The Great Commission and the "Christers":
A Critical Examination of "The New Blacklist" by Doug Ireland
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts
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Setting the Stage
Part 1 of the series: The Great Commission and the "Cristers": A Critical Examination of "The New Blacklist" by Doug Ireland
Posted for Wednesday, June 15, 2005
Hugh Hewitt got me started on this investigation. One of his blog entries today is called: "The Stuff They Teach At USC: A Trojan Dean's View of Fascism." In this piece Hugh quotes from Martin Kaplan, Director of the Normal Lear Center at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California. Kaplan was criticizing the effort of conservative Christians to keep what they consider to be immoral programming off of television. He referred to this as "theocratic oligopoly," adding, "The drumbeat of religious fascism has never been as troubling as it is now in this country." Hugh takes Kaplan to task in his blog, so I won't beat a dead horse. But Hugh made me curious about the origin of the Kaplan quote, so I followed up with some investigative web surfing and found some fascinating material. It is this, along with my own reflections, that I plan to lay out in this series.
The quotation from Kaplan appeared in an article in the LA Weekly entitled: "The New Blacklist: Corporate America is bowing to anti-gay Christian groups’ boycott demands." It was written by Doug Ireland. Whatever you think of Ireland's perspective, the article is interesting and well-worth a quick read of its 2,000 or so words. I also think it's worth some careful scrutiny. Hence this series.
Before I get into the substance of my examination, I want to set the stage a bit.
First, about the author. Doug Ireland was unknown to me until today. Yet my ignorance was easily remedied. Not only did Ireland write an article that I've now read several times, but also he has a website: Direland: Politics and Media – Analysis and Commentary from Veteran Political Journalist Doug Ireland. Ireland is prolific, with most of his articles focusing on political issues from a perspective that's openly on the left end of the spectrum. In fact, Ireland's bio page begins: "Doug Ireland is a longtime radical political journalist and media critic . . . ." I must say I appreciate his honesty. One couldn't accuse Ireland of having a hidden agenda because his agenda is right out there, front and center.
|Ireland has a fascinating history. He lived in France for a decade, and "considers Paris his second home." In addition to being a journalist, Ireland worked on the staff of presidential campaigns for "liberal Democrats."
His bio also includes this line: "Doug has been proudly out of the closet as a gay man since 1973, and has written extensively about gay political issues." Again, I appreciate his openness. It helps to explain why he is so worried about religious efforts to stop corporations from supporting pro-gay television programs.
Surveying Ireland's website, I found a long list of "Recommended Blogs." What tops the list? NoGodBlog.com – which describes itself as "A Free Service for Atheists from American Atheists." Though I didn't find evidence on Ireland's website of his own religious faith or lack thereof, the fact that his list of recommended blogs begins with a site for atheists is surely revealing.
Speaking of "revealing," one of Ireland's recommended blogs is called "The Revealer." Its subtitle is: "A Daily Review of Religion and the Press." This is the one blog on Ireland's blogroll with which I am quite familiar. It is sponsored by the Department of Journalism and the Center for Religion and Media at New York University. The Revealer describes itself in these terms: "[It's] a daily review of religion in the news and the news about religion. We're not so much nonpartisan as polypartisan -- interested in all sides, disdainful of dualistic arguments, and enamored of free speech as a first principle. We publish and link to work by people of all persuasions, religious, political, sexual, and critical." I think this is an accurate description. Though clearly not Christian or even religious in its viewpoint, I've found the Revealer to be fair in its estimation of matters religious as they are reported upon in the media. (For a rather chilling review of Jim Wallis's recent book, God's Politics, check out today's headline of The Revealer. The permalink is here.)
Ironically, The Revealer just recently put up a few comments on Doug Ireland's article in the LA Weekly. Although I could summarize them, they're short enough and concise enough to warrant quoting. So here's what The Revealer had to say about Ireland and "The New Blacklist."
10 June 2005
4:49 PM. There's just no good term for the cultural movement and political force variously referred to as the "Christian Right," or "fundamentalists." "Christian conservatives," the term The Revealer uses most often, has the advantage of inoffensiveness, which means it's also bland -- that is, it doesn't capture either the vitality/threat (you choose) of the people to whom it refers.
The journalist Doug Ireland calls them "Christers," a name with a history and, unfortunately, a taint of religious bigotry. Not that Ireland is a bigot. He's hardcore culture warrior, but we mean that as praise -- Ireland gets the goods on his enemies and reports with energy and style.
His latest, in the L.A. Weekly, is sure to upset those on all sides who ask why we all can't get along. That's because it's a report on some people who most decidedly do not want to get along, by a journalist who won't ignore the antagonism of politicized Christian conservative activists. His story -- on their boycott campaign against not just gay-friendly companies, but even corporations that commit the crime of employing gay people -- is doubly important, for the facts he presents and for the fact that most of the mainstream press isn't presenting them. One needn't hate the "Christers" to see this as an important story. So why, with the exception of a few dribbles here and there about anti-gay campaigns against Microsoft, Kraft, and Proctor & Gamble, isn't this a bigger story?
