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Faith And Consequences

Who would now deny that the political ascendancy of the religious right has been bad for the United States? Its destructive consequences are plain for all to see. It has polarized the nation. It has injected theological certainties into public life. It has led political leaders to invest their aims and their deeds with metaphysical significance. It has made America a laughingstock in the eyes of the educated of the world. And it has encouraged devout believers to think of themselves as agents of the divine, and their political opponents as enemies of God. ~Damon Linker

I’ll be interested to hear Prof. Fox and Ross‘ reactions to this, because I expect that Prof. Fox will probably agree to some of this but ultimately find the critique to be overreaching and Ross will challenge most of the assumptions contained in this paragraph.  My response just to this first paragraph may take a post all its own.  The rest of the review of Wayward Christian Soldiers is actually much better than this initial framing that makes it part of Linker’s tired, old project of forcible separation of religion and politics.  The main reason for this is that Marsh’s thesis is much better than Linker’s own arguments on these subjects, but when Marsh is allowed to speak he makes many important points.  But first let us deal with Linker. 

It is debatable that the “religious right” has “polarized the nation,” but more than that is questionable whether the nation really is as polarised as Linker says, and further it is not obvious that this is undesirable even if it were true.  That is, it’s not clear that these consequences, even if the result of the activities of the “religious right,” are actually “destructive.”  The closer one looks at “the religious right,” the more one is struck by the extraordinary degree of hand-waving in which it engages and the paucity of influence it really has when all is said and done, but let us suppose that it has been able to do the things Linker claims.  Theological certainties are basically good things–why wouldn’t we want them “injected” into public life?  “Injected” sounds bad–this is the sort of thing that junkies and poisoners do, they “inject” things, bad things, into their bodies or others’ bodies–but if instead we said that religious conservatives introduced (or re-introduced) theological certainties into public life, not only would religious conservatives agree that they have done, or tried to do, this, but they would be baffled as to why anyone would be concerned.  

If you believe in God and His final judgement, everyone‘s acts and goals have metaphysical significance.  Linker has put things rather crudely, since this line does not just strike at Mr. Bush’s gnostic madness, but effectively attacks providential order and transcendent moral order by implying that there is something awry in attributing metaphysical significance to earthly acts.  The thing he is really attacking is the revolutionary urge to realise the Kingdom here below, but as so often with secular critics of religious conservatism Linker does not distinguish between fanatics and traditionalists.  Again, if you believe in God, everyone is ultimately an instrument of God and everyone is part of His providential order.  This is not something concocted by religious conservatives, and in any case it is once again not clear why this is inherently “destructive” or undesirable.  When Mr. Bush dresses up his war of aggression as part of some mission to realise God’s plan of liberating the world–a crazier, more destructive form of liberation theology, I dare say, than most of what comes out of Trinity United–that is worthy of condemnation, and, of course, manytraditionalists have condemned it.    

Most depressing of all is this passage:

Just as the history of the civil rights movement has led the overwhelming majority of African Americans to identify themselves with the Democratic Party, so the vast run of evangelical Protestants have come to view the Republican Party as their natural home–the place on the American political spectrum where their distinctive outlook will be represented and championed.

I call this depressing because I am confident that many evangelicals believe this, and even now do not see that their genuine enthusiasm and loyalty are taken utterly for granted.  Their outlook will not be represented and championed.  It will be patted on the head and told to stay in its place, and if religious conservatives are very, very good, they will get an anti-Roe cookie while the culture goes to bits around them.  

Marsh, the author of the book, is right that the administration has engaged in blasphemy in its rhetoric.  Of course it has.  As I wrote last year:

For the same reason, there is something deeply disturbing about the conflation of God’s gifts and political liberty, and especially with the political liberation of other nations. (Disregard for the moment whether such liberation of other peoples is entirely genuine or in the best interests of the United States.) First, it can dangerously blur the lines between the sacred and the profane, investing the “freedom agenda” with a divine mandate and the presumption to represent God’s will in a shockingly impious manner. Even more importantly, in President Bush’s claim that God bestows universal freedom on all of humanity there is the danger of encouraging despair and loss of faith in a God who supposedly gives universal freedom but nonetheless withholds it from billions of our fellow human beings and who denied it to most of humanity for thousands of years. Bush’s assertion ends up sounding rather like a theistic version of Rousseau’s “man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains,” which is a suggestion either of divine impotence or an invitation to revolutionary warfare to realize God’s supposed purpose of bestowing universal, political freedom on the world.

While I think the following overstates things a bit, I have a hard time disagreeing with this:

Just as nineteenth-century German theologians tailored God to fit the psychological needs of the rising bourgeoisie and the political needs of the Rechtsstaat, so twenty-first-century American evangelicals take their theological cues not from the Bible or the Church Fathers but from Karl Rove and Michael Gerson. 

More to the point, Gerson took his theological cues from his own sentimentalism, and the administration took its theological language from Gerson, and evangelical supporters of the administration embraced what Gerson had Bush tell them.  There is something painfully true about the critique of modern American evangelicalism as a form of liberal Protestantism, but not exactly for the reasons Linker gives.  It is the obsession with sentiment and feeling that unite the two.  Count me as broadly sympathetic with Marsh and Barth in their reaction against this, despite my obvious confessional and other differences with both.  Emotionalistic religion is not just personally alien to me, but I think it is a case of succcumbing to disordered passion.  We are all subject to disordered passion, but one of the worst kinds of this is the kind that distorts our understanding of revelation.

Update: Prof. Fox points to his response, which he wrote when the article came out a couple weeks ago.  Ross probably also responded already.  I must not have been paying much attention that week.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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