Politics as Religious Conviction

by Johnny Townsend

The religious right is ramping up for a modern-day crusade. That’s not a metaphor.

Racially motivated killings are in the news every day. Homophobic and transphobic murders are committed regularly. Poor men and women are forced to work in conditions that will kill a significant portion of them. When the first few drops of rain fall on a sidewalk during a thunderstorm, we initially see individual wet spots before us, but the dry spaces between them shrink rapidly, and after only a few minutes, the entire surface is covered. We don’t need to conduct a violent pre-emptive strike to acknowledge the urgency of making political change while we can. Every election is touted as the “most important” of our lifetime. We’re trained to dismiss such claims as emotional manipulation, which they often are, but the danger we face now isn’t theoretical. It’s real and growing stronger every day.

Last night, I watched Henry Gates on PBS as he revealed the fate of the extended families of Jeff Goldblum, Terry Gross, and Marc Maron during WWII. The phrase I kept hearing was, “and that’s when further details vanished from the record” as each family’s community was obliterated, one after the other. The program airing afterward told the story of the Pittsburgh synagogue where 11 worshippers were killed, just days after their latest active shooter training. I watched a survivor of the Jewish deli shooting in Paris take a self-defense course while the widow of one of those murdered happily recounted her courtship and marriage.

She seemed surprisingly well-adjusted, till the moment in the story where she had to talk about that terrible day.

Yet perhaps the worst segment of the program was the summary of how a former hero, a Holocaust survivor who rose to extreme wealth and then donated almost 80% of his fortune to charitable organizations, was recast as an evil Jew trying to take over the world. George Soros was turned into a scapegoat in Hungary so a dictator could consolidate power.

Then I watched as the Labour Party in the UK embraced anti-Semitism, pushing its many Jewish liberals out of the party.

As I watched these disturbing events onscreen, my husband sat in his office in the rear of the house, enjoying a weekly Zoom meeting with friends. After rejoining me in the living room, he told me that a group of racists had hacked into their gathering, shouting the N-word over and over until the one black woman in attendance signed out. After several minutes, the admins regained control and blocked the intruders, but the incident left everyone shaken. It was hardly the first time the black member of the group had faced such language. It was just the first time some of the white folks in the group had felt they were under attack as well.

As ex-Mormons, my husband and I were both raised to believe blacks were morally inferior, that they’d been “less valiant in the pre-existence before we came to Earth.” Even now, decades after we left the Church, when we see a black driver ignoring a crosswalk or a black pedestrian tossing a piece of trash on the sidewalk, for a split second, maybe only half a second, we think, “What can you expect from someone like that?” Many of us who are happily ex-Mormon have moved past the unhealthy lessons we’ve been taught, yet even hearing current LDS leaders insist all people are equal regardless of the color of their skin doesn’t entirely erase all the former teachings still clinging tightly to the neurons that code our memories and deepest beliefs.

How much worse is it for those who are still trained every day by their religious leaders to consider any other group of humans “less than”?

The latest killing of an unarmed black man by the police in Minneapolis was all over Facebook the past couple of days, yet not a single person in my family commented on the death of George Floyd. One family member several years ago had posted “Police Lives Matter!” in response to a previous incident, but other than that, I’ve seen nothing posted in regard to any of the dozens of killings that have made it into the news since then. My relatives live in the Deep South, where I grew up as well. I remember my parents buying me a Confederate cap and a rebel flag to play with when we visited the Civil War memorials in Vicksburg, where at least one of my ancestors had fought. My mother would say, “Skip this monument. These are Yankees. Oh, here’s a good one. One of ours.”

My mother was a genuinely wonderful person in almost every way. But she was infected by the hatred she’d been taught her entire life. When we describe those folks saying and doing racist things as bigots, however accurate the label, they are unable to see themselves or each other as such because what they can see is that they’re “nice” people in so many other ways. You know, the “fine” people at the rally in Charleston who chanted “Blood and soil!” as they marched with other neo-Nazis while a young woman was murdered by another right-wing extremist.

