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Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Give Me That Old Time Religion

Whenever you see an article titled "America's deep Christian faith" on the BBC, you know that the horseshit is going to fly thick and fast. So don your protective gear.

(The author is Justin Webb, a Beeb correspondent living in the US.)

Our correspondent gives a personal view on the importance of faith and religious belief in American life.

Come with me to an America---let alone a Washington---you do not recognize.

My wife and I do not believe in God.

Nor do I. Remember that as you read this.

The Bush administration hums to the sound of prayer. Prayer meetings take place day and night.

This line was so good they used it twice, and made a sidebar of it.

According to that faith there is such a thing as heaven - 86% of Americans, we are told by the pollsters, believe in heaven.

But much more striking to me, and much more pertinent to current world events, is the fact that 76% or three out of four people you meet on any American street believe in hell and the existence of Satan.

They believe that the devil is out to get you. That evil is a force in the world - a force to be engaged in battle.

This, I think, is where a lot of foreigners get it wrong, and to my mind they do so deliberately.

I suppose most of my relatives believe in Hell and the devil, but Hell's just a place bad people go to when they die, and Satan reigns there. I know there are people who say things like "the devil made me do it" seriously, but I don't think there are many who believe that Satan actually walks the earth looking for ways to turn men to evil.

In particular, I don't believe Bush and his advisors do. When Bush talks about "evil", he's talking about natural human "evil"---cruelty on such a scale that it requires a new vocabulary.

I tried to write that sentence to be more specific, but I've found that I don't have the words. I groped for words that would mean "vast, deliberate, senseless, and overwhelming cruelty", but found that I could only describe it in apocalyptic terms: evil, wickedness. I tried for "failings": "cruelty on such a scale that it trascends ordinary human failings". Bah. Not only does that still sound religious, it sounds like one of those too-forgiving suburban religions which could do no better than regard Hussein as a man of "many failings".

When you abandon old-time religious rhetoric, you are left with only the most clammy and flaccid words for great wrongs [see, religion again], the sort of detached, impersonal terms a school counselor might use in referring to a rambunctious child: "Young Saddam has great charisma and is a natural leader, but he has an rather an inflated view of his own abilities, and an overweening ego. His intense need for friends and followers leads him into hyperaggression, especially with some of the weaker youngsters. We recommend Saddam be placed into a more structured environment with greater adult interaction and more attention to discipline..."

You see how this sort of thing is inadequate for a situation like Iraq. But we seem compelled to either use this watery language, or the sterner, religiously-based language of Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, Heaven and Hell.

To be clear: I don't think you need to be particularly religious to say that Saddam (or, if cannot recognize a villain until he is safely dead---Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot) is "evil". Nor do I believe that when religious people say that Saddam is evil, they necessarily mean that he is possessed or encouraged by a supernatural force, a fallen angel, or a red guy with horns, a tail, and carrying a pitchfork.

Whether or not Harry Belafonte means that when he says the Bush administration is "possessed of evil", I will leave for him to explain.

Much of that battle takes place in the form of prayer.

Americans will talk of praying as if it were the most normal, rational thing to do.

Gasp! How simplisme! How childlike!

During the last week a child who'd been missing for nine months has been found safe and well - the event was described routinely on the news media as a miracle.

What does the average BBC viewer think of this? Does he think, "Hold on, I said it was a 'miracle' that Deirdre's worthless brother wasn't killed in that smash-up, and I'm no bloody preacher." Or does he think, "Har! Stupid Yanks."

One broadcast had a caption reading "the power of prayer".

In fact the child had been abducted and her abductor was recognised and captured.
In rational old Britain the media circus following the finding of the child would have been focused on ways of preventing this happening again - on police errors in the investigation.

Here, metaphorically, sometimes literally, they just sink to their knees.

This is particularly rancid. What is our BBC viewer to think now? A kidnapped child is found and immediately the whole country bows its head, thanking God for her rescue. No one says a word about better police procedures, no one wonders how she could have avoided escaping for nine months, no one mentions the fact that the kidnapper himself seems to have a bit of a messiah complex. We all just rejoice that it was God's will that this child be found alive, and redouble our prayer chain efforts to bring back others. God will provide!

So while there are plenty of rational people giving rational advice about policy matters in the Bush White House there is also a channel, an input, from on high.

The Bush administration hums to the sound of prayer. Prayer meetings take place day and night.

Here these sentences are again. I think the humming's in your brain, friend.

Doubtless the president and his people have been praying earnestly that Saddam Hussein might fall under a bus.

Another stupidly offensive comment, disguised as a joke.

Having made the decision to fight the good fight - and have no doubt about it President Bush has made that decision - the nagging doubts, the rational fears, the worldly misgivings - all those things felt so strongly by post-religious Europeans - can be set aside.

Remember that, children, a Christian leader never, ever doubts. He never wonders whether his human frailties have led him into wrong in an effort to do right. He's never troubled by the unintended consequences of his plan. He never thinks of Dante's warning about good intentions. All he has to do is listen for the Voice of God within, and he's certain of being in the right. Deus lo volt! That's all he has to know.

There's a little more in the same vein. But I'm disappointed on what was cut. He mentioned at the top that he was an atheist, and how this was never a problem in Brussels, but then he lets that topic drop. He doesn't say how the infidel pair are treated in America. He neglects to mention the prayer meetings at "cocktail" parties (which now serve only Kool-Aid and Nilla Wafers). He omits the part about the threatening notes tossed through his window at night, saying, "Repent, Unbeliever!" He never tells us of how good Christian men menace his wife in the streets of fundamentalist Washington, beating her when her skirt rises above her knee.

Because that's what this is about, right? This article is another in a series designed to paint the US as just another loopy theocracy. I mean, Bush talks to God, Bin Laden talks to God, what's the difference between them? Only the size of their destructive power, yeah.

Andrew Sullivan comments briefly on this.

UPDATE: Merde in France has a similar tale of delicate horreur at Bush's religious affiliation:

Heard on sur Europe 1, top rated radio station, this afternoon: 'Does Bush belong to a sect?' (because his church is not 'recognized' by the Catholic Church). Someone should explain to the French that no Protestant Church is 'recognized' by the Catholic Church and that other religions exist outside of the Catholicism. Talk about fanatical bigotry.

As someone once pointed out to me, my splinter group is a denomination, yours is a sect, and his is a cult. In other words, I'm not sure whether "sect" carries the same whiff of nuttiness in French as it does in English.

Entre Nous, a blog by a former Belgian (somewhere in the Middle East, so Merde tells us), mentions this too, saying:

Belgians have the same problem --- that they think of religion as a binary state device. You're either 'catholique' (Roman Catholic) or 'laic' (secular humanist) --- most Belgians I discussed religion with knew that there were such things as Judaism and Islam, but were stupendously ignorant about Protestantism. The "cult" Dubya supposedly belongs to is none other than the United Methodist Church...Speak of "provincialism".

Bush's religion confirmed here. Oh, the humanity! How could Americans have elected a President that goes to the same church as my ancestors!

(Actually, my ancestors went to some obscure German Protestant church with probably about 50 members, which was eventually subsumed into a larger church, presumably with much the same outlook. This pattern repeated itself about three more times over the next century. Even after all that it didn't have one of your Big Denomination names; Mom told anyone who asked that she was Methodist.)

For some reason, the Other American I worked with in Sydney---quite a sophisticated and well-travelled and definitely non-simplisme fellow---asked me what church my family belonged to. I said something along the lines of, "Well, it wasn't anything weird. It was Methodist." He gave me his "oh how unsophisticated you are" laugh and told me that in Europe, Methodist was thought of as pretty weird.