Dan Schultz's New Book Gets Oppenheimered
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Aug 08, 2010 at 02:23:09 PM EST
The responses to something new and different can be as interesting as the new and different thing itself. Even the best of us sometimes have difficulty with new ideas, fresh approaches, and especially anything that challenges certain Conventional Wisdoms.  Thanks to the invention of writing, we can see this play out when books and articles that question status quo thinking cause cognitive dissonance among the gate keepers. The intellectual debris left in the wake of such dissonance-induced crashes have much to teach us about the way things are and the nature of struggles that lie ahead.  

I have had a ringside seat to such a still unfolding response first to the 2008 book I edited, Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America, and now the just-published Changing the Script: An Authentically Faithful and Authentically Progressive Political Theology for the 21st Century, by Daniel Schultz. (AKA around the blogosphere as pastordan, who was one of the original front pagers here at Talk to Action.)

The significant work and famous names on some of the essays in Dispatches not withstanding, the bookstores and reviewers didn't much  bite. A friend told me in retrospect, that we had faced three major hurdles 1) Anthologies just don't sell as well as single authored books. 2) Unlike some popular titles in the field, Dispatches is actually Left and not a happy adjunct of the Democratic Party message machine. 3) Dispatches was obscured by coming out in the home stretch of the 2008 presidential campaign season.  

The obstacles not withstanding, Dispatches has catalyzed the national conversation that we sought, albeit not as quickly or as widely as I had hoped.  For example, we staked out a distinctly progressive critique of some of centrist Inside the Beltway crowd's thinking about religion and politics. We opened up considerable discussion and debate about the nature of the contemporary Religious Left which was reported in national media. But my hunch is that it was also studiously ignored.

My hunch is borne out, I think, in the current kerfuffle over Changing the Script, which is an outgrowth of Dan's essay by the same title in Dispatches.  Changing the Script fleshes out the how we can identify and change the "scripts" running beneath the surface of some of the major issues of our time such as abortion, torture, militarism and consumerism.

But surfacing such scripts can make those who have hitched their wagons to the status quo, uncomfortable. And some will want to push whatever has been surfaced back down.

The opening salvo against Changing the Script came from no less than Mark Oppenheimer, religion columnist for The New York Times, writing on the web site of the British Guardian newspaper.  Dan quickly returned fire at the microsite for Changing the Script.

Oppenheimer falls back on the classic reviewer error of criticizing the book that was written because it is not the one he would rather have read. He wished that Dan had included a history of the Religious Left, one that of course, coheres with the current conventional wisdom as he understands it in its facts and interpretation. Dan observes that such histories have been done repeatedly in recent years and besides, his book is a theology of politics, which is a different task, but one clearly not to Oppenheimer's liking.  Unfortunately for Oppenheimer, in expressing his displeasure he surfaced his own misunderstandings of recent religious political history left, right and center (which Dan and I helped to further expose.)  More generally, Dan points out that Oppenheimer's review

"is stereotypical of elite opinion-makers:  tendentious, filled with an ideological axe to grind and an inability to see the forest for the trees."

Among other errors, Oppenheimer claims that the development of Religious Right organizations such as the Moral Majority occurred in specific response to Supreme Court decisions such as the 1973 Roe vs. Wade, the decision that legalized abortion, and Engle vs. Vitale in 1962 that banned organized prayer in the public schools.  Dan and I corresponded a bit on the point and he incorporated some of my thoughts in his post:

* That white evangelicals, according to the historian Randall Balmer, didn't enter politics in response to abortion, but in opposition to the Carter administration's challenge of tax-exempt, racially-segregated Christian schools-- notably Bob Jones University.  Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, which emphasized abortion as an issue, was not even founded until 1979;

    * That, in the words of my friend and colleague Frederick Clarkson, social issues were a factor in the development of the modern Religious Right, but "but mass political behavior does not change in response to such issues alone. Oppenheimer ignores the tremendous changes going on in evangelical theology, led by influential conservative Reformed Presbyterian  theologians Frances Schaeffer and R.J. Rushdoony whose work argued with pietism and pointed conservative evangelicals away from apolitical pietism and directly towards political confrontation and acquisition of political and governmental power.  Add this necessary prerequisite to the the ongoing efforts of political operatives and power brokers to organize the discontent of white conservative Christians on a host of matters, including and especially race (Southern strategy, anyone?) into a more cohesive political formation and out of the Democratic Party, and you get the modern Religious Right."

