Many have written about the chasm between conservative and liberal, or
religious and secular America: the starkly divided red and the blue spaces
of the United States. Yet few seem to fully grasp the nature of the private
morality in the American heartland that is driving politics at home and
abroad. I live on this fault line in Oklahoma City. I hear it every time I
talk to my family in Texas.
After Empire Page editor Peter Pollak visited Oklahoma in April 2004,
he wrote me: "Unless one visits the 'heart-land' and hears what honest,
hard-working and moral people hear, read and believe, one can't understand
American politics. 2004 is not going to close the gap."
This gap seems to be growing wider, in fact. It is one thing to
observe from a distance that millions of Americans who are President Bush's
strongest supporters are in the throes of an "extraordinary delusion," with
their faith leading them to seek an apocalypse. It is another matter to
witness how private morality in mid-America shapes the conduct of people in
often admirable ways. Trying to connect or balance the "salt of the earth"
personal warmth and generosity of mid-Americans with the political
intolerance many of them support is a great challenge.
To understand how people here in mid-America look at the world, it
helps to recall an extraordinary polarity in the last presidential election.
60% of Oklahomans voted for Bush in 2000. Only three states voted in a
significantly larger percentage for Bush: Wyoming at 68%, and Utah and Idaho
at 67%. Move over from the Rockies to the Great Plains, start at the
Canadian border and move south, and the percentage of support for Bush is
almost identical: North Dakota 61%, South Dakota 60%, Nebraska 62%, Kansas
58%, Texas 59%. This is the bedrock of the doctrine of American
When you see only slighter low majorities for Bush in the South, it is
astounding that Gore actually outpolled Bush by over half a million votes.
That support for "liberal" or progressive politics is confined primarily to
small urban pockets on the West and East Coasts, and in the upper Midwest
near the Canadian border.
During 11 years in California, when I told my university peers that I
had moved from Texas, many condescended, or reacted as if I had a dread
disease. I have lived in several progressive urban centers like the San
Francisco Bay Area, and I know that it is impossible for most people in
those blue oases to imagine, in human terms, what people really believe, and
how they act, here in conservative mid-America.
When I returned to my birth state Oklahoma in 2000, it indeed felt
like going back in time, culturally and politically, about 25 years. That
was not all bad. If you have car trouble in this neck of the woods, some
people will still pull over to help. There is a general big-heartedness and
community-mindedness here. When I was going through an expensive custody
trial and did not have enough to make ends meet, several of my fellow school
teachers raised collections at their churches to help tide me over. Women at
the local barber shop treat us like family, give their best hand-me-downs to
my children. These are people, mind you, who often have Pat Robertson on
Traveling between Texas and California during the 1990s, I came to
realize that people like my family often put into practice the communitarian
ideals that my leftist friends were so good at talking or writing about.
They are fundamentalist Christians, which puts us on different planets,
politically. But repeatedly I have seen my parents and other conservative
Christians put Biblical ideals into practice: visiting the sick; giving away
money or food to almost anyone who asked for it; being honest to a fault.
This anecdotal evidence is born out by polls showing that evangelical
Christians are most likely to give to charities. Christians are the backbone
of existing health care in Africa and other destitute regions of the world.
When I married an African American woman, my parents had no problems
with this, because the scriptures are clear that "out of one blood God
created all nations."
Yet this Bible-based worldview had its limits: when the husband of my
oldest sister announced he was gay and left her, they had absolutely no way
to process this.
I have three sisters who got degrees in Home Economics from Abilene
Christian University. A remarkably insular background, and yet the troubling
issues of our day have touched our family: race, homosexuality, divorce, and
After a rebellious youth, I gained a truce with my family by not
talking about religion or politics. I distinguished between the way they
lived--stewards of their land; generous with their neighbors--and how they
voted. The politicians they supported put in practice policies I abhorred:
support for the Contras (U.S. funded terrorists in Nicaragua), environmental
degradation, runaway militarism, and various forms of intolerance.
Like most people, "blood is thicker than water" for me. Yet sometimes
ideology is thicker than blood. Religious contagions made our truce uneasy.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, the Christian Right obsessed about
"secular humanists" as their "common enemy." When I heard some of this talk
from my parents, I began chewing on the undigestable reality that they hated
people like me, although they loved their son unreservedly. As ripples
spread out from fundamentalists into the political world, I realized that
although I loved and respected my parents, people like my parents were my
Although I am not a Christian, for a few years in the early 1990s I
would go to church with my parents while visiting, in order to keep the
peace. The friendly members of their congregation showered my children with
affection. But when I heard their preacher take a hard line about women
being submissive to men, I had to think like a parent. This was not a
message I wanted my daughter, or my son to hear.