Revealer readers shouldn't guess that we're taking an activist position on this one by calling attention to Doug's piece. As we've said before, we're free speech fundamentalists. Boycotts, long a weapon of the left, are a form of speech. For those who fear the increasing power of these anti-gay boycotts, there's only one solid response -- an equally vigorous exercise of free speech, such as Doug's article.
I find this to be a fair review of Ireland's piece. I had been curious about the meaning of the term "Christers," which Ireland frequently used and had not been familiar to me. The Revealer seems to think it isn't a respectful way to address Christians. I did a bit of research myself, and found this to be true. The term "Christer" proliferates among those who are vehemently opposed both to the religious right and to Christianity in general. Andrew Sullivan gave a bit of insight into the meaning and etymology of the term:
It's a retro slur against Christians originating in the 1960s. It's basically the equivalent of calling a Jewish person a "kike," a heterosexual person a "breeder," or a gay person a "faggot", except I think it's worse than that because it also manages to use the sacred word "Christ" as a form of abuse.
So, as I begin my critical review of "The New Blacklist," there's no question about where Doug Ireland is coming from. This certainly encourages me to be on the lookout for ways in which he either misunderstands or misrepresents the religious right. Yet the fact that Ireland begins from a negative perspective about conservative Christians does not mean that his article doesn't have much to offer. In fact I find it fascinating, both in what it gets right and in what it gets wrong. To these matters I'll return in my next post.
A Punch to the Solar Plexus
Part 2 of the series: The Great Commission and the "Christers": A Critical Examination of "The New Blacklist" by Doug Ireland
Posted for Thursday, June 16, 2005
The first paragraph of Doug Ireland's column "The New Blacklist" hit me like a punch to the solar plexus. Here's how he begins:
Spurred on by a biblical injunction evangelicals call “The Great Commission,” and emboldened by George W. Bush’s re-election, which is perceived as a “mandate from God,” the Christian right has launched a series of boycotts and pressure campaigns aimed at corporate America — and at its sponsorship of entertainment, programs and activities the Christers don’t like.
What was so shocking in this paragraph, you wonder? Not the part about the impact of the Bush election, nor the fact of boycotts and pressure campaigns. Rather, what stunned me was the claim that The Great Commission is somehow motivating the Christian right's efforts to get corporate America to stop sponsoring certain programs or activities.
This was startling to me, partly because I'd never heard anyone make this particular connection before. But I'm not usually shocked my new information. Actually, I rather like it. Yet I was unsettled by the idea that what Ireland reports might in fact be true. As I'll explain later on, I would be quite concerned if in fact some Christians were using The Great Commission as a means of justifying their social activism, even if I happened to support what they were doing.
What Is The Great Commission?
In case you're not familiar with The Great Commission, let me explain briefly what it is. It appears at the very end of the Gospel of Matthew. There, Jesus says to his disciples,
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20)
For obvious reasons, this "commission" has had a giant impact on the Christian church, especially as a motivation for evangelism (telling the good news about Jesus) and missions (doing evangelism in far away places). Please pardon the gross generalizations. For obvious reasons, The Great Commission is the sort of thing that really rankles in a multi-cultural, relativistic world, one in which claims to make disciples of all nations aren't welcomed with opened arms.
In all of my years as a Christian, I must have heard a thousand references to "The Great Commission," always in connection to the task of making disciples of Jesus one way or another. Never in all my years as a Christian have I heard "The Great Commission" being used as justification for the kind of social activism described in Ireland's article. So I was eager to see what sort of evidence Ireland produced for his thesis.
The Influence of "The Great Commission" on "Christer" Activism
As I read "The New Blacklist," I kept my eyes open for evidence that connects the boycotts of the Christian right with The Great Commission. It doesn’t come until late in the article. The first substantial chunk of the column surveys many of the recent instances in which "Christers" have influenced corporations to withdraw support from programming deemed by the "Christers" to be immoral. As the survey continues, Ireland makes it clear that he is not at all pleased with corporate America "bend[ing] the knee to the Christers." It's in this context that he quotes Martin Kaplan from USC, who described the Christer offensive as "theocratic oligopoly" and "religious fascism."
Today's Communication with Doug Ireland
I've received a bunch of e-mail today re: my new series. It seems like Ireland's piece touched a nerve.
In my e-mail inbox was a note from Doug Ireland. This began a brief, civil interchange between us. I'm glad he'll be looking at my examination of his column, because this means I'll be less liable to misinterpret his views, and if I do, I expect he'll be sure to tell me so.
Ireland also clarified something that I had speculated about. He blogged about this today as well. I had noted that he links to an atheist website, NoGodBlog, and wondered if this reflects his personal faith (or lack thereof, depending on how you see things). Ireland clarifies his position this way: "Just so there can be no confusion, I have never made any secret of the fact that I'm a life-long atheist, and proudly so." Though I'm a theist, I do continue to appreciate Ireland's bluntness. In an age where people spin the truth to death, Doug Ireland is a refreshing exception. (He suggests that I find his linking to atheist websites "damning." I wonder if he means this ironically. At any rate, I don't find it damning, just helpful in trying to figure out where he's coming from. I would expect that an atheist might have a difficult time understanding things on the religious side of the fence, even as I would have a hard time making sense of things on the other side.)
I mentioned that "The New Blacklist" touched a nerve. Unfortunately, some of those touched by the column have expressed their dissatisfaction in nasty ways. Ireland says that he has been "deluged by an avalange of hate-mail, inspired by ultra-right and Christer websites who picked up on my article and denounced it." He prints one example of the hate-mail in his blog. I must say that I find this sort of response to Ireland to be both unhelpful and, from a Christian perspective, sinful. We who claim to be following Jesus would do well to remember that He called us to love both our neighbors and our enemies. Surely this would include those in the public square with whom we disagree, even passionately. Hate-filled communication has no place in Christian discourse. (I might add, by the way, that in my 18 months of blogging, by far the nastiest e-mail I have received has come from conservative Christians who haven't liked things I've said. This seems very sad to me.
Finally, on the meaning of "Christer" -- Ireland claims to have made up this word himself. Here's what he says in his blog: "I came up with the word "Christer" to distinguish those Protestant fundamentalists and ultramontane Catholics whose politicized version of Christianity impels them to seek to impose their views on others through public policy and the State -- as opposed to ordinary believers who understand their faith as a private and personal matter, not a fulcrum for censorship of those who think or act differently." This is a helpful definition, and it fits Ireland's usage of the term in "The New Blacklist."
In the last third of the column Ireland gets to the part about The Great Commission. He begins by quoting Chip Berlet, who is a sort of expert watchdog on the religious right. Here's the whole Berlet quotation:
What’s motivating these people [the Christian right] is two things. First, an incredible dread, completely irrational, of a hodgepodge of sexual subversion and social chaos. The response to that fear is genuinely a grassroots response, and it’s motivated by fundamentalist Christian doctrines like Triumphalism and Dominionism, which order Christians to take over the secular state and secular institutions. The Christian right frames itself as an oppressed minority battling the secular-humanist liberal homofeminist hordes.
Immediately on the heels of this quotation Ireland goes on to explain in his own words:
The key to those doctrines is what fundamentalist religious primitives call the Great Commission, which is basically an injunction to convert everyone to Christianity. In the Bible (Matthew 28:19-20), it says, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you . . .” The fundamentalist interpretations of these and other texts can be found on evangelical Web sites like Thegreatcommission.com, Transferableconcepts.com and Gospelcom.net. They have incredible motivating power for the religious right, and help explain the vehemence of the Christers’ intolerance of the freedom of others to think or act differently.
After this paragraph "The Great Commission" fades from view, and Ireland concludes with his suggested action step, which involves a careful study of "these Christer censorship and pressure campaigns . . . so that strategies to defeat them can be developed."
Given the length to today's blog post, I'm going to stop now. Tomorrow I'll analyze Ireland's claim about the influence of The Great Commission on "Christer" social activism.
Evidence for the Great Commission's Impact on "Christer" Activism
Part 3 of the series: The Great Commission and the "Christers": A Critical Examination of "The New Blacklist" by Doug Ireland
Posted for Friday, June 17, 2005
In my last post I summarized Doug Ireland's article "The New Blacklist," quoting the crucial paragraph I want to examine. So you don't have to scroll up to find it, I'll repeat that paragraph here:
The key to those doctrines [that order Christians to take over the secular state and secular institutions] is what fundamentalist religious primitives call the Great Commission, which is basically an injunction to convert everyone to Christianity. In the Bible (Matthew 28:19-20), it says, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you . . .” The fundamentalist interpretations of these and other texts can be found on evangelical Web sites like Thegreatcommission.com, Transferableconcepts.com and Gospelcom.net. They have incredible motivating power for the religious right, and help explain the vehemence of the Christers’ intolerance of the freedom of others to think or act differently.
The more I've examined this paragraph and the evidence that supports it, the less I am convinced of its truth.
First, let me indulge in a bit of nitpicking. The description "fundamentalist religious primitives" seems to be loaded with negative innuendo, unless I'm missing something obvious. (Am I?) But, beyond this, it's not just fundamentalists, either primitive or fairly well-developed, who refer to Matthew 28:19-20 as "The Great Commission." This title is well known and frequently used among Christians across the theological spectrum, including mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics.
Ireland's summary of the Great Commission – "an injunction to convert everyone to Christianity" – is more or less correct, though Matthew 28:19-20 envisions something much more profound than is sometimes associated with conversion. Ireland is also correct that "fundamentalist interpretations of these and others texts can be found on evangelical Web sites like Thegreatcommission.com, Transferableconcepts.com and Gospelcom.net," though the ideas of these sites are more typical of mainstream evangelicalism than fundamentalism.
But I'm simply not convinced that the Great Commission stands behind "Christer" social activisim. I visited the web sites Ireland mentions and carefully studied them (not every page, but many pages from each site). Indeed, every site mentions the Great Commission and has been inspired by this passage to evangelize. But, and here's my main point, I didn't find a single suggestion that faithfulness to the Great Commission leads to social activism, boycotts, or the like.
The host of Thegreatcommission.com (Revival Ministries, Inc.) does support organizations that provide for the poor, but otherwise has nothing to say about social issues. It's concerned mainly with the fulfilling of the evangelistic imperative of the Great Commission.
The Gospelcom.net Web site is quite extensive, with lots of resources for Christian living as well as for evangelism. I spent about 20 minutes exploring this site and found nothing related to boycotts, pressuring corporations, or social activism. In fact, Gospelcom.net's view of the Christian life resembles the sort of Christianity which Ireland describes as "ordinary believers who understand their faith as a private and personal matter, not a fulcrum for censorship of those who think or act differently." Whatever else Ireland might think about Gospelcom.net's authors, they clearly don't fit his "Christer" label.
I saw Batman Begins tonight. I came with mixed expectations. On the one hand, I had read many favorable reviews of the film, so this raised my expectations. On the other hand, I was one who actually like the other Batman films, especially the first. As a big fan of the television show, I didn't mind the campness of the other movies. So, I wondered how another Batman movie would do, especially because it's telling more or less the same story.
I was pleasantly surprised by the film. Almost from the start I felt truly engaged. Christian Bale's Batman is believable, if rather haunted and angry. The sets, though not nearly as "comic-bookish" as the other Batman films, were quite stunning, as were the "tools" Batman gets to play with, especially the new Batmobile. (For superhero fans, the new Batmobile is to the old Batmobile what The Thing is to Ben Grimm.)
Christian Bale is joined by a number of notable stars who, for the most part, are convincing in their roles. These include Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson (reprising his Qui-Gon Jinn role, sort of), Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, and Tom Wilkinson.
Perhaps what I most enjoyed about this movie, in addition to a decent story well-filmed, is getting some of my classic questions answered, questions like: How did Batman learn how to fight? Where did he get all those tools? And that suit? And that car?!?!
Note to parents: This movie deserves it's PG-13 rating. The action scenes, though not realistic or bloody, are quite violent, and the themes are not suitable for children under 10 or 12. This is, clearly, a Batman for adults
Transferableconcepts.com includes a lengthy article by Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, called "How You Can Help Fulfill the Great Commission." Bright challenges Christians to share the gospel with non-Christian people, but says nothing about social activism. In fact, Bright addresses specifically the sort of "Christianizing" of secular institutions that concerns Doug Ireland, and rejects it as incompatible with the Great Commission. Here are Bright's exact words:
Christ did not commission us to Christianize all nations; He called us to disciple and evangelize them. Our responsibility is to preach and teach Christ's dynamic gospel; it is the Holy Spirit's responsibility to make our witness effective.
It would seem, therefore, on the basis of the evidence Ireland himself presents, that the Great Commission is not a motivating factor for social action by conservative Christians. Moreover, I would expect that he would find some comfort in this strong statement by Bill Bright that Christians are not commissioned by Christ to "Christianize all nations." Bright uses the Great Commission to reject the very sort of Christer imperialism that Ireland fears.
But what about the Christian organizations that do in fact support boycotts and the like? Do they defend their actions on the basis of the Great Commission? Though Ireland doesn't explore this possibility, a positive answer would surely strengthen his case. So I decided to explore the Web sites of the "Christer" organizations Ireland mentions in his column: Focus on the Family, the Illinois Family Institute, and the American Family Association. Also, just for good measure, I threw in the New York Christian Coalition, led by the Rev. Bill Banuchi. Banuchi, according to Ireland's blog, is "one example of the kind of Christer I detest."
What did I find? The Great Commission is almost completely absent from these sites. And, though I might have missed something, it is never used in any way to support the activist efforts of these "Christers." The Great Commission, from their point of view, is about evangelism, not social change.
