Friday, 30 May 2008

Religion as farce

The latest spectacle from a preacher peddling his peculiar vision of the nation’s needs could be a great opportunity to ask why we have so damn much confessional presence in our political debate anyway. Father Michael Pfleger, the Catholic priest black-guy-wannabe caught on video in a mocking, holy-roller harangue of Hillary Clinton, is one more in a long line of religio-political showboaters who should decide whether they want to guide the flock to heaven or take up auctioneering.

With the help of YouTube, we’ll undoubtedly have a continuing parade of self-appointed sociology experts white-knuckling their pulpits and making a damn fool of themselves from now until November. Someone in charge should tell these jamokes to shut up, and I’m glad Pfleger’s cardinal instructed this particular goofball to stay the hell out of the presidential election. Unfortunately, many of the evangelicals thumping their testaments are free-lancers who answer to superiors more nuts than they are—or to no one at all.

I just finished reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a reminder of how deeply religion has driven our politics throughout American history—in this case, the fight against slavery. Half the book reads like an evangelist’s tract. But that movement had to fight the powers of the moment, not cozy up to them in an alliance against convenient scapegoats. Abolitionist preachers had to confront the slaveowner system and shame their own wishy-washy leaders into principled resistance, in the face of the constant buckling on things like whether escaped slaves should be returned to their ‘owners.’

By contrast, the Republicans’ cynical culture wars mobilized embittered Christians in the 1970s and ‘80s to target equality for women and gays and sexual emancipation generally and soon turned the country’s holy naves into political clubhouses that would have warmed Boss Tweed’s cockles. The issues du jour came and went—the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, gay marriage, sex education, now terrorism—but the main goal was to get the otherwise apolitical devout to see their Republican votes as an essential part of the catechism.

We once expected our divines to turn their thoughts and ours to somewhat more lofty subjects than the delegate count or the TV coverage of the last debate, and I’m surprised more people aren’t getting a little sick of seeing their spiritual yearnings turned into partisan fodder. Meanwhile, more yokels in the altars of the heartland will be spouting foolishness that should make their plaster saints blush bright pink, and when they do, we should all promptly stand and chant the disestablishment clause in unison, like a Hare Krishna troup manquée.

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