When last we met, Horace, Tom, Winston and my minister friend, Ned, were all deep into a discussion of religion and its proper place in politics — a conversation stirred to a significant degree by Jim Wallis’s book “God’s Politics.” As we rejoin the festivities, things are starting to get, well, just a little nutty.
But first a few preliminary thoughts . . .
The Last Chance Democracy Café
Episode 31.2: Some Religious Nuts Really Are Nuts!
by Steven C. Day
Have you noticed how often the name George W. Bush is associated with going backwards in time? Backwards in the field of civil rights, where NAACP president Kweisi Mfume said last year, “We’ve got a president that’s prepared to take us back to the days of Jim Crow segregation and dominance.” Backwards on the rights of workers, as union leader Douglas Dority said, “The Bush Administration would take us back to the 19th century . . .”
Then there’s the environment, where Al Gore has accused Bush of “threatening to take us back to the days when America’s rivers and lakes were dying, when the skylines were some days not visible because of smog, and when toxic waste threatened so many communities around America.”
There is more, of course: Bush has frequently been accused of trying to take us back to the 19th Century on taxation, to the 1950s on the Cold War and to the early 1930s on Social Security. Try Googling “Bush” and “take us back.” You’ll find references to all of above and many, many more — over 22,000 hits in total, when I checked.
But if you ask me, these examples all miss the point. Bush isn’t trying to take us back to the 20th Century, the 19th Century or even the 18th Century. He has his eye on a much bigger prize — a journey all the way back to the 14th or 15th Century — well before the age of The Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment’s guiding principle, after all, was dedication to scientific truth and human reason over dogma, especially religious dogma — a view now widely accepted among non fundamentalist religious faiths.
One of Pope John Paul’s greatest achievements has involved his imperfect, yet profoundly important, efforts to mend the traditional divisions between science and the Church. In confessing the Church’s wrongs against Galileo, for example, the Pope established the doctrine that faith can never be allowed to conflict with reason. In short, religious faith must be prepared to accept the discoveries of science, even when those discoveries seem inconsistent with existing doctrine, as was true when Galileo supported the Copernican system of heavenly bodies rather than the Ptolemaic system handed down from Aristotle.
It’s also worth noting that the Enlightenment’s commitment to reason over blind faith was the motivating philosophy for most of the men who wrote the Constitution of the United States.
Yet, within the increasingly “faith based” Bush administration, scientific truth has become an endangered species. At the recent meeting of the American Association for Advancement of Science, speakers expressed grave concern over the many ways this administration is stifling the scientific voice. Scientists are being ignored in policy discussions, funding for basic scientific research is being slashed and government scientists are being pressured to alter findings unfavorable to administration policies.
A survey of scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service found that a full 42 percent — 42 percent! — felt pressured to withhold from the public any findings contrary to Bush administration policies on endangered species. Almost a third felt pressure to avoid expressing such findings even within the agency itself.”
Bush may not need to resort to intimidation much longer, however, since he has been busily filling scientific boards and panels with unqualified, but ideologically committed, stooges. You know, the sort of “scientists” who don’t need all that sissy scientific method shit, because they know the “correct” answer going in.
One particularly striking example involved the appointment of an antiabortion zealot to chair the FDA’s Reproductive Health and Drug Advisory Committee — a guy who, among his other varied “qualifications,” recommends that women read the Bible as treatment of premenstrual symptoms. The prestigious British medical journal Lancet wrote of this affair that “further right-wing incursions of expert panels’ membership will cause a terminal decline in public trust in the advice of scientists.”
No shit, Sherlock.
In fairness, Bush’s hostility to science isn’t exclusively faith based. While religious dogma trumps science in areas like stem cell research and abstinence only “sex education,” in other areas, such as global warming and increased development in national wildlife areas, good old fashioned greed appears to be the primary focus of scientifically unsound governmental policies.
