Divine Election

Jesus, it seems, has given up appearing on tortillas and hedgerows to start endorsing political candidates. Of course, this is not really new news. Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and now Anna Pierre, candidate for mayor of North Miami, all claimed their campaigns were endorsed by the Almighty. Seems that God isn’t that great at picking winners. Anna Pierre, according to a story on NBC, came in last in the polls. Is it any surprise? Jesus always did have a soft spot for the underdog.

pierrejesus

American culture is an odd mix of secular and religious. We seem to want it both ways. Citizens like to believe that they are autonomous in their daily lives, free to choose their non-religious professions and pass-times, and on Sunday God takes over for an hour or two. Charged up on religious conviction, we want society to become more sacred, less trashy. But we still want to watch Fox at night. This disconnect has long fascinated me. No matter how many times God loses the election, a new crop of candidates will spring up with divine endorsements. The electorate, at least a significant part of it, will mindlessly follow along. Perhaps we prefer to believe in a deity whose hand is too short to save. Perhaps omnipotence is best left to boasts rather than belief.

The divine approval of a candidate has become so hackneyed that it has become almost the starting point for political contests. Where do you go after you’ve invoked the highest trump in the deck? Whose word means more than the Lord’s? In the heat of the campaign when policies and platforms just don’t sway the masses, who else can you trust? Often those who play such tactics consider those of us on the liberal side of the spectrum to be cynical. Theirs is religion in the service of the higher good, apparently. We wouldn’t want to be thought of as cynical, now, would we? Otherwise we might note that although Jesus may save, it seems that he certainly can’t vote.

Austin City Limits

Maybe it’s just because Texas feels like the brass buckle of the Bible Belt, but I had moral qualms about landing in George Bush International Airport this afternoon. Texas has so many worthy heroes, but in the land of Rick Perry, recent Republican politics is king. Not queen. But king. It felt like a work of supererogation to drive to Austin after a three-and-a-half hour flight to Houston, but Texas reminded me of Illinois with palm trees. And cacti. Well, okay, and longhorns. One could get culture-lash flying here from New York. Before I embarked I had visions of my rental car being a huge Cadillac with real steer horns for a hood ornament. I just couldn’t picture myself in a ten-gallon hat.

I sometimes wonder how religion could’ve come to divide a nation such as the United States. Founded on the principles of religious liberty, lately one party has been claiming the right to legislate morality for all, deeply polarizing a populace that should be able to accept differing viewpoints. Still, there are issues on which human rights insist there can be no compromise: women have equal rights with men, and have the right to self-determination just like men. It truly amazes me that such common sense can even become a divisive issue. If we could agree on even that, we’d have to declare it progress over the objections of the Religious Right. My thoughts wander that way when I tarry in the south. It’s really a pity. The people are friendly here and the landscape has its own beauty. Are we really that different?

I’m not altogether convinced that this isn’t just a case of prejudice masking as religious sensibility. Religions can be all too gullible when they feel their honors might have been impugned. While I regularly express my opinion here, I do respect nearly every form of sincerely held religious belief. None of us has all the answers, and it seems the height of hypocrisy to insist that anyone is right all the time. Nevertheless, my sojourn beneath the Bible Belt has me wondering about the origins of various religious squabbles. Or maybe it was the just the long drive along the “presidential corridor” after touching down at an facility that most websites still refer to as simply, Houston International Airport. Travel broadens the mind—it is, in fact, an excellent form of education. Maybe if we got out more we would all get along better.

From here we all look the same.

From here we all look the same.

Scouting for Boys

I guess losing a bid for a presidential nomination sanctions a guy to speak for God. Of course, that goes for just about any Republican these days. I’m frankly amazed that Moses managed to write the Ten Commandments without them. So Rick aptly-named Santorum has gone after the Boy Scouts. To remove the duplicitous ban on gay scouts, according to Santorum, is to remove God. Obviously Mr. Santorum was paid no attention in Boy Scouts himself. I spent many hours at Scout camp and I can attest that God was already the last thing on most boys’ minds. Maybe our former presidential hopeful ought to look back a little further, for Webelos and Cub Scouts may imply the love that dare not mewl its name. I predict this: if the ban is lifted, as it should be, no one will notice the difference. Santorum will continue beating his dead horse and the rest of America may achieve just a hint of maturity.

“Scouting may not survive this transformation of American society, but for the sake of the average boy in America, I hope the board of the Scouts doesn’t have its fingerprints on the murder weapon,” Santorum declared, according to CNN. I have to wonder what he knows about the average boy in America. Or the average girl. Santorum would have a difficult time finding the word “gay” in his Bible, for it is not there. But apparently God is not God without someone to hate, without the “Right” to show him the way. And God favors straight, white men, as the last presidential election clearly shows.

Any religion that makes someone feel better by repressing others is not worthy of propagation or emulation. Look at any oppressed group. What’s the backing always cited by the oppressor? Is it not narrow religious belief? Anyone can say “God says.” There—I just wrote it. And I could distort the Bible to make God dance to my prejudices as well. The problem is that I recognize how cheap and tawdry such eisegesis is. Of course, hot air expands. The Texas governor that God told to run for president, but then changed his divine, omniscient mind, and who never thought closely about the implications of that—aka Rick Perry—also had to weigh in on the issue. CNN quotes him as stating, “Scouting is about teaching a substantial amount of life lessons… Sexuality is not one of them. It never has been; it doesn’t need to be.” Mr. Perry needs to spend a weekend at camp with his eyes and ears open and his mouth shut. In the best of all possible political worlds, his bosom buddy Rick Santorum will be right there beside him. Maybe it will take a little child to lead them after all. And that actually is biblical.

From WikiCommons, AgnosticPreachersKid--worth a thousand words

From WikiCommons, AgnosticPreachersKid–worth a thousand words

Poisonous Beliefs

When it comes to staying alone in hotels, I use the time to catch up on my reading. I suppose I did my time with television as a child, and there are so many books awaiting my attention that I just can’t see letting the time get away. Last night, however, I’d heard that Rick Perry was accusing God of changing His mind, and so I switched on the news. After that grew tiresome, I landed on Animal Planet where a woman was being chased out of her house by a snake. Being in North Carolina, the first thing that came to mind was snake-handlers, and within minutes my suspicions were confirmed. I’d stumbled on “Snake Man of Appalachia.” I was transfixed. Although I caught the show already in progress, it quickly became clear that the wife was terrified of snakes and her underemployed husband spent his ample spare time collecting rattlers and copperheads for church. The setting was rural Kentucky. Very rural.

This was a marriage between an unbeliever (she, Reva) and a true believer (he, Verlin). Reva’s love for Verlin was quite obvious, even as she told the camera she didn’t believe in snake-handling. “I worry every time he goes to church,” she lamented in the diametrically opposite words of the stereotypical housewife complaint. Meanwhile, some various relatives, apparently closely related, were out on their ATVs huntin’ snakes. They would praise Jesus when they found one, after stuffing it into the safety bag. If Mark 16.18 were truly to be taken literally, why would you need to use those snake-handling hooks and bags to carry the poor things in? It was a good day for snagging serpents, and when Sunday rolled around Reva was very worried as Verlin headed off to church with a Bible in the hand and a several snake carriers in the back of the 4-by-4. There were not many people in church—less than 10. I wondered what their death records read like.

Animal Planet has sunken to the lowest common denominator, adding shows about rusticated foils for sophisticated urbanites to laugh at. How else can you explain “Hillbilly Handfishin’”? What was sad to me was that Verlin and his family live in very humble circumstances. Very humble. He has trouble finding work and even his wife prays that the Lord might use his snake-gathering talent to earn a little money. They couldn’t even afford birthday presents for their kids, and we call it entertainment. Among the multitude of religious conflicts slithering through my brain as I watched, there was an even more troubling image: bread and circuses. When the Roman Empire had lost the unthinking adoration of the citizens, the ploy of making a spectacle of the suffering of others became common. Our society has clearly made the declaration that the wealthy are where they deserve to be and the rest of us should bask in their beneficence. You think you got it bad, watch those poor believers handling snakes while they live in shacks. After all, doesn’t that same Bible say, “blessed are the poor”?

Where is your faith?

Render unto Caesar

My wife shared a very appropriate video concerning the ongoing tragedy of the GOP race for presidential nominations. Presented as an ad by Jesus, “Jesus” tells how Rick Perry has co-opted his name but not his message.

It is a fun look at a very serious issue. The serious issue is that people unable to think critically about religion are doomed to be its slaves. Where’s the proof that Jesus supports one candidate or another? When is the last time the voting, uncritical public ever demanded the proof?

Thinking back to just a few weeks ago, Herman Cain had made the spectacular claim that God told him to run for president. If the claim was sincere, how could he have withdrawn from the race? Where’s the lightning bolt (as long as we’re believing mythical images of God)? Has anyone checked his office lately to see if he’s still with us?

Religious gullibility is America’s most dangerous deficiency. We elect “the most powerful man on earth” based on his religion, and yet, very few know anything about it. But hey, it sure sounds good!

Religion is the elephant in the room. Nearly all people learn religion from their parents or guardians. Some rebel, but few study it beyond the requirements of their obviously biased religious leaders. Children trust adults to inform them of the truth. We fill their heads with images of a large, white man, bearded, sitting on a huge throne in the sky. You can’t see him, and he doesn’t answer when you talk to him, but he is very, very concerned about who you elect as president.

Many colleges and universities do not offer the opportunity to study religion with neutral experts. Those best poised to make a difference, like large state schools, often shy away from the study of religion completely. Those that do offer the chance to study often unknowingly hire a committed believer, sometimes presenting him or herself duplicitously as neutral and objective. And so the cycle continues. As the old hymn plaintively asks, “will the circle be unbroken?”

As a nation we value religious freedom, but we have set up a system to abuse that freedom. (One might say, “ritually abuse”.) Answer me honestly, Mr. Perry—is it not true? Oh, and that Frisbee is not a threat to national security.

Raising Cain

The Bible doesn’t contain many good horserace stories. The early stages of a presidential candidate race, however, are rather like a horserace (I don’t pay much attention to either). Unless one (or more) of the horses get religious. It seems that a candidate can’t cinch a Grand Old Party nomination without laying bets on religion. I’ve no idea how religious Mitt Romney is, but his religion itself forces the issue. Rick Perry wears it on his sleeve and in his pious grin. The keep in the heat, Herman Cain has now pulled out his religious credentials. God told him to run for president. So he says. Since the Bible doesn’t mention any candidates by name, we have to take his word for it. (Although I doubt Cain actually wants to be associated with his biblical namesake.)

God’s been down a bit on the divine luck lately. With all the causes the Big Guy has supported being lost to others (one thinks of the “Gott und Ich” mentality that stretches far back beyond World War One) you’d think that those chosen by God might keep the matter quiet. At least until the results are assured. Once that card has been laid, to shift metaphors, it can’t be trumped by any other. A card laid is a card played. How can a candidate climb higher than God for the next debate? And when one or another of God’s chosen loses—and this is inevitable—it is clear that God is dragged into the mud with the almost chosen candidate.

There has been much talk and debate about the role of religion in government. In a nation as religious as the United States it is purely impractical to keep the two impolite subjects apart. We only want a religious man in the White House. Preferably Protestant, but beyond that any flavor will do. In the 80’s at least one was Tutti Frutti, in a manner of speaking. The actual religious beliefs expressed by our national leaders would certainly lead to raised eyebrows among the truly conservative, if such matters truly mattered.

Back in college, it was considered wise advice never to try to stuff any variety of underwear in order to create an illusion of size—such tactics are bound to end in disappointment. It is lesson that politicians never learn. There will always be some disillusioned followers the morning after, unless, of course, the racehorse analogy is the proper one. And the Bible will back me up on that.

