In his farewell column in the arts section, The New York Times’ Frank Rich provides a seething analysis of the “theatrics” of the Schiavo case in which he argues convincingly that the government signed on to a “full-scale jihad” last weekend with their congressional intervention. He quotes constitutional lawyer Lawrence Tribe to the effect that not even Joe McCarthy went as far as Congress and Bush have in this case, in conspiring to “try to undo the processes of a state court.” But as usual his analysis goes beyond rhetoric with a fine contextual analysis of the place of this drama in the broader sphere of public culture
Culture is often a more reliable prophecy than religion of where the country is going, and our culture has been screaming its theocratic inclinations for months now. The anti-indecency campaign, already a roaring success, has just yielded a new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Kevin J. Martin, who had been endorsed by the Parents Television Council and other avatars of the religious right. The push for the sanctity of marriage (or all marriages except Terri and Michael Schiavo’s) has led to the banishment of lesbian moms on public television. The Armageddon-fueled worldview of the “Left Behind” books extends its spell by the day, soon to surface in a new NBC prime-time mini-series, “Revelations,” being sold with the slogan “The End is Near.”…
That bullying, stoked by politicians in power, has become omnipresent, leading television stations to practice self-censorship and high school teachers to avoid mentioning “the E word,” evolution, in their classrooms, lest they arouse fundamentalist rancor. The president is on record as saying that the jury is still out on evolution, so perhaps it’s no surprise that The Los Angeles Times has uncovered a three-year-old “religious rights” unit in the Justice Department that investigated a biology professor at Texas Tech because he refused to write letters of recommendation for students who do not accept evolution as “the central, unifying principle of biology.” Cornelia Dean of The New York Times broke the story last weekend that some Imax theaters, even those in science centers, are now refusing to show documentaries like “Galápagos” or “Volcanoes of the Deep Sea” because their references to Darwin and the Big Bang theory might antagonize some audiences. Soon such films will disappear along with biology textbooks that don’t give equal time to creationism.
James Cameron, producer of “Volcanoes” (and, more famously, the director of “Titanic”), called this development “obviously symptomatic of our shift away from empiricism in science to faith-based science.” Faith-based science has in turn begat faith-based medicine that impedes stem-cell research, not to mention faith-based abstinence-only health policy that impedes the prevention of unwanted pregnancies and diseases like AIDS.
He also points to the peculiarities of “faith-based news” in recent months and the propensity of journalism – particularly American journalism – to embrace and amplify positive stories of the “miraculous” but leave unexamined the dark side of religious faith:
Ashley Smith, the 26-year-old woman who was held hostage by Brian Nichols, the accused Atlanta courthouse killer, has been canonized by virtually every American news organization as God’s messenger because she inspired Mr. Nichols to surrender by talking about her faith and reading him a chapter from Rick Warren’s best seller, “The Purpose-Driven Life.” But if she’s speaking for God, what does that make Dennis Rader, the church council president arrested in Wichita’s B.T.K. serial killer case? Was God instructing Terry Ratzmann, the devoted member of the Living Church of God who this month murdered his pastor, an elderly man, two teenagers and two others before killing himself at a weekly church service in Wisconsin? The religious elements of these stories, including the role played by the end-of-times fatalism of Mr. Ratzmann’s church, are left largely unexamined by the same news outlets that serve up Ashley Smith’s tale as an inspirational parable for profit.
Rich is right to point to these three stories as indicative of “something” however I am not completely convinced that his analysis is spot-on. I took note of the Ratzman and Rader cases and certainly wondered at the role of end-times fatalism in these events but I am not convinced that the connections are as direct as Rich implies they might be. There are all sorts of complex cultural interactions going on here and Rich is right that these stories remain unexamined. But none of these stories may be as religious as they sound – including Smith’s story of triumph, which relies on the interaction between new-age self help philosophies and religion not just a traditional Christianity. These stories are puzzling ciphers that need to be looked at.
I Furled a couple of reports about the cases with some vague thought that I must come back to them for my thesis. It seems to me that they are in some senses cipher’s of the apocalyptic breaking through into the everyday. It is precisely in their strangeness, their evocation of the unheimlich that they are interesting, not as easy equations of religiosity/crazyness/murder.