Putting the “Fun” in Fundamentalism

For those who insist on God as part of the original intent in America, allow me to disabuse you of the most commonly mistaken beliefs. To begin, there are no references to God in the Constitution.

The “my-perverted-form-of-Christianity-is-crazier-than-yours” show will be coming to New York soon when the GOP candidates come-a-barnstorming through our blue state. I have already received a lovely letter from Willard Romney asking for my support as if things aren’t bad enough with Tebow-mania sweeping the region.

My pitiful Jets. Sigh. That’s for another day.

Recently, my wife and I were fortunate to procure tickets to The Book of Mormon on Broadway. As one would imagine, it was delightfully wicked and painfully funny. (Unless, of course, you’re a Mormon, in which case I wouldn’t recommend it.) But its brilliance isn’t necessarily its provocative humor as much as its ability to bring the audience from uproarious laughter to dead silence within seconds. For all of its entertaining vulgarity, this Broadway show is a cautionary tale against the evils of forcing a belief system down the throats of others. If nothing else, it will leave you wondering how this particular sect became so powerful and accepted as to produce the odds-on favorite for the GOP nomination.

On the same side of the bizarro-spectrum is the new breed of Christian fundamentalist personified by Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator. In addition to the many things I find loathsome about him and other sanctimonious politicians is their annoying habit of twisting the words of the Constitution and, in particular, the Founding Fathers.

The rise of the conservative Christian fundamentalist clutching the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other is one of the more intellectually insulting developments of our time. The Founding Fathers were undoubtedly brilliant. But many of their flaws such as their racism and infidelity have been whitewashed over time, explained away as unfortunate characteristics of the era instead of the morally reprehensible traits they have always been. By claiming ownership of their ideas and intentions, the conservative fundamentalist movement has completely distorted the spirit of the Constitution. In everything they did the Founding Fathers—many of them downright heathens if ever there were any—took great pains to eradicate the role of God in governance. After all, these were men who knew and understood that America was settled by people fleeing, not seeking, religious persecution.

One needs to look no further than the Constitution itself to discover that our form of government was intended to be an entirely secular affair. Moreover, The Federalist Papers, which offers the greatest insight into the intentions set forth by the most scholarly of the Founding Fathers, explicitly denounced religious influence over government.  In his portion of the introduction, James Madison credits the “zeal for different opinions concerning religion,” among other things, with having, “divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.” The majority of the writings proffered by our forefathers echo this sentiment. While freedom of religion among citizens was indeed a critical aspect of their collective philosophy, so too was freedom from religion.

This doesn’t mean they weren’t men of faith. In fact, my guess is that if they heard Rick Santorum profess that JFK’s insistence upon separation of church and state made him want to throw up, the Founding Fathers would likely vomit themselves.  After a good laugh at Santorum’s expense and a few hits of opium, Benjamin Franklin would take off with one of his several prostitute paramours, Jefferson would go back to chasing Sally Hemmings around her slave quarters, Washington would return to bidding on a few more colored people, Hamilton would resume paying hush money to the husband of his 20-something-year-old mistress, Adams would continue attempting to imprison reporters under the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Aaron Burr would get back to his target practice.

These guys would have fit in perfectly today with the likes of former Nevada Sen. John Ensign and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who both called for President Clinton’s impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal while simultaneously carrying on extra-marital affairs of their own— the former with the wife of his best friend.

But enough about those God-fearing noblemen; let’s get on to the oft-abused phrases that seemingly comprise the bulk of Middle America’s knowledge of American history.

