David Kirkpatrick’s story today in the NY Times is essential reading for just about anyone interested in modern American political and religious dynamics, a snapshot of a crossroads being approached rapidly. Good thing too, frankly.
I can’t recall what if anything I’ve spoken about my religious upbringing on here, but in brief, I was raised Anglican, learned my Bible early on in a variety of kid-friendly reductions and summations, and in a very slow process moved from that towards the general state of agnosticism I hold today. Every so often I somewhat melodramatically veer towards outright atheism but ultimately I prefer to accept a certain belief in not knowing for sure (and indeed, many of the most vocal atheists I know push their unbelief as strongly as religious fundamentalists I’ve encountered, which leads me to conclude that the impulse on that front is not one grounded on belief or lack thereof so much as it is on questions of how to express convictions in one’s world-system). I believe ethics can exist separately from specific religious belief, and think that one can punish oneself enough for flaws and mistakes via one’s own conscience (but, more positively, that one can and should learn from them too); beyond that my own approach to religion is private and is best expressed in terms really only known to myself.
My own experience with fundamentalism on a personal level occurred many years ago, when I was eight — a babysitter from down the road in Navy housing, a teenage girl, watched over my sister and I one night, and she’d brought over a few of the more virulent Jack Chick comics with her. Why, I’m not sure, and it’s entirely possible she had them for her own reading rather than trying to force them on us. However, I read them, got extremely upset and by the end of the evening was somehow in terrified prayer with her. I conveyed a lot of this to my parents either that night or the following day and I gather there was a detailed conversation between my folks and the babysitter’s parents. She never babysat for us again, I think.
Either way, the sense of fear and horror that the comics induced in me were incredibly strong and lasted for some time. In retrospect, the fact that said babysitter, intentionally or not, essentially encouraged me to follow along the lines of thought in them with little thought to whatever my parents might have thought, or what effect the tracts were clearly having on me, explains a lot of my extreme annoyance with religious fundamentalism in any guise in later years. It is, I think, clear enough that fear should not be a driving factor on such deep matters — otherwise that would sanction a form of emotional sadism that is pretty disgusting.
This hasn’t determined my entire conclusion towards what can be called the religious right in America but it does inform a fair amount of it still, and while one should never judge the whole by the part, the fact that so much of the whole was publicly defined by the part is not my burden, but the whole’s to struggle with themselves. To turn back to Kirkpatrick’s article, an encouraging thing to read is that part of the corrosion of the seemingly permanent affiliation between harshly condemnatory evangelical Christianity and the Republican party comes from what is talked about on page 5 of the article as a split between that form of Christianity and a newer approach with an emphasis on “spiritual formation,” as quoted in the piece, referring not to threats of hellfire but encouraging the ethics of love and charity. Personally I think this is a good thing no matter what one’s beliefs — it reminds me of what a friend once said two years back about Depeche Mode’s interpretation of the traditional song “John the Revelator”: ‘one of the best quotes I ever heard from my father was “I can’t stand Christians who are more enamored of John than they are of Jesus.”‘
But those who are enamored of John are of course still around, and the stink of fear and hate still rises from them. I am pleased to see them being seen in a harsher light now, though of course I feel angry and frustrated that, if the article’s conclusions are to be accepted, in large part it took the deaths of thousands in Iraq to help bring that about. (Though there is a very, very perverse irony in the idea that the crypto-religious war that certain evangelical figures were pushing following 9/11 has come back to get them instead, if you like.)
Yet really, they condemn themselves with their own words better than anyone else — consider this concluding quote, from a preacher expelled from his post because, as said at the article’s start, the deacons felt his activism meant more than actually preaching the Gospel:
Fox told me: “I think the religious community is probably reflective of the rest of the nation — it is very divided right now. This election process is going to reveal a lot about where the religious right and the religious community is. It will show unity or the lack of it.”
But liberals, he said, should not start gloating. “Some might compare the religious right to a snake,” he said. “We may be in our hole right now, but we can come out and bite you at any time.”
Not much from the Sermon on the Mount here.