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Born Against the Apocalypse: Religion and the New American Left

I will always remember the summer of 1994 as the first time I thought the world was really going to come to an end.
Joel Schalit

Issue #15, September 1994

Ever since I was young, I always wanted to stay pure for my husband
— Crystal Courville, 17, True Love Waits Campaign, '94 Youth for Christ Convention

This may be the start of the new civil war that everyone has been talking about...Up to now, the killings have been on one side, with 30 million dead babies and hundreds of dead and maimed mothers. On the other side, there are two dead doctors. Maybe the balance is going to start to shift.
— Don Treshman, director of Rescue America, on the murder of Dr. John Britton

The Coming Millennium
The Rise of the Religious Right

I will always remember the summer of 1994 as the first time I thought the world was really going to come to an end. Within a two week period, American fighters bombed Serbian-held positions around Sarajevo, an Evangelical minister murdered an abortion clinic physician and his assistant in Florida, and two of my relatives were killed when Islamic guerrillas blew up the Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires. I couldn't help myself. Tuning in to my favorite Christian radio station in the Bay Area, I called into a talk show hosted by a Catholic priest who for the past six months has been forecasting that the Apocalypse would take place on September 7th. 'Brother Ray,' I said when I got on the air, 'I finally did it. I quit my job, put my kids up for adoption, sold my house, and moved into my Winnebago.' Using the false name I had given his call screener, Brother Ray responded, 'Now Moses, you didn't have to take such extreme measures. The Lord appreciates the extent to which you have chosen to prepare for the end of time, but I am afraid that once again, like many of my listeners, you have failed to appreciate the power of the Apocalypse within your own life.' Attempting to sound terrified that once again I had misunderstood the instructions emanating from the radio, I cried, 'But from whom am I to learn the right way to prepare for the end of my life?' Brother Ray contemptuously retorted, 'From the Lord, Moses, from Jesus Christ. Next caller, please.'

Although this scenario may be humorous, the cultural phenomena that make it possible are not. There are all too many Brother Rays out there spinning cataclysmic prophecies for their audiences. To those of us who get the joke, Moses' actions seem laughable because they are so extreme; yet we live at a time when preachers like Brother Ray are inciting ordinary, 'law-abiding' citizens to murder. Of late, it seems the joke has been on us. One of the primary failures of the contemporary American left is that it has never developed an adequately apocalyptic fear of a religious right all too prepared to use apocalypse for political ends. This has lead to an overwhelming denial of the disastrous role that Protestant churches have come to play in American politics since the 1960's.

These churches' resurgence as a political force dates to the Nixon Administration, when the Reverend Billy Graham was assigned a defacto cabinet position. The 1970's witnessed a gradual buildup of Evangelical forces, culminating in the formation of the Moral Majority by the Reverend Jerry Falwell at the end of the decade, which allowed for the expansion of Christian influence in the Republican party. Falwell's influence notwithstanding, the Reagan Administration initiated a series of attempts at overturning the disestablishment of religion in American public life. It challenged the ban on prayer in public schools, pushed for tuition tax credits for families that enrolled their children in parochial institutions, and advocated congressional and constitutional bans on abortion and federal funding of family planning services both in this country and abroad through the United Nations.

The Christian influence on American political life has increased during the last six years under the Bush and Clinton Administrations. By the end of the 1980's, the American religious right had capitalized on its decade of resurgence by constructing a two-tiered organizational structure with operations on both national and state levels. At the top of the Christian pyramid stood a new Moral Majority, Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, an umbrella organization whose purpose was to financially support, advise and otherwise assist political campaigns carried out on state and local levels. During the last two years the Christian Coalition has sponsored ballot initiatives and candidates in a number of Western and Southern states seeking to restrict the civil rights of homosexuals in Oregon and Colorado, to place Christians on school boards in Florida and southern California, and to take over the Republican parties in Texas and Minnesota.

Evangelical attempts to reintroduce religion into American public life have been not limited to the sphere of legislative activism. In an effort to consolidate political gains made during the early eighties, organizations such as the Reverend Donald Wildmon's American Family Association were created in order to form a cultural counter-hegemony dedicated to the critique of secular mass culture. The reasoning behind the formation of such cultural associations is frighteningly sophisticated. Acutely aware of the administrative function of mass culture in modern society, the Christian right realized that it had to take over the production of cultural goods and services in order to legitimate their counter-hegemony. As a vanguard organization the AFA was responsible for organizing censorship campaigns in Florida and Washington which sought to ban certain forms of popular music on the grounds that it did net fit locally defined legal standards of obscenity.