In my family I was seeing the surface of a fundamentalist Christian
movement called "Reconstructionism," or in its more specifically political,
and non-denominational form, "Dominionism." What Frederick Clarkson called a
"stealth ideology" in 1994 has in the early 20th century come close to
realizing a goal "to replace democracy with a theocratic elite."
An Obsession with Blood Sacrifice
"A little child shall lead them," the scriptures say. I took my
children to Mexico several times, and my daughter Sela expressed a visceral
distaste for and opposition to images of a bloody Christ. The last time I
went to church with my parents, I was acutely conscious of how much of the
worship was centered on blood.
While respecting the right of all peoples to worship as they see fit,
I began to ask myself: what are the social and political implications of
this fascination with sacrifice? In my book On Racial Frontiers, I wrote:
"The sacrifice of prophets to appease the collective soul does not seem like
a legacy that I would want to teach to my children."
Liberation and social justice are in fact core ideals of
Judeo-Christian scriptures. The teachings of the actual Jesus, such as the
parable of the Good Samaritan, are something that I do teach my children.
Yet it seems to me that many American Christians have focused on a crucified
Christ and apocalyptic "final days" fantasies rather than the practice of
social justice. I for one have been unwilling to cede issues of morality to
fundamentalists. So I have remained in dialogue with Christians all these
I respect the power of faith in others. But when the practice of faith
results in violence, suffering, and environmental destruction, I voice
disagreement. All too often, the effort to find common ground with
fundamentalists has seemed like an exercise in "tolerating the intolerant."
A confluence of events-a right-wing takeover of political,
educational, and media institutions in the U.S., the claim that God has
sanctioned our invasion of Iraq, and the display of the conservative
Christian obsession with blood in Mel Gibson's film "The Passion"-has
compelled some of us to speak more directly about the political implications
of private faith. As Diane Christian has observed, there is a big leap from
the liberation of Exodus, when Jews sprinkled blood on their doorposts, to
the salvation proposed by Christians, in which blood is drunk by a community
of faith. The Christian community not only lives after death by the blood of
their Christ; "but they feed on it in life." "What can this mean, to drink
blood?" asks Christian.
There is another mythological group who achieve eternal life by
drinking blood. If the blood sacrifice of Jesus that Christians celebrate
was a private faith, a belief system that led them to reach across the
boundaries of religion, ethnicity, and nation, like the Good Samaritan, and
to embrace an ethic of personal sacrifice in order to care for those in
need, then we would have no need to think publicly about vampiristic
But personal faith has become political profession in ever more
explicit ways. Voters who attend religious services more than once a week
support the "messianic militarism" of the Bush administration by a margin of
nearly 2-1. Those who never go to church voted against Bush by the same
margin. Even more striking, among evangelical, "Born Again" Christians, who
are 40% of the American electorate, support for Bush is almost 3-1.
When Fundamentalist Faith and Pre-Emptive Politics Join Hands
When I went to my parents' house in Texas for Thanksgiving 2001, my
childhood friend Mac joined us at the table. He offered a prayer thanking
God for giving us strong leaders like Donald Rumsfeld during this crisis.
Mac works for an Israeli oil company with offices in Big Spring. We
exchanged a few emails, but our sources of information were so different
that it soon became obvious that meaningful dialogue was impossible.
During the buildup towards war, I exchanged points of view with my
brother-in-law David. As the chair of a Communication department at a major
Texas university, I figured David would be the one family member with whom I
could talk directly about the connection between religious morality and
A couple of months before the invasion of Iraq, David and I got to
talking on the phone about the sorry state of public education in Texas and
Oklahoma. I offered that if most people were given the choice, they would
rather spend billions of dollars on the education of our children, rather
than on the invasion of Iraq. "That depends on whether they listen to Rush
Limbaugh or Tom Brokaw," he said. That was his idea of the right and the
left of American discourse. During our email discussion, he expressed the
view that ABC and NBC were extreme examples of "liberal bias" in the media.
Although David is an academic, he is also a pre-millenial Christian
who believes that the Almighty is working through the Bush Administration.
(Thus he is probably sympathetic to the Reconstructionist goal of abolishing
public schools, as a producer of "secular humanists"). I tried my best to
find common ground, using a scriptural basis. But it was impossible. In the
midst of the competitive flag waving on the networks, I asked David who he
viewed as a reliable source of information. "Sometimes more communication is
not better," he responded.
But I already knew the answer. Former Christian Coalition Chairman
Ralph Reed, now a regional chairman for the Bush-Cheney campaign, confesses
that he never watches the networks, but relies on Rush Limbaugh, Sean
Hannity, and Fox News for most information about the world. During the
invasion of Iraq, I watched a televangelist in San Antonio, John Hagee, a
Dominionist whose sermons mixed last-days Apocalypse Fever and what I can
only describe as militaristic fascism. During a sermon in which Hagee
described opponents to the war in Iraq as agents of the Antichrist, he
thundered: "Thank God for Fox News!" (Strange bedfellows, given Fox's rise
to prominence via gratuitous sex and violence). And he repeated a core
belief of the hard right: "The United Nations out of the U.S., and the
United States out of the UN."
April 2004 polls showed that 82% of Americans still believed
disinformation about an Iraq-al Qaeda link. 60% still believed the erroneous
claims that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction prior to the 2003 invasion.
Of those who had the mistaken impression that experts still believed Iraq
had WMD, 72% supported Bush. So there is a clear link between religious
belief, an isolation from accurate information, and support for militaristic
In times of stress, people's gut beliefs come out. President Bush's
first reaction after 9/11 was to call the War on Terror a "crusade." He has
not been able to live that comment down in the Islamic world, despite
backtracking. And no wonder, given the public statements of his base. Just
after 9/11, Ann Coulter wrote that "We should invade their countries, kill
their leaders and convert them to Christianity."
Lt. General William Boykin got a lot of press by speaking to church
groups in military uniform, and describing the U.S. military as the "Army of
God." Confronting a Somali soldier, he had the blessed assurance that "my
God was bigger than his." Muslims are our "spiritual enemy," he tells
patriotic Christians, which "will only be defeated if we come against them
in the name of Jesus."
In truth, neither Boykin's comments, nor Franklin Graham's description
of Islam as "a very evil and wicked religion," can be explained away as
aberrations. The gut reactions of people like Graham, Boykin, Coulter, or
President Bush demonstrate that the Crusade mentality is alive and well.
American Christian pre-millenialists like Hal Lindsey have been warning
about "the Islamic peril" for a long time. In the last quarter of the 20th
century, there was a growing tendency among American Christian conservatives
to describe Arab leaders as the Antichrist, or at least as a precursor to
U.S. conservative Christianity has been hijacked by
dispensationalists, who have only the thinnest of Biblical legitimation for
their doomsday aspirations. The Seattle Methodist pastor Rich Lang has
bluntly described Apocalyptic-Dominionism theology as "Christian Fascism."
"It is a form of Christianity that is the mirror opposite of what Jesus
embodied," he insists. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong writes that "the
Christian right today has absorbed the endemic violence of American
society." These Christians seldom if ever quote the Sermon on the Mount,
Armstrong notes, "but base their xenophobic and aggressive theology on
The Bush administration has embraced this worldview with sufficient
fervor that some, such as columnist Kim Antieu, have been troubled by the
"uncomfortable parallels" between the Bush team and its enemy, al Qaeda.
"Both are fanatical in their belief that they are right, they are guided by
the divine, and those who disagree with them are the enemy." As is all too
common, we become like what we hate.
What millions of honest, hard-working, moral people in mid-America are
hearing, reading, and believing is that their messiah can only return to
earth after an apocalypse in Israel. They are doing everything in their
power to hasten that Armageddon, and demonizing those who disagree with
them. Thus, a phobia of the Christian right is the "false peace" offered by
agents of the Evil One. Because peace cannot lead to The Rapture and the
1,000 year Reign of Christ that dispensationalists believe in, those who
promote disarmament and peace are their enemies. Only the anti-Christ signs
peace treaties with Israel. Thus, some millenialist Christian writers viewed
Henry Kissinger as a possible Antichrist-not because of his duplicity or the
violence he fomented in many parts of the world, but because of his supposed
role as a "peace-maker"!
Gibson's "Passion," and the Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry
Jenkins, read by over 60 million people, are evidence of a mass turn away
from the "Prince of Peace," and "toward a darker, more martial, macho
concept of the Messiah," believes Stephene Prothero, author of American
Jesus. In this worldview, the United Nations is seen as an agent of the
Antichrist, because it stands in the way of constructing Christian
theocracies, beginning in the United States, but spreading world-wide. This
theocracy is seen as being inseparable from unrestricted, unregulated
free-market capitalism (itself a virtual deity), despite the rather
socialist teachings of Jesus, such as in Matthew 20.
