America is not exceptional. Or at least the positive expected consequences of the qualities one might point out as exceptional are not a given. Yes, our founding fathers demonstrated a remarkable capacity to learn from the mistakes of others. They looked at the upheavals that brought the western world to that point and decided that this country needn’t go through the French Revolution to learn the lesson of the French Revolution, that we could just take the principals of the Magna Carta without having to reinvent it all from scratch. And in the broad strokes of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they did pretty good for white men. Of course they made their own mistakes: slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, exclusion of women from the list of people with rights, but working with what they had and the history they had to work with, they came up with a pretty flexible, flawed system that has both allowed and stymied improvement in our understanding of freedom, liberty, and the right to pursue happiness.
This is probably going to be a long one: brace yourself.
Seventh-Day Adventism, the religious system of my formative years, is a little oddball. Perhaps not quite as oddball as Mennonites, who are unmistakable even to an untrained eye. Not quite as thorny as the Jehovah’s Witnesses – Sevens aren’t expected to cut off apostate family members – not quite as far out of the mainstream as the Mormons – Sevens don’t wear special underwear, don’t have a history of polygamy, and can claim a conviction in the equality of all humans that goes back to our founder in the 1840’s – Sevens are nevertheless kind of oddball.
The Church’s interpretation of the Bible is strictly literal. Their distinctive observation of the Jewish Sabbath is tied directly to the fact that God never changed the day of worship in the Bible. That change came by decree from… was it Justinian? No, Constantine. The change from Saturday to Sunday made Christianity more palatable to the heathen sun-worshipers, but it didn’t come from God, therefore the Sevens worship on the seventh day. (Hence: Seventh-Day Adventists. The Adventist part comes from the belief that God’s return is eminent.)
Actually, the Adventist part is particularly relevant. Sevens emerged after the Millerite movement of the early 1840’s. William Miller believed that he had a secret mathematical formula that allowed him to calculate the day of Christ’s return. October 22, 1844 came and went without the promised return of Jesus. To the Millerites, this was known as the Great Disappointment, and the true believers spent a very hungry winter, having forgone planting and other preparation to feed themselves after October 22.
Sevens emerged from the wreckage of the Millerites. They kept the conviction (and hope) of the imminent return of Christ. They also developed a deep distaste for prediction. The Bible says no man knows the day nor the hour, and the Sevens are behind that 100%.
So in their obsession with the Apocalypse as described in Revelation, the Sevens share a great deal with their Evangelical brethren, but this deep humility about not having any sway or ability to predict the end of the world saves them from some of the worst excesses of Evangelical Nihilism.
Let me explain.
Revelation predicts the end of the world, the violent demise earthly affairs that takes place right before God comes back. Wars, rumors of wars, famine, pestilence, world government, persecution of Christians, earthquakes, Jerusalem will once more be the sole domain of the Jews… etc. etc. etc.
For the fundamentalist believer, absolute faith in Christianity leads to a profound nihilism. All hope is pointed towards the afterlife. The apocalypse isn’t something to be avoided, it is something to be embraced, forced even. By the simple state of faith, nothing earthly matters or counts. The means to achieve the ends don’t have to matter, because accepting the martyrdom of Jesus absolves all sins: past, present, and future.
Now, were this consistent, we would see it played out in Evangelicals pushing for an Atheist government. Instead, you see them interpreting the legal protection of people they don’t agree with as evidence that they are being persecuted. If there were consistency, there would be great support of the UN, for world government is one of those things that is part of the promise of Revelation and the UN is seen as the beginning of that world government.
Instead, we see Evangelicals picking and choosing which part of the Apocalypse they wish to bring on. Evangelical support of Zionists and Israel having complete control over Jerusalem? That isn’t because they support Jewish people in general, that support has a specific end: Jewish domination of Jerusalem is an event that the Bible says will take place right before God comes back, therefore the Evangelicals are for it.
A new world war? Bring it on. All the better if it is framed in terms of Christians against everyone else, because that is another bit of Revelation fulfilled, indicating God’s return.
All the elements prophesied in Revelation are no longer understood as prophecy, but conditions to be met. And if nothing matters, because the whole point of being here on earth is to arrive at the point where you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior as quickly as possible and then get to heaven immediately thereafter, then there isn’t much to live for once you’ve been saved. Meanwhile, the Nihilist Christian is picking and choosing which parts they pay attention to, ignoring those bits that remind them that all of this is up to God and not dependent on man’s will, breezing right past all the warnings of false prophets…
Nihilism. The belief that nothing matters. Christian nihilism: the belief that nothing on earth matters because Christ. Not much of a distinction for those of us who think the drive to create the conditions for God’s return is a fool’s errand. A big distinction for those who believe that God’s forgiveness is theirs, no matter the hubris, no matter the casual cruelty, no matter the willful disregard for the example of Jesus they disregard in the life they live.
