VERSUS LOUSY WORKS
ONE OF THE THINGS that happened
in recent election was that the Republicans' false faith trumped
the Democrats' lousy works. Since the former used imagination
for evidence whie the latter relied on TV news, the odds inevitably
favored the former.
But both sides were lying. After
all, what sort of moral values considers an unborn fetus sacred
but not the lives of 100,000 innocent Iraqis? And what sort of
life on earth can the Democrats offer as an alternative to the
millennium if they haven't had one good new idea in three decades?
We are, some theologians will tell
you, in the midst of the fourth "Great Awakening" in
this country's history, periods in which life becomes so complex
and frightening that there is a rush to pristine promises in
various guises. The conservative Ralph Reed gave a fair thumbnail
on PBS a few years back: "The first great awakening gave
rise to the revolutionary struggle. The second great awakening.
. . some of the most uproarious revivals that have ever been
seen in western civilization, led to the formation of the American
anti-slavery society. Then, of course, the third Great Awakening
of the 1890's leading to the social gospel movement and the progressivism
of which are Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, and today historian
Robert Fogel has argued a fourth Great Awakening has begun with
rising church attendance among baby boomers, and this shift to
evangelicalism and fundamentalism of which the electronic church
was such an important part."
The range of beliefs in such awakenings
can be quite broad; in fact some scholars believe the latest
Great Awakening began in the 1960s with the myriad spiritual
adventures of the left. William G. McLoughlin, a history professor
at Brown, wrote a book in 1978 that placed within the phenomenon
the Beats, the popularity of Zen, and "experimental life-styles
associated with drugs, the hippies, the practice of occultism,
and rock concerts."
Wrote David Carlin (at the time
both a philosophy professor and chair of his local Democratic
Party), "The famous Woodstock concert of 1969 was a kind
of sacramental event for the Fourth Awakening, analogous to the
revivalistic camp meeting of earlier awakenings."
If so, it has produced an ironic
twist: the spirit of the '60s has almost disappeared and the
Democratic Party is being beaten and kicked by people who claim
moral values but ignore every part of the Bible save that which
condemns the nature or habits of people they don't like anyway.
While such periods are clearly a
misery to go through, there is some light to be found at the
end of the tunnel vision: these awakenings tend to be preludes
to some big leap in American social and political change including
the American Revolution, the abolition movement, and 20th century
As Rhys H. Williams has put it:
"Many have credited awakenings with helping to foster religious
pluralism, advance ideas sympathetic to political democracy and
social reform, and forge an American national identity. More
contentious is the claim that awakenings are cyclical, representing
a religious response to social and cultural change. They help
believers come to terms with the stress that change produces
and adjust the culture to new modes of societal organization."
And they are not unique to the American
republic. Both the spread of totem poles in the Northwest, and
the long nosed god icons that swept through Native American cultures
that had little other contact, were in part reactions to stress
created among American Indians by European terrorists unsecuring
their homeland. And residents of Pacific islands disrupted by
World War II and its aftermath engaged in what came to be known
as "cargo cults" with salvation supposedly dropping
from planes like the crates they had seen so often.
This, however, is small comfort
to those living through one of these eras of hysteria, hate,
and hoopla. Further, there is the problem that Charles McKay
outlined back in 1852: "Men, it has been well said, think
in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they
only recover their senses slowly, and one by one."
As a skeptic who neither partakes
in the blood of Christ nor has danced with a Sufi while, say,
making the slow transition from Presbyterianism to Buddhism,
I sometimes think of what is happening as a struggle between
two sects, rather than between the faithful and non-believers.
On the one hand, we have those enveloped in a retro version of
Christianity devised by some highly successful hustlers and charlatans
and, on the other, we have liberals who seem to believe that
politics begins and ends with abortion and gay rights, and in
a cargo cult that delivers salvation through SUVs, Botox injections,
the right wine, and Vanity Fair. It is rare anymore to hear liberals
speak of things like pensions, health care, or labor issues.
Thus they have little to talk about to the fundamentalists save
the issues that divide them so sharply.
This, of course, is not how it is
explained and that just makes it all the more difficult to wend
our way out of this mess. The common thread across all forms
of faith these days - conservative and liberal - is certainty
and a contempt for those who do not share it. Our recovery, however,
will begin not with triumph over our tormentors but with the
discovery of tolerance for them.
Tolerance is a word much out of
favor these days yet its organization and promulgation is the
underlying genius of the American system. It has been also described
as the concept of reciprocal liberty: I can't have my freedom
unless I give you yours. It is based not so much on shared values
as indifference to unshared values.
Once you decide it isn't your business
to save, control, or correct a born-again Christian or, conversely,
two gays headed for the altar, life not only becomes simpler
but considerably more pleasant. Which is why I tell conservatives
complaining about gay marriage, "Then don't marry a gay;"
and liberals who complain about born-agains, "Look we've
always had Christian fundamentalists in this country; we just
used to call them things like 'New Deal Democrats.'"
The magnificence of America lies
in the opportunity not to have to agree with other Americans.
The Christian right has clearly forgotten this, but so have liberals
who send all sorts of unconscious signals that they will be no
less vigorous in imposing their values should they get the chance.
Both these messages, because of their implicit aggression, become
extremely threatening to the other side.
But what if we talked about, negotiated,
and even possibly celebrated the fact that we are and probably
will be different from each other? Not in a smarmy, goody-goody
way but as citizens honestly talking about our differences and
seeking mutual accommodation and safe ground. Impossible? If
they managed in South Africa and in the American South, maybe
we can do it, too.
If we tried, one thing we might
soon discover is that it would be advantageous to exclude the
media and the politicians from the discussion. They are, after
all, the ones with the greatest vested interest in the fight.
And what exactly do we have to lose?
The stability of views on abortion in recent years, for example,
suggests very little. We have, in fact, adopted an approach to
these issues that sanctify our own beliefs without moving them
In fact, the best way to change
people's minds about matters such as ethnic relations is to put
them in situations that challenge their presumptions. Like joining
a multicultural political coalition that works. It's change produced
by shared experience rather than by moral revelation. Martin
Luther King understood this as he admonished his aides to include
in their dreams the hope that their present opponents would become
their future friends. And he realized that rules of correct behavior
were insufficient: "Something must happen so as to touch
the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not
because the law says it, but because it is natural and right."
This doesn't happen logically, it
doesn't come all at once, and it doesn't come with pretty words.
Tom Lowe of the Jackson Progressive voted a few years ago in
favor of a new Mississippi flag without the confederate symbolism.
But in retrospect, he wrote later,
he realized that the voters' rejection of the change was a honest
reflection of their state of mind: "Perhaps a time will
come when we have truly put aside our nasty streak of racism.
When that time arrives, maybe we will choose to replace the flag
with something more representative of our ideals. On the other
hand, when we reach that point, we may no longer care about the
symbolism of the Confederate battle flag. Or perhaps we will
keep it for another reason: to make those of us that are white
humble by reminding us of our less than honorable past."
The decline the Democratic Party
has been accelerated by the growing number of American subcultures
deemed unworthy by its advocates: gun owners, church goers, pickup
drivers with confederate flag stickers. Yet the gun owner could
be an important ally for civil liberties, the churchgoer a voice
for political integrity, the pickup driver a supporter of national
healthcare. Further, the greatest achievements of the Democratic
Party, both in terms of good legislation and votes, came under
presidents who were willing to deal with southern politicians
far more retrograde than your average Falwell follower. Today's
liberals never could have created the Great Society; they would
have hated too many of the people whose votes were necessary
to make it happen.
The strange thing - strange that
is to an era that believes that all progress is the product of
propaganda and salesmanship - is that taking a more laisse faire
attitude towards what others think offers greater opportunity
for antagonists to come together simply because they have less
to fear from each other.
This doesn't mean we shouldn't air
gripes. In fact, one of the greatest services the media could
provide would be to end religion's exemption from its standards
of "objectivity," and treat any religion that engages
in politics as a political institution whose faith is worth no
greater honor than that of the Democratic National Committee.
If we took the media halo away from religion we would quickly
discover that it is religion that is currently at the heart of
our global problems, dangerously propelled by three fanatics
abusing their alleged faith: bin Laden, Bush, and Sharon. Moral
values have put the entire world at risk.
But, as has been said, the powerful
do what they will, and the weak do what they must. And part of
the latter in times of fear and uncertainty is to find safety
in faith, homilies, and congregations of the like minded. Then
the powerful exploit the anxiety of those living in the caves
of their souls, making it all that more difficult for them to
find the light again.
Our job, however, is not to resave
them for rationalism, but to engage in real politics: which is
the art of getting people to think about the right things, things
like what is happening to their jobs, healthcare, and housing
costs. And if a gun-toting, abortion hating nun wants to help
you save the forest, to put her on the committee. Change comes
when the people who the powerful wish to keep apart discover
their true common interest.
There is no progress in polarity;
the secret is in unexpected alliances. It's way past time to
find the issues around which they can form. And then to make