Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Young Christian soldiers

Digby brings our attention to the recent "Battle Cry" rally in Philadelphia, where a crowd of about 25,000 -- mostly teenagers and young adults -- pledged their fealty to a vision of a theocratic Christian nation. This pledge was obtained, mostly, by scaring the crap out of them,

That was clear from this account on DKos:
But BattleCry Philadelphia was more than just a vulgar carnival designed to suck donations into the coffers of Ron Luce's corporation "Teen Mania". Indeed, it had a point, to recruit the future elite "warriors" in the coming battle against the separation of church and state. It turned dark and frightening on Saturday afternoon. After Franklin "Islam is a Wicked Religion" Graham came out to thunder against the evils of homosexuality and the Iraqi people (whom he considers to be exactly the same people as the ancient Babylonians who enslaved the tribes of Israel and deserving, one would assume, the exact same fate) we heard an explosion. Flames shot out on stage and a team of Navy Seals was shown on the big TV monitors in full camouflage creeping forward down the hallway from the locker room with their M16s. They were hunting us, the future Christian leaders of America. Two teenage girls next to me burst into tears and even I, a jaded middle-aged male, almost jumped out of my skin. I imagined for that moment what it must have felt like to have been a teacher at Columbine high school. 10 seconds later they rushed out onstage and pointed their guns in our direction firing blanks spitting flames. About 1000 shots and bang, we were all dead.

Perhaps most disturbing, the rally included an endorsement from President Bush, as Sunsara Taylor reported:
It began with fireworks so loud and startling I screamed. Lights and smoke followed, and a few kids were pulled up on stage from the crowd. One was asked to read a letter.

This was the letter that opened the event. Its author was George W. Bush. Yes, the president of the United States sent a letter of support, greeting, prayer and encouragement to the BattleCry event held at Wachovia Spectrum Stadium in Philadelphia on May 12. Immediately afterward, a preacher took the microphone and led the crowd in prayer. Among other things, he asked the attendees to "Thank God for giving us George Bush."

On his cue, about 17,000 youths from upward of 2,000 churches across America and Canada directed their thanks heavenward in unison.

Taylor filed an earlier report at Counterpunch, and likewise noted Battle Cry's ties to the White House, including the appointment of founder Ron Luce to the White House Advisory Commission on Drug-Free Communities, and extending to Bush's circle of contacts with the religious right:
Behind their multi-million dollar operation that sends more than 5,000 missionaries to more than thirty-four countries each year, are some of the most powerful and extreme religious lunatics in the country. Their partners include Pat Robertson (who got a call from Karl Rove to discuss Alito before the nomination was made public), Ted Haggard (who brags that his concerns will be responded to by the White House within 24 hours), Jerry Falwell (who blamed September 11th on homosexuals, feminists, pagans, and abortionists), and others. Their events have been addressed by Barbara Bush (via video) as well as former President Gerry Ford. This weekend's event will include Franklyn Graham who has ministered to George Bush and publicly proclaimed that Islam is an "evil religion."

I first noticed BattleCry when they held their San Francisco rally a couple of months ago. After reading up on them and listening carefully to their rhetoric, I think Taylor's labeling of them as "fascist" is not exactly correct. Rather, I think they're a classic case of pseudo fascism:
Unlike the genuine article, it presents itself under a normative, rather than a revolutionary, guise; and rather than openly exulting in violence, it pays lip service to law and order. Moreover, even in the areas where it resembles real fascism, the similarities are often more familial than exact. It is, in essence, less virulent and less violent, and thus more likely to gain broad acceptance within a longtime stable democratic system like that of the United States.

And further:
The familial resemblance of fascism's architecture is unmistakable, but it is not fully fleshed out. It is like a hologram, a skeletal outline, of fascism.

