|Oct/Nov 2015 Nonfiction|
Image courtesy of NASA and the University of Arizona
It is a bright morning in central Virginia, the sun tipping in from over the Blue Ridge Mountains so horizontally that the visor only works when I am going downhill. It doesn't matter that much anyway—these Lynchburg roads are so curvy the sun moves like a blinding cursor on the windows, right to left, up and down. I am on my way to work. I crest the hill and descend toward the community college where I teach English, and bathed in all this fresh sunlight is a vista that fills me with disgust—I could even call it loathing. Twenty years ago, if you looked across the valley, most of it was rolling Virginia hills, lush and green. Now the entire horizon has been denuded as completely as a West Virginia strip mine.
The destroyed earth is not reclaimed however, or left to bleed itself out into the creeks and streams. Heavy equipment crawls over it between buildings. Construction cranes loom over new buildings in various stages of erection. One building's skeleton this morning, covered by neon-lime insulation panels, appears dangerously nuclear, framed by the natural green of the mountains. A parking garage squats down beside a sprawling parking lot, a baseball stadium on one side, a basketball arena under a segmented dome that looks like the Death Star on the other. A $50 million library, named for Jerry Falwell beside a highway named for Jerry Falwell, reportedly has robots to run and fetch your books. A football stadium is the lynchpin of an empire-builder's hopes—Bill Pennington reports in The New York Times that Jerry Jr. is waving hundreds of millions of LU's online-school windfall at the NCAA, trying to get his football team into the big time.
Crowning the crowded mess, on a central, obliterated mountaintop is the first-of-its-kind-in-America snowless ski slope—people who have tried it describe it to me as wet white Astro-turf—not a single dark human shape has dotted the vast white slope any time I've glanced up there over the past few years. The structure, with its chalet at bottom, stands empty day in and day out, brings to mind decrepit ‘80s shopping malls or, better, the sad pictures I've seen of abandoned Olympic venues around the world being slowly broken down and swallowed by nature.
To the left of the snowless ski slope is the gigantic wound, visible from so much of the city. I have always called it The Wound because it reminds me of a shaved and bandaged head wound, but people from LU call it The Monogram—I like what my kids tell me they call it over at E.C. Glass High School: the Liberty Tramp Stamp. In the valley between the community college and LU, Ward's Road crawls with cars, festers with chain stores and strip-mall sprawl.
Recently, Jerry Jr.'s plan to build, according to the Liberty Journal, which I still receive in the mail, a "capstone to Liberty's half-billion dollar makeover" has been in the news because it will be so close to the regional airport and might interfere with flights. At 275 feet, it might briefly sate his obsession with superlatives by being, the "tallest building in Lynchburg," and will house, "the world's largest accredited school for religious studies and ministerial training." I don't know whether the planned obelisk will be a monument to Conservative Christian triumphalism (according to the journal, Independence Tower will "recognize Liberty's commitment to the uniquely American values of individual liberty, limited government and Judeo-Christian principles") or personal hubris. Probably a combination of the two, as that has been the story of Jerry Falwell from the beginning.
I was a student at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in the early- and mid-90s, when Falwell was hawking a video "documentary" for $43 a pop detailing all the evil doings of the current enemy, President Clinton. The president, this video alleged, was not only guilty of sexual misconduct, but of money laundering and cocaine smuggling. He was even personally responsible for multiple murders. Hate for the president and first lady swirled in thick clouds around Liberty University. My Old Testament professor took a break from class instruction one day to tell this joke:
A man walks into a bar and sits down. Hillary Clinton comes on the TV, and he says aloud, "Now doesn't she look like a horse's behind." He gets dirty looks from the men in the bar. He sits for a while and Hilary's picture comes on the TV again. He says, "If she doesn't look like a horse's behind, I don't know who does." At this, one of the men stands, walks over, and punches him in the face. Rubbing his jaw, he says, "I don't get it. This seems like a nice conservative town." Another man says to him, "You don't understand. This here is horse country."
The hate fest was delectable—not many things in the world are as satisfying as moral indignation. Driving around Lynchburg, I listened to a talk radio host who ranted against women he called feminazis and made fun of Jesse Jackson by affecting his version of African American speech patterns. More than one bumper on Liberty's campus had a sticker reading "Rush is Right." Rush was out there doing battle on the front lines of the Culture War.
One day as I drove, I listened to the man talk glowingly of someone named Ayn Rand. I made a note to find out about this Rand, went on a Rand bender: Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, We the Living, The Romantic Manifesto. I devoured the book by her disciple Leonard Peikoff, titled Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.
