cmatherpreaching.jpgWho benefits? That’s the question that we have to always be asking ourselves when God talk starts showing up on a mass scale. The modern mass media is obviously a willing partner in the way this works, but I thought it might be interesting to point out that religious rhetoric has essentially always been about this. Whether we’re talking about the use of the Bible in public schools or of the personal faith of presidential candidates, the type of rhetoric that serves as sound bites or eye candy is usually of the “us vs them” variety in the extreme. (“How many minds has he polluted??”) So we have to look – and listen – beyond what is being presented prima facie.

Here’s the thing, though. In these kinds of struggles, where issues are cast in terms of being of absolute, rock-bottom religious issues, the God-talk precludes any kind of compromise, negotiation, or middle ground, because it is understood that religious truths and positions are eternal. As a result, the Religious Right, for example, can cast every political issue on which its adherents disagree as a holy struggle for what God wants, which is, of course, always the same thing as what the Right wants. The availability of a mass media who is more than willing to disseminate such sensationalism all but guarantees that this rhetoric will be heard, no matter how much or how little the rhetoric actually speaks for those who actually listen to it. On a more ominous level, when religious rhetoric is used to justify action that is willed by the Ineffable, it becomes the primary tool for justifying any violent action (such as blowing up skyscrapers or invading impoverished nations in the name of national security), since those who support us are on God’s side. Conversely, organizations and governments who find themselves having trouble with certain groups who believe that the minds of young people are being corrupted by rampant secularism (like school boards who fire biology teachers who even mention the Bible in class) have a ready rhetorical weapon at their disposal; simply label the annoying dissenters as religious fanatics. The press comes in, prints the most extreme quotes that it hears, and the governing body is able to dismiss its opponents as religious nutcases who are by definition incapable of reason, and who therefore are not worth wasting time with in responsible discussion of grievances.

None of this is new. Not even the use of the media for these ends. In antiquity, the concept of the “Divine Right of Kings” meant that kings needed to justify their rule to their subject peoples, and the best way to do that was to persuade the subjects that God (or the gods) was/were on his side. Usually this was done in two ways; through success in battle, in which case the king’s victory was attributed to the gods and plastered all over the empire (i.e., published); and through building or restoring temples and sacred rituals, which were also published and distributed. Frequently we find in ancient inscriptions a cause-and-effect relationship between military success and the religious devotion of the ruler. It is not much of a stretch to witness this kind of rhetoric in the 220+ year history of the American Presidency or even in Congress; witness the uproar that ensued after Keith Ellison, an African American Muslim, took his oath of office over the Qur’an rather than the Bible. The mixture of military activity and religious piety is, moreover, abundantly clear in the speeches of George W. Bush.

Rulers in antiquity also found it necessary to occasionally make sure that everyone in the land knew about his or her religious testimony in defense of how he or she conducted his or her life in the eyes of God and how all their actions were undertaken in service to the divine. This kind of self-justification, of course, has been especially prominent during the Bush II administration and with Republicans in general, but as 2008 approaches we are now seeing it more and more Democratic candidates speak openly about their faith. Some are no doubt nothing more or less than insincere politicking, while others, are undoubtedly deeply religious people with sincere faith.

Another point worth mentioning is that ancient texts frequently couch the king’s approval ranking by the gods in terms of how well the ruler carried out the gods’ will and, especially, his or her sacred rites. What is fascinating here is that ancient priests and religious elites who disapproved of a ruler could undermine him or her by propagandizing the failure of the ruler to do the religion of the god in the right way, which would inevitably bring about a national catastrophe if it were left unchecked and which would result in the god(s) leaving altogether. While we don’t really concern ourselves today with strict ritual activity in our churches today per se, there is still a remarkable similarity to the rhetoric here with the way morality is used instead of proper ritual action. We heard Falwell and Robertson blaming the 9/11 attacks on a complete lack of godly morality in the US, in effect saying that God was leaving us as he abandoned the Jerusalem Temple in Ezekiel’s prophecy. Just as ritual infidelity of the society and especially of the ruler betokened national disaster in the ancient world, moral infidelity and secularism makes national catastrophe inevitable, according to this rhetoric. If only the king would restore the old sacrifices, the nation would prosper again … if only the government would make abortions illegal, let our kids pray in school, constitutionally prohibit gay marriage, we won’t have to worry about new national security threats…

Of course, it goes the other way. Kings regularly used religious propaganda to flatter the priests and religious elites in charge of the temples, who not coincidentally served as the bankers and banks of the kingdoms. This kind of rhetoric is, of course, particularly popular during election years, and I have a hunch that 2008 will witness more of this than we’ve ever heard.

Cui bono? Who benefits?

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