Thursday, June 29, 2006

God, Calvin, and Social Welfare - Part Six: Godlessness & Secular Humanism

In the 1950s and 1960s conservatives in evangelical and fundamentalist churches, and conservatives in mainline Protestant denominations, felt themselves under assault by the growth of secular and humanist ideas in the society. Religious belief in general seemed to be waning. Godless communism seemed to be advancing while the Godly in America seemed to be retreating.

Conservative Christians were particularly horrified by a series of U.S. Supreme Court and other federal court rulings on pornography, prayer in schools, the tax status of segregated Christian academies, and abortion.

The country seethed with demands for justice and equality by the Civil Rights movement which spawned the student rights movement, and then the antiwar movement, the women's rights movement, the ecology movement, and the gay rights movement. Conservative religious forces responded with campaigns to clean up the movies and stop smut, restore prayer in public schools, and end abortion.

A critical moment came when a group of parents in Kanawha county West Virginia launched a campaign in 1974 against new textbooks introduced into the public school system. Frank discussions about sexuality and race relations were seen as part of a coordinated attack on the moral values of traditional families. Several national conservative groups including the Heritage Foundation rallied to the side of the parents. In many ways the conservative framing of social issues in terms of "family values" traces back to this campaign against the influence of progressive secular and humanistic ideas. (Berlet and Lyons).

The idea that a coordinated campaign by "secular humanists" was aimed at displacing Christianity as the moral bedrock of America actually traces back to a group of Catholic ideologues in the 1960s (Mason). It was Protestant evangelicals, especially fundamentalists, who brought this concept into the public political arena and developed a plan to mobilize grassroots activists as foot soldiers in what became known as the Culture Wars of the 1980s.

A popular theologian named Francis A. Schaeffer caught the attention of many Protestants in a series of books and essays calling on Christians to directly confront sinful and decadent secular culture with its humanist values. Several other authors picked up this attack on "secular humanism" and extended it (Diamond, Martin, Berlet and Lyons).

George Marsden argues that this new focus on secular humanism "revitalized fundamentalist conspiracy theory." The threats of "Communism and socialism could, of course, be fit right into the humanist picture," Marsden notes, "but so could all the moral and legal changes at home without implausible scenarios of Russian agents infiltrating American schools, government, reform movements, and mainline churches" (Marsden: 109).

Two leading activists of the Christian right, Gary Bauer and James Dobson, called the battle pitting secular humanists against Christians over the moral foundation of America a "great Civil War of Values" (Martin:344).

The idea of a conscious and coordinated conspiracy of secular humanists has been propounded in various ways by a variety of national conservative organizations, including the Christian Coalition (Pat Robertson), the Eagle Forum (Phyllis Schlafly), Concerned Women for America (Beverly LaHaye), American Coalition for Traditional Values (Tim LaHaye), Christian Anti-Communism Crusade (Fred Schwarz), and the John Birch Society (Robert Welch).

By framing this set of claims as a conspiracy to provoke a "Culture War," conservative Christians transform political disagreements into a battle between the Godly and the Godless, between good and evil, and ultimately between those that side with God and those that wittingly or unwittingly side with Satan. This has important implications when merged with neo-Calvinist ideas about the relationship between human nature and proper public social policies; and premillennial expectations about the proper role of Christians in the apocalyptic End Times.


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

Diamond, Sara. 1995. Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States. New York: Guilford Press.

Marsden, George M. 1991. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Martin, William. 1996. With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America. New York: Broadway Books

Mason, Carol. 2002. Killing for Life: The Apocalyptic Narrative of Pro-Life Politics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

God, Calvin, and Social Welfare: A Series

Part One: Coalitions

Part Two: Calvinist Settlers

Part Three: Roots of the Social Welfare Debate

Part Four: Apocalypse and Social Welfare

Part Five: Fundamentals, Prophecies, and Conspiracies

Part Six: Godlessness & Secular Humanism

Ported from Talk to Action
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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

Friday, June 16, 2006

God, Calvin, and Social Welfare - Part Five: Fundamentals, Prophecies, and Conspiracies

The mainline Protestant denominations had learned to live with the secular civic arrangements of the American republic at the dawn of the Twentieth Century. Mainline Protestants supported separation of church and state. They saw the scientific method as revealing the wonder of God, and accepted scientific discoveries as complementary to religion rather than competition for hearts, minds, and souls.

