Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Karl Rove's rapture

Bill Moyers has an article in the NY Review of Books worrying about the menace of contemporary right-wing Christianity. I have been around fundamentalist religion since my childhood, though I confess, having been raised as a Methodist, and a lukewarm one at that, I can't claim any deep personal understanding of the fundamentalist psyche. Methodists, of my generation anyhow, still had their ancient Arminian instincts intact, such that it was not enough to have a visitation from the Holy Spirit announcing your personal salvation in order to be assured of a place in the Kingdom, you had to actually walk the walk, and live like Jesus said to. So we were in general much more circumspect about our prospects in the sweet bye and bye than Baptists or members of the other Calvinist sects were, though logically their predestinarian views should have had the opposite effect. I was always puzzled by that.

But for most of my life the real fundamentalists were off by themselves with their ecstatic glossolalia and going to church twice a week, which I don't recall Methodists doing, and trying to keep their secondhand pickups running. Minding their own business, in other words.

But in the past couple of decades it is a sort of general southern cultural background radiation thing that you hardly notice even as you are being slowly boiled in it like the frog, that Christian fundamentalists are more and more angry and political. And maybe more more numerous. It seems to me increasingly true, though I can't prove it, that Southern Baptists, the biggest Calvinist sect, have gotten more fundamentalist in the ordinary contemporary sense of the word, i.e., more fanatical and intolerant, especially intolerant of homosexuals and liberals. Thus we now commonly have quivering-jowl Baptist pastors declaiming against these and other sinners to their audiences (who seems to be undergoing the same supersizing on an individual scale as Goliath megachurches in the South on a corporate scale--will diabetes scourge fundamentalist Christianity the way AIDS has ravaged Africa?) as they sit in convention-center sized temples and immerse themselves in their church's million-dollar sound system to hear the good news that they will float up to heaven like so many helium balloons untethered from a used car lot as Jesus returns to earth, and the rest of us here below, the liberals and homosexuals and Jews are in for some bad trouble.

There is a lot of schadenfreude hidden in the message of the Rapture. Why is that? The message has been around since a preacher named Darby invented it in the 19th century, but it seems to have caught on just as red state residents got more unhappy in general. And why indeed shouldn't they get more unhappy? The bottom 2 economic quintiles in the country (heavily represented in red state America) have been getting steadily poorer for 30 years, the middle quintile is getting steadily more uncertain that they won't be next, and thru the genius of Karl Rove the Republican wurlitzer has provided a steady menu of scapegoats for whatever is troubling you. Liberals. Homosexuals. Feminists. Muslims, since 9/11. We are all familiar with this. But why are fundamentalists in particular so susceptible to this stuff? (My hope is that Republicans are making secret payments to Baptist ministers--but I doubt the answer is that simple.) I don't claim to know the real answer, except that messianic movements thrive in times of generalized stress and unhappiness. So is the Rapture simply the psychological equivalent of the magic shirts of the Ghost Dance religion? Reality usually makes short work of messianic outbreaks, but not in a way that anyone can want.

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