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The root of all fears

Frank Schaeffer

Many UK observers remain mystified at the extent to which Obama's modest social reforms were demonised by US evangelical voters. Recovering
Frank Schaeffer offers a personal thesis on where the fear and loathing began.


The received wisdom about last year's midterm election swing is this: the culturally, intellectually and educationally disenfranchised 'little people' of the USA - many of them religious believers - lashed out at nefarious forces trying to 'take our country away.' In fact they were bought, paid for, sold, traded and manipulated by the only 'voters' who counted in the US election: billionaire corporate business leaders who effectively lynched the first black president with the handy rope provided by a right-wing political elite. But where did all this fear come from in the first place?

Anti-immigration xenophobic fearmongering was certainly a factor. So were the unemployment figures, illogically blamed on Obama despite the fact that he saved the economy from an actual depression. But economic discomfort alone doesn't lead people to say - and actually believe - that a US president is 'a secret Muslim', 'not American', even 'the Antichrist.' Nor do dispassionate fears about healthcare costs and deficits lead people seriously to claim that moderate healthcare reform will lead to 'death panels' and a 'socialist takeover'.
Something else was going on. To understand what, we need to look back at US religious history, especially the history of the culture wars since 1973.

Among many of the white anti-Obama voters, the 'Puritan heritage' of the USA, and the Constitution itself, are constantly cited as evidence for our need to return to our 'biblical roots' (be they biblical and/or constitutional). In doing so they are maintaining a grand old tradition: religious delusion as the basis for conquest. Back in the 17th century, the Puritans believed that they were importing 'authentic Christianity' to the US, especially as written in the Old Testament. They said that they were on a divine mission, even calling themselves 'The New Israel' and a 'city set upon a hill.' John Winthrop (Governor of Massachusetts Bay) transferred the idea of 'nationhood' in biblical Israel to the Massachusetts Bay Company. And the Puritans claimed they were God's 'Chosen People', with the right to grab land from the 'heathen.' These were the American Indians whom the Puritans thought of as the 'new Canaanites,' to be slaughtered with God's blessing and, in the case of the Pequot Indians, burned alive.

Fast forward nearly 400 years, and we find this mindset alive and kicking in the Tea Party and among many others who voted against Obama. To untangle the reasons why white lower class and white middle class people voted in droves against their own self-interest, we need to pick out three threads in particular, ignored at our peril by our secular-orientated media: 1) The 'End Times' fixation of the evangelicals; 2) The rise of so-called reconstructionist theology; and, 3) The culture war that began over the legalization of abortion. Let's look at them in order.

The evangelical/fundamentalist/Republican far right is in the grip of an apocalyptic 'rapture' cult centered on revenge and vindication. Their fixation on 'end times' is built on a literalist interpretation of the Book of Revelation, and has many followers. Perhaps most infamously, Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye's multi-million-selling Left Behind novels represent both a cause and a symptom of the hysteria that grips so many voters. Less innocuous manifestations include the growth in 'Christ-centered' home school curricula, an almost blanket fear of higher education ('we'll lose our children to secularism'), and opposition to Middle East peace initiatives, lest they delay the return of Jesus (for instance through the Houston megachurch pastor John Hagee's Christian Zionist-centered 'ministry').

The momentum for building a subculture that is seceding from mainstream society has irrevocably pried loose a chunk of the US population from both sanity and fellow citizens. Many are stocking up on assault rifles and ammunition, freeze-dried food and gold in order to await 'The End'. The hope held out by the self-disenfranchised in their Left Behind culture is that - at last - everyone will know 'We' were right and 'They' were wrong. What Jenkins, LaHaye, and the whole right-wing political elite cashed in on was this aggrieved sense of victimhood.

And yet the fundamentalists - political and religious - are hardly outsiders, let alone victims. Their very own George W Bush was in the White House for eight long, ruinous years and evangelicals also dominated US politics for the better part of 30 years before that by enforcing a series of 'moral' litmus tests that transformed the Republican Party into their very own lickspittle. Nevertheless, the white evangelical/conservative Roman Catholic sense of being a victimized minority only grew with their successes. 'You are not alone!' says talk-show host Glenn Beck, who gives himself away when he appears as a spokesperson for both gold companies and those selling survivalist gear to panicked citizens. His mix of 'prophetic' doom-mongering and preaching as 'news commentary' is a blend of home-grown remedies for social ills laced with a hard far right edge. And he's financed by Rupert Murdoch and given a gigantic platform, as illustrated by the massive 'non-political' political rally he held in Washington shortly before the midterm elections. His image and that of the so-called Tea Party are inextricably linked. Beck's genius was to reinforce his followers' sense that they were disenfranchised victims even as the election confirmed their power to turn Sarah Palin into a multimillionaire overnight and send the likes of Rand Paul to the Senate with his extreme libertarian prescription of no taxes, no social safety net.


Where did the 'victims' on the far right get their 'theology' of perpetual damn-the-facts victimhood from? I know more about this than I would wish, having once been a part of the movement that brought them into the limelight. My late father, Francis Schaeffer, was a key founder and leader of the US religious right, and for a time in the 1970s and early 80s I joined him in pioneering the movement's anti-abortion platform. Behind it all was the theology of reconstructionism, also called theonomism1, which seeks to reconstruct 'our fallen society.'

Most fundamentalists are positively moderate by comparison to the reconstructionist 'thinkers.' Most libertarians who formed the backbone of the Tea Party would hate them. But the reconstructionist movement is simply a distilled version of the more mainstream evangelical version of exclusionary theology that divides the USA into the 'Real America' (as the far right claim only they are) and the rest of us 'sinners.' The reconstructionist worldview is ultra Calvinist, but like all Calvinism has its origins in the nastier parts of the Old Testament, with its primitive tribal lore and stark rules for purification.
The father of modern-era Christian reconstruct-ionism was the late Rousas Rushdoony, a Calvinist theologian who created the modern evangelical home-schooling movement. Other leaders included his son-in-law Gary North, an economist, publisher and leading conspiracy theorist2, and David Chilton, an ultra-Calvinist pastor and author. Their worldview is best represented by the publications of the Chalcedon Foundation, which has been classified as an anti-gay hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. According to the Chalcedon Foundation website, the mission of the movement is to apply 'the whole Word of God' to all aspects of human life: 'It is not only our duty as individuals, families and churches to be Christian, but it is also the duty of the state, the school, the arts and sciences, law, economics, and every other sphere to be under Christ the King. Nothing is exempt from His dominion. We must live by His Word, not our own.'3

Most people in the US have never heard of reconstructionism. But they have felt its impact through the Reconstructionists' (often indirect) influence over the wider evangelical community. In turn, the evangelicals shaped the politics of a secular culture that barely understood the religious right let alone the forces within that movement that gave it its rage.

It's no coincidence that the rise of the Islamic brotherhoods in Egypt and Syria and the rise of reconstructionism took place in more or less the same 20th-century time frame - as modernism, science and 'permissiveness' collided with a frightened conservatism rooted in religion. The writings of people such as Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and those of Rushdoony are virtually interchangeable when it comes to their goals of 'restoring God' to his 'rightful place' as he presides over law and morals. As David Chilton explained:
'Our goal is a Christian world, made up of explicitly Christian nations. How could a Christian desire anything else? Our Lord Himself taught us to pray: "Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6: 10)… The Lord's Prayer is a prayer for the worldwide dominion of God's Kingdom… a world of decentralized theocratic republics.... That is the only choice: pagan law or Christian law. God specifically forbids "pluralism." God is not the least bit interested in sharing world dominion with Satan.'4
The message of Rushdoony's work is best summed up in one of his innumerable Chalcedon Foundation position papers,5 'The Increase of His Government and Peace.' He writes: '[T]he ultimate and absolute government of all things shall belong to Christ.' In his book Thy Kingdom Come - using words that are similar to those the leaders of al-Qa'eda would use decades later in reference to 'true Islam' - Rushdoony argues that democracy and Christianity are incompatible: 'Democracy is the great love of the failures and cowards of life,' he writes. 'One [biblical] faith, one law and one standard of justice did not mean democracy. The heresy of democracy has since then worked havoc in church and state… Christianity and democracy are inevitably enemies.'7

The significance and rise of the reconstructionists and their (often indirect) impact on the wider evangelical subculture can only be understood in the context of the Roe vs Wade legal debate. In the Supreme Court ruling of January 22, 1973, the right to privacy was discovered to be 'broad enough to encompass' a right to abortion. A state could enact some regulation only in the third trimester of pregnancy8, and even then only for the purpose of protecting maternal health. Subsequently, Doe vs Bolton (also in 1973) defined 'health' to mean 'all factors' that affect the woman, including 'emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age.'

Roe and Bolton energized the culture war like nothing else before or since. Even today, we've seen its legacy in the Tea Party movement's passionate predictions that Obama's moderate legislative health care reform would result in 'death panels.' Roe also indirectly energized even those members of the far right - for instance the Tea Party's pro-choice libertarians - who didn't care about abortion per se. The volume and anger of the recent anti-government 'debate' and anger originated there. I know, because I was part of that movement, sitting down with Republican leaders to help them cement their alliance with the pro-life community. I personally organized the 1984 publication of President Ronald Reagan's anti-abortion book,  which was ghost-written by the Catholic anti-abortion crusader Jim McFadden. We cooked up the project together over the phone, and went on to deliver huge blocks of faithful and energized Republican voters.

No one seemed to notice that the Republicans weren't really doing anything about our chosen hot-button issue and, like many of my fellow activists, my original and deeply felt moral qualms about abortion were soon subsumed by the adrenalin rush of the chase for headlines. The real issue was keeping Republicans in power and keeping evangelical leaders in the ego-stroking loop of having access to power. Even then it shocked me how easy it was to manipulate the masses - and ultimately I dropped out and crossed the political tracks, as conflicted about faith as abortion. (Today I'm pro-choice, believing abortion should be both de-stigmatised and legal, but only up to an early stage of pregnancy - cases of foetal deformity, rape, incest and threats to maternal life excepted).

