By Alan Bean
Fred Clark’s Slacktivist blog is aimed at recovering evangelicals; particularly ex-devotees of the commercially marketed Christianity that hit its stride in the early years of the Reagan revolution.
I always know when Fred links to one of my blog posts, the usual number of hits increases by a factor of five. Slacktivist posts regularly garner hundreds of comments. Few mainstream website generate that kind of interest.
There are three reasons for Fred Clark’s success. First, he writes extremely well. Second, his work is carefully researched and edited, he approaches blogging like a full-time job). Finally, there are a whole lot of recovering evangelicals out there.
Some of these folks remain in the big-tent evangelical camp but are looking for authentic alternatives to a narrow and increasingly irrational tribalism. Fred Clark also ministers to a large cadre of atheists and secularists who grew up addicted to with-God-on-our-side religion.
When you grow up born again you never really get over it. A certain subset of the atheist-agnostic community appreciates Fred Clark’s blog even though he remains a committed Christian. He has deep insight into a slice of their experience that genuine secularists can never understand. The Slacktivist is a form of therapy, an opportunity to work through painful memories and thorny issues.
In a recent post, Clark uses a music video from the 1980s to examine the toxic world of “evangelical tribalism”, the “us-against-them” mindset that has characterized commercial Christianity for the past quarter century. The video features Carman, a smooth-talking white rapper who always reminded me of the post-Vegas Wayne Newton and Petra, a Christian 80s band that transformed the power chords and vocal hooks of early metal music (think softcore AC/DC) into a highly marketable form of “Christian contemporary” entertainment.
Here’s the video version of “Our Turn Now”
And here’s Clark’s summary of the contents:
The lyrics begin by lamenting the 1962 Supreme Court decision ending state-sponsored establishment prayers in public schools. Carman, rapping like MC Neil Diamond, offers a litany of post-hoc argumentation, blaming everything he considers bad on the court’s ruling. He calls it “religious apartheid.”
“It’s our turn now” proclaims the chorus — a rallying cry for the tribal rule of sectarian religion. And everyone else, everything outside the tribe, is on the side of the “devil.”
I was introduced to Carman by a member of the ecumenical (nominally American Baptist) congregation I pastored in the early 80s. The young man who played the song for me (assuming I’d be thrilled) was in his early 20s, a highly intelligent high school band teacher.
The basic idea was that Jesus and Satan are starring in a WWF-style Smack Down main event. Satan (like every good wrestling heel from that era) enters the ring full of strutting, ranting bravado, but after the Savior gives him the thrashing of his life, Satan’s bold baritone devolves into a whining, emasculated falsetto.
Carman ended the song, as I recall, with an oblique reference to the book of Revelation. Message: our side wins.
The message of “Our Turn Now” is much the same. In professional wrestling, “the face” (or crowd favorite) gets slapped, kicked, gouged and mangled for a good twenty minutes before he shakes off the cobwebs and turns the tables to the appreciative roar of the crowd. “It’s our turn now.” Carman’s message never transcended the crass world of wrasslin’ melodrama.
But who, in this us-against-them world, is “us” and who is “them”? In Our Turn Now, the heels, the bad guys, the spawn of Satan, were the justices of the Supreme Court who tossed God out of the classroom, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, liberal “Christians” (who generally supported the court’s decision), secularists, atheists like Marilyn Murray O’Hair, secularists of every stripe; in short, everyone who is not a card-carrying, washed in the blood evangelical Christian.
As Clark suggests, the mindset was binary, Manichean, darkness and light . They took the reins of government and did their worst; well, now it’s our turn now. Soon evangelical Christians who love Jesus and Carman in equal measure will control Congress and the White House. Godly laws will be passed. The glory of Jehovah God will return to the classroom, drugs and sexual promiscuity will be abolished by statute, and national righteousness will be restored.
If you pay careful attention to the Carman video (yes, I know that means having to watch it twice–suck it up, this is important) you will note that although all the primary performers are as white as heavy metal, all kinds of black kids are shaking it to the music, witnessing to white kids, and giving their ultra hip stamp of approval to the ascendancy of Christian America.
In other words, when we talk about “us” we’re not just talking about white people.
Why then, are nine out of ten registered Republicans, by a recent estimate, non-Hispanic whites?
At the 2008 Republican Convention, 92% of the delegates were white while it sometimes appeared that half the folks on stage were people of color. Why are white people so much more excited about Carman’s vision of Christian America than the non-white minority?
Because the “us” celebrated in the video were really the folks who were humiliated by the 1960s–white, primarily southern, evangelicals.
The marketing magic behind Carman was the linking of popular culture (heavy metal rock, professional wrestling, Ramboesque violence) with Southern Baptist piety. In the 1950s, Elvis was Satan; by 1980 he has joined the choir triumphal. Young people were free to celebrate the values of the American entertainment machine as long as they were down with a Jesus who palled around with marines, corporate moguls, chamber of commerce presidents and was comfortable in the smoke filled rooms of the Grand Old Party.
