The Wisdom of Doubt, Part X

The last Wisdom of Doubt post mentioned the Scopes trial. According to today’s New York Post Pope Benedict XVI says that evolution and God do mix.

Pope Benedict XVI says the theory of evolution is backed by strong scientific proof – but the theory does not answer life’s “great philosophical question.”

Benedict told 400 priests at a two-hour event that he’s puzzled by the current debate in the United States and his native Germany over creationism and evolution.

Debaters wrongly present the two sides “as if they were alternatives that are exclusive – whoever believes in the creator could not believe in evolution, and whoever asserts belief in evolution would have to disbelieve in God,” the pontiff said.

“This contrast is an absurdity, because there are many scientific tests in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and enriches our understanding of life and being.”

The Pope has no credibility with American fundamentalists, of course, but I would like to see them go on record that the Pope is against God.

There’s a pretty good history of fundamentalism online here. I call your attention in particular to part 4 and part 5. Parts 4 and 5 take you from antebellum revivalism to the rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s. The essay, by Yefim Galkine, corroborates my own research, so I trust he’s done careful work. Here Galkin begins in the mid 19th century:

Two challenges stood out above others as posing singular threats to American Christianity. The first was the theory of evolution, developed by Charles Darwin, which constituted not only a direct challenge not only to the biblical account of creation, but also to traditional Christian understanding of human nature and destiny. An even more serious threat was came in the form of historical criticism of the Bible. This approach challenged the inspiration and credibility of the entire corpus of the scripture, the bedrock foundation of evangelical Christianity. Many Protestants managed to adjust to the changes by creating theories of “theistic evolution,” and interpreted “days” in Genesis as “ages.” However, most evangelicals chose to ignore the modernist ideas and to declare that they could not possibly be true, no matter what. They became ultra-conservatives, and this led directly to the emergence of the fundamentalism movement.

When the twentieth century brought about the Great War, followed by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Christian fundamentalism received another aspect it needed to survive: religious nationalism. Fundamentalist preachers declared that Satan himself was directing the German war effort, and hinted strongly that it was part of the same process that began with the development of biblical criticism in German universities. Modernism, they asserted, turned Germany into a godless nation, and it would do the same thing to America. Of course, when Russia became Communist in 1917, and the Red Scare began, their movement received a very powerful boost, which it needed to become a dominant force.

Dwight Lyman Moody [1837-1899] was the first leader of the anti-modernist revival, which gave birth to the fundamentalist movement. Dwight Moody did not believe that America was getting any better, or that the era of the millenium was coming any time soon, which was the belief of Charles Finney, and other earlier revivalists. This view was known as postmillenialism, because the Second Coming of Christ would occur after the millenium. Instead, Moody believed that the only real hope for Christians lay in Christ’s coming back to personally inaugurate the millenium—that is, that the Second Coming would be premillenial. This doctrine holds that careful attention to biblical prophecies can yield clues as to exactly when the Second Coming will occur. In all versions, the relevant “signs of the times” are bad news—political anarchy, earthquakes, plagues, etc. As a result, premillennialism fared better in bad times because it offers its followers a shining ray of hope in an otherwise dismal situation. It has also acted as a brake on reform movements, since it regards such efforts as little better than fruitless attempts to thwart God’s plan for human history. Another idea that became part of the theology of the fundamentalist movement was dispensationalism. According to this idea, human history was divided into a series of distinct eras (“dispensations”) in God’s dealing with humanity. The triggering action for the beginning of the last dispensation will be “the Rapture,” at which point the faithful Christians will be “caught up together to meet the Lord in the air,” while the rest of humanity will be forced to face an unprecedented series of calamities known as “the tribulation”. The main protagonist of the tribulation will be the Antichrist, who will seek total control by requiring every person to wear a number (probably 666, “the mark of the beast”). The tribulation period will end with the Second Coming of Christ and the battle of Armageddon, to be followed by the millenium, the Final Judgement, and an eternity of bliss for the redeemed and agonizing punishment for the wicked. One of the most important aspects of dispensationalism is its insistence on biblical inerrancy. The Scripture must be absolutely reliable an all aspects, if it is to provide a precise blueprint for the future. Closely related to this was the encouragement of separatism from all sorts of error. To be fit to ride the Rapturing cloud, one must identify those whose doctrine is impure and “come out from among them”. This became one of the most important aspects of the Fundamentalist movement.

