bloggulentgreytripe

Essays on power and change in Western democracies: Intersections of rhetoric shaping the civil landscape

In Uncategorized on July 5, 2020 at 2:55 pm

THE DREAM CITY megachurch Phoenix, Arizona, hosted Donald Trump last month. Supporters waited in 110-degrees for the Students for Trump event. Covid’s damage to the US economy is affecting Mr Trump’s re-election chances. 128,000 deaths are a tragedy. Politically it is clearing some of the path for rival Joe Biden. During his Arizona trip Mr Trump autographed a plaque at the 200th mile point of the US-Mexico border wall project. But there are changes he cannot effect. Universal health care moves forward gradually. Mr Biden will aid its journey if elected. He will also turn the country towards net-zero emissions and new foreign policy relations. But what of the deeper historic divisions? Last week the Governor of Mississippi signed into law the bringing down of the Confederate battle flag. It had flown from the Capitol building since 1894. It is the final state to unpick the emblem from its official symbols of office.

For the present America has returned to the level of rhetorical warfare worthy of Richard Nixon’s period in office (’69-’74). Only a few weeks into Mr Nixon’s presidency he ordered the air force to start bombing Communist supply lines in neutral Cambodia. But, the bombing was kept secret until the New York Times broke it as a front page story. Mr Nixon called in FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to install wiretaps on the phones of four journalists and thirteen administration officials. History records Mr Nixon prolonging the Vietnam War, pitching white against black with his “southern strategy”, and causing American citizenry to regard each other as enemies. All, one biographer argues, for his own political ends. He was the only President to resign in shame. The parallels with Mr Trump’s tenure have already been rehearsed.

On 27 April 1994 Reverend Billy Graham delivered the sermon at Mr Nixon’s funeral. It was a peroration that sanctified: “the world has lost a great citizen”. Mr Nixon’s record was momentarily reborn and deeper questions flattened. Importantly the presidency was resurrected through hi-spiritual rhetoric. Keeping faith with the office of president is a non-negotiable element of America’s wars of rhetoric. Mr Graham’s narrative was a rescue mission which worked for a congregation already sitting awkwardly knowing what they knew. Elsewhere, away from the grieving, Mr Graham further absolved human frailty by stating Mr Nixon’s ‘drugs and demons’ had ‘play over him’. It is easier to blame demons after death than face them during life. Whether the office of president was a demon that had play over Mr Graham and now other ‘white evangelicals’ is a rhetorical battle still in play at the White House.

For America democratic change is proving painfully slow. In Alexis de Tocqueville’s celebrated analysis of American democracy in the 1830s, he noted the curious paradox of America’s commitment to free speech being undone by an absence of independent minds. In 1963 writer James Baldwin argued this absence was rather: “White Americans… [who] are terrified of sensuality…,” adding: “It will be a great day for America… when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber that we have substituted for it.” For Mr Baldwin foam rubber stood for the ‘apprehension of life’ and the ‘historical role… Christianity’ had played in shaping the American consciousness. But more importantly its unconsciousness towards America’s unequal sociopolitical systems and structures. Kelly Brown Douglas writes: “…fundamental aspects of Christian theology have been used to legitimate white supremacist realities and have become a part of the collective theological consciousness.”

Great American Paradox: The extent to which critical writers like James Baldwin reflect aspects of the New Testament’s emphasis on power and change more acutely than institutional religion begs the question of the relationship between Christianity and the sociopolitical systems to which it has climbed into. James Baldwin wrote: “To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.” The potential for a new American Identity may already be planted in its marginalised communities. To this possible end The Episcopal Church’s Virginia Theological Seminary ‘has set aside $1.7m for a reparations fund… Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey… $27m’ (Sojourners, July 2020).

America’s troubled soul is self-evident. Its social contract is being written long after its Constitution. With its truths drawn from an indeterminate mix of Enlightenment philosophy, Thomist natural theology and traditional Judeo-Christian revelation the Republic could still be lost. These contradictions are often revealed in the power politics of American Christianity. It still is a young country. Double Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell reveals what an old country England was even in the early 1500s: “You can write on England, but what was written before keeps showing through, inscribed on the rocks and carried on floodwater, surfacing from deep cold wells.” America’s Constitution not so much ‘shows through’ but overshadows.

