Redeeming America

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Michael Lienesch. Redeeming America : Piety and Politics in the New Christian Right. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993. x, 332 p. $19.95 ISBN 0-8078-4428-4



--Mlinhart 14:25, 6 Apr 2006 (EDT)

In Redeeming America: Piety & Politics in the New Christian Right, Michael Lienesch has written a very good, easily understandable study of the New Christian Right, concentrating on its rise starting with religious conservatives' repudiation in 1980 of a true born-again candidate in Jimmy Carter in favor of the anticommunist conservative Ronald Reagan. Lienesch gives us a basic introduction into the rise of the New Right, its roots with previous religious revival movements, and a summary of its successes and failures since 1980. He notes three characteristics that have manifested themselves with each reincarnation of these movements. First is the prominent role played by populist preachers like Gerald L.K. Smith in the 1930's to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson of the 1980's. The second characteristic he notes is the organizational sophistication of these groups. He says, "Throughout the twentieth century,religious conservatives have proven particularly adept at creating national organizations, soliciting the funds to pay for them, and using them for political purposes." (p. 6) And the third characteristic he notes, " the somewhat problematic role of sympathetic politicians," from William Jennings Bryan to Ronald Reagan, problematic in the sense that connections with politicians sometimes proved "curious and self-defeating."

Lienesch then gives a brief overview of the economic status of the rank and file members of the New Christian Right whom he characterizes as coming from middle and lower classes, in contrast to the movements' leaders who are invariably well educated and whose philosophy seems to have more in common with "...local business owners than with those in ...[their]...own congregation." (p. 11) He describes their strategy as one designed to highlight emotional and highly divisive issues, while all the while trying to maintain a tightly run organization in order to gain influence , particularly with political leaders. He notes that although most observers viewed the New Right as a monolithic organization, in fact, beyond a common belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, it consisted of a coalition of different groups, all advocating different things. Finally, he talks about the motivation of the movement in the 1980's when Christian conservatives appeared " awaken suddenly to America's sinfulness, announcing a campaign to save its soul by redeeming it from the forces of secularity." (p. 19)

Linesch focuses on the beliefs of many of the movement's leaders that motivated them. He first looks at the personal motivations of the leaders, concentrating on the conversion experience common to all born-again Christians. He notes that these experiences differed from person to person, making it difficult to generalize, but he finds they were commonly characterized by conciousness raising on the part of the individual, when they become aware of sin and their own alienation from society. Conversion was followed first by salvation, the point at which they become born again and vowed to live their life according to a new creed, and then by a period of participation in which they " to live as saints in a sinful world." (p. 24) It is then that they see personal and social salvation as one and the same. They "...assume that personal conversion cannot be complete without social reform." (p. 50)

Lienesch examines the role of the family in motivating these leaders. He shows that these leaders view the family as the most important of social institutions and regard threats to the family as requiring most of their attention. The heart of their definition of family is its power structure. In their view " are to act as authorities, women are to be submissive, and children are to obey." (p. 53) This view, combined with the their view that Christianity is under siege from secular America, leads them to be most vociferous on issues they view as inimical to the family, including feminism, homosexuality, pornography, and pre-marital sex. There are differences in emphasis for leaders with different backgrounds. Fundamentalists and Charismatics disagree, for example, on whether the movement should pursue a defensive strategy, that is, fighting back when they see their beliefs under siege from society, or whether the movement should pursue a more agressive strategy of proactive social reform.

Like evangelical movements of the 19th and early 20th century, conservative Christians view economic success and personal salvation as closely linked. This Calvinist notion, as Lienesch notes ". . . equate[s] economic enterprise with moral value . . . success as synonynous with wealth." (p. 95). For New Right leaders, economic conservativism not only fit into their view of wealth and salvation, but also provided a common ground with secular conservatives, and differentiated them in non-religious ways from liberal evangelicals. Also at the heart of their economic world view is a common abhorrence of the social welfare state. They see themselves as "...creating a church-centered alternative..." to this welfare state. And further, they believe in the ultimate victory of the free-market over the "socialistic" state as many of them see America now.


Minhart, Spring 2006

Lienesch reports a decline of the activism of the religions right in the late eighties. It is probably no coincidence that their public presence waned at a time when the decline of the evil empire was diminishing the communist threat. Moreover as McGirr (Suburban Warriors The Origins of the New American Right) suggests, conservatives softened their message as they entered the political mainstream.

This book is a discussion of New Right thinking. Unfortunately, it is not a history of the growth of the religious right and there is minimal discussion of the long term impact of the right. Some authors mentioned by Lienesch are well known to the general public but many are not. He makes few statements about the position of these lesser known writers so it is difficult to know whether they are well-accepted spokespersons. There is no Bibliography although there are extended endnotes.

Lienesch points out the desire of the Christian right to allow prayer in schools but he does not discuss home schooling or the increasing numbers of Christian schools and what that means for the existing educational system and for the students themselves especially as American grows more diverse. Lienesch does not address issues of race beyond some comments of Christian leaders against slavery and racism. The conservative Christian churches are largely white and certainly none would advocate racism yet there was an increase in the number of church related schools that appeared to be a response to integration.

Lienesch begins his discussion with the attitude of conservative religious followers to self and family. With regard to self, conservatives ‘believe in conversion, the act of faith and forgiveness through which they are brought from sin into a state of everlasting salvation.’ (23) The religious right is largely Protestant, usually subscribes to the inerrancy and literalness of the Bible and believes in sin and the devil. With regard to family, Lienesch finds ‘men are to act as authorities, women are to be submissive and children are to obey.’ (53) They subscribe to a parenting philosophy of spare the rod and spoil the child. Lienesch cites Marebel Morgan, author of The Total Woman who advises that ‘the key to marriage lies in the happiness of the husband.’ (68) Despite the desirability of wifely submission, Christian advice writers affirm that when the husband is satisfied, ‘wives gain power, the ability to change their husbands, their marriages and even themselves.’ (69) Family values extend to their attitudes towards abortion, homosexuality, feminism and education, including sex education.

