When Jesus Attacks! Why don’t we care that the Catholic Church is officially whipping Congress?

Part 2 of 2. (Read part 1…)

It’s Time to Separate Church and State, Once and for All

If you recall, anti-Catholic prejudice was once a problem for Catholic politicians in the US. John F. Kennedy went so far as to address the issue head-on in his 1960 campaign – probably because he didn’t feel he had much choice. Here’s what he told the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12 of that year:

I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters — and the Church does not speak for me.

He went on to assert his respect for the separation of church and state and vowed that Catholic officials would not dictate policy to him. As noted in part 1, the times, they have a-changed.

In 1960 it was “anti-Catholic prejudice.” In 2010 it’s “empirical evidence of improper behavior by the Roman Catholic Church.” And it’s time it stopped. Cold.

If I were a Congressman, I’d introduce a bill yesterday stripping all US operations of the Roman Catholic Church of their tax-exempt status. At the press conference announcing the move I’d also say something along these lines: “I won’t be running for re-election – what could possibly be the point? However, between now and the day I leave office, I’m going to raise hell 24/7/4ever over this issue. I know that I’ll probably never get my bill into a committee hearing, let alone get it out of committee, but if Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens can draw as much attention as they have, I feel certain that I, as a sitting member of the United States Congress, can get booked on every talk show in America. Rest assured, my fellow citizens, this is going to make for some epic television.”

Of course, I’m not Congressional material. If you want to know what Congressional material is, recognize that representatives of a foreign theocracy are inside Congress shaping policy … and not a damned one of the spineless sacred whores on Capitol Hill has uttered a fucking syllable in protest.

Did I miss something?

“America is a Christian nation.” It certainly is. Sort of. It’s a Christian nation in the same way that it’s a white nation, a heterosexual nation, a right-handed nation and a nation with brown hair. That is, “Christian” is the majority position. Boy howdy, is it the majority position, with a majority of the population saying it believes angels and demons are active in the world and 80% saying they believe in miracles. Hell, even our atheists and agnostics sound a little religious. A snapshot of American religious affiliation that I offered up back in 2007 is instructive:

  • Polls show the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christian ranging as high as 85% or beyond.
  • The president is a Christian…
  • …as is the VP.
  • The Speaker of the House is Catholic…
  • …and the Senate Majority Leader is Mormon.
  • Well over 90% of our Congressional representatives are Christian, with a majority of the remainder being Jewish.
  • The Supreme Court features seven Christians and two Jews.
  • All of our major presidential candidates in both major parties.
  • Almost all of our past presidents; depending on how you count Unitarians, you have to go all the way back to Lincoln (ironically enough, the founder of the GOP) to even find one to debate over;
  • Hell, even sports franchises are starting to build their operations around the evangelical litmus test.
  • It seems unlikely that a similar review of the legislatures and courthouses in the 50 states would reveal too much variation from this overpowering Judeo-Christian norm.

There’s no denying that we’re a Christian culture – in many ways, that’s a simple math question and it’s about as controversial as noting that whites of European descent are the racial majority. But Christian culture and Christian government aren’t the same thing, and the United States is most emphatically not a Christian state. Not yet, anyway.

Reflecting back on my “if I were a Congressman” fantasy from above, I suppose I’d spend the remainder of my time in office asking the audiences of those TV shows to think about a proposition: to wit, while most Americans are Christian, “Christian” describes a lot of different things and not one unitary thing. Dr. Sid’s “modest proposal” from a couple of months back was more about provoking than persuading, but at its core there’s an important question. If you’re a Christian, you may want to see a more Christian government. But if you’re a Baptist, do you want to see a more Catholic government? If you’re Catholic, how are you going to react when the Texas School Board is co-opted by Mormons and all of a sudden the nation’s textbooks are filled with lessons that transform the hallucinations visions of The Prophets into stone cold fact? If you’re a member of the Foursquare Bible Congregation in Smallpond, Alabama, you probably agree with the Stupakers on abortion, but how do you feel about the idea that your duly elected representatives are keeping counsel with that German eunuch in the pointy hat?

Think about it, Christian supermajority. Think hard.

Crawling Toward a More Rational Future

Evidence suggests that there may be hope in the long run.

From USA Today:

The percentage of people who call themselves in some way Christian has dropped more than 11% in a generation. The faithful have scattered out of their traditional bases: The Bible Belt is less Baptist. The Rust Belt is less Catholic. And everywhere, more people are exploring spiritual frontiers — or falling off the faith map completely.

These dramatic shifts in just 18 years are detailed in the new American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), to be released today. It finds that, despite growth and immigration that has added nearly 50 million adults to the U.S. population, almost all religious denominations have lost ground since the first ARIS survey in 1990.

“More than ever before, people are just making up their own stories of who they are. They say, ‘I’m everything. I’m nothing. I believe in myself,’ ” says Barry Kosmin, survey co-author.

From FutureMajority:

The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) also found that a movement towards claiming no religious affiliation is “a general trend among younger white American.” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported “people not affiliated with any particular religion stand out for their relative youth compared with other religious traditions.”

The National Journal profiles a growing faction of non-religious youth – the Secular Student Alliance (SSA). Their motto is “Mobilizing Students for a New Enlightenment.” The SSA’s chapters have grown from 42 in 2003 to 129 this year and they currently have a network of over 14,000 students. Their mission is “to organize, unite, educate, and serve students and student communities that promote the ideals of scientific and critical inquiry, democracy, secularism, and human based ethics.”

From AlterNet:

We are on the verge — within 10 years — of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.

Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. (Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelicals.) In the “Protestant” 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.

This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.

Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I’m convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.

So perhaps in the 2020s and beyond the Bible-thumping Jesus Jihadi yahoo will be a thing of the past – or at least, his inexplicable influence on the course of government will be. But that’s of little comfort today. Just because the good guys win the war eventually doesn’t mean they don’t lose battles along the way, and lost battles mean casualties, measured in lasting damage to real human lives. Even if it’s just ten years until we’re free of these crusaders, understand that a lot of mischief can be done in a decade. If I might put it in more meaningful terms, remember how long George Bush was in office? Add two years to that.

Not that it will do any good, but your Senators and representatives need to hear from you that it is not acceptable for the Catholic Bishops to be meddling in the people’s business. Separation of church and state. Today.

When Jesus attacks, the proper course of action is to smack him in the nose with a crowbar. It says so, right there in the Constitution.


  • I don’t know how removing the Catholic Churches’ tax exempt status will support separation of religion and government, but I like the idea for all their politikin’ If they want to keep their religious exemption, then they should start acting like a religious organization and stop acting like a K Street Lobbying firm (who are not tax exempt — yet.)

    I really hated seeing a nun from Baton Rouge after Katrina sitting in a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing praying for the U.S. Senate to provide relief to her Catholic School who took in New Orleans children. I am sorry, but what happened to praying to her God and faith that her God would provide. I didn’t know I was that God and the Catholics have faith that I will provide for them in their time of need with my tax dollars.

    Afterall, I already have two wars going on that I have to pay for, how in the hell can I afford to provide for the entire Roman Catholic Church. Jebus God, help me.

  • Why stick to Roman Catholics? The agenda in the U.S. seems to be Evangelical Protestantism (and even the Catholics talk in Evangelical terms). Here in Mexico, where the Roman Catholic Church was the one monolithic religion, we still managed to separate Church and State. Even the members of the present administration, which includes a good chunk of the “piety wing” of PAN wouldn’t think of saying something like “God Bless Mexico” at the end of a speech, nor of using religious symbols in a political setting. As it is, we’re strict enough that you can’t even hold a “meet the candidates night” in a church… which are only allowed to be used for purely religious affairs. Churches cannot directly run things like hospitals or schools (which must follow the national curriculum — I remember the shock of having to take a single mom friend of mine’s 12-year old son to buy condoms for his 6th grade Health Class “show and tell” presentation… at a school run by nuns).

    No one (well, almost no one except the Piety wing of PAN) sees any of this as an infringement on religious liberty, although there are some complaints about forbidding churches — as churches — from making any pronouncements on politic issues to their congregants. And we have liberalized somewhat, now allowing the clergy to vote. But, not to hold office. Have to draw the line somewhere.

    • Here’s another log for the fire. Can somebody please do something about fucking Barry O and his faith-based bullshit? He PROMISED to fix the nonsense that Bush started, but … well, I guess he promised to do a lot of things, didn’t he?

