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Faith and Firepower

Like most people, right-wing Christians are extremely worried about their future in a historical and economic period of unprecedented socio-economic reorganization and deindustrialization.
Charlie Bertsch and Joel Schalit

Issue #30, February 1997

The American Ideology

If there is such a thing as an "American Ideology," it must be reflected in the way Americans think about religion. Americans are a people notoriously unconcerned with the nuances of philosophy, but just as notoriously concerned with religious issues. When the questions of secular philosophy are discussed, they are usually filtered, not always consciously, through a religious framework. Even when Americans are distancing themselves from religion, they do so in religious terms. The motto "In God We Trust" on the dollar bill of the first secular state of modern times is no anomaly. When we consider religion in the United States, however, we are confronted with a field of intense contestation. The battles between the United States' innumerable sects are the backdrop for a more basic conflict. In discussing the role of religion in public life, there are two competing points of view.

The "American ideology" delimits not a unified body of concepts, but the no-man's-land that divides two warring perspectives. American liberals have traditionally regarded religion as a private affair concerned only with the health, stability and well-being of the individual. This is the perspective that informs the foundational documents of the American nation, the transcendentalist writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and William James' highly influential turn-of-the-century treatise The Varieties of Religious Experience, in which he self-consciously brackets all considerations of community and politics in order to get at the supposed "essence" of religious feeling.

This liberal perspective contrasts sharply with the example set by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Far more concerned with the politics of religion, the Commonwealth was a theocracy before it became a secular unit of the United States. Throughout U.S. history, religious minorities have advocated abolishing the separation of church and state in the same theocratic spirit. Although the liberal perspective on religion has remained hegemonic, over time this theocratic perspective has put enough pressure on the state to give secular American life a religious aura that disturbs people from elsewhere in the so-called 'first world', even if they come from countries with official religions. Whenever periods of religious decline have made it seem that complete secularization was imminent, new religious movements have sprung up to ward it off.

What is unique about the American ideology is that it fosters the illusion that America was the first country to have been liberated from the tyranny of tradition and history in order to create a truly free republic. The nation's 'founding fathers' imagined it would be a republic would consist of inherently democratic, egalitarian individuals capable of following Kant's axiom that all men must become their own self-legislators. The constitutional separation of church and state has done a great deal to promote this belief. This is not lost on the Religious Right. In fact this assumption forms the very basis upon which Evangelicals have chosen to question the legitimacy of the contemporary American nation-state. Today the tensions in the American ideology are brought into sharpest focus by the Religious Right which has exposed America's liberal ideologies of tolerance and freedom to be smokescreens which conceal hidden interests and sectarian agendas. The problem with this kind of reasoning becomes obvious when we consider what kinds of solutions the Religious Right advocates imposing on the American polity.

But the Religious Right has successfully disguised its intentions in problematizing the liberal perspective on American religious life. This has made it difficult to comprehend the meaning of the Religious Right's intervention in American political life. This difficulty has been abetted by our own naivete as we struggle to understand changes in public perceptions abut the role of religion in American society. In order to demystify the Religious Right, liberals have to be able to break from the way they are taught to think about religion and be willing to assume that there is a big distinction between the democratic rhetoric of Evangelical politics and the Religious Right's vision of a future society. The power of the Religious Right lies in the fact that it has successfully taught the American middle class that there is no such thing as a secular state. The Religious Right knows how to demythologize the religious character of liberalism, and it uses this knowledge to discredit the separation of church and state in order to support its own call for the establishment of a theocracy. But this demystification of the secular state works hand in hand with the mystification of the Religious Right's own interests. This is why it is necessary to think about the Religious Right like the Christian Coalition thinks about America, because the Religious Right has assumed the same mythological aura of tolerance and justice the American welfare state once held.

Free Markets, Free Minds

The Religious Right's call to prayer summons us to reflect upon those aspects of the social history of the Religious Right, such as its apocalyptic anti-statism, which it is loathe to disclose for fear of revealing its true intentions. We must familiarize ourselves with the recent political history of the new Christian conservatism, such as the sieges of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, and the standoffs at Ruby Ridge and Jordan, Montana, in order to be able to appreciate the degree to which our own worst fears have far more tangible sources than the brief soundbites offered by the likes of Pat Buchanan during the past election.

