Jan/Feb 2004  •   Salon

Lord Help Us from the Fear of God

by Tom Dooley

There's a storm brewing in America, and it's not something Al Roker is going to be explaining on a weather map. I'm not talking about Al Qaeda either, although religious fundamentalism of a different sort is at the center of this particular upheaval... or rather at the far right of it.

The other day, my wife and I were driving up to Milwaukee to take in a movie. The fact that we were doing so isn't at all important to the story, except we were captive audiences to each other in the car for about 40 minutes and had occasion to let our thoughts wander. Also, movies currently in release were on our minds. So this is why Julie asked, thinking about Cold Mountain, "What if there is another civil war in America?"

Given the growing divisions in this country, it's a question deserving of at least a little thought as we enter 2004. If there were another civil war, this time around it would likely be unconventional (read: terrorism and guerrilla warfare) and not fought so much on geographical terms—not between North and South anyway, although perhaps between middle-America and its coasts. It wouldn't be fought on economic terms, either, although there is certainly enough of a gulf between the very rich and the very poor, with the so-called middle class gradually drifting closer to the latter's end of the spectrum. And it wouldn't be fought on the basis of race. Yes, racism is alive and kicking folks to death, but my sense is we've turned a corner in this country in this regard, at least for the time being. Racism may result in a few riots, a few city-wide conflagrations, but it's not likely to spawn an all out war. What's left? Well, to have a war, you need two discernible "sides," with at least one side committed enough, whipped up enough, as it were, to force a conflict the other cannot avoid. I think we're well on our way to developing such a "side."

The danger doesn't lie with Osama Bin Laden or any other outside source of potentially unifying threat, although the presence of those threats does serve to "whip up" the frenzy of the side I believe has the potential to tear this country apart more profoundly than any terrorist plot. Whether said tearing apart manifests itself figuratively—in the form of Supreme Court Decisions and other such abstractions—or literally—in the form of a new 21st century civil war—remains to be seen. Making no pretense about which side I'm on, I'll just say that the deciding factor remaining to be seen is how crazy, violent, and unreasonable fundamentalist Christians ultimately choose, or are allowed, to be. Or, taking this line of thinking a step further, it depends even more to what degree the incredibly cynical heads of the Republican Party are willing to manipulate religious issues to forge an unholy alliance between greedy rich and uneducated poor, to ensure the overworked and disappearing "middle" class loses not just social and economic standing, but its freedoms as well.

Listen to any religious radio station, and a term you're bound to hear being bandied around right now is "judicial tyranny." This is what right-wingers have branded any effort by individual judges in this country to restrict those same right-wingers from imposing their own desires on minorities, women, homosexuals, nonbelievers, and anyone else who gets in their way. The Constitution, which incidentally mentions God pretty prominently and therefore ought to hold some weight with said right-wingers, established the judicial system specifically as a check on the power of the majority in a democratic society. All this should go without saying, but the people crying about "judicial tyranny" appear to have forgotten how not too long ago the very real subjugation and mistreatment of blacks, women, disabled people, and many others was considered popular and morally "right." It took people like Thurgood Marshall to bring about the radical idea that whites and blacks ought to be able to go to school together. But then, he was a judicial tyrant of the highest order, wasn't he?

Right-wing fundamentalists in this country seem to be of the opinion that if they do not receive tax dollars to pay for their children's largely segregated education at private schools which already receive tax exemptions, and if they aren't allowed to force their children's classmates to pray, then they are somehow suffering the yoke of tyranny. They are of the opinion that if two gay men in another state are able to call themselves husband and husband, their own marriages are laboring under the yoke of tyranny. They believe, God yes, they believe, that if the University of Michigan can give qualified applicants of color extra points in its admission process in an effort to correct past and existing race inequities, then they, the good, God-fearing people of America, are living under the yoke of tyranny.

