A Concept

Pardon me for being perplexed in public. You see, things aren’t as clear cut as they used to be. In the world in which I grew up Evangelicalism was good and Satanism was bad. Very bad. It still has the ability to scare people straight. A recent NBC story my wife sent me titled “Satanic Temple challenges Missouri’s abortion law on religious grounds,” by Corky Siemaszko, shows how the GOP has turned the tables on this equation. The Christian Right has utterly aligned itself with the pro-life camp. Most people would agree, I suspect, that abortion shouldn’t be the first choice of birth control options, but life comes with many unpredictable circumstances. There are times abortion is the most humane option and the burden falls almost entirely upon women. It’s not an issue on which men are competent to decide.

The evangelical posturing on the issue—which has, by the way, changed in recent years—has placed the weight fully on women. A rutting male, like a bull elephant in musth, can hardly be responsible, so the thinking goes. Or, to put it more politely, boys will be boys. Women suffer on the tusks of this tautology; it’s no wonder Satan has horns. Only women conceive, so men can make the laws and feel empowered by a male god who, you know, understands where they’re coming from. Missouri Satanists are striking back. The problem is the state requires women to be presented with indoctrination that says life begins at conception before electing for an abortion. Does life begin at conception? The Bible says “no.”

Biblical science was primitive. Ancients understood there was a connection between sex and pregnancy, but infant mortality rates ran very high. Life, in the biblical view, started at first breath. Spirit, breath—the very word for “soul” in the Bible—was the marker of life’s origin. The Bible may not advocate abortion, but in a world where few children made it past five, there was a shortage of surviving progeny. So it turns out that in Missouri Satanists are actually advocating the biblical view while the Evangelicals are violating the constitution by misreading it. Life begins at conception isn’t a scientific premise, it’s a theological one. A theological one on which Christians disagree. And Satanists. In their efforts to keep men on top of women, the Christian Right has no support from the Good Book on the matter of conception. Of course, why read the Bible when you can get what you want by quoting only your favorite verses? After all, God, they say, is a “he.”

Good Newsists

In the interest of avoiding conflict thereof, I cannot yet give a review of Randall Balmer’s Evangelicalism in America. Since I’m writing a review of it for Reading Religion, I’ll use it as a springboard into a topic that should concern all who believe in religious freedom. One of the resounding themes of Balmer’s treatment is that Evangelicalism, after it wedded to the Religious Right, lost its soul. Those are my words, not his, but the sentiment’s about right. For anyone who wasn’t politically aware in the 1980s, it may seem a surprise that religion didn’t enter into politics before that decade. With the exception of the fear of the Catholic in the case of John F. Kennedy, religion wasn’t used as a political wedge until the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The Religious Right, unhappy with the born again Southern Baptist in the White House, moved to solidify the Evangelical bloc.

Evangelicals had been an underground movement for half a century. Many had no idea what being “born again” meant when Carter first claimed the sobriquet. Balmer points out that it was the threat of the withdrawal of tax-exempt status to discriminating Christian schools that led to political action. Bob Jones University, fearful of racial intermarriage, didn’t admit African American students. Leaders of the Religious Right saw the loss of tax-exempt status as a move against their sacred segregated culture and a push that required a shove. Coopting the abortion issue (historically Evangelicals had supported women’s rights, including the right to abortion in many cases), they nailed together a platform for political activism which put women “back in their place,” kept racial “purity,” and romanced a total aberration in Christianity—the “prosperity gospel.” All of this is well documented. And well hidden.

Looking at Evangelical politics today, abortion—the control of women—has become THE issue. It’s hard to believe, as Balmer amply illustrates, that Evangelicalism used to be allied with the Social Gospel. It was a religious view with a conscience and it supported issues that are now polarized as “liberal” and leftist. This shift came about gradually, but not accidentally. There were political players—Balmer names names—who had one goal in mind, and that goal wasn’t Jesus or what he’d do. It was the sweet prize of political power. Evangelicals, you see, are born followers. A leader with a strong voice can lead them just about anywhere. Many Evangelicals today would deny their more liberal history, but it is right there for anyone who’s willing to learn something about who they once were.

Com-Passion

I suppose it is always premature to hope that ancient institutions are likely to improve. Like many other followers of developments in religion, I was pleasantly amazed to read reports of Pope Francis declaring that, in my vernacular, that the church should not be so stuck in the rut of doctrinal abstemiousness that it forget mercy and charity. How sad to see that hours later he was forced, Galileo-like, to recant somewhat. The forces at work are far more powerful than the vicar of Christ. In some minds religion is doctrine. I know whereof I speak. For several years of my professional life I worked for a doctrinaire institution where any hint of mercy was considered a kind of Protestant mewling before a God who would’ve made even Jonathan Edwards tremble. Although officially released “without cause,” I can’t help but think that my own pastoral sensitivities were at fault. I don’t believe that religions thriving on condemnation deserve the title.

Ironically, I was at Notre Dame University when headlines about the Pope’s declaration that the church should not obsess about homosexuality and abortion appeared in the papers. It was with a kind of wonder that I heard an academic say, “the Pope is sounding more Lutheran all the time.” I’m not naive enough to suppose that the pontiff is suggesting a change in doctrine—there are rocks so heavy that the Almighty himself can’t lift them—but that the leader of the world’s largest church was suggesting mercy and compassion outweigh legality felt as if Amos or Micah had just walked into the Vatican. The next day the Pope had to come out and strongly condemn abortion. Politics, it seems, will always trump human understanding.

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We live in an era of iron-willed religions. The human element often vanishes beneath a frowning providence that wishes for clocks to be turned back decades, if not centuries. These religions have no place for improving the human lot in this sinful world—it is much easier to condemn than to contemplate compassion. Religion is hard, for people find forgiveness a difficult doctrine to accept. Jonathan Edwards dangled his spider over the eternal fires of hell, but ecclesiastics today suggest that swift shears taken to that silken web would solve all the problems. Time for change? Not in this century. Religions, too, evolve. But evolution doesn’t equal improvement. Many an agnostic has become so because of the reality of “nature red in tooth and claw.”

The Splice of Life

Splice Although not really scary, and although almost attainable with current technology, Dren is a curious monster. Many movies of the horror genre have explicit religious elements, but Splice may be a little too much science fiction for that. Or is it? The story is simple enough: a couple of geneticists have gene-spliced a couple of viable creatures that can be farmed for important chemicals and enzymes to solve diseases. So far, so good. But then the idea occurs to them: if the chemicals that can be used to help cure animal diseases had a human element, couldn’t they be used to cure our own diseases? And here is where the ethical quandaries begin. Adding human DNA to the mix, even when in small portions, suddenly throws open the moral dilemmas. Dren is the somewhat human result of these experiments, but the movie ends with the haunting, unanswered question—what is it to be human?

Although today the field of ethics is largely claimed by philosophers, morality is a measure of beliefs about right and wrong. In many cultures, including our own, religion has quite a lot to say about the issue. Once human DNA is mixed in the creature morphs from a bumpy slug into a creature that looks mostly human. The ethical dilemmas that surround human potential—abortion, stem cell research, cloning, and in past ages eugenics—all focus on the rights of the human person. Once a person is born, however, we almost immediately begin to curtail those rights until most of us become cogs in an unfeeling corporate machine. We are valuable, but for whose purpose? Who, sitting in their cubicle, or on their assembly line, or behind the wheel, says, “For this they defended my right to be born”?

Oddly, we privilege the potential of life without tirelessly working to improve the lot of those who’ve already been born. Perhaps, indeed, this is some form of evolutionary advantage—protect the future of the species at all costs. This idea becomes religious when it is deemed God’s will. In the movie, Dren’s creators ultimately deem her unhuman, a monster who must be destroyed. They, however, nurtured her humanness all along. While not the most profound movie ever filmed, Splice highlights the fact that ethics reflect the values of society. And society sometimes withdraws even humanity from those who’ve lost its favor.

Accidental Abortion

There comes a time in life when you realize that if a small town you know makes it into the news headlines, it is likely tragic. So it was when I read this morning that a man in Mercer, Pennsylvania—just a few miles from where I grew up—shot and killed his 7 year-old son, by accident. I grew up in a part of the country that has a love affair with guns. This may have been understandable in the days when a stroll to the outhouse could mean chancing a bear or cougar encounter, but these days bear sightings are rare and cougars, well, almost unheard of. The man was trying to trade in a couple of guns at Twig’s Reloading Den. Climbing back into his truck, the handgun discharged, killing his son. This is very tragic, yet the officer making a statement said something chilling. The man thought the gun was unloaded but, “This happens all too often where people think the gun was empty.” All too often. All too often.

I grew up in western Pennsylvania, and if Facebook is anything to go by, it has become consistently more Evangelical since I left. And that is saying something. In my younger days I wore a large cross around my neck and took my fair share of ribbing for being religious. Now I see those with whom I attended school posting on all manner of conservative causes, including the contradictory anti-abortion and loosening of gun control. This is not a phenomenon restricted to western Pennsylvania. At Nashotah House it was alive and well. Several students kept guns in their dorms, protested against the violence done to the unborn, yet called killing heretics “retroactive abortion.” It was their smiles when they said such things that frightened me. Wait until they grow up to kill them.

Like any insecure person I sometimes think a gun for protection might be good. I especially think this when I’m in the grizzly bear habitat of the Pacific Northwest, miles from civilization. I picture myself shooting into the air with a rifle that out-Thors thunder itself, a mighty man. Yet the only time I actually saw a grizzly bear I immediately jumped out of the car to snap a picture or two. I dream of going back to the days before guns were invented, but this evil genie has been let out of the bottle. There’s no getting it back in. Are we vulnerable without guns to “protect” us? Yes. But my reading of the Bible my Evangelical friends so often cite insists that turning the other cheek is the way to show that you believe it. A seven-year-old is dead not far from my hometown. His father was trying to sell guns at a store that doesn’t even buy guns. The boy died in the gun store, and yet my fellow Americans feel safer knowing they’re armed. I hope your hometown stays out of the news.

Feel safer?

Feel safer?

Nun Such Luck

It hardly seems to be news anymore when the headlines read “Vatican orders crackdown on US nun association.” Religions are largely characterized as men telling women (and milquetoast men) what to do. Perhaps because of our evolutionary, simian respect for the alpha male, most followers will resist pointing out inequities in the system just to have a smoother ride. The all-male Vatican is reportedly worried about how nuns of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious might be distorting the masculine teachings of holy mother church. No matter how much science the Vatican supports, it just can’t get over the idea that when God is found out there he will have not only a human face, but a human penis as well. The Associated Press article states that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—that is the organization of the Inquisition, my dear readers—found grave errors of doctrine among the ladies. Sounds like time for an auto-da-fé, n’est-ce pas?

Somewhere on its long and weary trek, the control of fellow humans for the sake of God has slipped into the rut of control of fellow humans for the rush of power. The Catholic bishops are worried about abortion (and other healthcare options for women). The Bible says nothing about abortion, considering life to coincide with the first breath. The chosen people did not have a conception of how conception worked (you can’t see the sperm or ova without a microscope, no matter how divine they may be) and so life began and ended with breath. The only reason to push the origin of life to conception is so that men may control women’s sex lives. These decisions are made by sexless men who wear dresses behind inscrutable walls of power. When nuns start seeking fair treatment for women it quickly becomes heresy.

I don’t mean to single out the Roman Catholic Church here, since many religions proclaim male superiority—loudly or softly. Back in ancient times when goddess worship was taken as seriously as the cult of male gods, a few religions did exist that gave women a position equal to, or sometimes even above, men. The priests of Cybele, for instance, had to undergo ritual emasculation. Strangely, religions with celibate priesthoods today leave their men intact, perhaps as a loophole for sin. I wonder how much more women-friendly official theologies would be if only eunuchs were allowed to serve as pastors. It is, as Genesis famously states, sin that “is crouching at the door,” and therefore it is better to remain gendered and pray not to be led into temptation. Perhaps we have something to learn from history yet.

Witch Crazy

The self-destructive tendencies of human societies should be of major interest to those who study the mind. Why a highly evolved species would forego reason—or create an entire false logic—to give itself an excuse to mass-murder its own is among the greatest trials of theodicy. Can God be justified in such circumstances? With or without divine approval, God is nevertheless implicated. One of those homicidal events, the European witch craze of early modern history is a prime example. Anne Llewellyn Barstow’s Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts is a disturbing book on many levels. For a human being with any level of empathy, reading about the torturous destruction of at least 100,000 people—generally women—is hard going. We don’t want to be reminded that we were ever so naïve as to believe that women slept with the devil, flew through the air to meet with other witches, and were trying to bring down society. The “upright,” as Barstow makes very clear, feared for the church. Concern for the ways of God excused—demanded even—the death of the innocent. Many of the victims confessed, under torture, that the godly men had got it right.

Barstow contends that economic stresses and fear for the sanctity of the church, along with a generous dose of native misogyny, fueled this holocaust. She notes that it happened in the same society that would initiate another holocaust a mere three centuries later. But why women? Coming out of the medieval period, societies were strengthening centralized governments. Roles of power that belonged to women were highly individualized, and therefore considered threats. The healer, in absence of a medical profession, was often female, frequently a midwife. In days of high infant mortality, they were sometimes blamed for performing abortions, something men in power simply couldn’t accept. Barstow points out that population increases were stressing the economic production of the period. The newly minted Reformation advocated a very active devil in the world. Since the devil, like God, was a guy, well, women satisfied his lust.

The most disturbing aspect of reading this book for me, however, is the fact that our society has come to resemble that one once again. Strong centralized governments control what citizens do through fear—what else would compel us to allow Patriot Acts to pass? They target women as scapegoats—otherwise the issue of abortion would not command such male attention. Fear for the sanctity of God is repeatedly invoked. Sometimes these modern witches are persecuted on the basis of ethnic background as well as gender. And in both the witch hunter society and that of today an elite class has collected the wealth and sits back to let the remainder incinerate itself in the name of God. Witches don’t fly through the night to meet a fictional devil. The real threat to society is right here among us, but its not who the powerful want us to think it is. And it is very human.