Many pre-millenialist Christians believe environmental destruction is
a good thing, because it speeds up end days. And they have the support of
politicians at the highest level of government. Their faith (both in Christ'
s immanent return, and in God's preference for unregulated capitalism) is
behind the Bush administration's disengagement from the Kyoto accords, and
other forms of flight from environmental responsibility.
Sometimes late at night I tune in to Christian talk radio, just to
hear if anything has changed. On a show called "Point of View," I heard
Holly Swanson, author of a book titled Set Up and Sold Out, describing
environmentalists as "watermelon activists": "green on the outside, but red
on the inside, with lots of black seeds of anarchy."
These are not isolated voices: what Molly Ivins has described as the
"Shiite Republicans" in Texas put a plank in their state platform advising
party members to "oppose global warming as a myth." Reflecting a worldview
hunkered down within the self-contained Reconstructionist/John Birch Society
matrix, members of President Bush's home-state party have also described
free education as a Communist idea, and dismissed the responsibility of gove
rnment to communicate with bilingual citizens.
Gary North, son-in-law of Reconstructionist founder John Rushdoony,
notes that "the ideas of the Reconstructionists have penetrated into
Protestant circles that for the most part are unaware of the original source
of the theological ideas that are. transform[ing] them." And as Frederick
Clarkson and Katherine Yurica observe, many fundamentalist spokespersons
deny in public that they have been influenced by Reconstructionism or
Dominionism. Yet Dominionism "has achieved virtual hegemony over many forms
of Christian fundamentalism," wrote Clarkson.
Most conservative Christians, until the Reagan era, were relatively
non-political, focused on the after-life. So "the politicization of
Pentecostalism is one of the major stories of modern American politics,"
Clarkson writes. This movement is hardly "stealth" anymore. The "Second
American Revolution" envisioned by Rushdoony and his Reconstructionist heirs
is admittedly "totalitarian." Their revolution would include the abolition
of public education, and the eradication of environmental protection laws.
Hard-liners would outlaw pre-marital sex, and implement an Old
Testament-based legal system that they believe would authorize execution of
homosexuals, adulterers, and perhaps even the insufficiently patriotic.
Authors and advocates of these ideas are no longer marginalized,
although they still often see themselves this way. They consort with
political leaders such as John Ashcroft and Clarence Thomas. The "happy
ending" of their religious script would have "saved" Christian soldiers
floating up to heaven in the Rapture, where they can have an unobstructed
view of their Warrior Jesus annihilating the remnants of the human race. And
the linchpin of the whole process: that most Jews will be wiped out, in
order that the remainder can convert to Christianity. This is "a completely
foolish and erroneous interpretation of the scriptures," former President
Jimmy Carter says.
I do not want to be misunderstood. There are millions of Christians
both in the United States and abroad who have not been infected by this
"religious and political pathology," which Karen Yurica says has "corrupted
our churches." Many of those who subscribe to something like the Dominionist
worldview are good parents, good neighbors, and in local terms, at least,
good citizens. Sometimes I am inspired by the musical praise of artists from
the Christian Right. They remind me of the importance of honoring something
greater than ourselves. They force me to confront difficult moral issues
such as abortion. And I am often appalled by the reflexive condemnation of
conservative Christians by those on the left. It is so much easier to
dismiss fundamentalists, which at this moment in time, is a meaningless
gesture of self-marginalization, given the political power that
fundamentalists have. It is so much harder to seek to understand their
worldview, and to try to find a language with which to engage them in
dialogue. Both sides end up being contemptuous of each other, and retreating
to mutually exclusive sources of information, and legitimation.
Even so, there arrives a moment in which different people of good
faith have such starkly opposing worldviews that they cannot stand up for
what they believe is right without creating further division. This seems to
be one of those Rubicon, world-in-the-balance moments. Given the social,
cultural, foreign policy and environmental implications of the Christian
Right's ideology, it is hard for me not to agree with Karen Armstrong's
reaction: "It often seems that we might be better off without religion." Or
to sing along with Ziggy Marley's song "In the Name of God": "All religion
should be wiped out."
Yet I myself come out of this root. I know the scriptures like the
back of my hand, and I have been inspired by Liberation Theology, and by the
Social Gospel that motivated Martin Luther King, Jr. I am still convinced
that this tradition can be redeemed. My experience teaches me that, however
much this may horrify my secular friends and associates, Reverend Lang is
right: "Whoever controls the interpretation of scripture will control the
future of this nation."
In his book The Secret Kingdom, Pat Robertson imagined the Almighty
advising his faithful Christian soldiers to "Rule as I would rule."
