May 31, 2006

Religious Intolerance: Tearing Our Country Apart

Michelle Goldberg, senior investigative reporter for Salon, has recently written a book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, that should be read by anyone wondering why our society is getting so corrosive and polarized. Alternet has published an excerpt from her work that covers what she sees as the reasons for the polarization and what can be done to counteract that polarization.

Whenever I talk about the growing power of the evangelical right with friends, they always ask the same question: What can we do? Usually I reply with a joke: Keep a bag packed and your passport current.

I don't really mean it, but my anxiety is genuine. It's one thing to have a government that shows contempt for civil liberties; America has survived such men before. It's quite another to have a mass movement -- the largest and most powerful mass movement in the nation -- rise up in opposition to the rights of its fellow citizens. The Constitution protects minorities, but that protection is not absolute; with a sufficiently sympathetic or apathetic majority, a tightly organized faction can get around it.

The mass movement I've described aims to supplant Enlightenment rationalism with what it calls the "Christian worldview." The phrase is based on the conviction that true Christianity must govern every aspect of public and private life, and that all -- government, science, history and culture -- must be understood according to the dictates of scripture. There are biblical correct positions on every issue, from gay marriage to income tax rates, and only those with the right worldview can discern them. This is Christianity as a total ideology -- I call it Christian nationalism. It's an ideology adhered to by millions of Americans, some of whom are very powerful. It's what drives a great many of the fights over religion, science, sex and pluralism now dividing communities all over the country.

It is clear this article and others, such as her review of Kevin Phillip's latest work (click through the ad), that I've read by her show that after spending several years reporting on the Christian right, talking to their leaders and attending the mega-churches and conferences, Goldberg is quite worried about the increasing influence of the Christian right on our society.

For someone who is profoundly uneasy about America's future right now, there's something perversely comforting about reading this from a figure like Phillips. It suggests that one's enveloping sense of foreboding is based on something more than the psychological stress of living under the Bush kakistocracy. A feeling that the world is falling apart is usually associated with neurosis; now, it's possible that it's a sign of sanity.

She has several suggestions on what we need to do to forestall the benighted future that the Christian Reconstructionists would bring.

Those who want to fight Christian nationalism will need a long-term and multifaceted strategy. I see it as having three parts -- electoral reform to give urban areas fair representation in the federal government, grassroots organizing to help people fight Christian nationalism on the ground and a media campaign to raise public awareness about the movement's real agenda.

My ideas are not about reconciliation or healing. It would be good if a leader stepped forward who could recognize the grievances of both sides, broker some sort of truce, and mend America's ragged divides. The anxieties that underlay Christian nationalism's appeal -- fears about social breakdown, marital instability and cultural decline -- are real. They should be acknowledged and, whenever possible, addressed. But as long as the movement aims at the destruction of secular society and the political enforcement of its theology, it has to be battled, not comforted and appeased.

My own belief is that we have to go back to some basics: just as we were warned after 9/11, that one of the greatest challenges we faced was to stop making new terrorist converts, we have to short circuit the mechanisms that the demagogic leaders are using to create new true believers. As Tom Frank wrote in his book, What's the Matter With Kansas, the conservative message (and indeed, the religious-right message) has been incredibly effective in making converts that not only vote against their economic interests, but absolutely despise liberals who they've been taught to hate.

Nearly everyone has a conversion story they can tell: how their dad had been a union steelworker and a stalwart Democrat, but how all their brothers and sisters started voting Republican; or how their cousin gave up on Methodism and started going to the Pentecostal church out on the edge of town; or how they themselves just got so sick of being scolded for eating meat or for wearing clothes emblazoned with the State U's Indian mascot that one day Fox News started to seem "fair and balanced" to them after all.

Take the family of a friend of mine, a guy who came from one of those midwestern cities that sociologists used to descend upon periodically because it was supposed to be so "typical." It was a middling-sized industrial burg where they made machine tools, auto parts, and so forth. When Reagan took office in 1981, more than half the working population of the city was employed in factories, and most of them were union members. The ethos of the place was working-class, and the city was prosperous, tidy, and liberal, in the old sense of the word.

