Tag Archives: politics

Protestant Ideals and the Know-Nothings

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).

Protestant Ideals and the Know-Nothings
Eddie Evans

Most Americans are acutely aware of the increasing Spanish populations in the southwestern United States. The inclusion or exclusion of this group is a platform issue for major political candidates. Even those of a more inclusive mindset debate the benefits that they should receive and the extent to which they can participate in American democracy. American Protestants of the first half of the 19th century were asking similar questions due to the arrival of Irish Catholics and other western European immigrants. This essay will examine the basis of nativist thought in America, and look at how the most famous nativist political organization, the Know-Nothings, was so influential.

History of Nativist Thought

Nativism is a response to increasing cultural pluralism that has repeated throughout American history. To better understand the environment in which 19th century Nativist groups flourished, one must go back to the Colonial Period and the Puritan establishments. In his 1992 article, sociologist Michael W. Hughey points out that both inclusive and exclusive values were fused in the sociopolitical systems of the Puritans. The democratic ideals of open government, egalitarian democracy, and the unalienable rights of man were cornerstones of Puritan republican government. However, these rights were not for everyone. Women and religious minorities were seen as “unsuitable” to uphold democratic and Protestant ideals, and therefore were excluded from practicing in the open form of government.

One specific religious minority that was seen as “unsuitable” was Catholics. In colonial Massachusetts, while Catholics were tolerated in communities, their Protestant neighbors could drive them out if they did not uphold certain moral standards. Even the morally suitable Catholics could not hold positions of public power since they did not belong to the state affiliated church.

The implicit link of Protestantism and democracy only became stronger during the revolutionary period. In the French and Indian War, “the battles were interpreted as cosmic contest between God and Satan.” Protestants believed that “Satan’s French Papist legions were committed to religious and political tyranny.” Since the Protestants and America prevailed “surely Liberty must be the cause of God.” This belief was confirmed a few decades later when the colonists defeated the British in the Revolutionary War. Hughes claims “liberty was thus elevated to sacred status and identified with the Kingdom of God, which in turn was identified with the American Republic.”

In the New Republic, Protestants continued to uphold their religious and political values. It is at this point that Hughes coins the term “Americanism”, to describe the entanglement of Protestant and Democratic values. Never before in history had a nation been built upon ideals more than geographic boundaries, and Americanism was this principal ideal.

As the Republic grew, it became increasingly difficult to orchestrate these ideals in every facet of a functioning democracy. John Adams confessed, “he never understood a republican government and no man ever will.” Hughes points out that throughout John Adams’ political career, politicians struggled to with the manifestation of Americanism in specific policies. Instead of defining “Americanism” explicitly, it became easier to define Americanism as what it is not. Groups that have, at some point, been labeled “un-American” include: Mormons, Jews, Freemasons, communists, and most important for our purposes, Catholics.

Political Landscape of Antebellum America

Preceding the Know Nothing party was a two party system composed of Democrats and Whigs. The rivalry between the two parties was known as the Second Party system. Southern farmers made up a large portion of antebellum democrats. They opposed government spending and wanted to keep intervention at a minimum. The Whig Party consisted largely of pro-business New Englanders (the decedents of the puritans) who wanted to see government regulate morality while still favoring market interests.

The collapse of the Whigs has historically been attributed to different opinions among party members about slavery. However, not all share this view. Historian Bruce Levine feels that “the Whigs disappeared in the early 1850’s because they failed to echo with sufficient force and unanimity the antiforeign and anti-Catholic sentiments of their native-born Protestant constituents.” Further evidence that slavery was not the most decisive factor: old Whig voters appreciated the creation of a party “whose focus was on Catholics, immigrants, and unresponsive politicians, not the slavery issue.” In this failure of the Whigs, rises the Order of the Star Spangled Banner and the Order of United Americans. They will form a political alliance and become nicknamed “Know-Nothings” because of the secrecy of their leadership. When asked to explain their political views or agendas, members would simply respond, “I know nothing.”

