Tag Archives: christianity

Accursed land

This is a new one. Former GOP presidential nomination frontrunner Rick Perry has come under some heat for his unconventional and frankly disturbing religious associations. These go beyond the typical guilt by association that plagues politicians who may have encountered some fringe figures in their spiritual pursuits, like Obama’s close association with the controversial and outspoken (and aptly named) Jeremiah Wright or Michele Bachmann’s with the extremely odious Bradlee Dean. I certainly believe these relationships bear scrutiny, but generally not the clutching-the-chest panic they tend to evoke from partisans. Perry, on the other hand, moved into territory that quite frankly can be described as un-American – and by such I’d mean contrary to broad agreements about American political heritage as represented in discussions and interpretations of the Constitution, and nothing more – with the massive prayer rally called “The Response” held in Texas back in August. I don’t need to belabor the obvious here about an elected representative of the people – a governor, no less – endorsing, planning, and leading an exclusive religious festival not as a private citizen but in his capacity as a public servant.

But this is interesting. Evangelist, and from what I can tell, professional crazy person Cindy Jacobs has claimed that “The Response” has lifted a curse from American soil. Part of the purpose of the “The Response” was to pray away the problems that bedevil the country, and no one could be blamed for thinking back to Perry’s earlier state proclamation to pray away the droughts and wildfires that have made Texas, as least as viewed from afar, seem as if it were a land subject to the wrath of some divine power or another. But Jacobs’s claim is new to me: she claims that the sins of the Native Americans – chiefly their cannibalism – cursed the land and that curse, until recently, was affecting the legacy of the European settlers that displaced the native population. This recalls Pat Robertson’s rather confused and contemptible assertion that it was the Haitian Revolution’s pact with the Devil to overturn the French colonial government there that had cursed the land and resulted in Haiti’s horrific earthquake. Now it’s easy to dismiss Jacobs – she’s the fringe of a rather fringe group, and her major claim to notoriety is that she’s prone to make these crazy claims, like her claim that a massive die-off of birds in Arkansas and Louisiana was due to the end of Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell, the military’s former policy of the forced exclusion of gays and lesbians from service. But the claim itself, and that it would find itself articulated within a specifically evangelical environment, that fascinates me.

Some ritual cannibalism was indeed practiced by Native American peoples prior to European settlements. And not long ago the anthropology community was embroiled in a rather sensational debate about the extent of the cannibalism practiced by a vanished tribe that preceded the Pueblo in the Southwest. But the weirdness here isn’t the lurid fixation with cannibalism itself, but that the sin or crime tainted not the people that practiced it so much as the land they lived on. And not the land so much as the geopolitical entity that inherits that continent.

Our culture is rife with heavily symbolic accounts of the transfer of authority over the land from Natives to Europeans, beginning with the fiction and poetry of the nineteenth century – especially Cooper’s novels and the narrative poems of Longfellow – and the trope of the Vanishing Indian, the peculiar insistence of nineteenth century Americans, including even otherwise astute and sympathetic observers like Thoreau, to insist that the Indians were already prior to the encounter with the West a dying and vanishing race, whose convenient inability to thrive and prosper allowed for European occupation of otherwise soon-to-be-vacated lands. Stories of the transfer of the land from Natives to Europeans continue through our contemporary popular culture, as in the infamous “crying Indian” ad from the 1970’s Keep America Beautiful campaign. And yet in all of those accounts, the Indian vanishes physically but retains some spiritual claim over the landscape, and either approves and guarantees the moral and inevitable nature of European settlement (as we find in Longfellow), or in the case of the TV ad, admonishes its improper stewardship of the transferred lands. Never does the transfer involve our assumption of a primal crime.

If it weren’t for Jacobs’s ties to Perry’s prayer festival and to a prophetic movement that’s become associated with his candidacy, it would be the odd notion of a negligible lunatic, and maybe it is that. But evangelical Christianity has a long history of obsession with geography and spirituality, primarily with that of the Holy Land, so I can’t discount it entirely. Neither do I know what to make of it. Part of it does seem to be a rebuke against secularism, though. If we’re going to be cursed on account of primitive (meaning first, not crude) practices on this continent, the others must be under similar burdens, unless also relieved of that curse by a specifically Christian ceremony – one that deliberate transgresses the original founding compact of the affected nation-state that distinguishes public duties from private obligations of conscience. I think it’s fairly clear here that the sin that far more concerns Jacobs than cannibalism would be the Jeffersonian separation of church and state. Secularism did not permit a sacralization of the American landscape, except in the revisionist histories that see the Constitution in some sort of pre-Bill of Rights dispensation sanctifying a Christian America before the 20th century judicial pronouncements began to pry religion and governance apart. Without that sacralization, the pagan earth that sustained the primitive inhabitants would be the same that sustains our rather shaky secular government, according to this view.

I wonder, then, if we could tie Jacobs’s claim here to the motivation behind Glenn Beck’s rather odd and uncomfortable rally in Jerusalem. The Holy Land has long functioned for evangelical Christians as an historical anchor for what they view as the inevitable and necessary transformation of the created world. It was where Jews were historically supplanted in ecclesiastical importance with Christ himself, and while it is necessary for many Christians that Jerusalem remain Jewish so that historical continuity from Jew to Christian remain forever imminent. But they’re still Jews, and the primal crimes of the land must remain still remain, in this view.

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I gotta say, I agree with this call.

Now I can’t really claim any expertise in the appropriate application of the Constitution’s establishment clause, but as a supporter  and critic of secularism, I do have my sympathies for certain directions in its application. And so I find the court right in its determination here.

The case concerns efforts by the Department of Veterans Affairs to control the content of a prayer given at a Memorial Day event at Houston National Cemetery. Reverend Scott Rainey has twice given a prayer at the event sponsored by the National Cemetery Council for Greater Houston, but this year the VA requested to see the prayer Rainey was giving in advance of the ceremony. The director of the cemetery objected to the prayer, which included the Lord’s Prayer and ended by giving thanks to Jesus Christ, on the grounds that it was “specific to one belief.” Upon being asked to keep his prayer “general” and “nondenominational,” Rainey filed suit. A judge has granted Rainey a temporary restraining order that prevents the VA from interfering with Rainey’s prayer on Monday, effectively deciding the case in Rainey’s favor.

The grounds for the VA’s objections are fairly clear – a) while the ceremony is being sponsored by a private trade organization, the Houston National Cemetery is a public space, and a federal one no less, and therefore resolutely secular, and b) while the prayer and the ceremony are clearly intended to honor all the dead, not all soldiers are Christian, and the families and intimates of those non-Christian dead would rightfully feel those they hold in remembrance somewhat excluded from the full honor the ceremony confers. Rainey’s objection is likewise clear: for him the notion that his prayer would not end in an evocation of thanks to Jesus is somewhat inconceivable. It’s the mention of Jesus, one might say, in Rainey’s case that makes it a prayer.

Secularism or freedoms need not be a zero-sum game. Freedoms for and from religion when expressed need not mean that someone else has less of it him or herself. But in this case there does seem to be a conflict between the rights of those who honor and remember the non-Christian soldiers buried at Houston and Rainey’s right to express himself according to the dictates of his conscience. I think Rainey’s rights trump here because of a limited success, we might say, of secularism. Honoring the dead has few secular analogues; cross-culturally the behavior is fundamentally religious. Religion and its expressions are inherently sectarian. To a certain extent it’s pleasing to believe that there are certain basic spiritual beliefs and practices that we all share and that could form a basis for a “general” and “nondenominational” service, but common grounds only exist where previous accommodations to the religions of other cultures with which one comes into account have been made – and of course to religions that bear strong family resemblances. Protestant Christianity finds that it can tolerate accommodations to Catholic and to Jewish faiths at increasing degrees of attenuation. Muslim, sure. Hindu faith? Buddhist? Animist? Atheist? Here our notions of religious practice begin to break down as we attempt to conceive how those accommodations might take place. Philosophically it is possible to connect Hindu and Christian godheads in terms of a variety of shared characteristics, but approaches to prayer, honoring the dead, etc., don’t have close analogs.* And with Buddhism we continue further out.

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Islam, secularism, and liberalism (part 1)

One of the core values of liberalism is the notion of free speech, a notion which has a deep historical association with the freedom of conscience and worship. Indeed, secularism – and by secularism here, I mean the notion that each person should be free to follow the dictates of conscience – can and I believe should be seen as core to the development in the West of individual liberties. There are, of course, other secularisms, and even other strands in Western secularism that complicate application and adjudication of free speech and free worship.

A key facet in our notion of free speech, is that the free exchange of ideas is a form of a market. Rather than ban speech that is dangerous or offensive, we permit it, believing that it will have little currency in the larger market and, failing to gain purchase, will fade. Banning it, we believe, may allow it to fester – feeding it as the oppressed with the legitimacy it would drain from those who ban it.

