Don't get <em>Left Behind</em>

About the author
Dave Belden is managing editor of Tikkun

There are two current nightmares about American politics and religion: the left/liberal nightmare and the conservative nightmare.

Both appear to have some truth in them.

But they are contradictory, so which is more true?

The left/liberal nightmare is that the right has taken over all three branches of government – the presidency, both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court. Worse, it’s a religiously-inspired right: laissez-faire in economics with born-again intolerance in social and civil affairs.

American historians like to talk of the Great Awakenings, or major Christian revival movements, that swept their country in the 18th and 19th centuries. The left/liberal nightmare is that we are in one now, and this one more than any other has taken over the government.

The conservatives’ nightmare is that they have won unprecedented political control, and yet they are still losing. Fiscal conservatives bemoan Bush’s profligate spending, especially on Medicare drug benefits and, of course, Iraq (see Chuck Pena’s recent piece for openDemocracy). Foreign policy conservatives mistrust his liberal adventurism abroad (as John Hulsman argues).

But the deeper conservative nightmare is that even government by a born-again president, fundamentalist attorney-general, and Christian conservative House of Representatives' majority leader (Tom DeLay), is unable to roll back the tide of liberal social change.

Polls show gays are getting increasingly accepted, especially by the young, even in the heartland. The most rightwing Supreme Court in memory last year legalised sodomy. Divorce is taken for granted. Opinion has turned against late-term abortions, but it is surprising how many women are having a foetus removed for its deformities, while claiming that they are not having an “abortion”.

At the college where I taught mostly Catholic undergraduates, it was news to my sociology class that the Vatican was against contraception. Their parents used it. Who knew?

Once preachers held the line against worldliness, vanity, pelvic rock music, and sex-obsession. Some still do. But now suburban evangelical churches give beauty classes and seminars on the female orgasm. Mega-churches provide mini-malls so you can shop at church. Religious renewal is expected to lead to a house, wardrobe and beauty products make-over. Pelvic music pervades mega-church services.

In America, in culture vs. church, culture is winning.

Once doctrine, quaintly known as truth, ruled American religion. There were significant doctrinal differences between denominations: like predestination versus grace. Now few Americans have much idea of their own church’s theology. As Alan Wolfe chronicles it in The Transformation of American Religion, the main source for this column, “58 percent of Americans cannot name five of the ten commandments, just under half know that Genesis is the first book of the Bible, fewer than that can tell interviewers about the meaning of the Holy Trinity, and 10 percent of them believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.”

Perhaps it was always so. Perhaps Americans have always been more experientialist than intellectual in their religion. It was always essential to believe in God, have faith, pray and give thanks for blessings, get together with the faithful, and be the chosen people. But not to argue. The revival of religion today – especially Pentecostalism – is much more about emotion, piety, enthusiasm than it is about particular beliefs.

Americans switch churches and even religions more than any other people in history.

Surprising numbers of Protestants become Catholics, and vice versa – if they find a comfortable congregation, they join it. It may be the personality of the minister, the music, the friends. After all, the popular churches all now stress love over doctrine, sin, or blame.

Descendants of Christians discover Buddhism, or marry into Judaism. Many African-Americans move from Baptist upbringings into mosques. As President Bush has insisted a number of times, “people of faith” include Muslims.

The best selling novels in America, the Left Behind series, provide Christians with a fantasy of victory, in which all who believe the wrong thing get apocalyptic comeuppance. Perhaps this populist arrogance makes it easier for Bush to get support for his Iraq war. But in the United States itself there has been less anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic violence than in Europe. Jean-Marie Le Pen gets significant popular support in France, but Patrick Buchanan, the only comparable figure in the US, does not.

So the US is a highly religious country, but the religion does not significantly challenge popular culture or cause religious conflict. No Taliban here. As Wolfe says, “believers who prefer a God of love to a God of truth are not going to kill for their beliefs.”

The conservative nightmare is right: traditional religion is dissolving away in the acid of doctrinal and moral relativism.

So is the liberal nightmare of religious takeover mistaken? Not entirely. Conservatism is not compassionate at a policy level yet. But if liberals read Wolfe, they will see there is more rhetoric than danger in the American religious right.

Conservatives have to maintain the image of liberals as an elite establishment with a stranglehold on the media and universities (harder now to claim they run the government too). Only by invoking the bogeyman of liberal elitists, can the big-money, corporate elite of the Republican party portray themselves as populists.

But as liberal practices like divorce, congregation-switching, rock music, sex toys, Medicare and therapy worm their way into the religious heartland, it becomes less easy to pick out distinctively liberal horrors from which to save the people. The gay bogeyman still half works. Evolution and atheism still work.

It will be intriguing to watch the evolution issue over the next twenty-five years. Medicine is starting to revolve around genetics. Middle America wants its health quite as much as it wants its makeovers, sex, malls, and certainty of heaven. How can one accept gene-based medicine and reject evolution? So believe this: evolution will follow rock music and female orgasms deep into the hearts of the faithful. New reasons will have to be found to hate the liberal elite.

Meanwhile, liberals will thrash around in their nightmare of religious takeover, for lack of actually knowing enough conservative religious people, who are all rather slowly becoming like the rest of us.