Still, given the Greed is Godly theology advocated by the leadership of the Religious Right, one can’t completely ignore their hand even in what appear at first glance to be capitalistically driven crimes against science.
But what’s probably most important about Bush’s anti-scientific bias is what is says about the state of his mind in general. Many, perhaps most, of the top people in the Bush administration, including most significantly the big guy himself, display an attitude — and attitude is most definitely the word — that’s antagonistic, not just to scientific expertise, but to all forms of expertise.
These are guys who repeatedly “feel” and “faith” their way through minefields, seemingly uninterested in what maps may exist that could show them where the mines are buried. They decide to go to war with Iraq, for example, while almost totally excluding input from anyone who actually knows something about the country. You know — the sort of people who would insist on bringing all of those annoying little complexities into the mix.
Why muck around with a bunch of pointy headed policy wonks when anytime you have a question you can simply pick up the direct line to heaven?
Back at the large round table, Horace, ever zealous in carrying out his duties as the group’s unofficial den mother, said, “I think we’ve now come to the point of our discussion.”
Molly, who was serving Marvin one of our popular “Republican Pork Barrel Sandwiches,” snickered to herself. “I’m impressed!” she said loudly. “It’s still only a little after 9:00 o’clock. It usually takes you guys at least until 1:00 A.M. to get anywhere close to a point!”
“Don’t you have some gruel to serve somewhere!” barked Winston.
Molly walked off laughing.
Horace continued. “Zach, let’s sum things up a little. First, we’ve agreed . . . at least I think we’ve agreed that religious faith isn’t automatically a good thing.”
“It depends on what that faith it . . . what theology it expounds, and most especially what it proposes for society as a whole.”
“We’ve also agreed that when religion enters the political fray, the beliefs of that religion become fair game for debate.”
“Now, with that said, what religious community in America has been the most politically active in recent years?”
Zach eyed Horace suspiciously, suspecting, I’m sure, another trick question, “Well, the Religious Right . . . right?” he said finally.
“Exactly,” answered Horace. No trick question — this time. “And given how much influence the Religious Right has on our political process . . . and on American society in general, for that matter, don’t you think it’s about time that mainstream America took a really close look at just what it is these guys believe?”
“I guess so.”
“I guess so, too. So let’s do it.”
“Pick me! Pick me!” said Tom, imitating perfectly the sound of a whining child’s voice. He was doing it for comic effect — I think.
Although Tom, a secular Jew, might at first glance seem an odd choice to discuss Protestant Christian fundamentalism, he’s long been a student of the sociology of religion. Actually, Tom’s long been a student of just about everything, which, as I’ve mentioned before, when combined with his photographic like memory, makes him an extremely valuable resource in almost every discussion.
It’s incredibly annoying.
“Allow me to begin with a slight proviso . . .” he started out.
“Oh for God’s sake,” muttered Winston, whose “incredibly annoying” tolerance level is a good deal lower than with the rest of us. “Professors and their damn provisos. They can’t bring themselves to say the sun comes up in the morning without adding fifteen freakin’ qualifications and exceptions.”
Tom glared at him. “Are you done?”
“Is he ever done?” laughed Horace.
“I’d suggest just moving on,” smiled Zach, offering the best advice of the evening.
So Tom did. “Here’s the proviso . . .” He gave Winston another glare; the only response was a loud belch. “Fundamentalism isn’t monolithic and fundamentalists don’t agree on everything. People even disagree over which denominations qualify as fundamentalist. There are conflicts between different fundamentalist denominations . . . and even within denominations. For example, the Pentecostal movement, which is extremely conservative . . . but may or may not be considered fundamentalist, depending on who you’re talking to, is bitterly divided between those believing in the Trinity of Father, Son and the Holy Ghost and those following the so-called Oneness Doctrine . . .”
“See, what did I tell you?” said Winston, shaking his head in annoyance. “Get to the point old man!”