So much of Enlightenment liberalism, of course, depends on a vision of us as rational actors capable of embracing a common good, and passion and sectarianism – what secularism meant to banish from the public sphere – frequently reveal our limitations and the blind spots in our confidence. Demagoguery has become a real danger in contemporary political discourse, and over the past few years, anti-Muslim demagoguery has become among the most visible expressions of it.

When Terry Jones threatened to burn the Koran on September 11 of last year as a public rebuke of Islam, it became an international media event, despite the fact that Jones is on the fringe of the fringe of hard-right Christianism and the leader of an almost laughably small church. The announcement inflamed many in Muslim communities and provoked widespread condemnation in the Western world. Jones eventually back down in the face of all this pressure.

At the time, many people, myself included, felt that Jones was well within his First Amendment rights to burn the Koran as a form of expression, vile that it may be. I still feel that way. But at the time, I felt that the media was giving him undue attention – that by hyperventilating over his threat, the impression given to the non-Western world is that Koran burning is a large concern and issue in Western public discourse. I don’t believe it is ever wise to determine a course of action largely on the basis of how extremist elements will interpret it, and that needn’t have been the thinking here. Instead, we seemed to be blowing the actions of one minor weirdo all out of proportion because of our concerns that it would allow Muslim extremists to do the same, libeling Western secular culture as irredeemably anti-Muslim.

I appears those of us who wanted the media to ignore Jones and his threats as insignificant and not having any real currency in the free market of ideas were wrong, or at least naïve. When Jones threatened to do it again this March, there was unbeknownst to the general public, a deliberate and active media blackout that refused to cover the event. So it came as a complete surprise to that public when Afghans rioted for several days in early April, resulting in dozens of death, most of them U.N. aid workers. Although only a few Americans were even aware of what had happened, it was not through a lack of effort on Jones’s part, and the story metastasized across the internet, appearing on the websites of Islamic extremists and the like until it became hyped by the perpetually embattled Afghan President Hamid Karzai, sparking the riots.

We can’t ban actions like Jones’s. We can’t, it would appear, simply ignore them and pretend that they won’t have an effect, because in our media and information saturated globe, they persist until they find their intended audience. Not unlike the Danish cartoon controversy: the satirical cartoon depictions of Mohammed in Jyllands-Posten inspired some local European reaction after their publication, but it took some time for them to come to the attention of the Muslim world, at which point they became a useful vehicle for inflammatory rhetoric. For Jones and his supporters, the riots prove the point they were setting out to make: their story reached its audience in the end, which were not so much the Muslims in the grip of extremist and violent rhetoric that set them upon the U.N. compounds, but us back in the U.S. Jones and Karzai alike point at the other and say to those whose support and attention they crave, “See. This is what we’re up against.”

I think that the only appropriate response, after the of course condemning Jones’s actions and the even more horrific actions of the Afghan mob, and the hope that there may be some justice for the violence, is a degree of resignation. Our lives will continue to affected by what Hasnain Kazim is calling the “clash of extremes,” militant demagogues on the Christian and the Islamic worlds attempting to gain power and influence by attacking the other side under the banner of an absolute truth. But neither are we completely powerless. These extremes threaten not only our safety but also the liberties of conscience secularism would guarantee, and in both cases it is that secularism that both extremes are at pains to eradicate, and secularism’s fragility, and the fragility of democracy, the expression of secularism in the political realm, in much of the non-Western world is a legitimate source of concern. If we can’t ignore the extremes, then we’ll have to face them, and talk about them. Confidence in the secular project may be the only best response.

Oddly enough, in reading the claims that Jones makes about the Koran in the rather silly mock trial his congregation put on to condemn it, what stands out are the great pains that the church goes through to damn the Koran and Islam on the basis of insufficient secularism. They write, “Islamic Law is totalitarian in nature. There is no separation of church and state. It is irrational. It is supposedly immutable and cannot be changed. It must be accepted without criticism. It has many similarities to Nazism, Communism and Fascism. It is not compatible with Western Civilization.” And then, “Islam is not compatible with democracy and human rights. The notion of a moral individual capable of making decisions and taking responsibility for them does not exist in Islam.” Is Islam incompatible with Western secularism? I’ll look at a few arguments of the arguments, from silly to serious, in part 2.

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