Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Family

The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, by Jeff Sharlet.

I'm about a quarter into it. It's as chilling as I thought it would be to liberal, doubting, intellectual me. (Well, how else could something so illiberal, certain, and anti-intellectual be?) Now there were all the scare passages (scary, to be sure) in which the most common model for the young men is not Jesus, or Paul, or even Peter - but Hitler, Mao, and Genghis Khan. (I'm further appalled that Stalin didn't make the cut.) God loves POWER more than He loves Love. God doesn't just love you, and He sure as heck doesn't love everyone equally. God wants certain Chosen people to be Powerful (like Him). Scary stuff.

But I find in these exposes, it's always the more intimate, personal stories that are more revealing and chilling. Perhaps most frightening was the one young man's spiritual/intellectual journey on pp. 47-51, since it paralleled much of mine till the final, fateful implosion. He had doubted. He had sought. He had read the philosophers. He had read the darkest passages of the Bible (Job, Lamentations, etc.). He'd gone beyond them, to read even darker things outside the Bible, especially Dostoevsky. But rather than be encouraged by such works that it was okay to doubt, that doubt was even the most necessary and revelatory state a person can be in, he suddenly grabbed on to some idea by which all doubt could be removed, blasted from his mind: He saw that God wanted everything he wanted; that when he prayed, there was no need for an answer - the prayer was the answer, for it expressed what he wanted, and what he wanted was what God wanted (p. 52).

Chilling, or non-sensical? Or some sort of Christian koan, in which the absurdity will lead to Enlightenment? The author struggles with various formulations of it, knowing that "Dominionism" comes close (p. 44) but still doesn't capture it. The clearest statement I've seen so far is on p. 60, and epitomizes much of what I see wrong with American spirituality (and which the Family would just be a most extreme instantiation of): "Christ thrives in America not so much as an idea or a deity as a mood: a feeling, a conviction, a sentimental commitment to manifest destiny on a personal level, with national implications." When one grasps such a Christ, one feels a "selflessness, though this last not in the sense of a modesty of spirit that might lead one to help others, but rather in that of an inward gaze that is simultaneously narcissistic and blind to the particulars of the self it sees there" (p. 59). That would make sense of the one young man's journey, and deepen it in a most perverse, dangerous way. The young man had become not someone who knew he didn't know (Socrates), or who saw everything as ultimately and inscrutably in God's hands (a "Christian" idea closer to how I see it), but instead, he'd looked inside himself and saw none other than - GOD! That means, when he goes back out in the world w/o doubt, it's not like the ignorance of those who never sought (e.g. those who shout "USA!" while pumping their fists). It's a rather more trained, honed, willful ignorance - he has WILLED himself not to see the difference between himself and God (a difference which I must take as willful, since it seems too glaringly obvious to me, and impossible to miss otherwise!) - and he can think America (and himself) superior to every nation, because it really is so, in his mind. To change books and metaphors - it would be like someone exiting the Cave, and rather than stare, mesmerized at the Light of Truth, he quickly returned to the Cave to make a mint off the lazy, stupid lummoxes still in chains there, since they were divinely appointed sheep for his divinely-approved fleecing!

So, wow. I think I know someone who needs to sign up for this. He'd no doubt like all the weight-lifting and manly, partly clothed horseplay after dinner, too.

EDIT: Now that I've read further, I should add: I'm not sure the long historical "reconstruction" of Jonathan Edwards really fits. I mean, the author thinks it fits as an explanation of the goings-on of the Family, but I'm not sure his analysis is cogent or accurate. I understand he wants to find the roots of a current phenomenon and movement, but that is always a slippery enterprise, and one fraught with the reconstructor's own biases.

6 Comments:

Blogger eap21152 said...

Magnificent! You have got my mind racing. This could make a great panel at the MAR-AAR meeting in March. Let's get Harold Bloom to give his further reflections on
"the American religion."
As an armchair psychologist of the worst sort, I am also horrified by how all this is connected to Gov. Sanford's affair and his public confessions about it, which showed him to be emotionally frozen at around the age of 13. I would love to know what trauma he suffered then that he was never able to move beyond.

12:04 PM  
Blogger eap21152 said...

Magnificent! You have got my mind racing. This could make a great panel at the MAR-AAR meeting in March. Let's get Harold Bloom to give his further reflections on
"the American religion."
As an armchair psychologist of the worst sort, I am also horrified by how all this is connected to Gov. Sanford's affair and his public confessions about it, which showed him to be emotionally frozen at around the age of 13. I would love to know what trauma he suffered then that he was never able to move beyond.

12:05 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

Thanks! And now that I've read further, I'll add to the original post.

12:08 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

Let me also say on Gov Sanford (and I'd lump Palin in this camp too), vs The Family - I think there are two stereotypes of Christians being lived out by these current groups. One is the "Christians are hypocritical buffoons." The other is "Christians are callous megalomaniacs." We had 8 years of the latter as the main impression of Christians, now we're swinging toward the former. Neither is very flattering, and I sure wish we'd get away from them. And I'm not saying this is a media conspiracy or something - if anything, the responsibility lies more with Christians to behave themselves in a reasonable, civil, humane manner and let themselves be known by their works.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Scott Field said...

But rather than be encouraged by such works that it was okay to doubt, that doubt was even the most necessary and revelatory state a person can be in, he suddenly grabbed on to some idea by which all doubt could be removed, blasted from his mind

Interesting observation. I think this is behind much of what divides us culturally these days: there are those who are comfortable with the concept of doubt, and those who are terrified by it. The slightest hint of uncertainty sends them running to the nearest comforting lie. And not just in religion – it’s at the root of most wacky conspiracy theories, from the “birthers” to the anti-vaccine nuts. It’s even a major factor in our current health care “debate;” not to say there aren’t legitimate concerns, but most of the rhetoric seems to go from “change is scary” straight to “DEATH PANELS WILL EUTHANIZE YOUR GRANDMOTHER!!!”

There is, of course, a certain strength and focus that comes from certainty that makes it undeniably appealing to many people, especially those seeking power. The problem for society is that not only does it make it hard for the individual to change his/her mind, it makes it nearly impossible to have rational debates. About anything.

12:49 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

Yes, Scott, I had that unpleasant experience when "discussing" with a fundie: there was no discussion. There was me marshalling evidence and describing my experience, and trying to see things from his perspective, and there was him saying, "No, no, no, it can only be this way! The Bible says so!" The only moment when I felt some compassion or interest in what he was saying was when he admitted that if he doubted the way I did, he couldn't live with it, it'd be too much for him. Well, far be it from me to take such certainty and comfort away from somebody, but if it makes you think nutty things that harm other people, maybe you should keep your "faith" (="certainty") under a bushel.

This then leads me to consider the problem of the modern "solution" of having religiosity be a purely "private" affair. We proclaim you can believe anything, no matter how nonsensical, so long as you keep it to yourself. I'd rather people were more public about their beliefs, but were willing to negotiate and consider (and - gasp! - maybe even change!)those beliefs in discussion with others. But then I encounter someone with ideas I find so abhorrent (or just silly) and I fall back on the panacea of "Well, that's your opinion, but don't try to impose it on me." I keep hoping for something better.

1:03 PM  

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