After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the Reverend Pat Robertson declared, “Why it’s happening is that God Almighty is lifting his protection from us.” The Reverend Jerry Falwell exclaimed, “The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad.” Falwell, whose influence has declined faster than his name recognition, retracted these remarks, but the effect of this and many other stumbles by US evangelical leaders amounts to a syndrome. At the risk of coining a new Bushism, I call it “fundaresentalism.”

Evangelical Christianity is the source of America’s strength and the long-term key to its global influence, as denominations of US origin gain converts faster than any other faith. Faith has kept the angel of demographic death away from America’s shores while the first-born Christian cultures in Europe wither and die. Yet evangelical leaders display episodes of appalling silliness, betraying a bucolic backwardness that bans the enormous evangelical movement from America’s governing classes.

Tim LaHaye, author of the best-selling Left Behind series of theo-fiction, insists that we take the Bible literally, which is to say mindlessly. This seems a good opportunity to continue my occasional series, “Why Are Americans So Stupid?”

In my last installment (American Idolatry, August 29), I observed that America’s popular music descends from the whining complaint of American rural folk. Resentment causes Americans to listen to singers who sound like them and with whom they can identify, rather than singers who sound much better than them. Children prefer finger-painting to Diego Velazquez because they feel at home in the world of children and feel lost in the world of results. Americans who grew up in the 1950s and afterward remain in a perpetual childhood of peer identification, hostile to all authority.

That is not quite true, I concluded in the August 29 essay; most Americans acknowledge the Bible as a supreme authority. But that is not quite the case if the Bible is to be taken “literally,” that is, the way an ignorant man would read it on the surface. In that case, the authority is not the Bible at all, but rather the authority of the ignoramus who reads it. This writer accepts the authority of the Bible, but confesses his inability to understand most of it without the assistance of learned commentators. Paradoxically, biblical literalism is a resentment-driven revolt against authority.

Professor Mark Noll addressed the “scandal of the evangelical mind” in his eponymous book a decade ago. As religious historian Grant Wacker summed it up, “The problem, in short, is evangelicals’ appalling parochialism, their unwillingness to break out of the vast but all-too-comfortable ghetto of evangelical churches and colleges and publishing networks and engage an intellectual world long ago captured by [Karl] Marx and [Charles] Darwin and [Sigmund] Freud.” [1] But I am talking about something more workaday, namely the way in which daily evangelical practice turns millions of people into idiots.

If one is compelled to take every word at face value, the reader stumbles into an impenetrable swamp in the first chapter of Genesis. This startling document breaks with all conceivable precedents in numerous ways. To begin with, it posits a god who merely is there, unlike the gods of the pagan world who are born and presumably also will die. The gods are immortal but not eternal and ultimately subject to fate. The biblical god stands outside of nature in a universe that knows no such thing as fate. The heavenly bodies, divine beings in all previous theogony, are set in the heavens as lamps and watches for the convenience of humankind. [2]

The Holy See long ago accepted the notion that evolution did not impugn the biblical creation story. America’s literal Bible readers, however, spend endless time and treasure attempting to suppress what they falsely perceive as a slur upon biblical theauthority. This is a gigantic waste of time, like beating one’s head against the wall. But beating one’s head against the wall causes brain damage over time. It is easy to dismiss this effort as stupid, but in fact it is much worse than that. It recalls the exchange between the stuffed tiger Hobbes and six-year-old Calvin in Bill Watterson’s old comic strip. “Do you have the right to be ignorant?” asks Hobbes. Calvin returns, “I refuse to find out!”

If one could put the biblical literalists into an appropriate comic strip, the thought bubble here would read: “We are the righteous, virtuous country folk fighting against the decadent metropolis. We may be ignorant, but we have a right to be ignorant, and we will fight for the right to be ignorant by ruling out of order any discussion that would put our ignorance in question!”

Creationism is a distraction, though, compared with the problem of how Christians should address Islam. Pat Robertson shouts his belief that the Muslims are heathen from the rooftops. In a 2003 speech in Israel, he said:

Make no mistake – the entire world is being convulsed by a religious struggle. The fight is not about money or territory; it is not about poverty versus wealth; it is not about ancient customs versus modernity. No – the struggle is whether Hubal, the moon god of Mecca, known as Allah, is supreme, or whether the Judeo-Christian Jehovah God of the Bible is supreme. [3]

It is crude, clumsy and wrong to dismiss Allah as an Arabian moon god. Islam is not a simple extension of prior paganism. A universal religion that knows no ethnicity cannot be lumped together with the heathen worship of pre-Islamic tribes. The truth is more elusive.

There is a well-developed argument that Islam is “a monistic paganism,” and that Allah is “the old pagan pantheon rolled up into one,” as German Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig wrote some 85 years ago. I reported Rosenzweig’s views three years ago in this space. [4] Pope Benedict offered a devastating judgment on Islam’s ability to reform, but it was intended only for the ears of his inner circle of students, not for public circulation. [5] A scandal erupted last year over the pope’s remarks on Islam to a seminar at his summer residence, as reported by Father Joseph Fessio, SJ, on a Florida radio talk show. My report in this space contributed to the notoriety of the incident. Father Fessio ultimately apologized for making the pope’s views public.

That is the misery of the West. The evangelicals have no fear of offending Muslims and say what they think; the crafty old men of the Vatican understand the issues far better, but are afraid to speak them above a whisper.

The most extreme (and by far the silliest) expression of US resentment is the Church of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, one of the fastest-growing denominations within America’s new Great Awakening. Its founding document is The Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith’s 1827 “translation” of lost books of the Bible from golden tablets no one else could see with the help of the aptly named Angel Moroni. Anyone who can read this transparent forgery without giggling should be condemned to watch the South Park version of the history of Mormonism on a closed loop until Judgment Day.

The mystery is why anyone would take this nonsense seriously. The answer, I believe, is The Book of Mormon‘s assertion that Jesus Christ walked on American soil and that native American were one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel. The latter association has been conclusively refuted by DNA evidence, which shows no genetic link whatever between native Americans and Jews, but no matter. The attraction of this silly doctrine is that Americans might have their own American revelation, with American references and an American history. In other words, it is driven by resentment against the unpleasant fact that Americans remain beholden to the history of the Old World.

The fact is that Americans are beholden to the Old World and will be until Americans can produce minds with the depth and scope of a Soren Kierkegaard, a Karl Barth or a Franz Rosenzweig. As I noted last year, the most important theologian working today in the United States might be an Orthodox Jew, Michael Wyschogrod. [6] It is well and good to throw off the authority of the compromised and often corrupt state churches of Europe, but the threadbare homespun of evangelical thinking is very, very far from being a replacement.

It is not that Americans are inherently stupid. They make themselves stupid by resenting authorities that seem distant and alien to them. Until that changes, the evangelicals will be America’s non-commissioned officers, not its generals and statesmen.

[1] In First Things, March 1995.
[2] To use the felicitous phrase of Hannes Stein in “The return of the gods,” First Things, November 1999, pp 34-38.
[3] Why evangelical Christians support Israel,
[4] Oil on the flames of civilizational war, December 2, 2003.
[5]When even the pope has to whisper, January 10, 2006.
[6] Abraham’s promise and American power, February 8, 2005.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *