Jesuslands: Where Fundamentalism Meets Politics
Elisabeth Hurst, Joe Lockard, and Joel Schalit, issue editors
Issue #72, February 2005
Immediately after the November 2004 US presidential elections, a map of the Electoral College breakdown circulated on the Internet. The two countries on the map were jokingly titled "Jesusland" and "The US of Canada" and presented a takeover of the US body politic by deeply reactionary political forces. This map and similar maps are so generalized that they obscure the widespread social and political dissent and resistance against the dominant political and economic order in America today. However, they do show a basic truth: right-wing politics that reflect the tremendous influence of evangelical Christianity have become hegemonic in the United States.
American conservatives have been a commanding and authoritative presence in Washington since Lyndon Johnson left office in 1968. Since then, the US has had only two Democratic presidents, and frequently Democratic policies have been difficult to distinguish from those of the Republicans. What changed, however, was the steady infusion of religion - in this instance, Protestant evangelicalism - into conservative political life and its slow but sure movement from the secular, Barry Goldwater-style libertarianism of the original New Right of the 1960s to neo-conservatism and religious fundamentalism. The logic of this political progression is clear and unmistakable: Create the cultural preconditions for the establishment of a theocracy through deregulation of the market and of politics in the name of individual freedom, and in return follows a moral state to replace what we once called the welfare state. The logic is unfortunately that simple. However, its political implications are not.
In 1960, when John F. Kennedy was running for president, American voters and the media were concerned with his Roman Catholic faith. They wanted to make sure that it would have no impact on how Kennedy governed the country. Fast forward 40 or so years to the 2004 presidential campaign, which had another Roman Catholic (who was also a quarter Jewish) running as the Democratic candidate for president. In the 2004 campaign, voters and the media were worried that Kerry's faith was not strong enough to properly influence how he governed. In turn, Kerry found himself continually having to explain his faith and its impact on his politics. By contrast, during his campaign George W. Bush repeatedly positioned himself as a pious, God-fearing Christian. No other explanation was needed or requested, because "everyone" knows what type of faith is the cornerstone of his administration.
Ministering to America
Declarations of spiritual belief and personal experience of the divine have become the requirement to hold office in many parts of America today. Every presidential candidate now feels compelled to speak of a faith in prayer. For many Americans, it is inconceivable to have a president who does not practice some form of religious ritual. Some Americans even require a president to pray the right kind of prayers if they are going to give them their votes. In their minds, if the president isn't devout, then who would ask for divine assistance for the US? And how would God justify protecting America? It may sound medieval, but the fact of the matter is that such a world view is entirely compatible with the ways in which most Americans experience reality - and politics. Progressives have to take such beliefs seriously and examine their problematic origins if they are going to deal with the political problems such world views already portend.
For the religious right, questioning the appropriateness of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance or the display of the Ten Commandments in public buildings is a challenge to the cultural order and divine mission of the United States. Federal, state, and local governments and institutions are now entrusted to enforce "morality" instead of social and economic justice. Political leaders at all levels must act to prevent any deviation from that vision: anti-gay legislation, anti-abortion judicial decisions, anti-sex education, and an economic life that demands personal responsibility over social responsibility. This is what morality means according to a right-wing, evangelical perspective.
In this view, any concept of democracy based on social diversity and tolerance implies civil acquiescence to sin. Thus the rhetorical and political model of the Bush administration and its reactionary religious supporters has become the conversion narrative. If a citizen can be converted, so can a society; if a nation can be converted, so can the world. Under George W. Bush, the cultural foundations of a healthy democracy have clearly become dimmed. In the political arena, religion is now a synonym for political authoritarianism. Indeed, it is a codeword for theocracy. Secular progressives and religious liberals alike have to work hard to change this if we are to preserve the freedoms guaranteed us by the American constitution - as flawed and complicated as it might be. This means paying close attention not only to how the Bush administration is transforming the political landscape - institutionally, economically and militarily - but ideologically as well.
In his second inaugural address George W. Bush talked about the US government as a missionary agent that takes freedom to other countries. Unlike such philosophers as Voltaire and Rousseau - who argued that human society was responsible for producing the terms and conditions of freedom - George W. Bush claimed that his government will fulfill a divine charge to realize that freedom which is inherent in every soul.
"From the day of our Founding," according to Bush, "we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth." In other words, all human rights are derived directly from a divine primal force. For the religious right, this natural law means that the function of government is to realize divine will as interpreted through the narrow lens of evangelical Christianity.
