The Devil Made 'Em Do It: Social Crisis and the Misuse of Faith in America
Association for White Anti-Racist Education
I find myself in airports about 200 times a year. As such, I overhear lots of comments from other travelers. Usually theyre of a particularly banal sort, screamed over a cell phone which seems permanently attached to the ear of one of a few thousand interchangeable corporate automatons. Sell the damned stock, I said... is one of my favorites. Followed by Every time I go out of town, the whole operation goes to shit...whats wrong with you people? Better yet: the ubiquitous Bye honey, I love you, mouthed into the phone by some white guy in suspenders sweating Bourbon and Coke, who two minutes earlier was ogling the cleavage on the waitress at the B Concourse bar.
Occasionally, the airport chatter turns to more serious subjects, as was the case recently when I found myself unhappily locked in conversation about the school shootings in Colorado. As I waited for my row number to be called, a man sat down next to me and offeredcompletely unsolicitedthat all these shootings were clear verification of Satans presence on Earth, and demonic possession of Americas youth. Trying not to be rude, I more or less ignored him, thinking that although I was pretty sure he was wrong, it would be a real pisser if he was right. I mean, what does one do if Satan really is the author of all this unhappiness? Im pretty sure that at that point gun laws and conflict resolution training become sorta useless.
Fortunately for him, he assured me, he didnt have to worry about things like that because his children didnt attend one of those Godless cesspools that are part of the public education system. I home school my kids. Gotta keep em away from negative influences, he explained. While Ive been told there are leftists who home school, let it suffice to say Ive never met one. Just guys like this who think if you throw a little Jesus in with the Calculus, that somehow you and yours will be immune to family and social dysfunction. When I asked how this could be, especially since Littleton appears to be one of the most Christianized communities this side the Massachusetts Bay Colony, I was assured that Satan picked out Littleton for precisely that reason: to test the faith of Christs loyal minions. If true of course, this would mean his family is in serious trouble, what with Beelzebub zeroing in on the flock and all, but I thought Id best leave that one alone.
Ever since the spate of school shoot-em ups, hundreds of voices have poured forth with one or another version of the same tune: we have to get back to God, prayer in school, traditional families, and the way things were. Get back, they say, to an American innocence which millions seem to think actually existed in the days of their youth.
This longing for bygone days strikes me as nothing if not a desire for control. Control over ones life, ones wife, ones children. Its no wonder the folks expressing this yearning are almost always white. Only white folks could think we were losing control of anything. After all, people of color never had that much control to lose. Only white folks could look so sanguinely upon the past. Only white people could forget that the Christian morality they seek launched wars of extermination on Native folk, was used to justify the enslavement of Africans and the taking of land from Mexico, and drove the colonial mentality of expansion around the globeall in the name of God, and in direct violation of at least two of that same Gods commandments to Moses. Whats more, its the same Christian morality that is today conjured up by folks like Mr. Home School in the Detroit airport to attack gays and lesbians and assassinate doctors who perform abortion. In fact, just thinking about it makes me pretty sure that these folks brand of Christianity is precisely what we need less of in this country.
That these same white Christians think God will protect them if only theyd pray harder, go to church more regularly, and reinstall the man as the unquestioned head of the household seems not only silly and patriarchal, but really rather racist. After all, they dont say God is the answer to problems in communities of color. There its all about bad black culture, or defective DNA, or single mommas who cant stop having babies. But somehow when evil comes to their doorstep, its time to turn to Christ for deliverance. But if God couldnt and wouldnt save Emmet Till, Ive often felt like asking, then what in the hell makes you think shes gonna save your white ass? I didnt get to ask my newfound friend this question, as it was time to board the plane, but Im sure he wouldnt have understood what I was talking about anyway.
But maybe I had it backwards. Maybe it was I who didnt understand what he was talking about. I had assumed he was serious; that he really believed prayer and home schooling would fix the nations problems. And yet, the more I thought about it the more I realized he didnt likely believe any of this, but that wasnt the point.
He didnt home school his kids or take dominion over his wife to reduce the crime rate, or improve the tenor of civil society. He does these things, and fundamentalists everywhere do them for control, and no other reason. In fact, people like this need dysfunction and social breakdown. Without chaos and suffering, why would anyone listen to them? Unless you can single someone out for as a deviant, how will anyone know to pat you on the back for what a fine, upright citizen you managed to become? In other words, for guys like this, the massacre of schoolchildren is a functional occurrence. While he might mourn the senselessness of the tragedy, there is deep down a part of him that needs horrible things like that to happen.
These are the kind of folks who see every horrible occurrence as proof of the need for ever more repression; ever less pluralism and tolerance; ever more movement towards theocratic institutions. The kind of folks for whom religion is a bludgeon, wielded over the heads of their terrified children until the kids get the message and become convinced they really chose their spiritual path of their own free will. It brings to mind something James Baldwin said in The Fire Next Time: If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him.
Whether or not the concept of God can in fact make us any of those things remains an open question, for there are clearly those seeking to make sure God is used for far less universal purposes. After all, it was Randall Terry, of Operation Rescue, who said Christians might have to take up the sword to forge a culture based on Biblical Law. And it was Pat Robertson who in 1992 predicted a religious war in America, complete with physically bloody confrontations, like Lebanon. Yet, even with this apocalyptic rhetoric, no one suggested a crackdown on fundamentalist Christians, the way some of these Christians have called for a crackdown on Goths, or Marilyn Manson. Over 160 abortion clinics have been bombed or burned in the past twelve years, mostly by Christians; the Murrah Federal Building was blown up by someone who professes to be a Christian; and gays and lesbians are being beaten, burned, and tied to fenceposts by Christians, and no one, anywhere, blames the church.
So why not? Why isnt the church to blame? Why arent these good Christian parents to blame? Parents like the one who told me a few years ago after a speech Id given on homophobia that her children were her property, and she had every right to teach them that homosexuals were evil, Satanic, and deserving of death.
Id love to know why we seem to give fundamentalist lunacy such a free ride every time it rears its head after a tragedy like Littleton? Maybe its because were so afraid to forge a different understanding of what faith could be; so convinced that there isnt any place for an alternative understanding of spirituality, that weve just conceded that ground to the crazies. Perhaps the rationalism and humanistic impulses on the left have made us unwilling to enter this discussion. Not that Im suggesting getting into one with folks like that guy at the airport. But unless were willing to meet people where they arewhich for 9 in 10 in the U.S. means believers in Godwere probably going to be in trouble. Unless we can offer an alternative explanation of why bad things happen, and how good people can make a difference and change those things, there will continue to be folks who in their desperation for easy answers will content themselves with the version offered by Gary Bauer, Ralph Reed, and James Dobson.
I make no claims to know exactly how we should do this. I have no pretensions that countering the misuse of public tragedies by the right to push a reactionary agenda will be easy. But wed best keep our eyes open, knowing full well that whether its home-schooling, or vouchers, or school prayer, or a campaign to get working moms back in the home, the forces of rollback are poised to make good on their promises for a Christian Nation. We would all do well to pay close attention, and to recognize that for most of us, the bigger threats to public safety and the nations well-being dont go to raves on Saturday night with their friends after a long day of Nintendo, but rather, walk out of church on Sunday, Bible in hand, ready to do battle with Satan, who after all, is you, me, and everyone else who fails to profess the one true faith.
Tim Wise is a social critic and antiracist activist, based in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the Director of the Association for White Anti-Racist Education (AWARE). Since this commentary has pretty much nothing to do with his work at AWARE, those seeking to reach him should do so at his personal e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org