From Church & State: First Quarter 2008, No.91

Corporate Kansas—Part Two

Part Two of Review of What's The Matter With Kansas? by Thomas Frank
(Owl Books, 2004, 2005)

The Christian Right: Kansas And Ulster

When we took our leave of Kansas in the Autumn the place was seething with anger, frustration and all kinds of built-in ironies and contradictions. The economy was suffering a makeover at the hands of unregulated "market forces", and people were very unhappy, but were still calling for more of the same. Thomas Frank also exposes the religious confusion which, as in a zombie film, turns hordes of regular American types into fruitcakes. In fairness to Frank, his tone as he encounters these people is more baffled and bewildered than mocking; and the mockery when it comes is kept within acceptable limits.

The American Scene

It's also true that the more one considers the American religious scene as a whole, not just Kansas, the more puzzled one becomes. When I was growing up in a more than averagely biblically literate culture I had no idea at all what a religious society America was. The realization came slowly to me over many years. The massive American fixation with all things Christian formed no part of the image of the nation that was presented to the world at large. It didn't really feature in the 'official' American culture, mediated in my boyhood by John Wayne, Bob Hope, Elvis and the Beach Boys. Church never was mentioned in any of the sitcoms; and the redemption portrayed in films like It's A Wonderful Life was totally unrelated to any specifically Christian dogma. I'm not qualified to comment on the great American novels as I've read so few of them, but I don't think any of them deal with recognizably Christian communities.

Sad to say, it was my exposure to country and bluegrass music that first gave me an insight into the dark underside of America where the emotional heartbeat of the nation resonates in religious vocabulary. It was said of John Bunyan that his blood was bibline, and so with the iconic figures of modern American music, Dylan, Springsteen, Johnny Cash, and a host of lesser-known figures: they operate within imaginative categories laid down by Scripture. By comparison the emotional range of "Britpop" is limited, with the significant exceptions of one or two bands and individuals from Ireland.

The big puzzle is that Christian America sits not altogether uncomfortably alongside equally conspicuous phenomena which it should hold repugnant, in particular the fatcat corporate America that we looked at before. Linked to that there is the godless media industry, whether in the form of MTV, Hollywood, or the pornographic film industry, which last apparently is an even bigger moneyspinner than Hollywood. I'm not suggesting at all that these are different sides of the same coin, but there must be more of an overlap than some would admit. Or, as the Gospels would put it, the wheat and the tares are growing together.

I'd like to make a further comment before we get back to Frank. I think we tend to have an erroneous picture of Christian America, where the only recognizable types are the New England liberal Episcopalians and Methodists on the one hand, sympathetic to Third World causes and all things gay; and, on the other hand, the divers tribes of "fundamentalists", not so much woolly as wild and woolly, anti-intellectual, uneducated indeed, but full of Yeats's passionate intensity. These are the ones that Frank introduces us to, the loony right. If we were relying on Frank, or on a lot of other writers, we would be unaware of the huge numbers of 'normal' Christians and normal churches that still form the bedrock of American religious life. We would also be unaware of the Christian seminaries and universities all over the nation, most of them with handsome endowments, where Theology in all its aspects is still taken seriously and hasn't degenerated into Religious Studies. These institutions are keeping Christian scholarship alive, a bit like the monasteries in Ireland in the Dark Ages. This might all be loopy too, but at least it's an intellectually rigorous loopiness.

Hearts And Minds

I'm taking so long to begin maybe because I'm not quite sure where to begin. Frank's analysis is quite complicated. One of his preoccupations with the extreme Right in Kansas ("the backlash", as he calls it) is the problem of identifying the tail, and the dog which is being wagged by it. The traditional right-wing establishment is keen to manipulate the backlash and is fearful of being manipulated, and the same applies to the backlash. But who is fooling whom?

"In setting up this vision of a hostile world [John D. Altevogt, a columnist of the backlash] draws heavily on the language of the other side. Once upon a time, protecting the victims of bigotry and directing the anger of the working class onto their real oppressors were qualities associated with the left. They were what gave the left its purpose, its righteousness, its sense of juggernaut inevitability. And that is why backlash leaders work so hard to claim these qualities for themselves….

"Dwight Sutherland Jr., the Kansas City brahmin mentioned previously, also uses the analytical framework of the left, but in a far more measured and thoughtful way… When I talk to him he inveighs against 'wedge issues', deploring the way abortion, gun control and evolution have been used to manipulate voters. But he means this in precisely the opposite of the usual way. For Sutherland 'wedge issues' aren't a Republican strategy to split off parts of the New Deal coalition, but a moderate and maybe even a Democratic strategy to keep conservatives in check, to split working-class conservatives from upper-middle-class conservatives who ought to be their allies…

"It's all sham battles and empty culture-war issues, distracting the rich from their real concerns. It is even 'false consciousness.' In using this Marxist term, the archconservative Sutherland is not referring to workers being tricked by some misguided fear of black people into ignoring their interests and voting Republican, but to wealthy people being tricked by some misguided fear of the religious right into ignoring their interests and voting Democratic."