This all was heresy to a group of conservative ministers who condemned church leaders and urged the rank and pew laity to return to what they saw as the fundamentals of orthodox Protestant belief.

From 1910 to 1915 these reactionary theologians published articles on what they saw as the fundamentals of Christianity. Thus they became known as the fundamentalists. Among their beliefs was the idea that the Bible was never in error and was to be read literally, not as metaphor.

While rejecting Calvinist ideas of predestination and the Elect, fundamentalists sought to restore many orthodox Calvinist tenets--thus they embraced the idea that man was born in sin and thus needed punishment, shame, and discipline to correct sinful tendencies. Some who opposed what they saw as the liberal and progressive ideas of the mainstream and mainline Protestant churches decided not to go as far as the Fundamentalists, and so they retained the identification of being evangelicals (Ammerman; Marsden 1982, 1991; Martin). Fundamentalists, therefore, are evangelicals with a more doctrinaire and aggressive approach to battling secularists and religious liberals. As Marsden quips, "A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is mad about something," and yet both evangelicals and fundamentalists are "strikingly diverse" (1991: 1-2).

Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists have historically connected apocalyptic prophecies in the Bible's book of Revelation to current political and social events (Boyer; Fuller). Robert C. Fuller notes that trying to match real life political figures with the evil Antichrist (prophesied as the sidekick of Satan in Revelation) became something of an "American obsession" in certain circles. This is especially true among those who embrace premillennial dispensationalism as their view of the End Times timetable. The rise of communism and anarchism during the post WWI period were easily viewed through the lens of a conspiratorial version of apocalyptic belief and was woven into the developing beliefs of premillennial fundamentalists. Liberalism and radicalism were not just heresies--they were part of a conspiracy against God.
According to Frank Donner:

"Bolshevism came to be identified over wide areas of the country by God-fearing Americans as the Antichrist come to do eschatological battle with the children of light," as prophesied in Revelation. Although based in Christianity, this apocalyptic anticommunist worldview developed a "slightly secularized version," explains Donner, and it was "widely-shared in rural and small-town America, postulated a doomsday conflict between decent upright folk and radicalism--alien, satanic, immorality incarnate (Donner: 47-48)"

One skirmish against this cosmic battle against alien and secular ideas was aimed against science--especially Darwin's theory of evolution--with "creationism" becoming a major cause for fundamentalists in the 1920s
(read more).
Evangelicals and fundamentalists, however, received such bad press during and after the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial" that many of them withdrew from direct political and social involvement, building a separate subculture that lasted until the Cold War.

Michael Cromartie explains:

"For several decades, from roughly 1925 until the end of World War Two, a large sector of conservative Protestant social thought was influenced by a pessimistic form of eschatology and a pietistic individualism that looked with disdain on efforts to improve social conditions and political structures. These conservative Protestants had originally believed that the process of secularization was simply irreversible; this pessimism was reinforced by their pre-millennial theology. Some simply suffered from over-heated eschatological [End Times] expectations (Cromartie).

Leo P. Ribuffo has studied "The Old Christian Right" that flourished between WWI and WWII. He pays special attention to the influence of apocalyptic Biblical prophecy on the leaders of the Protestant "Far Right" such as William Dudley Pelley, Gerald B. Winrod, and Gerald L. K. Smith (Ribuffo: 2-24, 58-72, 83-116, 175-177). While these men all ended up on the political fringe, some of their ideas gained a wide following. In the 1930s and 1940s, a significant number of conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists saw President Roosevelt and other "modernists" not only as moving inexorably toward collectivism, but also sliding down "a slippery slope from liberalism to atheism, nudism, and Communism" (Ribuffo: 110).

A large number of evangelicals and fundamentalists were highly critical and suspicious of the social reforms implemented during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. Liberals were widely seen as paving the road to communism as part of a vast conspiracy. Government welfare programs could be pictured as similar to the collectivism of Godless and perhaps Satanic Soviet communism.