In Broward County, Florida, these efforts involved the deliberate removal from retail outlets of 2 Live Crew records by law enforcement authorities. In Washington, state legislators acting under the initiative and guidance of the AFA briefly made it illegal for anyone under the age of eighteen to buy records, unless they were in the company of a consenting adult. Both measures were overturned, but their point was well taken. Since then, the producers and distributors of popular music have had to take into account the possibility of incurring the legal wrath of Christian cultural experts, who are now cataloguing and interpreting all cultural developments in American public life as part of their own preparations for a full-scale Kulturkampf (culture war) in an unforeseeable future.

The newest addition to the Evangelical intervention in American politics was the inauguration last year of a wave of terrorist activities aimed at achieving Christian political goals through violent means, including the recent bombing of an abortion clinic in California, the assassination of two abortion-clinic physicians in Florida, and the attempted murder of another by an Oregon housewife in Kansas. No Christian organizations have claimed responsibility for these attacks, but it is not difficult to trace the guerrillas who committed these acts through local churches back to Operation Rescue. For example, Paul Hill, the gunman behind the most recent slayings in Pensacola, was formerly a minister at a local Orthodox Presbyterian church who had left his parish in order to work with Operation Rescue on a full time basis.

The arming of the Christian right is too frightening to ignore. It represents the beginning of a religious insurgency whose time has obviously come given, the increasingly apocalyptic rhetoric of right-to-life and anti-homosexual activists such as Operation Rescues Reverend Flip Benham and American Chronicle editor and Austin talk show host Mike East. What distinguishes the new Christian terrorist movement from its predecessors in the United States and Europe such as the Weathermen, the Baader-Meinhoff Gang, and the Brigada Rossa (Red Brigade) is that their ranks are, for the most part, filled by seemingly normal, middle-class, suburban churchgoers and ministers, not ideologically committed revolutionary cadres trained in guerrilla warfare techniques. It is probably too early to tell whether the Evangelical alliance with Republican senatorial candidate Oliver North has brought with it a team of Christian guerrilla warfare experts — such as North himself — recently unemployed by the end of the Cold War and the cessation of the American-sponsored training of rebel armies and death squads in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

Responses to the Religious Right

Organized opposition to the reintroduction of religion into American politics has primarily come from liberal political organizations such as All in the Family producer Normal Lear's People For The American Way, The American Civil Liberties Union, and gay and lesbian groups mobilized by Evangelical ballot initiatives and legislation in Texas, Colorado, and Oregon. While the Coalition for Reproductive Rights and the National Organization of Women fought ferocious battles to preserve the legality of abortion, and radical music advocates such as Jello Biafra fought off Christian-led efforts to ban the sale of punk and rap records, none of these activists have ever been ignited by a common anti-religious philosophy or a political program dedicated to permanently disestablishing Christian participation in American politics. Unfortunately, neither were their potential allies in such a struggle: political organizations representing the interests of non-Christian religious minorities such as B'Nai Brith, Native American religious organizations, or representatives of the growing Muslim and Hindu communities within this country.

Why can't the organizations and individuals engaged in the recent struggles to preserve liberties threatened by the religious right formulate a new consciousness of religion's role in politics? Similarly, why can't their struggle against religious influence in American public life carry over into a counter-attack against Christian organizations that goes above and beyond the simple defense of the secular, pluralistic achievements of American liberalism? Finally, how could the religious right elicit such an overwhelming response from the artistic, feminist, and homosexual communities without instigating the construction of an institutional infrastructure dedicated to permanently representing the interests of these groups against those of the religious right?

The opposition to the American religious right has failed to develop an understanding of religious participation in American politics because of its class constitution, its ethnic, religious and sexual commitments, and its inability to develop a secular, apocalyptic political consciousness. In the case of the cultural left, its concern, as exemplified in the PMRC hearings in 1985, The Dead Kennedys'Frankenchrist case in 1987, and the Karen Finley-led battle for NEA subsidization in 1989 (to name a few cases), has been to preserve the right to free speech regulated and financially supported by the state. In no way has the struggle during legal battles like these been directed at the religious organizations lobbying for the suppression of civil rights, nor has the cultural lefts thinking during this struggle extended beyond the scope of its own self-defense in an effort to comprehend the political reasons underlying the religious rights response to their work.