Most of my religious friends treated me wonderfully…until the day they learned I was gay.

But these right-wing folks are all on the “same side,” so they treat each other well, they’re nice to each other, they’re “good people” in their own and each other’s eyes. We’re angry when they demonize us, but they are just as angry when we demonize them, because they honestly cannot see the harm and suffering they cause.

Is that really possible?

The evidence before us suggests that it is.

A vegetarian might well worry about the pain steak lovers cause the animals they slaughter, but do vegetarians consider the possibility a plant might not enjoy being chopped down and eaten, either? Perhaps a plant isn’t truly able to feel pain the way animals do, but the point is that we don’t even consider the possibility. It’s simply not part of our mindset. Does that mean we’re heartless and cruel to cucumbers?

Of course, our absence of concern for the feelings of vegetables isn’t the same as the presence of a powerful animosity toward others that often exists in the hearts of the religious right.

The Civil War isn’t ancient history for people in the South. Many white folks have passed on their anger, generation after generation, at having lost the battle to keep their slaves. Their anger isn’t only over losing the war, the way a petulant child might be upset over a game of checkers. The loss is an overwhelming message sent directly into the deepest reaches of their psyche that they aren’t superior to blacks as they’d claimed. That idea of superiority is such a core belief that losing it is like hearing you’re a pod person from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

“No! They’re the pod people! I’m human! I’m one of the good guys! I am!”
They tell themselves this every day, every time they see a news story about a black criminal, every time they see a black person in public say something “rude,” every time they hear rap music. In many ways, their behavior is the same as that of news anchors who every single day point out something awful Trump has said, concluding with, “Can we now all finally agree that Trump is terrible?” The possibility that even one person in the audience isn’t yet convinced threatens their conclusion, and they must believe they are right. So they spend every day “proving” their point over and over and over again.

Such emotional neediness is unappealing no matter who is doing it, but right now, most of the physical danger is coming from those on the right. If a black person does better in life than they have, it’s because the black person received an unfair advantage. If a Jew does better, it’s because there’s a secret Jewish underground. No one who isn’t a white Christian should be doing better than they are. If someone is, it can only be because he’s stolen what rightfully belongs to whites. And thieves must be punished.

This incredible lack of self-confidence may seem pathetic or even laughable, but the desperation and simmering anger it creates is real, and it’s being stoked by the unscrupulous to gain power. And just as a virus doesn’t recognize borders, neither does hatred. It has spread to every region of our nation. White supremacist groups exist even in the most liberal states.

In the wake of the most recent police killing, a black church was burned in Mississippi, with the words “Vote Trump” spray-painted on the brick wall outside. Of course, we all know Mississippi isn’t a liberal state. We expect this kind of thing in the south.

That’s a problem. This isn’t a “new” normal there. We cannot allow it to become normal everywhere.

White protesters armed with assault weapons rallied in Minnesota at the capitol recently to protest stay-at-home orders yet faced no repercussions. When unarmed men and women gathered to protest the unprovoked killing of George Floyd, they were met with riot gear and tear gas.

Even now, with a photo of the police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck until he suffocated to death posted next to a photo of Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest before a football game, I see empathy-challenged people insisting, “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” as if killing someone and protesting the killing are not only equal, but also both wrong.

Yet those actions are equal to them. If a black person has “attitude,” he deserves to be killed. Not shunned. Not chastised. Not fired. Killed. An equal response to the “offense.” And the very existence of blacks, gays, Jews, Muslims, Native Americans, and many others is the offense that cannot be forgiven.

The violence isn’t caused merely by a few crazy people on the fringe. It’s perpetrated and perpetuated by those in uniform and elected officials in office. It’s the institutions themselves that are problematic, as well as all the “regular folks” who accept these killings as“understandable.” Most of my right-wing friends and family aren’t actively committing these atrocities. They simply don’t care a great deal if they happen. Even those who feel the police did “something” wrong have a hundred priorities higher on their list. Like same-sex marriage. And atheists. And people saying some of the most dreaded words in the English language: Happy Holidays!

