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August 29, 2011 4:35 PM Douthat, Perry, Bachmann, and the theocratic threat

By Steve Benen

Ross Douthat’s NYT column raises an interesting point today about the possibility of overreacting to politicians and their religious affiliations. There’s a kernel of truth here, but the argument ultimately falls short for important reasons.

Douthat’s larger point, at first blush, seems fairly compelling. He notes that George W. Bush’s ties to various religious extremists didn’t amount to much, which seems to cast doubts on theocratic fears about Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and their associations with various fringe, religious radicals. Douthat therefore dismisses concerns about the Republican candidates and efforts to link them to “scary-sounding political theologies like ‘Dominionism’ and ‘Christian Reconstructionism.’”

The columnist goes on to offers some suggests to those of us who take these religio-political connections seriously. Douthat raises several points, but this is the heart of the case:

First, conservative Christianity is a large and complicated world, and like other such worlds — the realm of the secular intelligentsia very much included — it has various centers and various fringes, which overlap in complicated ways. Sometimes teasing out these connections tells us something meaningful and interesting. But it’s easy to succumb to a paranoid six-degrees-of-separation game, in which the most radical figure in a particular community is always the most important one, or the most extreme passage in a particular writer’s work always defines his real-world influence.

Second, journalists should avoid double standards. If you roll your eyes when conservatives trumpet Barack Obama’s links to Chicago socialists and academic radicals, you probably shouldn’t leap to the conclusion that Bachmann’s more outre law school influences prove she’s a budding Torquemada. If you didn’t spend the Jeremiah Wright controversy searching works of black liberation theology for inflammatory evidence of what Obama “really” believed, you probably shouldn’t obsess over the supposed links between Rick Perry and R. J. Rushdoony, the Christian Reconstructionist guru.

It’s worth appreciating the extent to which Douthat’s argument paints only part of a larger picture.

First, “Dominionism” and “Christian Reconstructionism” aren’t just “scary-sounding political theologies”; they’re genuinely scary political theologies. Without delving into these worldviews in too much detail — at least not in this post — these are off-the-charts radical ideologies that would effectively establish Christian theocracies, in the United States, based on the right’s interpretation of Scripture.

Second, I’m very much inclined to agree with Douthat about the futility of playing a “six-degrees-of-separation game,” but what about when there’s one degree of separation? When it comes to Perry’s associations, for example, there are some really far-out-there religious extremists he not only knows, but who the governor directly associates himself with. Is it unreasonable for those who take the First Amendment seriously to question the propriety of these close relationships? Given the direct ties, is it unfair to ask Perry to address these relationships in some detail? Of course not.

But Douthat’s case seems especially weak when he brings in Obama comparisons. As he sees it, if Obama’s connection to Jeremiah Wright were unimportant, so, too, are Perry’s and Bachmann’s more controversial associates. The problem here is that Douthat himself said Obama’s ties to Wright were very important, making it a convenient time for him to dismiss the guilt-by-association game. The columnist’s argument starts to look like, “It would be wrong for the left to do what I did three years ago.”

For that matter, we have public records of public officials to consider. As Jon Chait explained, “The real problem with the right-wing obsession with Obama’s ‘real’ roots is that they do not reflect in any way upon Obama’s public record. Obama is a mainstream Democrat, surrounded by Clinton-era veterans, and pursuing roughly the same policies that Bill Clinton would be pursuing if he were president under current circumstances. Bachmann and (to a slightly lesser extent) Perry are at the forefront of a movement to redefine their party’s ideology in far more radical hues. Their ideological and theological roots offer useful clues to figuring out this new direction. It’s clearly not completely separate from their policies. Bachmann is running around saying that natural disasters are God’s message to cut spending. It’s not a reach to tie her program to her theology. She does it herself constantly.”

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • kevo on August 29, 2011 4:50 PM:

    It seems Douthat is being a bit disingenuous!

