Part V in a series on Vision Forum's History of America Mega-Conference
Part I: First Impressions
Part II: Doug Phillips on God in History
Part III: "Religious Liberalism" and Those Magnificent Mathers
Part IV: Kevin Swanson Is Tired of Losing
Part V: Messiah States and Mega-Houses
Part VI: Doug Phillips Rages Against the 20th Century
Part VII: Christian Vikings, Godly Explorers, and Strange Bacon
Part VIII: Closing Thoughts
On Friday, July 5th, I observed an afternoon workshop entitled "The Rise of the Messiah State: From Wilson to Johnson". Geoffrey Botkin of the Western Conservatory of the Arts and Sciences delivered a talk on the supposed ills of social safety nets and the evolution of the so-called "Messiah state". Botkin, a long-time ally of Vision Forum, has a controversial history with Great Commission Ministries, according to commentaries at Under Much Grace (see here and here).
At the start of his workshop, Botkin explained to his audience that a major challenge is to communicate how society should be organized to a culture unused to thinking theologically. "All history is theological," he insisted, echoing the sentiments of other speakers at the conference.
Botkin complained that the U.S. is comfortable with a "Messianic state" now. Quoting Christian Reconstructionist thinker Gary North, he claimed that the "welfare state" died when the Roman Empire fell in 400 AD, but reemerged in the 20th century. From 1913 to 1973 -- from the Wilson administration to the Johnson administration -- America's social order changed theologically to a "welfare-warfare state with fiscal and moral deficits of crushing ... consequences," Botkin claimed.
Botkin understood the state, church, and family to be God-created institutions, each with their own sphere of influence. However, the modern American state is so divorced from God's will that its power to do good has decreased, he said. Over the span of a few decades, "the power of the state to do evil" allegedly grew.
Botkin shared quotes from Christian Reconstructionist authors on the alleged evils of an overbearing state. One quote from Gary North claimed that the "welfare state" is defended as a network of social safety nets, in which business profits are seen as a tax base for the welfare state. Another quote from R. J. Rushdoony caricatured humanists as revering the state as their lord and savior. Revealingly, Botkin's presentation shared another quote from Rushdoony which accused society of succumbing to the "heresy of democracy". In Botkin's eyes, "statists" cannot revere God because they revere the state instead.
"Messianic statism", as Botkin defined it, is an organization of men who provide answers to all of humanity's problems through reorganization of society under the scientific/secular/socialist state, rather than Christ. The state, in effect, replaced God in people's minds, he explained. Changing, man-made laws result in society's "moral dissipation", he claimed, making the state a "maternalistic necessity". As a result of Messianic statism, men become "emasculated", unable to take responsibility in their lives, Botkins claimed. A cycle of dependency emerges, where the more men descend into moral dissipation, the more they need a "nanny" or "mommy" state to care for them.
Emasculation? "Maternalistic necessity"? Mommy states? Someone has masculinity issues, I thought.
Tastelessly, Botkins used natural disasters as an example of dependency on the state. When a hurricane causes devastation, everyone whines "Where is my Messianic state!?", he sneered. His utter callousness to the suffering of disaster victims and disdain for any safety net to help them recover startled me.
Botkins proceeded to caricature the policies of U.S. presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Lyndon B. Johnson. He reserved special animosity for income taxes, Social Security, the New Deal, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, and public education, which he derided as "free babysitting".
His diatribe was peppered with fundamentalist commentary and disgust for real or perceived immorality. For instance, he described Woodrow Wilson as an agent of "totalitarian experimentation" who did not trust the authority of scripture. He defended Warren G. Harding as a president striving for normalcy in a country destabilized by jazz music, movies, and prostitution. He spoke approvingly of the Hays Code, claiming that it prevented entertainment from undermining society, as it allegedly does now. Tellingly, he painted women's organizations lobbying for pensions for mothers and widows during the Coolidge administration as "less productive" people seeking to exploit the system by looking for handouts.
In his conclusion, Botkin likened the Messianic state to ancient god-kings and notions of divine kingship. He shared a quote from R. J. Rushdoony likening state worship to Moloch worship, calling both examples of "political religion". Like the ancient god Moloch, the Messianic state demands total sacrifice from its subjects, he warned the audience.
I don't think Botkin grasps the purpose of social services or a social safety net. Such measures are not the sinister tentacles of a "Messianic state", but a means by which governments and communities help people in need. The mark of a civilized society is its willingness to help its most vulnerable members gain self-sufficiency. Frankly, I do not want to return to a society where the downtrodden are without recourse. A country without a social safety net, with charities in the place of fair programs, would have a devastating impact on the populace, as S. E. Smith recently observed. The callousness with which Botkin demonized the U.S. social safety net struck me as cold-hearted.