It's all in the reading

Lead us not into Dominion

Christian dominionists emulate the Roman Empire, it seems. The Viewpoint in last week’s Time magazine, entitled “In God We Trust,” points out several of the objectives of the dominionist camp. Taking their cue from a decidedly modern and western understanding of Genesis 1, this sect believes the human control over nature to be a divine mandate in which our species dominates the world, with divine approval. As Jon Meacham points out, that dominion does not end at other animal species, but includes control of the “non-Christian” as defined by their own standard. This non-negotiable “Christianity” is a religion guided by utter selfishness and self-absorption. So thorough is this directive that those indoctrinated in it cannot recognize Christians that do not share its perspective as part of the same dogmatic species. It is a frightening religious perspective for a nation founded on the principle of religious freedom.

Rehearsing the rhetoric from Rick Perry’s “the Response” rally, Meacham rightly points out that when dominionists quote the Bible it is most important to note what the Bible does not say. Herein lies the very soul of the movement—filling in the void where God does not talk with human desires and ambitions. As any good marketer knows, however, packaging can sell the product. Introduce a rhetoric that claims to be biblical to a nation where most people have never read the Bible and smell the recipe for success. People want to believe, even if what they think they believe is not what it claims to be. Christianity is claimed by so many vastly differing factions as to have been drained of its meaning. This is the danger in the game of injecting religion into politics. Surely the Perrys and Palins and Bachmanns know what they believe, but they do not say it aloud, for their Christianity does not coincide with the various forms of the religion advocated by the churches historically bearing the torch of Christ’s teachings, insofar as they might be determined.

Dominionism is nothing new. Even the most pristine believer must see that Constantine had more than a warm fuzzy feeling in his heart when he adopted a foreign religion and fed it to his empire. No, Christianity was an effective, non-violent means of control as well as a way of achieving life after death. Rome was nothing without dominion. The parallels with the United States have been noted by analysts time and again. As we watch the posturing of political candidates wearing some form of their faith on their sleeves, the unsuspecting never question what might be up those sleeves. It is fairly certain that when the parties sit down at the table and the cards are dealt, it won’t be Bibles that we find scattered there. This is not a kingdom of God’s making. When dominionists take over all others must scan the horizon for the advent of the Visigoths who will not be dominated.

Religious Democracy, Media Style

A delightfully witty book review appeared in yesterday’s newspaper introducing Penn Jillette’s book God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales. Having just learned of the book I’ve not yet read it, but I am intrigued. Penn Jillette is best known as the talking portion of the magic-debunking duo Penn and Teller. Having forged a career of exposing false claims to the supernatural mystique of stage magic, Penn and Teller delight in bucking the orthodoxy of the guild and showing that anyone clever enough can fool many people into believing what they know can’t be true. They are exploiting, of course, a phenomenon that neuroscientists have been exploring for a number of years: human brains retain belief even in the face of disproving evidence. Many religious believers call it “faith.” According to Hank Gallo, author of the review, Jillette uses his book to endorse atheism as the only real option for a thinking person. The book is generally categorized as humor.

Although Bill Maher’s Religulous makes many good points from a similar perspective, one of the haunting realities poised for religious specialists is almost a chiaroscuro with excessive contrast. It takes no special training to be a religious specialist. That is hard news to hear for those of us who’ve spent over a decade of our lives and thousands of dollars learning the trade. Comedians and others who are famous will impact far more people than this little blog ever will. Rick Perry can call together thousands to pray to pave his way to the White House. Maher and Jillette can poke fun at religious yokels and scholars will sit at their desks ignoring the crude efforts of those who have no training. There is no doubt, however, as to which will reach a wider audience.

Harry Houdini famously debunked spiritualists in his day. Like Penn and Teller, he was a stage magician who recognized that people could be easily fooled. He was able to expose mediums that scientists and academics of his day failed to uncover. It seems that those with access to the most basic of human desires—the will to believe—gain credibility more readily than an erudite yet obtuse specialist with several odd initials after his or her name and several obscure books to his or her credit. Those in the media have direct access to the mind of the public. If the tent is big enough the whole town will show up for the circus. The truth may be out there, but the minds of the public are won over by those who entertain, not those who bury themselves in dusty tomes and seldom see the light of day. The fact is people want to believe. Until a better alternative is offered, we might prepare ourselves for a long round of Texas Hold’em and a Tea Party or two.

Elephants and Earthquakes

Two things happened yesterday that underscore the danger zone in which we currently live. The more dramatic event, an earthquake in central Virginia felt by many of us along the East Coast, had the social media tweeting for some time. The second event took the form of an editorial in the New Jersey Star-Ledger concerning GOP hopeful Jon Huntsman. Huntsman is quoted as saying, “The minute the Republican Party becomes the anti-science party, we have a huge problem.” An even larger problem is that the clock has moved well beyond the future tense. The editorial cites GOP candidates who routinely dismiss the science of global warming, evolution and other certainties as mere “data-fixing.” Perry and Bachmann have both decided they “don’t believe” in global warming. The elephant in the room, however, goes without mention.

The elephant in the room is religion, and it is a killer elephant, one that has a history of stomping those who attempt to control it. Politicians attack religion—whether or not it is bad juju makes no difference—at their eternal peril. In this “nation under God” (really under God) even a finger pointed towards conservative Christianity becomes a dagger plunged into a candidate’s chest. The Religious Right has been doing its homework for decades: no voice of reason can speak loudly enough to be heard over the songs of praise of the self-righteous. Reason, as scientists have discerned, cannot impact religious fervor. Belief can withstand a full-frontal attack from logic, reason—all that is sacred to rationality—and emerge without a scratch or dent. It is time that those in the middle and left took religious studies seriously.

Then I felt the earth move under my feet. As our house swayed and I checked on my daughter, I couldn’t believe I was feeling my third earthquake. I checked the web to see what in the world was going on. Interestingly, no witch doctors or Fundamentalist soothsayers were being consulted, but the scientists were. The news stories emerging minutes after the ground shook from Pittsburgh to Concord to Chapel Hill rang with the refrain, “scientists say.” Where was Rick Perry and his dowsing rods? Where was Michele Bachmann and her chicken bones? No, the religious war on science was switched off for a moment and those who felt afraid listened to those who actually knew what they were talking about. It was the elephant moving around the room, I say. It will only be a matter of time, however, before it is claimed that the people of Mineral, Virginia did something evil to prod an angry god into action.

Nobody felt anything, right?

Six Red Flags

Answers in Genesis’ biblical theme park with its life-sized ark was back in the news yesterday. Journalists just seem to be fascinated that people really do believe in their religious convictions. Having grown up in a religious family, I understand where they’re coming from. The version of the Bible they offer to the public, however, is much too tame. I spent the day dreaming about a literalist Bible theme park that would put Evangelical Christianity back on the map. I’m thinking it should be in Rick Perry’s Texas and we could call it the Literalist Six Red Flags.

The first attraction would be the Garden of Eden—sans clothes. If we’re going for the full Bible experience we should go all the way. The full Methuselah. For those who are worried that this might lead to morality concerns, I would assure them that experience belies that. From the few nude beaches I’ve stumbled upon—who would’ve thought there’d be one in New Jersey? New Jersey!—it is my guess that this might be the most effective way to scare kids into religion. Why pass up an evangelical opportunity like that?

Station number two would be the Egyptian Late-Term Abortion Clinic. By this I mean Exodus chapter 1, with a nice tie-in to Leviticus 20 and Psalm 137. The pro-lifers could leave a little green but very self-righteous after seeing what the Bible prescribes for uppity children.

Our third flag could be the battle of Jericho. Especially interesting for the kids would be the visit of Joshua’s spies to the prostitute who betrayed her city. Children could blow on ram’s horns, carry a plastic ark with authentic death-rays emanating from it, and shout while the Styrofoam walls come tumbling down. If they wanted to be really literal, however, they’d have to explain that archaeology demonstrates that Jericho had been abandoned for a century before Joshua showed up, but who wants to dampen all that youthful, Christian bloodlust?