      So far, it looks like all he’s done is make things worse

  • Your point about tolerance among Catholics, Mormons, and Baptists for each other is interesting. I read Kathryn Joyce’s book, Quiverfull, this winter (details: http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/rdbook/1219/rdbook:_wifely_submission_and_christian_warfare). She writes about the theory of “co-belligerency”: the cooperation among conservative Christians as different as Catholics, Mormons, and Baptists on certain issues (such as abortion and “family values”). The book is fascinating (in a really creepy way).

    On the subject of tax exemption, liberal churches have been contacted by the IRS and their tax-exempt status questioned for questioning the war in Iraq from the pulpit.

    Finally, Pijai is just a little off on the geography. Aside from the bishops influence in Congress, the center of Christian lobbying in DC is on C Street, at the “boarding house”/”church” operated by The Family (details: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120746516).

    Happy reading.

  • The author’s argument seems a bit skewed, reminds me of the argument by some that the Jews killed Jesus and begs the question, why focus on the Catholic Church? Certainly the same argument can be made regarding a variety of protestant faith(s), fundamentalist(s) of any faith, the activists in the LDS, etc.

  • blr, allow me to speak for the author here. He’s just making a point about this, particular, situation. He has no more love for anyone else on your list than he does for the Catholic Church. A glance through the archives here will show that quickly enough.

    I’d like to point out that the most Christ like manifestation of Christianity that we have any record of called the Catholic Church “The Church of Satan”. And now we have the papal exorcist claiming that Satan is, in fact, roaming the halls of the Vatican…hmmm.

    In regards to the Alternet article. Do we get lions? Because i really like lions, the species needs to be saved but with so many environmental problems we may soon reach a point where there’s not enough natural foodstuffs for lions. Given that, perhaps we could kill two birds with one stone here.

  • Great piece.

    I really struggle with this topic.

    1. I don’t know if the current prominence of religion in the public debate is evidence we are becoming more religious. Historically, the uber-religious in America have always been really potent in politics, from Hamilton to Jackson to Nixon. (And before that, e.g., Beckett.) There are morons who are comfortable being told how to vote by their ministers, from Cotton Mather to Pat Robertson to Al Sharpton, which automatically gives them political power which they are not loathe to use. I don’t know if we really are becoming more religious, if it’s just a temporary swing that will ebb in time, or if we are becoming more secular which makes the more ridiculous aspects of religion appear even more ridiculous and heightens our awareness of them.

    Second, I don’t know if the current prominence of religion in the political arena is evidence of religion’s strength or its weakness. I certainly understand your counter-argument above that religion is rotting. Christianity has become a haven for sexual predators and con men. The willingness of church leadership to rely on trying to spin the problem away is certainly not a sign of a health organism. By all measures, church attendance, etc is falling. That may be more telling than what people label themselves in a survey. Maybe the current extremism is evidence of the hard-core members of a shrinking group trying to restore the group’s relevance, i.e., they’re shouting louder to disguise the fact there are fewer of them to shout.

    Finally, if religion is weak and rotting, I don’t know if that is good news or if it just means we have to wait to see what the manipulators and the manipulated come up with next. People are superstitous. All cultures, no matter how remote, have some version of religion. (Even many of my non-religious friends still believe in a higher power, e.g., the government for those who live in socialist countries. Science has certainly become a quasi-religion, read some of the articles on how nano-tech will save the world. And I might argue that the smug belief in the power of the invisible hand by finance types approaches religion as it’s blind faith in something you don’t really understand.) So if we were to get rid of all the Muslim assholes and the Catholic assholes and the Evangelical assholes and the Mormon assholes, would that really get rid of the assholes who want to tell people how to live their lives or just create a new flavor of asshole? As long as people are inherently prone to believe in spirits, there will be those who prey on that.

    Sorry. This is one of those topics where I feel like I have a lot of clear thoughts, but they certainly don’t come out that way when I write them down.

