A Conversation With Dan Wakefield
In his new book, The Hijacking of Jesus, longtime journalist and author Dan Wakefield turns his sharp analytic eye on the religious right. Through careful research and interviews with religious leaders across the country, Wakefield has developed a unique understanding of the rise of this new political juggernaut and thoughtful insights into what can be done about it.
When did the religious right enter the political arena, and how did they become such a force in the United States?
Well, I think they really entered it at the lowest point for the Republicans, which was the Barry Goldwater defeat in 1964. There were a couple of very savvy young guys at that time, Republicans, who saw the potential of the conservative, fundamentalist religious people. One of them was Morton Blackwell. When he looked out imagining all the numbers in their ranks, he said that he saw "virgin timber."
Paul Weyrich, another of the guys who was in on the beginning of this, saw a kind of backlash in the 1960s from people who were fearful and upset about communes and young people smoking dope. He went after conservative parents who were worried about their children. He also teamed up with Jerry Falwell, and really thought up the term "Moral Majority." Moral Majority then became big, and after that the Christian Coalition was created, and it just grew from there. Probably the key point, however, was in the 1970s. The oil man Lamar Hunt and Nelson Baker Hunt got together with other millionaires and pledged $1 billion to, as they put it, "win the nation for Christ" by the year 2000. That money funded a lot of these very powerful right-wing foundations and think tanks and organizations that have helped build this up.
How is it that so many in the ranks of the Christian right are missing the message of love in the New Testament?
They've missed the words of Jesus. One of the most hopeful developments is that just recently a group of progressive evangelicals led by Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo and people from a movement called the Emergent Church have gotten together, wanting to distance themselves from the Pat Robertson/Jerry Falwell crowd. They call themselves "Red-Letter Christians," which refers to the fact that in many versions of the New Testament the words of Jesus are printed in red letters. So they are saying: "Let's just get back to what Jesus himself actually said." If you were to do that, then there would be a much greater focus on the Sermon on the Mount, treating your neighbor as yourself, helping the Samaritans and everything else that was in Jesus' message.
In your book you write about the precarious relationship that the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) has with the televangelists.
The NAE--from what I've been told by some evangelicals--is afraid that they would lose their base if they separated themselves from Falwell and Robertson. They have mass appeal. However, there are people still in the NAE who are embarrassed by them. So while the NAE has advocated on paper a lot of good things, as Tony Campolo told me, "They don't then carry it out." He said that he and Jim Wallis could stay and work within the NAE, but that it could take years to get them to change to some real activism. That's one of the reasons why they split apart with this new movement.
It seems that now that they've gained power, they don't want to give it up, even if it compromises their message or beliefs.
Well, I'm sure a lot of them do believe those things. It's hard to think of anybody being able to follow Pat Robertson, yet his 700 Club television program is very popular. When you go around recommending the assassination of presidents of Latin American countries, it would seem that you've even gone outside the fringe, and yet people still follow him.
What do you think is so attractive about the theology of the religious right? Is it simply the "sophisticated marketing" and plethora of services and activities that you found at the mega-churches, or is it something in their message?
I think also that it's the belief factor. While I'm not sure what it is now that they believe in--since they don't believe in a lot of the messages of Jesus--they do have a strong belief in whatever they conceive of as Jesus and his resurrection. I think that one of the problems with the mainline Protestant churches especially is that they seem to have lost a lot of that. They have become very intellectualized, and have lost some of the belief that was last present in the work of Martin Luther King. It's kind of ironic that when African-American leaders like King were talking about faith, liberals or progressives could join in and sing hymns and say "Amen," but now they seem embarrassed. There is a real kind of milquetoast quality to a lot of mainline Protestantism now.
In the book you speak fondly of King and the civil rights movement, and how the church was more alive during that struggle. Are there no issues that similarly invigorate the church today, or is there a lack of leadership?
There are more issues than ever. Part of it is fear. A very large church in New York where I've spoken before did not want me to come and talk about this book. They said that after several guest ministers spoke against the Iraq War, people had left the congregation and threatened to resign their membership. These issues have become really matters of keeping your job.
There is also an opinion out there that it is exactly that timidity in the mainline churches on peace and justice issues that turns people off. Do you think that if the church took more of a stand that it would actually be appealing and draw people in?
Yes, I think so. But there is more to it than that. They also find that the churches that really do well in the midst of the kind of malaise of interest are the ones that really get out and have active programs of help for the poor and the fringe groups of society.
You also talk about the disconnect between the secular left and the spiritual left. Why do you think that's the case?
A lot of the secular left seems to have a very condescending or dismissive or hostile attitude about religion. It's sort of been built in historically, a kind of contempt on the part of intellectuals and academic circles for people of faith. I think it's the view of the political enlightenment saying that anybody who believes there is anything beyond this must be crazy, or that it doesn't match scientific reason. They don't understand really what the positive aspects are for people who do have faith or follow a religious path. It's a shame because they really in other ways are advocating the same kind of goals.
So what can the left do to turn the tide?
I think they ought to take a page from the right. Some of the very conservative evangelicals, when they allied themselves with Catholics, came up with the term "co-belligerents." They said that while they don't believe in the same faith as the Catholics or agree on a lot of issues, at least they can agree on being against certain things, such as abortion, gay marriage and many gay rights. So I think that the secular left and the religious left ought to say that even though they don't believe the same things about faith or religion, they certainly agree that there ought to be an end to the war in Iraq, a much more active program to combat poverty and to give healthcare to everyone and issues like that.
Are you hopeful that a movement is building in this direction?
I think so. I'm very pleased that The Nation has published a piece, along with part of my book, by Rabbi Michael Lerner. I wrote about Lerner and how he founded this movement called the Network of Spiritual Progressives. They had a big conference last summer in Berkeley and are having another one in May in Washington, DC. This is a real outreach to people who don't belong to a church or synagogue but who feel there is some spiritual message in these issues of peace and help for the poor and the outcasts. Also, I was pleased to learn recently that Reinhold Niebuhr was a major contributor to The Nation during the 1940s. So there really is a tradition in the magazine of recognizing an alliance with religious leaders, which certainly happened with Martin Luther King as well.