uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Classic Apologetic: In Trying to Allay My Fears, Billy Graham's PR Guy Does Anything But

A. Larry Ross
I suppose to "balance" a previous piece by Michelle Goldberg on Christian dominionism, The Daily Beast today published a response by A. Larry Ross, the  spokesperson for Billy Graham for three decades. If you are looking for a classic piece of Christian political apology, this is it.

In trying to set us straight about how mythical dominionism is, no matter what Goldberg or other religion journalists like Sarah Posner say, Ross regurgitates a host of truisms by the Right on why we have nothing to fear from the coupling of their religious convictions with a political activism that seeks to enact those convictions in public policy.

He offers 10 examples of "things the media get wrong about evangelicals and politics ... general areas of disconnect between the press and the pews," and in so doing, offers up a litany of talking points I myself used to make back when I was a good, young, conservative evangelical (and that was almost 20 years ago).

Ross' overarching point is not necessarily a bad one: that not all evangelicals are the same, and that they shouldn't be painted with such a broad brush. That notwithstanding, his 10 Theses set about doing just that with some truly boilerplate material. At the end of the matter, we're left with two uncontested facts: that most who are evangelical adhere to social-policy beliefs based not on secular rationalizations, but faith-based ones; and that they spend a lot of money and time seeking to enact those beliefs into law so that other people -- no matter their own, personal religious consciences -- must abide by them as well.

Ross wastes no time before launching into political buzz words: he immediately discounts Goldberg's use of the term "dominionism" as a word that no doubt resonated "in the echo chambers of her fellow East Coast media elite," playing identity politics rather than (at first) tackling specifics. Because most evangelicals would not recognize the term nor apply it to themselves, he claims it's illegitimate. But if the term adequately encompasses a set of beliefs that they have (namely, that they push their religiously motivated public-policy initiatives), it matters not if people would apply it to themselves. I've heard Klansmen, after all, assert repeatedly that they aren't racist.

1) Ross' first objection is a rather Socratic one, arguing over definition. But I can't for the life of me figure much of it out. He laments that the meaning of labels like "evangelical" have been obscured and suggests exit polls from the last election identified some as evangelical even though their "behavior or belief" was not. One wonders how he knows that the individuals polled were not evangelicals: is it because the issues or candidates for which they voted did not conform to his definition? If so, how? And isn't this precisely the sort of generalization that he criticized before? He then says that unfortunately, "fundamentalism" has become "pejorative" and includes allegations of an "exclusive" practice. But isn't evangelism, which seeks converts based on the notion that without conversion, one goes to hell, inherently exclusive? Finally, he suggests that "evangelical" is used to describe all members of the Christian faith -- which was certainly news to me. Also perplexing was his linking this mentality to "constant news references to radical Muslim ideologists." But these latter points went unexplained.

2) Ross goes on to lament that "religious right" is used to describe "politicians with a personal faith." But again, they are religiously inspired Rightists, so what would he have us call them? He then makes the statistically unsupported claim that self-described members of the Tea Party are not motivated religiously. I suppose he missed Glenn Beck's storied rally on the Mall last summer.

3) Ross' next several objections are merely regurgitations of right-wing, coffee-klatsch points, the first being that the media doesn't use "balance" in their terminology, using "anti-abortion" vs. "pro-choice." Besides making clear where he (predictably) falls on this issue, it's of course false. Styles of right- or left-leaning publications aside, AP Style dictates that the two sides be called "anti-abortion" and "abortion-rights" advocates. Further, he strangely suggests that while conservatives are called "homophobic" for their prejudice, the media says gays are in an "alternative lifestyle," something I haven't heard from anyone outside conservative circles since at least the 1990s.

4) He then takes on "evangelical motivation," suggesting that evangelicals are defined "theologically" and not "politically, socially, or culturally." But again, is he suggesting that the policy positions of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical denomination in the country, are solely theological and never social, cultural, or political? It's the folding over of these concerns that marks many conservative Christians (who are often, though not always, evangelical). He then says that too often the term evangelical has been used for "partisan points" that have "lost touch with Biblical truth." But that very statement suggests there is, in fact, a political orientation to "Biblical truth" and that Ross himself knows what it is. So it's peculiar here that he at once suggests evangelicalism is apolitical but then undermines his own point.

5) As if to answer himself in the previous objection, he then notes that evangelicals are not, in fact, monolithic, and so "no one person can presume to speak for this diverse and sundry group." Except, of course, Ross, who has taken it upon himself to tell the rest of us who is and who isn't an evangelical. He then concludes this point by saying these diverse folks "vary widely on the nonessentials," but it is the demarcation of what counts as those "nonessentials" and what doesn't that of course raises all sorts of theological problems.

