The Threat of Willful Ignorance

willful ig

There’s an ignored bigger picture behind the by-now worn out topic of the Duggar family’s hidden sex abuse scandal. In case you missed it, the vaunted head of that household stated last week that when he found out about his son’s incestuous molestation of several sisters, he spoke about it with his peers at church. “Most of them told me their sons had done the same thing to their daughters so we didn’t think it unusual or cause for great concern.”

That’s right. He said that.

For someone not of similar mindset, it’s difficult if not impossible to understand how anyone could be that stupid. In what world, religious cult or not, is it acceptable for a teenage brother to molest his younger sisters? Duggar clarified by adding “This wasn’t rape or anything like that.”

Pardon me while I quietly lose my breakfast. Yes, Jim Bob, it was precisely ‘anything’ like that.

[This space left blank for lengthy rant.]

[One of several excellent commentaries about the victimization and objectification of women within extreme-right religions can be found here.]

Moving on to the less obvious point: Is this radical subculture of the religious community simply less intelligent than the rest of us?

Actually, yes, Virginia, there is a correlation between low intelligence, prejudice, and conservative beliefs.[1] Lower capacity for analytical thinking increases the perceived risk of complicated situations. More than one study has found that “strict right-wing ideology might appeal to those who have trouble grasping the complexity of the world.” This is especially true for those raised with the sets of rules inherent in legalistic or evangelic fundamentalist faiths.

In these circles, the only ‘information’ that matters is the Bible. “The Bible says” typically precedes angry proclamations about the sin of homosexuality, abortion, or same-sex marriage. The Bible says God created the world in six days, so evolution can’t be true. The Bible says women are made to serve men, so that means women belong to men. With the Book of Revelations detailing how God will end the world, why should anyone listen to that gobbledygook about global warming?

There is no argument that can penetrate beyond that stubborn wall of self-ordained righteousness. It doesn’t matter if the stated belief is not exactly what the Bible says, or if the Bible also says other things that mitigate or even conflict. It doesn’t matter if the Bible could, shockingly, not be the actual Word of God but instead a collection of folk tales borrowed from older cultures and passed down through narration before finally being written down by men who had their own ideas about what it all meant and didn’t hesitate to edit in order to ‘clarify’ or emphasize a specific meaning. All well intentioned of course, as were the nuances inserted in later translations and transcriptions over the intervening two thousand years.

That the Bible is not the literal Word of God simply does not compute. La la la, I can’t hear you. That God might not be a male patriarch with a flowing white beard or in fact an actual physical presence at all is similarly incomprehensible. These beliefs are seared into the hearts and souls of religious extremists. Losing those beliefs would be a form of death more threatening than physical death because the beliefs promise the eternal existence of ‘self’ if only the Word is obeyed.

Along with facing the challenges of rational analysis and increasingly complicated social constructs, people raised in conservative religions are taught that learning isn’t necessarily a Godly pursuit. After all, wasn’t Original Sin about knowing too much? God guides each person’s life to the challenges that will increase his or her faith, and there’s a risk that too much learning would cause one not to listen to God’s will. This has been the reasoning behind Michelle Duggar’s production of nineteen children following a miscarriage which signaled, in her mind, God’s anger for her use of birth control.

This is not to say that spiritual beliefs and intelligence are mutually exclusive. Many learned men and women past and present embrace and benefit from faith traditions. Yet history shows us that in societies ruled by religious extremists, people were tortured to death for speaking openly in contradiction to the then-known ‘facts’—for example, that the world was flat, or that the heavenly bodies revolved around the earth.

Climate change, men on the moon, a woman’s right to decide what happens inside her own body? These are complicated topics which require a grasp of basic scientific and/or legal principles. Not only are extremist children underserved by (preferred) home schooling, they are (apparently) products of a gene pool less likely to possess the intellectual capacity for learning and utilizing advanced reasoning skills. They are actively trained not to develop such skills in the risk of angering God.

Observers might surmise that behind such intellectual laziness is not only a blind trust in God’s ability to steer seven billion lives through minute-by-minute monitoring down to whether Michelle used birth control but also—more importantly—the urgent and secret desire not to be responsible. Inborn or learned, inadequate reasoning ability fosters an insecurity that predisposes its victims toward herd behavior. The world is simply too much to understand. Who can know enough to decide what to do?