    The Theocrats he's running flak for are the same ones who said the culture wars were over, and a vote for the Republican brand is merely a vote for jobs, during the 2010 election cycle!

    Well, under what now seems like campaign fraud, we are not privy to job creation, but rather, those newly elected Republicans who would use Creationism to remold the American secular society so we don't "sin" in the future by aborting our unborn babies, marrying same sex lovers, paying a fair share of taxes, providing disaster relief for those who need it while punishing others who also depend on our federal budget, allowing political sanity to reign without taking hostages, or tolerating a black man in the WH!

    Hey Douthat, I call bullshit on your false equivalence! -Kevo

  • MuddyLee on August 29, 2011 4:54 PM:

    Perry and Bachmann (and Palin)clearly crave the support of Christian religious extremists. I believe these people are dangerous. How this ties into rightwing billionaire support is what should scare the hell out of the rest of us. They don't believe in science, government, or "mainstream" history. Normal people both Christian and non-Christian should demand more media coverage of their radical supporters.

  • hells littlest angel on August 29, 2011 4:55 PM:

    Is there an apologist for right-wing extremism more unctuous than Douthat? I can easily imagine him pooh-poohing critics of Hitler for focusing exclusively on the most disturbing passages from Mein Kampf, while ignoring his heartfelt patriotism.

  • SYSPROG on August 29, 2011 5:02 PM:

    Thank GOD for Jon Chait...I was already to leap on the keyboard, madly typing BS BS BS when he penned this sentence...' Bachmann and (to a slightly lesser extent) Perry are at the forefront of a movement to redefine their party’s ideology in far more radical hues'...really Steve, can you spell TEA PARTY and the push from the formerly amped up Moral Majority? They are TRYING to define the Republican Party. With Jeremiah Wright they tried to show because THEY are a bunch of right wing (hypocritical) Theocrats, then President Obama MUST be as crazy as them. THEY made it a big deal only to find out that Liberals that go to church and believe in God are able to separate it from their government.

  • jjm on August 29, 2011 5:08 PM:

    Not to mention that they select the one stream of Christianity that doesn't believe in social justice...appeals only to selfishness, nastiness, etc.

    What patriotism is there in a Perry who claims to want to return to federalism that was supplanted by the Constitution? who speaks of seceding or harming the chairman of the Fed? That's not patriotism. It's SEDITION.

    And what patriotism is there in a woman who purposely says such utterly stupid things?

  • bleh on August 29, 2011 5:10 PM:

    There’s a kernel of truth here, but the argument ultimately falls short for important reasons.

    Yeah, like "a dusting of light gray is like charcoal gray 'cuz they're both gray."

    Douthat is doing his hack best to blur a significant difference. Anybody who falls for his "argument" (I use the term very loosely) either wants to or needs to respond SOON to my LIMITED-TIME offer on CDOs collateralized by a beautiful orange bridge located in some of the best real estate in California.

  • stormskies on August 29, 2011 5:21 PM:

    Bachmann was an active member for over 20 years in a Lutheran church that 'believed' that the Pope was literally the anti-Christ. And she only left that church when she decided to run for the presidency. Douthat ignores this completely because his own ideology doesn't allow him to see the obvious truth. Yet he was ever so happy to go after Obama and the Jeremiah Wright bullshit that the corporate media literally invented so as to undermine Obama. It's journalistic corporate pigs like this that are responsible for the purposeful propaganda that has lead to mess we are all in today.

  • esmense on August 29, 2011 5:35 PM:

    Douthat basically said; "Don't take the Republican Party's crazy base seriously because the party has never and will not ever take them seriously." Not actually a comforting thought or sterling recommendation for the integrity of the party's leaders. ("Don't worry, you can't believe a thing they say because they don't say a thing they believe.")

    But, it appears that the Republican's radical religious base is getting tired of being shined on by the party establishment -- that's what, in fact, the Tea Party "rebellion" is, and this new crop of Tea Party candidates are, all about. Bachmann is a genuine believer, a product of that radical religious base and a Tea Party leader. Perry, whatever his sincere religious beliefs may be, has totally embraced and will be beholden to that constituency and it's desires if elected.

  • kindness on August 29, 2011 5:36 PM:

    Why are you acting as if Douthat isn't a lying conservative hack? Why can't you just agree Douthat has no principles other than electing conservative Christians? Lying in the defense of (his idea of) virtue is his only desired reward.

  • dricey on August 29, 2011 5:57 PM:

    Douthat is an apologist for the right, and why the NYT hired him must remain one of contemporary journalism's lesser mysteries. What we see here seems to me to be another of his efforts to cement his "Chunky Bobo" place as David Brooks' understudy and heir, apprentice to the master of false equivalency.

    Dominionism and Reconstructionism aren't just bodies of extremist right-wing Christian belief to which Bachmann, Palin, and Perry nod in hopes of support. They're the Christian equivalent of the Shari'a law that conservative Christians hallucinate rising up on all sides. And I don't see much in Palin and Bachmann, at least, to indicate that they don't embrace the notion of thoroughly "Christianizing" the law and its administration in this country. As to Perry, I can't tell whether the guy uses his head for anything other than a place to hang his face.

  • FRP on August 29, 2011 6:48 PM:

    Pretty good post Mr Benen . Kevo I am afraid you really knocked the stuffin' out of the poor old reliable rock ribbed theocratic Republican Tee Pee Talibanists revivalist yahoos .
    Great understanding of the lusting evil that is the corporate little c Christianist malevolence really needs to go further than G W Booschie .

    Tee hee ! No it doesn't !

  • Dalton on August 29, 2011 7:21 PM:

    "He notes that George W. Bush’s ties to various religious extremists didn’t amount to much..."

    Oh, really?

    Who does this fool think initiated the idea that "God" was really on "our" side?

  • candideinnc on August 29, 2011 7:21 PM:

    Either believe what Perry and Bachman say, which is that they are fanatic Christianists who hope to make the moral majority policies the law of the land, or they are damned liars. In either case, they are the spawn of the devil.

  • exlibra on August 29, 2011 7:31 PM:

    What we see here seems to me to be another of his efforts to cement his "Chunky Bobo" place as David Brooks' understudy and heir, apprentice to the master of false equivalency. -- dricey, @5:57

    Not an heir; the other half of the tandem. There are similarities -- neither is a drooling idiot, for example -- but there are differences too. Brooks is not a dedicated Christian, the way Douthat is; his is a more secular approach to/apology of "conservatism".

    But yes, Craptcha, they are "ictribi genre."

  • efgoldman on August 29, 2011 8:00 PM:

    Wait a minute.
    Isn't Douthat the same guy, that before he went to the Times, tried to persuade us all that conservative Catholicism was the one true way for the US to go?
    He wants us to think the f*cked-up Xtianists don't wish the rest of us any harm?
    F*ck him and the flaming steed he rode in on!

    captcha formstew not

  • Josef K on August 29, 2011 8:45 PM:

    I wonder if Douthat will appreciate his error when President Perry has him put against a wall before a firing squad.

    Provided he isn't sent to some labor camp in Montana, or a open-air 'relocation camp' in Alaska.

  • Rick B on August 29, 2011 8:56 PM:

    If the Republican party has never and will not ever take it's radically crazy religious base seriously - the very base they depend on to provide foot soldiers in every election - then will someone explain why the so-called secular tea partiers who got elected in 2010 have run through an unprecedented avalanche of anti-abortion laws in states nation wide? This flurry of religiously motivated political actions has happened while the supposedly secular tea party politicians are doing absolutely nothing about the problems of jobs and of financial misbehavior by financial companies that led to and causes the continuation of the Great Recession?

    Damn Captcha!!

