If you’re ever on I-84 near where it meets the Mass Pike, stop in at the Traveler Restaurant, be served a good diner-style meal by friendly waitresses and choose three free books. I’ve been going there every chance I get since 1985.
What I found there most recently is Kevin Phillips’ 2006 American Theocracy. In his 1967 book The Emerging Republican Majority Phillips showed how gaining Southern voters could propel the Republican Party’s revival. He is now horrified by the result.
American Theocracy has three sections. Phillips starts by reviewing how our dependence on oil led to our foreign policy and wars in the Middle East and ends by showing how our financial and business leaders got the Republican Party’s traditional principles of sound finance abandoned. What surprised me is the middle section. There he examines the rise of fundamentalist Christianity and apocalyptic expectations and shows how they shape our policies.
Phillips cites the statistics on Americans with a religious preference. From 17% in 1776 it rose to 34% in 1850, 45% in 1890, 56% in 1926, 62% in 1980 and 63% in 2000. We were established as a secular republic when fewer than one in five Americans had any religious preference. More than three in five of us now has a religious belief.
Almost half (46%) of Americans now identify themselves as “born again” Christians. And more than half (55%) in a 2004 Newsweek poll believe the Bible is literally accurate.
In the 2000 elections 87% of the “frequent-attending white religious right” voted for George W. Bush (GWB). Only 27% of secular voters favored him. I had no idea religious belief had such an impact. I did recognize that when GWB characterized his invasion of Iraq as a “crusade”, that really was his view. I should have realized, too, that a significant percentage of those who supported him also imagine we are now engaged in a holy war in the Abrahamic end time.
But I was entirely unprepared for this on page 260 “Some 40 percent of Americans believe that the antichrist is alive and already on the earth” even though I knew that under GWB, Saddam Hussein was identified as the antichrist. Who, I wondered, is the antichrist now Saddam Hussein is no more?
In this 2013 Public Policy Poll Report I discovered that 13% of voters in the 2012 election believed President Obama is the antichrist and a further 13% was “not sure.” Among voters for Romney 22% believed Obama is the antichrist while fewer than 3 in 5 believed he is not. It may be yet more alarming that 5% of voters for Obama believed him to be the antichrist.
In that report we also see 58% of Republican voters believed “global warming is a hoax”, 33% believed “Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11” and 73% did not believe “Bush misled on Iraq WMDs.”
What to make of all this? My assumption about the widespread lack of respect for facts and skeptical inquiry in America was mistaken. The great problem is not the mechanics of our educational system but the purpose many want it to serve – certainty in the literal truth of the Bible.
I’ve written before about fundamentalism. Our media tells us it’s a problem among Muslims, especially in the Middle East, where terrorists hope to kill us all. But some American fundamentalists are also eager for war, perhaps because they fear our nation is in decline.
Fundamentalism results from fear when social, economic or political trends look like a threat to existence. The desire for certainty in a way out grows overwhelming. Everyone else must then embrace the same faith because belief in something that cannot be proved is a lot easier to maintain if nobody is expressing doubts.
But we will inevitably do harm if we imagine we are fundamentally different and have mortal enemies. Only misery can result.
What to do? We must calm and clear away the fears.
Everything we do, say and think boosts or shrinks fear in the world. A butterfly could alter the path of a hurricane or prevent its occurrence — the flapping of wings is one of so many tiny forces on the atmosphere. It’s the same with human moments of love or hate.