At the Central Baptist Church in Marshall, Texas, where I was baptized in the faith, we believed in a free church in a free state. I still do.
My spiritual forbears did not take kindly to living under theocrats who embraced religious liberty for themselves but denied it to others. “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils,” thundered the dissenter Roger Williams as he was banished from Massachusetts for denying Puritan authority over his conscience. Baptists there were a “pitiful negligible minority” but they were agitators for freedom and therefore denounced as “incendiaries of the commonwealth” for holding to their belief in that great democracy of faith-the priesthood of all believers.
Such revolutionary ideas made the new nation with its Constitution and Bill of Rights “a haven for the cause of conscience.” No longer would “the loathsome combination of church and state”-as Thomas Jefferson described it-be the settled order. The First Amendment neither inculcates religion nor inoculates against it. Americans could be loyal to the Constitution without being hostile to God, or they could pay no heed to God without fear of being mugged by an official God Squad. It has been a remarkable arrangement that guaranteed “soul freedom.”
It is at risk now, and the fourth observance of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 is an appropriate time to think about it.
Four years ago, the poet’s prophetic metaphor became real again and “the great dark birds of history” plunged into our lives.
They came in the name of God. They came bent on murder and martyrdom.
Yes, the Koran speaks of mercy and compassion and calls for ethical living. But such passages are no match for the ferocity of instruction found there for waging war for God’s sake: “Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah, and those who reject faith fight in the cause of Evil.”(4:76)
So the holy warriors came-an airborne death cult, their sights on God’s enemies: regular folks, starting the day’s routine one minute and in the next, engulfed by a horrendous cataclysm.
But it is never only the number of dead by which terrorists measure their work. It is also the number of the living-the survivors-taken hostage to fear. The writer Terry Tempest Williams has said “the human heart is the first home of democracy.” Fill that heart with fear and people will give up the risks of democracy for the assurances of security; fill that heart with fear and you can shake the house to its foundations.
Having lost faith in all else, zealots have nothing left but a holy cause to please a warrior God. They win if we become holy warriors, too; if we kill the innocent as they do; strike first at those who had not struck us; allow our leaders to use the fear of terrorism to make us afraid of the truth; cease to think and reason together, allowing others to tell what’s in God’s mind. Yes, we are vulnerable to terrorists, but only a shaken faith in ourselves can do us in.
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Muslims have no monopoly on holy violence. As Jack Nelson-Pallmayer points out, God’s violence in the sacred texts of both faiths reflects a deep and troubling pathology “so pervasive, vindictive, and destructive” that it contradicts and subverts the collective weight of other passages that exhort ethical behavior or testify to a loving God.
We know we can go through the Bible and construct a God more pleasing to the better angels of our nature. We also know that the “violence-of-God” tradition remains embedded deep in the DNA of monotheistic faith. Inside that logic you cannot read part of the Bible allegorically and the rest of it literally; if you believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, his crucifixion and resurrection, and the depiction of the Great Judgment at the end times you must also believe that God is sadistic, brutal, vengeful, callow, cruel and savage-that God slaughters.
Let’s go back to 9/11 four years ago. The ruins were still smoldering when the reverends Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell went on television to proclaim that the terrorist attacks were God’s punishment of a corrupted America. They said the government had adopted the agenda “of the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians” not to mention the ACLU and People for the American Way (The God of the Bible apparently holds liberals in the same low esteem as Hittites and Gergushites and Jebusites and all the other pagans of holy writ.) Critics said such comments were deranged. But millions of Christian fundamentalists and conservatives didn’t think so. They thought Robertson and Falwell were being perfectly consistent with the logic of the Bible as they read it: God withdraws favor from sinful nations-the terrorists were meant to be God’s wake-up call: better get right with God. Not many people at the time seemed to notice that Osama bin Laden had also been reading his sacred book closely and literally, and had called on Muslims to resist what he described as a “fierce Judeo-Christian campaign” against Islam, praying to Allah for guidance “to exalt the people who obey Him and humiliate those who disobey Him.”
Suddenly we were immersed in the pathology of a “holy war” as defined by fundamentalists on both sides. You could see this pathology play out in General William Boykin. As a member of the U.S. military, Boykin had taken up with a small group called the Faith Force Multiplier whose members apply military principles to evangelism with a manifesto summoning warriors “to the spiritual warfare for souls.” In uniform, Boykin attended evangelical revivals preaching that America was in a holy war as “a Christian nation” battling Satan and that America’s Muslim adversaries will be defeated “only if we come against them in the name of Jesus.” For such an hour, America surely needed a godly leader. So General Boykin explained how it was that the candidate who had lost the election in 2000 nonetheless wound up in the White House. President Bush, he said, “was not elected by a majority of the voters-he was appointed by God.” Not surprising, instead of being reprimanded for evangelizing while in uniform, General Boykin is now the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence. (Just as it isn’t surprising that despite his public call for the assassination of a foreign head of state, Pat Robertson’s Operation Blessing was one of the first groups to receive taxpayer funds from the President’s Faith-Based Initiative for “relief work” on the Gulf Coast.)
