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Does Ryan Lizza Want Michele Bachmann to Denounce the Founding Fathers as Well?

John on September 1, 2011 at 5:43 am

This is going to be a long post. Sorry…

Two weeks ago Ryan Lizza wrote a piece attacking Michele Bachmann for the New Yorker. Here is his theme:

Bachmann belongs to a generation of Christian conservatives whose views have been shaped by institutions, tracts, and leaders not commonly known to secular Americans, or even to most Christians. Her campaign is going to be a conversation about a set of beliefs more extreme than those of any American politician of her stature, including Sarah Palin, to whom she is inevitably compared.

With that in mind, Lizza goal is primarily to a) back up his claim that Bachmann’s views are extreme and b) explain where they come from. So a dozen or so paragraphs later he introduces readers to Francis Schaeffer:

The Bachmanns attended Carter’s Inauguration, in January, 1977. Later that year, they experienced a second life-altering event: they watched a series of films by the evangelist and theologian Francis Schaeffer called “How Should We Then Live?”

Schaeffer is the key to Lizza’s argument that Bachmann’s views are “extreme.” He goes on at length about Schaeffer but we’ll just consider two paragraphs that are the key parts of his contention about the man and his work:

Francis Schaeffer instructed his followers and students at L’Abri that the Bible was not just a book but “the total truth.” He was a major contributor to the school of thought now known as Dominionism, which relies on Genesis 1:26, where man is urged to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Sara Diamond, who has written several books about evangelical movements in America, has succinctly defined the philosophy that resulted from Schaeffer’s interpretation: “Christians, and Christians alone, are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns.”

Here’s what Lizza isn’t telling you. Dominionism is a loaded term coined by Sara Diamond as a characterization of Christian conservatives. It’s the 1990s version of christianist. The only people who use this term today are people like Michelle Goldberg, Chris Hedges and Sam Harris whose intent is to castigate those they disagree with politically. And so they take the most extreme possible statements from a handful of people and then read these backwards into the beliefs of every evangelical, most of whom have never even heard of the statements in question.

In any case, the definition of dominionism which Lizza quotes can not accurately be applied to Francis Schaeffer. Ross Douthat does a good job of pointing out why in his response to Lizza. Succinctly, Schaeffer explicitly rejected the sort of thing which Lizza’s tries to attribute to him. He did not believe that Christians alone were biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions. Here is what Schaeffer actually believed:

The whole “Constantine mentality” from the fourth century up to our day was a mistake. Constantine, as the Roman Emperor, in 313 ended the persecution of Christians. Unfortunately, the support he gave to the church led by 381 to the enforcing of Christianity, by Theodosius I, as the official state religion. Making Christianity the official state religion opened the way for confusion up till our own day. There have been times of very good government when this interrelationship of church and state has been present. But through the centuries it has caused great confusion between loyalty to the state and loyalty to Christ, between patriotism and being a Christian. We must not confuse the Kingdom of God with our country. To say it another way: “We should not wrap Christianity in our national flag.”

This is nearly the opposite of dominionism which is probably why, in his response to Douthat published yesterday, Lizza makes no attempt to defend the passage of his original article. I read the omission as a concession that the paragraph was indefensible. This is not a minor point since, as I’ve shown so far, the whole structure of Lizza article is intended to connect Bachmann to scary “dominionists” by way of Francis Schaeffer. If Schaeffer does not believe in Christian domination of the state (and he clearly did not) then Lizza’s central argument collapses.

Now on to the very next paragraph of Lizza’s article:

In 1981, three years before he died, Schaeffer published “A Christian Manifesto,” a guide for Christian activism, in which he argues for the violent overthrow of the government if Roe v. Wade isn’t reversed. In his movie, Schaeffer warned that America’s descent into tyranny would not look like Hitler’s or Stalin’s; it would probably be guided stealthily, by “a manipulative, authoritarian élite.”