And, of course, the abortion doctors who “murder” millions of babies. Because to the religious right, there is no difference between a fertilized egg, a zygote, a morula, a blastocyst, an embryo, a fetus, and a baby. Explaining the science is meaningless. They know anyone who doesn’t agree with them is a murderer. Murderers, clearly, should be put to death. And while there may be no difference between a zygote and a newborn baby, there’s plenty of difference between a murderer and an executioner.

This isn’t a case of semantics. It’s not theory. It’s truth to them, and someone who bases their decisions and behavior on these kinds of truths are left with few options.

If you had to vote for either a repulsive man who fondles women and makes fun of the disabled or an intelligent woman with no known scandals but who will install judges who ensure that millions of babies will be not “aborted” but murdered, what to you is the lesser of two evils?

We like to call those on the religious right hypocrites, and certainly many of them are, just as many are on the left (shout-out to the latest “Karen” in Central Park), but in the mindset of a religious conservative, these two candidates aren’t even close. One is bad and the other is very, very, very, very bad.

Unfortunately, “understanding” where they’re coming from doesn’t eliminate the danger we face. If anything, it helps us realize we’re not worrying about a non-existent threat.

A man in the Reopen North Carolina protest said he was willing to kill to fight against the New World Order, and that such killings of fellow Americans wasn’t terrorism. For most right-wing protesters, it’s the unquestionable will of God.

They mean it.

In my Baptist high school, we used to sing, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it for me.”

Rolling our eyes is not an appropriate response. Almost all of us make fun of these extremists, even knowing it’s counterproductive. I do it, too. It’s difficult not to. But these devout believers are serious about their convictions, and they’ve become more and more emboldened over the past few years.

To paraphrase Condoleezza Rice, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud over the ACLU.” Over a Jewish community center. Over a gay nightclub.

When people tell us they hate us, we should take their word for it. At a neighborhood park a few days ago, while admiring the beautiful rhododendrons and brilliant hummingbirds, I could also hear the repeated “bam bam bam bam” from a police association shooting range nearby. It’s a sound I hear from my front porch every day, something I never quite get used to. Since I live across the street from a school, I dread the day I might hearthat sound from twenty yards away. When my husband attends far-left political meetings a few neighborhoods over, I worry about the sirens I hear in the distance.

Two elderly women chatted with me at this neighborhood park last week, from a reasonable distance, about how most people were being pleasant and cooperative in the effort to keep the park safe. When they saw a couple of people blocking the path to take pictures, the women waited patiently for them to finish. Then a man in the group turned to the women and held out his phone. “Would you take a picture of us?”

The women deferred, saying they’d rather not risk infection. The man, who’d been friendly a moment before, now saw them as enemies and hissed, “For something that’s no worse than the flu!?”

The women, both elderly, were shocked. “People die of the flu,” one of them said. “And even if you don’t die, it’s miserable. So even if COVID were no worse, I wouldn’t want it.”

But the man was furious, enraged, full of immediate, irrational hatred.

It’s become a religious conviction for those on the right that Democrats are using the coronavirus as an excuse to deprive Republicans of their liberty. We’re not talking politics anymore—we’re talking religion. And when someone feels they’re morally superior, that others are morally inferior, and that God wants the righteous to destroy his enemies…well, let’s just say Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows.

As a Mormon missionary, I felt I had been called as a Saturday’s Warrior, chosen to “gather the faithful” in the Last Days. Those of us sent to Rome talked about the awesome responsibility of being sent to “Satan’s doorstep.” A friend who was assigned to Portland just months after Mt. St. Helens erupted felt thankful that Heavenly Father had prepared the sinners in that area by “sending them a message.”