We can’t wiggle out of this. We’re talking about a powerful religious constituency that claims the right to tell us what’s on God’s mind and to decide the laws of the land according to their interpretation of biblical revelation and to enforce those laws on the nation as a whole. For the Bible is not just the foundational text of their faith; it has become the foundational text for a political movement.
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The radical religious right has succeeded in taking over one of America’s great political parties-the country is not yet a theocracy but the Republican Party is-and they are driving American politics, using God as a battering ram on almost every issue: crime and punishment, foreign policy, health care, taxation, energy, regulation, social services and so on.
They have brought intensity, organization, and anger to the public square. They use the language of faith to demonize political opponents, mislead and misinform voters, censor writers and artists, ostracize dissenters, and marginalize the poor. These are the foot soldiers in a political holy war financed by wealthy economic interests and guided by savvy partisan operatives who know that couching political ambition in religious rhetoric can ignite the passion of followers.
In recent weeks a movement called the Ohio Restoration Project has been launched to identify and train thousands of “Patriot Pastors” to get out the conservative religious vote next year. According to press reports, the leader of the movement-the senior pastor of a large church in suburban Columbus ‑casts the 2006 elections as an apocalyptic clash between “the forces of righteousness and the hordes of hell.” The fear and loathing in his message is palpable: He denounces public schools that won’t teach creationism, require teachers to read the Bible in class or allow children to pray. He rails against the “secular jihadists” who have “hijacked” America and prevent school kids from learning that Hitler was “an avid evolutionist.” He blasts the “pagan left” for trying to redefine marriage. He declares that “homosexual rights” will bring “a flood of demonic oppression.” On his church Web site you read, “Reclaiming the teaching of our Christian heritage among America’s youth is paramount to a sense of national destiny that God has invested into this nation.”
The corporate, political and religious right have converged, led by a president who, in his own disdain for science, reason and knowledge, is the most powerful fundamentalist in American history. And radicals on the Christian right are now the dominant force in America’s governing party. They control much of the U.S. government and are on the verge of having it all. Without them the government would not be in the hands of people who don’t believe in government. They are culpable in upholding a system of class and race in which, as we saw last week, the rich escape and the poor are left behind. And they are on a crusade against government “of, by, and for the people” in favor of one based on Biblical authority. So the Grand Old Party-the GOP-has become God’s Own Party, its ranks made up of God’s Own People “marching as to war.”
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It has to be said that their success has come in no small part because of our acquiescence and timidity. Our democratic values are imperiled because too many people of reason are willing to appease irrational people just because they are pious. Republican moderates tried appeasement and survive today only in gulags set aside for them by the Karl Roves, Bill Frists and Tom DeLays. Democrats are divided and paralyzed, afraid that if they take on the organized radical right they will lose what little power they have.
As I look back on the conflicts and clamor of our boisterous past, one lesson about democracy stands above all others: Bullies-political bullies, economic bullies and religious bullies-cannot be appeased; they have to be opposed with a stubbornness to match their own. This is never easy; these guys don’t fight fair; “Robert’s Rules of Order” is not one of their holy texts. But freedom on any front-and especially freedom of conscience-never comes to those who rock and wait, hoping someone else will do the heavy lifting.
Christian realism requires us to see the world as it is, without illusions, and then take it on. Christian realism also requires love. But not a sentimental, dreamy love. Reinhold Niebuhr, who taught at Union Theological Seminary and wrestled constantly with applying Christian ethics to political life, put it this way: “When we talk about love we have to become mature or we will become sentimental. Basically love means … being responsible, responsibility to our family, toward our civilization, and now by the pressures of history, toward the universe of humankind.”
Christian realists aren’t afraid to love. But just as the Irishman who came upon a brawl in the street and asked, “Is this a private fight or can anyone join in?” we have to take that love where the action is. Or the world will remain a theatre of war between fundamentalists.
Bill Moyers is a broadcast journalist and former host the PBS program NOW With Bill Moyers. He also serves as president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy. This article was adapted from a recent address at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where Judith and Bill Moyers received the seminary’s highest award, the Union Medal, for their contributions to faith and reason in America.