Saturday, January 14. 2006
I'll probably regret this later, but I find myself wanting to write about religion. The Wichita Eagle has a "Faith" section they run each Saturday, and two articles there struck me, but they're not directly what I want to write about. One was on tolerance -- how can people who believe in the absolute verity of their religion get along with people who believe in something else? It featured five local theocrats, and had a little bit of pablum for everyone. The other was on Scalito, pointing out that if/when he's confirmed the US Supreme Court will have a majority of five Roman Catholics, then making a big case that that shouldn't matter to anyone, and anyhow Catholics have a wide range of political opinions. That's an argument that might be more convincing if these particular five had a wide range of opinions, but they don't. All five have been appointed by right-wing Republicans, and while I'm a little fuzzy about Kennedy, the other four are so far to the right it's a bit surprising that they can even stand up.
Which brings me to a digression. David Brooks wrote a column where he tried to make hay out of the argument that had Scalito been born earlier he would have been a Democrat, not a Republican. After all, way back when all Catholics were Democrats, but since Reagan the Democratic Party has lost its grip on Catholics, for the usual blah blah blah reasons. That's true enough, but as I recall recent election polls it's still a 50-50 proposition, with the Republicans doing better with Catholics who attend mass regularly and the Democrats doing better with Catholics who don't. Still, that doesn't explain why when the Republicans go searching for neo-fascist judges they keep coming up with Catholics. Maybe it's because Scalia and Thomas have held true to their faith, while token WASP Souter strayed? Or is it that the high church is the holy grail for reflexive authoritarians? That seems to be the best explanation why Sam Brownback, when he started his campaign to become America's Il Duce a decade or more ago, converted not just to Catholicism but to a faction that wants to roll back the 7th Vatican reforms.
Still, the Republicans love affair with Roman Catholicism has gotten rather weird. In particular, it completes a break with the party's roots. It's been a while since the Republicans pilloried the Democrats as the party of "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion," but the reversal is rather astonishing. Rebellion, you'll recall, was a jibe against the Democrats as the party of the Confederacy, so a more appropriate R-word would have been Racism, which adequately sums up the Solid South faction of the pre-civil rights Democratic Party. While it's not technically true that the Republicans have become the party of racism, it certainly is true that most serious racists side with the Republicans these days. So the Republicans have managed to capture two major components of what was once the Democratic Party. Rum was an R-word for hootch, a way of taunting the Democrats for opposing Prohibition, which was Middle America's Family Values hot button issue before they managed to get it passed and everyone finally realized what a stupid idea it was. Nowadays, the Republicans have other hot buttons, but in terms of reversing their century-plus-old campaign slander, why don't we substitute another old time sin that these days they embrace: casinos. (And not just because Jack Abramoff pays them to do so.)
So there is is: the Republicans have become the party of Casinos, Romanism and Racism. But having swallowed the old Democratic Party, you'd think they'd be much more than a 50-50 party these days, but they're not. For one thing, they've lost the once solid-Republican black vote. But they've also been bleeding off WASPs -- at least the ones who aren't filthy rich and haven't been deluded by all that born again nonsense. Souter, for instance, which is why they can't risk nominating another WASP, even a Harriet Miers. Now back from my digression . . . and into another.
I'm 55, born in 1950, which was after television and computers and jet airplanes were invented, after we A-bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, all of which were more monumental events than anything that has happened in my lifetime. But even within my lifetime I can remember the South, politically speaking, being solid white racist Democrat, and the Republicans being narrowly WASP but broad enough politically to include genuine progressives, and I grew up surrounded by people whose memories went back further -- past the World Wars, past Prohibition, perhaps secondhand all the way back to slavery and the Civil War. And one thing I remember from my childhood was a biting prejudice by WASPs against Roman Catholics. When Kennedy won in 1960 -- I was ten at the time -- he had to run as hard against typecasting as possible to overcome the prejudice. When I was growing up, the archetypal proponent of such prejudice was my grandmother, a scary old lady whose bigotry scarcely paused at Rome -- a second generation Swede, she always complained that the Lutherans were "as bad as the Catholics." (I've long wondered whether she had any clue that her favorite musician, Lawrence Welk, was Catholic, or even what champagne had to do with it.) I could see both sides: my closest friend was a neighbor boy who was Catholic -- German descent, and true to stereotype his father drove a beer truck and was never seen after work without a drink, while his mother raised five kids. I even thought about converting to be closer to him, but everything he told me about his religion struck me as complete bananas. (We belonged to the Christian Church, i.e., Disciples of Christ, which later I got very serious about, and later still I abandoned.)
