WAKE UP, AMERICA! If you happen to be a God-fearing fundamentalist father living in a house of tracts on a landfill amid the backwaters of prejudice, it's time to load your spiritual guns to fend off the advances of secular humanists, who would: 1) take away your children to teach them the Playboy way of knowledge in sex education courses; 2) seduce your wife into the white slave trade of a career outside the home; and 3) sell your country down the river of SALT II.
Beware, America! If you happen to be a progressive liberal male living in a high- tech loft amid the secular spires of modernism, it's time to disarm the charging army of fundamentalists who would: 1) burn your Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. books, your Rolling Stones albums, and your stash of grass; 2) force you to spank your children with a spiked ping-pong paddle, sing "Onward Christian Soldiers" before every sporting event, and swear on the Bible that Noah's ark accommodated more beasts than the Bronx Zoo; and 3) turn your carefree spouse equivalent into a submissive Total Woman.
Such (if somewhat exaggerated) are the apocalyptic warnings being hurled about in the current ideological battle between fundamentalist Christians and modern America. No longer content to rail in their pulpits against the decline of faith, family, and national defense, many fundamentalist leaders have joined forces with ultra-conservative politicians to return America to the halcyon days of the Cold War, when America feared God, Communists, and sex, but loved the bomb and big business. And opponents of these Bible-brandishing flag- wavers (known generically, if inaccurately, as the Moral Majority) have responded with their own form of banner-waving sanctimony and vicious caricatures.
Adding to the hostilities of this war of intolerance, Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, the authors of Snapping, an investigation of the mind-washing techniques of religious cults, have followed up that first attack on blind faith with Holy Terror. After traveling 10,000 miles over a period of five months during 1981, Conway and Siegelman have concluded that America "has already taken dramatic steps toward becoming a fundamentalist nation." Fundamentalist leaders, assert Conway and Siegelman, are guilty of "mass manipulation on a scale that we believe is unprecedented in both religion and politics."
Conway and Siegelman make an impassioned case for the impending takeover of our statehouses, our schools, our bedrooms, and our minds by the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson of The 700 Club. Comparing the propaganda efforts of fundamentalist preachers to the brainwashing methods used in Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, and Mao's China, Conway and Siegelman contend that America is undergoing a siege of "total propaganda" rivaling the will- crushing tactics of those regimes. Behind this campaign of terror, however, "sits no single maniacal leader, no lone rebel, visionary or even a formal ruling clique, but the syndrome of fundamentalism." A "syndrome" perpetuated by TV preachers, crackpot tycoons, grass-roots proselytizers, and direct-mail dunners.
Certainly this vision of a fundamentalist seizure of power is a terrifying prospect to most Americans. Jerry Falwell's amen corner, if one tallies the viewers of his Old-Time Gospel Hour, is less than 2 million--hardly a majority. And the Capitol Hill massacre of November 1980 is a testament to the rapidity with which a coalition of religious and secular strategists can build a consensus and change the balance of power in government. Moreover, such pictures as silver-hoarding billionaire Bunker Hunt pouring millions of dollars into the coffers of the Campus Crusade for Christ in order to make the world safe for Christian capitalists are not particularly heart-warming scenarios.
But to inflate Falwell and his fundamentalist brethren into masters of mind control and co-conspirators in a smoothly spinning scheme to seize the hearts and minds of hitherto rational Americans overestimates the clout and cohesiveness of the religious right and underestimates the power and diversity of their opponents. Fundamentalists have not all agreed on the need to meddle in politics; they have not even agreed on which version of the Bible is to be taken literally, nor which pro-life bill in Congress to get fanatic about. Moreover, Arbitron and Nielsen ratings indicate a steady decline in the audience of TV preachers, particularly those, like James Robison, who have gotten tediously political.
Worse still, Conway and Siegelman seem to regard any kind of fervent religious faith as a sign of mental breakdown. Consigning fundamentalist Christians who watch The 700 Club instead of Three's Company to the same categorical nuthouse as they do flower-peddling Moonies shows an astonishing ignorance of the familial, regional, and class influences at work in the shaping of religious beliefs. And to characterize evangelical Christianity as a sinister club that has "surrendered" to a "supernatural being" is an assault on the saints as well as the sinners of Christendom. While it may be comforting to regard one's ideological enemies as victims of mind control, one need not condemn the religious needs of fundamentalists in order to condemn their political actions. One need not throw the baby out with the baptismal water.
Remarkably, Conway and Siegelman have succeeded in matching the mean- spirited tone and hyperventilated rhetoric of the TV preachers themselves. In a fund-raising letter, Jerry Falwell warns, "Our Grand Old Flag is going down the drain. . . . One day the Russians may pick up the telephone and call Washington, D.C., and dictate the terms of our surrender to them." Similarly, Conway and Siegelman warn, "As Americans, we must face squarely the prospect that very soon we may be living in an America reborn of total propaganda and surrender to the supernatural, a notion that rejects reason and science, caring and compassion, and . . . the basic principles of human freedom on which this country was founded." One hardly knows which way to run, nor which enemy is at the door.
By contrast, Daniel Maguire's analysis of the fundamentalist phenomenon, The New Subversives: Anti-Americanism of the Religious Right, begins with the warning that "the first temptation to be guarded against is paranoia," lest opponents of the New Right themselves get caught up in the heat of epithet-flinging and endow "the threat with demonic powers"--a caution that might well apply to authors of Holy Terror, with their web of international conspiracy and electronic cults. Maguire quotes Richard Hofstadter on the danger of attributing to one's political opponents "some especially effective source of power; he controls the press; he directs the public mind through 'managed news': he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind; he has a special technique for seduction; he is gaining a stranglehold on the educational system."
Although The New Subversives is no less provocative a title than Holy Terror, Maguire, a professor of ethics at Marquette University, acknowleges the validity of many of the issues fundamentalists have raised. There are crises in American life, he admits: "The rightists are addressing real problems when they speak of things like the legitimate place of religion in political and social life, the decline of family stability, the hidden value-assumptions of supposedly neutral public education, the chaotic sexual mores of the day, and issues like pornography, drug abuse, and abortion." For Maguire, the proper response to preachers who invade politics is not to send them scuttling back to the bywaters, but to reclaim the social issues they have appropriated.
Moreover, Maguire urges nonfundamentalist Christians to reclaim the moral and biblical prerogatives seized by conservative evangelicals. The Bible, after all, can be a formidable weapon when used as a spiritual guide rather than a bludgeon. The major "leitmotif" of the scriptures most modern scholars would agree, is justice. But as representatives of 15 Protestant denominations declared in an official statement critical of the radical right, "On theological and ethical grounds, we reject the assumption that human beings can know with absolute certainty the will of God on particular public policy issues. Many in the religious right seem to have forgotten the clear Biblical witness and central Christian acknowledgment that all of us are finite, fallible, and sinful."