "If God is with us, who can stand against us?" and they simply can't accept that maybe he's not with them on everything.  To do so would require dismantaling their entire worldview (they've manufactured it to be so interconnected it can't really come apart peacemeal like a scientific worldview can when confronted with new evidence) and building up something entirely new in its place.

Lastly: While giving a good overview of the problem, you don't seem to go much into the solution of how to fight Dominionism in the war of worldviews.  How do we win their hearts and minds on this, and perhaps even more importantly how do we win the hearts and minds of the undecided and moderates?  I know it's a hard question, and I'm rather at a loss on it myself though I've been working on the problem as much as possible in my spare time.  So far, my best idea is that perhaps its time to fight mythic truth with mythic truth, rather than purely fighting myth with facts.  Facts are too easy to ignore if your worldview does not offer room for you to grasp them and intergrate them into your understanding of the world.  We need to start using storytelling, providing a conceptual and emotional framework to go with the facts and ideas we are trying to communicate.  Otherwise we're just wasting our breath, I think.

by jarandhel on Thu Apr 13, 2006 at 01:03:36 PM EST

I am not the first person to say this, and others say it much better than I do, but I think it bears repeating.

There are a lot of ideas about framing and the language we use to describe the religious right and neoconservative types on this site. The RR and neocons are masters at using inflammatory language to motivate people. They even have the contributors here using 'their' language to describe the conflict between dominionists and theocrats on the one side, and mainstream religions and progressives on the other. "Culture war", "War on christianity", "war on Christmas" - apparently the religious right is at war with everyone everywhere. They are not. There is conflict, disagreement, sometimes even violence (why does the violence always seem to be perpetrated by "their" side?). But it is not a war. We should not allow the RR to frame it as a war. Just as we should not allow them to frame "Intelligent Design" creationism as science.

I would suggest that rather than simply saying "culture wars" - as though the differences between worldviews deserve that name - that we take the inflammatory language away from them and say "the conflict between [insert goup here] and [insert group here]." It isn't short hand, but it does deflate the "War" rhetoric. It may also help people to decide between the opposing sides which is the more reasonable, rational position, and which is the position that has the outlandish, out of order ideas.

When discussing "Intelligent Design" creationism, we should simply say "creationism," always and without the slightest nod to the notion of ID. ID is creationism, and it should not be dignified with another name.

If I may be so bold I would even suggest the title of this diary be renamed to "Conflicting Worldviews" We should NEVER let the RR define the terms of the conflict. Our language should be chosen to always deflate their over the top rhetoric, and to enhance a position of reasonableness. "War" rhetoric should always be in quotes to show that it is their idea, not ours. We are not at "war" on any level, with anyone else in America. Deliberative and thoughtful people who disagree with fellow citizens are not at war, and we should always strive to make that clear.

by bybelknap on Thu Apr 13, 2006 at 01:01:36 PM EST

When one side of a conflict declares war, and the other side does not formally do so but seeks to defend themselves, is the situation war or just "a conflict"?  I think we find ourselves now at a juncture where war has already been declared by the right, and make no mistake they are using their full arsenals to fight it.  While there is something to be said for not enforcing their frames or inflaming moderates, to state that there is no culture war going on at this stage seems naive at best.  Indeed, acknowleding that for the Dominionists this IS in fact a form of warfare may help our side begin to think more strategically in planning our response.

by jarandhel on Thu Apr 13, 2006 at 01:09:25 PM EST
What we have, in part, is a one-sided war of agression against those who do not even understand that they are in a war.

Framing is not about language alone, it is about how one organizes one's thoughts to express values. The word are but the surface of the expression.  

There is little substantive difference between the words "conflict" and "war."

I used the title War of the Worldviews, partly because that is exactly how the Reconstructionists frame it, and unless one gets that, it is difficult to know what is happening. Indeed, it is possible to "frame" oneself out of a reality-based understanding of whats going on.

To acknowledge that one group sees itself as in a war, is not the same thing as saying what we  intend to do about it.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Apr 13, 2006 at 02:00:15 PM EST

I suppose that I am thinking more along the lines of a shooting war. Yes, sometimes actual shots are fired at abortion privders. Yes, they are using thier full economic, marketing, social and poitical 'arsenals' to fight, but we are not engaged in running battles through our neighborhoods with bodies piling up.

I strongly disagree that the language of war should be used to describe what is happening in our country, precisely because it is so inflammatory. If the RR want to use that language to describe the conflict let them. They should be countered with all the economic, social and political power that we can muster.  A civil society using these means, despite what one side may call it, is not at war.

I think the values that we share; the separation of church and state, religious freedom, inclusion and tolerance are worth fighting for, and I am not so naive to think that the RR will not  do everything they can to destroy them, even perhaps someday take up arms en masse against fellow citizens.  At that time I will concede there is indeed a war on, and will arm myself to the teeth with whatever guns and ammunition I can find.

I stand firm in my assertion that "culture war" is an inflammatory misnomer. I do not contend that it is "just a conflict" The conflict between the RR and the rest of society is of the ultimate importance. The stakes are as high as they can be. We are at odds over the very foundations of our constitutional democracy. I think that we must use any means neccessary to defend it.  But I also I think that using the opposing side's language and repeating it as if it is true aids them more than it aids us.

by bybelknap on Thu Apr 13, 2006 at 02:08:44 PM EST

There are different languages and terms for different ocasions.

Personally, I rarely use the term Culture War, largely for the reasons you describe, but actually more because of the author of the book titled Cultures Wars, whom I discuss at length in Eternal Hostility.  But that is another story.

We cannot limit ourselves to a few colors in our palette or we cannot paint the picture. If I cannot use the phrase war of the worldviews to accurately describe what is going on -- as our opponents understand it -- then I cannot communicate what this is about.  

If you read the literature of this wing of the movement, as I have, there is no question that they see themsevles in a larger sweep of history in which there has been large scale physical violence in the past, and will undoubtely be again.

Warfare takes many forms in thier view, and I might add, in most dictionary uses of the term, so I cannot agree with you that all uses of the word war, warfare and its variants are nessarily about military confrtonations or other forms of physical violence, and that we should not use them as we see fit and as the ocasion calls for.

Rushdoony says that "all law is a form of warfare."  To get one's mind around what he means by that is to understand in a more thorough going way, what is going on in the war of the worldviews.  

But the fact remains, if you do not understand that the other side has declared war, and they mean it, you lose.

Gary North wrote that "for the first time in over 300 years, a growing number of Christians are starting to view themselves as an army on the move. This army will grow."  Taking the metaphor futher he declared that "We are self-consciously firing the first shot."

I have stated on this site and elsewhere, it is far more important that we know what we are talking about than exactly what words we use in talking about it. I agree that this does not mean foolishly falling into the frames of the oppositon or otherwise being careless with language.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Apr 13, 2006 at 02:48:19 PM EST

Thank you for taking the time to respnd to my concern.   Your comments have helped to clarify some of the nuance surrounding when and where to adopt, adapt or discard certain ways of speaking about things. I appreciate it.

by bybelknap on Thu Apr 13, 2006 at 03:43:02 PM EST
These are the kinds of conversations we all need to have as we try to sort out these things out. Addressing the things we are up against is not easy. If they were, we wouldn't need this site. -- I know I do, and I learn stuff here fall the time I don't think I would find anywhere else. So I am grateful for your partipation, and that of everyone.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Apr 13, 2006 at 04:00:17 PM EST

Nice post Fred. It is important to connect all these dots.

On a side note, I wonder how Rabbi Lerner in his talk about "scientism" would relate this to what Bryan said about "materialism".

by Carlos on Thu Apr 13, 2006 at 01:07:28 PM EST

This is a great essay, especially for someone newly aware of dominionism's influence in the U.S.

Those already aware of dominionism's influence in the U.S. might read an observation like one of yours above--"[the IRD] and the groups in its orbit...denounce acceptance of homosexuality [and] also oppose the ordination of women"--and respond, "Well, that goes without saying."

But, it doesn't go without saying. As another commenter noted, it's important to connect the dots between groups, specific issues, and larger contexts relative to the Christian rightwing, and this essay does that aptly.

I hope you also post this essay on other sites, such as Daily Kos.

by IseFire on Thu Apr 13, 2006 at 01:26:05 PM EST

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