How the left's fear of a right-wing Christian conspiracy gets George W. Bush -- and today's evangelical Christians -- all wrong.
AS THE PRESIDENTIAL election draws closer, some people are asking, in ominous tones, a question: What impact does President Bush's evangelical Christianity have on his administration's policies? As an evangelical, an interpreter of literary and cultural texts, and a long-time observer of the evangelical world, I have both a personal and a professional interest in this question. And I'm here to offer an answer: Probably not much.
Some pretty smart people disagree. Last November, Joan Didion published an essay in The New York Review of Books that explored the relationship between President Bush and the "religious right," looking closely at the wildly successful apocalyptic "Left Behind" novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. (The series' climactic installment, "Glorious Appearing," went on sale last week.) For Didion, the series is more than just the action-packed tale of a determined band of Christian guerrilla warriors fighting against the forces of the Antichrist in the last days before the Second Coming. It may also be the key to unlocking the hidden agenda of the Bush administration.
Didion thinks she hears language coming from the White House suggesting that the president believes he is God's chosen instrument in our time -- just as Rayford Steele, the hero of the "Left Behind" books, is destined to carry out God's will at the end of history. If George W. Bush does understand himself in this way, and if he is influenced by the theology of LaHaye and Jenkins, and if "the President's preferred constituency," as Didion claims, consists of people who believe that whatever happens in the Middle East is "foreordained, necessary to the completion of God's plan" -- then we're all in deep weeds indeed.
Others have suggested a link between Bush and the little-known Christian Reconstructionist movement, whose members advocate the establishment of Biblical law as the only way to restore a civilization based on Christian faith. According to an article in
Last month, media theorist Mark Crispin Miller of New York University developed the connection in an address to the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. Miller noted darkly that Ahmanson has been a chief financial backer of Diebold and Election Systems & Software, two major makers of electronic voting machines. Miller does not argue that the introduction of those voting machines will inevitably lead to laws mandating the stoning of adulterers; but if people like Ahmanson have Bush's ear, what does that portend for the administration's policies?
I am not a political scientist, nor have I any special knowledge of the Bush White House. But I find such suggestions curious, and the atmosphere of conspiracy they create rather unreal. I don't think that arguments like these capture the way that ideas get translated into policies by evangelical Christians -- or by any other group. The sociology seems wrong to me. And I'd like to explain why.
omeone outside the Christian orbit will likely see the LaHayes and Ahmansons as parts of a unitary phenomenon called "the religious right." And certainly they have a lot in common: They believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God, and so on. But there are major disagreements between them, especially about eschatology -- that is, what the Bible teaches about the way human history will end. And those differences lead to very different ideas about how politics works and what it is for.
LaHaye's "premillennial" eschatology is, generally speaking, the default position for those who occupy the fundamentalist corner of the evangelical world. To be sure, many readers of the "Left Behind" books may enjoy the story without believing that LaHaye and Jenkins have rightly calculated every detail. But they will probably share the premillennialist view that human societies will not exhibit moral progress, but will deteriorate until the only option for redemption is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ in power and glory, which will usher in the Millennium, the "thousand-year reign" of God. (What happens after that is disputed and complicated. Let's just say that eventually God wins.)
Reconstructionists such as Ahmanson, by contrast, generally don't believe in a Millennium in LaHaye's sense, and are pretty confident that Jesus isn't going to show up any time soon to rescue us. In fact, it is precisely because they don't believe in an imminent Second Coming that Reconstructionists are so determined to use Biblical law as the foundation for civilization. They'd like to build a world that Jesus would want to return to.
In other words, President Bush could scarcely be a premillennialist and a Reconstructionist at the same time -- at least not with any consistency. "Aha!" you may reply, "but is someone like Dubya likely to be consistent? I think not." And I think not, also. But that's precisely why I don't share the fears of Didion and Miller. The scenarios they construct require Bush and his key advisers to be people who read the Bible in light of a coherent theology that yields a specific political program (rather than politicians whose chief concern is getting reelected). The danger would lie in consistency itself -- in Bush's willingness to get policy from theology as a mathematician derives an equation. Yet even if that were true -- even if Bush's mind worked that way -- these fears could only be realized if he were a premillennialist in foreign policy and a Reconstructionist on the domestic front.
My experience as an evangelical suggests to me that such consistency is highly unlikely. And if I didn't know it from self-reflection, I'd know it from nearly 20 years of teaching at Wheaton College, the leading evangelical liberal-arts college in America.
Evangelicals are defined, essentially, by their belief in the authority of Scripture, their acceptance of Jesus Christ as personal savior, and their desire to share their faith with others. And yet, though they read the Bible, they also watch "The Simpsons"; they may study eschatology, but probably not as closely as they study college basketball when March Madness rolls around. America's 60 million evangelicals are, after all, contemporary Americans, and take their moral and cultural bearings from a wide range of sources.
There are, of course, fundamentalist Christians who manage to dissent wholeheartedly from mainstream American culture, who homeschool their children and exercise strict control over the forms of information and entertainment that enter their homes. Such separatism is intrinsic to true fundamentalism, with its concern for maintaining purity and avoiding defilement. But these true fundamentalist separatists are relatively few in number. I know plenty of people who profess LaHaye's premillennialism, and by and large they also watch "Oprah," go to the movies, and send their children to public schools -- though when choosing churches they will tend to avoid "liberal" Christian denominations.
There are, likewise, Reconstructionists who are thoroughly separatist, but not many: a much smaller group, they tend also to be far better educated, wealthier, and more at ease with "high" culture than their premillennialist cousins. (Howard Ahmanson Jr., some may be surprised to learn, is an Episcopalian.)
But the broader evangelical world to which the president belongs is a very different one. If you don't believe me, consider this: Bush belongs to the same denomination, the United Methodist Church, as Hillary Clinton. Though some congregations are more theologically conservative than others, the United Methodist Church is way too liberal for a true fundamentalist, and has been for a long time.
Two points, then, should emerge: First, there are differences between evangelicalism in general and the subset called fundamentalism; and second, those differences are hard to specify because they are matters of tendency and preference rather than doctrine or belief. Basically, all evangelicals (fundamentalist or not) believe that Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins; that people need to repent of our sins and "accept Jesus as Lord and Savior"; that we must preach the Gospel to those who don't know or don't believe; and that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God. The hard part begins when we get down to asking what the Bible actually says.
For many fundamentalists, the way other evangelicals (such as myself) interpret the Bible makes us indistinguishable from liberals: when we say, for example, that the universe is more than 6,000 years old, or approve of the ordination of women, or a hundred other things. You know you're an evangelical if the fundamentalists think you're a liberal and the liberals think you're a fundamentalist.
Evangelicals, in short, are unpredictable -- and nowhere more so than in political matters. While most evangelicals continue to vote Republican (largely because of the abortion issue), a significant subset is either ambivalent towards or critical of many Republican policies.
The Project on Lived Theology, run by Charles Marsh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, has traced the work of many evangelicals for whom racial justice is a central component of authentic Christian witness, and to whom the silence of evangelical churches on this matter is tragic. Evangelicals for Social Action, founded by Ron Sider, sees the widespread Christian acceptance of American nationalism as a threat to the Church comparable to the "life and death" issues of abortion and euthanasia. And the sociologist Christian Smith, in his recent book "Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want," reports that among those evangelicals he interviewed there was significant doubt about the possibility, and (more important) even the desirability, of America's becoming a "Christian nation."
. . .
Not so many decades ago, fundamentalists ruled the conservative Protestant roost. If one wanted to trace today's American evangelicalism to its beginnings, one could do worse than to point to the Billy Graham Crusades in the 1950s, when Graham appalled the fundamentalist world by agreeing to work with pastors and laypeople of all denominations, as long as they supported the goals of evangelism. Even today, it's easy to find hundreds of fundamentalist websites that excoriate Graham for his failure to repudiate Roman Catholics and, yes, United Methodists and Episcopalians. As is widely known, a key event in George W. Bush's decision to change his dissolute ways -- and eventually turn his life over to Jesus Christ -- was a meeting with Graham in 1985. It seems reasonable to think that Bush's faith emerges from the messier, more diverse, less predictable evangelical culture pioneered (intentionally or not) by Graham.
President Bush, like most evangelicals (and most Americans), is intellectually mongrel. The likelihood that his thinking and his policies are shaped by a single, coherent, radical ideology is virtually nil. Bush may be a bad president -- he may pursue bad policies on the domestic front and abroad -- but if so, his Christianity has little or nothing to do with it. And with the exception of John Ashcroft, there's no one among his core advisors who could possibly teach him what right-wing evangelical politics are supposed to look like -- at least, not until Donald Rumsfeld becomes an ardent premillennialist or Karl Rove a disciple of Christian Reconstruction.
The connection between Christian commitment and politics has always been pretty strange in this country. Ronald Reagan became beloved of the "religious right" while rarely darkening the door of a church and articulating only vague belief in a vague God, while the church-going, Bible-toting Bill Clinton was despised by them. If there has been a recent American president whose policies were derived relatively consistently from evangelical Christian theology, it would be Jimmy Carter, that Baptist Sunday-school teacher from Plains, Ga. But that's a story for another day.
Alan Jacobs is a professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois and the author most recently of "A Theology of Reading."