Tom’s face momentarily flashed with anger, but he soon started laughing. “Okay. Okay. I guess I did get a little off-track.”
“A little . . . ?”
“Play nice, now,” Horace shushed Winston, using his best schoolmarm voice.
Tom pressed ahead. “In any case, whether you call them fundamentalists, conservative evangelicals or simply religious right wingers, there’s no question the predominant belief system among the far Religious Right includes so-called End Times prophecy.”
“I call it Armageddon Christianity,” added Horace.
“Somehow that doesn’t sound real cheery,” said Zach.
“It isn’t,” agreed Tom. “These are people who believe it has been predetermined by Biblical prophecy that the world is going to end in a fiery Armageddon . . . and that there’s nothing, not one damn thing, any of us can do to stop it . . .”
“Yikes,” said Zach.
“And most of them think these End Times are almost upon us.”
“It gets worse.”
“How could it?”
“Here’s how: They think this is a good thing.”
“You’ve got to be kidding!”
“I’m afraid he isn’t,” said Ned. “It has to do with a concept called rapture. Many fundamentalist churches believe that when certain Biblical predictions . . . or what they think are Biblical predictions, are realized, most importantly that Israel reoccupy all of its so-called Biblical lands, the rapture will come. That’s when things will really start to get interesting. Although the details vary with the teller, the basic theory is that Jesus will then return to gather up all of the believers and take them back to heaven. There will then follow a period of tribulation . . . some say lasting seven years, during which various plagues will be visited upon the nonbelievers left behind . . .”
Tom broke in. “Actually, there’s some controversy about the timing of the rapture. Some End Times enthusiasts believe it will occur before the start of the tribulation, others think during the tribulation and still others believe only after the period of tribulation is over.”
“You’re doing it again,” said Winston, his tone of voice one of patronizing forbearance.
“In any case,” continued Ned, “all nonbelievers will eventually be wiped out and sent to hell, the Earth will be destroyed, then rebuilt, and God and or Jesus will then personally rule over the planet in the ultimate hands on theocracy lasting for a thousand years.”
“Jeepers,” said Zach, a sometimes fan of old situation comedies.
“Jeepers ain’t the half of it,” said Horace. “And the wildest thing of all is what these guys claim will happen at the very moment the rapture occurs.”
Marvin, still sitting at his usual perch at the bar, said, “I think there’s a quote from Falwell on this posted on the board. I’ll go grab it.”
One of our less extravagant entertainments here at the Last Chance Democracy Café is our “Nuts Say the Cutest Things” bulletin board, where patrons can post clippings of press reports on particularly stupid things conservatives say. Space, as you might imagine, is a constant problem.
Marvin was back with a clipping of Jerry Falwell quotes in his hand, including the following one he read to group:
You say what’s going to happen on this earth when the Rapture occurs? You’ll be riding along in an automobile; you’ll be the driver, perhaps; you’re a Christian; there’ll be several people in the automobile with you, maybe someone who is not a Christian. When the trumpet sounds, you and the other born-again Christians in that automobile will be instantly caught away, you’ll disappear, leaving behind only your clothing and physical things that cannot inherit eternal life. That unsaved person or persons in the automobile will suddenly be startled to find that the car is moving along without a driver, and suddenly somewhere crashes. Those saved people in the car have disappeared. Other cars on the highway driven by believers will suddenly be out of control. Stark pandemonium will occur on that highway and on every highway in the world where Christians are caught away from the world.
“Well that settles it,” said Winston with mock seriousness. “No more drivers’ licenses for fundamentalist Christians. They’re clearly a hazard on the road!”
“I don’t want to seem disrespectful of others beliefs . . .” began Zach.
“Oh, go ahead,” scoffed Winston.
” . . . but that seems a little, well . . .”
“Nutty?” offered Tom.
“Yeah, nutty. Millions of people simply disappearing all at once?”
