"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Thursday, April 28, 2016

When Historians Attack

[One in an occasional series.]

The fine line between doing history and doing opinion journalism: By crawling into bed with an academic cum unabashed left-wing polemicist like Randall Balmer, John Fea of Messiah College's attempt to link Ted Cruz with "Christian Dominionism" may be risking the same guilt-by-association charge of scholarly hackery that surrounds David Barton.

Plus the act is rather dated. What philosopher James K.A. Smith calls "Theocracy Alarmists, Inc." is showing its age, as Ross Douthat reported way back in 2006 in that other age of theocracy, under George W. Bush:
...whereas Randall Balmer’s Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament is less forgivable, because Balmer ought to have known better.
He is an evangelical Christian, a professor of religious history at Columbia, and the author of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, a largely sympathetic exploration of evangelical belief in America. Yet Thy Kingdom Come—a glorified pamphlet, despite its endless subtitle—is indistinguishable from the general run of secularist hysterics, save for a smug reference to Balmer’s spotless Sunday school attendance record and a patina of “real Baptist” outrage over how the Religious Right has supposedly hijacked his heritage. There’s certainly room, after thirty years of culture war, for an informed and evenhanded critique of Christian conservatism, and Balmer’s background would seem to make him an ideal writer for the job.
But while he occasionally nods in the direction of intelligent criticism—noting the disparity between the Christian Right’s fixation on gay marriage, say, and its long-running silence on divorce; or zinging religious conservatives for writing the Bush administration a blank check in the war on terror—these arguments are quickly dropped in favor of the usual litany of anti-theocrat complaints, flavored with the usual apocalyptic rhetoric.
“What would America look like if the Religious Right had its way?” Balmer wonders. “The best answer” is that Christian conservatism “hankers for the kind of homogeneous theocracy that the Puritans tried to establish in seventeenth-century Massachusetts.” A few attempts to insert Intelligent Design into public school curricula constitute an “insidious” plot to overturn the Enlightenment, while the campaign to allow voluntary prayer in public schools is an attempt “to dismantle the First Amendment.” In the debate over vouchers and homeschooling, Balmer (who opposes both) assures his readers that “the future of American democracy hangs in the balance.”
Once again, all roads lead to [R.J.] Rushdoony. Reconstructionism, Thy Kingdom Come asserts, has driven evangelicalism’s “radical tack to the right,” influencing everyone from Pat Robertson to Richard Land to Jerry Falwell to Roy Moore. But unlike Rudin or Phillips, Balmer doesn’t bother to do close readings of conservative speeches, teasing out the Reconstructionist code words and theocratic allusions. He has all the evidence he needs: The Rushdoonian Chalcedon Foundation’s website, Balmer announces with the air of a lawyer delivering an airtight summation, once published a defense of Roy Moore, which was penned “by an associate professor at Falwell’s Liberty University.” So Rushdoony is Moore is Falwell: Case closed. 
When the evidence for Rushdoonian infiltration of the Religious Right grows thin for even the most diligent decoder, the subject is usually changed to the Rapture, another supposed pillar of the emerging theocratic edifice. Premillenarian dispensationalism’s emphasis on the imminent collapse of all institutions, foreign and domestic, would seem an odd fit with Reconstructionism’s idea of hastening Christ’s coming by building his (political) kingdom on Earth. But every 1950s conspiracist knew that when Communists seemed to differ—Tito and Stalin, Stalin and Mao—it only concealed a deeper concord. Similarly, everyone on the Christian Right is understood to be on the same side, no matter their superficial disagreements.
Mercy.

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