Arecent documentary about American children attending a far right-wing Bible camp is scheduled to open in Salt Lake City next week. If it does, I can safely say I don’t need to see it.
The documentary in question is Jesus Camp, in which filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady let the cameras roll as fundamentalist children smash ceramic cups in victory of the “righteous government” to come, make mince of any idea that we share any ancestry with apes, and bless a cardboard image of President George W. Bush.
All disturbing stuff if you grew up agnostic. Not for me. I grew up attending a string of “Bible believing” churches, be they Southern Baptist, Disciples of Christ, or freelance congregations by any other name. The brand of Christianity I was raised in was apocalyptic and fundamentalist in the extreme. After watching the “End Times” drama Thief in the Night, the prequel to today’s best-selling Left Behind lunacy, my brother and I suffered nightmares of our mother disappearing in the Rapture. We learned about how the modern creation of the state of Israel played into God’s final plan for humanity, an Armageddon showdown between Israel and the rest of the world that would leave sinners, Muslims and unrepentant Jews to suffer all sorts of unspeakable travails under the anti-Christ. Meanwhile, the saved watched from above under God’s comforting wings. Never mind the love of Jesus. God’s future was full of suffering and war, and you had to fortify your soul.
Once I learned that Paul never even knew Jesus, and that he wrote his letters to the early church years before anyone even bothered to write the first Gospel of Mark, I weaned myself off of fundamentalist religion. Reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations in high school, a far finer guide to a rational and productive life than anything on offer in the Bible, sealed the deal. My dear mother recoiled in horror. Most of all, she prayed. All of this resulted in rip-roaring household arguments. But there was no going back.
Forgive me if all this sounds self-congratulatory, but anyone who’s forsaken the family faith knows full well how hard it can be. Doubtless it must be similar to the sort of break-up former Bush aide David Kuo’s going through right now, even if Kuo’s not about to give up faith yet.
If you’re already tired of the Foley scandal, you know Kuo. Hired as deputy director of the White House’s office on faith-based initiatives for more than two years, he’s the man who learned the hard way that the Bush White House cared most for the Christian right as a political tool. Kuo was there when Bush assistants wrote $6 billion in tax credits for charity out of the president’s $1.7 trillion tax cuts, which benefited the rich more than anyone else. Kuo served Bush only to learn, as he wrote in his book Tempting Faith, that “The White House liked the issue of religion hiring, not because it was a real issue affecting real charities, but because it was divisive, and that made good politics.” Kuo was also there when Rove said, “Just get me a f'king faith-based thing, got it?”
Kuo’s story is the classic tale of political disillusionment, the old saw about politics and sausage made manifest. Politicians care more about winning races and securing power than remaining faithful'for lack of a better word'to the constituents who put them there? Tell us something we don’t already know, please. Faith may be the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen, but it’s extremely weak glue if you want to bind religion to politics. The Bush administration got its pieces of silver, or two terms in office. That’s all that matters.
Anyone happy with religion remaining as far away from politics in this country as possible can’t help reveling in Kuo’s political coming of age, late in life as it may be for him. Don’t get carried away into believing that the rest of the religious right will follow, though. I’ve not read Kuo’s entire book, but if you can disregard his religious tendencies, he seems like a very well intentioned person. So many fundamentalist Christians are, of course. Alas, if you sit on the secular side of the fence, you know just how misguided good intentions can become. America is, was and always will be a pluralistic nation where no one religion should ever be allowed to grow powerful enough to dictate. Still, if I had to choose between Kuo or Jerry Falwell, I’d pick Kuo in a heartbeat.
As someone who struggled to extricate myself from the fundamentalist mind-game as a teenager, I can testify first-hand to the unbelievable arrogance and frightening confidence that drives Evangelicals on the far right. The more these people quote the book of Revelations, the scarier it gets. Unlike Kuo, a lot of them have no interest whatsoever in charity. As hard as it may be for secular people to grasp, these are people who believe that the closer the world edges toward disaster the better. That’s because war, famine and economic hardship are all signs that the Second Coming is near. War, famine and economic hardship would be cause for alarm in the rational mind. In the fundamentalist Christian mind, it’s cause for celebration. According to some polls, this is the religious mindset of some 25 percent of the American voting public, the “base” that Rove and the Bush White House pander to.
As much as I love hearing about how the scales have fallen from Kuo’s eyes, I doubt that most, if any, Christian conservatives will draw any lessons from his experience, much less buy his book. Today’s Republicans manipulated the Christian right only because the Christian right is so easy to manipulate. That’s what happens when you live on faith instead of nuanced reason, which is a lot more difficult to manipulate. But as Bush said famously, “I don’t do nuance.” Neither, of course, does the Christian right.