Monday, April 17, 2006

Just who are these people anyway?

According to CNN last week, a "poll" of presidential polls indicated that about 37 percent of the American people still stand behind President Bush.

This prompted me to ask, who are these people and what do they know that a majority of us don't know? After six years of Bushonomics, in which wages are losing ground to the cost of living, after failing to capture Osama Bin Ladin, after sending too few soldiers to Iraq and making our forces stand by and do nothing as looters ran loose in Baghdad, after proving unable to find Iraqi WMDs, after treating the Katrina disaster like an annoying distraction from vacation, after intentionally revealing the identity of undercover CIA operatives, and after standing by helplessly as Iraq sank into civil war and Iran became a nuclear power, Bush is still loved by more than a third of the American public, whose response to the string of catastrophic bungles is 'What, Me Worry?"

This administration has a higher failure rate than the rhythm method. What would it take to make that 37 percent lose its patience with Bush? The president appointing Tom Cruise as his press secretary? Or making a guest appearance on "Queer As Folk?" Or making French the official language of the United States?

In fact, to many of Bush's most passionate supporters, he succeeds if he fails.

Evangelicals are to the Republicans as African Americans and Jews are to the Democrats. About 76 percent of evangelicals voted for Bush in 2004, in an election he won with just over 50 percent of the vote. They are the core constituency of the GOP, far more numerous and willing to fall on their swords as grassroots foot soldiers than the traditional country club Republicans. Many evangelical Republicans, including Bush himself, believed that God intervened to hand W. his dubious victory in the 2000 race against Al Gore. “This was Providence,” Watergate felon and current circuit preacher Charles Colson said in an interview with the religious website Beliefnet. “Anybody looking at the 2000 election would have to say it was…a miraculous deliverance, and I think people felt it again this year.” (He may have a point. I thought Gary Glitter could beat Bush in 2004. Only a Democrat like John Kerry could run a race with so many advantages and still get humiliated so badly.) By giving Bush another term, Colson claimed, God was “giving us a chance to repent and to restore some moral sanity to American life.”

Evangelical support has softened in recent months as some of the religious right question Bush' seriousness about the Anti-Gay Marriage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and after the Bush-planted regime in Afghanistan (which really only controls the capitol city of Kabul) almost executed a man for converting to Christianity. Still, as recently as January, evangelical support for Bush was almost thirty points higher than among the general public.

Many Bushwhackers subscribe to a set of beliefs theologians have described as pre-millennial dispensationalism." This theology underlies the plot of the best-selling "Left Behind" series of novels. Dispensationalists believe that from the very beginning of time, God set a very specific timetable for human events. Human history would unfold in seven epochs, or "dispensations," each marking a change in the Almighty's relationship with homo sapiens. God dealt directly with man in the "Adamic" dispensation, for instance, regularly chatting with Adam and Even and basically only forbidding them from acquiring knowledge of Good and Evil. A different dispensation came when Yahweh handed Moses the Ten Commandments. Jesus, according to dispensationalists, marked the beginning next to last dispensation, the "Church Age," which the apocalyptic flock believes has continued to the present time.

Humans, dispensationalists believe, are weak and in their hearts evil and likely to sin. All human efforts at building a just and peaceful world, to eliminate poverty and disease, are doomed to failure. Dispensationalists believe that Mankind (and they ARE more focused on men than women) can be saved from himself only by a literal deus ex machina, in the form of Christ's Second Coming.

"Each of the Dispensations may be regarded as a new test of the natural man, and each ends in judgment — marking his utter failure," wrote Dallas minister Cyrus Scofield, editor of the popular Scofield Reference Bible, in the early 20th century. History will end, Scofield wrote, not as some would have us believe, by the gradual process of evolution, lifting the race higher and higher . . . but in sudden and awful ruin . . ."

The Christian church, evangelizing since Jesus' return to heaven nearly 2,000 years earlier, has failed to save the human race from sin. End-time events will begin when Jesus "raptures" his church, whisking the saved into the clouds so they might escape the horrors of the coming "Tribulation." The Gentile nations of the Earth will unite under an Antichrist, a world dictator determined to defeat God's plan for salvation by destroying the Jews. Under the reign of the Antichrist, Scofield promised, millions will die and the Earth will suffer vast ecological devastation. The Antichrist's armies will gather in the Middle East to complete annihilation of the Jewish nation, but before this happens, 144,000 surviving Jews will convert to Christianity. Jesus and his raptured followers will miraculously return to save these converts and destroy the "princes of the Earth" in a final battle of Armageddon. Christ will then begin an earthly reign of 1,000 years, followed by a final Judgement Day and the creation of a new Heaven and Earth.

Even though Dispensationalists are sure the world is an evil place, their theology tends, paradoxically, to be in favor of the status quo. Most dispensationalists don't like social change, such as represented by the civil rights movement, environmentalism, and especially the women's rights and gay rights movements. First of all, they believe that women should stay at home and raise kids, that men should be "real men" and that homosexuality is a far worse sin than the coporate corruption, needless war and planet-destroying abuse of the environment represented by the Bush White House.