Incidentally, I believe the Islamic fundamentalists are infected with the same nihilism, to the same degree, and that from this perspective the fundamentalists of both persuasions are actually working quite well together for a single shared goal: bringing their version of the end of the world to fruition.
So. If you want to know why the GOP is so dismissive of climate change, it isn’t because they believe the outliers of the scientific community. It is because there is an unholy alliance between the Conservatives who are primarily concerned with small government, big business, and narrow interpretation of the Constitution, to hell with the little people; and the Evangelicals. The two exist symbiotically: the capitalist Conservatives don’t really care that much about the social issue one way or another, and the Christian fundamentalists don’t care about the capitalist issues, so they use each other to maintain power. It is entirely possible that the Conservatives, being smaller in number (if wealthier) are being consumed by the Christian fundamentalists. This election would certainly point in that direction.
Anyway, if climate change meets one of the *conditions* of Revelation – remember, they have stopped interpreting prophecy as prophetic and are treating it as a list of conditions to meet – by bringing about famine, pestilence, and other natural horrors, then feel free to open up the oil reserves and just light the wells on fire. The Conservatives make money; they’re fine with it. The Evangelicals get one step closer to the Apocalypse.
If you want to know why the threat of nuclear war as the natural end of a Tantrump doesn’t scare the GOP’s Evangelical base… it is because World War III is a condition to be met. Fracking causing earthquakes? Another condition to be met. Legal restrictions on Christians being discriminatory assholes? One more on the checklist of conditions. Because *that* is what being persecuted for your identity looks like, not the hundreds of Trans folks who get tormented brutally and murdered every year.
Somewhere in there, you also have a deep corruption of the message of the New Testament. Christianity has been bent into nearly unrecognizable contortions to align it with Capitalist values. God’s blessings come with dollar signs these days. Megachurches encourage donations under the logic that tithing to God makes God return abundance to you. (If only they took this understanding and applied it to taxation.) Kindness is no longer a pre-requisite. Withholding judgement of others based on the humility associated with knowing one’s self to be imperfect, also not really in play. Stone-throwing is a new kind of specialty. Hospitality, turning the other cheek, gentleness, meekness… All have been abandoned in favor of larger homes, smaller tax bills, SUVs, and the gospel of the 401k.
Internal consistency doesn’t apply here.
I suspect that, particularly in those areas where the Evangelical Nihilists live in communities where they rarely encounter anyone of color, there is also this underlying feeling that whiteness is a defining feature of being heaven-bound. That to be white is already a credit to your name on the rolls in heaven, just like being white gives you the benefit of the doubt when engaging with the police. The rapture movies of my adolescent time in Bible study didn’t feature too many people of color, that’s for damn sure.
In short… Those of us who experience the world with skepticism and a demand for some sort of intellectual consistency find ourselves baffled by the recent turn of events. When the GOP told us they were ethical, we took them at their word. Whey they said they valued Christianity, and honesty, and rule of law, and the Constitution, and high standards for conduct, we believed them.
And then DJT showed up. He disrespected women, his base loved it. He broke the rules, his base loved it. He bullied people, his base roared its approval. He lied, they cheered. He cuddled up with Russia, they praised Putin as some kind of defender of white Christianity. He stood proudly ignorant of the Constitution, they waved their flags. He promised them the wholesale cruelty to refugees, and they voted for him. He proved his Biblical illiteracy, they laughed it off.
And we are running around pointing out the disconnect between their old words and their new actions, the example of Christ and their current behavior, and expecting reason to work.
Logic doesn’t work here. It won’t work. This isn’t right vs. left, Conservative vs. Progressive. This is Nihilism vs. Good Faith. Hubris vs. Humility.
Because the false prophets are in charge and have been for a while. Nihilism rules the day. There is no moral compass left. No objective standards, only tribal markers. Fundamentalists of all stripes are pursuing a single goal – annihilation – and are happy to feed off of each other in their pursuit. Israel will wipe out Palestine, and God won’t come. We will have nuclear winter, and God won’t come. We will frack California off the continent, and God won’t come. ISIS will get its holy war, the martyrs will stack to the moon, and God won’t come. And still they will persist.
And if any of their belief systems hold up, eventually they will show up at Judgement, and God will want to know what made them think they could force the hand of the Divine. God will ask how they treated the poor and the indigent, how they treated Jesus when he showed up as Travyon Martin, or Matt Shephard, or Fatemeh Reshad. God will want to know how any of us could function as the instrument of terror, and pain, and cruelty, and not also understand ourselves to be on the side of Satan. Is the word of God not clear enough on this point, no matter the religion, that those who claim God and mean it are called to be vehicles of light and kindness in the world?
I don’t have a good answer for how to deal with this madness. I just think more people need to talk about what it is we are dealing with.
