Deconstructing the Dominionists, Part II
Welcome to this second installment of my critical review of the recently published booklet America, Return to God, edited by Thomas Wang. In the first installment I briefly sketched the intellectual roots of Dominionism as an extreme branch of conservative Christianity, closely related to Christian Reconstructionism. The roots of these movements can be traced to the 19th century and the heated debate between liberal and conservative theologians on the authority of Scripture and its interpretation.
America, Return to God is an example of a conservative use of Scripture, in which there is no distinction between the Old Testament and the New Testament as sources for Christian theology, and in which every word and phrase is understood to be the literal, inspired Word of God. It is also an example of a particular reading of American history: the Founders clearly intended for the United States to be a "Christian Nation," regularly calling upon God in public prayer, referring to God in speeches and inaugural addresses, and favoring Christian morality as the bedrock of American civilization. We must remember these two basic perspectives on the Bible and American history as we work our way through the essays to follow.
In order to avoid copyright infringement, I cannot post the essays in their entirety. I will simply quote certain passages as representative of the intentions of the authors, and offer my commentary. Also, I will not be critiquing every essay contained in this booklet as, quite frankly, some of them are so poorly written and argued that they are not worth the effort. With that in mind, let us proceed!
Loss of Faith in America - Jim Nelson Black
Black proposes that America is under attack. The enemy? The political, social, and religious left. He suggests that the American left is the logical and (im)moral heir of the European Enlightenment, refracted through the prism of the Hippie movement of the 1960s:
The seeds of rebellion that fell on European soil during the Enlightenment blossomed in America during the 1960s (Black, 27).
Just as the great philosophes of the French Enlightenment (Black completely ignores the great thinkers of the German Enlightenment) had proclaimed liberation from the slavery of religious totalitarianism and from the sedative of religious superstition, the Hippies proclaimed liberation from the middle-class value system of their parents' generation. In fact, as Black suggests, the Hippies' true intentions were much more sinister:
The young leftists of Haight-Ashbury, Woodstock, and Altamont fully expected to overthrow the Christian religion and bring paganism back to America (Black, 27).
The Enlightenment, as I mentioned in Part I, was the scene of a seismic shift in biblical studies and theological scholarship. German universities in particular became battlegrounds between liberal and conservative theologians who disagreed passionately on the use of reason within theology, the value of secular sciences for theological scholarship, and the authority of Scripture. French theological faculties, on the other hand, were relatively untouched by this controversy. The situation in France remained primarily a secular affair, with Enlightenment philosophers and scientists unilaterally rejecting Christianity as a dangerous remnant of the past used solely for the oppression of the masses. (For a wonderful introduction to the Enlightenment straight from one of its most famous representatives, I would recommend reading Immanuel Kant's famous, brief essay, What is Enlightenment?)
In one sense Black is absolutely correct: the French Enlightenment did represent a real and potent threat to Christian power structures as they existed at the time. But in another, more important sense, Black misses an essential part of the story: the Framers of the Constitution of the United States were themselves children of the French Enlightenment and disciples of Rousseau and Montesquieu. They were also children of British Empiricism, disciples of Locke and Hume. It is a common conservative canard to glorify the Christian credentials of the Founders. This is a myth.
It is true that many of the earliest prominent American thinkers - e.g. Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather, and John Winthrop - were devout Christians who believed in a divine Providence guiding the American experiment, but these Puritans predate the establishment of the United States as an independent nation by several decades. Puritanism as a potent force in American politics had significantly declined by the Revolution, giving way to the secular philosophies described above. The Founders were acutely aware of the dangers of an established state church, having witnessed its effects in many European countries. The American colonies became a haven for those escaping religious persecution, where one would be free to practice one's religion according to the dictates of one's conscience. And that same freedom would be extended to those with no religious affiliation at all. Perhaps the most famous example of early American religious freedom is the colony of Pennsylvania, founded by the English Quaker William Penn. Penn envisioned Pennsylvania as a "holy experiment" in religious freedom, welcoming Quakers, various Anabaptist sects (Amish, Mennonites, etc.), Lutherans, and many others. (For an interesting discussion of Penn's life and his "holy experiment," see Jim Powell's William Penn: America's First Great Champion for Liberty and Peace, posted on quaker.org.)
The religious freedom granted in many of the American colonies was a natural corollary to the application of Enlightenment principles in the political realm. There is no need here to rehearse the Enlightenment roots of the American political system. We are well aware of this history. But Black suggests that it is the Left that is sowing the seeds of Enlightenment rebellion and threatening to destroy American civilization, never pausing to remember that it is the Enlightenment tradition itself that gives us our system of government in the first place. Black provides the standard list of areas in which American is being destroyed by secularism: morality, culture, justice, education, sexuality and the family, democracy, etc., all of which he attributes to the triumph of secular, Enlightenment principles:
The mindset of the sixties is still with us, as values and beliefs that were once cherished in this nation are being discredited by the left.
In this forum we have discussed the relationship between religion and morality ad nauseam. Is religion a prerequisite for morality? My answer to this question is a resounding "No." "Morality" in its most basic sense refers to a code of conduct. "Religion" in its most basic sense refers to a way of understanding the world and one's place in it, with particular reference to an Other. In terms of these definitions, then, religion is a much broader category than morality. Most religions encourage morality, but not all morality is necessarily religious. In other words, it is possible to be moral without being religious. Consider the case of the "Golden Rule," a particular moral command that, with slight variations, transcends cultural boundaries: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." There is nothing inherently religious about the Golden Rule, and one need not be religious to follow it. There are many more examples, but this one should suffice to demonstrate my contention that religion is not a prerequisite for morality.
