Saturday, November 13, 2004

The Religion of Politics

FlowersThe year was 1914. The Great War was raging in Europe, with America as yet spared its suffering. For the followers of Charles Taze Russell, the war was but one sign of a far more portentous event: 1914 was the predicted year for the parousia, the visible return of Christ in power.

Russell, a clothing merchant and self-proclaimed "Bible student", had become interested in the teachings of William Miller - founder of the Adventists. Picking up the pieces of Miller's failed chronology, which had predicted Christ's triumphant return in 1844, Russell's "new light" blended Miller's chronological formulas from the Bible with measurements from the Great Pyramid at Gaza and other numerology sources to conclude that Christ would return visibly in 1874. When this prediction likewise failed, he quickly revised his revelations to conclude that Christ had come invisibly in 1874, and would surely come visibly in power in 1914.

Anticipation among his followers was intense as 1914 drew to a close. When the New Year dawned with no Jesus in sight, disappointment and anger were widespread among Russell's followers. Many fell away, recognizing the emptiness of their trust in their charismatic-but-disgraced leader. One of Russell's most loyal and dedicated followers, Judge Joseph Rutherford, was unwilling to reject the teachings of the man he regarded as a prophet, and saw an opportunity to change the subject and re-energize their discouraged followers. He launched a vitriolic attack on the churches and clergy of Christendom, whose opposition to and exposure of the false prophecies of Russell led so many to abandon the Truth. Those who had left were branded apostates, and shunned. Rutherford succeeded in salvaging and reinvigorating the religion, and became the father of today's Jehovah's Witnesses.

So what does any of this have to do with politics? Bear with me a moment.

Religious cults like Russellism and its offspring, the Jehovah's Witnesses, centralize all their faith and hopes in one person or group, who acts as the sole spokesman for God. When prophetic predictions by leadership fail to materialize, followers are faced with a difficult choice: to admit that the authority in which they have placed so much trust and invested so much energy is a sham, and therefore conclude that they themselves are fools, or risk the wrath and rejection of a group they believe to be their only salvation. Such conflict produces severe cognitive dissonance, and often results in thought patterns, rationalization, and behavior which the outside world will view as bizarre or irrational.

Now, politics is not religion, much less a cult. But there are many in the political arena, both right and left, for whom politics and political power represent the only hope and salvation for mankind's problems. They invest in their political vision, and in the power necessary to impose it (governmental and judicial), enormous energy and commitment. Among some Christian conservatives, this manifests itself through the political imposition of morality. Although authority is nominally attributed to God, in practice righteousness must be imposed on society by the election of morally upright representatives, the opposition to morally abhorrent legislation and societal practices, and the rapid attribution of adverse social or political events to the judgment of God on the wicked. The progress of spiritual transformation on an individual level, one person at a time having their lives changed by God, is far too imperceptible and untrustworthy for such folks, like waiting for continental drift to change your zip code. There is little perspective on how disastrous the imposition of morality through politics has been throughout history. Fortunately, most people of faith eschew purely political solutions to society's problems, having experienced far more personal success with individual redemption and spiritual change.

On the secular side, where God does not exist or is an ineffectual (though sometimes useful) concept, change can only come through raw power, as there exists no authority wiser nor of sufficient potency to bring about the changes seen necessary to better ourselves and our society. One's political and social philosophy therefore becomes both the ultimate authority and judge of a societal direction and morality. Opposition to such well-intentioned and enlightened purposes represents not merely a difference of opinion, but instead a force of ignorance and hate to be opposed at all costs. The opponents of your politics are the personification of evil, the enemies of men's souls.

This worldview is rarely as clearly demonstrated as it has been in the reaction of the secular Left to the recent election. Convinced of the rightness of their cause, the stupidity, corruption and mendacity of the President and his administration, they were certain that the time for deliverance from the Neanderthals and their hordes was at hand. How could the enlightened people of America not heed the call to such a shining city on the hill? Reinforced by the echo chamber of the mainstream print and television media, the parousia of political deliverance surely seemed close at hand.

When the harsh reality of November 3 struck, the idea that America had rejected their political vision proved a devastating blow. The possibility that they themselves might be at fault - that their enlightened vision of America was flawed and unacceptable to the electorate - was too much to bear. There had to be another explanation, since the vision itself could not be questioned. Cognitive dissonance had arrived in spades.

Of course, there was the obligate back-biting about the ineffectiveness of their candidate, and conspiracy theories abounded: the evil genius of Karl Rove, the veracity of the pro-Kerry exit polls overwhelmed by massive voter fraud and intimidation of voters, and even theories about Republican origins of Osama bin Laden's tape. But the wide vote margin refused traction to the idiocy so manifest in Florida in 2000. The answer, however, came quickly and intuitively. Like Nero, having torched their own city, who better to blame for this disaster than the Christians?

Lest you think I am overstating my case, consider the following. The delightfully-but-inappropriately-named Jane Smiley, writing a post-election analysis in Slate, says the following:
Here is how ignorance works: First, they put the fear of God into you-if you don't believe in the literal word of the Bible, you will burn in hell. Of course, the literal word of the Bible is tremendously contradictory, and so you must abdicate all critical thinking, and accept a simple but logical system of belief that is dangerous to question. A corollary to this point is that they make sure you understand that Satan resides in the toils and snares of complex thought and so it is best not try it ... The history of the last four years shows that red state types, above all, do not want to be told what to do-they prefer to be ignorant. As a result, they are virtually unteachable... when life grows difficult or fearsome, they ... encourage you to cling to your ignorance with even more fervor. But by this time you don't need much encouragement-you've put all your eggs into the ignorance basket, and really, some kind of miraculous fruition (preferably accompanied by the torment of your enemies, and the ignorant always have plenty of enemies) is your only hope. If you are sufficiently ignorant, you won't even know how dangerous your policies are until they have destroyed you, and then you can always blame others.

Gary Wills, writing in the NY Times, says this:
Can a people that believes more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be called an Enlightened nation?
... The secular states of modern Europe do not understand the fundamentalism of the American electorate... In fact, we now resemble those nations less than we do our putative enemies. Where else do we find fundamentalist zeal, a rage at secularity, religious intolerance, fear of and hatred for modernity? Not in France or Britain or Germany or Italy or Spain. We find it in the Muslim world, in Al Qaida, in Saddam Hussein's Sunni loyalists.

Maureen Dowd, in the NY Times:
The president got re-elected by dividing the country along fault lines of fear, intolerance, ignorance and religious rule. He doesn't want to heal rifts; he wants to bring any riffraff who disagree to heel.

Donna Brazille, in Slate:
When one of my sisters-who, coincidentally, is a recovering Republican-was told in church that she would go to hell if she voted for Sen. Kerry, she stood up and denounced the preacher's message ... despite our personal differences on matters of faith and religion, we believe that in order to be good disciples of Jesus, you have to not only know his words but also perform his deeds. That is where we draw the line with those who spend hours and hours in church, only to come out and hate everyone around them.

Imagine for a moment, that Kerry had won the election. Consider the reaction if the Wall Street Journal and National Review had published opinion stating the same things about any other group which supported Democrats - African Americans, Hispanics, Jews, labor unions. Called them ignorant, unteachable, hate-filled, the moral equivalent of Al Qaeda. Can you imagine the sheer outrage, the 'round-the-clock news coverage, the 60 Minutes specials on bigotry and intolerance? Yet for the secular Left, this is not bigotry; it is Truth.

When politics is your religion, rejection at the polls is more than a disappointment; it challenges the very core of your enlightened belief system, your very soul. It is the failed prophecy, the betrayal by the ignorant and unfaithful, the repudiation of your core being, the smashing of your dreams. The Vision is Truth; the enemy who impeded its inevitable and righteous triumph must be identified, hated, repudiated, scorned. Only then can the True Believer be at peace again, in the assurance of their moral superiority and the destiny of their dominance.