The feminist and gay reaction to Christian persecution is very similar. Like the cultural left, the sexual left insists upon state-guaranteed freedoms: freedom to choose an abortion; freedom of sexual preference; and the freedom to live as equals in American society, with the same civil rights that are extended to other citizens. The sexual left similarly fails to recognize the reasons for Evangelical sexual oppression, beyond the simple understanding that Christians are intolerant of any form of sexual difference or autonomy. By choosing to narrowly define their struggles without reference to a capitalist economic system and its accompanying metaphysics, both the cultural and sexual lefts are unable to see that they are caught in a system that will always mobilize religious sentiment against any assertion of sexual autonomy. They are blind to the fact that they struggle for freedom against a system that uses organized religion to dominate them, if not to annihilate them completely.

The response of non-Christian religious groups to Fundamentalist participation in American politics has been nothing short of tragic. An excellent example is the Satmar Hasidic sect in Rockland County, New York, which sought the autonomy to run its own private Jewish schools as public institutions supported by state money. Insisting on the right to have its schools supported by the government while excluding non-Jews, the sect sets forth what amounts to an endorsement of the very sort of theocratic politics espoused by the religious right. Given the history of Jews struggling for civil rights and equal opportunities throughout the Diaspora, the sect's refusal to acknowledge the political implications of their avowal of theocracy is staggering, for Evangelical political activists could very well look to such examples as a non-Christian endorsement of their program to politically reconstruct America as a Protestant theocracy.

What links the Satmar Hasidim to the cultural and sexual lefts is that their responses to the Christian colonization of public life ultimately legitimates religious participation in politics. The cultural and sexual lefts do so out of ignorance, insofar as they attempt to preserve their own secular freedoms within an increasingly theocratic political context. The consequences of this limited attempt at self-preservation end up abetting efforts made by non-Christian religious minorities, such as the Hasidim, to self-consciously create a micro-theocracy. Instead of working together to fend off the religious rights encroachment on what remains public in American life, the cultural and sexual lefts and religious minorities end up defending their own, rapidly eroding turf. In the end, however, all of these groups best interest lies not in self-preservation, but in an alliance against a common enemy that threatens their precarious autonomy and legitimate desire to live in freedom and equality.

Strategies Against the Apocalypse

The problems that a united left faces in confronting the menace of theocratic politics are twofold. The first pertains more directly to the cultural and sexual lefts, which must learn to expand their conception of political struggle to include overthrowing the capitalist relations of production that generate the forms of alienation and ideologies which discriminate against them in the first place. This would specifically involve recognition of the role that culture and sex play within the division of labor, beginning with an understanding of cultures administrative function and its limitations as a tool for consciousness-raising.

This new form of political consciousness would be distinguished from the secular American leftism we have today, because it would be based upon a sense of urgency traditionally articulated by the religious right: fear of an impending social order, or what Biblical and religious studies' scholars call the Apocalypse. To be sure, the American left already possesses a tradition of apocalyptic thinking, as exemplified by the anti-armageddon rhetoric of anti-nuclear activists and the invocation of the threat of genocide by civil rights movements, yet this tradition has lacked sufficient motivating force in recent years due to the disappearance of nuclear war as a subject of political concern, the assassination of charismatic religious politicians such as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and the co-optation of end-of-history rhetoric by the religious right and separatist messianic groups like those that committed suicide at Jonestown and Waco.

The second problem pertains to the religious left. It is crucial that non-Christian minorities learn to abandon all theocratic conceptions of politics. This would involve engaging in a united struggle against capitalism without recourse to a religious vision of a just society. This even applies to theocratically-conceived socialist societies, for, though their conception of labor, wealth, and production might be based on universal principles, they would by necessity be religiously exclusive. As enticing as it might be to try to outlaw religion in a socialist state, any model for a just, revolutionary socialism would have to include persons and communities who stick to their religious identification until religion ceases to be a stable narrative representation of ideology or alienation (because the material sources which give rise to it have been eliminated). Participation of religious minorities in a new, reconstructed left, like that of their cultural and sexual counterparts, would be founded upon a common identification as labor, regardless of class membership or economic activity.

It is important for the cultural and sexual lefts to form alliances with religious minorities because of their historically shared desire for emancipation from discrimination by Christianity. While religious persons may have different ideological reasons for seeking to overcome this discrimination than those of the cultural and sexual lefts, all three groups share a similar experience of domination. In order for the cultural and sexual lefts to arrive at such a conclusion, they must jettison certain misconceptions they have about secularization and ideology. Most importantly, the American left still sticks to the false notion that religion has been superseded by the process of modernization and differentiation. Thus, the left is only able to recognize religious identification and participation in public life as being irrational, if not a pathological response to advanced stages of disenchantment. This leads to an inability to appreciate the political power of institutionalized religions and the increasingly important role that they play in American politics.

