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In God's Country | The Nation

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In God's Country

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On November 4, 2004, two days after George W. Bush was narrowly re-elected President, the New York Times published a gloomy op-ed by historian Garry Wills titled "The Day the Enlightenment Went Out." The United States, observed Wills, was "a product of Enlightenment values--critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences." But, as the election results showed, these principles had given way to something new--"fundamentalist zeal, a rage at secularity, religious intolerance, fear of and hatred for modernity." Wills was hardly alone in this reading. "The reelection of a president such as George W. Bush," declared Michael Tomasky of The American Prospect, "is a culminating event in the political retreat of modernity, a condition of existence whose fundamental tenet was the triumph of scientific skepticism over what used to be called 'blind' faith."

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Eyal Press is a Nation contributing writer and the author of Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict...

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Who exactly upheld this tenet Tomasky didn't say. Certainly not the nine in ten Americans who have said they've never doubted the existence of God. Or the eight in ten who believe the Lord works miracles. Or the same number who are certain they will be called to answer for their sins on Judgment Day. Or the tens of millions who attend church every week--more, in a typical seven-day span, than those who turn out for all sporting events combined. These figures are drawn from the 1990 book Under God, by Garry Wills. As Wills pointed out at the time, the idea that urbanization, scientific progress and rising living standards would gradually transform America into a secular society has long appealed to journalists and intellectuals. Talk about blind faith. In reality, noted Wills, "nothing has been more stable in our history, nothing less budgeable, than religious belief and practice."

The source of this stability is not, as some right-wing demagogues now insist, that the Founding Fathers were devout evangelicals who viewed America as a Christian nation and who would have sided with conservatives in today's culture wars. As Brooke Allen points out in Moral Minority, most of the Founders were deists and Unitarians who rejected doctrines like the Incarnation. Thomas Jefferson dismissed the Trinity as "incomprehensible jargon." He and other Founders made no mention of God in the Constitution, and took pains not to establish an official church on US soil. And yet, as various scholars have noted, disestablishment grew out of respect, not disdain, for religion, which, James Madison observed, "flourishes in greater purity without [rather] than with the aid of government." He was right. The level of religious observance in America has long dwarfed that in various European countries where official churches still exist. It has remained exceptionally robust despite periodic predictions of its imminent decline. In the 1960s, for example, falling church membership stirred much excited talk about the so-called "death of God." Somebody forgot to inform the American people, an overwhelming majority of whom told pollsters they were believers. When, a decade later, a Baptist deacon named Jimmy Carter was elected President, the media discovered that tens of millions of Americans considered themselves born-again, which had been true for some time but had managed to escape most commentators' notice.

It doesn't get overlooked much these days. From Frank Rich to Kevin Phillips, author of the recent bestseller American Theocracy, sounding the alarm about America's transformation into a Christian version of fundamentalist Iran has become a popular sport (not to mention a savvy career move) among critics of the Bush Administration. The sense of alarm is, to some degree, understandable. It's undeniably true that the Republican Party and the religious right have grown increasingly hard to distinguish in recent years. It's also evident that some Christian fundamentalists want to live in a country purged of people who don't think exactly like themselves (which would exclude not only atheists and agnostics but the majority of people of faith). On the other hand, many secular people apparently feel the same way. Shortly after John Kerry's defeat in the 2004 election, an e-mail made the rounds among disgruntled Democrats suggesting that the United States be divided into two nations: the liberal coasts (where the educated, open-minded people live) and "Jesusland" (where the zealots reside). The only way to halt the retreat of modernity, it appeared, was for the cosmopolitan blue states to secede from the increasingly intolerant white evangelical heartland.