Robertson believed his troops had a mandate centered on discipline: to
"exercise dominion over.the unruly, and the rebellious."
Yet Jesus, whose example is supposedly the touchstone for Christians,
was clearly rebellious, especially against the religious authorities of his
day. The dominion he advocated was not of messianic militarism, but of
service to the less fortunate. A growing number of faithful Christians are
recovering the true root of these teachings, which have been so distorted.
Ruling as the Creator would rule can also be interpreted as a mandate
for stewardship. This is what Stephen Kaufmann of the Christian Vegetarian
Association means by advocating a "God-centered" approach. In his book
Honoring God's Creation, Kauffman argues that if we looked at the world from
the perspective of the Creator, then surely we would have to love all of
Creation. We would have to treat all people and indeed all that lives as our
kin, instead of trying to wipe out those that lived a different lifestyle,
or called on the Creator by a different name.
In an interview with me, Kaufmann insisted that this is in fact a
conservative perspective, in the best sense of that word. At large Christian
conferences and meetings across the country, members of CVA are passing out
tens of thousands of copies of What Would Jesus Eat? and other literature.
They are getting a mostly positive reception.
Christian treatments on the theme of animal rights have gone
mainstream recently, as with a book by former Bush speechwriter Matthew
Scully, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call
to Mercy. This growing movement, in addition to influencing lifestyle
choices, is primed to challenge the political hegemony of right-wing
The What Would Jesus Drive? campaign, although it offended some and
was laughed at by others, is also instigating healthy debate among
conservative Christians. The group combines good science and a thorough
knowledge of scripture in a way that directly contradicts many current
right-wing Christian beliefs and practices. They insist: "As followers of
the Prince of Peace, Christians should strive to lessen circumstances that
could lead to violent conflicts by reducing our consumption of oil." In 2003
Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network drove a hybrid Toyota
Prius across the Bible Belt to dramatize this message.
These are the grounds on which the exceptions to the divide between
conservative and liberal, religious and secular, red and blue are being
The political implications of actually putting into practice the Bible
's emphasis on mercy and political justice are being voiced in ever more
explicit ways. In June 2004 Continuum books is publishing Why Bush Must Go:
A Bishop's Faith-Based Challenge by Rev. Bennett Sims, Bishop Emeritus of
the Atlanta Diocese, and a former Navy Officer. "The political leadership of
my country has become a menace," writes Sims, to human longevity and to the
Human beings have become God-like in our powers of destruction. People
in the United States in particular, as five percent of the human race, but
consuming 25% of its resources, have an especially destructive potential. As
Martin Luther King once noted, "The world now demands a maturity of America
that we may not be able to achieve."
Such a maturity would require that we "refuse to be a God," as Robert
Jay Lifton, citing Camus, argues in The Superpower Syndrome. Rather than
acting as if God were sanctioning our unlimited consumption and militarism,
and our arrogance towards other nations, we should embrace "thought which
recognize limits." Learning to live within limits-above all disciplining our
own arrogance and over-consumption, rather than focusing on disciplining our
enemies-- would in fact be a lifestyle that followed scriptural mandates.
In Matthew 12, Jesus told the religious leaders of his day that if
they truly understood the scriptures, they would know that God requires
"mercy, not sacrifice." This is a reference to Hosea 6:6, one of many Old
Testament passages that say explicitly that blood sacrifice is not pleasing
One of Martin Luther King's favourite passages was from Amos 6:23:
"Let justice roll on like a river,
and righteousness like a mighty stream."
The context, forgotten by most churchgoers, was that neither incessant
songs of praise, nor blood sacrifice, were pleasing to God. It was justice
that mattered most.
Again, the prophet Micah insists that blood sacrifice does not please
the Almighty. He asks, "what does the Lord require of you?" The answer:
"To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God." (6:8)
If Christians want to use Biblical morality as a model to reconstruct
political practice, then such passages ought to humble those who go in
search of enemies, seeking with monumental hubris to "rid the world of
Instead, wrote Amos (5:14), "seek good, not evil, that you may live."
Gregory Stephens has taught at the University of California and the
University of Oklahoma, and is currently completing a book called Real
Revolutionaries: Revisioning Kinship and Co-Creation. His writings and radio
shows are available at: www.gregorystephens.com. Contact:
"Bruce Olin" <bo...@famvid.com> wrote in message
It is almost unsettling how this guy addresses the same subject I was trying
to get at in that long, silly, autobiographical piece of bullshit I kicked
out last week... This guy not only "gets it", I think he "gets it" better
than I do. At least a few people out there are making some sense.