Tuesday 13 March 2012

American religious expression off the rails

     Two weeks ago I wrote about our experiences with the service industry
in the US and how it is currently considerably more courteous,
enthusiastic and warmly kind than ours in Canada.The inflow of
extremely positive e-mails in response announced that many readers
strongly agree with that assessment. But, there are other aspects of
American culture that are not working nearly as well for them.  For
example, their entire election process is obviously very seriously
flawed. I leave that, however, for political commentators. My concern
here is in a field where I have some claim to expertise, namely
theology and spirituality.
       Looming over  Interstate 65 highway,  just south of Montgomery
Alabama, is a very large billboard. In block letters it says, “Go to
church or the devil will get you.” The message is accompanied by a
stereotypical image depicting  the supposed embodiment—the
personification— of evil itself. There is no hint of subtlety. The
devil is entirely and solidly black. You'd think when it was that
close to the city where in 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her
“white” seat on a bus and became the “Mother of the Civil Rights
Movement” another color might have been deemed more appropriate. But
as suggested already, subtlety is not a big feature of  religious
outlook in the truly conservative South or any other region in the
U.S. where ultra-conservative Christians are on the march.
       Driving for three days from Destin Florida north to our home near
Georgian Bay, with the car radio as our main and at times only link
with what was happening everywhere else, we had an incredible,
eye-opening saturation in some of the most dumbed-down, crude and
extremist religious ideas and ideologies I have ever heard in all my
years as an informed observer covering faith issues around the world.
       Not just in Florida but all over the U.S. today fundamentalists hold
what seems at times like a total monopoly on radio stations of every
size.  At times it seemed actually impossible to find a program that
wasn't expounding some obscure verses from the Book of  Revelation or
weighing in once more against gays, abortion, birth control or
President Obama's alleged “war on religion.” Radio, as Marshall
McLuhan often said  is a “hot” medium compared with television. It
hammers away at you demanding that you pay attention.  It can change
people's minds much more effectively than TV Nothing better suits
those who are utterly convinced that they alone are right and also
righteous. The rest of us according to their “Gospel” are captives of
“the father of lies” i.e. a personal devil and we are hell-bound
unless we instantly convert to their literalistic, narrow creeds. The
billboard was eloquent in a number of ways. It revealed a coarse
attempt at coercion through fear—something sadly at work in almost
every religion across the globe.  You must go to church if you want to
avoid something horrible happening to you, it said.  At a deeper level
its foolish, implied assumption that there is a real entity of evil in
an historical, literal sense who is going around trying to “get”
humans shows a naivete almost beyond belief. There is real evil out
there but to attempt to shift blame from our own shoulders or to
threaten people by a hypostatization (turning it into a person) is to
miss the point entirely. Evil is the result of harm caused by human
error or deliberate choice on the one hand or by disease and other
natural calamities on the other. None of the language about the devil
or Satan in the Bible or elsewhere is meant of be taken literally or
historically. Yet this kind of simplistic literalism marked the
outlook of  every firebrand preacher on the air.
       The only thing these demagogues weren't literalists about was Jesus'
words about loving one another and about turning the other cheek. In a
huge hypocrisy to which they seem totally blind they are all fiercely
“pro-life” while vitriolically foaming at the mouth over the need to
risk war with Iran. They are loud in support of Israel but only
because it fits into their scenario for “the last days” and a mythical
Battle of Armageddon. It's nonsense but apparently it “sells.”
       Personally, I look at this kind of  rampant religious expression as
free enterprise gone completely off the rails intellectually,
spiritually and morally as well. I pray it never happens here.

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