I was shocked to discover that one of my missionary colleagues was a Democrat. Of course, he’d converted to the true church as an adult. He didn’t know any better. Still, I thought, it was surprising he’d been found worthy to serve a mission.

Months later, another missionary colleague suffered a nervous breakdown. When we knocked on doors and the occupants of the apartment would tell us calmly they weren’t interested in our message, my companion would turn to me after the door closed and address me as if I were the occupant. “You’re not interested!? Not interested in your own salvation!? You’re not interested in being with your family after you die!? Not interested in following the Savior!?”

I had learned by this time not to take rejection personally. If people were interested, great, we’d teach them. If they weren’t, that was their decision. I didn’t need a complete stranger to validate my life.

But my companion did. He took a stranger’s disinterest in his religion as a personal affront. An affront to his intelligence, an affront to his two-year sacrifice, and an affront to God himself. This emotional reaction was so severe he was barely able to function.

I know two men who ended their friendship because one thought Daniel Craig was a great James Bond and the other thought he was ugly.

But what’s happening in politics isn’t funny, it isn’t “stupid.” It’s not “worrisome.”

By their very nature, political parties are opponents. What’s changed in the last few decades is the growing conversion of politics into religion. It’s deadly enough when one Christian religion demonizes another—think of the Reformation in Europe, the Spanish Inquisition, and the situation in Ireland. But when Republicans see Democrats literally as the party of the Devil, it’s not just ridiculous. It’s dangerous.

An elected official in New Mexico recently announced, “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” A police officer in Louisiana bemoaned the fact that more blacks hadn’t died in the pandemic. These aren’t just “feelings” and “opinions.” They are votes.

They are policies.

They are gun owners.

When someone says they want you dead, believe them.

For the religious right, gays were responsible for Hurricane Katrina. Gays and Jews were responsible for 9/11. Gays and Jews and Bill Gates are responsible for COVID. Except, of course, when the Chinese are responsible.

In the mid-1990s, I converted to Judaism and was active in the community for several years. It’s been a long while since I identified as a Jew (I see myself as a Baptist Mormon Jewish atheist) but I remembered my time as a Jew fondly and kept two mezuzot affixed to the door frames of my bedroom and office. I never nailed one on the front doorpost, always aware that announcing Jewish affiliation could be problematic. It’s the same reason I never pasted pro-gay bumper stickers on my car.

A few months ago, I removed the two mezuzot inside my home. It’s not that I’m “afraid to stand up” for the Jews any more than I’m afraid to stand up for gays or any other oppressed group or person. I simply realize we’re not in a period of “rude” discourse. Right-wing politicians have been pushing hatred for so many years that now, with the pandemic providing more fuel, this nation has become a drought-stricken, desiccated forest.

Maybe most people of every political persuasion are good, but it only takes one idiot to toss a lit cigarette into the brush. And once that conflagration begins, we’ll all be caught up in the disaster that follows.

We see the irrationality of those on the right every day but don’t want to accuse anyone of plotting our literal destruction. It might “raise tensions” or “lower the level of civility.” And just as some whites can’t entertain the horrifying notion that they might not be superior to others, the rest of us find it too frightening to consider that our lives might legitimately be at risk. So we convince ourselves that this is all rhetoric and policy, quite bad enough though not cataclysmic.

Then last night, I heard Terry Gross wonder if she would have known when to leave if she had lived in eastern Europe just before the outbreak of WWII. Would she have gotten out?

“When’s the right time?” she asked.

It’s not a rhetorical question.

In The Day after Tomorrow, the character played by Dennis Quaid urges the scientist played by Ian Holm, “It’s time you got out of there.”

The scientist replies sadly, “I’m afraid that time has come and gone, my friend.”

For better or for worse, we’re here and we’re not going anywhere. Let’s do what we can to help each other survive.

I sat on my porch this morning so I could listen to the bees buzzing about the California lilac.

But all I could hear was gunfire from the shooting range somewhere on the far side of the park.

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