Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Blind Leading the Dumb: Biblical Illiteracy and American Politics

If you are a typical American, you have no idea that the title of this essay alludes to a Biblical verse.

A truism holds that Americans are the most religion-drunk of all the Western nations. Surveys seem to confirm this. Polling data suggests that Americans are more likely to go to church, to take the stories of the Bible at face value, to believe in supernatural forces and in an afterlife than their vastly more secular peers in Europe. Allow me to overwhelm you with numbers:

According to polls, more than 95 percent of Americans believe in God, though how Americans define that concept widely varies. By contrast, only 61 percent of the British public believe in God. About 84 percent of Americans believe Jesus is the son of God and came to the Earth to save mankind, compared to only 46 percent of Brits. Around 70 percent of Americans believe in hell, compared to 28 percent of the British.

Church attendance is much higher in the United States than in Europe, with 45 percent of Americans attending church once a week compared to 23 percent of Belgians, 19 percent of Germans, 13 percent of the British, 10 percent of the French, 3 percent of the population in Denmark and a mere 2 percent of those living in Iceland.

Almost 80 percent of Americans believe that Jesus will eventually return to Earth, according to a 2006 survey by Pew Forum on Religion and America. The Pew Forum also reported that just 20 percent of Americans believe that Jesus will return in their lifetimes, although that number reached as high as 40 percent as the millennium approached according to a 1999 Newsweek survey. Another 67 percent believe in the Virgin Birth.

Another 67 percent of Americans define the United States as a Christian nation. Nearly half of Republicans believe the Bible should more strongly influence public policy than the will of the voters. About half of Americans want to see political decisions more influenced by religion. Sixty-nine percent of Americans believe that liberals have gone too far in limiting the influence of religion on public life. By contrast, only 49 percent believe that the Christian Right has too much political power.

Four in ten Americans believe that life forms have only existed in their present form and 49 percent reject the theory of evolution. Two-thirds want scientific creationism and evolution taught side-by-side in the public schools.

A substantial minority (35 percent) of Americans believe that every word of the Bible is literally true.

An even larger plurality believes that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews. As a result, many more Americans sympathize with the Israelis (44 percent) than the Palestinians (9 percent.)

All this religiosity, however, comes in an atmosphere of appalling ignorance. Both my students at the University of Texas at Austin and now at Collin College in Plano are blissfully unaware of the most basic Christian or Judaic doctrines, are completely unfamiliar with the stories of the Bible, and cannot articulate the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant, let alone tell me what Buddhists, Hindus or Muslims believe.

I wondered if my students were unusually secular and disinterested in religion or if they were representative of the larger American culture. Apparently they reflect a nationwide epidemic of Biblical and theological ignorance. According to a book published earlier this year, Stephen Prothero’s “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn’t,” fewer than half of Americans know that the Book of Genesis is the first book in the Christian Bible, only half can name one of the four Gospels and only a third know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. One out of ten think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Sixty-percent can’t name five of the 10 Commandments while 50 percent of high school seniors think that Sodom and Gomorrah were married.

As Prothero, chair of Boston University’s religion department suggests, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Referring to the controversy over so-called “intelligent design” curricula (which is nothing more than theological assertion thinly masked as science offered as a counterpoint to evolution theory in the public schools), Prothero notes that the average American cannot intelligently discuss the issue if they can’t identify Genesis as the book that contains the Jewish creation account.

Theological illiteracy also tragically shapes American foreign policy. Anti-Semites tend to blame the uncritical relationship between the U.S. and Israel on an all-powerful “Israel Lobby.” America’s blind support of any and all Israeli governments and policies, however, has much more to do with that large swath of the Protestant public that, based on third and fourth-hand information, believes that God has given Israelis a permanent lease on Palestine.

Unquestionably, American support for Israel’s occasional invasions of Lebanon, and our tepid response to human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza, have spawned widespread rage in the Arab world and terrorism against our citizens. A more even-handed American policy that fully embraces Palestinian statehood and emphasizes Israel’s need for security will only be possible when Americans know their Shiites from their Sunnis, their Ashkernazis from their Sephardim. A rational public discourse about our proper role in the Middle East can happen only if the voting public becomes better educated about the three great monotheisms, Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Finally, American homophobia gets reinforced by evangelical preachers like the late Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and “former homosexual” Donnie McClurkin and others of that ilk who exploit religious ignorance to spread their message of intolerance. These preachers rant that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because the inhabitants of these ancient cities were practicing homosexuals and they warn that America suffers a similar fate if civil rights are extended to gay citizens.