Early Political Momentum

1854 in New York City marked the first time a Know-Nothing affiliated candidate received significant attention. Lawyer and nativist, Daniel Ulmann received over 25% of the votes in New York City and State and was named a congressman. In fact, that year, over half of the New York congressmen aligned themselves with Know-Nothing principles. The group was growing, and fast. In 1846, The Order of United Americans had 2,000 members in New York City alone. By 1851, that number had grown to 7,000. By 1855, there were 30,000 men officially initiated the organization.

A Leader Rises

The Order of United Americans (official name for the Know-Nothings) most prominent member was Thomas R. Whitney. From a middle class background, Whitney was the son of a New York City watchmaker and followed in his father’s trade. During his apprenticeship, he inherited a disciplined work ethic and had access to his father’s wealthy network of clients. One of who was important Whig member and OUA charter-member, Mayor Harper. Whitney joined the OUA, and quickly gained recognition for his energy and work ethic. He attended a national nativist convention in Philadelphia in 1845 and became the editor of republican and nativist magazine, The Republic. In 1856 Whitney published his most influential piece of Know-Nothing literature, A Defense of American Policy.

The Know-Nothings’ America

The aforementioned 400-page Know Nothing Bible is an insightful look into the collective minds of the leadership of the organization. Interestingly, Whitney’s ideal America sounds very reminiscent to the Puritan society. Whitney and the Order believe that men “are entitled to just such privileges, social and political, as they are capable of employing and enjoying rationally. Since human beings exhibited this capability to differing degrees, they were naturally entitled different rights and privileges.” This is re-manifestation of Hughey’s theory about American democracy; a mixing of democratic and Protestant ideals that are simultaneously inclusive and exclusive.

The Puritans took this idea for granted. They had the privilege of establishment and few religious minorities to challenge their dominance. Whitney and other Know-Nothings were not in the same circumstance. Irish Catholic immigrants were arriving in massive numbers and flexing their political muscles. Unlike the Puritans, Whitney is acutely aware of the problems that exist while trying to promote both nativism and democracy. He writes, “I take direct issue with democracy. As I understand the term, I am no democrat. If democracy implies universal suffrage…without regard to the intelligence, the morals, or the principles of man, I am no democrat.”

Whitney’s character attacks could fall on any non-white, non-Protestant person living and working in America in the 1860’s. However, nativists had the harshest disdain for Irish Catholics. The vast majority of Irish immigrants brought their Catholic religion with them. In the eyes of a 19th century Protestant, Catholics were “hierarchical, philosophically monarchical, virulently antirepublican, aimed to subvert self government and individual freedom everywhere.” In other words, it is inconceivable to be both Catholic and democratic at the same time. This is a standard, Protestant critique of Catholicism that can be traced back to the Reformation, and the narrative was only strengthened in Colonial America.

Catholicism was not the only concern Know-Nothings saw in the Irish immigrants. The Irish were crammed into the poorest urban centers where they worked the most undesirable, and unskilled jobs. Overpopulation and crime were only a few of the side effects of the deplorable living conditions in major American cities such as New York. This led to the Irish being branded as “lazy, thieving drunkards, poor material for either a labor force or citizenry.”

The nativist groups that were able to gain so much momentum eventually declined due to the emergence of the Republican Party and the Civil War. Irish Americans were able to prove their allegiance to the nation by fighting in the war, and this helped alleviate some of their struggles. Though the Know-Nothings have long vanished, the nativist thought that fueled their rise to power still remained in America. Whether it was the Red Scare, or our current Spanish immigration policy, one can find remnants of the sociopolitical nativist background dating back to the Puritans.

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Compromise and the Religious Moderate

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).

American Protestants Respond to Secularization: Compromise and the Religious Moderate
By Kyle Bush

The history of the United States of America is one of its settlers–of religious refugees in search of freedom. The discussion of how that religious freedom would come to play itself out in the formation of a fledgling nation would set many a man’s blood to boil in its time.

After the boil would come the spill, as America’s religion (protestant Christianity) would soon tie in to its revolution, and later, it’s Civil War. Many political leaders of that time were hell-bent on creating a Christian nation, but the argument of how to do so would split the State–and the protestant church in America–in two.

Over time, the split grew to a chasm, with mainline and evangelical Protestants fighting for political power in a Christian dominated culture. There are several times in American history where the conflict reaches a climax, the latest being during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. While similar tensions exist today, they are less tight, as Protestant Christianity is holistically conforming to the post-modern society it has created.

I set out to research this essay with one question guiding my efforts; where do the ties between political and religious (mainly, protestant) affiliations in America stand today? However, a seemingly simple question, at least as it seemed to me in my naivety, led to many more questions needing answers, and a very broad essay topic.

I have looked at the history of the relationship modern and fundamental Christians have had with each other, as well as the political affiliation each interest group has traditionally displayed. I’ve examined the levels of activism each “side” has illustrated throughout the United States’ maturation.

One of the challenges I ran into was finding sources both current and pertinent to my topic. But what I have come to conclude is this–it is difficult to ascribe a political group a religious affiliation, or inversely, a religious group to a definitive political affiliation. The theme of individualism, seen throughout Protestantism, has the final say.


Nine of America’s original thirteen colonies employed a state church, with multiple denominations represented. As the Revolutionary War began, and the colonies began to unionize, there was a decision to be made about the freedom of and from religion. The founders, when drafting the constitution, “realized both the uniquely religious underpinnings of American identity, brought forward by the justifications for most early settlements in America, and their desire to create a nation centered on equality, freedom, and common values of virtues,” according to Lippy’s The Encyclopedia of Religion in America.

Ushered forward by the work of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, religious freedom was secured for America in its newly formed constitution. However, while religious freedom had been instilled as a right to U.S. citizens, the cultural influence of protestant Christianity was equally as strong.

In Religion and Politics in America, Fowler would ascribe this to the Puritan Temper. As emigrants leaving England, this religious group settled in to the New World with the hope of establishing a “pure” nation of their own. Their beliefs and culture pervaded the American culture and continues to do so today:

The Puritans bequeathed to Americans strong civic institutions, a sense of national mission, and a reformist impulse that continues to American society and political culture.

As the United States was being molded, it was subjected to this widespread “reformist impulse.” However, how to carry out the national mission would be much disputed, and Protestants would slowly divide into conservatives and liberals, both religiously and politically.

The Religious Right

The right side of the political spectrum is generally referred to as conservative, but how that word is interpreted varies greatly. To those that share the conservative beliefs, they see themselves as standing for something and point to what they see as flaws in liberalism. The Right is passionate about right-to-life advocacy (or the overturning of Roe v. Wade), promote fiscal conservatism, and fighting to keep same-sex marriage illegal.

Conservative Evangelicals tend to side here politically, fearing that the rise of modernist, liberal Christianity will eventually dissolve Protestant influence in America completely. As Fowler eloquently suggests:

As modernity advances, secularism spreads in its wake, eroding the social and cultural significance of religion. With religion’s gradual decline, theorists conclude, we can expect to see religious involvement in politics decrease in the long run.

Evangelicals see mainline, or liberal, Protestants as too passive; if one claims to be a Christian, how can he/her sit back while their country is riddled with disbelief and modernity?

The Religious Left

The left side of the spectrum (liberals) takes a different approach to the relationship between religion and politics. Policies that limit choice (or freedom) are seen as against God; free will is a gift, and those who have it should not be penalized or marginalized for believing differently. The righteousness of God should not be imposed on the nation’s citizens; rather, citizens should choose to receive it.

In his book, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right, Lerner diagnoses America with a certain stupor brought on by, as he claims, the Religious Right. He continues to speak on the oppression of the political Left by the Right, whom he accuses of acting antithetically of their bible-based beliefs. Lerner writes, “there is a radical split between the caring that gets shown on the personal level and the hostility some of the Religious Right manifest toward those in wider society who do not share their political beliefs.”

Liberals are puzzled by the opposition from conservatives at government funding for the needy, as generosity is a seemingly apparent virtue in Christianity. Other issues they are passionate about include healthcare, affirmative action, and environmental protection.

The Compromise

In his book Moral Politics, author George Lakoff spells out most of the qualms that the Right has with the Left, and vice versa. For example, he points out that liberals don’t understand how conservatives can support capital punishment but advocate against a woman’s right to abort. Inversely, the Right does not understand how liberals claim to support the welfare of children, but vote for the rights of criminals (which include kidnappers, sexual harassers, etc.).

