Thursday, September 4, 2008

Theocracy Redivivus: Standing on the Recycled Promises

Yesterday, the National Catholic Reporter website uploaded a Religion News Service article by David Finnigan entitled “McCain to Make Full-Throttle Push for Catholic Vote” ( The article notes that Catholics attending the RNC are confident that McCain can gain the Catholic vote, especially now that he has chosen Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Finnigan notes that the warm reception by Catholic leaders in the Twin Cities is in marked contrast to how the Catholic officials of Denver related to the Democrats. Minneapolis-St. Paul Archbishop John Nienstedt hosted a cathedral Mass for Republican delegates on Sunday, and the cathedral pastor offered the closing benediction at the convention on Monday. Officials of the archdiocese are speaking of the obligation of Catholics to vote exclusively on the basis of life issues—Catholic codespeak for abortion, which is to say, Catholic codespeak for, “The church tells you to vote Republican.”

Flashback: 1992 again. I submit an essay to a national contest. The “prize” is an invitation to present winning essays at a conference sponsored by a research center for the study of religion in American culture.

My essay is one of several chosen for presentation at the conference. Unbeknownst to me (or to any other “winner,” I later discover) the format created by conference organizers is to have each of us read our essays—all on the progressive edge of American religio-political thought—and then have a “respondent” read an essay countering everything we’ve just said.

And we’re not to have any opportunity to respond. It’s a set-up, pure and simple. We’re told that this is what “balance” and “objectivity” are all about. The person chosen to critique (that is, trash) my essay is a woman whom no one knows to be African American until she identifies herself as such in her “critique” of my essay. She calls herself a black feminist conservative. She finds my work garbage.

I’m baffled not only by the patent meanness of how the conference is organized—to set up progressive thinkers for trashing against which they cannot defend themselves, in front of an audience composed largely of religion reporters who are also largely sympathetic to the conservative respondents. I’m also baffled by the transparent absurdity of what some of the respondents say.

A woman (since the conference, a friend of mine) who played a leading role in helping develop a statement on sexual ethics for the Presbyterian Church USA gives a stunning paper documenting the way in which the secular media helped torpedo this document, through collusion with conservative groups working inside the Presbyterian Church to keep it on the “right” path. In the response to her, a neoconservative Jewish scholar from the East Coast talks about how wonderful religion is in the American South (where most of those conservative Presbyterians who helped torpedo the statement on sexual ethics in the most underhanded way possible, smiling to beat the band all the while, happen to live).

I wonder as he talks if he’s ever been to the South, if he’s ever lived there, if he knows—as I do, from intimate experience—what most of those folks he’s defending think about him and his religious beliefs. Does he know the potential for malice and harm in the religious worldviews he’s defending—for political reasons? And malice and harm projected at not only those he feels other than himself, but towards himself and his own group of folks?

He should. It was, after all, only twelve years before this conference that Dr. Bailey Smith, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, informed us that “God almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.”

I was dumbfounded, too, by a Mormon respondent to a paper that had nothing at all to do with Mormonism, but was on the progressive end of the political and religious spectrum. The respondent held some official role in the Mormon church. He told us how wonderfully supportive his LDS stake had been to a young man who came out as gay, who was sent off for reparative therapy, and who came back to live in the stake.

What we never heard was whether the young man was “repaired.” What we never heard was what it was like for him to live as an out gay man in a Mormon town in Utah—if he wasn’t “repaired.”

What I learned from this conference was how willing powerful political forces in our nation—including the mainstream media—had become to make themselves tools of the religious right, to bend the truth in service of the political agenda of the religious right. I learned that progressive scholars of religion were fair game for those forces, to be set up as targets for derision in a conference that professed to be interested in objectivity, balance, and dialogue.

I learned that scholars, journalists, and neoconservative political activists living outside the regions of the country in which the theocratic agenda of the religious right has most power to determine the lives of those folks are among the most ardent supporters of the religious right. If one lives in, say, Nantucket rather than Charlotte, it’s easy to talk about what a wonderful role the religion of the bible belt plays in American life.

