Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Cultish behavior

It was time, again, for Jonathan Z. Smith's influential article on the Jonestown mass suicide, which he argued was a skandalon for the study and public discussion of religion in America. Academics, the media and religious leaders in near unison distanced themselves from People's Temple with the shabbiest of claims - it wasn't religion, wasn't Christianity. A "cult" was of no concern to them, certainly not something they're answerable for, definitely not something they might learn something from! Smith argued that unless and until scholars of religion, at least, took Jonestown seriously, we've no business claiming to be scholars. Under the humanistic banner of nothing human is foreign to me, we should engage every human phenomenon with equal care, attentive perhaps especially to those which are written off as marginal, extreme, less than human - like those dispatched by the word "cult." The media, too, should be in the business of challenging such dehumanization. If there was a greater skandalon than Jonestown, he writes, it was the New York Times Op-Ed page printing a piece by Billy Graham, pronouncing Jim Jones "demonic" and his church unChristian.

Are there analogs today to the dehumanization of the People's Temple memvers disowned by the "religious"? I found a provocative possibility. In the last 20 minutes of class I shared two recent Op-Ed pieces, one from the Los Angeles Times, one from the Times which gave Graham a platform.

The first was the essay LATimes cartoonist David Horsey wrote to accompany this cartoon. Many since Charlottesville have wondered that the support for the president among his mostly Evangelical religious council, and the 80% of white Evangelicals who voted for him, seems undiminished by his spiraling turpitude. Horsey's article is called "Worldly Politics, not Heavenly Powers, Inspire Evangelicals to Stick with Trump," and cites studies to the effect that, contrary to what their leaders may believe and say, rank and file white Evangelicals voted for Trump not because of abortion and the Supreme Court, but for the same reason as other white folks finding their economic position imperiled. Horsey grew up in the Free Methodist Church, and manages to hold on to a positive view of Evangelicals by convincing himself that the Trump-supporters aren't actually Evangelical, or at least weren't voting for him for religious reasons. The distressing phenomenon is not Christian at all but traceable to nationalists, atheists and pagans!:

I should note that a significant number of evangelicals do not see the Trump agenda as synonymous with God’s agenda. They are politically engaged in defending the poor and protecting the Earth and finding ways to positively express the highest Gospel values in our fractured society. It appears, though, that far more of them have diluted their faith with a ramped-up nationalism and a libertarian economic philosophy that is far closer to atheist Ayn Rand than to Jesus Christ. Like pagan priests looking for signs in goat entrails, their preachers sift obscure lines from the Old Testament as a means of validating their political opinions.

This is very interesting, coming from what we call the religious left, but even more interesting was a piece from the right, in the Gray Lady herself - our Billy Graham Op-Ed redux. Earlier this month, "conservative Christian" Rod Dreher distanced himself from the Trump-supporting Evangelicals, with as much relief as alarm finding them to be not Christian after all, but lost to the "self-centered, consumerist culture" of secular modernity. Poor Trumpians, nobody takes you religiously seriously; you're as confused and bamboozled - and undeserving of our sympathy - as members of a cult. Your sense of spiritual crisis, of God acting through manifestly imperfect vehicles in a battle for the soul of His favored nation, your fear and trembling before the mysterium tremendum of divine intervention are written off as rationalizations or delusions. Other Christians, left and right, wash their hands of you.

The analogy isn't perfect, of course, and my act of imaginative identification probably seemed no more than an academic exercise, but it struck a chord. Students agreed there's nobody everyone piles on like the Evangelicals who "should know better than" to support Trump. This shaming does them no good, nor is it good for the self-righteous rest of us.

No comments: