Sam Smith,2005 – One of the thing that happened in recent election was that the Republicans’ false faith trumped the Democrats’ lousy works. Since the former used imagination for evidence while the latter relied on TV news, the odds inevitably favored the former.
But both sides were lying. After all, what sort of moral values considers an unborn fetus sacred but not the lives of 100,000 innocent Iraqis? And what sort of life on earth can the Democrats offer as an alternative to the millennium if they haven’t had one good new idea in three decades?
We are, some theologians will tell you, in the midst of the fourth “Great Awakening” in this country’s history, periods in which life becomes so complex and frightening that there is a rush to pristine promises in various guises. The conservative Ralph Reed gave a fair thumbnail on PBS a few years back: “The first great awakening gave rise to the revolutionary struggle. The second great awakening. . . some of the most uproarious revivals that have ever been seen in western civilization, led to the formation of the American anti-slavery society. Then, of course, the third Great Awakening of the 1890’s leading to the social gospel movement and the progressivism of which are Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, and today historian Robert Fogel has argued a fourth Great Awakening has begun with rising church attendance among baby boomers, and this shift to evangelicalism and fundamentalism of which the electronic church was such an important part.”
The range of beliefs in such awakenings can be quite broad; in fact some scholars believe the latest Great Awakening began in the 1960s with the myriad spiritual adventures of the left. William G. McLoughlin, a history professor at Brown, wrote a book in 1978 that placed within the phenomenon the Beats, the popularity of Zen, and “experimental life-styles associated with drugs, the hippies, the practice of occultism, and rock concerts.”
Wrote David Carlin (at the time both a philosophy professor and chair of his local Democratic Party), “The famous Woodstock concert of 1969 was a kind of sacramental event for the Fourth Awakening, analogous to the revivalistic camp meeting of earlier awakenings.”
If so, it has produced an ironic twist: the spirit of the ’60s has almost disappeared and the Democratic Party is being beaten and kicked by people who claim moral values but ignore every part of the Bible save that which condemns the nature or habits of people they don’t like anyway.
While such periods are clearly a misery to go through, there is some light to be found at the end of the tunnel vision: these awakenings tend to be preludes to some big leap in American social and political change including the American Revolution, the abolition movement, and 20th century social democracy.
As Rhys H. Williams has put it: “Many have credited awakenings with helping to foster religious pluralism, advance ideas sympathetic to political democracy and social reform, and forge an American national identity. More contentious is the claim that awakenings are cyclical, representing a religious response to social and cultural change. They help believers come to terms with the stress that change produces and adjust the culture to new modes of societal organization.”
And they are not unique to the American republic. Both the spread of totem poles in the Northwest, and the long nosed god icons that swept through Native American cultures that had little other contact, were in part reactions to stress created among American Indians by European terrorists unsecuring their homeland. And residents of Pacific islands disrupted by World War II and its aftermath engaged in what came to be known as “cargo cults” with salvation supposedly dropping from planes like the crates they had seen so often.
This, however, is small comfort to those living through one of these eras of hysteria, hate, and hoopla. Further, there is the problem that Charles McKay outlined back in 1852: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”
As a skeptic who neither partakes in the blood of Christ nor has danced with a Sufi while, say, making the slow transition from Presbyterianism to Buddhism, I sometimes think of what is happening as a struggle between two sects, rather than between the faithful and non-believers. On the one hand, we have those enveloped in a retro version of Christianity devised by some highly successful hustlers and charlatans and, on the other, we have liberals who seem to believe that politics begins and ends with abortion and gay rights, and in a cargo cult that delivers salvation through SUVs, Botox injections, the right wine, and Vanity Fair. It is rare anymore to hear liberals speak of things like pensions, health care, or labor issues. Thus they have little to talk about to the fundamentalists save the issues that divide them so sharply.
This, of course, is not how it is explained and that just makes it all the more difficult to wend our way out of this mess. The common thread across all forms of faith these days – conservative and liberal – is certainty and a contempt for those who do not share it. Our recovery, however, will begin not with triumph over our tormentors but with the discovery of tolerance for them.
Tolerance is a word much out of favor these days yet its organization and promulgation is the underlying genius of the American system. It has been also described as the concept of reciprocal liberty: I can’t have my freedom unless I give you yours. It is based not so much on shared values as indifference to unshared values.