  • John,

    Interesting comments, and thanks for dropping by. A lot of this is bound up together in ways that aren’t always fully coherent even if you’ve studied it in detail. I’ve noted before that history periodically presents us with times of rapid change. Imagine, for the sake of discussion, that you have a century’s worth of progress (usually driven by tech and economic interests – think about the Industrial Revolution here) compressed into a decade. Well, change is unsettling, especially when it disrupts an entire way of life, and this is scary, and your average person doesn’t have the mechanisms to deal productively with having a culture blown out from under his/her. So what do they turn to? The old reliables. Religion, politicians promising a return to the good old days, TV shows pimping the virtues of safer, simpler times, etc.

    When you compress a century’s worth of change into a decade, you also compress a century’s worth of resistance to change into that same decade.

    So look at the pace of technological change in the past 50 years or so. The curve is damned near vertical. History would therefore predict the precise kinds of social upheavals and political reactions and fundamentalist upheavals. In a lot of ways this is like the IR, except that the dominant resistance is taking some different forms (not much loom-breaking yet, but think about what underpins 9/11, the Unabomber, even Columbine). Your comment on nano is especially instructive – we’re the most technotopian culture in history, best I can tell (yes, I did write a dissertation about this!) and that’s all bound up with competing Judeo-Christian theologies, as well.

    If you think the past can tell you something about the future, then you’d expect progress to win. It always does. At the same time, it’s like I say toward the end of the post – winning the war doesn’t mean that you don’t become a casualty in a lost battle along the way.

  • “you’d expect progress to win. It always does.” Ahhh, what you really mean is “it always has.” Progress as a natural state is pretty much an American construct. Lots of cultures don’t have that. But I am on your side on this one–I sure as heck hope it always does.

    And your “compressed reaction” argument is a nice one.

    • Hey, I prefaced it with “If you think the past can tell you something about the future,” didn’t I?

      But yeah. It always does, right up until it doesn’t. I try not to think about that last bit any more than I have to.

      Man, the beatings I take around here… 🙂

  • John, I recognize that, if you think of “religion” as a leap of faith not subject to proof, that there are, in fact, some people who worship science, and perhaps a lot more who worship Adam Smith — or at least what they think Adam Smith was and believed.

    Having said that, the scientific method absolutely depends on tangible proof, and our views of what is “real” and not real change over time as new, factual discoveries are made. Scientists (as opposed to science itself) don’t always get it right the first time, but science grinds away until the facts are settled to a 99.999999999999999% probability or better whenever they can be. In that sense, science can never be religion, though my friends will tell you that I believe that so many people are so badly educated that they equate science with mystical wizardry.

    Economic theory also changes with proof, but unfortunately, there are so many variables that theories tend to be heavily dependent on ideology a good deal of the time. Still, it’s not religion, though I agree, once again, that there are those who take certain economic hypotheses that are little short of philosophy and elevate them to “fact” status in a religious manner.

    I suppose I put my faith in facts.

  • Sam,

    About progress. I tend to view things as being more cyclical than linear. I think another dark age (the third in the western/middle eastern world) is quite likely, and that would be negative progress by most measures. So much knowledge is lost in a dark age that entire cultures simply cease to exist, so there’s no progress for them ;-).

    Still, I suppose that if one looks at the entire scope of human history, enough knowledge is usually retained that the exit from the dark age tends to produce a higher level of technology than the former, pre-dark-age civilization. So far. But I don’t think it’s guaranteed. It was probably the early 19th century, for instance, before western civilization caught up with the late Roman Empire in many ways.

    And I’m not beating you up. Just yakkin’.

  • John raises an interesting point, and JS has an important response re: science. There’s a middle ground, though, where a lot of the problem lies. Specifically, there is a cultural fetishization with technology that doesn’t align with the hard discipline of science.

    Here’s how it goes. America is a tremendously “applied” culture. Fuck knowledge for its own sake – what can you DO with it. Long history here. So we’re deeply fascinated with applied science – which = technology. Now, lay our consumer culture from hell over that.

    What you have is something like a worship of science, except that it’s more a worship of the coolness of the things that science has indirectly produced. And, in typically American fashion, this worship is almost wholly divorced from any real comprehension of the original theology of science.

    Am I making any sense here?

  • JS: In brief, I suppose it depends on your unit of measurement. If the unit is tied to specific civilizations (nations, empires, cultures, etc.), then you’re right. If the unit is the species collectively, that changes the equation a bit.

