Less Than Conquerors

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Losers
in a culture war find themselves in a round room, with a mandate
to sit in the corner. Dysfunctional coping mechanisms appear when
the old maps of life are shredded. The alcoholic reservation Indian
is one example.

A
more poignant image of cultural demoralization is closer at hand
in the Bible belt. Douglas Frank’s book Less
than Conquerors: How Evangelicals Entered the 20th Century

provides insight to thoughtful readers within and outside of the
sub-culture described, American fundamentalism.

In
the second half of the nineteenth century, Frank explains, the dominant
position of the conservative Protestant in American culture succumbed
to a number of social forces. For example, Charles Darwin made it
possible for the man in the street to view the universe as an artifact
without an artisan.

Around
the turn of the century, fundamentalists awoke to realize that the
world had passed them by. It was in this period of self-doubt and
redefinition, says Douglas Frank, that dysfunctional coping mechanisms
took malignant root in the evangelical subculture.

Like
the fortune teller’s fatalistic customers, fundamentalists who had
lost faith in their ability to shape the future began trying instead
to divine the future. “Prophecy teaching” flourished, the speculative
attempt to read current events into holy writ. Lurid pulp literature
anointed one candidate after another as Antichrist. “I may be a
loser now,” the prophecy enthusiast could say, hugging his latest
charts and histrionic paperbacks for security, “but soon, any day
now, you’re going to be an even bigger loser! So there!”

Others
coped with external frustrations by turning their focus inward.
The “victorious life” movement offered a subjective “spiritual power”
to anxious, impotent seekers. By following self-hypnotic techniques,
the seeker could acquire the longed-for nirvana. “I might look like
a loser,” the victorious believer could say, “but on the inside,
where you can’t see it or disprove it, I’m winning!”

Frank’s
most pointed analysis deals with the one cultural battle the fundamentalists
won, prohibition. Using the metaphor of the lynch mob, Frank draws
upon the career and writings of Billy Sunday to support his point.
A demoralized, defeated people demonize some token of their impotent
rage, some entity that can be safely, righteously hated. The frustrations
of the mob are summed up, focused, and laid upon the designated
victim, whose sacrifice symbolically lays that floating anxiety
to rest. Like today’s “Operation Rescuers,” Billy Sunday’s mobs
were known to break things and hurt people in their righteous rampages
against “demon rum.” It was, perhaps, more than conviction that
shut down all the saloons in Rochester, NY during a Sunday “crusade.”

The
growth of organized crime, and of widespread contempt for the law,
made prohibition a Pyrrhic victory. At the moment, though, it looked
like a good idea to people too bewildered to look beyond the moment.

As
the old preacher’s maxim goes, though, a text without a context
is a pretext. You don’t cure a disease by focusing all your energies
upon one symptom, and ignoring underlying causes. You don’t prevail
against a total world view by accepting its legitimacy, and then
complaining about one of its “outcomes."

Speaking
from within the evangelical milieu, Douglas Frank knows where the
bodies are buried. As popular “prophecy” writers Hal Lindsey, Texx
Marrs, and David Hunt demonstrate, chiliasm is alive and well on
planet Earth; you can still fleece gullible sheep by crying wolf.
Proponents of a deeper life, higher plane, more spirited Christian
life find ready listeners, as they turn their followers away from
knotty problems in the objective world.

Finally,
Christians can still be enlisted in political fool’s errands, trying
to impose pointless prayers to a nameless deity in government schools.

As
the title of this book suggests by its ironic evocation of Romans
8:37 (…in all these things, we are more than conquerors through
Him that loved us…”), true faith faces and engages the issues
of life, rather than seeking false refuge in quick fixes and quack
nostrums. After all, hunger points to the existence of food. The
passion for significance points you to the One who is signified.
Should not the failure of secular humanism in every zone it touches
– and it is a global faith, desacralizing and politicizing
everything it touches – energize us to build a better culture,
for the glory of God and benefit of our neighbor?

August
25, 2004

Tom
Smedley [send him mail]
is a technical writer living in the Research Triangle Park area
of North Carolina with his wife and four children. Visit
his web site.

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