some rambling on civil discourse, church and state, religious hegemony, and warped apocalyptism

Here’s a brief article from Arizona State University news on Sharon Crowley and her book Toward a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism, called Rhetoric book looks at ‘second coming’ (from August 28, 2008).

I’ve definitely got to read this book.

Crowley’s goal is to help find a civil discourse in which we can all listen (and talk) to each other. Her audience, the article indicates, is the academic community. But I hope a non-academic conservative Christian could read it and be drawn in and be given reasons to want to listen to others’ views.  That seems to be me the key to finding a civil discourse: recommending ways to do it (and the theory behind doing it), but also demonstrating it.


The article (written by Judith Smith) summarizes the problem Crowley sees in this way:

Crowley believes that the United States is dominated by two powerful, antagonistic discourses—liberalism and Christian fundamentalism, and that each group paints a very different picture of the United States and its citizens’ responsibilities.

Yep. That’s true. That is the problem, right there. And it’s good to help us all see that basic reality.

I get to be in neither of those camps, at least not in these simple terms. I’m a nowhere woman. But that’s a good place. How does the song go? “She’s a real nowhere woman.” I hear John Lennon in my head (or is that McCartney?). I’m not “liberal” (not in the sense that the word is very often used — as a secular liberal or a non-religious liberal), and I’m not “fundamentalist.” I am, though, evangelical in many ways (one being my belief in the deep importance of the biblical texts, the scripture — as well as the importance of understanding the role of the interpreter of that scripture). Hopefully, I’m in a good position to help with the project, the project of making a space for civil discourse which brings together those two “powerful, antagonistic discourses.”


And Crowley’s point reminds me of how I was thinking the other day how much the reason that we have to have a “separation of church and state” is not because religion and government necessarily cannot mix, but that they cannot mix when any religion is dominant. This is obvious, but I don’t think we think about it much. It helps me focus on the real problem. The problem is not religion. The problem is dominance, hegemony. Obviously, Christianity is (still) the very dominant religious force in this country (and in the west, in general — even though we count Islam as a western religion, we think of Islam, at least in the 21st century, as “non-western”).

Okay, where was I? :) Oh yes — Christianity is very dominant (among religions). So, obviously, if you took Christianity totally out of the mix (yes, that takes some imagination) and all the remaining religions were all somewhat equally balanced in power. Say, you had a primary season and there was a broad mix of religions represented among the candidates. One was Jewish, one was Buddhist, one was Pagan of some sort, even one was Muslim (because in this country Islam is not dominant — though of course it is elsewhere) etc. Okay, if so, I can imagine hardly anyone would worry about what the candidates said about their religious beliefs or how those beliefs would influence their policies. If we’d gone for two hundred years without any ONE religion dominating (again, hard to imagine), we might’ve become fairly comfortable with our leaders and legislators using the religious parts of themselves in their decision-making. And we may have even never come up with the concept of separation of church and state.  The American colonists, the founding fathers, came up with it because they were worried about a dominant religion. But without that worry, I’m saying, we wouldn’t worry (ooh, profound :)). Okay, again, that’s obvious. But it helps me think all this through.  Problem = hegemony, not religion. Religious hegemony, not religion itself.


The article describes a bit of the fundamentalist view Crowley is concerned about:

Crowley quotes author William Martin on “how a reconstructed America might look” if apocalyptists have their way:

Among other things, there would be no welfare state programs such as food stamps, unemployment or Social Security because “families would be expected to take care of their own.”

There would be no schools, so parents would have to home-school their children. The only people permitted to vote would be Christians who belonged to “biblically correct” churches.

And, “Reconstruction also requires that the U.S. Constitution and its attendant body of law be rewritten to conform to biblical law, particularly that found in the Old Testament.”

I know a bit about apocalyptism and millenialism, but I can’t think of any reason why either would entail the belief that there would be no schools, no welfare, why a legalism would be emphasized. I can easily see why the current popular interpreters of the apocalyptic tradition (LaHaye et al) would include those things: those are views of many social and religious conservatives. But those views are not at all necessarily millennial or apocalyptic views. Well, the Essenes and first-century folk like that, seemed to have wanted a lot of divine judgement to rain down on the corrupt priests in Jerusalem. So, yeah, divine judgement is definitely part and parcel of apocalypticism.  But not anti-governmentalism, individualism, anti social welfare (the Hebrew Bible is full of the value of and ways to implement social welfare programs). Not legalism. Judgement, yes, but judgement doesn’t equal legalism. Judgement is judgement. And one’s understanding of divine judgement will be determined by one’s theology, one’s concept of the nature of God.

Okay, so where was I? Oh yes — Those characteristics are representative more of legalism and phariseeism in general, which a lot of people, especially in a time of social change, find themselves clinging to (some, without even realizing it).

But, anyway, yeah… If that legalism and individualism color the now-dominant concept of apocalyptism — that God wants to society bound by biblical law — then that’s what a rhetorician trying to help build a civil discourse has to deal with. But, geezzzz, of course, that view is COMPLETELY CONTRARY to any (and I mean, any) reading of the New Testament. Read the Book of Acts. It ain’t about making rules. It’s actually about getting way beyond rules and bringing very disparate people together (then it was Jews and Gentiles — can hardly get more cultural different than those two).


Now, now that I have fulfilled my daily regimen of rambling, I must get back to other work.

“Regimen of rambling.” I like that. Sounds like a fancy way of saying “freewriting,” but it adds the element of regiment, of something one ought to do every day.


2 thoughts on “some rambling on civil discourse, church and state, religious hegemony, and warped apocalyptism

  1. I haven’t read Crowley’s book yet (It’s on my shelf!), but I have read elsewhere that the book doesn’t define its terms well: she’s not clear about what a fundamentalist is. I’ve read the review in either CCC or College English, which I thought was good. You might check it out before or after reading the book.

    Also, if you’re interested in views of separation of church and state and how to treat religions and religious individuals, Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity has some great examples and discussions of ways to go. I’m reading it right now. It’s pretty good.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

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