A Love Letter to the Evangelical Horde

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Dec 302008
I grew up in a religious household, which is to say that I come by my hostility to evangelical Christianity honestly.  When I first went away to college, I saw Inherit the Wind for the first time.  I cried violently afterwards — because I knew those people.  I loved those people.  Some of the individuals dearest to my heart are religious conservatives, and they are often the hard, judgmental sort.  Not all of them are, of course, which is how we happen to remain close.  They believe what they believe for legitimate reasons, and I can understand those.  I don’t agree with their views, but I don’t expect them to share my values.  I only insist that they have their own and stick to that — oh, and that they respect mine.  Some of my friends and I can discuss politics, and some of us can’t.  Usually, we make conscious efforts to transcend the differences between us — even if we can’t hear each other out.
I don’t hesitate to take evangelicalism to task — particularly when it’s in defense of history.  I hate the way the religious right manipulates history and falsifies it to promote its position.  This is intentionally ignorant and offensive to the utmost degree to me.  There is no excuse for that.  There isn’t anything wrong with using the mind that God gave you and I look forward to the day when faith and ignorance are no longer tied together.  You shouldn’t have to choose between religion and knowledge.  They are not mutually exclusive.  You can worship God without having to lie about our founding fathers, believe in manifest destiny, or create myths about the religiosity of those who came before us.
The way the religious right uses history when it is convenient and overlooks it when it does not serve its purpose rubs the wrong way as well.  Why do white evangelicals claim that the hand of God was upon George Washington but not Martin Luther King, Jr.?  Why don’t fundamentalists abuse history to promote equality and charity?  It’s too consumed with morality and forgets to consider the importance of doing the social gospel.  That’s where the moral majority and I part ways and can never be reconciled.  I can appreciate my friends’ and family members’ religious convictions.  As I said, I can understand them.  I cannot appreciate, though, their unwillingness to practice charity and love towards others with differing values and their insistence on lying about the past.  They foist their religious values on others through legislation and manipulation and control popular historical knowledge through politicized school boards and historical societies.  The Bible says the truth shall set you free, so I never understand their need to whitewash the past.  It doesn’t delegitimize God to acknowledge human frailties.  If anything, it evidences the need for grace.  What the moral majority does is not faithful to the Bible nor truthfulness.  Instead, it promotes an agenda and historical vision that is not reasonably compatible with Christianity or the command to love others.  As long as evangelicalism remains committed to its current tack, we are sworn enemies and I will blog accordingly.  And, to my beloved conservative ones, I love you, but there is no compromise here.
 Posted by at 8:22 pm

‘Tis The Season

 current events, historiography  Comments Off on ‘Tis The Season
Dec 282008
It’s the defiant fictionalization of history that kills me.  Every day, I pass the local Baptist church and it’s marquee bearing the ignorant slogan:  Jesus, the reason for the season.  Every day, it rubs me the wrong way.  Setting aside the truth that Christmas is not, in fact, His birthday (the inaccuracy of which I am willing to accept in order to set aside a workable date for just generally celebrating Him), the problem of linking Christianity to traditional winter festivities always remains.  Christians did not introduce this holiday.  It grew out of pagan traditions (celebrating life in the middle of winter with the evergreen tree and feasting) and pantheistic religious practices (the winter solstice being a day of annual natural significance which was marked by the heathen faithful).  Yet, every year, I am inundated with Christian claims that this is their religious holiday and pleas to return it to its “original meaning” (as a Christian event).
I thought by now everyone knew the truth about Christmas.  I thought everyone knew that in the spirit of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” the Catholics had coopted the holiday and reinvented it to serve the Church’s purpose — since they couldn’t get people to stop celebrating it.  I thought everyone knew that this holiday had actually been banned in Boston under the Puritans because of their religiosity.  A number of historians have written books explaining the true origins of the holiday and how it was transformed in the 19th century into a commercial pseudo-Christian event.  The History Channel does a special on this every year.  The Wikipedia entry explain’s it, for God’s sake.  Ignorance is not an excuse.  No, the insistence on forcing Jesus into the season is a willful and intentional act of propaganda and an attack on history.
I can’t even get offended about the religious aspect anymore, as this is so ridiculous as to be mundane.  I do, however, come unglued over the malicious ignorance involved in this fictionalization.  It is part of a pattern of hostility to knowledge and offensive Christianity in this country.  The fucking evangelical horde shoves its propaganda down the throats of the willing and unwilling alike.  In the face of evidence to the contrary;  it retrenches and mounts an attack — accusing voices of truth of godless atheism and an anti-Christian agenda.  You don’t have to be an atheist to be honest about the holiday.  Just come clean about it already.  Change the marquee to read:  Jesus, now the reason for the season.  Quit lying about how we are losing our traditional religion to commercialism and just say that, for convenience’s sake, we overlap a couple of holidays in order to celebrate Christ’s birth.  There’s nothing wrong in wanting a holiday to remember your Lord, and it really doesn’t matter how this time of year became the default season for doing so.  If you want the holiday to be about that, knock yourself out.  Just don’t try to warp history for your purpose.  And absolutely do not try to force that myth on the rest of us.  This is the problem with religious conservatism in the U.S.  Its followers aren’t content to leave others to their consciences (which makes it decidedly un-Christian and hostile to the whole, you know, free will thing) and insist that they can’t practice their religion themselves unless everyone else has these myths foisted on them.  It’s like the freaking Crusades or Inquisition all over again.  The sun revolves around the earth, and it’s an act of sanctification to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.”  Thankfully, the rack has been replaced by social ostracism and politics of hate, but still, it sucks.  Not only are non-conformists subjected to verbal assaults, but anti-intellectualism (by which I just mean “hostility to thinking”) becomes the rule of the day.
It’s entirely possible to have faith and not have to promote false myths about religious traditions.  Some of the most brilliant people who have ever lived were Christians and intellectuals.  What I’d really like for Christmas is for a little more St. Anselm and a little less moral majority.  Honestly, wouldn’t you really prefer St. Augustine replace Joel Osteen, Richard Roberts, et al as the leading light of religious thought in America?  By the way, Augustine never sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” or made a public appearance at the lighting of the tree at Rockefeller Center.  I’m guessing he made it to heaven alright anyway.  Perhaps the answer is a return to self-flagellation, because this assault on your neighbor’s beliefs needs to stop and Christians apparently need to find something else to occupy their time.  Repent more;  abuse history less.
 Posted by at 1:03 pm

