Monday, September 15, 2008

Imperfect marriage

About twenty years ago, an interesting arrangement began to form between the Republican Party and right wing Christians in the US. On the surface, it would seem an awkward match between the party of Goldwater and the followers of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. After all, Goldwater was a dyed in the wool Republican with moderate leanings, the perfect symbol of northeastern conservatives who believed in fiscal discipline but consistently supported individual freedoms socially.

It made sense and was logically coherent- keep the government out of our lives as much as possible. Avoid wasteful spending on political pork, keep taxes low, and what people do in the privacy of their own homes was their own business as long as those activities did not directly harm a neighbor. I get it.

Slowly however, perhaps due to the changing face of America, the waves of immigration, the urbanization of the coasts, the power base in the Republican party began to get nervous. So nervous in fact, that in order to guarantee a hold on power, someone began to create a rationale for an alliance with a small, but vocal minority in this country, the "family values" voters in America.

Who are they you ask? Poor, white, mostly Southern voters who consider themselves very religious and who have been indoctrinated from birth to believe in "born again" principles of the straight and narrow path, the rapture, an angry, paternal God and the inerrancy of the Bible.

How could the Republican elite ever appeal to a group so different from themselves? How do you convince the very people who benefit from government intervention to vote against their own interests? The link it seems was multi-factorial. First, you win over the leaders of the right wing media. You coax them. You flatter them. You invite them to the table. Pat Robertson, a founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), one of the largest religious cable shows on TV, was one of the first to recognize the power grab he could make by cozying up to Ronald Reagan;

Next, you begin to talk about new "threats" to America besides war and poverty. These new threats include the "deterioration" of the nuclear family unit, the decay of moral values and the dangers of unchecked progressive agendas. You start to associate taxes with government waste, and that trickle down economics benefit the larger whole instead of the upper few. You hammer this agenda over and over in the media and through the local churches on a regular basis. Deregulate the media anti-monopoly rules and allow your friends, the superwealthy and corporate entities to purchase our TV networks and major newspapers to control the flow of information.

And you use wedge issues, like abortion and gay rights, to drive your message home.

Soon, a new type of Republican was created, a hybrid of sorts that we now refer to as neo-cons. You don't have to necessarily believe in the wedge issues that you use to get elected, you just have to play to your new right wing base. Campaign hard on how much you despise gay marriage or how much you love unborn babies despite the evidence that you yourself have a family member who is gay or have quietly ended an unwanted pregnancy in your past. It's interested me that after Bush/Cheney/Rove/McCain came to power after relentless campaigning on an anti-choice platform, that in eight years of control of the White House, both house of congress and the Supreme Court, they were "unable" to overturn Roe versus Wade. Think it was because they were distracted by the war? Think again. They just don't care about the issue.

That's the beauty of this imperfect marriage. Growing up inside the fundamentalist mindset, I was amazed at the power of forgiveness my pastors preached on Sunday mornings. There is almost nothing that you can do that is not forgiveable if you ask Jesus to do so. I witnessed many acts of contrition and community forgiveness based solely on the premise that all you need to do is make things right with the Lord to let go of the past. Many times, I believe this occurred in a most sincere way and that it led to healing of individuals and families. But I also witnessed the cynical and self-serving use of this trust by people who were up to no good. People who had no intention of using this opportunity to start again, to gain access to innocents who could be used, again and again. "But he gave his hear to the Lord!!" I'd hear after an extortion or lie was exposed. Better yet, I was constantly amazed at the good "Sunday Christians" who scrubbed themselves clean, put on their best clothes and showed up with the family service after service to display their commitment to Christ. Only later, I came to find that for some of them, the other six days were spent cheating on taxes, committing secret adultery and gambling away the kids' college funds. It seems a fundamental flaw (no pun intended) that the very trust-embuing faith messages also led to a kind of vulnerability to malicious intents.

Another kind of vulnerability also manifested from time to time in the form of a belief that God is all powerful, that the King James Bible is God's direct word and the local representatives of God, namely the preachers, interpret this document without error or personal bias. No matter the particular spin on a verse here or a chapter there, the minister was generally seen as an important community figure, one who was above question and was to be deferred to in times of crisis.

When you are raised with the model of a strong moral authority, you learn quickly that criticism is unacceptable and that any dissent is considered evil. Yes, you heard me right. To even question someone who has been empowered to speak for the church, you are not just considered an agitator, but your desire to dissent is considered suspicious and grounds for damnation to hell. A lifetime of training to have complete and utter faith in the message and the messenger pays off when you want to manipulate. "Hey! I'm one of you!" they say. And then they use your faith to abuse you.

It is powerful behavioral conditioning to believe that you not only risk community and family rejection for speaking out, but your very soul is at risk for anything less than total investment in the mores of your religious community. Imagine that this is the prevalent attitude in 98% of the community around you, that you were raised in this environment from the time you were born, and that even small testing of authority is met with hostility, threats and shame. Fundamentalist Christians thus share another feature with Republicans- namely, an air of self-righteousness and demonization of anyone with a different opinion. Question represents uncertainty which represents threat. No issue can have uncertainty associated with it because it could lead to a collapse of all givens and all absolutes. Bush is a born again, therefore, whatever he says is ordained by God. Period.

The use of fear based politics in Republican campaigns make perfect sense. It is a way of living that most fundamentalists understand and live with day to day. It is not the fear of eternal damnation however in politics- it is fear of the Big Government, of social decay, of loss of lifestyle and tradition and of real world enemies instead of Satan himself.

Where the alliance between Christians and Republicans begins to show strain however is in the apparent lack of compassion, altruism and unconditional love. I was raised in a fundamentalist church, yet despite all the noise, I learned through the examples of the life of Christ that his message was simple: wealth is not what matters, giving to others is a directive, all people are created equal in the eyes of God, and it is not our responsibility to make judgments of others. Killing is wrong.. babies, convicts, and innocent civilians during war. Consistency is a virtue.

Yes, I think it would be difficult for me personally to have an abortion if I had an unexpected pregnancy, but who am I to impose my personal beliefs on another American who may have a completely different value system than my own? Isn't that what America is all about?

In the fundamentalists' world, unfortunately, too often dissenting views are viewed as not just different but deserving of respect, but inferior, suspect and even Satanic. How odd it was to grow up around many different forms of fundamentalism- the Southern Baptists, the Assemblies of God, the Nazarenes- who ironically condemn each other for their subtle differences in interpretation of faith. "We believe that people who smoke are disobeying the word of God" or "People who dance with the opposite sex are encouraging lustful behaviors" weren't uncommonly held beliefs. It encouraged in me an air of superiority, that my church was the right church and all others fell short somehow. How could I then love someone who evokes pity in me?

How do people who identify themselves as Christian reconcile the politics of Bush/Cheney/Rove and McCain with these principles of Christ? How does paying less taxes, leading to the cutting of government programs for the poor, jive with the multiple messages that implore us to give to the poor, to abandon our wealth, and to love our neighbors?

How does Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh resonate with a community taught to seek peace? Why can Bush lie about going to war and yet still command a strong following by people who have read the Bible?

Jesus was a progressive. So shoot me.

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