For those who insist on God as part of the original intent in America, allow me to disabuse you of the most commonly mistaken beliefs. To begin, there are no references to God in the Constitution. Period. Furthermore, the phrase “under God” was not part of the original Pledge of Allegiance, which was written by a socialist, by the by; it was formally adopted by Congress in 1954 as a reaction to the rise of secular Communism. I’ve also heard the argument the president serves the Almighty first and foremost because the Oath of Office closes with the phrase: “so help me God.” This is true, but you should know that it was ad-libbed by George Washington, not originally written as such. And finally, “In God We Trust” is neither from the Constitution nor the Declaration of Independence. It’s on our money. How very Christian of us.American history is fascinating and the work of our Founding Fathers is legendary and enduring, but it’s important to get it right. So too is it important to understand the origins of the modern Christian fundamentalist movement. In a nutshell:

A couple of babbling prophets roamed the country in the 1800s and early 1900s selling a new shiny brand of Jesus with little attention paid to them. Then, in the 1920s, Bruce Barton, best known as one of the “B’s” in the BBD&O ad agency, published The Man Nobody Knows. It was a self-help book about Corporate Jesus that spread like wildfire, and the fundamentalist movement latched on immediately with the thought that if you’re successful in this life, then Jesus must love you. Of course, the flip side of that coin is that if you’re poor through no fault of your own, it must be because Jesus hates you. Fundamentalists don’t like that side of the story much, though.

That’s right; the babbling nomadic Christian fundamentalists who evangelized throughout the United States were universally recognized as the crazy people they were until they got a makeover by the Don Draper of the 1920’s. The result: Rick Santorum. And the people who believed Jesus buried golden tablets (that no one ever actually saw) in the three days between dying on the cross and rising again only to later tell an angel named Moroni to let Joseph Smith know that the plates were buried in his back yard…in Rochester…New York…? I give you, Mitt Romney.

These are the GOP frontrunners that shall walk among us next month in a primary that looks like it actually might matter. And since I have maintained my Republican registration, I get to weigh in on this contest. Any thoughts on which one I should pull the lever, er, fill in the bubble for? Can I just go all the way and write in “Tim Tebow?” What the hell, right? Oops! There I go again.

President Jesus Christ

Having grown up as a Republican in a blue state, I can honestly say that the only thing I share in common with Republicans in red states is contiguous land because our idea of what constitutes democratic principles couldn’t be further apart.

Tim Pawlenty must be ready to hang himself. With Rick Santoruminejad defying the polls and pundits at every turn and stymieing Super PAC’s and Romneybots, surely this field would have been accepting of another milquetoast social conservative candidate like Pawlenty. Alas, this is now the Romney/Santorum show as the GOP accepts that its fate is linked to the enthusiasm of the evangelical Christian voter.

When then-Sen. Barack Obama proclaimed that “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America” at the 2004 Democratic Convention, he couldn’t have been more wrong. But it sure sounded great. The 2012 GOP primary season has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are indeed two very distinct Americas. Having grown up as a Republican in a blue state, I can honestly say that the only thing I share in common with Republicans in red states is contiguous land because our idea of what constitutes democratic principles couldn’t be further apart.

The New Millennium has ushered in a resounding victory for democracy and with it the greatest placebo ever absorbed into the global body politic. Citizens of the world have bought into the hype that the American Dream is now available anywhere on the globe and is as attainable as a fake diamond necklace on a late-night infomercial.

For my money, it is the inimitable H.L. Mencken who best captured the folly of American democracy as the means to prosperity nearly a century ago saying, “Of all those ancient promises there is none more comforting than the one to the effect that the lowly shall inherit the earth. It is at the bottom of the dominant religious system of the modern world, and it is at the bottom of the dominant political system. Democracy gives it a certain appearance of objective and demonstrable truth.”

Even Mencken would be impressed by the effectiveness of today’s political hucksters who peddle faux versions of democracy. Modern-day snake oil salesmen dressed in suits adorned with flag pins on their lapels preach the gospel of the American Dream with the zeal of born-again evangelists. Their wide-eyed followers devour their every word believing that they too might someday reach the Promised Land.

Gone are the days of dreaming of white picket fences and a pension; this is the era of winning lottery tickets and gaining salvation through instant affluence. The most troubling phenomenon is the gospel of Jesus Christ as capitalist that has somehow tethered itself to our new collective interpretation of democracy. This mixing of religious and ideological metaphors has seeped into the consciousness of American politics and given life to a bizarre fundamentalist ideology that has inculcated the public with the notion that financial success is the product of divine right. According to this newly adopted testament of faith, Jesus Christ is a champion of corporate rights and free markets who offers his disciples unfettered VIP access to the pearly gates of the hereafter.