One problem with this view is that a large number of evangelical Christians don't live in the Bible Belt. Another is that many of them aren't white. Some years ago, the Chilean-born photographer Camilo José Vergara began taking pictures of places like La Sinagoga, a Latino church located in a run-down neighborhood of junkyards and metal shops in Brooklyn, and Emmanuel Baptist Rescue Mission, which is situated on a corner of Skid Row, Los Angeles, where drug dealers ply their trade. The photographs in Vergara's richly documented, visually arresting book, How the Other Half Worships, illustrate how indelibly religious most poor minority communities in America are, not least because in many blighted urban neighborhoods churches are the only viable institutions around. Trekking through the back streets and barrios of twenty-one different cities, Vergara spots churches tucked away in former warehouses, nightclubs, five-and-dime stores, movie theaters, car dealerships, hotels and slaughterhouses. Some are sandwiched between crumbling buildings on desolate blocks. Others lack steeples, crosses, choir platforms, even bathrooms, yet nevertheless bring residents together in lively, often frenzied services where worshipers shake, dance, speak in tongues, sing, weep, wail, fall to their knees, and pray for deliverance and God's grace.

What draws inner-city blacks and Latinos to such places? The same thing that attracts people to religion in many down-and-out places--a hunger for meaning and transcendence in a world that can seem brutally harsh and unforgiving, a sense of community and fellowship that evidently goes unmet otherwise. At many of the churches Vergara visits, pastors speak of the Bible as the literal truth and of the universe's Creator as an omnipotent force with the power to heal the sick, rescue the damned and work miracles. Theologically, in other words, the places where the "other half" worships are a lot closer to the revival-friendly pockets of the Deep South than to Manhattan's Upper West Side. They are peopled by women like Queen Lucretia Smith, an African-American faith healer who was among the first female pastors in Chicago, and Lawrence Moore, a former dope dealer and petty thief who now ministers to the homeless in California and says, "Everything comes from God. There are some that He chooses to go through a life of hardship and pain, and there are others that go through a life of prosperity and riches."

Skeptics might dismiss such talk as the sort of faith-based pablum that members of the Bush Administration would appreciate. And the White House has indeed made no secret of its desire to build bridges to minority groups through inner-city churches, not least in the hope that ministers will drum home the message that poor people should look to God (rather than, say, government programs) for salvation. It's one more way religion might appear to play into the hands of the right, and the pastors quoted in Vergara's book do occasionally sound like Republicans. Some dismiss homosexuality as an "abomination." Others tell their congregations that wives must obey their husbands because this is what the Bible says. Surveys indicate that religiously observant African-American Protestants are only slightly less likely than their white counterparts to agree that sexual relations between two adults of the same gender are "always wrong."

Before rushing to assume such people are Bush supporters, it's worth noting that there is no evidence the more pious members of minority groups have been drifting into the ranks of the GOP. In fact, the opposite may be true. As sociologists Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout point out in their new book, The Truth About Conservative Christians, the most devout African-Americans--those who read the Bible daily and view it as the "word of God"--were also those most likely to support Democrats in the 1992-2000 presidential elections. The same religious zeal that pushes some whites to the right, in other words, leads blacks in the opposite direction, and not only at the polling booth. A generation ago, it was churchgoing black people who spearheaded the civil rights movement, a faith-based struggle that historians like David Chappell have likened to a religious revival.

How, Greeley and Hout ask, do pundits routinely equate biblical Christianity with right-wing politics when African-Americans, "who are in nearly every respect as religiously conservative as whites," nevertheless "vote overwhelmingly for Democrats?" By, it appears, mistakenly assuming all Bible-believing Christians are reactionary white Southerners who write monthly checks to the likes of Jerry Falwell. As a survey by Religion & Ethics Newsweekly found, a majority of evangelicals actually hold an unfavorable view of Falwell. A large number appear to care more about jobs and the economy than issues like gay marriage and abortion. Greeley and Hout provide strong evidence that among white conservative Protestants--a category that includes denominations such as Southern Baptists, Pentecostals and Mormons--class indeed matters a lot more than most pundits think. Between 1992 and 2000, 80 percent of the affluent members of these denominations voted for Republicans, but fewer than half of those who are poor did so. Even on abortion, such voters hardly speak in one voice. According to the National Opinion Research Center, the number of conservative Protestants who oppose abortion under all circumstances is a whopping 14 percent, less than the 22 percent who are consistently prochoice. Most hold views somewhere in the middle. These are the scary inhabitants of "Jesusland" many analysts wrongly assume march in lockstep with the religious right.

