How political can you get?
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But it is one thing to say that the fundamentalists arrived at the public square reluctantly, and another thing to say that once they got there their inhibitions remained. This is what the fundamentalists’ defenders have tried to argue. “At heart, Falwell remains a country preacher,” wrote Dinesh D’Souza in his recent biography. Glazer too argues that the fundamentalists are engaged in a “defensive offensive” with limited aims. “If we withdraw from imposing the views and the beliefs of the cosmopolitan elite on the whole country,” he concludes, “we will find the new fundamentalism returning to its modest role in the American kaleidoscope.” Neuhaus, although he concedes that the activist fundamentalists “are not going to go back to the wilderness,” stresses the modesty of their eventual goals: “…the country cousins have shown up in force at the family picnic. They want a few rules changed right away. Other than that they promise to behave, provided we do not again try to exclude them from family deliberations.”
This is a seductive argument, especially for those with an interest in quieting what Neuhaus calls the “increasingly hysterical and increasingly hollow alarm” over the religious right. Yet — and this is Colson’s strongest point — it does not ring true, not so long as Jerry Falwell turns from TV evangelism to international ambulance chasing or Pat Robertson hungrily awaits word from God on whether to run for the presidency. There is simply too much eagerness in fundamentalist political activity — the exploitation of direct mail, the proliferation of PACs, the slick and lavish promotional efforts. They may have been pushed into politics, but now they like the game an awful lot. Tim LaHaye has on the cover of his monthly “Report from the Nation’s Capital” a picture of himself on the Senate steps. Is he troubled? Is he tight-lipped? No, he’s smiling, and somehow that seems entirely appropriate.
THE FACT IS THAT in some sense fundamentalism has always been a political movement waiting to happen. Historian Edwin Orr points out that the appeal of modern evangelicalism is for “enlistment, not repentance” — in other words, that evangelists have always exploited Christianity’s populist characteristics, its potential as a social movement, at the expense of the more demanding aspects of Protestant theology. Even as it has been in reaction to secular America, fundamentalist culture has shown a marked ability to adapt to social trends. Evangelical historian George Marsden calls this a historic propensity to respond to secularization “by bless[ing] its manifestations — such as materialism, capitalism, and nationalism — with Christian symbolism.” In the fifties that meant that Oral Roberts, in preaching to a largely rural and poor audience, recast the gospel into a variation of the American dream. His text was John 3:2 — “I wish above all things that thou may prospereth and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth” — not the book of Job. And today? Consider the two rules from Pat Robertson’s 1982 manifesto The Secret Kingdom. This is yuppie theology: “First, there is absolute abundance in the kingdom of God. Second, it is possible to have total favor with the ruler of that abundance…. If a person is continuously in sickness, poverty, or other physical or mental straits, then he is missing the truths of the Kingdom.” As Notre Dame historian Nathan Hatch sums up the modern evangelists: “[They] spoke the language of peace of mind in the 1950s, developed a theology of ‘body-life’ and community in the wake of the 1960s, and are currently infatuated with a gospel of self-esteem that correlates precisely with the contemporary passion for self-fulfillment.”
In other words, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the fundamentalists have taken to the political process so quickly and completely. That strain in fundamentalism that believes in an abundant God, what Colson calls the notion of God as a “rich and benevolent uncle,” has easily adapted to modern America’s emphasis on acquiring and using political power. If prosperity is the gift of God, then so must be the political clout that comes with it. Do the fundamentalist meek still inherit the earth? Pat Robertson, the Christian entrepreneur made good, doesn’t seem to think so. “God uses oak trees,” he says, somewhat obscurely, “not mushrooms.” For Tim LaHaye, making it in America means making it in Washington. Power is a Christian birthright. “If we comprise thirty percent of the people in this country,” he maintains, “we should hold thirty percent of the elected offices.”
This is a dangerous attitude for the Christian witness. For some on the religious right, advancing a political agenda has come to take precedence over even the most basic ethical considerations. A number of years ago, University of Chicago historian Martin Marty pointed out that the Moral Majority’s evaluation scale for politicians would have given then Congressman Paul Simon, a committed Christian, zero, and Florida Rep. Richard Kelly, who was fingered in the Abscam investigation for pocketing a $25,000 bribe, a perfect rating. Does this mean that Christians should still vote for Kelly over Simon? Yes, says Tim LaHaye: “If I had to choose between a rascal like Kelly and an anti-moralist, I would be inclined to vote for the rascal…”
In the fundamentalist world, ideological considerations have begun to color fellowship with other Christians. Just as Falwell found Bishop Tutu a “phony,” Tim LaHaye expresses puzzlement at the fact that Sen. Mark Hatfield can be a liberal and a Christian. “He’s a real enigma to us,” says LaHaye. “He must be a melancholy temperament. Melancholy temperaments are such supersonic idealists that they are often highly impractical.” And what of born-again Jimmy Carter? This time LaHaye is certain: “I shook hands with him twice and got absolutely no spiritual response.”
Colson’s objections to this politicized Christianity are not particularly radical, nor are they particularly new. In fact, these arguments have long been made against the religious left. Who remembers what Richard Neuhaus said of the political activism of the National Council of Churches just four years ago? “At stake, most ominously, is fidelity to the gospel of Christ. Chesterton said the great sin is to call a green leaf gray. It is the dullest gray to call salvation politics. The political task is urgent but it is one among many. Yet the imperiousness of the political in our culture is such that for many Christians the actual state of fellowship, how they relate to other Christians, is determined more by what one thinks of Ronald Reagan than by what one thinks of God.” Today, as some of the fundamentalists are guilty of these same sins, it is left to Chuck Colson, the Nixon hatchet-man turned evangelist, to sound the alarm — not over what a politically ascendant fundamentalism is doing to the rest of America, but over what it is doing to itself.
Malcolm Gladwell is a writer living in Washington, D.C.
(From the Feb. 1986 issue of The American Spectator.)
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H/T to National Review Online