I’m confused. I thought that followers of Christ are supposed to pray for the interests of the sick and the poor, not pray against them. But here’s a group of Republican lawmakers and right-wing activists, led by Lou Engle and Michelle Bachmann, earnestly gathering in opposition to the Senate’s tepid health care reform bill, treating it like it would be some horrible sin against God were it to pass:
As I watched the above video, I said to myself, “Where have I seen the host of this event—Lou Engle—before? He looks familiar.”
Then it registered with me. I live in California, and back in November of 2008, Lou Engle organized a giant (30,000 people strong) anti-gay prayer rally in San Diego. The prayer rally was in the run-up to the state’s vote on Proposition 8 (marriage equality for gay people), so apparently organizing earnest prayer events (to urge God to literally intervene and thwart liberal electoral or legislative victories) is Engle’s religious—political?—“calling.” Here’s some video from that time:
Obviously, in contemporary American culture, there are an awful lot of people walking around who, though not gods themselves, and thus having no experience at being gods, nevertheless know exactly what the God of all heaven and Earth wants to happen in human politics. The God above all gods doesn’t want civic equality for homosexuals, and he (for God is always addressed as male at these curious events) doesn’t want health care reform for the working poor in America.
And how do so many people know these extraordinary things concerning the divine mind? They just do.
Look, I’m not against prayer, or praying in public (though Jesus was). I’m also not against public displays of art. Nor am I against people getting together to dance, sing, or eat. Prayer, like these other collective activities, will probably—in some form—always go on among human beings, and I wish the practice well. But I get suspicious when I see religious or aesthetic ecstasy bleed, without any governing inhibition or proportion, into politics. It is not a characteristic of rationality or wisdom. And I’m also nerved out by it when it happens from the left as well:
History suggests that the introduction of religious or aesthetic ecstasy into politics can corrode rational democratic dialogue, and even be a prelude to an emerging authoritarianism. And as the above political videos are illustrative of, contemporary Americans tend to be far more religiously emotive and charismatic in their political behavior than people living in other industrialized nations. It’s hard to imagine many contemporary Brits, for example, getting equivalently wound-up about, say, Tony Blair or Gordon Brown.
But what moves the above videos from the merely curious to actually troubling is when our nation’s second largest political party (the Republican Party) starts to morph, before your very eyes, into an overtly sectarian fundamentalist party. Fundamentalist religious parties are characteristic of economically developing countries (India, for example, has one), but what happens when a mature Western democracy starts to spawn one? Can you imagine, for example, Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican Party’s 1964 presidential nominee, being comfortable in such a party?
And how is it any longer a political party when sectarian fundamentalist dogmas are being pressed into the public square, not for purposes of rational debate, but for ecstatic reification—and for elevating in-group solidarity—beyond the realms of dialogue? Once you’re pressing God as being, in some ultimate or Manichean sense, on one—and only one—side of a political debate, then, with regard to your fellow citizens, you’re no longer really listening or talking to them, are you?