Eschatology and The New Christian Right
In the Jan/Feb, 1981 issue of my newsletter, Christian Reconstruction, I wrote an article titled “The Eschatological Crisis of the Moral Majority.” It is on-line here: http://shurl.org/crisis.
In my article, I pointed to the obviously rival goals of the fundamentalists who had voted for Reagan: pro-political reform vs. pro-Rapture. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was inherently schizophrenic.
Premillennial dispensational eschatology is committed to portraying the world as inherently incurable and in moral decline. Only the following series of eschatologically inevitable events can reverse this decline: the (somehow) secret Rapture, followed by the Great Tribulation against the State of Israel, followed by the return of Christ to set up an international Christian bureaucracy.
More than this: all evidence of moral decline had been harnessed for decades to prove the inevitability of the fastapproaching Rapture of the saints to heaven. The archetype — the literary model — was Hal Lindey's best-selling book, The Late, Great Planet Earth (1970).
The Reagan Candidacy
I began my essay with a reference to the National Affairs Briefing Conference, which had been held in Dallas in the late summer of 1980. That was the first large joint gathering of what was then called the New Right — the mailing-list Right — and what would soon be called the New Christian Right. The meeting received little attention from the media.
Ronald Reagan accepted an invitation to speak. Jimmy Carter’s handlers decided to ignore the meeting. So did third-party candidate John Anderson. The conference turned into a Reagan rally. It was at that evening speech before 15,000 attendees that he uttered those politically crucial lines, “I know you can’t endorse me, but I’m endorsing you.” Overnight, that phrase created the New Christian Right. I wrote:
Here were the nation's fundamentalist religious leaders, with the conspicuous exception of the fading Billy Graham, telling the crowd that the election of 1980 is only the beginning, that the principles of the Bible can become the law of the land, that the secular humanists who have dominated American political life for a hundred years can be tossed out and replaced with God-fearing men. Every area of life is open to Christian victory: education, family, economics, politics, law enforcement, and so forth. Speaker after speaker announced this goal to the audience. The audience went wild.
This sounded like Christian Reconstruction. But rhetoric requires content if it is to be implemented consistently. Fundamentalists had no judicial content that was identifiably different from secular political conservatism. But the rhetoric was powerful.
Here was a startling sight to see: thousands of Christians, including pastors, who had believed all their lives in the imminent return of Christ, the rise of Satan's forces, and the inevitable failure of the church too convert the world, now standing up to cheer other pastors, who also have believed this doctrine of earthly defeat all their lives, but who were proclaiming victory, in time and on earth. Never have I personally witnessed such enthusiastic schizophrenia in my life. Thousands of people were cheering for all they were worth — cheering away the eschatological doctrines of a lifetime, cheering away the theological pessimism of a lifetime.
Did they understand what they were doing? How can anyone be sure? But this much was clear: the term “rapture” was not prominent at the National Affairs Briefing Conference of 1980. Almost nobody was talking about the imminent return of Christ.
It was obvious to me that they had become verbally born-again Christian Reconstructionists. The problem was, they still had not abandoned their dispensational eschatology, an eschatology that affirms the irrelevance of social action, let alone political action, to change this pre-millennial world. Theirs was the eschatology of the rescue mission: sober up a few bums on skid row, but do not waste time on politics.
The schizophrenia had begun: the older fundamentalism vs. the new fundamentalism, which was verbally committed to Christian Reconstruction, yet theologically committed to the old fundamentalism.
Victory as Political
The central issue was the idea of victory, i.e., the concept of postmillennialism applied to politics. I wrote:
How can you motivate people to get out and work for a political cause if you also tell them that they cannot be successful in their efforts? How can you expect to win if you don't expect to win? How can you get men elected if you tell the voters that their votes cannot possibly reverse society's downward drift into Satan's kingdom? What successful political movement was ever based on expectations of inevitable external defeat?
By moving into politics, the Moral Majority, founded in 1979, was serving as a kind of lead sheep. Falwell saw victory as essentially political. The idea of a comprehensive cultural restoration of Christianity — Christendom, in other words — could not be implemented because of a lack of an explicitly biblical or Christian concept of law. Victory was seen as electoral: the good guys vs. the bad guys. The lure of political victory under Reagan’s banner was too much to resist.
