Friday, November 24, 2006

Changing Horses

Sara Robinson

The history of religion is characterized by fanatical movements that started out full of ecstatic zeal to change the world one person at a time. From the Wahabists to the Methodists, religions are usually founded in a rush of passion -- which (if it doesn't fatally fracture in the intensity of the initial torrent, which is the fate of most new faith groups) gradually subsides to a calmer, more intellectual and inclusive order. In this second phase, the groups typically become more outwardly-focused. They start dealing with the world as it is, instead of as their theology tells them it should be. Most of what we think of "mainstream" churches started out in the first phase, but have by now been in this second one for a very long time.

This calming typically happens around the time the second generation raised in the faith begins to assume leadership -- say, 30 to 40 years after the initial founding. However, per Karen Armstrong, it can also happen once the group has acquired some real temporal power, and begun to reckon with the limits of its theology.

For both those reasons, I speculated last week that the evangelical right in America is headed for that calmer stage of organizational maturity. I further noted that this was likely to fuel some schisms over the short term, mostly between hard-core religious authoritarians who thrive on high levels of fear, anger, and intensity, and want to stay the old course; and the softer core looking to expand their sights, so that they can live their values.
The coming split in the evangelical right will be fueled by the different ways its various factions adapt to this new reality. The possibilities are likely to take two main forms. On one hand, we'll see the amoral authoritarian leadership fade away, and the hard-core authoritarian followers in retreat. On the other, however, are growing numbers of Christians who are already beginning to moderate -- some of them to the point where we may start seeing them in the progressive mainstream. --What If God Loses? 11/15/06

Well, we didn't have to wait long for the first sign of the split. Here's Willough Mariano of the Orlando Sentinel, desribing one leading indicator that the strain between the evangelical hard core and the moderates is increasing:
Christian Coalition loses leader in dispute

The Florida pastor recently tapped to lead the Christian Coalition of America resigned his position in a dispute about conservative philosophy - more than a month before he was to fully assume his post, he said this week.

The Rev. Joel Hunter, of Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Fla., said he quit as president-elect of the group founded by evangelist Pat Robertson because he realized he would be unable to broaden the organization's agenda beyond opposing abortion and same-sex marriage.

He hoped to include issues such as easing poverty and saving the environment.

"These are issues that Jesus would want us to care about," Hunter said.

The resignation took place Tuesday during an organization board meeting. Hunter said he was not asked to leave.

"They pretty much said, "These issues are fine, but they're not our issues; that's not our base,' " Hunter said. A statement issued by the coalition said Hunter resigned because of "differences in philosophy and vision." The organization, headed by President Roberta Combs, claims a mailing list of 2.5 million.

Hunter's move signals more tumult for a group that has fallen on hard times. Members have complained the coalition's agenda has become too liberal and diffuse.

Hunter hoped to revive the group by expanding its agenda to include what he called "compassion issues." He also planned to teach evangelicals how to "vote with their life," or integrate and apply their Christian values to public life.

The coalition's rejection of Hunter's approach means it is unwilling to part with its partisan, Republican roots, Hunter said.

"To tell you the truth, I feel like there are literally millions of evangelical Christians that don't have a home right now," Hunter said.

These conversations are being had increasingly on the religious right -- and they are a healthy sign that the worst excesses may be behind us. Of course the Christian Coalition board doesn't want to change issues: Abortion and gays are the twin horses that have pulled them power over the past 30 years, and to them it looks like a huge risk to switch to fresh stock. They have no idea where these other issues might take them; but they know that switching focus after all these years will alienate their hardcore base -- which, by now, regards these two issues as the whole reason God wrote the Bible in the first place.

But Hunter gets it. The American people have seen enough of the cruelty and wanton disregard for people's boundaries that underlie these two issues. And they have, for the most part, rejected them. That 30% of the population the far right has now is all they're ever going to get. The other 70% have decided that abortion, at least on some kind of terms, is here to stay; and the demographics make it clear that gay marriage is only a matter of time. In the long run, both are losing issues. Hunter, it appears, was looking to preserve the group's future by re-focusing its energies toward places where the Coalition's members could do some real good, and sustain some real wins. And the Coalition's short-sighted leadership sealed its own fate by refusing to let him lead them there.

The Christian Coalition (and the rest of the religious right) can either accept their changing reality, and move toward more inclusive issues like poverty and the enviroment; or they can hold fast to their two dying old nags, and go down with them. Evidently -- at least for now -- they've made their choice. And, fortunately for progressives, what they've chosen for themselves is a future of increasing irrelevance.

Oh, and those "millions of evangelical Christians who don't have a home right now"? They're homeless because they're ready to talk about things like global warming and how we treat the poor. Memo to Democrats: These people are waiting to hear from us.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Our Great North American Holiday

Sara Robinson

One of the religious right's firmest convictions is that America was established by God for a special destiny in the history of humankind. We are a uniquely blessed nation -- first among the Elect in power and strength -- because the Puritans alone had the good sense to consecrate this land to the Protestant God from the very first year, a consecration symbolized every year when we renew it at Thanksgiving.

Our glory, they believe, will endure only as long as we continue to maintain our devotion to God -- which is, they insist, why it's so very important that we get over this wall-of-separation thing and openly submit to Biblical law. If we don't accept God's special choosing, he may withdraw it (as he did with the Israelites), and America will be doomed. In fundamentalist homes, Thanksgiving is a celebration of that compact, an affirmation of America's singular destiny as a Chosen Nation.

Poputonian gives a brief rundown of the history of Thanksgiving in North America that got me thinking some about this. Thanksgiving has become a fraught and complicated issue at our house since we moved to Canada, which celebrates the same holiday on the second Monday in October. Some years, we've had two Thanksgivings. Other years, we've had none. (Today, the kids are in school and going to their dad's, and Mr. R is taking a final exam, so I'm on my own, and birdless.) It's never been my favorite holiday to begin with, so our haphazard observance patterns have reflected that as well. But the struggle to make new meaning out of the holiday has also given me a much wider view than most Americans have of where our own Thanksgiving fits into the grand scheme of history.

In the summer of 2005, I spent a month in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Cuernavaca's a gorgeous little city, famous for a year-round spring climate so delicious that Montezuma built his summer palace there. In 1519, Cortez conquered the city, razed the old palace, and built his own castle on the ruins. (Diego Rivera later painted what may be his greatest mural in the castle's loggia.) A few blocks away, there's a huge adobe cathedral that's been standing there since 1533. It may well be the oldest Christian church in the western hemisphere.

To put this in perspective: The church and castle in Cuernavaca had already been standing for nearly a century when the Pilgrims had their little dinner party in 1620.

In fact, by that time, the Spaniards had pretty much conquered Mexico, and were making strong inroads into what is now the American southwest. Pop notes that Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded St. Augustine, Florida in 1565. Farther inland, Don Juan Onate declared the first Mexican Thanksgiving somewhere just south of El Paso in 1598 -- the same year he founded the city of Santa Fe. By 1620, when New England was just seeing its first Europeans, Santa Fe and St. Augustine were both thriving American cities of a thousand souls or more.

The party was already rolling in the Great White North as well. The first Canadian Thanksgiving was declared in 1578 by English explorer Martin Frobisher, who formally proclaimed a Feast of Thanksgiving for his party's safe arrival in Newfoundland. By 1607, the French explorers living in Acadia with Samuel de Champlain formed "The Order of Good Cheer," whose regular feasts of thanks often included their Huron and Algonquin neighbors. (Two hundred years later, following the American Revolution, these feasts also included banished Loyalist refugees, who contributed their own American foods and customs to the Canadian table.)

When you look at the full scope of North American history, the image of Thanksgiving as a holiday of U.S. exceptionalism becomes much harder to sustain. The Pilgrims were not the first European settlers, as many Americans believe. (Cortez's Spanish troops were.) They weren't even the first English settlers (several English colonies had been doing very well in Canada for decades). Plymouth was not the first European city in the New World (Cuernavaca would have a decent claim there); nor even in America (as anyone from either St. Augustine or Santa Fe will tell you). And theirs was far from the first Thanksgiving. In truth, they were latecomers to a long-standing party that had already become a New World tradition from Montreal to Mexico City.

