There has been a great deal of discussion about the government shutdown over the last couple of days. Most of that conversation has revolved around the political dynamics involved (and keeping scores about who's winning and who's losing). Jim Wallis of Sojournors argues that the real conversation should be a moral and theological one. His argument is that shutting down the government is "un-biblical."
Meanwhile, Frank Schaeffer makes the case that the blame for the shutdown can be laid squarely at the feet of the American Evangelical movement, or more specifically, the dead-enders of the Christian Right.
To the old-fashioned conservative mantra “Big government doesn’t work,”the newly radicalized evangelicals (and their anti-abortion Roman Catholic co belligerents) added “The U.S. government is evil!” And the very same community—Protestant American evangelicals—who had once been the bedrock supporters of public education, and voted for such moderate and reasonable men as President Dwight Eisenhower, became the enemies of not only the public schools but also of anything in the (nonmilitary) public sphere “run by the government.”
As they opened new institutions (proudly outside the mainstream), the evangelicals doing this “reclaiming” cast themselves in the role of persecuted exiles and victims of secularism. In my new book And God Said, “Billy!” I examine in depth the paranoid fantasy land of delusion this sort of thinking took me and millions of others into. What they never admitted was what my alter-ego Billy in my book never admits: we evangelicals were self-banished from mainstream institutions, not only because we evangelicals’ political views on social issues conflicted with most people’s views, but also because we evangelicals found ourselves holding the short end of the intellectual stick.
Pointing to Sarah Palin as the apotheosis of this know-nothing strain of evangelical self-righteousness, he then turns the tables and, like Wallis, argues for a more Christian view of place of government in the common life:
What’s so curious is that in this religion-inflicted country of ours, the same evangelicals, conservative Roman Catholics, and others who had been running around post-Roe insisting that America had a “Christian foundation” and demanding a “return to our heritage” and/or more recently trashing health care reform as “communist” and demanding the shutdown of the government in order to overturn this “communist” invention by a “non-American” president, ignored the fact that one great contribution of Christianity was a commitment to strong central government. For instance, this included church support for state-funded, or state-church-funded, charities, including hospitals, as early as the fourth century.
Government was seen as part of God’s Plan for creating social justice and defending the common good. Christians were once culture-forming and culture-embracing people. Even the humanism preached by the supposedly “anti-Christian” Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century was, in fact, a Deist/Christian “heresy,” with a value system espousing human dignity borrowed wholesale from the Sermon on the Mount.
Meanwhile, Morgan Guyton at Huffington Post makes the argument that there is a theology behind the government shutdown: It is rooted in the weird biblicist crypto-fundamentalist Calvinism of R. J. Rushdoony:
On the eve of our government shutdown, I wanted to do some research into the theological roots of Senator Ted Cruz, the standard-bearer of the Tea Party Republicans behind the shutdown. I'm interested in understanding what account of Christianity creates the "no compromise" crusade that the Tea Party has become known for. It turns out that Ted's father, Rafael Cruz, is a pastor with Texas charismatic ministry Purifying Fire International who has been campaigning against Obamacare the last several months. He has a distinct theological vision for what America is supposed to look like: Christian dominionism.
This dominionist trend has been lurking in the shadows of American evangelicalism for decades -- sometimes more pronounced, sometimes less, but always present. You didn't have to scratch Sarah Palin very hard to watch it come out, and the same seems to be the case with Cruz.
And you can see the kind of faith in the idea that the Church will replace and supplant the government (in every regard, in Rushdoony's ultimate vision), in the confidant avowals by Tea Partiers and their water carriers in Congress that, once the government is shut down, people will quickly realize how little they need it, and how easily the "private sector" can step in to do everything that we've gotten so used to government doing. And, if you belong to this particular branch of evangelical subculture, you can deceive yourself into believing this quite readily:
So to pull all this logic together, God anoints priests to work in the church directly and kings to go out into the marketplace to conquer, plunder, and bring back the spoils to the church. The reason governmental regulation has to disappear from the marketplace is to make it completely available to the plunder of Christian "kings" who will accomplish the "end time transfer of wealth." Then "God's bankers" will usher in the "coming of the messiah." The government is being shut down so that God's bankers can bring Jesus back.
And here's the thing. When you get a lot of people together in a megachurch, you can do some pretty impressive things with your mission projects. You can feed thousands of people and host ESL classes and job training programs and medical clinics. And I imagine that seeing your accomplishments could give you the hubris of thinking we don't need a government at all to make our society run; our church can be the new government.
More's the pity for us if this brand of evangelicalism continues to take hold. It's a remarkable confluence of economic libertarianism, political anarchism, and religious authoritarianism that should leave us gasping in fear. If you want to know what the early marks of religious totalitarianism look like, these are your indicators.