Category Archives: Covering religion

JP II the accolades begin

When deeply conservative politicians like Australian PM John Howard start describing the Pope with loaded accolades you know immediately how to place JP II in the current political ecology. Howard told a Melbourne dinner last night:

“This wonderful man who has been not only an inspiring leading of the Catholic church, but he’s been a wonderful warrior for freedom and democracy.”

This of course is not the experience of those who have dared dissent within the church. Hans Kung summed it up well a number of years ago:

Instead of a modernization in the evangelic spirit, one has gone back to the traditional fundamental Catholic lessons – rigorous moral encyclicals, traditionalist-imperialist world catechism. Instead of a collegiality between the pope and the bishops, there is an authoritarian Roman centralism expressed in the nomination of bishops and the attribution of theological seats over the interests of local churches.

Instead of an opening to the modern world, there are complaints and scoldings about a supposed adaptation to it and the encouragement of traditional forms of piety. Instead of dialogue, there is more inquisition and a rejection of freedom of thought and teaching in the Church. Instead of ecumenism there is again emphasis on everything narrowly Roman Catholic.

In a look at the pope’s achievement prepared by CNN in 1999 to mark the JP II’s 20 years as pope one unnamed source noted that this pope grew up in Poland with a church under siege and he has never grown out of that siege mentality:

Part of his problem is also his strength: He grew up in Poland where the church was persecuted by the Nazis and then by communism. The church was always under attack, and he developed a siege mentality. He has never really lived in a pluralistic, democratic society.

So even after the fall of communism, the model of the church is still one that is under siege. But now it’s by secularism, critics in the church, consumerism or relativism. And he responds with this kind of siege mentality, where the church is at war over these issues. And when you’re at war, you don’t have democracy. You don’t debate what you’re going to do.

It’s that very experience that made him so good at helping the church’s suffering from persecution and gave him such a strong backbone in saying what he thinks. But it makes it very difficult to see the grays and the ambiguities, and that there might be a place within the church for (those who disagree).

Images of the papal passion

Similar to the images of Terri Schiavo, the circulation of images of Pope John Paul, who has been described as “increasingly frail” for years now, are stimulating a range of mythic possibilities from conspiratorial narratives of the propped-up puppet to sanctifying stories of the ecstatic martyr. This extraordinary set of images from his appearance at the easter ceremonies was published in the Telegraph.

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Interestingly for a story so focused on the visual it begins: “The Pope struggled hard to find his voice to address pilgrims assembled in Rome yesterday for the traditional Easter Mass.” This pope, who has used his papacy as a bully-pulpit, now finally reduced to silence still some how turns this very silence into a perverse vocalisation of courage.

Is he yawning? Is he in pain? Is he angry and out of control? It appears from the report that in the final frame he is not hitting himself in frustration but merely making the sign of the cross. But what are we seeing here? Through the eyes of the faithful there is another story:

“Oh no!” said Maria Romero, from Peru, as the Pope’s aide took away the microphone. “The poor man can’t speak,” she said, tears streaming down her face.

However it is not just the eyes of the faithful who are constructing these images in this way. According to the Telegraph report, Italian state television called yesterday’s appearance the “most moving and poignant of his pontificate”. We are we embroiled here not just in the pope’s private passion play but in an on going story of western culture that is reified and retold by a range of institutions: journalistic, medical, political and religious.

These images of the distressed pope are not really new we can take other images from much earlier in his pontificate in which his devotional posture creates an other worldly sense of ecstatic martyred pain. This is very clear in an image from the PBS series on “the millennial pope” where his prayerfully contorted faith is propped against his ceremonial cross.

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These images are stock images of our christian culture but it is fascinating to see them played out in such a widely diverse and mediated way.

Myth and passion in the Schiavo case

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As many commentators have noted (see the Howard Kurtz round-up) the battle over Terri Schiavo’s life, death and consciousness is the latest episode in the culture wars. An interesting article in USATODAY surveys some of the opinion in European newspapers. The European newspapers point out the startling contrasts in the the US right’s theology of life:

A cartoon in Tuesday’s edition of The Times of London, captioned “Funny Old World,” shows a caricature of President Bush signing a document titled “War on Iraq.” The panel reads: “Bush signs bill to kill thousands.” In the cartoon’s second panel, the Bush character signs a document titled “Schiavo Case.” The caption: “Bush signs bill to keep woman alive. …”

In another Times opinion the linkage is with the death penalty:

“The Terri Schiavo case shows just how emphatically the U.S. and Europe are moving on different paths on the ‘right-to-life’ — or in this case, the right to die,” starts one opinion piece in The Times. Later in the article: “The U.S., so impassioned about the right to life in the case of abortion and euthanasia, appears wedded to the right of the state to execute criminals.”

