The rise of rightwing populism has prompted many academics to examine its causes and motivations. Among these examinations has been an increase in attention to political conservatism and the Christian Right in the U.S.
As an American heading off to Melk Monasery in Austria for a conference pithily titled, “The Crisis of Representation: Neoliberalism, Ethnonationalism, Religious Conservatism and the Crisis of Representation in Politics, Religion and Culture,” I am hyperaware of the cognitive space the last year’s election continues to occupy. I am also anxious to leave that cognitive space and hear other perspectives.
Last month in Political Theology Today, a particular take on these issues was presented on May 31. Jonathan Cole’s “Conservatives’ Core Values Not As Theologically Grounded As Many Believe” attempts to parse out the theological underpinnings of American conservatism. One of the conclusions he comes to is:
While conservatism is premised on a controlling concept that Christians can genuinely support on theological grounds – our created freedom, and supports a theologically-rooted view of the family, the reality is that many of its core values are not theologically-grounded, at least not in any obvious or unambiguous way. This is not to say that they are therefore intrinsically wrong, incompatible with Christian theology, or cannot be supported by Christians in good conscience. It simply means that conservatism is a political ideology, or political philosophy, not Christian revelation or theological doctrine.
Cole professes a “deliberately agnostic position,” which emphasizes an historical reading of the development of rights-based liberalism and the emphasis on political notions of freedom. He cites Family Research Council’s Lockean twist that “God is the author of Life, Liberty, and the Family.” In a political genealogy of this phrase, Locke’s “property” becomes, the Declaration of Independence’s “pursuit of happiness,” which becomes the conservative group’s “family.”
An article published a week later in Political Theology Today, proposes a defense of human exaltation. In a reading of Psalm 8, Alastair Roberts writes:
As we approach the task of contemporary politics, we need to follow the example of the psalmist in situating human rule firmly within the frame of God’s own sovereignty in his creation. God has determined to manifest his power through human weakness, through babes and infants, and even through judges and kings. Where we can so easily fall into the trap of regarding politics as a purely human endeavour undertaken for solely human ends and glory, Psalm 8 alerts us to God’s gracious providential establishment of human dominion for the good of his creation and the fulfilment of his purposes for mankind.
With respect to readings such as this, I am always reminded of YHWH’s ambivalence about Israel’s demand for a king. In this I read the way Hannah’s story echoes Sarah’s as she is given her son, Samuel, who anoints Saul the first King of Israel / Judah. The Davidic psalms on one level celebrate the prophesy of the fallen king as YHWH’s justice for the people’s call for an earthly leader. But YHWH’s plan also transcends that generation.
As we know through the Book of Kings and the rest of the Old Testament, the flaws of humans perpetuate political-theological sovereignty, eventually resulting in the Lamentations against the fall(s) of Jerusalem. For me, at least, a narrative spirit appears to move through the course of this history, one in which the emergent “Christians” would write their own story. And it is especially important when we think about “fallen-ness” and exaltation, for Jews and Christians have differing interpretations of the fall, with different theological outcomes.
So, I am not at all trying to position Cole and Roberts against each other here. Rather, I am trying to extend their political theological analyses with respect to the conservative Christianity in the United States. by bringing recent sociological and anthropological studies into the conversation. The first of these is Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016), which was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Hochschild’s work tracks a “great paradox” underlying the right-left divide in the U.S., which she notes has widened significantly since Thomas Frank’s analysis of the right in What’s the Matter with Kansas (2005). The paradox consists of why conservative voters, especially in poor and rural areas, making voting choices which actually make them worse off.
Hochschild particularly focuses on members of the Tea Party in Louisiana, where 44% of the state funding is supplied by the Federal government, which Tea Party members see as their arch enemy. This results in state government allowing for corporations to commit all sorts of environmental catastrophes, polluting the land and waters its residents live on. While her book’s focus is not on religion, the religious views of many she interviews do play a large part in their political ideology – not the least being that since the Second Coming is just around the corner, we ought not be concerned about climate change or environmental protection.
Hochschild describes her work as “experimental” sociology, in which she is trying to find the roots of a problem. Resonating with George Lakoff’s work on cognitive frames, she ends up describing “deep stories” that narrate the ideological frames by which Tea Party individuals understand their lives. A self-described liberal from Berkeley, the method is one of trying to scale the “wall of empathy” in order to understand the “other” and thus implicitly heal the political wounds of the widened gap between left and right in the U.S.
