Monday, April 20, 2009

Theological Musings

DaisyDeadhead asks in comments:
Did you get lost in the garden or what?
Yeah sort of. The bigger issue is trying to make complicated arguments and finding my thinking and writing not really up to the task. Then there's my idea of editing, which apparently goes something like: wait long enough to publish your long-winded post and probably nobody will read it anyway:-) I'll read over what I've wrote long ago and a publish it so I can go on to the next thing.

Continuing my habit of pointing to two rather unrelated things and drawing some sort of specious relationship, today I want to point primarily to two articles. Occasionally my Bloglines blog reader will update to an old post on some of the blogs I read. That happened recently with Keith Hart's blog The Memory Bank which pointed to a post made in November of 2008, Notes on the counter-revolution. So that's the first article I want to talk a little about. The second is an article by Jeff Sharlet in May's Harper's Magazine, Jesus Killed Mohammed: The crusade for a Christian military. I subscribe to Harpers and I've never figured out exactly how much on their Web site is available to people who don't subscribe. My hunch is that the article is behind the fire wall; I still want to talk about it.

I discovered Kieth Hart's blog, Memory Bank, by way of Jeremy Weate's Naijablog last autumn. Memory Bank has become a real favorite and I enjoy Hart's tweets too. Notes on the counter revolution was published on his blog in 2008, but from the text it seems it was written in 2003 when Hart was Visiting Professor in African Studies and Anthropology at Northwestern University. In the piece one of the threads Hart picks up is being invited to a public meeting of a Committee against War and Racism. Hart remarks that he'd affected a dismissive attitude toward American progressives. On the train trip to this meeting Hart picked up pamphlet by Eliot Weinberger called 9/12 published by Prickly Paradigm Press. Prickly Paradigm Press is an outgrowth of Prickly Pear Pamphlets Hart started in Cambridge in 1993 with Anna Grimshaw. Hart writes:
All of this was passing through my mind while the Chicago Transit Authority train made halting progress toward Howard (a place chiefly known as the nearest source of booze and sex for the inmates of that dry Methodist town where I now earn my living). And it came to me then, not an original thought, but original to me. That we are living in fascism now. I recall a book of essays about America between the wars, called The Aspirin Age. A major theme was fascism then Huey Long, Father McLoughlin etc. And I realised what Weinberger’s pamphlet had demonstrated, that the Bush clique were a continuation of that thread, only this time with the corporate state within a state, the Pentagon in tow (fueled by two-thirds of American taxes), with the most irresponsible American corporations in charge and with fundamentalist Christianity as a vision for fixing the world. I understood more fully why my American friends were depressed. I could still hang on to my own vision of the liberal democratic tradition, but I can also now embrace more fully the vision of the American and European left. America has come under the control of fascists.
I think he's right about the "take over" and think in those terms in my own mind. But the word "Fascism" is so incendiary as to be almost useless in discussion. I haven't found a good alternative. David Neiwart has looked very carefully at the various strains of rightist politics in the USA. He's called people like Rush Limbaugh "para-Fascists" with the prefix meaning "near," I suppose. Trying to find a link to a reference to "para-Fascism" I landed over at his blog Orcinus and the big volume of threads on Fascism. This post A little more about Fascism provides evidence about how hard it is to talk about an American Fascism rigorously. I saw that at Daily Kos there's a conversation with Neiwert where he succinctly defines proto- and para- Fascism:
Proto-fascism is the full constellation of fascist traits arranged in nascent and semi-nascent forms. It’s essentially fascism waiting to mature. Basic examples: The Ku Klux Klan, the Patriot movement.

Para-fascism is something like quasi-fascism: An assemblage of some of the traits that make up the fascist constellation, but not all of them. Thus movement conservatism is para-fascist in the sense that it has a number of the fascist traits, but not all of them – particularly not essential traits like the open embrace of an ethic of violence.
Political scientist, Dr. Lawrence Britt's The 14 characteristics of Fascism is a handy reference if Fascism's meaning is very unclear. There are legitimate arguments about good definitions of the term. But there's a general understanding--being much too loose interpreting Neiwart's careful definition of para-Fascism as "sort of"--is how I agree with Hart's observation.

I voted for Barack Obama enthusiastically, but I never thought his administration would represent some sort of restoration. Optimistically I imagine an Obama administration might provide a little more space to turn the ship of state from the brink. I waver between pessimism and optimism. There's no doubt any turning will take time and it's hard to predict in advance where we'll wind up.

There's a lot to Sharlet's piece on the evangelical transformation of the military. One point that stood out to me was how important the Vietnam War and it's aftermath was to this transformation. Sharlet connects the lessons of guerrilla combat in the Vietnam conflict to a tactic of "infiltration" by fundamentalist Christians in the ranks of secular institutions. The Vietnam era perhaps was a catalyst, but Sharlet's own research shows that Abraham Vereide, the founder of The Family was keen on the tactic of infiltration long before Vietnam.

