Cover Story

Just gimme that postmodern religion

A race for the Senate in Arkansas may seem the last place to find a clash of religious worldviews. But that race is not a simple religious right vs. secular left contest, or even religious right vs. religious left. The Fay Boozman-Blanche Lincoln battle pits a traditionalist Christian against a postmodernist Christian. Only in a head-on collision with postmodernism there is no great crash, just a squishy thud.

Issue: "Postmodern politics," Sept. 12, 1998

in Little Rock, Arkansas - Six years ago, recently arrived pastor Tom Hatley took the pulpit of Immanuel Baptist Church in Rogers, Ark., and rested his hand on his black, leather-bound Bible. "If you support candidates who don't value the sanctity of human life, then you need to question your Christianity," he said, before launching into a sermon on abortion and biblical law. Eight or 10 couples left immediately after the service and never came back; within a few months, nearly 40 families had dropped from the membership rolls. But one of the most significant changes in the church took place in the heart of one of Mr. Hatley's hearers: ophthalmologist Fay Boozman. The sermon inspired Dr. Boozman to enter modern politics; what it could not do, though, was to prepare him for a postmodern opponent. And that seems to be what he faces in Democrat Blanche Lambert Lincoln, a former congresswoman and current frontrunner in the race to fill the U.S. Senate seat left open by the retiring Democrat Dale Bumpers. Her policy positions are all over the board. There is a frequent logical disconnect between her words and her votes. And her words themselves seem carefully chosen to be as content-free as possible. (For a fuller definition of postmodernism, see sidebar.) "I don't know quite how to handle my opponent," admits Dr. Boozman, a former flight surgeon for the Air National Guard. "My understanding of it has always been that I tell the voters about myself, and my opponent tells the voters about herself. But she's not doing that. I'm not quite sure what to do." The contest in Arkansas bears watching because it presents a glimpse into the future for Christian conservatives-a future in which nailing down an opponent's position is like the popular description of postmodernism itself: trying to nail Jell-O to a tree. What separates Blanche Lambert Lincoln, 37, from many Democratic candidates is her engaging lack of strident ideology. She is politically practical, and practically a conservative. When she married in July of 1993, she kept her maiden name (Lambert) only until after her 1994 reelection. At her first subcommittee meeting after that, when chairman Michael Oxley (R-Ohio) fumbled with how to follow "the gentlelady from Arkansas," she filled in, "Mrs. Lincoln." And when she became pregnant with twins three years ago, she resigned from the House seat to be an at-home mom. Now that the twin boys (Reece and Bennett) are age 2, she says she's ready to go back to work-just like those bank tellers, school teachers, and other soccer moms who find her so appealing. Blanche Lincoln grew up on a farm in Arkansas, went to school in Virginia and became involved with Campus Crusade for Christ, and then worked in Washington for a few years-first as a secretary and receptionist, then as a lobbyist. Her first political race was in 1992, when she beat incumbent Rep. Bill Alexander, for whom she had worked as a receptionist. She is an active member of her local Episcopal church. To the casual listener, she sounds conservative as she talks about fiscal responsibility and cutting government waste. She's even running as a family-values candidate: Television ads show her with husband Steve, the twins, and their yellow Lab. The voice-over says, "Daughter, wife, mother, congresswoman. Living our rock-solid Arkansas values." What does this Everywoman stand for? What exactly are the rock-solid values she believes in? She's not saying, but her previous stint in the House hardly left her with a pro-family reputation, despite the claims of her current campaign. Her liberal voting record and conservative rhetoric could be a simple case of political hypocrisy. She certainly wouldn't be the first politician to say and do whatever was necessary to please the voters. In her personal religious beliefs, however, Mrs. Lincoln sounds sincerely orthodox. "I believe that Christ came to this earth as God incarnate," she told WORLD. "He was born as man, the Son of Man, and through his sacrifice here on earth-through his grace and my belief-my sins are forgiven. I feel the Bible is God's word, that it's a part of what we must study, what we must learn." If her faith is as orthodox as it sounds, Mrs. Lincoln is far from the sort of miracle-denying, inspiration-doubting religious modernist who has traditionally gravitated toward political liberalism. Instead, she may be a new breed of evangelical postmodernist. If so, the contradictions between her walk and her talk would not be a matter of simple hypocrisy. Instead, they may be indicative of a worldview or pattern of thought that actually welcomes all sorts of paradoxes and conflicting positions. The clearest example of this is Mrs. Lincoln's position on abortion. "I believe that abortion before viability is a very personal decision that should not be dictated by the government or politicians. It is the individual right and responsibility of a woman to make her decision in consultation with her family, her doctor, and her God. I have opposed abortion after viability or late-term abortions, except where the treating physician deems it necessary to protect the life or serious health of the mother." That's just the kind of subjective, I-feel-your-pain statement of position that gives the Boozman campaign such fits. If the decision is "the individual right and responsibility of a woman," why should she consult with anyone at all? What happens if her family disagrees with her doctor? And who defines the "serious health" of the mother? But the most telling portion of all is the phrase "her God." It's virtually the signature of postmodern polytheism-the kind that relativizes God and cancels debate about right and wrong. It's after 9 p.m. on a Friday night, and she's on the road again, coming home from a reception in Hot Springs. The twins are at home in bed. She's fielding a reporter's questions about faith and politics, and she claims to enjoy it. She feels they're important, she says. "My parents were both raised in the same church community," she says. "We were brought up in the very same one, within walking distance of both sets of grandparents. It made for a close-knit family based on our faith." All of this talk of faith and family values leaves Fay Boozman a little dazed and confused. He's a traditional conservative, clearly identified with the religious right. He sent his children to Christian college. Morning staff meetings at campaign headquarters open with prayer. The volunteer answering phones has a Frank Peretti novel open on the desk. Christian activist David Barton, who heads Wall Builders, the Texas-based worldview ministry, spoke