October 13, 2008
Notes on the Religious Right
Justin E. H. Smith
Anyone assessing the strength of Pascal's wager --that, though there may be an infinitesimally small chance that Christianity is true, the potential punishment for not believing it, or reward for believing it, is infinitely great, and therefore it is rational to believe it-- should watch this video before coming to any conclusions:
There is, we must concede, a non-zero, if vanishingly tiny, possibility that the message of Yoke-Up Ministries is correct, that you, as the woman says, will go to hell.
Pascal had supposed that the persuasiveness of his argument to any rational thinker would result in submission to the long-standing authority of the Catholic church. But the problem is that the argument is no more, and no less, compelling coming from a 17th-century Catholic philosopher defending traditional faith than coming from a couple of rough and unwashed rednecks in Louisiana in defense of a strain of enthusiastic neo-Protestantism that Pascal himself would have deemed diabolical.
The Yoke-Up version of the wager brings to light something that Pascal's does not. To accept the wager, to go for it 'just in case', is not, or not only, to submit to God's will. It is also to submit to the will of the person who presents to you the wager, and not just as concerns God's existence, but also as concerns all sorts of tangential cultural matters that God, if he exists, would have to find perfectly irrelevant.
The only way to adequately convince the illiterate truckdriver and his angry 'ex-gay' spouse that one has accepted their message would be, one supposes, not just to declare, "Yes, I believe!", but also to come to care about things like engine repair, to understand certain sports metaphors, to inhabit a world of small and local concerns that can only make sense if one is already a certain kind of working-class white American. In this particular case, one would likely also have to show signs of the ravages of life prior to being born again, perhaps some tribal or Celtic tattoos hidden under the undershirt, teeth worn down to stubs by meth, a threadbare collection of garments announcing that one has 'no fear'.
As Pascal might have said, these are attributes of a Christian that do not depend on will, or even intellect. They are not up to the individual considering the wager, but are instead constitutive of the white-trash habitus. In this respect, one senses that the Yoke-Up wager is not for everyone: it is not Good News for all the nations of the earth, but only for that extended clan of born-agains and not-yet-born-agains who all, regardless of the eventual fate of their souls, recognize one another as members of the same community. You, 3QD readers, may consider yourselves exempt.
When I was in high school I called myself a 'communist'. This was the era of perestroika. Gorbachev's hardline opponents were generally spoken of as if they were the only communists left in the Soviet Union, while the general secretary himself was a 'reformer'. In addition to my communism, around the same time I was trying to grow dreadlocks, though somehow, I found, resisting the urge to wash and brush was not quite doing the trick. My matted clumps suggested more the coiffure of a homeless white schizophrenic than, say, Peter Tosh.
My suburban punk-rock girlfriend and I used to watch the news together. She would observe the communist hardliners and say: "They don't have dreadlocks. They don't have nose-rings. They look like dumpy versions of Ronald Reagan. What do you want to be like them for?" I was hard pressed to come up with an answer, so great had the gap become between the state-socialist gerontocracy of Eastern Europe and the utopian enthusiasm that had inspired both certain strains of 19th-century socialism --such as that of Foucher, who believed that, someday, liberated man will be able to play the piano with his feet-- as well as the hairstyle that was to distinguish me from all the complacent bourgeois idiots by whom I found myself surrounded.
The gerontocracy collapsed, and I cut my hair. I went to university and began writing for the campus Republican newspaper. It was funded by David Horowitz, and was the only student newspaper with anything close to a sense of humor. Once, years before The Onion would develop a similar feature, our paper published fake, man-in-the-street interviews with students on campus, asking them what they thought of the rival Third World Forum. "I think it's great that the retarded students have their own paper!", one fake student declared. "I love the big empty spaces on each page!", said another. This last comment seems to have pounded into my head once and for all that iron law, of which I am not the discoverer, of the reverse correlation between marginal politics and high production values.
