Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Review of the Truth Project -- The State

Remember the Truth Project seminar I infiltrated a few weeks ago, which promoted a fundamentalist worldview curriculum released by Focus on the Family? As promised, I've started watching the curriculum DVDs, which I will review here over the next few weeks. Since we just had elections and government is on everyone's minds, I decided to review a module entitled "The State: Whose Law?"

As I expected, the State module features black-and-white thinking, slippery slopes, fear mongering, and a laughably simplistic approach to political theory. Even though the series was released in 2006, it demonstrates a distrust of government and a disdain for taxes that pre-dates the Tea Party movement by several years. The purpose of the module is not so much to educate viewers about statecraft as it is to encourage support for theocracy.

The scene began in a welcoming university classroom -- clean, modern, and bathed in golden sunlight. A dozen earnest students listened to the narrator, Dr, Del Tackett, as he pontificated about God and the state. Tackett told the story of a farming couple who died in a car accident, only to have a gang burst into their home afterwards and take half of their property. When he asked the students if that constituted stealing, most answered "yes". He then added qualifications -- what if the gang needed the property? What if they had a sick dog? What if it were the governor doing this? What if the governor passed a law allowing him to take half of their property? Tackett said that such a law exists in America (which I presume was a distorted reference to the Estate Tax), following up with the question of whether or not the state could steal.

The DVD was already going in a right-wing direction. Was it implying that "heavy" taxation was a form of governmental theft, in line with right-wing anathema toward taxes?

Tackett cited 1 Kings: 21, in which King Ahab (what a coincidence!) and his wife Jezebel engineered phony accusations against a man named Naboth so that they could execute him and appropriate his orchard. In this story, Tackett explained, God recognized the king's actions as murder and theft, indicating that the state can indeed steal. To emphasize that God is ultimately in charge of human affairs, he cited Daniel 4:29-35 in which God punished King Nebuchadnezzar for his overweening pride by driving him insane.

The lesson moved on to what kind of design God had intended for the state, quoting scriptural passages such as Daniel 2:21, Romans, 9:17, and Proverbs 16:9-10. Tackett drew a circle on a chalkboard to represent the state, in which he wrote "God", "king", and "citizens". God has placed himself in the sphere of the state, he argued, because without divine guidance, this sphere can become a terrible monster.

This is starting to sound suspiciously like a call for theocracy, I thought.

Tackett recited the story of 1 Samuel 8 in which the elders of Israel urged Samuel to appoint a king for the Israelites. Samuel warned that a king would only bring war and tyranny, demanding goods that belong to God and redistributing those goods among his cronies. Tackett scoffed at the idea that a ruler would "only" take 10% of people's goods (another right-wing jab at high taxes). He interpreted the passage to mean that God was warning believers that government would become a behemoth and enslave the people.

A diagram appear on screen, showing different spheres of human life (i.e., state, family, church, labor, etc.) arranged in a circle. Tackett asked if the king was sovereign over every other sphere -- and later gave the answer that no, the king was not sovereign over the other spheres because they are sovereign unto themselves.

Great. Right-wing propaganda about "big government", I mused. Talk of "sphere sovereignty" struck me as a coded way of saying that churches, parents, etc. should be able to do as they please without being accountable to the law. What about child abuse? Or fraud within a church structure? Despite what the Truth Project teaches, these are not hermetically sealed spheres -- they must be accountable to the law.

To emphasize the notion of "sphere sovereignty", Tackett referred to 2 Chronicles 26, in which God punished King Uzziah with leprosy for burning incense in the temple, a task that only priests could perform. In other words, because the state had intruded into the religious sphere, God reinforced "sphere sovereignty" by afflicting Uzziah with disease.

Tackett claimed that while God is the ultimate authority, he is also the source of all other authority because he had delegated leaders on earth. He cited Romans 13:1-6 as evidence, as well as Titus 2-3, which obliges wives to submit to husbands, slaves to masters, and subjects to rulers. Disingenuously, he emphasized that being subject to authority is not bad in an of itself.

Tell that to women and slaves! I thought. In my opinion, Tackett did not distinguish between legitimate authority (a just state) and oppression (patriarchy and slavery), which said volumes about his views on social order.

The civil magistrate, he claimed, is an instrument of God's wrath, citing Romans 12:17-19 which enjoins believers not to seek revenge for wrongdoings, which is the proper role of the magistrate. (Actually, the passage says nothing about magistrates or divinely-bestowed authority; it simply instructs believers not to seek vengeance.) This power, Tackett argued, is why the state can become so dangerous if it is divorced from divine guidance. Because ethics are the root of law, civil authority must have godly knowledge of good and evil to carry out its task justly, he insisted. If the state decides that it is the source of ethical norms, rather than God, atrocities result.

Readers with any knowledge of history will recognize this argument as categorically false. Christian governments of the past had no qualms about committing atrocities, as the Crusades, Spanish Inquisition, Thirty Years' War, and various European wars of religion demonstrated. Furthermore, the argument that atrocities result from insufficiently godly governments is facile because it ignores the complex roots of strife, including tribalism, nationalism, and the all-too-human impulse to lash out at scapegoats.

Ravi Zacharias spoke in a short segment, arguing that the "death of God" described by Nietzsche and the framework of evolution would lead to a world of violence, devoid of any moral framework. I shook my head at this false dilemma between a fundamentalist Christian society and lawless chaos, which ignored countless other possible moral frameworks.

The scene returned to Del Tackett's classroom. Tackett argued that when a society rejects God and the king is no longer accountable to him, the king then becomes violent and tyrannical. Again, this simplistic line of thought ignored the complex causes of tyranny and leaves out vitally important forms of state accountability (i.e., accountability to the people, checks and balances among governmental branches, etc.). To boot, Tackett never explains how his God holds leaders accountable, except through literal interpretations of Bible stories. In real life, leaders don't hear a booming voice from the heavens telling them how to mould policy, nor are they afflicted with leprosy and madness whenever they make poor decisions. The Truth Project's vision of government is not only facile, but vacuous.

After a round of obligatory humanism-bashing, Tackett argued that a bloated state sees God as a problem. Because God's moral restrictions are noxious to an ungodly state, he claimed, such a state pretends that God isn't there. In doing so, he insisted, the state takes the place of God, becoming the force to which the people turn to for help. The state then assumes responsibility for multiple aspects of life, such as education and care of the needy, using your goods to do so.

WHAT KIND OF @#$% CONSPIRACY THEORY NONSENSE IS THIS? I thought, stunned at what I was hearing. Tackett was not only regurgitating Religious Right rhetoric against "big government", but condemning public education and social services to boot! Public education and social programs have done a great deal of good in society, allowing for an informed citizenry and a safety net in times of hardship. Because such programs are not under the thumb of fundamentalist Christianity, however, Tackett and Focus on the Family look askance at them.

It got worse. Tackett claimed that in such a state, the government will determine what wages will be paid and what marriage looks like. (Translation: gay marriage is bad.) When the state becomes too powerful, he warned, other institutions are destroyed. Robert Sirico spoke briefly, warning that the  family is supposedly disintegrating because the "welfare state" has transformed into a "nanny state". The state, Sirico believed, has tried to take the place of the family, promoting policies that invite men out of the home and provide everything for women.

Policies such as . . . ? I thought. Perhaps Tackett and Sirico should consider how citizens have benefit every day from government policies, as DemWit playfully illustrates.

To top off the conspiracy theory-esque rhetoric, Tackett claimed that an individual state will be an insufficient "savior" to the people, who will then look to a global state to save them. This idea of a global state is pervasive in academia, Tackett claimed -- which is strange because no one I know has ever heard anything to that effect in college or grad school. As "evidence" for this extreme claim, Tackett quoted from the Humanist Manifesto II, apparently unaware that no government uses that document as a framework for statecraft.

The module claimed that social disorder and cultural decline are destructive to society, noting attributes of the Roman empire before its collapse: love of luxury, obsession with sex (including homosexuality), "freakishness" in the arts masquerading as originality, and an increased dependence on the state. The implication, it seemed, was that the U.S. had similar attributes and would crumble the same way.

So . . . gays, Medicare, and postmodern art installations will destroy us? I thought.

The video attributed these claims to Edward Gibbon's 1776-1789 six volume treatise, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire -- while quietly overlooking Gibbon's unflattering statements about Christianity's role in Rome's decline.

Tackett concluded the module by stating that none of this conformed to the Biblical model of the state. He claimed that we can intercede in laws that are being made, urging viewers to pray for guidance about God's design for the state.

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In conclusion, the Truth Project module on the state was a combination of right wing political rhetoric, subtle homophobia, conspiracy theory, and fear mongering. It promoted no coherent model for the state, nor does it wrestle with important issues of political science, such as governance, economics, or policy. Rather, it demonizes secular government, holding up theocracy as an antidote to imagined problems. Little or no evidence is presented for any arguments, outside of Bible stories, outdated treatises, and quotes from other fundamentalists. In true Religious Right fashion, it depicts its fundamentalist vision of Christianity as the only Christian voice, ignoring the diversity of political ideas from other Christian voices past and present.

As the Truth Problem website observes, many fundamentalist Christians may come away from this curriculum feeling educated, without having been exposed to any new information. The curriculum is essentially a vehicle for fundamentalist, right wing rhetoric, packaged as a educational tool with fancy production values. The purpose of the Truth Project, I suspect, is to reinforce fundamentalist thinking among Focus on the Family's target audience and goad them into activism through fear. If the Truth Project is an indication of fundamentalism's rejection of reality, we need to pay attention.


  1. You write an interesting article. One thing I will say is that the Christian governments that carried out the atrocities mentioned in your article are guilty of ignoring God as other governments are. In those governments, the leaders claimed that what they were doing was in the name of God when in fact it was not. Ultimately, those leaders decided what was right and wrong without regard to God.

  2. Never saw your fundamental discounting of the allegory regarding the farming couple killed in an accident? As an alllegorical (metaphorical if you prefer) representation of the estate tax, could you provide a lucid, elegant counter-argument that supports the estate tax?

    Also - your other basic premise that the arguments are black and white, requires an assumption that truth by definition isn't black and white and therefore any black and white conclusion is at its basis, flawed. Is your requirement for 'truth' founded on the idea that it is relative to the context of a situation? If so, let's extend your child abuse question - when is it child abuse? Is a parent spanking a child with a wooden spoon child abuse? How about a sarcastic response to a question - emotional child abuse? The slippery slope you reference is much more prevalent when you are prepared to accept conditional truth.


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