Religion in America II

[sepoy notes: On the inerrancy of text, see Holy Writ in the latest Economist (thanks, moacir). The piece focuses on Christian and Muslim traditions and has some excellent quotes and nice overview of the tension between textual literalists and textual critics. On the end times in Muslim eschatology, I briefly touched on this here and, depending on where farangi takes us, will have more to say.]

Pro-Semitic Anti-Semitism

American culture, specifically in its fundamentalist flavor, views the absurd categorical concept of “Jewishness” along a broad spectrum spanning from proxied loathing to unabashed enthusiasm – sometimes at once. Its posture is, quite literally, passive-aggressive1. Average American fundamentalists, by some accounts 60 million strong generally do not live in areas with a high Jewish population, and do not have much opportunity to meet modern Judaism where it breathes. They do, however, have a fine and frequent opportunity to meet “Jews”2 living between 4004 BCE and 9X CE.

From this stance, they tend to make assumptions about this world based upon the Bible’s portrayal of that one. For fundamentalist Christians in America, history began, quite literally, with God’s speaking light into existence in 4004 BCE, and ends, for all practical dating purposes, at the Resurrection, circa 33 CE. From there, it went on 1900 year hiatus that ended in 1948, when the Mogen David was raised in Tel Aviv. That day, the clock counting back to the world’s end began to tick – so long as Israel exists, fundamentalists hold hope that the Temple Mount can be razed of Muslim holy sites and the all-important “Third Temple” might be rebuilt on the Haram al-Sharif3. This is the queer source of fundamentalist support for the modern State of Israel, which they believe and teach to be synonymous and historically contiguous with the tiny Hebrew city-state of the Old Testament, 3500 years gone.

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Religion in America I

[sepoy notes: Gentle readers. I asked my good friend and, sometimes, collaborator farangi to write something explaining wtf is up with religion in America. Obviously, the elections were a motivation but there is something else going on. For example, just yesterday, Tom Delay – the embattled House Bully and born-again Christian – used scripture to castigate the poor tsunami victims. Not only is a particular variety of religious expression gathering prominence in civil discourse in America, it is shedding its inhibitions and moderations in public. I have talked about manic mullahs here often, and I believe that it is time we broadened the conversation not just to include religious zealotry of all stripes but also to cast an eye on the role of religion in the public and social life of this great country.]

Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God1 argued convincingly, to a wide audience, that religious fundamentalism2 was growing in response to modernity, and its effects could only be tempered by a thorough understanding of fundamentalist motivations. At the time of the book’s writing, her thesis seemed nonsensical to many educated urbanites, some of whom saw in religious faith an artifact, or a diluted cultural badge.

Not long before the book’s publication, a crime inspired by an odd brand of religious thought took asunder the biggest buildings in America’s biggest city. The attack forced many residents of New York and other, densely populated, hypermodern cities, like Los Angeles and Chicago, to reconsider assumptions about the relevance of faith. Armstrong’s thesis came true and timely.

Bookstores, talk radio and internet search engines experienced surges in interest about Islam, Osama Bin Laden, Pakistan, India, and even Sayyid al-Qutb, the philosophical idol of Bin Laden’s main lieutenant, Ayman al Zawahiri, and the intellectual soil from which much of modern Islam’s nuttier ideas spring.

It is good that people became more interested in Islam, which had for decades been little more than a misunderstood jumble of oriental symbols, frightening images, and racist calumnies in the popular western mind. It is also good that non-Muslim Americans became aware of the Muslims among them, and through education, many became sensitive to Muslim concerns, insofar as they uniformly exist. †

But it remains a tragedy that people who are now conversant on Islam’s “five pillars,” know nothing of glossolalia3, premillenial dispensationalism, the nondenominational movement, or various charismatic movements. Initial shock at Bush’s 2004 victory, coupled with the intelligentsia’s manic search for cause, is proof enough of a problem, a disconnect. The cause of Bush’s victory was always, and remains, right under their collective nose. They had been conditioned not to look for it, or in many cases, at it. And for good cause: The reason is strange and other and sometimes ugly, though it is distinctly American.

