Monday, April 27, 2009

IS AMERICA A CHRISTIAN NATION?

Michael Lind answers in the negative on Salon. Yes, but also no. First of all, there’s the definition of “Christian”: does it mean the classical tenets of Christianity that reach back two millennia; that have been key in the development of the West and its civilization?

Or does it mean that code word for modern American Fundamentalism, a mostly non-urban reaction sparked in the very late 1800s by the secularization and urbanization of the country under the combined forces of industrial-corporate capitalism and Liberalism?*

The Fundamentalist ‘Christianity’ has pretty much taken over – if not hijacked – the term ‘Christian’, much to the satisfaction of socio-political liberal opponents who have had an easy time making fun of its admittedly outré assertions. And in the religio-political brew cooked up in the past 30 years or so of American political maneuvering, the Fundamentalists have also taken (their version of) Christianity into a bright but confused alliance with the nationalist and neocon Right, while the un-Godded liberals have taken their secularism into an (incomplete and somewhat illusory) alliance with the classic American political principles of Democracy and a Constitutional Republic.

But there is still a classically Christian conceptual base embedded – and also buried - in the admittedly distorted Fundamentalist version of Christianity. Just as there is a Liberal conceptual base embedded – and deeply buried – in the evolved, also distorted, ‘liberalism’ of Our contemporary scene.

The nation was Framed and Founded at an interesting Moment in the history of the West. The Enlightenment sought to raise up Reason and the ability to think for oneself over the ‘mystical’ and hierarchically mediated Truths of a Christianity that had picked up a complex Church and the various characteristics of a world-religion along the way of its journey through time since Christ’s life on earth.

But the Enlightenment generations were still, like a planet just-formed but still not so distant from its parent star, rather close to the warmth and gravitational pull of organized Christianity. The thinkers of the Enlightenment were inclined to Reason rather than ‘Faith’, but they still very much carried along the belief that there were indeed truths; that there was a reality outside of – if not also Beyond – the human mind; expressed through individuals or groups of individuals; and that the human mind was capable of accessing – with greater or lesser accuracy and completeness – those truths and that reality.

And they could count on the fact that everyone alive, everyone who would be a Citizen, would also presume all that – as if human beings came pre-programmed with that capability and those assumptions.** Which, in that era, was true. And the fact of that commonly-held set of assumptions was very much similar to the Church’s bedrock assumptions: that there was a reality Beyond the individual human being and Beyond the total grasp of human beings, but that it was accessible to the human mind and to human reasoning.

The Enlightenment more or less downplayed the further Church assumptions: that the said Beyond was presided over by a God who loved humanity and helped humanity along its pilgrim way in this Vale of Tears, this almost-Chosen world and its peoples. And also the part about Christ, the Holy Spirit, the power of prayer, and a host of other additional insights. So even as they sought to free the mind from hierarchical subjection, both to Church-mediated religion and monarchically-controlled political governance, the Enlightenment gentlefolk could and did assume a ‘commonality’ based in the afterglow of Christianity’s bedrock insistence on a Beyond which assisted, and judged, the actions of this world and its peoples.

The Enlightenment’s Liberal programme, outlined above, was seeking to create space for humans by lessening greatly the space taken up by Church and Monarchy. And in the warm brightness of that afterglow of pre-Enlightenment Christianity, even the idea that God was merely a Watchmaker who created the mechanism of the world, and then left it to the laws He built into it, was not so terrifying.

Which was good because humans, since the beginning of recorded history and probably long before, had demonstrated a robust and stubborn need for belief in a Beyond – whether hostile, or unpredictable, or loving, whether distant or intimately caring and involved, whether a single Being or a whole gaggle of divine beings. In fact, without it … well, no civilization had or has ever developed without some concept of a Beyond in its core matrix.

While some few speculative Enlightenment thinkers might allow themselves to pursue the imaginary scenario of human beings completely alone in Existence, with no Beyond whatsoever – and see the benefits possible in such a scenario – the practical Enlightened Framers realized that human beings – somewhat unreliably committed to their best selves and to the higher end of their range (as the social workers might burble), and prone to want to get their way regardless of the rights of other individuals or groups – were well-Shaped (and contained) by the beliefs still glowing from Christianity’s hegemony.

With the trellis of those beliefs removed, the plants would grow wild, the garden would become a jungle, the tilled field would go to seed; without the perimeter fencing and the care of the Farmer, the herds would run wild and revert to a more primitive existence. And you couldn’t build a participatory democracy on beings thus regressed or reverted.

But in the course of time, things changed. The seductions of a stupendously successful material science, whose insights were embodied in inventiveness and amplified by the organization of industry on a scale never before seen, outshone any sense of that Beyond. Some thinkers took such success as an indication that there might not be a Beyond worth thinking about at all, let alone allowing one’s possibilities to be contained or Shaped, hindered or obstructed, by It.

The Russian Revolution’s (manipulatively illusory) ‘successes’, stupendous in what they were purported to have achieved, further assaulted any abiding certainty that the Beyond was necessary to make any lasting sense of this world; the Soviets, it seemed, had by themselves made heaven on this earth, in this world.

The Second World War’s stupendous evils and bloodshed further assaulted the foundations of any belief in a Beyond that was both powerful enough to sustain this world and benevolent enough to care. Dozens and perhaps hundreds of millions were killed. The shock to humanity’s sensibility was profound and is with humanity still.

Existentialism arose: the belief – though called a philosophy – that human beings are on their own, perhaps even that each individual human being is on his/her own in this world, and that the genuine and authentic individual was the one who could face that stunning abyss and still keep on through sheer power of will and self-assertion.

Post-modernism built on that. Its core assumptions: there was no Beyond, there was no ‘reality’ anywhere, and individuals must base their own lives and their common life merely on whatever they could agree would be a workable set of guidelines, and nothing more. Essentially, it Flattened human ‘existence’ and Boxed it into the Present; there was no Beyond, there was no Past, no Future – just a self all on its own and locked into a perpetual Present that could end or change at any moment and that was connected to nothing else. Locked in with a bunch of other similarly bereft selfs.

As these ideas, first developed in Europe, migrated to America, they blended with America’s only home-grown philosophy, Pragmatism. The Pragmatists, an airy bunch of blue-blood men of letters and Ivy professors, figured to make a virtue of American culture’s necessities: if it works, it’s ‘true’ and if it doesn’t work, then it isn’t true (or ‘real’). Ideas ‘work’ if they succeed in attracting enough people who will accept them – think of believers as ‘customers’; otherwise, the ideas are discredited and discarded.

The idea that this world might be Shaped by Ideas grounded in some Beyond that not even ‘science’ could deal with, and that this world needed to accept this immaterial but ‘natural’ reality about itself or else run the risk of destroying itself, like a locomotive that tried to run without tracks or a sailing ship that tried to sail against the wind … that idea didn’t find many ‘takers’ so was judged to be useless and not-true.

Imagine a 747 pilot asking his passengers to take a vote on whether the jet would fly in reverse, and if enough voted and agreed that it could, then putting the engines into reverse at 35,000 feet – that sort of thing.

In the Sixties, when ‘revolution’ seemed to have reached a fullness as the guiding liberation of the age, post-modernism wound up in sync with the Boomers’ callow but groovy assumption that nobody over 30 knew what they were talking about or what they were doing, and that youth and ‘luv’ were perfectly capable of bringing about heaven on earth.

The more ‘realistic’ revolutionary students dismissed that as childish; clearly Chairman Mao and Lenin were the only models for how to improve the world, and their ‘successes’ clearly outshone the American Establishment’s failures in Vietnam.

And in the Seventies, the remarkably shrewd Ideological Feminists, borrowing from Lenin the idea of a revolutionary elite that must organize in order to impose the ‘good ideas’ of the revolution upon the lumpish masses who ‘just didn’t get it’; and from Mao the idea of a Long March that was going to take time and would not yield success overnight or easily; and from Hitler the idea that in an already-evolved democratic society the best revolution is a ‘legal one where you take over the legislatures and courts and the schools that educate the young; and from Goebbels the idea that propaganda is essential to ensure that in a literate and evolved society folks are lulled into always thinking you’re doing ‘the right thing’ and in a ‘good cause’’ and that people who disagree with you are pre-emptively discredited or shouted down before anyone can listen to them …. the Ideological Feminists distilled all the ‘wisdom’ of the early and mid 20th century into a super-blueprint and stuck to it.

Post-modernism played a huge role. It served as a powerful acid that when shpritzed or poured on the foundations of a society, reduced them to almost a powder or a mush, dissolving the ‘grounds’ of any possible objections to their agenda and their demands. That post-modernism would also reduce individuals to a helpless state in the face of the perennial abyss of meaninglessness that has always haunted our species was not seen as a negative; it would force people to turn to their Identity-group (and its elites) for support, companionship, status, and for meaning itself. What was not to like?

And the Democrats, desperate to find new voters to replace the white Southrons and the Northern industrial workers, would believe as many impossible things as necessary before breakfast in order to woo new voters: race, gender, youth, the so-called Jewish vote … anything to ward off their extinction as a viable political Party.

But when all the electrons are knocked loose and simply buzzing around in high agitation or slowing almost to a stop in baffled confusion, it’s hard to hold any structure and shape together. Post-modernism turned out to be not just a great dissolver of otherwise solid obstructions, but – who knew?! – turned out to be a Universal Solvent: it would corrode and consume and reduce to dust anything whatsoever that it touched. Like the gas cloud on the Western Front in World War I, post-modernism could kill those who launched it as easily as those who were supposed to be its targets – it all depended on which way the breeze was blowing, or whether the breeze suddenly shifted.

You can’t keep a Constitutional Republic if a critical mass of the Citizens are reduced to agitated electrons or stampeding cattle or wild weeds. A society and a culture cannot keep its shape if its very building blocks start to break away and the energies that bond its components together start to dissipate. The Founders saw that.

And they did what they could to create a machinery of government that would provide as many opportunities as possible for preventing such a stampede to dissolution, based on common-beliefs that – they were certain – were fundamental and essential characteristics of human beings and that could always be counted upon, in any era, to operate.

They did not count upon the weakening of Christianity’s structural ability to ground and anchor and connect individuals; nor on the sustained assault on any sort of Shape or structure or Beyond whatsoever; nor on the ‘free press’s infatuation with ‘advocating’ such ‘progress’ by amplifying it and suppressing the voice of objection; nor on the government - in all the Branches – actually aiding and abetting such assault, and for decades. Especially not that.

Certainly the Framers expected that the government would not always consist of impressive legislators or Chief Executives. They knew from their study of history that governments always sought to expand themselves at the expense of their own citizens. They even knew that – people being people – there was also a great danger from the citizenry: masses of people do not always act maturely, especially when the fit is on them. They knew all that. They built-in all the clanky speed-bumps to prevent such a ‘perfect storm’ from happening.

They might never have imagined that, under the influence of revolutionary thought and the manipulations of industrial-level propaganda and of political exigencies so urgent that a major Party’s very political survival was at stake … that all that would happen at once and with such power that all the components would be deranged simultaneously.

But that’s what has happened.

Liberalism sought to reduce the power of hierarchy and authority – represented in its founding era by Church and Monarchy – in order to expand the authority and possibility of the ‘common’ (not born into the aristocracy) people. In its struggle against the ‘divinely-instituted’ Church and the ‘divine-right’ Monarchy, there was always latent in Liberalism a ‘secularism’ – a reduction of the influence of Church in society and politics.

But that did not automatically mean a rejection of the perennial human sensibility concerning the Beyond. ‘Liberals’ were secularists, but they were not ‘atheists’, let alone post-moderns who refuse to even accept that there is any possible dimension in which it might be legitimate to have to choose to believe or disbelieve; the whole scenario is, to the post-modernist, beyond impossible.

To the post-modernists, the question of believing or not-believing in God is as ridiculous as being asked whether one believes or not in the Ele-whale, a combination elephant and whale that walks and swims: it’s so senseless and impossible a fantasy that you insult any intelligent person by asking them about it at all, let alone asking them whether they believe or dis-believe it.

With postmodernism, the game has proceeded to an ominous new level or intensity. Is America a Christian nation? Wrong question; yesterday’s question. We are not threatened most lethally by those who ‘don’t believe’ in Christianity. We are most lethally threatened by those who don’t think there is any Beyond at all, and that humans and even We The People, are just bunches of isolated biogenetic stuff with a weak will of some sort, staggering around all alone in a wide and dangerous world and best herded by those stronger-willed elites who ‘get it’.

And the two noxious forest fires, once considered not only separate but opposed and incompatible, are now burning toward each other to combine into a monster fire: the government that wants to run the lives and futures of the hapless bipeds who pay taxes, and the ‘elites’ who want to run the lives of those who ‘just don’t get it’ so that they can reshape the lives of the hapless bipeds into a heaven on earth, but a Politically Correct one. A fire like that could burn everything away: Constitution, Republic, and democracy.

Somehow, though, I’m thinking that Christianity will remain; the 20th century Rome may go the way of the 5th century Rome, but human beings can get along without a Rome; they can’t survive without a Beyond.

NOTES

*The word ‘Liberalism’ itself also has to be defined, since it can mean anything from the Enlightenment-influenced approach to politics (against monarchy) to the ‘liberalism’ (small-L, and for a reason) that has evolved in the past 40 years in America and spread – on American wings – throughout the West. Before you start toying with equations you have to make sure of the uniformity and integrity of the variables you’ll use in the equations, or else – on the blackboard – you’ll wind up with weirdness and – in the lab – things will start to blow up in your face.

**It’s another question whether human beings also come hard-wired with the Sense of the Beyond. Social constructionism will say that a culture can so early on inculcate certain assumptions into its children that they grow up not even realizing that their ‘assumptions’ are there, and might mistake them for a free-standing ‘reality’. But ‘hard-wired’ means that human beings are born with the circuits for the Sense of the Beyond. And that raises the interesting possibility that some ‘Beyond’ built those circuits into the human at Creation.

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