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Public Theology: Neoconservatism and Revivalist Theology
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Neoconservatism and Revivalist Theology
Some thoughts on two major movements creating the political context for the Iraq war. Mentioned here are Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell.

By Ed Knudson

The decision of the Bush administration to invade Iraq represents the success of an intellectual movement called neoconservatism and a religious movement that we will call Revivalist Theology. Though the two movements are very distinct in terms of their constituencies they have combined to create a social-political context within which a president has been able to declare war on another sovereign country and do so outside the legal structure of the United Nations even though a majority of the American people supported the latter. It is important to understand these two movements since they will no doubt continue to be influential in the future in defining how the United States should relate to the rest of the world as well as domestic economic and social policy.

Neoconservatism has emerged over the past three decades. We are now able to see that Richard Nixon, elected in 1968 and again in 1972 was the last true liberal Republican president. He left office in disgrace. But Nixon presided over passage of strong environmental legislation, was willing to use the power of government in the economy by imposing wage and price controls, opened new avenues of cooperation with Communist China, and promoted government efficiency by creating the Office and Management and Budget. Since then, however, neoconservatism has come to dominate political thought in this country with a very different agenda.

The neoconservatives are not just theorists and academics, they have been actively promoting their views within popular political culture, in magazines and journals, think-tanks and centers for policy development. They have been successful in creating a climate of opinion conducive to the emergence of such extremist activities as radio talk shows reaching millions of Americans. And most important they have had tremendous influence in moving both Republican and Democratic politicians in a conservative direction and have been able to insert themselves into key policy positions of the government.

Neoconservatism would not have been able to do all this by itself; it represents a fairly small group of intellectuals. One of the key elements in its diagnoses of the problems in American society is its belief that the American people need more religious faith. Ready and available to serve this need was Revivalist Theology that in our time is known as the religious right. Neoconservatism has had such stunning political successes over the last three decades because of the rise of the religious right. And both these movements have been funded by those most likely to benefit from these political ideas. In what follows we will discuss both of these related phenomena.

The neoconservatives are what I call a community of interpretation. They are not a community in the sense that they live together and have a centralized organization of any kind, but a community sharing certain beliefs and understandings, an interpretation of historical events and experience, shared through writings and conferences and gatherings and many different institutes, again well funded by those who benefit from these ideas. Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, and Irving Kristol, editor of Public Interest, are two of the most influential leaders of the community. Podhoretz has claimed that the neoconservatives “shook the position of leftists and liberals in the world of ideas and by doing so cleared the way to the presidency of Ronald Reagan,” as described by Jurgen Habermas in his book The New Conservatives in a chapter called “Neoconservative Cultural Criticism in the United States and West Germany” in 1982.

The two most important historical events which had the effect of activating the neoconservatives are the loss by the United States of the Vietnam war and the various experiences of the 1960s, student unrest, counter-cultural movements, concern for poverty and racial justice, the women’s liberation movement. The neoconservatives diagnosed these as cultural problems, as a moral breakdown in society. They attacked social welfare programs because these programs, they claim, cause dependency on government rather than the corporation. The loss of Vietnam was especially demoralizing to the country, especially in the context of the Cold War within which the United States viewed itself in a fierce struggle against an expansionist Communist state. A nearly hysterical anti-communism combined with an uncritical pro-business orientation is one of the chief characteristics of neoconservatism. But the analysis of the neoconservatives extends into the social structure of this country as well.

Habermas suggests that Daniel Bell’s book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, is helpful to examine in relation to neoconservatism. Bell says that while capitalism requires within itself able and motivated workers, it creates people only interested in maximizing their own pleasure and thus undercuts the whole Protestant ethic which is necessary to maintain good workers. “Bell explains the self-destructive pattern of this development in terms of a split between culture and society. He analyzes the tension between a modern society and a modernist culture that contributes to the destruction of the moral bases of rationalized society. In both cases modernity depends on the process of secularization; but what is good for secularized society, i.e., capitalist modernization, is catastrophic for culture, since a culture rendered profane brings subversive attitudes to the fore; in any case it contrasts with the religiously anchored willingness to achieve and obey on which an efficient economy and a rational state administration are functionally dependent.” (p. 27-28)

