Monday, December 17, 2012

Not Beyond Understanding

Nothing human is inexplicable.  Let' start there.  Even when it hurts this much.

I was asked to comment by a dear friend about the protests being staged by the so-called Westboro Baptist Church, that vilely abusive organization that takes it upon itself to offend in the most malignant and distasteful ways whenever it seems possible to attract media attentions.  That they would exploit the grief and decency of the people of Newtown, Connecticut, the sensibilities of the nation, and indeed place American freedoms before the world to see is deliberate.  The hackers exposing them will not cause them to relent but rather add fuel to their fires.  Condemnation of their behavior is no less important even as it provides them some part of what they seek.  That irony should not be lost on any of us.  My point here will be to explain that as offensive as Westboro Baptist may be, it is not at all beyond our understanding.  In fact, their behavior is part of the decidedly American story that we can tell about the relationship of religion to our creation of a distinctive political discourse.  Here is the link that brings the matter before us (again):

The most difficult feature to fathom of the Westboro Baptist worldview is their insistence on creating such deliberately offensive public intervention and display. They seek to nurture that public discord quite deliberately and that needs to be seen in light of a distinctive set of circumstances that invite us to consider the situation of American religions.  Placed in an American context this too can be understood as a reckoning of religion and politics. If you will allow me a touch of pedantry, I will explain, college-professor style.  Even this will be far too brief to touch on anything but essentials.

First, tracing apocalyptic claims to the first century means that what we see here may appear something strange but nothing new.  To make those claims to the end of days became standard faire from the earliest forms of incipient Christianity and part of what we might call an ordinary feature of the effort to reconcile the “delay” in the Second Coming.  By the second century, the emergent Christian movements had plenty to reconcile since their predictions of impending final cataclysm required dramatic rethinking.  We might even go so far as to say that the many responses to Jesus’s non-second-earthly-appearance are the nearly innumerable Christianities of history.

It may seem more familiar to us in America nowadays for the more ardent advocates of apocalypse to use their public voices for further theological speculation regarding the imminent end-time and to promote their particular versions of social gospel, often with typically isolating features claiming their moral superiority. Hence we arrive at moral proclamations about social behaviors that mean to offend and admonish those with whom they disagree.  Everything from climate change to same-sex marriage are on the docket for the religious to tie their assertions about apocalypse with historical change, be it with regard to scientific fact or social mores.  Claiming to preserve, to conserve the values of the past, they mean to promote their views as predictive of the future.  Recent comments from the Pope regarding same-sex marriage are not couched in particularly apocalyptic threats from God but rather offend on the basis of a claim to history, culture, and moral superiority that bears a comparable stench of discrimination, hypocrisy, and oppression.  (Look here for those comments:  To claim moral superiority on the basis of a religious conviction, no matter how offensive it may be to some, especially those who bear the brunt of such oppressions, is nothing at all unusual.  To use the past, usually in the guise of conservatism, as a predictive of the future is part of their claim to truth: they mean to tell us who we have been, who we need to be, and what will happen to us if we fail to heed their moralizing injunctive. Religion never need be presumed as a force for social good, much less for progress, though there are any number of counters and responses from others using religion in their modes of reasoning and expression to assert otherwise.  Communities of religious people make all sorts of difference in the world, however we construe the value of such differences. 

Returning to comparisons with American millennialism, it’s not unusual to see such groups isolate themselves in a self-imposed retreat or compound away from society and wait, as it were, for the end time they predict.  In the meantime, we Americans largely condone their religious freedom and respect their rights as citizens insofar as they do not break the law.  Just how far such groups deem themselves subject to the secular law of the land is part of their test of religious rights.

Perhaps far less overtly offensive are self-containing communities with minimally intrusive evangelism as their strategy, remaining in secular society but with community-endorsed forms of interaction.  Again, the issue of religious freedom in America guarantees their rights within the terms of secular law--- for all American law means by definition to be secular.  This too is a promise of the First Amendment not to allow religion to intrude upon the ordinances of reason we declare to be law.  It is also a matter of increasing scrutiny and further consideration in light of the current state of the Supreme Court (but I shall not digress in that direction).

