February 14, 2006
Rabbi James Rudin: The 'Christocrats' Are Here
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
The Christian right's political influence in America today has puzzled many of us. How did gay marriage become the biggest debate of the 2004 election season? And Terri Schiavo, where did that shameful episode come from? Not to mention, why has the Air Force Academy been pushing a narrow religious view on its cadets? Now someone has written a truly illuminating book to help Americans better understand these phenomena. Rabbi James Rudin, a former Air Force chaplain and participant in high level international forums on religion, has spent the bulk of his career building bridges of understanding between diverse religious groups. His new book, The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right's Plans for the Rest of Us, shows just when and how a very narrow segment of the population began telling government, and all Americans, what our "values" and behavior should be. He looks at church and state, and at historical and contemporary facts, and brings us clarity.
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BuzzFlash: You use a phrase which received some comment in the reviews we read, and that was "Christocrats " (pronounced with a short "i"). What does that mean?
Rabbi James Rudin: I had to develop a term to describe the specific Christian conservatives who, in my judgment, are trying to change the basic structure of America after 220 years. I found that using words like “fundamentalist” or “extremist” or “Christian conservatives” or “Evangelicals” was inaccurate. In my own work – 35 years with the American Jewish Committee and Christian-Jewish relations - I’ve found that the overwhelming majority of Evangelical Christians are not committed to changing the basic relationship between church and state, and between government and religion. There’s a small percentage who are, so I searched for a name that would set them apart from other Evangelicals or Christian conservatives.
BuzzFlash: What separates a "Christocrat" from someone who is a true believer in Christianity but also respects the separation of church and state?
Rabbi James Rudin: I use the concept of “deed, not the creed.” Millions of our fellow American citizens are theologically conservative Christians. But they’re not all actively seeking laws passed specifically on issues of church and state.
We can judge people by their deeds. The Christocrats' deeds are really an attack on public schools, on libraries, and the media. They attack the existing structures and then try to have them replaced with Christocratic libraries, Christocratic public schools or academies, or Christocratic media. It’s kind of a shadow library, shadow schools, shadow everything. That’s the strategy - to destroy the existing structure, or discredit it, and then try to replace it - using federal, state or local public money to support their schools or their unique libraries. They've also tried to create a parallel media system of television, radio, magazines, newspapers, which reflect their point of view.
After 200 years of American history, it is an attempt to make this into, not just a country where 82% of the population say they’re Christians, but instead to make America into a Christian nation in terms of its laws.
There have been several attempts in the past to put this into Constitutional amendments. They have all failed. There was one attempt in the mid-19th century and one in the 1950s – to make this legally a Christian nation. Now I think another attempt is being carried out, even though about one out of five Americans do not consider themselves to be Christian - they are agnostic, atheist, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Confucian, or whatever.
BuzzFlash: Let’s say that the effort succeeded – that a Constitutional Amendment passed and we were officially declared a Christian nation.
Rabbi James Rudin: Okay.
BuzzFlash: The irony here is that many of the first people to come to North America from Europe were Christians fleeing persecution by other Christians.
Rabbi James Rudin: Sure.
BuzzFlash: Even if one were to declare this a Christian nation, Christianity is many denominations, and different denominations have persecuted other denominations.
Rabbi James Rudin: Absolutely. There was the Thirty Years’ War between Protestants and Catholics in the 17th Century.
BuzzFlash: And you had the Church of England suppressing the Catholics.
Rabbi James Rudin: Right. You raise exactly the right questions. Of course, in addition to a variety of Christians coming here, the Jews came to what is now the United States in 1654 to escape the Inquisition that had reached Brazil – the Portuguese Inquisition. So you’re 100% right. Most of the European settlers came for religious purposes, and there were economic factors.
But once they got here, Christians also fought amongst themselves. Catholics were discriminated against, and they had to seek refuge in the state of Maryland. Quakers – the very name “Quaker” is a pejorative - The Society of Friends had to seek haven in much more hospitable Philadelphia than in other parts. And the Puritans, a strong Congregational Protestant group, persecuted fellow Christians, including the most famous one, a minister himself, Roger Williams. He had to leave the Massachusetts Bay Colony and go to Rhode Island. So even though many came for religious freedom and freedom of conscience, once here, they sought to impose their own view.
Now we have a replay, 350 years later, of a small, but very potent group, who are driven to say it’s not just Christianity, but their form of Christianity that must be the legal, mandated, dominant form.
