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This article by Michele Alperin was prepared for the February 15, 2006

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Skewering the Christian Right

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.


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