Jeff Sharlet has a great article in the December issue of “Harpers” entitled “through A Glass, Darkly”; it’s not yet online. His sub-title explains: “How the Christian right is reimagining U.S. history”. I just made a post about NASCAR-ites, riffing a meaty piece by Robert Lipsyte. Not to beat a dead horse, but it was only yesterday that I came across Jeff Sharlet’s piece and also A) this horse isn’t dead by a stretch and B) this horse could run away with a very valuable wagon that belongs to The People. So we’re off! I’m not going to do an essay; I’ll just comment on this or that as I go through the piece, from the top.
He speaks of a Fundamentalist “mood”. It’s always worthwhile to try to imagine what the emotional or mental content of a particular person might be, working inward from what you can sense about a person. The Fundamentalist ‘mood’, based on the emotional and mental content of the Fundamentalist ‘creed’ is important because for quite some time it has been at the center of national power, in Washington. (It was stoked to white-hot intensity by, and then sucked into the vacuum created by, the Democrats’ nurturing their assorted Identities over a span of decades. This consequence of the Dems’ Revolution of the Identities was unintended, but no less real because of it.) Self-righteous, suspicious, simplistic, sentimental … impatient to gratify their abiding desire to actualize God’s Kingdom on Earth, intolerant of any ambiguity or hesitation or doubt, unwilling to weaken themselves by sympathy for sin or sinner … the very characteristics demanded of them by their ‘religion’ perfectly foil the development of the maturity needed by citizens in a democracy. And yet these people embrace America-as-it-is (or ‘was’ in some golden ‘back then’) with a fierce assurance that their version of God has made this version of America His sheriff and they – by virtue of being both born American and ‘saved’ – His deputies. And unlike the early Mormons, these folks aren’t content to set up their own shop in some empty, out-of-the-way place like 19th-century Utah. Their mindset and heartset now occupy Washington, more completely – and to more deleterious effect – than the Scientologists mentor the lost souls of Hollywood.
They no longer speak of ‘fundamentalism’ but of ‘maximalism’: they want to see every aspect of society conformed to God. Now the Catholic Church had folks like this throughout its 2000 years of existence. It allowed religious orders and monastic orders to develop precisely in order to give this type of intense belief a place to live itself out, monasteries and places removed from daily life where the voluntary adherents could create within themselves and to greater or lesser extent among themselves a ‘perfect’ Christian community. This arrangement kept the truly zealous from inflicting themselves on the rest of the population, who were trying to get on with the business of living. It mostly worked. The Protestant tradition, having been born through a violent rejection of much of the Catholic tradition, never had the monastic ‘outlet’, with the result that its most intense believers pretty much have no alternative but to realize their dreams by inflicting themselves and those dreams on everybody; or at least everybody they could lay their hands on – and having made common cause with the Republicans, the neocons and even temporarily with the Revolutions of the Identities, they were able to get their hands on an awful lot of folks, one way or the other. It made for a curious and jangly church polity among them; it bodes hugely ill for a democracy.
But then, the monks were never seeking ‘purity’; after all, what awful pride would be engendered in the soul if the seeker actually declared himself to have achieved it? No, the monks were seeking to live as best they could, ever increasing in spiritual ability if they could. But religion was a direction more than a place to them, and not primarily of this world.
The Maxis see themselves as living in ‘days of the sword’. Almost everybody is looking for a little excitement in life, and most are also looking for some purpose and meaning to their lives, and it’s always good if you can economically combine the two quests. Living in ‘wartime’, being a soldier, in God’s own army and doing God’s own work … pretty much delivers everything a body could want: purpose, meaning, excitement, status, role, place, belonging, identity. What’s not to like? But ‘war’ requires an ‘enemy’ and when many of those who are politically your fellow citizens are by definition your religious enemies, or at least are obstructions to the Great Work, then the society and the polity are in trouble. When by definition you are not allowed to compromise with them (although you may be permitted to give them a chance to convert – just the one chance) then the fundamental societal expression of democratic process is eliminated. And if you’ve had enough sleep, you may want to ponder the curious similarity between this approach to ‘enemies’ and the approach taken by each of the Advocacies to its client Identity’s ‘enemies’; and the approach taken by the Incumbency toward its enemies, foreign and domestic. The Fundamentalist/Maximalist approach has penetrated through government and up to its highest levels; and for all practical purposes it is the eerie twin of the approach taken by the godless, liberal, secular Advocacies. We are becoming more and more like France in the 1930s: her politically intolerant and fundamentally antidemocratic extremes or Right and Left each pulling apart the central fabric of the society and the polity.
They are looking for a ‘story’ that will never change, and one that will redeem and make sense of everything. Aren’t we all. It’s part of being human beings; we belong to a story-making, story-needing species. Had we not jettisoned all the dreck of dead white males in the service of the Revolution of the Identities (going on here at the same time as Mao let loose the Cultural Revolution in China) we might recall that Plato figured our need for story was an echo of the Ideal world whence we had come; and that subsequent dead white males (many of them not white at all, and all of them ‘pink’ at best) had blended Plato into the Judeo-Christian tradition, which yielded a Heaven that existed Above&Beyond ‘this life’, and was inhabited by a personal God, scads of angels (consolatory or avenging), and the souls of the Just, all of whom possessed both a burning desire for Justice and a force-projection capability that could re-Arrange the best laid plans of men and mice.
But the Fundamentalists’ twist is that the story that meets their needs must then be imposed on everybody else. It’s a sign of the fundamental lack of Interiority of the Fundamentalist approach that the full force of its energy must be directed outward, at others. Not so different from Lenin’s philosophy of things, nor from the Identities’ revolutionary watchword: the personal is political. Maybe it is, but the personal is also so damned much more than that. This makes fundamentalistics (of the Right or the Left) bumpy neighbors and worse Citizens, at least of a Republic and of a democracy such as – oh, say – America’s. It’s not them, mind you – it’s the Fundamentalist mindset, which cannot help but see compromise as surrender, tolerance as treason to the Cause, and empathy as disloyalty. It’s simultaneously a cheap and expensive way to ‘be somebody’: claiming your Mr. Big’s right-hand operative, and then whacking the world upside the head according to your lights. No Catholic patience for them. Then again, John Brown’s activities were not anything Catholic either. Go figure.
And while it’s inspiring to see someone patiently and humbly searching for the redeeming theory that will Put It All Together, it’s prideful, really, to claim you’ve gone and gotten it just by declaring that you’re ‘saved’ and then further that being ‘saved’ gives you the right to whomp on all of God’s other children. Of course, our Fundamentalist brethren and sistern will not accept that the un-‘saved’ are God’s children in the first place, which is sort of a more vividly unsettling version of the Revolutions’ assertion that so many ‘just don’t get it’ (and therefore that they deserve to get it, right where it hurts).
It’s fine to distinguish between ‘kairos’ and ‘chronos’, between God’s time and temporal time, the former being defined by the quality of its presence to God and the latter being defined as merely that measurement by physical laws of those activities not directly contributing to God’s Presence or Plan. But it’s a life-full of work to attune yourself personally to ‘kairos’, to calibrate your transmitter to operate on that frequency – so to speak. To claim you’ve mastered it through self-declaration and then further claim that you are now authorized to start re-arranging God’s world for Him … that smacks of impatience, pride, and cannot but open up avenues for Violence. But then, if you’re His deputy, then your Violence is God’s Violence; a secular echo of that perverse sentiment was essayed by the noted theologian, Richard M. Nixon: if the President does it, that means it’s legal. Echoing through the chronos of the past 30 years, that sentiment has wrought far more damage in the hands of an even lesser man. And yet it’s as Fundamental as apple pie.
And of course, Fundamentalists are not about to make the mistake the Mormons made. Those poor benighted whackjobs invented an entire different history of the world, and wound up living out in the 801. No, the Fundoozies restrain themselves (for once) and limit themselves to the history of the United States, but – irrepressibly - they claim that the history of the United States has always been Fundamentalist (“Christian” is the catspaw code word) although that clear fact has been hidden by a massive secularist conspiracy. The quality of this assertion is on a par with the assertion that Beethoven stole his musical genius from other folks; not ‘copied’ their skill, but stole it – out of their collective heads – like an alien with a probe, such that suddenly he could do reely great music and they couldn’t. It is completely in the democratic spirit to politely hear such stuff out, even though one is educated enough to know that such an assertion is daffy. But to ensure that the citizens are not sufficiently educated as to be able to tell the difference between Truth and daffy, or even able to sense the difference, or to have been ‘educated’ into all the reasons why making such a distinction is ‘bad’ … that is a guarantee for the destruction of democracy. Whether the Fundamentalist or the Revolutionary mindset get us to EndPoint first … well, that’s the horserace of the coming age. And while there is much theorizing that God will rescue His own just before the end of Time, there is no scholarly consensus that He will rescue His own before the end of Democracy. And it will be a hallmark of their folly that while they are certain they will be able to identify and oppose the Anti-christ, they will most likely be blind to the arrival of their first Fuhrer, and will welcome him with loudful cheers. And the Politically Correct will whimper.
The Fundamentalists say that the sacred and the profane are coming together. But God and His Creation (to use their own theological presuppositions) are not ‘the same’. God is fundamentally different from (although not hostile to) His Creation. The two can’t ‘come together’ completely; there will always be a difference between them, and thus a distance. Christ took on flesh, and spirit takes on matter at every human birth. But it’s incorrect and hugely dangerous to imagine that what Ought to be and what Is are one and the same thing. It flattens existence by taking the Vertical and Future dimensions out of it, leaving us not with genuine religious effort but with religious posturing, an imitation, a religiosity that is ungrounded in any efficacious cooperation with God. And it opens up the path to much ‘mischief’: if God is becoming identified with what Is, then those humans who are a little bit ahead of the rest become a sort of ‘vanguard elite’ in the old Communist sense, authorized by their insight and dedication to drag the benighted masses to Perfection. Communism and Democracy are not historically known to be compatible.
It’s also curious, since Jesus is clearly recalled to have recommended letting the wheat and the tares grow together, and let the Harvester separate them at the end. Otherwise, one might rip up the wheat with the tares, their roots being entwined. But such is not the Fundoozie way: they prefer to consider themselves Deputized to imitate the Harvesting Angel rather than toil the long, patient toil of humans farming, watering wheat and tares together (which is the Catholic view), until the Harvester comes to take over from the human farmer. In this hubristic insistence on separating the wheat from the tares and the sheep from the goats the Fundoozie mentality resembles nothing so much as those who in the eyes of the foolish would appear to be on the total other end of the American spectrum: the Revolutionaries who insist on dividing up the world into those who ‘get it’ and those who don’t, and – more recently – those who offend and those who do not. You couldn’t think this stuff up.
“Those who control the past, control the future” one preacher says. So eerily familiar to the early-war Washington honcho’s boast that the U.S. makes history now, and the rest of the world can just watch and adapt. But you can’t control the past; you might be able to ‘control’ peoples’ perception of the past, but that’s not at all the same thing as controlling the past itself. And DITTO about the present: you can control perceptions about it, to some extent; but you can’t control reality itself. If you could, then huge columns of American spin-meisters and PR flaks would be issuing forth from the gates of the Green Zone in satellite TV trucks, instead of the frazzled patrols of over-rotated troops in under-armored, over-used Humvees. George Orwell said you could control the past, but we haven’t gotten to that skills-level yet. And Abe Lincoln said that you can’t fool all the people all the time, which doesn’t mesh so well with Orwell, who didn’t grasp just how much Americans have refused from the get-go to be boundaried by the limits of what is commonly accepted as ‘reality’. “Don’t fence me in”. Not an unwise request. But fences give a certain shape as well as take away some freedom to do something or go somewhere. Americans have never been able to hold a shape, like a lost spirit trying to inhabit this world, or someone caught in a busted transporter beam on Star-Trek. But to all those who ever snickered that the Americans weren’t really all here (or all there), well … we showed’em in Iraq, dint we? We dint? We better. Whatever.
Fundamentalist textbooks are now being marketed for the home-schooling parents. Who can argue with the idea of parents making the education of their kids a priority, given the alternatives bestowed by the Revolutions? Still, while it’s a huge step forward to valorize (as they say) parental involvement in the maturational preparation of their children, it still requires some solid material in order to complete the circuit. “Who can doubt that the United States of America has been a thought in the mind of God from all eternity?” Nicely put, and you wouldn’t have any trouble running this question by the Pope of Rome and all the cardinals therein. But the kicker is “a”: the USA may very well have been “a” thought in the mind of God from the get-go, but not THE thought. God has a capacious Imagination – it must be imagined – and is not easily limited; nor does He obsess or become besotted. Unlike humans. Regardless of their religious assertions.
“God loves the righteous who fight in His name.” Quick now, and no peeking: is this a quote from a jihadist of Bin Laden’s or a fundamentalist icon?
“Law is King”. “Lex rex” as the DWMs would have put it. So said John Witherspoon, the only pastor to have signed the Declaration of Independence. It’s a splendid dictum: establishing the principle that not men but Law will govern the American polity. Thus: the Rule of Law. But current Fundamentalist interpretation is that Witherspoon was of course speaking of the Law of God: “Lex Dei Rex”. But Witherspoon didn’t say “of God”, he just said “Law”. But what’s factual evidence to a true believer? Or a witch-hunter? Or an offender-hunter? Once you have jammed the judgment of human beings as the central factor in between God and Law, then the Rule of Law goes, because “God” is filtered through this or that human and “God” trumps everything. And there goes the Rule of Law. So there is indeed a certain genuine lawlessness at the heart of the Fundamentalist enterprise. And can it be a complete coincidence that it is in the administration of this recovered-addict Fundie-panderer that the country starts to see the Executive and the Legislature abandon all but the merest pretense to following the Rule of Law. And with the Rule of Law gone, what’s left to protect us? Will it be a Fuhrer who will have a rubberstamp legislature pass a Law for the Protection of Nation and People? Well, that law is already here. Did we miss somebody’s arrival in all the excitement of the past few years? Not the Antichrist but the anti-democrat.
A painting is reproduced: A ghostly Washington and Lincoln flanking Bush, each with an arm on his shoulder, as he leans on the Presidential podium, the Stars and Stripes (omnicompetent brand, indispensable prop) rippling behind them. Now there was a time not so long ago when such a motif would have been as normal as apple pie, and perfectly acceptable with a straight face, even by schoolkids. Three things happened. Vietnam was the first thing: could Washington and Lincoln really be held responsible for such a massive, dishonest U.S. cockup? Almost immediately after Vietnam, the second thing was the Revolutions: there is no God (or at least such a purported entity shouldn’t be discussed publicly) and no Beyond from which the likes of Lincoln and Washington could return; and anyway, they were dead white males so why invite them back? And the third thing was Bush: the only way a decent person could seriously accept the painting nowadays would be as a picture-prayer that Washington and Lincoln would indeed come back and either knock some sense into Bush or give him the Vulcan death-grip. And would Bush ever really take advice from anybody?
And why would anyone want to imagine a U.S. president as being particularly attuned to the Divine Mind or responsive to the Divine Will? Isn’t that what Popes are supposed to be? What Fundamentalist of sound mind would ever get near this conceptual badness? But it’s almost as if in the absence of any better alternative, Fundamentalists hallow the nation. Which is a curious borrowing from the likes of Mussolini and … others like him. The point could well be made that once the Old South was discredited in the Civil Rights era, the Fundamentalists had to find some other vessel to bear their (desperate?) need for Status, Role, Purpose, and Belonging. They latched onto the American government – and called it Good. Bush has replaced Robert E. Lee, and doubles in the public forum for the now-banished God. Whether Gore would ever have been accepted as the clear embodiment of God’s Will is a fascinating counterfactual. How they accept Lincoln – given what he did back there during the, ah, ‘sectional dispute of the mid-19th century’ – is almost a question for social psychiatry. In fact, it is. But it will have to wait its turn; questions much like it are lined up like incoming flights over O’Hare on Christmas Eve afternoon. “Put not your trust in princes” was apparently meant for some other bunch of believers. And, literally speaking, America is not governed by “princes”, one or several, but by a President. But things can change, God being God and the human mind being … what it is.
The ‘history’ toward which they look yearningly and by which they judge the present is pre-1947. It has always fascinated me how anyone can look back for the ‘good old days’ and come up with an actual date. Among American traditionalist Catholics the date is pre-1958, the date of the last suitably popely Pope, Pius XII. Or, in the alternative, the High Middle Ages, safely beyond the ferocious Dark Ages but not near enough to the dissipations of the Renaissance or the outrages of the Protestant Reformation. Multiple popes, interminable war, the Plague … these factors the traditionalists discount. So too the Fundamentalists discount the events that even by their own scale must be judged ‘bad’: the widespread cheap ‘hooch’ of the Prohibition era, women getting the vote, lynching … well, come to think of it, none of those was quite so bad, perhaps.
Nor does God require the services of the ‘great’, only of the ‘willing’. This takes them off a huge hook. Willingness can easily be claimed and is a hell of a lot easier to mimic than ‘greatness’ which – sooner or later – is going to prompt folks to ask for a demonstration. Thus ‘greatness’, perhaps any achievement, is not only a distraction but a positive disqualifier for doing God’s will. A neat solution for folks who think the world was created six thousand years ago in the blink of an eye.
“The powers that be are ordained by God.” Can it be any wonder that the vastly literate Founders didn’t quote this passage from Romans? Can there be any doubt that nobody with this mindset is going to have any easy time of it in a democracy that began itself with a revolution and sustains itself through the critical reflection and mutual discussion of the Citizenry? The mistaking of sacred and profane, the sacralization of the profane, lead them to idolatry of the nation, fundamentally. As the Revolutions rely upon the engorgement of the police power of the government in order to protect what they have managed to do, the Fundies’ worship the power of the government as an article of faith. And the government accepts all their offerings. And did some of their most saintly icons – Stonewall Jackson, for example – kill innocents? They were required to do so and in doing so proved their faithfulness to God; they were – wait for it – just following orders. Why do I think Bush already figures he will use this defense when his own reckoning comes along. Commander-in-Chief and Unitary Executive though he was, he’ll claim that he was just an underling, taking orders from – wait again – God . One recalls Billy Wilder’s marvelous line in “One, Two, Three”, uttered by a threatening newsman in late-1950s Germany: “Ja, I vass in ze SS … bahhhhht I vass only a pastry chef!” But hey – the symbol of the State is the sword, not the spoon. “Obedience is our greatest weapon” bawls a so-called Christian coach to his football team; possibly he had translated that from the original German of the SS motto: Loyalty is our Honor. Their loyalty thus assured, they had no need to worry about their Honor being compromised by dishonorable acts, since no such type of act could exist for them – whatever they did was ‘honorable’ by definition. And whenever the President does something, then if the President does it it’s legal. Yah.
All in all, we have as much to fear from the Fundamentalists – now that they have achieved social influence and political power – as from the Revolutionaries of the Identities. Neither wishes a democracy, really, because a democracy would require them to tolerate and respect those who differ with them, those who ‘just don’t get it’. Better that the End come quickly, and that, if it be somebody’s will, they help it along.