Conservative Christians in the 1980s had strong views on economics and both national and international politics. They were strongly pro-capitalist and anticommunist. They see few spiritual difficulties in advocating hard work, the pursuit of financial rewards and success. They connected to the supply-side economics of the Reagan era. In the view of Pat Robinson, “God encourages profit and in fact expects people to seek as much of it as possible, using wealth to make more wealth.’ (110) They accepted responsibility for charity but did not accept notions of entitlement by the poor. They assumed the economy was ‘natural and self-regulating’ (120) and opposed government involvement in economic and social matters. They were not satisfied with the state of American capitalism and the ‘socialistic alliance of big business with big government.’ (123) They believed Christians needed to save capitalism.

Lienesch notes that religious conservatives had not played an important role in postwar politics until the 1980s when they became committed to ‘active involvement in political issues.’ (139) He does not satisfactorily explain why this activity began at that time since his focus in aimed at the thinking of the right as a mature phenomenon. He does not address the possibility of a withdrawal to the comfort of religion after the turmoil of the sixties and seventies. He does mention that some historians see the movement as a ‘cultural defense designed to shore up a disappearing way of life against the currents of change and the tides of modern secular time.’ (140) Beyond his examination of the nature and lives of some of the leadership, Lienesch does not discuss the nature of the membership. Their writers seem to indicate they were solid hard-working Americans, but not particularly politically active or involved until motivated to activism by their distaste for secularism and humanism which they blamed for American failure to remain a Christian nation. --Mlinhart 14:25, 6 Apr 2006 (EDT)

Anonymous, fall 2005

On page 139, Lienesch finally gets into what I believe is the most important effect of the emergence of the new right during the 1980's, that is, in the political sphere. Prior to this time, religious conservatives and evangelicals played a relatively benign role in public policy. However, during the 1980's, religious conservatives "...entered the political realm with a will, and sometimes a vengeance." (Lienesch, 139) They sought, according to Lienesch, to remind America of it's religious roots and to reintroduce morality into public life. Lienesch notes however, his believe as well as others, that this involvement in politics was not as simple minded as many commentators have argued. Many see the new right as a "...classic case of right-wing radicalism," while others see it as reactionary, trying to "...shore up a disappearing way of life." (Lienesch, 140)For Lienesch however, in reviewing the writings of these leaders finds their arguments sometimes systematic and sophisticated and systematic, and sometimes illogical, and inconsistent. In their defense of what they believe to be a Christian American, leaders use our founding stories to bolster their argumnets, from the pilgrims and puritans, to revolutionaries and founders. In each case leaders see American in terms of right and wrong, black and white, and see the founding of the country in that way as well. For example most view the revolution as a religious crusade, ignoring the complexities surrounding the period.

This book deserves a more thorough treatment than I have given it here. The issues surrounding the emergence of the christian right and their effect on the social and political life of our country has been profound (and in my only editorial comment of the discussion...disturbing). Lienesch has given a good overview of the movement, and done a very good job showing the motivations of its leaders. My suggestion would have been to take the political chapter and expand it into it's own book. The issues there are so interesting and complex that it could stand as its own work.

Dave Smith, Fall 2006

Lienesch traces the rise of the New Christian Right as a mass movement, as "morally conservative" Christians, including Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons, mobilized to oppose the increasing secularization of society and all of its sinful manifestations. In the 1980's charismatic leaders like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell aroused concern and fostered involvement by their followers to achieve salvation and influence their communities in a moral way. Christian conservatives marched forth to save society. Linesch says, "At the beginning of the decade, they appeared to awaken suddenly to America's sinfulness, announcing a campaign to save its soul by redeeming it from the forces of secularity." (p. 19) The campaign they carried on "combined anticommunism, support for conservative economic reforms, and a platform of social politics that included opposition to abortion, homosexuality, and pornography, along with support for school prayer." (p. 5)

Lienesch finds that the rise of the New Christian Right was fueled by anticommunism, as "Christian conservatives forged an enduring alliance with more secular conservatives of the far right." (p. 211) Thus, the Cold War confrontation with communism became a focal point of the Christian conservative movement. In Suburban Warriors;, Lisa McGirr also found that the Cold War accelerated the conservative movement but from an economic rather than religious standpoint. McGirr says, "The dependence of the economy on defense and the military penetrated the consciousness of local elites, reinforcing the sense of connection between capitalism, prosperity, and anticommunism." (p. 51) While she finds that the "pro-defense climate reinforced a discourse of anticommunism," she also finds a link with religion. "Linked with the anticommunism of conservative churches, this discourse created a fertile climate for right-wing growth." (p. 52)

Lienesch believes that Christian conservatives have a messianic vision of "America as a chosen nation, singled out by the Creator as part of a providential plan." Lienesch says, "According to Christian conservatives, America is God's country." (p. 141)

Conservatives shared a disdain for New Deal policies, attributing to them the decline in personal responsibility and the breakdown of societal morality. Lienesch quotes Senator Helms, a prominent conservative who decried the barrage of "deals" starting with the New Deal that "have regimented our people and our economy and federalizes almost every human enterprise." Helms further said, "This onslaught has installed a gigantic scheme for redistributing the wealth that rewards the indolent and penalizes the hard-working." (p. 121)

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