Saturday, February 17, 2007

My groats worth of wit

I'm rapidly becoming allergic to these discussions, not entirely for the reasons Pastor Dan enumerates (full frontal disclosure: I am not dissing Pastor Dan by possibly disagreeing with him, or even slightly separating from him, in what follows. Clear?), even though I am tired of people in left blogistan who see theocrats under every bed.

I don't know Randall Balmer's work, but I'm willing to give it my open attention, even as I consider that I knew more than a few seminary professors who were quite wise in their field, and quite foolish outside of it. Like the mid-western professor who'd been a pastor long enough to return to seminary, where he had a fine scholar. But he told me how he thought the "mega-church" model, which he was just then becoming aware of, might be a sign of a "New Reformation."

My old friend from childhood and fellow minister and I got a good laugh out of that, as we'd grown up in the Bible Belt, which could teach mega-church pastors a thing or two about whipping up enthusiasm among the faithful. New? Yeah, as new as the First Great Awakening. Balmer may be in his field, for all I know; all I'm saying is, I'll judge his work, not his credentials. But judge his work fairly. And since I don't know anything about it, I'll remain silent on it. Others can judge, but I'll remain neutral.

Chris Hedges' work I do know, and the fact that he's been to seminary just reminds me of the stories he tells of his experiences, and how badly burned he so clearly was by it. I've read his last two books, and I'm skeptical about this third one that's just come out. I don't think Chris sees things all that clearly; indeed, I think he has some serious issues, and his judgment on matters of theocracy is suspect, at best.

Kevin Phillips' book always looked good to me, and I respect his judgment, so again I'll remain fair and neutral. It may be he fears too much what is now, it seems to me, not going to happen. Indeed, one must remember in this field that books on "current affairs" often get planned 18-24 months in advance, and by the time they hit the shelves they are either "just-in-time" (if they're lucky) or already last week's fish wrap. Several books came out in the fall touting the "genius" of George Bush and his "courageous" determination in Iraq. Oops. They were all a bit behind the power curve, probably considered in 2003-04 in order to catch the zeitgeist that by 2006 had already blown over. You'll note those books sank beneath the public's wisdom like a stone.

Does all this mean I'm trying to start an argument with Pastor Dan again? Heaven forbid ! (No, really!) I'm just pointing out the painfully cramped nature of "discussion" in the blogosphere. There are, in other words, nuances to these things that never get properly aired. Sure, some of:

My blogospheric colleagues are often at some pains to point out that criticism of particular religious beliefs or strands of practice does not equate to a generalized hatred or disdain for religion itself.
But then there are always the people who don't see what is right in front of them. One of my recent posts prompted this response, for example:

It's unfortunate that most of your piece seems to dance around the issue and express your ambivalence about the general topic, yet the one point where you actually specify WHAT WAS WRONG, all you do is declare "hands off the Virgin Mary!"

This is something Sam Harris has talked about -- the double standard that religion has in our society. Religious people want religious ideas to enjoy a special status as untouchable, undiscussable, un-mockable notions. You can mock race, creed, size, sex, age and sexual orientation, and you're considered "cutting edge" if you do it right -- but religion is permanently taboo?

The story of the Virgin Mary is beloved and held as holy by many people. That is a fact of society. But maybe religious people OUGHT to get used to being mocked for their religious beliefs.

Maybe if the 19 hijackers weren't treated with respect for their religious beliefs by their neighbors and family, they would've become doctors and lawyers, instead.

You see, if you mock somebody for believing something that's patently true, you're a fool. If you mock a belief that is ONLY held because of tradition and brainwashing, you're doing a sensible thing.

Religion gets respect because it's a social convention, not because religion inherently deserves respect. Otherwise, we'd all be forced to respect Bush's belief that he's been right all along in Iraq... since he clearly believes it.

It's amazing to me how many people can't even remove the scales from their eyes long enough to see that beliefs don't deserve respect just because you believe them. In every other area of life -- history, science, car repair -- we require evidence before accepting a claim. But in religion, being fervent is good enough.

Maybe you should ask yourself, "Why does it bother me when someone mocks a character in an ancient story?" Would you be offended if I mocked Agamemnon, or Grendel?
I'm hard pressed to find where I ever said "hands off the Virgin Mary" or declared religious belief free from critique in an open marketplace of ideas. Of course, don't get me started on Sam Harris, but that's another story. Nor have I ever said that "being fervent is good enough" for anything (except perhaps romantic love). But, as Paul Simon said: "A man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest." In the end, I agree with Pastor Dan:

But the point is that we're not talking about the churchgoing folks next door, and I think we all know that. We're talking about highly politicized, highly partisan operatives whose actions have raised legitimate concerns. As it happens, they like to hide behind the church folks next door, but they're not the sweet folks who like to sing "This Is My Father's World" and put on a chicken barbeque in the summer. And if religion is completely out-of-bounds in our critical discourse, we're not going to be able to discuss some very real, very problemmatic people.
No, we aren't talking about the people next door, we're talking about a very small group of power-seekers who once again find their reach has exceeded their grasp. Anyone remember the specter of Pat Robertson reaching for the brass ring of the Presidency? The money Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker seem to be able to literally vacuum out of people's pockets? The 900 foot tall Jesus who commanded Oral Roberts to build a hospital Tulsa didn't want, and how effective Roberts was at getting Tulsa to pay for it later? (Hint: not at all effective.) Does somebody really imagine this is the first time theocracy has reared its ugly head in America? Does nobody remember Prohibition, and what fueled that Constitutional mistake?

The short answer, for me, is that we've been here before, and rejected theocracy before. For 40 years the GOP, lead by those disappointed in the failure of Goldwater against LBJ, fomented disgust with the federal government to the point the people of this country almost believed them. But then Newt Gingrich shut down that government, and suddenly people missed it. Then 9/11 happened, and suddenly the Federal Government was the only one that could adequately respond (and it failed to). Later there was a little thing called Hurricane Katrina. And in the meantime Ted Haggard thought he was the President's Pastor, or at least a Very Influential Parson; and James Dobson had delusions of grandeur, and the basso continuo of Rush Limbaugh spread the anti-government poison to all sectors of working class America for over 2 decades. And you know what?

It didn't work. It was rejected in November, and it will go on being rejected. Even the churchgoers who are supposed to be such willing shills of the Bush Administration, have turned against it. For Bush and the GOP and the theocrats, it's all over but the crying.

But try having that discussion in left blogistan. It's not that we can't; it's just that we have to set the terms of the discussion first. And I respectfully (oh, so respectfully) submit those terms are not fixed on authority, or past history, or even credentials, but solely on the soundness of data and information relied on. Which makes it hard; darned hard indeed, to have a discussion, until we've all done quite a bit of reading, and considering, and reasoning, maybe even reasoning together. So maybe we could just start by accepting there are lots of points of view, and all of them deserve due consideration until some have been weighed and found wanting, and others have been sifted to separate wheat from chaff, and still others have been left behind because they're just flat-out stupid and beneath consideration. Can we do that? Can we reason together before we take sides and settle on judgments?

I hope so. I doubt it, though, because the blogosphere just doesn't lend itself to that kind of discussion (the kind, by the way, I'm sure Pastor Dan wants, too. Let the reader understand!). Maybe it should; but the way it's shaping up now, it just doesn't, and I'm not sure it ever will.

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