Yet these "Christer" organizations do see a relationship between evangelism and social action, between telling people about Jesus and making a difference in the world. Let me quote a representative statement from the Illinois Family Institute:
Social advocacy is a natural partner of evangelism. Christians are to be “Christ-like.” Scripture compels us to be transformed into His likeness. Since Jesus went about “teaching and preaching” and “doing good and healing,” we should do likewise. A Biblical view of compassion for our neighbor demands it of us.
British theologian John Stott said, “Therefore if we truly love our neighbors, and because of their worth desire to save them, we shall be concerned for their total welfare, the well-being of the soul, their body and the community. And our concern shall lead to practical programs….”
It would seem, therefore, that Ireland has missed the point of the Great Commission and its impact. He claims that "fundamentalist interpretations of [the Great Commission and other texts] . . . have incredible motivating power for the religious right, and help explain the vehemence of the Christers' intolerance of the freedom of others to think or act differently." I would agree that the Great Commission has incredible motivating power for many Christians, including fundamentalists, evangelicals, and many from mainline denominations as well. But this has very little to do with the social activism of some conservative Christians, like the American Family Association, which is the primary force behind many of the boycotts or threatened boycotts. It's a mistake, theologically, sociologically, and psychologically, to explain the zeal of some "Christers" for social activism by pointing to the Great Commission.
In defense of Ireland, I would say that it's hard for an outsider (and he has clearly identified himself as being way outside the "Christer" sphere) to understand the intricacies of conservative Christian life. Thus his confusion over what motivates "Christers" to get involved in political and social matters is understandable.
Yet this raises other questions, such as: If "Christers" aren't motivated in their activism by the Great Commission, what is motivating them? How do conservative Christians see their role in the social and political affairs of the nation? And, even more broadly, how should Christians understand the relationship of evangelism and social action? Then, there is also the question of whether or not it's appropriate for Christians to boycott companies in an effort to influence how they spend their advertising dollars. I'll tackle these questions as I continue this series in the days ahead.
The Influence of Dominionism
Part 4 of the series: The Great Commission and the "Christers": A Critical Examination of "The New Blacklist" by Doug Ireland
Posted for Monday, June 20, 2005
In my last post in this series I showed that Doug Ireland's claim that the Great Commission lies behind "Christer" social activism is not supported by the evidence. Though the Great Commission – Jesus's imperative that his followers "make disciples from all nations" – motivates Christians to evangelize, it does not have much to do with their efforts to make a difference in society. There's no evidence that the Great Commission has in fact encouraged conservative Christians to engage in boycotts of companies that support supposedly objectionable television programming.
So then, I wonder, what has in fact stirred up so many conservative Christians to get involved in social and political activism, especially since these folk tended historically to focus on heavenly hope rather than on earthly realities?
Doug Ireland includes another explanation in his article "The New Blacklist," though this is a secondary emphasis. Just before he gets to the part about the Great Commission, Ireland writes:
Today’s Christer protests are targeting a different kind of subversion. Chip Berlet, senior analyst at the labor-funded Political Research Associates, has spent over 25 years studying the far right and theocratic fundamentalism. He is co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. Berlet — who was one of the speakers at a conference last month co-sponsored by the N.Y. Open Center and the City University of New York Graduate Center on “Examining the Real Agenda of the Christian Right” — says that “What’s motivating these people is two things. First, an incredible dread, completely irrational, of a hodgepodge of sexual subversion and social chaos. The response to that fear is genuinely a grassroots response, and it’s motivated by fundamentalist Christian doctrines like Triumphalism and Dominionism, which order Christians to take over the secular state and secular institutions. The Christian right frames itself as an oppressed minority battling the secular-humanist liberal homofeminist hordes.”
Berlet is partly right, I think. Part of what motivates "Christer" activism is "dread . . . of a hodgepodge of sexual subversion and social chaos." Whether this is "incredible" and "completely irrational" or not is a matter of opinion however. When we consider that 22 million people in Africa have died from HIV/AIDS, with another 42 million infected, and millions of children in that continent are either born with NIV or orphaned because of the disease, and when we recognize that HIV/AIDS is a result of what conservatives believe to be sexual sin (primarily heterosexual in Africa, I might add), we might be wise to feel dread of "sexual subversion and social chaos."
Nevertheless, what I find unexpected and fascinating is Berlet's assertion that "Christer" activism is also motivated by "fundamentalist Christian doctrines like Triumphalism and Dominionism, which order Christians to take over the secular state and secular institutions." I have been aware of these doctrines for more than two decades, but I have always thought of them as arcane, way-off-the-beaten-track musings by a very small number of hyper-Reformed Christian thinkers (my own theological second cousins, by the way, not that I agree with their Dominionist views).
What is Dominionism?
If you're not familiar with Dominionism, let me say that it is basically a religious doctrine in which God is expected to rule over the earth (theocracy) through the exercise of dominion (political authority) by God's people. The most well-known form of Dominionism today is radical Isalm of the al Qaeda variety. Yet there have been a few Christian theologians (very few, actually) who have argued that the world should in fact be governed by Christians who, among other things, institute and carry out all portions of the Old Testament law. The movement inspired by these Christian Dominionists is also called Theonomy (God's law) or Christian Reconstructionism. (The best online summary of this movement and its theology is found at the "Religious Movements" website of the University of Virginia.)
Christian Dominionism is based, not on the Great Commission, but on the creation story in Genesis 1. There, after God created humankind as male and female, He said to them:
"Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominionover the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." (Genesis 1:28)
One of my first exposures to Dominionism came when I was in grad school, when a friend gave me a book by David Chilton called Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators.
As this gets worked out among Christian Reconstructionists, God's will for today's world is that His people (Christian men, particular) should rule over the nations, and should establish Old Testament law as the law of the land. As this gets worked out in practice, the details can seem rather scary to anyone but a hardcore Dominionist. What follows is a description of this movement by one of its staunchest critics. This paragraph was part of the cover story of the May issue of Harper's magazine. Though this description indulges in considerable hyperbole and over-generalization, it nevertheless outlines what some Dominionists believe, and begins to explain why folks on the left are so worried about it's purported influence:
Dominionists preach that Jesus has called them to build the kingdom of God in the here and now, whereas previously it was thought that we would have to wait for it. America becomes, in this militant biblicism, an agent of God, and all political and intellectual opponents of America’s Christian leaders are viewed, quite simply, as agents of Satan. Under Christian dominion, America will no longer be a sinful and fallen nation but one in which the Ten Commandments form the basis of our legal system, Creationism and “Christian values” form the basis of our educational system, and the media and the government proclaim the Good News to one and all. Aside from its proselytizing mandate, the federal government will be reduced to the protection of property rights and “homeland” security. Some Dominionists (not all of whom accept the label, at least not publicly) would further require all citizens to pay “tithes” to church organizations empowered by the government to run our social-welfare agencies, and a number of influential figures advocate the death penalty for a host of “moral crimes,” including apostasy, blasphemy, sodomy, and witchcraft. The only legitimate voices in this state will be Christian. All others will be silenced.
It's pretty easy to see why folks on the left end of the political spectrum would be concerned about the supposed dominance of Dominionism. In fact, many on the conservative side of things would be equally concerned. In fact I, as a Bible-believing Christian with a fairly conservative theology, would also distressed if I believed that Dominionism was a major force behind activism of the religious right. But should I believe this? Or not? Is Dominionism really the potent theological force behind "Christer" activism? Or are those who believe such things missing the mark?
To these questions I'll turn in my next post.
Is Dominionism Behind the Activism of the "Christers"?
Part 5 of the series: The Great Commission and the "Christers": A Critical Examination of "The New Blacklist" by Doug Ireland
Posted for Tuesday, June 21, 2005
Until I read Doug Ireland's recent column "The New Blacklist," I was unaware that any thoughtful person believed that Christian Dominionism made any real difference in today's world. Radical Islamic Dominionism, sure, but Christian Dominionism, no way. This theological position had always seemed to me to be an obscure and basically irrelevant segment of Christian thought. But, it turns out, there is a growing consensus among leaders of the political left that Dominionism is in fact the dominant influence behind the surging power of religious right.
A recent Harper's magazine cover story by Chris Hedges, entitled, "Feeling the hate with the National Religious Broadcasters," argues that Dominionists " now control most of America's major evangelical organizations" (italics mine). He ends his article by quoting his ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, who prophesied that someday religious liberals "would all be fighting the 'Christian fascists.'" The closing paragraph of Hedges's piece compares the Christian right to Hitler and the Nazis because both groups have "persecuted" homosexuals and lesbians."
The cover of Harper's for May, 2005: Under the general heading "SOLDIERS OF CHRIST" is Hedges's article "Feeling the Hate with the National Religious Broadcasters."
I would tend to regard this article by Hedges as just as irrelevant as Dominionism itself, except it seems that Hedges is not alone in his Dominionist-conspiracy theory. You may recall a paragraph from Doug Ireland's column that I quoted earlier, a portion of which read:
[Chip] Berlet — who was one of the speakers at a conference last month co-sponsored by the N.Y. Open Center and the City University of New York Graduate Center on “Examining the Real Agenda of the Christian Right” — says that “What’s motivating these people is two things. First, an incredible dread, completely irrational, of a hodgepodge of sexual subversion and social chaos. The response to that fear is genuinely a grassroots response, and it’s motivated by fundamentalist Christian doctrines like Triumphalism and Dominionism, which order Christians to take over the secular state and secular institutions. The Christian right frames itself as an oppressed minority battling the secular-humanist liberal homofeminist hordes.”
