Christopher Hitchens Is Right, Part 2

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Two current events, arising at roughly the same time, are demonstrating how deeply religious ideation has soaked into our imagination of the world:  the horrific murderous rampage of Anders Breivik and the Texas child sex-abuse trial of Warren Jeffs.  I find these events informative, not in themselves, but for how they are represented by our media.  I should state here that I see pop media’s relation to the wider culture as a recursive feedback loop:  successful media presentations begin with a sense of cultural (including subcultural) bias, a general appreciation of the outlines of cultural expectations; they then inform those expectations with specifics, which the culture imbibes and reflects back as a more focused bias, more explicit expectations, to be further incorporated in future media presentations.  Thus, pop media representations both mirror and magnify cultural imagination.

Breivik’s prodigy of human slaughter particularly shocked me because the Norskies are my people.  My paternal grandfather’s parents came to this country from a little farm near Oslo, Norway.  Before Breivik (and, yes, I know about the Vikings) I had always thought of my people as perhaps not the wittiest folks on the planet, but industrious, orderly, sturdy, uncomplaining and, well, civilized.  My favorite bicyclist in the Tour de France, since Lance Armstrong retired, is the self-styled “God of Thunder” and Norway’s current Favorite Son, Thor Hushovd.  Breivik looks like a Norsky, but he doesn’t act the part.  Norwegians ride bikes and ski; Iraqis and Texans engage in multiple homicides.

OK, so this is front-page news under any circumstances, right?  “If it bleeds, it leads” and all that.  But what really animated a sizable chunk of the media was not the carnage, the slaughter of innocents, but the description of Breivik as “a Christian terrorist.”  After initially jumping the gun (so to speak) and presuming that the god in charge here was Allah and this horror the work of “Islamic terrorists”, the chagrined media learned that the perp appears to be one of Jehovah’s minions and that he committed these murders to make the world safe for “Christian culture”, as his 1500-page manifesto documents.  Then the theological/philosophical/ideological fur began to fly.  Is he “really” a Christian?  Wikipedia lays out some of the evidence:

In his manifesto, he describes himself as “100 percent Christian”,[6] and he is not “excessively religious”[6] and considers himself a “cultural Christian” and a “modern-day crusader”.[5][6] His manifesto states “I’m not going to pretend I’m a very religious person, as that would be a lie”, calls religion a crutch and a source for drawing mental strength, and says “I’ve always been very pragmatic and influenced by my secular surroundings and environment”; regarding the term “cultural Christian” which he says means preserving European culture, he notes “It is enough that you are a Christian-agnostic or a Christian atheist (an atheist who wants to preserve at least the basics of the European Christian cultural legacy…”[110][122][5] Furthermore, Breivik stated that “myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God.”[5][123] Nevertheless, he stated that he planned to pray to God seeking for his help during his attacks.[124]  [Numbered footnotes in original.] [1]

Now imagine that the climactic act here was not these mass murder attacks, but the donation of all his (considerable) personal wealth to an orphanage in Romania.  Solely on the evidence in the paragraph above, would any Christianist shy away from describing him as “a Christian philanthropist”?  Even when confronted with the additional facts that Breivik chose to be baptized at 15 and described himself as “Christian” on his Facebook page, the popular TV talk show entertainer Bill O’Reilly simply rejected the validity of that self-identification out of hand while almost in the same breath he defended labeling the Ft. Hood shooter as “an Islamic terrorist” because that shooter self-identified as Muslim. [2]  So self-identification gets you into my tribe if I approve of what you do, but not if I disapprove?  And self-identification sticks you firmly into a disfavored, competing tribe if I disapprove of your actions, even if the consensus of that other tribe is that those actions disqualify you from such membership?

O’Reilly’s “argument” against the efficacy of religious self-identification included his disparaging comment that (even such a truly bad man as) Mussolini called himself a Christian.  One wonders if O’Reilly is cynically aware that he has simply presumed what he purports to evidence:  that Christians are good and therefore if you are bad it doesn’t matter what religious beliefs you claim – you’re not a Christian.  He almost certainly is unaware that his quite Catholic supposition that good works are the key to paradise flies directly in the face of the “salvation by grace through faith” belief of the various faster-growing-than-Catholicism, fundamentalist versions of U.S. Christianity.  I.e., Mother Teresa didn’t make it into that heaven, but Anders Breivik will if he truly accepts Jesus as his personal savior before the lights go out, self-identification cavils notwithstanding.

Remember, not that long ago, when the go-to bete noir of U.S. religion was “atheism”, when religion per se was good and irreligion was bad?  At what point did that start to change in this country?  When did good Christians begin to ally with even such public and noisy atheists as our own Mr. Hitchens against “Islamofascists”, a neologism he popularized (if he didn’t coin it)?  Was it 9/11?  The evil-atheist poster boy used to be, and to a lesser extent still is, the uber-fascist Adolf Hitler, notwithstanding his own religious behavior and self-identification [3]; the fact that the belt buckles of his army, the Wehrmacht, were embossed with Gott Mit Uns (God is with us); and his clear statements in Mein Kampf that he, like the Blues Brothers, was “on a mission from God.”  More of us now see the religion element in fascist authoritarianism and when we can discriminate, even a little, between good religions and bad religions, that implies a value standard above religion, a human standard, and that seems like progress.

Well, maybe not so much.  The trial of Warren Jeffs has just today yielded verdicts of guilty on both counts:  the jury found that the 55-year-old Jeffs had had sex with both his 14-year-old and 12-year-old “spiritual wives.”  The penalty phase has already begun with a maximum possible sentence of 99 years for the 12-year-old.  The HLN channel is still struggling with the transition from the neatly good-versus-evil Casey Anthony trial to this event in which Jeffs fired his lawyers on the eve of trial and put on what can only be described as a religious defense:  he claimed that his First Amendment religious rights trump state child sex-abuse laws; he read in open court multiple statements “from God” to the effect that if the trial isn’t stopped immediately, the shit’s gonna hit the fan (That last is my paraphrase, not what “God” actually said.); he had a witness who elucidated parts of The Book of Mormon; and his closing argument consisted of staring silently and deeply into each juror’s eyes for minutes at a time and finally murmuring, “I am at peace.”  So we can all identify this as one of those bad religions, right?

Um, no.  Jane Velez-Mitchell, one of HLN’s primary talking heads here has jumped in a number of times during commentary to stake out the position that “You can’t even call this a religion.  It’s a cult.”  Even when her other, more knowledgeable co-commentators point out that Jeffs’ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints left Mitt Romney’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints over a hundred years ago and has a presence today in at least six states [4] and one Canadian province, and that there are many urban polygamists within Mitt’s church, the official HLN line remains that Mitt’s church is a religion and Warren’s church is a cult.  In other words, religion per se is still good, at least if it is practiced in the United States by non-Arabs.

So where does this leave our cultural deference to “religion”?  Are we making any progress toward a human moral standard?  I think so.  While official resistance to the Hitchensian truism [5] remains stout, the unblinking, non-Muslim religious justification claimed by both perpetrators, Breivik and Jeffs, is inescapable.  And we, the wider culture, deeply disapprove of their behavior in spite of the old, rugged cross each carries.

Breivik believes that he is a warrior in a cause greater than all of us, a cause imbued with at least the approving tinge of a supernatural overseer.  He calls this a Christian worldview.  It takes some seriously Jesuitical argumentation, or at least your own TV show, to advance the contrary case.  Just as many of our fellow Americans saw through the hollow absolutism of those legislators who were willing to drive the nation over the debt ceiling cliff, so at least some of us will see through the attempts to de-Christianize Anders Breivik.  From there, the reality is accessible:  There is a terrible darkness at the heart of religion, including Christianity.

For the Prophet Warren Jeffs, outwardly the more religious of these two criminals, that darkness is less dramatic, less majestic, more human.  He is strongly attracted to sex with female children.  To act upon that attraction he has modified and nourished a god and an entire way of being for approximately ten thousand people.  He follows the same sacred text, under almost the same organizational banner, as the current Republican presidential candidate frontrunner.  His rape of little girls glows under the imprimatur of Heaven, the sweet breath of angels’ wings, the approving gaze of the Prophets who have gone before him.  We see that, no matter how often Velez-Mitchell says, “This isn’t about religion; it’s about child abuse”, it’s about religion.

ARC  8/4/2011




[3] In this regard, I highly recommend Joachim C. Fest’s lucid, felicitously translated and exhaustively researched 844-page biography Hitler.  English ed. 1974.  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

[4] Including the twin cities of Hildale, UT, and Colorado City, AZ.  This is perhaps the most accessible FLDS enclave, just off UT 59/AZ 389 in a scenic landscape close to Zion Nat’l Park.  I parked my car in the center of Colorado City and rode my bike through these connected municipalities on October 31, 2008, and I can say that being watched by the wary inhabitants felt quite like traveling in hostile country.

[5] Religion poisons everything.

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