Anyhow, the point of this digression isn't that once upon a time Catholics were discriminated against in the US but now we've gotten beyond all that so a potential Catholic majority on the Supreme Court just shows how liberal and tolerant we've become. No, the point is that even as late as when I was growing up, religion meant something, and people understood that religious differences had more significance than arbitrary things like hair color or taste in shoes. In particular, the difference between Protestants and Catholics was rooted in the Reformation, the 30 Years War, the English Civil War, the rise of capitalism, the struggles for abolition and (sorry about that) prohibition; in other words, in history and theology and ethics. But I have to wonder how many people in America today who think they're religious understand any of that? Why, in particular, do we have this unholy alliance between born again fundamentalists and far right Catholics? The common denominator seems to be hatred for abortion (women) and homosexuals, although they also spend an inordinate amount of energy pandering to Israel and crusading against Muslims -- the worst of whom seem to operate on exactly their wavelengths. But if that's all they stand for, that's not a religion -- that just means (pardon my French) they're assholes.
The church I grew up in was fundamentalist and evangelical, but it was also liberal, which nowadays is a paradox. It was fundamentalist in that it believed in the literal truth of the bible, although to do so it didn't try to reconcile nonsense in the old testament and Revelations -- it concentrated on the four gospels. It was evangelical in that it sent missionaries out, mostly abroad. It practiced adult baptism, the basic idea of born again without the bragging rights. But it was liberal in that it regarded faith as a personal matter and cared little about how other people practiced faith (or not), since faith can only be a personal matter. I tried hard to believe, and I studied this deep enough to get a Boy Scouts God and Country medal, then I gave it up. I found a contradiction between my ethics and my religion, and chose to stick with my ethics. I'm certainly not the only one who did this: liberal protestant churches are withering away in America, partly because people like me outgrow them, and partly because some who don't drift into conservative churches for one reason or another. (I have cousins who grew up as I did then became Catholics or Mormons because of family pulls.)
Sometimes I think about all this and come up with demented theories of religion. One is that we are in the middle of the second long revolution in religious thinking. The first was what's called the Axial Age, which encompasses the thousand years or so (roughly 400 BCE-600 CE) when virtually all of the major religions appeared, displacing earlier forms of paganism. The second began with the Reformation around 1500 CE and continues, unfinished and unstabilized, today. Before the first, religion was local-tribal, but as contact between tribes-nations-empires grew religion became more universal. In the second revolution, religion is tending to become more personal, which in turn allows society to become more secular. This, of course, elicits a backlash, as conservative elements in each religion strive to reverse the tide. The backlash has been relatively successful lately, partly due to conservative alliances across religions (such as the Republicans have sold their souls to), partly due to clashes between conservatives that wreak havoc on everyone else (such as the Global War of Terror). But in doing so, the conservatives lose their religion, reducing it to spite and hatred spiked with bouts of fantasy -- praying for the apocalypse may seem like a sweet rebuke to the secularists, but will surely come to naught.
If the situation seems dire now, it's because the right has become so skilled at usurping the concepts of progress -- we are, for instance, enjoined not to become anti-Catholic bigots and oppose Scalito, much as we are urged to complete the civil rights movement by saving the unborn -- and because those of use who know better prefer not to be bothered with the ravings of the lunatic fringe. Bush's elections, his wars, his packing of the courts, the trashing of science and reason, the looting of our institutions, the game of "steal from the poor to pay the rich" -- they get away with this because of indifference and incredulity. But also because the second revolution hasn't stabilized yet, because we don't yet have a simple, universal set of rules that keeps religion personal and lets society do what it takes for reasonable, equitable self-management. In my crazier moments I wonder if what's needed isn't a new religion, one that ignores questions of god and sticks to the here and now, that provides simple guidelines for living -- that has, after all, always been one of the roles of religion, and may be the one that must be replaced rather than voided. But having grown up in the throes of the old-time religion, I'm far too committed to unbelief to take on any such project.
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