The ride down the western border of Massachusetts is serene in fall. The hills have turned from the vibrant red, yellow, and orange colors of the season to a more muted orange and brown. Scenic vistas, that were blocked by leaves only a few weeks ago, open up and reveal more distant and larger mountains in New York, and lakes and marshes, whose reeds have by now gone to winter brown. It’s an enjoyable way to end an afternoon working at the local community college helping students with their writing.
My schedule on the day on which I write was remarkable in only one respect up until the drive back home. One of the students I work with needed to include parallels from literature in a response to a literary essay with which she was working. I provided her with a few examples for the theme we were working on, and two of the examples were from the Bible. I didn’t realize what a mistake I had made. The student launched into a diatribe of how much she wanted to include religious references into the essay, but thought it would be frowned upon. I explained that Biblical literature was indeed a valid source for discussing larger literary themes. During the next part of our work I showed the student how to attach and paste information into e-mails so that we could communicate between our sessions. When she opened up her e-mail, I was surprised to find the “Ichthys” symbol, or what is colloquially referred to as the “sign of the fish,” or the “Jesus fish.” The symbol, which I generally regard as a symbol of religious fundamentalism, is quite prevalent in the South, but much less so in the North.
The fish symbol on the opening page of her e-mail made me recall a phone call I had made to this student a few weeks before about an essay on which we were working. I got a message when I reached the number, and it was laden with religious references. The phone call now came back to mind.
Thinking I was done with religious references for the day, and wanting to enjoy the remainder of my ride back home, I turned on the radio to the FM band. Since I can’t get the station I prefer because of the surrounding Berkshire Hills, a progressive low-power FM station, I found a public radio station broadcasting from Albany, New York. I don’t like National Public Radio (it’s become far too conservative), but All Things Considered (October 20) was on and I listened. I was amazed at the program’s content!
A minister was being interviewed from Jacksonville, Florida, about the burning of pornography that had been found in a church building. His zealous characterization of finding the material to be burned, and the place this process had in his church’s daily workings, was alarming. Children whose families belonged to the church were interviewed, and they expressed equal fervor about the burning. When the interviewer timidly brought up the subject of book burning, the minister reiterated his distaste for the material that had been found and his zeal in getting rid of it through fire. He skirted the issue of book burning. Rather than simply disposing of the pornographic material, it is interesting how the issue was dealt with by the church and media, making for public spectacle.
All of this brought to mind the equal vehemence and self-righteousness of statements and political positions of the vice-presidential nominee of the Republican Party, Sarah Palin. Speaking in 2008 at her former church, the Wasilla Assembly of God in Alaska, she said, “Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right also for this country,” and pray “ that our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God. That’s what we have to make sure we’re praying for: that there is a plan and that plan is God’s plan.”
Chris Hedges, in American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (2007), describes how the religious right has grown in the U.S. and how its fascistic tendencies have been incorporated into mainstream debate. Though Hedges’ book predates the Palin phenomenon, her speech in 2008 at the Wasilla Assembly of God reflects the kind of right-wing religious fundamentalism that has so infected this country for nearly thirty years. Pro-gun, pro-death penalty, anti-environment, anti-choice, anti-gay, pro-business, anti-consumer, pro-globalization, anti-union, anti-civil liberties, anti-immigrant, anti-veteran, and pro-war are just some of positions that have made their way into the Republican Party’s platform and their current campaign for the White House. The fundamentalists are profoundly anti-intellectual, interpreting the Bible literally and condemning science unless it has immediate benefits for them. Their views reflect the universal intolerance of all religious extremists! Their universal support of Israel is a cover for their belief in the so-called “The End Time,” when the battle of Armageddon will begin in the Middle East and lead to the end of humanity, and presumably their salvation. It is truly amazing that these issues and positions have found their way into the national dialogue! There is no reliable source of just how many people identify themselves as fundamentalists, but their influence is far, far greater than their actual numbers.
The founders of this nation, products of The Enlightenment reflected in Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason (1794), established government that would have neither royalty nor allow for the practice of the divine right of kings. Further, the experience with the mother country England impelled them to keep government and religion separated by a wall enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The latter is the gist of most middle school civics classes, but seems to have been lost on large numbers of Americans through manipulators of public opinion of the religious right and their allies in government. The past thirty years would have sickened and alarmed the political thinkers of The Enlightenment! The religious right’s attacks on government, except in the case of the war-making power of the government, exposes their hatred and disdain for open democracy and open dialogue. They wish to meld theocracy and oligarchy with a Puritanical twist. Religious extremists have warped political discourse in the United States! The so-called faith-based initiatives of George W. Bush, and the current pandering to the extreme religious right of the Republican Party by its nominees for national office must be defeated!
HOWARD LISNOFF teaches writing and is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.