The New Fanaticism
Martin Luther referred to theologians who wanted to separate the Holy Spirit from the Word of God as “fanatics” or “enthusiasts.” Among these he counted Andreas von Carlstadt, a fellow professor at Wittenberg who took to smashing images and stained glass while Luther was holed up in the Wartburg translating the New Testament. Also Thomas Muenzer, an early Anabaptist who used Reformation teaching of the equality of all men before God despite differences in station as a pretext for rebellion against civil authority. Also Huldrych Zwingli, the Swiss humanist who denied the presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine and was also possessed of a martial spirit, dying on the battlefield in the name of his Reformation.
The fanatical spirit manifested itself not only in its propensity for war and bloodshed but primarily in claiming a higher revelation from God than was to be found in the mere Word of God. Personal experience trumped the Scriptural word; personal revelations trumped ordinary morality as revealed in the Ten Commandments and natural law.
A few years ago I attended a free conference with various conservative Lutherans exchanging perspectives on theological issues that still divide the various denominations. Among the theologians present was Stephen Paulson, a traditional Lutheran from the mainline Lutheran denomination in the US, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Paulson had an interesting perspective on the theological afflictions of his own church body, chief of which was the legitimization within the ELCA of practicing homosexual clergy and homosexual “marriage.”
He said something to the effect of this: “The reason the revisionists in the ELCA are doing what they’re doing is not because they’re deceived and swayed by the popular culture. Actually they are convinced of their own rectitude–they have a higher revelation than us, in their opinion. They are more righteous than us because they have moved past the bare, unspiritual, literal reading of Scripture and the ten commandments to a new revelation: “what the Spirit is revealing now.” That is that homosexuality is now not only not sinful but a good gift of God. However those who oppose it are opposing the Spirit with the bare letter of Scripture, like the Pharisees. In other words, they are fanatics.”
The fanaticism of the pro-homosexual movements in mainline denominations has a counterpart in the new censoriousness we see erupting in American politics. The old fanatical demon is at it again. What’s different is that now it has the levers of power and legitimacy, even though it still pretends to be revolutionary. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. American progressivism is just a mutant puritanism, and we can see its various incarnations throughout our history: the American Revolution was one earlier mutation; the abolitionism of John Brown was strangely fused to a supposedly strict Calvinism. Among the spiritual heirs of Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather are Boston Unitarians like Ralph Waldo Emerson (although they would not recognize this post-Christian mutant). The women’s suffrage movement, the temperance movement–nearly every social crusade in American history can be traced to a lingering puritan ethos in the United States, even while the predestinarian emphases of Calvinist theology have been emptied out. Nonetheless we see in them all a God not ever fully human, in keeping with Calvinist Christology. (Further examination might also reveal a similar tendency in Roman Catholic theology, but that is a story for another day and probably another writer. Besides, it’s hard to see that Catholicism has yet become fully American without simply becoming a species of mainline Protestantism.)
Secular fanaticism can be identified by its censorious spirit, its desire to legislate its view of perfection. It is theocratic with out any theos, possessed of a covenantal mentality that cannot separate the civil sphere from the religious. Thus the need to clamp down on immorality in the name of the common good. And it is fanatical in that it not only ignores the authority of the Scriptural word but also the codex of nature and reason. Thus we see it inveighing against moral traditions established by reason and custom–the death penalty, marriage between a man and a woman for the purpose of procreation, the right to bear arms–as well as inventing new morality and persecuting dissenters–banning plastic shopping bags, tobacco and e-cigs (despite the lack of any evidence showing that they do any sort of harm to public health).
In the case of the Illinois “no-gun” sticker we see the pathological need of the new fanaticism to demonize those who raise any questions about the new morality. The last state in the Union to permit “concealed-carry” permits, Illinois relented only when forced by a federal court decision, and then vented passive-aggressive spleen by forcing schools, hospitals, and other public buildings to post a prominent “gun free zone” sticker–using the same iconography earlier used to demonize tobacco usage.
Guns bad. Smoking bad. Yes mommy.
Of course the Illinois state legislature is bankrupt and likely to not pay its teacher’s pensions, but they are really good about smoking, guns, and gay marriage! That is to say, they are devout fanatics, and can be counted on to use force on moral issues dear to the piety of the left wing, regardless of whether their stances on those issues correspond with reason, custom, natural law, or traditional religion.
There is one other story illustrating the New Fanaticism in Illinois, but unfortunately I can’t link to it because it hasn’t made much press yet. The story is about Lutheran Child and Family Services of Illinois. LCFS was at one time the second biggest non-profit placing foster children in Illinois, the biggest being Catholic Charities. However, the fanatics running the Illinois State legislature got wind of the fact that LCFS, Catholic Charities, and an evangelical agency involved in adoptions received funding from the state, but would not certify homosexual couples for adoption. Despite the fact that Catholic Charities and LCFS had been doing this work for around a century and a half, which was why they got state dollars in the first place, the Illinois legislature passed bills approving civil unions between homosexuals and then requiring agencies receiving state funding to certify these couples. Catholic Charities promptly closed. LCFS gave in to pressure from the state and kept their funding, becoming the biggest adoption agency in Illinois.
The story doesn’t end here, however. LCFS was affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the largest conservative Lutheran denomination in the country, which not only does not approve of homosexual marriage but continues not to ordain women and espouses the pre-enlightenment 6 day view of creation. In fact LCFS was the oldest charity in the denomination, beginning with an orphanage started in Addison, Illinois around the middle of the 19th century.
After a fairly long delay, considering the speed with which the Catholic church acted, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod severed its ties with LCFS earlier this year.
You might also remember how the federal government was going to try to force the Catholic Church and conservative protestants to pay for contraception under their insurance plans, including those regarded as early-abortion pills.
What can we learn from this? That the new fanaticism has no qualms whatsoever about dividing and conquering churches that fail to toe the line regarding the new public piety required by our theocrats in American government. That the new fanaticism is far more concerned about ideological purity than the welfare of children, who can hardly be imagined to be better served by an adoption system that cuts out the Catholic church–much less a society in which churches which have consistently been a source of strength for women and children are subject to state-sponsored marginalization.
What should we look for? Increasing pressure on churches to publicly renounce impure views regarding homosexuality. Increasing boldness of the state to tell individuals what their moral choices should be, and to make those choices for them wherever possible.
Monetary penalties on dissenting organizations leading to prosecution for holding “bigoted” moral views.
Which is to say, for holding moral views that correspond to the consensus until five years ago, not to mention reason, natural law, and the ten commandments.