“Actually, the way I’ve heard it told before,” added Horace, “is that they’ll all simply fly off into the air, leaving their clothes behind in a pile.”
Tom smiled mischievously. “That’s going to be kind of hard on John Ashcroft, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?” asked Zach.
“Well, think about it; poor John will be flying through the air with all of those millions of naked people. I mean, you know how he is about nudity.”
“An excellent point!” crowed Winston. “What shall it profit a man to put a sheet over a granite statue’s boobs, if he shall gain a flight of naked fancy?”
Zach was laughing, but also looking just a little nervous. He said, “We’re not all going to go to hell for making fun of religion, are we?”
Ned patted him on the arm. “You have to answer to your own conscience . . . but speaking for myself, I don’t plan on losing any sleep worrying about it. For one thing, I’ve never doubted that God has a sense of humor. I mean, the Bible says that man was made in God’s image. So why should we hesitate to give God credit for one of our best features. And, in any case, this whole silly End Times fairytale . . .”
“It sounds more like a nightmare than a fairytale,” said Zach.
“Point taken,” nodded Ned. “But either way, nightmare or fairytale, the whole business is a complete and utter crock, based upon theology that’s just plain awful. It was invented . . . at least in its current form, by the Plymouth Brethren in the 19th Century. They came up with it by stringing together bits of scripture, while at the same time, steadfastly ignoring anything in the Bible that might be contrary to their the vision.”
The conversation was starting to disturb Horace. I could tell this by the way he was tapping the table top with his right index finger — and by the way he was staring at that finger as intensely as a golfer lining up the wining putt at the Masters. It’s a trick he uses to calm himself.
After a few seconds, he said calmly, “We can laugh about this all we want, but the truth is millions and millions of Americans believe every word of it. Ordinary people . . . folks a lot like us. We see them every day shopping at the local supermarket, filling their cars up with gas and waiting to be seen in doctors’ offices. Good honest Americans who just happen to believe, with all their hearts, that Armageddon is inevitable . . . that the destruction of this beautiful planet and the slaughter of billions upon billions of people . . . all done, directly or indirectly, by God’s hand, is something that not only may happen, but something that must happen. And what’s even scarier . . . and I don’t mind telling you, it scares the hell out of me, is that many of these people don’t see this as a bad thing at all, but, instead, as something wonderful . . . a necessary step in Christ’s return, bringing with him their personal tickets to paradise.”
“In other words,” added Tom, “we live in a nation in which one of the most politically powerful segments of the population is dedicated to pursuing a political agenda based to a significant degree upon the desire to advance a doomsday version of Biblical prophesy.”
Horace agreed, “And if that doesn’t scare the bejeezus out of you, then you just aren’t paying attention.”
“And don’t forget,” said Winston. “By some estimates these folks may represent as much as 30 to 40 percent of the Republican Party and . . .”
“And they have friends in high places,” interjected Horace. “With great influence in both the White House and Congress. When these folks place a call to Washington D.C., the phone on the other end gets picked up.”
Zach looked unconvinced. “Are you asking me to believe that the Religious Right is actually trying to bring about the end of the world?”
“What can I say, Zach?” Horace appeared unsettled, uncomfortable with his words. I don’t think it was that he felt uncertain about what he was saying — more like it made him sad to have to say it. “The facts speak for themselves. The Religious Right has steadfastly backed the most extreme elements of the right wing Likud Party in Israel. They’ve opposed the peace process and violently resisted any territorial concessions to the Palestinians. So why do you think these conservative Christians, people who come from a religious tradition that until recent years was very anti-Jewish, seem to care so much about how much land the modern State of Israel ends up with?”
“Biblical prophecy . . . ?” asked Zach doubtfully.
“It’s no secret. They honestly believe that the restoration to Israel of all its so-called Biblical lands is a prerequisite to the rapture; the glorious moment when they will inherit paradise. And when the rest of us will get . . . well, you know, will get what we have coming to us.”