Fascism is not a single, readily identifiable principle but a political pathology, best understood (as in psychology) as a constellation of traits ... Taken individually, many of these traits seem innocuous enough, even readily familiar, part of the traditional American political hurly-burly. A few of them are present throughout the political spectrum -- but definitely not all of them.

It is only when taken together in sum does the constellation become clear. And when it comes together, it is fated to take on a life of its own.

The main component of fascism that is missing from Battle Cry is the real, beating heart of fascism: its eliminationist violence. There's plenty of pretend violence, and certainly plenty of demonization of the "enemy," all of which build toward the real thing. But there's relatively little talk, yet, of "crushing" or eliminating or exterminating the enemy, which is really the signal characteristic of the Brownshirt.

That doesn't mean they don't have the potential to morph into something very dangerous indeed, in large part because their message is so potent in the national environment of fearfulness that has been the core of the Bush administration's appeal since 9/11.

Recall, if you will, the description of the "exemplary dualist" mindset (also >here) on which this appeal is based, drawn from "Religious Totalism, Violence and Exemplary Dualism: Beyond the Extrinsic Model," by the sociologists Dick Anthony and Thomas Robbins:
It has been a staple of recent American cultural analysis and criticism that the contemporary United States increasingly lacks a consensual and compelling social ethic and that in consequence, the 'covenant' uniting the American people has become, in Robert Bellah's words, an 'empty and broken shell.' One consequence of the lack of an integrative ethic, we have intimated above, is a diminished capacity of parents -- who are themselves wrestling with the fragmented selves that result from the lack of an integrated ethic -- to serve as persuasive role-models or identification figures for their children, and thereby to transmit a coherent set of values. In this context parents may tend to treat their children as 'self-objects' in the sense of evaluating them in terms of tangible, purely external criteria such as their apparent social-academic-vocational 'success' or competence. This pattern enhances the anxiety over the themes of success, competence and power on the part of children, who are more likely to develop a fragmented or polarized self composed of a grandiose, all-powerful or omnipotent self which is split off from a devalued, pathetic, failed self.

Social movements with distinctly dualistic worldviews provide psycho-ideological contexts which facilitate attempts to heal the split self by projecting negativity and devalued self-elements onto ideologically devalued contrast symbols. But there is another possible linkage between these kinds of movements and individuals with split selves in the throes of identity confusion. People with the whole range of personality disorders, which utilize splitting and projective identification, tend to have difficulties in establishing stable, intimate relationships. Splitting tends to produce volatile and unstable relationships as candidates for intimacy are alternately idealized and degraded. Thus, narcissists tend to have vocational, and more particularly, interpersonal difficulties as they obsessively focus upon status-reinforcing rewards in interpersonal relations. They have difficulty developing social bonds grounded in empathy and mutuality, and their structure of interpersonal relations tends to be unstable. Thus, individuals may be tempted to enter communal and quasi-communal social movements which combine a more structured setting for interpersonal relations with a dualistic interpersonal theme of 'triangulation' which embodies the motif of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.' Such movements create a sense of mutuality by focusing attention on specific contrast groups and their values, goals and lifestyles so that this shared repudiation seems to unite the participants and provide a meaningful 'boundary' to operationalize the identity of the group. Solidarity within the group and the convert's sense of dedication and sacrifice on behalf of group goals may enable him or her to repudiate the dissociated negative (bad, weak or failed) self and the related selfish and exploitative self which they may be aware that others might have perceived. These devalued selves can then be projected on to either scapegoats designated by the group or, more generally, non-believers whose values and behavior allegedly do not attain the exemplary purity and authenticity of that of devotees.

As I went on to explain (also here), the "underlying worldview has a much broader audience in the field of mainstream fundamentalism and so-called cults":
Nine characteristics which appear to us to be shared by authoritarian personalities, fundamentalists and authoritarian cults such as Hare Krishna, the Unification Church, etc.:

(1) Separatism or the heightened sensitivity and tension regarding group boundaries. This usually includes 'Authoritarian Aggression' which entails rejecting and punitive attitudes toward deviants, minorities and outsiders.

