Tuesday Merry-Go-Round: From Oprah to Rob Bell to Chick-Fil-A to R. J. Rushdoony's Righter-Than-Thou Economics (And Why They all Matter)

Paul Harvey

If you're like me and pushing your red pen up a Sisyphean pile of papers, you may not have time to get to any of these good reads right away, but I'll put some good stuff to read later for you up here so you can get to it when you can get to it. Yes, it's miscellaneous but good links day here.

First, we've noted here the great set of dialogues going over at Immanent Frame (with 12 substantive and engaging responses now) on Kathryn Lofton's Oprah: Gospel of an Icon. The latest entrant in the conversation is our friend Tracy Fessenden's O Tedious Selfhood, a wonderful and very funny take. A brief taste:

How has the trajectory of American religious history brought us to this place, this Oprah?

A thumbnail history might go like this: The Protestant sanctification of the commonplace, the discovery of divine light in the mundane array of objects and acts taken up by a priesthood of believers, proves a boon to American merchants and clerics alike. As Protestantism finds itself more and more at home in the New World, its religious dispositions and their modes of production become less separable from everyday life—indeed, they come to make up the fabric of everyday life. This means your life. The erstwhile Puritan discipline of self-scrutiny brings the things of the world increasingly into its purview, reading them for the shimmering glint of spiritual favor. Advertising, the most aspiring of evangelical preaching’s bastard offspring, offers the promise of entry into a more charismatic life in exchange for the dissipation of spiritual and economic capital: buy, believe, buy and believe more. Consumer choice and religious option open along the same paths, obscuring relational possibilities and imperatives that might bind you to a particular past, a more circumscribed future, to anything that might constrain the unfolding of your own best life. Women gain ground in the commercial revolution faster and more easily than they wrest standing from church authorities, leaving the latter to play catch-up with the consumer culture they helped to foster. Buy and believe. Find what works for you. Purveyors of spirituals and temporals alike ratchet up the “imperatives of comfort nestling modern women in a language of self-service.” “Self-service,” here, is pitch-perfect: Because you’re worth it. And by the way, you’re on your own. We’re now in Oprah’s world—“a world in which we find alluring the templates to which we are fitted,” as Jason Bivins gorgeously puts it, “a melancholy whose song of empowerment sells us resignation as the hope we know will be dashed.”

Next up, for you American Historical Association members, is Darren Dochuk's piece in the latest Perspectives, the monthly newsletter of the AHA: "Searching Out the Sacred in U.S. Political History." You'll have to be a member to get it online, or track it down in your library, and it's well worth the short read. Accompanying this, by the way, is the new anthology edited by Darren and Michelle Nickerson, Sunbelt Rising: The Politics of Place, Space, and Region, another fine volume from the University of Pennsylvania Press' "Politics and Culture in Modern America" series. The volume includes Darren Grem's great piece (which we blogged about here before) "The Marketplace Missions of S. Truett Cathy, Chick-fil-A, and the Sunbelt South," and it also includes a statistical political science-y analysis of "Religion and Political Behavior in the Sunbelt."

And what would a week here at the blog be without a little discussion of hell. We noted before Lauren Winner's take on the Rob Bell Love Wins controversy; I neglected then to note Krista Tippett's take on the same, also in the Washington Post.

Finally, those of you who follow Religion Dispatches will know of Julie Ingersoll's fascinating work there tracing down the significant, if somewhat hidden, influence of Christian Reconstructionism on various aspects of the contemporary right, (she is currently, I believe, writing a book on said subject). See, for example, "Huckabee Channels Rushdoony," and "Reconstructionists Celebrate 'Ruling Over the Earth' Day."

Mark Oppenheimer discusses this further in his piece "Christian Economics Meets the Antiunion Movement," from the New York Times a couple of days ago. Aside from discussing the topic of Gary North's economic views, the article also gives a brief (and funny) history of the dysfunctional family history of "Christian Reconstructionism" from its intellectual godfather R. J. Rushdoony to its contemporary exponent North. If you have no idea what any of this is, here's a very brief summary, from the piece:

Mr. North, who is Mr. Rushdoony’s son-in-law but was not on speaking terms with him from 1981 until Mr. Rushdoony’s death, focuses on how that biblical libertarianism applies to economics. He concluded that the Bible forbids any welfare programs, is opposed to all inflation, and requires a gold-coin standard for money.

Oppenheimer's piece addresses the always difficult historical question of tracing influences. He writes:

Professor Ingersoll concedes it is difficult to prove direct connections between Mr. North’s writings and Wisconsin antiunion conservatism. On the other hand, Mr. North might like to think he has influenced the Wisconsin debate, and he has written in vociferous support of Gov. Scott Walker.

And, as Professor Ingersoll cautions, influence does not always announce itself:

“I like to say, ‘How many Christians know who is Augustine is, and how he influenced them?’ ”


Matt Sutton said…
Thanks Paul for the notes. But it seems to be a bit of a stretch to equate Rushdoony with Augustine.
Tom Van Dyke said…
Julie Ingersoll might have mentioned in fairness that a providential view of history was quite common in the Founding era. Washington's First Inaugural itself notes

"No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States."

and that

"In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either."

But I don't need to remind this august readership of that.

Now, I don't know the specifics of this "Providential History" that's on offer, but there should be nothing offensive about the concept. I find some religion writers to be curiously obtuse if not judgmental if not disrespectful of the religious beliefs of others. For the believer, God is a reality, and for many, as Tracy Fessenden put it, God and religion "make up the fabric of everyday life."

Or as the notoriously nonreligious Ben Franklin put it,

"The longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: 'that God governs in the affairs of men.'

And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?"

If anything, I suspect that the Founding era's belief in Providence in history is underemphasized by the secular, modern approach. Regardless, it's to miss the point of religion to expect the devout to hammer it into a box, or proceed in this life as if God is not a reality.

[I don't subscribe to Providential History meself. I prefer the dispassionate, "secular" way. I simply make an apologia here for the legitimacy of the devout to approach it their way.]

I found Mark Oppenheimer's piece quite less than worthy. Even his expert scholar concedes [?] "it is difficult to prove direct connections between Mr. North’s writings and Wisconsin antiunion conservatism."

Uh, yeah.

Oppenheimer's is an axe to grind with nothing to chop, and the article is nothing more than idle speculation and innuendo.

I write "innuendo" because of its opening, that Gary North declined to cooperate with what he suspected would be a hatchet job. [Well, there's the axe!]

See North's "Why I hung up on a NYT Reporter."

By opening his story on North's refusal to put his head on the chopping block [got the axe in again!], Oppenheimer already puts North in a bad light. Professional journalists should be reporting the news, not creating it. Neither were North's misgivings anything but verified in Oppenheimer's final product.

[I have no affinity for North either. I know of him only through his secular critics, who seem a lot more interested in him than actual Christians are.]

As for North's "Biblical Economics," the musings of a self-published real estate agent are a bit below my radar. I hear some vague mumblings from the right on why their approach is Biblical, but from the left, this is exactly how "social gospel" is pushed.

I say mazel tov and rock on to all, and to all a good night.

As always, my thx to management here for lending me the soapbox for a bit for my customary dissent. I do actually agree with the posts often, and should say so.