Donald Trump’s Imaginary Band

Post-convention repeat

The New Oxonian

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When Professor Harold Hill comes to River City, Iowa, to start a marching band he encounters a group of stubborn locals who don’t cotton to strangers but do like music. They have a barbershop quartet, a music teacher, a library whose benefactor mysteriously left the books to the librarian and the building to the city council, and  a long tradition of prescribed charity, marked by being willing to help, without really loving, one’s neighbour.

Harold Hill is a flim-flam man, a character in American  letters that goes back to folklore and the tall tales of frontier humour and reaches its apex in the story of the Duke and Dauphin in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. (Even the Wizard in L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz is a  moral version of the species) They are frauds and hucksters pitting their wits against the dull denizens of  the flat, dull central and prairie states, and they are riverboat gamblers and snake oil salesmen…

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The Death of the Curé of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray

 

“All our religion is but a false religion, and all our virtues are mere illusions and we ourselves are only hypocrites in the sight of God, if we have not that universal charity for everyone – for the good, and for the bad, for the poor and for the rich, and for all those who do us harm.”  St Jean-Marie Vianney, the Curé of Ars.

Father Jacques Hamel, an auxiliary priest appointed to the parish of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, was celebrating morning mass on Tuesday when two men barged into the church, seized the old man, forced him to his knees and slit his throat. They then said prayers in Arabic while circumambulating the altar, in a charade of Catholic liturgy, and one preached a short sermon from the ambo.

It is another episode in the ongoing attempt by ISIS to produce ever-more grotesque warnings to unbelievers that their brand of Islam still believes in seventh-century forms of sacrifice and talion as the price of unbelief. Beheadings, mass execution, dismemberment, burning, and vivisepulture are all on their menu. Human sacrifice is an innovation—so new that French authorities who have provided security to mosques and synagogues had not thought to do the same for the ancestral faith.  After all, who would kill a country priest at the altar?

Following spasms of violence by self-radicalized IS  “soldiers” in Nice, Munich and Orlando, this latest episode seems to differ only in the mechanism of death.  If IS measures its success in body counts and damage done, this appears to be a relatively modest example of its outreach.

But that is the wrong way to see this event.

Like many European countries, France prides itself on being “post-Christian”: secular and pluralistic.  Its indifference to religion is more pro-active than its neighbours’–extending to rules against the wearing of hijab and other displays considered offensive to the spirit of the Republic.  To Rome, France is the “eldest daughter of the Church.”  But its ecclesiastical privilege has to be shared with a tradition of hostility towards religion exemplified in the writings of Voltaire, Diderot, and above all Paul-Henrl Thiry, (Baron d’Holbach) who wrote in 1769,

“Religion has ever filled the mind of man with darkness, and kept him in ignorance of his real duties and true interest. It is only by dispelling the clouds and phantoms of Religion, that we shall discover Truth, Reason, and Morality. Religion diverts us from the causes of evils, and from the remedies which nature prescribes; far from curing, it only aggravates, multiplies, and perpetuates them.”

The secular and revolutionary spirit that was directed against French religion in general, Catholicism especially and the Jesuits in particular, was mitigated by the Reign of Terror (1791-1793), a chapter in French cultural history that proved that excess and passion are not the sole property of religion, and that revolutionary zeal is subject to the disconfirming experience of ordinary citizens who crave peace, calm, reassurance—the things religion had traditionally offered.  This tension in French culture has been a constant from the early nineteenth century until today: A country committed to the secular, actively indifferent to religion (in a way Americans and even the British and Germans are not), but aware that French intellectual culture is shot through with the ancient remains of the one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Derrida’s deconstruction of apophatic theology is only original if one ignores the whole history of French philosophy from the time of Irenaeus of Lyons, prompting some of his contemporaries to comment that French intellectualism is immersed in religion as a fish is in water. One can flop around on dry land for a bit, but not survive there.

In the last  century and a half,  as Rome has increasingly lost its political hold on Europe and the difference between Catholics and skeptics has become a matter of inflection, Christianity (at a domestic level) has become a benign and pastoral thing. Unlike England, occasions of state in France are secular affairs.  Unlike America, the political process (until recently anyway) was largely unaffected by religion.