One of the fascinating things about the political dance around Schiavo’s hospital bed is that it is not just the European’s, with the perspective of distance, who see through the theatricality of Bush’s quick flight back to Washington for a 1.15am signing of the Congressional bill to “save” Schiavo. The Washingon Post reported a CBS survey that found that 82 percent of Americans – including 68 percent of people who identify themselves as evangelical Christians – think Congress’s intervention was wrong. Both ABC and CBS have also released polls which show that the overwhelming majority (74% in the CBS data) see congress’s action as motivated by “political expediency” (Kevin Drum via Kurtz). The Needlenose website has an interesting post on the media’s surprisingly up-front labeling of all this as political theatre.

However, in the same WP piece Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia makes the point that the minority that does back congressional action probably supports it intensely, while the majority that disagrees “won’t remember this woman’s name in a few months.”

I think this is largely true but I suspect that the case will hold some continuing mythic impact just as many people will remember the name Karen Quinlan even if they cannot quite place it.

The mythic import of the case is highlighted for many players and media commentators by the proximity of the Easter weekend, and the metaphor of the “Terri Schiavo passion play” has been used repeatedly. However the play of passions isn’t as simple as it seems American Prospect’s Terence Samuel in one of the best pieces I have seen on the case points out that “a close reading of this case suggests that it is about many things (including politics, religion, modern medicine, aggressive weight loss, fertility treatments, medical malpractice awards, and deep moral and ideological beliefs)”. That is of course why it has been taken up by everyone from media commentators, bloggers, the Pope, Bush, Congress and even a 10 year old boy who was arrested yesterday because he was trying (with his father and sisters) to bring Schiavo some water.

Samuel notes how congress majority leader Tom DeLay constantly used the brain dead woman’s first name “Terri” in his congressional speech and referred with haunting effect to her “parched” mouth and “throbbing” hunger. Another aspect of the rhetorical construction of the weak innocent Terri, that I haven’t seen anyone comment on, is the haunting pictures that have been reused constantly in media reports.

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In these images Schiavo looks imploringly and lovingly towards the camera or towards her mother but she also has the look of a mystic or mad woman. Her consciousness – which is at the heart of this whole drama – is at once affirmed and elided by these images and Terri Schiavo once again enters the realm of the symbolic, transfixed and transformed by both her condition and her representation. This is all made very explicit by a right to life poster which merges the image of Schiavo and Christ, both lost in their own passions.

Liberal Christians Challenge ‘Values Vote’

The Washington Post reports the results of a poll commissioned by a group of Liberal Christians which challenges the notion that "values" equal abortion and same-sex marriage.

Battling the notion that "values voters" swept President Bush to victory because of opposition to gay marriage and abortion, three liberal groups released a post-election poll in which 33 percent of voters said the nation’s most urgent moral problem was "greed and materialism" and 31 percent said it was "poverty and economic justice." Sixteen percent cited abortion, and 12 percent named same-sex marriage….

The nationwide telephone poll of 10,689 voters was conducted by Zogby International for the Catholic peace group Pax Christi, the New York-based civic advocacy group Res Publica and the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a think tank allied with Democrats. It had a margin of error of plus or minus one percentage

The poll found that 42 percent of voters cited the war in Iraq as the "moral issue" that most influenced their choice of candidates, while 13 percent cited abortion and 9 percent same-sex marriage. Asked to name the greatest threat to marriage, 31 percent said "infidelity," 25 percent cited "rising financial burdens" and 22 percent named same-sex marriage

Acting as spokesperson for the group Jim Wallis called for a "conversation" about abortion:

"One of the things a few of us are talking about is a reassessment of how the Democrats deal with an issue like abortion — could there be a more moderate ground, where even if they retained their pro-choice stance, they talked about uniting pro-choice people together to actually do something about the abortion rate?" said Jim Wallis, editor of the liberal evangelical journal Sojourners.

If the Democratic Party were to "welcome pro-life Democrats, Catholics and evangelicals and have a serious conversation with them" about ways to reduce teenage pregnancy, facilitate adoptions and improve conditions for low-income women, it would "work wonders"
among centrist evangelicals and Catholics, Wallis said.

This notion of a "conversation" and the adoption of non-confrontational, non-judgemental constructive ways of engaging the "left" and the "right" is gaining currency in many commentaries on the net (check Barlow and Mumamusings). It is an obvious strategy and Wallis’ suggestion that it begin somewhere in the middle is a good one. But this startegy of localised conversations must also move firmly into the public arena and the public agenda. So much of our conversation today is mediated by the divisive frames produced by the media. If the grassroots conversations are to flourish then we must begin to move the media rhetoric that stresses the religious right’s all encompassing power.

This "power" is rhetorically created by the media, currenlty in awe of the success of the "Rove strategy," but it is also confirmed by the rigid boisterism of the myth of the Apocalypse of Empire which inflects the language, action and beliefs of the religious right.

The emergence of vibrant organised groups on the left, like MoveOn and Wallis’ liberal christian coalition, is one of the signs of hope to emerge from this election. Through a smart combination of grass roots and broader public sphere activism they have begun the slow incremental process of transforming the public terms in which politics, values and spirituality are conceived. Although their tactics need to avoid the "all or nothing" aspects of the Apocalypse of Resistance this is the alternate myth that in a sense guides their work.

Unfortunately if this does become a collision of two completely apocalyptic world views dialogue becomes impossible.

Wallis and other speakers noted the diversity of christian voting blocks. This is one step towards breaking through the binary opposition between the hard right and hard left that is currently set up as "common sense".

They contended that there is a vast religious middle, including "progressive evangelicals," "resurgent mainline Protestants" and "socially conservative African Americans," that could be attracted by biblically based "prophetic" appeals to make peace, fight poverty and spread social justice.

This kind of conversation and public activism from the left is also needed in Australia as the abortion debate seems to be taking on increasingly fractious terms here. At least there is a sense that the conversation has begun in America and their are leaders like Wallis attempting to bring people together, in Australia the broad church of the left is still very much in the wilderness.

Evangelical culture/evangelical politics

Interesting explanation from the Washington Post that tries to unpack the poll data on increases in the evangelical turnout in 2004

Exit polls do not permit a direct comparison of how many evangelical and born-again Americans voted in 2000 and 2004 because the way pollsters identified these voters changed. Four years ago voters leaving polls were asked: “Do you consider yourself part of the conservative Christian political movement, also known as the religious right?” In 2004, the question was changed to: “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian?”

Fourteen percent answered “yes” in 2000 and 23 percent did so in 2004, but polling specialists said the 2004 wording virtually assures more affirmative answers.

The percentage of voters who said they attend church more than once a week grew from 14 to 16 percent, a significant difference in an election decided by three percentage points. These voters backed President Bush over John F. Kerry 64 percent to 35 percent. Similarly, the percent of the electorate that believes abortion should be “illegal in all cases” grew from 13 to 16 percent. These voters backed Bush by 77 percent to 22 percent.

In the two major battlegrounds, Ohio and Florida, exit polls showed Bush substantially improved his support among voters who attend church more than once a week. At the same time, the percentage of the electorate that goes to church this often actually fell.

The article also argues that the grassroots evangelicals were not driven by the Bush election team but were actually way ahead of the curve. The interviews with a range of Christian activists support Dana Milbank’s notion (which I posted about yesterday) that we have seen the emergence of a new evangelical politics in this election. Many of the activists interviewed in today’s Post article argue that they were better organised, and campaigning earlier within their christian communities, than the official Bush team. The picture to emerge is of both organised and grassroots action. Certainly the big names like James Dobson and his Focus on the Family were active – and in weekly phone contact with Bush strategists – but local ministers and smaller organisations and individuals were critical to the campaign.

As to the significance of the same sex marriage issue Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council puts it nicely. It was “the hood ornament on the family values wagon that carried the president to a second term.”

But other factors certainly also drove moral values voters:

The Rev. Rick Warren, author of the best-selling “The Purpose Driven Life” and one of the most influential ministers in the country, sent a letter to 136,000 fellow pastors urging them to compare the candidates’ positions on five “non-negotiable” issues: abortion, stem cell research, same-sex marriage, human cloning and euthanasia.

Many of these activists regard Bush as slow to take up the marriage cause and they were working on a constitutional ban long before Karl Rove started to think of the issue as a voter turn-out technique.

Some Democrats suspected that the ballot initiatives were engineered by Rove and the GOP, but religious activists say otherwise. In Michigan, state Sen. Alan Cropsey (R) introduced a bill to ban same-sex marriage in October 2003 and assumed it would have the support of his party. Instead, the Roman Catholic Church in Michigan became the amendment’s main booster, spending nearly $1 million to secure its passage.

