Sunday, August 13, 2006

Protean culture   posted by Razib @ 8/13/2006 10:46:00 AM

I recently read Randall Balmer's Thy Kingdom Come, a screed against the contemporary marriage between right-wing politics & evangelicalism from the perspective of a left-wing evangelical. I agree with many of Ross Douthat's criticisms of Balmer's book, what could have been an insightful and rich narrative of the organic evolution of evangelical Christianity in this country and the parallel emergence of the "New Right" within the last 40 years basically became a convential liberal polemic scaffolded by an occassional attempt to tie it back to Balmer's original thesis. Nevertheless, there is some good in the book, especially the beginning where Balmer illuminates the canvass which he will use to paint his picture. Balmer's focus on two issues and their relationship to the evangelical movement, abortion and homosexuality, is of particular interest to me.

Early on Balmer makes a bald claim which will likely come as a shock to many Americans: the rise of the Christian Right was not stimulated by Roe vs. Wade. This was actually not a big surprise to me. Last fall I had a period when I read a great deal about the history of Catholicism (and Judaism) in these United States, and the tardiness of the evangelical Protestants to the abortion issue was something that was noted multiple times. In Catholicism and American Freedom Catholic historian James T. McGreevy gives us a blow-by-blow of the growing anger by Thomistic intellectuals at the move toward legalized abortion. These intellectuals were archetypical "Americanists," whose hand was instrumental over the long view in transforming the Church in Vatican II, and they were idealogues who were aligned with the New Deal. But during the 1950s tensions began to emerge, especially between Jewish and Catholic intellectuals as the former began to take the side of the post-Protestant elements of the "eastern establishment" who fingered the Church as a block on the inevitable move toward secularity within the republic. The Thomistic intellectuals were simply the tip of the iceberg of a massive Catholic movement which took a strident and uncompromising stand on what we might term "reproductive issues." With the emergence of the birth control pill and the decriminalization of abortion in places like Colorado and California these intellectuals and the movements within the Church which they headed began to fight the long rearguard actions which have characterized the "Culture Wars" from the Right over the last generation. Abortion was clearly part of this.

So where were the evangelicals? In Thy Kingdom Come Balmer offers a cautious and somewhat suspicious editorial afte Roe vs. Wade from Christianity Today after the decision. But this was clearly not the signs of a movement and subculture energized. In contrast, the Catholic Church immediately moved and began to articulate theses which they had pushed forward against the likes of Maggie Sanger in the early 20th century. McGreevy even points to evidence of support for abortion rights among evangelicals in the late 1960s (e.g., a favorable editorial in Christianity Today in relation to the decriminalization occurring in places like California and Colorado). Additionally, it is important to remember that the governor who signed decriminalization in California was that supporter of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan!

Balmer is a partisan, that much is clear. Though I am convinced that there was a strong latency in the reaction and the identification of the evangelical Christian Right with the abortion issue (the Catholic sources seem united on this issue), I am not convinced of Balmer's specific reasons given. Balmer offers that in the late 1980s he was in a meeting where Paul Weyrich castigated the evangelicals (Weyrich is an Eastern Rite Catholic, leaving the Western Church after Vatican II, but remaining in communion with Rome) and reminded them that abortion was not the reason they became politicized. The reason Weyrich gave was the case against Bob Jones university in regards to revoking its tax exempt status because of its discriminatory policies (e.g., not admitting non-married blacks because of fears of interracial dating, etc.). In the South during the late 1960s and early 1970s many "Christian academies" emerged specifically to avoid desegregation. Balmer contends that the real reason for politicization, or one of the primary ones, was the ghost of Jim Crow, and the later fixation on abortion was a way to make their motives seem more altruistic and noble. Balmer has an axe to grind here. I doubt abortion was the motivating reason, but was just Bob Jones University? I don't know, and I doubt it. Jimmy Carter's entrance into the presidential race in 1976 was probably another reason, as many evangelicals who later became part of the Republican establishment initially supporter their fellow evangelical in 1976, only later to turn on him because of his relative progressiveness on social issues.

To "understand" what happened with evangelicals in the 1970s, I think we need to take a step beyond Balmer's introspection, and his obvious bias in depicting evangelicals as badly as possible. Balmer makes it clear that anti-abortion evangelicals are very sincere, and one of his case studies is of a many who admits that he wasn't that focused on abortion in the 1970s (and even worked for a pro-choice Republican as chief of staff durign that period). But now he sports "choose life" buttons. I think it is important to remember the insights from some of Daniel Schachter's work with memory. Schacter reports on research which tracked individuals for 15 years and assayed their attitude toward racial issues. A clear pattern emerged: all individuals became more "liberal" as time passed, but, they back-projected their current views to the past, and by the 1980s seem to be under the impression that in the late 1960s while the rest of society around them was racist, they themselves were not. Of course, the researchers had tracked the individuals and so could note that the reality was that the individuals were tracking social changes, all the way claiming a particular individual evolution. What does this have to do with abortion and evangelicals? I believe that sometimes subcultures and societies "snap" or change rapidly. Though we don't have a good model for it, it seems like it is a sort of "meme fire" sweeps through so quickly so as to transform that culture and necessarily individuals who identify with that culture. On the reflective level individuals generate ad hoc "reasons" for their beliefs even though they were carried along with the rising or receding tide of cultural cognitive biases & beliefs. While Roman Catholic thinkers offer up explicit and unapologetic non-religious reasons for why abortion is murder (remember that the Church has shifted toward a more "pro-life" view as we understood more about embryology in the 19th century), evangelical thinkers who come out of a sola scritpura mindset where the Bible is the font of all they hold dear must search for "proof text." Balmer shows how generally weak this is in regards to abortion. This goes back to a point I like to make about culture and beliefs on this blog: be cautious about trusting someone when they justify their beliefs based on some text. There is a often a model which posits:

Individual(text) = Beliefs

I do not believe this is correct. Texts are large, often vague, and nearly anything can be extracted out of them given some effort and will.