My aim in this essay is to encourage awareness of America’s modern religious context, similar to that following September 11 for Islam, by providing a brief, nonexhaustive primer on the state of religion in modern America. I will, by necessity, treat a slice of the religious population that is small in public voice and absolutely huge in numbers of adherents.

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Presidential opinions about abortion, the place of religious expression in the public sphere, free expression, the right to bear arms, the rights of the accused, etc.,††are usually†interesting but essentially meaningless: the most important issues of our day are constitutional issues, not policy issues. Presidents can do little or nothing about them, because the controversies around the issues are determined largely by two factorsóthe collective inertia of†Supreme Court decisions on a topic, and the attitudes of the Justices who finally hear them.†

But Tuesday’s election is important, because Bush may well build a new Supreme Court, in his own image, and who he picks will have serious ramifications.‚Ć

Rehnquist will likely soon be dead of thyroid cancer and Sandra Day OíConnor may at last decide sheís had enough of being the lone nearly-sane person in the booby hatch. Their pal John Paul Stevens will nigh turn 218 years old he was, get this: twenty-five at the end of World War II. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also in declining health after a bout with cancer, will likely join her cohorts in what may become a four-person exodus from the Supreme Court. Alas, the poor woman has lost her colon.†

Abortionistas, Gunlovers, Curse-Fiends and Bleeding Hearts have nothing to fear, I donít think: to overturn Roe would be akin to dismantling the very concept of precedent as a guiding principle; the real dangeróor opportunity, depending upon your perspectiveóis that, after nearly fifty years of relying in large part upon the Court to Do What Had To Be Done (because the Congress†avoided tough decisions), the branch of government intended by the Framers to be least powerful has indeed become Supreme.†By not holding the Congress accountable for its spinelessness, and by not demanding change through elected officials, and allowing them to abdicate their responsibilities to the un-unelectable, America seems to have given itself over to a rule by the Court Ö which†worked†so long as the Nine Platonic Vessels of The Sacred Effluvium (so called†deliciously by inferior Judge Learned Hand) were squarely up-with-people.†

Inevitably, in 2000, two bellyaching baby-boomers, whoíd seen the Court rightly desegregate schools, grant rights to privacy, de-Christianize the public sphere, install and protect diversity initiatives, and generally nudge the culture toward progressive, tolerant values, turned to the Court to resolve an essentially political question. Many of us were uncomfortable with the result. But it was too late; because Americans had been deferring to the Court so long, most accepted as legitimate that it could choose our leader.†

Now that leader, affirmed and emboldened, will nominate‚Ć‚Ćfour new Justices. True, those jurists will have to run a gauntlet of old-guard Senate Liberals to be confirmed. But I’m afraid we can no longer trust that generation to see a threat until it is behind them. Ted Kennedy, for example, will look backward for his objections,‚Ćto the bevy of‚Ćbaby-boomer‚Ćuntouchables,‚Ćseeking to protect abortion, gay rights, and other cultural bugbears. Bush nominees will give lip service to upholding the great liberal decisions of the twentieth century, and because of precedental shackles, they likely will. Yet to satisfy Bush’s base, any nominee will likely come from the Bork-Scalia-Thomas-Federalist Society orbit. In a Court overempowered, with six Thomas-caliber Justices seated, we have far greater concerns than whether the Court will preserve Roe.‚Ć

It√≠s not a Dem/Lib or Repub/Con thing. It’s far beyond that. Bush’s nominees may decide the development of American understandings of individual liberty, the limits of government intervention in personal affairs, and the nature of America√≠s relationship to those who are, by definition, its weakest members: those who, for whatever reason, justly or unjustly, are caught in the gears of the criminal justice system.‚Ć‚Ć

The massive Tolkien-scale legal battles of this century will be fought‚Ćagainst a virulent and punitive form of thought that has metastisized beyond traditional labels. It‚Ćdistracts the electorate with a false choice between security and liberty, while allowing various cynical interests to use the screen as cover to clamber back where such interests feel they rightly belong√≥astride the backs of people. The heads who hold such thoughts will be looking to stack the Court with kindred. The decisions made by such a court will shock the conscience.‚ĆBush’s ideology will control American jurisprudence for half a century or more. This time, at least, the threat of a Supreme Court gone haywire is legit.