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Not an Easy Task: Undoing Religious Empire

Date: Tue, 03 Feb 1998 
From: Patricia Nell Warren 
Subject: Re: *BA-POLICY* A Thorny Issue

Hi Gary,

Thanks for your message, and your interesting comments. I think that the history of religion on our Planet, and the cyclic swings from progressive to repressive, and back again, are fascinating, riveting, horrifying sometimes yet also inspiring.

My native American relatives have told me oral histories about similar swings in their world -- pro and con slavery, pro and con human sacrifice, pro and con the power of women in the temples. Whether it's Christianity or the religion of the Aztecs shortly before the Spanish landed, most of the world continues to think of a religion, any religion, as a monolith...whereas a religion is more like a teeming pond where all kinds of things are growing and changing.

Patricia had said to Maggie: "I wonder if you are wasting your time trying to dialogue with FOF."

Gary had replied to Patricia: "It's not that I disagree with your basic cultural analysis, it is that I think that it is wrong to think that when we are talking to a conservative Christian, we are dialoging with an historical force. Really, we are always really talking one heart to one heart.

You make an important point, and I agree with you wholeheartedly that it's not productive to go into a dialogue with a FOF member, or Christian Coalition member, or CWFA member, with preconceived notions that this person is a "historical force," as you put it so well. Clearly FOF is one of those teeming ponds, and there are all kinds of people in it -- as we already know from the open defections from FOF. We need to keep an open mind, and give people room to get to know us, and to change. You are very right in pointing this out.

However, I think it's dangerous if we fail to distinguish between two kinds of people in these organizations: the ones who are potentially open-minded, and the ones who are not. The ones who are not, SEE THEMSELVES as a historical force...and that attitude of theirs is precisely the problem. It's hard to dialogue with someone who sees himself as God's appointed General Joshua on Earth, sent to wipe out all perverts with fire and sword, "because that's what the Bible commands". These people will do just that when they get a chance.

Gary had said, "Talk of marching armies and gay agendas can only serve to divide. My own experience with the Christian ex-gay movement was wonderful. Although I am not Christian, I never really felt that was a problem for anyone. I was loved and helped along when there was no one else for me. I will never cease to be grateful.

I agree about the language on both sides that continues to divide. However, I will say this: I remain profoundly concerned about the progress of "reconstructionism" in the U.S. I am concerned about the way in which it is looking like such a palatable political alternative to some Americans, thanks to media efforts by TBN, "700 Club" and such. Organizations like FOF and CWFA are closely associated with the CC, and Pat Robertson has openly said that he intends to capture the Republican nomination, and the Presidency, in 2000. Most Americans still seem oblivious to the danger to civic freedoms from this movement, and I feel "called" to be among those commentators who warn of the dangers.

Indeed, if you look at the history of Christianity's swings between the two poles, its most progressive and shining moments were NOT achieved during times of total repression and censorship.

Yes indeed, there may be individual members of the CC who are less passionately committed to the idea of world dominion by an Old Testament kind of Christianity. With these, we can and should dialogue with an open heart or mind. I fully agree on that. But the more hardened people in this movement - -- well, I wonder whether they have that potential. From what I have read of his writings, I wonder if I'd have any luck entertaining a dialogue with the Rev. Rushdoony, father of reconstructionism, for examplke. While I would defend to the death the right of homosexuals to choose to go straight, that is not MY choice. I am not prepared to fold my little gay tent and steal away after all these years of being out to myself and out to what can I say to a man who states that I ought to be put to death??

I guess what I'm talking about is a kind of spiritual triage. We can focus on the people we think we can most easily reach, hoping that we can work our way in to key people in FOF or CC or CWFA who are equally open-minded -- who may be feeling queasy about where the whole thing is heading. In this way we can possibly open a crack in their solidarity.

It's also a different matter to dialogue with rank and file people in these movements, who may be far more open-minded -- compared to people higher up in the ranks, who have a lot invested in their power, and are less likely to retreat from stated homosexuality.

The idea that "all our country's ills are going to magically resolved by establishing a state religion, and imposing a certain moral code on people," is a Protestant version of an old, old idea going back for 2000 years.

