Divine Endorsements Need Fact Checkers

Even our neighbors find the United States perplexing. A columnist for La Jornada in Mexico worries that 2004 has begun very suspiciously: There is broad support for President Bush despite tax breaks focused on the rich, slow job creation and frequent terror alerts.. Nonetheless, a popular evangelist, Pat Robertson, claims that God assures him George W. Bush will be reelected. How, the columnist wonders, can one not be suspicious of such a country? I have no pipeline to God, but the popularity of this president demands closer scrutiny.

Most polls focus on likely voters. Fifty percent of the electorate doesn't vote. Unlike most of the world, non-voting here is concentrated among the poor Though non-voters are not automatically radicals, there is more disenchantment among them.

But the Bush administration badly serves working and middle-class Americans. Although the clerks, secretaries, lobstermen, and boat builders in my coastal Maine town are losing from Bush's agenda, a majority will probably vote for him.

Part of the problem lies in the Democratic Party's retreat to a corporate economic program while pursuing a liberal social agenda. Older cultural norms respecting gender and race were challenged just as economic insecurity increasingly afflicts the working class -- a recipe for backlash.

Nonetheless, economic failures are not the whole story. In Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore suggested Americans are an extraordinarily fearful people. Despite, or perhaps because they are so fearful, they are violent. White Americans live in fear of retribution for their violence against people of color. The wealthy also live in fear of the poor, with gated houses and private guards. On some level probably many feel guilt that their position is not fully their own doing. And paradoxically, as the physical and psychological walls grow, so does the fear even during periods when the incidence of crime is low.

Fear of the poor or of those who are different invites comparisons with European history. However hierarchical European society may have been, its conception of divinity and of an orderly chain of being linking the higher social elements to the lower in effect treated all social beings as worthy of recognition if not equality The Protestant Reformation, crucial in our founding, regarded such static hierarchies as a challenge to the primacy of God. Its particular brand of monotheism replaced a hierarchical but diverse social and natural order with a belief that God can bring all aspects of the world under His principles.

Many fundamentalists within both Christianity and Islam believe they are in touch with God's highest purposes. They invoke God to sanctify their current social practices and political beliefs. But before we castigate all religion as the source of dogmatism or totalitarian intrusions in private life, we should remember that many secular states, like the Soviet Union, were also confident that all human life could be rationalized and subordinated to unitary guiding principles. In addition, there are more expansive, pluralistic strands within the major religions. PBS's outstanding series NOW with Bill Moyers has featured some of these.

Last fall, University of Texas classicist Paul Woodruff, author of Reverence: The Forgotten Virtue suggested that "one of the most devastating ways to be irreverent is to think that you know the literal mind of God and that you are carrying out God's will. Oedipus and the other tyrants are not in trouble because they didn't sacrifice enough chickens. It was about their attitude towards themselves and their failure to realize that they were not truly godlike."

The social world may not be amenable to comprehensive understanding or unitary control. Every effort to order our lives leaves some aspects that just don't fit. These remainders in turn occasion anxieties and periodically lead to overwhelming imperatives to suppress cultural differences. These efforts themselves all too often provoke counter dogmas from excluded minorities. Woodruff cautions us against the dangers of succumbing to the anxiety life's inevitable gaps may cause and seeking false security in comprehensive ideologies that regard all difference as a threat. He inspires us to cultivate a capacity to take joy in a social and natural order that may always be more variegated and unpredictable than anything we can ever imagine.

A more recent Moyers program illustrates that Islam also includes strains fully receptive to a world of diversity and surprise. Commenting on some of her fundamentalist critics within Islam, gay journalist and scholar Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble With Islam, commented:"Well, first of all, I am openly gay, but I'm certainly not arrogantly gay. And by that I mean I don't necessarily believe that being in a same-sex relationship is acceptable to my God. It may very well be a sin. I grant that possibility, truly. But only my God can make that decision on the Day of Judgment. And in the meantime. just as people have questions for me, "How do you reconcile homosexuality and Islam," I have questions for them. For example, the Koran is very clear that everything that God made is "excellent," that nothing that God made is "in vain," and that God deliberately designed the world's breathtaking multiplicity."

Walt Whitman recognized that healthy democracies must remain perpetually receptive to the multitude of subterranean voices, currents, and lifestyles that sporadically arise both in others and ourselves in response to even the most thoughtful and broad-based public policy. In a contemporary setting we might begin by bringing NASCAR dads into a progressive coalition not by pandering to their worst fears and prejudices, but by acknowledging that their cultural economic and educational opportunities have also been limited. As they are pushed to acknowledge injustices to minorities, so too the Archie Bunker stereotyping to which they have been subjected also must be redressed. They need the time, resources, and cultural space for a range of habits and practices, like NASCAR, on which mainstream liberal culture often looks down Unless we can combat the deep economy of fear that the Bush administration so skillfully draws upon but did not inaugurate, even a progressive economic agenda has little chance of success. America will remain a fearful nation vulnerable to the spokespersons of a vindictive God.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Email

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