Back in the mid-19th century, there was a political organization called the “American Party,” better known by as the “Know Nothing Party.” According to Michael Holt of Northern Illinois University, it was anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant, proposing “to increase the naturalization period for immigrants from five to twenty-one years while proscribing all immigrants and Catholics from public office.”
In recent years, a new form of Know Nothingism has arisen that decries the influence of certain religious believers–conservative evangelicals–in the American political system, proclaiming them “dangerous” and unAmerican.” While those tossing these epithets may not overtly campaign to ban evangelicals from political life, they demonize them in ways designed to bring about that result de facto, if not de jure.
Diana Butler Bass is a contributing editor at Sojourners, a formerly evangelical publication that has been so consumed by left-wing politics that its theological roots are now forgotten, and even mocked by some of its writers and editors. Bass offers her contribution to 21st century Know Nothingism in the Huffington Post:
As the stand off between workers and Governor Scott Walker continues in Wisconsin, religious leaders have weighed in on the dispute. Roman Catholic bishops came out on the side of the unions, urging the governor to protect worker’s rights. Many mainline pastors, including Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, and American Baptists have written letters, issued statements, and preached sermons supporting labor, unions, and collective bargaining. In Madison, interfaith prayers and proclamations have upheld and encouraged the teachers, police, firefighters, and other public employees in their resistance to the governor’s plan to break their union.
This is an impressive religious group by any standards–particularly so in Wisconsin where traditional faith still plays an important role in the life of a large number of its citizens. Wisconsin is almost evenly split between the three largest American religious groups: 29% are Roman Catholics; 24% are evangelical Protestants; and 23% are mainline Protestants.
Yet none of these prayers or sermons has swayed Scott Walker. He has steadfastly stayed on his original course, unfazed by the full weight of Roman Catholic authority or the mainline social justice tradition pressing upon him and urging him toward compromise and change.
It doesn’t seem to occur to Bass that Walker could not have gotten elected even if every evangelical in Cheesehead Land had voted for him. To get 52% of the vote, he had to have gotten a lot of Catholics, mainline Protestants, Jews, Muslims, atheists and others to vote for him. That suggests that on the issue currently roiling Wisconsin, a lot of people voted in a way that would have them disagreeing with those issuing the letters and statements and preaching the sermons in the alleged name of their parishioners.
So why is
Hitler Mussolini Mubarak Walker ignoring the collective wisdom of Catholic and mainline leadership? Because he’s one of them:
Scott Walker is neither Roman Catholic nor a mainline churchgoer. The son of a Baptist pastor, born in Colorado Springs, the heartland of the Religious Right, Walker is a member of Meadowbrook Church in Wauwatosa, a non-denominational evangelical church. Meadowbrook’s statement of faith, a fairly typical boilerplate of conservative evangelical theology, includes beliefs in biblical inerrancy, sin, exclusive salvation through Christ, and eternal damnation.
Apparently, standard evangelical/Baptist theology is now “boilerplate” to Bass. I guess that’s what churches get labeled these days when they don’t include a political platform alongside their theology. Anyway, that “boilerplate,” and Walker’s membership in a “boilerplate” church, apparently explains his inexplicable refusal to bow down to the liberal consensus of his ecclesiastical betters.
In other words, Scott Walker does not give a rip about pronouncements by the Roman Catholic Church, any Lutheran, Episcopal, or Methodist bishop, or the Protestant social justice pastors. These religious authorities, steeped in centuries of theology and Christian ethics mean absolutely nothing in Scott Walker’s world. His spiritual universe is that of 20th century fundamentalism, in its softer evangelical form, a vision that emphasizes “me and Jesus” and personal salvation.
Actually, considering that Bass wrote last year of separation of church and state that it is among the “things that guide Protestantism, the insights that animate the followers of one of Christianity’s great traditions,” one wonders why Walker should “give a rip” about what a bunch of people with divinity degrees think about the specifics of collective bargaining policy.
No, check that. He has every reason to listen to all of his constituents, including those with whom he doesn’t agree. What is baffling is why Bass thinks he has to agree with those to whom she refers. The distinction of their theological pedigree does nothing to guarantee the rightness of their political opinions, and Walker has clearly come to different conclusions about the issues. But for Bass, that must mean that he, and the religious tradition that she assumes is formative for his political views, must be simply stupid, and certainly worthy of empty name-calling.
She goes on to disparage Walker’s faith, and his personal testimony, and even his favorite hymn (“Trust and Obey”). She concludes her personal attack on the Wisconsin governor this way:
Walker has no spiritual “check” on him, no authority other than the ones he hears in his own head, and no moral culpability in this situation. He’s the good Christian soldier, just following God’s lead.
To say that contempt drips from this screed–contempt for Walker, but even more contempt for the theological tradition being caricatured–is evident. But it’s more than just contempt. It’s Know Nothingism:
And this is why Scott Walker’s religion is actually dangerous in the public square. Because it lacks the ability to compromise, it is profoundly anti-democratic. Many faith traditions actually possess deep spiritual resources that allow them to participate in pluralistic, democratic, and creative political change. But those sort of traditions tend emphasize the love of God and neighbor over strict obedience to an unyielding Father God. Despite anything Scott Walker might say, the confident dictum of the old hymn, “Trust and Obey” is not the best way to govern a state.
And we all know what has to be done about religion that is dangerous and anti-democratic.
Note: I heard about this article from Mark Tooley at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, who wrote about it himself for FrontPage Magazine.