Christian identity, or Falwell agonistes?

This essay is going to ramble some, though it has a thesis somewhere. I had almost decided not to post it, thinking it was too academic and maybe too biased. But then I read this at An Inch at a Time, in relation to The Rev. Susan Russell’s congratulatory post about the civil union between The Rev. Mark Alan Lewis and the Rev. K. Dennis Winslow. Here’s the quote:

If someone who claimed to be my friend kicked me in the stomach, and them (sic) said, "Please understand that I still want to be your friend; that was just something that felt right to me," how long do you think I would keep believing that the person really wanted to be a friend?

If the bishops of these priests do not discipline them in some way, the Primates of the Anglican Communion would be justified in thinking that the Episcopal Church only wants to be a member of the Communion on its own terms, not caring for the thoughts and prayers of the rest of the Communion.

And here’s Pastor Russell’s reply:

People are dying in Iraq as we speak as we pause for this “memorial” day and give thanks for those who died protecting the liberty and justice for all this nation was founded to proclaim. What a pity on this of all days that core American value cannot with grace be extended to Mark and Dennis.

Core American values–now, back to where this post began.

I’m not sure Jerry Falwell changed all that much; albeit he is being touted in his death as the Martin Luther King of the right. Here is a fairly typical statement about Falwell from the New York Times obituary.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, the fundamentalist preacher who founded the Moral Majority and brought the language and passions of religious conservatives into the hurly-burly of American politics, died yesterday in Lynchburg, Va. He was 73.

But Falwell was a Johnny come lately to the culture wars, part only of their postmodern phase and marginalized during much of that. Indeed, the large scale social changes Falwell is credited with initiating by the punditocracy were well advanced long before his time and have deep roots in American political and social history.

Fifty years ago I was a student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. In the spring of 1956, as the Montgomery bus boycott continued, Professor Elton Trueblood came to my alma mater as the preacher for Ministers’ Week. It was, and I trust still is, the custom to invite preachers to this celebration who were distinguished for their intellectual attainment as well as for their eloquence. My memory is that it was on Monday of that week that I had the privilege of sharing the stage with Dr. Trueblood in order to read one of the lessons.

Just a few days before, The Rev. W. A. Criswell of Dallas’s First Baptist Church had delivered a speech to the South Carolina legislature in which he attacked both integration and those who supported the idea. In a ringing condemnation that has since become infamous Dr. Criswell declared: “Let them integrate. Let them sit up there in their dirty shirts and make all their fine speeches. But they are all a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up.”

The speech had been widely reported and had been reprinted in The Dallas Morning News. Still, we were surprised when Dr. Trueblood began to read from it, noting several of its more inflammatory statements. When he finished, Dr. Trueblood opened his Bible to Galatians and read, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Then, walking back to where I sat, he poked his finger under my shirt collar and made as if to look for dirt (or perhaps to see if I was dying from the neck up), got a nervous laugh from the audience, returned to the pulpit and said very simply, “Now somebody’s wrong.” I have recalled this little drama more and more over the years as I have watched and participated in various phases of the struggle for social equality and justice in my country.

Dr. Criswell later disavowed his opposition to integration and claimed he had been misquoted, but there remains much opposition to political and social equality in American churches today, as there was in the 1950s; and First Baptist, Dallas, might almost be taken for an epitome of the growth of the American religious right, as the civil rights agenda of American culture has come to emphasize race, gender, and class more or less equally. During Dr. Criswell’s tenure the membership of Dallas First Baptist grew to something over 28.000 souls. Today, at 30,000 plus, it is the largest church in the world. Falwell is more significant as a media figure than Criswell was, but Dr. Criswell was a far more important religious leader during his long tenure as pastor in Dallas, than Falwell or Pat Robertson.

I was a serious admirer of Dr. Trueblood, and I did not admire Dr. Criswell. I often passed a sign painter’s shop in those days, whose owner published Dr. Criswell’s sermon topics outside on a marquee. The one that most sticks in my mind is “God or Gorilla?!” But there was plenty of red meat in those 50s sermon titles, as there was in the actions a few years later of another rightist institution that called itself The National Indignation Convention, one of many ultra rightist groups that were active in the 50s and received particular inspiration from the election of a Catholic president. I’m particularly familiar with the Dallas Indignation Convention, but there were similar groups all over the country, many of them associated with the John Birch Society and Gen. Edwin Walker, and all of them vehemently opposed to the Kennedy presidency. (James McEnteer’s Deep in the Heart: The Texas Tendency in American Politics reviews much of this history in relation to subsequent politics). Mention of these groups will perhaps remind readers with memories as long as mine that the American religious right had quite a raucous presence in American politics long before Jerry Falwell identified his ministry with it.

It is important, it seems to me, to recall the racist and nativist history of the religious right in America. It isn’t some neutral political movement, and it has been out and out murderous from time to time. Some of the fifties hate groups called not just for the impeachment of John Kennedy and Earl Warren, but for their assassination. And it is well to remember that for every sermon preached in a church in the 1950s in support of civil rights, there was another sermon preached in another church in opposition. Moreover, it is well to remember the historic divisions of the large American protestant churches over slavery and all that entailed, the long tradition of pro-slavery preaching and the biblical justifications that kept good folk comfortable in their Jim Crow churches long after the civil war. The church into which I was baptized in 1938 was still The Methodist Episcopal Church South, though my parents’ particular local church had embraced what was then called the social gospel. Of course, racist and nativist ideologies are not uniquely American, nor have they been evident only in modern times.

So what’s the point? Part of it is that I think the postmodern religious right has pretty much successfully adopted the techniques of identity politics, representing itself as a marginalized group in a liberal, secular culture while at the same time attacking identity politics as practiced by other groups, (i. e. women, gays, and political and religious groups identified as liberal). In its most extreme form what I am talking about may be observed in the Christian Identity movement, so called, where the old racist and nativist ideologies remain more or less undisplaced. But in its more sophisticated postmodern manifestations racist argument codes itself in non-racist language, “in opposition to programs and policies that seek to undo white privilege or provide advantages to blacks on the basis of historical discrimination,” as one writer puts it (and Falwell had a great deal to do with this development in its early stages). Indeed, the coding of racism as something else has been so skillful that much racism in contemporary culture is now seen as unconscious by social scientists. There’s a large literature about this, the scope of which can be gauged at websites such as Understanding Prejudice. Of course, the religious right’s signal issue in the new millennium is gay marriage, though the complex of issues pertaining to reproductive choice is still very powerful.

It may or may not be true that the religious right has more political power now than in former times, though the concentration of that power in the Republican Party is certainly new as is the transformation of the south into a Republican political bloc. In the Bush era it may be new that a cadre of “young Christians” has been trained up by the new evangelical colleges, and that they will be around as Washington insiders long after George Bush leaves office. Hanna Rosin has argued as much in a recent Washington Post op-ed piece. According to Rosin, these new evangelical political operatives do not wear their faith (or their bigotry) on their sleeves, and that’s just as well, as Monica Goodling’s congressional testimony shows. But that doesn’t make them any less formidable as a political force (though I think Rosin may be crediting the evangelical colleges with a lot when she says she found their atmosphere “much more Harvard than Bob Jones,” as though the difference between Harvard and Patrick Henry College were merely a matter of style). And of course the more the religious right becomes part of the political establishment the less it can lay claim to marginalization.

I retain a hopeful view of the history of my country. Still, it makes sense to observe the development of the religious right in opposition to the dominant tendencies of American culture. If it can be hoped that the challenge to white partiarchy by women and minorities has tipped the balance of American culture in the direction of political and social equality, that Dr. Trueblood has outrun Dr. Criswell and Jerry Falwell; then it must also be granted that Dr. Criswell’s spiritual descendents have mounted a serious and determined opposition to the political and social changes of the past fifty years. I have argued that the religious right isn’t an innocent political movement, whose heroes we can celebrate as positive contributors to American life, and I think the same applies to the life of the planet. As evangelicals form alliances with rightist Catholics and other religious groups of a reactionary bent, human beings are losing their lives all over the world because of rightist opposition to everything from liberation theology to the distribution of condoms to help prevent HIV infection.

I bought a poppy at the grocery store yesterday, and I remembered my father who died in World War II. I’d like to think that The Rev. Mark Alan Lewis and the Rev. K. Dennis Winslow are beneficiaries of my father’s death, however remotely, of the work of Dr. Trueblood and Dr. King and the throngs of others who have spent their energy and sometimes their lives trying to help my country live up to its best self over the past fifty years. Indeed I’d like to think that all of us who are perhaps more at liberty than our grandparents were are such beneficiaries, including those of us on the right. I hope Fr. Mark and Fr. Dennis got to have some barbecue today and be easy. God bless them and Pastor Russell and her family, and God bless my country.

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