Rich Dominionists in an Age of Hypocrisy

My first up-close and personal encounter with the dominionists came back during the days I was working for Ron Sider, the Mennonite theologian and activist best known as author of the book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.

That book, first published in 1977, lays out the massive biblical case for economic justice and radical generosity. The core of the book is an argument for what Sider calls a “graduated tithe” — a way of committing to and structuring voluntary, individual sharing.

The religious right went ape-skata over that book, attacking it as some kind of statist, Stalinist manifesto. Just how a call for voluntary, individual generosity was supposed to entail Communism they were never able to explain, but just because their anger was incoherent didn’t restrain their indignation at Sider’s calls for the rich (that’s us) to share more with the poor (that’s the half of the world somehow getting by on less than $2 a day).

The reaction against Rich Christians was particularly vehement among the theonomist or reconstructionist writers and those who followed them. This was a small but prolific and vocal fringe group of radical southern Presbyterians who advocated Christian dominion and “Christocracy.” Specifically, theonomists argue that Mosaic law is the template for all civil law, in all times and cultures. As Greg Bahnsen decribed it in his book Theonomy in Christian Ethics, this means:

The civil precepts of the Old Testament (standing “judicial” laws) are a model of perfect social justice for all cultures, even in the punishment of criminals. Outside of those areas where God’s law prescribes their intervention and application of penal redress, civil rulers are not authorized to legislate or use coercion (e.g., the economic marketplace).

You may notice that Bahnsen, like all theonomists, is rather suspiciously selective in what he chooses to keep from Mosaic law and what he chooses to ignore utterly.

The reason the theonomists hated Sider and his book was that it included a lengthy discussion of the many ways the laws of the Hebrew scriptures established and enforced economic justice. Unlike the theonomists, Sider was not calling for a hamfistedly literal application of the laws of Moses, but he surveyed its vast teaching on wealth, property, possessions and economic justice as part of his marshaling of such general principles found throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

The starting point for this Mosaic law on economic justice was an equitable distribution of land — the primary form of wealth and the main means of production in the Israelites’ agricultural society. That equitable distribution was sacrosanct and unchanging — as illustrated by the many condemnations of those who would “add land to land” or who would commit the abomination of moving a boundary stone. It was also reinforced by much later stories, such as that of Naboth’s vineyard and a handful of variations on that story and motif.

Under Moses’ law, land could be sold and purchased, but not in perpetuity. In the year of Jubilee, every 50 years, all property would revert back to the families that originally owned it. The Jubilee year also brought with it the forgiveness of all debts and the emancipation of all slaves (this was mainly debt-slavery, not American-style chattel slavery with its legal and religious blessing of torture, rape and kidnapping). Debts were also to be forgiven in the Sabbath years, which came every seven years.

Moses’ law also required two separate streams of tithing — one for the tabernacle or temple and one for the poor. This was not voluntary, but a mandatory and explicit redistribution of wealth. (Moses was way more of a statist than Sider ever dreamed of being.) In addition, there were a host of laws governing gleaning, harvesting and picking crops that forbade landowners from maximizing their harvests. Some of the grain, fruits and vegetables were required to be left in the field or on the vine so that they could be picked by the needy.

And on top of all that, the books of Moses are also filled with repeated blanket injunctions commanding everyone to be “open-handed” and to give freely and generously to the poor, to widows, orphans and strangers.

By highlighting all of that, Sider inadvertently shone a spotlight on the glaring hypocrisy of the theonomist’s self-serving selectivity when it came to Mosaic law. He didn’t mention them and his long discussion of Mosaic law was not in any way intended to have anything to do with them, but it happened, as a side-effect, to expose them as a bunch of dishonest, self-entitled buffoons and they did not enjoy that exposure.

So the theonomists went after Sider and his book with unchecked viciousness and dishonesty, most notably in David Chilton’s memorably named, but otherwise execrable piece of hack-work, Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators.

(N.B.: For those who would maintain that the theonomists have never had any significant influence, I would point out here that one of their long-term aims has been to replace the words “rich” or “wealthy” with the more virtuous-sounding word “productive.” Judge for yourself, in 2011, whether or not their desired influence has been influential on that score.)