On December 12, 2008

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Dec 242008
In December 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  According to this, there are certain freedoms to which all persons, by right of being human, are entitled.  Among these are the rights to freedom of speech and religion, the right to be free from torture, and the right to pursue one’s own destiny.  Annually, people all over the world commemorate the day of the adoption as a means of renewing the commitment to bring these entitlements to the people of every nation.
In states all across the country, legislatures have established Human Rights or Civil Rights Commissions to promote and enforce anti-discrimination statutes dating from the 1960’s.  Oklahoma is no exception, and every year, we also mark Human Rights Day with a celebration at the state capitol.  The Commission gives out awards to those who promote equality and diversity in our state, and dignitaries give speeches marking significant developments in local civil rights history.  The governor issues a proclamation, as do the mayors of the major cities in the state, establishing Human Rights Week.  These are read by various representatives to a roomful of supportive citizens.  I have a special loathing for the proclamation from the City of Tulsa.  Every year, the current mayor signs the same old piece of bull shit:  “Whereas the residents of Tulsa have been working to promote diversity for a hundred years…”  It’s a boldface lie — and not even a very compelling one.  The city was segregated for decades.  In 1921, a race riot exploded that left dozens dead and literally changed the physical layout of north Tulsa.  When the Supreme Court ordered integration in public schools in the 1950’s, the state legislation outlining implementation left a loophole for those with medical conditions that would be harmed by busing to more distant schools.  Over the summer break, the majority of white students in Tulsa developed mental health issues and their doctors gave them notes excusing them from desegregation.  For years, the phone book marked entries for black citizens with the identifier “colored.”  In no way can you say that these are the acts of persons attempting to eradicate racism and promote equality.  Yet, every year, the mayor signs the great lie and sends a smiling representative to read it without sarcasm or suggestion.
This is the problem with commemorations like these.  They have two purposes.  The first is to recommit to the ideal of equality.  We mark the struggle to overcome discrimination and remember the often dark and difficult milestones along the way.  To do so is to tell truths that are often embarrassing and shameful.  We have to talk about lynchings, assassinations, white flight, and socio-economic disparities as a part of that.  However, this activity cuts against the other aspect of these commemorations, which is that they are celebratory civic events.  Politicians and supporters use these occasions as boosting opportunities.  Rah, rah!  Isn’t our community great!  Yea, we support equal opportunity.  Good for us.  This is what makes us great and superior to all those nasty totalitarian regimes around the globe.  But, if we’re going to use the event for some full-on boosting, we must needs gloss over the lingering racism that keeps rearing its ugly head and belying our myth.  Damn, the truth is inconvenient.
So, history and contemporary reality must be made over to cover up the black eye.  This is the inherent problem with public history and civic celebrations in the U.S.  As part of the myth-making process, they become the tools of the politicians and Babbitts in our society.  The powers that be need to shore up their standing.  To this end, I must endure every year the distasteful and appalling lie.  Happy Human Rights Day!
 Posted by at 5:40 pm

The End of The Story

 historiography  Comments Off on The End of The Story
Dec 202008

‘Tis the end of the semester, and, in class, my story comes to an end.  Only, it doesn’t really have an end.  Actually, I didn’t even try to give it one.  I just left off with the lectures in progress.  I know it’s probably unsettling for my interested students to suddenly come to the end of the tracks.  They’ve been following my tale for four months and they want resolution.  Do the good guys win out?  Are we better off?  What’s the outcome?  I’m not giving them answers.  Instead, the story abruptly stopped (and earlier than they wanted).

