Americanism

I’m a bit too much of a contrarian to be a regular bestseller reader. I do occasionally bow to curiosity though, and I do have a lot of time on the bus. But that wasn’t the reason I turned to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Purchasing this book was a statement. Another in a long line of protests in which I’ve taken part since January of 2017 (and even before). You see, I mourn. I mourn what our country has become. My first indication that I should write (which I of course ignored) was the winning of a statewide essay contest my senior year in high school. The topic of the essay was “Americanism.” My piece was respectfully cynical; I was surprised I won. This was in the days before personal computers and I didn’t think to keep a typed, or even hand-written copy.

The essay was cynical not because I don’t believe in America, but because I do. I’ve been confronted on this issue concerning my blog occasionally. My jeremiads. You see, you only get this fed up with things when you love them deeply. I sometimes rail about higher education, for example, because I care about it. Fire and Fury created in me a—to borrow from the book’s vocabulary—Kafkaesque bewilderment about how a nation based on high principles could possibly sink so low. Politicians are perhaps the most self-serving of human beings, but at least they try to make sure the country doesn’t go off the rails. This train leapt the tracks months ago, and our elected officials refuse to do anything about it, each playing their own angle, hoping personally to come out of it ahead. Worth a jeremiad, I’d say.

I was a Republican in high school. I wasn’t old enough to vote, so that party affliction was never official. When I did register at 18 it was as an independent (remember, contrarian). As a Fundamentalist I was ahead of the Tea Party, at the time. Even with this level of patriotism I wrote an essay taking my country to task. I was raised in a poor family. Told an education would improve my chances, I found myself facing predatory loan officers and others eager to wring my blue collar until it was possible to twist no further. If I had no money, my future money would do. I’d already had a taste of that as a high schooler. That was three-and-a-half decades ago now. I kinda hoped the country might improve in all that time. And I kinda wish I’d kept a copy of that essay as a memento of more optimistic days. Fire and Fury sells so well, I suspect, because I’m not really alone in feeling this way.

American Bible

BibleInAmericaAny book that sets itself the task of addressing American culture has, it seems, a built-in obsolescence.  Culture shifts are radical and swift, and it would seem that distance is necessary for any serious analysis.  I am reminded of historian Barbara Tuchman’s opinion that history cannot be written without the passage of at least a half-century. We’re simply too close to the subject matter otherwise.  The Bible in America, edited by Nathan G. Hatch and Mark A. Noll, does not claim to be an analysis of the current situation, but it stands as a representative of how much has changed since the 1980’s.  The era in which the book was written is stamped all over it like the Preppy look or Doc Martens.  American culture was very different then.  Some of the contributors noted that the Bible, as we’ve often been told, is on its way out.  Elections of the new millennium would give the lie to that observation, and we might now argue the same, but I wonder if our view is long enough.
 
The source of my wonder is a basic observation.  The Bible was foundational for the idea of the United States.  Those who have joined the “melting pot” (willingly or unwillingly) have been brought into a soup whose stock is Bible flavored.  I’m not naive enough to think that it is undiluted or even anywhere near its original form, but as a former biblical scholar I’m sensitive to the motifs and themes of the Bible and I see them daily in undiminished numbers.  Transmutation is not the same as exodus.  I make no judgment whether this is a good or bad thing.  It simply is.  Those who think it is an exaggeration to put such prominence on the Bible in American culture should read the first couple of essays in this book.  It may have been that without the Bible the will to cross the dangerous water to an uncertain (and to many, catastrophic) future would not have been so pressing.
 
Like most collections of essays, this little volume has a grab bag of wisdom.  Reading it is like taking a stroll through the ’80’s again.  We seemed to know things with a certainty then that has all but vanished these three decades hence.  The Fundamentalist movement provided a Tea Party appropriate to Mad Hatters and White Rabbits alike.  Presidents declared that we were on Crusades again.  Megachurches have the budgets of small developing nations.  I’m not about to make any predictions for the future of the Bible here.  An observation, simple, but fairly obvious, will have to suffice.  Since colonial times, Americans have always had their Bible.  It hasn’t always been the same book, and it hasn’t always been interpreted in the same way, but it hasn’t ever gone away.  I can’t say about the future, but right now I’m about ready to put on my Ray-Bans listen to some Madonna.
 

