“I am you”–the now-famous line from Delaware Republican senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell’s campaign ad–exemplifies the marketing of ignorance that lies at the heart of this year’s mid-term elections. The melding of religious fundamentalism, anti-rationalism in the form of an assault on science, and bogus populism is such stuff as nightmares are made on. O’Donnell, who is the most obviously ill-educated member of the Tea Party Class of ’10, is simply the purest embodiment of the politics of proud ignorance. If she is us, we are doomed.
O’Donnell’s inability to understand why creationism and intelligent design cannot be taught in public schools is an example of the ways in which retrograde religion melds with ignorance about the Constitution and a total lack of respect for and understanding of science. By the way, O’Donnell is clearly uneducated about her own religion, Roman Catholicism, or she would know that her church finds evolution compatible with faith. The church has long taught that faithful Catholics may accept evolution as the mechanism by which God oversaw the development of the universe and the creation of man. (There is not world enough and time here to discuss the intellectual inconsistency of this position, but the fact is that it is the position taken by the Vatican for the past half-century. It is probably the reason a higher percentage of Catholics, in comparison to any other religious group in the United States with the exception of Jews, accepts evolution as settled science.)
By contrast, biblically literal Protestantism, generally called fundamentalism in the U.S., takes the very different position that if the Bible says the world was created in six days, well, it must have been created in six days. Federal District Court Judge John E. Jones, in his wonderfully lucid decision Kitzmiller v. Dover found intelligent design to be just another religious doctrine trying to skirt previous court decisions barring the teaching of creationism in public schools. Jones, by the way, was a lifelong Republican before being appointed to the court by President George W. Bush. He was of course a different kind of Republican from the participants in the Mad Hatter’s tea party.
When I say that O’Donnell and Sharron Angle and all of the Tea Party/Republican candidates this year are ignorant, I do not call them ignorant because I disagree with their political views. I disagreed with the late Sen. Barry Goldwater too, but I don’t think he was ignorant. I disagree with with the reactionary politics of the young and middle-aged quasi-academic fogies at all of the right-wing “think tanks,” but they are not ignorant and uneducated. They’re just wrong. But the right-wingers in this year’s election cycle aren’t even capable of explaining why they believe what they believe because few of them have any real background in history, law, religion, or science. It’s all part of the contempt for “eliites”; ie., people who have studied anything, in American culture and politics.
Consider O’Donnell’s response when the issue of separation of church and state reared its head in her debate with Democrat Chris Coons this week. It couldn’t have been clearer that O’Donnell had been prepped to parrot the statement that the phrase “separation of church and state” doesn’t appear in the Constitution. When Coons started saying that the First Amendment prohibits “establishing religion” she clearly had no idea what he was talking about or what it had to do with the separation of church and state, so she just said nervously, “That’s in the First Amendment?”
Unfortunately, O’Donnell is indeed us in her knowledge of the Constitution. As I noted in The Age of American Unreason, surveys by the National Constitution Center show that the only First Amendment right a majority of Americans can name is freedom of speech. Sixty percent did not know that freedom of religion was guaranteed by the amendment. Only four in ten adults, and just two in ten teenagers, know that there are 100 senators. The Constitution, as used by the right, is a symbol without the substance ignorance–just as the Bible has become a symbol for the majority of Americans who cannot even name the Four Gospels. They may not have read the Gospels, but they know what they like.
On Faith panelist Cal Thomas writes that the separation of church and state is a bogus assertion “meant to keep seriously religious people (meaning pro-life, pro-opposite sex marriage, etc.) from full participation in our nation’s political life….” Thomas simply ignores the fact that there are all sorts of seriously religious people who support embryonic stem cell research, keeping abortion legal, and gay marriage. By “seriously religious people,” what he means is his kind of religion. This is the tactic long used by the religious and political right–claiming he general mantle of religion for themselves and themselves alone.
The embroiling of a childishly literal form of faith with ignorance is most visible in the right’s anti-science positions. In Indiana this week, incumbent Democrat Baron P. Hill was booed at a rally in which he said, “Climate change is real, and man is causing it. That is indisputable. And we have to do something about it.” Norman Dennison, the founder of a local Tea Party group, told a reporter, “It’s a flat-out lie. ” He said his opinion was based on Rush Limbaugh’s programs and Scripture. “I read my Bible,” he said. “He made this earth for us to utilize.” It was not entirely clear whether the He with a capital “H” referred to God or to Preacher Rush.