What I didn't tell my fellow conservative students is that, at the time, I thought of myself not as a Republican but as a Menshevik. That is to say, like the opponents of the Bolsheviks who believed that Russia would have to pass through a miserable era of capitalism in order to make it to the proper phase of history for the staging of a revolution, I believed that George H. W. Bush was a necessary stage on the path to something far better than what Clinton represented. I didn't want Bush to win against Clinton because I liked Republicans. I wanted Bush to win because I believed --sincerely and ironically at once-- that Bush was marginally worse than Clinton, and that the urgent task of any young utopian was to 'heighten the contradictions', as Marxists say, to do what one could to make things as bad as possible, in the hopes that this would precipitate real change faster than the election of a chubby yokel who gave the impression that everything was going to be alright.
Needless to say I was not perfectly at home with the campus conservatives. It quickly became clear to me that I had gravitated to them only because the campus left of the early 1990s was so stiflingly dull. I blame Stalin, of course, and all the others who made it impossible to belong to an Internationale one could really believe in, thus leading to the fragmentation and decline of would-be internationalism into petty identity politics. I wanted barricades; the campus liberals wanted gender-neutral pronouns.
I remain a bit of a Menshevizer, as I think do many who are suspicious of the options presented by a rigidly bipartisan system. A disillusioned Argentine ex-Marxist recently mentioned to me that the Bush fils era has done wonders for the political landscape of Latin America (the praise went mostly to Morales, and not to Chavez), and he worries that an Obama presidency would compromise these gains. I see what he's saying, but there's one thing that continues to keep me in line with 'liberal' orthodoxy this time around: we're at a watershed moment in American trash history, when a candidate for high office can appear as if hand-picked by Yoke-Up Ministries.
I'm talking of course about Sarah Palin, the primitiveness of whose Christianity makes George W. Bush look like a proper, mainline Protestant. Palin remains in that stage of religious fervor, so vividly described by the social anthropologist Mary Douglas, in which the intensity of the belief is to be measured by the degree to which it, presumably through the vehicle of the holy spirit, exercises control over the very motion of the body and of the mouth. Most of us have seen the video of the African preacher laying hands on Palin, so as to drive out demons. But the aim of this sort of exercise is not to gain perfect self-control and rational autonomy once the demons are gone. It is only to ensure that the self be governed by the right kind of daimon, to wit, the holy spirit. The very idea of rational autonomy is one that does not come up.
I have a lingering admiration for old-fashioned Goldwater-style conservatism, of which I take McCain, in certain respects beyond the merely geographical, to be an heir. Among other things, it laid a heavy stress on individual autonomy and responsibility, and did not maintain that one could get a free pass to radically dissociate oneself from one's mistake-ridden past simply by announcing that one has been 'born again'. It left open the possibility for cultivation of moral character, in the laudable sense in which this was understood in antiquity. McCain gets all this, but is forced to cater to the snake-charming, witch-purging, infantile mentality of a large sector of the American population in order to have any hope of winning.
A deep part of many of us might want to see things get bad, in order that they may get better. But no decent person could hope to see things get as bad as they might quickly be if Sarah Palin gains executive power. The Mensheviks only wanted to instigate a period of free trade and economic inequality in order to make reality match up with Marx's theory of the stages of history. That would have been a step forward, relatively speaking, from miserable serfdom. A Palin presidency --a likely outcome of her vice-presidency, given McCain's age and evident feebleness-- could easily amount to a step way back, to inquisition and persecution, to the serfdom of the soul that preceded the discovery of autonomy, and to a tribal chauvinism that takes one's own little clapboard church for the sole channeler of divine truth on earth. This is a spectre that trumps any utopian vision of how much better the world might be than what the democrats have yet envisioned, and any concerns as to the absence of real choice in bipartisan elections.
This, and not any lock-step sense of belonging to the liberal orthodoxy, is why I've just checked off 'Obama' on my useless absentee ballot, and affixed enough Canadian postage to carry it all the way back to the Board of Elections of Hamilton County, Ohio.
For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.
Posted by Justin E. H. Smith at 05:40 AM | Permalink