14
Oct
11

Proving God by Consensus: My Problem with the Religious Right

A few decades ago I was awakened at seven o’clock one Sunday morning by the persistent droning of my downstairs door buzzer. I was living then in a back apartment on the top floor of an East Village walk-up that was without an intercom or the capacity to buzz visitors inside. This circumstance made it necessary for me to descend five flights of stairs and to personally unlock the frosted-glass front door to see who it was.

Standing there were two Jehovah’s Witnesses.

At the time I bore no animus toward people who presented themselves as fervently religious.  Though I deemed them delusional, I respected both their right to their delusion and their need of it. The proselytizers I encountered were more likely to draw pity from me than to provoke my ire.

So if I had good reason to be put out by the inconvenience they’d caused me, an inconvenience compounded by the ungodly hour they’d picked to pay a call, my reaction to the elderly and finely attired black couple with soft Georgia accents who greeted me—he with a bible in one hand and a straw hat in the other; she wearing a hat bedecked with white and yellow flowers—wasn’t in the least bit hostile. In fact, while I made it clear that I had no use for the message they were delivering, I was as courteous as I could be. I didn’t want to tamper with their fantasy or hurt their feelings and when I closed the door on them it was very gently.

But that was a while back, before religion assumed the weight and influence that it has in our cultural and political affairs and before I understood just where the so-called “True Believers” are coming from.

We tend to allow that, unhinged as we may judge them to be, evangelicals, in their efforts to make converts or to bring “more religion” into the culture, are doing the work of a God they feel with genuine confidence to be real. Some of us might even imagine that they care about our salvation. But this isn’t what’s happening. Dealing with their fear of death, a fear exacerbated by 9/11 and the destruction of the myth of American invincibility, and wanting desperately for a God, and the potential for eternal life implicit in the concept of God, to exist, the real mission of these people isn’t to share a revelation but to validate beliefs they’re not sure of by securing the agreement of others. To prove the existence of God to themselves by achieving a universal consensus on the matter (the only way to achieve something like certainty about anything) is the true aspiration of the religious right. And I resent the manifold ways in which their ambition to make a formal theocracy of America—a more than adequate means of certifying their beliefs—is already poisoning the lives of the rest of us.

I’m speaking, of course, of their interference with homosexual marriage and a woman’s freedom to end a pregnancy.  I’m also talking about the brakes they managed to apply to government sponsored stem-cell research and the role they played in obliging us to endure a George W. Bush for two terms (not to mention what his presidency has left in its wake) because he professed to share their faith in Jesus Christ. And I’m referring as well to what turned out to be a politically pivotal quantity of Tea Party candidates that they were instrumental in electing to Congress.

And, again, none of this has been, at bottom, to the purpose of spreading a vision (which could maybe have claimed some level of legitimacy), but rather to, in their own minds, ratify by numbers, law or custom, the presence of a deity.

Since there remains a sufficient population of heathens to challenge their beliefs and to keep their uncertainty alive, reaching their unspoken goal will only become more urgent for the evangelicals. They will get louder and more insistent. And their successes will be more pernicious. Is a President Rick Santorum completely out of the question?

I should say that having a few issues of my own with the prospect of death, and quite capable myself of twisting and distorting reality in order to live in the world with a semblance of equilibrium, I can, even under the present conditions, experience some empathy for the Christian right’s agenda. (And I can also appreciate the necessity and durability of religion itself. I’m always taken aback when people whose minds I admire predict that human beings will one day “outgrow” the need for religion, as if it were merely a stage in our evolution. Like the biologists who are looking for a religion gene, they miss the point. For as long as death is a precondition of life, a need for some kind of invented deity, with a plan for mankind—and a collection of rules and practices which, if scrupulously followed, offer the promise of an afterlife—is going to prevail for a large percentage of humanity.)

But while I’m not insensitive to the evangelicals’ cause that doesn’t make its increasing encroachment on the lives of the secular any more acceptable to me. I repeat: Is a President Rick Santorum out of the question? No. If there was once a time when we could indulge the folks of the Christian right at no substantial cost to ourselves, that’s not the case any longer. Their quest to conscript us into their immortality project has gotten too much out of hand and leaves no room for such generosity. At this point there’s little choice but to do battle with them; to fight their actions at every turn. The consequences for those of us who live for this life rather than the next one have become too dire to let them slide.

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2 Responses to “Proving God by Consensus: My Problem with the Religious Right”


  1. 1 the word of me
    October 14, 2011 at 1:28 am

    very well thought out post…kudos

  2. October 14, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    With respect, I suggest that the feelings you bore a few decades ago are more progressive than the more jaded ones you carry today as applied toward Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are the springboard characters of your essay. Yes, call them delusional, if you must….that’s a valid viewpoint, and their activity is strange by societal standards, to be sure. But the psychological baggage you apply to them really doesn’t fit:

    ‘Dealing with a fear of death, wanting desperately for God to exist for the eternal life implications, validating beliefs they’re not sure of by seeking agreement,’ and so forth. No, it’s not them. It’s not so easy to climb into people’s heads and discover their true motivation. In the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, all they fancy themselves doing is continuing the witnessing work launched and described in the Book of Acts. No more, no less. They’re not out to make a theocracy of America, or anywhere else. If they feel change is on the way, it has nothing to do with human politics or maneuvering.

    In the main, though, I take little exception in your characterization of the religious right, (therefore the bulk of your essay is just fine with me) but with your inclusion of Jehovah’s Witnesses in that group. They are not of the religious right. They are not ‘fundamentalists.’ They are strictly apolitical. If they hold conservative moral values, those values are their alone. They do not in any way seek to impose them upon others. Even politics, the “highhanded” way (as opposed to violence) of imposing ones beliefs upon others by law they take no part in. All they do is exercise free speech to persuade as to their view of God’s Kingdom. If you tell them no, they go away. Delusional, pesky…okay, they might be viewed that way….their counterparts certainly were as described in Acts….but they’re absolutely no threat to those holding another view…..as the “religious right” might genuinely be.

    Perhaps the reason they don’t do the really challenging door to door work of JWs, but revert to meddling in politics so as to impose their views on others, is because they do carry the motivational baggage you describe. But to do the ‘hard’ stuff requires humility, faith, honesty, and conviction….the ‘crutchlike’ motives you suggest don’t cut it for a door-to-door minister.

    Hope you don’t mind if I replied at some length to your post. I found it well-written, and it touched upon something I care much about.


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Books by Robert Levin

When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot
The Drill Press LLC
Reviews

109415877-0-m31
Music & Politics
by John Sinclair and Robert Levin
World Publishing

“Robert Levin’s articles…make up the second half of Music and Politics, and they’re something else again. He’s a quietly briliant writer (not flashy but subtly dazzling) who knows jazz extremely well and who knows how to let us know what he knows. His piece on Sunny Murray says more about the birth of the New Jazz than most writers could say in a volume; the Anthony Braxton interview is one of the freshest, most reassuring articles on the future of music (of the arts in general) that I’ve read; his ‘found critique’ of ‘Space’ by the MJQ, which contrasts Murray’s thoughts on music at the White House with President Nixon’s introduction of the MJQ in that very place, is brilliant; his piece on the unfortunate evolution of Willis Jackson…is a minor masterpiece; and he’s lucid and painful and thoroughly correct when he writes that ‘What is meant by ‘every man has his price’ is that every man has his uncertainty about the validity and sanity of his perception of the truth. To ‘sell out’ is to capitulate to that uncertainty.'”
—Colman Andrews, Creem

giants
Giants of Black Music
Edited by Pauline Rivelli and Robert Levin, with a foreword by Nat Hentoff
Da Capo Press

Music & Politics and Giants of Black Music are no longer in print, but remain available from Amazon.com and other outlets.

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