Review of Taylor’s, Religion, Politics, and the Christian Right: Post-9/11 Powers and American Empire

[1] There are few authors as adept as Mark Lewis Taylor at navigating the fine line between incisive, biting commentary and partisan polemics. Whether he is writing about the criminal justice system (in The Executed God) or the cooptation of religion by repressive political regimes (in the present book), his agenda is clear: the deconstruction of the center and the end of marginalization. Yet Taylor, while no stranger to popular writing, rarely allows his cultural critique and liberative vision to slide from cogent analysis to op-ed journalism. His method alone is worth study by those who, like Taylor, strive to direct a boiling rage against injustice to reasoned, yet passionate deliberation and constructive action.

Religion, Politics, and the Christian Right[2] Before summarizing his argument and offering critique, a dose of honesty is necessary here. Taylor’s book, published in 2005, is dated in many ways. Reading it, at times, seems like a Proustian (or perhaps Dantean) journey through a past filled with terrorism, anti-war demonstrations, faith-based initiatives, and hyper-patriotism that has been overshadowed recently by economic collapse, the presidency of Barack Obama, the waxing of the Tea Party, and the waning of the Occupy movement, none of which is mentioned by Taylor, save for a brief, almost comical reference to “Grover Norquist, president of an anti-tax group” (60). Nonetheless, while the context has changed – though perhaps not as much as we might think – Taylor’s elucidation of “prophetic spirit” and critiques of Christianity and neo-conservatism remain relevant and are worth reading as much now as they were then.

[3] The core argument of Taylor’s slim volume is that 9/11 shattered the “mythic view” of the US as “an Eden-like nation, protected between its oceans and chosen for a divine destiny” (40). This occasioned the rise and intermingling of two streams of mythic nationalism: “ethno-religious nationalism,” represented by the Christian Right and its political romanticism, and “civic nationalism,” represented by the “contractual liberalism” of neo-conservatives (45). What is so pernicious about the Christian Right and neo-conservatism, each of which draw on a deep tradition of “revolutionary romanticism” – one religious, the other secular – is not their existence as independent movements but rather the “deadly alliance” they formed after 9/11, which helped to preserve various forms of inequality and allowed the Christian Right “to baptize the neocons’ aggressive, unipolar militarism with its vision of a righteous kingdom” (67). The danger here, according to Taylor, is that “[t]heocratic impulses working in tandem with militarist impulses yield an especially aggressive nationalism” which foments violent conflict in the name of hegemony, resists progressive change, and stifles the very dissent which makes democracy valuable and possible (67).

[4] The first chapter, “Evil in Public Life Today,” provides the frame necessary for understanding Taylor’s discussion in Chapters Three and Four, even if it is one of the most dated sections of the book. His exposition of the dominant rhetoric of evil here comes as no surprise to readers today, familiar as most of us are with its limitations: a narrow focus on terrorism has the effect of “short-circuiting sustained public attention to other kinds of evil” (yes, yes); the narrow vision of opposition to this evil gives “little attention to what it is we might be fighting or living for” (yes, yes) (18). Neither is his critique of Jean Bethke Elshtain’s Just War against Terror particularly novel, even for the time it was written (see for example, the October 2004 issue of Journal of Lutheran Ethics for three fine reviews.) What is particularly valuable here, perhaps even more so after the events of the last several years, is his analysis of two elements of evil gleaned from the New Testament: opportunism and privation.

[5] Taylor’s discussion of evil as privation of the good is especially helpful. Evil, he argues, is inherently deceptive. “[I]t distorts by taking an acknowledged good, leaving its trappings in place (as so much disguise and dress), and twisting the good towards destructive ends” (31). It “is an operation performed upon the good, that…is intrinsically bound up with some good [and] comes distorting publicly appealing structural forces that pose as good” (31-32). What makes evil so destructive, so powerful, is its ability to manipulate a good and thus gain popular support and legitimacy even while corrupting and distorting that same good. It is the Nazi party appealing to national identity and the pride of the volk (goods), while twisting these publicly appealing constructs to destructive ends, a privation Paul Tillich rightly termed “demonic” (32). In our time, perhaps it is the appeal to public safety (a good) to legitimize and gain support for racial profiling in states bordering Mexico. Or, maybe it is the popular appeal to unity and concord (goods) exercised through a dismissal of economic equity as “class warfare.” Taylor gives readers a name for these deceptions and manipulations: evil. His theodicy may not explain its existence, but it does offer a useful way to understand its prevalence: evil looks like and talks like a good we can all agree on.