In order to take apart the shroud with which the new religious conservatism has managed to disguise itself, let's begin with some very basic questions. First, how does one make sense of an escalating series of violent, political events in which religious belief plays an important role? Second, how do we evaluate the role of faith in accounting for an attack on an abortion clinic, in trying to figure out how a Timothy McVeigh could blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City, or how a specific interpretation of Christianity led people to want to declare their own national sovereignty as the Freemen did in Montana? Is there a history of deliberation about the just use of violence in religious circles? Do individuals such as the now-deceased John Salvi, and Christian Patriot militias like the Freemen simply emerge out of a vacuum, or are their actions aberrations which express socially induced pathologies created by poverty, agitation and media manipulation in an otherwise perfect world?

soldier During his trial for the murder of two abortion clinic workers in Brookline, Massachusetts, John Salvi explained to the jury that he acted out of fear of a conspiracy against the Catholic working class by Freemasons and the Illuminati. Salvi's lawyers argued that such statements were the products of a homicidal, paranoid disorder which they attributed to schizophrenia. When Chip Berlet submitted evidence that Salvi's paranoid delusions were actually common beliefs widely held by members of conservative Catholic organizations, the Religious Right, and the Christian Patriot movement, he was asked to withhold this information until after the trial.

The intentions of the Massachusetts Supreme Court in suppressing this information are open to question. One hypothesis is that it was a pragmatic decision, because it would have been counter-productive to have admitted information as evidence that could have turned Salvi's prosecution into a political event which would have been more costly, and perhaps uncovered something of a conspiracy. The judge may have indeed concluded that there was sufficient evidence to convict Salvi of murder, and that any other information admitted as evidence would simply have prolonged an inevitable conviction. But the issue is far more complex. Convicting an individual of a crime is not the same thing as alleging a greater conspiracy or convicting a worldview. Or is it?

To have any hope of understanding the threat posed by the Religious Right, one must move beyond the liberal worldview that looks to the individual for the explanations of her or his actions. Social movements, religious or otherwise, provide narrative frameworks which encourage individuals to act in a particular manner, even if those individuals are clinically insane. The tragedy of the way this verdict was arrived at is that it further neutralized the political meaning of an act that was deliberately and inherently political in nature. The reason why we don't understand the politics of such desperate acts of violence is because we see them as being in isolation from other seemingly disconnected events such as the burning of the Waco compound or the standoffs with Identity Christians at Ruby Ridge and Jordan, Montana.

All of these events were mediated by a collectively nurtured fear, one which has its roots in Biblical apocalyptic literature, of an impending social order in which prophets and apostles foretold the coming end of the world as a desperate solution to the political events of their respective historical conditions. Unable to bring about or influence changes in the political process in places like Roman-occupied Palestine, for example, the author of Revelations sought to express his desire to see the Roman regime eviscerated by the greater hand of God because no effective opposition existed to expel the Romans from the territory they occupied. Thus the overthrow of Roman authority is expressed in code as the end of the world in its entirety, as though it were an unconscious expression of the author's own frustrated desire for a change he and his people were powerless to bring about. When we can't get what we want, we resort to suicidal cultural narratives to concretize our repressed desires and yearnings for a better world.

The problem with this way of projecting frustrated utopian yearnings is that it inspires the creation of homicidal, paranoid political dispositions as a means of redressing collective disenfranchisement from the political process. For this reason, individuals like Salvi are able to murder abortion clinic workers without the public being allowed to understand why such acts of culturally determined violence are inherently political, regardless of their perpetrators' sanity or self-understanding. The lesson to be learned from this trial is that Christian conservatives are able to act politically, but the public is not allowed to understand how their actions relate to their belief system. Why? Because liberal ideology denies the public the opportunity to place actions like Salvi's within a greater social and historical context.

Such ideological obstructions of meaning always serve to enhance the accumulative power of those social movements which are responsible for inspiring their members to commit crimes within a greater cultural narrative. Hence it becomes very difficult to educate the public about why people engage in political activities above and beyond their subjective dispositions (whether their involvement is attributable to racism and mental illness or poverty and media manipulation by electronic demagogues masquerading as pastors cultivating culturally ingrained distrust of political authority).

For those outside the religious sphere, the result is always the same: individuals who choose to deviate from social norms appear to be acting outside of the context of a particular standard of behavior which is ideologically consistent with establishment definitions of good citizenship. Even though this ideology is promoted by ostensibly liberal societies such as our own in order to dissuade individuals from engaging in subversive activities, individuals and communities continue to engage in forms of social action which have a place in distinct cultural and political narratives subversive of this hegemonic ideology.

The problem here is that it is religious conservatives who are violating norms of conduct which legitimate the status quo. The Religious Right's appeal to apocalyptic historical narratives in order to justify the urgency of the Christian Coalition's political program is the ideological reservoir which nourishes its anti-establishment politics, because apocalypticism always presupposes the fallen nature of all social orders prior to the Rapture. In liberal circles it simply is not supposed to work that way: religious politics violates the liberal notion that religion is supposed to be a private affair. It shouldn't get any deeper than that. After all, the state defines religion, not the Bible. Unlike Christian conservatives, liberals derive their concept of a depoliticized, private spirituality from the constitutional separation of church and state, not from scripture. In contrast with the authority and influence of a book more widely read than the American Constitution, this liberal attitude provides a less than compelling basis for the defense of the secular welfare state.