To point this out is not to deny that America is awash in right-wing preachers who invoke the Bible to promote a range of reactionary causes. As he drove from George Bush International Airport in Houston to Longview, Texas, not long ago, Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College and an evangelical Christian, tuned in to the radio and heard, among other things, that the case for evolution is crumbling, that "Satan wants the United States to be kind to pluralism" and that the Constitution provides no guarantee of personal privacy.

Such rhetoric has become the stock in trade of conservative talk-radio and now permeates large swaths of an evangelical subculture whose members tended to look askance at politics only a few decades ago. The influence of this newly mobilized constituency is distressingly apparent in everything from the debate about stem-cell research to the appointment of federal judges to US policy toward Israel. Even so, exaggerating that influence serves little purpose, save to reinforce the impression that America has fallen prey to a reactionary form of dogmatic Christianity and that the religious right has a popular mandate for its agenda.

The latter notion developed into a veritable dogma after the 2004 election, as pundits seized on an exit poll showing 22 percent of voters ranked "moral values" as their top priority, above such issues as the economy and Iraq. The Dark Ages, apparently, had arrived. The Moral Majority had finally become a majority. Only later was it noted that a comparable percentage of voters had listed values as their foremost concern in 1996 (the year Bill Clinton was re-elected), and that Bush almost certainly defeated Kerry because of his large edge on national security. A few months after this came Congress and Bush's intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, which again prompted observers to marvel at America's startling turn toward right-wing Christian fundamentalism. Yet 82 percent of Americans opposed Congress and the President's action.

As the Schiavo fiasco showed, many members of Congress do march in lockstep with the religious right: According to Bill Moyers, forty-five senators and 186 members of the 108th Congress received an approval rating of 80 percent or higher from the most powerful Christian advocacy groups. That is an alarming fact. In Welcome to Doomsday, an expanded version of an essay that originally appeared in The New York Review of Books, Moyers goes on to argue that the religious right is so powerful these days it now has a hammerlock on environmental policy as well. Belief in the biblical prophecy predicting the impending onset of the Rapture, he notes, has led some ministers to insist there's no point in worrying about things like global warming, since life as we know it will soon end anyway.

"You can understand why people in the grip of such fantasies cannot be expected to worry about the environment," writes Moyers. But if this is such a problem, why do a clear majority of Americans back strong environmental protections? The Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, bills protecting federal wetlands: All these things enjoy robust support from the same population breathlessly awaiting the Rapture. The rollback of environmental laws in recent years is real enough (and has been documented on television by nobody more thoroughly than Moyers, it must be said). But, as Moyers himself notes, in 2004 the National Association of Evangelicals issued a statement affirming that the government "has an obligation to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation." Earlier this year, a group of eighty-six evangelical leaders published a joint declaration echoing this. "Our commitment to Jesus Christ compels us to solve the global warming crisis," it stated. The problem is not the stranglehold evangelical Christians have on environmental policy (if only this were so!) but the one exerted by corporations and antiregulation zealots like Grover Norquist.