“I couldn’t say anything publicly, because I would have been blasted for it, but the Republican Party was not helpful at all,” Cropsey said. “It’s not like they were the instigators. They were the Johnny-come-latelies, if anything.”

Michael Howden, executive director of Stronger Families for Oregon, said it was a similar situation in his state. “There’s been no contact whatsoever, no coordinating, no pushing” by anyone at the White House or in the Bush campaign, he said.

Dobson sums up what a “values voter” means very clearly and very simply:

A values voter, Dobson said, is someone with “a Christian worldview who begins with the assumption that God is — that he not only exists, but he is the definer of right and wrong, and there are some things that are moral and some things that are immoral, some things that are evil and some things that are good.”

Although liberals may mock Bush for his good-vs.-evil approach to the world, it “is seen by many of us not as a negative but as a positive,” Dobson said. “Here is a man who is simply committed to a system of beliefs.”

This type of world view is not explicitly apocalyptic but is congruent with the type of moral universe that LaHaye and other producers of christian mass culture evoke. This also ties into broader streams of American popular culture as identified by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence’s American Superhero myth.

A new evangelical politics

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank sees the emergence of a new kind of evangelical politics in the recent US election. She argues that while organisations like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition may have previously mobilised voters for Reagan, this time it was grass roots Christian activism that got the turnout for Bush. She writes:

In the past, evangelicals participated in politics reluctantly, at the urging of such figures as Jerry Falwell and, later, Pat Robertson. This time, more than 26 million of them turned out — 23 percent of the electorate — in local church-based networks coordinated closely with the Bush campaign.

"You see the maturation of a movement that began in the late ’70s with the Moral Majority," said Michael Cromartie, who directs the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "Now these people don’t need to be told. They have their own opinions about the state of the culture, and they’ve gotten organized. It has more power because it’s decentralized and organized."

 

Milbank quotes Barry W. Lynn, from the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State speculating that the Left Behind novel’s have played a part in this:

Lynn said that a number of evangelicals, inspired in part by minister Tim LaHaye’s "Left Behind" novels, have come to view politics as part of their religion. "There is a strain of evangelical Christians who believe it is political figures who usher in the Second Coming," he said. As such, Bush "is the spiritual and political leader of a moral revolution."

This certainly fits with my reading of Rapture Culture, Amy Johnson Frykholm’s fascinating reader reception study of Left Behind culture. One of the striking things is the way readers move between engagement with the Left Behind series and other elements of popular culture. This has the effect of creating a kind of seamless imaginary world in which the imaginative possibilities of the Left Behind series become a very real part of daily life and thus daily political choices. I think the Left Behind series is performing an important bridging function that hasn’t been fully explored yet.

In a not very good review of Rapture Culture (when will mainstream reviewers get over the quick easy jabs at post modernism) Stephen Prothero (chairman of the Department of Religion at Boston University who should know better) does make a perceptive point. He argues that the Left Behind series and other evangelical mass cultural products are about maintainance not conversion:

Decades ago the sociologist Peter Berger contended that worldviews
perpetuated themselves (and the societies in which they were embedded)
through "plausibility structures" that sustained in the minds of
believers the reality of those perspectives. Churches and religious
institutions do much of this work, but so does the Left Behind
publishing firm, Tyndale House, the evangelical girls’ magazine Brio
and Billy Graham’s World Wide Pictures. Although evangelicals often
raise funds for their forays into mass media by promising to make
converts, the real purpose of those raids may simply be to hold on to
believers already made through procreation or proselytizing. Even
religious traditions that prize sudden transformations in tent meetings
must labor to keep the hearts and minds of the Christians they have
birthed and baptized. And evangelical media, whatever we may think of
their politics, or the virtues of alchemizing atheists into Christians,
play an important part in doing just that.

It seems that these books and other forms of evangelical culture, not just firey Sunday sermons, are in fact "alchemizing" christians into activists. Milbank quotes some striking rhetorical examples:

Though such views are a minority, there were glimpses of that passion on the campaign trail. Last month, at an invitation-only meeting with Vice President Cheney, a questioner rose and said: "I personally think, next to Jesus Christ, [Bush] probably took the greatest load upon his shoulders of any individual, so it had to be with strong backing that he has been able to stand for his testimony for the Lord Jesus Christ."

At another invitation-only event, a questioner asking about Bush’s "faith-based initiatives" told the president: "I believe that the enemy that we need the greatest freedom from right now happens to be Satan, and it’s the enemy that we also don’t necessarily always see. There’s so many people who are being attacked on every level."