Ironically, the evangelicals' entry into bare-knuckle politics over Roe coincided with our retreat into what amounted to virtual walled compounds. We created a parallel 'Christian America,' our very own private world, as it were, posted with 'No Trespassing' signs. Our new 'world' was about creating a Puritan/reconstructionist-style holy-nation-within-our-fallen-nation. This went far beyond mere alternative schools and home schools. Thousands of new Christian bookstores opened, countless evangelical radio programs flourished in the 1970s and 80s, and new TV stations went on the air.9 Even a 'Christian Yellow Pages' (a guide to evangelical tradesmen) was published advertising 'Christ-centered plumbers,' accountants and the like who 'honor Jesus.' New Evangelical universities and even new law schools appeared, seemingly overnight with a clearly defined mission to 'take back' each and every profession - including law and politics - 'for Christ.' For instance, Liberty University's Law School was the creation of the late Jerry Falwell, who told me in 1983 of his vision for Liberty's programs: 'Frank, we're going train a new generation of judges and world leaders in the law from a Christian worldview to change America.'10 This was the same Jerry Falwell who wrote in America Can Be Saved:  'I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won't have any public schools.'11

To the old-fashioned Goldwater-type conservative mantra of 'big government doesn't work,' in the 1970s the newly-radicalized evangelicals added 'The US government is evil!' Our swapping of spiritual faith for the illusion of political power - I say 'illusion' since even in the 1970s and 1980s the real power was in the hands of large corporations and the political elite - meant that we would tell people how to vote, but that we didn't want our kids going to school with theirs. We'd wind up defending not just private schools and home schooling to 'protect' our children from the world, but also the private oil companies and private gas-guzzling polluting cars, private insurance conglomerates and so forth.

The price for the religious right's wholesale idolatry of private everything was that Christ's reputation was tied to a cynical political party owned by billionaires from the fast-food industry, raping the earth (not to mention our health), to the oil companies destroying our climate. It only remained for a far right Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court to rule  in January 2010 that unlimited corporate money could pour - anonymously - into political campaigns in a way that clearly favoured corporate USA and the super wealthy.12 In the Republican Party's defence of the individual against the government, the 'individuals' have turned out to be Exxon, the Koch brothers, Rupert Murdoch, McDonald's and Goldman Sachs et al.

Which brings us back to last year's midterms, in which these corporate interests, the Republican Party leadership and the Tea Party simply cashed in on the 'biblically-based' antigovernment passion unleashed by the religious right. In the end, we simply created a climate where the very legitimacy of our government, even any government, is up for grabs.

Following the election of our first black president, the politics of the evangelical, Roman Catholic and Mormon far right was not the politics of a loyal opposition, but the instigation of race-tinged revolution. This was first and best expressed by Rush Limbaugh when he said, 'I hope Obama fails.' It was politics of this nature that won the 2010 midterm elections - the logical conclusion of the process of de-legitimizing the federal government that was launched by the reconstructionists, the anti-abortion movement and of course continues to be fed by the Left Behind apocalyptic revenge fantasy.

The billionaires who politically lynched the president don't ultimately care about the ordinary US citizens who got them what they wanted. Their ideology is pure unconstrained market, their only sacrament is fear. And their reward for cashing in on religious middle-America's addiction to this fear is to walk away with our country. Fear-filled citizens don't get anything in return, unless you count the fleeting visceral pleasure of putting 'that uppity black man' in the White House in his place.

And now what? Having once counted myself among their number, it's hard for me to demonise the ordinary millions who chose to tie Obama's hands by handing Congress back to the Republicans. We're all prone to listen to our fears rather than our potential but there's time yet to lean across the divide - and scope for a little humility of both sides. The increasing international perception of the US church as a band of homophobic Republican hicks with guns pains me deeply - but it's challenged by many Christians who refuse to resort to the tribal posturing of the Old Testament: Jim Wallis's Sojourners spring to mind, among many other evangelicals who have picked better issues to campaign on: international development, social inclusion and healthcare reform.

What ultimately brought me out of the trenches of the far right were the nobler parts of Christianity, traditions of beauty in art, music and literature - and the fact that my heart knew, even as I made my deals with Republican power, that something was hollow at the centre of my certainty. There is no forgone conclusion that all Bible reading must be filtered through the literalistic agenda of the far right. Enlightened believers have been picking and choosing their verses all along, as abolitionists did, ignoring the pro-slavery parts in favour of a bigger message of compassion and freedom.

You could say that the best of any religious tradition depends on the choices made by its adherents on how to live despite their holy books, not because of them. The alternative is to embrace faith in God by thinking. 'But where would that leave me?' my former self might ask. 'I'd be adrift in an ocean of uncertainty.'

Yes, and perhaps that's the only honest place to be. Another name for uncertainty is humility. No one ever blew up a mosque - or an abortion clinic - after yelling: 'I could be wrong…'