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How would Jesus vote? (continued)

What Republicans have done best, perhaps, is play to the siege mentality of today’s religious traditionalists. Republicans actively sought to paint the nation as divided between the religious and the secular, and to cast the GOP as a crucial line of defense against the latter. The right demonized Kerry supporters George Soros and Whoopi Goldberg as, respectively, a money-grubbing Jewish foreigner and an amoral Hollywood elitist. A Republican National Committee mailing in September warned that if "liberals" won the election, the Bible would be banned.

Even without such fearmongering, it’s not surprising that religious traditionalists feel threatened, says Cunningham of BC. Children learn about different religions and cultures in public school; alternative lifestyles (albeit usually moral ones) are all over TV and movies; and interfaith relationships are more common than ever — not to mention that acceptance of homosexuality has moved fast enough for the headline THE YEAR OF THE QUEER to run in these pages a year ago. The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent war to essentially Westernize Muslim countries may have heightened the us-versus-them atmosphere.

"Because religious pluralism is in our face with a potency it hasn’t had before, all religious groups have to deal with how they are going to engage other groups," Cunningham says. "Some are responding by battening down the hatches, a fortress mentality. Others are trying to bring forth this other tradition of engaging other religions. The two sides are at odds with each other."

That tension played itself out in Washington all year. First came the Supreme Court case challenging the recitation in schools of the Pledge of Allegiance, which contains the words "under God." The court in effect left the question open, ultimately ruling that the person who brought the suit did not have proper standing — but the challenge became a rallying point for religious traditionalists. Later in the year, the Supreme Court agreed to decide whether the Ten Commandments can be displayed in courtrooms. Today, the Christian right is fulminating over secularists "taking Christ out of Christmas."

Yet this claim that Christianity is under siege by the rest of the country hardly holds water when, for example, some 96 percent of Americans say they celebrate Christmas. Traditionalists like Glover prefer to imagine the conflict as external, rather than acknowledge the different interpretations within their own religious traditions on issues of church-and-state separation, or even homosexuality and abortion. "It’s kind of silly that some have claimed that there is an ideological split within Christianity," Glover says. He sees "some tiny fringe minorities within some of the much smaller quasi-religious groups in this country" — for example, those Episcopalians who approved of ordaining V. Gene Robinson, a gay man, as bishop last year. "If the Episcopalian diocese of Vermont wants to pit itself in importance with the Southern Baptist Congregation, let them," Glover says.

Nothing captured the "Christian culture under siege" mentality better than this year’s release of The Passion of the Christ — a film that Cunningham says was unquestionably politicized. "It was shown to highly selected audiences of Christians on the right-wing: self-identified political conservatives and religious Catholics," he says. Both The Passion and director Mel Gibson’s public-relations campaign painted faithful Christians as an oppressed group among a hostile population. Gibson also portrayed himself as under assault by a Jewish-controlled Hollywood that wanted to keep his film from being made. "It certainly stirred people who hate the things of God to be more resolute in their opposition to all things Christian, all things biblical," Glover says.

The media of the religious traditionalists (Agape Press, Eternal Word Television Network) ate it up — religious-right groups even ran their own ads urging people to see The Passion despite "the attacks against the movie and Mel Gibson." An independent Web site (www.seethepassion.com) claimed that Gibson was "under intense, public attack from all the worst elements of the major news media and the entertainment industry." Meanwhile, the film was raking in more than $350 million at the box office, with no reports of anyone trying to block or hinder its release. "What it tapped into is a sentiment in certain quarters that one cannot be openly Christian — that Christianity was under assault," Cunningham says.

THAT PERCEIVED "assault" — and religious traditionalists’ response to it — helped strengthen an unexpected alliance between fundamentalist Protestants and staunch Catholics this year, despite their obvious theological differences. (Even the most traditionalist Protestants are, after all, ultra-reform Catholics.) Religion has made strange political bedfellows before — fundamentalist Christians have long served as staunch allies to Zionist American Jews, for example. That bond has, if anything, become stronger under George W. Bush, who has steadfastly supported Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, and gained some measure of political support (and money) from Jewish sources.

Some of the reasons for the Protestant-Catholic alliance can be found in both Gibson’s Passion and the hugely popular Left Behind series of Christian novels, the finale of which was published in 2004. The former was made by a hard-core Catholic, and repeatedly emphasizes a Catholic view of Holy Communion, condemning Protestants to hell by implication; the latter was written by evangelical Protestants, and casts a Catholic cardinal as the false prophet of Satan. Nevertheless, both works have had crossover success, and at heart have much in common.

Both eschew biblical prescriptions of brotherly love and social good, focusing relentlessly on redemption through religious adherence instead. This conception plays directly into the conservative rejection, or at least the de-emphasis, of the regulatory state and other liberal ideals. Christianity, in this view, is not about helping others, but about finding one’s own salvation. Other people usually serve only to impede this task (for example, by luring one into homosexuality, promiscuity, and dreaded multiculturalism). George Bush, for instance, commonly dismisses his first decades of adulthood as his now-irrelevant pre-salvation life. No atonement or good deeds were necessary — he woke up one day a sinner, got saved, and was all set. "I think the president is a religiously immature leader," says Pennybacker. "He reduces religion to personal experience."

The Passion and Left Behind also emphasize the vengeful nature of God and Jesus toward those of other faiths. Gibson, in one of many touch-ups to the Gospels, sends an earthquake to demolish the Jewish Temple as Jesus dies, while Left Behind authors Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye’s God metes out a steady stream of violence and bloody death to the enemy, which is most of humankind (how’s that for an anti-pluralist message?). In both cases, those who accept Jesus are simply right, and are rewarded; those who do not are simply wrong, and are punished. If that’s okay with Jesus, why should the death of Iraqi civilians, or the impoverishment of inner-city children, bother you and me?

And finally, both works use the Bible selectively and interpret liberally even as they claim biblical literalism. Fundamentalists have praised The Passion as a perfect depiction of events from the Gospels, although Gibson added entire scenes from non-Bible sources; Left Behind has already milked 12 novels from a sparse and carefully selected number of Bible passages. This pick-and-choose biblical literalism allows religious traditionalists to spend all day at the State House protesting gay marriage, while ignoring, say, Jesus’ admonition to rid oneself of wealth.

These are not minor theological points; they serve to justify forcing conservative ideology into our entire legal and political structure — consistency be damned. To argue with them is to argue against biblical truth, and to side with those who must perish. The very presence of argument is proof of Satan’s work. In this sense, George W. Bush’s politics are entirely religious. God, he has said, speaks through him. And you would ask Him if He’s made any mistakes?

David S. Bernstein can be reached at dbernstein@phx.com

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Issue Date: December 24 - 30, 2004
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