Friday, March 17, 2006

A praise of folly

Watching and re-watching Chris Hansen's Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah and thinking and writing about its gentle critique of its main character's "faith" has put me in the mood to talk about religion.

Regular readers know that I'm not always rational on the subject.

I'm a Catholic, but I don't attend mass and I go along with the blonde's wishes to raise our kids Catholic because that's what I promised to do when we got married and I do it with a gritted teeth.

I'm not a lapsed Catholic. I'm not a "recovering" Catholic or any of the other cute terms former Catholics use to assure their non-Catholic friends that they no longer go in for all the magic and idol worship, not to mention agree with the Church's teachings on abortion, birth control, homosexuality, and pre-marital sex.

I'm not a lapsed Catholic or a recovering Catholic. I'm an angry Catholic.

I'm angry at the men in skirts, first and foremost, and my anger pre-dates the revelations that the men in skirts have been running a ring of pedophiles on a world-wide scale for years and really has nothing to do with it, although the news sure made it easier to be angry, and the way the Church has dealt with the scandals by not dealing with it, choosing to scapegoat gays both in and out of holy orders instead, has further infuriated me.

Lately I've been angry with God too so I've decided to get back at him by not believing in him.

Show him.

But this is why I'm sometimes intemperate on the subject of religion and why some readers might think---have thought---I'm hostile to their faith.

I'm sorry. I hope you'll forgive me unto seventy times seven.

Unless you are a Right Wing "Christian," one of the kind of persons who used to be identified, truthfully, as Fundamentalists, but who for some reason the Media has decided are just generic Christians, as if they represent the majority of Christians instead of being what they are, a furious and loud minority of bigots.

There I go being intemperate again.

You people don't have to forgive me or even turn the other cheek. Not that you would anyway.

Sometimes, instead calling them Christians, the Media refers to them as Evangelicals, lumping into one category Jimmy Carter, Pat Robertson, my son's old piano teacher who was the most liberally socially active person I've ever met, snake-handlers, Martin Luther King, and Martin Luther.

An Evangelical, by the way, should not be a biblical literalist. The Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, wrote a very small portion of the Bible. An Evangelist is, or ought to be, someone for whom the most important part of the Bible is that part made up of the four versions of the Life of Jesus of Nazereth, so far more important than the other parts that it pretty much replaces them. An Evangelist shouldn't care much about what's said in Genesis, whether or not it was Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve, whether he was made out of clay puffed into life with the breath of God and not the hopeful monster son of some great ape, whether or not she really is flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, whether or not it was all done in seven years by magic or the product of eons of genetic mutation and malfunction.

An evangelical should have only one interest in the Bible, the answer to the question, What would Jesus do?

The answer to that one is always so hard that it's no wonder most people choose to do the opposite.

You're probably aware that there's been some discussion lately on the left side of the bandwidth over whether or not Liberals are hostile to religion and religious politicians. Steve Waldman says they are. Avedon Carol, Shakespeare's Sister, Atrios, and Digby, among others, have begged to differ.

I'd have to say Steve is right, and too bad for him.

Liberalism---Democracy---has to be hostile to religion, if by hostile you mean resistant to attempts to use politics to advance a religious agenda. A liberal, democratic society thrives on debate, on people being able to change their minds, on individuals being able to exercise their consciences freely. The "because God says so" argument short circuits the whole process. God trumps everything, including the right of an individual to exercise his or her conscience freely---that is, to dissent, to say no, to refuse to go along.

It's often pointed out that religion has always been a part of American politics, that many of the Abolitionists were Christians and made Christian arguments against slavery. The Civil Rights Movement was led by ministers and its rhetoric was energized and ennobled by appeals to faith.

But the religious arguments of those causes were always made side by side with political arguments and kept separate from them. The Aboltionists and the Civil Rights leaders didn't begin and end with "Because God says so." They also said, "Because the Declaration of Independence says so. Because Lincoln and Jefferson said so. Because the Constitution says so. Because the Supreme Court said so."

But for the last 35 years or more, that loudmouth minority of self-styled Christians has been pushing their way into the political debate, pushing aside political debate, insisting on having their beliefs be everyone else's beliefs "because God says so," and doing their best to end liberal democracy in this country and replace it with an illiberal theocracy. They want to convert all the rest of us at gunpoint.

And I'm not saying that as a figure of speech. The guns are holstered and in the background, on the hips of the cops who would enforce all the theocratic laws these people would enact.

Would enact?

Are enacting.