Not all God-fearing people of America are running around trying to murder abortion doctors. But too many of them are, and way too many others stand behind the ones who do, implicitly or explicitly, because they believe a woman's right to choose whether or not to have a baby places them—not the pregnant woman, but the rest of God-fearing America—under the aforementioned yoke of tyranny.

These are just a few of the moral issues bubbling for years beneath the surface that I believe will really come to the forefront in 2004. In my short life, I have never been scared by politics in America before. I've felt discomfort, frustration, even a little outrage at times, but I've never been scared. I've also never had to confront the fact that religious fundamentalists—you know, funda-frickin'-mentalists, like Islamic Jihad, the Taliban, Al Qaeda—and the Christian Right will say they're not anything like those groups, and as proof they'll offer in the next breath that you can't generalize religions, that there is only one true religion, Christianity of course, which if that isn't indicative of the problem, I don't know what is—are on the verge of changing the fabric of American society, a fabric barely starting to mend itself from the very kinds of social injustices God-fearing white America wrought in the past. These are truly frightening times, and saying so leads me to another, unfortunately related topic: the upcoming presidential election.

Speaking of fear, never before have I had such a strong belief that the man who occupies the position of President of the United States is almost certainly making this world a "worser" place. A few years ago, I wrote George Bush's victory off as something America could weather, that maybe even we deserved. Now I can only pray his presidency will serve as a wakeup call to Americans, and his tenure will not have managed to do too much irrevocable damage. I pray we will never again elect a man of suspect character and intelligence to the most powerful office in the history of the world, and more importantly, we will realize the person we do elect is our representative to the world. He or she should be representative of us, of the US, of the best we have to offer, and he or she should serve to elevate us, not pander to our public opinion poll-induced low-brow whims or manipulate our fears to increase his/her own popularity, power, and financial well-being. And what scares me, what truly frightens the hell out of me, is that too many of the people who would be needed to elect such a stellar candidate don't see a single thing wrong with—even prefer—a president who says things like "Axis of Evil" and "You can run, but you can't hide."

The global community can rightly point to the crassness, stupidity, selfishness, and arrogance of America, all of which are on prominent display in our most popular television show, American Idol. These qualities may not be our proudest, but they can be shrugged off as somewhat harmless byproducts of democracy, individualism, capitalist opportunity, legal protection, and the many other things that make America a truly wondrous place to be. And Christianity, at its heart, is an equally wondrous religion. Even if one isn't a Christian, one can still appreciate the simple beauty of Christian allegory, the purity of Christian ideals, the tremendous social, political, and economic accomplishments for which Christian values have provided the engine and the heart. We are a nation under God, and in God we have trusted. But fundamentalism, be it of the Christian, Islamic, Judaic, or any other variety, has no place in the government of this or any other country. I'm talking not just about the wisdom behind the separation of church and state, but also about the fundamental problem of fundamentalism, which is its inevitable twin results of radicalism and intolerance. Like it or not, we live within an international community. America itself is an international community. The people who died in the Twin Towers were of all colors, religions, and persuasions. We cannot expect to thrive and co-exist peacefully in this world, either as individuals or as a country, unless we accept that we, as individuals and as a country, are not the center of the universe.

The concern over a civil war erupting in America is a legitimate one. We need only go to the local multi-plex for a matinee showing of the aforementioned Cold Mountain to be reminded of how, just a few generations ago, there were two American capitals, two American presidents, and two prevailing senses of divine right. And anybody who is naive enough to think man's ability to be truly monstrous to his fellow man has been officially consigned to the history books need only look at events of the past few years in places like Rwanda, Croatia, and Afghanistan. History is not dead. History is very much interested in killing, though, and is looking for a few good religious fanatics to do the job.


Further Reading:

Richard Lessner's polemic against "judicial tyranny." He's the executive director the American Conservative Union.

The People for the American Way website. They oppose "the radical right and its allies." Provides a list of right wing organizations and their stances.