Category Archives: religion

Posts about the supernatural, as well as about organized religion and religious bigotry.

Thoughts on Christianity and Authoritarianism

If the reports are to be believed, one-third of Americans today approve of the President’s performance. The constituency most likely to go on approving of Mr. Trump is evangelical Christians, in particular middle-aged white evangelical Christians. Much has been written of this political alliance, along the line that Donald Trump is a man of un-christian character, angry and vain and materialistic, and so on. How can the faithful regard him as theirs?

They have done so by casting Mr. Trump as a modern-day Cyrus or Nebuchadnezzar, which is to say a flawed individual who nonetheless—perhaps even because of this—has been chosen by God and through whom the divine is achieving His will. Anyone who has been to an evangelical gathering, especially of the revivalist-testimonial type, knows that the best witness is also the most lurid. Invariably a solemn and clean-looking fellow will electrify his audience with a tale of debauchery, the lascivious details of his previous life of depravity serving to underscore the point that “if God could save a wretch like me ….” Before he was St. Paul, Saul of Tarsus by his own admission was a dangerous fanatic who went eagerly about the work of murdering the followers of Jesus. The tradition of playing up one’s nastiness in the service of a cracking testimony obtains from Saul through Augustine to the present day. Human wickedness is baked into the Christian religion in the way that class struggle is baked into Marxism, so that to point out Mr. Trump’s shortcomings is only to affirm a central tenet of evangelicalism, that God can and does work through even the most thoroughly fallen.

But why Mr Trump, when the field is crowded with flawed candidates? Perhaps a better line of inquiry is to consider what evangelical Christianity is, not as a religion, but as a political system.

When the plainly superstitious details of religion are removed, for example virgin births and ascensions to heaven etc, what remains is a set of propositions about the world and of our place within it. The propositions are as follows. The universe is a work of omniscience, governed by universal and immutable law. To go up against the law is to offend the Almighty and to invite His wrath. There is no court of appeal. God has put down His laws in writing from the beginning of time, and it is a work of supreme arrogance even to question. The only recourse of man is to follow the law and to conform to the natural order, which is to say God’s word. Do as you may, eventually everything is going to collapse in a conflagration of evil, a fate most of us deserve. The effect of St Paul’s teachings was to sublate the Jewish law into a doctrine of divine grace, but without altering the universal and fixed nature of God’s will. In the universe of Christianity, everything is presided by an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful Father whose wrath or love is ineluctable as well as non-negotiable. One’s only options in this life are to accept the offer of divine grace on the terms advanced or to suffer eternally.

It takes little mental effort to translate this notion of an all-powerful, all-seeing, law-and-grace-issuing Father into a political system, and that system is best described as totalitarian. Say what you will of monotheism: it is not a democratic system or a working out of an evolutionary process. The only role of the demos in evangelicalism is to follow the law and to affirm over and again the glory of the Dear Leader. Evangelical Christianity as a political system is less about the negotiation of consensus and compromise, of inching laboriously toward the good if imperfect society, than it is about sorting the world into good and evil so that the final battle might get underway. The human heart is wicked in an irredeemable way, and thus unreliable as a moral guide. From this it follows that human solutions to human problems are also unreliable, so that the chief political task is to ensure that the good prevail upon the wicked by imposing upon them the strictures of law. What Christianity proposes is an authoritarian and not a pluralistic, liberal view of society.

I am not suggesting that all Christians or even most of them are totalitarian in outlook. What I am suggesting is that evangelicalism and authoritarianism are fellow-travellers. Should authoritarianism one day overtake the United States, we should expect evangelicals to reconcile themselves to it easily, provided it is an authoritarianism of the “Travail, Famille, Patrie” variety. The only thing Donald Trump had to do to win over evangelicals was to make pleasant noises about the importance of faith while advancing a law-and-order agenda that broadly repudiated the liberal belief in a society made better through the work of human social engineering. The President’s hyper-masculine persona could only be reassuring to someone who has cast her lot with a Father Who Art in Heaven, especially a law-giving Father obsessed with a tribalist program of sorting the wheat from the chaff. Trump’s grievance and resentment based cultural war of us-against-them ought to be familiar to the most casual student of monotheism, whether the subject is Twentieth-Century Ireland or present-day Islam.

