Colonel V. Doner begins his new book, Christian Jihad: Neo-Fundamentalists and the Polarization of America, with a startling confession: “In November 1963, as the public address system at a high school in Orange County, California, solemnly announced the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a 15-year-old boy shot from his seat, stunning his classmates with his spontaneous outburst that JFK was not assassinated, ‘He was executed for treason,’ he claimed, referring to his ‘soft on communism’ policies. This youngster, already well trained in a Christian worldview that allowed for no gray areas or nuances in diplomacy, knew one thing: JFK was a liberal and liberals were clearly betraying
That youngster, Colonel V. Doner (“Colonel” is his name, not a military rank), who describes himself as a one- time “rock star” of the Christian Right and who was a frequent spokesperson for the movement on numerous “talking head” programs, maintains that he has now given up the “culture wars,” wanting, instead, to promote “civil dialogue.”
Decades in the Trenches
Clearly, Doner has come a long way. Early in his career, he was mentored by the “firebrand Reverend Billy James Hargis, the scholarly Dr. David Noebel, and the eloquent Dr. Stuart McBirnie,” all of whom were key players in the Christian anti-communist movement. After a few years in those trenches, Doner became a prominent leader of the then-nascent Christian Right. Although he never became as well known in the conservative movement as Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie, Reverend Jerry Falwell, or Pat Robertson, Doner, nevertheless, played a significant role in getting the fundamentalist Christian Right off the ground in the 1970s and 1980s.
He was a founding member of Christian Voice and, according to his biography, created the first “Report Card” informing voters how their Congressperson was voting. He stood with Ronald Reagan from his first campaign for governor of
“From 1966 to 1996,” Doner writes, “I was a neo-fundamentalist strategist, spokesman, apologist, and author…an insider.”
In the 1990s, Doner “helped to awaken the political consciousness of Pentecostals and Charismatics” that birthed political leaders like Sarah Palin. Donor also took credit for being part of “an elite team that introduced Peter Wagner [a major force in the creation of the New Apostolic Reformation], the leader of Sarah Palin’s scary brand of ‘spiritual warfare’ theology, to the theocratic concept of ‘godly dominion’.” And, as if all this wasn’t enough, Doner points out that in the early years of this century, he had “evolved as a leader of the small but influential group of hardline theocrats called Reconstructionists who even now provide the blueprint for Palin’s Fundamentalist/Pentecostal/ Christian Right axis.”
By labeling Palin’s religious beliefs a “scary brand of ‘spiritual warfare’ theology,” Doner apparently changed his tune.
Doner’s epiphany came while preparing a ten-year-in-the-making work called, The Late Great Evangelical Church, a study aimed at “critiquing the evolution of Evangelical orthodoxy.” He writes that he began to ask himself, “a basic question: just how was it that we were privy to God’s objective truth and everybody else was so pitifully subjective or just plain wrong?” As Doner writes, “My world was rocked. I had my answer. There’s no such thing as absolute objectivity on our part. That is why there is precious little agreement, even in neo-fundamentalist circles, on many points, let alone in wider Evangelical circles.”
September 11 was the final turning point. He, “realized that the main difference between ‘our people’ and ‘their people’ (Islamic fundamentalists) was that ours (with the notable exception of bombing abortion clinics and assassinating doctors) had not (yet) resorted to violence.”
Doner also came to realize that his set of so-called objective truths, “was nothing more than illusion” and that he needed to, “grant others the benefit of the doubt.” He began “striving for confidence rather than certainty, of embracing pluralism, and last but not least, following Jesus in loving people rather than condemning them.”
To one degree or another, whether it’s leftist David Horowitz becoming a hardline right winger or conservative David Brock becoming a right-wing media watchdog for the progressive movement, we are often fascinated by stories about people going through major life changes, especially in their religion and/or politics. The new Doner was “born again, this time as a post-conservative, post-fundamentalist, postmodern Christian.”
Doner takes on some huge issues in his book—including focusing on Palin’s “rise to power” and how “she had come to symbolize everything Christian neo-fundamentalism stands for”—as he searched for a way to “begin a civil dialogue, both locally and nationally, that can lead us to a mutual understanding, if not reconciliation.”
What are we to make of the “new” Colonel V. Doner? Is he trying to capitalize on his colorful past and sell books? Do we accept that he has undergone a profound change of heart after more than 60 years on the planet, and nearly 40 years of being ensconced in the conservative Christian movement?
In the book, Doner creates a troubling equivalency between fundamentalists on the Religious Right and what he calls secular fundamentalists. Does he really believe that both sides are suffering from the same delusional syndrome? How can Doner believe that a “civil dialogue” is possible with folks that, as he reports, are so far off the charts? One can only hope that Doner’s newfound devotion to developing a “civil dialogue” takes root. However, it is doubtful that whatever he accomplishes from this point forward can undo the damage to democracy that he helped sow.
Bill Berkowitz is an activist and freelance writer covering conservative movements.