Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Christian Right IX 79

Synopsis of a section of Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy: Chapter 4, Radicalized Religion

“Few questions will be more important to the twenty-first century United States than whether renascent religion and its accompanying political hubris will be carried on the nation's books as an asset or as a liability. While sermons and rhetoric propounding American exceptionalism proclaim religiosity as an asset, a somber array of historical precedents – the pitfalls of imperial Christian overreach from Rome to Britain – tip the scales toward liability.” Thus writes Kevin Philips as an introduction to this topic. Phillips notes that the radical side of U.S. Religion embraces cultural anti-modernism, war hawkishness, Armageddon prophecy, and for conservative fundamentalists, a demand for government by literal biblical interpretation. Numerically, fundamentalists are taking over American Protestantism.

In colonial days, Britain was unlike continental powers in its willingness to populate its colony with religious dissenters – English and Welch Puritans, Baptists, Quakers, Scottish and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. But Jews from many parts of Europe came to America as well as Huguenots from France and various German-speaking people fleeing wars: Moravian, Palatines, Amish, Mennonites, Anabaptists, Dunkers and Salzburgers. After independence, these multiple creeds all but mandated tolerance and ruled out any official church, although Congregational churches remained official for Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Protestants tended to move to an individualist and anti-hierarchical faith that emphasized a personal relationship with God, as observed during the Great Awakening of 1740 and the second awakening of the early 1800s. There were periodic revivals and new sect founders' claims to special revelations such as the Mormons. These faiths also diversified among themselves. In 2002, Mark Nolls' The Old Religion in a New World counted 19 separate Presbyterian denominations, 32 Lutheran, 36 Methodist, 37 Episcopal or Anglican, 60 Baptist and 241 Pentecostal as of 1996. Each Sunday, the Los Angeles Times publishes a directory of services that includes more than six hundred denominations.

Noll predicts that the most important Christian schisms will increasingly follow theological-ideological lines rather than denominational lines. Noll also notices the existence of what he calls “populist innovations,” which are forms of worship developed by lay people. Phillips guesses that seven to ten percent of church-goers are Pentecostals and another quarter are full-fledged end-times believers/

Gallup polls in the mid-1980s showed some 33 percent of respondents said they had been born again; this figure climbed to 44-46 percent by the early 2000s. Phillips notes that “George W. Bush's own tale of coming to God struck a chord in the churchgoing Untied States that would have been impossible in less-observant Europe. As sects mature, they “compromise their 'errand into the wilderness' and then... lose their organizational vigor, eventually to be replaced by less worldly groups, whereupon the process is repeated.” This trend has accelerated in the twentieth century. Noll states that “previously marginal groups have become larger and more important, while previously central denominations have moved toward the margins...The Protestant bodies whose rates of growth in recent decades have exceeded general population increases – sometimes far exceeded—are nearly all characterized by such labels as Bible-believing, born again, conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist, holiness, Pentecostal, or restorationist.”

Whereas in Europe, the countries that bred anarchic sects – England, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands – lost congregations of magnitude adhering to that theology, in America they increased and are still increasing early in the twenty-first century. And America has added its own sects from the Disciples of Christ to the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses. Methodism itself created breakaway movements like the Church of God, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Church of the Nazarene and Church of God in Christ. The decline of the mainline churches was obvious after the first World War and accelerated during the 1930s. Stark and Finke compare revivalist tendencies of the public with a more or less steady rise in the percentage of Americans who stated some religious adherence – from 17 percent in 1776 to 34 percent in 1850 to 45 percent in 1890, 56 percent in 1926, 62 percent in 1980 and 63 percent in 2000. Phillips, himself perhaps the best demographics expert in America, figures that about one in four Americans, 25 percent, are not affiliated with a church from this network of conservative Protestant churches.. About 15 percent are members of mainline churches.

Phillips states that the rival-prone sectarian and radical side of American religion “ breeding a politics of cultural narrowness, moral and biblical bickering, revivalism in the White House [under Bush] and international warfare to spread the gospel, fulfill the Book of Revelation, or both. Yet far from being a sudden national departure, religion's powerful role in U.S. Politics and warfare goes back to the seventeenth century.” Phillips states that the U.S. voting patterns since the 1950s impels him to assert that religion is the first question a surveyor ought to ask the potential voters.

Mark Noll and contributor Lyman Kellstadt wrote in the 1990 publication Religion and American Politics, “Social scientists studying twentieth-century politics have assumed, until quite recently, that religion in America is a private affair of little public influence. From this assumption, the conclusion followed that it was not worth studying religion with the same emphasis that sociologists and political scientists devoted to race, income, education and other important social variables. Scholarship on nineteenth-century America should have shaken these assumptions, but it took the surge of the Religious Right to alert academics to the continuing salience of religion in political life.”