Although fundamentalists and evangelicals tended to withdraw from the political fray, devoting most of their energy to inwardly-directed religious observance, they challenged modern ideas using such modern tools as radio and later television to communicate their message. Fundamentalists and evangelicals never went away. They lived within their own subcultures, saving souls, and watching for the signs of the times by matching current events to Biblical prophecies. To them, the social safety net and the welfare state were just more evidence that America was going to Hell.


Ammerman, Nancy T. 1991. "North American Protestant Fundamentalism." In Fundamentalisms Observed, The Fundamentalism Project 1, eds., Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, pp. 1-65. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Cromartie, Michael. 2000. "Religious Conservatives in American Politics 1980-2000: An Assessment."

Donner, Frank J. (1980). The Age of Surveillance: The Aims and Methods of America's Political Intelligence System. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Fuller, Robert C. (1995). Naming the Antichrist: The History of an American Obsession. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marsden, George M. (1982). Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marsden, George M. (1991). Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Martin, William. 1996. With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America. New York: Broadway Books.

Ribuffo, Leo P. 1983. The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

God, Calvin, and Social Welfare: A Series

Part One: Coalitions

Part Two: Calvinist Settlers

Part Three: Roots of the Social Welfare Debate

Part Four: Apocalypse and Social Welfare

Part Five: Fundamentals, Prophecies, and Conspiracies

Ported from Talk to Action
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Monday, June 05, 2006

Decoding The Da Vinci Code:
Causa Merdae Flabellum Incursandae

Last Supper

God help me, The Da Vinci Code movie wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. The book by Dan Brown was a moderately fun thriller, but I had heard so many negative reviews, I went to the screening with my Tripe Belch sense of dread.

I had been talking with my friend Denise Griebler, a minister with the United Church of Christ (UCC) about The Da Vinci Code, and how it combines longstanding debates about Christian theology (based in part on the Gnostic Gospels) with conspiracy theories old and new.

The UCC is the media-savvy Protestant denomination that has been producing television advertisements about welcoming people from all walks of life to their church. All the major networks have refused to run them. These are the same TV networks that helicopter in film crews to cover marginal self-appointed Christian Right demagogues while ignoring statements by mainstream church leaders such as Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA.

That got me to thinking about how we can use the massive publicity around The Da Vinci Code movie, and the early attendance rush to the theaters, to talk with our neighbors, friends, and others about the real struggles within Christianity. We need to decode The Da Vinci Code. Codes are fun. We should always be ready to seize an opportunity ubi merda flabellum incursat.

There are several themes we can decode, and in doing so separate the facts in The Da Vinci Code from the fiction. I started doing this on the "Uprising" radio show hosted by Sonali Kolhatkar at KPFK-FM, Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles. There were a number of callers to this talk show, and we had a lively conversation. What follows are just sketches of ideas for starting conversations.


As many others have pointed out, Jesus of Nazareth was not followed around be someone with a tape recorder--not even a stenographer lugging around parchment and ink. The Bible is based on an oral tradition converted into text after the fact.

The Bible was pieced together from a collection of materials, and some written texts were excluded. We can discuss the process of assembling the Bible. What was included? What was excluded? Why? How does Biblical literalism function with a text that was assembled by a committee?


There was a struggle among the early followers of Jesus over the role of women. This grain of truth in the Da Vinci Code can be used to ask about how Peter and Paul introduced hierarchy and patriarchy into the Jesus movement.

Try exploring the very real writings on the sacred feminine especially in Gnosticism. Look for articles and books by Rosemary Radford Reuther, or for a really challenging set of texts: Mary Daly. Peter J. Gomes is the author of The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart. Gomes, a minister at Harvard, reminds us to read the Bible with an awareness that some passages represent contemporary prejudices and systems of oppression introduced into the text by the human authors.


The Gnostic Gospels are some of the texts excluded (and denounced as heresy) by those that assembled the Bible. Elaine Pagels explains the Gnostic Gospels and sets the table for a great dinner conversation about what was really going on at the Last Supper. If Mary Magdalene wasn't in the picture--why not?


