Fearful Faithful

It’s sitting on the table next to my chair and I’m afraid of it.  It all started during the Easton Book Festival.  I feel sorry for those people who have to stand on the street corner and pass things out for a job.  In Manhattan I used to see them being completely ignored by swarms of people passing by.  They’re only doing their job.  I made a habit of accepting their chits, and even if they didn’t mean anything to me, I felt that the person handing them out might have experienced a small measure of satisfaction that someone accepted what they were offering, and had said “thank you.”  In Easton back in October, my wife and I were heading to one of the venues to hear an author talk and a guy was passing out paper, and I accepted one as a matter of habit.

It was a Chick tract.  If you’ve been reading this blog a while you’ll have run across the concept before.  Jack T. Chick was a cartooning evangelist.  He drew hundreds of tracts and comic books that formed a steady diet for me, growing up.  Although they looked like cartoons, these intolerant, Fundamentalist tracts were quite often very scary.  Especially to the young.  More than once I’d spiral into a childhood depression after reading one.  Although it seemed simple—say the prayer at the end and you’d be saved—how could you be so sure?  The disturbing contents stayed with me long after the sixteen pages were done.  Now, as an adult, I was being offered a road back to a childhood I fervently wished to avoid.

I stuck the tract in my pocket and forgot about it.  When I got home I emptied my pockets and found it again.  Curious, I was tempted to read it.  I know, however, that doing so will only drag me back to a memory of younger days when a kind of terror permeated my days.  And nights.  My theology, which was formed of a mosaic of these tracts (what child really listens to sermons?), was a scary one indeed.  It was populated by demons, Catholics, and servants of the Antichrist.  Anyone who wasn’t straight and pretty waspish was a threat to my eternal salvation.  Is that somewhere I want to go again?  The tract sits, unread, on my table.  It reminds me of the abuses to which religion might be put.  And I’m thinking I might start refusing free handouts on the street once again.

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 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 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.