Christian America

This excerpt from historian George Marsden’s latest book is worth reading if you want to understand the Christian right. He traces in a fairly brief fashion how an apolitical group became, during the Reagan era, highly politicized. The most interesting part, I think, is his analysis of how the Christian right mixes an absolutist puritanism with classic liberalism–usually without acknowledging or perhaps even understanding that the two streams do not really fit together. Thus the rhetoric may sound scarily autocratic, but actually works to defend certain freedoms. This rather dense paragraph sums it up:

The complex heritage of the evangelical religious right, as shaped, among other things, both by biblicist bornagain revivalism and broader principles developed during the eighteenth-century American enlightenment, helps to explain some of its paradoxes, apparent contradictions, and blind spots. The biblicist side is often absolutist and militant, invoking stark choices between serving the Lord of Hosts or the Baal of secular humanism. The enlightenment heritage allows militantly conservative fundamentalists to in fact affiliate with the wide coalition represented in the Republican Party and to participate in the give-and-take of practical politics, despite all the compromises that inevitably requires. In the strict biblicist view, the American nation can be seen as having forfeited any claim to God’s blessings and as being under judgment for its open sins, so that the only hope is to trust in Jesus to return to set things right. But the enlightenment heritage tells the evangelical religious right that the American principles of civil freedom, self-determination, and free enterprise are the best there are, and that evangelicals can therefore unreservedly embrace the American civil religion and condemn anyone who questions that America has a special place in God’s plan. The strictly biblicist heritage fosters a rhetoric that sounds theocratic and culturally imperialist, and in which a Christian consensus would seem to allow little room for secularists or their rights. The enlightenment heritage means that the leading motif in their politics is the necessity of protecting freedoms, especially the personal and economic freedoms of the classically liberal tradition. So when members of the evangelical religious right speak about returning to a “Christian” America, they may sound as though they would return to days of the early Puritans; yet, practically speaking, the ideal they are invoking is tempered by the American enlightenment and is reminiscent of the days of the informal Protestant establishment, when Christianity was respected, but most of the culture operated on more secular terms.

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One Response to “Christian America”

  1. mindy Says:

    Thank you! I started reading this thinking, “of course I understand the religious right” and finished reading it thinking, “I never looked at it that way”.

    (guess you did your journalist job, then, hmm?) Thanks!

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