The fears evoked by 9/11 have heightened our sense of vulnerability on both an individual and a collective level, according to Mark Taylor, Maxwell M. Upson professor of theology and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. His newest book, “Religion, Politics, and the Christian Right: Post-9/11 Powers and American Empire,” examines American society in the aftermath of what he calls the “mythic” moment of 9/11.
In his book Taylor details two phenomena that he sees as dangerous to our health as a nation. Embraced by both the Christian right and the neoconservatives, the first is an exaggeration of the normal human need for belonging, which romanticizes the past and has engendered a hyperpatriotism in the present. The other is what he calls contractual liberalism, or anti-liberal modernism.
According to Taylor, the necessary countervailing force to the destructive trends of romanticism and anti-liberal modernism is “the prophetic spirit” — with which we build our values attentive to the needs of the oppressed and marginalized. The prophetic spirit looks both toward people at the edges of society — for example, at the neglected voices of poor white farmers in the Midwest to writers in prisons — and to those at its underside who suffer because they have less power than those higher in the social hierarchy — for example, poor women, especially those of color. Taylor argues that in order to bring this prophetic spirit to bear on our present society, religious people and secular people of conscience must bring those previously discounted into the political discourse.
Taylor will talk about his new book on Wednesday, February 15, at the Princeton Public Library.
Taylor grew up during the Vietnam era in Manhattan, Kansas, “a patriotic place that also has a tradition of dissent that reaches back to John Brown.” During Vietnam he filed for conscientious objector status.
While working toward his 1973 degree in sociology and anthropology from Seattle Pacific University, he marched and organized with student groups at Seattle Pacific, the University of Washington, and various churches. In 1977 he received his masters in divinity from Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. He earned a Ph.D. in theology and anthropology from the University of Chicago in 1982.
Taylor has been at the Princeton Theological Seminary ever since. His two children, both graduates of Princeton High School, are now grown. The oldest, Laura Kline-Taylor, 24, teaches in Spain; Nadia Kline-Taylor, 22, is finishing her bachelors in education at New York University and is set for a job teaching high school in Manhattan.
Taylor cites three streams of influence in his personal experience that eventually converged in the writing of this book: his experiences and research in Latin America, his work in United States prisons, and personal reflections on criminal justice.
Taylor spent time in Latin America as both a child and an adult. When he was five years old he lived for a year in the Zapotec village of Teotitlan del Valle in Mexico, where his father was doing field work and research. He went back many summers with his family. As a result, he says, “I always had an interest in and love for Central America and the kinds of struggle going on there. Latin America is a major touchstone for me in assessing U.S. foreign policy.”
Last year he gave a series of five lectures in Lima, Peru, and hopes to be in Venezuela and Bolivia this summer. “I found not only the great suffering of the poor communities but increasing links to negative sides of U.S. policy in Latin America.” He cites an example that under Eisenhower, in 1954, “we helped overthrow the only real democracy that Guatemala has had since the conquest.”
When he investigated prisoner complaints for the Virginia Office of the Attorney General, he was exposed to a range of issues, from the rights of people faced with excessive force in their neighborhoods to death penalty issues. His book “The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America” offers an extensive analysis of the criminal justice system and how Christians might respond.
In the post-9/11 milieu, Taylor believes we need to move beyond our compassion and legitimate rage to ask hard questions that continue a voice of dissent. “Democracy has been in danger for some time, but especially in the post-9/11 moment,” Taylor says, “because so many of the decisions about the state of things for our citizens is decided out of reach of those citizen’s lives and without their voices.”
At this moment he sees it as imperative that we nurture our basic strengths in a difficult environment. “The nature of our struggle is to develop those democratic traditions at a time when democracy is under siege.” But this requires reckoning with both hypernationalism and the limitations of contractual liberalism.
Even without a shock like 9/11 every citizenry needs a sense of belonging to a place as well as of anticipating the new for themselves, through progress and betterment for their families. “What happens is that these very strong drives, especially in a situation of fear, vulnerability, and insecurity, get seized by those in power and can get twisted and distorted,” says Taylor. The need to belong can devolve into intense nationalist discourse, focused on devotion to the nation. He cites two examples from U.S. history in which an affront to our sense of security served to whip up the citizenry’s concern to go to war: in 1898 when the bombing of the Maine created support for the Spanish-American War and in 1941 when the bombing of Pearl Harbor propelled us into World War II.
Some amount of nationalist devotion is understandable and appropriate, says Taylor, “but it can also be a dangerous reflex, especially if those in power want to use it to reinforce their power, dissolve systems of checks and balances, and pursue agendas not good for the country or the world.”