[6] In Chapters Three and Four, Taylor describes how the privation of those goods threatened by “the 9/11 moment” (addressed in Chapter Two) has given rise to the influence and power of the Christian Right and contractual liberalism, respectively. At the outset, it should be noted here that Taylor does not have in mind all conservative Christians or even all fundamentalist Christians. Rather, he means by Christian Right “a subset of conservative Protestants in the US, one that adheres to and is committed to developing as aggressive US American political romanticism [and that] tends toward a program of political rule” (6). This group – relatively small despite its influence – has successfully appealed to what Taylor terms “belonging being,” that intrinsic desire for identity, for community, for a sense of “belonging to the past, to past traditions, nations, peoples [and] lineages” (49). Its ability to tap into and manipulate the mythos of US national identity has empowered its proponents to marginalize non-Christians, to deny legal rights to women, gays, and lesbians on the basis of scripture, and to sanctify the use of violence by the US military, all with popular support. Appeals to the supposed Christian identity of America, popular support of political candidates who want to “throw up” when hearing praise for the separation of church and state, and congressional investigations of American Muslims all share a common root: the manipulation of a desire for identity through the mythic construction of national origins, coupled with a presumed divine mandate to establish a righteous kingdom. By appealing to “belonging being,” the Christian Right has provided a history, a story, an “idealized past” to a people whose sense of self and nation was “ruptured” by 9/11. The symbols and structures of this history have since been employed effectively to change public policy even today, long after George W. Bush, darling of the Christian Right, left office.

[7] Chapter Four is a prescient account of “contractual liberalism,” made all the more intriguing by the Tea Party and Occupy movements which emerged after Taylor wrote these pages. In contrast to the romanticism of the Christian Right, which looks backward to the past to fulfill the need for belonging being, contractual liberalism, represented by neoconservatism, looks to the future in fulfillment of the common need Taylor labels “expectant being.” The term “contractual liberalism” may cause confusion. Taylor does not use the term to denote social contract theory or the business contract. Rather, it refers to those contracts denoted in book titles like Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract and Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract, namely the notion that liberalism “while claiming to maximize those values [of freedom and liberty] has always been practiced in a restricted manner – restricted to a select body of people…deemed worthy of freedom” (74). The term is imprecise, its meaning left less clear without systematic exposition of either the racial or the sexual contract, which Taylor refers to often but does not adequately describe. The reader is left to wonder whether “contract” is used in the sense of “contraction,” an ever-closing circle of persons included, or in the sense of “a contract,” that is, a set of prescribed benefits and responsibilities given to one group whose boundaries are static. Mills and Pateman mean the latter. My sense is that Taylor means a little of both senses, but more precision here would be welcome, especially since if he is following Mills and Pateman, he is making a pragmatic critique of social contract theory, despite his insistence otherwise.

[8] This is incidental, however, to an otherwise fine chapter. Taylor is right to note that liberalism, with its promises of freedom, progress, and inclusion, has been limited by racial, sexual, and heterosexist contracts that are oppressive and restrictive. Its fulfillment of expectant being, that innate human need for hope in the future, the new, the creative not-yet, is a false fulfillment. Contractual liberalism, or “anti-liberal modernism, as he refers to it when wedded to political romanticism, is touted as a promise for the many, even while it remains a realistic expectation only for the few (83-84).

[9] What is particularly distressing for Taylor is the way in which this anti-liberal modernism, through its political romanticism, rewrites history as a mythical ideal, thereby glossing over the very real contracts which excluded Native Americans, women, poor whites, and African Americans, notably in the US Constitution. When wedded to religious romanticism, in particular, the results are disastrous. The story of national origins is a case in point. The structures of law (including the Constitution) and social order as they emerged from a re-mythologizing of the American Revolution are not only essential elements of the American “greatness” and exceptionalism lauded by neoconservatives but, more perniciously, are the God-given backbone of a nation with a divine character and commission. They are thus imbued with religious reverence. Reading Taylor’s chapter post-Tea Party, one gleans the sense that political pundits who proof-text “Founding Fathers” and rally attendees who dress in colonial-era garb are not extolling mere national pride or pageantry – this is religious fetishism of mythic figures in a mythic creation story. If Taylor is right, then there is a reason that attendees of Tea Party rallies often find as many tables dedicated to conservative Christianity as those dedicated to anti-tax groups. The two movements have become united in a unique way since 2001.

