Church of England takes on US Evangelicals

The Church of England has launched an attack on American imperialism and its religious justifications. Over to the Guardian:

A group of Church of England bishops issued a report today criticising American foreign policy, the US war on terror and some American Christians’ use of biblical texts to support a political agenda in the Middle East, and accuses the US of using illegitimate and dangerous rhetoric.

The four bishops are Richard Harries of Oxford, Colin Bennetts of Coventry, Peter Selby of Worcester, and Peter Price of Bath & Wells. Of these, Harries is the most well-known and intellectual figure, having held public discussions with Richard Dawkins. According to his profile:

The Bishop of Oxford was Chairman of the Church of England Board for Social Responsibility from 1996 – 2001. He chaired the House of Bishops’ Working Party on Issues in Human Sexuality and he was a Board member of Christian Aid. He is an active member of the House of Lords contributing on a range of issues. His publications in this area include Christianity and War in a Nuclear Age (Mowbrays, 1986), and Is there a Gospel for the Rich? (Mowbrays 1992)…The Bishop was Chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews from 1992 – 2001. He is also a founder member of the Abrahamic Group in Oxford which brings together Jews, Muslims and Christians for serious theological dialogue. After the Evil: Christianity and Judaism in the Shadow of the Holocaust was published by OUP in 2003.

The other three bishops have a background of involvement in the Middle East and opposition to the war in Iraq: back in 1998 they were among signatories to a caution against invasion, and another in 2002, both of which were supported by Rowan Williams. Bennetts of Coventry and Price of Bath & Wells have also been involved with anti-war protests (see here and here), and in 2000 were also outspoken against the effect of sanctions on Iraq. (Bennetts’s position against invasion would have brought him into conflict with Canon Andrew White, the Director of the Cathedral’s International Centre for Reconciliation, who took a liberal hawk line; Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester supported the invasion on the grounds of WMD).

The report itself, entitled Countering Terrorism: Power, Violence and Democracy Post 9/11, can be viewed here; there is a short summary at Ekklesia. The Guardian also notes that the bishops

Did…receive advice from defence specialists and military experts in drawing up their work.

Of particular interest to this blog are pages 41 to 46, which deal with “American nationalism: the religious dimension”; and it’s a shame the bishops didn’t include some scholars of religion (or even some religion journos) among their experts. First off:

Samuel Huntington’s thesis that, “those countries that are more religious tend to be more nationalist,” has been used recently by a number of political scientists to explain the rise of American nationalism in the early part of the twenty first century. Some secular European commentators have used this thesis to draw critical attention to the growing evangelical tradition in the US and its impact upon American domestic and foreign policy.

No names are given, and Huntington’s thesis is not explained, but it seems to me a bit odd. Adrian Hastings made a distinction between religions that go against nationalism – Islam and Roman Catholicism – and those that support it: in particular, Protestantism. The key was Protestantism’s support for a vernacular language. And I’d prefer “resurgent” rather than “growing” for the US evangelical tradition. The bishops also tell us:

Not all evangelicals are either fundamentalist in religion, or advocates of a right wing nationalism in politics. Large numbers of Black Americans belong to the evangelical tradition and yet their religious beliefs do not necessarily translate into right wing political positions.

There follows some general information about US religion, taken mainly from America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, by British journalist Anatol Lieven (which also informs other sections of the report). The New York Review of Books calls this book “tightly written and extensively researched”, but one would have thought the bishops might have had a word with either Mark Noll, Robert Wuthnow, or Alan Wolfe, to name just three scholars at the centre of discussions about American religion.

The report goes on as one would expect – noting the Christian Right’s “uncompromising moral messages”; its old habit of red-baiting; and now:

Although the Christian Right lost political ground following the end of the Cold War, 9/11 has become a rallying flag around which it has regrouped. The war against terrorism, with its potential to be perceived as part of a clash of civilisations, replaced anti-communism as the Christian Right’s new moral crusade. Jerry Falwell, for instance, called the Prophet Muhammad a ‘terrorist’, while Pat Robertson described him as a ‘wild-eyed fanatic’ a ‘robber’ and a ‘brigand’. To Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, ‘Islam is a very evil and wicked religion’, while Henry Vines a leading southern Baptist, called the Prophet Muhammad a ‘demon obsessed paedophile’.

This will irritate some – over at Get Religion, they are currently bemoaning the media’s obsession with these aged “usual suspects”. I don’t share that view – Robertson and Falwell remain influential figures, but the above is a bit stale in that the media reported all these comments years ago. Why not refer to something more current? For instance, Mike Evans last year produced a best-seller that argued that the very existence of Arabs is a mistake, since Ishmael was born as result of Abraham’s disobedience to God (Pat Robertson said something similar just recently, but I don’t have the reference to hand).

Next comes a discussion of millenarianism and Christian Zionism. This is a bit more detailed, and draws on scholarship from Stephen Sizer and Michael Northcott (both ordained Anglicans). But emphasis is, unsurprisingly, on the Left Behind novels:

The political philosophy of these views is even more startling in the twelve books of the Left Behind series, apocalyptic fantasies by Tim LaHay [sic] and Jerry B. Jenkins that have appeared since the mid 1990s. These are allegedly novels, but they carry LaHay’s designation as a nationally recognised speaker on Bible prophecy. They refer to the period on the earth after the rapture, that is after certain special Christians have simply disappeared. The world that remains is a world of struggle against the anti-Christ, which seems to be identified with the work of the United Nations. All this is a prelude to Christ returning to kill millions of people. Sales of this series have long since topped the 55 million mark. All this, particularly the political implications of the book, with its endorsement of unbridled American power, the role of Israel, including the rebuilding of the temple and the unquestioning acceptance of violence in the name of God is deeply worrying.

All very well, although I would have been more impressed had Tim LaHaye’s name been spelt correctly. I also wonder about the long-term significance of the books, with their genesis in the Clinton era. In a new world of evangelical power, being Raptured away is less attractive – although unquestioning support for the Israeli right may continue for other reasons, and the books’ anti-UN paranoia and American triumphalism will ensure continued sales. If the bishops wished to focus on the theocratic tendency in the USA, drawing on Frederick Clarkson’s long accumulation of information about the movement would have provided a more useful picture. Tellingly, the bishops identify post-millennialism with an earlier, optimistic, period of American history: but today’s conservatives seem to be very optimistic. Have any of the bishops heard of Rushdoony?

 Channel 4 News also covered the report last night, which can be seen here (the news presenter, by the way, is Jon Snow, son of a former Bishop of Whitby). It includes a rather pointless debate between Richard Harries and Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. Pointless because, much as I dislike Tooley, he actually knows rather more about American religious conservatism than Harries.

(One titbit from the interview: at one point Tooley mentions conservatives “both religious and se…non-religious”. What’s he got against the word “secular”? Is it now perjorative?)

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