The Religious Moderate has emerged in recent decades as a response to such questions, and is the result of an overarching compromise between the religious right and lefts. For the sake of furthering the protestant influence, conservative and liberal Christians are slowly lowering their weapons in order to find agreement in mission and regain political power as one holistic proponent of Christianity.

This has led to compromise–as a result, we see more “progressive conservatives,” as well as “traditional liberals.” America is witnessing a turn from argument to discussion on these issues, with vehemently held pillars on each side being laid down to find more inclusive alternatives. An example of this thinking would be a voter who considers themselves politically liberal, but socially conservative; one who votes for the legalization of marijuana, but crusades against its recreational uses.

This individualistic thinking, which is a uniquely protestant trope, has decreased the polarity of the conservative/liberal divide for the sake of the national mission described by the Puritan Temper. President Barack Obama summed up this mission, combined with the present political context, in his 2006 speech at Sojourners:

If progressives shed some of their biases, we might recognize some overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of our country…We might realize that we have the ability to reach out to the evangelical community and engage millions of religious Americans in the larger project of American renewal.

Return to Mission

In short, America was born of religion. Protestant emigrants arrived from Europe in hopes of settling and creating a “chosen” land. With this hope (and the diversity amongst settlement groups) came the ideal that the people must have the freedom to choose their belief system- thus, the first amendment.

Furthermore, the freedom of religion allowed for freedom from religion, and protestant forces were made uneasy. The question arose as to how to fix the spiritual crisis of disbelief in the Christian God. How to answer that question became a major stumbling block in Protestant America’s mission- to advance the kingdom of God.

The protestant Church in America began to split–those who were more modern, and advocated choice, became the liberal, mainline, leftist Christians. Those who desired to impose Christian values into politics became the conservative, evangelical Right.

As the divide grew to a chasm, both sides began to lose power, as America itself became more secular. Modernity is often a symptom of this, and as the nation developed, it began to move away from religious politics.

In response, the Protestant American Church has begun to compromise with itself- as President Abraham Lincoln said, “A nation divided cannot stand.” As a result, we see the individual religious moderate emerging- whose political/religious affiliations are more loosely defined than most of those the past three centuries–quietly crusading for the sake of the Protestant national mission.

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Protestant Foreign Missions and Secularization in Modern America

That’s the title of a three-day event which begins today at the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, for which I received a quite elegant promo in the mail a couple weeks ago. Ugh, I wish I could be there. David Hollinger’s giving two lectures: “How the Foreign Missionary Experience Liberalized the Home Culture,” and “Liberalization, Secularization, and the Dynamics of Post-Protestant America.”

I’m sitting here drooling over those titles. Podcast, people! The Danforth Center certainly gives the impression of rolling in money. So let’s see some savvier investment in media outreach here.

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God in America: Of God and Caesar

v07739acrasLast spring, I began posting reviews of the 6-episode Frontline/American Experience documentary God in America. I realized recently that I never reviewed episode 6, “Of God and Caesar.” So let’s do it:

Summary: Unlike most other episodes, this one doesn’t divide neatly into “acts.” But the general storyline is this: In the wake of the 1960s, conservative evangelicals become politically mobilized: Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, George W. Bush. At the same time, though, the religious landscape is becoming more diverse: Hindus, Muslims, Latinos–both Catholic and evangelical. More Americans are religiously unaffiliated or “spiritual, not religious.” A new generation of evangelicals is paying more attention to the environment, AIDS, and poverty. There’s disillusion in the evangelical right–did we sell our souls for political gain? Meanwhile, Democrats are discovering God and reaching out to values voters, which brings us up to Obama.

Over a hopeful soundtrack, the documentary wraps everything up with Stephen Prothero saying that Americans continue to value the notion that they’re a special people with a special connection to God, but what that means and who’s included are still subjects of ongoing debate.

Likes: This episode covers topics that I include in the final, post-1960s, unit of my introductory American religious history survey: Hindus and Buddhists, Muslims, Latinos, and the culture wars. Since my life is contemporary with the emergence and development of the religious right, I suspect that I assume students know more about that movement and its history than they do; this episode gives a reasonably nuanced overview. The documentary-makers had plenty of footage to work with, of course, including clips of Francis Schaeffer’s films, which I’ve read about but never seen–that was interesting. Players in the religious right appear as talking heads: Pat Robertson, Ed Dobson, Frank Schaeffer, Richard Cizik.

Dislikes: Apart from a nod to Catholics as the originators of American anti-abortion activism and the final presentation of Obama as reaching out to some nebulous group called “values voters,” religion in politics is portrayed in this episode as basically synonymous with evangelical activism, as represented by Francis Schaeffer, Moral Majority, and the Christian Coalition more specifically. Granted that the evangelical right stands at the center of “culture war” conservatism. Nevertheless, I favor in my teaching Robert Wuthnow’s model of a conservative-liberal divide that cuts across the entire religious landscape, resulting in the formation of new interreligious coalitions on both sides of the line–and pressing some religious groups to awkwardly straddle the faultline. Examples: Catholics pursuing a politics based on the “seamless web of life,” which doesn’t transpose well into the categories of “liberal” and “conservative” as conventionally used in American politics today; or socially conservative Muslims who agree with conservative evangelicals on many issues but are alienated by “Christian America” rhetoric and evangelical Islamophobia.

Basically, I want students to understand that “conservative-liberal” has become a very important axis for understanding American religion today, but I don’t want them thinking just “evangelical” when they think “conservative,” a tendency that this documentary would reinforce.

In the final moments of the documentary, Prothero says: This moment in American religious life is about pluralism. We’re making the space bigger, extending the sacred canopy over more people. But we don’t have a narrative for this yet. Will we come up with one? What’s the story going to be? To Prothero and the makers of this documentary, I would say: Certainly God in America doesn’t give us that new, pluralistic story; it’s good that you appear to recognize that. May I (bitchily) suggest that part of the reason we don’t have a new narrative yet is that documentaries like this one continue to place Protestants at the center of the story, with other religious groups, when they appear, orbiting around the Protestants? If you want a narrative about religious pluralism in America, then a more radical decentering is needed than anyone involved in this project was evidently willing to hazard or creative enough to imagine.

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God in America: Soul of a Nation

v07739acrasA continuing review of the Frontline/American Experience documentary God in America. This post looks at part 5, “Soul of a Nation.”

Summary: This episode is about religion and politics in the 1950s and 1960s. Act I: Billy Graham promotes Christian revival as America’s defense against Communism. Patriotism and religion are married, e.g., in the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. Act II: Resistance to the marriage. Humanist and Jewish parents insist that religious education and religious exercises in public schools is unconstitutional; the Supreme Court agrees (McCullom and Engel). Act III: A good marriage of religion and politics in the black civil rights movements. Martin Luther King, Jr., is at the center of this segment, but Graham is woven in here as well, along with John F. Kennedy’s presidential election.

Likes: Everything covered in this episode works for my introductory survey of American religious history. I cover all these topics: Christian revival and “Judeo-Christian” civil religion in the Cold War; Engel as a landmark in a new approach to church-state relations by the courts; Kennedy’s election in the context of the long history of Protestant anti-Catholicism in America; religion and the black civil rights movement.

There’s some great historical footage here: Graham revivals; Nixon pontificating at a Graham revival (delish…); a period TV interview with the father leading the suit against the school board in Engel; footage of schoolchildren reciting the prayer at issue in Engel; Kennedy delivering the Houston address; various speeches of King, including amazingly sharp footage (restored?) of “I Have a Dream.”

Talking heads include my former teacher Grant Wacker. Sarah Barringer Gordon is on hand to explain the constitutional issues in McCollum and Engel. We’re recent enough in time that we can have some of the historical actors as talking heads, including Terry McCollum, the schoolboy who was at the center of the 1948 case against religious instruction.