(2) Theocratic leanings or willingness to see the state expanded so as to enforce the group's particular moral and ideological preferences at the expense of pluralism or church-state separation.

(3) Authoritarian submission entailing dependency on strong leaders and deferential attitudes toward authorities and hierarchical superiors.

(4) Some form of conventionalism in terms of both belief and practice. Apparent exceptions such as antinomian groups, for example, the Bhagwan movement of Rajneesh or the quasi-Marxist Peoples Temple of Jim Jones …

(5) Apocalypticism.

(6) Evangelism or a focus on proselytization and conversion.

(7) Coercive tendencies in terms of either punitive reactions toward internal dissidence and non-conformity (for example, exile from fellowship, shunning, harsh 'self-criticism,' confessional sessions) or willingness to have non-conformists suppressed or discouraged by the state.

(8) Consequentialism or a tendency to see moral or ideological virtue producing tangible rewards to believers. This may entail belief in a 'just world' in which the good are tangibly rewarded and the wicked undone on the human plane.

(9) Finally, groups whose members tend to score high in authoritarianism or dogmatism tend to have strong beliefs and tend to make doctrinal acceptance a membership criterion. As with 'Moonies' studied by Galanter (among whom strong belief was correlated with feelings of group solidarity and the 'relief effect'), authoritarians and fundamentalists appear to have a strong 'investment' in their beliefs.

As I noted, much of Anthony's and Robbins' work builds upon the work of sociologist Robert Lifton and his colleague Charles Strozier, whom they cite extensively:
Both writers have explicitly linked totalism and fundamentalism. Interestingly, they tend to define fundamentalism in terms very close to descriptions of authoritarianism: for example, fundamentalist childrearing practices -- allegedly strict, repressive, corporally punitive and guilt-inducing -- resemble the familial milieux associated with authoritarian personalities. The emphasis by Lifton and Strozier on fundamentalist scriptural literalism, textual fetishism, obsession with disorder, nostalgia for a strongly ordered golden age less chaotic than the present, and emphasis on restoration keyed to inerrant scriptural texts, appears to evoke classic descriptions of authoritarian personalities.

This is the basis of pseudo-fascist appeals, and any effort to confront it effectively will have to come to terms with how it arises.

Michelle Goldberg -- whose new book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, really is a must-read -- describes the depths of the challenge well:
To write "Kingdom Coming," I traveled all over America, going to megachurches and ministries, attending rallies and conferences, and visiting some of the government-funded faith-based initiatives that, under Bush, have slowly begun to replace secular social services. I immersed myself in the literature of the movement and even took to listening to Christian radio. I began to realize that what I was encountering was as much a totalistic political movement as a religious one. What I describe as Christian nationalism is not synonymous with evangelical Christianity or even Christian fundamentalism. It is, rather, a movement that purports to have extrapolated a complete governing program from the bible, and that claims divine sanction for its campaign of national renewal. It promotes a revisionist history in which the founders were conservative Christians who never meant to separate church and state, and in which America's true Christian character has been subverted by several generations of God-hating leftists. It explicitly condemns the Enlightenment and denies that Enlightenment values had anything to do with our nation's original ideals. The movement's literature is so vast, its alternative skein of pseudo-facts so intricate, that it often seemed totally impervious to outside argument.

... By citing Arendt, I am certainly not suggesting that theocratic dictatorship is imminent in America. Rather, I'm saying that the Christian nationalist movement has a proto-totalitarian ideology and structure, and that, while it only represents a minority of Americas, it has amassed more influence than those who cherish secularism and pluralism should be comfortable with.

When we see groups like this taking shape, we need to understand that they are a warning sign that something is coming that the politics of the past may be inadequate to contain. It means we need to reach deeper and find something that dispells the cloud of fear that conservative rule has shrouded over the nation.

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