“All these forms of happiness, of course, are illusory. They don’t last,” warned Mencken. “The Democrat, leaping into the air to flap his wings and praise God, is forever coming down with a thump. The seeds of his disaster lie in his own stupidity; he can never get rid of the naïve delusion — so beautifully Christian! — that happiness is something to be got by taking it away from the other fellow.”  It is the idea that only the uncompromising person in the self-righteous pursuit of wealth emerges triumphant in a life that has separated humans from their humanity. Community, environment and the welfare of others have been subjugated by a new dogma that places faith over reason, prosperity over compassion.

Capitalism and Christianity, mutually exclusive by design, are no longer distinct from one another under the all-encompassing umbrella of democracy. And who could argue? We credit democracy with ushering in the most technologically innovative century in recorded history. There have also been real victories along the way. America as it was originally conceived was a place where inalienable rights were intended exclusively for white, male property owners. But the system was intuitive and flexible enough to allow its citizens to battle one another and hammer out universal suffrage and civil rights. It is also our right to freely and openly criticize the government and protest perceived injustices. No system works perfectly for all of its inhabitants but liberties such as these that we often take for granted are glorious enough to make America’s democratic system enviable by most standards.

I am an insider, an avowed critic of the hand that feeds me. I’m not writing in exile or from behind a prison wall, but that is not to say we aren’t metaphorically imprisoned by the image we project of ourselves. Much of what we believe to be true about democracy is belied by our very real actions and circumstances.

Americans are trapped by the conviction that we live in a free society despite having the highest incarceration rate per capita of any nation in the world. We see ourselves as the purveyors of peace and democracy, having defeated the Communist menace and dethroned dictators, yet no other nation in modern times has initiated unprovoked foreign wars more than we have or dropped a nuclear bomb (twice) on its enemies. We believe in the theory of fair competition and the ability to achieve success through hard work and discipline but we exist within a system that discourages competitiveness and has consolidated 40 percent of the nation’s wealth into the hands of 1 percent of the population.

Our state of denial has caused us to drift far from the nation we believe ourselves to be while holding tightly to an image of the nation we wish to be. And whoever prevails on the GOP ticket will have no choice but to continue touting the conservative agenda and wooing the evangelical vote. I am a Republican living in a blue state; an American capitalist who was born in socialist Canada. I have Mohawk and Dutch roots. In short, I’m a walking contradiction. But I’m far from confused because this I know: Jesus Christ isn’t on the ballot and fundamentalism is the opposite of freedom.

 

Top Photo: Presidential Candidate Rick Santorum
Bottom Photo: H.L. Mencken

 

Binge and Purge

Conservative, anti-environmental activists such as Michele Bachmann like to portray the EPA and other environmental regulatory bodies as proof of America’s increasingly hostile, dystopian government when in practice the very opposite is true.

Part V of The Season of Our Disconnect

Jon Huntsman, President Barack Obama’s former ambassador to China, broke away from the field of Republican presidential candidates in bellicose fashion this week. He chose to take on his opponents by slaying a sacred cow in today’s GOP by thumbing his nose at unconventional wisdom with the most scandalous pronouncement thus far in the campaign. If you are sensitive to radical ideas and harsh language, I urge you to stop reading now.

In a tweet to his followers, Jon Huntsman said: “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”

Crazy, indeed.  What’s next? Dinosaurs roamed the Earth?

Huntsman is reacting to the growing anti-environmental platform in American politics, a curious development in an even more curious nascent silly season. Sorry, Planet Earth. Due to the ongoing recession it is increasingly evident that the Earth-friendly platform will not be making an appearance this time around as our current president seems to favor the corporate interests of companies like Monsanto and Cargil; the opposition candidates… well… quite frankly it looks as though they just flat-out hate you.