Did a conflicted soul make it easier for George W Bush to be ‘transformed by 9/11 from a compassionate conservative into a neocon who started two of his country’s longest wars’? Or the anti-intellectualism of Mr Trump’s base joining with the White Christianity of middle-America? They have both turned Right for their ideology’s salvation. Either way it is a turn away from the complex nature of the relationship between faith and justice. Not helped by American Protestantism taking the form of a solus ipse spirit; to go with its Reformation sola fide and sola scriptura. A confidence in self actuality rather than a communal interpretation of ancient meaning. This individualist brio became an almost perfect partner to neoliberalism’s hyper-individualism. But the power of American Optimism struggles to come to terms with limitations.

The American writer Saul Bellow called death the black backing on the mirror. It enables us to see our lives and selves in reflection. And White Christian individualism has not evolved a theology of death that sits well with eternal optimism. James Baldwin opened profound theological questions in Sixties America. But mainstream Christian apologists such as Billy Graham would not engage in dialogue. Mr Baldwin was a symbol of a growing black consciousness. This contrasted strongly with Mr Graham’s evangelicalism, which was a symbol of a persistent spiritual innocence that is still pervasive today.

It is important to remember that Billy Graham-style evangelical rallies were vast. So much so when you got up out of your seat to respond to the nightly altar call, there was a very real danger that you would not find it again. And that is the challenge of American quantification. To reach a mass audience exaggeration is essential. For square-jawed evangelists to convince an aircraft-hangar-sized congregation with Sixties amplification ar-tic-u-la-tion of the gos-pel in hyperbolic form was needed. For the message to reach the back row it had to have been launched with such force those in the front rows were transfixed. Megaphones need monosyllabic language to travel through the air. Subtlety is stripped off and the remaining bones are chewed for nourishment. Mr Graham’s speechness invited no echo.

Homespun religion was a coherent personal theology that did not invite a discussion. It was a style of faith that releases the self into a private internal struggle. But private crises are rarely resolved through private reflection. Mr Baldwin’s critique of white culture with its plastic bread that tasted of nothing could be seen in white evangelicalism. White Christianity could see the murderous violence of segregation. But it relied on changing the human heart. Not addressing discrimination meant gagging the raging prophets from the Old Testament who burnt incandescently for justice above ‘harps and sweet music’. Where Martin Luther King Jr offered the prophetic, and generated collectivised power, Mr Graham offered a depoliticised Christianity.

The power of crowds should not be underestimated. Despite the hubbub oratory was personal. When the Sergeant Major bellows on parade, soldiers are convinced he or she is the ‘orrible piece of work needing extra drill. When troops overseas have been in male-only company and a comedian is sent to entertain invariably a small female dance troupe go along. Every man believes the impossibly unmale vision has eyes only for him. The impossibly certain pastor poses, pauses and pounces; and all believe it is to them this message is supernaturally directed. Today’s mass rally, political or religious, is held together by stagecraft and nervous expectancy.

This command-from-the-stage steers White Christianity to choose low powered targets. Conservative evangelicals sometimes gather against the arts, rather than for them. Often in protest against artful representations of Jesus. Their sensibilities are hurt. Accompanied by guitar choruses heavy with mawkish sentiment. Folk religion without any edge is prone to flat earth anything-goes-thinking.

Mr Graham I argue would privately agree with me. He cited the 20th century’s leading theological voices. Reformed protestant giants Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. They wrote a withering critique of a paganised Christianity that had become a God is Great reduction. From the story of the builder from Nazareth, White Christianity had created the Christ Idol. This figure loomed with threatening texts on the walls of Christian homes. But Mr Graham bowdlerised Barth’s critical message. Barth accused White Christianity of presenting God as a ‘simple, absolute being… a cosmic dictator’.

Instead Mr Graham postured and brought all to attention. The ancient text was a divine codex. And looking back it is possible he struggled to understand its core themes beyond headline messages. At times he held it in such a way that he feared its spontaneous combustion. Whatever I’ve got here is beyond my literal reading; I’m scared of its mysteries and you can feel my own fear. If I don’t tell you just how scared I am then we’re all in danger. His honesty was American. A lot of the genius of America is in its fronting up. George W Bush would say: ‘Iraq is a war of revenge’. No guile. Gothic bare boards of truth.

A Product Of Americana?: Chronicler of American provincial power Philip Roth wrote a response to President Richard Nixon’s politics by re-characterising “The president’s chief ally… [as] the Reverend Billy Cupcake—a stand-in for the granddaddy of the religious right” (Greenberg). A republic constantly in danger from its own energy is likely to produce figures whose popularity stems from their ability to flatten out the stark contradictions between modernity, America and Christianity.

In contrast Martin Luther King Jr read his ancient text and it was a reportage of present day Black American experience. The violence of crucifixion and exile in Egypt was another front-page story from within black communities. When George Orwell trundled out of Northern English coal mining communities, his Southern benefactors refused to believe Great Britons lived in abject squalor. They recoiled from its implications for their own lives and communities. Mr Graham’s rural theology was in no position to face the reality of African-American experience.

Ultimately Mr Graham’s Kingdom was a bit too much like Oz, far off and magical. And a misreading of New Testament theology. He found it hard to tell truth to charismatic ceasaresque power. He was resistant to Barth’s opus magnum. A radical new relational ecology far from the production economy at the heart of neoliberalism.

The backdrop of post-war America did not invite cool reflection. Images of ICBMs raining from open Kansas skies and America’s superpower status being erased steadily in the jungles of Vietnam kept folk flocking to apocalyptic preachers like Mr Graham. The Barth, Bultmann et al corpus argues what Mr Graham missed was the Christ Event’s metaphors. The apocalypse related to humanness in all its potential. New Testament theology was a restoration of the Human Epic. The Kingdom narrative was ‘life now’ as counter to the ennui and anomie of industrial living. Rather than ‘life future’ as captured by the American Dream and Western Civilisation casus foederis. That is not to say people could not find a version of Jesus through Mr Graham. But his conversion experience was devoid of Jesus the revolutionary, and Jesus the ‘essence of reality’. This figure physically and metaphorically attacked the temple complex’s alliance with Romanus Economicus. Instead newly minted evangelicals would not look at top shelf magazines again. But now they were in danger of not wanting to look if they were not careful. What the original Martin Luther might call a spiritual death by religious legalism. For both Calvin and Luther reckoned if the human spirit was not engaged then everything else was superficial nonsense.

Early on American Christianity broke off from a European magisterium and evolved into a culture that was stripped of cultural handrails. A pure liberal ‘eat what you kill’ existence. Mr Trump’s often poor Republican base is voting for tax breaks for the rich based on the remotest possibility they too might ‘make it’. Such ideological patriotism remains hidden in plain sight. It is partly fuelled by conservative Christianity’s tacit support for feudal capitalism.

Lazy preaching also fitted TV too well. America was a TV nation. Its role in shaping the national consciousness cannot be underestimated. Preachers could be dazzled by US presidents who knew the political value of a religious talisman. Mr Graham’s puritanism did not allow him to think ill of these men. They remained flawed but because they told him they meant good, and said it in homespun inflections, we should believe them. Such grand naivety set the tone for the hokey spirit. The Holy Spirit was found amongst the dust and devastation of crucifixion. A peculiarly sadistic end reserved for the detritus of the Roman World. It brooked no televisual quality as popular culture ruled the airwaves.

Preachers were spiritually formed in religious seminary climates almost unique to the US educational scene. Where private institutions proliferate. Unchecked lecturers could avoid giving off the dank odour of intellectualism. Intellectualising was a dark European modus that would lead to the sordid perversions of liberalism. Or worse, Communism. Newly fledged college minds tended to look at nuance as if it was sexually ambiguous. An androgyny that robbed economies of their animal spirits. Much of this is found in the Make America Great Again narrative. Mr Trump, like Bill Clinton, borrowed this phrase from Ronald Reagan. It has the megaphone quality that travels to the back of the arena.

Mr Trump said earlier this year during a live briefing session: “Why is it three or four times more so for the black community” to be impacted by Covid-19? Writer Kierra Jackson noted that social media reacted with: “The white man said it, but we have been screaming this for years,” with another adding, “Blackness is not a risk factor. Anti-blackness is the comorbidity.” Also a registered nurse Kierra Jackson cites US Surgeon General Dr Jerome Adams: ‘Minorities are not more predisposed to infection “biologically or genetically,” but rather they are “socially predisposed” to it’.

What the pandemic is doing is opening spaces to recognise how White Christianity has struggled to pull its theology back from Christian nationalism and importantly an unquestioned authoritarianism.  Martin Luther King Jr argued many remain “silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” In an article by Sophie McBain the New Yorker columnist Masha Gessen talks of the pandemic as an ‘amplifier’ and that the lockdown plus protests ‘have provided a renewed sense of purpose and connection’. These are the sorts of debates that James Baldwin was surfacing back in 1963. Gessen describes this as a journey out of a tacit authoritarianism. Ultimately is the pandemic a key moment, the backing on the mirror? Of course White American Christianity is not ready to see itself. It is still too busy exporting its cultural artefacts. But this is the nature of authoritarian hegemonies. Hegemonic power is held in a constant transmission of its reasons for existence. Rome’s collapse was due to rampant inequalities as wealth was concentrated in the hands of a senatorial clique who refused to act.

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