The evangelical mind has never relished complexity. Indeed its crusading genius, whether in religion or politics, has always tended toward an over-simplification of issues and the substitution of inspiration and zeal for critical analysis and serious reflection. N.K. Clifford.
The documentary God on our side: the real deal, about the religious leanings of President George W. Bush, screened on the ABC on the September 15, 2004, was disturbing television. It was disturbing because it showed the shallowness of fundamentalist Christianity in America, but more so, because it showed a President convinced of his sinner and redeemed status and of the moral certitude that comes from that conviction.
In the President’s mind, America stands for the good and the terrorists, or any associated with them, are the evildoers. I do not quibble with labeling acts of terrorism evil; that is not the point. It is the assumption that the world can be divided between good and evil that disturbs me. For one thing, as one of the commentators stated, this makes diplomacy impossible. This is a simplistic and dangerous view of the world that pits military might, not only against the planners and perpetrators of terrorism but against whole peoples. We wonder what has happened to the man Jesus who submitted to evil in order to overcome it, who ate with the worst and the best.
The programme referred to the religious group that informs the President and many of his staff as “evangelical”. I will not use this term because all Christianity is, of course evangelical, being the bearer of good news, and to use this word to describe what is essentially fundamentalism amounts to a highjacking of language.
The success of this President in gaining office may be put down to the fact that he fits within a well-established religious orientation. He is the prodigal returned home to the Father, the man whose life was turned around by Jesus. He must, therefore, be honest and true. The problem with this is that it betrays his lack of persona. I have no trouble with someone coming to their senses but that does not turn them into the kind of person we want to lead the world.
We know that we have a vocation when we spend years thinking it through, preparing our way forward by reading and reflection and with conversation. Vocation does not come automatically when the drunkard, who I doubt ever had a serious thought in his head, has an emotional rush and decides to tread the straight and narrow. Good for him, but it does not make him a world leader. While fundamentalist Christianity believes that the conversion experience makes a new man, we know that personality changes only gradually over a lifetime.
The great deception in fundamentalist Christianity is that it sees itself as the real deal and anything else as coming up short. Fundamentalist Christians live in a different world. They believe in a God that acts in mysterious ways to the benefit of the believer. Wisdom and knowledge about the world is not gained from looking at the world but is contained in code in the Bible and accessed through prayer. The present is a working out of prophecy, not the unfolding of the dynamics of history, therefore historical analysis is superfluous. This is further aided by the kind of prayer that can only give sanctity to ones’ own convictions. The Bible and prayer also take the place of science. This is how fundamentalists can ignore the scientific discoveries that make creationism absurd.
The most important dynamic is the subjectivity of the individual in the experience of conversion. It is the individual who is saved simply by changing his or her mind about the existence of God. This simple act guarantees that heaven will be theirs. It is as if someone flicked a switch. From then on they assume the language of the “born again” and come under the power of “groupthink”. Like the black and white morality they espouse, you are either in or out, “born again” or not “born again”. If you have not had the right experience and have not given yourself to the Lord, then you are not in. This displaces serious intellectual and cultural endeavour: that is why fundamentalist Christianity has no influence on the high culture of the nation. Rather it champions, as Mark A Noll says in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind , “The philosophy of common sense, the moral instincts of Republicanism, the science of Francis Bacon and a disposition towards evidential reasoning in theology”. A search for the fundamentalist mind will come up a blank.
The conversion experience, according to Christian fundamentalism, is a thing of the heart. All is swept before the promptings of the heart, as if God speaks the language of pure emotion. There is no need to think about how coherent our thoughts are - all is enthusiasm. This is where fundamentalist anti-intellectualism comes from: The heart is what counts, not the mind. To believe that the world is only 10,000 years old is a triumph of the heart over the head. Bush does not need to ponder the history of the Middle East, all he has to do is to know in his heart that America is the good guy. He does not need to agonise over the more than 1,000 American troops killed or the thousands of uncounted Iraqis, for he knows that he is in the right and he will go on and on despite the evidence that the chaos and the killing are escalating.
It is now clear that you cannot make an ordered democracy, complete with uncorrupted institutions of administration and law, out of a ground down and dispirited people. It should have been clear before the war started. However, through the rose colored glasses of “God on our side” and the conviction that America can do whatever it puts its hand to, we have miscalculated, we have not counted the cost, and we have made an inferno from which no exit seems possible.
This is the problem of Christian triumphalism - it sees only success and believes in a God that generates that success. Any troubling evidence that all is not right is ignored. The personal and financial scandals of fundamentalist preachers are conveniently swept under the carpet. This is not a religion that lives by confession and forgiveness: It is a religion that knows that it is in the right, period. Jerry Falwell must be the smuggest man on earth. Instead of God being “other”, the one who is over and against us, God is on the side of the believer to whom he gives an absolute moral stance and a privileged insight into how the world works.
The problem with this is that the dark depths of the gospel are ignored. This is not a problem for fundamentalist preachers because they do not follow a lectionary that thrusts the difficult texts at them Sunday after Sunday. It is very easy to feel strongly about something and look for a Biblical text to hang it on. The preacher is not confronted by texts that are deeply disturbing and which move us from our comfort zone. Neither are they prompted to do enough theological work to produce decent exegesis. This is because what matters are emotion, passion, enthusiasm, and not intellectual work.
The fundamentalist Christianity we saw displayed in the documentary is the worst sort of religious bigotry because it is all on its own terms. The documentary revealed how much the present conflict is a religious one. There is much second-guessing about the mind of God, much talk about God acting on behalf of the believer, as though the Christian life is one of success upon success. This is contradictory to our experience that the rain falls on the good and the bad, and that bad things happen to good people. An emphasis on the Bible as being true in all its facts, rather than in the spirit, leads to displaced knowledge about the world and about culture. This is why Bush was not able to understand the complex history of the Middle East. This ignorance allowed him to rush in where wiser men would have feared to tread. The decision to invade Iraq was not a carefully analysed decision. It was based on a moral premise and a naïve understanding that good intentions and right, together with millions of dollars of high tech equipment, would win out in the end.
I realise that one of the reasons I am so hot about this is that Christian fundamentalism has sold itself so successfully to the general population, who either become adherents or are so repulsed by its naiveté that it becomes even more difficult to present an orthodox view. Fundamentalist churches may be thriving now but they are in the process of alienating that part of the population that takes the time to think. This means that the Church is pushed further into the sidelines of the culture of the intellect where it is desperately needed.
Quotations are from The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark A Noll.