I also found Botkins' workshop highly ironic. A man trumpeting Christ and scripture while ignoring Jesus' teachings on compassion left me shaking my head. Whatever happened to "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me"? Whatever happened to "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me"? Matthew 25:31-46 is lost on such people.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Later that afternoon, Vision Forum director Doug Phillips and Weir Capital Management founder Erik Weir spoke at a workshop entitled "How Architecture Helped to Shape the Character of the American Family". Phillips posited that a symbiotic relationship exists between architecture and the family, influencing each other in countless ways. This relationship isn't a function of income level, he insisted, but of vision, making it applicable for tents and palaces alike. Phillips listed three foundations -- aesthetics, design, and architecture -- for designing homes.
Phillips argued that modern-day architecture is diverging from the past, elevating form over function, often abandoning aesthetic principles, and neglecting to consider the family. He looked askance at the deconstructivist school of architecture, contrasting photos of eye-catching deconstructivist buildings with a photo of Monticello.
C'mon Doug. A little architectural experimentation is perfectly fine, I thought.
Phillips stressed the importance of bringing every aspect of the home into obedience to Christ. He asked aloud if a home is to be designed to unite families in common spaces, or to cocoon them in separate bedrooms. Colonial and frontier homes, he observed, were organized around a central hearth where the family interacted, for example.
Monticello held special appeal for Phillips, who praised it as a reflection of Thomas Jefferson's worldview. Monticello functioned as a place to entertain guests, a site of industry and production, a personal study, and a setting in which the new American spirit would be modeled. I noticed that Phillips conspicuously left out Monticello's underground slave areas, where unseen slaves produced food and sundries for Jefferson's guests. This, too, was a reflection of Jefferson's worldview (specifically, his acceptance of slavery), a stain that Phillips left out.
Phillips also praised Montpelier, the historic plantation of James Madison. He described Montpelier's central core, in which children were educated, parties hosted, heads of state entertained, and the family business operated. Montpelier, like other estates of the era, was built with the assumption that future generations would live there an exert an ongoing influence on the area.
Phillips contrasted the communal homes of the past with the homes of the present, which he likened to "flophouses". In the past, it was common for three or more generations to live under the same roof, either out of custom or necessity, he said. He contrasted such multigenerational homes to the dwellings of the "selfish generation" which segregates its elders. Today, families are getting smaller while houses are getting bigger, so families tend to share less space. By living and working near each other, families experienced less infidelity, closer ties existed between parents and children, and more economic incentives to perpetuate family life.
I chuckled to myself at Phillip's assumption about infidelity, as the reality was far less pleasant. Less infidelity? Hardly. Slave owners sexually abused slaves in that time period. Plenty of men patronized brothels in that time period. There was plenty of infidelity.
Phillips stressed the importance of generational thinking regarding architecture and the home. For example, he encouraged listeners to avoid faddishness and cheap quality in home decorations and furnishings in favor of long-term, durable furnishings that will last for many years. In choosing and designing homes, Phillips encouraged listeners to consider multiple considerations: geography, climate, space use, flow, and many others.
It occurred to me through the talk that Phillips' home advice, while well thought-out, would only be applicable for well-to-do families. If families are struggling economically, they won't be able to afford the durable, long-term furnishings. If families are limited in what kind of housing they can afford, they may not be at liberty to base home or apartment choices on a wide range of considerations. In an ideal world, everyone could consider furnishings, geography, and flow in their home choices, but we do not live in an idea world.
This realization grew stronger as I listened to Weir's part of the workshop. Weir's wealth was evident as he described his home, Magnolia Hall Plantation, inspired by the Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana. His family chose a large property that would allow space for future growth, including a row of oak or magnolia trees and on-site housing for his children, he explained. Sharing photos of his home, he proudly pointed out the "manly" Doric columns they chose instead of "flutey" Corinthian columns. As photos from the inside of the home flashed on the screen, Weir explained that he wanted to create an inviting interior. (The foyer, while sleek and pristine, struck me as cold and a little too perfect, however.) Weir and his wife chose fine wood for their floors so that guests with children wouldn't have to worry about sullying a carpet with spills.
This is great, but ... how does this apply to middle and working class families? I thought. Most of the people in the audience probably can't afford to make these choices.
In short, the workshop on architecture was a paradox, an example of intricate thought and little thought. On one hand, Phillips and Weir clearly spent time reflecting on aesthetic values and home functionality, demonstrating a level of forethought that I respected. On the other hand, they seemed oblivious to the fact that only well-off people could meaningfully apply these principles. Weir's home, while lovely and well-planned, is the home of a wealthy man. How relevant would Weir's description of his home be to a couple struggling to feed and clothe multiple children? After taking in Botkin, Phillips, and Weir that afternoon, I wondered how often they reflect on the middle and working class.
Stay tuned for more on the History of America Mega-Conference!