When it comes to cultural matters, the religious right obviously does play a prominent role in shaping the GOP's agenda. It has done so by claiming to speak on behalf of the Bible-believing masses against the God-hating secular elites. In the same breath, of course, right-wing theologians routinely describe America as a fallen country whose entire culture has rotted to the core. One cannot have it both ways, a point made by Damon Linker in his illuminating new book The Theocons, which focuses on a small but influential group of right-wing Catholic thinkers organized around the journal First Things, where Linker used to be an editor. The journal was founded in the early 1990s by Father Richard Neuhaus, a Catholic priest who nowadays is chummy with George W. Bush and Karl Rove. Back in the 1960s, Neuhaus kept rather different company: He was a radical Lutheran pastor who, along with Father Daniel Berrigan and Rabbi Abraham Heschel, headed the group Clergy Concerned About Vietnam. In 1970 he published an essay, "The Thorough Revolutionary," in which he openly advocated the overthrow of the US government and criticized Che Guevara from the left, upbraiding the Argentine guerrilla leader for his "unwillingness to use terrorism" to seize power. Two decades later, in 1996, First Things published a forum titled "The End of Democracy?" in which Neuhaus again pondered revolution, this time from the right. The US government, abetted by courts that affirmed the legality of abortion and other moral abominations, had evolved into a tyranny that "cannot command the consent of the people," he wrote. This made "morally justified revolution" a reasonable option.

Then as now, Neuhaus wrote as if he were speaking for a silent majority against the unaccountable elites, a claim so pervasive these days that Americans who are prochoice, support stem-cell research and don't actually believe the judiciary should be abolished might well assume they're vastly outnumbered. But they're not. The Neuhauses of the world are right that the United States is a lot more religious than the media and many intellectuals think. But they're wrong that most Americans see eye to eye with them. In fact, on many issues, most churchgoing Americans don't, which is perhaps why, as Linker shows, Neuhaus and other theocons have been quite content to see the will of the majority thwarted by elites when it has served their minority agenda. Not a peep was raised in the pages of First Things, for example, when the Supreme Court intervened to prevent a recount in the 2000 election. Neuhaus actually praised the decision, just as he and others will surely laud the Justices if they overturn Roe v. Wade, even though a majority of the public opposes this. Selective in their populism, the theocons are equally selective in their adherence to church doctrine: Michael Novak, another First Things contributor, believes American women should be forced to accept the Vatican's teachings on abortion, but he went to Rome at the invitation of President Bush's ambassador to defend the war in Iraq, which the Pope staunchly opposed. From the death penalty to poverty, what the church says can be ignored, except when its encyclicals support the right side in the culture wars, in which case everyone must take note.

There are, of course, millions of Americans who would rejoice if Roe were reversed, just as there are many who think the separation of church and state is a myth, that mandatory school prayer should be reinstated and that sex between two consenting adults of the same gender should be a punishable crime. It is perfectly fair for Americans who disagree with such views to say so--the louder the better. It is nevertheless a mistake to dismiss those who hold them either as victims of false consciousness or as fools, the way Sam Harris does in his slender, entertaining but misleadingly titled new book, Letter to a Christian Nation, which is actually addressed to people like himself who want to get a good laugh at the expense of those silly enough to believe in God. Harris's unabashed disdain for all forms of religion is in some ways bracing--he has as little patience for moderate believers as for biblical literalists. And much in his letter will likely prove amusing to atheists and agnostics fed up with hearing pastors insist that only the churched are capable of viewing the world through a moral prism. "According to the most common interpretation of biblical prophecy," he writes,

Jesus will return only after things have gone horribly awry here on earth. It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to say that if the city of New York were suddenly replaced by a ball of fire, some significant percentage of the American population would see a silver lining in the subsequent mushroom cloud, as it would suggest to them that the best thing that is ever going to happen was about to happen: the return of Christ.

One can practically hear Upper West Side liberals chuckling to themselves, aghast at the irrationality of the heartland. But one wonders if they'll nod approvingly as Harris turns his attention to Muslims. "It is now a truism in foreign policy circles that real reform in the Muslim world cannot be imposed from the outside," he observes. "But it is important to recognize why this is so--it is so because most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith."