The Moral Majority is feeling its political strength. These people smell the blood of the political opposition. Who is going to stand up and tell these people the following? “Ladies and Gentlemen, all this talk about overcoming the political, moral, economic, and social evils of our nation is sheer nonsense. The Bible tells us that everything will get steadily until Christ comes to rapture His church out of this world. Nothing we can do will turn this world around. Your enthusiasm is wasted. All your efforts are in vain. All the money and time you devote to this earthly cause will go down the drain. You can't use biblical principles — a code term for biblical Old Testament law — to reconstruct society. Biblical law is not for the church age. Victory is not for the church age. However, get out there and work like crazy. It's your moral duty.” Not a very inspiring speech, is it? Not the stuff of political victories, you say. How correct you are!
Ever try to get your listeners to send you money to battle the forces of social evil by using some variation of this sermon? The Moral Majority fundamentalists have smelled the opposition's blood since 1978, and the savory odor has overwhelmed their official theology. So they have stopped talking about the rapture.
This silence has been reversed by Tim LaHaye’s novels, Left Behind. He has re-eclipsed his wife Beverly, whose Concerned Women of America is one if the largest New Christian Right organizations. The eschatological schizophrenia within the LaHaye family's two institutional commitments is the archetype.
The schizophrenia caught up with the Moral Majority. It was shut down in 1989 by Rev. Falwell. This was the first year of the senior Bush's presidency. The idea lay dormant until 2004, when Rev. Falwell resurrected it as the Moral Majority Coalition. It was a pro-Bush coalition.
Institutionally, there is no way for fundamentalism to overcome its schizophrenia. It must choose either comprehensive cultural retreat or comprehensive cultural victory, either pietism or Christendom.
Three basic ideas are crucial for the success of any religious, social, intellectual, and political movement. First, the doctrine of predestination. Second, the doctrine of law. Third, the doctrine of inevitable victory. The fusion of these three ideas has led to the victories of Marxism since 1848. The Communists believe that historical forces are on their side, that Marxism-Leninism provides them with access to the laws of historical change, and that their movement must succeed. Islam has a similar faith. In the early modern Christian West, Calvinists and Puritans had such faith. Social or religious philosophies which lack any one of these elements are seldom able to compete with a system which possesses all three. To a great extent, the cultural successes of modern secular science have been based on a fusion of these three elements: scientific (material) determinism, the scientists’ knowledge of natural laws, and the inevitable progress of scientific technique. As faith in all three has waned, the religious lure of science has also faded, especially since about 1965, when the counterculture began to challenge all three assumptions.
Modern fundamentalism has long since abandoned all three. The fundamentalists are divided on the question of predestination, but the majority are committed to Arminian views of God, man, and law. They believe in man's limited autonomy, or “free will.” Furthermore, they have rejected biblical law as a guideline for social order. They argue that there is no explicitly Christian law-order in the era of the church, from Pentecost to the future rapture into heaven of the saints. Finally, they are committed to eschatological pessimism concerning the efforts of the church, in time and on earth. Without a doctrine of the comprehensive sovereignty of God, without a doctrine of a unique biblical law structure which can reconstruct the institutions of society, and without a doctrine of eschatological victory, in time and on earth, the fundamentalists have been unable to exercise effective leadership.
The prospects for effective political action have begun to shake the operational faith of modern fundamentalists -- not their official faith, but their operational world-and-life view.
The reconciliation has yet to take place. The New Christian Right has therefore become the handmaiden of politics and of the Republican Party.
Ironically, it was evangelist James Robison, in his fiery speech immediately prior to Reagan's, who explicitly and eloquently warned the audience against turning Christianity into an arm of any political party. This warning was lost on his listeners by the end of the evening. Robison abandoned both his fiery rhetoric and any visible interest in politics within a year. His audience did not.
The New Christian Right is not Christian Reconstructionist, for it is not Calvinist, theonomist, or postmillennial. To link the New Christian Right with Christian Reconstruction is an analytical mistake. I can understand how humanists in the media do this. Theological subtlety is not their specialty. But Christian social commentators should not make this mistake. Rushdoony and I never put politics first in a program of Christian Reconstruction. The New Christian Right has, and it has been sidetracked as a result.
Topics: Church, The, Eschatology, Government, Justice, Statism