If you thought the Rapture and the horror-film “666” stuff has been prominent in Christianity for centuries — not really. Try “century.” As in one.

Cataloging the entire fundamentalist movement and what it has been up to for the past century or so is a bit more than I want to go into on a blog post. For details I suggest Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. I understand American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America by Chris Hedges is very good.

And if you do nothing else today, be sure to see Max Blumenthal’s “Rapture Ready: The Unauthorized Christians United for Israel Tour.” Be afraid.

As a movement, fundamentalism has had its ups and downs. After the humiliation of the Scopes trial fundies stayed out of sight for a time. In the 1930s they forged ties with right-wing political factions that opposed the New Deal. The paranoia of the McCarthy era emboldened them. Then came the school prayer Supreme Court decisions, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the 1960s counterculture, women’s lib, and Roe v. Wade. Right-wing paranoia went off the charts.

And did I mention Brown v. Board of Education? Back in the days of court-ordered school desegregation, all manner of white Christians who used to be just fine with public schools — parochial schools were for Catholics, you know — suddenly decided that their children needed a conservative Christian education. By some coincidence, the new Christian day schools were all white.

Many credit Ronald Reagan with forging a coalition between the Christian Right and the political Right, but in fact many of those ties had been forged back in the 1930s. What happened in the 1980s was that the Christian Right became more visible. It had already been visible, for many years, across much of the South and Midwest, especially in small towns and rural areas. But in the 1970s and 1980s the Powers That Be in the Republican Party must’ve recognized what a resource the Christian Right could be. The Christian Right soon seemed to be swimming in money, and its leaders became mass media celebrities. And their version of Christianity became the de facto established church of America, at least as far as mass media was concerned.

This leads us back to the original stimulus for writing this series, which is the way our culture has come to reward and admire absolutist, black-and-white thinking. This is the hallmark of fundamentalist thinking. Has thirty years of mass media exposure to fundie moral and dogmatic absolutism infected the broader, more secular American public? Or does it just seem that way because the Right much more then the Left determines what is shown on mass media?

I had promised to make this post about biblical literalism, but I realized I needed to do a little more of a wrap up on the fundies. Next post, I promise.


Bryan Bender writes for the Boston Globe:

A day after President Bush sought to present evidence showing that Iraq is now the main battlefront against Al Qaeda, the chief US intelligence analyst for international terrorism told Congress that the network’s growing ranks in Pakistan and Afghanistan pose a more immediate threat to the United States.

In rare testimony before two House committees, Edward Gistaro, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats, said that Al Qaeda terrorists operating in South Asia are better equipped to attack the United States than the network’s followers in Iraq are.

Asked which arm of Al Qaeda concerned him the most, Gistaro told a joint session of the House armed services and intelligence panels that it was South Asia.

“The primary concern is in Al Qaeda in South Asia organizing its own plots against the United States,” he said.

Remind me — why are we in Iraq?

Gistaro, the intelligence analyst, was among the main authors of a National Intelligence Estimate released this month that concluded that the network headed by bin Laden presents a “heightened threat” of attack against the United States.

The assessment, a small portion of which was disclosed publicly, said that the organization has been able to retain many of its top lieutenants, recruit new operatives, and establish new training camps in Pakistan’s lawless northwestern frontier.

But in recent days the White House has highlighted one particular line in the declassified version of the report that portrays the group known as Al Qaeda in Iraq as the “most visible and capable affiliate [of Al Qaeda] and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the [US] homeland.”

It says so in the NIE, so it must be true.

Abraham Wagner, a senior researcher at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism at Columbia University, called Bush’s speech about the Al Qaeda threat in Iraq a “spin job.”

“In the Cold War it was called ‘threat lumping,’ ” Wagner said. “It is creating a threat to justify what you are doing. Al Qaeda in Iraq never existed prior to the US activity in Iraq and I think it is still a small operation.”