Rock and roll, pro wrestling, and romantic violence got a pass because the Right needed a really big army to fight liberalism, particularly the brand of liberalism shaped by the civil rights movement. In the South and the great American heartland, white evangelicals had grown accustomed to being in control, calling the shots and dictating moral standards. Suddenly, and quite without warning, white evangelicals were being pilloried as nasty Jim Crow racists determined to deprive the Negroes of their civil and constitutional rights.
Evangelicals still haven’t recovered from the shock. In the South, evangelicals (with Southern Baptists leading the way) climbed out onto the segregation limb until the civil rights movement, to the surprise of everyone, sawed it off.
The routine popular association of conservative religion and blatant racism was deeply humiliating. By the mid-1970s it was no longer possible to defend the old Jim Crow system, but white hot racial resentment was creating rich opportunities for a resurgence of some kind.
The key was to rebrand the 1960s. The big issues weren’t civil rights and Vietnam, the new argument went, it was all about two Supreme Court decisions: driving God out of the schools (1962) and Roe v. Wade (1973). These two liberal decisions, the argument went, paved the way for violence in the streets, the drug culture, sexual promiscuity, perversion and every other evil imaginable.
But it’s Our Turn Now.
Why have African Americans and Hispanics been reluctant to jump on the bandwagon? Because it’s too awkward. The GOP is the unofficial Party of White and the Christian Right, though officially Neapolitan, is vanilla clear through. Check out the crowd at the next Romney rally and see if you can find any people of color in the crowd. If you got $5 for every one you couldn’t gain admission to a ticket to a $100 a plate fundraiser.
This didn’t happen overnight. In 1973, most prominent southern evangelicals were big supporters of the separation of church and state and evangelical views on abortion tracked national opinion. The big opportunity was raging white resentment, but neither leading evangelicals nor GOP strategists couldn’t admit as much.
Abortion was, and remains, a legitimate moral issue, but a particularly thorny one. As the current tug-of-war between supporters and detractors of Todd (“shut that thing down”) Akin suggests, banning abortion for rape and incest survivors is about as popular as back alley abortions. Hence, most Americans are unwilling to go all the way with the pro-life movement.
This is precisely why true believers, as defined by opinion leaders within the Religious Right, can tolerate no compassionate exceptions to pro-life orthodoxy. Go down that road very far and pretty soon most Democrats will be agreeing with you. The goal has never been to make abortion safe, legal and rare. From a culture war perspective, the more abortions the better. The tragic statistics feed an effective wedge issue.
The goal was to get rank and file evangelicals (mad as hell about being branded as racists but lukewarm on abortion) to stop talking race and start screaming about abortion, abortionists and the horrors of the sexual revolution.
At the same time, the Religious Right launched a campaign to convince southern preachers that the separation of church and state was a liberal abomination.
W.A. Criswell was pastor of First Baptist Church Dallas, in its heyday the largest congregation in Protestant America. In 1960, Criswell used traditional southern support for the separation of church and state to argue that John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic who was sure to take his marching orders from the Vatican, was unworthy to be president:
It is written in our country’s constitution that church and state must be, in this nation, forever separate and free. In the very nature of the case, there can be no proper union of church and state.
But in 1980, with the nuptials between Southern Baptists and Reagan’s GOP a done deal, Criswell opined thus:
I believe this notion of the separation of church and state was the figment of some infidel’s imagination.
How do we account for this amazing transformation? Criswell got the memo.
By 2012 David Barton was arguing that Thomas Jefferson, the father of church-state separation, was an orthodox evangelical who dreamed of Christian theocracy. Only when a holy host of conservative historians cried foul did Barton’s publisher pull the Jefferson book. Not surprisingly, Barton’s good buddy Glenn Beck has agreed to publish the Jefferson manuscript.
As the Barton episode demonstrates, it has become painfully difficult for thinking conservatives to stick with the Religious Right or the GOP. For the moment, few malcontents will leap into the reluctant arms of either the Democrats or liberal Christianity.
When Bill Clinton threw the unions under the bus in the 1990s he knew they would stay loyal. “Where would they go?” he asked. The same applies to conservative evangelicals who can’t abide the irrational excesses of their coreligionists. They will stay with the GOP and the Christian Right because they have nowhere else to go.
The culture war has advanced to the point where the tiny strip of middle ground separating conservatives from liberals has become a barbed wire infested minefield. The corporate interests that funded Carman and Petra like it that way. So long as the American melodrama is conceived as a pay-per-view Smackdown between Christ and Antichrist nobody has the luxury of genuine thought. As the secular left screams in protest (“You can’t do that! You can’t believe that! You can’t say that!”) the easier it becomes for the Christian Right to define itself as a tiny island of godliness in a vast Satanic sea.