  • Yeah, I hear you Slammy. If you look at humanity at a whole, where tech was in prehistory and where tech is now, one would have to say that technological progress has always won out in the end, before. But it’s not too far of a stretch to assume that we might never recover the same level of tech if there were another dark age. You can study Roman architecture and copy it and then improve on it. But what the heck would you do with a microchip when, in fact, you don’t even have a microscope to use?

    A Canticle for Liebowicz?

  • You’re making some sense, Sam. I would probably put it a bit differently. Most Americans, maybe even the vast majority, have no concept of the fact that science, itself, is simply the scientific method, and they certainly don’t understand the dog-eat-dog nature of the scientific community. I think we all have to be careful about any unintentional succor we might give to those religionists in our society who want everyone to think that facts that have been through the scientific gantlet are equal to “facts” put forth in ancient, mythical texts.

  • JS: I think you could get back to microchip level without a microchip, but what if all the knowledge lives on the Net and we go emp on each other? THAT seems like the bigger risk – the burning of the library at Alexandria times a billion?

    Still, I take your point. We can assume all we like about history, but with each passing day we have a greater ability to do things to ourselves that never existed before. So speculate, sure, but only a fool takes history for a guarantee of future earnings….

  • JS

    Boy, you guys are tough. Can’t a brother get by with a little sloppy thinking around here?

    Obviously you’re right. It is infuriating when the religious nutocracy puts evolution on the same intellectual plane as creationism and dismisses it as just a theory, and I certainly don’t mean to give them any more fodder to do so. I would be perfectly happy if those people who are anti-science had to go to faith healers and only those of us who believe in science were allowed to go to hospitals.

    I was actually referring to something that is probably tangential, that is the propensity of people on my end of the political spectrum to sieze on to new technologies and pursue them with illogical zealousness. For example, a Brit recently calculated that if you filled the UK with windfarms that it wouldnt supply the power needed for the UK. I don’t know if he’s right, but there is no way that wind and solar can satisfy our current needs for energy, but I have far too many friends who are adamant that solar will solve all the ills created by an energy-intensive society. It’s blind faith, just of a different flavor.

  • Technophilia. I began with a simple question about the Internet – why was it being treated as the solution to all our problems? After a bit of research, I realized that this wasn’t an internet question, it was a technology question. When you snoop back, you find that we’ve done the same thing with every other major tech advance. Literally. Electricity. Railroads. Cable. Telegraph. Radio. Even television was once viewed as a major boon for society. Educational potential and all that.

    Then, at a safe distance, along comes the technodystopian backlash, which always argues that these machines are going to make things worse than they already are. That’s what I called the “Frankenstein Complex.”

    So yeah, John, you’re right. Wind and solar (and hydro and whatever) aren’t likely to solve all our problems, but that fervor is, at its core, a religious one. That’s how a simple question about the Internet wound up in Genesis 1. Blind faith – exactly.

  • OK Slammy. We certainly agree that blind faith in technology’s ability (or science’s ability, depending on the definition) to solve all our problems is a kind of religion. And it’s harmful. No argument here.

  • And how many times has Mary Shelley’s little tale been retold? Jurassic Park, anyone?

    BTW, those who remember S&R’s beginnings will recall that our first banner scrogue was Lord Byron. In addition to the obvious reasons – poet, scholar, rogue of the first order – he was also an outspoken progressive political voice during the Industrial Revolution, providing vocal support for the Luddites. He was also part of the ongoing discussions that inspired Shelley to write Frankenstein. These activities, which aren’t as well known as his rampant rakery, played a major factor in our decision to accord him that honor.

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  • “…but I have far too many friends who are adamant that solar will solve all the ills created by an energy-intensive society. It’s blind faith, just of a different flavor.”

    Benjamin was the only animal who did not side with either faction. He refused to believe either that food would become more plentiful or that the windmill would save work. Windmill or no windmill, he said, life would go on as it had always gone on–that is, badly.

    Technology isn’t going to save us any more than Jesus will. Forgive the sloppy thinking here, but my feeling is that the root problem is an assumption (perhaps hope) that something outside us can/will save us. That’s easier, but is likely to end with porcine totalitarian leadership of one sort or another.

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