New Religion

Republicanism, it seems to me, has become its own religion.  It started off when the GOP married evangelical Christianity, but the offspring of that unholy union has become a religion all on its own.  It certainly doesn’t adhere to classical Republican principles (tariffs?  Really?).  Nor does it adhere to Evangelical standards (turn the other cheek?  Love thy neighbor as thyself?).  Like most blendings, this new religion has some elements of each parent and it has no lack of fanatic supporters.  The traditional Evangelical, for example, considered the Devil “the father of lies”—one of his biblical titles.  The Republican, however, considers pathological lying to be signs of messiahood.  There’s a tiny disjunction here, but it proves that what we’ve got is the birth of a new religion.

Books and articles have begun to appear on how Evangelicalism has changed.  I don’t believe it’s so much a matter of Evangelicalism evolving as it is Republicanism fulfilling the need for intolerant religion.  In every culture there are those who want to go back to the day of Moses and golden calves and stoning those you hate.  It’s a little more difficult these days, what with secular laws that protect the rights of others, but the GOP has found a way.  My heart goes out to old fashioned Republicans, it really does.  Fiscal conservatives have found themselves in church with a bunch of people with whom they agree on very little.  They have no choice, for their political party has been sanctified.  And the only thing worse than an Evangelical is a bleeding-heart liberal.  Next thing you know the Democrats will start quoting the Bible at you.

The lying thing really takes some wrapping my head around, though.  I’ve always said nobody believes in a religion they know to be false.  This new development challenges that, if it doesn’t challenge the very idea of religion itself.  Republicanism is a religion based solidly on bearing false witness.  Self-aware of it, even.  You can’t tell me that these educated white men don’t know a criminal activity when they see one.  That they can’t read, and reason, and trust their intellect (although it takes the back seat to their overwrought emotions).  Sound like a religion to you?  It sure does to me.  It’s been coming a long time, but it took the last three years (the tradition length of Jesus’ ministry, it’s often said) for this to dawn on me.  The religion of the lying messiah.  I’ve got to wonder what kind of future it’s got.  I smell the fires rekindling in the burnt over district and wonder who’s for dinner.

Armed Forces

You ought to feel safe with the U.S. Navy so close by.  The naval base at San Diego is the second largest surface base in this particular branch of our sprawling military system.  From my hotel room I can watch the ships chugging through the harbor and from the Convention Center you can see quite a spread of naval real estate.  Still, all this hardware doesn’t make me feel safe.  Perhaps because I’m a child of the sixties, I can imagine a world at peace where military budgets don’t literally take food from the mouths of hungry citizens.  The last time I was in San Diego for AAR/SBL I toured the USS Midway aircraft carrier.  It’s clearly visible from my room.  I was amazed at both the technology and the obvious expenditure for such a craft.  It can’t be easy to set a city afloat.

Whenever I experience things like this I can’t help but wonder what we might accomplish if we loved each other as a species and put our heads together to try to solve our problems.  Lack of water—perhaps ironically in this naval city—is a serious global issue.  Poverty is the ghost of civilization.  The grasping of power by the driven but inept is clear worldwide.  We build great, complicated war machines.  The noise generated by the helicopters charging overhead bespeaks their weight and weaponry.  Down here in the southwest there are places civilians just can’t go because our military is busy keeping us too safe to allow us to wonder what they’re up to.  Black budgets must be nice.  I stand here among religion scholars and dream.

Ironically religion often leads to the fear that leads, in turn, to militarization.  We want to protect our “way of life.”  We’ll follow the prince of peace into war any day.  Just give the signal and release the missiles.  It doesn’t make me feel safe at all.  One time on a family visit, we drove through Norfolk, Virginia.  We stayed at a cheap hotel, because, well, we’re cheap.  The metal door was heavily reinforced with a stolid steel lock.  Navy men, we were informed, didn’t always behave well while ashore.  The locks were to keep us safe from those protecting us.  We stayed only one night and left early the next morning.  So I while the annual meeting away under the watchful eye of our largest line item on the budget.  They’re keeping our bodies safe, but who’s keeping track of our souls?

Focus on Religion

Publishers Weekly, or PW to those in the biz, is a great place to get information about, well, publishing.  I often spend AAR/SBL telling authors and prospective authors something that I wish I’d been told when teaching: time spent learning about publishing is never wasted.  PW every year has a “Religion and Spirituality Update” released in time for this meeting.  Despite the relatively small number of sales, religion is a discipline that loves its books.  I’ve only been quoted in PW’s special edition once, and it’s not been for a few years, nevertheless I always learn a thing or two from this free—yes, if you’re here in San Diego it’s free!—update.  It may seem odd to suggest that religion titles can be hot, but it is indeed possible.  Sexuality is hot.  I suppose that goes without saying.

A number of titles dealing with religion and sexuality appear every year.  What caught my attention, however was an observation from Jennifer Banks, from Yale University Press.  Noting the rancor that sexuality often introduces to discussions of religion, she observes that (and this is a quote from PW, not directly from Banks) “some Christians apparently need others to go to hell.”  (I can send the full citation, if you want to know.)  In an era when academics have been stressing inclusion, the retrenched religious world has been spinning in the opposite direction.  Instead of inviting everyone to Heaven, as might, say a Universalist, many conservative Christians consign fellow believes to Hell, and gleefully so.  It’s almost as if Christianity and capitalism have merged into a zero-sum game.  If some win, all the others have to lose.  They haven’t however, studied the history of Hell very well.

It’s kind of an insidious idea.  Given that we all want to justify ourselves, some go to the extremes of demonizing those who see things differently.  This form of religious thinking was original neither with Christianity nor the Judaism from which it grew.  There was no Hell in the Hebrew Bible.  The idea, when it did develop, wasn’t a place to torture your enemies, but rather a place demanded by justice.  Those who were utterly and unrepentantly wicked couldn’t hobnob in God’s country club with those who tried to be righteous.  In the modern evangelical narrative those who make certain medical decisions for basic human situations are among the utterly wicked.  Not surprisingly their sins are usually sexual.  If you want to see this in a wider context, pick up a PW when you pass by the stand.  “Anything free,” to quote another sage, “is worth saving up for.”  And who knows, it might keep you from Hell?

The Happy Science

Many seem to be wondering, if the media are to be believed, why America, like REM, is losing its religion.  (And yes, I know that the expression for the latter means to lose one’s temper, not literally to lose one’s faith.)  Derek Thompson at the Atlantic recently wrote about how the more literal loss took place around 1990.  He posits that the rise of the Christian Right, the Cold War coming to an end, and 9/11 are behind the loss.  As an historian of religion, even with a more ancient focus, I have to wonder if his gaze goes back far enough.  Being born early in the sixties was an opportunity to have a front-row seat.  My family was very religious.  To us, the rest of the world may have been going to Hell, but locally we were trying to please God, as most everyone we knew was.

Theologians and sociologists thought God had died.  Nietzsche, always ahead of his time, had declared as much nearly a century before the sixties got underway.  The public face of religion, however, is never the same as what’s going on below.  The religious right was built on a deep-seated hypocrisy from the beginning.  Now hypocrisy is so very human it’d be easily forgiven were it not for the constant insistence on self-righteousness followed by the revelation of some base human vice.  Time and time again televangelists didn’t cover the tracks of their peccadillos well enough, and Catholic priest couldn’t fight that feeling.  They were doing what humans have probably always done, but while wearing the vestments of public respectability.  Like Cthulhu, it seemed like God was dead but dreaming under the sea.

Religion, as all scholars of the phenomenon know, changes only very slowly.  Church attendance began dropping in the seventies, but back then there was such a thing as the rule of law and a real concern that your neighbors didn’t think you a Commie.  Fast forward to the era of Trump when the rule of law broke down completely and religions rank right up there with Republicans as being the most dishonest elements of humankind.  We look back at when the slow trickle seemed to breech the dyke in the 1990s.  The real game changer (since 9/11 was still in the future) was the birth of the internet.  People began to talk freely about the two subjects—religion and politics—that those of us from the sixties were taught assiduously to avoid in polite company.  Nietzsche published Die fröhliche Wissenschaft in 1882.  It would take about a century to sink in, and human religious leaders would be the ones to prove his point.  At least in this world of choosing our confessions.

The God Test

Humans don’t mean to be cruel, I’m pretty sure, when they test animals for intelligence.  We’re a curious lot, perhaps a bit too self-absorbed, but we want to know how other animals are like us.  Of course, we reserve actual thinking for ourselves, given how well we’ve managed to conserve our only environment, but we grant some special spark to our biological kin.  So we devise tests for them.  Since we can’t get beyond human experience, many of these tests are devised for creatures like us.  When animals fail our superiority is reconfirmed.  Then it’s back to the lab.  I’ve got to wonder how it feels to the subject of the experiment (or is it object?).  Some being that has mastered the art of capturing you, perhaps with the aid of alien technology, is trying to get you to understand something that’s only clear from its (the captor’s) viewpoint.  You need to suss out that viewpoint and solve the puzzle in the same way.

This makes me think of many forms of religion.  We’re born to a lower species (human) as the experimental subjects of gods, or a God, who watch(es) to see how we figure things out.  There’s a right answer, of course, but we’re only given hints as to what it is.  We’re given toys to play with—some of them dangerous—and we’re allowed to select clowns and buffoons to lead us.  We can kill off unthinkable numbers of our own kind and the only clue that we’ve succeeded is some tasty treat at the end.  Of course, we have to assume that the intelligence governing this whole farce is much greater than our own.  Doesn’t feel so good, does it?

Holism is the ability to see a continuity in all of nature.  And nature doesn’t just mean this warm globe on which we find ourselves.  It’s vast and mysterious and some parts of it are very cold and others very hot.  There are places we cannot go, and others that seem inevitable, given the choices.  Like the victims of bullies we don’t think about the larger system, but seek to impose our wills on those who see things differently than we do.  Some tote guns while others pack books.  All of us will shoo away insects that buzz too close.  Most of the animals “beneath” us will simply eat them.  Is this all a game?  Or is it some kind of experiment where we have to guess the answer, but with only a fraction of the information required?

Outdated Commandments

Recently, according to an ABC story a friend sent me, some self-righteous Catholics stole indigenous statues from the Amazon from a location in Rome.  The statues had been a gift to the Pope and placed outside the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina.  Like mass shooters these days, the Christians responsible filmed themselves doing this and shared it on social media.  I’ve experienced a lot of religious intolerance in my life.  I lost my job and my childhood to it, among other things.  Stories like this are beyond sad because religion really does have the capacity to bring people together rather than to tear them into warring factions.  Unfortunately it tends to draw in the hateful looking for excuses for their violence.

Not unrelatedly, I attended a church program on gun violence.  Before this gets immediately blown up into “anti-gun,” please note—the program was about violence, not guns.  During the Q&A after the presentation someone asked who the panelists were trying to reach, “preaching to the choir.”  After that he admitted to being a gun owner and felt that his position was unfairly represented.  Tension mounted.  One of the panelists, the one who’d witnessed his first murder at age 11, and who’d spent time in jail himself, broke in and said “This is about violence, let’s not make it about guns.”  I was struck by his focus and control.  He’d told us earlier that if a gang member could be convinced to wait 24 hours before getting his gun after an insult or injury a shooting almost never took place.  Violence is often a spur of the moment thing.

What’s so troubling about those who smirk as they film themselves doing violence, like stealing statues outside a church, is that this is not an impulse act.  This is planned, hateful violence.  It wears the mask of religion, often titled “orthodoxy” or “conservatism” but it is in reality simply a way of excusing your hatred.  Ironically, the Jesus they claim to be following said, “Let the one without sin throw the first stone.”  I guess we’ve got quite a few sinless conservatives out there, although I have to wonder if filming yourself might not count as pride.  It used to be called a deadly sin, but who’s counting?  Self-righteousness isn’t quite the same thing as vanity, although they sleep in the same bed.  But let’s not get lust involved, once that happens there’ll be no telling one sin from another.

Panic at the Bookstore

Usually it works like this.  I go into a used bookstore with a list of titles I’d like to find.  Yes, I know I can look them up on Amazon and pay some price gouger more than the book’s worth, but you sometimes find things forgotten on a shelf out of the reach of technology.  When I went into a used bookstore in the vicinity of Ithaca last month I didn’t have my list with me.  When I visit such a store, especially the first time, I don’t like to walk out empty-handed.  The word “Exorcism” on both the spine and cover of Ken Olson—excuse me, Dr. Ken Olson’s book on the subject, well, how could I not?  Exorcism: Fact or Fiction? is published by Thomas Nelson.  That immediately told me something of what the book would be like.  It wouldn’t be an academic treatment, and it would be somewhat evangelical.  Still, I didn’t have my list with me.

Olson hasn’t had an easy life.  His license to practice psychology was revoked after he performed an exorcism and my sympathies are always with those who have lost jobs.  Rejection is, after all, a form of violence.  The book, however, isn’t so much about exorcism as it is about evangelical views of it.  Written around the time of the satanic panic in the 1990s, the book takes seriously the claims of the alleged victims and also the physical existence of the non-corporeal Satan.  This actually leads to a few logical brick walls.  Referring to the body parts of non-physical beings can be an exercise in metaphor, but evangelicals tend to be literalists otherwise.  This discrepancy begs for discussion but receives none here.

The history of moral panics is interesting.  We live in the midst of them pretty much constantly now.  The internet doesn’t really help.  Moral panics are times when particular concerns spread rapidly (for which the web is ideal) without having any critical questions asked.  They often lead to a mob mentality that can victimize the innocent.  Although that’s clearly not his intent, Olson’s book tends to do this too.  If a victim is female, as is often the case, conservatives blame her for such things as abortions, forgetting, it seems, that a male was involved.  Since abortion scares are another example of a moral panic, it’s not surprising Olson treats them along with other forms of spiritual warfare.  Those who turn to the book looking for The Exorcist will be disappointed.  You might find a copy of that, however, at your local used bookstore.