Yet this realization of governmental purpose lies subordinate to the realization of the divinity of a national soul: there is a "mission that created our Nation" and "the soul of a nation finally speaks" to those societies that realize this social inner light. Further, according to Bush, "History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty."
In his speech, George W. Bush reached back towards a religious language that, through figures such as Wendell Phillips and Theodore Parker, elaborated much the same understanding of the origin of human and civil rights: the divine presence in the human form. He repeats many of the phrases and arguments that appear in nineteenth-century American reform literature, much of which was also written by evangelical Christians.
A crucial difference exists, however. Phillips and Parker - or women's suffrage workers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone, all from evangelical Protestant backgrounds - employed their religious faith to protest against commodification of the lives of slaves and women. For these American radicals, spirituality was embodied in the oppressive circumstances of everyday life. Their promotion of social justice expressed their faith. Moreover, a major part of nineteenth-century evangelical radicalism consisted of condemning the use of religion to justify social abuses and atrocities. Public parades of religious righteousness, these radicals argued, served either to justify human exploitation or conceal it beneath biblical pieties.
George W. Bush's presidential invocations of religious faith to substantiate freedoms - not, crucially, rights - constitute social sleight-of-hand attempting to conceal continued denial of secular rights-based justice to working people, racial and ethnic minorities, women, gays, elderly, the disabled, immigrants, and other disempowered groups. As the nineteenth century evangelicals stated, piety is no substitute for social rights.
Continual references to traditionalist verities of a "faith of our forefathers" provide camouflage for a potent mixture of fundamentalism and materialism, of faith and capitalism. Like no other president before him, George W. Bush has managed to bring together the captains of industry and the ministers of evangelical faith, and work with them to create a single set of goals for all. The same administration that wants to regulate our personal lives and legislate our morals, also wants to de-regulate the free enterprise system and de-legislate the business world.
This issue of Bad Subjects does not consider the truth or falsity of any religious faith. We believe that these are matters of private opinion. What this Jesuslands issue does consider is the deployment of public religious faith as a foundation for domestic and foreign policy, and the malignant cultural phenomena created by such usage.
We examine an inability or outright refusal to distinguish between personal faith and public policy, and the use of each to enforce the other. Where George W. Bush states that the United States has been "sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran..." the contents of this Bad Subjects issue argue that such a formulation produces and supports the monotheistic and patriarchal culture of Moseslands, Jesuslands, and Allahlands. The Bush administration and the political formations supporting it have employed nostrums of religious faith as a central pillar of their power. There are no mysteries here, only a defense of capitalism, and its profits and class privileges.
This Jesuslands issue opens with Ethan Blue's essay on the politics of fear in contemporary America, as manifested through the phenomenon of Christian fundamentalist-operated 'Hell Houses' that create scenarios of sin. Blue, a visiting Australian academic who has visited a variety of such sites, argues that they encapsulate widespread public fear and their dioramas channel such fear "in specific ways into national political projects of remaking patriarchal authority in government and in the home." As a reactionary-nationalist form of public entertainment, Hell Houses encourage some of the most visceral, antagonistic religious politics in the United States. Keira Slevin argues that these same politics have been present throughout much of United States' history. Her essay, "The Road to Jesusland," returns to both the First and Second Great Awakenings as a source of the charismatic evangelical leadership that George W. Bush represents. She argues that the evangelical apparatuses and mechanics employed by the "Preacher-in-Chief" and his allies have a conversionary mission, one that conceives of the nation's citizens flowing in a converted mass behind sanctified leadership.
Rob Hardy is a former classics professor and lay preacher in the United Church of Christ who critiques Jesusland ideology from within Christian tradition. In his view, organizations like the Christian Coalition, in their preoccupation with moral condemnation, have sought to defeat the universalism inherent in Thomas Jefferson's writings and early Christian creed. He calls for liberal Christians to reclaim their own evangelical voice, a tolerant voice that rejects ideological extremes. Bad Subjects editor Mike Mosher also remembers another version of Christ, when US religious politics were heavily progressive politics. His essay, "When Jesus was Left," looks at Christian social protest graphics from The Masses and other journals.
