More than 30 years ago, an article in The New Yorker about the political aspirations of Christian conservatives – A Disciplined, Charging Army – sent chills down the spines of American liberals. Right-wing zealots were coming to take over the nation.
These zealots intended to outlaw abortion, restore mandatory prayer in public schools and remove "filth" from the airwaves. But despite three decades in the national spotlight – more than half under Republican presidential administrations – this "disciplined, charging army" of Christian conservatives has failed to secure its goals.
Reports about the conservative Christian leaders behind the recent government shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis have once again exaggerated the threat of theocratic forces. Like stories published in the wake of George W. Bush's 2004 re-election, the 1994 midterms and the 1988 Pat Robertson presidential campaign, last week's coverage of the budget impasse warned about shadowy Christian operatives working behind the scenes of the GOP.
Stories about the shutdown linked libertarian hero Rand Paul to Christian "dominionist" Gary North. They pointed out that Senator Ted Cruz's father had schooled him in the wild-eyed schemes of "end-times wealth transfers" found in apocalyptic prosperity gospels.
Some reporters suggested that conservative Christian teachings had inspired these key Republican lawmakers to manufacture a legislative crisis that would pave the way for a reconstruction of U.S. government according to conservative Christian principles.
The only problem? There is a widespread conservative Christian plan to rescue Americans from the current government. But you won't find it in Christian dominionism.
Dominionists take their name from the book of Genesis, in which God tells Adam and Eve they have dominion over all creation. Dominionists believe this means Christians ought to control law, politics and society. At their most extreme, dominionists call for the U.S. to enshrine Old Testament law – including the stoning of homosexuals and adulterers.
Dominionists are real, but Americans don't need to worry about this arcane brand of Christianity taking over their society. Christian-right insider Mark Demoss estimates that only "one in 1,000 Christians in America" could even "wager a guess at what dominion is." Evangelicalism scholar Molly Worthen agrees: Dominionism is "a pretty small world."
Christian conservatives are making spiritual preparations for government end times. But in the face of an economic apocalypse, most Christian conservatives will look for political salvation where they have always found it: rugged individualism. Individual accountability has always been the bedrock of their political vision of a moral society, strong families and small government.
They put their faith in one of many prosperity gospels, believing that God rewards the righteous individual. The solution to the government shutdown is simple: hard work, can-do attitude and endless optimism about the future of the righteous entrepreneur.
When asked about how to handle pressing issues like the government shutdown, Joel Osteen, pastor of the country's largest church, urged believers to put their effort into what they can control: maintaining positive focus and attitude. Megachurch pastor John Hagee, self-proclaimed pit bull of the Religious Right, urged parishioners to trust God, not the government, as their provider.
Most Christian conservatives responded to the news of the government shutdown with a nod and a shrug. After all, they turn to preachers who argue that the best bet is always on yourself. And the only economy worth investing in rests ultimately on you and God.
Many of America's largest churches preach the good news that their faith is an end-run around the government and even the economy itself. When the recession hit, believers were reminded: "This isn't our recession!" God's economy could not be hampered by the decisions of Wall Street. In new books like Recession-Proof Living and a special edition of the Financial Freedom Bible, preachers reminded audiences that their faith created a short cut around the market economy's pitfalls.
Skeptics of this deeply entrenched version of the American dream will always expect economic collapse to end the lure of these prosperity gospels. But it is precisely this brinksmanship that makes these messages so appealing. They tap into the deep vein of American religious thought positing that the only genuine delusion is helplessness. God is always ready and able to help you dig for gold in your own backyard.
Kate Bowler is assistant professor of the history of Christianity in the U.S. at Duke Divinity School and author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. Seth Dowland is assistant professor of American religious history at Pacific Lutheran University and author of the forthcoming Family Values: Gender, Authority and the Rise of the Christian Right.