The Retro American freak show

The millionaire entrepreneur John Sperling attracted some Big Media attention for his new group-project book, The Great Divide: Retro vs. Metro America, with a series of visually hip ads depicting Mel Gibson and Newt Gingrich (Retro) and Michael Moore and Hillary Clinton (Metro). The book is still another version of explaining the cultural divisions that GetReligion usually describes as Red and Blue America.

Sperling sounds like a pleasant enough man in an online Q&A with Newsweek. He discusses growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household, becoming liberal while serving in the merchant marine and urging Democrats to offer a clear cultural alternative to Republicans — what, they aren’t doing this already? He dispels the rumor that he cloned his pet cat, but mentions that his venture did clone someone else’s cat, and promptly received orders for 10 other cloning jobs (at $50,000 apiece).

An octogenarian entrepreneur who clones cats? What’s not to like? (OK, the price is rather steep for anyone in Retro America, but maybe supply and demand will change that.)

What’s not to like is a manuscript encumbered by stereotyping and frequent errors. Inspired by Sperling’s ready use of the adjective fundamentalist — which in popular coinage translates as “Anyone to my political or theological right” — GetReligion downloaded the book’s fourth chapter, “The Nature of Retro America’s Political Power: Centrality of Race and Religion.”

The chapter begins with statistics that show the disproportionate power still held by white men in state legislatures and in the Congress. Fair enough, and may both parties improve their statistics, steadily and soon.

But by the ninth page of the chapter, the authors tee off on the menace of fundamentalism. They begin with the briefest disclaimer: “There are, of course, millions of evangelicals who are not Republican, but those who are tend to be conservative and often fundamentalist.”

Gee, thanks guys! Mighty Metro of you to grant that “millions of evangelicals” are not Republican. Could it be that millions of evangelicals manage to be Republican but not fundamentalist? Oh, no way, what with such bastions of fundamentalism as the United Methodist Church (“Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.”) or vaguely defined Lutherans: “Map 4-6 shows that religious life in Retro America is dominated by evangelical Protestants — Southern Baptists, United Methodists, and Evangelical Lutherans.” (Surely the authors would not confuse the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with the Southern Baptist Convention? Don’t bank on it.)

But that’s the merest stretching exercise compared to the generalizations that follow. Here are the worst offenders in Chapter 4.

Anti-American inerrancy

These denominations have a strong fundamentalist element that sees the Bible as inerrant and as a guide to both private and public life. Consequently, they reject the rational, scientific approach to the development of public policy that has characterized American politics since the nation’s founding.

One precocious fundie!

They are written by Jerry Jenkins, owner of the Christian Writers Guild, with Tim LaHaye, a Bob Jones University graduate and co-founder. Jenkins’ and LaHaye’s Left Behind books have on several occasions been at the top of the New York Times best-seller list, have sold more than 62 million copies, 14 and 6 of them have been turned into films.

[Bob Jones Sr. founded BJU in 1927, without any assistance from the one-year-old LaHaye. Only two Left Behind titles have become films; a third is in the works.]

Cite one example

What happens after the 1,000 years of Christ’s reign is not clearly spelled out in prophecy, but one popular interpretation is that the earth and all mankind would cease to exist.

Thanks so much, James Watt!

Not only do most of the 70 to 80 million fundamentalists hold conservative political views, but other surveys have also shown that many are indifferent to the problems of environmental degradation. Because the End Times are near, why worry about the environment?

Dumbing “destruction of life” down

The fundamentalist devotion to the “sanctity of life” holds only until the child emerges from the womb; once born, the devotion is often to the “destruction of life.”

First Amendment rights as a constitutional problem

We do not know the extent to which evangelical officials share inerrant and millennial beliefs, but we do know, given the high scores they receive from the Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition, that they are influenced by and act in response to the beliefs held by the fundamentalist Republican base. This presents a serious constitutional problem.

Is ultra-fundamentalism new and improved?

The [Family Research Council] scores determine the depth of a member’s religious persuasion. The council is operated by Focus on the Family, headed by ultra-fundamentalist Dr. James Dobson.

[Dobson founded FRC, but Focus does not "operate" it.]