Sharlet previously wrote a book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. You can get some of the gist of what that's about by reading Sharlet's 2003 Harper's piece Jesus plus nothing: Undercover among America's secret theocrats. Talking about "infiltration" by fundamentalist Christians gets me pegged as some sort of conspiracy nut. It is difficult to talk about American Fascism, there's plenty of nuance and the broad brush approach glosses over important distinctions, just as there are important distinctions between fundamentalist Christian groups. I'm not at all sure of the extent or the various ways fundamentalist Christian organizations are related to one another. But from my own experience as a young man caught up in pentecostal and fundamentalist Christianity, I saw of evidence for the employment of strategic infiltration. It seems fair to say that at least some well-connected Christian para-Fascist groups use the strategy of infiltration.

In his recent article Sharlet relates the views of "another veteran serving in the Senate"--I wonder who?--who relates the rise of fundamentalism in the officer ranks of the military to the racial integration of the institution. The military had become split along racial lines so religion became a way for "white men at the heart of military culture to come to an understanding of themselves based on something other than skin color."

Sharlet also points to the waning days of the Reagan Administration and a rule change. Prior to the change the military had apportioned chaplains based on the demographics, so Presbyterians, Catholics, Methodists, Southern Baptists, etc. were all represented as separate categories. In 1987 the rule change lumped Protestant denominations together as simply "Protestant." Sharlet notes:
Today more than two thirds of the military's 2,900 active-duty chaplins are affiliated with evangelical or Pentacostal denominations.
The "take-over" didn't just happen, but was implemented.

I don't equate Christianity, even fundamentalist Christianity with Fascism. I know from listening to Keith Hart's Cambridge lecture on International development that Hart doesn't use such a broad brush to paint fundamentalists and Pentecostals as Fascists either. He points to the collusion of interests: of corporate state within a state, the bloated Pentagon, irresponsible and larcenous corporations to new variations of Christian fundamentalism which all together make such a toxic brew.

I've remarked many times here that I don't believe in God. My religious friends have a hard time believing me when I say that. I am not hostile to religion and was raised as a Christian. There's much in various religions I find good and beautiful. As a result many of my atheist friends have a hard time believing me when I talk about not believing in God. I'm just not sure how to think and talk about God. And it seems that thinking and talking about religion is something else entirely. Nevertheless these are subjects that I think about.

It was a surprise to me in reading Sharlet's piece that my reactions to the Christian views expressed there were not so much from the point of view of an un-believer as from the point of view of my understandings of Christianity. Of course, as an un-believer my point of view is suspect, still it seemed curious to me how I was approaching the topic.

Now with president Obama it's the Republicans yelling "Fascist." This doesn't mean Americans right and left are joining together in anti-Fascism. The opinions of what constitutes Fascism are highly divergent. The Editors at The Poor Man Institute have ridiculed Republican commentator Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Change relentlessly. The Editors even have a book Liberal Fascism out. It's only five bucks to download and I probably will. Satire makes me laugh and laughter can indeed shift our perspectives. Keith Hart makes and important point about American Fascism that it's a vision for fixing the world. In that light it's perceived as a very good thing, but the ideology makes me recoil, nevertheless it's serious business.

Compassion is a emotional reaction to the suffering of others, profound enough that we want to do something to alleviate the suffering. The Christian soldiers in Sharlet's piece believe God building a new nation through their efforts and sacrifices. That point of view is not something new to Christianity, to other religions or even among atheist ideologues. Karen Armstrong was one of this year's Ted Prize winners. In her talk she said that compassion is central to all the world's religions. Certainly, the compassionate stream of Christianity is also very long and ancient. It's easier to imagine that the violent stream and compassionate stream of historical Christianity run parallel and never meeting. But the metaphor of streams suggest they necessarily merge just as waters do. Perhaps what brings them together is the emphatic impulse to repair the world. It's important to feel you are doing good, but divergent ideas of what "doing good" means is often baffling in their differences.

Tonight I read a very moving piece in The Walrus, No Small Mercy: How a Rwandan genocide survivor made peace with the man who almost killed her (HT: Africa Unchained). The stories of Alice and Emmanuel are told in their own voices. For both worshiping in churches is something they did prior to the genocide and after. Religious belief is meaningful for both. But their story of forgiveness doesn't refer to God, the stories are deeply human.

Religious beliefs for many, if not most, people provides overarching themes to make sense of the world. Quite diverse sets of beliefs become attached to religion. There are atheists who seem to imagine that by disposing of God other beliefs that many atheists also object to will become unattached and fall away. That seems wishful thinking to me. People have to make sense of the world and religion is one way we do it.

Still it's important to for consensus across divergent religious beliefs. The founders of the USA were particularly concerned about this and our Constitution prohibits the establishment of religion in order that there be a framework for democratic consensus without state religion. Sharlet's article reveals that many in the officer ranks consider their oath to defend the Constitution secondary to a religious mission.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus reviewed Reza Aslan's book How to Win a Cosmic War. Lewis-Kraus quotes from Aslan's introduction in re the USA warring against Muslim extremists that what's needed is:
"to strip this ideological conflict of its religious connotations, to reject the religiously polarizing rhetoric of our leaders and theirs, to focus on the material matters at stake, and to address the earthly issues that always lie behind the cosmic impulse."
Many Americans are probably unaware of the extent of religious extremism in the United States military. Sharlet's article helps to shine a light where attention is urgently needed.


DaisyDeadhead said...

Hope you saw the Sede post:

Me, Mel and the Sedes

I know you enjoy religious arcana of all types!

Pingting said...

did you get lost in the garden or what??