Once you decide it isn’t your business to save, control, or correct a born-again Christian or, conversely, two gays headed for the altar, life not only becomes simpler but considerably more pleasant. Which is why I tell conservatives complaining about gay marriage, “Then don’t marry a gay;” and liberals who complain about born-agains, “Look we’ve always had Christian fundamentalists in this country; we just used to call them things like ‘New Deal Democrats.'”
The magnificence of America lies in the opportunity not to have to agree with other Americans. The Christian right has clearly forgotten this, but so have liberals who send all sorts of unconscious signals that they will be no less vigorous in imposing their values should they get the chance. Both these messages, because of their implicit aggression, become extremely threatening to the other side.
But what if we talked about, negotiated, and even possibly celebrated the fact that we are and probably will be different from each other? Not in a smarmy, goody-goody way but as citizens honestly talking about our differences and seeking mutual accommodation and safe ground. Impossible? If they managed in South Africa and in the American South, maybe we can do it, too.
If we tried, one thing we might soon discover is that it would be advantageous to exclude the media and the politicians from the discussion. They are, after all, the ones with the greatest vested interest in the fight.
And what exactly do we have to lose? The stability of views on abortion in recent years, for example, suggests very little. We have, in fact, adopted an approach to these issues that sanctify our own beliefs without moving them forward much.
In fact, the best way to change people’s minds about matters such as ethnic relations is to put them in situations that challenge their presumptions. Like joining a multicultural political coalition that works. It’s change produced by shared experience rather than by moral revelation. Martin Luther King understood this as he admonished his aides to include in their dreams the hope that their present opponents would become their future friends. And he realized that rules of correct behavior were insufficient: “Something must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right.”
This doesn’t happen logically, it doesn’t come all at once, and it doesn’t come with pretty words. Tom Lowe of the Jackson Progressive voted a few years ago in favor of a new Mississippi flag without the confederate symbolism.
But in retrospect, he wrote later, he realized that the voters’ rejection of the change was a honest reflection of their state of mind: “Perhaps a time will come when we have truly put aside our nasty streak of racism. When that time arrives, maybe we will choose to replace the flag with something more representative of our ideals. On the other hand, when we reach that point, we may no longer care about the symbolism of the Confederate battle flag. Or perhaps we will keep it for another reason: to make those of us that are white humble by reminding us of our less than honorable past.”
The decline the Democratic Party has been accelerated by the growing number of American subcultures deemed unworthy by its advocates: gun owners, church goers, pickup drivers with confederate flag stickers. Yet the gun owner could be an important ally for civil liberties, the churchgoer a voice for political integrity, the pickup driver a supporter of national healthcare. Further, the greatest achievements of the Democratic Party, both in terms of good legislation and votes, came under presidents who were willing to deal with southern politicians far more retrograde than your average Falwell follower. Today’s liberals never could have created the Great Society; they would have hated too many of the people whose votes were necessary to make it happen.
The strange thing – strange that is to an era that believes that all progress is the product of propaganda and salesmanship – is that taking a more laisse faire attitude towards what others think offers greater opportunity for antagonists to come together simply because they have less to fear from each other.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t air gripes. In fact, one of the greatest services the media could provide would be to end religion’s exemption from its standards of “objectivity,” and treat any religion that engages in politics as a political institution whose faith is worth no greater honor than that of the Democratic National Committee. If we took the media halo away from religion we would quickly discover that it is religion that is currently at the heart of our global problems, dangerously propelled by three fanatics abusing their alleged faith: bin Laden, Bush, and Sharon. Moral values have put the entire world at risk.
But, as has been said, the powerful do what they will, and the weak do what they must. And part of the latter in times of fear and uncertainty is to find safety in faith, homilies, and congregations of the like minded. Then the powerful exploit the anxiety of those living in the caves of their souls, making it all that more difficult for them to find the light again.
Our job, however, is not to resave them for rationalism, but to engage in real politics: which is the art of getting people to think about the right things, things like what is happening to their jobs, healthcare, and housing costs. And if a gun-toting, abortion hating nun wants to help you save the forest, to put her on the committee. Change comes when the people who the powerful wish to keep apart discover their true common interest.
There is no progress in polarity; the secret is in unexpected alliances. It’s way past time to find the issues around which they can form. And then to make it happen.