A benefit of Hochschild’s method is that by articulating the deep story she put together based on multiple interviews, her interviewees generally resonated with the social logic she extracts.
What’s interesting theologically among Hochschild’s interviewees is the way human exaltation over plants and animals plays a part in resisting liberal defenses of the environment. Even Tea Party members who take a view of environmental stewardship read Federal attempts at protection as trying to arbitrarily control them. Many would rather turn to local church communities for socioeconomic assistance and willingly give in tithing rather than be “forced” to pay taxes to support.
Institutionalized values hurt the authenticity of values freely engaged. This is a classic skepticism of the government many Americans will recognize. They are quickly, on the right and left, pulled into an affective rhetoric based on armchair constitutionalism and references to founding fathers, Jefferson’s call for occasional revolutions, etc.
The way Hochschild’s Tea Party members see it, liberal claims to protect the environment and create social equity among minorities sets them back at achieving the “American dream,” thus exalting “nature” – and apparently those historically associated with living in a “state of nature” – over their priority as humans. Outside of the U.S. this may be seen more directly as a class struggle, but given the history of American rhetoric against 20th century communism – which still underwrites worries about secret collaborations with Russia – the subject is taboo.
Class in general also takes a back seat to gender and race politics in liberal universities here, so we can battle over the ethics of being “allies.” This is a two-sided coin, where on the on hand neoliberal market identities are generated and then use rights-based claims to achieve civil recognition. On the other – as we see in gender theory and affect theory – there is an intense questioning of subjectivity itself, which causes deep worry for a rights-based culture at the heart of classic liberalism. Add to this a discussion of international human rights, which seems too “soft” and unpractical for social advancement, and you get the ideological reinforcement of American exceptionalism across the left-right spectrum in the U.S.
Of course, making claims about human rights will invoke a discussion about European universalism and a more Catholic-centered approach to the natural rights tradition. This is underscored in the U.S. by the ways Catholicism and Protestantism have historically vied for civic ambience.
A useful case in point here is the 1891 papal bull, Rerum novarum, which inspired social justice, especially among the urban poor. This impulse, among other German theological discussions, inspired emergent liberal mainline Protestantism through the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch in Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907). The flipside to this was the fundamentalist movement, which eschewed political involvement until galvanized in the Cold War era against Communism.
In scriptural terms, however, what we see are differing interpretations of the prophetic tradition. While the social gospel in the U.S. has long been aligned with mainline Protestants, conservatives developed a political platform dubbed “the Christian Right” in the late 1970s, operating around notions such as the “silent majority” and advocating political campaigns around such ideas as anti-abortion and anti-environmentalism, which really have their roots in resistance to Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s, and the feeling that “big government” was encroaching on “religious freedom.”
At the same time, Protestant neoliberal identity-reformations inspired all sorts of New Religious Movements (NRMs) under the banner of Christianity. As described by sociologists such as Kathleen Jenkins in Awesome Families: The Promise of Healing in International Churches of Christ (2005) and T.M. Lurhmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (2012), a definitely enchanted spirit of direct-connection to God fuses a classically liberal subjectivity and is made more extreme by neoliberal impulses toward identification and market-driven self.
As Maurizio Lazzarato describes it, neoliberalism “has made business the model for all social relations” (181), but we must add to this the persistence of historical theological enchantment, rather than simply invoking the postsecular.
Another sociological study I want to address is Antony Alumkal’s recently published, Paranoid Science: The Christian Right’s War on Reality. As the title suggests, Alumkal does not soften his critique by attempting to scale a “wall of empathy,” as Hochschild does.
He opens his book, which attempts to update Richard Hofstader’s concept of the “paranoid style”: “my book’s basic premise is that science is under attack by the Christian Right, whose leaders appeal to paranoid conspiracy theories by claiming that many scientists peddle misinformation and conceal their actions from the public” (ix). Although the Christian Right and the Tea Party are not the same entities, they do share ideologies and both inform the politics of the broader Republican party in the U.S.
More broadly concerned with evangelical thinking, Alumkal notes anthropocentrism as a key feature in Christian Right’s policies, in which humans are “the only earthly creatures created in the image of God (human exceptionalism)” (13). It seems to me that this is a key theological point crossing both Cole’s and Roberts’ passages with which I opened this post.
Rightwing arguments, as Cole points out above, are indeed informed by a “created freedom” that is wrapped up in the poetics of autonomy associated with the rise of modernity, but they are more extremely informed in their politics by traditionalist movements, as both Mark Sedgewick and Olivier Roy have noted with respect to Islamism.
This constructed “traditionalism” created tension with mainline Protestant Christian denominations, which had long accepted scientific knowledge based on rational, Enlightenment values. As Alumkal notes,
“While some strains of the Enlightenment were hostile to religious belief and attempted to pit science against religion, Protestant theologians in Europe (and later in the United States) attempted to find ways to reconcile their religious beliefs with the Enlightenment commitment to science. These efforts gained momentum in the nineteenth century and continue on to the present day.” (18)
For conservatives, liberal rationalism is often seen as existing in direct conflict with the “enchanted” emphasis on miracles and daily interventions by the divine in human affairs. This claim is echoed in numerous recent scholars’ rejections of Weberian “disenchantment.”
Traditionalism both “re-enchants” and translates far-right concepts into the broader public sphere by way what Ruth Wodak calls “discursive provocation” (115). As Roger Griffin has noted with his explication of the New Right in Europe, by appealing to neoliberal values that seek to recognize and celebrate difference, “it is evident that illiberal, biologically racist ideas concerning the organic relationship between people and soil and notions of ethnic purity have been translated into the sanitized discourse of culture and identity” (51).
This speaks to a possible two-pronged approach to understanding the far-right. On the one hand, we have Alumkal’s excellent analysis of paranoia among the Christian Right, in which attacks on science are selective: “Christian Right leaders will attack a scientific theory when they think it violates one of their strongly held beliefs” (12). When it comes to climate change, “They accuse environmentalists of idolatrous worship of the Earth. Meanwhile, they worship at the altar of free market capitalism” (191). So, attending to “paranoid” arguments may be one step.
The other prong would attend to the concerns about “doublespeak” and the attempts to “translate” far-right concerns into public discourse through appeals to traditionally liberal language. Perhaps one of the most famous appeals comes from Jürgen Habermas’s call for to “translate” theological concepts into secular language (52). The far right seems to employ this tactic quite well.
Attending to Alastair Roberts’ appeal to Psalm 8 and “God’s gracious providential establishment of human dominion for the good of his creation” and Cole’s claim that conservative political claims invoke “core values [which] are not theologically-grounded,” leads us to the necessity to parse out theological ambiguities related to anthropocentricism. These would efforts include a recognition of humans outside of our respective faith traditions, as included among an exalted view of “creaturely status.”
Included among these humans, though I have only slightly alluded to them here, ought to be Indigenous perspectives that do not regard anthropocentricism as cosmologically fundamental. The place to look for a rigorous re-evaluation of anthropocentricism might begin, following Alumkal’s critique, with an ear toward current social science, such as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s anthropological notion of Perspectivism in Amerindian cosmologies: “This cosmology imagines a universe peopled by different types of subjective agencies, human as well as non-human, each endowed with the same generic soul, that is, the same sort of cognitive and volitional capacities” (58).
Rather than “pluralist multiculturalism,” Viveiros de Castro points to the Amerindian theory of “transpacific personhood, which is by contrast unicultural and multinatural” (56). Such a view is not to be confused with animism as its been historically derived. Viveiros de Castro points to the “more human” perspective of Amerindian ethnocentrism, which regarded Europeans first as gods and then humans, versus the European assumption that Amerindians were animals before they were human. Rather than the classically liberal, Lockean view of “possessive individualism,” we might treat Amerindian philosophy “as important as commenting on Hegel” (22).
We might also push the perspective further to analyze King Saul’s trip to visit the witch of Endor and summon the prophet Samuel from the dead, only to realize that he was going to die, and that human calls for political sovereignty often rely on forces outside of what humans imagine in the moment. Perhaps such surprising turns might help to develop more rigorously “deep stories.”
Roger Green is a Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics. He is the author of “Aldous Huxley the Political Theologian”in Aldous Huxley Annual (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015), and “Force in Religious Thought: Carl Raschke and Victoria Kahn in Dialogue”in The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory. His doctoral dissertation, Beware of Mad John (2013) explores connections between political theology and psychedelic literature. He is currently working on a second PhD in Religious Studies and Theology at University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology.