Sunday, October 23, 2011

Not Raptured Again: The Political Utility of Religious Ideas in the American Context

Remember how the world was supposed to end back in May?  And it didn't.

Then, Rev. Harold Camping* of Family Radio Network, who was the prophet spreading the news of the impending end of the world, announced he'd gotten his calculations a bit off, and the real end of the world would occur on 21 October.   21 October 2001.

That was Friday.  Most of us are under the impression that the world didn't end that particular day.


It appears Rev. Camping's calculations were off again, somehow.

And as this story comes and goes again, I really do have to wonder why we Americans are so gullible, when it comes to this particular kind of religious hucksterism.  Granted, more and more people (rightly) ignore these portentous announcements by Christian talk-radio gurus.  But, even so, there's still a solid proportion of American citizens who will believe . . . almost anything . . . if it's pronounced to them by a religious authority figure with an atrocious haircut waving a bible and pounding a pulpit.

I have to say, my own suspicion about the persistence of this faith-gased gullibility in American culture is that it's fed by folks who have political goals in mind.  Keeping people distracted and ignorant (and angry and afraid) has political utility.  For those whose real goal is controlling the political system to protect the power and privilege of the obscenely rich at the top of the economic pyramid . . . . 

Just yesterday, Steve and I were out driving, and for the first time ever, on the way into Little Rock from the west, I saw a huge (and obviously expensive) billboard attacking the theory of evolution.  It showed a logo of the evolutionary chain of primates from lower to higher--higher, you understand, being Homo sapiens.  And through that logo was a big red slash, showing you the depiction is absolutely wrong.

Next to it, in screaming letters, was a number you can call to get God's truth about these matters.  There may have been a picture of a bible, too.  About that, I'm not sure: we were tootling by fast and I just hadn't expected to see Darwinian theory skewered amidst signs advertising the paradisiac ecstacies of chain restaurants and car dealerships.  So I wasn't paying a lot of attention.

I'm fairly sure this sign was not in that location a few weeks ago.  And I have to wonder about the timing of this campaign against the devilish theory of evolution: these billboards (I'm assuming there are more of them, perhaps in my own city, probably in other places in the country) are going up as the nation prepares for its 2012 elections.

Who's paying for all this expensive signage?  Why is evolution a hot issue all of a sudden?  

I'm as suspicious about the real political motives (and political motivators) of these "religious" billboard campaigns as I am about the "rosary chains" and other "pro-life" demonstrations that seem to pop up with predictable regularity from the Catholic side, when hot-button issues are on the table in important public debates or when new elections near.  I blogged about one of those in my area back in the fall of 2009.

That 2009 event came on the heels of a visit of Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life (yep, that Fr. Frank Pavone) to Little Rock, where, at the invitation of the Catholic diocese of Arkansas, he addressed the political responsibilities of Catholics at a "Called to Be Faithful" conference.  Around the time Pavone gave his lecture here, he was promoting the formation of "political responsibility teams" to address the issue of health care reform, and he had recently observed (see the posting to which I've just linked for specifics)  "[t]he reason for the mess we are in with the health care reform debate is the elections of 2008, and the way out of the mess will be the elections of 2010 and 2012."

Wonder what that means.  And why Pavone said it. And what he hoped to accomplish with his "pro-life" Catholic "political responsibility teams."

Religion has political utility in the American context.  One of the reasons we the citizenry have every right to know--indeed, an obligation to know--what our political candidates think about matters religious and how candidates relate to the moral and religious imperatives of their particular faith traditions is that religion imbues everything in American culture.  But especially our political culture.

And certain kinds of religious ideas and religious campaigns, always designed to rev up voters of a right-leaning bent whether Catholic or Protestant, cycle around with predictable weariness in the American political context, over and over again, as elections near and as hot-button issues are debated.

Who pays for all of this, I wonder?  And why?

*Note the correction a reader helpfully provides below: it appears Camping is not ordained, though a number of news reports on which I was relying here call him Rev. Camping.

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