One of my favorite things I heard Jon Stewart say was that “be reasonable” just doesn’t make a good chant at a protest. And the people who are most fervently behind the desire for our governing officials to be reasonable are the same people who are most likely to pick mowing the lawn over rabble-rousing.
The liberals have spent a long time holding on to the Stephen Colbert quote: Reality has a well-known liberal bias. We tend to trust the lessons of history, the evidence, science, logic, and those items which are verifiable. When examining economic policy, we look at the individual states as test-beds. What works? Jindall ran Louisiana into the ground based on his ideology: tax breaks good, government spending bad. Not that Louisiana was at the top of the heap in terms of states achieving great things, but it is at the bottom now. Walker in Wisconsin. Sam Brownback in Kansas. All solid test cases for GOP/Conservative/Small Government ideology.
How is that working out? Not so well.
And progressives think that should count for something. That ideology should interact with reality at some point and that ideas taken as an article of faith should adjust themselves when proven false in the real world. We point at the ‘repeal and replace’ argument around the ACA, and (rightly) note that they’ve been squawking repeal and replace for six years and no one thought of something to come up with to fill in the ‘replace’ part of that equation? How does that not make the argument ridiculous?
So far, certainly since Newt Gingrich in the 1990’s, we’ve been getting progressively more reliant on the evidence, to no avail. We’ve told ourselves that we’re taking the high road, while we seek consensus, make compromise, and function as the adults in the room. We attempt to persuade with logic, with evidence, with the facts as they are known and understood by a body of experts larger than one guy in a tinfoil hat. Every time, we stand around with this faith in human decency and reason, pointing at the dastardly behavior ever pushing the boundaries of absurd, expecting the general public to give a shit.
The general public doesn’t give a shit. The evidence only matters because we say it matters (and also: those people in Louisiana with the raw sewage bubbling up in their back yards). In other words, the evidence matters to us but to no one else.
So what do we do going forward? Some would have the Dems become as obstructionist and petulant as the GOP. There is talk of a Brietbart for the Left.
What would Lefty Brietbart look like? Righty Brietbart talks about birth control making women ugly and annoying. What is the equivalent? I suppose you could reach into the darker corners of hard-core feminist philosophy and discover an article about how men who masturbate to porn are more prone to domestic violence therefore masturbation automatically leads to assault and battery. Or something like that, except the flip side of the argument doesn’t work, because the evidence thing is built into our philosophical DNA. Somehow, Progressive notions are already radical, like acknowledging that it isn’t an accident that our prison population has exploded, or that a disproportionate number of our prisoners are of color, and that those prisoners are disenfranchised upon release and subject to slave wages while in Prison. Hmm. Plantation becomes prison… And following the cause to effect is already a radical notion because the Brietbart Righty call us Social Justice Warriors, as if that is a bad thing.
So we have Adbusters. And Mother Jones. And all of that rabid lefty talk has produced people who … are still expecting evidence, still want measured reasonable action that takes into account second and third order effects, and still look for consensus and alternative view points.
We aren’t going to win this by out temper-tantruming the GOP. We might make some progress by quitting the game playing. Or starting a new game where we are transparent, we tell the whole truth in plain language, we go out and listen, and we stop spending all our time in fundraising and go back to writing our own laws. Laws in plain English. Clear laws. And pulling obsolete laws off of the books. A sense of humor might help. Stop worrying about test audiences and McCarthy witch hunts into Socialists invading the Democrats. And stop thinking that we’re playing the same game as the GOP. It is obvious to anyone paying attention that the only ideology that counts is power and cash. Nothing else about the GOP guiding philosophy is sacrosanct. They want to win and they want to reward the wealthy with more wealth for the achievement of being born wealthy. That’s it. They’ll offer up a healthy dose of racial resentment to the poor huddled masses, a finger to point in some other direction, and a long speech on the right to life, so long as you’ve never been disconnected from the umbilical cord. But what they care about is shoveling more money up the economic ladder.
God, could you imagine if the Koch brothers (and all the other doners) just put all their lobbying funds into the general tax fund?
Anyway… Going forward, I think we need to be ruthless, but not in the same way as the GOP. If we are ruthlessly committed to speaking plainly, articulating the principles that aren’t negotiable, and re-claiming the authenticity credential… We might get somewhere. Right now, the conversation is defined by the Don and the GOP’s talking points. We aren’t getting anywhere by spending all of our time debunking the metric shit ton of bullshit that gets lobbed at the public on a daily basis, so maybe it is time to stop chasing the GOP tail and start moving forward.
One of the programs that emerged from the Great Depression was the Works Program Administration (WPA). The Government set wages at the local average and paid the long-term unemployed to build projects for the community: schools, parks, bridges, museums, libraries. Infrastructure that still supports civic life today. Infrastructure that major corporations, which are taxed at a minuscule rate, benefit from.