A moment ago I alluded to “the work of human social engineering.” This phrase can be understood in more than one way. It can apply to the current materialist effort to deconstruct human sexuality and gender, the idea that male and female are nothing more than oppressive constructs. But the phrase also comprises the Enlightenment notion that human societies are malleable and not forever determined by divine precept. The term for this point-of-view, that our lot may be improved through the application of human reason, is liberalism. The ideology of liberalism emerged at about the time the United States of America was established, and against it stood the authoritarian principle—the Great Chain of Being, the divine sanctioning of the monarch and aristocracy, and so forth. To be a liberal is to believe in progress driven by human intelligence and reason and effort.

At bottom liberalism and monotheism are incompatible, although it is possible to hold both in one’s mind and to claim an allegiance to both simultaneously. Many of the monotheistic schisms are in fact over this exact question, and they take many forms. Jewish anti-Zionism repudiates the man-made state of Israel on the grounds that only the Messiah may establish the Kingdom. Likewise within Islam there is a disagreement over whether the Caliphate should be established now or only with the return of the hidden Imam. In any case the City of God will be by definition a theocracy, where votes are not cast and there are no protests or courts of appeal.

Even if I am wrong about everything I have written above, it is objectively the case that President Trump is the most perfect specimen of an evangelical President. Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower can not touch him for popularity. In an era when politicians are as a rule held in contempt, Mr. Trump consistently polls around 80% favourable among evangelical Christians—a useful fact, for it shows us what the ideal evangelical candidate looks like. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord, but of course this is not true. Vengeance is President Trump’s, and as a matter of proxy it is now also the province of evangelicals. For what must feel like the first time, they have something approximating real political power. They are set about the work of repudiating liberalism and re-establishing the law, if necessary at the expense of conventional politics itself.

We are going to lose the war with fanatical Islamism, and here’s how

CHARLIE HEBDO. A month ago, no one had even heard of it here in North America. And now? The magazine is selling millions of copies, many of them States-side. I see that for roughly $16,000 you can buy the first post-attack edition on eBay.

Is this a victory for free speech? I don’t know. I enjoy the irony that attacking the publication has only made it more widely circulated than ever before. Maybe that’s a victory for viral marketing, publicity and Capitalism. As for freedom of speech, I’ve lost count of the editorials here in the West explaining decisions not to show the offending covers. They are all of a cloth, and go something like this:

– The covers have no news value
– The images are readily available elsewhere, if you must see them
– The cartoons are deliberately offensive and in poor taste
– Viewers and readers will have their sentiments outraged

Now, there is no human right that says your cartoon must be shown on the news. And I agree that the images I have seen are strenuously rude and calculated to cause offence. I gather the Pope himself said, in an offhanded way, you should expect a punch for being so rude. (I’ll have more to say on that.)  But the arguments against showing the covers, above, don’t hold their marbles. Here’s why.

The covers have no news value

If you’re hosting a news program and find yourself saying, “this thing I’m talking about on the news, right now, has no news value,” then don’t expect to be taken seriously. Exactly this happened on PBS NewsHour Friday. The news value of the Charlie Hebdo covers is self-evident. You know what doesn’t have news value? The stuff that isn’t making the news. See how that works? You can argue with me about the judgements of news editors, but I don’t think you can deny that Charlie Hebdo is a for-real news item.

The images are readily available elsewhere, if you must see them

So what? Since when do you open the New York Times expecting to be told that you can read about something in the Wall Street Journal. Seriously, Main Street Media? You’re going to skip on printing the covers because , aw shucks, someone else went ahead and did it for you? Again, I can’t take you seriously. I call bullshit on this one.

The cartoons are deliberately offensive and in poor taste

Who is deciding for me what’s too offensive for my tender mind to handle? Who is censoring the news clean of the stuff I’m apparently not adult enough to take?

The guardians are.

Iran is “led” by something called the velayat-e-faqih. Do you know what that means? It’s the “Guardianship [velayat] of the Cleric [faqih].” Everyone in Iran is a ward of the state. The clerics are their guardians. The leaders make sure that the people are protected from anything un-Islamic. And, fortunately, they do a lousy job of it—but they do try.

Here’s a news flash: we don’t need freedom of speech laws to protect nice, friendly, middle-of-the road, feel-good consensus views. No one has to be placed under round-the-clock armed guard protection for writing books called “It’s a Swell Idea to Call Your Mother Once in a While” or “Ice Cream Goes Great with Apple Pie.” Non-offensive, non-challenging, non-controversial views protect themselves, by being boring and useless.

Once you decide to not protect the rude ideas, you’ve hollowed out free speech. It no longer exists. It’s a big joke. You’re saying, “I will bravely stand up for your right to say that puppies are cute.” B.I.G. D.E.A.L.

