Religion Dispatches is an online magazine for religious leftists to tell one another how smart they are and how stupid religious conservatives are. Gary Laderman is the director of RD and the chair of the religion department at Emory University. He has made a discovery which should certainly reflect on both him and the rest of his department. The Republican Party, it seems, is now a “religion.” I’ll allow Dr. Laderman to explain this remarkable piece of spiritual transformation:
Let’s just face the facts and not kid ourselves anymore. Yes, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee… er, tea: The Republican Party is no longer a political party—it’s a full-fledged religious movement. The political ideology fueling this movement is religious to the core; and while it might be easiest to label the religious element “Christian,” that designation is too broad and generous for the true complexities at work here.
Well, that’s certainly fact-free, but it is just the first paragraph. I’m sure there will some evidence offered to support this conclusion.
But what does it really mean to argue that the Republican Party, a movement with a distinctive religious culture, is a new kind of religion we might as well call “Republicanity”? Let me count the ways. (And please, don’t try this at home—I’m a professional religion-ist, it’s what I do for a living. Really.)
He said it, not me.
Republicanity’s myths are being manufactured by the mythbuilders over at Wallbuilders. In case anyone is confused, we in religious studies are not mythbusters. Let’s remember that myths are not about verifiable historical facts; they’re sacred stories that provide orientation, identity, community boundaries, etc. for a religious group. It’s not our job to tear down and deconstruct these cherished myths, though anyone with an education beyond high school or any training in the academic study of history should question the assertions being produced by David Barton and his Wallbuilders comrades, since they do claim to be “historians.”
The myths of Republicanity are fairly obvious and easy to identify when uttered by the faithful: glorifying the Founding Fathers as saints, inserting God into the nation’s origins, and demonizing the US government when policy disagreements occur.
Have you ever heard of David Barton or Wallbuilders? I have, but then I follow this stuff as a hobby. My suspicion is that the vast majority of Republicans have never heard of either, and will be surprised to learn that their party has been building a “mythology” on the basis of their writings. But the supposed influence of Barton and Wallbuilders is simply asserted here, rather than proved in any way, so we can safely ignore that.
What about the claims regarding the GOP’s “myths”? There’s no question that Republicans on the whole see the founding of the United States as a good thing, the writing of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution as good things, and the men who led those efforts as good men. Those who actually know something about American origins recognize, I’m sure, that they were not, in fact, “saints,” and that some, even many, were not Christians. That there was a religious element involved in American origins is something that only someone who is determined not to be confused with facts would deny, even if there are also those who overstate it. And as for “demonizing the US government when policy disagreements occur,” I have just two words for Dr. Laderman: George Bush. If the “professional religionist” wants to claim that Bush (or Dick Cheney, or Condoleeza Rice, or any of the other “neocons” that the left is always twittering on about) was never demonized by those who disagreed with, say, his Iraq policy, he’s welcome to do that, but he thereby forfeits his right to claim to be connected to the reality in which the rest of us live.
Likewise, Republicanity is rife with ritual acts of the sacred variety. One of the most recent examples is the signing of yet another pledge, “The Marriage Vow—A Declaration of Dependence on Marriage and Family,” drafted by The Family Leader, an Iowa-based organization.
Which most Republican presidential candidates have refused to sign. I guess that means they’ll be excommunicated or something.
Signing pledges (against raising taxes, for lowering the debt, agreeing that this is a “Christian nation”) is all the rage these days, with adherents of Republicanity understanding the public ritual act of participating as a demonstration of their own fidelity to certain core principles.
Imagine people actually trying to get politicians to say what they believe, and to hold them to sticking by their principles. Conservatives are just so gauche. Liberals would never do that. They expect their politicians to have no principles, to not keep promises, and would never, ever think of holding them accountable for anything.
Town hall meetings to vent anger and frustration, public events more akin to religious revivals than political rallies, and following Fox news, religiously, at certain intervals throughout the day, are a few other examples of rituals performing their role in a religious movement: to energize the faithful, differentiate insiders from outsiders, and establish what is sacred and what is profane.
He’s right about this–I have never seen the people at a union rally (say, the ones in Wisconsin last winter), a pro-choice demonstration, an anti-Israel event, or a Democratic Party gathering ever watch Fox News.
Republicanity is no different, possessing its own set of ethical commitments that define its moral universe. It is like the most narrow and conservative religious cultures in its absolutist ethical positions and refusal to tolerate any difference of opinion.