  • cornhusker on August 29, 2011 9:12 PM:

    Just read / heard someone make the argument that the reason Republicans went crazy over Rev Wright was because of projection. Republicans tend to be royalists... caring more about who says something than what is being said. So following a religious leader means doing everything that leader says. But liberals care more about what is being said than who is saying it. So if a preacher's words don't match the gospel / their actions... liberals tend to respond with skepticism.

    The title of Douthat's piece suggests all Christians want a theocracy. They don't.

    The backlash against the political machinations of the religious right is real. It's what happens when people wrap themselves in God while launching a war on the wings of a lie. Agape love is the Greatest Commandment... not war, greed, fear, oppression.

    One useful distinction is whether a group wants to replace democracy with theocracy... followed by a discussion about whether such groups should continue receiving their tax exempt status.

    Another useful distinction is whether there's evidence of using religion to manipulate people.... the by-their-fruit-you-shall-know-them test. For example... If a Christian makes a prophetic utterance (i.e. God told me) then that utterance ought to reflect what the New Testament tells us about God. Bachmann's comments about hurricane Irene suggest that God is no longer into agape love. That's not consistent with the New Testament.

    Reporting could be improved by handing the microphone over to leaders from other denominations. Media Matters analyzed which religious groups appear on major news networks. Generally... main line protestants were absent.

    Finally... That some in the media use their considerable influence to marginalize people / ideas they don't like? ...What else is new?

  • Anonymous on August 29, 2011 9:50 PM:

    It is important to understand the extreme ugliness of Rushdoony. He believed in the literal interpretation of the Bible and old testament laws. As wikipedia notes, "Under such a system, the list of civil crimes which carried a death sentence would include homosexuality, adultery, incest, lying about one's virginity, bestiality, witchcraft, idolatry or apostasy, public blasphemy, false prophesying, kidnapping, rape, and bearing false witness in a capital case." I remember reading years ago that he believed if the Bible said that someone should be stoned for a sin, that meant actual stoning, because that was the literal statement.

    This is a very dangerous ideology.

  • rea on August 29, 2011 10:08 PM:

    Rushdoony also believed in slavery,on biblical authority.

  • deejaayss on August 29, 2011 11:08 PM:

    Religion is a dangerous drug that should be taken in small doses, if at all.

  • Uncle Omar on August 29, 2011 11:12 PM:

    As always, Doghouse Riley undresses Douchehat, whips him with a length of barbed wire, and ships the quivering hulk back to his dreamgirl, the Chunky Reese Witherspoon.

  • PQuincy on August 30, 2011 7:43 AM:

    I like it that Douthat already feels the need to issue apologetic statements. Let's hope for lots more from him and others. Apologetics are ineffective campaigning, after all.

    As for the rhetorical unease in Douthat's column, that's not surprising: not only is he trying to apologize for close ties between the leading Republican presidential candidates and religious thinkers who insist that Douthat is a member of a Satanic cult headed by the Anti-Christ, he's also defending candidates who no longer observe the line between coddling the extremists out in the countryside where no one is paying attention while ignoring them in Washington. That was an art that Reagan and Bush II had mastered, but there's some reason to think that Bachmann is campaigning directly against that distinction, while Perry is so shamelessly cynical that he'll invite the extremists into the charmed circle of the Beltway for real simply because they offer him more power.

  • rrk1 on August 30, 2011 7:48 AM:

    Captcha is off the reservation again.

    One has to wonder where the NYT finds the Douthats, and why they keep them.

    Perry, Bachmann, Palin, and all that radical religious ilk are subversives trying to mount an insurgency against the Constitution, and therefore against the republic. When they are treated as such by the FBI and the so-called Justice Department - although I wouldn't hold my breath too long - we will know that our sworn defenders of the Constitution are taking their oaths seriously. These religious extremists want to overthrow the government, and make no secret of their intentions. How much of a threat do they have to be before they are called out?

    If the media see Socialism as a big threat, which it isn't, then why won't the media see theocracy as at least an equal if not a bigger threat? There is no organized Socialist effort that I know of. We lumber on towards a theocratic police state, and the corporations and billionaires think it's a great idea.

