Thursday, February 17, 2005

Which God Are You On? - Part I

I’ve heard it said that the 20th century was the most violent century on record, and if you think about it, it’s entirely plausible—the World Wars, colonialism and the subsequent liberation movements, not to mention all the civil wars, the genocides and pograms, the revolutions, etc. The revolutions. On Strictly for My N.I.G.G.A.Z, Tupac repeats the old adage that if you can’t find something to live for, you best find something to die for. Then he did, though I don’t know if it was what he intended. Long before that, Hegel said the time would come in which man would be willing to die for a cause greater than life itself. Essential dogma? At the most basic level, this rationale has been the drum beat of modern history, much of which is forgotten.

How many remember or even know that in 1920 the Brits were the first to carry out intentional and systematic aerial bombing of civilians—in Somalia and Yemen. Or that before gassing the Jews, the Germans carried out mass gassings of Russian prisoners of war in the Ukraine. When Auschwitz was functional, they gassed Communists and Russian intellectuals before turning the showers on the Jews. The reaction to these and other events of the 100-year era has typically been “never again”—that is, until we forget they even happened in the first place.

As part of a generation that didn’t experience a world war and was too young to feel the impact of the Vietnam War or understand the Cold War, it’s the genocides and terrorist acts that hit closest to horrific home. Maybe it’s because when I think about Rwanda or the Holocaust or the Cambodian killing fields, I picture every day, ordinary people with targets on their chests. The same with terrorism. For that reason, I really can’t comprehend the other kind of killing, the kind where the various sides put on uniforms and only shoot at the opposing team. It’s like some weird athletic activity, except if you lose, you lose your life. Truthfully, it seems even more warped than random acts of violence because the random factor can be considered a glitch in the machine, but the rest of it is creepy and weird and now considered collateral.

What did those Royal Air Force pilots think about their entry into history? Did they feel proud? Would they be disappointed to have been replaced by smart bombs? Were the Communists and Russian intellectuals surprised to find themselves stall mates? Did they feel like Johns the Baptist, paving the way for the real martyrs? I turn it this way, I turn it that way, I sense some kind of apparatus that calls into play political vs. cultural identity, and then I get lost. In the U.S., since Reagan (our second born-again president, the first being Jimmy Carter), religious fundamentalism has emerged in the middle of the two identity axes, and certainly there are more than two. Plus identities shift.

* * *

Take Christianity. In 1920, Reverend Curtis Lee Laws coined the term “fundamentalism,” describing Presbyterian and Baptist allies in the battle for the fundamentals of the faith, including dogmatic belief in the infallibility of biblical scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, his subsequent atonement for our sins along with the resurrection, and, let’s not forget “the objective reality of his [Christ’s] miracles,” as noted by Karen Armstrong in Battle for God. In other words, fundamentalism grew out of tussles within a given religious community, not between or amongst different religions.

This is important because the religious conservatives who are the core of Christian fundamentalists are different from the evangelicals who had their genesis post-WWII. Douglas Linder writes: “The early 1920s found social patterns in chaos. Traditionalists, the older Victorians worried that everything valuable was ending. Younger modernists no longer asked whether society would approve of their behavior, only whether their behavior met the approval of their intellect. Intellectual experimentation flourished. Americans danced to the sound of the Jazz Age, showed their contempt for alcoholic prohibition, debated abstract art and Freudian theories. In a response to the new social patterns set in motion by modernism, a wave of revivalism developed, becoming especially strong in the American South. Who would dominate American culture—the modernists or the traditionalists?”

It’s 2005, and I think the question has yet to be answered. While it’s true that the fundamentalists were separatists, who, after losing the Scopes Monkey trial in 1925, kept a low profile, they’ve been raising a hoary head in recent decades.

The evangelists, however, have always subscribed to what evangelist Bob Jones called “the duty of saving souls in this rotten civilization [which] demands some degree of cooperation with other Christians, whatever their beliefs.” First came the founding of a public lobby, the National Association of Evangelicals, in 1942. During the 1950s, televangelists of the Rex Humbard, Benny Hinn, and Oral Roberts ilk sprouted, not to mention Billy Graham—who provided spiritual counseling to many U.S. presidents. Jerry Falwell, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and other movement leaders began forming politically motivated organizations in the 1970s, after Roe v. Wade got under their skin. Like the Biblical Jeremiah of the Old Testament, they were bound to foment moral reform in order to quell the anticipated cataclysmic consequences of such a morally bankrupt people as they judged us to be. These groups did well, scoring victories such as crushing the Equal Rights Amendment for women. They even held a “Washington for Jesus” rally in the Washington Mall during Reagan’s reign; hundreds of thousands turned out. It's no coincidence that during Reagan’s reign “good vs. evil” became the markers of postwar politics, something that our third born-again president, Dubya, has co-opted in the war against so-called evil-doers.

The religious right continues to gain electoral power, perhaps making good on Pat Buchanan’s 1992 Republican national convention pronouncement of an impending religious war within the United States: “It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.” Remember in Poltergeist when the little girl points to the tv and announces, “It’s heeere”? So too, political Christianity. What, me worry about radical Islam? No, it’s those shifting identities, under whose influence this century might surpass the last in violent history. It’s not a contest I want to handicap.


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