Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism

January 8, 2009

Written by an American scholar of religious studies at North Carolina State University, this book argues that conservative evangelical Christians are driven by the fear that America is being taken over by false believers, atheists, liberals, feminists and gays. Sometimes the enemy is more specific: Roman Catholics and, to a lesser degree, Jews, who must be treated gingerly because on their conversion rests the fate of the world. Oddly, immigrants and blacks get barely a mention.

What purportedly preoccupies US evangelicals is the fear that America's adolescents are being seduced by adults who espouse promiscuity, homosexuality, sadomasochism, and the accompanying vices of drugs and drink - the opposite of "family values". Paedophilia is not the fear. Who are the Pied Pipers leading the children astray? Rock stars, especially Marilyn Manson and heavy metal bands such as Black Sabbath. Almost all are white and native sons. From them, American youth must be saved.

America's "culture wars", which began in the 1980s, are by no means exclusively religious. But for evangelicals the wars are religious, for the opponents are Satanists, not secularists. Evangelicals see America the way the Book of Revelation, their master text, sees the world: as the setting for the mother of all battles - Jesus against Satan.

Jason Bivins describes in detail the propagation of the evangelical message. Rather than tabulating the number of conservative Christian TV and radio stations, publishing houses and other media outlets, he guides us through the merchandise. We encounter Jack Chick's comic-book tracts, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins' Left Behind series of novels, and wacko Halloween-style "Hell Houses". Through them all, evangelicals luridly depict the pitfalls of straying from Christ. So popular have these venues become throughout America that, of the Left Behind novels, Bivins declares: "I am still shocked when, on very rare occasions, I meet somebody who has not heard of them." If he were to venture outside his homeland to Britain, he would encounter persons mercifully untouched by evangelical merchandising. In religiosity, as in other ways, UK culture is more subdued than American.

Bivins' tour of the marketing of the evangelical message is long on information and short on theory. To begin with, the rooting of religion in fear goes back to the ancients and has its modern locus classicus in David Hume's The Natural History of Religion (1757), as Bivins himself notes. But where Hume explains religion as an attempt to cope with the fear of an uncontrollable physical world, Bivins starts with evangelical Christianity already formed. He does not explain it, let alone attribute it to fear. What he explains is the decision of desperate contemporary evangelicals to use the media (and also politics) to fight back.

When Bivins waxes theoretical, he appeals vaguely to "boundaries" (a la Mary Douglas) and to "identity constructions". Evangelicals are terrified of effacing the line between themselves and their opponents, between the sacred and the profane. Bivins, who rightly notes that evangelicals need the nemeses they decry, would have benefited from considering Emile Durkheim on deviance, and on the antisocial nature of magic vis-a-vis religion. He might also have enlisted textbook psychology to maintain, as he comes close to doing in stressing the blatant sexuality of the depictions of wayward sexuality, that what evangelicals really fear is they themselves.

Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism.

By Jason C. Bivins. Oxford University Press, 336pp, £14.99. ISBN 9780195340815. Published 28 August 2008

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