Alex Massie of The Scotsman describes Sperling’s problem well:

When Mr Sperling poses the important question for Democrats, “why do we lose elections when we are right on all the issues?” he assumes the existence of a genetic stupidity that explains the otherwise inexplicable appeal of the Republican Party. It does not seem to occur to him that any decent person could possibly be a conservative. Indeed, Mr Sperling’s condescension illustrates the Democrats’ difficulties. It is hard to win votes from folk you so clearly despise.

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  • Joe Schmoe

    “They are written by Jerry Jenkins, owner of the Christian Writers Guild, with Tim LaHaye, a Bob Jones University graduate and co-founder.”

    Could it be that the author of that sentence meant, “co-founder of the Guild,” not “co-founder of the University?” If this is the case, the sentence is poorly written, but hardly a fabrication.

  • Cheryl

    I am so glad to hear someone articulate what has been irritating me about the the Metro vs. Retro series (do they have permission to use photos like Mel Gibson, I wonder? I’m sure Michael Moore would do so willingly…)

    IMO, people (like say, Andrew Sullivan) who like to throw the description “fundamentalist” around know full well all the baggage that word carries (conjures up images of religious zealots inclined to fly planes into buildings, for example).

    I am associated with a Catholic lay organization that can fairly be described as orthodox. A friend of mine casually referred to it as “fundamentalist” the other day. Um, no.

  • http://getreligion.typepad.com/getreligion/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    Joe asks: {Could it be that the author of that sentence meant, “co-founder of the Guild,” not “co-founder of the University?”}

    It could be that’s what the authors meant, but LaHaye was not a co-founder of the guild, either. The larger point is this: The authors attribute sinister motives and exaggerated power to people whose biographies they cannot keep straight. I’m not suggesting fabrication, but cluelessness.

  • http://kellneronline.blogspot.com Mark Kellner

    Bro. LeBlanc comments: “Bob Jones Sr. founded BJU in 1927, without any assistance from the one-year-old LaHaye.”

    Um, well, unless you’ve interviewed LaHaye — or are have seances with Bob Jones Sr. — might it be better to say “without any KNOWN assistance”?

    (Ducking!)

  • http://www.wildfaith.com Darrell Grizzle

    Where are these “millions of evangelicals who are not Republican”? I know of a few, like Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, and the folks at Sojourners magazine, but where are the other legions hiding?

    A trip to Family Christian Stores shows that most evangelicals, at least the ones in the spotlight, are indeed Republican. Right up at the front of the store (as of yesterday) were books like “The Faith of George W. Bush,” “God and Ronald Reagan,” and “The Perfect Wife” (about Laura Bush — honest, I’m not making this up). The Christian group Third Day (whose music I love; I have 3 of their CD’s) is performing at the Republican National Convention next week. Did any Christian rock groups perform at the Democratic National Convention?

  • http://jeffthebaptist.blogspot.com Jeff the Baptist

    Fundamentalism is like neoconservative. Its just a buzz word that lets the left know they are allowed to dislike someone. Nobody out there can really define neo-conservative. Similarly few people, especially on the left, can tell me what the central tenents of Fundamentalism are. When people start calling Catholics “fundamentalists”, then you know they don’t have a clue.

  • MarindaR

    >”Where are these ‘millions of evangelicals who are not Republican’?”

    Here’s one, anyway.

    (“Mighty Metro of you to grant that ‘millions of evangelicals’ are not Republican.” -har, har *snort*!)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Millions of non-GOP evangelicals? That’s easy — African-Americans and Hispanics. That shows up in the NYU studies on all of these issues.

    Ethnic evangelicals hold conservative issues on the historic moral issues, but continue to vote Democratic.

    This is also part of an amazing stat I featured in my column this week (which will be up at http://www.tmatt.net on Monday). A key paragraph:

    ” … in a Zogby International poll, 43 percent of Democrats agreed that abortion ‘destroys a human life and is manslaughter.’ Zogby said 78 percent of Hispanics believe abortions should be outlawed. But a Boston Globe look at Democratic convention delegates found only 2 percent in the ‘pro-life’ camp.”

    Who are those pro-life, sort of, Democrats?

  • http://www.wildfaith.com Darrell Grizzle

    Good point, tmatt. I guess I was blinded by my trip to the Christian bookstore the day before I posted my response.

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