Thursday, July 16, 2009

Jeffrey Goldberg: How "alien" is Hamas' "apocalyptic thinking" to Americans?

Jeffrey Goldberg, asked by Michael J. Totten what he learned from talking to Hamas, responds:
A first-hand understanding of how they think. People in the United States find it hard to understand how people in Hamas and Hezbollah think. It’s alien. It’s alien to us. The feverish racism and conspiracy mongering, the obscurantism, the apocalyptic thinking – we can’t relate to that. Every so often, there’s an eruption of that in a place like Waco, Texas, but we’re not talking about 90 people in a compound. We’re talking about whole societies that are captive to this kind of absurdity.
Hmm. Are conspiratorial thinking, obscurantism and apocalyptic thinking "alien" to the 100 million-plus evangelicals living in the United States -- and controlling much of the Republican Party's agenda and rhetoric?

Reza Aslan, in his new book How to Win a Cosmic War, notes that Evangelical leaders, like International Jihadists, view life on earth as a grand apocalyptic struggle -- and often as an apocalyptic struggle between Christianity and Islam (when they're not busy casting it as a war between Christianity and Godless western hedonism). Aslan's equivalences are rather loose and broad. He's right, though, that fundamentalisms in all of the Biblical religions share some core assumptions about spiritual warfare -- internal, cultural, global and cosmic. Some samplings of U.S. Evangelical leaders' "church militancy," from Aslan and others:
  • "The Christian home is to be in a constant state of war"-- Ted Haggard, who before he lost his own "war" against his homosexuality, was head of the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 30 million conservative Christians. As such, Haggard was a high profile participant in weekly conference calls between evangelical leaders and the Bush White House (Aslan, p. 86).
  • Haggard on Islam: "The Christian God encourages freedom, love, forgiveness, prosperity and health. The Muslim god appears to value the opposite. The personalities of each god are evident in the cultures, civilizations and dispositions of the peoples that serve them."
  • Jerry Falwell on Islam:: "I think Muhammad was a terrorist. I read enough by both Muslims and non-Muslims, [to decide] that he was a violent man, a man of war."
  • Falwell on why 9/11 occurred: "throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'"
  • Falwell on culture war: "The local church is an organized army equipped for battle, ready to charge the enemy. The Sunday school is the attacking squad...[the missionary's task is to] bombard our territory, to move near the coast and shell the enemy" (Aslan, p. 86).
  • John Hagee, he of the coveted McCain endorsement, speaking on NPR of the Islamic threat: "those who live by the Qur'an have a scriptural mandate to kill Christians and Jews... it teaches that very clearly...There are 1.3 billion people who follow the Islamic faith, so if you're saying there's only 15 percent that want to come to America or invade Israel to crush it, you're only talking about 200 million people. That's far more than Hitler and Japan and Italy and all of the Axis powers in World War II had under arms."
More broadly, Aslan sees in the broader Evangelical community the kind of paranoia and magical thinking that Goldberg assumes is "alien" to Americans -- and in the process, notes the extent of its political influence:
There exists in this movement a socially constructed atmosphere of crisis, conflict, and threat derived from the perception that, as those who have been 'born again,' evangelicals have inherited God's covenant from Israel. They are the new chosen people, and like the Israelites of old, they must forever be tested by God and despised by the world.

This self-imposed worldview of constant embattlement can be impervious to reality. In the United States, where there are more than one hundred million evangelicals ...where in 2004 almost half of the Senate and a third of the members of the House of representatives were given an approval rating of 80 to 100 percent be evangelical watch groups, and where, until recently, the president and a great many members of his cabinet and staff were practicing evangelicals, a constant lament of evangelical leaders such as Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention is that the rights of evangelicals are being trampled upon because, for instance, they are not allowed to have prayer in public schools or post the Ten Commandments on government property. As the Sociologist Christian Smith has noted, the Evangelical movement's vibrancy, its ability to sustain a distinctive religious subculture, is owed precisely to this constructed sense of siege. Without it, Smith writes, the movement would 'lose its identity and purpose and grow languid and aimless' (p. 91).
Compare Thomas Frank on that avatar of the Christian right, Sarah Palin:
The piling-up of petty complaints is an important aspect of conservative movement culture. For those who believe that American life consists of the trampling of Middle America by the "elites" -- that our culture is one big insult to the pious and the patriotic and the traditional -- Sarah Palin's long list of unfair and disrespectful treatment is one of her most attractive features. Like Oliver North, Robert Bork, and Clarence Thomas, she is known not for her ideas but as a martyr, a symbol of the culture-war crimes of the left.

To become a symbol of this stature Ms. Palin has had to do the opposite of most public figures. Where others learn to take hostility in stride, she and her fans have developed the thinnest of skins. They find offense in the most harmless remarks and diabolical calculation in the inflections of the anchorman's voice. They take insults out of context to make them seem even more insulting. They pay close attention to voices that are ordinarily ignored, relishing every blogger's sneer, every celebrity's slight, every crazy Internet rumor.

This has been Ms. Palin's assigned role ever since she stepped on the national stage last summer. Indeed, she has stuck to it so unswervingly that one suspects it was settled on even before she was picked for the VP slot, that it was imposed on her by a roomful of GOP image consultants: Ms. Palin was to be the candidate on a cross.

Evangelical Americans live under considerably more comfortable circumstances than the Islamic fanatics of Gaza. Most, according to some research, have imbibed a measure of American tolerance in their attitudes toward much behavior that their churches cast as sinful. After the multiple failures of the Bush presidency, moreover, the poison may be draining a bit out of Evangelical fervor for cultural and actual warfare. Most U.S. Evangelicals, in short, presumably would not go in for suicide bombing. But Alsan's basic equivalence between fundamentalist Islamic and Christian imaginative frames for cosmic warfare remains valid.

1 comment:

  1. Not only do American evangelicals view life on earth as a grand apocalyptic struggle--they believe that the Apocalypse could happen pretty soon, for real, as in the second coming/Judgment Day/world ending and all that. At least, that's what I've read.