Monday, December 27, 2004

Merry Christmas - Dammit!

Add this to the list of symptoms that is the evolving neuroses of the religious right, wishing a Merry Christmas not as a gay holiday greeting, but as passive aggression; not as a sincere expression of conviviality but as an assertion of the primacy of fundamentalist Christianity in American culture.

More than a handful of people in the religious right are terribly concerned that Christmas, and Christianity, are under attack. In Jerry Falwell’s December 13th editorial The Impending Death of Christmas he asserts:

The spiritual Grinches in our nation are accelerating their war against Christmas as never before. And they are tragically convincing growing numbers of our fellow citizens - primarily those in our nation's public schools and public administration - that Christmas should be publicly shunned, replaced by nebulous substitutes designed to avoid offending those who are all-so-easily outraged.

The so-called mainstream media often portray radical secularists as reasonable individuals, but the people at the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and other such groups are practitioners of an extremist movement that would completely outlaw God, Christianity and any remnant of such from the public arena.

Falwell is not alone in this. O’Reilly, Hannity and others on Fox News, along with the usual cast of suspects, are hyping a set of incidents, some true, individually of minor importance, in which people have either attempted to enforce the separation of church and state or show respect for the beliefs of non-Christians, and offered these up as Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity (conveniently the title of a book by David Limbaugh, Rush’s brother.)

Of course it’s not a new observation to note that a persecution complex is part of the right wing fundamentalist Christian (RWFC) package. Perhaps this is why the general feeling of being of under attack is so familiar (comfortable?) to them. And it must be noted that this domestic religious war is happening just as the Right’s standard bearer, Bush, is waging an international religious war, albeit in a secular guise.

But they are simultaneously claiming to be persecuted while asserting that this is a Christian Nation and that they are entitled to write Christian doctrine into secular law. It’s hard not to notice that this new round of intensified kvetching over the persecution of Christians in America comes fast on the heels of their victory lap around the Beltway claiming that they were the one’s who delivered the re-election of George W Bush.

It’s also hard not to notice that each of these instances of ‘persecution’ are either examples of religious tolerance and inclusiveness (New York’s Mayor Bloomberg referring to he tree at Rockefeller Center as a ‘holiday tree’) or respect for the separation of church and state (the removal of the ten commandments from Alabama’s state judicial building's rotunda in August).

One key to understanding this phenomenon is to realize that they have recast attempts to resist the institutionalizing of their personal beliefs as persecution. If you prevent me from legislating my religious beliefs and forcing you to live by my rules, you’re infringing on my liberty. The idea that same-sex couples might marry is seen as an assault on the private liberties of RWFCs because they are 'forced' to live in an environment that fails to reinforce their beliefs.

This sense of entitlement, to project one’s beliefs on the culture and protect one’s beliefs from the culture, is partly a reaction to Christianity’s own cultural hegemony in the US. In the US, it doesn’t matter what you believe, you cannot escape Christmas. This produces a powerful expectation among RWFCs that a nation which celebrates Christmas as its primary national holiday will be itself Christian.

Yet I, myself, participate in secular aspects of the holiday - family, community, time off from work, gifts - even though I’m an atheist. The fact that an atheist can celebrate Christmas is an indication of the secularization of the holiday, itself a result of its own cultural authority. Christmas has become so much a part of the American culture that it has become secularized in the process. So Christmas (TM) dominates while the religious aspects of the day do not. For RWFCs there is a great disparity between their own celebration and mine, and mine is closer to that which dominates in the culture. It is this disparity between expectations and reality that produces the sense of persecution. We ought to be able to live in a culturally and politically Christian nation, as we understand the term, but we are being denied that by the secularists, the liberals. They are thwarting our Christian birthright.

The recent elections, not unjustifiably, has heightened this sense of entitlement. The religious right acquired in 2000 and 2004 a level of political access and influence far out of proportion to their percentage of the population. This raises expectations of efficacy in achieving the goals of their movement. Among these goals are political and policy goals. But the policy goals are in service of a larger and more important, from their perspective, cultural agenda - the Culture War. Their goal is to make this a Christian Nation in policy and practice. As they run aground the reality, for example, that passing amendments to ban same-sex marriage effects no improvement, from their perspective, in the culture (marriages won't be any happier, children won't be any more obedient, people won't stop being gay because of this legislation) there is bound to be a sense of frustration or even anger at the very time that they are the height of their political influence. They can proclaim this a Christian Nation. They can elect a Christian President with Christian Values. But they cannot make the celebration of Christmas any less secular for Americans generally or specifically. Political power, real and damaging, does not necessarily translate into cultural power.

For all of the talk of Moral Values in the last election the percentage of people who, as a percent of the total voting age population, cited anti-choice or anti-gay positions as an important factor in their voting decision is quite small. Twenty-five percent of Bush supporters mentioned the protection of marriage as between a man and a woman and twenty-two percent of Bush supporters mentioned anti-abortion positions. Since Bush received only 60,608,582 votes out of a total estimated voting age population of 225,425,000, this translates to only 6.7% anti-gay and 5.9% anti-choice.

