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We've Given Religion Too Much Respect
America is deranged, but not confused.
After the MAGA-fueled hordes stormed the US Capitol on January 6, the bulk of the reaction centered on condemnation of the crowd’s actions: They had sullied the hallowed halls of democracy. They had outrageously attacked the Capitol police. They had besmirched the Senate chamber and grotesquely put their feet on the Speaker of the House’s desk. By trying to overturn the results of an election with force, they had shockingly exceeded the limits of protest that our society could tolerate. Their crime, above all, was that they had taken things too far.
This is not quite right. The key problem that spawned January 6 was that the crowd believed something that was not true—namely, that the election was being stolen from Donald Trump. If you, for the sake of argument, imagine that that belief was true, then the actions that followed are not particularly outrageous. In fact, I would hope that if a presidential election ever is truly stolen in a brazen conspiracy of coordinated national voting fraud, thousands of angry citizens do flock to the Capitol to stop the certification of that fraudulent election. It is not so far-fetched to envision a scenario in which, for example, Donald Trump and his allies in Congress were able to pull off the plan to disregard the election results, get alternate electors certified, and reinstall Trump as president even though he lost. If that were to happen, what course of action would the “respect the Capitol as a shrine to America” crowd recommend? Relying on the persuasive force of MSNBC commentators to save us all? No. If such an extreme event were to actually occur—an event that threatened to end American democracy—then I expect everyone who is physically able to to head straight to downtown DC and try to do something. It is funny that a nation that celebrates the fact that it was founded with a violent revolution seems to find it so hard to admit that there may be times in history when storming the Capitol makes perfect sense.
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The January 6th crowd was operating on a false premise. Because of that, their actions were wrong. Had their underlying belief about the facts of the situation been correct, the whole thing would have come much closer to being justified. They were deranged, but not confused. If you want to address the root cause of the bubbling right wing extremism that is distressing the political establishment so much, you need to stop obsessing about tactics and decorum and focus on the ideas. The derangement is the thing. And if we are being intellectually honest, we must admit that there is a much bigger locus of derangement than QAnon forums or Trump speeches.
It’s politely referred to as “faith.” Faith! The belief in something just because you decide to believe it. Mainstream discourse has spent years now deriding the absurd lies of QAnon and Stop the Steal and all the lesser conspiracy theories that have enjoyed rising profiles in the Trump and post-Trump era. But all of these things, even the “Big Lie,” are babies compared to King Kong of American faith: religion. It is absurd for the same media that as a matter of course countenances prayer breakfasts and politicians proclaiming their love for Jesus to then denigrate the newer currents of faith that thousands of people followed directly to the Capitol on January 6. The “QAnon Shaman” in his face paint and head dress is no more ridiculous in substance or style than a Catholic priest in his robe and pendant proclaiming the holy liturgy. It’s little wonder that our nation’s press—the institution that everyone expects to shoot down lies of public importance—was unable to fact check our way out of Trumpism, after treating the pervasive mythology of Christianity with hushed respect for the last couple of centuries.
Religious freedom—great. Love it. Very important element of a society that is not riven by constant bloody religious crusades. Everyone has the right to their own personal faith. But when that faith is used as the rationale for public policies, it becomes fair game for brutal scrutiny. Indeed, it is the responsibility of the press to ensure that powerful people and institutions are forced to show the work behind the decisions they make. Public policies and decisions of broad social importance can be reasonably justified in many ways, and all of those ways should consist of some sort of plausible, logical argument that leads to “increasing the public good.” Faith will always fail to be a coherent reason for public policy, because it will always at some point dead end at a wall of pure belief. This is where logic stops. At this point, there is no meaningful difference between Christianity or QAnon or Mind-poisoned conviction that the 2016 election was stolen. All of those things are matters of faith. None of them hold up to real scrutiny. Yet all of these mythologies do not get treated equally. The Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, causing widespread abortion restrictions that have been damaging the lives of women for a full year now, was the outcome of a determined, decades-long assault on reproductive rights, rooted in right wing religious beliefs. There is no arguing with those who believe that abortion is murder; it is a matter of faith. And, if you buy that premise, their extremism becomes easy to understand: abortion becomes the equivalent of an annual holocaust, and drastic action becomes justified in the context of such an assault on human rights. They are, in other words, deranged, but not confused. There is no magic wand to wave to rid religious fundamentalists of their faith. But I cannot help thinking that had the press spent the past half century holding Christianity up to the same standard of scrutiny that it holds other political philosophies up to, the creep of fundamentalism up to its control of the Supreme Court could have been arrested.
What I mean is that religion has to be challenged, not respectfully welcomed, whenever it sticks its head into politics. Why is every presidential candidate able to proclaim their belief in Jesus with no subsequent pushback? Why do you believe in him? Do you believe in virgin birth? Do you believe in resurrection after death? Do you believe in miracles? Do you believe in science? You can’t believe in both. Whenever a politician nods to the Bible as their inspiration, they should be interrogated. What’s so great about the Bible? Lots of shit in there that seems clearly impossible. Why do you believe it? What else do you believe that could not possibly be true? How do we know you can assess information properly? Why should non-Christians have any confidence that you can serve them when you operate according to a book they do not embrace? Why should any of us have confidence in you as a rational adult if you abandon your reason to this Book of Myths? I’m not trying to sound like, you know, Richard Dawkins in a fedora over here. I am just trying to articulate a basic, consistent standard of inquiry that the press should be using on any public figure, one that asks for reasons for things that actually make sense. They figured all this out during the Enlightenment. This stuff should have been settled long ago. Religion should not be an amulet that officials can wave to ward off hard questioning. Anyone who proclaims that their political beliefs are a matter of faith should immediately be treated as a bit of a loon. To allow such wanton, unchecked irrationality in the public square opens the door to anything. Anything!
The press does not have the power to tell religious people what to believe. But the general tenor of media coverage in America does set the boundaries of what is considered “mainstream,” the midpoint from which all other discourse is measured. The fact that “faith in the unchallengeable words of an invisible holy god” has—despite its obvious irrationality and, perhaps, insanity—been allowed to persist as an acceptable quality for public officials to hold is a failure of the press to consistently apply its own widely accepted standards of evidence. The media has been cowed into quiescence by the cultural power of religion. That’s bad. It has allowed Christian fundamentalism to position itself within the bounds of the mainstream, rather than being forced out into the wilderness with QAnon and its fellow wacky theories. There is a direct line from this kid glove treatment of religion by the media to a world in which the ascent of a group of hardcore Catholics onto the Supreme Court has been viewed as just another normal political issue, rather than as a creeping religious coup that has now succeeded.
I do not have the power to rip up the deep social and economic and political roots that Christianity has been sinking in America since its founding, to our collective detriment. I do, though, have the power to do a little press criticism. And we, the collective press, have been patsies on this issue. We have given religion far too much respect in the public sphere. We have allowed a belief in private religious liberty to be weaponized into a long-term campaign to make America a religious state. We’ve let faith become an acceptable answer to questions that it has no logical claim to answering. When, over decades and decades, the public square is not scrupulously tended to, it becomes choked with the weeds of superstition. If we welcome religion into politics as an equal, and never force the religious world to confront its own contradictions, we can hardly be surprised when its adherents sink so deeply into their bizarro beliefs that they act on them. They may be deranged. But they are not confused.
This Bryce Covert story on one Mississippi woman who was denied an abortion is an excellent close look at the human cost of living under religious domination.
In much stupider news, here is a piece I wrote for Slate this week about why exercise machines are bad. I have since been inundated with rage from people on the internet who feel very strongly about this topic for some reason, which reminds me of the good old days.
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