Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Reader Writes: "Are These Conservative Churches Really . . . a Weird Kind of New World Hebraic Cult?" — Reflections on the Neo-Calvinist Movement in U.S. Evangelicalism

Several days ago, in response to my posting about how Steve's two aunts who are nuns received the news of our marriage in May, tinywriting posted some very good questions (and here) about how we can discern when Christian movements have departed in essential ways from the foundations of the Christian message and no longer adequately represent Christianity. Tiny notes that "when these conservative Christian churches take conservative life-style positions it's always the Old Testament that they quote."

In response, I noted that I agree with tinywriting's point: I think that right-trending Christian movements are often highly selective as they cite scripture, and they often present a problem for the rest of us who are Christians insofar as their selective focus on this passage or that one, or this issue or that one, seems to the rest of us to run directly counter to the gospels, which are the heart of the Christian message. Here's how the leader of the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, Rev. William Barber, puts the point in his address to Netroot Nation this past July (see Fred Clarkson's illuminating commentary today at Talk to Action): 

But let me tell you why I am a religious conservative.  You see in the Bible I read -- I read this book I carry with me called the poverty and justice Bible and it has all the scriptures marked in it that deal with justice and uplift of the poor and helping women and children. 
And in that Bible it's 2000 scriptures that are marked. 
Now I have looked at the Religious Right's agenda about being against people who are homosexual, and being against -- being for prayer in the school and being against abortion, and I can find about five scriptures that may speak to those issues, and four of them they misinterpret. 
And none of them ever trump this ethical demand: that you love your neighbor as yourself.
And that you do justice and you love mercy!

As Barber notes, the Jewish and Christian scriptures are full of passages enjoining us to do justice and love mercy, to make love of neighbor the foundation of our spiritual lives: he's marked 2,000 scriptures insisting on this. By contrast, a powerful segment of Christians today zero in on some five texts, most of them taken out of context and misunderstood, that, as they insist, focus the Christian message more or less exclusively on abortion and homosexuality. This obsessive focus on the minor key of culture-war shibboleths, which obliterates the major key of the Jewish prophets and Jesus himself in the gospels — Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God — presents a serious problem to the rest of us who claim the Christian faith, since we're convinced that the obsessive focus on culture-war shibboleths distorts what our faith is all about, in its very roots.

In my response to tinywriting, I note how a neo-Calvinist impulse is emerging in American evangelicalism today, and how this impulse is particularly attractive to right-trending evangelicals. Briallen Hopper discusses this movement in an essay published in June at the Religion and Politics site. As she notes, one of the leading proponents of neo-Calvinism in American evangelical circles is the Seattle megachurch pastor I discussed two days ago, Mark Driscoll, whose theology is, in the view of many evangelical critics, strongly skewed by misogyny and homophobia.

Though, as Briallen Hopper also notes, other American Calvinists including Marilynne Robinson retrieve quite different aspects of the Calvinist tradition than commentators like Driscoll do (I discussed Robinson's valuable attempt, in When I Was a Child I Read Books, to retrieve Calvinism's tradition of liberalism in this posting in April 2012), what is coming to dominate the imagination of many Americans who hear that American evangelicals want to retrieve the Calvinist roots of evangelical movements is what I would call a hardline understanding of Calvinism.

This is a Calvinism that seizes on a handful of biblical texts to proclaim the supremacy of men and the second-class status of women in church and society, and that holds a rigid, exclusionary line against those who happen to be born gay, lesbian, or bisexual, or who are transgender or intersex. Hardline Calvinism of the ilk of Mark Driscoll or Presbyterian theologian Robert Gagnon or Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler makes male domination and suppression of the female litmus tests of orthodoxy and doctrinal purity.

Moreover, this hardline Calvinism as it's currently being retrieved by some American evangelicals has very strong aspirations to theocratic control of the political sphere. In key respects, it harkens back to the Puritan experiment of colonial New England, which might be called the apogee of the Calvinist movement in North America, and which was explicitly theocratic. For many of the rest of us, the Puritan moment in American history had some very serious downsides, and we're more than a little troubled by talk about reviving a theocratic experiment that we quickly outgrew in the formative period of American history, and with good reason. 

I'll say outright here that my thinking about these matters of late has been very much influenced by my recent reading of Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale, which a reader of this blog, Kathy Hughes, had recommended to me some time ago. I found Atwood's story of a dystopian future for the United States, in which a powerful elite of theocratic men seize control of the government by force of arms and then subjugate women to the status of breeding machines, compelling reading.

And I'm taken by the following observations in an essay she wrote for The Guardian several years ago, about the imaginative roots from which her novel springs:

The deep foundation of the US – so went my thinking – was not the comparatively recent 18th-century Enlightenment structures of the republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of church and state, but the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th-century Puritan New England, with its marked bias against women, which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself. 
Like any theocracy, this one would select a few passages from the Bible to justify its actions, and it would lean heavily towards the Old Testament, not towards the New. Since ruling classes always make sure they get the best and rarest of desirable goods and services, and as it is one of the axioms of the novel that fertility in the industrialised west has come under threat, the rare and desirable would include fertile women – always on the human wish list, one way or another – and reproductive control. Who shall have babies, who shall claim and raise those babies, who shall be blamed if anything goes wrong with those babies? These are questions with which human beings have busied themselves for a long time.

Atwood's novel and her reflections on what led her to write it were very much on my mind as I replied to tinywriting's good questions about why right-wing religious thinkers in Christian churches often seize on a handful of Old Testament texts, while ignoring the gospel texts, as those thinkers spin their notions of a godly society. In my view, it is not at all accidental that this selective right-wing appropriation of scriptures to underpin the godly society is heavily oriented to control of women, of the feminine in general (Atwood's dystopian theocracy also executes gay folks, who are viewed as guilty of "gender treachery").

What do you think? 

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