Defying the Certainty of the Christian Right
Earl Taylor, with his white hair, lean figure, and suit, has a mildly aristocratic appearance. He carries himself and speaks in a mild manner–admittedly, there is also something of the Sunday school teacher about him–yet his ideas are among the most dangerous in America.
This last comment sounds both clichéd and hyperbolic.
Even so, Taylor and others who interpret the history of the United States in a deeply conservative manner are so numerous that it would be incorrect to describe them and their ideas as on the fringe.
I grew up in a conservative church in West Virginia that was connected to David Barton, the well-known founder of WallBuilders, who espouses ideas akin to those of Taylor’s. In fact, if memory serves, our church was an offshoot of Barton’s father’s church, Aledo Christian Center in Aledo, Texas.
One of Barton’s arguments was that since prayer was taken out of school, teen pregnancy rates have increased, unmarried women are more common, and so on. All of which, naturally, undermines the foundations of that “city on a hill” image that is so alluring to thinkers of a fundamentalist stripe. The Barton paperback that my mother owned, as I recollect, illustrated these issues with stark black-and-white graphs. It all looked grim, serious, and quite convincing to this young West Virginia boy. Barton’s argument was one of causation; however, as I now know, correlation is not causation.
My childhood church was also known as a “house of prayer”. We prayed incessantly. The cardinal directions–North, South, East, West–were taped to the four walls of our sanctuary. We would turn to face each direction and fervently pray for conversions. Despite all of this prayer, within two decades the young pastor and his wife were dead of cancer and a heart attack, the pastor dying shortly after leading a National Day of Prayer event. Their deaths and the death of that church may be the defining tragedy of my young life.
The idea of an ideal time is an old story, a tired story, at least for me. Some look back to the 1950s. Some look to the founding of the U.S. Some look to that special moment in 1961 before prayer was taken out of schools. This way of thinking is so common that The Way We Never Were, a book written in the past twenty years, attacks that kind of nostalgic thinking as ahistorical fantasy.
A return to Eden would be nice, but Eden never existed. Not in the Buckeye State, at any rate.
And it is only through the filtering of history–attending to certain voices and ignoring other voices–that one can create such a positive portrayal of any past moment. Hindsight, they say, is 20-20, but that is not quite true. We lose information the further we are away from an event, and we gain clarity to the degree that this information is lost.
Barton, who has an undergraduate degree in Christian education from Oral Roberts University (and no degree whatsoever in the area of history), made quite a splash in the last few years with his book The Jefferson Lies, a best seller published by Thomas Nelson. Barton argued that Jefferson was not a secularist who wrote his own version of the Bible and sired a child with one of his slaves. The book was found after publication to be so riddled with inaccuracies that its Christian publisher withdrew it from publication.
Taylor, like Barton, is white, religious, and a businessman, and not surprisingly the history and the men he foregrounded in his recent address at Defiance College bore an uncanny resemblance to his own identity. Taylor informed me, moments before I presented a portion of this essay as a rebuttal to his address, that he thought highly of The Jefferson Lies.
Mr. Taylor in his address argued that the framers of our country were somehow gifted above all others and in tune with God’s will. He suggested that the U.S. is exceptional and has, yes, a manifest destiny. How else are we to understand the wealth and progress that has blessed the United States in only two hundred years? The U.S., unlike the rest of the world, exists as the proverbial city on a hill that will be a blessing to all humans. This destiny is very much tied up in private property and self-interest as Mr. Taylor, a Christian, argues that people work better when their work will benefit themselves and not others. He spoke clearly and extemporaneously, though he constantly referenced Cleon Skousen’s The 5,000 Year Leap, which was published by Taylor’s own organization, the National Center for Constitutional Studies, and had an enormous influence on Glenn Beck, as Salon has shown in great detail.
Taylor represents a large number of conservative Christians who feel embattled by gays, by economic change, by change in general, if nothing else. He and other originalists provide ostensible clarity and a foundation upon which to understand a grim, anxiety-ridden reality, and who among us doesn’t yearn for a dose of clarity these days?