It’s not, after all, one’s own personal liberties that are in danger of being curtailed by theocratic activists in Nantucket. It is one’s own life that’s on the line in Charlotte, though. In Nantucket, it might be unthinkable to imagine people with bibles ranting in the streets when “Angels in America” is staged by a local theater company. Not in Charlotte. In Nantucket, nude statues in the streets might not raise an eyebrow. In Charlotte, they could well do so.

In Nantucket, elected local officials would probably think twice before they spoke of the need to drive all gay folks in the world from the face of the earth. Not in Charlotte. Gay in Nantucket and out of the closet? You’d find laws protecting you from firing simply because you were gay. Not in almost any city in the bible belt.

Libraries in Nantucket seldom have to contend with questions about whether a young-adult novel portraying a gay couple sympathetically would be yanked from the shelves, due to protests from pressure groups that scan the library shelves with eagle eyes on a regular basis. In the bible belt, such behavior is old hat.

I suppose the point I’m wandering around to with this flash from the past is that Faulkner turns out to be right: the past is never truly the past. For all of us who hoped and predicted that no major political party would try this election cycle to play the religious-right culture war card, those hopes and predictions proved to be false.

We had placed our hopes on the waning power of the religious right to appeal to American voters. It’s not, after all, as if we haven’t now seen the face beneath the mask, we said among ourselves, we who had hoped for new political and religious options. The religious right has so thoroughly discredited itself through scandal after scandal—scandals that show the central propositions of the theocratic agenda to be based on pure hypocrisy—that no one with a sound mind would choose ever again to go that route.

Would they?

Turns out they will, and with a vengeance. And if we don’t like it, those of us dreaming of alternatives for our nation that address real needs and not the largely fictitious ones the religious right keeps asking us to consider, we might as well lump it.

When you can’t persuade people through reason, through the power of your example, through the validity of your ideas and your vision for society, then take the gloves off and force them. That’s the ultimate card that fascist movements always play. It's really the only card in their deck. All else is prologue, an attempt to coerce covertly rather than overtly.

Learn to lie. Learn to deceive. Learn to paint over the green with red paint and dare others to call what you've painted anything but green. If people persist in asking you to disclose information and to prove your point in rational debate, try changing the subject. If they rudely continue persisting, tell them you refuse to talk to them anymore.

God is on your side, after all. What's a little lie, a little deception, a bit of coercion, when you're doing the Lord's work?

If anyone doubts that the religious right has been and remains a fascist movement, I invite him or her to move to any small (or large) town beneath the Mason-Dixon line and begin asking questions about issues or practices that the local theocrats have declared off-limits. If you want to know the religious right, and what theocracy will be all about when it’s finally fully enacted across the land, don’t head for Cape Cod. Head for Harrison, Arkansas, or Columbia, Tennessee. Go to Gastonia, North Carolina, or spend some time in Shreveport.

They’re baack. And we’d better accept it and stop the nonsense—the talk about change, the demands for rational arguments to back up social proposals. The platform may be so thoroughly frayed, so worn out, that sound buyers wonder why they think they can sell it to us again. The version we’re being offered may be so different than the one originally advertised that we find it impossible to believe they think we can’t see the discrepancies between the advertisement and the product.

But never mind. It’s not about change at all. It’s about the opposite of change. It’s about trying to force people to accept the same tired old idea—even packaged as something different, though we're not supposed to notice the difference—one more time. It’s about telling people to elect the same officials who have promised to “protect” life one more time (don't look at the record: look at the promise), and to call that reform—reform of those who originally went to D.C. to reform things and who must now be themselves reformed.

But from the inside. We’re being asked now to allow the reformers to reform themselves, and not to notice any sleight of hand in the orders issued to us from one election cycle to the next. And, oh yes, to trust, of course, since only one political party has God on its side.

And it’s that party for whom the mitered men of the Catholic church want to throw parties.

Think you've seen meanness and lies—in the name of God—up to now? Get ready: you haven't begun to see what they're capable of. In the name of God . . . .