Richmond, Va.–The Christian theocrats are said to be running amok in Red America, rousing the rabble with their strange beliefs and perhaps stoking the dungeon fires as they finalize their hit lists. Of course it doesn’t take much to be accused of religious intrigue and assault these days: An Air Force cadet who sent an e-mail containing a Christian message was last week accused of harassment.
It seems we are in the midst of a new Red Scare–with Commies being replaced by Red State Christians and their allies in the Blue zone.
Yet in the course of reporting a new book (Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity) I found little evidence of a crusading spirit here in Jesusland. Quite the contrary. Not long ago, many people who are today called fanatical believers would have been labeled fully formed heretics. They may take their faith seriously, but they don’t take it to the streets.
The Kiwanis Invasion!
Be assured that rumors of impending theocracy are not confined to New York Times columnists. The Episcopal priest posted at historic St. John’s Church in Richmond, Va., where Patrick Henry made his liberty-or-death speech, told me, and his congregation, that theocrat-types appear to be bankrolling the breakaway movement within the Episcopal Church, which was inspired by the elevation of the Rev. Eugene Robinson, an openly gay priest, to bishop.
The fear of Episcopalians establishing a theocracy, even in a small hamlet, is highly amusing, something akin to fearing a military takeover led by the Kiwanis Club. Such is the level of hysteria.
Yet one finds little of the crusading spirit of religious certitude even among the dread born-again Christians and Evangelicals. Pollsters, including the much-quoted George Barna, have instead divined widespread heterodoxy and a live-and-let-live attitude.
Born-again Christians simply aren’t as generally advertised. Consider their view of Jesus, once regarded as the Sinless One. Twenty-eight percent agree that “while he lived on earth, Jesus committed sins, like other people.” That is far from a crusading belief. Even further afield, 35 percent of these supposedly hard-core believers do not believe Jesus experienced a physical resurrection, a belief shared by 39 percent of the general population (85 percent of Americans say they believe that Jesus is “spiritually alive,” whatever that may mean. One recalls that many Americans believe their deceased pets are now ghosts, which may also qualify as being spiritually alive. )
Satan? Let’s Not Talk About Such Things
In this same spirit, 52 percent of born agains believe the Holy Spirit is merely a symbol of God’s presence or power but is not a living entity, not much different than the general adult population (61 percent). Nor does the devil find much support. Nearly 60 percent of American adults say Satan does not exist as a being at all, but is merely a symbol of evil; 45 percent of born again Christians agree.
These supposed storm troopers of the religious right have surprisingly little interest in bringing non-believers into the fold. Over one quarter–26 percent–think it doesn’t matter what faith a person has because religions teach pretty much the same thing, while 50 percent believe a life of “good works” will get you into heaven. They are also more politically heterodox than rumored. According to 2001 figures, 38 percent of Democrats, 57 percent of Republicans, and 35 percent of Independents consider themselves born again Christians. Political analyst and writer Steve Waldman reminds us that “at least 10 million white evangelical Christians voted for Gore.”
All told, these are not the beliefs of a crusading army, and only a small portion of believers should be considered truly devout, Fr. John McCloskey told me. McCloskey, an evangelist and traditionalist Catholic who is credited with helping bring Robert Bork, Robert Novak, Larry Kudlow, and Sen. Sam Brownback into the Roman Catholic Church, says that only about ten percent of Catholics are “with the program,” by which he means they regularly attend Mass, go to Confession, and attempt to conform their lives fully to church teachings. The ten-percent figure turned up elsewhere as well. Dr. Albert Mohler, head of a Southern Baptist Convention seminary in Louisville, told me that only about ten percent of Protestants are serious believers, by which he meant people who take scripture not only seriously but as a guide to behavior and thought.
Ten percent can of course make a difference, and to be sure there are conservative believers who hope to influence politics. Their bold assertion is that being seriously religious should not be a disenfranchising offence. Many are also under the firm belief that most of the crusading comes from the secular world. Father McCloskey’s website, for instance, includes an essay in which he muses about the possibility of large-scale martyrdom of North American Christians.
Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention does harbor hope of reestablishing a more religious public environment. If school days and football games began with the Lord’s Prayer, and abortion on demand was not the law of the land, would that constitute a theocracy? If so, America was a theocracy until fairly recently. Traditionalists have the better part of the argument, from my perspective, when they say they seek a restoration, not a revolution, and that indeed a secular revolution has increasingly marginalized public expressions of religious faith (for my part, I believe abortion restrictions and school prayer will not be restored, though both will continue as fundraising issues for those on both sides).
The will to grope any degree of power was simply not on many lips. Charles Colson, once said to be the second most powerful man in America during his service to Richard Nixon, reflected a more prevalent view: Political power is to be distrusted, even when held by religious people. Colson is a Southern Baptist and, in my opinion, an American hero for his work with prisoners. He noted that when Christians held the keys to temporal empires they often abused that power. “Maybe we were always meant to be counter-culturists” he said.
Just like the Founder, it seems.
Christianity has been embroiled in the political arena from its start, but the more interesting story, at least from my perspective, is the war within the faith, and within those who practice it. In Exodus, I interviewed several Christians who are familiar to NRO readers: Colson, Andy Ferguson, Frederica Matthewes-Green, Al Regnery, Fr. McCloskey, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and his colleague Albert Mohler, among many others. Several had make the trek from the mainline denominations into Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and more traditionalist Protestant denominations.
There is much that divides them but they are united by a fairly common vision of God, one at great variance with the God of the liberal churches. The progressive God often resembles a social worker or a lodge brother, or perhaps the guy on the next bar stool. He wants to help us realize our full potential. He is our copilot, mostly along for the ride and eager to take the wheel in case of turbulence or while we unwrap our sandwiches. His main reason for existence is to bring us in for a three-point landing in paradise.
The more traditionalist God, who is gaining favor among Americans, is of a sterner nature. He makes demands, and requires obedience. He will bring low the mighty, and raise the humble to glorious heights. As Andy Ferguson puts it, this form of Christianity has been perhaps the most revolutionary force in world history.
This God does make liberals uneasy, a sensation made worse when they note the trend toward traditionalism throughout the world. In the southern hemisphere the traditionalist God reigns nearly supreme. In the north He has attracted the devotion of an entirely different demographic, including Robert Bork and Robert Novak. This spiritual alliance between the rapidly expanding southern populations and the Prince of Darkness is no doubt the stuff of progressive nightmares. [More from Shiflett on that tomorrow.–Ed.]
–Dave Shiflett is the author of Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity.