The coming religious wars?

I like Harper’s Magazine. Each monthly issue has at least one long article that provides the kind of depth and context to important current issues that are so hard to find in the media, and which makes me glad that I have a subscription.

The May 2005 issue has two articles on the activities of the religious right that are well worth reading. Jeff Sharlett writes about the New Life Church, which he describes as “America’s most powerful megachurch” and has 11,000 members. He points out that slowly, over time, the town of Colorado Springs, where this church is, has become the capital of what he calls ‘Christian conservatives.’

But the more disturbing article is that by Chris Hedges, former foreign correspondent for the New York Times and author of the book War is the Force That Gives Us Meaning, who writes about attending the annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters association, which was held in Orange County, California which he says “along with Colorado Springs, is a center of the new militant Christianity.” And his essay “Feeling the hate with the National Religious Broadcasters” describes some disturbing trends in the way that these groups view the role of Christianity in America and the world.

Hedges traces the evolution of the militant version of Christianity that is becoming the dogma of the many separate groups that are coming together under a common doctrinal framework. He says:

What the disparate sects of this movement, known as Dominionism, share is an obsession with political power. A decades-long refusal to engage in politics at all following the Scopes trial has been replaced by a call for Christian “Dominion” over the nation and, eventually, over the earth itself. 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.

I have seen a number of articles recently documenting the seeming rise of this kind of thinking, and it raises the troubling question of how one should respond.

On its surface the movement seems so reactionary, with a Taliban-like fixation with enforcing religious orthodoxy on each and every person, that one is tempted to dismiss it as a group that is unlikely to actually gain governmental power because most people will be alarmed by their extremism.

But both Hedges and Sharlett warn that this may be too sanguine a view. There are indications that such groups already have considerable influence in government (both in the White House and the Congress) and we should not easily assume that they have already peaked in their numbers and will eventually become a fringe movement again.

Such groups represent a real threat to the kind of pluralistic, live-and-let-live democratic ideal that I (at least) subscribe to, where the chief role for the state is to provide the conditions for its citizens that they may have life, liberty, and be able to pursue happiness. In my worldview, as long as people are not harming others, their actions have the presumption of acceptability. I feel that it is none of my (or the government’s) business what people believe or what activities freely consenting adults engage in.

So in one sense, I have no problems with the “Dominionists” (as described by Hedges) believing whatever they want. If their members join up voluntarily and are willing to give tithes to their own religious groups and to refrain from “apostasy, blasphemy, sodomy, and witchcraft,” that is ok by me. But the question is what should be done if they seek to attempt to enforce their beliefs on everyone else, by using governmental power.

In future postings, I will explore some of these issues in more detail.

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