Of all the Republican senatorial primary candidates this year, only one–the defeated Mike Castle in Delaware–accepted the scientific consensus about the reality of and the threat posed by global warming. Of the 20 Republican senatorial candidates in contested races, only one–Mark Stephen Kirk in Illinois–believes that global warning is a serious environmental problem. Scientists — those snooty Ph.D.s–are seen as part of a conspiracy to impose government regulation. If this happens to serve the interests of the fossil fuel industry and those who oppose all government regulation of business, well, who are the heads of Exxon and BP to question the will of the Lord?
Again, I emphasize that it is not all religion but a particular kind of religion that feeds into this toxic combination of ignorance, hostility to science, and general anti-intellectualism. Liberal evangelicals have strongly supported environmental legislation in recent years, citing the obligation to be good stewards of the earth. Now, I don’t think the human authors of the Bible have anything useful to tell us–pro or con–about the environment today, given that they were writing at a time when the riches of the earth must have seemed limitless (unless, of course, you were wandering in the desert and had to rely on the Lord to provide). But the distinguishing feature of far-right religion, injected into politics, is its assertion not that we can’t look to science and intellect for the answers to everything but that we can’t look to them for the answer to anything.
THIS WEEK IN REVIEW
In reviewing the response to my column about the documentary on the Nurmemberg trials, I hardly know where to begin when I consider the number of comments suggesting that there is no educational value in films or books about atrocities committed in the name of ideology. There is Farnaz, who argues that “showing the film, reading books, etc. accomplishes little except to feed anti-Semites…”Jihadist is equally misguided in his contention that we should not show pictures of corpses being shoveled into mass graves because such exposure is an insult to victims “Do they [the victims] really want us to see them in their degradation, their humiliations, their indignity at the hands of the genociders?” he asks. In a sentence fragment, he adds, “If it comes to a point where we need to show films with hanging or shooting or gassing to sensitise or educate…”
Mary Cunningham accuses writers like me (and presumably every historian who continues to write books about the Nazi era) of “prolonging the whole episode.” She writes, “There’s a whole industry sprung up about the Nazis. I despair. When will it stop?”
“The whole episode.” What a bland, euphemistic turn of phrase. When will “it” stop? It will stop on the day when human beings have learned enough about what horrors the human species is capable of to stop repeating those horrors in new forms. Apropos of Cunningham’s comments about what the English did to the Irish, one of the reasons imperial powers were able to get away with what they did to the people they were trying to colonize and exploit was that they were able to do it with a much greater degree of secrecy than they were in the second half of the 20th century, and were therefore confident of their immunity from punishment.
Exactly how much knowledge do you think the world would have today about the Nazis if there had been no Nuremberg trials and no Eichmann trial, or if the evidence had been available only to jurors and judges? Without the evidence, no one would believe it. As is, there are enough Holocaust denyers–the sort of people who, even if they were in a crowd at an auto-da-fe, would claim it never happened . Films and documents may not convince hard-core Holocaust denyers of anything, but they have led to an enormous change in general public attitudes between, roughly, 1960 and today. That evidence can never cast light into the darkness of some people’s minds does not mean that it provides no illumination for others.
Finally, the real insult to dead victims is to fail to show what was done to them. And that’s true whether the victim is a Jew, a Muslim, an Irish Catholic, or a Cambodian. Many survivors have written and said that their worst fear in the camps was that if they lived to tell their story, no one would believe them. Without the visual and documentary evidence, they would have been right. If schoolchildren laughed at the pile of Cambodian skulls, they did so because they were not prepared for or properly educated about what they were going to see. In fact, such laugher is an even more powerful argument on behalf of education about evaluating evidence–not an argument for squeamishly concealing the evidence. Finally, I can imagine nothing less relevant to the education of people in the future than speculation about what the victims would, or would not, have wanted. Of one thing we can be sure: they didn’t want to die. And it does no honor to their memory to shield future generations from the evidence of what was done to them throughout “the whole episode.”