Yeah, it’s a pity. It’s impossible to tell John McCain and Jim DeMint and Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin and Haley Barbour and Paul Ryan and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tim Pawlenty and Ron Paul and Olympia Snowe and Scott Walker and Tom Coburn and Rudy Guiliani and Nicky Haley and Bobby Jindal and Clarence Thomas and Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks and Bill Kristol and Laura Ingraham and Herman Cain and, and, and all the rest of those robots who all think exactly alike apart. Shoot, on some days I’d even swear that Haley Barbour looks like Olympia Snowe, much less agrees with every word she says. These people are like robots, you know?
Obedience to authority—at the moment embodied in prominent charismatic leaders like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum (okay, this last one is short on charisma but people still seem to listen anyway)—is critical to the success of this religious movement, with the primary sacred textual sources legitimating the moral universe drawn from the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
Imagine people making public policy in conformity to the Constitution. Now that’s an original idea.
What is the operative creed for Republicanity? This is, by no means, an exhaustive list: Money rules and wealth is the greatest good; the natural world is at the disposal of humans who can exploit it with no fear or consequences; every American should own a gun; screw the “golden rule,” the world is populated with evil threats to the American way, including Muslims, gays, immigrants, liberals, and of course that group of individuals who represent the gravest danger to Republicanity: smart people (read: “intellectuals”)[read: Gary Laderman and people who think just like him, because anyone who doesn't agree with him must, ipso facto, be stupid.--DF].
Are there some Republicans who think like this? Sure. Are there some who don’t? Sure. Are there some who believe some of these things and not others? Sure. And I suspect there are many, many Republicans (and conservatives of various other stripes, including–horrors!–Democrats) who would look at this list and say, “you don’t actually know any Republicans, do you? So you’ve just created them out of thin air, old Keith Olbermann shticks, and a fertile imagination?” If this is the way Laderman does his religion scholarship–simply make stuff up, caricature those you don’t like or agree with, misrepresent to make a propagandistic point–I’d hate to be a parent wasting my money on sending a child who planned on majoring in religion to Emory.
Republicanity is built on a theology of divine presence in national affairs that looks in some instances like a form of theo-fascism—particularly when leaders claim an intimate knowledge of God’s will and being chosen by Him (no goddesses in this religion) to purify America. If we asked all the presidential candidates to state whether they are doing God’s will in the world certainly most, if not all, would answer in the affirmative.
Name-calling and straw men: the stuff that dreams (or hallucinations) are made of. Laderman is no doubt one of those left-wing academics whose head threatens to explode every time he hears the term “Islamofascism,” since as we all know only Christians can be fascists.
Some even assert a direct link and special relationship with God (like Michele Bachmann, who understands herself and her career in divine terms).
I don’t know about Bachmann, who isn’t my cup of tea, but I seem to remember a certain candidate for president who said that his nomination would be remembered by history as “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” Does it really get any more messianic than that?
As RD’s own Julie Ingersoll and Sarah Posner have demonstrated, a deeply-held and ubiquitous strand of Christian Reconstructionism undergirds many of the positions taken by leaders in the Republican religious movement, and the core of that theology might be boiled down to this simple formula: God is on my side, so I’m right and you’re wrong about what it means to be an American.
I would have been disappointed if he had not gotten the ultimate religious left boogeyman, Christian Reconstruction, in here at some point or another. I’ve read some of what Ingersoll and Posner have written on this subject, and what I’ve read comes across as fact-free paranoia. To say they’ve “demonstrated” anything is like saying the extreme right and extreme left have “demonstrated” that Jews are in fact trying to take over the world because they agree that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are fake but accurate.
Taken all together, Republicanity is a culture that merges politics and religion (maybe better identified as a form of “poligion,” as one of my teachers used to say) and unashamedly and unreservedly blows apart the longed-for “wall of separation” keeping the two spheres separate. Now more than ever the case can be made that our politics are a form of religion and that religion is the new politics.
I was sure he was going to miss getting in church-state separation, but he pulled it out in the final seconds. Gosh, that was close.
So, you put it all together and what do we have? I think it’s fair to say that Gary Laderman, the chair of the religion department at Emory University, is a partisan political hack who dresses up his hackery in pseudo-scholarly language, thereby hoping to continue to fool the rubes who pay his salary.
But what do I know? I, after all, am not a “professional religionist.”