Living in Canada has given me a bigger view of Thanksgiving. It's not a holiday celebrating American uniqueness and destiny, but rather one that connects us in history to all the people of this continent -- those who came on the boats from Spain, then France, then England to brave a world they could not imagine; those who met the boats and lost the world as they knew it; those who have come in the centuries since from every corner of the planet; and those who share the continent with America now, and are as bound to her fate as surely as we are bound to the brothers and sisters we're feasting with today.

We may celebrate it on different days; but the reasons for our gratitude are as recognizably familiar as the menu and the faces. Our strength is not in America's (or this holiday's) singularity, but rather their universality. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Memo to Newt: You Are No Al Gore

by Sara Robinson

Several blogs (here's Tristero's take) are noting that Newt Gingrich is offering himself up as Our New Lincoln, positioning himself for a presidential run by offering visionary solutions on important issues of the day:
I'm going to tell you something, and whether or not it's plausible given the world you come out of is your problem' .... 'I am not 'running' for president. I am seeking to create a movement to win the future by offering a series of solutions so compelling that if the American people say I have to be president, it will happen.'
Much hilarity has ensued as a result of this announcement. But make no mistake: this isn't about Lincoln. It's about Gore. Newt has noticed that this strategy is working very well for Al, thank you very much -- and now wants his piece of that action.

Al Gore has spent the past six years dedicating himself to creating a movement around global warming. Whether or not he ever becomes president, his actions have already had tremendous implications for the future of humankind. Ninety-four years from now (assuming people are still around), when they're making lists of the 10 most important people of the century, Al's work on global warming just so far will put him on everybody's list -- whether or not we ever have the good sense to put him in the White House.

As Newt notes, we may decide that we like Al's principles and leadership well enough to elect him. But the difference is that we all know Al is going to do his global warming thing for as long as it takes, with or without that inducement. Yeah, it may put him in a great position to run; but he seems to see that as an optional side benefit of Doing The Right Thing.

Newt, on the other hand, has already taken himself off that high road by announcing his overt political intentions right up front. He's being very frank that any attempts to create any kind of movement will be an electioneering gambit, a means toward the end of power. Which, right there, tells you all you need to know about his commitment to higher principles and priorities.

Newt, we know Al Gore -- and you are no Al Gore.

That said: If this issues-advocacy-based model does turn out to be a new trend in campaigning, I gotta say that it beats anything else currently on the scene. We could do worse than having our pols running around trying to find real problems to solve, and devoting themselves to creating effective solutions in order to prove to us that they're serious change leaders worthy of our respect and our votes.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Over the river ...

... to Grandmother's house we go. Off to Idaho for Thanksgiving.

I've got a couple of excellent posts brewing, promise. They're just taking more work than planned and I've gotta hit the road. Hope to have them up in the next few days.

-- Dave

Monday, November 20, 2006

The roots of extremism

[A militia meeting at the Maltby, Wash., community hall in 1994.]

As we already know, the nativist right was not exactly chastened by the results of the November election. Rather, they seem to have been even more emboldened -- encouraged, it seems, by the blather of pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin that the reason Republicans lost was that they weren't conservative enough.

Thus the Minutemen are not only continuing their recruitment apace, but stepping it up, particularly in the "heartland" communities that are seeing many more Spanish-speaking brown faces in their midst these days.

Carolyn Szczepanski at the Kansas City magazine The Pitch had a profile last week of just such a recruitment drive. As always, the Minutemen's foremost claim is that they actually represent a mainstream point of view:
"It's not one or two or three coming through in the night," he continues. "It's an invasion. It's nothing short of that. The federal government's not doing anything about it, so, by God, the Minutemen will do it for them."

The crowd erupts into applause. At least one man is carrying a gun and extra ammunition.

"We're not vigilantes. We're not the KKK. We're a majestic form of neighborhood watch," Garza says. "And in the last few years, it's become so powerful in its momentum that we've gone from 10 people to well over 8,000 nationwide."

I've pointed out previously that it was only a decade ago that we heard the same claim, in the same language, issuing forth from the leaders of the Patriot/militia movement. In fact, the militias continued calling themselves a kind of "neighborhood watch" well into the 21st century, and specifically formulated themselves in those terms after Sept. 11.

Here's how John Pitner, leader of the Washington State Militia (described in some detail in In God's Country) put it back in 1996, when a local grange decided not to let him host militia meetings in their hall any longer:
Pitner was furious, protesting that the militia had been unfairly smeared as a pack of radical revolutionaries. "We're not anti-government, we're anti-bad politicians," he said. "We feel it's time to change the way government does things."

He argued that all citizens are members of the militia under the law. "We're volunteering ourselves beforehand," he told Cathy Logg. "We're just painters, carpenters, bricklayers. We're trying to help our communities. We were out sandbagging in the floods and helping save livestock in Lynden. We're directing traffic at accident scenes. We serve when we're called to serve. We have Christmas programs for children. We’re community-oriented people."

Pitner issued a plea for understanding: "Don't judge us by what we say -- judge us by what we do."

A year later, Pitner was on trial in federal court for plotting to build pipe bombs and engage in a wide range of acts of domestic terrorism, charges of which he was eventually convicted. So much for mainstream then.

And so much for mainstream now. While the claims that the Minutemen are not a racist organization are are dubious at best, for the sake of argument let's grant these Minutemen organizers' claims that they are not the KKK in fresh clothes.

Nonetheless, what their own words reveal, beyond any serious doubt, is that they are classic extremists, by nearly any standard.

The first sign of this is their paranoia:
A deep voice accompanied by the sound of shattering glass ominously warns of the perils posed by illegal immigration.

"Every minute, they're crossing our borders looking for quick-cash jobs, transportation and accommodations," the voice intones. "Some may be Mideastern terrorists with look-alike resemblance to our south-of-the-border neighbors."

The second message: "Did you know that your congressmen and the president take an oath of office ... to protect each state from invasion? So what about the millions of illegals from alien nations crossing our borders ... ? Is that an invasion? Would you call a burglar in your home a houseguest?"

And then the third: "These folks in Washington, D.C. ... are granting amnesty to illegal aliens, and giving them everything from Social Security to free health care is just the tip of the iceberg.... Is that what you want? We don't think so."

Even more indicative of their extremism is their willingness to believe things that are provably false and to continue to believe them in the face of contrary evidence or outright proof of their falsity. They also are willing to make incendiary charges without a trace of evidence. These are traits that often go hand in hand with the paranoia:
"They've taken over California," Hayes tells the crowd. "They're working on Arizona, New Mexico, Texas. We're going to become a minority of illegal immigration." He tells them to research the National Council of La Raza -- the nation's largest advocacy organization focusing on the civil rights, education and employment of Hispanic Americans. "They're a Salvadoran group of terrorists. We have them in Kansas City right now. La Raza believes the Southwest is theirs and we should leave. They want illegals to come up here and have babies and take over the United States."

Hayes' emotion builds before he stops for a disclaimer that punctuates each meeting.

"This may insult some of your intelligence. But we're not bigots. We're American patriots. If you're a skinhead or a member of an extremist group, leave now."

(Before the meeting, Hayes told the Pitch: "We've been called bigots, racists, homophobes. I could go on and on. When the pro-illegal-immigration folks start cutting us down like that, though, we know we're doing something right. When they start calling me names, I look at them and I see the real racist. Because we are not. They're either a racist or an employer.")

Hayes tells the group that these issues are too important for the Minutemen to be intimidated by schoolyard name-calling. There are terrorist camps in Mexico, he says.

"They're teaching Middle Easterners Spanish, teaching them how to dress Hispanic, and now they're all over this country, and Lord knows what they'll do." He says illegal aliens are draining the health-care system, bankrupting hospitals and crowding schools. As a former law-enforcement officer, Hayes says, the thing that really burns him is the impact on public safety.

