Dark Christianity
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May 2008
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Rapture Politics


From the Toronto Star:

Rapture politics


"Unique among nations, America recognized the source of our character as being godly and eternal, not being civic and temporal. And because we have understood that our source is eternal, America has been different. We have no king but Jesus."

— John Ashcroft, former U.S. attorney general

Since the re-election of George W. Bush last November, religious fundamentalists have been in overdrive in their effort to define American politics through a reductive and fanatical moralism.

This kind of religious zealotry has a long tradition in American history, extending from the arrival of Puritanism in the 17th century to the current spread of Pentecostalism. This often ignored history, imbued with theocratic certainty and absolute moralism, has been powerful in providing religious justification to the likes of the Ku Klux Klan, the parlance of the Robber Barons, the patriarchal discourse of "family values," the National Association of Evangelicals' declared war on "the bias of aggressive secularism," and the current attack on a judiciary that is allegedly waging war on people of faith.

But American religious fundamentalism in its most recent incarnation extends far beyond the parameters of extremist sects or the isolated comments of radical Christian politicians, evangelical leaders and pundits; it is now operative in the highest reaches of government and "more radical and far-reaching than in the past," according to the conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan.

The fundamentalist tendencies of President Bush are now commonplace and can be seen in his official recognition of "Jesus Day" while governor of Texas, his ongoing faith-based initiatives and his endless use of religious references and imagery in his speeches.

Further evidence of an American theocracy is reflected in commentary by a host of powerful politicians, judges and religious leaders. They include Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whose pronouncements against the separation of church and state are well known; former attorney general John Ashcroft, who held regular prayer meetings and covered up the bare-breasted statue of justice; and Tom DeLay, the House Majority leader, who once claimed that, "Our entire system is built on the Judeo-Christian ethic, but it fell apart when we started denying God. If you stand up today and acknowledge God, they will try to destroy you... My mission is to bring us back to the Constitution and to Absolute Truth that has been manipulated and destroyed by a liberal world view."

In Colorado Springs, Colo., Christian cadets, with the support of faculty at the U.S. Air Force Academy, have put pressure on "peers who believe differently, or who do not believe. Jewish cadets, in particular, have been targeted, charged with the murder of Christ," reports the Boston Globe.

Another example is James Dobson, founder and chairman of Focus on the Family and one of the most right-wing evangelicals in America. He is heard on radio in 99 countries and "his estimated listening audience is more than 200 million worldwide," according to an article in The Atlantic.

"Dobson likens the proponents of gay marriage to the Nazis, has backed political candidates who called for the execution of abortion providers, defines embryonic stem-cell research as `state-funded cannibalism,' and urges Christian parents to pull their children out of public school systems," reported Chris Hedges, the author of the Atlantic article. "He has issued warnings to the Bush Administration that his extremist agenda must begin to be implemented in Washington and by the federal courts if the Republican Party wants his continued support."

The similar use of fear and intimidation by the Bush administration panders to the religious right just as it transforms dissent into a threat and wields power in a manner consistent with "not only the character of the deity portrayed in the Old Testament but also with the modus operandi of the Corleone and Gambino crime families," writes Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper's magazine. "Family values" is now joined with an emotionally charged appeal to faith as the new code words for cultural conservatism.

Giddy with power and a new-found legitimacy in American politics, these moral apparatchiks believe that Satan's influence shapes everything from the liberal media to "how Barbra Streisand was taught to sing," according to Lapham.

As the journalist Bill Moyers has written, this is "Rapture politics," in which the Bible is read as literally true, dissent is a mark of the anti-Christ and "sinners will be condemned to eternal hellfire." As right-wing religion conjoins with conservative political ideology and corporate power, it not only legitimates intolerance and anti-democratic forms of religious correctness, it also lays the groundwork for a growing authoritarianism that easily derides appeals to reason, dissent, dialogue and secular humanism. How else to explain the growing number of Christian conservative educators who want to impose the teaching of creationism in the schools, ban sex education from curricula and subordinate scientific facts to religious dogma?

The rise of the religious zealot as politician is readily apparent not only in high-profile religious hucksters such as former attorney general John Ashcroft, Senator Rick Santorum, and the current occupant of the White House, but also in the emergence of a new group of faith-bearing politicians elected to the Senate — the "opportunistic ayatollahs on the right," as Frank Rich of The New York Times called them.

For instance, the newly elected senator from Oklahoma, Tom Coburn, has not only publicly argued for the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions, he has also insisted that lesbianism is so rampart in the schools in Oklahoma that officials let only one girl go to the bathroom at a time.

Jim DeMint, the new senator from South Carolina, stated he would not want to see "a single woman who was pregnant and living with her boyfriend" teaching in the public schools. He also wants to ban gays from teaching in public schools.

John Thune, the newly elected senator from South Dakota, supports a constitutional amendment banning flag burning.

As long as politics fails to provide a sense of meaning, purpose and dignity to people's lives, religious fundamentalists will step in and take up this task.

Many right-wing Christian movements and politicians are planning strategies designed to strip federal judges of their ability to hear cases involving the separation of church and state. For instance, Republican Rep. John Hostettler of Indiana plans to introduce a bill in Congress "that would deny federal courts the right to hear cases challenging the Defence of Marriage Act, which bans same-sex marriage."

According to Hostettler, "When the courts make unconstitutional decisions, we should not enforce them. Federal courts have no army or navy. The court can opine, decide, talk about, sing, whatever it wants to do. We're not saying they can't do that. At the end of the day, we're saying the court can't enforce its opinions."

Needless to say, with the retirement of Sandra Day O'Connor and the anticipated departure of Chief Justice Rehnquist from the Supreme Court, evangelical Christians are aggressively mobilizing in their efforts to pressure President Bush to appoint right-wing justices who will push their conservative moral agenda, including banning same-sex marriages and abortion rights.

Jerry Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority, bluntly expressed earlier this month how important the upcoming fight over this judicial appointment is for evangelical Christians: "This is do or die."

Bush's nominee, announced last Tuesday, is John Roberts Jr., described as a "solidly conservative" appeals-court judge who as a lawyer co-wrote a brief calling on the Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion in the United States.

At age 50, Roberts will serve for years on the Supreme Court if his nomination is confirmed.

Many religious extremists, such as Dobson, view such an appointment not only as ground zero for every other issue on the conservative agenda, but also as political payback for allegedly delivering the 2004 election to Bush.

There is every reason to believe that the Falwells and Dobsons of the world will get their way with these nominations; if that happens, their brand of religious zealotry will be influencing judicial policy long after such fanatics have passed from the American religious and political landscape.

Such opportunism is more than a call by Christian social conservatives and "power puritans," as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd calls them, to appoint conservative judges, prevent homosexuals from securing jobs as teachers, dismantle the power of the federal judiciary and approve legislation that would stop stem-cell research and eliminate the reproductive rights of women. It is an example of the "bloodthirsty feelings of revenge" that motivate many of Bush's religious boosters.

The dogmatic allegiance, if not call for vengeance, that drives many of Bush's Christian fundamentalist supporters is apparent every day on many of the 1,600 Christian radio and TV broadcasts that reach as many as 140 million people.

The message that unites these broadcasters is that America is destined to become a Christian nation, and for that to happen Christian fundamentalists of various doctrinal stripes will have to unite to take control of secular society.

Chris Hedges, writing in The Atlantic, paints a very disturbing picture of some of the ideological elements that hold together a curious mix of fundamentalists who are part of a large movement known as Dominionism.

"Dominionists preach that Jesus has called them to build the kingdom of God in the here and now, whereas previously it was thought that we would have to wait for it. America becomes, in this militant biblicism, an agent of God, and all political and intellectual opponents of America's Christian leaders are viewed, quite simply, as agents of Satan.

"Under Christian dominion, America will no longer be a sinful and fallen nation but one in which the Ten Commandments form the basis of our legal system, Creationism and `Christian values' form the basis of our educational system, and the media and the government proclaim the Good News to one and all."

The merging of religion and dominant politics echoes Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka's claim that religion has become the central problem of the 21st century. According to Soyinka, "It is not so much religion itself but what religion has turned into, the use to which religion is being put, which is a highly political, sectarian one. In other words, religion is being taken over by fundamentalist extremism — and that's the problem."

The United States' turn to religion as a central element of politics suggests some important considerations that need to be addressed by those who believe in the separation of church and state.

First, there is a growing need to address the search for community through social formations, values and movements that bring people together through the discourse of public morality, civic engagement and the ethical imperatives of democracy. This is not just a matter of rediscovering America's secular roots but also of creating a cultural politics in which the language of community, shared values, solidarity and the common good plays an important pedagogical and political role in the struggle for an inclusive and democratic society.

American religious fundamentalism is now operative in the highest reaches of government.

This means developing a language of critique in which the rabid individualism of neoliberal market ideology can be unmasked for its anti-democratic and utterly privatizing tendencies.

It means rooting out all those fundamentalisms so prevalent in American society, including those market, political, religious and militaristic fundamentalisms that now exercise such a powerful influence over all aspects of American society.

What is crucial to understand is that fundamentalism cannot simply be dismissed as anti-democratic or evil. As the welfare state declines, many right-leaning Christian churches offer not only eternal salvation but also material assistance in the form of day care, low-priced dinners for poor families, psychological help for the abused and a ministry for inner-city at-risk youth.

As social services are privatized, the churches are one of the few public spheres left where people can form a semblance of community, network, find soup kitchens and become part of a support group.

Fundamentalism performs a certain kind of work that taps into real individual and collective needs. Unfortunately, these faith-based groups provide people not only with a sense of identity in a time of crisis, but they also offer a sense of public efficacy; that is, they furnish the promise of social agency in which individuals can exercise solidarity through a sense of meaning and action in their lives.

Furthermore, in a world in which the state has abandoned its welfare-bearing role, a global social order has emerged that lacks both a sense of moral purpose and a meaningful sense of the future. The future has now become the enemy, as short-term gains become the only viable language of the market.

Collective security from poverty, illness, old age, unemployment and the loss of the most basic social provisions such as health care and a decent education have been replaced by market forces that view misfortune with disdain and welfare institutions as a poisonous reminder of Marxist orthodoxy. Deregulation, fragmentation, privatization, rabid individualism, uncertainty and outsourcing are now the order of the day, and one consequence is a world that increasingly appears inhospitable, insecure and unnerving. (These ideas are drawn from Zygmunt Bauman's Identity.)

As long as politics fails to provide a sense of meaning, purpose and dignity to people's lives, religious fundamentalists will step in and take up this task. As long as neoliberal capitalism rules the global social order and the future no longer provides a referent for addressing matters of social justice inspired by a discourse of hope, fundamentalisms of all stripes will flourish in the United States and elsewhere around the globe.

If democratic politics and secular humanism are worth fighting for, educators, concerned citizens and parents need more than a language of critique, they need a language of possibility.

Such a discourse should both challenge the anti-democratic values claimed by the right and offer up a notion of moral values in which "care and responsibility, fairness and equality, freedom and courage, fulfilment in life, opportunity and community, cooperation and trust, honesty and openness" are wedded to the principles of justice, equality, and freedom, as George Lakoff wrote in The Nation last December.

The writer Barbara Ehrenreich is right on target in arguing that progressives need to "articulate poverty and war as the urgent moral issues they are. Jesus is on our side here, and secular liberals should not be afraid to invoke him. Policies of pre-emptive war and the upward redistribution of wealth are inversions of the Judeo-Christian ethic. At the very least, we need a firm commitment to public forms of childcare, health care, housing and education — for people of all faiths and no faith at all."

As well, identity must be experienced beyond the atomizing call of market forces.

For identity to become meaningful in a democratic society, it must be nourished through a connection to others, a respect for social justice, and a recognition of the need to work with others to experience both a sense of collective joy and a measure of social responsibility.

There is a need for educators, artists, parents and activists to not only defend democratic public spheres but to develop alternative ones where the language and practice of democratic community, public values, civic engagement, and social justice can be taught, learned and experienced.

Public and higher education not only offer a space where dialogue and the expansion of the intellect can be encouraged, but also prepare students as critical agents capable of making good on the promise of a substantive and inclusive democracy.

At the same time, democracy needs to be supported and nourished across a wide range of overlapping sites — from film, television, and the Internet to talk radio — that engage in diverse forms of public pedagogy.

Authoritarianism takes many forms; its most recent expression in the merging of politics and religion appears to be gaining ground through the relentless force of a moral-values crusade in the U.S. and abroad. Not only are the basic principles of reason and freedom being undermined, but the very idea of democracy is under assault.

The war against reason, secular humanism and democratic values is being fought intensively on the cultural front — in the media, schools, churches and other sites of pubic pedagogy. What is at stake here is the challenge of rethinking the very meaning of politics and democracy for the 21st century.

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