The House Divided Against Itself That Still Stands

A House That’s More Divided Than You Think
By Randall Stephens

Nicholas Guyatt has written an enlightening piece on American evangelicals and conservative politics in the London Review of Books: “Blackberry Apocalypse” (November 15, 2007). (The article is only partially a review of Chris Hedges hyperbolically-titled American Fascists.) I imagine Benjamin Britain opening the LRB—dipping his scone into a cup of Darjeeling—and becoming so flummoxed by America’s Bible-belters that he has to readjust his monocle several times. “What, what! Have God-deluded Yanks gone fascist?” Hedges is not “the first to indulge in reductio ad Hitlerum,” Guyatt reminds us. In Richard Dawkin’s whirlwind tour of America’s flyover states he met Ted Haggard. The pre-scandal preacher’s megachurch services reminded Dawkins of Nuremberg rallies. Of course, minus Albert Speer’s Aryan Cathedral lighting affects.

Guyatt explores Hedges basic points about the looming Theocratic putsch, one that will not occur in a beer hall, presumably. Perhaps a fellowship hall? He then discusses Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, in which Frank claimed evangelicals were lured by the never-attainable values carrots of conservative Republicans. Guyatt asks: “How to make sense of the contradiction between Frank’s analysis and the desperate alarm sounded by Hedges?” My first thought was that both authors had exaggerated the issues to such an extent that neither had considered the real, far-more complicated world of evangelicals.

Like Dawkins, or David Livingstone, Guyatt has spent some time in the bush, trying to understand why these natives behave as they do. Guyatt has found that the apparent conservative Christian homogeneity is deceiving. He notes that American evangelicals are, indeed, divided by a range of issues:

Beyond the personal rivalries and posturing of evangelical celebrities, there are deep divisions within the religious right, as there are among conservatives more generally, over political issues such as climate change and immigration. Pat Robertson, who is probably the country’s best-known evangelical now that Falwell has died, declared himself a ‘convert’ on the issue of global warming last summer, insisting that ‘we really need to address the burning of fossil fuels.’ Even on immigration, an issue that traditionally unites conservatives, the religious right has struggled to adopt a single position.

This, I think, is the most interesting thing about Guyatt’s essay and what makes new research on post-War evangelicalism and conservatism so challenging, contentious, and potentially rewarding. Trade presses have rolled out plenty of Jeremiadic tomes on the dangers posed by conservative Christianity. Enough hardbacks to build a small chapel. Yet what has been missing until recently are works like Michael Lindsay’s Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite, a book that takes the divisions within the movement seriously.

“The religious right should not be treated as a monolith;” Guyatt warns, “nor should it be assumed that its adherents are interested in the same political outcomes. It may be that the liberal obsession with theocracy rather than apocalypse has distracted attention from some of the threats posed by Bible prophecy enthusiasts, especially in the field of US foreign policy.”

Hence, Guyatt weighs in on another hot topic, the Second Coming. “John Hagee’s recent book urging the US to attack Iran sold more than 700,000 copies in a few months. And Joel Rosenberg will send the latest Bible prophecy news to your Blackberry.” I’m still not sure what this means when it comes to how voters vote or legislators legislate. Yep, a Pew survey tells us that the vast majority of pentecostals, more than 80%, believe in the “rapture of the church.” Roughly 90% of adherents think Jesus will make his return trip in their lifetime. Still, that does not tell us much about actual behavior. I’m left scratching my head. What are we to make of the widespread belief in the premillennial return of Jesus or that avalanche of Left Behind books that has swept over the U.S. since the mid-1990s?


Bland Whitley said…
I share Randall's head-scratching confusion over poll numbers that suggest that millions of Americans seem to expect the rapture to occur within the next ten years or so. Particularly given how mainstream the movement has become. As far as I know many of them, probably most, are not hunkering down for the apocalypse. Instead, they are engaged in the same suburban-consumer idolatry that the rest of us indulge. So what does it mean? Has a stated expectation of the apocalypse become merely a means of marking one's allegiance to a particular political-religious tribal grouping? Or, as in the case of the Left Behind avalance, just another niche entertainment? I continue to scratch my secular-liberal head but am more and more inclined to think that, to borrow from Gertrude Stein, there's no there there. Now, getting buried under an avalanche of Stein prose--that would be apocalyptic.
Randall said…
Bland, I'm coming over to your side on the issue of polls. I'm learning, slowly, to cultivate a hermeneutic of suspicion.

I wonder if this could be like any other thing that polls show. Maybe roughly 50% of Americans say they believe in young earth creationism. Millions of parents haven't pulled their kids out of public schools.

Or, even outside of the religious realm, we might find parallels. How many Americans still believe that Aliens seeded life on earth or built the pyramids? And what would it matter? Or, how many Americans think Aliens have visited the U.S. in the last decade or so? That may only become an issue if you're a diminutive congressman from Ohio who happens to be running for president.
Art Remillard said…
"I imagine Benjamin Britain opening the LRB—dipping his scone into a cup of Darjeeling—and becoming so flummoxed by America’s Bible-belters that he has to readjust his monocle several times."

If there were an award named "best blog sentence ever" this would be my nominee. Great stuff, as always Editor Randall...
Kathryn Lofton said…
Randall, you had me at the monocle's drop. Genius.

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