I’ll tell you where we’re seeing it played out in its worst form. I’m a former United States Air Force Chaplain who served in Japan and Korea in the 1960s, and I treasure that experience very much. I am also a great fan of the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, which has gone through a sexual abuse crisis, an academic crisis, and is now facing a religious crisis. A group of Christocratic Christians there is putting pressure on anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs – that’s Roman Catholics, and progressive Protestants, and Jews, and atheists, and agnostics – they are pressuring Air Force cadets. There has been an investigation by the Pentagon, and lots of news coverage. But it makes the point exactly. There are all kinds of Christians, but the group I’m concerned about has the view that theirs is the only true Christianity and the only true religion – and they have a right, a duty, and a religious obligation, to impose this on the rest of us. That’s why my subtitle is "The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us."
If they were ever successful with a Constitutional Amendment that would define exactly the kind of Christianity that is legally the mandated version, even other Christians would become second class, would not benefit from government programs, and would be actually discriminated against, as they are being done even today at the Air Force Academy. The Air Force Academy is a prime example of what I’m writing about.
The object of the United States Air Force Academy, which we all pay money to support – is not to create Christocratic pilots, or Onward Christian Soldiers and Airmen and Airwomen – it’s to create American Air Force personnel who will defend our country. Remember, this is funded by all Americans. And yet to put pressure on 18- to 22-year-old cadets and say you either convert or your career will be hurt, or you will not succeed in the Air Force, or I don’t want you to be flying with me once we graduate unless you’re a certain kind of Christian – this is the laboratory where this is taking place in the worst way. The Air Force has to correct it. There’s no justification for it.
BuzzFlash: The news reports have read said there’s been some foot-dragging about it.
Rabbi James Rudin: It’s a very, very large bureaucracy, and it will take some years to clean out. For instance, in The Baptizing of America I quote the football coach at the Academy, Fisher DeBerry, who said what the Academy is about is Team Jesus and Christianity. He’s been reprimanded. His banner saying “Team Jesus” has come down. But it’s going to take time to change that atmosphere and that point.
There was a community organizer in Chicago named Saul Alinsky, who made it very clear and taught many of us that it only takes 2% of a really dedicated cadre to move a total society. That’s kind of a scary figure. I would say that the Christocrats are very dedicated, and they have literature, and they have their doctrinal beliefs, and they have their Biblical references.
Here's just one comparison to clarify what we’re talking about. Your readers will certainly know that Attorney General Edwin Meese, of the Reagan Administration, and others, talk about the "original intent" of the Constitution. They tried to say, well, the Constitution and our laws must be exactly what the framers wrote in 1787 in Philadelphia. There’s a parallel among the Christocrats, which is that the Bible must be only what it literally says – the original intent. It’s inerrant. That’s a technical term, it means it’s without error. No interpretation, unlike Judaism and much of Christianity, which have a rich history of Biblical interpretation. But no– it’s exactly what the words say.
The problem is that, first of all, most are reading the Bible in English translation, when they should know Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew. Passages about sodomy, capital punishment, or adultery present extreme views, which certainly Judaism has mitigated over the years. But they say we have to go back to what they call Old Testament law. So it’s a mirror image of citing "original intent" with the Constitution. It’s as if to say there’s never been thousands of years of interpretation of the Bible, or 220 years of interpretation of the Constitution.
BuzzFlash: If you went back, for instance, to the language of the Old Testament, and you did have literal interpretation of punishments and so forth, you would end up with something that’s not that far from the Wahabi Saudi Arabian interpretation of the Koran.
Rabbi James Rudin: You got it. I use one example in my book, in which the rebellious son must be put to death - a very shocking kind of thing. What Judaism has been able to do is, we keep the text, but we mitigate it and say, well, a rebellious son has to be between the age of twelve and twelve and six months. There have to be witnesses. The son has to be warned, and on, and on, and on, which means the text stays the same, but as one of the ancient rabbis said, “There’s never been capital punishment and there never will be on this issue of a rebellious son.” Well, the Christocratic folks would say a rebellious son must be put to death, because that’s what the Bible says. And some of them want to say, well, the Bible trumps the U.S. Constitution, which is only a human law. This is God’s law. And of course, only they have the right to interpret it.
In The Baptizing of America, I write about two men who are pretty much unknown to the general American public - Francis A. Schaeffer, and John Rushdoony, an Armenian-American who died in 2001. They created movements called Christian Reconstructionism and Dominionism. "Dominionism" is taken from one of the chapters in Genesis – “You shall have dominion over the earth and other animals.” Well, whereas most people interpret dominion as stewardship – you shall protect it, you shall use it, but you have an obligation - they take the word dominion to mean control – total control. Two theological works written by Schaeffer and Rushdoony I would say constitute the religious firepower – the intellectual basis - for the Christocratic movement.
BuzzFlash: They also believe in Armageddon.
Rabbi James Rudin: Again, we need to consider the deed, not the creed. I do not want to impugn the millions of conservative Christians who are very traditional in their belief and observance or have an Evangelical outlook, but who are not working to change Jefferson’s wall, or break down the wall of separation. But to use an old English expression – “The person who takes the King’s pence (the King’s money), takes the King.”
