Are We All Fundamentalists Now?
I heard something on NPR the other morning that really switched on a light bulb in my head.
On Morning Edition Monday morning, they were doing one of their regular features — a remembrance of a soldier recently killed in Iraq. Today’s subject was Sgt. Ben Isenberg, who was killed by a roadside bomb that destroyed his Humvee while on patrol north of Camp Taji, outside of Baghdad, on September 13.
Here’s the NPR segment, so you can give it a listen.
The thing that made me sit up doesn’t come until nearly the end of the segment — about 2:06 in — when the reporter talks to Isenberg’s parents about their faith (the Isenbergs are all apparently quite devout Christians), and how it has sustained them through the loss of their son. His mother says some things about how God’s plan is unknowable and accidents happen that I think anyone could probably understand and sympathize with. His father, however, takes a different tack in explaining how his faith and his loss intersect:
ROBERT ISENBERG: This war is not about Iraqis and Americans, oil… this is a spiritual war. The people who don’t understand that, they need to just dig into their Bible and read about it. It’s predicted, it’s predestined.
NARRATOR: Isenberg’s father says the naysaying about the war and its costs bothered his son.
ROBERT ISENBERG: Because Benjamin understood that this was a spiritual war. And he understands that our serving President is a very devouted [sic] Christian also. Ben understood the calling was to go because the President had the knowledge, and understood what was going on, and it’s far deeper than we as people will ever really know. We don’t get the information that the President gets.
Now, I should preface this by saying that the Isenbergs are grieving the loss of their son, so it would be entirely understandable if they grasped at anything they could find that gave them hope that his death wasn’t a waste — that he died as part of a cause that had meaning and significance. (As someone once put it, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”)
There was something in what Mr. Isenberg was saying that just rang strangely in my mind — something that didn’t quite settle properly. As I rode the Metro into work, I tried to figure out what it was. And then, all of a sudden, it hit me.
Isenberg said that the war isn’t over grubby material things like oil — it’s a “spiritual war”, in which our leader, a “devout Christian”, has “the knowledge” and a “far deeper” understanding than we poor laymen can ever have. All we can do is recognize our “calling” and follow our leader into battle. The actual decision to launch the conflict, he implies, wasn’t even the President’s — it was made for him by God (“[T]his is a spiritual war. The people who don’t understand that, they need to just dig into their Bible… It’s predicted, it’s predestined”).
President Bush is God’s agent on earth — the instrument through which He exercises His divine will.
In other words, his son died following the will of God as explained by a charismatic religious leader.
Now, I ask you — how is this different from the explanation you’d get from the parents of a martyred Jihadist?
The answer is, it isn’t. It’s exactly the same explanation — which is what clang around in my head so loudly. We’re used to hearing words like this coming out of the mouths of fundamentalists; but not from the mouths of the parents of fallen American soldiers.
And that’s what really shook me: the realization that there is a significant percentage of Americans out there that believes this message. They believe that George W. Bush has a special Hotline to the Hereafter. They believe that his decision to go to war is beyond question, since it was divinely inspired. And they believe that whatever disasters their man leads us into aren’t disasters at all — just God’s way of testing the mettle of the faithful.
In other words, they’re fundamentalists, and George W. Bush is their Ayatollah.
Now, fundamentalist Christians are certainly not a new force in Republican politics. But what is new is the degree to which the GOP and the Bush campaign have oriented their pitch to appeal to voters swayed by this message. They don’t have to come out and say “George Bush talks to God” — just by using code words (“spiritual war”, “calling”, etc.) they can signal to these voters that George Bush understands their desire for an Ayatollah. He hears them. And he is willing to play Ayatollah if doing so will win him re-election.
Don’t believe me? Ask yourself why the RNC is telling voters in Oklahoma that the Democrats will ban the Bible if Kerry wins. Yes, that’s the Republican National Committee whose address is on that flyer — they’re not even bothering to go through front groups anymore.
Don’t believe me? Ask yourself why the House Republicans have spent the last six months trying to strip the court system of its ability to ever decide against religious conservatives again — first with July’s “Marriage Protection Act” (HR 3313, if you care), which asserted that no Federal court — not even the Supreme Court — has any right to rule on questions involving same-sex marriage, and then again last week with the “Pledge Protection Act” (H.R. 2028, if you care), which declares that no court — not even the Supreme Court — can ever take the words “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance. Never mind the 201 years of precedent that have been established since Marbury v. Madison established the principle that the courts could review all legislation — the House GOP is busy carving out special “no review” zones for their pet issues, which we unbelievers would never be able to challenge.
This is the degree to which the Republicans are willing to pander to the Ayatollah audience — they are willing to turn the Constitution into Swiss cheese just to throw them a bone.
The whole spectacle is more than a little disturbing, not least because of the explicit “Great Leader” imagery these people apply to Bush. As a man touched by God, he is on a different plane than you and I; and they approach him accordingly. The Great Leader has a plan — don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense to you; the Great Leader knows things you don’t. The Great Leader sees horizons far beyond those our poor eyes can make out. We must trust his judgement without question, for only he has the Revealed Truth.
This is not a philosophy for Americans. This is a philosophy for slaves!
It’s also a big part of the reason why we’re losing the war on terror. Strategist John Boyd defined an approach to war in which you attempt to isolate your opponent along three axes: the physical, the mental, and the moral. We are currently suffering from a Boydian moral isolation, brought on in large part because the world doesn’t believe that our fight in Iraq is a fight of fundamentalism against rationalism. Instead, they see it almost as two different fundamentalist sects taking each other on — which leaves rational third parties with no place to put their allegiance, except in their own self-interest.
The Bush Administration has brought this isolation upon us by pandering to the American fundamentalists. There is no evidence to date that they care.
Some people will read this and say that I’m making too much of these American fundamentalists — that they are few in number compared to the vast mass of the population. That may even be true. But clearly their influence far outweighs their numbers; can you name any other minority group that has a party faction busily declaring that the courts cannot rule on its issues?
And what concerns me — what shook me after hearing Mr. Isenberg on the radio — is the sense that their numbers might not be so few after all. Maybe sixty years of television have conditioned us to accept a Great Leader, to suspend our disbelief until the inevitable happy ending. Maybe there are plenty of Americans who are ready — eager! — to surrender their critical faculties and trust that all will be right if we put our faith in the inerring virtue of God’s holy instrument.
When asked upon leaving the Constitutional Convention whether the new government would be a republic or a monarchy, Benjamin Franklin famously replied “A republic, if you can keep it“.
In its own way and its own time, every generation has to rise to meet Franklin’s challenge. It would appear to be our turn.