Dislikes: I got annoyed that the narrator and the talking heads kept talking about “religion” in politics when historical actors (e.g., Graham) were talking more specifically about Christianity–or at the most expansive, “Judeo-Christianity.” My annoyance on this count is related to the realization that this series isn’t going to attempt to widen the story of religion in America beyond Christians, Jews, and, oh yeah, Native Americans at the beginning of the first episode. The series title ought to have prepared me for that; and yes, I know, you can only do so much in 6 episodes. But still… it’s a limitation of the series that looms large for me given my own priorities in teaching (which include highlighting the experiences of religious minorities as necessary for understanding how power operates in American society).

There’s a fairly clear, if not quite explicit, framing in this episode of: Graham’s fusing of religion and politics is bad because he becomes an insider to the political establishment and tends to equate  national interests with God’s interests, whereas King’s fusing of religion and politics is good because he remains an outsider to the establishment and condemns messianic notions of America’s chosen status among nations. Also–this is quite explicit at the end, at least in how picture is matched to text–Graham represents a religion focused on personal salvation, while King represents a social gospel.

Ehh… Whatever. It’s an overly simplistic framing, of course, which wouldn’t necessarily be a mark against it if I thought it were useful. But what’s the use of it, except for promoting a particular kind of normative vision for how religion and politics ought to interact in America? I don’t do that in my classroom, thank you; and yes, I’m snooty about it because if you’re serious about wanting to teach your students to think critically, then you really shouldn’t be trying to propagandize them, even if you’re acting on the side of the angels.

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Religion and gun control

Tomorrow (Feb. 4) is Interfaith Call-in Day to Prevent Gun Violence. It’s not entirely clear to me who is spearheading this initiative–it has a very simple website, at faithscalling.org–but my guess would be Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence. That group has publicly called on Congress to support universal criminal background checks for all gun purchases, a ban on high-capacity weapons for civilians, and criminalization of unlicensed gun trafficking. Their letter to Congress is accompanied by several pages of signatories, representing Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh organizations. (I didn’t see any Buddhists, a striking omission.)

As soon as I heard about this initiative, I was intrigued to know what kind of religious mobilization may be occurring on the other side of the issue. The NRA website wasn’t acknowledging the Interfaith Call-in Day, at least not that I could see when I visited today; nor did I find any kind of “Voices of Faith” showcase in favor of gun rights. This press release from the National Association of Evangelicals reports that nearly 3/4 of respondents to a December survey of evangelical leaders favored increased government gun regulations. (The press release didn’t specify what regulations were favored.) Richard Land, speaking for the Southern Baptist Convention, issued a public letter to Barack Obama on the same day as Faiths United’s letter to Congress, supporting two of the recommendations made by Faiths United (universal criminal background checks and criminalization of unlicensed gun trafficking; he didn’t support the high-capacity weapons ban, and he advocated regional variation in gun control measures).

This is to say that in places where I might have expected to see religious mobilization occurring on behalf of gun rights [my use of that term is meant to be neutral]–I’m not seeing it. I’m sure I could find religious pro-gun voices (conservative Christian voices, specifically) by casting a broader net online; but in terms of high media profile, religious anti-gun voices seem to be dominant.

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Glenn Beck: Obama as Antichrist?

So, for those who missed it: Glenn Beck has won some time back in the mainstream media spotlight for auctioning a parody art piece, “Obama in Pee Pee.” The parody is an immediate reaction to The Truth, by Michael D’Antuono, which is supposed to be a rebuke to conservative media critics of Obama (like Beck); Beck’s parody also references Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. The logic of Beck’s parody, as he himself articulated it, is: “Everybody on the left, they are so open and tolerant, and they just don’t like it when people complain about taking the image of the savior and putting him in pee pee. But the savior Obama in pee pee? Oh no, that’s just too much.”


Glenn Beck’s “Obama in Pee Pee”

Michael D'Antuono's The Truth

Michael D’Antuono’s The Truth

Andres Serrano's Piss Christ

Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ

Clearly Beck is resentful of Serrano’s treatment of an image of Christ, and resentful of liberals who defend Serrano’s art. I’m less clear what to conclude about what Beck is saying by plugging Obama in for Christ. Obviously he takes a dim view of liberals who, as he sees it, revere Obama as a “savior.” But… why is that, exactly?

