The Devil Made ‘Em Do It: Social Crisis and the Misuse of Faith in America

Published as a ZNet Commentary, June 1, 1999

I go through airports about two hundred times a year. As such, I overhear lots of comments from other travelers. Usually they’re of a particularly banal sort, screamed over a cell phone that 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. What’s 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.

On occasion, 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 to board my flight, a man sat down next to me and offered — completely unsolicited — that all these shootings were nothing less than verification of Satan’s presence on Earth, and demonic possession of America’s 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 were right. I mean, what does one do if Satan really is the author of all this unhappiness? I’m pretty sure that at that point gun laws and conflict resolution training become sorta’ useless. Fortunately for him, he assured me, he didn’t have to worry about things like that because his children didn’t attend one of those Godless cesspools that are part of the public education system. “I home school all my kids. Gotta keep ’em away from negative influences,” he explained.

While I’ve been told there are leftists and progressives who home school, let it suffice to say I’ve 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 him how this could be, especially since Littleton appears to be one of the most Christianized communities this side of 16th century Spain, or at least the Massachusetts Bay Colony, I was assured Satan picked out Littleton for precisely that reason: to test the faith of Christ’s loyal minions. If true of course, this would mean that his family is in serious trouble, what with Beelzebub zeroing in on the flock and all, but I thought I’d best leave that one alone.

Ever since the spate of school shootings, hundreds of voices have poured forth to say that we have to get back to God, prayer in school, traditional families, and “the way things were.” Get back to an American innocence that millions seem to think actually existed during their youth. But who are these people, and what innocence are they talking about? What Christian morality are we in need of today that was such a saving grace in the days of yesteryear? Certainly they don’t mean the part Christ actually taught; you know, the one about “Take all you have and give it to the poor,” or the part where Jesus tells folks to pray in their closet so as not to offend God. Oh no, these are the same people who insist they have to raise a million dollars to build yet another tabernacle to the Lord, and for whom most of the poor are lazy degenerates who deserve perhaps a little charity now and then, but certainly nothing to end their poverty outright.

This longing for bygone days strikes me as nothing if not a desire for control: over one’s life, one’s wife, one’s children. It’s no wonder that 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 expansionism around the globe–all in the name of God, and in direct violation of at least two of that same God’s commandments to Moses. What’s more, it’s 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 abortions. 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 they’d pray harder, go to church more regularly, and reinstall the man as the unquestioned head of the household seems not only silly and patriarchal to me, but really rather racist. After all, they don’t say that God is the answer to problems in communities of color. There it’s all about bad black culture, or defective DNA, or single mommas who can’t stop having babies. But somehow when evil comes to their doorstep, it’s time to turn to Christ for deliverance. But if God couldn’t and wouldn’t save Emmett Till, I’ve often felt like asking, then what in the hell makes you think she’s gonna save your white ass? I didn’t get a chance to ask my newfound friend this question, as it was time to board the plane, but I’m sure he wouldn’t have understood what I was talking about anyway.

But maybe I had it backwards. Maybe it was I who didn’t understand what he was talking about. I had assumed he was serious; that he really believed prayer and home schooling would fix the nation’s problems. And yet, the more I thought about it the more I realized he didn’t likely believe any of this, but that wasn’t the point. He didn’t 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 anybody listen to a word they said? Unless you can point to someone who’s a bigger screw up than you are, and single someone out for scorn and approbation as a deviant, then 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 necessary and functional occurrence. While he might mourn the senselessness of the tragedy itself, there is deep down a part of him that needs horrible things like that to happen.

Now I’m not saying this is true of all persons of faith, for I don’t take him to be representative of all such persons. But the kind of Christian that a) has to tell you how big a believer they are; and b) feels that it’s important to have everyone believe just as they do; and c) thinks nothing of reducing complex social phenomena to a simple matter of Satan having just landed an uppercut to the chin of the Almighty in the 9th round of some cosmic heavyweight boxing match: well, these are the kind of folks who scare me.

These are the kind of folks who see every horrible social problem 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 those children get the message and become convinced they really chose their spiritual path of their own free will. The kind of folks for whom God is used like electric shock therapy: just keep giving ’em a little more juice ’till they fall in line. 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 the concept of God can 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 coming religious war in America, complete with “physically bloody” confrontations “like Lebanon.” And yet, even with this kind of 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 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 all over the country it seems by Christians, and no one, anywhere, blames the church. So why not? Why isn’t the church to blame? Why aren’t these good “Christian” parents to blame? Parents like the one who told me a few years ago after a speech I’d 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.

I’d love to know why we give fundamentalist lunacy such a free ride every time it rears its head after a tragedy like Littleton? Why no one wants to challenge the myth of innocence lost that permeates the discussions surrounding the school shootings. Why no one points out that most of the folks in prison for murder (including the ones who are actually guilty), are Christians, and that more of these fine folk kill others each year than all the Goths, pagans, and Wiccans combined.

So why do we still listen to these people? I guess it’s because we’re so afraid to forge a different understanding of what faith could be; so convinced that there isn’t any place for an alternative understanding of spirituality, that we’ve just sort of conceded that ground to the crazies. Perhaps the rationalism and humanistic impulses on the left have made us unwilling to even enter into this discussion. Not that I’m suggesting getting into one with folks like that guy at the airport. But unless we’re willing to meet people where they are — which for 9 in 10 in the U.S. means believers in God — we’re probably going to be in real trouble.

Unless we can offer an alternative explanation of why bad things happen, and how good people can make a difference and change those bad things, there will continue to be folks, who in their desperation for easy answers will content themselves with the version offered by Gary Bauer 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 we’d best keep our eyes wide open, knowing full well that whether it’s home-schooling, or vouchers, or school prayer, or a campaign to get working moms (white ones at least) back in the home, make no mistake, 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 recognize that for most of us, the bigger threats to public safety don’t go to raves on Saturday night with their friends after a long day of playing Nintendo. Rather, they 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.

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