The next group of essays, all written by returning Bad Subjects contributors, considers both how Jesusland manifests itself and responses of cultural resistance. In a more secular essay, Leanne McRae, another of several Australian contributors in this issue, revisits Michael Moore's 9/11 documentary in order to examine the absence of a critical language to understand that day's events. Moore, she argues, was successful because he provides a concrete language that "translated between popular and collective memory," a film language that broke through the pseudo-cohesion that characterizes everyday experience in contemporary Jesusland. D. Wallace found another language through which to understand the Bush administration's re-election: Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. As Wallace re-read this novel following the November 2004 election, he found in Atwood's visionary nightmare of the Republic of Gilead a parable of the present-day United States. Omar Swartz writes on Richard Rorty's anti-theism, pointing out Rorty's observation that "the Western world is moving away from theism as a grounding for political and moral argument," with the general exception of the United States. Swartz writes from within an atheistic tradition, a vantage point from within which the limitations of theism become a defining center of discussion.
Together with his composition class at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan, Bill Cottrell received an assignment to write a "Bad Subjects-style essay." His instructor urged him to send in his essay, he did so, and now he is making a first appearance in this journal. Cottrell does not find it likely that Jesus would have much sympathy for US policy, domestic or foreign. Rather, the moral values served up by the Bush administration are red herrings straight from the Sea of Galilee. Claudia Hart and Claudia Herbst turn our attention to the values of misogyny and violence as manifested in video games. Their essay argues "inspired by the male-dominated technological and militaristic culture of our era, a culture emanating from the monastic culture of the Middle Ages," the video game warrior-priestess "magnifies those values prophesied in an earlier epoch." The regressive visions of women common to many video games, Hart and Herbst conclude, echo with the inspiration of historic Christian misogyny.
One Jesusland, Many Jesuslands
Bad Subjects editors originally conceived of an issue that dealt with Jesusland as a singular. We quickly learned that this was a plural construct, not a singular one. A critical function of a Jesusland, like neo-liberal market capitalism establishing a global market with a multiplicity of local markets, is to reproduce itself through an inter-related network of ideologically and politically linked Jesuslands. Those nations that more faithfully replicate traditionalist tenets of Christian morality - even if they are not evangelical Protestants, as in Catholic Poland - are within the ambit of a global religio-political Jesusland. Those nations that enable gay marriage or abortion - as in the Unholy Roman Empire of the western European Union - are anathema. In countries where fears of damnation, or worse, elections defeat for lack of traditional values, have not swept through governments, as in nonchalant grin-and-shrug Australia, right-wing religious parties are banging drums loudly while campaigning for gay disenfranchisement and submissive women. This issue of Bad Subjects became global because Jesusland has linked itself to the American Empire.
Tomasz Kitlinski, Pawel Leszkowicz, and issue co-editor Joe Lockard, frequent collaborators over half-a-dozen years, examine Poland as another Jesusland where US cultural values have had far-reaching impact. Their essay addresses heterosex-only Catholic fundamentalism, the role of media and academia in propagating such religious fundamentalism, attacks on the memory of liberal humanists such as poet Czeslaw Milosz, social regimes of gender fear, and an emergent culture of rebellion against dominant religious fundamentalism. In another essay, Joe Lockard looks at the US-Europe divide in the representation of the European Union among American evangelical millenialists, who see in European unification a sign of biblical prophecy. Lockard argues that while manifest "anti-Europeanism has been a means of constructing distinctive Euro-American identities in North America since at least the seventeenth century," among today's conservative white millennialists "European-ness defines an origin that has been displaced and replaced" with Satanic content. David Garcia, writing from the Netherlands, takes up questions relating to fundamentalism within Europe: specifically, how can filmmaker Theo van Gogh's murder become an occasion for social critique of religious intolerance? Garcia turns to Isaiah Berlin for inspiration, finding in Berlin's writing suggestions both that in democracies "lack of harmony does not always represent political failure" and there is a need for vigilance, circumspection, and courtesy in use of language.
Lev Lafayette writes to provide an analytic description of right-wing religious politics in Australia, where Christian fundamentalist 'family-oriented' organizations and political blocs do not have the same power as in the US, although not for lack of effort. Even the secular irreverence that characterizes Australia now faces challenges from US-style religious reactionaries. And finally, Guillermo Compte Cathcart completes the issue with a Spanish-language essay that compares the Bush administration to the right-wing religious-traditionalist governments that have characterized Latin America, especially Argentina. Cathcart's multi-part essay provides perspective on US religious fundamentalism from an oppositional outside, which is where, in closing, this Jesuslands issue of Bad Subjects locates itself.