Fifty-seven years ago the postwar "Red Scare" reached its height in the McCarthy Senate hearings, prototype of all witch hunts and icon of ideology run amuck. To this day, "McCarthyism" raises the specter of harmless nonconformists forced into the spotlight at the risk of reputation and career. It's a prime example of what Richard J. Hofstadter, in a famous 1964 essay, called "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," in which irrational fear trumps reasoned analysis. He applied it to the Goldwater campaign, but "behind this, I believe, there is a style of mind that is far from new, and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style, simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind."
Fast-forward to last month, when a widely circulated and much-commented-on New Yorker article by Ryan Lizza explored the religious influences on GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann. Lizza's prose knotted with concern as he described the influence on the conservative Christian of the worldviews of Francis Schaeffer and Nancy Pearcey-both of whom, apparently, dared to believe that a Christian's faith in Christ should affect every area of life and thought. That's weird enough, but Lizza also finds a connection between Schaeffer and "dominionism"-the belief that Christians should rule the world. Or something like that. Supposedly Schaeffer advocated the violent overthrow of an ungodly government and had close ties with R.J. Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism, too. Should we be alarmed?
Less than a week after Lizza's article appeared, The New Republic ran "Rick Perry: The God-Fearing, No-Nothing, Pistol-Packing Embodiment of Liberals' Worst Nightmare," by Walter Shapiro. Second on Shapiro's list of reasons to be very afraid of Perry is "The God Card," meaning the governor's public embrace of "the living Christ" and "the salvation agenda."
That same day, NPR's Terry Gross interviewed Rachel Tabachnick, an expert on the New Apostolic Movement, about the "dominionist" overtones and code words embedded in the Aug. 6 prayer rally in Houston.
So far, mainstream articles and commentary have been more insinuative than blatant. Bachmann + Schaeffer + Rushdoony = Reconstructionism? Perry + International House of Prayer + "The Call" = theocracy? The line between these dots may be more tangential than straight, but the implication is clear: Watch out for evangelical politicians with ties to anyone who ever said anything about faith and government.
Reader comments are more blunt, and no description fits them better than Hofstadter's "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy": The Christians are coming! The revenge of the Red States! Seems a little paranoid. Maybe even McCarthy-ish?
With 14 months until Election Day, we have plenty of time to come to conclusions about candidates. But "Christian dominionism" (temptingly elastic in definition) is probably only beginning its run on the public stage. If either Perry or Bachmann is the Republican nominee, the Obama campaign will likely pour part of its reported billion-dollar war chest into painting them as wild-eyed theocrats.
There's not much we can do about public perception. Our main concern is Christ and His church, and doing our best to bring no reproach on either. Most likely we'll hear and read outrageous accusations-what do we need to handle it?
First, patience. Our country is in the middle of an identity crisis, with all the attendant angst. Whether it ends well is something we can't control. Second, compassion. Those who put their trust in princes (Psalm 146:3) are doomed to disappointment-and such were some of us. Third, prayer for those who say all kinds of evil against us on Christ's account (Matthew 5:11, 44). And fourth, perseverance "to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope ..." (Titus 2:12). The Lizzas and Shapiros of this present age may not be reassured. But if we can ease the paranoia of a neighboring Smith or Jones, it's a battle won.