The New Purple

Those of us who grew up Evangelical hold an unusual place among our liberal peers.  We’re often able to peer around, over, and under that wall that has been built between those who want a faith-based nation and those who want a free one.  Angela Denker is a fellow traveler on this road, and her book Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump is a useful roadmap.  Some of us fall further from the tree than others, but one of Evangelicalism’s more endearing traits, when taken seriously, is the love of those who are different from you.  That love is often forgotten in the political rhetoric daily whipped into a froth by an unstable president being used by his party to install agendas that hardly fit the moniker “Christian.”  That’s why books like this are so important.

I confess that reading studies such as this make me uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable because my Evangelical past haunts me worse than any ghost, but also because Denker is clearly right that basic humanity is being left in the garbage as battle lines are drawn up in what could be a great, diverse nation if a leader were determined to work for unity.  I recently wrote about lunar landings.  Kennedy was a Catholic who had to work to bring a nation together around a common goal.  Instead of tearing the country apart for his personal aggrandizement, he pointed to the moon.  Sure, there was a xenophobia concerning the Soviet Union, but at least in this pocket of the world there was a sense that we should work together.  When religion entered politics with Richard Nixon and his followers, a deep rift opened up.  The two topics you were never to discuss—religion and politics—were now in the same bed.

Red State Christians is an extended road trip on which Denker interviews people who largely fall under the Evangelical umbrella.  Some of them are Catholic.  Some of them are Hispanic.  Some of them are less concerned with social issues, but are hard-working laborers often overlooked by the Democratic Party.  The resulting pastiche is one in which Americans are cast not in sharp relief, but rather with the hazy edges that are a far more accurate way of understanding human beings.  Many, it becomes clear, elected Trump out of fear, or out of fear of his opponent.  These aren’t bad people, but they are people afraid.  This wasn’t an easy book to read, but it is an important one.  And those who want to work for a future that might include realms beyond the moon might find this work a small step in the right direction.

Somebody’s Coming

Sometimes updates don’t help.  That’s because evil is so good at masquerading as righteousness that constant vigilance is required.  Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism was recommended to me by someone at a local church.  I’ve been giving educational talks to help people understand what Evangelicalism is, so I figured I’d better read it.  The optimistic epilogue to this otherwise excellent book allowed relief after the 2006 midterm elections.  Of course, nobody back then could’ve believed an even less intelligent president than W could ever be put forth by the GOP.  That doesn’t mean Kingdom Coming shouldn’t be read.  It should.  And it should be required reading (aw, gee!  Homework?).  There have been many studies that have demonstrated repeatedly that Christian Nationalism is highly organized and well funded.  Meanwhile intellectuals scoff that religion is dead.

I spent most of the last week in a kind of panic.  I have another public talk coming up, and I needed to read Goldberg before that.  Yes, it is dated.  But yes, we have Trump’s bumbling form of “leadership” with a well funded, highly organized Evangelical subculture calling the shots.  Forget the politicians—they’re only interested in money—it’s everyone else who suffers from America’s growing fascism.  The fact that the GOP won’t stand up to 45 shows that we’ve already turned the corner toward das Vaterland.  Anyone the Republican Party elects from now on could be the new dictator.  Christian Nationalism stands behind this as journalists scratch their heads.

Goldberg’s book has likely been shelved because eight years of Obama made it seem like the threat was gone.  The problem is, silence works to the benefit of Christian Nationalists.  Perhaps the most frightening thing about all of this is that many intellectuals simply don’t take the threat seriously.  At the same time I was reading this, I was also reading about Nazi Germany (because I’m such a cheerful guy).  The parallels are blatant and entirely too obvious to miss.  Christian Nationalism has an agenda and it is fascist in nature.  Even obeying the words of Jesus takes second place to the political objective of making America in their own image.  This may sound alarmist, but it’s based on solid information.  The Devil, they say, is most powerful when people don’t believe in him.  Those who would make America into a theocracy would claim to follow the other guy, but looking at their tactics, it’s pretty clear who’s really in charge.

Trumping the Bible

The media is chattering about one of the very many contradictions of evangelicals who support Trump.  Since I have a foot in the world of the Bible business, I read with interest how Trump’s tariffs on China will put Bible publishers in a bind.  You see, the Good Book is generally sent offshore since printing costs (and technologies) are too expensive to replicate in God’s new chosen nation itself.  This lack of divine foresight should be a bit disturbing.  The entire evangelical enterprise is based on their reading of Scripture, and the belief that the divine choice of America is behind such momentous events as 45’s election.  Maybe we should check our pipes for lead.  In any case, Bibles, which are printed cheaply in high volume overseas, are set to become too expensive to give away because of the great pretender’s tariffs.

A few media outlets have picked up this story, including one that noted Trump’s favorite Bible verse is “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”  The famous lex talionis statement was famously, well, trumped by Jesus who said that the ideal was to turn the other cheek.  In a rather Philistine way, evangelicals have sided with a man who says Jesus was wrong.  If you want to check up on me in your Bible you’d better get your wallet out.  Ironically from a Republican point of view, tariffs are themselves the breaking of the commandment of free trade.  Still the party that claims to believe that does nothing to prevent the sale of their souls, cash on the barrelhead.

Many evangelicals may find the idea of Bibles as a business distasteful.  It is, however, extremely profitable for those on the supply end of the deal.  Bibles are printed at a volume that would make most authors green, and due to its size the Good Book requires specialized paper most of the time.  This is so much the case that Bibles not printed on “Bible paper” just don’t feel like sacred writ.  Since costs of living in the United States are quite high, and since this kind of specialized printing would be too expensive in this situation, publishers outsource God’s word.  Some publishers have been pleading with the government to exclude books from Trump’s tariff so the Good News can continue to spread.  The fact is that only one deity, called Mammon in the Bible, runs this enterprise.  And to continue to buy Bibles at the evangelical rate will soon be requiring an act of sacrifice.  I guess the lex talionis still applies.

Fear of Religions

There’s a narrative of fear in Christianity that seems to have been absent at the beginning.  This is evident when driving the highways of America where you’ll see billboards (which are meant for selling things) advertising the truth of a kind of biblical Fundamentalism.  On my recent trip across Pennsylvania this fear stood out in some rather obvious ways.  And it doesn’t reflect the Christianity reflected in the Good Book.  Stop and think about it: although the persecution of early believers was probably never as widespread as the usual narrative says it was, the writings we have describe facing persecution with joy.  Believing that they would be delivered, the oppressed welcomed the opportunity to prove their faith.  The Chick tracts I read as a child, however, focused intently on how scary the future persecution would be.  Fear, not joy, was the motivation for belief.

As we stopped in a turnpike rest area, we noticed a kiosk of Christian books amid snacks both salty and sweet.  The only other reading material available had to do with tourist attractions and finding directions.  It was, upon retrospect, odd.  Pondering this I recalled the narrative I heard repeatedly in my youth—a time was coming when it would be illegal to be Christian.  There would be persecution and the only proper response was a faith borne of fear.  This was not a religion of love thy neighbor.  No, this was a religion of armed survival based not on turning the other cheek, but on asserting itself with a show of firepower.  This kind of weaponized evangelicalism has taken over the narrative of Christianity.  Paul of Tarsus, knowing he would likely be executed, wrote of his joy from prison.  In the land of plenty we tremble.

The more cynical side of my experience suggests that politicians—who have learned that fear gets them elected—found in this form of Christianity a convenient set of sheep without a shepherd.  There’s fear in these billboards.  Fear that another religion may take over.  Or that secularism may make cherished beliefs illegal.  This isn’t cause for celebration, as the sermon on the mount proclaims it should be, but rather a call to arms.  In this country we have more than enough.  Among those left out, however, this fear grows just as rapidly as among those who fear they may lose the abundance they have.  They try to convert the weary traveler whose eye is drawn to the billboard.  And even those who stop for a drink of cold water which, the Bible suggests, should be freely given.

Label Maker

Did you ever have one of those label makers?  The kind with a rotating wheel that embossed a plastic ribbon with letters that you could stick to things?  Labeling is so easy!  I often feel constrained, however, by the chosen labels of extremist groups.  Not all evangelicals are power-hungry or enemies of human welfare.  This is perhaps one of the keys to the success of extremists.  Camouflage has long been recognized by evolution as a most effective tactic.  I have many evangelical friends who do not protest cartoons, or ride around in Trump-laden vehicles, polluting the environment like there’s no tomorrow.  The problem is what to call them since the more radical wing has usurped their nomenclature.  I often think of this because I eschew labels in general, but people in a collective can do quite a bit more damage than a single disgruntled individual.  Perhaps “disgruntled” should be part of their name?

Religions generally begin as efforts to help make the world a better place.  The historian of religions sees, however, that over time many believers begin seeing the peripherals as the central tenets of the faith.  Since I’m familiar with evangelicalism, let me use that as an example.  As a form of Christianity, evangelicalism began with the Reformation.  Pietist groups, freed from Catholicism’s idea of communal salvation, began to worry about their individual souls and how  they might be saved.  Their belief structure eventually came to include the necessity of converting others because, if you read the Bible a certain way, that’s a requirement.  Over time this outlook  evolved into the idea that only one group (one’s own) has truly understood the Christian message.  Once numbers grow numerous, it becomes like the medieval Catholic Church—large enough to take political power.  Somewhere along the line the central message of helping make the world a better place morphs into making the world evangelical only.  Or whatever label we feel constrained to use.

labels are problematic

I’m not picking on the evangelicals here—this could apply to any extremists.  And it certainly doesn’t apply to all evangelicals.  Religion has been part of human culture from the very beginning.  A good case can be made that it is one of the basic components of consciousness itself.  A person has to learn how to become unreligious.  We are also political animals.  Who doesn’t want things their own way?  We can’t all win, however, and some religions have difficulty separating, say, a savior willing to die for others and the insistence on one’s own way no matter what others want.  Like most aspects of life this is a balancing act.  I grew up evangelical.  I have friends who are evangelical.  I don’t want to insult anybody, but what can you do when you feel disgruntled by the degradation of religion into an excuse for hate?  I lost my label maker long ago and I no longer know what to call things anyway.