Furthermore, capitalism needs this pleasure-seeking individual: “Without the hedonism stimulated by mass consumption, the very structure of the business enterprise would collapse.” (p. 28)

When I sat down in the 1980s to read books on economic theory I was myself astounded at the degree to which neo-classical economic theory is grounded on the idea of the “maximizing man”, the idea that human beings always want to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain. It was such a narrow, reductionist view of the human being. The ultimate image of such a human being is the drug user, again and again getting the pleasure of a high through sticking the needle in his veins. Theology was viewed by the economists as not having to do with reality, but the unreality of their concept of the human being seemed obvious to me. Something of that issue is the concern of the neoconservatives.

But their analysis led them not to question the economic theory, not at all. It led them to promote religion and also, nationalism. “Only the renewal of a religious consciousness, the overcoming of a culture that has become profane, can restore the ethical bases of a secularized society.” (p. 29) Religion was necessary to keep the workers working, to keep citizens obeying their government, to keep everyone committed to overcoming the terrible Communist menace, articulated by Ronald Reagan, of course, as the “evil empire”.

The neoconservatives in economics want the emphasis maintained on the free individual, but not in the civil realm. There they believe, as conservatives have always believed, that what is needed is obedience to authority, obedience to the elites in charge of the political process. And to help citizens obey there is a need for religion, a form of religion that makes the nation a central aspect of its belief. Just at this time, in the 1980s, along came the television evangelists to do just that.

At that time I decided to watch these evangelists to see what they were saying, to find out why they were becoming so popular. I would visit members, usually older women during the day, and they would be watching these programs. What I found was God and country. In fact the worship of country was more important than God. To believe in Jesus was to realize one’s self as a patriotic American. Americans were blessed by God by virtune of birth in this country rather than someplace else. A member of my congregation gave me a magazine from one of the television evangelists, Jimmy Swaggert. The entire magazine consisted of articles on Communism, how evil it was, how atheistic. Not one page had anything from the bible or any other religious study. But in the middle there was a page which asked: “If this magazine has helped you make a personal decision for Christ please fill out the form below.” And send your money. The television preachers were implementing the program of the neoconservatives.

The television preachers are but one current expression of Revivalist Theology that has a long history in this country. Revivalism has always associated itself with national issues and problems. Years ago I was discussing with my own mother about her experience in the Lutheran church as a young person growing up in the rural Midwest. She mentioned how the tent meetings would come near her town and they would be preaching “God and country” and for that reason she wasn’t supposed to go to those revivals. Lutherans have had hesitancy about associations of God and country.

The primary manifestation of Revivalist Theology in our time is in the Billy Graham crusades. He is the model for all current evangelists and the one who has defined what Christian faith looks like within common popular culture today, a form of what in the Reformation period was called believer’s baptism. Revivalist theology teaches that in religion, too, as in economics, the individual decision is centrally important, and in this case determines one’s eternal destiny. And once you make a personal decision for Christ then you get to participate in a church organization which is rigidly authoritarian and which defines for you exactly what is right and wrong to do. And this includes, for those congregations who identify themselves within the religious right today, how you should vote.

The degree to which Revivalist Theology associates God and country is seen in the statement Billy Graham said in 1947 at a Youth for Christ rally: “To safeguard our democracy and preserve the true American way of life, we need, we must have a revival of genuine, old-fashioned Christianity, deep, widespread, in the power of the Holy Spirit.” Graham was not ambiguous about his goals. And he really got his start in California in the early 1950s when newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst told his reporters as Billy was beginning a crusade, “Puff Graham”. Hearst believed Billy Graham would be good for the country, and for several decades he served as a national chaplain for the country. God is on the side of the United States in a holy fight against atheistic Communism. He told a Los Angeles rally that the Russians would drop atomic bombs on New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles unless revival breaks out across the nation. Christian faith in this form is completely absorbed into nationalism, it is God and country to the extreme. Graham’s crusades peaked in 1957 in New York City and he later moderated his views and even visited Russia, but his model has been carried on by all those now making up what is known as the religious right which includes both fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and pentecostals like Pat Robertson.

It is important to realize how fanatical religious nationalism has now become. The “Left Behind” series of novels sold in supermarkets all over the country represents a grand and paranoid interpretation of history and the future, centered in the secretary-general of the United Nations as the anti-Christ. These novels along with all the apocalyptic preaching of the religious right has indeed created a consciousness within large numbers of people leading them to affirm militant opposition to the one body, the United Nations, which presents an opportunity for nations to come together for debate and negotiation with one another hopefully leading to world peace.

Neoconservatism also influenced many observers of religion and theologians in mainline denominations. Michael Novak is one who has become literally an apostle of free enterprise, working within the American Enterprise Institute. Lutheran social ethicist Robert Benne, in the 1980s at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, who had been a critic of the Vietnam war, made the switch to neoconservatism. I was in a workshop once with Benne who made the statement that anyone who starts with concern for the poor is a Marxist. I wondered what had caused him to make such a dramatic change and I concluded in my own mind that it was feminism. For many men the feminist movement went so deep in terms of both the psychology and sociology of relationships that they changed their more open and liberal outlooks in favor of social conservatism. And, of course, for Revivalist Theology, social conservatism is a primary commitment, justified also by their literal but often false reading of the bible.

Perhaps the foremost center of theological neoconservatism is the magazine First Things edited by former Lutheran and now Catholic Richard John Neuhaus who promotes the concept that the United States is a Christian country and aligns himself with the religious right movement.

Revivalist Theology and neoconservatism were the big warriors of the Cold War against Communism and thus they have taken credit for the breakup of the Soviet Union. But this seems a bit strange to me. For years and years huge expenditures for nuclear weapons were made justified by claims that the Soviet Union was so strong, a real threat. But the Soviet Union fell due to its own internal weakness. The United States did not conquer it. But with Communism gone a new enemy was needed. The religious right found a new enemy in homosexuals, specifically, and secular humanism in general, personified in the old/new enemy of neoconservatism, those aweful “liberals”. I put liberals in quotation marks because the word has now become associated with everything that is bad and evil in the minds of these people.

Liberals includes all the defeated Communists and socialists, and now in the post-Iraq war period it includes Europeans, especially those in France and Germany who still promote versions of the social welfare state, what some refer to as “soft Communism”. Liberals are called “vermin” and “scum” by the conservative talk show hosts, functioning within the political climate created by neoconservatism. Politics has become a very nasty business.

It was within this climate of the political culture that 9/11 occurred. Terrorists became a very real new enemy, one which was evil, one which had to be destroyed. This event has created the context for a hyper-nationalism with many religious overtones drawing on the tone and tactics developed in the fight against Communism.

Neoconservatism on its own could not elect a president. It needs conservative Catholics. It needs gun enthusiasts. It needs the religious right. It needs the traditional constituencies of the Republic Party, those who benefit from policies of deregulation and lowering of taxes on the wealthy and corporations. But there is a very large gap in the analysis of the neoconservatives.

Due to their nearly total commitment to what they call the free market, to their hysterical rejection of anything even beginning to look like socialism, such as Saddam Hussein’s socialist state, or social welfare, they are unable to see when economic factors may be the cause of social problems, they are unable to participate in measured efforts to see how best to adjust the relations between government and business to produce the greatest benefits for all the American people, they are unable to see when it might be appropriate for government to aid those who have not benefited from the capitalist economy due to no fault of their own. In their advocacy of aggressive nationalism over-against the role of the United Nations in international relations they fail to reckon with the many ways investment patterns, deregulation and privatization have failed to result in adequate social and economic justice for all people within this country and around the world.

The Iraq war has taken the attention of the American people away from a fair evaluation of the domestic policies of the Bush administration. It may well be that neoconservatism and Revivalist Theology will encourage further military adventures of the administration in other parts of the Middle East and world. It is important for people who do not share the beliefs and ideas of neoconservatism and Revivalist Theology to explore alternative options for the future of this country. That is a project we hope to make a contribution to at this website as we try to build a viable concept of a responsible Public Theology.

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Date Added: 4/11/2003 Date Revised: 4/21/2003 1:46:47 PM

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