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.

What Remains?

As our government continues to pretend it has an interest in anything but enriching the individuals in Washington, a rather constant refrain of “broken system” has emerged.  It heard that phrase repeatedly in conversations in San Diego, on a variety of topics.  Now, I’m no stranger to buzzwords, but this strikes me as particularly apt to describe what we’re seeing.  A democracy within a republic builds safeguards to prevent the abuse of power, but when abuse of power occurs and one political party insists on enabling such abuse, the system is indeed broken.  Not only that, but there’s no will evident to fix it.  The GOP glories in it, feeling like it’s somehow winning the game as families and individuals suffer as a result of it.  In the past, it seems to me, there was a desire to repair what was an obvious problem.

Self-delusion, it seems, has become very common.  That, and some older politicians may not be aware how frequently they’re shown in their foibles on the internet.  Information that used to take weeks or months to filter out is now known instantaneously, and everybody’s overloaded and confused.  Politicians, instead of trying to show us the way in such a landscape are rather acting like my late stepfather in saying “Do as I say, not as I do.”  A fine bit of hypocrisy, that.  At least he tried to mend his ways, even if not successful in his efforts.  He would’ve known, however, that he had no business being president.  I reflect on this broken system quite a lot and I wonder what is next for us.  When trust in government is completely eroded, where do we turn?

Many have celebrated the decline of religion.  Let’s be more precise here and say organized religion.  Survey after survey reveals that we aren’t necessarily becoming less religious, but we’ve been watching prominent religious leaders throw their unstinting support behind a broken system.    Many of them continue to ignore the truth to support an incumbent who’s demonstrated that he’d just as soon turn on them as help their cause.  And for what?  Simply to prop up a tottering system, to squeeze out the last drops of what can be used to make things better for themselves before it all falls down.  As I was flying essentially coast to coast, it was evident from the air just how diverse a nation we are.  For nearly 250 years we’ve been able to make it work.  Now that it’s clearly broken, it seems the will to make it better has vanished.  And only politics remain.

Thanks for the Giving

The wonderful thing about Thanksgiving isn’t the food.  I object, on more than one level, to calling it “Turkey Day.”  No, the wonderful thing about Thanksgiving isn’t the food, but rather the universal aspect of the holiday.  From Fundamentalist to atheist, everyone can be thankful and we all have things for which to be thankful.  The holiday may have begun in a Christian milieu, but you need not believe in a God in the sky to give thanks.  We can thank one another, we can thank the universe, we can thank whatever powers that be, or we can simply be thankful, no matter to whom.  As I write this in the early morning hours, I’m thankful for being home after spending several days on the west coast.  Hearing the November wind howling outside, I’m thankful for this warm cup of coffee.  I’m thankful for the ingathering of family.  There’s so much goodwill today.

Thankfulness leads to a kind of optimism.  Thankful people can perhaps see that we need not hate others to feel good about ourselves.  I think of Thanksgiving as a feeling of love and acceptance.  Perhaps more than any other holiday.  I’ve heard people of many religions and backgrounds wishing others a happy Thanksgiving.  Would that all holidays could be so accepting!  Of course, holidays themselves have their origins in religions.  Were it not for beliefs, one day would be the same as any other.  There are religions that refuse to celebrate holidays, but when critics become too harsh on religious beliefs I’m thankful to remind them that they have religion to thank for both holidays and weekends.  We could all use a break.

Thanksgiving comes at different times in different countries.  In some places no equivalent holiday exists.  There are secular holidays, of course.  The very concept, though, of a “holy day” comes from that great generator of calendars—religion.  As chronologically challenged as I am (I can’t figure out time changes or time zones or even what time it is anywhere non-local) I often think of the marking of time and how a religious impulse started our species doing so.  Sure, it may have been the urge to start planting, or the awareness that the herds of prey were moving on, but in those early days such things were infused with religious significance.  And when calendars became canonical, there were religious impulses present to drive it.  So, in a way, it is good to be thankful even for religions—as problematic as they can be—on this Thanksgiving.  

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?

What I Meant to Say

So I try to illustrate each of my posts. I do this because in the days when the internet was young I often found blogs during image searches. I’ve grown more cautious over the years, regarding copyright. I try to stick to the “fair use doctrine”—and that’s what it’s called, a doctrine—or images I “own.” In the latter case it often means searching WordPress for a picture I’ve posted before. Since nobody has time to name all their photos, I use the assigned DSCN or IMG nomenclatures. There aren’t so many that a search won’t turn up an image in my library. Thing is, WordPress likes to anticipate what I’m looking for. What’s more, it “autocorrects” after I’ve begun scrolling through everything. DSCN becomes “disc” in its addled electronic brain, and IMG becomes “OMG.” Naturally, the image you’re seeking can’t be found until you manually correct autocorrect.

OMG has become very common shorthand these days. Growing up evangelical, there was a debate whether “o my God” was swearing or not. Those who like to hedge their eternal bets argued that this was taking the Lord’s name in vain, thereby breaking one of the big ten. This was to be avoided at all costs. Those with a little less fear (or perhaps a bit more courage) argued that “God” wasn’t “the Lord’s name.” God is a generic word and can refer to any deity, except, of course, for the fact that there is only one God. This led straight back to the conundrum. Exegetes tell us that technically this commandment isn’t about saying the deity’s name, but rather it’s a prohibition against using said name when you don’t intend to do what you say you’ll do. In other words, lying.

It’s truly one of the signs that evangelicalism has evolved that the world’s best known liar is unstintingly supported by this camp. When I was a kid, saying, well, OMG, could get your mouth washed out with soap. Lying could lead to other forms of corporal punishment, such as being, in the biblical parlance, smitten. Now it gets you elected to the highest office in the land and supported by all those very people who won’t spell out OMG, even when they’re busy cutting you off in traffic with their Jesus fishes flashing in the sun. When I was a kid presidents would step down rather than go through the humiliation of being shown a liar in the face of the world. Times have changed. And I have no idea how to illustrate such a post as this. What comes up when I search OMG?

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 New Light

Sometimes you meet kindred spirits in books.  Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark has been waiting patiently.  It’s one of those books that I suspected would meet me where I live, and regarding this I was correct.  Brown Taylor, a former Episcopal priest and professor of religion (both of which I attempted but failed to achieve), has the courage and insight to suggest that darkness might just be a friend.  The darker half of the year settled hard on me this year.  As its black wings gathered about me I reached for this book.  I’ve been struggling with a question I’m sometimes asked: why do I let my thoughts linger in what must be considered darker corners?  I watch horror and write books and stories about monsters.  What’s wrong with me anyway?

One accusation may be fairly leveled at much of American religion is that it is shallow.  Light is uncritically accepted as good and dark becomes somehow evil.  There are biblical prooftexts that can be used to “prove” this, but they change color when you wrestle with them.  Learning to Walk in the Dark contains many ways of reflecting on realities which are inevitable.  Brown Taylor visits museums that give the sighted the experience of being blind in a safe environment.  She spends time in caves.  She stretches out beneath the stars and contemplates the dark night of the soul as well as the cloud of unknowing.  These latter two are, of course, spiritual classics.  There’s quite a bit that can be learned from experiencing darkness and listening intently.

My own predilections toward subjects called “dark” are forms of therapy.  My religion simply can’t be shallow.  I need enough water to swim.  And yes, I’m afraid of deep water.  Darkness perhaps comes more naturally to those of us who are awake for every sunrise.  If I move far enough north that may cease to be the case, but for the last decade or so my internal alarm goes off a couple hours before the first sliver of light creeps over the eastern hills.  And I seem to have assimilated to it.  As I read Learning I could imagine the accusations flying from my former Nashotah House context.  Looking at that patriarchal theology of sin and misery, however, I think there’s no question whence true darkness comes.  Without the dark we could never tell that it was light.  Since we need both, it seems wise to follow the sage advice here offered and get to know the dusky side a bit more intimately.