Phillips points out that this isn't really news. In the Revolutionary War, the Congregationalist and Presbyterian churches furnished the highest ratios of patriots in 1776, just a their antecedent groups had been leaders o the parliamentary side in the England of the 1640s. But colonists who had been Anglicans [now Episcopalians] tended to support the Crown if they were High Church and the Revolution if they were Low Church. Phillips also asserts that when parties were formed in the 1790s, “religious divisions again bulked large. The depleted ranks of Anglicans joined New England Congregationalists on the conservative (Federalist) side, whereas the anti-ecclesiastical Baptists of the southern backcountry were ardent Jeffersonians. Phillips quotes Religion and the American Civil War to demonstrate the vital religious cleavages behind the Civil War and its aftermath.
These religious lines began to shift in the 1940s and 1950s, with new alignments appearing from the 1960s to the present day. The 2004 election saw a clear religious divide. Bush “proclaimed America's commitment to upholding liberty and freedom,” being”...twin threads of justification for was [which] hark back to the Reformation...but they always applied to internal freedoms and jeopardies. That U.S. Protestant theology has now refocused itself on the biblical holy lands as a battleground is just another of the extraordinary transformations taking place on account of the influence of religion on American politics and war.”

American Self-Perception of Being a Chosen People and Nation

Americans often believe themselves special, “a people and a nation chosen by God to play a unique and even redemptive role in the world,” Phillips notes. He also points out that other “nations whose leaders and people believed much the same thing wound up deeply disillusioned, as when Spanish armadas were destroyed while flying holy banners at their mastheads and when World War I German belt buckles proclaiming 'Gott Mit Uns' became objects of derision in the Kaiser's defeated army.”

“Millennial prophecies have fared no better,” Phillips continues. “They conspicuously failed in the fourth century, at the millennium in 1000, amid the tumult of the medieval Crusades, during the savage seventeenth-century European religious wars, in pre-revolutionary New England, in the U.S. Civil War period, during World War I, and in 2000. In consequence, believers have time and time again had to work out elaborate explanations for why Jesus did not appear, why premillennial claims had not been borne out. Books and videos detailing and amplifying these relentless embarrassments and disappointments – as far as I know, few such exist-- might offer a useful counterpoint to the end-times and second-coming materials marketed in such profusion by current fundamentalist drummers.”

Phillip notes that “the importance of supposed biblical covenants with God in shaping self-perceived national identities as a New Israel must be raised here. The relevance is that such peoples tend to be zealous, driven by history – risky leadership for a great power.” Phillips adds that the American South is most caught up in manifest destiny and covenanted relationships with God.

Anthony Smith, professor of ethnicity and nationalism at the London School of Economics, in Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity limits “...this post-Reformation syndrome in Europe to the British Isles and the Netherlands.... Outside Europe, he includes the United States, Afrikaner (Dutch) South Africa, and the latter-day Zionist reprise of ancient Israel.

What the Boers and Ultermen share, Phillips tells us, “ the biblical attitudes their people invariably share: religious intensity insecure history, and willingness to sign up with an Old Testament god of war for protection... these are proud, driven peoples, not ones who would find it easy to get risk insurance.” Phillips notes that Donald H. Akenson states in God's Peoples, “...other parallels in their shared Old Testament moralities of tribal purity and sacred territoriality.” Phillips notes that in this sense, “...Israelis and, to an extent, Scripture-reading Americans are on their ways to being the last peoples of the covenant.”

In God's New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny, Conrad Cherry found the American Revolution and the Civil War to be the principal revelatory building blocks, since “The first was a moment when God delivered their colonies from Pharaoh Britain and the 'evils' of the Old World, revealed the purposes of the nation, and adopted the Young Republic as an example and instrument of freedom and republican government for the rest of the world. The Civil War was the nation's first real 'time of testing' when God tried the permanence of the Union or, in some interpretations, brought judgment upon his wayward people.” Cherry wrote, “Beheld from the angle of governing mythology, the history of the American civil religion is a history of the conviction that the American people are God's New Israel, his newly chosen people.” Phillips suggests that “theology” might be a better word. “The outlook that Israel, Ulster and South Africa supposedly had in common – the sense of a biblical nationhood bathed in blood and tribulation – closely resembles the scriptural fidelity and religious nationalism forged by the South but too little understood beyond its bounds. This mentality now has an unprecedented influence in the United States as a whole.”

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