My friend's dad was a teacher in the local public schools, a loyal member of the teachers' union, and a more dedicated liberal than most: not only had he been a staunch supporter of George McGovern, but in the 1980 Democratic primary he had voted for Barbara Jordan, the black U.S. Representative from Texas. My friend, meanwhile, was in those days a high school Republican, a Reagan youth who fancied Adam Smith ties and savored the writing of William F. Buckley. The dad would listen to the son spout off about Milton Friedman and the godliness of free-market capitalism, and he would just shake his head. Someday, kid, you'll know what a jerk you are.

It was the dad, though, who was eventually converted. These days he votes for the farthest-right Republicans he can find on the ballot. The particular issue that brought him over was abortion. A devout Catholic, my friend's dad was persuaded in the early nineties that the sanctity of the fetus outweighed all of his other concerns, and from there he gradually accepted the whole pantheon of conservative devil-figures: the elite media and the American Civil Liberties Union, contemptuous of our values; the lal-di-da feminists; the idea that Christians are vilely persecuted -- right here in the U.S. of A. It doesn't even bother him, really, when his new hero Bill O'Reilly blasts the teachers' union as a group that "does not love America."

His superaverage midwestern town, meanwhile, has followed the same trajectory. Even as Republican economic policy laid waste to the city's industries, unions, and neighborhoods, the townsfolk responded by lashing out on cultural issues, eventually winding up with a hard-right Republican congressman, a born-again Christian who campaigned largely on an anti-abortion platform. Today the city looks like a miniature Detroit. And with every bit of economic bad news it seems to get more bitter, more cynical, and more conservative still. (pg 3-5)

How do you stop making converts for the rabid-right? You must find ways to inoculate people from the propaganda and from the false dichotomies. Somehow you must make sure people are able to appreciate ambiguities: it is okay to be against abortion and pro-universal health care, separation of church and state, etc. Nothing is more dangerous for our country than the false choices that say you must be with us or you are against us. It is this absolutist talk that is creating an intolerant, close-minded and ultimately undemocratic attitude in the public and that is the toxic poison spreading through our country.

(h/t to SmirkingChimp)

Posted by Mary at May 31, 2006 12:07 AM | Religion | Technorati links |

I think it's more basic than even that.

The job market for people like the example you bring up has been bad at least since 1977-78. (It's only been under Bush that no color of color, be it even white or bright, is safe.) There was a sense of stability, of reassurance, in the majority blue and pink collar worlds in which they grew up at that time.

That's all gone now, for the most part. And when people need stability, that reassurance, they look toward whatever they can find. And they will go to where their needs are addressed.

The problem is that its easy for some folks to give their fear flesh in the usual ways - liberal elites that are ignorant of their suffering, gays - the usual. We feed our fears all too easily, and like junk food, its easily accessible compared to finding messages of hope that don't pretend the way out is easy to accomplish or simple to comprehend.

Give people hope and a way out of where they are now, and we stand a chance of showing them that the worlds many now inhabit don't help anymore.

Ignore it, and it will get worse, if for no other reason than the "enemies" presented won't be seen as any less under their control, any less underfoot.

Posted by: palamedes at May 31, 2006 07:09 AM

"Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of that which is unseen".

Fundamentalist interpretation (ie literal) of this scripture is backward. "That which is unseen" means it is not possible to know for a certainty the existence of God and an afterlife. We have "evidence", but not absolute proof. If it were possible to know for a certainty, what would be the meaning and purpose of faith and hope?

The best we can conclude in this regard is that we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God and an afterlife. The meaning of the scripture may be that we are not to know for a certainty. Fundamentalists may be committing blasphemy and harming others in the pursuit of faith by nullifying its deeper meaning, that of putting us mortals in our place as mortals.

God also gets really tired of insincere, mandatory, selfish prayers and puts on an MP3 player and listens to banjo music to tune them out. Plinky plink-plink plink-plink, plink plink plinky, plinkety plinky plink. God invites all to tap their toes if they so wish. Yeehaw!

Posted by: Wells at May 31, 2006 07:14 PM