This article was originally published in March, 1994 and has recently been converted into HTML text format in September, 2022; please excuse any grammatical errors. This piece reflects the editorial standards of the time.
Redeeming America: Piety and Politics in the New Christian Right
University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1993. 260 pp., plus footnotes and index.
In Redeeming America, Michael Lienesch examines conservative Christian beliefs and values in order to present the overall world view of what he calls the “New Christian Right.” Choosing some past and present key players—Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson (important national leaders), James Robison and Anita Bryant (prominent local partisans), and finally, Jim and Tammy Bakker and Pat Boone (movement celebrities)—Lienesch relies on the words of the players themselves, using their published autobiographies and “the books they produce in ever-proliferating numbers” to paint a portrait of the leadership of the radical Religious Right.
While focusing on these seven leaders, Lienesch does not ignore dozens of other important movers and shakers in the movement. Fundamentalists, Charismatics, Evangelicals, and Reconstructionists, representing the chief doctrinal sectors within conservative Christianity, are all well represented. And, importantly, they are easily located in the book’s excellent index.
Lienesch has identified five components of the beliefs and values of the New Christian Right that appear consistently in their writings, devoting a chapter to each. He begins with a chapter called “Self,” which examines the first step of the authors’ journeys-conversion. After the defining experience of conversion brings “self” under the control of the Biblical mind-set, that world view defines and organizes the other components of New Christian Right beliefs: “Family,” “Economy,” “Polity,” and “World.”
Lienesch correctly emphasizes that the key to understanding the New Christian Right is to understand conversion and its many implications. Using his seven key players’ autobiographical stories as a guide, he divides conversion into three steps. The first is “Preparation,” which encompasses “sin” and feelings of worthlessness before conversion. Looking for a pattern that applies to all seven, Lienesch finds that: “For all their differences, the autobiographies are alike in telling stories of people searching for security.” He describes their conversion experiences as a search for identity.
The next step in conversion (which Lienesch describes as a process: a beginning rather than an end) is “Salvation.” Duly converted, each subject felt complete and secure for the first time. For some, conversion related closely to career choice. The conversions of Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, and Pat Robertson· were followed by a calling to preach. In each case, personal crisis was turned into a career.
The final step in Lienesch’s schema of conversion is called “ ‘Participation.” Each of the seven New Christian Right leaders entered a quest to prove herself or himself to society, on society’s terms. Though early in their lives each had little interest in politics, after conversion they looked for material reward for their faith-not simply for personal gain, but as proof of God’s endorsement of their ministries. Lienesch concludes that: “ ‘Beginning within the inmost reaches of oneself, conversion is not complete until it is professed and put into practice in the world, transforming not only the soul but also society.”
While personal conversion stands resolutely at the center of New Christian Right autobiography, giving meaning, order, and security to each life, all see themselves as God’s tool to convert society. This is the important link between their own conversion and their social and political activity. Rev. Tim LaHaye describes salvation as a two-step process: “Repent of our personal and national sins, bringing revival to the land.” Salvation, in other words, must transcend the individual and reach out ‘to the nation, and, ultimately, the world.
The second consistent component in New Christian Right beliefs and values is “Family.” No other subject has been treated so thoroughly by Christian conservatives. And when it comes to family, according to writer John L. Kater, Jr., “the issue at stake is power.” Lienesch adds: “Anxious defenders of a contemporary form of patriarchy, they insist that men act as authorities, that wives submit to their husbands, and that children obey their parents. Men are to be men and women women; differences between the sexes are dearly defined, and deviations are punished severely.”
Conservative Christians believe that a well-ordered family will protect its members against the corruption of the outside world. The purpose of families, says Tim LaHaye, is to “insulate the Christian home against all evil forces.” Following this reasoning, having gay children indicates failure in the Christian home. One wonders how Phyllis Schlafly, who has an openly gay son, and other prominent leaders of the New Christian Right who have gay (albeit closeted) offspring, deal with this.