Sutherland goes on to cite the example of a wealthy friend who was sufficiently spooked by the pro-life stance adopted by Bush Senior in 1992 that he voted for Clinton, only to rue the day when his tax bill came in. Maybe the image of the tail wagging the dog is less apt than that of a team in the three-legged race, stumbling towards a common goal, alternately helping and hindering each other.

Noblesse Oblige?

Through reading an editorial by Steve Rose in the Johnson County Sun Frank gets to hear of a character called Tim Golba, who is a thorn in the flesh of the local Republicans:

"This monster Golba, whom Rose described as 'brilliant' and 'cunning' and 'leaving his imprint all over Kansas' was in fact 'a worker at the Pepsi bottling plant in Olathe'—Olathe being the suburb Rose had identified previously as the other Johnson County, the fever-swamp of the Conservative revolt. I called Golba up; he answered his own phone. What kind of work did he do at the bottling plant? Just regular line work, he told me. A curious day job, I thought, for a man who bosses the entire state…

"Yet this 'little old blue-collar worker', as he describes himself, has helped make possible Kansas's conservative movement. With only a high school diploma and little resources to speak of, Golba built his organization, Kansans For Life, into one of the most powerful political groups in the state. Travelling the state in the eighties and nineties, Golba recruited hard-line anti-abortion conservatives to stand for election, and, more important, secured a base to make sure his candidates won. Here in Johnson County it was Golba who signed up all those precinct committee people back in 1992, eventually conquering the local Republican Party.

"…He will never be named 'Johnson Countian of the Year' or sit on the board of a charitable Kansas City foundation. For him it is all about principle, and principle is precisely the thing the bland, comfortable Mods do not have… He tells me story after story about the high and mighty laid low by working-class people: the carpetlayer who beat the Speaker of the Kansas House; the wealthy Mod who outspent one of Golba's candidates by a factor of ten but who still lost 'big-time'.

"Ignoring one's economic self-interest might seem like a suicidal move to you and me, but viewed a different way it's an act of noble self-denial; a sacrifice for a holier cause. 'If you're like me, consider yourself to be a born-again, Bible-believing Christian, then the issues are black and white,' Golba says. 'There's not much room for gray area. You've got to take a stand.' When he tells me that his movement would be the rightful contemporary home of the Kansas hero John Brown… I momentarily think Golba might be on to something."

But Frank can't resist the sting in the tail:

"He denies himself so that others might luxuriate in fine mansions; he labors night and day so that others might enjoy their capital gains and never have to work at all. Humility in the service of its exact opposite; is there not something Christlike about it all?"

Surely there are echoes too of the bitter ideological and theological feuds, with interludes of kiss-and-make-up, which have characterized Ulster Unionism. The Ulster Unionist establishment was accused of being at best lukewarm in its commitment to the Protestant raison d'etre of Northern Ireland. The establishment was made up of bigwigs who spent their time out hunting and shooting, and lesser breeds who were the mainstays of their local golf clubs. They were collectively dismissed as "the fur coat brigade", who prospered parasitically on the backs of those who had gone through fire and water on their behalf. The Unionist class alliance was matched by an equally profound class antagonism. The difference with Kansas is that the Ulster representatives of the militant Christian tendency lacked the positive attitudes of their Kansas counterparts. They were never really out to convince the voters on the doorstep. Their energies were confined to rallying the dormant faithful. And in the grey light of 2008 one has to wonder just how sincere was their commitment to the scriptural causes they were protesting about. Was it really all about power?

No such doubts over our next witness, the Latin Mass Catholic Kay O'Connor, "mother of six and grandmother of many", again from Olathe. From Frank's description O'Connor seems to be a more charming version of Tim Golba. Forty-three years married,

"I am obedient to my husband in all things moral. And the other half of it, for a Christian, is my husband has to love me and care for me as Jesus loved and cared for the church. And Jesus died for his church, so my husband has to be willing to die for me. And if he's willing to die for me, the least I can do is be obedient in moral things, right?"

Once again she and her husband "are not wealthy people, by any standard.....and she went out of her way to impress upon me her lack of means". This same woman re-mortgaged her house so she could finance a campaign for school vouchers. A low-wage economy at the bottom, a low-tax economy at the top, conservative Christian values in the legislature, the home and the classroom: this is a package from which you can't pick and choose. O'Connor is one of the strong-minded women, "the no-nonsense types who are every bit the equal of the menfolk in the war to restore the mythic social order of a distant past".