There is, of course, a method to the madness.  The truth is, with history, stories don’t really end.  We write them so they do, but that’s our artificial narrative impulse kicking in.  The world does not work that way.  Instead, interwoven strings extend through time, often contributing to multiple overlapping stories.  I resisted giving my students the resolution that they’ve been conditioned for.  I wanted them to experience this history the way you do life:  things don’t neatly conclude so much as they ebb and flow as you move along.  I could no more end the story than I could begin it.  When we picked up — at 1877 — it was already underway, and it continues on from where we left off.  We only joined the history in progress for a short time.  Our starting points and closing ones are arbitrary and externally imposed.

My theme for the class this semester was the rise of law and order.  Of course, prior to 1877, all was not chaos.  There was order already — only a different kind of order than we understand now.  My purpose was just to move them from the way things were at point A to point B, building some kind of narrative thread along the way.  I started in the midst of it all because it began before recorded time.  It is a story without end as well.  It will extend for ages more, and what order looks like in fifty or one hundred years will be vastly different than it appears today.  So, in a way, I was being true to the story by not tying it up in a well-crafted ending.  The reality itself resists this.

Hopefully, in the end, my now-former students’ interests will have been piqued, and they will continue to inquire after the story.  They’ll read more books, watch more documentaries, and analyze events they experience themselves to extend the tale further on their own.  That is my hope anyway — naive and eager as it is.  But, if this is the case, then I have given them another gift:  they will become the storytellers themselves and create ongoing narratives of their own.  It would be most interesting to see, down the road, how their histories diverge and how they developed from mine.


 Posted by at 7:41 pm
Dec 112008

Lately, the comparisons of Obama and the current economic conditions to FDR and the Great Depression abound.  I am loathe to use history as an exact blueprint for responding to contemporary issues generally, for many reasons, but historians (and wannabes) love to do this.  I really think personal politics gets in the way, but that is largely the case in any situation.  Anyway, the comparisons themselves offer fascinating considerations.

President-elect Obama has recently announced a plan to expand the federal workforce to repair and construct infrastructure improvements and promote new energy sources.  To accomplish this, the federal government would hire many new employees to build and maintain roads, bridges, and schools and research renewable energy alternatives.  It’s the New Deal all over again!  The TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) built dams and waterways after its founding in 1933.  This was the means for new energy sources and infrastructure improvements for areas in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia.  The TVA brought soil conservation and flood control to a region desperately in need of development that largely lacked the capital to make large-scale investments.  This agency also brought electricity to thousands living in rural areas that private utilities did not serve and could not or would not pay to integrate into existing electrical systems.  The experiment in public utility service gave government officials insight into the actual costs of producing and distributing electricity while providing infrastructure investments that benefited the consuming public and the private utility companies.  Presumably, the TVA would be the model for Obama’s energy program.  Wind and solar options suggest that the benefiting region this time out will be the largely rural and poor southwest.  As for Obama’s construction program, it’s model is the WPA (Works Progress Administration).  Founded in 1935, this agency put millions of unemployed workers out making physical improvements to streets, highways, bridges, public buildings, and the like.  This was a hugely popular program with voters because it put people to work (rather than on the dole) and — contrary to grumbling otherwise — Americans like to work.  The end result was improved roads and highways that benefited many.

Interestingly, when historians judge the New Deal, they usually don’t consider it a raging success. This is because it failed to end unemployment completely and did not put an end to the economic difficulties of the Great Depression (not that this is a realistic standard to guage by). Historians chalk the end of the crisis up to the massive public and private consumerism brought on by WW2 and rising wages. Thus, judging by this analysis, you would not be inclined to suggest TVA- and WPA-type programs as solutions to the problems of today. These would not, if history is a lesson, promise ultimate relief. Of course, you wouldn’t want to start a war to end our economic problems either — oh, wait, we are “at war” — I mean a big, official war.

The problem with the standard historical analysis is that it discredits what the New Deal contributed in the long run to the quality of life of many Americans and the benefits to those that it did put to work. Had the TVA projects not been undertaken, who knows when the funds would’ve been available to make such large-scale public works investments. Because of it, though, thousands had access to electricity and improved environmental conditions (due to flood control). Those benefits should not be lightly discounted. They changed the way thousands or millions of people lived — literally. Likewise, public works projects may not have had lasting impact in some places — but in others, like Oklahoma, we still benefit from highway and building construction from that era. Indeed we could benefit from New Deal 2 repairing and expanding on the first New Deal projects here.

This is the tricky part of judging the record of past events in order to apply them to contemporary times. You have to ask: is a project desirable if it improves quality of life for many but cannot eradicate unemployment? What if it ushers in a new age of technology but can’t eliminate volatility in the stock market? It is naive to expect that government intervention can solve all economic problems absolutely. Further, just because the positive benefits of a program are limited doesn’t mean that they aren’t worth trying or can’t bring some much-needed aid. Having said that, just because we’ve had a Civilian Conservation Corps that produced some benefit in the past doesn’t mean we have to be wedded to that solution in the future. FDR’s don’t have to be our go-to options. I caution against loving precedent too much and throwing the baby out with the bathwater. History is not a crystal ball that is omniscient and wise — mostly because it is interpreted by humans that are fallible and partisan. History can be a beneficial tool but I cringe at recent op-eds that swear by conformity to the established model. the first cut is the deepest, but it may not mark your best option.


 Posted by at 11:08 am