[10] What can be done to counteract this alliance? Taylor spends the rest of his book describing a recovery of “prophetic spirit,” a “specter” that challenges the sort of nationalism engendered by political romanticism and contractual liberalism. It does this not by declaring them wholly evil – and thus demonizing their adherents – but by recognizing that the success of both is due to the fact that they appeal to real needs – the need to belong and the need to expect – by offering real goods – an historical identity and the promise of a better future. Central to dismantling this alliance, then, is the construction of a new sense of identity, a “revolutionary belonging” (Chapter Six), and a new sense of hope, a “revolutionary expectation” (Chapter Seven.) Prophetic spirit offers both; its “major contribution to public life after 9/11 consists in its reworking of belonging being and expecting being” (96).

[11] In Chapter Five, Taylor discusses the nature of prophetic spirit through the “spatial dimensions” of breadth and depth. Whereas romanticism and liberalism orient themselves temporally, looking backward to an idealized past or forward to future progress, prophetic spirit “analyzes human movement through time by looking through lenses that broaden and deepen our views of temporal life…discerning spatial dimensions (broader realms, deeper levels, encompassing wholes) within historical life” (98). Prophetic spirit, while not ignoring the forward movement of history, “stresses that history’s moving forward happens not just by means of some posited historical impetus or force of progress but by various kinds of dynamic interplay between social groups (conflict and antagonism as well as cooperation and coordination)” (99). Key to this is a view of history that takes seriously the complex interplay between those in the “center” and those on the “periphery” of society, which remains aware of the imbalance of power between the center and the periphery, and which is thus able to deconstruct the myths and imagined histories (and futures) or romanticists and contractual liberals.

[12] In Chapter Six, Taylor describes “revolutionary belonging,” which stands in marked contrast to the vision offered by “the romanticizing strict constructionists among us [who] cultivate their revolutionary heritage by making a near fetish of the Declaration of Independence or of the US Constitution, both interpreted, so it is advised, ‘as the founding fathers intended’…while overlook[ing] the fact that both the founders and the founding documents drew their power not from themselves but from a revolutionary mobility among the populace” (111-112). There are three elements of this “mobility” that can serve as a ground for revolutionary belonging. First is a recovery of the “motley crew,” the “revolutionary subject” of US history that, while marginalized and oppressed, formed the diverse, belabored, and excluded collective agent of revolutionary change in the colonies (113). Second is recovery of the “revolutionary tradition” of this motley crew, a tradition of revolt stretching back to the Diggers and Levellers of the 1600s that “prepared the way for the American Revolution” (116-117). Third and finally is “an aesthetics of resistance, an artful dreaming of emancipator practices and revolutionary fulfillment” that provides a “revolutionary mythic language” to “mobilize the strength of the motley crew” (118-120). The revolutionary belonging afforded to those who identify with the “motley crew,” who place themselves within a diverse tradition of resistance to injustice, and who find inspiration in a “motley and multiple mythos,” Taylor argues, empowers citizens to resist naïve romanticism, whether it takes the form of support for hegemonic imperialism or the sanctification of individualistic economic inequality.

[13] The revolutionary expectation offered by prophetic spirit in Chapter Seven is carried out by this motley crew. Taylor designates his proposal as a “radical liberalism” which foregrounds “the agency of marginalized and oppressed groups in public life as the primary collective forces of transformation” (128). Without giving a detailed picture of what life in a radically liberalized US might look like, Taylor points to certain groups and individuals as “agents of revolutionary expectation,” the genres appropriate to this new way of “expecting being,” and the “distinctive social practices “ which might be needed to resist romanticism and contractual liberalism. The agents he describes are multiple, ranging from dissenting veterans of the US military to environmental activists to advocates for incarcerated persons (Taylor’s own activism on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal being one example.) What unites these agents is their resistance to marginalization, whether it comes in the form of anti-immigration xenophobia, sexual marginalization, or the increasingly prevalent suppression of organized labor. The genres or styles in which these groups express their expectation both distinguish the groups and unite them as they seek revolutionary change (141). Briefly, the genres are: aesthetic imagination, including art and storytelling; public enactment, including marches and protests; and “deliberative reasoning,” which “separates the revolutionary mob from a thuggish gang that only rampages and vents” (146). “Prophetic spirit works to create spaces wherein practitioners of all three genres learn to respect their need for one another. The future of a radical expectation depends upon their mutual interplay” (147).