Gesture Politics

The Clinton Presidency coincided with the glory days of the conservative revolution, strangely enough because in economic terms Clinton was well to the right of (for instance) David Cameron's Conservatives. Like Blair after him, Clinton made a calculation that politically correct gesture politics could placate the Left of his party, and the interests of organized labour could safely be ignored. This wasn't a huge risk for New Labour because its core vote had really nowhere else to go, but it turned out to be disastrous for the Democrats. According to Frank indeed it was "purest folly". The attempt to outflank the Republicans resulted in the total disintegration of the shaky Democrat coalition. The white working class in particular didn't have much of an incentive to stay loyal. All they saw was a clutch of privileged baby boomers in the White House who were pro-gay, pro-abortion, pro-evolution in schools, and anti-patriotic.

It's a major part of Frank's thesis that the Cons are the poor bloody infantry, wave after wave of them, throwing themselves in vain up against the ramparts of America's secular consensus. All they achieve is to safeguard the corporate fortunes of the elite classes. It seems to me that the Cons have achieved more than that, but at some cost to themselves.

In Kansas a successful campaign was mounted, not to ban the teaching of evolution in schools, but to ensure that the theory of "Intelligent Design" was taught alongside it. Frank seems to be stuck at the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 which indeed was one of the most bizarre episodes in American legal history. The veteran lawyer and three-time Presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, was prevailed upon to lead the prosecution for the State of Tennessee, with Clarence Darrow for the Defendant. An interesting account can be found on Wikipedia. Scopes was convicted but the conviction was later set aside on a technicality.

The Scopes case turned Bryan into a laughing stock, and was later celebrated by Hollywood in the movie Inherit The Wind, with Spencer Tracy playing Darrow. Progressive elements concluded that by the mid 1920s Bryan had lost the plot. The fact that his other prominent role at this time was as a Prohibition campaigner gave some substance to this view. However, Frank points out that Bryan had a respectable socialist basis for his hostility to evolution: "In his mind evolution led irresistibly to social Darwinism and the savagery of nineteenth-century capitalism; undermining it would make the country less capitalist, not more."

When dealing with the evolution debate Frank tends to throw up his hands in horror at the absurd fundamentalists. Some of them no doubt are absurd, but he has failed to pick up on the nuances of what has been going on. In particular he doesn't seem to have noticed the proponents of Intelligent Design. This theory is held almost exclusively by religious believers but isn't predicated on any religious belief whatever, and is claiming equal airtime with Darwinian evolution. Its leading proponent is Michael Behe, Biochemistry Professor at Leigh University, Pennsylvania, whose 1996 book, Darwin's Black Box, popularized the concept of irreducible complexity, and sparked a vituperative reaction on the Internet, and across the campuses of the nation. Behe's own University has taken the unusual step of dissociating itself from his publications in this area. Behe has an easy, lucid style, a bit like Dawkins, and takes on his critics with an amused insouciance.

Dawkins himself has recently explained that he himself has become a bete noire among evolutionary scientists in America. They argue that the exclusive teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools is not part of a secularist crusade. According to the jargon we are dealing with two non-overlapping magisteria, namely science and religion. Religious truth and scientific truth don't operate on the same plane, so neither is a threat to the other. Then along comes Dawkins and frightens the Christians to death by saying that it's part and parcel of the same struggle, to eliminate all notion of God from the public consciousness. And of course there are major differences among young earth creationists, old earth creationists, theistic evolutionists and so on, but you would get no hint of this from Frank's book. The 'religious right' have succeeded in this area beyond what they dared hope, and if it weren't for the inbuilt Darwinian bias of the British media, especially the BBC, more of the debate would be allowed to filter through to us. I realize I'm beginning to sound like one of the conspiracy theorists deplored by Frank.

Roe v. Wade

But the campaign closest to the heart of the backlash activists is the struggle to reverse Roe v. Wade. This is where they have come up against a brick wall, and Frank gives them no hope of success. He makes the interesting point that Roe v. Wade is a monument to the power of the medical profession. It was the doctors who got abortion outlawed on medical grounds, and it was the doctors again who brought about the change:

"The list of groups that submitted amicus briefs to the Supreme Court in favour of abortion rights in 1973 reads like a veritable Who's Who of the nation's medical hierarchy. Furthermore, the justice who wrote the Roe decision, Harry Blackmun, had spent his legal career as the attorney for the Mayo Clinic, and according to two journalists who have studied the controversy, it was the 'rights of the physician' to treat his patient 'according to the best professional judgment' that was foremost in Blackmun's mind in Roe, not the rights of the pregnant woman.