As Scofield put it, "What Christ did not do, the Apostles did not do. Not one of them was a reformer." To put faith in political activism was to lack faith in God. "When Christ was on earth all the social problems — slavery, intemperance, prostitution, unequal distribution of wealth, oppression of the weak by the strong — were at their worst," Scofield argued. "To cure them He put into the world one message — the gospel, one means — regeneration, one agency — the Holy Spirit in the church."

In other words, shut up about injustice and wait for the Second Coming. The only thing that matters is collecting souls before Amageddon. Of course, one of the many paradoxes of Dispensationalism is that they are very politically active today. As Sara Diamond wrote in her book, Roads to Dominion" Right Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States, Dispensationalists and their fellow fundamentalists became very politicized in the 1950s and 1960s over access of religious programming ton the public airwaves. The rise of feminism and gay rights, and the re-legalization of abortion (it had been legal in most of the United States until the late 19th century), inspired a less esoteric interest in electoral politics on the part of the evangelical communityby the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Let be clear. We are not talking about some small Branch Davidian-type doomsday sect here. Certain Dispensationalist beliefs, at least, are widespread, even if individual believers don't share all the same tenents. Polling by organizations like Gallup indicate that about 60 percent of the American public believes that Jesus will literally return to Earth in their lieftime. As Grant Wacker, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, noted in his January 1994 "Christian Centery" article "Planning Ahead: The Enduring Appeal of Prophecy Belief," booksellers noted that some store customers refuse to receive $6.66 in change when they buy items because the Book of Revelation says that "666" is the number the anti-Christ will insist followers wear on their foreheads or the palms of their hands. Historian Paul Boyer notes one women who has published pamphlets warning that UPC codes represent the so-called "mark of the beast" (she insists that if you jiggle the numbers on the code just right, the total always comes to 666.) Hotels often don't have a room 666, just like many skip the 13th floor.

Dispensationalists now vote in large numbers. Even if they believe that politics represents re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic, they rationalize political activism by arguing that all will be judged by their actions on Earth. If their official theology is that people are saved by faith alone, they really believe in "good works" as well, including opposition to abortion, gays, etc. In other words, anytime dispensationalists save a state from the scourge of gay marriage, or ban abortion in a place like South Dakota, or remove Harry Potter from a library shelf, they are not only scoring points with the Almighty, they are perhaps delaying the inevitable day when the Anti-Christ will take over the world.

This demographic has a huge impact on American foreign policy because of their commanding position in the Republican Party. Some of my Arab students sometimes subscribe to the anti-Semitic theory that the United States is so pro-Israel because of alleged Jewish control of the media. Jews in fact are deeply divided on Israeli government policies and its hard to see how the Zionist agenda is advanced by "Larry The Cable Guy." Arab politics is too influenced by conspiracy theories and needs to acknowledge diversity of belief among Jews. In any case, it is the Dixified, chicken-fried Dispensationalists who edged Bush towards a greater hostility towards Palestinians more than any group.

Each ratcheting of the Arab-Israeli conflict brings the world closer to the Second Coming. There are no bigger Zionists in America than fundamentalists, not even the most conservative Jews. Dispensationalists see each Jew as an archeological artifact, linking them directly to the Biblical past. They believe that God judges nations by how close or how hostile they are to Israel. The rebirth of Israel in 1948, they believe, is a miracle, a sign that Jews are still God's chosen people. Christians, they argue, dare not hamper Israelis and their role in End Times.

John Hagee, the millionaire pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, preaches a dispensationalist gospel and displays an Israeli flag on his stage alongside the Stars and Stripes. Pastors like him have paid for Jewish immigration from Russia, bringing to the country some of the most right-wing members of Israeli society, a group that made up the bulk of the settlers in Gaza and the West Bank, and that is most hostile to Palestinian rights.

Hagee and others embraced right-wing Israeli politicians like Benjamin Natanyahu, want to set up Christian missionary efforts in Israel to preach to Jews and Muslims and, if they had their way, would persuade their friends in Israeli politics to not give up an inch of terrirtory to Arabs. Of course, such policies would increase the liklihood of further Arab-Israeli violence, but dispensationalists see that conflict as foreordained and believe it will last until Jesus comes to sort out the bodies. For all their professed love of Jews as a group, dispensationalists care little for the safety and future of individual Jews living today. Everything takes second place to pushing the world towards Armageddon.

This leads dispensationalists to be comfortable, by and large with Bush's endless string of defeats. Bush is a man of God, they think, a martyr doomed to failure in this Satan-inspired world. Bush isn't corrupt or incompetent. He's fighting a good but ultimately doomed fight in a world shrouded by darkness. When Bush fails, it only means that the day temporarily belongs to the devil. Ultimately, he gets credit for gay-bashing or appointing a Supreme Court likely to outlaw abortion. He also gets credit for trying to save the world by "democratizing" Arab states and opening them to Christian missionaries. No argument from the rational world will persuade the steadfast 37 percent otherwise. God help us everyone.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your interesting and historically accurate blog. Your insights are in line with research into dispensationalism's strange, 176-year-old history. Several web pieces inspired by such research are "PRETRIB RAPTURE DIEHARDS" and "THOMAS ICE (BLOOPERS)."