A segment of Christianity, he says, supports the current situation by teaching “the prosperity gospel — that God and Jesus will bless you with wealth — that easily dovetails with a wealth-making culture and consumerist society.” He cites megachurches where you can get a Mastercard with the name of the church on it. Taylor adds that many supporters of the Christian Right are interlaced with corporate big business companies.
Taylor also focuses in his book on the limitations of “contractual liberalism” as a source of serious problems in today’s society. Liberal intentions are good, according to Taylor: to be open to others, to support financial betterment, to encourage growth toward happiness. “The tragedy of it is that there are often hidden contracts that need to be exposed.” These contracts undercut the promises of liberalism. One example is the racial contract: the fact that when the liberal promises were made, they weren’t expected to be achieved by African-Americans.
Assimilation hasn’t worked, and the only way he sees to bring African-Americans into this society is through great attentiveness, bringing them into the political structure to change the way government works and creating special policies like affirmative action to address the needs created by years of slavery. “What’s needed is the prophetic spirit — a radical liberalism that redrafts the public order in significant ways so that people left out of the American dream are intentionally brought in.”
In addition to the internal distortions created by a rampant romanticism and contractual liberalism gone awry, Taylor says we must look at the impact of our policies from a global perspective. While spending a year recently at the University of Helsinki, Taylor was able to observe close at hand the ambigouous, love-hate relationship toward the United States. “Much is attractive about the U.S. culture and life, the freedoms in our society, and traditions of freedom-making that people respect and value,” he says. “The rage felt throughout the world is linked to political policies that serve U.S. interests and rarely consider the interests of other nations.”
About U.S. policy in Iraq, he says, “Sadam Hussein is the vicious nephew of dear Uncle Sam.” Taylor says that while the Iraqis were gassing the Kurds, George H.W. Bush gave them significant military funding, beating back censure and claiming that Hussein was necessary to the war against Iran. “With that kind of posturing,” he says, “the United States loses any moral ground. That kind of hypocrisy foments rage, if not ridicule, or at least mincing scorn.”
Taylor believes that enacting the prophetic spirit will provide a more secure and less destructive sense of belonging than does nationalism. But invoking this spirit will require, first of all, a retelling of the revolutionary American heritage with an accent on the ordinary people. It would focus on heretofore “marginal” groups. Native Americans, slaves in revolt, women and indentured servants, seamen resisting impressment in the British Imperial Navy, and poor farmers who rose up in rebellion against landlords and land owners created a revolutionary tumult and energy that the Founding Fathers watched, tapped into, and mobilized.
“The challenge of the prophetic spirit is to retell the stories of the American tradition so that we look at people on the underside and edges of the story usually told,” says Taylor. “We need religion to find a way forward to authentic democracy and the realization of our ideals of freedom that is different from worshipping the Founding Fathers and the nation state.
“It is in all of our interests to restore the marginalized,” Taylor claims. “When we have a society of that sort, we will have greater peace, the capacity to be a society that models freedom for the rest of the world in a more impressive way, and less suffering for children in our own country who live in extreme poverty, without health care and insurance.”
He adds that it is also in our interest in a less altruistic sense. Those of us who are not marginalized and oppressed feel a great insecurity and sense of being under threat, he explains, because we know that our way of being and our security comes from being on top and holding them down. “That is a nervous place to occupy,” he observes. The atmosphere in the middle classes, he adds, is one of a continual desperate holding onto what one has, fear about the future, and the need to scapegoat enemies. The prophetic spirit, he says, can allow middle class folks to live freer from this desperate sense of insecurity.
Taylor offers some concrete suggestions for fixing things. One is the idea of creating some kind of shadow government to make alternative voices heard. An example is the shadow conventions held during the times of the real political conventions in the United States.
Another major policy change Taylor suggests is campaign finance reform, so that we can have more diverse citizen participation in matters of government, but, he says, “the progress is so slow, it makes me pessimistic.” A third suggestion is to hold tribunals where revered voices in human rights work render judgments about U.S. policies of torture and surveillance. “Mock trials capture the imagination and get them to consider new options,” he says.
He envisions the growth of a spiritual vision that “looks to the edges and margins and undersides of our system and continually embraces that whole.” With this holistic vision religious and secular spheres will be able to join together, and “a public spirituality might be borne from the loyalty to the whole of the peoples in our midst and in the global order. Such a humane, concrete, and global spirit takes us into the depths and mysteries of what it means to be a human being.”
Writers Talking Series, Wednesday, February 15, 7:30 p.m., Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Lecture and booksigning by Mark Taylor, author of “Religion, Politics, and the Christian Right: Post 9-11 Powers and American Empire.” Taylor is professor of theology and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. 609-924-9529.