  • worcestergirl on August 30, 2011 8:38 AM:

    1. As I recall, Reverend Wright's main transgression was the six year old tape of a sermon someone dug up where he said "God damn America" over the ill-treatment of black people. Yes, this was inappropriate, but hardly the stuff of a crackpot. Black people have been treated terribly in our history.

    Nor did Obama activly court his endorsement. By contrast, McCain was openly seeking the endorsement of Pastor Hagee and others. Hagee is one of those crackpots who think Jesus is coming back to transport true believers into heaven and kill all of the non-converted Jews.

    The Wright/Hagee was a false equivilence all around.

    2. Bush used to routinely invite a whole bunch of right-wing religious cranks like Hagee into the White House to vet court appointments, etc. This was no small connection.

  • mark on August 30, 2011 9:23 AM:

    Check out www.talk2action.org and look around for "Rick Perry" and "New Apostlic Reformation" among other terms. It's not some silly fringe group, it's a well-organized, well-funded organization in bed with notable politicians. They're making headway on several of their goals, all of which involve bring their form of religion into all areas of society, to exert control (dominion) and wipe out diversity and tolerance.

  • Ted Frier on August 30, 2011 4:12 PM:

    Like most religious conservatives, Douthat refuses to see the distinction between a religious sensibility that legitimately injects itself into issues which are already public, like war and taxes and the interaction between the races, and the age-old attempt by organized religion and the political movements it leads to make the private, public -- to subordinate the individual to the community, to make the saving of souls a specific political program.

    And this blind spot leads Douthat into conflicted and contradictory absurdities like these: Yes, concedes Douthat, modern democratic liberalism is founded on the willingness of believers to give up their right to impose their faith on others in exchange for the freedom to worship their God as they wish. Indeed, the Constitution stands as "rebuke" to devout Americans "who would like to have the government endorse their personal beliefs about the nature of the Almighty," he says

    And yet, Douthat insists that the Constitution's anti-establishment clause "was never meant to prevent majorities from legislating based on their religious beliefs, but only to prevent them from forcing others to share those beliefs, either through the hard pressure of persecution or through the soft pressure of an established church."

    That's right. An orthodox Catholic government which decreed it a crime for married couples to interfere with God's plan to give them children by using condoms when they have sex, would not be forced to embrace Catholic theological doctrines or even to join the Catholic Church. They'd just be sent to jail for disobeying Catholic law. What a bargain!

    Realizing perhaps too late that he'd gone too far, Douthat quickly added: but of course there are "limits to the kind of legislation American majorities can pass," specifically the limits set forth by the Bill of Rights.

    But what kind of limits are those? And what is their nature? In practice, the limits set forth by the Bill of Rights curtail the discretion of a Catholic majority (or any majority) to legislate its sectarian beliefs regarding private behavior or morality to a non-Catholic minority. The Constitution does this by carving out a sphere of personal autonomy into which no state power or proxy acting in its name is allowed to intrude.

    But this is precisely the distinction orthodox religious followers like Douthat not only reject but hope to undermine, by making individuals conform to the dictates of their larger religious communities. And that is why religious fundamentalists and other social conservatives sneer at the very idea that there exists within the Constitution a "right to privacy."

    Nothing at all prevents devout Christians like Douthat from making use of the rights granted to them under the Constitution. Nothing prevents them from trying to impress their beliefs on their fellow citizens through the marketplace of ideas made available by our secular republic to all groups "to preach and implore and denounce and cajole" in the hopes of convincing Americans to voluntarily lead more Godly lives.

    But what liberalism cannot abide, says Damon Linker in a debate with Douthat, is "impatience - the impatience of those who cannot be bothered to convert one soul at a time and would rather the state prosecute their culture war for them."

    And that's what the Religious Right and its Tea Party proxies are trying to do. They just don't want the rest of us to know they're doing it.

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