Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Christian Right?

Plenty of people are, if this bibliographical essay in First Things from Ross Douthat is any indication. Douthat, who writes for Atlantic Monthly and blogs at The American Scene, has read the latest wailing and gnashing of teeth from Kevin Phillips, James Rudin, Michelle Goldberg, and Randall Balmer, and found these noted liberals making much ado about nothing. Well, perhaps not nothing; there is in fact a marginal movement of hardcore Calvinists who call themselves Reconstructionists or Dominionists whose idea of the good life makes Calvin’s Geneva look like Cancun during Spring Break. But they rank “somewhere between the Free Mumia movement and the Spartacist Youth League on the totem pole of political influence in America,” Douthat says. However, Douthat shows, that doesn’t stop Phillips, et al, from reaching too far to make connections between the Dominionist fringe and the mainstream Christian Right, finding things that aren’t there, and straining credulity in the process.

What Douthat doesn’t really mention, and what really in my mind makes the recent alarmism of Phillips, et al, (not to mention Andrew Sullivan and his insulting term “Christianist”) rather silly, is that these would-be Paul Reveres are five years behind the times. The Christian Right is on a serious, identifiable decline. Ideologically, they’re fracturing. Parts of the Christian Right are growing a green thumb, as Seth pointed out this week, while others are discovering that the straight Republican ticket isn’t always the best answer. The Christian Coalition itself is losing members, and its former head lost a race for Lt. Governor in his home state. Part of the decline is due to success — Bush in the White House and Roberts and Alito on the bench — but another part, I think, is that evangelicals have found out that after getting the seat at the table they’ve wanted for so long, their hosts are serving Mac-N-Cheese. Count me among those who doubts the GOP will ever get around to really doing something about abortion, for example. Secular authority will give the church what it wants as long as it serves its interests. When the church pushes for more (in “speaking truth to power,” as it should), it inevitably, sometimes violently, rediscovers that secular authority wants it on a leash.

We are nowhere near an emerging theocracy. The Christian Right is currently going through a Niebuhrian reeducation process. As Niebuhr taught us, there are many different places for God and Culture to meet, and the Christian Right is discovering that the corridors of power aren’t always the best place for a rendezvous. Calvinist dystopias aside, Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world. That is not to say that Christians in politics should not be trying to recreate the world closer to what God intended — full of peace, justice, and love — but we need to remember that we are lesser copyists of a far better artist. And, sometimes, the political tools we’ve been given aren’t even the right ones to use.

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