The logic of politics is different than the logic of culture. In politics, it is possible for a small group of people to acquire power or influence out of proportion to their numbers by allying themselves with other groups with non-competing or complimentary agendas. So the number of people sufficiently motivated by the desire to deny same-sex couples marriage that they were willing to vote on that basis may be far less than fifty percent of the voting age population. But that can become the policy of the party in power if that is what is necessary to bring that percentage of people into the coalition and the number of people deterred by that, who would otherwise be a part of the coalition, is sufficiently less. There is no similar mechanism in culture.

RWFCs are losing the cultural war, and they know it. If this past election had been decided by voters under 30, Kerry would have won with 375 electoral votes. This persecution complex is really an excuse for aggression, a weapon in the war. I'm not forcing my beliefs on you, I'm defending my beliefs from attack - where an attack is any attempt to respect the beliefs of non-Christians or the right to not believe at all.

The juvenile expectation that the world will conform to/reinforce one's worldview is neither unique to nor ubiquitous among the RWFCs. But there is something about the intersection of modern conservatism (selfishness) and fundamentalism (literalism) that creates a nice fit. I = World, I am good, therefore for the world to be good it must be like me. Another way of seeing this is through the hostility to, even fear of, any degree of moral relativism, any hint that others might have a valid, albeit different, worldview, and that they are just and entitled to make demands on society as anyone.

Of course this creates something of a conflict. The relativist project has been sufficiently successful that the RWFCs are forced to frame their claim in the very relativist language that they oppose. They pay nominal respect to the idea of religious tolerance in order to cast their cultural aggression as a plea for religious freedom against the forces of intolerance - all those who won’t tolerate compulsory Christianity.

In fairness, many RWFCs are sincere in their expressions of religious tolerance, we sometimes even hear noises from their direction that it’s okay to be gay (in the sense of allowed by the demands of respect for liberty) in private life. But if we look closely at these claims, this tolerance is limited to one's private life. Go ahead and celebrate Kwanzaa, in your own home. If you want to live with a person of the same sex, do what you want, in your own home. That's your right. But once non-RWFCs leave their homes, RWFCs begin to assert the privilege of their claimed majoritarian status, cite historical precedence and make clear that, for them, religious freedom means that you get to do what you want in your home and they get to do what they want with the laws. They appeal to their claimed majority status to legitimate their feeling of entitlement while appealing to their minority status to legitimate their feelings of persecution.

RWFC's claim control of the laws and culture as a necessary prerequisite to their religious freedom. Any attempt to keep RWFC religious doctrine out of government is viewed as an unacceptable infringement of their rights, an intolerance bordering on fanatical hatred. I cannot even begin to imagine the howling that would be generated if the RWFC were to be restricted to religious observances in their homes alone in the manner that they wish to impose on the rest of us.

Clearly part of the RWFC formula is not the idea that basic rights should not depend upon historical precedent or public opinion. This manifests itself in two ways. Firstly, you have the right, just like anyone, to be a RWFC. Everyone has the right to marry, in accordance with RWFC prescriptions. The right to marry the person of your choice is a 'special' right. Secondly, you have the right to believe as you choose, even to hold non-RWFC beliefs. But your right to live in accordance with those beliefs is circumscribed by the extent to which it may conflict with RWFC beliefs once you enter the public sphere.

The idea on the left that this is all a diversion, a distraction from ‘real’ problems, misses the point, but not by much. We underestimate the degree to which the RWFCs take this seriously at our own peril. Fox is simply pandering to their audience, and in that they are hardly unique, simply more blatant. It’s a distraction only in the sense that it is a substitute for other anxieties for the RWFCs. They are not trying to distract the rest of us so much as to find a means to gain a sense of control and stability without the need to directly confront their own problems.

The totemic power of symbols explain, create community of common language and understanding, and create a sense of the ability to control is a natural fit with the idea that the Word is sacrosanct and the Word is power. So what becomes important is not the actual conduct and content of marriage, at least directly, but the definition of marriage. Once the definition is secured, the actual conduct is expected to follow. People cannot do what they cannot conceive of. Wipe out gays by wiping out the idea of gays. The control of definitions, language, and laws (as a statement of national belief) are supposed to produce a Christian Paradise on Earth – to fix everything. Of course it won’t, and so there must be a reason.

Even though I have written in terms of a cynical plot to use cries of persecution as a battering ram to knock over the last vestiges of the first amendment, the truth on the ground is much stickier, with many RWFCs being quite sincere in their feelings and quite unaware of any contradictions. Given this set of assumptions, there can only be one explanation. The liberals that are fighting the rightful creation of a Christian Nation are actually preventing the realization of the positive effects in real lived lives that must surely follow school prayer or restricting access to abortion or carving the denial of marriage to gays into the constitution.

The problem of course is that while the prize that the RWFC's have their eyes on may ultimately be cultural, real damage can be done to real lives through government policies. They may see the denial of US government funds to foreign non-governmental organizations that provide abortion, abortion counseling referral, or related services with their own funds (the “Mexico City” policy) as a statement of national belief. But actual people are harmed by this. The percentage of people who view the war in Iraq as a war to bring Western Democracy (read Christian values) to the Middle East (read Muslims) may be quite small, but they are among the one’s calling the shots.

Someone needs to stand up to the RWFCs and say that a failure to persuade is not persecution. And no election, no legacy, no numerical majority of nominal Christians provide an excuse to curtail the rights of the rest of us or to destroy lives in the pursuit the grand social experiment of the Great Christian Society.

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