The Christocrats really want the federal government to be an arm of their particular religious point of view. Only they have the right to tell libraries, law schools, courts, and really, all of us, what we should do in our bedrooms, or what to teach in our schoolrooms, or how to operate our hospitals, which gets us into embryonic stem-cell research and choice on abortion, and a lot of other medical questions. They alone have the pipeline to God, so they alone are the ones who can shape and control America and have dominion over America. It’s a very, very insidious campaign. My book has been out for about a month, and many people are still shocked because they believe that the good old checks and balances of America will self-correct. I’m saying, well, maybe yes, and maybe no. My job is to sound the alarm.
BuzzFlash: Let me ask you something about the Constitution. You mentioned that some people feel the Bible trumps the Constitution. But, actually, they've said that the Constitution was divinely inspired, and therefore they read into it certain religious qualities that were not put into the Constitution. Doesn't that defy the notion of strict constructionism, because you’re really claiming the origin of the Constitution to be different than it was. It was created by men who debated a document. They say it was a gift from God. To me, that's not strict constructionism. That’s a logical fallacy.
Rabbi James Rudin: It’s a reconstruction. You’re exactly right. One of the issues is that part of the Christocratic movement is saying, oh, well, in 1787 and in 1776, with the Declaration of Independence, it was an oversight. It was an accident that neither Christianity nor Jesus was mentioned in either document. I show that as the Constitution was being ratified by the various states, everyone was quite aware that there was an absence in the Constitution of any reference to Christianity or to God’s law, or to the Bible as the supreme law of the country. There had been serious debates going on. I quote some of the critics of the Constitution of 1787 – and it took people like James Madison and an under-appreciated Southern Baptist minister named John Leland, who, along with Jefferson and others, were able to get the Constitution adopted.
But it was neither an accident nor an oversight nor sloppy writing. There was a bitter debate in both North and South, by ministers and by lay people. It’s another myth that is thrown up to confuse people – that somehow there was a mistake made, and they want to correct the mistake. There was no mistake. It was very clear.
Another sad part is that the second largest Christian body in America, the Southern Baptist Convention - second only to the Roman Catholic Church in population - were until recently one of the strongest advocates for the separation of church and state. Unfortunately, in the past twenty years the Southern Baptist Convention has moved completely away from their traditional position favoring strict separation. Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist, has written about it, Bill Moyers, Al Gore, Bill Clinton – all Southern Baptists – are very concerned.
One of the ironies is that in countries where there is an established church – for instance, England, Sweden, and France before the revolution – religion today is quite stagnant in many of those countries. Yet in America, because we’ve got a free market of ideas and freedom of religion, religion has thrived as in almost no other developed country of the world. If we were ever to make one religion the legal religion of America – call it America’s religion – it would be a disaster. One reason the Constitution was so clear on this, both inside Article VI, which had no religious test for office, and in the First Amendment, was just what you said. There were so many different Christian groups vying for power and position that the answer was that none of those groups could be the established church, and let all be free. That’s been the genius of America for 220 years.
I think one of the parts of the book that has captured a lot of attention is the little known debate between Patrick Henry, who was the Governor of Virginia, and Thomas Jefferson, both raised as Anglicans. Patrick Henry wanted to have a church tax in Virginia and have tax money go into the Anglican Church, which was the dominant church in Virginia. Jefferson fought it all the way with Madison, and he was successful. Out of it came this statute of religious liberty for Virginia. But it was a near thing, and had Patrick Henry had his way, we today might have taxes, as there are in other countries, to support specific churches.
Let me also be very clear. There is not a total separation of church and state in America. Religious institutions get a tax exemption on their property. If you and I give money to a specific religious institution, we get a tax deduction. I have no problems with that. The problem I wrote about is the drive to legitimize one specific group of Christians as the holders of the truth, and the right to impose their values on 300 million other Americans.
BuzzFlash: The Baptizing of America is structured in sections where you depict the various rooms in America’s mansion. You show that a specific Christocrat control of the government would let government intrude into everyone’s life and tell them, from the standpoint of a certain religious denomination within Christianity, how they should conduct their lives in each of these rooms.
Rabbi James Rudin: That’s right. And to support it with finances.
BuzzFlash: We would pay taxes to support the imposition of that perspective by the government on us as citizens in America.
Rabbi James Rudin: We do have some pushback. The Terri Schiavo case showed that people do not want the government interfering in end-of-life decisions for loved ones. But certainly as to textbooks, stem cell research, abortion, the curriculum in schools, the media – all of that is under pressure. All of these folks are under pressure because the pushback isn’t coming very strong. The Christocrats quote the Bible, and speak with such confidence, and repeat their positions over and over again, and it intimidates people.
