Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Robertson and Wallis: The two faces of Manichaeism

For the second time in two days, the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD) has posted an essay on the perils of marrying religious convictions with political parties. Yesterday's piece by Addie Darling was a critique of the radical individualism which is foundational to both major American political parties but counter to traditional Christian beliefs. Today's offering from Keith Pavlischek is mostly a summary review of David Swarz's book, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism. However, Pavlischek makes a significant, although by no means unique, observation about the two men who have become, respectively, the faces of the "Evangelical Right" and the "Evangelical Left."
Just as no history of the Evangelical Right could be written without telling the story of Pat Robertson, the Christian Coalition and the “700 Club,” no history of the Evangelical Left can be written without telling the story of Jim Wallis and his People's Christian Coalition/Post-American/Sojourners Community and Sojourners Magazine. In Moral Majority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism David Swartz takes up Wallis' story in the third chapter titled, "Jim Wallis and Vietnam."

My own long-held view of Robertson and Wallis is that they both are the prime examples from the starboard and port side of the political spectrum respectively of what Mark Noll called the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. The political views of both can fairly be described as Manichean and at times downright kooky. Robertson flirted with crackpot conspiracy theories hatched in the fever swamps of the John Bircher right, while Wallis and his comrades embraced conspiracy theories hatched by the New Left. "Drinking deep from the wells of revisionist history and New Left sociology," Swartz reports, "evangelical radicals eyed conspiracy at the highest levels of the United States Government." I would go so far as to suggest that if a young evangelical wants to learn how not to engage in political and public life, they should study the activism of Robertson and Wallis. Swartz, however, seems generally sympathetic to Wallis and Sojourners, but in simply telling his story, Wallis' Manichean view of politics is readily apparent.
Manachaeism, an ancient Gnostic heresy which sprinkled Christianity in with a plethora of ancient pagan religions, is an apt description of the thinking of Robertson and Wallis. American evangelicalism, be it of a "left-wing" or "right-wing" flavor, has always flirted with a Gnostic dualism that keeps it at arm's length from historic Christian orthodoxy. Theologically, this has manifested itself in the novelty of dispensational pre-millennialism and the escapist fantasy of the "pre-tribulation rapture." Politically, it has produced flamboyant and outspoken activists on both sides of the aisle who have proven, in the long run, to be all bark and no bite.