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By Alan Jacobs


"Some Fanged Enemy of Christendom"

An exchange between Jeff Sharlet and Alan Jacobs.

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Alan Jacobs' most recent essay on the Books and Culture website, "The Know–Nothing Party," marks the second time a publication in the Christianity Today family has distorted my work to heap disdain on Christians of whom mainstream evangelicalism is embarrassed. This is all the more remarkable given that I am a secular Jew and that in both instances, your writers were attempting to paint me as some fanged enemy of Christendom; and yet even my alleged villainy pales in comparison to the contempt for Christian thinkers expressed by CT/B&C's own writers.

In a cover story on Ted Haggard (before his difficulties), CT staffer Tim Stafford accused me of using "mostly scary atmospherics" to place Haggard on a "spectrum between the Grand Inquisitor and William Jennings Bryan." Besides the fact that my "atmospherics" included—independently of my analysis—nearly as many of Haggard's own words, quoted directly or neutrally paraphrased, as Stafford's entire article, I happen to be a great admirer of Bryan. In my forthcoming book, I characterize the Bryan–Darrow showdown as a tragic conflict between two champions of social justice, and I follow historian Michael Kazin in believing Bryan to have been one of the great voices of Christian witness in American history. CT, apparently, holds Bryan in less regard, evidently preferring the integrity modeled by Ted Haggard.

Now Alan Jacobs anoints me a member of a "Know–Nothing Party" that is waging "a war on religion." I hope someone will please notify the CT writers whom I've been proud to promote in the past that they are, in fact, part of an insidious plot to tear down not only their own faith but also religion itself. I can hardly be upset about this gross falsehood, however, given the bile Professor Jacobs drips on R.J. Rushdoony and Tim LaHaye. Now, I'm no admirer of either man, but I'd hardly call Rushdoony a "Dark Armenian–American Lord," as does Professor Jacobs in his rush to disassociate him from Francis Schaeffer. I mean, Rushdoony was a pretty authoritarian guy, but he was no Sauron. I will, however, insist on calling Schaeffer a student of Rushdoony's. He read Rushdoony, and taught some of his ideas. Rushdoony's emphasis on the importance of a providential reading of American history is, I believe, evident in Schaeffer's slightest but most popular work, A Christian Manifesto. Clearly, Schaeffer did not accept all or even the majority of Rushdoony's ideas. Fortunately, one can be a student of a thinker without signing a loyalty oath. As for the fact that Schaeffer was older than Rushdoony, which Professor Jacobs seems to think proves something, I am without adequate response; I had no idea that one's juniors can't influence one. Likewise Professor Jacobs' insistence that Schaeffer read Rushdoony late in his career (though not before he published his most popular book, I might add); is their an age cap on learning of which I've not been informed.

As for LaHaye, I'm willing to take the Left Behind author at his word with regard to his influences, if not his prophecies, which is more than Jacobs is willing to do for his ostensible co–religionist. LaHaye has written of his great debt to Schaeffer. Far be it from me to dispute him. Jacobs is a scholar of literature, so presumably he's familiar with literary influence—that is, how it works in mysterious ways. There are any number of novelists who name Faulkner or Hemingway as their guiding light, but very few of them would do their alleged ancestors proud. Intellectuals may claim ancestors, but they do not have the luxury of choosing their descendants.

LaHaye and Schaeffer are worlds apart theologically and intellectually, but LaHaye borrows from Schaeffer his understanding of providential history and his peculiar notion of "secular humanism" as some kind of monolithic philosophy. These are some of Schaeffer's more ill–informed arguments, but even so, LaHaye manages to dumb them down. His diminishment of Schaeffer's work evidently distresses Professor Jacobs, and thus he declares the idea of LaHaye as an intellectual and even spiritual descendant—a disciple—of Schaeffer simply impossible. Would that Faulkner were alive to say as much about Cormac McCarthy's late–career clichés.

Jacobs takes issue with my characterization of L'Abri as akin to a madrassah but does not elaborate. Apparently, to suggest that a Christian place of religious learning and debate has absolutely anything to do with an Islamic place of religious learning and debate is so patently absurd that it is not even worth discussing.

As for the rest of Professor Jacobs' points, they address none of mine, so I'll return the favor. Jacobs claims to have discovered all this secular idiocy in only two sentences of my article, and thus, he is free to ignore the other 8,000 words, in which I acknowledge the dispute over terms such as "fundamentalism" and explain why and how I use that word (most certainly not interchangeably with "religion," as Professor Jacobs suggests in a passage that borders on bigotry); argue that, contrary to liberal assumptions, adherents of fundamentalism as I define it have been a crucial part of American life since the beginning; chide secular education for ignoring this fact; and charge secular liberalism with indulging in distortions of history as great as those of "fundamentalists" who insist that separation of church and state is a myth or was only meant to protect the church from the state.

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