Corrections or additions?
This article by Michele Alperin was prepared for the February 15, 2006
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.