As we have seen, some such opinion makers also incorporate elements of the revisionist historical narrative of the Religious Right. Fortunately, Oppenheimer doesn't do that.  But I do want to highlight one overarching point: Getting history right matters because, as I have written elsewhere, it so profoundly informs our present and our future.

History is powerful. That's why it is important for...  society...  to craft a compelling and shared story of American history, particularly as it relates to the role of religion and society. We need it in order to know not how the Religious Right is wrong, but to know where we ourselves stand in the light of history, in relation to each other, and how we can better envision a future together free of religious prejudice, and ultimately, religious warfare.

Various elements in society -- any society -- debate and struggle over history not merely as an academic exercise but because our understandings of our past, legal, constitutional, religious, and so on has everything to do with how we understand our present and how we shape our future.

On further reflection, Dan had more to say about Oppenheimer's claim that "Changing the Script conforms to type." Dan does not go gently into that box.

If all of this were simply my griping about a bad review, it wouldn't be worth your attention. But there is a bigger point here that I wish I could get progressives to understand, whether secular or religious. When people try to put the religious left in a box like this, it's another form of reflexive hippie-bashing. Everybody knows (he says sarcastically) that this is a center-right nation, and that evangelicals and Catholics dominate the intersection of religion and politics. They have ever since the time of the Puritans, you know. Anybody who disagrees with that assessment is not serious and should be rejected out of hand. The parameters have been set, there is a reason things are the way they are, and that is all you need to know.

So this is in part about maintaining the elite narrative about religion and politics. (I'm speaking in general here; I don't know Oppenheimer well enough to know how much he buys into what I've called elsewhere the "Religion-Industrial Complex," though his review certainly seems consistent with their narrative.)

But there are other problems with it as well: for one, it sets the glory days of (religious) progressivism in the past, so that we are continually racing to reclaim a lost day, rather than living more realistically into the future.

For another, it subtly denies average people the power to effect change. If you don't know your history, you're doomed to repeat it, Oppenheimer seems to be saying. Except the warning comes with the proviso that you need an expert to guide you in understanding your own history, and woe betide you if you act before you know what Serious People know. Don't think you can change the system, you little upstart.

History matters, but like anything else we need to be careful who we look to for facts and interpretation.  Those Dan is calling out invoke history to keep people down; to silence them; to keep them from challenging established interests.  Marshall Ganz, a veteran social justice and political organizer took a similar approach in his essay in Dispatches from the Religious Left. We not only have much to learn from our personal and collective histories. These are our stories, and not necessarily those that elite opinion wants us to know let alone tell, and use to inform our present efforts to make a better future.

"To find the courage, commitment, and hopefulness to face the challenges of our times, why would we turn to marketing mavens, management gurus, and niche strategists when our real sources of strength are in learning who we are, where we came from, and where we are going?"

Dan has a similar view in that he wants us to consider how to change the scripts that govern so much of what we do as a society and how and why we do it. He wants us to ask good questions instead of merely lining up behind somebody's given answers.  He acknowledges that this is profoundly subversive.  And that is why I think so many avatars of the status quo, both religious and non-religious, and those who profess a form of social change that promises big, but delivers small, will be uncomfortable with this book. And that is why we can expect that Dan and Changing the Script will probably be Oppenheimered many times more.  Fortunately, there is a growing community of writers, scholars and activists who see through the elite narratives and are ready, willing and able to tell a different story.

When elite opinion writers like Oppenheimer get the history of the Religious Right so wrong, that is an obstacle to thoughtful public (and private) discussion.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sun Aug 08, 2010 at 09:09:44 PM EST

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