The Problem with Apocalypses

Over on The Daily Beast, Joe McLean points out “How the Tea Party’s Apocalyptic Politics Are Destroying the Republican Party.” I say good riddance. Let me explain. It’s not that I have a problem with apocalypses. (Zombie apocalypses are especially fun.) My problem is that the mythology of one religion endangers us all. This is not some leftist-leaning rant, or at least not a leftist-leaning rant that’s uninformed. I grew up in a very conservative, apocalyptic Christianity. I was looking for the end of the world before I considered a college major. Even my (limited) choice of classes in high school were determined by a kind of eschatological laissez faire: the world’s going to end any day now, so why plan for a career? I was a true believer. In my Christian college I majored in religion. If the end is near, it pays to be ready for it. I know this doctrine inside-out. If Christ is returning any day now (can’t you hear the hoof-beats?) then we should pillage this poor old earth for all its worth. That’s what it’s here for. Do we want him coming back and saying we’re poor stewards? Besides, if we can ramp up the crisis in the Middle East far enough, Jesus will have to return. Won’t he? And these are “rational” adults thinking this way.

There was likely a naive cynicism on the part of the Republican Party when it realized that aligning itself with what was considered the religious fringe would boost their numbers. After all, the fringe surrounds the whole of the cloth. Apocalyptic Christianity is very popular because it appeals directly to the emotions. Although our society believes the study of religion is pointless, those of us who’ve persisted have noticed a few things. The religions that are really taking off are the ones that appeal to the emotions. Many Spock-like scientists intone their message of materialism only in the face of massive crowds of true believers. Who do you think is likely to win out? We have had presidents in the Oval Office who believed that triggering the apocalypse was a presidential prerogative. When society finally shook off its goofy grin and slowly pressed the electoral brakes, the Tea Party took off. Guess what? Apocalypses are all about destruction. If you invite apocalypticists to your party, the results are pretty predictable.

In the article McLean uses the word “zealot.” Rationalists might find the use of their dictionaries helpful here. Zealots do not respond to logic. Zealots are driven by emotion. Have you ever tried to argue with one? I have had years of experience teaching religion in a variety of classroom settings. Long ago I learned to lay down the sword when a zealot spoke up. Logic is not spoken here. The media, the scientific, the academic, they scratch their heads. How can any rational person believe this? The answer doesn’t require much effort to find. It might mean consulting someone who understands a bit about religion, though. Otherwise, the smart money is on stocking up on canned goods, gas masks, and a good supply of water. This could take a while.

Mary in the sky with circles, or the apocalypse?

Mary in the sky with circles, or the apocalypse?

Shut Down? Shut Up?

So, what does it mean really?  Can you tell the difference?  Although it is undoubtedly a pain for many government workers, and a huge, colossal waste of tax-payers’ money, I guess the Tea Party showed us!  Over something as simple and humane as healthcare, the neo-cons have shut down the US government.  To be honest, I can barely recall the last time this happened.  Why do I suddenly feel the need to sit on a rocking chair on the front porch and kvetch? Perhaps we don’t pay them enough to care?  Maybe the poor just aren’t worth saving?  What can possibly be going through the minds of elected officials who are willing to punish the entire nation just because they can’t pack up their marbles and go home?  Of course, I am presuming that they have marbles to pack up.  As a tax-payer of over thirty years (pushing on forty), I think I have earned the right to say, “Children behave!”  The Tea Party shenanigans have been childish from the start, trying to co-opt the spirit of rebellion against tyranny in a country that plainly has too much.  Too much time on its hands, among other things.