People like Rushdoony, Robertson, James Dobson have tried hard to disassociate themselves from that dark and nasty side of Christianity's history, and they get very upset when some people call them "fascists". The fact is, when you talk about the Third Reich, you have to ask what the Second and First Reichs were. The minute you answer those questions, you have clarified something about the long history of absolutist Christian empire (as distinguished from progressive Christian democratic movements!) that the 700 Club tries so hard to fudge.

The 20th-century so-called "fascists" are, in reality, a type of Christian absolutist that has been around for nearly 2000 years. The role of right-wing religion, both Protestant and Catholic, in creating Nazi Germany is something that few Americans are ready to be honest about, because it raises too many queasy questions. I'm sure that few of the good church-going German citizens or churchmen, either Protestant or Catholic, who supported Hitler had any idea that they were marching along a well-worn dark and nasty path, complete with formal anti-Semitism that appeared in Christianity the moment it took over the Roman Empire in Constantine's time. They had not let their minds and imaginations look out over history. So they failed to see that all the high-flown Hitler rhetoric was inevitably going to pile millions of corpses in death camps, as well as millions of corpses of German civilians and soldiers, and the complete destruction of their country. Drifts of corpses was the legacy and track record of absolutist Christian religion back through time, whether in the destruction of Europe during the Hundred Years' War and the Thirty Years' War, or the destructions of entire pagan tribal peoples by Charlemagne in his drive to make northern Europe the center of the new Christian Empire.

I have spent time in Germany -- in fact, some of my family immigrant roots are there. To this day, many people in Germany are still in denial about how their dream for Germany turned into a modern version of an old and many-times repeated nightmare.

The same could be said, incidentally, of all the Italians who supported Mussolini, or the Spaniards who supported Franco in power for 40 years, or the Portuguese who supported Salazar. All of these men built their power on an absolutist modern reshaping of ancient notions of Christian empire. And they had the support and cooperation of powerful elements in the Catholic church (notice I didn't say "support of the Catholic Church," because the Catholic Church is another teeming pond... there were progressive Catholics in high places who saw what was going on, and didn't like it.)

I lived in Spain for a number of years, and feel sure that many Spanish people had no idea what they were buying when they supported Franco and the Falange. However, after 40 years of police-state suffocation, with a state religion at the helm, they were ready to throw the whole thing overboard when the old man died in 1975...and they did.

So I am wondering where, in our eagerness for dialogue, is there a place for calling a spade a spade as we see the resurgence of similar high-flown absolutist rhetoric in the United States -- even if our language offends a few people on the other side.

Of course, miracles can always happen. Life does have Her way of stepping in and creating new awareness. The Rev. Roger Williams was one of the most repressive fire-breathing ministers in Massachusetts Colony before he fell victim to politics, and experienced directly and personally what it meant to be repressed. It turned him around 180 degrees, and made him a champion of religious liberty -- and he specifically included non-Christian religions in his plea for tolerance as well.

The New World split between the two camps of Christians -- humanist and progressive Christian opposition to Christian absolutists began in our colonies -- in fact, I don't see how else the Goddess of Liberty got on all our early coins! It is too bad that what we call "American history" today does not acknowledge the Quaker women who went to prison for their beliefs, or the role of progressive Christianity in freeing the slaves, ending child labor, gaining the vote for women. I feel outraged at the way people like Newt Gingrich and Pat Robertson are laying claim to our entire history as a nation, and wonder when progressive Christian academics are going to start putting the record straight -- vigorously and on TV, where American voters can see it.

What do you think about calling a spade a spade? And can we, and should we, count on miracles of Life to ease our way in this critical dialogue?

Patricia Nell Warren

A Thorny Issue: Tolerance and Parental Rights

"The big question is: Is it possible to educate people into this kind of enlightened thinking...where they can believe, but refrain from violating the minds or persons of others in order to impose their belief? I would like to think so. But to do that, we have to undo two thousand years of accumulated attitude and history about Religious Empire. Not an easy task."

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 text © 1998 Patricia Nell Warren, all rights reserved.