The average American, unfortunately, does not know that the few homophobic verses in the Bible were written in a particular political context. The ancient Jewish scribes who produced the books of the Bible came from an oppressed people long engaged in a struggle for independence against various pagan empires. In particular, these Hebrew nationalist authors associated their Roman overlords with evil, and therefore condemned as immoral customs associated with the Roman upper class.

For instance, many upper class Roman men –- who typically had wives and children – would engage in pederasty with under-aged acolytes. Such male-to-male contact was encouraged by the thoroughly sexist Roman culture which saw women as inadequate intellectual and emotional mates for men. The noble Roman used his younger partner as a sexual outlet, but in return he was expected to teach the youth manly arts such as warfare and governance. With this historical context, it is easier to see the small number of anti-gay verses in the Bible as a political attack on the habits of the ruling Roman upper class.

In any case the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, told in Genesis 18 and 19, is not the clear-cut anti-gay parable that the McClurkins of the world make it out to be. In the story Lot, a foreigner, has taken up residence in Sodom. He is visited by two angels who warn him that both Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed for their wickedness. A delegation of Sodom’s men appears at Lot’s door and say, “bring them unto us, that we may know them.” This has been widely interpreted to mean that the Sodom delegation wanted to homosexually rape the two strangers. The angels use supernatural powers to prevent the crowd from harming Lot, who leaves the city with his household. Once Lot has departed, God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah.

However, as Byrne Fone skillfully detects in “Homophobia: A History” (published in 2000), the story is much more ambiguous. The Hebrew verb to know, “yadha,” is sometimes translated in English as “to have sexual intercourse with,” as in “Cain knew his wife.” The verb also means “to be familiar with or have knowledge of” as in, “I knew driving on Central Expressway during rush hour was a bad idea.” As Fone points out, Lot was an unfamiliar foreigner to the men of Sodom, as were his two mysterious guests. The sight of the three foreigners meeting together may have sparked security concerns. The Sodom delegation may have wanted to know who the strangers were and why they were in the city. No homosexual connotation need be drawn from the text.

In fact, in other books of the Bible cite other reasons for Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction. Ezekiel 16:44-52 outlines God’s indictment of the two cities and that act that came to be called “sodomy” is never mentioned. God destroyed the city of Sodom, the author says, because “she and her daughters had pride of wealth and food in plenty, comfort and ease, and yet she never helped the poor and wretched.” In short, the Sodomites were destroyed because they were greedy, indifferent to suffering, and arrogant (which would be a good description of the Republican Party.)

The Book of Wisdom, accepted as scripture by Catholics but not by Protestants or Jews, says Sodom was destroyed because its inhabitants “evinced such bitter hatred towards strangers [and] . . . had made slaves of guests . . .” In other words, the destruction of the city’s was retribution for unfriendliness and a lack of charity. Once again, sex (gay or otherwise) doesn’t come up.

Nevertheless, evangelical careers have been built on the use and abuse of the Sodom and Gomorrah story. None more infamously than the Rev. Fred Phelps of Kansas, who should every night win Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Person in the World” award. Phelps, who runs a website called www.godhatesfags.com, is the man who first entered the limelight by bringing members of his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas to the funerals of people who died of AIDS or were murdered for their homosexuality. Members of the Westboro Church hold signs that say, “God hates fags.” At the funeral of Matthew Shepherd, the Wyoming college student killed in a 1998 gay-bashing incident, Phelps screamed at Shepherd’s grieving mother and other mourners, shrieking that Matthew was in hell and telling Mrs. Shepherd that she would go to hell also because she had “raised [her] son for the devil.”

Westboro has anywhere between 70 and 150 members and most of them are related to Phelps. Like any sadist, Phelps and his army of malignant mutants get off on the emotional pain they cause. Phelps is addicted to media attention and the torment of mourners, so he has expanded his list of targets. Lately, he has been disrupting the funerals of fallen soldiers returned from Iraq. Phelps preaches that God has cursed America because of civil rights laws protecting gay citizens. God has wrecked his vengeance, according to Phelps, by killing our soldiers.

Now Phelps and his cretinous band bear signs that say, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "Thank God for IEDs" (improvised explosive devices -- one of the chief weapons used to kill American soldiers in Iraq.) Now that soldiers, and not just gay people, were involved, Phelps' demonstrations finally inspired a rash of state laws and one federal statute banning protests at funeral services

Phelps finally got a miniscule taste of what he deserves this week when a Baltimore jury awarded Albert Snyder, the father of Matthew Snyder (a Marine killed in Iraq), $11 million dollars. Snyder is the first target of graveside picketing to sue Phelps. The jury ruled that Phelps' thugs violated Snyder's privacy and intentionally inflicted emotional distress.

A mystery, however, surrounds Phelps. Phelps has a law degree and he got his most of his 13 children to also become lawyers. This allows the Phelpses to defend themselves in court cases pro bono and to file a mountain of nuisance lawsuits against their many enemies. It is unclear, however that any of the Phelps lawyers are ever paid by clients or that they have represented anyone but themselves in years. Yet, Phelps by his own estimate stages 40 funeral protests a week, appearing across the country with several of his relatives/congregants. Where does Phelps' money for basic sustenance, let alone for extensive traveling and a lifestyle that seems to be a permanent vacation from real work, come from?

Phelps must have financial enablers. In fact, there is a mass flock of Biblically illiterate homophobes Phelps can draw on for support. Consider this passage on Phelps from the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Intelligence Report" in the Spring of 2001:


"In 1990, Phelps . . . ran as a Democrat in the Kansas gubernatorial primary and won 6.7% of the vote.

In 1992, after one year of publicly flaunting his hatred of homosexuals, Phelps' popularity had actually shot up dramatically: He polled 31% of the vote in the Kansas Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, taking about 50,000 ballots. Last November, without even running for office, Phelps received write-in votes for several local offices . . .

In the mid-1990s, Topeka had both a mayor and a police chief who were seen by many as sympathetic to Phelps, men who agreed that homosexuality is a sin.

Chief Gerald Beavers already was facing some public criticism for assigning contingents of police to the Phelps pickets — not to protect passersby, but to guard the picketers. Later, he would be accused of coddling Phelps in other ways.

This reported coddling had its effect. Gene Roles, whose sisters experienced 'absolute physical devastation' from a screaming attack by Jonathan Phelps, likened their experience to ‘verbal rape.’ Roles says that the biggest hurdle in eventually convicting Jonathan Phelps of disorderly conduct in that incident came from an unexpected quarter — the Topeka Police Department.

'They all said they had been briefed not to issue reports on the Phelpses,' Roles told the Intelligence Report. 'We talked to 10 officers and got 10 different reasons why. In the end, winning the case came down to simply following through on a police report. The jury was convinced in 15 minutes.'

A few years later, officers came forward to essentially corroborate the Roles story, complaining publicly that they'd been instructed by Beavers not to arrest members of the Phelps family.

Beavers denied that charge, although Fred Phelps says today that the two men 'understood each other.' In any event, then-Mayor Felker says he told Beavers to resign or face firing. Beavers quit."


Perhaps millions of Americans fear gays, and petition and vote to deny them the right to be with their loved ones in hospitals. or to have a presumptive claim on their lovers' estates, or to have the freedom to adopt, love and nuture children. All this bigotry stems in part from a myth about Sodom and Gomorrah that most of these bigots have never read personally and wouldn't understand if they did. Thanks to the army of homophobes voting in 2004 for state referenda banning same sex marriage, we got stuck with a second disastrous Bush term as a side bargain. To paraphrase a bumpersticker, if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.


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.

2 comments:

Lisa McKinney said...

... And the story in Genesis where Lot has to save his male visitors from a rapacious male mob -- is not saving them from homosexuals, but from rapists who don't like visitors in their land. He does so by offering his daughters to them instead.

Do we take this at face value?

Here's something else from Leviticus. The impression is sort of given (!) that "homosexuality" is an abomination. So are shellfish. So are shellfish? There must be something going on in the words that is not apparent on the surface.

Leviticus then also talks about being kind to the "alien" because the people were not treated kindly in Egypt where they were slaves. When I tell this to fundamentalists, they invariably respond that it doesn't apply to us in 21st century Texas, USA, because our "aliens" are ILLEGAL. For crying out loud.

So, in sum, we hate male homosexuals (gang rape of one's daughters being the rational, "holy" alternative; slavery is OK, but slaves have to behave well; eating shellfish or a cheeseburger--just as bad as lying with a man (if you are a man), but that part of Scripture is trumped by the Resurrection, somehow, and doesn't apply to Us; and aliens are bad even though same section of Scripture says we should be really, really, really, really, really nice to them.

In any case, give me a "God Hates Shrimp" t-shirt.

Lisa McKinney said...

Also -- I don't think Sodom and Gomorrah were married. I think it was more of a civil union. I could be wrong.