Flag four could be the story of Samson. After leaving his first wife to visit a prostitute, kids could watch in fascination as Samson heaves the city gates of Gaza from their place, showing that the Lord approves. Since he’s a muscleman who likes to have affairs, maybe we could check to see if Arnold Schwarzenegger is too busy to take on the role of God’s version of Hercules. I’m sure that Delilahs would not be too difficult to recruit. Perhaps this could be an audience participation event.

Attraction five has to be the Story of David. This would be a good opportunity for parents distraught after the previous stations to take out some aggression with the sling. I’m sure my friend Deane could come up with some giants for them to practice on. Otherwise, maybe something could be worked out with the NBA. After killing a few giants, the station could lead to the palace roof with a view to Bathsheba’s bathroom. Since David didn’t want to send her to the clinic (see station number two), he decided to have her husband killed instead. Maybe we could have a side exhibit: Uriah’s Last Ice Cream Stand. (He was only a Hittite, after all.)

Our sixth red flag would be the Lion’s Den. Here we could offer Tea Partiers and NeoCons the opportunity to prove their faith by spending a night in a den of hungry lions. They like to claim loudly that their faith is being castigated, just like Daniel’s was—here would be the opportunity to prove it! Somehow I believe that the lion’s den would remain empty and crickets could be heard chirping throughout our Literalist Six Red Flags even before it opened its festively decorated gates.

"Oh please let Rick Perry be nominated!"

Livin’ On a Prayer

Am I the only one who finds it disturbing that Neo-Con politicians are naïve enough to believe that prayer will solve all our problems? Where was God during the Bush years, for crying out loud? And yet headline after headline speculates about Texas Governor Rick Perry’s prayer-fest scheduled for Saturday. What is more disturbing than the lack of imagination on the part of would-be candidates is the sheep-like following on the part of a large segment of the electorate. If God is going to step in and take charge, he had a great chance back on May 21 and refused to pick up the option. If God was behind politics, why did George W. Bush fail to find Osama Bin Laden? If God is running things, why are so many unemployed? Ah, but the religious pundits have a pat answer: America is a sinful nation. What it takes is religion, Texas-style.

In the many years I spent at Nashotah House, the majority of our students hailed from Texas. They represented the conservative hard-line and doctrinal strappadoes that caused much suffering but still somehow didn’t placate an angry God. That, of course, says more about Nashotah House than it does about Texas. Perhaps it is the logical evolution of a country that began with prominent ministers gleefully describing sinners in the hands of an angry God. Nearly three centuries later and we are being told God is still angry. Thou shalt not hold a grudge, eh? The problem seems less about sinful folks just trying to get by (a la Bon Jovi) than about politicians using their religion to get elected. Centuries down the road it will be the topic of some new series of History’s Mysteries that an affluent, educated, and generally forward-looking nation cluttered its governing bodies with politicians who believed the answer to complex problems is to bow their heads and tell God how to fix it. Are we really half-way there, or have we spread our arms to embrace Jonathan Edwards once again?

In MSNBC’s article on Rick Perry’s prayer day, it is noted that the book of Joel is cited as an inspiration for the event. For such a brief book, Joel has been at the forefront of a ton of damage wrought by prooftexters. Joel wrote three brief chapters about a locust infestation for which the suggested response was prayer. One wonders if Rick Perry simply prays when the termites begin to gnaw on his expensive home, or does he call Ortho instead? Joel was truly old school. The locusts in his day meant literal mass-starvation. No chemical romance to solve the problem there. Unfortunately we don’t know how that one turned out—Joel doesn’t say. I’m just glad that Governor Perry hadn’t been reading Psalm 137 when inspiration struck, and can I get an amen from the pro-lifers on that?

Ricky used to work on the docks?

P.S. Matthew 6.5.