Perhaps it is the ideological constitution of the American left that is the real problem. Coming overwhelmingly from upper-middle-class backgrounds, being university-educated, and more inclined towards cultural and sexual radicalism than the politics of labor and wealth, the lefts notion of what it means to be politically engaged excludes any comprehensive understanding of ideology and how it interpellates individuals and communities outside the spheres of sex and culture. Appreciating the ideological function of religion and its pervasiveness throughout everyday life from the standpoint of historical materialism would mean a reversal of political priorities, labor coming first, sexual and cultural matters second. In other words, the left needs to understand that the class dimension to the religious rights rise and, conversely, the one that makes us blind to the full extent of its power. Unfortunately, persecution, to borrow from Marx, inverts reality as though it were a camera obscura , so that even those persons engaged in an authentic struggle against domination end up being forced to defend identities and forms of art they don't even have yet because the division of labor denies it to them. As a consequence, the left is always forced into defending gains that are always tentative and subject to revision, such as the right to free speech, sexual equality, and freedom of worship.

As much as class may determine the parameters of an individual's ability to engage in ideology criticism, the problem is deeper than that. The inability of the American left to make religion a subject of ideology criticism reveals a historically specific understanding of ideology, when, as Marx rightly believed, ideology has no history. An excellent example of the historically specific orientation of ideology criticism is currently found in leftist scholarship, particularly the cultural studies movement, which, taking its cues from the Frankfurt School's 'critical theory', understands contemporary mass culture as both the primary instance of ideology and its most contemporary, historically specific superstructure. What is left out in the equation is an appreciation of the power of mass culture, not only its administrative strength, but also its capacity to gather within itself the sum total of all forms of ideology so that they all may all co-exist and within its confines. Mass culture has room for all specific forms of ideology, including religion, as the mass-media savvy and success of the religious right amply attests.

Clues suggesting the persistence of religion within contemporary mass culture are to be found in cultural studies' concern with its power to interpellate individuals so that they assume positions within traditional structures of sexual and political behavior and to promote secular myths and ritualistic activities. The only difference between this power of power and the sort to be found in more explicit forms of religious discourse is its lack of any kind of tradition-bound content other than that which stems from an abstract Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian religious heritage. Ignoring the historically received prejudices of this heritage amounts to a tacit endorsement of end-of-ideology theses, an integral component of all sociological theories of secularization in the Weberian tradition. Critically re-interpreted, secularization means the demystification of labor as a consequence of the end of domination. If Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment has anything to teach us about religion, it instructs us that secularization is a type of false consciousness of modernization because it masks the presence of myth operating at every level of contemporary mass culture. Precisely when we think we are most disenchanted, we are still in the chains of enchantment.

To sum up, the cultural and sexual lefts must unite with American religious minorities to form a united left with the detheocratization of American political life as its goal. Part of working towards this end involves developing an apocalyptic vision of the religious rights power and effectiveness at pushing their idea of a new social order. However funny the Brother Rays of this world may seem to those of us on the left, they are symptoms of a potentially catastrophic reconfiguration of the American political life. We can no longer afford to pretend that religion is an anomolous residual formation in a country that has already undergone the disenchantment of modernization. The left must learn to take religion seriously. The starting point for a critique of religion in a new, reconstituted left is already available to us, since we can draw upon critical theorys realization mass culture functions as a tradition whose recognized interpellative function has been inherited from traditional religion. The next step to take is to start examining specific instances of culture in which the concerns and interests of more narratively traditional forces of ideology are expressed, such as those of institutionalized religion, in order to begin to develop a new consciousness of the role that religion plays in American public life. To put it another way, we must realize that it is also we who are being hailed by the religious right. As the advice of a Campus Crusade for Christ minister preaching the good news on the steps of Sproul Hall at UC-Berkeley put it recently, 'Study for your finals; read the Bible.'

A member of the Bad Subjects Production Team, Joel Schalit is a Ph.D. student in the Social and Political Thought program at York University in Ontario, Canada. He is a member of the Christal Methodists, a devotional muzak and Christian radio talk-show comedy crank call outfit. Their latest release is Scripture Lips and Filter Tips, available at independent record stores throughout North America.

Copyright © 1994 by Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.