Leaders of Christian political organizations have spoken of Tuesday’s results as providential. "Only the Lord could have orchestrated an election in which the president got a wonderful majority vote and at the same time we had a basic Christian institution of marriage on the ballot," Tom Minnery, Focus on the Family’s vice president of public policy, said on the group’s radio show this week.

The organization’s head, James Dobson, said, "I think God has honored" Bush because "the president did acknowledge Jesus Christ." The same program broadcast a statement by Dennis Prager, a Christian commentator, saying "civilization as we understand it was in the balance" in the election, and "a beautiful man has been vindicated."

 

One of the interesting things about these examples is the confluence between the leadership and the grass roots. It looks like they have fully bought into the divinely mandated version of the Bush mission.

This is a fascinating example of the real-time effect of the apocalyptic myth not just transforming the daily lives of believers but also effectively reshaping the national political agenda.

The Revealer: Killing Religion Journalism

The new NYU Revealer site, on religion and the news, is an extraordinary resource that has come along at the perfect time for me. Jeff Sharlet and co are ddoing an amazing job of gathering the serious and the quirky and presenting it all in a rigerous framework that brings context and analysis.

In a reflection written to promote his new book on religion and journalism, Killing the Buddha, Sharlet writes of the central yet obscured role of religion in the news.

That’s what religion writing has to offer every other aspect of journalism: The focus on belief. That’s missing even from most religion writing. The “faith pages” languish while news stories revolving around real, actual belief, causing events in the world, occupy the front page.

I said they revolve around real actual belief. That’s what they do. They circle it. Nervously. They dip in, but they never get too close. Part of that is that nobody wants to seem like they’re declaring some truth about God. But what we need to report on is not God or the lack thereof, it’s the way people believe in these things, and what they do about them.

What do they about it? Sometimes, they run for president. Sometimes they feed other people. Sometimes they prey on little kids. Sometimes, they fly planes into buildings. Sometimes what they do defines the public sphere, sometimes, it seems to take place far beyond the public sphere’s boundaries. But that idea that belief is outside the public sphere, that it’s private, exists partly because America remains a largely Protestant country, but more importantly, for our purposes as journalists, because we fail to look for evidence of things not seen.

While part of the way religion is treated is to do with the protestant ethos, it also in large part derives from the ideology of objectivity in journalism. This working method allows journalists to give voice to a range of uncritical sources in complex debates such as gay marriage and adoption. The practice of objectivity perpetuates a natural conflict frame for these debates with spokespeople for gay organisations pitted against moral majority/family first spokespeople. Thus those who might have some evidence based comment to contribute to this debate such as child psychologists, legal scholars or sociologists are marginalised in the false two source balancing act of pitting gays against the religious right.

As well as treating religion as part of the complex fabric of belief in society, journalists must learn to treat relgion critically and call hatred hatred and intollerance, intollerance. This too is part of the fabric of belief. This is the ugly side of belief that is rarely covered in mainstream religion reporting, except when it presents in extreme forms such as Phelps and his “God Hates Fags” group, but the more difficult reality is that the “God Hates Fags” message is preached in much subtler and more insidious ways and these are never addressed.

American political religiosity

“I’d be delighted to live in a country where happily married gay couples had closets full of assault weapons.”

US blogger Glen Reynolds giving an example of why he can’t be easily classified as left or right!

Reynold’s Instapundit blog is one of the A-list blogs, and I must admit that I had dismissed it as a pointless pro-Bush blog without looking too closely at his posts. In his Guardian column this week Reynolds points out why he sits uneasily in any easily defined spectrum of American politics. His main point is that religiosity affects both the left and right wing agendas and he finds both equally disturbing:

The language of righteousness and sin, if not that of redemption and grace, remains a hallmark of the purportedly secular left, though I find it no more attractive than the language of the religious right.

I don’t fit into the religious right or the religious left. But, in America, you don’t get to choose a major political party that does not have some sort of religious strain to it.

And it strikes me that one reason why politics in the US have become so much more bitter over the past couple of decades is that two rather different threads of religiosity have come to dominate the two major parties in distinct fashion, where each party had previously incorporated major components of both. This has turned political battles into quasi-religious ones.

I think this is undoubtedly true and Reynolds gives the example of Hilary Clinton as a religiously inspired leftie, pointing out that “the roots of this do-goodism are ultimately in New England Puritanism, which had many characteristics associated with today’s left.”.