This didn’t seem like that big of a problem for Sider. Chilton’s hatchet-job was unreadable and the theonomists were regarded as kooky theocrats on the far-right fringe of evangelicalism, so did it really matter what they said?

Well, as it turns out, it did. Working for Sider, I got to trace what R.J. Neuhaus described as the “disproportionate” influence of these nutters and to appreciate firsthand his point that this fringe group was helping to shape the thinking of many Christians who had never heard of them and who would never imagine referring to themselves as “theonomists” or “reconstructionists” or “dominionists.”

The theonomist’s arguments were picked up and repeated — verbatim — by the cluster of influential southern-gothic Presbyterians, by the well-funded pseudo-libertarian and anti-environmental corporate front groups like the Acton Institute and the “Stewardship” councils and the various “Leadership” institutes of The Family (another influential group that dishonestly disavows its influence and, sometimes, even its own existence). From there these arguments were picked up and popularized by a host of columnists, reviewers, radio hosts and pundits. Tracing such arguments back to a source isn’t always easy, but in this case it was due to the outlandishly bizarre and distinctively quirky nature of the theonomists’ fabrications.

The small fringe group remained a small fringe group. No one else was rushing to join them or to identify themselves as converts to theonomy or dominion theology. But that didn’t matter, because those others were embracing the ideology and agenda of the theonomists.

  • Lori

    It’s more the myth of the rugged individualist (otherwise known as We
    All Wanna Be John Wayne), I think.  Our society has an unholy love for a
    made up version of our expansion period (the Wild West, the reality of
    which is pretty divorced from the Hollywood version) and too many people
    want to live out that fantasy.

    John Wayne wanted to be John Wayne, but wasn’t even close. And unlike Carey Grant* he never developed any perspective on or comfort with the contradictions between his constructed persona and his reality. His fans never have either.

    I saw the remake of True Grit with my sister & BIL. They’re both of the age and Right Wing inclination to be major Wayne fans. I won’t go into detail in case it still counts as spoilers, but there are several differences between the 2 versions of the film. The remake holds much more closely to the book. That makes it really clear how the story was changed to make the original film a John Wayne Movie. Changes that in fact undermined the point made by the book. (Hint: Rooster Cogburn is not the character with true grit.)

    Both my sister and BIL are smart people and neither of them picked up on the Wayne-ification of the original film. It just seemed natural to them. 

    It dawned on me a few years ago that I had been wrong for a long time. It’s not simply that a large swath of the Right is willing to accept fiction over reality or is unable to correctly distinguish between the two. It’s the they actively prefer the faux. It’s much neater and tidier and does a vastly better job adhering to their notions. 

    Honestly, that’s about 90% of the explanation for St Ronnie.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Lori: I’ve heard Reagan started mixing up his movies with reality at some point in his Presidency, and people mostly went along with it because OMG GREAT COMMUNICATOR. <_<

  • Anonymous

    Now I’m rather curious about the different versions of True Grit.  (Not curious enough to see/read them, but curious.)

    I’d sympathize with the Right’s desire to have reality be more like fiction if it weren’t for the fact that their fiction is almost always far worse than reality.  The only vaguely appealing part of their fiction is the idea that a person can be a self sufficient hero.  … Actually that’s only vaguely appealing until one realizes that their heroes are almost always utter jackasses.  So, yeah, worse than reality.

    Is it just that they have different values or do they not, in fact, understand what their fiction would actually be like?

  • Matri

    Is it just that they have different values or do they not, in fact, understand what their fiction would actually be like?

    The answer to that can be found in their catchphrase: Jesus.

    The answer to every question, the source of every occurrence, the cause of every event, the origin of every story…

    Basically, we’re Pavlov’s dog.

  • Anonymous

    CU5012, I’m being reluctantly forced to the conclusion that The Onion really is America’s Finest News Source.

  • http://twitter.com/Rhysdux Rhysdux

    Clearly, we need to get back to what the founders wanted: suffrage reserved for white, propertied males.

    Oh, he said THAT, too.

  • P J Evans

    OMG GREAT COMMUNICATOR

    Not so much that, as that he made people feel comfortable in their own views. They forgot he was an actor first. (They also forgot he was one who told all talked to Joe McCarthy’s committee in the 50s, and that his family values were, um, flexible.)

  • P J Evans

    depizan, they don’t have a clue what that dream reality would be like.Their idea of history is what they see on TV and in the movies; the reality would leave them curled up in a ball in a corner, somewhere.

  • P J Evans

    depizan, they don’t have a clue what that dream reality would be like.Their idea of history is what they see on TV and in the movies; the reality would leave them curled up in a ball in a corner, somewhere.

  • Lori

     I’ve heard Reagan started mixing up his movies with reality at some point in his Presidency, and people mostly went along with it because OMG GREAT COMMUNICATOR.  

    Reagan’s “memories” of his own life were always heavily larded with fiction. When things were bad he simply chose for them not to be. It was part coping mechanism and part personal myth-making. When the Alzheimer’s started to kick in he seemed to lose whatever ability he had once had to distinguish inconvenient reality from convenient lie. Among other things, that resulted in him telling Israeli officials that the reason he was so pro-Israel was that while serving with the Signal Corps in WWII he helped to film at Buchenwald shortly after liberation. He spoke about that experience in great detail.

    That never happened. Reagan never served a day in Europe. He spent the whole war in Hollywood making movies. (He and John Wayne were kindred spirits in that regard.) It was reported almost immediately and yet never became a scandal and never tarnished his reputation on the Right. Because Reagan, that’s why. Also, I don’t think anyone wanted to deal with the crisis that would have resulted from admitting that the Leader of the Free World was non compos mentis. 

  • Lori

     Now I’m rather curious about the different versions of True Grit.  (Not curious enough to see/read them, but curious.)

    Short version—the story is about a 14 year old girl named Maddie who hires an aging US Marshal to find the man who murdered her father and bring him to justice. She chooses Rooster Cogburn (Wayne in the 1st film, Jeff Bridges in the remake) for the job because someone tells her that he has “true grit” and will succeed no matter the odds. In the original film that’s the case. In both the book and the remake it’s clear that while Cogburn in good and determined at his job, Maddie is the one with true grit. The major difference is in who ultimately kills the bad guy and how/when the films end. 

     
    Is it just that they have different values or do they not, in fact, understand what their fiction would actually be like?

     A combination. Obviously they don’t think the heroes of their stories are jackasses. Also, the moral of the story is ultimately more important than the quality of the characters and their idea of a good moral and yours are clearly different. Add in a nice douse of “people just don’t think things through” (which is true of pretty much everyone) and you get a situation where they think their fiction wold make a very fine reality and you think it would be hell on earth. 

  • Anonymous

    A large part of the American Myth is also rooted in the 1950′s.  The country was high on its game, it was at its zenith, we were the big dogs in the yard.  Standards of living were high, taxes were low, there was stable social values.  Men were real men, stable veterans of the Second World War, come home to raise kids a la “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.”  Women kept their homes neat and tidy and clean and raised the children while the breadwinner was off making a comfortable, government-free living.

    … At least, that’s what some folks THINK was going on.

    If religion is the opiate of the masses, nostalgia is the heroin of the middle class.  The yearning for the Golden Age has mired large portions of the Social Right in a made-up version of the past, because these are people who cannot deal with a changing world and reality.  They are tied to a past that is mostly Hollywood fiction and believe that if they can just bring back the social and political values of the time, then everything will be hunky-dory!

  • Anonymous

    Much of that only works if you’re too young to remember the 1950s. For example, the ‘government-free living’ — part of the reason for the post-war prosperity for the “real men, stable veterans of WW2″ is the GI Bill a…. government program…. which vaulted many into the middle class through open access to college education. (I believe, for just WW2 veterans alone, 2 million graduate college and just over 5 million pursued vocational training using their benefits). The GI Bill also provide cheap home loans to veterans too, causing rates of home ownership to jump 20 percentage points.

    As you say, a lot of the perception of the 1950s is Hollywood glamor designed by or for people who were either very young at the time or weren’t born yet. They’re right about the prosperity (although certainly racial minorities and many regions were left out in the cold) but much (most?) of that prosperity came from efforts by Big Government to help people directly. These programs were successful not by funnelling money into the bank accounts of corporate CEOs but by giving or loaning money to people (veterans, in this case) and having the free market allocate these resources in a way that not only helps the direct recipients of the money but businesses and communities as well.

    It’s profoundly ironic that there are people who can look at our country under the policies / influence of Roosevelt (that Roosevelt — Mr. Big Government himself, the New Deal guy!!!) and Truman and still believe that government spending always hurts businesses and that the 1950s were prosperous because the government was small. How do you miss the entire previous 10 years?

  • Anonymous

    Exactly.  The people who were adults during the 50′s and raising families then are, well, dead or amongst the most elderly of the nation.  The ones who were born in or after that time are the ones complaining the loudest about how everything will be better if we just revert to that time.  (Likening this to infantile regression is left as an exercise for the reader.  Assume a perfectly spherical diaper.) (This was probably a cheap shot.) (Sue me.)

    Most of the libertarians who denigrate the New Deal say that it prevented a full recovery from the depression.  Most of them go on to say with absolute sincerity that it was a good thing the Second World War happened to boost our economy, likewise failing to realize the actors within the wartime economy that did aid in the recovery.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    A large part of the American Myth is also rooted in the 1950′s.  The country was high on its game, it was at its zenith, we were the big dogs in the yard.  Standards of living were high, taxes were low, there was stable social values.  Men were real men, stable veterans of the Second World War, come home to raise kids a la “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.”  Women kept their homes neat and tidy and clean and raised the children while the breadwinner was off making a comfortable, government-free living.

    91% top income tax rate!

    (Well, you did say it was the Myth.  Yeah, they’re definitely ignoring the inconvenient parts.)

    And, of course, the gays were in the closet, the negroes were in the back of the bus, and the Godless Communist Hordes were poised to wipe out civilization.  :-P

  • Anonymous

    Yup; this ‘golden age’ was not what they are imagining it was.  Not that they care about the (lack of) civil rights of the era.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Taxes were low for the middle class and the poor. That’s the thing they keep forgetting.  X-C

  • Tonio

    Is all that muddled economic thinking merely a rationalization for the loss of male privilege?

    Fundamentalism springs eternal for the GOP

    as passions ebb and tide within the social conservative movement, one
    commitment remains constant: “male headship,” God the father, and even,
    as an increasing number of homeschoolers are coming to call it -
    favorably – The Patriarchy. The movement’s increasingly religious
    economic conservatism is cast in gender terms, as a quest for the
    restoration of masculine dignity, a revival of breadwinning in an era of
    genuinely humiliating economic conditions. What do social conservatives
    want in 2012? Same thing they’ve always wanted. “One man, one woman,”
    and a passel of kids. A family, narrowly defined, daddy in charge, with
    maybe some gentle wisecracks about how the wife is really in control.

  • Lori

     If religion is the opiate of the masses, nostalgia is the heroin of the middle class.  The yearning for the Golden Age has mired large portions of the Social Right in a made-up version of the past, because these are people who cannot deal with a changing world and reality.  They are tied to a past that is mostly Hollywood fiction and believe that if they can just bring back the social and political values of the time, then everything will be hunky-dory!  

     

    In fairness, for the bulk of the people who make up the current far Right Wing the nostalgia isn’t entirely false. JohnKnl is right that the anti-government part is just ridiculous However, for middle class white Christian men things were in most respects never better in America than in the 1950s and will probably never be that good again. 

    The problem is that you can’t turn back the clock and their efforts to do so are actually making things worse for them now and in the future.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    I’d sympathize with the Right’s desire to have reality be more like fiction if it weren’t for the fact that their fiction is almost always far worse than reality.  The only vaguely appealing part of their fiction is the idea that a person can be a self sufficient hero.  … Actually that’s only vaguely appealing until one realizes that their heroes are almost always utter jackasses.  So, yeah, worse than reality.

    See, when I want reality to be more like my fiction, I tend to think of things like Star Trek.  As a structure of society, the Federation of Planets is much more appealing to me.  

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    In fairness, for the bulk of the people who make up the current far Right Wing the nostalgia isn’t entirely false. 

    If my math is right, most of the Baby Boomers would’ve been 5-20 years old between 1950 and 1959.  

    What’s the old saying about the Golden Age of Science Fiction being “12″?