Another cluster of New Christian Right beliefs addresses “Economy.” “For the New Christian Right,” Lienesch writes, “the economy is a touchstone, a kind of totem or test by which its members define themselves as conservatives and distinguish themselves from their liberal and moderate counterparts.” When it comes to economics, contemporary conservative Christians dismiss piety and assume that prosperity plays a legitimate part in God’s plan for their lives. Leaders of the New Christian Right are largely responsible for this perspective, and can be credited with convincing millions of Christians not to be suspicious of wealth.
This ploy has worked well for the Religious Right. The movement demands large amounts of money to facilitate its agenda. What better source than those who support its ideological goals? However, there is a limit to the number of people who will back a cause with hard-earned dollars. The leaders of the New Christian Right have found a way to bridge this gap, based on the Bible, no less. Raising billions of dollars from “tithes and offerings,” they exploit conservative Christians, leaving them thinking they have given their money to God.
Shamelessly, these leaders inspire their followers to give beyond measure, even in times of scarcity. “I am as certain of this as of anything in my life,” says Pat Robertson. “If you are in financial trouble, the smartest thing you can do is to start giving money away. Give tithes and offerings to the Lord.”
Lienesch identifies “Polity” as his third category of beliefs and values, noting that political interest on the part of conservative Christians is a rather recent phenomenon. He adds that the movement’s involvement in politics is perhaps the most important characteristic of the New Christian Right.
Webster defines “polity” as “the form or constitution of a politically organized unit,” or “the form of government of a religious denomination.” A combination of these two definitions serves to describe the New Christian Right’s position and agenda, since the Religious Right is a political movement, probably more so than it is a religious movement. However, it uses religion to win votes and gain political power, and thus correctly should be considered theocratic. It attempts to find Biblical precedent to dictate the form of government, similar to the denominational manner of defining government within a religious body.
Drawing on the writings of Falwell, Robertson, and others, Lienesch illustrates why the New Christian Right believes America was founded by Christians, as a Christian nation. Falwell, for example, reaches this faulty conclusion by confusing the Declaration of Independence, which mentions God but is not the founding document of the U.S., with the Constitution, which does not mention God but is the nation’s founding document.
It is in this chapter that Lienesch introduces Christian Reconstructionist thinking and demonstrates how this little-known element of the New Christian Right is influencing the movement. Considered on the fringe by many, Christian Reconstructionism has had a more-than-subtle influence on the Religious Right.
Reconstructionist Rus Walton, describes well how most of the leaders of the Religious Right sum up the present day. He says that their mission is to “Christianize America. To bring this nation back to God.” This reflects the New Christian Right view that America has broken its covenant with God and drifted from its original purpose. “Thus,” Lienesch says, “they are determined to bring their country back to its spiritual beginnings, reminding Americans repeatedly that theirs is a biblical republic.
The final component of Christian Right thought, attitudes toward the “World,” are characteristically uncompromising. The New Christian Right is not only militantly nationalistic, but believes it has the moral responsibility to bring law and liberty to other countries.
Ultimately concerned with the end of the world (end-times theology) the New Christian Right sees a worldwide utopia only after the end of the existing world, as depicted in the apocalyptic visions of the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. While there are many differing beliefs on this topic, the various factions do find grounds for agreement. R.J. Rushdoony, considered the father of Christian Reconstructionism, summarizes it neatly: “God’s kingdom is to be brought about through conquest,” and “the purpose of Revelation is to strengthen us against the enemy, [and] prepare us to do battle.”
It is often difficult to understand the relationship among Fundamentalists, Charismatics, Evangelicals, and Reconstructionists, especially the political differences among these sectors of the Religious Right. Lienesch skillfully constructs an account of their beliefs, weaving together various facets of conservative Christianity by focusing on the areas where the groups share common bonds.
Redeeming America is an important book. In an objective and nonjudgmental style Michael Lienesch assembles a comprehensive account of the beliefs and world view of the leadership of the Christian Right. For students of the radical Religious Right, or those simply curious to understand their religious, political, economic, and social ideas, it is well worth the read.