Here’s the truth: media people are afraid. I had coffee with a journalist friend of mine, and he told me there are now guards roaming the news floor. I get it. The world is scary. So admit, media execs, that this is about risking the loss of readers and revenue, and maybe even an attack. Be honest.

Back to the Pope. He says that if someone makes a rude comment about his mother, that person should expect a punch. I agree with the Pope on this one, and since I’ve never cared for Jesus’ stupid and dangerous teaching to turn the other cheek, I applaud His Holiness for advocating the defending of one’s mother.

But guess what? Punching someone is assault. In most jurisdictions, it’s illegal. And wrong. You might well be charged with a crime. If you seriously injured that person, you could spend time in jail—even though (in my view) you were justified in hitting him.

There’s also a difference, or should be, between attacking the ideas and behaviour of the mighty and powerful in print, and insulting someone’s poor mother. If the Pope can’t see the difference, he probably is not fit to pronounce on nuanced matters like spirituality, faith and theology. Maybe he should take up boxing instead.

Let’s get this straight. Islam is a religion of two billion followers. It claims for itself to be the final revelation of God. Mohammed claimed to be God’s Prophet, and his words are held by his billions of followers to establish eternal and universal truths whose authority commands our total obedience. Perceived disobedience, or even unorthodoxy, can lead to your disfigurement and death. Entire countries are now governed by clerics, under a harsh form of Islamic law called Sharia.

Does this sound like a poor, vulnerable target to you? No way. Islam has enormous social, ideological and military power. And it’s a set of ideas, some of which are stupid, irrational, dangerous and cruel. The same is true, in my opinion, of every other religion.

Anyone working for a satirical magazine whose purpose is to critique powerful and potentially dangerous ideas has a duty to ridicule the excesses of Islam’s self-appointed spokespersons and enforcers. It’s nothing at all like telling someone his mother is fat. I repeat: nothing at all. Unless, of course, this fat mother claims to have given virginal birth to a god who rose from the dead and took a magic-carpet ride in outer space before coming back to dictate The Bible 3.0—and that if you don’t believe all of this, you are an infidel who deserves death. Or, if they are feeling generous, maybe just to be a persecuted minority of second-class non-citizens.

Viewers and readers will have their sentiments outraged

Dear offended religious people: do you know that I have my sentiments outraged daily by the things you do and say? It’s true. I am outraged when I see Catholic propaganda that says we should ban assisted suicide because suffering is a beautiful gift from God. (If so God is a lousy gifter: He should have a Returns Policy.) I am offended when clerics and priests say that atheism is destroying civilization and that earthquakes are punishment for gay marriage and “you can’t be a good person if you don’t have God in your heart.” People actually have said that last one to my face, and every time I barf a little into my mouth.

There are so many religious ideas I find offensive and barbaric that I could write a book listing them. (Note to self.) I can’t get through lunch without  some offensive religious idea or pronouncement drifting into my personal space. My head is pounding as I type this, because I can think of hundreds of examples.

Do I insist that these offensive ideas be banned from being reported in the media? No, I don’t. I accept the fact that not everyone agrees with me. I deal with it by going to the market place of ideas, where I appeal to reason and argumentation. Some of the people on the other side of the argument believe that, with God on their side, they have the right and even duty to kill me for my views. (Someone described as a “Saudi Muslim leader” is going to the courts instead—that’s a somewhat encouraging novelty.) I notice these are also the people who are most vocal about not criticizing religion or offending religious sensibilities.

So to recap: I get to be offended every day by religious ideas and action, but—for goodness sake!—don’t say anything rude about religion, because that’s mean and offensive and in poor taste. Racist, even. Notice how it’s been mostly liberal, free-speech types who’ve caved in to this idea that we shouldn’t offend religious sensibilities. They point out to me that I wouldn’t tolerate anti-Semitism, ignoring the fact that I’ve protected the free speech of those losers, too. Because it is speech. If it’s something more than that, I’m open to the conversation. Just keep in mind that banishing speech does not solve any real-world problem—it only makes your precious sentiments feel better.

The next person to ban an “Islamophobic” university campus publication will most likely be wearing an “I am Charlie” pin on her lapel. It’s a truism worth repeating: the barbarians never charge the gate—it’s always opened from the inside, by self-loathing people who secretly wish for the destruction of their society.

This week the gate opened. All of the nice liberals have decided it’s more important to be deferential to religious sensibilities than it is to take a controversial stand for freedom of speech.

That’s exactly how we are going to lose this battle, folks.

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