Rand begins with existence exists, which is her axiomatic principle, the starting point from which she builds her belief system. From there she is quick to deny the possibility of spiritual reality, much less any kind of god. Eventually she ends in a place where selfishness is a high virtue, altruism a despicable vice, and capitalism the only sane economic system—those who are worthy get rich; those who are poor deserve to be.
I had been reared in a deeply Conservative Christian home—my dad was a Fundamentalist Baptist pastor—and my entire political worldview had been shaped by right-wing rhetoric. Now I was studying Scripture and theology for myself, and reading a good bit of literature and philosophy on my own outside of class. I was growing, changing. You might think it should only take a simple reading of Jesus's words to see that Rand's economics flout every principle Jesus of Nazareth preached regarding wealth and care for the poor, but that is obviously not the case. Getting disentangled from that tribe was not easy.
The graduate student government president asked me to write for the GSG. One of the responsibilities was to pen an occasional opinion piece for LU's student paper The Champion. My first essay was about this strange phenomenon of turning Christ's message upside down and boldly calling it Christian. I titled it "Rush Is Not Right." The editor refused to publish it; I refused to write another one. The relationship ended there.
My disaffection with the entire enterprise became unbearable. I felt like Biff Loman after discovering his dad was an adulterer spending the family's much-needed money on his mistress. I left the school, checked out of the Culture War, and started my long and painful disengagement from the Fundamentalist beliefs of virtually every important person in my life—anyone who has gone through this knows what it does to relationships.
Now I live and move among what most of my family would call Godless liberals (some members of the Christian Left, some Jewish, some Buddhist, a few Hindu, and, yes, a number of dread atheists). When I look back at this tribal religion of my childhood and youth, I suffer from Twilight Zone vertigo—how can people who hold the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, and Jesus as the only way to heaven, see this marriage of God and Mammon as Christian?
Many of my local friends bristle at the conspicuous consumption up at Liberty University, the relentless and obnoxious self-promotion, the bully's persecution complex, and the political Christian Dominionism. More than anything else, as its effects are felt locally, the fact that Jr. appears to be every bit the megalomaniac that his father was, but with even more, let's say, secular aims. As Springsteen sings, "Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king."
Jerry Jr. is rich. According to a 2014 report in The Chronicle of Higher Education, after inheriting this college presidency from his dad, Jr. now pulls down $803,860 a year, making him the second-highest paid private college president in Virginia. Mark Demoss, chair of the executive committee of Liberty's board of trustees, said in an interview that this salary is justified because nonprofit Liberty University now "brings in about $250 million annually in profit."
Though they circle their wagons and justify, even supporters of the school are uncomfortable with these numbers—there is something about all this wealth and consumption that honest followers of Jesus find difficult to justify. Soren Kierkegaard, in an open letter to Bishop Mynster, writes that a man who points to his worldly wealth and power as proof that he is being true to the gospel of Christ is tantamount to a woman who points to her brood of children as proof of her virginity. Indeed, if you read the red-lettered parts of the New Testament, you cannot avoid reaching the same conclusion. However, Jesus's actual instructions are not a high priority among those on the Religious Right—never have been, actually.
It was after Donald Trump had spoken at Liberty University convocation (not a typical college convocation, but the name for their thrice-weekly mandatory student church services that were once called chapel). After the praise and worship singing, Trump delivered the sermon. He bashed Obama—standard Liberty University fare—and praised the American dollar.
Amy Trent, reporting for the News & Advance, writes that Trump slipped in some instructions: "I always say don't let people take advantage... Get even. And you know, if nothing else, others will see that and they're going to say, 'You know, I'm going to let Jim Smith or Sarah Malone, I'm going to let them alone because they're tough customers.'"
There is no way to spin this so that the advice is not categorically opposed to Jesus's unambiguous command not to meet violence with violence. Following Trump's chapel sermon, Jerry Jr. stood and came out of the closet. Trump had just instructed all those young "Champions for Christ" to ignore the poor man from Galilee and practice revenge instead. Jerry Jr. joked that he wished it had not been too late for Trump to get back into the presidential race.
At that moment, before the entire student body, Jerry Falwell Jr. took his bold stand with his God: Mammon.
No one was astonished—not many even noticed. The story went away. Charlatans have been using religion to make money and grab power for eons. It was a stereotype long before sky-is-falling beggars like Falwell Sr. hit the airwaves, and Conservative Christian political warfare did not begin with the Moral Majority—it did not even begin with Christians.
In One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Kevin Kruse, professor of history at Princeton, uncovers the birth of the Religious Right in America. Kruse writes, "The rites of our public religion originated not in a spiritual crisis, but rather in the political and economic turmoil of the Great Depression." Industrialists and business leaders met on Park Avenue to plan their fight against the New Deal and figure out how to best preach "the gospel of free enterprise," during the Depression. At this time they were taking a beating as being selfish and predatory, while the Social Gospel—care for the poor and disenfranchised as Jesus commanded—was ascendant in (at least parts of) Christian America.
These industrialists discovered a preacher named James W. Fifield Jr., who was an apologist for the wealthy, and not opposed to having some of that wealth himself. He pursued millionaires to fill his pews, and lived in a mansion in an exclusive development on Wilshire Boulevard. He and his wife "employed a butler, a chauffeur, and a cook, insisting that the household staff was vital in maintaining their 'gracious accommodations' during the depths of the Depression."
Fifield preached Christian Libertarianism. He told the millionaires that they were not the greedy ones. They were the makers, and that "New Dealers were the ones violating the Ten Commandments." He preached that the federal government was making itself a false idol, "leading Americans to worship it over the Almighty," and that "it caused Americans to covet what the wealthy possessed and want to steal from them[.]" He encouraged the industrialists to recruit preachers who could preach to their congregations, "the welfare state was not a means to implement Christ's teachings about caring for the poor and the needy, but rather a perversion of Christian doctrine."
Proper Christianity, he taught, was about saving souls, not taking care of the poor. As Fundamentalist preacher Vance Havner once put it in a sermon: "If they had a social gospel in the days of the prodigal son, somebody would have given him a bed and a sandwich and he never would have gone home."
This movement, from the industrialists fighting the New Deal, to Eisenhower, to the church-state duo of Nixon and Billy Graham, right up through the current Tea Party movement, has always been, as Kruse writes, "overwhelmingly white, middle-class, and middle-aged."
Though race was not Kruse's primary concern, he finds it impossible to discuss these developments without mentioning it. Christian Libertarians' cries of foul notwithstanding, it is a fact that hatred of the federal government, rabid capitalism, and white supremacy go hand in hand in this country.
Historians are now writing about the dependency of American capitalism on the institution of slavery. White America amassed great wealth through humiliation, violence, torture, and murder. In his book The Half Has Never Been Told, historian Edward E. Baptist relates how African American families were torn apart, slaves sold and bought, handled as merchandise, including humiliating public bodily examinations. They were worked literally to death in what Baptist correctly calls "slave labor camps," instead of the euphemistic "plantations." His conclusion is that here in the United States, through chattel slavery, "white people inflicted torture far more often than in almost any human society that ever existed." It was an essential part of the economic system.
When the Civil War put an end to this system, it was no secret that southern antipathy for the federal government was rooted in white supremacy, as was their hatred for Reconstruction after the war. Blacks were granted protection under the Civil Rights Act of 1875—which had to be enforced at gunpoint in the South by federal troops. In 1896, in an attempt to bring southern states back into the union and pull federal troops out, the Supreme Court nullified the Civil Rights Act.
When the troops pulled out, life for former slaves in the South went back to very nearly what it was before the Civil War, while southern hatred for the federal government burned on. Plessy v. Ferguson—the separate but equal doctrine, which gave rise to Jim Crow laws—established apartheid based on white supremacy in the United States.
It is also no secret that Jerry Falwell was an outspoken opponent of racial integration. In her book The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics, Susan Friend Harding writes that in 1958, Falwell Sr. preached a sermon titled "Segregation or Integration, Which?" and it was "entirely devoted to defending racial segregation, citing Genesis 9:18-27, Noah's curse on Ham, as its biblical basis." He warned that integration "will destroy our race eventually." He continued, "In one northern city, a pastor friend of mine tells me that a couple of opposite race live next door to his church as man and wife." He called the 1964 Civil Rights act "civil wrongs," and he aggressively fought against rights for minorities. Through the 1980s, he was a staunch supporter of the brutal, white supremacist apartheid government of South Africa.
When the white supremacist George Wallace backed down from his stand in the doorway of the University of Alabama in 1963, where he had vowed to keep two black students out, he realized that fight was lost. He did not surrender, however, but went covert, claiming his real fight was against a huge, tax-and-spend government that infringed on states' rights. When Falwell finally allowed blacks to attend his church and school, his rhetoric softened on that front as well. He did not give up the fight, however; he followed Wallace into the fight for small government and states' rights. This explains why it was so easy to abandon fellow born-again Baptist Jimmy Carter for the divorced movie star Ronald Reagan. It was not just Falwell. A fat swathe of white America started voting their fear of black America.