This does not even begin to address Black's more specific claim that morality is limited to Christianity. According to his view, one must first believe in Jesus Christ in order to be a moral person. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Unitarians, Wiccans, Animists, Secular Humanists, Agnostics, Atheists and a host of others in this view are inherently incapable of morality because they do not believe in Jesus Christ. According to this belief, then, some of the great moral figures of history - one need only think of Gandhi - were in fact immoral because they were not Christian. Clearly this is a position to be rejected.
Finally, Black addresses what he considers to be the failure of the Enlightenment:
The secular humanism that was supposed to liberate mankind from his enslavement to the past has bred not liberty, but atheism wedded with hedonism, which has resulted in a chronicle of devastated lives that boggles the mind.
The only thing that "boggles the mind," in my opinion, is that last paragraph. The left doesn't care about women, independent judiciaries, minorities, democracy, or the GLBT community? There are a host of organizations on the left, both political and religious, that certainly stand as evidence to the contrary. This is, of course, the tired old meme of the anti-Christian, socialist (or communist) left. And it simply isn't true. But it has been a very effective rallying cry for the Christian right. After all, they consider themselves armed for battle, against you and against me:
Simply recognizing the source of the anger that motivates the other side will not give us victory in the culture wars, but it is an essential first step in preparing for the battle. The first task in any conflict is to "know your enemy," and as we come to understand the forces that are arrayed against us, and as we recognize the trail of disaster in their wake, we will be better prepared to make our voices heard and to make a real and lasting difference for the kingdom (Black, 36).
There is a specific theological reason for this type of thinking, and it has to do first with the doctrine of revelation and, second, with the absolutism of Christianity.
"Revelation" is a translation of the Greek word "apocalypsis," which means "an uncovering" or "a laying bare." Something is hidden and it is made clear - that is the essence of revelation. For centuries, the Christian doctrine of revelation presupposed a supernatural interaction with the mundane. God transmitted supernatural truths through Scripture, which, as we have seen, was understood as the literal, inspired Word of God. The appropriate human response was assent to these supernatural truths. The doctrine of revelation underwent significant changes in the Reformation, when Martin Luther suggested that what is revealed is not supernatural truths about God's essence, but the nature of God's disposition toward human beings (e.g., mercy). Since Luther, and especially since the Enlightenment, liberal Protestant theologians have rethought the doctrine of revelation. First and foremost, based on critical scientific biblical scholarship, the idea of a literal understanding of Scripture as divinely revealed truth has been replaced with an understanding of Scripture as a testimony - by the early church - of faith in Jesus Christ, whom they regarded as the original revelation of God. This understanding of revelation requires a certain humility in terms of the possibility of human knowledge about God, and it also makes any claims to the absolutism or exclusivity of Christianity highly suspect.
Secondly, historical and sociological studies of the world's religions, beginning in earnest in the 19th century, have shown that Christianity did not, in fact, emerge in a vacuum, but shares many of its characteristics with other ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern religions. Furthermore, scholars of religion began to read and translate the sacred texts of non-Western religious traditions, inaugurating the modern field of comparative religion. These cross-cultural and comparative studies of the world's religions called into question for many theologians any one religion's claim to be the sole possessor of absolute truth. This realization is the root of the theory of religious pluralism, which states that the world's religions are culturally and historically conditioned approaches to the same ultimate reality. In this theory, no one religion can have an exclusive claim to validity and truth because all religions are historically and culturally contingent. Not surprisingly, religious pluralism is considered heretical and dangerous to many on the far Christian right, including the Dominionists. Religious pluralism, from their perspective, is inseparable from moral relativism, the rejection of Truth, and the abandonment of the Judeo-Christian worldview. They therefore gird themselves for battle against "the politically correct dogma of 'diversity, tolerance, and moral relativism'" (Black, 29).
Religious pluralism and tolerance is a basic liberal value - it is reflected in the First Amendment, in Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, and in James Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments. For more recent work on religious pluralism from a theological perspective, I highly recommend the works of British theologian John Hick.
To summarize very briefly, what is at stake here are two very different understandings of the Bible, American history, and Christianity itself, specifically what it means to be a Christian in a cosmopolitan society. The Dominionists claim absolute validity and exclusivity for Christians, relegating adherents of any other religion to second-class status (or worse), and they place the blame for America's failings and problems squarely at the feet of the political and social left, whom they regard as dangerous anti-Christian radicals. The Christian left, on the other hand, celebrates the diversity of the world's religions while affirming our own commitment to the Christian tradition, we value and affirm the religious experience of our fellow Americans as well as their right to worship (or not worship) according to their own conscience, and we reaffirm our commitment to the principles of the Enlightenment and of the Founders - reason, tolerance, respect for science, personal liberty, and religious freedom.
Deconstructing the Dominionists, Part II | 4 comments (4 topical, 0 hidden)
Deconstructing the Dominionists, Part II | 4 comments (4 topical, 0 hidden)