I have a theory: religion is so big in the United States because it is the only place where people can find any meaning in their lives. From the founding of this country up to recently, America has not been that religious a country. People gave lip service to religion, but the prevailing view was, “Pray to God, but row for shore.” We have traditionally been a pragmatic people who would do anything that can’t hurt but might help. And in the 1950s, we got very ostentatious about religious faith only to distinguish ourselves politically from the atheists in the USSR.
A few months ago, David Barton was on The Daily Show. When I saw he was scheduled, I was really angry. It wasn’t just that Barton is one of the most sleazy men on the planet—one whose research is designed explicitly to obfuscate and actively deceive. It was that this was the second time Jon Stewart had him on his show. The first time, Barton ran circles around him because like most people, Stewart doesn’t know the subject. I have a hard time with this because after reading Chris Rodda for a couple of years, I know Barton’s deceptions and how to answer them. Stewart’s second chance was no better than his first.
This week, Barton is again big news. Now, it is because his publisher has decided to pull his recent book, The Jefferson Lies. It is a shocking turn of events, because the book is a big seller, making the publisher—Thomas Nelson—huge amounts of money. (This probably isn’t that big a deal; most of the money has already been made.) I suspect what is going on is that the whole conservative Christian movement is trying to save face by distancing themselves from the Christian Nationalists. This is the first book of this type to break out into the mainstream. One thing that radical groups want to avoid is too much attention while they are preparing their revolution.
As a result, there has been a big push back from other conservative Christians—but not Christian Nationalists. As with everything, there are levels of intolerance. It is nice to know that not all conservative Christians want to rewrite our history and install a theocracy. But this does not mean these people are our friends.
Whenever I find myself in a church, I pick up their pamphlets, because I want to know what they are thinking about. Recently, I picked up one called, “If you died today, are you 100% sure Heaven (population unlimited) will be your home?” This kind of fear based appeal of Christians really bothers me. But what is even more remarkable is just how cheaply heaven comes. The pamphlet spends a lot of time and redundant text to explain that all you have to do to know 100% that you are going to heaven is two things:
- Believe in original sin
- Believe that Jesus died for your sins
Is this pathetic? I think so. With all of the problems that humans face in the world, one of the major religions tells the people that they don’t have to do anything at all; they just have to believe two things (for which there is scant evidence).
It amazes me that a religion that could spawn thinkers as great as Thomas Aquinas is now reduced in its most benign form to the “Peter Pan” level of, “If you only believe…” And further reduced in its more pernicious form to David Barton and Christian Nationalism. But such debasement does not happen over night but has one primary cause. That cause is intellectual isolation.
This is an issue that is poisoning our entire culture. People fear of listening to anyone who disagrees with them. In general, those who read David Barton are only trying to justify what they already believe. This isn’t bad on a small scale—we all do it. But on the political right (religious and not), hermetically sealed institutions have been created. Try this: talk to someone who only gets their news from Fox and right wing radio. You will find that there are major news stories they know nothing about. On the other hand, they will be able to tell you about “important” stories that you’ve never heard of.
The same thing goes on with the conservative Christian community. I used to get lots of junk forwarded to me from a conservative Christian family member. Much of it was very uplifting nonsense: God loves you and you know this because Betty got her rent money after praying to God. (Anyone else notice that Santa is just the child’s version of God?) But much of it was vile stuff about in-group/out-group politics: Hollywood is eating every other male child. The main thing is that there is no truth in any of this. All the stories are made up, even though they explicitly claim to be true. But if this is what you surround yourself with, you will believe that abortion is evil because Beethoven was born after his syphilitic mother had given birth to three deaf, two blind, and one mentally retarded children. (He wasn’t.) And you will also believe that natural selection is an atheist plot because you’ve only ever heard deniers talk about it. (Kind of like global warming deniers!)
Christians often find that they don’t want to discuss theology with me after very little time. Why? I gather because they feel that my questions harm their faith. And yet, I have no problem being open to them; I never worry that they are going to make a point that will cause me to rethink everything and believe in their God; I don’t care what the truth is, I just want to find it. Maybe the problem is that what they really worship is the feeling they have that they’ve found the truth and they don’t want to give that illusion up. This strikes me as an evil illusion—especially when draped in the cloak of the search for the truth.
David Barton committed the ultimate sin of the intellectually retarded: he talked to people who only want to be reassured. As a result, in the broader community, he will now be a joke. Don’t expect to see him on The Daily Show again. But he will continue to be important inside his movement. He will continue to make a lot of money. And he will continue to pander to the closed minds who covet his rationalizations.