The part of the paragraph I’ve bolded is a clever lie, but a lie nonetheless. Schaeffer never argues for the violent overthrow of the government in A Christian Manifesto. At most, he allows that replacing the government is always on the table in a theoretical way.

Manifesto is indeed a manifesto and as such takes a foundational look at first principles underlying the state. So Schaeffer does indeed spend significant time parsing the question of when government can be judged to be legitimate and when it is illegitimate. On that last point, here is his summary of John Locke’s reasoning as adopted by the founding fathers:

  1. inalienable rights;
  2. government by consent;
  3. separation of powers
  4. the right of revolution (or you could word it, the right to resist unlawful authority)

Point four is the one that has Lizza in a tizzy, but as Schaeffer correctly points out, the Declaration of Independence explicitly ratifies point four:

whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Schaeffer then agrees with Locke and the founders that there are some circumstances where government can indeed be judged illegitimate and in such a case it must be resisted actively. He offers this example:

A true Christian in Hitler’s Germany and in the occupied countries should have defied the false and counterfeit state and hidden his Jewish neighbors from German SS troops. The government had abrogated its authority, and it had no right to make any demands.

So much for theory, what exactly did Schaeffer advocate regarding abortion? In his chapter titled The Use of Force, here is what Schaeffer advocates:

  1. Support a constitutional amendment to protect human life.
  2. Seek to overturn Roe in the courts.
  3. Legal and political action against abortion providers.
  4. Civil disobedience. e.g. sit ins and peaceful occupations of government buildings.

He notes that the 4th point is scary for four reasons:

  1. We don’t want to be seen as advocating theocracy which was never the founders intent.
  2. In some countries (behind the Iron Curtain) this is not theoretical and could lead to real persecution of those who resist the state.
  3. Marxists or liberation theologists could attempt to hijack civil disobedience to create anarchy for their own purposes.
  4. There are “kooky people” in the world who may use any excuse to foster anarchy.

Schaeffer concludes the chapter by saying that if there is no room, even in theory, for civil disobedience then the state can never be illegitimate and thus, in effect, might makes right. That is an outcome he refuses to accept. And why should he? No thinking person should accept the idea that the state is beyond reproach. So again, there is no advocacy for “violent overthrow” in the book. At most there is the contemplation of resistance which, in extremis, could lead to such a conflict.

So what is it we are supposed to be outraged about here? Does Ryan Lizza consider Jefferson an extremist? How about the rest of the founders who signed the Declaration? Should we ask Michele Bachmann to repudiate them as well, quite a few of them were Christians after all?

More up to date, would Ryan Lizza condemn the public resistance to the Iraq war we saw during the Bush administration. How about the kind of civil disobedience we saw in Madison, WI a couple months ago which included sit-ins and occupations of government buildings and legislators fleeing the state. This struck many of us on the right, myself included, as absurdly out of proportion to a change in rules regarding collective bargaining. In any case, both of these represent the kind of civil disobedience Francis Schaeffer actually contemplated in Manifesto.

Lizza takes the examples Schaeffer gives and conflates them with potentials he allows all free people and, by the magic of extreme foreshortening, announces that he advocated “violent overthrow” of the government. Like I said, it’s a clever lie but a lie nonetheless.

If I can be very blunt, I believe Lizza’s entire article boils down to a silly gotcha question. During the 2010 election Sharon Angle was hounded out of the race over a statement she made about “second amendment remedies.” Lizza is trying to recreate the same made-to-order tempest around Bahcmann. To wit, if Bachmann dares to voice or even tacitly agree with the principles which led to the founding of our nation, she can be portrayed as a dangerous extremist. If she does not agree with them, she is a fool and a milquetoast who has just undercut the founders and their principles.

It’s roughly the equivalent of asking the President if he’s a socialist and, if so, why and, if not, why not. There is simply no way to answer the question that isn’t a losing proposition. Bachmann recognized this and simply refused to answer. It was the best anyone could do under the circumstances.

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