But that is changing, even in the political sphere. Religious commentary and Biblical references are on the rise; during the 2007 presidential campaign two of the candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, both raised as Roman Catholics, made a number of positive references to their faith.  The French media is increasingly open to asking candidates about how their religious faith affects their decision making or enriches their life.  Even on the left, anti-globalisation activist José Bové cites his indebtedness to Catholic values, and Marie-Georges Buffet, the head of the French Communist Party strongly opposes any anti-religious interpretations of French secularism.  The attitudes are broadly in harmony with the views of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, which while not advocating return to the privileged status of the Catholic church pre-1905 call for France and Europe generally to remember where it came from: that the values of peace, fraternity, and compassion are rooted in the Gospel and are part of the historical legacy of the Church.   In France, more than other places, this legacy also includes philosophy, music, the arts and distinctively French literary movements, including postmodernism and hermeneutics.

The parishioners of Saint Etienne de Rouvray probably do not care much about history or Emmanuel Levinas.  They had gathered in a safe and familiar space to celebrate a familiar rite with a trusted priest.  Mercea Eliade envisages such familiarity when he defines what is meant by a “sacred space.” An obvious example for us, he writes in The Sacred and the Profane,  is the church, whose door is a threshold between the profane on the outside and the sacred inside.  An equivalent to the church in archaic cultures was the sacred enclosure, which opened upwards towards the sky, the world of the gods.  Believers going into a church leave the world of chaos outside.  Their purposes are not practical, but to make contact with something that transcends a world where bills have to be paid, children have to be collected from school, and wages have to be earned.  For all the secularizing that has gone on in the last two centuries, many people still find the door of a church an access to an enclosure that protects them from the grim realities of everyday life.  In a word, it is where God speaks to them, consoles them, and protects them.

The IS “soldiers” who invaded this enclosure with knives drawn and who slit the throat of an 85 year old priest in the name of Allah, the greatest, the merciful, achieved something they had not yet managed to achieve:  Sacrilege. It doesn’t matter that French atheists in a Normandy village or in the city of Rouen with its magical cathedral, immortalized by Monet, don’t believe the doctrine of the Catholic church, don’t take communion, and don’t ask their children to say the rosary as their grandparents might have done. They will still understand and react to the violation of what Eliade called “the holy.”  Catholics everywhere will react viscerally to this ritual slaughter because they will remember the Church’s teaching that the priest, in a special and sacramental way, represents Christ.  And they will make the distinction between a priest sitting on a park bench reading le Figaro or zig zagging to avoid a weaponized truck in Nice who “happens” to get caught up in an act of absurd violence, and a priest exercising his office, celebrating the Eucharist while standing at the altar.

Once upon a time, we called men like Father Jacques “martyrs.”  The word simply means witnesses. We won’t do it this time, because to do so would dignify the role of his assassins as legitimate combatants rather than as violent criminals.  It would also put the Church at war with an insidious form of Islamic fundamentalism. The Pope has called the sacrifice of Father Jacques “senseless” and “absurd.”  Looked at as an act of simple violence, perhaps that’s the best way to frame it. Yet violence is never simple and never totally absurd.  For the people of France, evaluating day by day their relationship with a religiously chaotic world, the desecration of the parish of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, has significance far beyond the door of the church.

 

 

The Confraternity of Saint Charles: Random Thoughts on Darwin Devotion

In celebration of Pope Francis’s declaration to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences last month that evolution is true, this tribute to Darwin.

The New Oxonian

Darwin

What does it mean to “believe” in Darwin’s theory of evolution? What would the sage himself have thought about his cult? It’s a bit like asking what Jesus would have thought about a high Mass or a Pentecostal healing service.
We are treated every year to new polls—Harris, Gallup, Pew—giving us new and conflicting statistics about how many people (read: Americans) believe in evolution. And the “correlation” between that poll and other tedious statistics—American religiosity, for example—is impossible to ignore.

So let’s just bottom line it. Many more Americans than people in other marginally civilized countries do not believe in evolution. Coming from a country that has a larger number of Nobel Laureates than some countries have tall buildings, this is shocking. Coming from a country where little Johnny can’t find America on a flat map of the world but can recite the books of the Old Testament backwards, not…

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The Myth of Christian Fundamentalism

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The word “evangelical” has been used to include so many Christian groups over the last century that it has ceased to mean anything of significance.

Evangelical Christians need not be “fundamentalists”—a term that in its heyday (around the time of the First World War) was used in America to distinguish between a belief in the inerrancy and moral supremacy of the Bible and another philosophy called, in the media of the day, “modernism.” In that quarrel, the famous Scopes trial was the manufactured darling. Most Christians who consider themselves Evangelical aren’t Pentecostal, a term that refers to a belief in the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through everyday life—especially in preaching, healing and moral decision-making. A close cousin of the Pentecostal movement is Charismatic Christianity, which has occasionally bridged the divide between robust protestant varieties of “Holy Ghost religion” (“pigeon religion”) and American Catholicism.

Evangelicals tend to be social conservatives. They like their bible strong but not 100-proof. Many are open to discussion about LGBT issues and contraception, but less open to gay marriage and abortion. There are things they have in common with Pentecostals and the more strident forms of biblical fundamentalism, but age, privilege, and education tend to divide them from these other strata. Most Evangelicals are patriotic; most are God Bless America Republicans; almost all tend to be what the press has christened social conservatives and defenders of family “values.” In modern parlance, an Evangelical is a negotiator: some are accommodationists, and some are reformers. The idea that an Evangelical is a fundamentalist who was successful at business and moved to the suburbs isn’t all that far-fetched.

Jerry Falwell (d 2007), Pat Robertson and James Hagee are fundamentalists. Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts (d 2009) and Kenneth Hagin (d 2003) Are Pentecostals. A subset of Pentecostals are Charismatic preachers like Benny Hinn (b 1953) and prosperity-gospel ministers like the Rev. T D Jakes. After a while, it’s merely tedious to chart the doctrinal and stylistic differences that separate these groups and subsets, which is why the term Evangelical—the broadest possible and most inclusive term to describe conservative Jesus- believers, becomes a convenient way of glossing over differences that outsiders don’t really care about anyway.

I am a soft-shell, no-sell (non-proselytizing) atheist. I don’t like conservatives of any description very much—social, political or religious. But in the interest of fair play and clarifying a thing or two, I have to say this. Christian conservatives, even that subset of Christian fundamentalists, aren’t very dangerous. They will not start shooting at you from the rooftops because you don’t believe in the thousand year reign of Christ, or blow themselves up in a mall because you think the Atonement is a metaphor. In fact, it was partly in the interest of protecting the forerunners of these minority groups and their quasi-pacifist and isolationist tendencies that Thomas Jefferson (who deemed them annoying but harmless) wrote in a letter to the Danbury Connecticut Baptists (1802):

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience.”

The principle was firmly rooted before the 19th century (largely a result of 100 years of religious struggle between Catholics and Protestants in Europe and aristocrats, commoners and clergy (in France, the “estates”) on the social side, but first enshrined in the American Constitution. It wasn’t there to keep religion in its place. It was there to say that religion as religion has nothing to do with the decisions of the state and should not be used to inform or govern the decisions of the state.

We have come a long way since then. Most of it has been a journey to ignorance about the historical origins of the First Amendment, and away from the foundational sentiments that gave us the “establishment” and “free exercise” provisions. When we read about religious groups asking for Bible reading in schools or regional school boards complaining about evolution being taught as “fact” in science classes, we are really witnessing a country out of touch with the secular foundations of the Republic. We see this at work in the courts, in Congress, and in the public arena too much. We hear and read that America was founded as a Christian country (it wasn’t) or that its founding principles were biblical (they weren’t).

Socially conservative religious groups have been overreaching since the early days of the Republic; but they are louder and more consequential now because as media has improved, ideas that were once limited to the intellectual backwater of the Bible-belt have spread throughout the country in widening circles. Televangelism was the successor of the TV-Crusade era of early rock star evangelists like Billy Graham. The internet and social media is now the successor to broadcast evangelism. Zealotry of various sorts is better served by media than the platitudinous religion of mainstream and liberal religion—a fact we need to bear in mind when assessing the power and influence of relatively small groups of adepts as in ISIS and Revd Terry Jones’s anti-Islamic Dove Church World Outreach center.

David_koresh

All this being true, it’s a bit of a stretch to accept my next point: Christian evangelicalism is not an especially dangerous philosophy and at least in the United States never has been. True, certain political agendas like westward expansion, slavery, Manifest Destiny, and the Redeemer Nation image that gave us the dogma of American Exceptionalism, and even the response to the creeping Mormonism of the Midwest and Plains in the nineteenth century were sometime fueled by biblical tropes and flourishes. But so were abolition and the fight for women’s equality and civil rights and economic justice. The idea of America as the New Jerusalem (the city on the hill-platitude that endangered politicians like to invoke) come ultimately from Christianity and the Bible. But in general the civil body politick of the first settlers has withstood the temptation to impose the Christian equivalent of sharia law on the American state.

This is not because Americans are especially savvy or far-sighted; they aren’t. A majority I suspect could not coherently explain the differences and functions of the branches of government or how the electoral process that sends representatives to Congress works. It is arguable that the First Amendment provisions concerning religion would not garner enough votes in enough states to be ratified as an amendment today. And it isn’t because our instruments of government are rock solid either. Listening to the campaign rhetoric of 2016 should alert us to the fact that, as Benjamin Franklin once quipped, “You have a Republic if you can keep it.”

