In times like these, where there is a revolutionary change in the political order, we need an overview of change that will help us to keep our balance while we struggle to keep from falling. For me, that anchor, structure, overview, whatever you want to call it, is the patriarchy. We might quibble at the meaning of that term, so here is the first sentence of the Wikipedia article on it: “Patriarchy is a social system in which males hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property.” And while some might also argue about the degree of power males have in the USA, there really can be no reasonable argument about the dominance of patriarchy here. What we are now seeing with the political sweep of the Republican Party in this country is the re-establishing of patriarchy as the dominant means of social control.
So let’s talk about political leadership in a male-dominated society. Remember the “New World” was created by emissaries of European kings and queens. They took the land from the Native Americans, calling them “savage” and used the dominant military technology of the time to slaughter, subdue, or otherwise corral the indigenous people. That is because the Native Americans fought back, seeing that their way of life was being forcibly replaced by this cruel and conquering flood.
Let us speak also of moral authority. Since patriarchy is all about the acquisition, maintenance and control of property (land and its resources and real estate) and wealth, many times relentless and cruel, people are frequenty subjected to this domination against their will. There is always pushback from the dominated elements of a patriarchal society. One such example is the formation of the United States of America. The colonies were, by and large, but not entirely, populated by religious and political exiles, groups of people whose religious and political practice was at variance with the patriarchal nations from which they emigrated. They banded together, and somehow a miracle emerged, American Democracy. No doubt about it, the founding fathers were themselves patriarchs, by and large. But what they did see was many versions of an essentially patriarchal religion and differing political views vying for safety in numbers in this “New World.”
While they certainly didn’t have eyes to see the immorality of slavery or the proprietization of women, and they didn’t even see alternatives to the gender binary of male and female, they did see that men (then by necessity, heterosexual) should stand as equals when it came to religious and political views. And so this Constitution was written with its system of checks and balances and its First Amendment guarantees. It is important to remember this: the morality enshrined in the Constitution of the USA went beyond the morality implicit in the various religious and political views emergent in the states. It was basically a morality of toleration of many religious and political views for the sake of freedom for each of them. The religious denominations themselves, with exceptions like the Quakers, were intolerant.
And let us tarry with those groups of the original USA founding which were viewed by men as morally inferior: women and slaves. It would be too simple to try to reduce this phenomenon to patriarchal religion, but it would also be too simple to ignore the role of patriarchal religion in creating and maintaining a policy of inferiority of women and non-white races. Roman Catholicism is inherently sexist, so much so, that its theology cannot permit female priests. This is why, Pope Francis, while he gets the essential mercy that the Church must show all of its communicants, he cannot undo the doctrine of the essential subordination of women to men. Jesus Christ, male, is to the feminine church as the husband, male, in a marriage is to his wife. It is an essential, traditional metaphor of the Roman Church. The doctrine of the Virgin Mary, miraculously impregnated by Jahova God, male, even assumed into Heaven directly is part and parcel of Roman Catholic Doctrine. It is the role of the women in the Roman Catholic Church to bear Christian sons just as Mother Mary bore the Son of God. Now I point these things out not to denigrate Catholic belief, only to indicate that the Roman Catholic Church did, does and will continue resist any theology or philosophy that sees women and men as intellectual equals, capable of governing a family, state or country. Also will they continue to resist any concept of same-sex marriage, which tears down the lop-sided Roman Catholic theory of the ideal family. This will not change, and Roman Catholicism would become something different if it were to relinquish this basic, traditional theology.
Similarly, let us recall the evolution of the Baptist Church in the USA. Prior to the Civil War, there was dissention in the American Baptist Church over whether missionaries could be slave-holders. What became the Northern Baptists saw the existence of slavery as an immoral state of affairs. However, the Southern economy, based on the cultivation of cotton and tobacco, which were essential to industry in the USA, could not operate without essentially free labor. Southern (male) plantation owners capitalized the inhabitants of the “Dark Continent,” and justified their actions by seeing Africans as equivalent to beasts, therefore not deserving of considerations of human rights. To be sure, a dignified plantation owner owed his animals and his slaves “good treatment,” but they clearly were his property, to do with as he chose. And let us not forget: there were many cruel plantation owners. This state of affairs led to the split between Northern and Southern Baptists, and additionally to a group of male land owners who simply refused to acknowledge the immorality of slavery. The conflict in these opposing religious viewpoints led to the Civil War, and I am virtually certain that the current white supremicist groups are cultural evolutions of these old divisions embedded in our history. My essential point here is that patriarchal sects from time to time emerge which let the engines of production, wealth and status blind them to basic human rights concerns.
This is not the place to rehearse the sexist and racist moorings of each of the religious denominations that constitute the USA. However, this Wikipedia diagram from the article Religion in the United States shows the relevance of such an analysis for understanding the results of presidential elections.
It seems clear from examining this map that Christian religious denominations constitute at least 50% to 70% of the populations of each of the 50 states. While morality as a human phenomenon is not the exclusive province of any particular Christian denomination—or for that matter, does not require any particular religious belief—many if not most Christians have moral convictions which are founded to some extend on these essentially patriarchal perspectives. Where denominations have patriarchal biases, as in the Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic Churches, these are going to exert both subtle and not so subtle influences on the beliefs of the devout and the not so devout.
The influence of the various Christian denominations, most of them laced with a good dose of patriarchy in their theology, is not by any means the whole story in attempting to understand an impending change in the political order. Notorious pollsters have reported through the media that up to 80% of the evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump. Clearly there is a voter block here, but calling it the “evangelical” Christian vote is not the most helpful and clarifying means of identification. In fact, evangelical Christians as a group can be broken up into subcategories. There are progressive evangelical Christians who advocate for women’s equality, pacifism and social justice (in the 20% that didn’t vote for Donald Trump). A far more telling cut of professed Christians is the degree to which they embrace fundamentalism. Marcus Borg has given a good analysis of religious fundamentalism in Chapter 1 of his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. Paraphrased, here are the six characteristics of a fundamentalist approach to understanding the Bible. Fundamentalism is
- literalistic—contemporary fundamentalist Christians are consciously literalistic, in that they believe that the Bible is literally true despite apparent contradictions that such belief implies, e.g. that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old
- doctrinal—being a Christian meant believing doctrinal Christianity, e.g. saying and believing the Nicene Creed, the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ
- moralistic—being a Christian means trying to live according to the codes of ethics found in the Bible
- patriarchal—using not only “predominantly masculine language for God and people, but also legitimated male-dominated hierarchies in church, society, family.” (p. 12)
- exclusivistic—”Christian exclusivism is the insistence that Jesus is the only way of salvation and Christianity is the only true religion.”
- afterlife oriented—being a Christian now for the sake of salvation later.
As can be seen, fundamentalism cuts across denominationalism in a telling way, and also for many denominations, represents a right wing.
There are several observations to be made about fundamentalist Christian religion. First and foremost, these are the religious that the Founding Fathers warned us about. In a democracy this kind of inflexible and basically intolerant morality has a right to exist and express itself, but so do other religious viewpoints, intolerant or otherwise. Wise as this separation of church and state may have seemed to our insightful forebearers, it has constantly been under attack by many of the religious groups that it was designed to protect. Many fundamentalist denominations and groups are steadfastly opposed to democracy, understood as liberty and justice for all citizens, and want instead to bring the “Reign of Christ” here on the earth, replacing any secular form of government with “Christian” government, of course, defined exactly as the traditions and leadership of each particular sect or group chooses. I think it will be helpful to explore in depth just why this is so.
A digression on the nature of science is necessary. Nearly every culture had a scientific wing. The Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Arabs, each in turn excelled at learning to use measurement, objectivity and, in a word, rationality, to free their culture to some extent from subjective religious traditions. That is, these cultures, while they still maintained a dominant religious outlook, permitted those within the culture with a “scientific bent” to develop knowledge. By knowledge here, I mean a description of aspects of our world that is produced based on observation and reason. The Romans especially, became expert at developing technology: human applications of science that had practical merit for the lives of the people: roads, dwellings, cities, engines of war. In Western culture, six hundred years of Darker Age and Less Dark Age was replaced by the renaissance. Then Galileo made his telescope, Bacon observed his chickens, and a phenomenal parade of scientifically minded inquirers strode clear into the Twentieth Century, because others came along and stood on the shoulders of these giants. The body of scientific knowledge emerged, saving literally billions of lives, putting us on our nearest neighbor, the moon, and helping us to wage more and more effective war.
However, science, no matter how glorious or dangerous some of us think it is, is not of equal value to everyone. In particular, current fundamentalist thinking in the USA is increasingly hostile to certain particular fruits of scientific inquiry: those that seem to conflict with beliefs fashioned long ago and far away, but that are a matter of deeply held faith. Christian fundamentalism believes that every word in the Christian Bible, even though it appears to be filtered through the minds and pens of thousands of sages, prophets and disciples of Christ, is somehow the Word of God. Well, not just somehow, each particular sect, no matter how divergent are their beliefs from one another, believe that is their unique traditions and practices that truly distill the Word of God into this world. In the Western World, and particularly in the USA, the contest between fundamentalist Christian religion and science grew to enormous proportions with its opposition to the theory of evolution. We need not rehearse those long-standing arguments here. Later, the entire field of cosmology, sketching out a Creation that has taken 13.8 billion years, seems to Christian fundamentalists to be patently in conflict with their particular theologically constructed view of the world. Humans rode on the backs of dinosaurs, they think. It all happened in less than 10,000 years.
It is certainly understandable how such doctrine developed. There is an actual history to the development of Christian fundamentalism in the USA, arriving fairly late in the 19th Century. But on a more general level, patriarchy has long been associated with authoritarianism and “might makes right” philosophy. Science actually requires a certain amount of humility and willingness to suspend certitude in order to conduct experiment and observation in order to have a more firm basis for one’s belief. Humanism requires tolerance of divergent thinking and a commitment to peaceful co-existence. Fundamentalism as defined above by Borg is incompatible with the values of both scientific thinking and humanistic thinking. Each of the six characteristics; literalistic, doctrinal, moralistic, patriarchal, exclusivistic, and after-life orientation, each of these mitigate against scientific and humanistic thinking. Literalism mitigates against scientific method, which requires that each time we find an observation that does not conform to current scientific theory, we must reconsider the validity of the theory itself. The fundamentalist cannot possibly reconsider that any part “God’s word” recorded so long ago, could possibly have been invalid. Likewise, doctrinality prohibits the introduction or assimilation of differing points of view. And a life lived moralistally, according to moral principles, is actually a desirable feature of human existence, but when the moral principles being followed are both questionable and not subject to change, this mitigates against moral maturity and growth. Patriarchal thought and life, being dedicated to maintaining social control by men, underplays the fact that such a lifestyle is actually culturally constructed and undervalues much of the potential of each individual. It is the exclusivistic characteristic of fundamentalist thought that is the most destructive and harmful of all, the assumption that only the true believer of such a literal and specific doctrine is in contact with the truth. Humanism may tolerate fundamentalism, but fundamentalism cannot by nature tolerate humanism. Thus even democracy is a threat to fundamentalism, which seeks to overthrow democracy and set up an intolerant theocracy. And finally, the after-life focus of fundamentalism is antithetical to valuing the Earth as it currently exists, and results in either denigrations of alleged dangers to the planet, or even worse, “good, bring on the rapture.”
Of course, in firmly believing in what they take their theology to imply, these fundamentalist are doing nothing but excercising their Constitutional right to believe as they wish. Would that this situation be so innocuous and free of difficulty. Unfortunately, this denial of science and humanism has had what I take to be not only dangerous, but probably fatal consequences for the history of the human race. In this country, we used to have science as an arbiter of disputes, at least moreso than we do now. This is no longer the case. No matter what the consensus of experts, who do tend to dispute some of the established fact and theory, fundamentalism always is able to produce an “expert” which supports the facts their literalistic interpretation of the truth seems to support. And so here we are at the beginning of the 21st Century with the scientific knowledge and emerging cyberspace culture to begin to construct a true Garden of Eden, the Earth itself, and instead, because of political control by science-denying political leaders, we are seeing the grassy carpet of the planet being pulled right out from under us. We have literally shit in our own nest to the point of making it uninhabitable, eventually by anything other than the simplest forms of bacterial life.
Is there anything we can do to reverse this self-destruction fueled in part by self-deluding blind faith? Possibly not. That is the first place I have arrived. It may indeed be too late. But then again, we cannot even predict a few months into the future many of the events that emerge, and no one can say for sure that the end of human life on this planet has been determined and fixed. The question for me becomes, how do I spend the brief rest of my life between possible annihilation and possible salvation?
There are different levels of existence, and all of us interface to some extent with all of these levels. I speak of events global, national, regional, state, city, neighborhood, and personal. Throughout the history of this country and the world, many wars have been fought in the name of protecting democracy. People felt called to support those wars. Such a decision is so personal, I cannot find it in my heart to question those who chose to support war. Many would claim that I owe my freedom to those people who chose to participate in battle. However, my admiration goes to the tireless and relatively rare peace workers. There can never be Peace on Earth until most people refuse to do battle. And so—especially since we human beings may have a 1000 years or less of existence according to noted scientist, Stephen Hawking—I choose to stand for peace.
A corollary of this conclusion has to do with how I choose to live in a world where politically significant chunks of the population ascribe to various versions of fundamentalist thought. I choose to speak my truth, but in a non-violent manner. Democracy, the original democracy which was tolerant of differing versions of faith and political life, is our best and only hope for a world free from war and environmental polution. Likewise, humanistic science can be a foundation for that life, the only foundation that actually respects the objectives of democracy. While I respect the rights of each citizen to hold and act on the political and religious views of their conscience, I also implore them: find a way to bring your morality in line with humanism and science. Do not fear tolerance and scientific knowledge; embrace it. Let science continue to save lives, and let humanism continue to form a platform for world peace. As a matter of fact, I am a person of faith, and this is what I have done.