Tuesday, February 28, 2006

God, Calvin, and Social Welfare - Part One: Coalitions

Today, many ideas, concepts, and frames of reference in modern American society are legacies of the history of Protestantism as it divided and morphed through Calvinism, revivalist evangelicalism, and fundamentalism.

Even people who see themselves as secular and not religious often unconsciously adopt many of these historic cultural legacies while thinking of their ideas as simply "common sense."

What is "common sense" for one group, however, is foolish belief for another. According to author George Lakoff, a linguist who studies the linkage between rhetoric and ideas, there is a tremendous gulf between what conservatives and liberals think of as common sense, especially when it comes to issues of moral values.

In his book Moral Politics, which has gained attention in both media and public debates, Lakoff argues that conservatives base their moral views of social policy on a "Strict Father" model, while liberals base their views on a "Nurturant Parent" model.

According to Axel R. Schaefer, there are three main ideological tendencies in U.S. social reform:

  •  Liberal/Progressive: based on changing systems and institutions to change individual behavior on a collective basis over time.

  •  Calvinist/Free Market: based on changing individual social behavior through punishment.

  •  Evangelical/Revivalist: based on born again conversion to change individual behavior, but still linked to some Calvinist ideas of punishment.

Republicans have forged a broad coalition of two of the three tendencies that involves moderately conservative Protestants who nonetheless hold some traditional Calvinist ideas:

Calvinist/Free Market advocates ranging from multinational executives to economic conservatives to libertarian ideologues; and

Evangelical/Revivalist conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists with a core mission of converting people to their particular brand of Christianity.

This is a coalition with many fracture points and disagreements.

The Calvinist/Free Market sector is already a coalition based on shared ideas about individual responsibility and successes in Free Market or Laissez Faire capitalism- sometimes called neoliberalism to trace it back to an earlier use of the term "liberal" by philosophers who opposed stringent government regulation of the economy. This is where the neoconservatives fit into the picture as sort of secular Calvinists.

Libertarians are against government economic regulations and believe in a Free Market, but libertarians generally also oppose government regulation of social matters such as gay marriage and abortion. These and other social issues, however, are central to the conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists in the Republican coalition.

This can get complicated. For example the evangelical idea that it is personal conversion and salvation that will make for a more perfect society, not government programs and policies, sometimes ends up supporting (in a complementary and parallel way) the goal of libertarians and economic conservatives to reduce the size of government.

As the Bush Administration has shifted government social welfare toward "Faith-Based" programs, it has diverted government funding into privatized religious organizations (which raises serious separation of Church and State issues), but the amount of funding applied to "Faith Based" projects is small compared to the large budget cuts in previously government-funded government-run social welfare programs.

Libertarians approve of the overall budget cuts, but would prefer cutting out the government funding of "Faith Based" projects.

It's all about compromise. Coalitions unite around shared agendas, while temporarily setting aside disagreements. So if several groups share a particular worldview, that helps bind the coalition together.

Although the Christian Right is coming from a very specific religious perspective, its theology and political ideas are rooted in a common cultural context with other components of the coalition being held together by the Bush administration. To appreciate how this has happened, we need to look at the version of Calvinism brought to our shores by early settlers.

Berlet, Chip and Matthew N. Lyons. 2000. Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. New York: Guilford.

Frank, Thomas. 2004. What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Lakoff, George. [1996] 2002. Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Schaefer, Axel R. 1999. "Evangelicalism, Social Reform and the US Welfare State, 1970-1996," pp. 249-273, in David K. Adams and Cornelius A. van Minnem, eds., Religious and Secular Reform in America: Ideas, Beliefs, and Social Change. New York: New York University Press. (I have used slightly different language to describe the sectors identified by Schaefer).

Ported from Talk to Action
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God, Calvin, and Social Welfare: A Series
Part One: Coalitions

Based on the Public Eye article "Calvinism, Capitalism, Conversion, and Incarceration"
Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates
The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Bush & the Apocalyptic Coalition

Tens of millions of Americans have been reading the Left Behind fiction series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The stories are set in the turmoil after "real" Christians have been Raptured by God who pulls them away from earth in the End Times while those who have been "left behind" face the Tribulations. This includes those Christians who didn't make the A team who ascended.

Hugh Urban explains there is a symbiosis between the worldview of the neoconservatives who have engineered the Bush Administration's foreign policy, and the plotline of the Left Behind series.

In an online essay titled "Bush, the Neocons and Evangelical Christian Fiction: America, `Left Behind,'" Urban observes that:

"...the Neocon's aggressive foreign policy, centered around the Middle East, and the Christian evangelical story of the immanent return of Christ in the Holy Land-- struck me as weirdly similar and disturbingly parallel. The former openly advocates a "New American Century" and a "benevolent hegemony" of the globe by U.S. power, inaugurated by the invasion of Iraq, while the latter predicts a New Millennium of divine rule ushered in by apocalyptic war, first in Babylon and then in Jerusalem."

The Christian Right is composed of many different conservative tendencies and theological viewpoints, but a significant number have adopted this particular version of the apocalyptic End Times script, which is called premillennial dispensationalism. Some of them even belong to Protestant denominations that are not premillennial, and don't believe in the Rapture. Pop culture trumps theology.

The focus on the Middle East has led some premillennialist Christians to become Christian Zionists. They uncritically support every policy and action by the Israeli government so that the Temple Mount in Jerusalem remains in the control of Jews who the Christian premillennialists believe will displace Islamic shrines and rebuild Solomon's Temple--which they see as a prerequisite for the return of Jesus Christ. This has also resulted in increasing antipathy towards Muslims and Islam, who some weave into the biblical script as agents of Satan who assist the Antichrist in the End Times.

Neoconservatives have a secular approach to the Middle East that lines up along similar lines, with some advocating the idea of Samuel Huntington that there is a "clash of civilizations" pitting the good Judeo-Christian West against the evil Islamic East. In this worldview, the American brand of "Free Market" capitalism is a prerequisite for democracy; and the United States has an obligation to export both--using tanks and missiles if necessary.

In his book An Angel Directs the Storm, Michael Northcott argues that the neoconservative:

"conception of political economy is as apocalyptic as more openly religious forms of millennialism precisely because it sets up an ideology of human redemption which its advocates believe they are charged to follow regardless of the destruction and violence it may entail."

Apocalyptic violence is justified from a religious perspective by the Christian Right and from a secular perspective by the neoconservatives. Both want to "take dominion" over the earth.

This is the apocalyptic coalition crafted by the Bush Administration.

Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates

The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates
Chip's Blog

Ported from Talk to Action
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