What’s Wrong with Heroes?

There can be no doubt that under Trump conservative Christians have been flexing their muscles.  Few things corrupt so readily as political power, and evangelicalism—already an unrealistic way of looking at things—is itching to throw punches.  A story on For Reading Addicts that my wife sent to me bear the title “DC Comics cancel latest comic after backlash from conservative Christians.”  The piece by Rowan Jones notes that Second Coming was cancelled due to pressure from evangelicals with the cultural sensitivity of the Kouachi treatment of Charlie Hebdo.  Cartoons, it seems, are a real threat to true believers in a way that reason is not.  Jones notes that the comic was actually largely supportive of Christian values, but like an evangelical Brexit the reaction was taken without understanding the issue.

The anger of conservative religions—it hardly matters whether they are Christian, Muslim, or Aum Shinrikyo—often plays itself out in displays of violence.  I wonder if part of this insecurity comes from the fact that the expectations of their faith don’t work out they way they’ve been led to believe they will.  The myth of the blessed existence of the true believer is given the lie by life in a secular world.  While the evangelicals support Trump, 45’s tax plan takes money from their pockets and hand it to the ultra-wealthy.  This raises no objections, but a cartoon showing Jesus helping the poor?—now that’s offensive!  And still no second coming takes place.  It’s difficult to retain a fantasy view in the face of cold reality.

Who doesn’t like a hero?

Religious beliefs are a deeply personal matter.  It is a dicey business to try to get someone to change their outlook when they’ve been convinced that the consequences are eternal.  Although vaguely aware of other religions all along, Christianity in the “new world” was taken quite by storm at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago.  Suddenly it was clear that other moral, decent religions had developed similar ethics to what had largely been supposed to have been Christian innovations.  It’s difficult to feel superior when others in the same room seem just as intent on improving the lot of humankind as you do.  Even when a particular religion holds all the political power of a nation it’s overly sensitive to cartoons.  This is a curious situation indeed.  I’m not a comic book reader—I don’t even have time for internet articles unless someone sends them to me with the suggestion that they’re worth my time.  And I, for one, think a little more humor might just make the world a better place.  Either that or we need a hero.

Like a River

It still gives me the creeps, to be honest.  Although a myth, well, let’s not dignify it with that noble term—although an urban legend, the origin of the “peace sign” with “Nero’s cross” upset me as a child and still has its hooks in me.  I remember distinctly the Christian comic book that showed a “Christian hater” turning a cross upside-down and breaking it.  The physics of it puzzled me even as a youngster—to break something like that you needed to have some kind of tension.  Snapping two arms off a cross simultaneously must’ve required some kind of magic.  In any case, it was a scary thought.  Now I’ll be the first person to admit that I need more time to study the symbols here, but it seems that “Nero’s cross” was a myth—er, urban legend intended to demonize the peace sign.

The “peace sign” has a documented history going back to the 1950s.  Gerald Holtom designed it based on the superimposed semaphore letters N and D which stood for “nuclear” and “disarmament.”  This was part of the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a cause that even then evangelical Christians did not support.  Being hawkish, this aggressive, masculine belief system wanted no long-hairs wearing a sign that to them looked like an inverted, broken cross.  Back in Nero’s day crucifixions were disturbingly common.  I suspect many people would’ve been only too happy to see crosses broken and government behaving a bit kinder.  Did they actually circulate a “Nero’s cross” as a hate sign for Christians?  You have to wade hip-deep through Evangelical websites claiming so before you can get anywhere near a site that has actual history on it.  Even then you’ll be left scratching your head.

Some liturgical vestments (sorry to talk shop) such as a chasuble, occasionally have a cross with “broken arms” on them.  Back in the 1950s Evangelical cats hated Catholic dogs and even as a kid I heard rumors about how such symbols were “anti-Christian.”  Were they inverted “Nero crosses?”  Religious symbols have long, rich histories.  We know that the “peace sign” first appeared in the 1950s to protest nuclear buildup.  We know that Evangelicals prefer to sacrifice doves on the altar of “national security.”  Might as well use some olive branches for kindling while you’re at it.  Although I know the origins of the “peace sign,”  I still always hesitate a moment before using it.  Such is the power of early indoctrination.  Even if it defies the laws of physics.