One day at a time until Nov. 3rd
The approach to 2020, and the approach to this newsletter until Nov. 3rd.
Hi there. It’s been a little bit, as I’ve adjusted to work & remote learning.
It’s been its own learning experience launching this newsletter just prior to a pandemic.
The first season of Powers & Principalities is well underway. I’ve talked with Diana Butler Bass, Katherine Stewart, Kristin Kobes du Mez, Sam Perry & Andrew Whitehead, and Julie Ingersoll. Next week I will publish my interview with Sarah Posner, whose book Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump, is the essential intellectual history of the Christian right.
Most of my creative time, limited as as it is, is devoted to researching and preparing for these interviews. My primary goal with this series is to create a small body of work that will provide a primer on white evangelicalism and Christian nationalism and the unique—yet somehow still underestimated—threat it poses to American democracy.
If these interviews, this newsletter, or my work on Exvangelical have been helpful or informative to you, consider supporting it with a paid subscription.
Finding the through-line
I’ve worked on some essays in fits and starts, but I’m cast about in the same onslaught of election year news as you. It’s hard to find the through-line. So I’m going to try and find it here, in this newsletter, by focusing on a single story a day.
Starting right now.
Over at The Atlantic, Donald Ayer has provided some context for Bill Barr’s actions:
The Attorney General espouses explicitly Christian nationalist beliefs. Ayer summarizes them:
The best recent source for his thinking on religion is a speech he gave at the University of Notre Dame last fall. The argument he advanced then is virtually indistinguishable from ones he has been making for many years in other speeches and in an article he published in the scholarly journal The Catholic Lawyer in 1995.
The basic story, according to Barr in that article, is that we are embroiled in “a historic struggle between two fundamentally different systems of values.” One of those is the “transcendent moral order with objective standards of right and wrong that exists independent of man’s will,” which is imparted by God, through his institution, the Church. The other is the worldview, developed starting with the Renaissance and accelerating during the Enlightenment, that knowledge, and thus arguably values, are derived from experience and science. This is the movement that spawned many of the notions that gave rise to the American experiment.
But Barr does not discuss the latter worldview as an integral force behind the inspiration for and creation of the United States. Rather, he sees it simply as a force for secularism and moral relativism that has made “the tenets of Judeo-Christian tradition … sound increasingly jarring to the modern ear.”
The crucial point for Barr is his claim that the thinking of the Founders, and therefore “the American government” they created, “was predicated precisely on this Judeo-Christian system” of values handed down by God. According to Barr, “the greatest threat to free government, the Founders believed, was not governmental tyranny, but personal licentiousness—the abandonment of Judeo-Christian moral restraints in favor of the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites.”
To put it in polite terms, this is a complete misreading of the Founders’ views. Barr largely ignores many of the most central elements of the American founding—especially those concerning freedom of thought and speech, and the individual pursuit of happiness. Nor does he see as significant the fact that the members of the founding generation, although mostly self-described Christians, had also been greatly influenced by the secular and rationalist outlook of the Enlightenment, and rejected most of the supernatural elements of literal Christian doctrine.
Bill Barr is Catholic, but the bolded paragraph is filled with talking points and teachings that are instantly recognizable to millions of people who have been taught the same sorts of things in white evangelical circles. It echoes the teachings of David Barton, whose false, revisionist American history has had an outsized impact over the past 30 years. Katherine Stewart dedicates an entire chapter of The Power Worshippers to these efforts. David Barton, who is not a historian by training but rather a former Christian school math teacher and principal, also espouses this belief in some past “golden age” of America:
“Yet, even as Barton rose to prominence, the characteristic features of his approach to the rewriting of history never changed. Bartonian historiography invariably begins with the myth of the golden age—the idea, in essence, that America was once a single nation with a single God. It goes on to describe a fall and a cause for grievance as the righteous lose their hold, thanks to the actions of secular liberals. The story of the past thus leads inexorably to a political prescription for the future, which for the most part involves retaking the court system and the rest of government and turning it over to Bible believers. The historical errors and obfuscations tumbled out of Barton’s works fast and furious. Intent on demonstrating that the American republic was founded on “Judeo-Christian principles,” Barton reproduced an alleged quote from James Madison to the effect that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of American civilization. Chuck Norris, Rush Limbaugh, Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, and countless other luminaries of the right recycled the quote in so many iterations that it has become a fixture of Christian nationalist ideology. Yet there is no evidence that Madison ever said such a thing.”
— The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism by Katherine Stewart https://a.co/4UucP2K
Ayer’s article goes on to describe how this false view of American history, combined with Barr’s belief in unchecked presidential power & authority, is incredibly dangerous. This is one more data point that affirms how Christian nationalism is the gateway and justification to authoritarianism and inherently anti-democratic.
And it’s by no means unprecedented.
In the early 20thC, American Catholics of a reactionary bent resembled their European counterparts by hewing to a narrative about modernity and moral/spiritual decline since the French Revolution — de Maistre and a lot of historiography after him. A prominent Protestant variation fermented then in the Netherlands (under the boot of Napoleon at first) and emerges as a feature of the "Kuyperianism" that influenced Rushdooney, Schaeffer, and Evangelicals high and low. Concurrently, Russian anti-Bolshevik literature enters the mix. You can find all this stuff coming together in key influencers like Carl Henry who, like many people in this genre of reactionary historiography, can be explained in large part by a personal family story of immigration and cultural dislocation. Ultimately what seems to happen, as American Protestants and Catholics get together in the postwar conservative movement, is a fusionism of historical narratives. That's why Barton and Barr have a common mythos. Peter Kreeft is another great example of how and why this happened. It's easy to trace these narratives and trends within the nationalist, anti-globalist, anti-liberal (often Christian) cultures of the anglosphere as well as the new crises of europe, which are exacerbated by reactionary religious nationalism that is cynically appropriated and pushed for political and strategic gains by various parties and individuals.