It’s rarer still to witness this level of flagrant and publicly offensive street protestors such as Westboro. The soapbox ranting apocalyptic is not all that unusual.  I would venture to say that it can be found in nearly every American city with a street corner.  Adding fuel to the fire is the role of media and the deliberate use of public exposure to create a more incendiary public display.  Religious exhibitionism is particularly well-sanctioned in America and the cost of reining in the offensive is meant to test our boundaries of decency as well as the benefits of freedom of expression.  Any moment on television will create further opportunity and we all know that radio creates an even more volatile atmosphere of tolerance-testing our moral outrage and political rights to expression.

There is a vulgar dichotomy between an apocalyptic _fear_ of exposure as they expose themselves, claiming persecution for their beliefs and their feelings of necessity of being heard as part of their claim to share a privileged religious understanding that is a civilly protected right.  They at once mean to isolate themselves _and_ to share their privileged religious understanding; this being the dichotomy they play out in public and in an America that has protected religious expression politically.  Some extremists, like Heaven's Gate, take eschatological matters into their own hands and compel followers to follow. Such forms of public isolation (note the irony, of course) are features of their alterity, their sense that they have been chosen to be a privileged "other" and so root that claim on an interpretation of scripture, revelation (often from their leader), and some sort of divine intervention that assures them of their superiority.

Among these Westboro folks, this claim to privileged otherness adds a dimension of outrage and acting out in society that means to confirm and justify their behavior with special reference to American millennialism seen in light of history: they are exercising free speech to violate civility (as a way of acting out their "freedom"); they are guising their isolationist hate as religion and so highlight their privilege to exercise their offensive behaviors, and they are testing the boundaries of civil society, which they deem evil because only their version of religious "society" is beyond contempt.

In sum, they can likely only express themselves in such offensive public ways because America has nearly unique laws among civilized nations that protect outrageous, offensive, and abusive behaviors that can be regarded as speech or religious acts. Testing these boundaries of civil rights protected by the Constitution is part of an American millennialism mentality that links their notions of persecution to their religious beliefs that secularism is evil, i.e., any religious view not their own and the State as persecutor-in-chief. They connect the offense they create with their own self-styled persecution.  To this offense, both “received” and offered, they further tie the privilege they arrogate to themselves as specially chosen religious persons. WE are the damned, THEY are the chosen creates a binary that permits them to do or say anything and then claim ---with no small degree of irony---that they are protected to say and act as they do NOT by the extraordinary privileges of _civil_ rights (distinctly American) but rather as their God-given imperative.

An extension of this sort of religious thinking is the commensurate survivalism that infects certain 2nd Amendment advocates.  We learn today from Nancy Lanza's sister that her "enthusiasm" for guns was at least in part prompted by her delusional fear of the lawlessness and tyranny that will ensue upon the impending economic collapse of the current United States government.  (Look here the comments of Marsha Lanza regarding their apparently shared view of our current political situation: Is it going to far to suggest that this self-induced fantasy of ominous and looming catastrophe is not only comparable but linked to similarly expressed religious sentiments?  And what of the propagation of such attitudes, values, and claims in major media outlets that are particularly favored by extremist American religious?  I have in mind the influence of Fox News and its minions.  At what point do we create more scourge thinking by legitimizing it in the name of "news" and commentary?

Apocalyptic religionists use America's notions of civil liberties as if they were religiously conferred in order to condemn the very rights that are socially sanctioned by secular law. It is a sad, pathetic, sociopathic view of the world that may, in fact, be only possible in America and as a decidedly American feature of social religious history. People have, as we know, been persecuted for their religious beliefs in a country that specially singles out religion as a category of non-governmental intervention (First Amendment issues).  Linking their peculiar and deeply offensive religious views to the political is precisely their way of hastening the apocalypse they mean to bring upon themselves and us with them. For what are we to do? Are we to restrict their offensive speech and behaviors at the cost of our own freedom to speak and act in protest? That would serve them as well as define us as our own worse enemy. That very bind is what they further mean to exacerbate, and it is no less offensive that they mean deliberately to be sociopathic with such willful abuse of our hard-earned freedoms.  That sociopathic desire is part and parcel of their religious worldview, sanctioned ironically by the powers of secular law to be expressed freely.