I often ponder how a nation with the resources of the United States can proudly tote one of the most inhumane healthcare systems in the developed world (and I’m not talking about Obamacare!).  We live in a country, if best-selling author John Green is to be believed (and I’m a believer), we pay more for healthcare than countries with socialized medicine and get less out of it.  Why do we put up with it?  Tea, anyone?  Who has the actual gumption to climb aboard a ship and throw the cargo overboard?  Today we call it piracy—hey! Stop that download!  And we throw people into jail for it.  But shut down the government?  That’s okay.  The bus still runs and I’m still expected at work.  Oh, and I work for a UK company.  The irony of it all. When I lived in the United Kingdom, people complained about the healthcare, but I will say there was no child left behind, if you get my meaning.

Our military, I see, remains open for business.  We won’t cut off the life-support of the Tea Party’s favorite department.  We have our priorities.  Somebody has to defend the millions that can’t afford health insurance.  There was a time when Christianity was all about healing and taking care of people.  Of course, in those days it wasn’t yet called Christianity, or even the Tea Party. It was just a guy and his healing touch.  Today, some of the most abstract tenets of a fully corporate religious infrastructure determine who it is that deserves health care and who does not.  Call it morals or call it marbles, we have a right to decide who can be afforded and who cannot.  And anybody who tries to start legislating fair treatment better not try to stand in the way of our comfortable worldview where those who can afford to withhold compassion can do so under the rule of law, and the unborn smile until they become born when they will soon have to fend for themselves with a government that demands monetary exchange for bodily health.  Gee, my blood-pressure seems to be up.  Good thing the doctor’s office is open.  At least I hope it is.

Outside the United Nations

Outside the United Nations

Great Caesar’s Cost

College has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Thinking back to my own experience, I chose a school, as a first-generation college student, based on what I knew at the time. It wasn’t much. I chose a school close to home, and safe. A place friendly to, in what I believed to be a world in open hostility to, “Christianity,” by which I meant the conservative, Evangelical variety. The school I settled on, Grove City College, was at the time a selective school. This was the early 1980s and the “Religious Right” was just beginning to appear on the political horizon. Grove City was a Presbyterian college, and the Reformed, although sometimes theologically conservative, have generally been a bit more socially progressive. I recall the admissions numbers being trotted out to the incoming class, about how elite we were (something I’ve always denied and find personally objectionable) at having been admitted to a selective, private enclave such as GCC (“God’s Country Club” as it was locally known). Many of the kids did come from monied families, but I was there on the basis of government subsidized (and unsubsidized, as if I knew the difference) loans.

When my daughter was considering colleges she had been warned about Grove City. One of her friends was contemplating it, but soon wisely cast her thoughts elsewhere. Nevertheless curious, I picked up the Princeton Review’s The Best 376 Colleges, a kind of Bible for the collegiate-bound, to see if my old alma mater rated a mention. Sure enough, Grove City was present. For those wishing to make it in the heartless world of business, it can be a good training ground. What caught my attention, however, was the acceptance rate. According to the 2012 edition, 74% of applicants were admitted. So much for selective! This figure swirled around my gray matter for some months as I started to sort out the implications.

Over the past few decades, Grove City College—which was always conservative—has allied itself closely with the posturing of Tea Party types. Herein lies a true dilemma for the educated bourgeois: how to be intellectually progressive and socially repressed at the same time. To accomplish this difficult trick, a non-negotiable bedrock is required, and since even the earth is spinning crazily on its axis the only true solidity in the universe is religion. Claiming that, despite the 14.5 billion years of this universe’s elapsed lifespan, only one thing never changes and that is a particular interpretation of Scripture, you can go ahead with your science and your arts. But most of all, with your business. Although black holes may exist, and textual criticism may indicate Scripture has its own gray areas after all, nothing counts much at the end of the day if you don’t have capital to back you up. Open admission policies can be interpreted in more than one way, depending on your point of view.