For example, the winner of the ridiculously un-scientific Iowa Straw Poll, Michele Bachmann, has promised to shutter the Environmental Protection Agency on her first day in the White House. Rick Perry won’t close the EPA, but he’ll make gall-derned sure he castrates it like a bull calf to keep it from killing our jobs. Rick Santorum has said that because humans exhale carbon dioxide, regulating carbon emissions is therefore ludicrous. (No, I’m not making any of this up.) Most of the people running for president on the GOP ticket seem to believe that even though we are still the wealthiest nation on God’s greenish/brown Earth that environmental standards are holding us back. That maybe—just maybe—if we allowed ourselves to revert to pollution standards from the height of the Industrial Revolution, we would be better off. 

Mind you, although we haven’t lost our standing as the No. 1 economy on the planet, we do rank second behind China in carbon emissions. This loss of status has somehow translated into a sort of clarion call for deregulation activists who equate progress with the relaxation of environmental standards. Never mind the fact that on many days one would have trouble seeing clearly through the window of a building in Linfen, China, or that the Beijing government instituted “emergency air-quality measures” in the days leading up to the Summer Olympics.

Our narrow view on environmentalism has left everyone already suffocating from American ignorance and Chinese malfeasance nonplussed and defenseless. In his book Harmony, A New Way of Looking at the World, Prince Charles talks about his experience at the UN Conference in Copenhagen and the “all-out assault on the evidence base” of climate change, calling it “a deliberate attempt to dampen the justified concerns about the climate change threat.”

Presidential candidates who call for dismantling the EPA to help America reclaim its hegemony in destroying the atmosphere are nothing more than hucksters handing out licenses to operate toxic apothecaries stocked with volatile organic compounds. Conservative, anti-environmental activists such as Michele Bachmann like to portray the EPA and other environmental regulatory bodies as proof of America’s increasingly hostile, dystopian government when in practice the very opposite is true.

Ironically, common ground regarding the environment can be found in yet another profound area of intensely partisan disagreement: universal health care. It is in this debate that one can find room for both ardent anti-climate change deniers like Rick Perry and fervent environmental activists like Al Gore, whom Perry once supported. It’s far easier to agree that noxious emissions and pollutants increase the risk of disease and that a sick population is an expensive one to treat. Therefore, isn’t universal disease-prevention by regulating pollution a more efficient way for the market to deliver robust health care? Hell, there’s even room for Ron Paul under this tent.

Whether or not our society wakes up to the fact that we are indeed killing the planet and sacrificing human health along the way, there is an inevitable truth greater than all of us. Those who are most attuned to changes in weather patterns, the degradation of the world’s food supply, the rise of chronic health problems, and the rapid disappearance of clean water understand that humans will ultimately pay the price for our sins, not the Earth.

This is not the first time the Earth has been in such a precarious position. Moreover, there is mounting evidence of how she handles crises. We binge, she purges. The most succinct explanation of this phenomenon is from the great orator and environmentalist Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation. Rather than paraphrase, I’ll leave you with his sentiment:

“What if we choose to eradicate ourselves from this Earth, by whatever means? The Earth goes nowhere. And in time, it will regenerate, and all the lakes will be pristine. The rivers, the waters, the mountains, everything will be green again. It’ll be peaceful. There may not be people, but the Earth will regenerate. And you know why? Because the Earth has all the time in the world and we don’t.”

– Oren Lyons

The Fundamentals of Fundamentalism

The circumstances that promoted the rise of the evangelical Christian doctrine in the 1920s and ’30s bear a striking resemblance to our current situation.

The sight of so many conservative Christian presidential candidates attempting to out-holy one another during the GOP debate this past weekend was curious but not without precedent. The role of Christianity in the American political system predates the formation of the nation itself, with the more fundamentalist aspects playing a larger part during difficult economic periods. While it can be said that religion informed the political ideologies of the men who established the framework of our nation, fundamentalism was largely relegated to the fringes of American politics until the first part of the 20th Century.

The circumstances that promoted the rise of the evangelical Christian doctrine in the 1920s and ’30s bear a striking resemblance to our current situation and help to explain—as history often does—why right-wing religious views are influencing the social, political and economic platforms of the GOP candidates.

Prior to the Great Depression, the evangelical set were more like babbling mystics than an influential political force. Think Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker. The mainstream transformation came when successful, white Christian men who accumulated and maintained great wealth during this time were looking for absolution of the guilt they felt while their fellow countrymen fell upon hard times. Enter Abraham “Abram” Vereide, the man perhaps most responsible for the modern fundamentalist Christian movement in America.

