“You told them exactly what I didn’t say, exactly how I haven’t said it. … You wrote down exactly what I didn’t write, exactly how I didn’t write it.”
–Terry Taylor, from his album “John Wayne”
Having religious convictions that go two steps beyond a church door is getting increasingly difficult these days.
New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman recently took a swipe at what he dubbed “religious totalitarianism.” The gist of his Nov. 27 column, “The Real War,” is that our fight against the Taliban – forget for a moment about planes, fallen buildings, thousands of dead or missing Americans – is rooted in the fact that Osama bin Laden is not a pluralistic, go-along-to-get-along kind of guy.
Straight from the horse’s mouth: “If 9/11 was indeed the onset of World War III, we have to understand what this war is about. We’re not fighting to eradicate ‘terrorism.’ Terrorism is just a tool. We’re fighting to defeat an ideology: religious totalitarianism.”
By Friedman’s view, if you can’t scuttle your religious distinctives long enough to chirp a few verses of “Kum-ba-ya” with members of every other sect and faith on earth, you’re no different than a guy who blows up buildings packed with innocent civilians. You’re no different than Osama bin Laden. You’re a “religious totalitarian.”
WND editor Joseph Farah ripped Friedman apart in his Dec. 2 column, “The Unreal War.” The upshot: “Whether he realizes it or not, what Friedman actually did in his essay is declare war on Christianity – including the very biblical Christianity responsible for the true pluralistic society America established under the authorship of the founders. More specifically, he declared his own humanistic jihad on Jesus Christ Himself.”
Then, last week, the always-provocative Andrew Sullivan took up the latest attack. Before I launch into it, know beforehand that, while I have no special appreciation for Friedman, I have long admired Sullivan’s work and think him a bright and entertaining writer.
That said, I think he’s full of it.
Addressing the Bush nomination of J. Robert Brame III to the National Labor Relations Board, Sullivan tagged Brame a member of the far religious right. “The American Taliban,” he titled the blurb in his Dec. 3 Daily Dish column. “Taliban” has at least temporarily replaced “Nazi” as an easy term with which to denounce those with whom you disagree.
“Yes, many people have woefully abused this term as a way to tar all sorts of characters with a demagogic brush,” admits Sullivan. “But in some cases, it actually is fair. I refer to a fringe group known as Christian Reconstructionists, far right Christians who believe that the Constitution should be replaced by Biblical law, that women have no place in public life, that homosexuals should be executed, that non-Christians should be forcibly converted, and so on.”
Wow, sounds crazy, right? Maybe they deserve the Taliban moniker.
Sullivan tells us that Brame was until recently a board member of American Vision, “a Christian Reconstructionist body,” and says, “you’d think these extremists would be personae non gratae in the Taliban-fighting Bush White House, wouldn’t you?”
Sure, except I’m not even convinced Sullivan knows what he’s talking about.
From what I can tell, Sullivan didn’t do any serious reading of the Reconstructionist literature – which is vast (one movement leader alone, Gary North, has written more than 40 books) – before posting his complaints about Brame. Take, for instance, his quickie slam against what he claims is American Vision’s take on democracy:
A June 1999 edition of the group’s magazine described democracy as “the first step toward fascism.”
I’m not too familiar with the quote, but I don’t think Sullivan himself is either. It seems rather than look it up himself, Sullivan just lifted the charge almost verbatim from a Nov. 29 press release from Americans United for Separation of Church and State:
The June 1999 issue of AV’s Biblical Worldview magazine described democracy as “the first step toward fascism.”
AUSCS even headlines its release by saying that “Brame has ties to groups that … reject democracy. ….”
“Every thing he wrote in there is just unbelievable,” Gary DeMar, president of American Vision, told me about Sullivan’s Daily Dish rehash of the AUSCS screed. “Nearly everything they said in there was taken out of context.”
Rather than doing any actual research, Sullivan “just got his stuff from Americans United for Separation for Church and State,” and as DeMar pointed out, the further you get away from the source, “the less accurate you’re going to be.”
DeMar specifically flagged the quote about democracy as being flat-out wrong. And If you’ve ever read any of Gary DeMar’s writing, as I have, it’s pretty easy to see his point. As DeMar himself writes in “Christian Reconstruction: What it is, What it Isn’t,” “Democratic law is based on the will of the majority. If the whims and fancies of the people change, the law changes.” Under the King’s X of democracy, DeMar points out that 51 could turn around and legally abuse 49.
In saying this DeMar hardly sounds any different than the American founders. Pure democracies, said James Madison in Federalist 10, are “spectacles of turbulence and contention,” adding that they are “incompatible with personal security or the rights of property. … In general [they] have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
To remedy this problem with pure democracies, the founders set up the U.S. government as something other than a pure democracy. For the purpose of checks and balances, they included in it aristocratic elements (the Senate and Supreme Court), monarchal (the president) and democratic (the House of Representatives). The idea was to establish checks and stops to sweeping power.
And the reference to fascism is not some kook notion, but a fact of history: Not only did “Hitler [gain] power democratically,” as DeMar told me, the process of democracies tends that direction inherently.
Explains DeMar in “Christian Reconstruction”:
Democracies degenerate into exploitation because some voters discover that they can vote themselves political and financial favors out of the public treasury. Those seeking power through majority rule always vote for the candidate promising the most benefits. The results are certain: democracies collapse because the public treasury is milked dry, due to greater voter demand. A dictatorship normally follows.