Nothing has changed. Recent data from the Blair-Rockefeller Poll reveals "detailed characteristics of the [Tea Party] movement. 91.4% of Tea Party members are White, and 85% are Christian." According to the February 2014 Harper's index, the current bloc of self-identifying libertarians is 68% male and 94% white. Though religious Tea Party theology and political Libertarian philosophy are categorical opposites, just as Jesus and Ayn Rand are, the two have teamed up to fight a common enemy. Who is that enemy?
I recently reread Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel Demons. In the story, a group of radical young men are possessed by demons. The demons are not living devils, but ideas, "idea-demons"—rationalism, positivism, nihilism, materialism, socialism. At the heart of all of the demon ideas, Dostoyevsky places a kind of idea-Satan: atheism. As I read the novel again, I could not help but think about the state of our nation, the increasingly angry rhetoric in public life, the inescapable swirl of religion and politics, talk of persecution and resistance—even secession and revolution. We appear to be hurtling toward what, in the words of the old Chinese curse, are ever more "interesting times."
Dostoyevsky foresaw his country's dark destiny with vivid prescience; however, his identification of atheism as the source of the problem was as mistaken then as the Right's labeling of atheism, secularism, and modernity as the root of our trouble is today. Remember, when the Godless communists, the Bolsheviks, rolled into power, there were thousands of Tolstoyan Christians across Russia endeavoring to live out a communistic Christianity (the Bolsheviks purged them from the landscape).
When I was a young Baptist studying at Falwell's seminary, Dostoevsky's labeling atheism as the root of all his country's woes made perfect sense to me—now, not so much.
It is not just anecdotal evidence that I work with when I say the atheists among us are found everywhere on the political spectrum that believers are, and the atheists I know are kind and thoughtful human beings, generous with their time and money.
If the root of "demon-ideas" is not atheism, what is it? What would a demon idea even be? To my thinking it is any idea that degrades and dehumanizes those who are not like us; it is any idea that makes scapegoats of the weak and defenseless, the poor and the needy; it is any idea that favors sending fleeing innocents back to almost certain torture and death. Above all, any idea that allies itself with the rich and powerful against the marginalized and dispossessed, no matter how it is dressed up with Christianese, is a demon idea.
Here is the irony: in allying themselves with big business, the Christian Libertarian preachers, James W. Fifield and his ilk, helped erect a Maginot Line against what they saw as Godless socialism, which would lead to Godless communism; at the same time, they cheered and waved flags as the blitzkrieg of Godless capitalism swept around their defenses. In the name of Christ, they abandoned the cause of Christ for a Culture War based at its very inception on class and race—on tribalism, which group gets to have the money and the power. If you define the term Christian as they did with the original Christians at Antioch, as those who behave as Jesus Christ behaved, then the political and cultural warfare of the Christian Right is demonstrably unchristian activism.
I have written about this before. The responses I get from Conservative Christians are telling: "There's nothing wrong with being rich." "Are you saying we should take away money from the rich and hand it to the poor?" Race is always close to the surface in these discussions. I shared a blog post about the troubles in Ferguson, Missouri, after Mike Brown was shot dead, and a Conservative Christian member of my family responded, "Excuses, blaming whites and one party voting will never allow the African American community to excel. Ditch Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and make some changes."
All the while, the spending spree on Liberty University's campus goes forward, as do the plans for spending whatever millions it takes to get the football team playing with the big boys. Ironically, a big chunk of that cash comes from the hated tax-and-spend big federal government. Mary Beth Marklein, writing for USA Today in 2013, reports that the federal money gushing into Liberty University's coffers, Liberty's campus officials "estimate to be $775 million in federal aid, including loans and grants."
According to the Liberty Journal, the tower will be completed in Spring of 2017. Then Lynchburg residents' view of the mountains will be marred not only by the massive wound on the mountainside bandaged with a white LU patch, and the snowless ski slope that wrecks the adjacent mountaintop. In between these two monstrosities will be the obelisk, the tallest building in Lynchburg.
The standard refrain, "They hate us because we are Christian," will continue, but that is either ignorant or disingenuous. I do hate Liberty University, as do most of my friends. It has nothing to do with Christianity though. What I hate is that they have commandeered the name of Jesus and perverted it into a banner of white tribal warfare, money, power, and one man and his son's personal hubris. It is appropriate that LU's new divinity school, dedicated to teaching this inverted, American Christianity, will be housed in a giant phallus.