And, amazingly, these people are to be allowed to go about this without any criticism. To criticize them is to be "hostile to religion." As if their warped, joyless, oppressive, God-bothering cult is religion and all the rest of us Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Shintos, and Native American believers have no religion.

The Media has already surrendered on this. They quote in their newspapers and put front and center on television Right Wing Fundamentalist Preachers spouting utter nonsense, without questioning them hardly at all, nevermind challenging them or even mildly criticizing them.

As Atrios says, "If you wrap what you say in religion our media will give you nothing but deference."

So, here we have Nightline doing a profile of Franklin Graham, the Rev. Billy Graham's aggressively Right Wing son, showing clips of Graham saying the most ridiculous, pig-ignorant, and basically unchristian things without once noting that Graham's knowledge of the history of his own faith, let alone the history of Islam, is close to nil.

Via Media Matters via Atrios:

GRAHAM: I know about Islam, I don't need an education from Islam. I've been working in Muslim countries now for, oh, 40 years or more. So I know about Islam. If people think Islam is such a wonderful religion, just go to Saudi Arabia and make it your home. Just live there. If you think Islam is such a wonderful religion, I mean, go and live under the Taliban somewhere. I mean, that's -- you're free to do that.

Here's how the Nightline reporter follows up on that outburst of ignorance:

DONVAN: So, Franklin Graham may not get a diplomacy prize, either. And yet, his message when he's preaching is actually quite positive.

Not being diplomatic is the least of Graham's problems, and a postive message that's wrapped around bigotry and hate, no matter how thickly, is like chocolate flavored rat poison.

Nope. I wouldn't want to live in Saudi Arabia. I wouldn't have wanted to live in Spain during the Inquistion, Germany during the wars of the Reformation, England under the reign of Bloody Mary, France at the time of the St Bartholemew's Day Massacre, Salem, Massachusetts at the time of the Witch Trials, or Belfast in the 1970s.

Bigotry, hatred, intolerance, tyranny, and violence can wear a Christian mask as well as a Muslim one. Graham has this in common with Richard Dawkins. He thinks the problem is religion and not human nature.

I don't want to live in the Christian America Franklin Graham and his like are trying to bring about.

Anyway, I don't know what it is about Saudi Arabia that so offends him. I haven't heard that he has a problem with the notion of oil rich authoritarians having unlimited power to push people around here in the United States, and he's not a woman. In fact, his kind seems pretty determined to reduce women here to second and third class citizens, even non-citizens. They probably aren't planning to introduce the chador, but watch, once they get abortion and birth control banned, they'll start pushing for a dress code.

Listen to them talk about their daughters' fashion choices and you'll realize they already are.

What does Graham think of them?

Would asking him that be demonstrating hostility to Christians?

Who exempted these people from criticism?

Who decided that they should be the only Americans whose beliefs and ideas can't be challenged?

Who died and made them the kings and queens of Christians?

Why does Franklin Graham speak for Christians and not Jimmy Carter or my son's old piano teacher, besides the fact that Carter and my son's piano teacher have too much Christian humility to presume they could speak for all Christians?

When a preacher goes on TV and starts talking about the laws he wants passed and the kind of government he thinks we ought to live under, he's not a preacher anymore.

He's a politician.

And he should be treated as such.

Historically, criticisms of other people's religion have led to torture chambers, autos de fe, holy wars, and suicide bombers.

But Christianity has a long tradition of peaceful, intellectual, faith-full self-examination and self-criticism, as well.

In fact, since the Reformation, you could say that any self-styled Christian who is not open to self-examination and self-criticism, who expects to have his beliefs accepted by everyone around him without question or challenge, hostile as well as friendly, isn't much of a Christian at all.

Bibliographic note: Some of what I wrote above was inspired by an I'll bet superficial reading of the first chapters of Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present

Tristero gets the last word:

Republicans have been claiming a God monopoly for well over 30 years, and national Democrats as well as liberals have let them get away with it. That is very, very stupid. If [Rick] Santorum keeps saying, as he has, that John Kennedy wasn't really a Catholic president, then Catholic Democrats should wrap that canard around Santorum's slimy little neck. But that's not all. And then they should chase Santorum back into his church and refuse to concede that his perverted political philosophy has anything to do with the real practice, let alone the pressing concerns, of true American Catholics.

And then you let Santorum hang himself explaining why his "Catholic faith" comes before his Americanism.

...I'm not suggesting Democrats out-God Republicans. They already have, people! Since when did Christ call for tax cuts on the rich or abandoning the poor to the flood waters? No, what I'm suggesting is that Democrats and liberals make it impossible for Republicans to cynically work the God angle without a serious fight.


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