Monday, March 9, 2015

So Many Christians, So Few Lions: The Culture Wars

It’s difficult for anyone to see the violence perpetrated by ISIS and its various off-shoots and not be appalled and horrified. Enslavement, murder, people being burned alive, beheadings, mass rape and murder of women and children – this is the stuff of Blade Runner crossed with Mad Max. 

Our minds reach for an explanation, the why of this atrocity. And the why is important; we need to understand what has created this force for evil. And I use the word evil deliberately – it is a moral word, and its use is a moral judgment. 

The evil reality that is ISIS has it roots in religion, and it is that reality that secular governments in the United States and Europe are missing. They can understand political and economic realities; they can claim a lack of economic opportunity as a major contributing cause for the attraction of ISIS. What that doesn’t explain is why so many of ISIS’s adherents and supporters come from the middle and upper classes – people who have ample access to economic opportunity.  

Our government and the writers of our newspaper editorial pages wouldn’t consider asking, but it is those crazy right-wing fundamentalist Christians who likely better understand what motivates ISIS. ISIS is messianic religion without the loving, sacrificial Messiah. 

What the news media called the culture wars in the United States – Christians versus secularists or however else you might describe it – have long been over. The Christians lost. My own understanding tells me that the Christians lost because we confused speaking out in the public square – bearing witness – with political control of the public square. We aligned ourselves with one political party because the other was, well, embracing what we simply couldn’t accept. And we accomplished – not much. We were certainly used – our votes were crucial – but we were quickly abandoned. Read the late David Kuo’s Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction.  

The public square was never ours to control. 

What was missed by so many – observers and opponents alike – was that the so-called Christian Right actually wasn’t trying to impose its views on American society. What it was trying to do was resist the relentless secularization of American society. It seemed, and often still seems, that the goal of progressives and secularists is nothing less than the complete eradication of any and all religion, and especially Christianity, from American soil. It was this sense that something important was being lost, and not only something Christian, that fueled so much of what poured out of churches and into the voting booths.  

The roots of the culture wars go back centuries, say George Yancey and David Williamson in So Many Christians, Do Few Lions: Is There Christianophobia in the United States? While they point to the philosophes of the Enlightenment and then the triumph of the scientific revolution in the 19th century (including Darwin), the roots are actually much older than that, going back to the infancy of Christianity. Read the early church fathers. You will discover that the culture wars are some 2,000 years old. 

The fact is that Christianity always has been the counterpoint. Christians pay their taxes but they will not bow the knee to the emperor. Of course, that should also mean they’re not supposed to bow their knee to any political party, either. And the U.S. Constitution is not equivalent to the Bible. 

Born during our modern culture wars was what Yancey and Williamson call Christianophobia. Like the work colleague I mentioned last week, who genuinely feared that “those Christians” would stuff their religion down her throat, this is not a belief held by a only a tiny number of people. A large swath of our cultural elites actually believes this. Who they are and what they say will be covered here next week, as I continue the discussion of So Many Christians, So Few Lions. 

Photograph by David Lally via Public Domain Pictures: Torn-Out Hearts Memorial, Krakow, Poland. Used with permission.


Sheila said...

Thank you for this discussion. I'm too (naive? optimistic? foolish?) to wrap my brain around the magnitude and significance of this situation.
I'm looking forward to the next installment.

Jerry said...

Ditto. Thanks for bringing a bit more light to the awful situation.

Michael Dodaro said...

Graeme Wood in The Atlantic recently compared ISIS to a movement like that of David Koresh or Jim Jones, but with millions of followers instead of a few hundred: