Tuesday, September 18, 2007

American Fundamentalisms

Tomdispatch Interview: James Carroll

The point here is that the initial city-on-a-hill impulse has never stopped being part of our self-understanding -- the idea of America as having a mission to the world or, in biblical terms, a mission to the gentiles. "Go forth and teach all nations," Jesus commands. This commission is implicit in George Bush's war to establish democracy -- or "freedom" -- everywhere. When Americans talk about freedom, it's our secular code word for salvation. There's no salvation outside the church; there's no freedom outside the American way of life. Notice how, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the Soviet system, there is still something called the "Free World." As opposed to what?


Think of that phrase -- "manifest destiny." A key doctrine in what I am calling American fundamentalism. It remains an inch below the surface of the American belief system. What's interesting is that this sense of special mission cuts across the spectrum -- right wing/left wing, liberals/conservatives -- because generally the liberal argument against government policies since World War II is that our wars -- Vietnam then, Iraq now -- represent an egregious failure to live up to America's true calling. We're better than this. Even antiwar critics, who begin to bang the drum, do it by appealing to an exceptional American missionizing impulse. You don't get the sense, even from most liberals, that -- no, America is a nation like other nations and we're going to screw things up the way other nations do.


...But this issue involves more than the temperament of George Bush. It involves the structure of the fundamentalist mind. One pillar is bipolarity -- the understanding of reality as divided between good and evil; you're on the side of good and they're on the side of evil. However, they can begin by being Osama bin Laden's band, which then becomes the Taliban, which becomes Afghanistan, which becomes all the Muslims who ever talked about the Great Satan, which becomes Iraq, and now maybe Iran, and even critics in the U.S. "They," "they," "they." We see that progression in Bush. A second pillar is an absolute allergy to doubt. The fundamentalist mindset doesn't survive once you admit doubt or self-criticism. When asked for an example of a mistake he had made, Bush surprised people two years ago by claiming he couldn't think of one. The tragedy of Bush is, if you ask that question of him today, I'm sure he would answer the same way.


You know, the genius of the American system -- why the Constitution is worth defending -- is that our Constitution comes from Roger Williams, not John Winthrop and John Cotton. It assumes a world not divided between good and evil, but one where everybody participates in the whole mess.

What are checks and balances? The Constitution's authors understood that even people motivated by good intentions are going to screw up. So everybody, every institution, needs to be checked. This system assumes not bipolarity but unipolarity, in the sense that we're all capable of mistakes, that we all have to be constantly criticized. The Constitution is an ingenious structure for living in the real world.


The question today is whether the Constitution continues to exist as anything beyond a kind of totem, a vestige? Recent history certainly suggests that the Pentagon is now "unchecked." And if we can end our present war by blaming the Iraqis, then the Pentagon will be immune from criticism and prepared for the next foray of American power. That's why we must challenge this laying the blame on the Iraqi people, as if their "sectarianism" weighs more than our hubris. As of now, I fear, we'll be getting out of this war with what brought us into it intact.


Let me just say that we've been talking only America here, in part because I think people are attuned to the threat from what's called "Islamic fundamentalism." My own conviction is that a crucial twenty-first century problem is going to be Christian fundamentalism. Its global growth is an unnoticed story in the United States. Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia are now absolutely on fire with zealous belief in the saving power of Jesus, in the most intolerant of ways. A religious ideology that affirms the salvific power of violence is taking hold. It denigrates people who are not part of the saved community, permitting discrimination, and ultimately violence. Hundreds of millions of people are embracing this kind of Christianity.

Please read the whole interview

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Cuddlefish:

I fought in Afghanistan as a Special Forces Team Commander. I am also what you would perceive as a “wacky-right-wing-conservative-religious-Christian-person”

So here are the differences between myself and the Taliban.

The Taliban allowed no freedom of expression, no rights for women, no freedom of religion and destroyed anything and everyone that did not abide by their version of Islam. They destroyed the famous Buddhist statues of Bamiyan because the felt they were un-Islamic graven images. The wiped out entire peoples and villages (such as the Hazara) because they were not Islamic enough. They would think nothing of executing an entire village if one family converted to Christianity. They cut the ears, eyes, tongues and noses off people for “infractions against Islam.” They turned schools into horse stables. They planted bombs and mines in children’s play fields. They torched newly built girls schools. They stoned women to death who had been raped for “adultery.” They allowed the training of terrorist groups to export their version of Islam to the world. They looked at the world as two spheres – One that has been conquered by Islam and one that will be conquered by Islam through war. They would think nothing of raping your wife and children and making you a slave or corpse. It is what you and your family, or any non-Islamic person, deserves for being an infidel. They would not allow women (and girls) to go to school, have a job or even leave their home (unless accompanied by a male relative). The Taliban ruled by fear and intimidation. They remind me of the Nazis and Communists.

What do the so called religious conservatives in this country want? Here is the super secret list: Economic Opportunity and Personal Liberty.

Things like: Taxes we can afford; A reverence for the US Constitution as the Founding Fathers wrote it; An appreciation for the values and traditions that made this country the finest in the history of the world; A respect for all opinion, not just what is the PC flavor of the month; An understanding that people should “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character;” And respect for life (no matter how vulnerable or powerless).

The differences are slight, but there they are. I hope this clears up any misunderstandings.

De Oppresso Libre,