Harris belongs to a group that Timothy Garton Ash recently described as "secular fundamentalists." He is an engaging writer, and the popularity of his book suggests that many people think it is about time the faith community received its comeuppance. But by his standard, many African-Americans who took part in the civil rights movement were also deranged. So were others who gathered in church basements during the 1980s to stop the Reagan Administration from arming death squads in Central America (among whose victims were many nuns and priests who preached liberation theology). So was William Jennings Bryan, the populist orator and born-again Christian who for several decades served as the voice the excluded in America, supporting everything from legalizing strikes to progressive taxation, and whose passion and appeal Michael Kazin convincingly demonstrates in a new biography, A Godly Hero, were inextricably related to his biblical faith. So was the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, perhaps the greatest moral agitator of the nineteenth century, whose abhorrence of slavery, according to his biographer Henry Mayer, "cannot be understood outside the context of the Christianity that was its inspiration." "Nothing but extensive revivals of pure religion can save our country," wrote Garrison in 1831, the year he began publishing The Liberator, a statement that might have led the secularists of his era to brand him a fanatic, which is indeed how many of his less devout contemporaries saw him. "Radical popular religion helped eradicate an evil with which socially liberal theological opinion had learned to coexist," notes Mayer.

The same religious conviction that has propelled many conservatives to support George W. Bush in recent years also motivates many progressive people of faith to volunteer at homeless shelters and turn out for antiwar rallies. Churches have played a major role in the recent wave of demonstrations on behalf of undocumented immigrants' rights. They have been active for decades in assisting the needy, not least because, as Randall Balmer notes, the Bible contains roughly 2,000 references to the poor (compared with zero explicit mentions of abortion). If faith in God helps explain why Bush has been such a terrible President, it also explains why Jimmy Carter has been such an admirable former one. In his latest book, Our Endangered Values, a scathing critique of the religious right's misplaced priorities, Carter, a devout Baptist, admits that he never prayed more frequently than during his four years in the White House. He also eloquently articulates why, in his view, religion should foster compassion and humility, not the arrogance and intolerance that many of his Bush-supporting fellow Baptists project these days.

There are, to be sure, plenty of religious people whose ideas are decidedly less attractive than Carter's: imams who insist a newspaper editor should be executed for insulting the Prophet Muhammad; "prolife" activists who believe in the morality of shooting doctors who perform abortions; Israeli zealots who advocate "transfer," i.e., the expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the occupied territories. But there's also no shortage of secular people who have propagated murderous ideas through the years. Hitler hardly mentioned God, and Pol Pot, Stalin and Mao never mentioned God at all. The President of Iran may be a Holocaust-denying Muslim, but he is arguably no more dangerous than the atheist dictator running North Korea. Intolerant and repressive worldviews come in many forms. So does an air of self-righteousness and moral superiority. In this regard, at least Sam Harris is consistent. Conservatives like David Brooks have no problem seeing Muslim fundamentalists as fascists and fanatics who threaten the Enlightenment (the love affair with the anti-Soviet Afghan mujahedeen came to an end on 9/11), but they are far more forgiving when it comes to Christian fundamentalists in the American heartland and Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Some on the far left, by contrast, do the opposite, happily disparaging Bible Belt Christians while giving a pass to Islamist forces in Palestine, Iraq and southern Lebanon. When it comes to the latter, care is taken to understand what draws people to Islam--the failure of secular ideologies, the persistence of occupation, the yearning for dignity, the fear that cultural traditions are being uprooted. Might not some of the same factors be at play among born-again Christians in places like rural Alabama?

To acknowledge this hardly requires us to sympathize with the Christian right's social agenda, any more than attempting to understand why people join groups like Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood demands that one accepts their views on the status of women or gays. Nor does a less dismissive attitude toward religion mean secular progressives should cede ground to right-wing ministers who insist an absence of faith renders people incapable of distinguishing right from wrong or acting compassionately. It does mean the secular left should think twice before seeing religious people as their foes, not least since such an attitude risks alienating many potential allies and confining ourselves to a small sect of like-minded believers. This, after all, is what fundamentalism is about.

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