The "real agenda" of the Christian Right, according to speakers at this conference, is theocratic domination of America along Dominionist lines. A recent story in the Washington Times caught my attention with this headline: "Left aims to smite 'theocracy' movement." This article, from May 1, 2005, describes the two-day conference at CUNY, where some 500 people, largely from the left of the political spectrum, gathered to learn that Dominionism is, in fact, the real agenda of the religious right. Chip Berlet, whom Doug Ireland quoted at length, was one of the principal speakers. (Berlet, to his credit, was actually one of the more moderate of the bunch.)
I wonder if Doug Ireland and Martin Kaplan (the USC professor whom Ireland quoted referring to "Christer" efforts as "theocratic oligopoly" and "religious fascism") attended this event and were swayed by it. Whether they did or not, however, it seems that they have been influenced by the idea that conservative Christians are now being led by Dominionists. Is this true? Is the Christian right now dominated by leaders who seek to turn America into a true theocracy, governed only by Christian leaders who implement Old Testament law?
I rather doubt it. For one thing, I have found little evidence to support this theory and much to refute it. (For a bit of fiery refutation, see this piece by Sherrie Gossett.) Yes, I expect that there are some leaders of the religious right who have been influenced by Dominionist ideology or whose rhetoric sometimes sounds like Dominionism. But evidence for the Hedges claim that Dominionists "now control most of America's major evangelical organizations" is sorely lacking. Moreover, an abundance of solid and recent evidence supports the thesis that these organizations – including those that are socially active – are not Dominionist in their mission. (I'll explore this solid and recent evidence in my next blog post.)
Those who support the theory that "Dominionism is dominating the Christian right" often defend their view by claiming that much of this is secret. In his "Feel the hate" article, Hedges notes that "not all [Dominionists] accept the label, at least not publicly." Of course it's always possible that the major leaders of the Christian right are secret Dominionists, and that their public statements are meant to conceal their true beliefs and intentions, but so far I haven't seen much evidence to support this thesis, apart from the incendiary rhetoric of Hedges and others who agree with him.
If such evidence were forthcoming, then I'd be concerned, because I am no fan of Dominionism. From a theological point of view, I think it misses widely God's vision for life in today's world. And from a political point of view, I think it's inconsistent with the American vision of a democratic republic. So I wouldn't be too keen on a movement that I consider to be unbiblical and un-American.
Is there a problem if folks on the political left simply get all of this wrong? Should we care if they are greatly mistaken in their estimation of what motivates the Christian right? Yes, I believe there is a problem, and that we should care. For one thing, as a person committed to the truth, I'm always seeking a true understanding of things. I would like to know, for real, what is going on with the religious right in America. Name-calling and insinuations don't usually help in the search for truth.
Furthermore, I believe that our country is enriched when folks on different sides of the issues engage in genuine, honest, respectful dialogue with each other. But this won't happen if people on the left are wrongly accusing people on the right of stealth Dominionism. (Of course folks on the right are sometimes guilty of similar exaggeration and obfuscation, and this doesn't help either.)
Moreover, if leaders of the political left continue to speak as if the religious right is dominated by Dominionist ideology, they run the risk of sounding extreme and intolerant themselves. If when Christians exercise their free speech by boycotting a company, and Martin Kaplan calls this "theocratic oligopoly" and "religious fascism," who ends up looking oligopolic and fascist? Furthermore, I don't think it helps anybody when Ken Salazar, a Democratic senator from Colorado, refers to the Colorado-based Focus on the Family organization as "the Antichrist of the world."
Chip Berlet, whom I cited earlier as a source of the "Dominionism is behind the religious right" point of view, seems to agree with me on this score. He was quoted by the Washington Times as saying,
"If we are going to ask the Christian right to stop engaging in demonization, we need to inspect some of our own language. . . . I'm uncomfortable when I hear people of sincere religious faith described as religious political extremists. What does that term mean? It's a term of derision that says we're good and they're bad. There is no content."
It strikes me as ironic, sadly ironic, that folks on the left are gathering in New York to discover "The Real Agenda of the Religious Far Right" so soon after the leaders of "religious far right" have put their agenda right out there for everyone to see. I'm speaking of a document recently endorsed by a large, impressive collection of conservative Christian leaders in America. I'll examine this document in my next post. It's something all Americans, whether right or left, whether religous or not, should be aware of.
Some Thoughts About Boycotts
Part 6 of the series: The Great Commission and the "Christers": A Critical Examination of "The New Blacklist" by Doug Ireland
Posted for Wednesday, June 22, 2005
Revising a Promise
At the end of my last post I promised to examine a document which, I believe, does an excellent job revealing the "real agenda" of the Christian right. As I've been studying this document, I've decided that it deserves more than one post in this series on "The Great Commission and the Christers." In fact, I think it deserves its own short series. So, before I charge off down this tangent, I want to add some closing thoughts about boycotts as a form of Christian activism, since this is what stirred Doug Ireland's pot in the first place. I'll get to the "real agenda" of the religious right tomorrow. Thanks for your patience.
