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Politics and Believing in an End Time

Normally I just post interesting articles like this directly to social media platforms. But this one is so thought-provoking, at least to me, that I wanted to write a frame around it.

The article in question is in Rolling Stone and is entitled False Idol: Why the Christian Right Worships Donald Trump. It’s written by an apparently devout Christian who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family and used to be one herself. Most or all of her family still is.

The title alone was enough to grab my attention because I’ve long wondered why someone who’s about as ungodly and un-Christian a man who ever ran for President should attract such strong support from devout fundamentalist Christians. How do you square multiple divorces, affairs, and “grab them by the pussy and they’ll do anything you want” with that worldview?

The author’s answer is something I hadn’t considered: if you truly, honestly believe that the end of the world is imminent — and that the Almighty is going to consign not just unbelievers as individuals but communities and nations which don’t follow his teachings to eternal damnation in Hell — then, oddly enough, it’s (weirdly) rational to do whatever you can to avoid that outcome. Including doing stuff — like embracing an un-Christian leader — and tolerating stuff — like allowing the poor and disadvantaged to be harmed — that aren’t at all consistent with the overall beliefs of Christianity.

At least as I was taught them (I was raised a Catholic by a devout but stubbornly rational mother who never let her faith override her intellect; a very common verbal-slap-in-the-face in dealing with her kids was “you’re not using the brains God gave you!” — and she meant every word of that, as I can personally attest to).

From the article:

In other words, for the God-fearing evangelical, gay marriage, abortion, and the evils of socialism — as opposed to racial injustice, family separation, or income inequality — put America squarely in the path of the wrath of God. “Parts of the Old and New Testaments imply very strongly that there’s not just a judgment of individuals, but there’s a judgment of nations,” says historian Diana Butler Bass. “People who sin are keeping the nation away from a moral goodness that needs to be present, because they think that God’s coming back and is going to destroy everything, and they want America to be on the right side of that equation. They want to stand before God and say, ‘We did your will. We created a godly nation, and we’re the remnant. We’re your true people.’ ”

That’s pretty heady stuff; I can see why it would be so compelling that people wouldn’t use the brains God gave them to challenge it. When self-interest — saving oneself and one’s family from Hell — goes up against rational thought it’s the latter that (almost always) loses. Besides, in this case the self-interested individual can wrap him or her self in the righteous cloak of benefiting the community by saving it along the way.

I’m not sure how a community, or individuals opposed to this fundamentalist outlook, can challenge/offset/reverse it. We can’t preserve individual liberty if we start dictating what people can and can’t believe in (not that we’d be too successful without using a lot of coercive force anyway).

But what do we do when people exercising those vitally-important-to-a-free society rights voluntarily choose to embrace a world-view — and here I’m talking about fundamentalism as separate from Christianity or indeed any other religion itself — whose absolutist tendencies are intended to stamp out the very freedom of thought that our society wants to preserve?

I’m not sure. And that both bothers and worries me.

Because I grew up, in part, on novels set in a future history which included this:

As for the second notion, the idea that we could lose our freedom by succumbing to a wave of religious hysteria, I am sorry to say that I consider it possible. I hope that it is not probable. But there is a latent deep strain of religious fanaticism in this, our culture; it is rooted in our history and it has broken out many times in the past. It is with us now; there has been a sharp rise in strongly evangelical sects in this country in recent years, some of which hold beliefs theocratic in the extreme, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, and anti-libertarian.

Could it be otherwise here? Could any one sect obtain a working majority at the polls and take over the country? Perhaps not—but a combination of a dynamic evangelist, television, enough money, and modern techniques of advertising and propaganda might make Billy Sunday’s efforts look like a corner store compared to Sears Roebuck. Throw in a depression for good measure, promise a material heaven here on earth, add a dash of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Negroism, and a good large dose of anti-“furriners” in general and anti-intellectuals here at home and the result might be something quite frightening — particularly when one recalls that our voting system is such that a minority distributed as pluralities in enough states can constitute a working majority in Washington.

I imagined Nehemiah Scudder as a backwoods evangelist who combined some of the features of John Calvin, Savonarola, Judge Rutherford and Huey Long. His influence was not national until after the death of Mrs. Rachel Biggs, an early convert who had the single virtue of being the widow of an extremely wealthy man who shared none of her religious myopia — she left Brother Scudder several millions of dollars with which to establish a television station. Shortly thereafter he teamed up with an ex-Senator from his home state; they placed their affairs in the hands of a major advertising agency and were on their way to fame and fortune. Presently they needed stormtroopers; they revived the Ku Klux Klan in everything but the name — sheets, passwords, grips and all. It was a “good gimmick” once and still served. Blood at the polls and blood in the streets, but Scudder won the election. The next election was never held.

Heinlein’s observation and vision bothered me growing up in the 1960s. So much so that I wrote this post when the 2012 elections — which is when Scudder was elected in that future history — came and went without incident.

But maybe I spoke too soon. Maybe Heinlein was off by a few years…and the Scudder character could be a narcissistic megalomaniacal huckster, not a preacher, who needed more than one term to get things going and more than just a base of fundamentalist supporters to do it.

In any event, read the Rolling Stone article. It’s worth your time.

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