at a recent campaign rally. Dr. Boozman is a firm believer in right and wrong, in saying what you think and then taking your lumps. Dr. Boozman knows such old-fashioned convictions may not play well in contrast to his all-things-to-all-voters opponent. On a scorchingly hot Tuesday afternoon in August, he is meeting with a dozen or so supporters in a conference room at Arkansas Baptist Hospital in Little Rock. Over cafeteria trays filled with "heart-healthy" chicken dinners, he asked for prayer for his campaign. "It's going to be difficult," he says. "To win an election in Arkansas, you have to be a conservative. And that's what she's running as. We will have to expose her record, to show that she's not, no matter what she sounds like. We don't want to go negative, but I feel I have an obligation to all those people who have given me their money and support to call my opponent to accountability." And so, little by little, his campaign is retooling to do just that. "There's a pattern of our opponent saying one thing one day, after having voted another way," says David Sanders, Dr. Boozman's spokesman. "There's a pattern of inconsistency. We have to point that out." Take her position on the military, an important subject in fiercely patriotic Arkansas. In campaign speeches and at candidates' forums, Mrs. Lincoln talks warmly about her father, grandfather, and uncles, all of whom served in the armed forces. "You will be hard put to find any American out there that has more respect for the men and women that serve in our military forces," she told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "I have always supported adequate defense funding to maintain readiness." Dr. Boozman's camp countered with her voting record, showing she actually voted to cut military spending-and what's worse, to place U.S. troops under United Nations command. On the spending charge, Mrs. Lincoln replied that she voted to "redirect and re-prioritize military spending," not cut it. As for the UN issue, she insisted she wasn't voting for UN command, but rather against "efforts to limit the president's capability and authority to send troops under the United Nations." On the subject of family values, at a recent candidates' forum she talked about "the horrendous situations" in which some young people find themselves, such as delivering babies at the school prom and dumping them into a trash can. She said the answer is more psychologists and psychiatrists in schools to counsel children. She wants more parental involvement in schools, but she's against vouchers, and she's for school-based health clinics that dispense birth control without parental consent. In her determination not to offend anyone, she sometimes comes off as the political equivalent of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, who could tell one person in an argument, "You are right," then tell his opponent, "You are right." When another observer pointed out that they couldn't both be right, Tevye merely scratched his chin and responded, "You are right, also." Everyone can be right because Mrs. Lincoln works so hard to avoid saying anyone is wrong. Thanks, perhaps, to her ability to juggle multiple truths, her positions rarely antagonize believers by rejecting their convictions outright. Compared to old-style liberalism, such an approach is innovative, indeed. Take one of Mrs. Lincoln's female forebears in Congress, Rep. Pat Schroeder. The powerful Colorado Democrat retired in 1996 and recently published a memoir about her 24 years in the House. A self-described "bleeding heart liberal," Ms. Schroeder was a dogged advocate of abortion and leftist ideology. She mocked the idea of abstinence education and even got into trouble for using profanity at a prayer breakfast. When she clashed with the Catholic church, she made it clear that in her view, the church was in error. By saying that church teachings were outright wrong, she gave her opponents something definite to debate-a stance that may have torpedoed her own senatorial dreams. Mrs. Lincoln appears determined not to repeat that mistake. "I'm not for abortion, and I don't think anyone is," she told WORLD. "But I don't think it's an issue for government. When we start to depend on government to make those kinds of decisions for us, then we put it before our faith. Faith is something that must be exercised, must be witnessed. It's like a calculator; if you use a calculator too much, sometimes you forget how to add and subtract." Does she believe abortion is wrong? "I don't think it's right for government to be involved." But didn't she say she was against it? "I said I'm not for it," she counters. Because her opponent is such a traditional conservative, Mrs. Lincoln's postmodernist approach to politics stands out in high relief. But she's hardly the first to embrace the philosophy. Although politicians throughout history have appeared contradictory, they may not have had the self-consciousness to realize they were talking out of both sides of their mouths. What's new in postmodernism is the faith that somehow both sides are the same side. Mrs. Lincoln's fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton, now generally regarded as an outright hypocrite, was originally pointed to as a postmodern political pioneer. Others have followed Mr. Clinton's electioneering example. Take, for instance, Loretta Sanchez, the Democratic congresswoman who beat incumbent Republican Bob Dornan in Orange County, Cal., two years ago. Earlier this summer, Bishop Norman McFarland rebuked Ms. Sanchez for unseemly politicking at Sunday morning church services around the district. He expressed concern that her "incursions" might be motivated by "partisan and personal ambitions," and urged her to repudiate her "allegiance to the Democratic party's duplicitous abortion strategy." Her response, issued by a campaign spokesman, said simply that Ms. Sanchez "believes you can be a good Catholic and be pro-choice." The difference is subtle, but important: In the past, Catholics who were not pro-life considered themselves "dissenting Catholics." Being a "good Catholic," in their minds, would have meant obeying the Vatican. In her thoroughly postmodern response, Ms. Sanchez has rendered the term meaningless. Like Ms. Sanchez, Blanche Lambert Lincoln is not about to abandon a faith that would seem to contradict many of her political votes. Rather, she sounds most of the major themes of postmodern Christianity when asked how faith fits into politics. "I think for each person it's different," she says. "I try very hard to be regular in my prayers and in asking the Lord for guidance in the things that I do. One of the things I hope people see is Christ's love in me, through the way I greet people and the way I make the choices and decisions and the things I try to do. When all is said and done in life, the only thing you have left is the relationships you build." Dr. Boozman admits to being mystified. "What does that mean? And how do you campaign against that? How do you run against something like that?"

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