My column today endorses asking politicians serious questions about their religious beliefs, but also warns against several problems that I think are endemic to media coverage of conservative Christians. Ryan Lizza, the author of a recent New Yorker piece on Michele Bachmann’s intellectual formation, tweets in response:
Douthat lecture about covering relig. views of cands wd b better if included actual examples of problems it seeks 2 correct.He’s right. So let me cite an actual example of the problems I’m describing by looking at Lizza’s Bachmann piece. First, I should say that Lizza does a lot of things right in the profile: He doesn’t just play guilt-by-association with Bachmann, but actually tries to get her to talk about her more exotic influences, links those influences directly to her life story and political beliefs, and focuses on figures and intellectual themes (like the sympathy for the Confederacy that recurs among the thinkers Bachmann invokes) that are fair game for any journalist. His overarching thesis that Bachmann holds “a set of beliefs more extreme than those of any American politician of her stature” is defensible, and so are the connections he draws between her ideological perspective and the particular cluster of evangelical institutions where most of her political education took place.
But the piece also spends a lot of time making Bachmann seem extreme by linking her to Francis Schaeffer, the influential 1970s-era evangelical activist, theologian and philosopher, whom Lizza places at the center of a movement that (as the piece describes it) sounds at least quasi-theocratic, bent on either the overthrow of secular society or its subjugation to Christian hegemony. Here’s a characteristic passage from Lizza’s article:
Francis Schaeffer instructed his followers and students at L’Abri that the Bible was not just a book but “the total truth.” He was a major contributor to the school of thought now known as Dominionism, which relies on Genesis 1:26, where man is urged to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Sara Diamond, who has written several books about evangelical movements in America, has succinctly defined the philosophy that resulted from Schaeffer’s interpretation: “Christians, and Christians alone, are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns.”
In 1981, three years before he died, Schaeffer published “A Christian Manifesto,” a guide for Christian activism, in which he argues for the violent overthrow of the government if Roe v. Wade isn’t reversed.So, a few points. I believe that Schaeffer generally referred to Christianity rather than the Bible as “total truth,” which is a subtle distinction but an important one. The school of thought “now known as Dominionism,” meanwhile, is so known primarily among its critics: Many of the people that writers like Diamond and others describe as “dominionists” would disavow the label, many definitions of dominionism conflate several very different Christian political theologies, and there’s a lively debate about whether the term is even useful at all.
More importantly for the purposes of Lizza’s argument, there is very little in “A Christian Manifesto” to suggest that Schaeffer himself actually fits Diamond’s definition of a dominionist, and much to suggest the opposite. Here is Schaeffer defending religious pluralism:
… as we stand for religious freedom today, we need to realize that this must include a general religious freedom from the control of the state for all religion. It will not mean just freedom for those who are Christians. It is then up to Christians to show that Christianity is the Truth of total reality in the open marketplace of freedom.
And here, in a rather longer quote, is Schaeffer on the role of Christianity in civil government:
… we must make definite that we are in no way talking about any kind of a theocracy. Let me say that with great emphasis. Witherspoon, Jefferson, the American Founders had no idea of a theocracy. That is made plain by the First Amendment, and we must continually emphasize the fact that we are not talking about some kind, or any kind, of a theocracy. In the Old Testament there was a theocracy commanded by God. In the New Testament, with the church being made up of Jews and Gentiles, and spreading over all the known world from India to Spain in one generation, the church was its own entity. There is no New Testament basis for a linking of church and state until Christ, the King returns. The whole “Constantine mentality” from the fourth century up to our day was a mistake. Constantine, as the Roman Emperor, in 313 ended the persecution of Christians. Unfortunately, the support he gave to the church led by 381 to the enforcing of Christianity, by Theodosius I, as the official state religion. Making Christianity the official state religion opened the way for confusion up till our own day. There have been times of very good government when this interrelationship of church and state has been present. But through the centuries it has caused great confusion between loyalty to the state and loyalty to Christ, between patriotism and being a Christian. We must not confuse the Kingdom of God with our country. To say it another way: “We should not wrap Christianity in our national flag.” None of this, however, changes the fact that the United States was founded upon a Christian consensus, nor that we today should bring Judeo-Christian principles into play in regard to government. But that is very different from a theocracy in name or in fact.No doubt many readers would disagree with Schaeffer’s interpretation of American history, and his call for believers to bring “Judeo-Christian principles into play in regard to government.” But both are a long way from the claim that Christians “alone” are “mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns.” Likewise, it seems rather strange to depict a writer who goes out of his way to critique the Constantinian settlement as as a supporter of Christian “dominion” over public life.
So too with Lizza’s suggestion that Schaeffer urged the “violent overthrow” of the U.S. government if Roe v. Wade wasn’t overturned. It’s true that Schaeffer repeatedly urged his readers to consider using “force” to resist unjust laws. But he also insisted that “the distinction between force and violence is crucial,” warning Christians considering civil disobedience to remember “that overreaction can too easily become the ugly horror of sheer violence.” Here are some of his examples of “force” appropriately applied:
… an illustration for the need of protest is tax money being used for abortion. After all the normal constitutional means of protest had been exhausted, then what could be done? At some point protest could lead some Christians to refuse to pay some portion of their tax money. Of course, this would mean a trial. Such a move would have to be the individual’s choice under God. No one should decide for another. But somewhere along the way, such a decision might easily have to be faced.These examples seem pretty obviously chosen to evoke the peaceful civil disobedience of a Henry David Thoreau or a Martin Luther King Jr., rather than the specter of armed revolution or terrorist violence that Lizza’s description conjures up.
State officials must know that we are serious about stopping abortion, which is a matter of clear principle concerning the babies themselves and concerning a high view of human life. This may include doing such things as sit-ins in legislatures and courts, including the Supreme Court, when other constitutional means fail.
Overall, the casual reader who knows little or nothing about Schaeffer (i.e., most New Yorker readers) would come away from Lizza’s piece with the sense that the L’Abri founder’s worldview was almost indistinguishable from the genuinely theocratic views of a more marginal figure like the Christian Reconstructionist guru R.J. Rushdoony. (Lizza subtly conflates the two later in the piece, when he notes that while Bachmann attended law school at Oral Roberts University, the law review “published essays by Schaeffer and Rousas John Rushdoony, a prominent Dominionist who has called for a pure Christian theocracy in which Old Testament law—execution for adulterers and homosexuals, for example—would be instituted.”) This is simply wrong: Rushdoony’s interpretation of the American founding may have had some influence on Schaeffer, but the latter explicitly repudiated the broader reconstructionist worldview, dismissing it as bad theology and bad politics alike.
Schaeffer’s major contribution to American public life wasn’t any sort of sinister “dominionist” master plan, but rather a much more defensible blueprint for Christian political action: He argued that Christian values were under assault in contemporary American life, that the idea of secular “neutrality” was something of a sham, and that believers had an obligation to be 1) engaged with the culture rather than bunkered against it, and 2) engaged politically on issues (abortion, especially) where fundamental moral truths were at stake. One can dislike this blueprint and disagree with its premises, but its perspective on American politics is no more illiberal than the perspective of, say, the civil rights movement. And the fact that Schaeffer influenced a prominent evangelical politician like Bachmann isn’t nearly as surprising, strange or scary as Lizza’s piece often makes it sound.