[14] Perhaps his most interesting suggestion in this chapter is his proposal for “a form of movement conciliarism, public efforts to form paragovernment councils in which the agents mentioned above and their supporters, using the genres of revolutionary expectation, seek to plan practices of radical liberalism in post-9/11 United States of America” (147-148). This “new league of demes” will intentionally serve as an “alternative structure” to the dominant centers at work in US politics and culture today. Certainly, conservatives have been very efficient at such conciliarism and organization. One need only glimpse the ability of the Tea Party to influence national politics far beyond the weight of its actual numbers. Liberals, especially radical liberals, have been less adept. One wonders how well the Ryan budget would fare in a Congress where the Occupy movement enjoyed a caucus equal in strength to that of the Tea Party. Taylor’s practical suggestions in this chapter are necessary if the frustration, disappointment, and, yes, rage, to which he gives voice are to offer a counter-ontology to the US public.

[15] While the book builds to these practical suggestions, Taylor’s final reflection, “Christian Faith and Counterimperial Practice,” is far more significant than the designation “epilogue” ought to suggest. Taylor responds to the absence of theology in his book (a rare exclusion, given his previous writings) with perhaps the most damning criticism of the entire book. “Why relegate a Christian commentary to this brief epilogue?…[Because] it is hard to point to Christian communities as active bearers of prophetic spirit” (156). US Christians have been too “insignificant” to revolutionary practice to be discussed in the constructive chapters. This is not to say that Christianity is without resources to aid in discerning prophetic spirit’s new way of being; Taylor in fact describes the importance of the Gospel and “reconciliatory emancipation” as two such resources. The problem, for the time he was writing as for us seven years later, is simply that Christian churches have not been as active as they must be to counter the marginalization and violence encouraged by the Christian Right and contractual liberalism. Taylor’s critique is biting here: the Christian Right has become the public face of Christianity because other forms of Christianity have allowed it this license. Despite representing a small segment of all US Christians (even of the larger group of conservative Christians, some of whom disagree with its theocratic agenda), the Christian Right has become the voice of Christianity in the public square.

[16] The book is not without its shortcomings. Some of the distinctions are drawn too sharply, and some of the terms – especially his casual sliding between neoconservatism, contractual liberalism, and anti-liberalism – are downright confusing. His description of agents of revolutionary expectation are disjointed, including military veterans and those who practice BDSM sexuality. There is little rhyme or reason to the grouping beyond the single unifying stance of anti-marginalization. Taylor doesn’t really take into account the marginalization of each other that these agents might practice or desire. What ultimately unites the groups is opposition to current centers of power, but this doesn’t lend to the “motley crew” a collective, agreed-upon sense of purpose beyond opposition, the same stance he criticized in the dominant rhetoric of the anti-terrorist, post-9/11 US. In his opposition to “American exceptionalism,” Taylor also fails to mention the ways in which revolutionary groups have adopted exceptionalism to progressive ends. Richard B. Miller, in contrast, has noted the ways in which “exceptionalism” has been used both to insulate the US from critique and to call the US to its own high standards. Being a “city on a hill” does not just mean being safe from ideological or physical attack; it may also mean being a role model, an example for other nations. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, used this latter sense of American exceptionalism to bolster his appeals for civil rights.1

[17] Given these shortcomings and the general tenor of his book, Taylor is not going to convince his opponents to jump ship and convert to his brand of “radical liberalism.” But this does not appear to be his intent. The book is quite clearly written for those who are already prepared to agree with his assessment. What Taylor offers the choir to which he preaches is, first of all, a way to situate their message within both an historical tradition of resistance and an existential account of those human needs we meet through common life. Second, and perhaps more significantly, Taylor’s challenging critique of the Christian Right, political romanticism, and American exceptionalism represents a gauntlet thrown down before those moderates who agree with him but whose passivity or indifference has allowed Christianity to become a handmaiden to empire. Taylor may not convert conservatives to the left, but he may convert moderates to action, may motivate them get out of their armchairs – or pews – and actually resist inequality and marginalization. If King, whom Taylor cites, is correct that “the white moderate” is more anemic to social change than even the conservative racist, this may very well be the more important conversion to inspire.

1 See Richard B. Miller, Interpretations of Conflict: Ethics, Pacifism, and the Just-War Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991), especially Chapter 8.

Ryan P. Cumming

Ryan P. Cumming, Ph.D. is program director of hunger education for ELCA World Hunger and senior lecturer at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.