Ned had finally finished his second glass of wine. He waived off Molly with a smile when she offered him a replacement.
“Now, obviously,” said Ned, “no one at this table is afraid that these guys are actually going to get their wish. That the trumpet will sound and they’ll all go flying off, leaving us to face the tribulation . . .”
“Not to mention, leaving us to wash all of those piles of dirty clothes they’ll be leaving behind,” smiled Tom.
Ignoring Tom, Ned finished his thought, ” . . . but that doesn’t mean they can’t do a lot of damage.”
Tom said, “And just as an example of the kind of pull these guys have . . . and thus the kind of damage they can potentially do, I remember just last year the Village Voice got a hold of an e-mail that proved that Elliott Abrams, then an official with the National Security Council, met privately with representatives of the Apostolic Congress . . . a powerful political/religious organization of End Times enthusiasts. His purpose was to try to alleviate their Biblically based concerns about the proposed Israeli pull out from Gaza. He apparently told them that Israel leaving Gaza shouldn’t be a problem, since, unlike the West Bank, Gaza doesn’t hold many sites of prophetic value. In other words, he was arguing that an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza wouldn’t adversely impact the coming of the rapture.
Tom shook his head in disgust. “That’s the kind access these people have. An administration bigwig is perfectly happy to take the time to try to justify American foreign policy from the standpoint of End Times theology.”
“Wow,” said Zach.
Winston huffed, “I’m sorry, but wow just doesn’t cut it. This is more along the lines of ‘you gotta be fucking kidding.’”
“Bill Moyers has a great piece about all this in the current edition of The New York Review of Books,” offered Tom. “It’s online and you should really look it up. He’s especially concerned about the way End Times theology may be damaging the protection of the environment. You know, why worry about water pollution, air pollution or endangered species when God’s just going to blow the whole place away soon enough anyway?”
Horace looked directly at Zach and, consistent with yet another aspect of his duties as the unofficial den mother for the group, began to sum things up.
“I guess this is what it comes down to, my young friend,” he said in a voice that was both earnest and a little sad. “Tom, Winston and I are all well into our 70s. So, at the end of the day, this isn’t about us. It’s about you. It’s about what sort of America you’re going to live in. Will it be a country governed by reason and respect for science, or one ruled by dogma? Will this be the kind of United States of America conceived of by the Founding Fathers, men born in and of the Age of Reason, or will we follow the Religious Right into the trap of theocracy — actually a devil’s marriage of theocracy and plutocracy.
“Religion will always be a big part of American life, of course, and speaking as a religious person, I think that’s great. I don’t want religion in government and I don’t want government in religion. But . . . and I know everyone here may not agree completely with this, but, speaking for myself, I do want the religion in people’s hearts to lead them into politics and government. But I want it to lead them down the path of Martin Luther King, not that of Pat Robertson.”
“Amen,” said Ned.
“Speaking as a Christian, I want to see a Christianity that drives people to try to build a better future for our children. Not one that merely asks them to prepare like sheep for a coming Armageddon. A Christian religion that takes more from Jesus Christ than just his name. A Christianity that isn’t, as Jim Wallis puts it, full of holes . . . holes that are present when Christians choose to ignore the thousands of places where the Bible instructs us to fight against poverty and social and economic injustice.”
“Zach, you know me well enough to know that I’m not trying to talk you into becoming religious. That’s entirely your decision and whatever you do about religion won’t change the fact that I’ll always regard you as one of the finest young men it has ever been my pleasure to know . . .”
“Hear, hear!” said Tom and Winston, more or less simultaneously.
“Thank you,’ whispered Zach. He sounded embarrassed.
” . . . but there is one thing I’m going to ask of you. Whatever your religious beliefs, always stay in the fight for justice.”
“It’s funny,” said Zach with a soft smile. “But I think that’s a decision that was made for me the very moment I first walked into this place and met you guys.”
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at [email protected].
© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001
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