See, “Obama in Pee Pee” reminds me of another piece of art by a Tea Party Mormon: Jon McNaughton’s painting One Nation under Socialism, which a few weeks ago I argued casts Obama as a kind of anti-Christ figure:

Jon McNaughton's One Nation under God and One Nation under Socialism

Jon McNaughton’s One Nation under God (left) and One Nation under Socialism (right)

In light of McNaughton’s painting, and other examples of far-right voices literally equating Obama with the Antichrist, I’m left wondering: When Glenn Beck plugs Obama into a parody of Piss Christ and says, in effect, “All right, liberals, let’s see how you like it when someone disrespects your savior”–what is he implying, exactly? Is he saying that it’s absurd for liberals to elevate the president–any president–to the level of some kind of messiah? Or is he saying it’s absurd to elevate Obama specifically to that level because Obama is, in fact, metaphorically if not quite literally, an anti-Christ? As a corollary to that second possibility: Would Beck invest a (sufficiently) conservative president with the messianic aura that he perceives liberals to be assigning to Obama?

I don’t pose this as a rhetorical question: I’m genuinely uncertain. Both options seem plausible. I don’t know which one is actually running through Beck’s mind.

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The Red Mass: A response to Marie Griffith

I’m coming into this conversation late, but I haven’t had the time until now to sit down and write about this as carefully as I need to.

Early last month, Marie Griffith posted an editorial at Religion & Politics in which she “register[ed] deep discomfort with the cozy government-church embrace represented by the Red Mass in Washington D.C.” She was referring to a special mass celebrated annually in the capital, attended by many Catholics working in the federal government. This year’s attendees, Griffith reported, included “six out of the nine current Supreme Court justices, along with members of President Obama’s cabinet, members of Congress, and members of the law profession.” Griffith worried that “the attendance of 2/3 of the U.S. Supreme Court at a holy service that explicitly promotes the Catholic faith sends a bewildering message to citizens who hold other religious beliefs, and those with no religion at all.” She found it particularly troubling that Supreme Court justices who “clearly disagree with current Catholic pronouncements on political matters” or “who disagree with any perceived religious interference whatsoever” nevertheless seemed to “feel the need to attend the Red Mass.” The suggestion was that Griffith thought these justices felt some kind of ecclesiastical pressure to attend. She concluded her editorial on the ominous note that if any religious body “imposes upon political leaders some supposed necessity to attend its own worship service in order to be considered legitimate, beware.”

Predictably, some Catholic commentators–here, for example–have accused Griffith of anti-Catholicism. I admit that possibility crossed my mind as well. Griffith herself tried to preempt that reading by insisting in her editorial that “it is not anti-Catholic to ask these kinds of questions,” and then going on to say that no religious body–”Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or you-name-it”–should be exercising the kind of political pressure that she worries the Red Mass may represent. Fair enough, which is why I mentally backed away from my initial reaction of “Whoa–I didn’t realize Marie Griffith was that way…”

I don’t think Griffith’s editorial is anti-Catholic; but there is something about it that calls for some probing. Even though I identify with the political camp he’s pissing on, I think Matthew Franck at The National Review is on the right track when he writes that “since [Griffith] sees fit only to mention the culture-war obsessions of the Charlotte Democrats, it is hard not to suspect her attitude is ideological in its origins.” Having acknowledged that Franck arrived where I wanted to go before I did, I’m now going to back away from him by tendering a gentler, less partisan version of that critique. In the spirit of Griffith’s own invitation, “Challenge me, do,” let me offer the following scenario by way of trying to elucidate political motivations that I suspect underlie Griffith’s editorial in addition to her concerns about church-state separation. The words “in addition to” are important here: I want to be very clear that I am not suggesting that Griffith’s concerns about church-state separation are an insincere cover for what is “simply” a  partisan reaction. But I do suspect that partisan commitments are at work under the surface of her argument; and if I’m right about what those commitments are, then there’s a longer conversation to be had about the possibility that Griffith is selectively applying her church-state objections in what amounts to a double standard.