One of the strengths of my book, I think, is that I am not a secular humanist. I am a rabbi and a person of faith. They can’t tell me that I don’t know religion, or that they alone have the truth. There are a lot of people in America whose grounding in religious belief or religious observance is not very strong, or it’s non-existent, so they may get intimidated when Bible quotes get thrown around on all sorts of issues.
One of the jobs of the book, I think, is to alert people - to say, come on now, there’s not a monopoly on Bible scholarship or religious interpretation. As a rabbi who has devoted 35 years to working with the Christian community, I know these folks very well. I grew up with them and I have worked with them, and I’m neither intimidated by them nor awed by them. I’m just trying to say that they have an agenda that is very serious. But sometimes, their bellicose style silences other Americans who are not as sure-footed in their own religious belief. And that’s unfortunate.
BuzzFlash: We've talked about the founding of this country. Even before the nation of the United States was born, people fled to America, and migrated within America, because of religious persecution.
Rabbi James Rudin: Exactly.
BuzzFlash: The Constitution was written with this in mind – a nation that accommodated people of diverse religions and allowed those religions to be established and to flourish. Tolerance was a basic understanding within the framework of the American government, particularly in terms of religion.
Rabbi James Rudin: Correct.
BuzzFlash: What has happened? You mentioned that this is not the first time there’s been an attempt to establish a theocracy in the United States. But why at this time are we seeing such a menace in terms of the potential baptism of America. It’s at the point where it has almost succeeded.
Rabbi James Rudin: There are many de facto examples. As I point out in the book, I grew up in Virginia, and my perspective is colored by that. I think the turning point came in 1979-1980, with the creation of Jerry Falwell’s "Moral Majority" - Falwell was from Virginia - and the rise of Pat Robertson, another Southern Baptist minister, also from Virginia. We’re all from Virginia, it turns out. Jefferson, Madison, Leland, myself, and Robertson and Falwell.
By the way, two things about The Baptizing of America should be noted. One, it’s not a book aimed at the American Jewish community, although I’m a rabbi. It’s aimed at the general American community. And number two, it’s not a book that specifically bashes George W. Bush - and here’s why.
Before the "Moral Majority," Christian conservatives' concern always was, get right with Jesus, get right with Christ, get right with God on a personal level. Yes, they voted. And they participated in elections. But they did not see political parties or political movements as a means of carrying out God’s will. God alone would determine that, and voting was a citizen’s duty. But the Christian conservatives didn’t look to the Democratic or Republican Party to deliver theological gifts or theological concerns or provide theological answers.
What Falwell did with his "Moral Majority" – a brilliant name, by the way, because if you were not in the "Moral Majority," you were the immoral minority – was to link religion and politics together so that they meshed. It wasn’t just, I’m praying to God and then I go out and vote, and the two are in parallel universes. But no – that the political system, and that shortly became the Republican Party – the political system can deliver on the issues that are important to us as conservative religious people.
That meshing, that merging, was most evident in the 1980 campaign, which I talk about in the book. You had a divorced movie star running against an incumbent president who was a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher, and a missionary – it’s Jimmy Carter, of course - versus Ronald Reagan, a divorced movie star. And then John Anderson, the Independent, was a member and a leader of the Evangelical Free Church of America. So you would have assumed that the two candidates who were Evangelicals, Jimmy Carter and John Anderson, would get the majority of the Christian conservative vote. They did not. The votes went mostly to Ronald Reagan, which makes my point that it’s not the label. It’s not the creed. It was the deed.
They saw in Ronald Reagan shared values, or a possibility that Reagan would deliver the goods that they wanted better than the incumbent Southern Baptist or an Evangelical Free Church of America Congressman from Illinois. That, to me, was the key election – not so much 2000 or 2004. And I’m sadly confident that when George W. Bush leaves office in January 2009, this is not going to go away – this attempt to baptize America. It will continue.
Of course, there have always been attempts to baptize Americans individually. That’s very much a part of Evangelical Christianity. The difference now is it’s not just individuals - but the whole country - and to bring the political system under the control of and at the behest of the Christocratic agenda. That’s the big difference. Once Christian conservatives saw that a political party or the political system could give them what they wanted, they were activated, and they began to really move. 1979-1980 was the beginning.
Now it’s in full flower, and it’s in the high water. Or as we say in the South, they’re in high cotton right now.
BuzzFlash: Rabbi Rudin, thank you so much.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Interview Conducted by BuzzFlash Editor Mark Karlin.
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The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right's Plans for the Rest of Us, by James Rudin, a BuzzFlash premium.
James Rudin's home page: http://www.jamesrudin.com/