"They're in vehicular accidents where they leave the scene or have no insurance," he says. "Rapes, robberies, killing cops and running back to their home country -- these people are breaking the law every day they're here. They're 10 percent of the nation's crime, and our prisons are full of them."

Note the requisite eliminationism: these border crossers are all criminals. And of course, there's only one thing to do with such types: ship them all out.

The willingness to believe palpable nonsense, particularly the right-wing kind of urban legends that handily conflate the issue of Mexican border security with the Global War on Terror -- a notion pushed with great regularity by Michelle Malkin and her VDare nativist friends -- is also a common trait among the Minutemen's recruits:
The two friends, who met thanks to their adjacent cubicles at a local engineering company, were inspired to join the Minutemen by a trip to the border in March 2006. They set aside 10 days for the trip and checked into a hotel just outside Tucson, Arizona. The plan was to spend three days driving down to the Minuteman Command Center, 50 miles southwest of the city, check in for a briefing and then head to "the line."

They admit that they didn't see much. Griffin says "the line" is actually 30 miles from the border. Volunteers there station themselves on public lands and on the private property of ranchers who are supportive of the Minuteman mission. Cox says they ate a lot of peanut-butter crackers.

Though they didn't witness confrontation, Cox says, they did hear about it.

"It didn't happen directly in front of us, but, from what the Border Patrol said and during different shifts in different areas, a number of the people they were finding coming across the desert weren't from Mexico. A large contingency were from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan -- many that had confirmed ties to Al Qaeda."

All this brings to mind the militias' favorite legend back in the 1990s, namely, that blue-helmeted United Nations troops were massing secretly on the Mexican and Canadian borders in advance of a long-planned invasion of the USA (wherein, of course, all good freedom-loving gun owners were scheduled to be liquidated in concentration camps).

What's also interesting is the way the jingoism that arose in response to this year's pro-immigration rallies mutated into even further mythologizing:
"I think when these [immigrants' rights] groups started doing demonstrations and burning the American flag and wanting to sing the national anthem in Spanish — these people that are here as criminals, these people who came here illegally and started demanding their rights as U.S. citizens — I think that just took some good old Americans and pissed them off," he says. "I guess, being a U.S. Army vet, I don't take too well to burning the flag, either, especially when it's foreign nationals doing that."

The national anthem brouhaha, of course, was thoroughly contrived, as we saw, since Spanish versions of it (as well as German, French and Italian versions) had been around for decades, and even videotape of President Bush singing it in Spanish cropped up.

As for flag burning, there was only one minor incident of a lone kook burning one at one of the early rallies; at most of the subsequent rallies, the American flag was being waved pronouncedly by the marchers. Most of the outrage over supposed mishandling of the American flag by Latino marchers was whipped up by Malkin with an incident in which the Mexican flag was placed above the Stars and Stripes at a high school.

No, the only flag burnings of note in this debate were Mexican flags being set aflame by right-wingers. Unsurprisingly, all this was being fomented by right-wing pundits like Michael Savage.

This is a special kind of gullibility that was common among the followers of the militia movement. At times, they would express extreme skepticism, especially when it came to the so-called "official story" that appeared in mainstream media and was sometimes generated by the government. But it was a very selective skepticism, reserved almost strictly for those things that might refute or contradict anything they were already predisposed to believe. That which didn't was recast, falsified or distorted to fit those predispositions. And chief among those predispositions, of course, was a powerful and ceaseless paranoia. In other words, they became suckers for anything other than the official story, and were especially drawn to those that underscored their paranoid beliefs and conspiracy theories.

These are all traits of extremism, part of the authoritarian psyche that is its root. And as the nativism advocated by the Minutemen spreads, so do those roots.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Storm victims

Sara just called to inform me that she has no Internet connectivity due to the storms in the Vancouver area tonight. So our regularly scheduled Sunday rant will be forthcoming on Monday.

And I've been preoccupied with a looming deadline, so ... back in action on the morrow.