Progressives have traditionally thought of Christianity as an ideology which unreflectively legitimates the status quo. In the case of fin-de-siecle America, religious conservatives are challenging the hegemony of a social order because they don't believe it is in their interest to continue supporting it. This scenario is further complicated by the fact that the Religious Right and its various permutations do not necessarily represent themselves as being anti-establishment. The Christian Coalition's alliance with the Republican party and big business is a prime example. So is its narrative self-representation as a middle-class social movement committed to democratic, legislative politics.

Machine Gun Etiquette

When Operation Rescue disintegrated, the Religious Right began to make the transformation from a moral reform movement into a loosely defined network of revolutionary organizations united by their animosity towards the secular state. After Presidents Reagan and Bush proved unable to make the kinds of legislative and constitutional changes which first the Moral Majority and then the Christian Coalition demanded in exchange for its support, such as the overturning of Roe vs. Wade and the reintroduction of prayer in public schools, members of the Religious Right began forming organizations dedicated to forcing abortion clinics out of business through civil disobedience campaigns. After repeated lawsuits to protect access to clinics by Planned Parenthood, The ACLU and the National Organization of Women groups such as Operation Rescue were effectively neutralized by Supreme Court rulings which prohibited religious organizations from intimidating women seeking abortions.

Something popped. Despite the fact that the Religious Right had managed to put enough pressure on the state and civil society to hear its message, the new religious conservatism had advanced as far as possible within the confines of a bourgeois, constitutional democracy. Even though the Christian point of view was better represented than it ever had been before, the Religious Right, like the New Social Movements of the 1960s and 1970s after which it had modeled itself, simply could not get everything that it wanted by reforming American society within the confines of a bourgeois state apparatus.

The Religious Right began to reconfigure itself, not just strategically but institutionally and ideologically as well. It couldn't have happened any other way. After years of programming its constituency to accept its views on the decadence of secular culture, on the need to bring Christ back into the schools, on the perversity of homosexuality, women's rights and abortion, something changed in the Christian electorate. It grew more radicalized because the rank and file realized it wasn't just a question of turning state institutions and mass culture around to reflect a Christian worldview anymore. Rather, it was the very nature of the bourgeois state and its liberal, pluralistic ideologies which were to blame for the dissolution of our communities, our national character and our Judeo-Christian values.

It wasn't as though Christians had not condemned the establishment before. Conservative religious thinkers such as Francis Schaeffer, Gary North and Rousas John Rushdoony have been identifying the institutional and ideological bankruptcy of liberal democracy since the heyday of the student movement in the mid-1960s. The difference was that now the new Religious Right recognized that counter-hegemonic forms of revolutionary strategy were inadequate unless they were backed up by the threat of force. No clear consensus has yet to emerge from within the ranks of the Christian Coalition about the implementation of such a strategy because it is still in the process of taking over conservative institutions in the hope that they can influence congressional and presidential elections. However certain factions have begun to act as though the days of the New Social Movements-style politics of the 1960s are definitely over.

Smart And Final Solution

Fissures have begun to appear within the Religious Right. These imply that the logic of its revolt against liberalism will be taken to extremes commensurate with its Manichean theology. Ever since Federal injunctions placed limits upon the extent to which anti-abortion activists can demonstrate in front of abortion clinics, former members of Operation Rescue have shown increasing tenacity in pursuing their agenda, beginning with the assassination of Dr. David Gunn by a Presbyterian minister several years ago. As the judicial system has continued to prosecute anti-abortion activists, increasing signs of paramilitary organizing have emerged, such as the unearthing of terrorist manuals which provide scriptural legitimation for the use of violence and even instructions on how to manufacture and detonate crude homemade explosives such as those found in manuals of The Free Militia and Army of God.

The rise of religious paramilitancy has its roots in the government's siege of the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco in 1993. Many Evangelicals found the government's attack on the Mount Carmel compound to be proof of the irreconcilability of religious politics with secular, liberal democracy. Not only did the burning of the Believers prove to members of Christian Patriot militias that liberalism was inherently sectarian, it also proved that liberalism is ontologically opposed to religious forms of social organization as well. While many Biblical scholars and sociologists of religion such as James Tabor and Nancy Ammerman have chosen to focus their critique of the government's mishandling of the affair on how ignorantly it disregarded the religious beliefs of the Branch Davidians, no one has considered the degree to which the government's assault was symbolic of its misunderstanding of American religious politics in general. This is particularly apparent in the historical context of a growing social movement with theocratic political intentions whose leadership has for years argued that the federal government's disestablishment clause actively discriminates against the civil rights of God-fearing, tax-paying Christians.

Judging from all the cries of "No More Wacos" by Evangelical paramilitary organizations and militia leaders in the last few years, the violent suppression of a religious minority had a powerful effect on members of the Evangelical community, as though it were proof of what their preachers and political leaders have been telling them about all along. If we take this into account, it should not surprise anyone why there is such a strong cross-pollination of Protestant Evangelism with anti-government sentiment and paramilitary forms of social organization deeply concerned about the possibility that the events at Waco might be repeated. The renewal of hostilities between the state and deeply religious, end-time communities such as the standoff involving the Montana Freemen indicates that the specter of another Waco looms large. Just because the government and the media focused on the illegal activities of the Freemen and their illegitimate declaration of national sovereignty doesn't mean that the same dynamics didn't come into play there as they did in Mount Carmel.

This must be carefully considered, especially in light of the fact that the greatest act of terrorism in American history, the 1995 bombing of the Arthur R. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City, was apparently carried out by two individuals associated with the Christian Patriot movement, who killed several hundred state and federal employees, ostensibly in retaliation for the burning of the Mount Carmel compound on the second anniversary of the government's assault. Other incidents such as the derailment of an Amtrak train in Arizona later that year by a group calling itself "The Sons of The Gestapo," also claimed to be revenge attacks for the federal government's assault on the Branch Davidians. The letter left behind by the saboteurs, describing women in the compound performing the customary lighting of sabbath candles just before the government's attack, only serves to underline the psychological impact that the assault had on collective Evangelical insecurities, because it focuses on the disruption of ritualized behavior by the secular state. The degree to which the Evangelical movement is organized through local and electronic ministries and various grassroots organizations does not mitigate this anxiety.

Harmony In My Head

Though the media portrayed David Koresh and his seventy-five immolated followers as cultists who, like John Salvi, Randy Weaver and Leroy Schweitzer were on the lunatic fringe of American religious life, such portrayals only serve to obfuscate what marginal communities have in common with the Evangelical mainstream: A radical apocalyptic worldview and commitment to building a post-millennial covenant community within the greater context of a bourgeois, secular society. The difference between mainstream, political Evangelicals and those who live in intentional communities structured around the charismatic authority of preachers like Koresh is only the manner in which charismatic authority and the maintenance of end time worldviews are administratively organized. For example, one of the means by which the Religious Right has built an ideologically coherent and identifiable political community within the context of a radically pluralist and deeply atomized civil society is through continuously reminding the faithful that the metaphysical powers of the modern American nation state are arrayed against Christians as part of the greater cosmic struggle of Satan against God. Just turn on your car radio and tune into your local evangelical station to hear how they're doing it.

This kind of fear-mongering has been institutionalized to such a high degree within the political culture of the Religious Right that it is almost impossible to misunderstand where separatist communities like The Branch Davidians and The Montana Freemen come from. They are the products of the Religious Right. Despite being so transparent, however, this agitation has been instrumental in allowing organizations like the Christian Coalition to form a political constituency within a highly differentiated, modern social context because it thematizes deeply rooted fears of political disenfranchisement. Like most people, especially those in the downwardly mobile lower-middle class, right-wing Christians are extremely worried about their future in a historical and economic period of unprecedented socio-economic reorganization and deindustrialization. Now that the strategic foil of the Communist menace is missing and conservatives are looking for new and convenient targets to revive the negative principle around which they have always organized, recasting economic insecurities in spiritual terms is a strikingly effective strategy. Given this context, it should come as no surprise that the assault on the Waco compound would be a confirmation of the Evangelical movement's worst apocalyptic fears. If we miss this meaning, we disregard the depth of Evangelical piety and the extent to which people are still deeply socialized by traditional worldviews in the face of rapid change.

Charlie Bertsch is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of English at UC-Berkeley, completing a dissertation entitled "Subverting the System: Models of Resistance in Post-WWII American Culture." He can be reached by e-mail at the following internet address:

Joel Schalit is a doctoral student the Social and Political Thought Programme at York University. He is currently writing his thesis on the concept of reenchantment in the Frankfurt School. Also known as Khmer Ribs, Joel plays in the leftist montage band The Christal Methodists who are have just released their third album New World Odour on Goy Division. You can reach him at

Copyright © 1997 by Charlie Bertsch and Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.