Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

An Empire on a Hill? the Christian Right and the Right to Be Christian in America

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

An Empire on a Hill? the Christian Right and the Right to Be Christian in America

Article excerpt

During two decades spent studying Conservative Protestantism, I've grown used to colleagues asking me: "Are the people you're describing 'really' Christian?" Or, to paraphrase a recent encounter: "Why do you study a religious culture that has diverged so much from what used to be considered mainstream Christianity?" The questioner saw Conservative Protestantism, the kind of evangelical Christianity associated with the religious right in America, as inauthentic, as a kind of "McFaith," a system of belief and practice that doesn't belong in the same university classroom as religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. The question I received from the editor of this journal, Roy Grinker, that prompted the writing of this piece was, I'm pleased to say, considerably more nuanced. Would I would be interested in submitting an article to AQ that explored an apparent puzzle to anthropologists: How to explain the popularity of the Christian Right in American culture and politics? Grinker also supplied a quotation to reflect upon, which included a description of something a Bush aide said to a journalist:1

The [Bush] aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.... That's not the way the world really works anymore.... We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality, we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

As Grinker suggested, these remarks are grist for the anthropological mill, and they prompted some initial questions in my mind. Are we seeing "models for" and "models of" reality being translated into evangelical realpolitik'? What is the significance of the seemingly modest adjective "discernible" when applied here to "reality"? I hope to address these questions later in this piece. However, in the context of Grinker's query, the image that really stayed in my mind was a more specific, historical one, albeit one overlaid with a fair amount of myth. It was of John Winthrop, future first Governor of Massachusetts, writing his diary in 1630 on board the ship that was taking him from "Old Europe" to what would become a "New England." Winthrop's meditations famously laid out the vision of a city on a hill, a Puritan light to the world that would be a model for other "plantations." His imagination extended as far as Church and State "configured in a godly commonwealth" (Balmer and Winner 2002:13), and drew on the Puritan assumption that God's covenant to His People, described in the Old Testament, now applied to all faithful societies and generations.

Ironically, Winthrop became the first governor of a state that would eventually come to embody just the kind of East Coast values that the Bush aide would presumably dismiss as being "reality-based," but the juxtaposition of the two perspectives is suggestive, even if they are separated by almost three centuries. Both assume that the eyes of the world are upon them, and that they have been given the opportunity to be exemplars to others in ways that include but also transcend the political realm. Both can be seen as "actors" on a cultural and social stage that is visible-as is a city on a hill-to many others; but they are also actors in the sense of being agents legitimately engaged in conflict against a world often perceived to be secular, weak and corrupt. The two examples therefore map America on to a metaphorical landscape where the nation's calling often seems akin to that of a New Israel.

Why, however, have I replaced the image of a city with that of an empire? If the idea of an elevated city provided a beacon of hope for a believer still in transit, still aboard the boat leading him to the shores of a Promising Land, an empire can be seen as a place for people who have arrived, who are already occupying a center. …

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