Monday, July 26

On Becoming Therapeutically Cynical

I like New York Times columnist Charles Blow. In fact, I like Charles Blow a helluva lot. Ever since the Trump virus infected the American body politic, he has been one of the more astute observers of the etiology and progress of the disease, comparable only to such luminaries as Nicholas Kristof and Paul Krugman, as witness Blow’s recent op-ed column on the religious right’s harlot-like embrace of Donald Trump. So it is both discouraging and yet quite understandable that Blow would be surprised when the veneer of spirituality was so easily stripped off the religious right to reveal the lust for realpolitik lurking beneath.  The difference between Charles Blow and myself is that I am much less hesitant to believe in the reality of evil people, and my clear-sightedness in this regard comes from having been raised in the very kind of religious subculture that warms Trump’s debauched bed. Charles Blow is more accomplished than I intellectually and professionally. But, having spent almost 20 years growing up in the hothouse of hyper-fundamentalist Christianity, I am also less naïve. Consequently, unlike Charles Blow, I am not at all surprised by the rise of Christo-fascism. In fact, contra Blow, I wonder what took it so long.

Roy Moore
Charles Blow

Of course, a half-century or so ago, when I was acquiring my unintentional education in the politics of fundamentalism and (what we know today as) dominionism, Christo-fascism existed only embryonically. In my old fundamentalist church, no one marched in the streets, no one participated in get-out-the-vote campaigns, and any kind of political activity carried the taint of being “worldly” and “secular”, therefore unworthy of contact with – for so we considered ourselves – the Righteous Remnant awaiting Rapture. But any organism’s embryo carries a fully articulated suite of DNA codes awaiting explicit expression:  the dots are there, awaiting only a pencil-wielding hand to connect them. In retrospect, I can recall several of these dots from my youth that would later, under Trump, be given militant expression in and by the wider Christian right:

o The subjugation of women

The seeds of Roy-Moore-ism and Trump-ism ... and, yes, Al-Franken-ism ... were planted in Christian fundamentalism when women were forbidden to be ministers and deacons, something I dimly began to realize when I was taken to task for asking a woman to lead communal prayer at my church. (Leading the congregation in a dozen-word prayer was, after all, still leadership.) On another occasion, a young woman at the church became pregnant out of wedlock, and was required to stand in front of the assembled membership and basically grovel in repentance. Not a word was said to or about the father of her child.

Jimmy Swaggart
Bill Gothard

o Racism

Another straw in the wind was blown by my dimly comprehending face when, the Sunday after the assassination of Dr. King, I overheard the pastor of the church say to the deacon -- I remember the words verbatim to this day -- "Well, it's been a good week. The stock market is up, and we killed us a n***er." In protest,  I gave a eulogy to Dr. King that evening before evening Sunday School, and was excluded from membership in the church on Wednesday of the week following.

o Bannon-esque nihilism in promoting Apocalypse

Every summer, the church would hold a week-long series of "revival" meetings, with the preaching done by an outside evangelist. At least one such evening would be devoted to End Time / eschatalogical prophecy, and would invariably be the best-attended week-day meeting of the entire series. This is why I can, in a strange sort of way, understand the almost-erotic attachment of people like Steve Bannon to a vision of collapse and catastrophe -- a kind of Christian-ized Goetterdaemmerung in which even the gods, presumably up to and including the senior fellows of the Heritage Foundation, are all likewise consumed.  The lesson I draw:  Christian fundamentalism is merely nihilism wearing clerical vestments.

o Militant religious exclusivism and bigotry

At least in the case of my fundamentalist community, this was much more than the usual Buddhists-are-going-to-hell rhetoric. It even extended to churches of the same doctrine and practice. When we celebrated communion, any member visiting even from the same type of church would be excluded from receiving the bread and wine (actually, grape juice) because of a practice called "closed Communion". Both the visitors and the indigenous church members were parts of the same in-group, but some were believed to be more "in" than others.

The reason I indulge in such otherwise-unnecessary detail about such lunatic-fringe minutiae is by way of saying three things:  (1) the kind of  obscurantism and nihilism we usually associate with today's Republican Party was "always already" present in potentia in the fundamentalist churches and fundamentalism of my youth, and therefore (2) all that was needed to liberate the demons of the ideological id from their bonds in the body-politic superego was a perfect-storm combination of personalities and circumstances, both of which were to be found in contemporary politics and contemporary post-modernism.  Therefore, (3) there is no reason for the surprise Charles Blow, as a man of undisputed good will, expresses in his op-ed piece in the Times.

I say that entirely without rancor or censure. The signs were all there, but we did not see them. The energy was there, but we believed it was controlled by customary social and political strictures. We were wrong. I was wrong. The point is not to dwell on the past, but to take a lesson for the future:  yes, "It" can happen here.  Many years ago, on his old conversation / debate show Firing Line, William F. Buckley spoke with Prof. Arthur M. Schlesinger on the subject of ideology. (Schlesinger, a senior knight of the Kennedy Camelot, and Buckley, the arch-conservative of God and Man at Yale and co-founder of National Review, disagreed about nearly everything, but this was in the 70s, when people could disagree about such things urbanely and civilly.) Ever since that evening, I have remembered something Schlesinger said:  it is very difficult, he remarked, for people of good will, heirs of the classical-liberal Enlightenment tradition, to believe that evil people actually mean the evil things they say and do. Conservatives, he continued, having a less sanguine view of human nature, are, to conservatives' credit, accordingly much less surprised when evil rhetoric slips the bonds of mere words and becomes instantiated in our actual political and social life.

I am less erudite than Charles Blow, Nicholas Kristof, & Co. But I am also less naive. I am more therapeutically cynical, somewhat in the Schlesinger tradition. I just do not know which is more tragic.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Photo of Charles Blow ... Larry D. Moore ... CC BY-SA 4.0
Photo of Judge Roy Moore ... BibleWizard ... Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
Anti-gay march ... Steven Damron ... CC BY 2.0
Photo of Jimmy Swaggart ... JNTracy75 ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Photo of Bill Gothard ... Institute in Basic Life Principles ... Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
Holy Family ... Claudio Coello (1642-1693) ... Public domain


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