Politics is not reducible to elections, of course. Yet these contests—particularly the quadrennial spectacle that is a Presidential race—usually conclude with opportunities for political reflection. Nowhere is this more evident than in the blogosphere, now crowded with academics’ reflections mere days following the tallying of votes. Whether these reflections are sober (Ed Blum’s piece at Religion Dispatches) or optimistic (Todd Gitlin’s exultations at Salon), whether they focus down on minutiae (“evangelicalism” and exit polls) or dolly back to take in a big picture (Michael Lind’s pronunciation of a Fourth Republic), they are not so much predictions or mile markers as they are chalk drawings on the pavement, always ready to be washed away.
Many have taken this as an opportunity to reflect on the fate of the Christian Right, a complex coalition of cultures that has constituted the most powerful expression of American political religion of the last thirty years. D. Michael Lindsay’s recent contribution is a sharp analysis of the organizational shifts—in the recent past and the likely near future—among evangelicals, conservative and otherwise. And his ruminations about the coming shapes of conservative Christianities in America seem to me to be spot on (I share his expectation of Bobby Jindal’s ascendancy, for what it’s worth).
These kinds of measurement tools and transformations (those occurring among leaders and public organizations) are well worth monitoring, of course. But, if we seek to track possible change, we must look also to a certain kind of enduring culture of complaint, one that has been sustained not just in conversations surrounding the unceasing campaign cycle but also in persistent exchanges that grow louder near elections, mutterings and complaints that are amplified in the resonance chambers of American public life. The “conceptual grammar” of religion discourse in public life has been shaped—broadly since the 1970s and explicitly since the 2000 elections—by the categories “bigotry,” “oppression,” and “victimhood.” These tropes are not exhaustive of conversations about religion and politics, but they have emerged as powerful indices of claims to political authenticity that depend on the languages of combat, resentment, and violence.
This critical mode has long animated and sustained portions of conservative religious culture (exemplified but not limited to Christian Right politics), but it is also part of a broader context which nurtures such resentments. In the broadest historical sense, such discourses and sensibilities partake of familiarly American forms of demonology. More specifically, their origins are located partly in what Michael Sandel calls the “recrudescence of virtue”: “the attempt, coming largely but not wholly from the right, to revive virtue, character-formation, and moral judgment as considerations in public policy and political discourse.”
Since the flowering of identity politics beginning in the 1970s, and the reemergence of heavily politicized conservative Christianities during this same period, these moral considerations have reached their apotheosis in constructions of “religion” as a political force through recourse to the languages of violence and oppression. Both advocates and critics of politically engaged Christianities have invoked these categories as a means to establish political legitimacy. These tropes have been invoked consistently to shape a specific religio-political identity through symbolic and rhetorical constructions of an Other. Those who speak this language suggest that they are an “embattled majority,” representatives of a “real” America undone by interlopers. Such protestations—from powerful institutions and heavily-funded individuals, in mass media, and in the 2008 campaign—posit that Christians are victims of “religious bigotry,” an unjust marginalization of the “faithful” from public life at the doing of secular liberals, activist judges, and Hollywood elites, among others, who oppose America’s Christian heritage. Over decades, a narrative has been advanced to suggest that a purported Golden Age in the mid-twentieth century had been disrupted by hostile “elites” and antagonists, and by assertions that America’s true heritage and true citizens needed to “take back” the mantle of legitimacy by reasserting their authority and their values against those who would make them victims of illegitimate taxation, immoral legislation, and selective use of the discourses of rationality and neutrality.
Naturally this is far from the only public Christian narrative advanced during this period, nor even the only conservative Christian one. But it has been powerful, influential, and enduring. Nietzsche famously described how those who perceive themselves as “victims” use this status to become oppressors and “killers” themselves. Political theorist Wendy Brown writes, in States of Injury, that politicized identities depend on ideals of inclusiveness “as well as their exclusion from it, for their own continuing existence.” In like fashion, contemporary uses of categories like victimization and oppression shape an orientation to public life that privileges combat rather than conversation, where Others are posited as those whom we must domesticate via the exercise of power, where laments replace deliberation. As Jeffrey Stout writes, “the expression of anger, grief, and disappointment is essential to democratic politics.” While such expressions are recognizable parts of American history, as are various strains of demonology, the construction of enemies and victims has increasingly become a surrogate for deliberation. The more such themes are articulated, the greater the shift away from shared institutions and mutual investment in the democratic process in favor of a language of scorn, persecution, and triumphalism, traits manifested in expressions as disparate as talk radio, home school curricula, and James Dobson’s fearful letter from 2012.
So as we look to the future, it is the health of this narrative, this tendency I will be watching. There is little evidence that the power of such claims will abate. While Sarah Palin’s or Samuel Wurzelbacher’s articulations thereof may not have yielded electoral votes, part of the power of these claims—and those like them, issued by different constituencies—is that they are nurtured in a context shaped by the absence of reasoned discourse and historical vision. Something about the surrealism of this unreason is captured in Jodi Dean’s writings about alien abductee claims: “Their efforts to defend themselves become further manifestations of the virtuality of contemporary reality.” Similarly, no corrections to accusations of palling around with terrorists or socialism can really be effective, since they are always announcing themselves in a context which defeats them, which contextualizes them as yet more chatter, and where to chatter is to be guilty of protesting too much. It seems, at times, that one can only add to the din. Political power is achieved through volume and repetition rather than suasion.
So while we may see a shift in representative figures, a recalibration of strategies, and so forth, the larger political context will likely prove far more intransigent, unless and until the quality of public discourse and participation changes. I expect that the rhetorics of embattlement and violence will remain powerful, and their clangor lively in the resonance chambers of American public life. And yet this moment may also become what Robert Orsi calls an “abundant event,” “characterized by aspects of the human imagination that cannot be completely accounted for by social and cultural codes.” It is possible that, despite how overdetermined Obama as signifier has already become, his presence in American public life may yet become some kind of countersign to the drab, cranky tendencies that have flourished these last decades, like embers rekindled from earlier moments in American demonology. Perhaps just the further cooling of these embers might be enough to restore lost faiths.