The recitation of creeds has been used as litmus tests to "out" heretics in Christianity. Creeds play different roles in different churches. For example: "The UCC therefore receives the historic creeds and confessions of our ancestors as testimonies, but not tests of faith" according to the website at Denise Griebler's church in Illinois. Is there only one exact way to practice Christianity? Who says? Do people who pray to God pray to the same God? Do humans get to decide what prayers are heard?


Some members of the Catholic group Opus Dei serve as the enforcers of the most dogmatic, repressive, and authoritarian aspects of the Catholic Church. OK, the group probably never hired an masochistic albino hit man to track down and murder those who get in their way. But as author Penny Lernoux and others have pointed out, Opus Dei played a role in crushing Liberation Theology and siding with wealthy elites and right-wing dictators against poor peoples movements in Central and South America.

At Talk2Action Frank Cocozzelli provides details about Opus Dei in "The Catholic Right: A Series:Parts Two & Three."


The current Pope is intelligent and witty--but very reactionary and patriarchal--as Cardinal Ratzinger he encouraged the most right-wing elements within the church hierarchy and laity. We can criticize the Catholic Church for sexism and homophobia and authoritarian impulses. See the first part of Frank Cocozzelli's series on "The Catholic Right."


I enjoy conspiracy theories as entertainment: the X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I'm currently reading a novel about a contemporary investigation of historical events woven around conspiracy theories, lost statues, hidden passages in a castle, the Catholic Church. The novel by Elizabeth Peters is Borrower of the Night, and before the novel begins, Peters lays out what parts of the novel are based on historic facts, and which are not. Dan Brown wrote a similar statement in the beginning of The Da Vinci Code, but he fudged the facts. Much of The Da Vinci Code is borrowed from longstanding conspiracy theories about the Freemasons and their interaction with the secret Illuminati group. Promoting conspiracy theories as fact is playing with fire. Why are conspiracy theories so popular right now?


The Priory of Sion as the protectors of the Holy Grail are the good guys in the film. As such, the group does not exist. It appears to have been invented recently, and the hucksters even created faked papers they stashed in a library so they could be "found." For more details, see this, and this, and this. Was it appropriate for Dan Brown to imply that the Priory of Sion actually exists?


The movie the Da Vinci Code gives us a golden opportunity, so let's talk about some of these issues. Our cup runneth over--even if there is no chalice in the Last Supper painting by Da Vinci. There is a struggle over faith, religion, and God going on in our society right now.

The NCC's Bob Edgar puts it this way:
I think there are two Christian Churches. I think one Christian Church was fascinated with the Old Testament Messiah, who was going to come and lead a mighty army. They see that Old Testament Messiah through the eyes of the Armageddon theology. You hear them talking a lot about the second coming. I think there's another Christian Church who was surprised that God sent the Messiah in a humble birth and a person who was a conscientious objector talking about peace and cared about the poor. And this other Church think the second coming already happened. We call it Easter. God is in fact inviting us to help change the world in which we live. read more

Ruby Sales of Spirit House also puts matters in a clear perspective in her essay Empire v. Liberation Christianity:
The Empire religion espoused by George Bush and his white Christian conservative allies is headed by a God who appears to be white supremacist, patriarchal, and upper class, one who stood on the side of enslavement and the genocide of native peoples throughout the globe, including the Americas.

This is the message of conservative right wing Christians. They misuse scripture to justify their beliefs, and they hide their intentions behind self-centered and pious God talk that undergirds and propels exclusion and domination--whether it's about the inferiority of women, black people, or lesbians and gays.

Liberation Christianity begins with the assertion that God is on the side of the oppressed rather than the side of the Empire. This is the good news of the radical Jew Jesus who challenged the Roman Empire.

Right wing Protestant evangelicals and Catholics have raised a rucus about the movie The Da Vinci Code. We can join the fray. What are some other questions we can ask in public based on what we see in the book and movie? And after this, we can look around and see if anything is Left Behind.

Ported from Talk to Action
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