The Evangelical Victim Ghetto

Welcome to my new blog. I can’t promise to be especially active or especially regular, but I will promise to do better than my last blog, the aptly-named “Blog Less Traveled,” on which I’m afraid I haven’t traveled at all in nigh nine months. The secret to successful blogging, I know, is to embrace informality, instead of thinking that every post has to be a polished essay. So my hope is to use this space largely as a notepad for reading notes, with the polished essays appearing elsewhere.

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about “religious liberty,” and the to my mind mostly self-destructive way that concept has increasingly been deployed on the Christian Right. I’ve also been doing a lot of reading of the American political philosopher/historian/essayist Michael Lind. Indeed, I’ll have a review essay on his corpus coming out at Mere Orthodoxy soon. I saved his first book, The Next American Nation (1995), for last. In this book, having offered a thoroughly damning indictment of identity politics, its obsession with victimhood, and its balkanization of the body politic, he turns to consider the Religious Right. Although no friend of it, he pooh-poohs leftist worries that the Pat Robertsons and Gary Norths of the world were actually likely to impose theocratic dictatorship on America. Instead, he offers this disturbing prediction:

“Today’s Euro-Christian or pan-Christian nativists, like yesterday’s segregationists, do not aspire to take over the federal govt, but rather to weaken its authority in order to carve out enclave communities in which they can approach thier own communal ideals. It is not difficult to imagine such subcultural separatism being justified in the language, derived ultimately from the black power movement, of group rights and group victimization. Already white fundamentalists have learned to speak in the language of Multicultural America, claiming that court bans on school prayer or confessional displays in public represent religious discrimination. Some fundamentalists, no doubt, feel uncomfortable with adopting the pose of an aggrieved minority; to do so is to abandon the claim that the religious right speaks for the Christian American nation as a whole, for the moral majority. Nevertheless, as the prospects for a triumphalistic restoration of something like the old informal Protestant establishment recedes, we can expect the religious right increasingly to mimic the language and strategies of the multicultural left….If Multicultural America endures as a political order its leaders may ultimately tame and encapsulate the religious right by encouraging its leaders to redefine it as just one more victim group deserving a comfortable ghetto of its own.” 

(251-52, 254) 

Now, to be sure, the Religious Right has not been terribly successful in this; the regnant elites seem disinclined to award it such victim status and the privileges such status entails. But it is certainly not for lack of trying. Nothing, to my mind, has been so disturbing about the Covid-19 pandemic as the way in which churches rushed with indecent eagerness to don the tattered garments of the Victim, and demanded effective autonomy from the body politic.

Lind returns to consider the dangers of this victimology fetish later on:

“The color-blind phase of the Civil Rights Revolution, it is true, produced an enduring mythology–but it is a divisive mythology. The archetypal image of the Civil Rights Revolution was the scene of protesters being set upon by police dogs. The image is powerful–so powerful, in fact, that every subculture or interest group in the United States since the sixties, from the gay rights movement to the evangelical fundamentalist counterculture, has tried to write itself into that scene. What blacks were in the sixties, we are today, claim the born agains and the environmentalists and the handicapped, the feminists and the members of the men’s movement. Behold us set upon by dogs; pity us, pass laws on our behalf. The perversion of our political culture by victimology arises from this effort to deny the uniqueness of the black experience with segregation, and to generalize it as a model for all struggles of value or interest, no matter how minor. This is, as I have said, a powerful imagery–but it is also inflammatory and divisive. Everyone wants to be the protest marchers, but someone has to play the role of the police with the dogs. One American’s Martin Luther King is another’s Bull Connor. The evangelicals claim they are being persecuted by the powerful secular humanists; no, no, reply the secular humanists, see how powerful the fundamentalists are, they are Bull Connor, we are King!”

(350-51)

Now, it seems far more plausible to me that evangelicals are being persecuted by secular humanists right now than vice versa. It’s hardly mere imagination. But, even if we have more reason than many to play the victim card, it is still the same card that everyone else is playing, and thus isn’t going to help us much. And even if it succeeded in its aim of building a firewall around balkanized Evangelicana, it sure as hell ain’t gonna help us rebuild a Protestant Christendom.

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