DeMar didn’t milk this thesis from an alien cow; it’s not too different from that presented in Jonathan Rauch’s excellent book, “Government’s End: Why Washington Stopped Working.” Rauch calls the process which DeMar just described “demosclerosis.” Eventually, the citizenry’s multifaceted effort to score government goodies manifests in a system so bogged down it simply ceases to work – like a heart whose arteries are blocked with debris.
Explains Rauch, “For the public [demosclerosis] means living with an increasingly dysfunctional government, one that gradually turns itself into a sort of living fossil. … Dysfunction breeds discontent, and discontent breeds backlash.” In America that backlash has manifested in largely ineffectual reform movements (just think Newt Gingrich), but in other parts of the world less accustomed to peace and freedom, dictatorial governments have often ascended to power on the back of such beasts.
Hitler is, again, the classic model – hence the “first step toward fascism” line. In other words, what DeMar said is not all that crazy. Understood in context, it’s not only a fact of history, it’s also one shared by many political thinkers of many stripes.
But blind-eyeing what Reconstructionists have said about democracy plays directly into Sullivan’s charge that “non-Christians [would] be forcibly converted” in a Reconstructionist world.
“We want force people to be Christians? Who in the world has said ever said anything like that?” said DeMar when referred to Sullivan’s statement. From his tone of voice, you could get the sense that he was tiring of being misconstrued by sloppy writers with more agenda than concern for getting facts straight.
Indeed, reading Reconstructionist literature does not give one the Monty Pythonish image of the Spanish Inquisition leaping out from behind the shrubbery to coerce someone into “salvation.” Faith can’t be forced by politics.
Sullivan, in fact, points his finger in the wrong direction on this one. Reconstructionists have actually played a balancing role on the right here, strange as it might seem. When American fundamentalists pulled out of the cultural scene in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they laid dormant until the late ’70s and early ’80s. Unfortunately, however, returning to the scene, they had a truncated view of life – mainly that social change would occur by grabbing the political steering wheel and pulling hard in their direction.
But life isn’t politics. Culture isn’t politics. Society isn’t politics. Politics is a subset of those things – a reflection of those things. Having a far more sophisticated and complete worldview, this fact was not lost on Reconstructionists, who have long taught that to meaningfully change politics, the culture which houses it must change first. The revolutionary model – quickly changing the political landscape without regard for culture – is a tool of the left (see, for instance, Gary North’s book, “Marx’s Religion of Revolution”). The Christians who’ve used it most haven’t been Reconstructionists at all; they’ve been much more from the Moral Majority/Christian Coalition side of things.
Said Executive Vice President of the Chalcedon Foundation P. Andrew Sandlin in a Nov. 3 address:
It’s amazing (and sad) how many Christians have begun to ape the Left. The Left believes that political change is central. We believe that spiritual change is central. Spiritual change comes first. …
You’ll note that Sandlin’s primary concern is not political victory but conversion of sinners. As a Calvinist, he certainly doesn’t think he or any army of Reconstructionists can force that. Since God predetermines his followers from before the foundation of the earth, coercion means nothing. Spiritually, it is useless (something missed by the Spanish Inquisition).
Our system is not designed for drastic political changes. The Founders were too smart for (and scared of) drastic political changes – and so should we. They wanted there to be a consensus in the population and in the civil government before there could be political change. This is why we have a Constitution. It puts the skids on both passionate minorities and fickle majorities.
We have too many impatient Christians – this is counterproductive. … They often want Christian politics before a Christian population. Sorry, you won’t get it. The system is rigged against it.
And it’s a good thing too. This forces us to be faithful in the small things.
Like the day-to-day reality of carrying out Christ’s Great Commission, something that the modern-day glitz-and-glamour church has lost sight of, but which is fundamental to changing a culture.
If you don’t have an overall acceptance of Christian teaching welling up from the populace beneath, any governmental system appealing to or relying on those teachings is doomed to failure. All governments, whether explicitly democratic or not, hinge on the consensus of the ruled population. Even citizens in totalitarian regimes topple their oppressors eventually.
Rejecting revolution or tyrannical rule, Gary DeMar explains the Reconstructionist position: “God uses lawful historical means to extend his earthly kingdom. Reconstructionists thus affirm that God’s laws should be passed and enforced according to the rules of the democratic process. Reconstructionists do not preach revolution or a top-down bureaucratic take-over.”
Doesn’t sound like the Taliban to me. But Sullivan might be excused in missing the fact. Plenty of others have ignored the responses, rebuttals and clarifications given by Reconstructionists over the years. DeMar, for instance, wrote those words clarifying the question of democracy in 1991. That’s an entire decade to read a three-page essay. I suppose that rewording a few lines (you can leave out the “n” in that word if you’d like) from a AUSCS press release is easier, but – please – a little bona fide research would be nice.
“They wanted to kill [Brame’s] nomination, and they essentially lied,” said DeMar. It worked. Brame pulled out of the running once the hubbub created by AUSCS came to the fore.
To show how absurd this whole fight was – all the fuss and fears that Brame would somehow ruin life in America if he be seated – Brame had already served a four-year term on the board, under Bill Clinton. Funny how all that pernicious Reconstructionist dogma didn’t manifest itself in the utter destruction of American values then.
I wonder what the difference is now.
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