Sunday, October 28, 2007

Swept Away

Congrats to the Red Sox -- after going the full seven in the ALCS against Cleveland, they pounded the well-rested Rockies like red-headed stepchildren. Not that I give much of a damn if athletes are religious or not, but maybe there is some schadenfreude in all this, and maybe "prayer sessions on the telephone" is not the best way for serious people in any business to spend company time. Just a thought.

Speaking of folks belatedly having the important distinctions between religion and the real world thrust upon them, in case you hadn't already heard, beleaguered evangelicals are apparently having a tough time of it politically. Oh no! Since they thrive on the fantasy of themselves as a persecuted minority, this may work out for them in the long run.

I covered the Christian conservative movement for The New York Times during the 2004 election, at the moment of its greatest triumph. To the bewilderment of many even in the upper reaches of his own party, Karl Rove bet President Bush’s re-election on boosting the conservative Christian turnout, contending that Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 because four million of those voters stayed home. President Bush missed few opportunities to remind evangelicals that he was one of them — and they got the message.

I bowed my head in a good number of swing-state churches in 2004. I saw the passion Bush aroused among theologically orthodox Protestants. And I got to know many of the most influential conservative Christian leaders, most of whom threw themselves into urging their constituents to the polls.

Now, as the 2008 campaign heated up in the months before the first primaries, I wondered how the world was looking from the pulpits and pews. And so I went to Wichita, as close as any place to the heart of conservative Christian America. Wichita has a long history of religious crusades. A hundred years ago, Carrie Nation made her name smashing up Wichita’s bars. More recently, the presence of Dr. George Tiller, a specialist in late-term abortions, has kept anti-abortion passions high, attracting Operation Rescue to Wichita for the Summer of Mercy protests in 1991. Two years later, a lone activist shot and wounded Dr. Tiller. Evolution, the flash point that split mainline and evangelical Protestants in the early 20th century, is still hotly debated in Wichita. The Kansas school board has reversed itself on the subject again and again in recent years.

At the same time, Wichita is also a decent proxy for plenty of other blue-collar but socially conservative places like Allentown, Pa., and Columbus, Ohio — the swing districts of the swing states that decide elections. A center of aerospace manufacturing, Wichita was a union town and a Democratic stronghold for much of the last century. But all that changed when the conservative Christian movement took root in its suburban megachurches three decades ago, turning theological traditionalists into Republican activists. That story was the centerpiece of the liberal writer Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” He might have called it “What’s the Matter With Wichita?”

I arrived just in time for the annual Fourth of July Patriotic Celebration at the 7,000-member Central Christian Church, where Independence Day is second only to Christmas. Thousands of people drove back to the church Sunday evening for a pageant of prayers, songs, a flag ceremony and an American history quiz pitting kids against their parents. “In God We Still Trust” was the theme of the event. “You place your hand on this Bible when you swear to tell the truth,” two men sang in the opening anthem.

“There’s no separation; we’re one nation under Him.”

“There are those among us who want to push Him out And erase

His name from everything this country’s all about.

From the schoolhouse to the courthouse, they are silencing

His word Now it’s time for all believers to make our voices heard.”

Later, as a choir in stars-and-stripes neckties and scarves belted out “Stars and Stripes Forever,” a cluster of men in olive military fatigues took the stage carrying a flag. They lifted the pole to a 45-degree angle and froze in place around it: a re-enactment of the famous photograph of the American triumph at Iwo Jima. The narrator of a preceding video montage had already set the stage by comparing the Iwo Jima flag raising to another long-ago turning point in a “fierce battle for the hearts of men” — the day 2,000 years ago when “a heavy cross was lifted up on top of the mount called Golgotha.”

A battle flag as the crucifixion: the church rose to a standing ovation.

This is exactly the problem that arises when people start deliberately conflating religion with politics (or sports, for that matter). The Battle of Iwo Jima is like Jesus' crucifixion how exactly? Seriously, are these people on glue? It's a jumbled stew of incoherence and creepy symbolism, frankly, and I'm sorry, but I think it's a good thing that these folks find themselves disempowered for a while. Kansas sounds like a swell place to start a pyramid scheme or similar rube-gulling grift, but not much more than that apparently.

They make important decisions on a hodgepodge of selective readings of Bronze Age superstitions, and I'm supposed to wonder how my party can peel off some slivers of that sweet electoral goodness? Uh, no thanks. They can keep fighting the Gog and Magog battles in their fever dreams, with John Kerry or Hillary Clinton or whatever stand-in for the week gets their juices flowing. Or they can believe that God cares two shits about nine guys making lots of money playing a kid's game. Whatever floats your little boats, fellas.

I think that what really bugs me about these people is how they cheapen the notion of the truly spiritual. I don't personally believe this stuff, but it seems that it should be about cultivating a sense of wonder that there might be a binding force out there greater than oneself, not getting balls-up over political circuses and scanning teammates' lockers for Playboys. They belittle their own beliefs far more than we heathens ever could, simply by reducing them to such absurd worldly concerns. As for the ones who voted for Bush in '04 and are now finally having buyer's remorse, fuck 'em. This is what you wanted, this is what you got.


thedevilzone said...

I think that what really bugs me about these people is how they cheapen the notion of the truly spiritual. I don't personally believe this stuff, but it seems that it should be about cultivating a sense of wonder that there might be a binding force out there greater than oneself, not getting balls-up over political circuses and scanning teammates' lockers for Playboys.

That's why I personally prefer the terms "philosophical", "reflective", or "contemplative" to "spiritual", which to me is just a vague, evasive, noncomittal way of believing the same old bullshit. I've never once met a person who described themselves that way and actually had anything interesting or original to say. Same metaphysics, same ethics, same mind/body dualism and the same old tired prosaicisms. But just because they don't go to church or rely on one particular tradition, instead treating all the world's religions as a Whitman's Sampler there for the discerning American consumer to pick through and accessorize their inner life, they tend to have a somewhat fatuous self-satisfaction that annoys the hell out of me (if you hadn't noticed).

To be crystal clear: I'm not defending quote-unquote organized religion; I'm just adding that the much ballyhooed alternative really ain't much different. Point taken about the crassness of what most people seem to think God wants them to spend their time doing, of course. Though it's unfortunately not confined to Christianity; I remember reading a Buddhist magazine years ago that had a debate going on over the course of a few issues regarding whether or not sex was a distraction from enlightenment, and there were way too many ascetics wrinkling their noses at anything remotely earthly for my taste. They seemed like they'd be just as content sniffing around people's bedrooms or protesting sex toys as any fundamentalist Christian.

I think the Sphinx, from the movie Mystery Men, is one of the best parodies of the kind of thing I'm griping about:

Blue Raja: Well, there's The Sphinx.
Mr. Furious: Who?
Blue Raja: The Sphinx.
The Shoveler: Yeah, I've heard of this guy. He's a big crime-fighter down east.
Mr. Furious: What's his power?
Blue Raja: Well, he's terribly mysterious.
Mr. Furious: That's his power, he's mysterious?
Blue Raja: He's TERRIBLY mysterious, actually.
The Shoveler: Yeah, plus he can cut guns in half with his mind.

The Sphinx: When you care what is outside, what is inside cares for you.

He who questions training only trains himself at asking questions.

You must lash out with every limb, like the octopus who plays the drums.

To learn my teachings, I must first teach you how to learn.

You must be like wolf pack, not six-pack.

When you can balance a tack hammer on your head, you will head off your foes with a balanced attack.

woodguy said...

"I'm sorry, but I think it's a good thing that these folks find themselves disempowered for a while"

"disempowered"? Pardon me, but how about disemboweled?

What chaps my ass more than anything is that these wizards retain their tax exempt status while politicking from the pulpit.