Photo by "the Enlightenment"

Photo by “the Enlightenment”

Wars and Holy Wars

An article by James P. Byrd, promoting his new book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution recently appeared in the Washington Post. Byrd asks a very relevant question in our era: “Was the American Revolution actually a holy war?” He suggests that perhaps it should be interpreted so. The reason is straightforward enough—our nation, our culture in the United States, is so deeply steeped in scripture that even our Deist founders knew their Bibles better than many preachers today do. Byrd suggests, in his article, that people who believed in the separation of church and state could still have a deep sense of divine mission, and a belief that their war for freedom was a divine cause. Early state leaders were not anti-religious, nor über-religious. It is a balance that we would benefit from regaining.

Declaration_independence

I guess I’ve seen enough political shenanigans to realize that such posturing as the Tea Party and the Religious Right or Moral Majority present are deeply cynical. The use religion as a platform to achieve political ends while conveniently slashing and burning huge swaths of biblical reasoning leaves many questions in its wake. Were such motives sincere, I would expect a lot more turning of the other cheek, and walking the second mile uncoerced. I suspect there would be fewer hungry people and even fewer living in positions of extreme wealth and power. In short, without the agenda of political religion, I suspect we would be a more Christian nation.

War is difficult to justify from a strong ethical stance, as most ethicists know. Our founders decided to go to war against what they believed was unfair oppression by a more powerful nation. This takes on the cast of a holy war because people were being oppressed. The pre-emptive strikes were throwing crates of tea into Boston Harbor, and yet the more advanced nation refused to lessen the pressure. In the Bible, Pharaoh declared the Israelites should make bricks without straw, and we all know where that got him. Or we would know, were we as literate as our forebears were. Freedom was considered a sacred trust. We live in a time when trust is at a premium. You can’t fly or surf the internet without being watched in intimate detail. There is no talk of holy wars, it seems, since the sacred has no place in a society that does not promote the concept of liberty with all the risks and benefits it entails.

Blame it on the Rain

I’ve been on the losing side of my share of elections (although it feels like far more than my share), but I’m amazed at the character of the GOP that has come through these last few days. The quote that keeps running through my mind comes from The Dark Knight when the Joker says to the Chechen that if they cut him up and fed him to his hounds, “then we’ll see how loyal a hungry dog really is.” Blame has been flying thick and fast, but one thing I don’t hear any Tea Partiers suggesting is that Hurricane Sandy was sent by God to seal the election for Obama. Hurricane Katrina may have been sent by God to wipe out the sinners in New Orleans, but when Sandy gave a chance for Obama to show his true colors, it was just a freak storm. I’ve never been a fan of Chris Christie, New Jersey’s bully governor. During Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath, however, I was very impressed how he handled the situation. He showed a rare side full of compassion for those who were suffering. He vowed to help President Obama make things right again. When the storm of the election was over, however, Christie’s own party verbally crucified him for doing the right thing. Does this not show us just what white privilege spawns?

Turning back the clock is an exercise best left for post-apocalyptic scenarios of rebuilding society and the occasional spring or fall weekend. As our world makes progress—and yes, it is slowly making it—we must constantly reassess the situation. The ethics of the 1950s favored white men, the mores were blithely uninformed that an entire world exists outside this strange isolationism that could only be broken when Communists threatened our way of life. We are over half-a-century beyond that: the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Cuban missiles are gone, and those seeking to move to America are by and large the tired, the poor, and those yearning to breathe free. Not all of them are “white.” Not all of them are male. They are, like the rest of us, human beings.

I have never wished want or deprivation on anyone. I know what moderate want feel like (I lost an entire day of my college education searching for three dollars that fell out of my pocket, wondering how I would make it through the week without it). I have spent several years of my life tip-toeing around unemployment, and sometimes falling into that crevasse for a year or two at a time. Each time I claw my way out I earnestly wish that no one would ever have to face that. A political party that puts such a strong emphasis on giving up all the good we’ve managed to obtain, and cries about health care that doesn’t even approach the humane, universal care available in just about every other “first world” nation, is a party in need of serious, prolonged soul-searching. On this day when we honor veterans who, despite personal differences, stood side-by-side for the good of their country, perhaps those attacking their own might in days of privilege spend a few moments in serious thought.

Blame it on the rain…