Abstract Nonsense regular commenter SLC compared my attacks on Dominionist politicians and pundits to McCarthy’s anti-communist hysteria. He’s not the only one; First Things’ review of Kingdom Coming as well as a few other books with a similar theme compares their vision of Christianity to the John Birch Society’s conspiracy theories, and a review at Slate emphasizes the schismatic nature of Dominionism.
But in reality, the analogy between the two is strained. Communism was never a serious political force in the United States. The only politically heavyweight socialist movement in American history was Debs’ labor movement, and even Debs was a far cry from a communist.
Contrast that with the influence of Dominionism. Jerry Falwell claims there are 70 million Evangelicals in the United States, and implies they’re all willing to support his political goals. I see little reason to doubt that number. Hot-button Dominionist issues, like stripping gays of equal protection, teaching creationism in schools, and banning abortion, get majorities or substantial minorities in American opinion polls. The Christian right has gotten a Supreme Court justice.
The symmetry between left-wing and right-wing extremism is broken when it comes to popular opinion. Among intellectuals and in activist discussion boards, radicals of both kinds flourish. But like conservatism, right-wing radicalism is good at connecting to people’s traditional prejudices, while left-wing radicalism tells them their entire value systems are oppressive. It’s not a coincidence that all communist tyrannies won power by revolution, but some fascist tyrannies won legitimate elections first and destroyed democracy from within.
The two reviews I linked to demonstrate two different strategies of downplaying the threat of Dominionism. The first is to emphasize the importance of the moderates; the second is to talk about intra-Dominionist infighting. Both have a grain of truth, but are too weak to rule out a Dominionist takeover.
First, secularists recognize that there are plenty of moderates in the US. Just because the regular contributors to infidels.org support Michael Newdow’s lawsuits doesn’t mean they think everyone who opposes them is a radical Christian. On Pharyngula, PZ has praised conservative Christians who stand up for separation of church and state.
But at the same time, they also recognize that the moderates cave in to the Dominionists. Bush is a moderate conservative on social issues; he’s against abortion and gay marriage, but neither is a priority for him, and his first two Supreme Court nominations attracted significant criticism from the religious right. But he had no problem placating it by giving it Alito. Even pro-choice Giuliani had no trouble allying himself with Rick Santorum.
The Democrats are hardly better. Obama’srhetoric about how the Democratic Party needs to be friendlier to Christians, as if it’s now ruled by atheists, is a series of lies, myths, and apologetics. He hasn’t made the same inflammatory comments that Lieberman and Byrd have, but that doesn’t make him moderate – it only makes him a Wojtyla to their Ratzinger. Amy Sullivan wants the Democrats to accommodate Evangelists who care about poverty and the environment more than about gay marriage, but when it comes to vote about gay rights or abortion, there’s little doubt these Evangelists wouldn’t side with liberals.
In contrast, in the early days of the Cold War liberals fell all over themselves to attack communists. Humphrey purged the communists from the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Americans for Democratic Action was formed to promote a liberal alternative to both fascism and communism. Attacks on McCarthyism even after McCarthy was disgraced focused on the similarities between McCarthyism and communism.
The other criticism of anti-Dominionism, that it fails to take schisms into account, again fails the McCarthy test. The left and the right have roughly equal tendencies toward schism. The success of Dominionism so far has been to avoid the sort of infighting that plagued communism from the original communist-anarchist split till its demise.
Says the Slate review,
Last month, James Dobson, the grandfatherly radio voice of middle-American Christian conservatism, told listeners of his Focus on the Family radio show that the National Association of Evangelicals’ campaign to reduce greenhouse gasses evinced “an underlying hatred for America.” How dare the group imply that global warming was a more important issue than gay marriage? His fellow conservative activist Rev. Richard Cizik, a political liaison for the National Association of Evangelicals—and a self-proclaimed Reagan Republican influential in anti-abortion and anti-gay circles—was not about to turn the other cheek. Cizik fired off a nasty letter calling Dobson’s accusations “outlandish.” On The 700 Club, Pat Robertson joined in, denouncing the evangelical version of environmentalism—”creation care”—and demanding to know why God-fearing conservatives like Cizik were teaming up with “far-left environmentalists.”
As evangelical Christians gain more political clout within the Bush administration, the ideological gaps between the factions of the Christian right are becoming more pronounced. It’s not just environmentalism. Even gay marriage, that touchstone of the religious right, is a source of internecine tensions. Michael Farris, the founder of Patrick Henry College—an elite breeding ground for conservative Christians—opposed the latest constitutional amendment against gay marriage because it didn’t go far enough in stripping gays of their rights. But the strains within the evangelical movement don’t get much play in the secular media. For liberals, there’s little difference between a Dobson, a Robertson, and a Cizik: They’re all wing nuts in flyover states with bad hair and a gay obsession.
That’s not a schism. The comment threads of perfectly mainstream liberal blogs have flamewars much larger in scope than that, even when radical leftists don’t join in. A typical public argument between Amanda and Jessica, who lead one of the most tightly knit communities in the liberal blogosphere, is almost as passionate, though the vitriol is reserved for the comment threads.
The sort of infighting that causes movements to crack down is about far more than an argument over climate change. Trotskyists and Stalinists hated each other more than they did the capitalists. Against Our Will, one of the defining books of radical feminism, attacks liberal feminists more than conservative sexists; meanwhile, in an afterword to The Feminine Mystique written in the 70s, Betty Friedan rants about man-hating radical feminists and approvingly quotes someone who says, “If I were a CIA agent trying to disrupt the movement, this [radical feminist activism] is exactly what I’d do.”
This is present in inter-religion fighting: conservative Christians hate atheists and Muslims equally, conservative Muslims call atheists and Christians alike infidels, and so on. But in intra-religion fighting, it doesn’t. All economically right-wing Dominionists hate secularists first, economic leftists second, and different Dominionist factions a distant third.
Economically left-wing Dominionists are more complicated, but ironically, their split only stengthens them, because they are similarly unified, and seek influence in the Democratic Party. I think it was C. S. Lewis who observed Christians should maximize their political influence by forming significant factions in both large parties. The schisms of the left never had this effect, since no Trotskyist, black nationalist, or radical feminist had any common ground with the mainstream right.
It’s possible to compare anti-Dominionism to McCarthyism, much in the same way it’s possible to compare evolution with creationism. Superficially they might look similar, but in reality they’re so completely different that no analogy can make sense.