Earl Taylor may not be directly or personally dangerous; I cannot imagine this gentle man committing a violent act. But Taylor’s ideas or, rather, the ideas of others that he is repeating in his talks and at schools such as his own Heritage Academy, a charter school in Arizona, create the necessary ideological groundwork for extremism.
Interpretation is not an easy business. How can one read a book without smuggling in one’s selfish interest? How can I also put aside my whiteness, my own Christian background, my own relative privilege and read objectively? I’m not sure I can. I’m not sure anyone can, but what remains important is that I/we/Mr. Taylor honestly recognize and account for why we read history as we do.
I put forward an obvious critique of Mr. Taylor’s argument, but what I also attempted to demonstrate in my rebuttal to his talk were my own biases. I attempted to show how my own religious history, akin to Mr. Taylor’s, has biased me in certain ways. Why am I so passionately disturbed by his argument? Well, in part, because I see how insubstantial prayer and manifest destiny are as I remember the tragedy of my childhood church and the early deaths of my pastor and his wife.
I’m told that liberal or leftist historians–I’m an English professor, not a historian–are self-aware of their own biases and attempt to foreground core identity traits so that a reader understands how a work of history is inevitably colored and biased by identity. Such a historian tells a story, a history, but, in sharing information about his or her identity, it is as if he or she foregrounds the possibly fictive nature of any and all such history.
For most conservative Christians, questioning their Truth, their reading of history or the Bible as history, is to attack their identity. It is to open a gaping hole in their being and reveal that who they are is not stable, built upon the unchanging word of God. Rather their identities are unstable because they are based on a dynamic, inevitably selfish, if well-intentioned, interpretation of certain documents.
Taylor, as a speaker, is effortless. His is a well-rehearsed talk. In his keynote, he walks the audience through three or four of the 28 principles listed in Skousen’s book and, if there are critical questions, he immediately points to a page, and then a quote by Jefferson or Adams and so on, taken from The 5,000 Year Leap (everyone in the audience has been given a free book upon entrance to the venue). There is no hesitation. Taylor assimilates all of the questions effortlessly. There is no gap, and no hole. The “founding fathers” have a quote for every possible contingency.
But this was only true during his address. The following morning, as I and a fellow history professor issue our rebuttals, things change. My questions are not factual; my questions are methodological. Taylor either does not know how to directly address questions of interpretation, or he has chosen to be above questions framed a little too obviously (and a little too passionately) in the language of a leftist academic. Or perhaps the truth is simply that his typical modus operandi is simply not up to snuff in this case: Memorize and proof text, he can. But ask Taylor to move to larger, more abstract issues and he founders. Despite his own avowed interest in freedom and experimentation, there was precious little evidence of his own ability to think on his own. Always, he returned to Skousen, or to the “founding fathers.” He could not, to allude to a poem by Robert Frost, “go behind his father’s saying.”
Perhaps this is one historical contingency that the founding fathers failed to address.
Those of us on the left are theoretically more comfortable with change; those on the right seem increasingly nervous, seeking to hide the mobile, changing nature of identity (and, hence, truth) from themselves and their flocks. Sometimes this fear of change leads to a list of 28 “Principles of Liberty” whose very simplicity is comforting, easing the anxiety of living in a complex world. Sometimes this fear of change leads to another level of therapy, the level of cathartic violence.
At the end of our panel and my rebuttal, Taylor and I shook hands, only a little awkwardly, and parted ways. A few minutes later I began debriefing with a female professor in the audience who was also deeply critical of Taylor during the time reserved for questions.
On Taylor’s way out of the room, he stopped and attempted to hug my friend. This hug may, more than anything else above, encapsulate the problem of the Christian right. It is a problem of privilege, patriarchy, and of cultural and social certainty. Those trapped within it cannot understand how their own intellectual, moral, and physical magnanimity could be misconstrued as anything else: They appear to think, “This hug is warm and loving. It is a blessing to you and to everyone else in the world. All you have to do is open your arms to it.”
My friend politely refused the embrace.
Todd A. Comer has edited books on the comics writer Alan Moore, on “terror and the cinematic sublime,” and, most recently, on the regional politics of Occupy Wall Street. He is currently writing on the ecological politics of the director Peter Weir. He blogs, very occasionally, at toddcomer.com.