Vereide was able to coalesce the successful strategies and teachings of other soul-surgeons and evangelists of his era. By rationalizing the financial success of his followers as the earthly manifestation of Christ’s will, he was able to mold a new Christian doctrine that recognized wealth, power and influence as deliberate and divine endowments. As it turned out, mass absolution and wider acceptance came in the form of Jesus Christ as seen through the lens of Bruce Barton’s bestselling book, The Man Nobody Knows.

Barton, who is more enduringly known as the second “B” in the ad agency BBD&O, which exists even today, published The Man Nobody Knows in 1925. It was an instant phenomenon. Barton’s Jesus was the ultimate winner, the consummate salesman. The book was a pocket guide to winning with Christ that helped extricate Christianity from purely religious constraints and bring it to a wider audience as only a professional adman could.

By 1933, when the nation was in the throes of the Depression, Vereide’s organization began to take shape. The political outgrowth of his movement was formalized in Seattle with the creation of the New Order of Cincinnatus. The parallels between the New Order and the Tea Party today are undeniable. Like the Tea Party, the New Order cherished free market ideals and conservative morality, and organized against taxes and big government.

Vereide’s followers heartily rebuked then-President Herbert Hoover for bailing out Wall Street bankers whom many Americans believed to be responsible for the stock market crash of 1929 just as the Tea Party chastised the Bush administration for doing the same with the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Both groups found their footing, however, railing against the subsequent administrations for battling economic downturns with public works projects, specifically FDR’s New Deal and Obama’s Stimulus Package. Likewise they share similar views regarding social welfare programs, and were able to elect candidates to battle these reforms. Even the great adman Bruce Barton went on to secure a seat in Congress under the slogan “Repeal a Law a Day.”

Vereide’s organization lives on today through the efforts of a rather enigmatic figure named Douglas Coe, who took over the group upon Vereide’s death in 1969 and transformed it into one of the most influential and highly secretive organizations in the modern era. The only public recognition of the group known today simply as “The Family” is the National Prayer Breakfast held every year in Washington, where political and business leaders assemble to pay tribute to Douglas Coe’s cabal. Most of what transpired beyond the breakfast remained a complete mystery until Jeff Sharlet, a reporter and expert on religion, stumbled upon Coe’s secret world, which he unraveled in his 2008 book titled The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and his 2010 follow-up C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy.

Sharlet painstakingly details the roots of fundamentalism in America and illustrates the many ways in which The Family’s perversion of Christianity as a doctrine of power has transformed modern political life in America. The ultimate testament to the work of The Family is fully on display in the platforms of candidates such as Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum—not to mention the political juggernaut waiting in the wings that is Sarah Palin. But before Bachmann there was Frank Buchman, founder of “Moral Re-Armament,” whose closeted reputation was more Marcus Bachmann than Michele, if you catch my drift. Before Palin there was Arthur Langlie, figurehead of the New Order of Cincinnatus, and before Perry there was Bruce Barton.

When placed in historical context, the great revelation of the Tea Party is that there’s nothing particularly innovative about it. As young as our nation is, we’re now old enough that everything old is new again. In Vereide’s time Vladimir Lenin was the Osama bin Laden of the day and Communism was today’s Islam. The rise of the German economy and the grand display of Nazism in the 1936 Olympics openly mocked America’s failing economy in the midst of the Depression just as China’s present-day ascension and the grand pageantry of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing taunted Americans during the Great Recession. And just as FDR became the bête noire of the New Order of Cincinnatus, so too is Barack Obama to the conservative, evangelical wing of the Tea Party.

What I find interesting about the parallels between our past and present circumstances is that there is room for both sides of the debate to find comfort. Christian fundamentalists can take heart in the notion that their wing of the Tea Party is an idea whose time has finally come while opponents of radical evangelicals may take solace in the fact that fundamentalism ebbs and flows with the vagaries of the economy. It’s simply a matter of perspective, or perhaps it’s a lack thereof.