Sinful Thought For The Day

Geoffrey Wheatcroft has a thought-provoking piece on religion in American politics.

Nearly half a century later there has been a complete change. Palin’s convention speech was held for a time to be the height of feisty wit; but much more revealing is what she and her pastor have said about “the end of days”, an idea in which millions of American evangelical Christians sincerely believe. According to Kalnins, the Jewish people must be gathered into the Land of Israel as a preliminary to Armageddon. When that vast conflict comes the Jews will be converted, or possibly annihilated, and it will be followed by the Rapture.

Already Kalnins sees “the storm clouds are gathering” through conflict in the Middle East: “Scripture specifically mentions oil instability as a sign of the Rapture. We’re seeing more and more oil wars. The contractions of the fulfilment of prophecies are getting tighter and tighter.” And he hopes to witness the Rapture soon. “I’m just looking at the turmoil of the world, Iraq, other places – everywhere people are fighting against Christ,” he says. Since Palin is one of his flock, she presumably believes this too. She certainly believes that Jesus told us to invade Iraq: she said so from the pulpit.

I think there needs to be some interrogation of the nature of religious belief as expressed by the likes of Sarah Palin. It is a hunch on my part, but I don’t believe Sarah Palin believes in the Rapture in the same way that, for instance, I believe that drinking bleach will make you sick. I’m more inclined to think that she and people like her both believe it and don’t believe it at the same time.

It’s the expression of the belief that seems the important part, to my mind: what it means in terms of the structure of the society in which you exist. If these people’s belief that ‘the earth is 5000 years old’ were really of the same kind of belief as ‘drinking bleach will make you sick’, then they wouldn’t feel the need to building ‘museums’ and promote the likes of ‘intelligent design’ as a means of justifying it. It is precisely the fact that the belief is plainly absurd, in light of what we know these days, that demands these people attest to it. When they say that it’s a ‘test of their faith’, what they really mean is it’s a test of their discipline. This is a discipline defined not by God, but by men and women.

In religious terms, what these people are up to is sinful. The unshaking belief that they, as sinners, know precisely what is intended by scripture and that it relates personally to their own predicament, is not something of which the God of the Ten Commandments would approve. The first couple of commandments are quite resounding on this: 1. I am God: not you. 2. No false idols, and that means, among other things, no making fetishes out of words.

So when Wheatcroft characterises this activity as the ‘resurgence of religion’, he’s right in one way, but it is a particular form of religion that isn’t so much based on spiritual enlightenment but submission to authority. And the question arises: is it religion in se that gives rise to authoritarian submission, or is it authoritarian submission that acquires particular form in religion? The point being that there are material conditions that bear directly on religious behaviour. One example is the nature of work in a corporate organization. In this, ‘our people are our most important asset’, ‘we value all our people’, and so on, yet there is a clear hierarchy, and the people at the top exercise tyrannical power. It’s easy to see how this structure can end up being reflected in religious practice.

3 Responses to “Sinful Thought For The Day”

  1. 1 lolarusa October 21, 2008 at 3:11 pm

    Having grown up in an American fundamentalist church (albeit a much less wacky church than Palin’s Assembly of God), I can confirm that many fundamentalists don’t “believe” their doctrine the way they believe in self-evident facts. It’s one of the reasons their “beliefs” can be so dangerous. The cognitive dissonance of fundamentalism cause people to lash out at others to cover their own doubts and secret thoughts. The most obvious examples are the many closeted gay fundamentalists who persecute others in a battle with their own inner selves.

    It is not true, however, that Palin said from the pulpit that Jesus wants us to invade Iraq. I believe the video in question is this one:

    It’s clear to me that Palin is suggesting here that they should all pray that the war is God’s plan – pray for guidance to do the right thing, that is. Just thought I’d try to clear that up.

  2. 2 Hugh Green October 21, 2008 at 9:24 pm

    Yeah, the bit about Jesus telling us to invade Iraq didn’t sound right, so thanks for clearing that up. Your point about cognitive dissonance is a good one: I didn’t have a fundamentalist Christian upbringing, but I have met a few in my time, and you get a certain sense that for many there’s a profound inner conflict or split going on that submission to God is unconsciously -or even consciously- intended to resolve definitively.

    Thinking again about praying that it’s God’s plan. Is there really that much difference between praying that God does want you to invade a country in a war of aggression and bomb cities and the like, and simply believing, without the aid of any prayer, that that is indeed what God wants? In a way the praying strikes me as sort of worse. Because you’re displacing onto God the judgement as to whether or not it’s right: doing away with any ethical consideration on your own part. Imagine I take a hatchet to the next door neighbour, but I do so praying that it’s God’s plan. Does that make it any better than being fervent in my belief that God is telling me to attack him with a hatchet?

  3. 3 lolarusa October 21, 2008 at 11:47 pm

    I guess the question is, once you’ve prayed to God asking him to affirm that you’re doing the right thing, how do you know what he has said in answer to your prayer? It’s another example of something people just say they believe – that God answers their prayers and guides their actions. Some part of them knows very well that it’s their own desires that actually guide their actions.

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