US theocracy is rising and dangerous

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

In our beachside township fifty miles south of New York City I have a neighbour who works on Wall Street as CEO of a pioneering financial firm. In an ordinary month he travels to China, Europe, and a number of US states. He hears from many non-Americans how they feel about the power of the US and for some years I’ve known how much he grieves for US politics. Three years ago, he optimistically assured me that his country is like an unwieldy super tanker mid-ocean and would self correct its course, election to election. Since the 11 November presidential election, that’s changed.

‘My country has become so unlike America that it makes me want to pack up and leave permanently. But when I look around, where could we go? And I don’t know what to do,’ he said shrugging to his wife, my wife, and me over dinner recently.

His alienation gave me strange comfort, for I was wondering if it was just me and my wife struggling to come to terms with the religious ghosts of US history. In fact about half of the US is dealing with the feeling of being strangers in their own place, because every day the conditions of being here are shifting. Relentless pressure from Republican majorities on Capitol Hill and the Bush Whitehouse is muscling America towards their unique-in-the-world conservative image.

My favourite television, the public broadcaster PBS, has a new boss and ideologically Right programming is now mandatory, which suggests in someone’s eyes everything else was ideologically Left. Across the board moderate Republican administrators like Colin Powell have been replaced with harder headed people, aggressive about the president’s agenda. An extraordinary political battling is happening in Washington over the appointment of Appellate Court judges.

And leaders of the extreme Christian Right are pumped. They’ve threatened to unmake Democrats who won’t support their religious/moral agenda as they did signally to former Democratic House leader Tom Daschle. They engineered his ouster at the November poll.

No wonder newspaper editorials from Chicago to Charleston, from Portland to Miami have been asking the question with increasing intensity since the election last year: is American democracy under siege from a rising and dangerous theocracy?

So I have been following the story in the media, talking with friends, learning some US religious history from Evangelical scholars and recently attended a conference of liberals in New York City to find out what’s really happening.

The conference on ‘The Real Agenda of the Religious Far Right’ drew me on a wet, last-of-April weekend to the Graduate Center of The City University of New York, opposite the Empire State Building. (link here) Twelve speakers swapped notes publicly for the first time: three professors, author Karen Armstrong – The History of God, (link here) four journalists, three clergy, and a political activist. An audience that looked like me – white, middle-aged and greying – spilled over from the auditorium into rooms equipped with TV monitors.

Nevertheless, I was uneasy. Would it be alarmist, a bunch of leftist eccentrics with a new set of conspiracy theories?

Despite my misgivings, Bush was lampooned only occasionally. There were just a few partisan hoots and hisses. And while there were no speakers from the far Right, almost half of the speakers had come from its traditions or were intimately engaged with their communities. But the news was grim.

‘This may be the darkest time in our history, our very liberties are at stake,’ said Bob Edgar, former Democratic congressman and general secretary for The National Council of Churches.

‘The direction the US is headed,’ echoed the last speaker, NYU Media Professor Mark Crispin Miller, ‘couldn’t be graver.’ (link here)

The presenters all agreed that the small but cohesive Christian Right now has the power and the will to achieve through its mushrooming Christian Coalition movement, its thirty-year goal of a Theocratic USA. And there is nothing like an organised opposition that might counter them.

Ultimately, the thread linking the speakers was their explanation for the peculiar inspiration of the Christian Right and the detail was news to me.

Back of the Bush Whitehouse is a novel American theology, Reconstructionism and its twin, Dominionism, promoted by leaders of the secretive Council for National Policy, like Reverends Tim La Haye, Pat Roberston, and Dr James Dobson. This theology has the startling effect of linking Christian fundamentalism with the political goals of New Republicans, or neocons. Where political neocons like former Assistant Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz take inspiration from philosopher Leo Strauss (link here) and political scientist Francis Fukuyama, (link here) religious Reconstructionists take it from a US theologian, the late Rousas Rushdoony, link here gaining an intellectual framework for sacking and looting US democracy (pagan Rome) in favour of a theocracy (the City of God) where zealots for God, like them, rule. (see link here)

To Professor Hugh Urban from Ohio State University, (link here) the narratives of the neocons and dominionists converge through their belief in the benevolence of a globally dominant US and a sense that history is approaching a climax. Link here

This hermeneutic, this way of reading the Right provided by the conference, makes particular sense of Bush’s obsessively secretive, and otherwise illogical economic, social, and foreign policy decisions, which seem to upend the constitutional values and institutions of US society. It also makes sense of deliberate lying and obfuscation; a tactic Rushdoony promoted towards pagans – liberals – noble ends justifying unholy means.

Cover story writer for this month’s Harper’s Magazine, Jeff Sharlet, revealed how Dominionism, reduced by free market philosophy to business principles, exploits human desire and builds the mega churches aligned with the Right’s Christian Coalition movement. Link here The far Right is more about being American than Christian he decided.

And while Sharlet reported how President Bush meets spiritual mentor Pastor Ted Haggard from just such a church, New Life Colorado Springs, at the Whitehouse most Mondays, we can be sure it is the eclectic mix of Rushdoony’s theology, La Haye’s end times novels, and good business principles that informs their religion, pious and bold. With neocon advisers it seems the President drinks a heady brew.

So by these accounts it seems my neighbour has it right, the super tanker is way off course and from this conference at least, no immediate hope of correction.

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