With all those ass-covering disclaimers and qualifiers in place, here’s my hypothetical scenario:

A Reform temple in Washington D.C. holds an annual service attended by Jewish members of the Supreme Court, members of Congress, administration staffers, lobbyists, lawyers, etc. At this year’s service, the rabbi delivers a sermon in which he points to the long tradition of American public figures comparing their nation to the biblical Israel. The rabbi argues that if Americans take that comparison seriously–if they really want to be a covenant people of God–then they need to stand for the ethical principles of Torah: safety nets for the poor, justice for immigrants and others on the social margins, policies that promote liberation for the oppressed and dignity for the downtrodden.

My pointed question for Griffith, and others who share her sense of dismay at the Red Mass, is: Does this scenario trouble you as much as the Red Mass? Why or why not?

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First Hindu Congressional representative

Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii Democrat, Poised To Be Elected First Hindu In Congress (Religion News Service)
America’s First Ever Hindu Congresswoman Will Take the Oath of Office Over the Bhagavad Gita (Jezebel.com)

It kills me that I don’t have as much time to comment on this as it deserves. There’s so much to think about: What it means that she’s a Democrat; that she’s a woman; that she’s in Hawaii; that her parents, we’re told, were “conservative . . . politicians”; the way she invokes her military service as a warrant for her American-ness; the way Hindu scripture is now set to be incorporated into American civil religion, and what all that means; the predictable objections to a Hindu in public office from certain conservative quarters, and what exactly is accomplished, rhetorically and politically, by media attention to those objections; the intriguing possibilities for American religious conservatives reaching out to socially conservative Hindus, but the intellectual or cultural work that such connections would require of Christian conservatives… Yeah. It kills me that I barely have time to get this written and posted before I rush off to teach and then do other things for the rest of the day.

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Election 2012: Satan vs. the Antichrist

A few days ago, I gave a public lecture on “Religious Controversies in the 2012 Presidential Race,” surveying various religion-related claims that have been used to create negative impressions of Romney, Obama, Ryan, and Biden. One highlight I thought I would share here is that both Romney and Obama have been linked to a Christian symbol of ultimate evil: Romney as Satan, Obama as the Antichrist. These are fringe claims (in my presentation, I surveyed claims from mainline news and commentary as well), but they reveal the ferocity with which each candidate is regarded by some extremely conservative Christians.

Romney is, in effect, Satan, if you believe Florida evangelist Bill Keller. Keller achieved national prominence during the 2008 election cycle thanks to a Salon article on evangelical opposition to Romney, which took its headline from Keller’s provocative slogan that “A vote for Romney is a vote for Satan.” Keller now runs a website with that title. Keller’s opposition to Romney is basically apolitical. It’s not that he’s gunning for another candidate; Keller may well be a political quietist. He just wants to win souls to Jesus, and he’s worried that Romney–or worse for Keller, Romney’s evangelical endorsers–will give the impression that Mormonism is authentically Christian, not the diabolical fraud that Keller insists it is.


Meanwhile, the Westboro Baptist Church, creators of the famous godhatesfags.com, have created a website declaring Obama to be the Antichrist and the Beast of the Apocalypse: beastobama.com. They had less biblical prooftexting to support their assertion than I had expected. Basically, their rationale for identifying Obama as the Antichrist/Beast, at least as they explain it on the website, is that his stepfather raised him a Muslim, and he supports same-sex marriage (making him, in the WBC’s parlance, a “fag-enabler”).


In a twist that I suspect some observers will find ironic (I’m not so interested in applying the label myself), Mormon artist Jon McNaughton has created a painting that portrays Obama as a kind of anti-Christ. McNaughton has gained some national notoriety for his propagandistic paintings reflecting Tea Party sensibilities; his most well-known work, One Nation under God, depicts Jesus holding aloft the U.S. Constitution as if it were a sacred text. More recently, McNaughton has produced a painting, One Nation under Socialism, that shows Obama holding the Constitution aloft in the same pose that Jesus used in One Nation under God–but Obama is burning the Constitution. The identical pose, I’m arguing, casts Obama as an anti-Christ figure. (The mutually referential titles of the paintings reinforce that interpretation.)


BTW, I can’t say for sure since I can’t vouch for how accurately the online scan I found reproduces the colors of the original painting, but it looks like McNaughton may have painted Obama’s skin as darker that it actually is.

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