The Retro American freak show

The millionaire entrepreneur John Sperling attracted some Big Media attention for his new group-project book, The Great Divide: Retro vs. Metro America, with a series of visually hip ads depicting Mel Gibson and Newt Gingrich (Retro) and Michael Moore and Hillary Clinton (Metro). The book is still another version of explaining the cultural divisions that GetReligion usually describes as Red and Blue America. Sperling sounds like a pleasant enough man in an online Q&A with Newsweek. He discusses growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household, becoming liberal while serving in the merchant marine and urging Democrats to offer a clear cultural alternative to Republicans -- what, they aren't doing this already? He dispels the rumor that he cloned his pet cat, but mentions that his venture did clone someone else's cat, and promptly received orders for 10 other cloning jobs (at $50,000 apiece).

An octogenarian entrepreneur who clones cats? What's not to like? (OK, the price is rather steep for anyone in Retro America, but maybe supply and demand will change that.)

What's not to like is a manuscript encumbered by stereotyping and frequent errors. Inspired by Sperling's ready use of the adjective fundamentalist -- which in popular coinage translates as "Anyone to my political or theological right" -- GetReligion downloaded the book's fourth chapter, "The Nature of Retro America's Political Power: Centrality of Race and Religion."

The chapter begins with statistics that show the disproportionate power still held by white men in state legislatures and in the Congress. Fair enough, and may both parties improve their statistics, steadily and soon.

But by the ninth page of the chapter, the authors tee off on the menace of fundamentalism. They begin with the briefest disclaimer: "There are, of course, millions of evangelicals who are not Republican, but those who are tend to be conservative and often fundamentalist."

Gee, thanks guys! Mighty Metro of you to grant that "millions of evangelicals" are not Republican. Could it be that millions of evangelicals manage to be Republican but not fundamentalist? Oh, no way, what with such bastions of fundamentalism as the United Methodist Church ("Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.") or vaguely defined Lutherans: "Map 4-6 shows that religious life in Retro America is dominated by evangelical Protestants -- Southern Baptists, United Methodists, and Evangelical Lutherans." (Surely the authors would not confuse the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with the Southern Baptist Convention? Don't bank on it.)

But that's the merest stretching exercise compared to the generalizations that follow. Here are the worst offenders in Chapter 4.

Anti-American inerrancy

These denominations have a strong fundamentalist element that sees the Bible as inerrant and as a guide to both private and public life. Consequently, they reject the rational, scientific approach to the development of public policy that has characterized American politics since the nation's founding.

One precocious fundie!

They are written by Jerry Jenkins, owner of the Christian Writers Guild, with Tim LaHaye, a Bob Jones University graduate and co-founder. Jenkins' and LaHaye's Left Behind books have on several occasions been at the top of the New York Times best-seller list, have sold more than 62 million copies, 14 and 6 of them have been turned into films.

[Bob Jones Sr. founded BJU in 1927, without any assistance from the one-year-old LaHaye. Only two Left Behind titles have become films; a third is in the works.]

Cite one example

What happens after the 1,000 years of Christ's reign is not clearly spelled out in prophecy, but one popular interpretation is that the earth and all mankind would cease to exist.

Thanks so much, James Watt!

Not only do most of the 70 to 80 million fundamentalists hold conservative political views, but other surveys have also shown that many are indifferent to the problems of environmental degradation. Because the End Times are near, why worry about the environment?

Dumbing "destruction of life" down

The fundamentalist devotion to the "sanctity of life" holds only until the child emerges from the womb; once born, the devotion is often to the "destruction of life."

First Amendment rights as a constitutional problem

We do not know the extent to which evangelical officials share inerrant and millennial beliefs, but we do know, given the high scores they receive from the Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition, that they are influenced by and act in response to the beliefs held by the fundamentalist Republican base. This presents a serious constitutional problem.

Is ultra-fundamentalism new and improved?

The [Family Research Council] scores determine the depth of a member's religious persuasion. The council is operated by Focus on the Family, headed by ultra-fundamentalist Dr. James Dobson.

[Dobson founded FRC, but Focus does not "operate" it.]

Alex Massie of The Scotsman describes Sperling's problem well:

When Mr Sperling poses the important question for Democrats, "why do we lose elections when we are right on all the issues?" he assumes the existence of a genetic stupidity that explains the otherwise inexplicable appeal of the Republican Party. It does not seem to occur to him that any decent person could possibly be a conservative. Indeed, Mr Sperling's condescension illustrates the Democrats' difficulties. It is hard to win votes from folk you so clearly despise.

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