However, I think there is a fundamental difference between the right’s use of religious rhetoric and the left’s use of religious rhetoric. One of the primary religious values of the left is a call to inclusive community. This is inherent in the title of Hilary Clinton’s book about children: “It takes a village” I haven’t read the book but the excerpts here seem to support this view:

The horizons of the contemporary village extend well beyond the town line. From the moment we are born, we are exposed to vast numbers of other people and influences through the media. Technology connects us to the impersonal global village it has created.

To many, this brave new world seems dehumanizing and inhospitable. It is not surprising, then,, that there is a yearning for the “good old days” as a refuge from the problems of the present. But by turning away, we blind ourselves to the continuing, evolving presence of the village in our lives, and its critical importance for how we live together. The village can no longer be defined as a place on a map, or as a list of people or organizations, but its essence remains the same: it is the network of values and relationships that support and affect our lives….

We cannot move forward by looking to the past for easy solutions. Even if a golden age had existed, we could not simply graft it onto today’s busier, more impersonal and complicated world. Instead, our challenge is to arrive at a consensus of values and a common vision of what we can do, individually and collectively, to build strong families and communities.

Creating that consensus in a democracy depends on seriously considering other points of view, resisting the lure of extremist rhetoric, and balancing individual rights and freedoms with personal responsibility and mutual obligations.

This is a fundamentally different view to the resisting pre-apocalyptic communities of the religious right, whose religious world view promotes a divisive politics that wants to proscribe, people and practices that don’t conform to their particular beliefs. Now this does not mean that the left does not also use the politics of consensus in devise ways, nor do they always live up to their ideals of inclusion, but in their basic orientation I think that religious conservatism and the religious liberalism need to be read quite differently.

The similarities and differences of the religiously inspired right and the religiously inspired left is certainly something that I should look at further.

Any world view, strongly held, creates divisions: sometimes these divisions are helpful organising devices, other times they lead to easy judgments, (like my instant assessment of Reynolds!) that really deserve more open thought.

When prophecy fails

Interesting discussion over at Crooked Timber on apocalyptic christianity and the response to failed prophecy. John Quiggin got the ball rolling with this question:

Revelations-based prophecies have similarly failed time after time, but they seem to be more popular than ever. What is about apocalyptic Christianity as a belief system that protects it from empirical refutation?

There are a number of sub questions in this:

What happens when prophecy fails?
How does the meaning making system of apocalyptic belief work?
What is the relationship between belief and empirical evidence?

I think the first thing to understand is that “apocalyptic Christianity” is much more than a belief in specific apocalyptic events. As I noted in my post yesterday it also includes what Cynthia Burack has called a “politics of desert”. It is a resistance theology that constantly constructs and reconstructs oppositions, that comes from a place of such certainty that the “signs of the times” become a fluid collage that reinforce that central resistance identity.

Some of the posts in response to John mention When Prophecy Fails, by Leon Festinger. Festinger proposed that adherents basically redouble their efforts when prophecies fail as a way of resolving their experience of cognitive dissonance. Post-Festinger scholarship has tended to agree with Festinger’s conclusion that adherents work hard in a post-failure moment but most scholars disagree with his specific conclusions about how this works.

In Expecting Armageddon: Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy, Jon Stone has gathered fourteen articles that dialogue with Festinger’s conclusions. For a strange but interesting review of this collection go here. (Haven’t read this but have it on order from Amazon)

In his article on failed prophecy in the Lubavitch movement Simon Dein gives a good summary of some of the arguments in this literature. His reference to Melton ( Melton, J. G. 1985. Spiritualization and reaffirmation: What really happens when prophecy fails. American Studies 26(2):82.) supports my contention that apocalyptic belief cannot be limited to the predictive, but must be seen as a more general belief system:

Melton (1985) points out a number of problems with the thesis…[one] problem involves Festinger’s assertion that millennial groups are organized around the prediction of prospective events. This is seen by Melton as a one-dimensional view of millenarianism which neglects the presence of a complex cosmology. Indeed, prediction often springs from a broad context of belief and disconfirmation provides a “test” which generally strengthens a group. Third, the problem was noted of the researcher’s standard for logic not necessarily being consistent with the internal definitions of the group studied.

John Quiggin’s post also had a reference to Hall Lindsay as an example of apocalyptic christianity. As Stephen O’Leary has shown in Arguing the Apocalypse, the fascinating thing about Lindsay is that although his work is littered with prophetic readings of current events he avoids any major predictions of end events. Instead he produces a dispersed apocalypse that calls for a continuing sense of readiness.

O’Leary shows that between his first book The Late Great Planet Earth and his 80s sequel Countdown to Armageddon Lindsey updated his theology to show a role for America and “a ray of hope” that led to the more activist new right politics of the eighties. This is epitomised by Jerry Falwell’s telling comment that Christians are called “to occupy until he comes.” This is a phase he still uses today. In a September 2004 interview: Falwell: Evangelicals ‘Energized’ for Bush he sets his beliefs out very clearly:

NM: We hear a lot these days that many Christians believe that, based on current events, perhaps Christ’s second coming is near. What do you tell people who ask you about that?

JF: Well, Scripture is clear on that. No man knows the day or hour of His second coming.

It is my feeling, and has been for the 52 years I’ve been a Christian, that we’re to live every day as though the Lord were returning today…but we’re to plan and work as though we had another 100 years, with the next generation in mind.

The danger, if there is a danger in believing in the imminence of the Lord’s return – and I do, is to become a fatalist, that certain things are going to happen regardless and there’s nothing we can do about them. That isn’t true. We’re told to occupy until He comes. We’re told to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. And we’re given clear instructions about raising our children up in the nurture and admonition of Christ.

Falwell’s theology reflects the fundamental change in premillenial beliefs from the widely believed but failed predictive prophecies of William Miller in the 1840s, which led to what is known as “the great disappointment“, to the current “dispensational premillenialists” of today that believe we are in the end times but won’t hazard a guess at the day or the hour.

Falwell’s beliefs seem to show a gradual merging of elements of the premillenial and the postmillenial belief systems but that’s another story for another posting….

(For a reasonably good but abbreviated precis of O’Leary on the Millerites and Hall Lindsey go here)

Bush, the debate and fundamentalism

I must admit that watching the debate between Bush and Kerry confused me a bit. I was struck by both performances. The press accounts seem to concur that Kerry won and gained more from the debate because he suddenly appeared comfortable, concise and presidential. I was mesmerised, in a kind of perverse fascination by, Bush.

He appeared flustered and irritated at times, for sure, but his direct, strong, simple appeal and absolute confidence was remarkable. He shone in his “We will win” and his “I’m gonna get ‘em” moments. It took me back to some remarks by Steve Almond in his KtB feature, The Gospel According to Dubya.

I understand that the events of 9/11 scared our citizens; that we need to protect ourselves, and oppose terrorism. These are, frankly, truisms. What Bush has done is to use 9/11 to mobilize our worst impulses. This was most vividly illustrated in the response of the convention crowd. At any mention of the war in Iraq, they began to boom, U.S.A.! U.S.A.! But the war in Iraq, any war, is not an occasion for celebration. It is an occasion for profound sorrow, an abject failure of humanity.

The public fear instilled by 9/11 (along with the endless terror alerts) has allowed Bush to ignore the most noble of Christ’s teachings, the pleas for mercy and tolerance, and to indulge instead in prophetic grievance. In opposing Islamic fundamentalism, Bush has relied on his own brand of fundamentalism. He has rendered the moral chaos of the world in black and white.

Many find this comforting. It spares us from having to consider why terrorists target us, and how our policies might actually foment hatred. It allows us to believe that affixing a bumper sticker to an SUV is an act of patriotism, or to feel that we are we are receiving the Good News by watching Christ’s life reduced to a slow-motion snuff film.

The crowds that were shouting their indiscriminate approval at the convention were obviously party faithful and the audience that Bush needed to pitch to in the debate had to extend beyond this group. While the faithful’s vision is channelled through Republican or Christian ideology, I suspect there is a broader secular, unaffiliated group to whom this rhetoric also plays well.

Fundamentalism and an apocalyptic viewpoint may be most prevalent amongst born-again Christians and neocon-hawks but I suspect one of the new elements in the political landscape post 9/11 is the growth of a kind of fear based secular fundamentalism.

The Jesus Factor

Just watched PBS’ doco on Bush and his faith, The Jesus Factor, which screened tonight on SBS.

Liberal evangelical activist, Jim Wallis’ has an interesting analysis of the trajectory of Bush’s faith:

When I met the president and began talking with him, and listening to what he was saying, I felt that he was sort of a self-help Methodist — meaning, someone whose faith had made a difference in his personal life. Solved some drinking issues and some family issues, and changed him. Gave him purpose. That’s part of Methodism. Always has been. Kind of a 12-step God — you know, changing my life….

Then Sept. 11 came. I think his role changed dramatically, his notion of himself and his place in history, and he became commander in chief of the war on terrorism. The self-help Methodist became now almost a messianic American Calvinist, speaking of the mission of America, and even of his perhaps divine appointment to be president at a time such as this.

