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Cognitive Dissonance of Political Activists, Or Whatever Happened to the Religious Right?

The Christian Right is a classic case of a movement without a worldview. It is also an instructive example of the consequences of cognitive dissonance.

  • Colonel V. Doner,
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The Christian Right is a classic case of a movement without a worldview. It is also an instructive example of the consequences of cognitive dissonance.

Let's take a look first at the lack of worldview. Consider the dramatic shift in worldviews from the founding of this country (which Christian Rightists love to harken back to). From the mid-1600s to the late 1700s the country was influenced by the Puritan worldview which itself was rooted in "dominion" theology. Christians were in America to establish the new Israel and to be a light shining to the rest of the world (Mt. 5). Around the time of the American War for Independence, Anabaptists and Wesleyians began growing in number. Within a few decades, they decided to target Puritan cultural dominance, which they saw as a potential religious establishment. In what historians call one of the most pernicious non-violent, long-term wars, the Wesyleyians, Baptists, Anabaptists, and other sects managed to undermine and destroy Puritan cultural dominance by the mid 1800s.

Calvinist Culture
No doubt this diminution of Calvinist cultural hegemony contributed to the divisiveness of the Civil War. Shortly after the war, tremendous pessimism began to permeate the country. In the wake of such an unprecedented national bloodbath, a new evangelical worldview came to replace the Puritans'. It was called Dispensationalism and predicted the futility of any effort to make the world a better place. Both the church and the world were doomed to corruption, failure, and destruction — in that order. Eagerly grasped by uneducated revivalists and circuit riders, it became the predominant paradigm for the fundamentalist and later the evangelical communities. So within approximately one hundred years, the Protestant community, or at least the evangelical portion of it, went from a victorious worldview with a mandate to serve the community, lead the community, and to restore Biblical justice, to preparing for ultimate defeat and escape from this world. If you simply think about the consequences of such a radical paradigm shift, the Christian Right's predicament becomes painfully obvious. The dispensational worldview obviously did not provide the Christian Right with the sort of mindset necessary for a long-term struggle or a comprehensive strategy.

Since we still retain a few elements of our earlier Puritan belief system, house evangelicals and political activists, in particular, struggle from a severe case of cognitive dissonance, that is, holding two totally opposite and contradictory principles at the same time, i.e., we are doomed for destruction and we need to work toward a Christian America, or some derivation of these two ideas.

In 1984, I was one of the three people who put together the largest coalition of evangelical leaders ever to unite behind a political candidate (Ronald Reagan) or a political cause since at least the Prohibition. As I would sit down with leaders of evangelical denominations, best-selling authors, televangelists, and so forth, it was interesting to see them trying to come to grips with why ninety percent of the church refused to be mobilized. The irony was that, as Pogo poignantly stated, "We have met the enemy and he is us." The men at my Roundtable were all leading dispensational teachers and preachers. They were reaping twenty or thirty years of their teaching. Their followers had listened well: the Old Testament was irrelevant, as well as God's law, and the gospels. Basically, the Bible was reduced to Paul's epistles and a few other select books, all of which were applied to one's own spiritual walk. The idea of any sort of societal reform was considered liberalism. The evangelical community had been dispensationalized out of any notion of victory, which, of course, is required to fuel the sort of movement the Christian Right pretends to be.

Why the Christian Right Failed
When I say "pretends to be," what I mean is that at no time was the Christian Right anything but a tiny vanguard, say one to two percent, of the overall evangelical movement of supposedly forty million people. In other words, we were able to mobilize only an extremely small percentage to be activists. These were people who had either not been contaminated by dispensationalism or who compartmentalized their cognitive dissonance long enough to get heavily involved in various causes or campaigns. Our few successes came when, during elections that were relatively close, we could exploit certain "wedge" issues (such as gay rights, pornography, abortion, prayer in school, etc.) to motivate evangelical voters to spend one hour every two years going to their polling booth to vote against someone who was obviously antagonistic to their values. This is the extent to which we were able to motivate most Christians.

If the 1870s marked the end of the Puritan worldview, then the 1970s began a period devoid of any worldview for the evangelical community, including Dispensationalism. Since that time, as George Barna has recently reported in a poll that at once verifies our suspicions and yet still stuns, "Fewer than one out every ten born-again Christians possesses a Biblical worldview that impacts their decisions and behavior." Dispensationalism and pietism with their anti-worldview, their anti-intellectualism, and their proclivity toward separatism and withdrawing to an inner, individualistic spirituality, were easy marks for the secular and Enlightenment zeitgeist which sets each individual up as basically the creator of his own worldview. In reality, this simply meant that Christians did not have a worldview and saw no reason to have one. They borrowed ideas here and there mostly from secular sources. Few churches taught the importance of a Christian worldview. They taught only a need to get saved, go to church, and try to live basically a perfectionist life. The world and the flesh were evil and doomed for destruction, so why bother with a worldview? This is, of course, an ancient heresy of Gnostic and neo-Platonic dualism revived under Dispensationalism and Pietism . . . but that's another story.

So I maintain that the reason for the Christian Right's feebleness and disarray is the lack of a worldview which, in turn, is reflective of their deficient theology. It is interesting to read one of Ralph Reed's books where, as the preeminent Christian political strategist, he bemoans the lack of a "theology of political action" at the same time as he attacks Reconstructionists. Mr. Reed may be very bright, but he did not pay much attention in Sunday school. He has, in fact, been trained in a dispensational theology of political action which is, of course, that all such action is futile and should be abandoned. Conversely, there is the theology of political action that has been revived from the Protestant Reformation by R. J. Rushdoony and others at whom Mr. Reed and his ilk scoff — mostly because they misunderstand it and because they lack appreciation of the need for a cohesive worldview. They are too comfortable in their own eclectic worldviews that give them the primary advantage that they get to be the arbiter of their own set of truths and standards. As George Barna's poll has revealed, when it comes to morals, or what is right and wrong, "Christians" believe there are no absolute standards that apply to everybody in all situations. This conclusion was agreed to by over two thirds of evangelicals — 70% — who responded to his survey! As Mr. Barna summed up, Christians "do not influence the lives of other people and consequently have little impact on the national culture, primarily because they have failed to integrate their spiritual beliefs and their behavior." In other words, they don't have a worldview.

But after all they don't need one because in their paradigm, Jesus is coming soon.