"Roe v. Wade also demonstrated in no uncertain manner the power of the legal profession to override everyone from the church to the state legislature. The decision superseded laws in nearly every state. It unilaterally quashed the then nascent debate over abortion, settling the issue by fiat and from the top down. And it cemented forever a stereotype of liberalism as a doctrine of tiny clique of experts, an unholy combination of doctors and lawyers, of bureaucrats and professionals, securing their 'reforms' by judicial command rather than by democratic consensus."

I talked earlier about two types of Christian community at opposite ends of the spectrum. But the abortion debate also reveals widely differing approaches on the part of conservative believers who would appear superficially to have much in common. We have the Pietists on the one hand and the activists on the other. A strong Pietist tradition lives on in a huge variety of Christian groupings across the nation. They get on with their lives and try to put up with government agencies as best they can, and they live typically in well-defined subcultures. They're not out to change the world except by way of evangelism at a personal and congregational level. The activists are the ones we know all about. There's no doubt that Pietism is closer to the New Testament model, but to say that isn't to sort out the dilemma of how Christians should behave in a social and political environment which is antipathetic to the beliefs they hold most strongly. This is where we get into classic Church and State territory.

Ulster Comparisons

In the context of Frank's book and the Northern Ireland experience I think it's possible to make a few observations which are in no way intended to be a theoretical basis for anything.

First, I don't think that full-blooded Christians, whether Catholic or Reformed, have any option but to get engaged over certain moral issues. They just have to be very careful about where they take their stand. I would think that Christians have to engage in the abortion debate. However complex it is around the edges, what is at stake in the Christian understanding is the wilful taking of human life. The same kind of ultimate question is raised by aspects of embryo research. Feminist and gay issues seem to me to fall on the other side of the line. As a church or denomination you can work out your policy in these areas but you don't have to get involved in the public square except in so far as the government starts to try to tell you what your policy should be.

Secondly, and this is where the Cons trip themselves up, as do the liberal English bishops, there's no point in getting steamed up over rival versions of the best economic model for the nation to follow. Church people aren't necessarily cut out to be economists. There's some scriptural support for everything from laissez-faire liberalism to Marxism for those who trawl around for it, but they're missing the point of the message. Anyway, the secular world can always turn round and say "Physician, heal thyself". Churches have the power to follow their own prescriptions in these areas but very often don't.

Thirdly, and linked, it's absolutely crazy for Christians to hitch their fortunes to any one political party. The Republican Party, like the Emperor Constantine, is interested in power primarily, and other professed interests will always be subordinate.

But my final point in this four-point sermon is the most important. The problem with believers when they get into campaigning mode is that they cease to be contextual beings. It's been especially noticeable in Northern Ireland. Free Presbyterian posturing (or witnessing?) in relation to matters as diverse as Ecumenism, Sunday Observance and Homosexuality have backfired catastrophically and cringe-makingly. This applies to theology proper too: a text taken out of its context is only a pretext. The Ulster fundamentalists (in which camp Brendan Clifford thinks I belong) have a way of turning Biblical propositions into slogans and in the process somehow emptying them of their content. The strategy seems to be: "Let's be as offensive as we possibly can be in presenting our ethical concerns. If our listeners react in a hostile way then that just reveals their deep-seated enmity to the Word of God." But when you hammer somebody over the head with a slogan you just knock them out. The very effort defeats itself. People like to be surprised by something they haven't considered before. This isn't a fastidious reaction to ignorant hot gospellers, but simply an observation.

The big danger for campaigning Christianity is that the political activism starts to suck the spiritual life out of the churches, and this happens when the political cause becomes an end in itself. The gloss soon wears off any victories that are won at that cost. The main preoccupation of Christian leaders should be to build up strong Christian churches and communities, the effect of which is bound to have a trickle down effect on the culture. An unhealthy focus on the culture wars is bound to be self-defeating.

The paranoid posturing of the Christian right is no doubt over the top, as Frank tells us, but they do have a point. The secularist nirvana is a very finely balanced and (in historical terms) unusual mechanism. If the churches lose, it becomes only a matter of time before they have to bow before the diktats of the state. America has avoided this because of the native vigour of the churches. In Britain and, increasingly, in Ireland, the churches are more supine. And in Europe as a whole we're seeing something different again: the post-war secular consensus is beginning to come apart under the pressure of Islamic expansionism. Maybe a strong Christian culture could withstand this pressure, but the liberal secularists have been divided and rendered incoherent.

Anyway, I feel I haven't really done Frank's book justice. He certainly doesn't fall into the easy mode of sloganizing from the left. I would say this has been the second best book I've read in 2007. The best was Byron Rogers's outstanding, and pleasantly concise, biography of the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas: The Man Who Went Into The West.

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