And speaking of texts, the second issue I want to move to is homosexuality. I will put my cards on the table and admit that I am not generally burdened by hostility or animus toward homosexuals as individuals, though I have serious reservations about the identity politics nature of the current movement. I tend to support gay marriage as a state-by-state initiative, and suspect that a generation from now the current debate about homosexuality will seem antiquated. Honestly, it isn't an issue that is really high on my radar, though if I was homosexual I would certainly feel differently. Similarly, many conservative Christians get very worked up over this issue. There was a time when I conceded to evangelicals that it was right and proper for them to get angry about this, after all, did not their scripture condemn homosexuality? I did think that the rejoinder that most of the condemnation was in the Hebrew Bible was proper and correct, insofar as evangelicals generally reject close fidelity to the Law. Neverthless, I did know there were a few likely candidates within the New Testament to support Christian rejection of homosexuality as an abomination. I granted them their outrage though I did not share it.

No longer, and the reason is this: I read the New Testament, and though there are some somewhat muddled references to sexual abominations that can be easily (in my opinion) interpreted as referring to homosexual relations: Jesus' attitude toward divorce seems be so crystal clear that I was shocked that evangelicals would focus on homosexuality so much if textual fidelity was their concern. I went online and looked for evangelical apologia on divorce, and I went away disgusted, because it had the same contexualizing and mealy-mouthed tone as what some liberal Christians attempt with homosexuality. And unlike homosexuality the references to divorce are clear, unapologetic, extremely potent. The magnitude and direction of the vector is simply impossible to ignore. And yet the reality is that evangelicals do divorce, and their churches do justify divorce as a "necessary evil."

What does this matter to me, atheist that I am? It matters in two ways: first, it reaffirms my belief that the importance of text and explicated belief derived from text needs to be interpreted very cautiously. There might be something there, selective literalism is the nature of man, it is not the exception to the rule. Fundamentalists really aren't fundamentalist about anything, not only are they a recent reaction to Biblical modernism, their own take on scripture is totally riven with their own "interpretations" and wiggles and jukes around the plain reality. All this is fine and not of particular concern, what idols one dances around is not my business, but when people point to scripture as a justification for what they do, then it might behoove us to look at scripture. I have long had a non-trivial familiarity with the Hebrew Bible and I could engage in discourse the topic with any potential evangalists who came my way. Now that I have read the New Testament a few times I will do the same here. Do I believe in the importance of scripture? Not really, but sometimes it is easiest and most fruitful to gouge an enemy's eyes out with their own knife. Prejudice against homosexuality is probably somewhat an evoked property of culture, but then again, I suspect in mass societies so is patriarchy. But it is important to probe and decompose the assertion that I believe as I do because the "because the Bible tells me so." Fight the enemy on their own ground when possible and productive.

What does this tell us about religious culture in the big picture? Unfortunately, it tells us nothing but removes an explanatory angle from the commanding heights, and that is of axiomatic scritpure. There is more to human culture under the arch of heaven than can ever be comprehended and modelled between the covers of a piece of holy text. Text can justify post hoc, but it seems unlikely to me that it will prove a genuine causal component of variation (though again, I am still open to this because it is a simple and clear explanation). What we can conclude from the example of evangelicals and abortion, or, the shift toward premillenialism in the late 19th century is that sometimes ideas slot into some cognitive-cultural gap and sweep through the population so that after the fact it seems "natural" and "obvious" that x implies y in group z, and that group z was always as such. When your model fails to explain with the number of parameters you are using, you need to keep adding parameters.

Finally, I want to tack to one issue in Balmer's narrative which deals with religious history. Balmer states that "evangelicalism in America bears the marks of those initial influences-the obsessive introspection of the Puritans, the doctrinal precisionism of the Presbyterians, and the emphasis on a warm-hearted, affective spirituality from Pietism." It seems to me that in his later narrative Balmer speaks as if the last element, Pietism, is really the fundamental core of evangelicalism. I would not necessarily disagree, I do believe it is far more important in evangelicalism than the other two factors, especially the first. But, some of the trends in evangelicalism that Balmer deplores, such as the attempt to tear down the wall between church & state seem to me clearly derived from the first two factors, especially Presbyterianism. Patrick Henry, a Presbyterian, was behind an early move to declare Christianity the official religion of the early republic. The Pietistic strain which is dominant in American evangelicalism does look askance at church establishmentarianism, and it is somewhat peculiar that American evangelicalism seems to synthesize emotive and unreflective Pietism with a muscular Presbyterian this-worldly politicism, but Balmer sets up a strawman when he dismisses the authenticity of those who would emphasize the non-Pietistic foundations of American evangelicalism.