02 March 2012

The Christian Right: theories of evolution reconsidered

"I have said for some time that, in my opinion, the strongest opposition to [the President] would come, not from the economic reactionaries, but from the religious reactionaries (if you can separate the two)."

As you might have guessed from my little editorial intervention, the person quoted was not referring to Barack Obama and the 2012 elections. The writer was a Democratic party operative, but the year was 1935, for by that time, argues Matthew Avery Sutton in the new Journal of American History, a certain segment of fundamentalist Protestantism had declared their opposition to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his agenda. Prof. Sutton's article, "Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism in a Global Age," is part of an ongoing historiographic effort to find the point of convergence between traditionalist religion and America's curious form of entrepreneurial "conservatism." Historians have long since revised the once-prevailing narrative that had the "religious right" in humiliated retreat into quietism for a generation following the Scopes Trial and the repeal of Prohibition. Fundamentalists were hard at work building congregations and institutional networks between those dark days and their reappearance as a self-proclaimed "Moral Majority" in the 1970s. But we still want to know why they allied themselves with right-wing Republicans and endorsed an economic order dedicated to the sort of "creative destruction" that seems antithetical to traditional conservatism. Sutton's thesis, in broadest terms, is that premillennial fundamentalists -- the ones who expect the Rapture and/or Tribulation to take place before the Second Coming -- got to worrying that FDR was, if not Antichrist himself, a harbinger of his advent. This fear wasn't really far removed from the more secular notion that Roosevelt might -- some even said should -- have become a dictator. Spooked as well by the rise of Mussolini (who brought with him the spectre of a renascent Roman Empire) and Hitler (seen initially as furthering God's purpose by driving the Jews to Palestine), premillennials seem to have developed a superstitious suspicion of Big Government in general based on an understandable anxiety that any powerful political leader might well be Antichrist. As Louis Bauman wrote in 1936, "America may begin with a benevolent dictator, but dictators do not long remain benevolent! Benevolent dictator; then, tyrannical dictator; then, Antichrist." As if Antichrist was a title you could earn by achieving the top score in despotism.

But if even FDR's power seemed menacing, did it follow that his policies were wicked? According to Sutton, many fundamentalists seemed to think so, though they were very lonely voices in the 1930s. The problem with Sutton's article, however, is that he never really establishes a biblical basis for opposing the New Deal apart from the fear of FDR as potential Antichrist. Yet he quotes fundamentalist pastors raving against "the dole" and dependency upon the state, just as some secular Republicans did then and many more do now. Fundamentalists articulated a critique of the New Deal that did not follow automatically from their premillennial fears. Did they simply accept secular reactionary criticisms of the welfare state? Why should they have? To answer, you would have to delve more than Sutton does into debates on socio-economic policy within the churches. Sutton himself observes that "Conservative Christians during the Progressive Era were generally comfortable with an activist state," in order to accentuate the novelty of their opposition to FDR. But it seems less likely that FDR scared them into espousing laissez-faire economics than that their pro-capitalist faith evolved over the course of a lengthy, still-ongoing debate with proponents of the "social gospel." The social gospel gets little attention in Sutton's article, but his subjects would probably have spent most of their polemical time arguing with social-gospel pastors rather than debating politics with Democratic operatives. As I've explained often, social-gospelers thought Christians had a special duty to relieve the material suffering of the poor, while their opponents put a higher priority on saving souls. Each side accused the other of neglecting an essential part of Jesus's ministry. Based on the research I've done occasionally, my impression is that the fundamentalists embraced right-wing economics as a kind of push-back against the social gospel, which pushed hardest and hit the fundamentalists nearest to where they lived when they argued that doctrine didn't matter -- that insisting on esoteric points of theology did less good toward converting people than simple charity or a commitment to social justice. There was a "globalist" element to this debate that Sutton might have emphasized more, based on fundamentalists' suspicion of international ecumenical movements in which correct doctrine inevitably would be stressed even less. While Sutton is probably correct to point to an apocalyptic mood in the Thirties that fundamentalists exploited, it's still possible to argue that fundamentalists might have been driven to the right, or chosen it for their own purposes, even if the Great Depression hadn't happened and FDR never became President. By opposing the social gospel, these fundamentalists were already the right wing of American Protestantism -- they may yet prove to have been the vanguard of secular conservatism as well.


Anonymous said...

The way I see it, the answer is both simple and complex. The simple part: MONEY. Because "religion" from a bureaucratic perspective, is a "non-profit/non-taxed" form of business. It is beyond any form of goverment regulation because the Constitution says it is.

In some states, it is so very simple to get certification that legitimizes you as a pastor or minister for a fee, you then have your friends and neighbors over on Sunday for some bible-thumping, socializing and passing-the-hat, and declare your house a church. No more property taxes. No more income tax (especially if you can "legitimize" other forms of income as charitable donations or church expenses. As you can see, from a tax perspective, the answer gets complicated.

At any rate, you can see why certain types of people might be drawn to that. Then it's just a matter of "Us-vs-Them"-ing better than the other pastors/reverends, etc. and your congregation grows...

I'm sure it wasn't very different in the days of Moses.

Samuel Wilson said...

I can see that to an extent, but doctrine is what ultimately brings in the money -- you have to sell the secret truth that no one else has and scare folks away from the other options. That dogmatic impulse is probably as much a power as a greed thing. I'm sure it exists in places where it isn't as easy to make tax-free money through religion as in the U.S.

Anonymous said...

No. They don't sell any secret doctrine. You don't know these people like I do, having grown up in that environment. What they sell is hatred, a sense of superiority or the "favoritism" of god. People pay money to buy their way into a better afterlife.

It may have once been that any given cult claimed some "secret doctrine", but American christianity has nothing to do with that.