6) This one is great: here Ross gives us the standard line about separation of church and state, which for conservative Christians wishing to enact their personal, religious beliefs into law, means that the Framers actually wanted "to protect the church from the state, and religion from any government interference—not the reverse." He repeats irrelevantly that this phrase is not found in the constitution, thereby tipping his hat to the sort of legal interpretation to which he subscribes, overall saying this term is "misapplied" all while committing the same sin himself. It's true that many liberals overuse concern over separation of church and state and also often repeat a similarly simplistic and therefore flawed historical understanding of this important legal principle (Philip Hamberger's book on the subject, which suggests it was born more of 19th century, Protestant anti-Catholicism, has been largely accepted by scholars, from the reviews I've read). It's also true that Rick Perry's recent prayer rally (a private event) most likely didn't cross that boundary. But Ross' (and many conservatives') notion that church-state separation can be a one-way street is silly. Of course the state can't legislate what amounts to purely religiously motivated laws. Doing so treads on someone else's freedom of conscience, and indeed, those who were jailed in colonial America for heresy by the official state churches of the time (mostly Anglican and Congregational) were themselves evangelicals like Ross. Perhaps he wishes those churches still had control over the state as to what amounts to correct belief? (Fine by me, I'm a Congregationalist.)

7) Ross then enters the fray over the question posed to Michele Bachmann about submitting to her husband. She responded by suggesting that "submission" means "respect," thereby doing violence to a word that's extremely important throughout the history of authoritarianism. Ross takes the same tack, suggesting that submission "involves mutual respect among individuals who are equal in essence but different in function." OK, but that's still sexist, and the notion that men and women are "different in function" has lain at the center of every gender-equality debate from the earliest suffrage to the failed Equal Rights Amendment. And again, this opinion represents Ross' own monolithic take on a belief structure that's supposedly not monolithic.

8) Ross here derides the media for marginalizing evangelicals, who he puts at between 30 and 35 percent of the population, or about 100 million individuals. But here again, definitions are important, as noted by the study Ross himself cites. While "evangelical" in the broad sense is certainly as high as Ross reports, Gallup's criteria, which seems in line with the religio-political beliefs that he betrays throughout his commentary, utilizes three questions: "asking respondents if they have had a born-again experience committing themselves to Jesus Christ, if they have tried to encourage someone to believe in Jesus Christ, and if they believe the Bible is the actual word of God." When these are the criteria, the number drops to 22 percent.

9) Ross understandably doesn't like some of the caricatures of religious Americans in the media, saying they are too often portrayed as "loyal lemmings who are vulnerable to group-think." But again, one has to ask: what makes one an evangelical? Almost any answer from Ross' crew would include a correct set of beliefs (orthodoxy), without which one is not an authentic Christian. So are (at least some) allegations of group-think all that far off?

10) Finally, Ross seeks to dispel the myth that evangelicals "are more concerned about moral than social issues." Ross is right that many Christian groups perform charity and should be commended for it. Of course, the main thing that often divides the missionary work of conservative Christians from that of their more liberal, ecumenical counterparts is that the former almost always includes conversion as a top goal, whereas the latter does not. And of course, this criticism should be understood in context: conservative Christians spend an inordinate amount of time preaching on and fundraising over socially conservative political issues, and often object to liberal fiscal policies (even progressive taxation) aimed at mitigating the plight of the poor. There are, of course, a host of apologetic arguments they often make to maintain this dichotomy, but it's hard to argue it isn't there.

Overall, Ross did not do a very good job of dispelling my concerns about the political religiosity of candidates like Perry and Bachmann. At the end of the day, the simple truths outlined above still stand: Bachmann, Perry, Sarah Palin, and other politicians -- and their followers -- seek to enact public policies not based on objective, secular criteria, but rather on their own personal, moral rules of conduct. It's OK for religious leaders to advocate change and even to couch that change in religious terms (see Martin Luther King Jr.). But when the only end is to seek a hegemony of belief and conduct that quashes individual conscience, cries of stereotype and generalization ring awfully hollow. 


  1. Best review of Michelle Goldberg's article I've read. Although your intent was merely to respond to A. Larry Ross' article, you did Goldberg's essay honor.

    I despise fundamentalisms and am too busy in other interests to get as close to analyzing their dangers in ways like Michelle Goldberg, Max Blumenthal, or you and others have.

    Good job.

  2. The memeplexes are frakin...and, since politicians are memeplex frakers by nature, one must be concerned about how the memeplexes will sort out. Will they exist in harmony or go to war with each other?

  3. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Death is the great equalizer and after that -- we'll all know the real story. Some of us will be very surprised, one way or another. Until then, discussion is what make life spicy.