This raises some deep and unsettling theological questions, I think, whether there’s a confusion now in the role of church and nation — the body of Christ, the Christian community, what its role is versus the role of the nation.

Wallis is prepared to admit that “calling” and doing “God’s work” is the task of any committed Christian but it is the divisive certainty of Bush’s mission that disturbs him:

But when one believes that you’ve been appointed by God for a particular mission in history, you have to be very careful about that, how you speak about that. Where is the self-reflection in that? Where is the humility in that? Are we asking whether we are being accountable to God’s intentions and purposes? Or are we asking for God’s blessing on our activities? They’re very different things.

I think when we are so sure that God is on our side, and that those who are not with us are against us, or even with the terrorists, that’s taking another step. I believe God is in our world, in our history, in our lives, in our choices. To ask what God’s calling is for me is a fair question, a necessary question, for any Christian. That’s not a problem.

But when we place God on our side of things, that we are now ridding the world of evil — that’s very dangerous, that one nation has this role to rid the world of [evil]. What about the evil we have committed, that we are complicit in? The richest nation in this global economic system, in which 2 billion of God’s children are poor [and] live on less than $2 a day?

Well, there are things to look at ourselves here, if we’re presiding over that global economy. Does this language allow us to look at ourselves, or does it give us a kind of certainty, and a sanction, and even a sense of divine righteousness for our political position? Are we blinded to things that we’re otherwise not willing to look at?

Richard Land the director of the Southern Baptist Convention points out that Bush’s public religiosity and sense of mission is part of an ongoing mainstream religious tradition In American politics:

George W. Bush is standing squarely in the middle of American history and American tradition, and believing in American exceptionalism. Does that mean that America is God’s chosen people? No. No. Does it mean that we believe that an angel still rides in this storm, as they did at the founding? Yes. Yes.

I believe that. I believe that the United States of America has a divinely given responsibility to hold up the flame of freedom, and whenever possible, to advance it. I don’t make any apology for that. That’s part of who I am as an American. Just exactly what does the left think that John F. Kennedy was talking about, when he said, “We’re going to let tyrants of the world beware. We’re willing to go anywhere, bear any price, assume any burden, defend [against] any foe, support any friend, in defense of liberty?”…

But I can’t imagine that there would be a president of the United States in my lifetime — and I was born during the Truman administration — that would not have given some religious context to the events of 9/11. We have to understand that America is a very religious nation. I know this disturbs and perplexes the New York Times, but it is a fact. When the Pew Trust does a study, for instance, they find that [for] somewhere between 65 percent and 70 percent of Americans, religion is very important in their lives. You compare that with Canada where it’s 28 percent, and Great Britain, where it’s 17 percent.

And Doug Wead, a Bush family friend and evangelical political consultant, makes a fascinating comment about the real and the calculated in Bush’s religiosity:

There’s no question that the president’s faith is real, that it’s authentic, that it’s genuine, and there’s no question that it’s calculated. I know that sounds like a contradiction. But that will always be the case for a public figure, regardless of their faith, whether they’re Islamic, or Jewish, or Christian….

Gandhi once said, “He who says that religion and politics don’t mix understands neither one.” I would say that I don’t know when he’s sincere and when he’s calculated, and a reporter for FRONTLINE doesn’t know. George Bush doesn’t know when he’s operating out of a genuine sense of his own faith, or when it’s calculated, and there must be gray areas in between. I think he operates instinctively.

For example, in the Iowa debate, when he said Jesus was his favorite philosopher, it’s very questionable whether that helped him. It didn’t help him, especially in Iowa, especially not by very much. … It happened too late, and it was too shocking to have a great impact on the Iowa caucus. It may have a cumulative effect today. It may be remembered by evangelicals along with other things, and may make them more likely to embrace him in 200[4].

The religious war

Very explicit quote from an LA Times Article posted by Brian Flemming on his blog “slumdance”. The Times registration wont let me track the original.

“George sees this as a religious war,” one family member told us. “He doesn’t have a PC view of this war. His view is that they are trying to kill the Christians. And we the Christians will strike back with more force and more ferocity than they will ever know.” Critics charge that the president is blindly engaged in a crusade, propelled by a belief in Armageddon that will end in a geopolitical disaster. One has compared his faith to the fundamentalists of Islam. Another calls it downright “frightening.”

Flemming also posts a fascinating two columns of direct quotes contrasting Bush and Co’s Christian rhetoric with descriptions of Abu Ghraib.