  • Lori

     If my math is right, most of the Baby Boomers would’ve been 5-20 years old between 1950 and 1959.   

     

    Sure, but the Teas aren’t strictly Boomers, plenty of them are older than that. 

    The other thing is that when it comes to the economy it’s not totally out there for someone to say “I know how things were for my dad and they were better for him than they’ve been for me”. For society as a whole that switch didn’t happen until recently. They say the current generation is the first one in however ridiculously long that won’t do better than their parents. However, if you’re a middle class white Christian man who is the son of a middle class white Christian man the switch really did happen 2 generations ago. 

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I can absolutely vouch for this. When my dad was my age he was already making the equivalent of about $60k a year in today’s dollars. I’m pulling $20k on a grad student stipend, and that’s not about to lift any time soon unless a thesis drops by magic on my lap and I can convince my supervisor I did it all overnight.

  • Anonymous

    There’s a book about that: The Way We Never Were.  Well, at least as far as the family values part of ’50s worship goes.

  • Anonymous

    There’s a book about that: The Way We Never Were.  Well, at least as far as the family values part of ’50s worship goes.

  • P J Evans

    My mother said to me once that, while the 50s were a great time to raise kids, she didn’t want to live in them again.

  • P J Evans

    The ones who were born in or after that time are the ones complaining
    the loudest about how everything will be better if we just revert to
    that time.

    They’re trying to go back to the way they think they remember it being when they were young. That it was never that way at all doesn’t seem to enter what minds they have. Nostalgia for your own childhood is one thing; trying to force everyone else to live in your dream of what the world was like in your childhood is insanity.

  • Lori

     My mother said to me once that, while the 50s were a great time to raise kids, she didn’t want to live in them again.  

    Given that your mom is not a man, that makes sense. The 50s were fabulous for one group and only that one group. Straight white middle class Christian men hit the jackpot and everyone else just had to suck it up. 

    I hear a lot of Conservatives talk as if Civil Rights and the feminist movement and Stonewall and the hippies all just came out of the irrational discontent of people who just refused to see how great everything was. That’s completely divorced from reality, but good luck getting the Leave It To Beaver crowd to see that. 

  • P J Evans

     Lori, you would have liked my mother, I think. She spent the war working as a lab tech in an oil field (after working for a while as a newspaper poorfwriter), and wasn’t the nice, submissive female the conservatives think is ideal.
    (She also wondered what she’d done to have two daughters who get lost in hardware stores. That’s easy to answer: both sides of the family have engineers and craftsmen. ‘Hand over the tools, and no one will get hurt.’)

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    It is as I like to say. We need the economy of the 1950s with the society of today grafted onto it. Nothing’s stopping us except the sheer political will to make it happen. Families shouldn’t need to be stretched ragged having a mother and a father both racing around trying to raise kids and hold down jobs which virtually demand unpaid overtime because that’s the new normal.

  • Matri

    They’re trying to go back to the way they think they remember it being
    when they were young. That it was never that way at all doesn’t seem to
    enter what minds they have. Nostalgia for your own childhood is one
    thing; trying to force everyone else to live in your dream of what the
    world was like in your childhood is insanity.

    *looks at Fallout* Okay, that just gave me the heebie-jeebies.

  • http://dumas1.livejournal.com/ Winter

    John Oliver sums this up perfectly:

    Even Better Than the Real Thing

  • Lori

     Lori, you would have liked my mother, I think. She spent the war working as a lab tech in an oil field (after working for a while as a newspaper poorfwriter), and wasn’t the nice, submissive female the conservatives think is ideal.  

    She sounds like a really interesting woman. I would have loved to hear her stories about those jobs. I imagine the days before feminism weren’t easy for someone who wasn’t inclined to be the conservative’s idea of a 50s housewife. 

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Families shouldn’t need to be stretched ragged having a mother and a father both racing around trying to raise kids and hold down jobs which virtually demand unpaid overtime because that’s the new normal.

    No kidding.  One of many reasons I can’t take the “FAAAAMILY VAAAALUES!” crowd seriously is that they never address the _reason_ both parents have to work.  (Free hint, guys:  It’s ISN’T because of an Evil Feminist Conspiracy.)


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