“It is unfortunate,” he added, that “the administration, in their last gasp to justify what they are doing, are inventing threats and misrepresenting what they are getting from the intelligence community.”

But al Qaeda is not the only monster under the bed. Sidney Blumenthal writes in Salon:

President Bush’s political strategy at home is an implicit if unintended admission of the failure of his military strategy in Iraq and toward terrorism generally. Betrayal is his theme, delivered in his speeches, embroidered by his officials and trumpeted by the brass band of neoconservative publicists. The foundation for his stab-in-the-back theory was laid in the beginning.

“Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” Bush said in his joint address to Congress nine days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

We know where this is going, don’t we?

At the Charleston, S.C., Air Force Base on Tuesday, Bush resumed his repudiated habit of conflating threats, suggesting a connection between 9/11 and the Iraq war, and intensified his blaming of domestic critics for the shortcomings of his policy. His story line depends upon omitting his own part in the calamity. “The facts are,” insisted Bush to his captive audience, “that al-Qaida terrorists killed Americans on 9/11, they’re fighting us in Iraq and across the world, and they are plotting to kill Americans here at home again.”

But how did it happen that al-Qaida in Iraq, sworn enemy of Saddam Hussein and his secularism, operating in isolation prior to 9/11, though almost certainly with the connivance and protection of Kurdish leader and current Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, has come to thrive under the U.S. occupation? And since AQI represents perhaps 1 percent or less of the insurgent strength, how can it be depicted as the main foe, capable of seizing state power? The other Sunni insurgent groups increasingly view it as an impediment to their own ambitions and have marked it for elimination. Rather than address these problematic complexities, Bush points the finger of blame at U.S. senators who dare to question his policy. “Those who justify withdrawing our troops from Iraq by denying the threat of al-Qaida in Iraq and its ties to Osama bin Laden ignore the clear consequences of such a retreat.”

Behold, the chief boogeyman:

Blumenthal continues,

The absence of victory inspires a search for an enemy within. Bush’s stab-in-the-back theory is the latest corollary to the old policy that military force will create political success. Bush is a vulgar Maoist: “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun,” said Chairman Mao. But the surge is simply an endlessly repetitive reaction to the failure of the purely military.

The resolution we say we want requires a stable government that the majority of the Iraqi people recognize as legitimate. The only justification for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq is to provide time and security so that stability can happen. However, it ain’t happenin’, and our presence there is a big reason why.

Somehow, in the political vacuum, additional U.S. troops are supposed to quell the civil war, compel the sects and factions to lie down like lambs, and destroy AQI. U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker last week begged that the Iraqi government not be held accountable for meeting political benchmarks, none of which have been realized; and at the same time he requested exit visas for his Iraqi staff, who obviously have no confidence in the Bush policy and do not wish to leave via the embassy roof. Crocker’s actions speak louder than his words — and louder than Bush’s.

Bush, however, clings to the rhetoric of conventional warfare, of “victory” and “retreat.” The collapsed Iraqi state, proliferation of sectarian warfare and murderous strife even among Shiite militias bewilder him; clear-cut dichotomies are more comforting, producing deeper confusion. The friend of his enemy is his friend; the enemy of his enemy is not his friend. Meanwhile, Bush seeks to displace responsibility for the potentially dire consequences of his policy on others.

What a guy.

I’ve spent so much time over the past five years describing George W. Bush as a total waste of human protoplasm that I’m getting bored with it myself. One thing the Bush Episode has shown me, however, is that our republican form of government is far more fragile than I had imagined.

The President of the United States is keeping soldiers in a pointless war while he trots around the country telling lies about it because he lacks the moral courage to admit his policies aren’t working. The White House is openly breaking the law, but Bush may be able to shield himself from accountabiity by keeping a profoundly dishonest Attorney General in place.

There have been White House scandals before, but until Watergate the worst of the scandals did not involve the President himself. In the case of Watergate, Republicans in Congress finally went to the President and told him plainly they would not protect him from impeachment. Now it seems the entire Administration is a web of conspiracies, with the President and Veep at the center, and by placing corrupt people in the right places they are trying to put themselves out of reach of the law. And it is possible they will succeed. I do not believe anything like this has ever happened before. And the war goes on.