Sex and Other

Drugs and
Rock 'n' Roll

Media and

Society (and

Politics and Other


Casual Fridays

Rantings and

In and Out:
Sex Advice from our Staff Dominatrix

Employee of the



Who We Are

Write for Us!

Invest in Anti-

Play Our Theme Song
by Simon Inns
(MP3 format; 1.5 MB download)

Donate to the Cause!

The role of religion in American political life


Reflections on Religion in America, Part II


by Ken Mondschein



Part 2 of a two-part series. For Part 1, click here.


Evolution Revolution

If we follow the line of Weber's reasoning of religion-as-social-credit to its logical conclusion, the true nature of many of our current political debates, such as the teaching of evolution in public schools, is suddenly made clear.

When examined objectively, the first thing about American evangelical Christianity that stands out is the functionally benign nature of most of its beliefs. In day-to-day life, it does not matter if we descended from hairless apes, were formed from Play-Doh by a senior citizen in the sky, or were ejaculated by the Egyptian sun-god. Unlike, say, the worship of Kali, mainstream evangelical Christianity does not require the murder of unsuspecting travelers. Unlike members of Jim Jones' People's Temple, believers do not remove themselves from society. Unlike the Anabaptists of Münster, they do not practice polygamy or seek to expel nonbelievers from their towns (unless, of course, they publicly call community mores into question, as Mona Dobrich did). For all that their idea of cosmic history was disproved in the eighteenth century, people who hold to the Biblical account of creation (to cite one example of evangelical belief) go to work, shop at Wal-Mart, and eat nachos at Applebee's just as effectively as atheists do.

To continue with the example, trying to argue against the idea of the Biblical creation on the basis of rational argument is useless, for those who continue to perpetuate creationism do not do so because of rational conviction. Rather, the creationist meme serves some utility beyond the obvious, namely: It serves to identify a community of believers to one another. In other words, it is a social truth rather than being a scientific truth. The primary purpose of creationism, much like Jesus fish bumper stickers, is to identify members of the religious community to one another. It is, in other words, what Emile Durkheim, the French thinker who with Weber deserves the title of "founder of sociology," would have interpreted as a totem, a banner for a community to rally about.

To Durkeim, as it would later be to Lévi-Strauss, the tendency towards dichotomy is at the core of human thought. (It is in the context of this idea that Derrida's "deconstruction" must be understood, and, according to evolutionary psychologists such as Steven Pinker and Donald Brown, may even be hardwired into how we understand reality. We are programmed, in other words, to see the world in sets of opposites.) This is seen most dramatically in the division of human endeavors into the profane, that is the everyday, and the sacred. The totem is the physical embodiment of the sacred; the cult of the totem is what defines the community. However, while for Durkheim's Australian aborigines, totems were physical objects such as churingas and other fetishes, for American evangelical Christians, they are emblematic ideas such as creationism. Whether or not the Earth is six thousand years old does not matter; what matters is that the community agrees that it is.

The same totemic argument that applies to creationism arguably applies to school prayer, "obscenity," sex education, or even the words "Jesus Christ" as they are understood amongst American Christians. Rather than referring to the historical rabbi who lived 2,000 years ago, the words "Jesus Christ" refer to membership in the community of belief. Saying "I have Jesus in my heart" is the functional equivalent of, say, embracing the Wolf totem. It marks those who adhere to it as co-believers in the sacred, members of the same tribe. George W. Bush proclaiming his acceptance of Jesus has made him a good man, far from being hypocritical, it, if understood on its own terms, is a deeply sincere action. He, in effect, was declaring himself-despite his privileged origins-to be fundamentally the same as soccer moms from the Midwest and small business owners from the South.

So why has there been such an upsurge in religious feeling in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries? Nixon or Eisenhower never had to invoke their personal relationships with Christ. Why have Americans felt the need to create these communities of faith?

One possible explanation, of course, is the events of September 11, 2001. There is nothing that creates a sense of community more than an external threat, and in a time of stress, the "imagined community" becomes more homogeneous-which is to say religiously consolidated. Outsiders-atheists, Muslims, the French-become increasingly regarded as suspicious, while the community rallies around its own totems. Seen in this light, suddenly all the posters being sold at truck stops of Jesus weeping over the ruins of the World Trade Center make a frightening amount of sense.

However, even a cursory examination of history shows that this tendency in American life long preceded 9/11. The intrusion of right-wing religiosity into politics came not from the rural South, but from the privileged suburbs, where middle-class organizational skill and fundraising ability combined with grass-roots feeling to form a potent cultural force. As Lisa McGirr argues in her Suburban Warriors, the birth of the New Right, which culminated in the Reagan Revolution's conflation of laissez-faire economics, legislated morality, Old Testament patriarchy, and the struggle against the Evil Empire, began in wealthy, privileged enclaves such as Orange County, California, in the 1960s.

McGirr makes a compelling case for the rise of the New Right as a contradictory blend of traditional Western libertarianism, belief in self-sufficiency and property rights with economic dependence on defense spending and a deeply-held belief in the importance of the family. These memes served an evolutionary purpose in a frontier society, but which are somewhat atavistic in suburban developments. Hostility to outside interference makes a certain amount of sense when an ad-hoc local government and the freedom to scratch out a primitive living are all that one requires or expects; it makes less sense when one works for a salary, pays income tax, and relies on federal funding for utilities, roads, schools, firefighting, and law enforcement.

These feelings were magnified by having passed from the triumph of World War II and the economic boom of the postwar period into the defeat of miasma of the 1970s. Many Americans felt their traditional mode of life is being destroyed. The shift to a corporatist, service-based economy has provoked a gender crisis. The old constructions of difference-the dichotomies between sacred and profane, domestic and public, male and female-have broken down. This has been reflected in the meta-narrative of the last three decades of infotainment, as American men unmanned the economic downturn and women who would prefer to be homemakers rather than co-wage earners have taken refuge in Dirty Harry, Rambo, Martha Stewart, George W. Bush landing on an aircraft carrier to proclaim "mission accomplished." The brilliance of the New Right's strategy is combining all of these anxieties into one cause: "Stick with us and we'll stand tall, provide for our families, and kick some ass."

The whole "gay marriage" debate provides an excellent case study for this phenomenon. Just as homosexuality was equated with having Communist sympathies in the 1950s, gays once again find themselves playing the canaries in the coal mine of our collective anxieties. In a world where marriage is becoming more a legal recognition of mutual affection and less an economic necessity, a prerequisite to raising children, or a religious sacrament, same-sex couples see no reason that they should not have the same legal rights as any Russian mail-order bride. The subtext to conservative objections to this movement is not so much an objection to homosexuality per se, but a rejection of the ongoing redefinition of marriage and family life-a change that is, at its root, economically driven.

It appears, then, that the tenets of American evangelical Christianity have become a rallying point because they have become identified with the idea of the authentic, autochthonic community. The fact that these goals-the dismantling of the social welfare state and the maintenance of the military-industrial welfare state, laissez-faire liberalism yoked together with paternalistic morals-policing-have nothing to do with Christianity is not important; what matters is that these policies materially benefit the community that identifies with these symbols. Opposition to gay marriage, abortion, and immigration merely provide a convenient focus for this particular political community, whose interests are then cynically exploited for votes by politicians.

Thus, we return to the real significance of what happened to the Dobriches. The people of Georgetown were not "ignorant, shallow bigots"—unless one wants to call a large part of America by these labels. They were, rather, frighteningly ordinary. Behind what seemed like narrow-minded bigotry was the anxiety three decades of uncertainty. To them, the values the public community represents, and the political and economic interests of that community, were synonymous with the religious community. The persecution the Dobriches experienced was, in effect, the displaced anxiety of the modern world.

If progressives are to make any headway in changing the face of American politics, we must understand the engine driving religious support the conservative political machine. Rather than shrilly repeating our positions as if their inherent logic was a given, we must rather make Americans see that that the values we represent are their own, and that the restoration of a progressive, New Deal system is in the best interests of themselves and their families. Hopefully, by addressing the root causes that drive voters to the standards of conservative Christianity-the irrelevance of the military-industrial complex, the economic rot of the heartland, the empty values of a consumer society-we can appeal to the community of faith, thereby outflanking and, ultimately, defeating the enemy.


Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D student at Fordham University

Posted July 30, 2007 4:29 PM




I enjoyed your article on CorporateMoFo - "Reflections on Religion". I agree with some of your points and disagree with others, but very much appreciated your perspective. I can partly buy the "social credit" theory, but I believe there is a little more to the popular (or common) American evangelicalism engine. I think many who might be identified amongst this group are empire building. The monetary benefit for a Pastor and/or Board to get more rear ends in the pews is a strong motivator. The push is more than to become a part of a community or even a member of a particular church (to gain social credit); rather, the stronger goal is regular church attendance and significant involvement (to gain access to dollars - not only of attendees but also of creditors and attention from upstream hierarchy). Just like any good business you need more consumers to grow your business. The ostracized Jew in your story was most likely ostracized due to simple human nature and not because the others were American evangelicals with any benefit, special propensity or belief allowing ostracization. The minority will always be "picked on" in all societies for all kinds of reason (looks - i.e. - ethnicity, actions - i.e. - homosexuals, beliefs - i.e. - religion/politics, etc..). I propose it is not only normal in the nature of every human but of every animal. But, there are those who follow Christ that in fact follow Christ's admonition to love everyone and ostracize none. Similarly, there are those who are "progressive" that ostracize plenty who are different then them ideologically. Respectfully, TheYellowDart

Posted by: TheYellowDart at August 15, 2007 9:00 PM

So overwhelming is the desire in human society to band against an "other," that in a homogeneous community, some basis will be seized upon to create and designate one.

Posted by: Paula at January 1, 2008 4:40 PM



Copyright 2001-2010
Powered by
Movable Type 3.33
Logo design by Molitorious