This series began as a response to Doug Ireland's column "The New Blacklist." That column was itself a response to the activities of conservative Christians, whom Ireland calls "Christers." At the core of these activities was a collection of boycotts. The most notable was a recent boycott of Proctor & Gamble sponsored by The American Family Association. P&G's offense? Advertising on "pro-gay" shows like Will & Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
Ireland, an openly-gay man on the left of the political spectrum, is understandably concerned about such efforts by "Christers," especially since they are becoming more and more successful. For example, the AFA boycott did manage to get P&G to stop advertising on shows the AFA considers offensive. In his column, Ireland quoted, with apparent approval, from Martin Kaplan, an official at USC, who referred to such boycotts as "theocratic oligopoly" and "religious fascism." Yet, in the end, Ireland does not call for some left-wing crusade against the "Christers" or for some sort of legal prohibition to keep them from their boycotts. Rather, he advocates careful study of what's going on by the people who would be most effected by it. Here is Ireland's conclusion:
Unless Hollywood, and the entertainment and broadcast industries, all want to live through an epoch of increasing content blackmail and blacklists, the wealthy folks who make a lot of money from those industries better wake up and start funding intensive and systematic research on the Christian right and its censorship crusades against sexual subversion and sin in the creative arts — or soon it will be too late, and the “theocratic oligopoly” of which Martin Kaplan speaks will be so firmly established it cannot be dislodged.
Notice that Ireland did not argue that the "Christers" were acting illegally or immorally. Though I expect he'd be happy if they stopped their boycotts, he didn't demand this. My guess is that Ireland sees "Christer" activism as a legitimate though unfortunate exercise of legal free speech. In principle, it's no different than what gay and lesbian activists did in response to Dr. Laura's television program, something that Ireland might very well have supported (though I don't know whether he did or not).
There's no question in my mind that boycotts and the threat of boycotts are protected by the First Amendment. Though their opponents frequently label them as censorship, they're not censorship in the true sense. Nobody to my knowledge is arguing that the government should outlaw Will & Grace. Rather, the "Christers" are simply holding the advertisers for that program accountable for their choices. And this, it seems to me, is a legal and reasonable (in some cases, anyway) kind of activism. (I would also defend the right of gay and lesbian activists to use boycotts, by the way.)
|Boycotts, whether they make any difference or not, have the distinct advantage of making the boycotters feel better. For example, I'm in the middle of a personal boycott of Carl's Jr. In the past twenty years I've probably eaten at Carl's Jr. five hundred times. But not now. Why? Because I'm offended by their recent commercial featuring Paris Hilton writhing in sexual ecstasy upon a car while she eats a burger from Carl's. The problem is, my boycott won't make a whit of difference because: 1) I'm just one person, and 2) I haven't even bothered to write a letter of complaint to Carl's Jr. But I feel better when I choose McDonald's over Carl's. Go figure!
It was hard to find one still picture from the Carl's ad that was sufficiently tame for my PG rated website.
Why, you might wonder, haven't I made more of an effort to get others involved in my boycott? Partly it's an issue of time, of which I have relatively little. Partly a matter of calling, and when I add up my callings, there isn't any of me left to be a boycott leader. But, I must confess that I'm not sure boycotts are, in the end, the most effective way for Christians to impact society, even when they're successful in the short run.
For one thing, boycotts by Christians have a way of turning off people being boycotted to Christianity in general. A victorious Christian boycott, therefore, could quite possibly hinder the broader Christian effort to draw people to Christ. If, for example, Christians managed to get Will & Grace thrown off the air, I'm not sure this would ultimately be helpful to the larger Christian cause.
From another perspective, though there may be times when boycotts are worthwhile, I would hope that the Christian vision for impacting the entertainment industry would be much broader and more constructive than a boycott focus. Rather than invest time, talent, and money in boycotts, I'd rather see Christians "invade" secular media with high-quality, morally-commendable, even spiritually-uplifting programming. To cite perhaps the most obvious example from recent times, Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ made a positive difference of Herculean proportions. The December 9, 2005 release of C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe will offer another brilliant example of a positive Christian contribution to the world of secular entertainment.
So, though I'm not necessarily criticizing all Christian boycott efforts, I fear that the impulse to boycott can easily lead to unproductive and even counterproductive results. I'd rather that we Christians be known, not as effective boycotters, but rather as effective writers, directors, and producers. I believe that in this way, though it may require a long walk along the road less traveled, Christians might have a more profound, pervasive, and positive impact on our society.