It is a wearying fact that the people who scream their love for America at the highest pitch probably have no clear idea of what it takes to keep it, apart from their customary equation of freedom and liberty with gun ownership and freedom of speech. The close association in the minds of some American religious conservatives between guns and religion is a matter of historical record. But the sorts of murderous activities we associate with a David Koresh, a Jim Jones or an Eric Robert Rudolph are remarkably rare–and in the first two cases examples of cultic father than exoteric aggression. The instances are memorable because of their comparative rarity, thus different from the barrage of suicide bombings and attacks launched by extremists and radicalized Muslims in the Middle East and, through surrogates, abroad.
Conservative Christianity can be annoying, noxious, distracting and sometimes—take the message of the Westboro Baptist Church for example—hateful. I take it for granted that all religions can be, even Zen and Hindu Shaivism. After all, religions are based essentially on differences of opinion. And despite fifty years of interfaith dialogue and attempts at cross cultural understanding, what divides belief is what explains belief.
That brings me to the end point of this little screed. Just as it is true that all religions have the capacity for violence, not all religions have the same capacity for violence.

 

The reasons for this are cultural and historical: the current state of any living faith cannot be located in its foundational documents, however highly revered and programmatic for the faithful. It is one of the reasons why atheist critiques of religion, and Christian conservatism in particular, come up short, based as they usually are on literal readings of the most obnoxious and outmoded passages of scripture. Just as the violence of the Crusades and Inquisition are not explained by the teaching of Jesus, neither are Abolition, the Civil Rights movement, or programs supporting economic justice and the rights of minorities organic extensions of the New Testament.

 

Religion, as H. Richard Niebuhr and Peter Berger have explained, is a process of negotiation that often begins with rejection and opposition to the cultural norms that environ it at its beginning (think first century Palestinian Judaism or seventh century Meccan society) and ends up through a series of accommodations a different thing from what it was in the beginning.
There is no promise that the “thing” will be peaceful and benign. –Or even that it will emerge intact as one thing. Christianity has not survived intact but through a process of fissipiration that we call “denominationalism”—the most dramatic example of which was the protestant reformation of the sixteenth century. And though many believing Muslims will reject this as an article opposed to a central axiom of their religion, Islam itself has not survived intact either. Indeed splinters of its own form of denominationalism appeared before the death of the Prophet and continued unabated throughout the entirety of its existence. The fountainhead of the Abrahamic traditions, Judaism, began its process of accommodation so early—from the time of the encounter with the Canaanites in the second millennium BCE–through the destruction of the Temple, the diaspora, and the formation of an ethically-based rabbinical Judaism–that it is difficult to trace its evolution historically.

 

There is no necessity that any religion will be as relevant in the same way in the twenty-first century as it was in the fifteenth or fifth–in fact, given that the conditions of its origin are unrepeatable it is probably impossible to talk strictly about the religion of the first Christians or the religion of Mahammad’s first followers. Although almost every religious reformation begins with the belief that it is a “purifying” movement or a return to the basics of the faith, what such movements have normally produced is not a facsimile of the original but a violent clash between a living and evolved belief system and a caricature of what zealots believe to have been true millennia ago. The most strident Christian Bible-based groups epitomize this pattern, but normally in a non-violent way. The most ardent Islamic radicals believe the same thing, but see violence, in the form of jihad, as an instrument in the purifying process.
Theoretically the God of the Bible may be changeless and in equal proportion righteous, just, and merciful. And it may be important, in the interest of civil conversation, to pretend that all religions proclaim peace, love, mercy and compassion. But our eyes tell us that in the twenty-first century it is not the Christian sort of “fundamentalism” that normally results in mass death, homicide bombings, the murder of school children, the harassment, rape and forced conversion of girls, socially sanctioned honour killings and sectarian purges of sectarian rivals, and attacks on unbelievers.

 

Evangelical Protestantism, including its fundamentalist variety, is a last -gasp defense of the fourfold gospel in its more or less literal and unexamined form. It is broadly non-theological. Islamic fundamentalism likewise is a much larger and more regressive position in relation to the normativity of the Qur’an, but its “fundamentals” are different, have not been negotiated in the same way, nor evolved at anything like the same pace or under the same conditions.
For that reason, the use of the term “fundamentalism” to describe matching trends or patterns in the history of religion is not only inexact and unhelpful, but inevitably leads to wrong conclusions.