The politically charged talk didn’t stop when my beloved President Cowboy was Top Dog. In fact, it got more intense. Sometimes I think the reason we Gen-Xers are so politically apathetic is because we were spoon-fed agendas with our rice cereal. I mean, now when I look back at how partisan James Dobson and Tim LaHaye are, those little movies we saw on Sunday evenings in the sanctuary and the paperbacks we had lying around the house seem far from banal. Now, Dobson’d take me over his knee for saying that his intensity caused our apathy, but the case can be made.
I was going to Bob Jones University. No surprise there. Nearly all my teachers in my Christian day school attended there and all but one of my pastors. And that’s where my big brother went to school, and he was all that and a bag of chips in my mind. He would come home and teach me the cool stuff he was learning. That made me feel important and smart — pretty hot stuff for a kinda backward, nearly-Aspie nerd.
I was struggling with my big Senior-year research paper on Prohibition when Steve came home for Christmas vacation in 1985. I was writing the paper for that teacher that admired Richard Nixon, the one who had us read Imprimis for extra credit, and who is now president of a Christian liberal arts school named for another notable, but not necessarily right-wing, Christian politician. I doubt my brother knew any of that when he pulled out Richard Weaver’s hierarchy of argument to help me decipher the historical data.
So my formal introduction to paleoconservatism had begun.
Let me explain. Richard Weaver theorized that there was a “natural” hierarchy to argument: on top was an argument from definition and on the bottom was an argument from circumstance. If I were to argue for, say . . . . a national prohibition of alcohol, my strongest argument would be to say that alcohol was evil by its nature or essence. The weakest argument, in Weaver’s taxonomy, would be to contend that alcohol just caused bad circumstances. The Prohibitionists argued the latter which doomed them to failure. If they had argued the former, it would have been very difficult to prove, but it would have at least stuck.
My paleocon, Imprimis-hocking, Nixon-admiring teacher, of course, loved it.
That wasn’t the end to my Weaverducation. When I sat in Advanced Public Speaking (I would later teach the same class for seven years) my Senior year at BJU, Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences was our required reading. We memorized the argumentative hierarchy that my brother introduced to me four years before. Weaver didn’t just end with the argumentative rubric, however. He went further to say that conservatives always argue from essence and liberals always argue from circumstance. That was the primary difference between the two and why conservatives were better.
Hmm. . . . Really? In my short time at this very Republican place, I had digested enough evidence to the contrary. My EN102 paper had proven otherwise since I was drawing the argumentative connections between FDR’s technocracy and Gingrich’s Window of Opportunity. Now I know that I was perceiving and expressing the contrasts between the paleoconservatism of Weaver and Buckley and Buchanan and the neoconservatism of Kristol and Gingrich.
Why didn’t anyone ever tell me that? I never heard this contrast explained to me. As is typical for fundy pedogogy, I guess, new nuances are ignored either because their heads are too buried in the sand or because it involves an update in lecture notes or in the hopes that these upstarts’ll go away. As I study the conflicts between the paleos and the neos, quite honestly, it sounds like a fight between crabby Gentiles who hate FDR and crabby Jews who love him. When you add the theocons into the mix — Oy! — it’s like adding vinegar to the political baking soda paste.
And I get indigestion.
I saw the GOP courting BJU up close and personal. I don’t know how much it had to do with Bob Jones III’s involvement with the Council for National Policy. I personally never got to hear Reagan speak at BJU, but I did see the bounce in DeWitt Jones’ step (my teacher, advisor, and later boss) during the Reagan years. To be honest, I think he was just happy to have a rhetorical presidency again because it made public address cool. Carter’s malaise had even seeped into the speech-comm classroom.
The 1988 presidential election was fascinating. This was back when the BJU student body’s absorption of these political speeches was less official and ubiquitous than it became in later years. Rather than have a political candidate speak in Chapel or at a required evening Convocation, they came willy-nilly to a rally in the horribly-citron “Concert Center.”
Jack Kemp (neocon) rocked when he came. He was funny and suave. He used Scripture and he used it appropriately. We loved him. I still smile as if I’m recognizing an old friend when I see him standing next to ol’ McCain these days.
A few weeks after that Pat Robertson (theocon) spoke. Ew. Honestly, you all — it was bad. Now, let’s be clear. Pat Robertson’s theology is not BJU’s. Charismaticism and fundamentalism want to be more different than the same, but the sense was that if he’s a good candidate, we’ll listen.
First of all, he had planted shills all over campus to get us to come to his meeting. They weren’t representing Robertson (which would have been fine) as much as they were trying to look like us . . . er rather, us ten years ago. Now, it’s a small campus — 3000 uni students at the time — so you know everyone there. And these people stuck out — like a knee-length jean skirt with ankle socks at Sturgis. They’d cheerfully come up to Grant and me in the Snack and say, “Hey! all us students are coming to the rally tonight!! Make sure you’re there!!”
Whuh? Who ARE you?
So I attended. Of course I did. I was eating it all up. And Robertson was terrible. He was awkward. When the question-and-answer time came, we students weren’t allowed to ask questions (like we were with Kemp). No, his shills — the same ones we saw earlier — got up and asked the planned softball questions they were given. Grrrrr. . . .
The clincher came when he started spouting his Dominionism (ugh). He said something like, “And we all know what Genesis 20 says, don’t we?” We sat there quietly. BJU students are painfully polite, and this was one of our main lecture halls — where we attended History of Civ and Principles of Bible Study and Orientation. We were used to listening and nodding dutifully. We didn’t answer questions there, and we thought it was a rhetorical question (I was majoring in rhetorical questions, wasn’t I? 😉 ).
So we didn’t answer. And he responded passive-aggressively, “Well? DON’T YOU KNOW WHAT GENESIS 20 SAYS?? DON’T THEY TEACH YOU THE BIBLE AT BOB JONES UNIVERSITY???”
Angry, fuming silence. I think my jaw actually jutted forward and my arms automatically folded. Here we were trying to listen and give the guy a chance even though we disagreed with him. We put up with the shills. And we attended anyway ’cause we were curious. And he insults us? Good riddance, dude.
Pat Robertson’s bumper stickers were the biggest joke in the dorms after that.
So I was reared in a theocon environment with a paleocon curriculum in a growing neocon culture. I got it on all fronts. Even though I didn’t know those divisions, I knew the words and I lived the arguments.
And I knew there had to be more. Something didn’t ring true. As I struggled to teach rhetoric for the next six years at BJU (two as a grad student and four as a full-time faculty member), I knew my tools weren’t very good, and I didn’t know how to really use the ones I had. Weaver, as much of a god as he was to my teachers-turned-colleagues, wore thin real quick.
I needed more.