The solution is to put all faith in God and don’t worry about it. Read the Bible again. Come the Rapture, they’ll get their reward and rest of us heathens will burn in hell.

If it stopped there, if these folks simply led quiet lives holy by their own definition, there would be little cause for alarm. But that’s not the case.

They want to take over the country.

They won’t be happy until homosexuals are ‘cured’ and women submit to male authority. We’re left to wonder, if they did manage to achieve their heartfelt goal, which of the disciplines would be banned first: Geology with its flagrant rejection of Biblical chronology claiming the earth is only 6000 years old? Physics with its insistence on the Big Bang theory? Psychology with its exploration of human motivations and denials?

Can we muster any sympathy for the intentionally benighted who don’t understand how climate change can be real when it snowed six inches just last night?

The Duggar sex scandal made big news because for nearly a decade, the family has presented itself to the American public as the model of Christian piety. For those who reacted to the show with disbelief and disgust, it’s been a moment of breathless irony. For their sympathetic fans, the reaction to their fall from grace has been an angry spate of straw-man arguments—the publicity re-victimizes the sisters, the release of information was illegal (not), the poor young man already said he was sorry. A clear-eyed view of the hypocrisy, criminality, and deception involved is simply not possible for those wallowing in their own ignorance.

For the rest of us, the Duggar debacle shines a light on the cesspit of rightwing politics. The family’s celebrity rewarded them with money they’ve used to support extremist political candidates. With his GED in hand, Josh achieved placement among the ranks of the nation’s top extremist political lobbying organization, the Family Research Council. All of them—the Duggars, the rightwing legislators, the Family Research Council—seem oblivious to the elephant in their highly moral living room—that is, the incessant proof of their own immorality.

Leaders in the movement have made their objective clear. Kathryn Joyce, author of Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, cited the movement’s strategy that “…if just eight million American Christians began supplying more ‘arrows for the war’ by having six children or more, they propose that the Christian Right ranks could rise to 550 million within a century.”  A stated objective of such an effort is to increase the number of conservatives in Washington.[2]

Extreme religionists cannot fathom the connection between their political choices and the troubled state of their own communities. The largely white, low income, less educated ranks of the religious right are the same populations that rank highest in need of government handouts: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia. They have the highest rates of divorce, child hunger, child abuse, and alcoholism/drug addiction. They have the highest use of Internet pornography. They have more reproductive services restrictions and more teen pregnancy, more high school dropouts and lower levels of education which go hand in hand with lower average incomes. More of these populations are in poor health, obese, and—inanely—resent the Affordable Care Act for providing health insurance.

These facts simply do not compute for the willfully ignorant. Any suffering by the extremists and their neighbors surely means that God is testing them. It might even anger God if they did anything to remove this suffering. That’s why government programs meant to provide assistance to those in need are high on the fundamentalist hate list.

The extremists do not understand that their myth of a Christian nation is contrary to the Founding Fathers’ intent. The concept of separation of church and state eludes them. Don’t bother them with facts or quotes from the U. S. Constitution. They lack the capacity to imagine how they would feel if a religion other than Christianity took control of the nation.

The urgent desire to “get back America” among religious extremists may stem from the creeping realization (despite heroic efforts at denial) that their beliefs somehow fail to inoculate them from sinning. They still molest boys in their care (Hastert). They still commit adultery (Gingrich and too many to name). They still participate in homosexual behavior (CA State Sen. Roy Ashburn, among the many).

In a perfect world by their definition, government would help Christians adhere to the straight and narrow by enforcing God’s law through the power of the state. Efforts to warn of the tragedy inherent in theocracies fall on deaf ears. Don’t they see what’s going on in the Middle East?

drink copyPerhaps a form of transference drives the fundamentalists’ need to force everyone else to the extremist way of life in the largely unconscious assumption that it’s the homosexuals and transgenders who somehow infect the good people with sin. Such a concept is discernible in the upwelling of “religious freedom” laws, as if baking a cake for a same-sex wedding somehow rubs the sin of gayness off on the baker.

Did Jesus refuse to touch the leper or prostitute? Evidently these folks don’t read their own literature.

But then, what can be expected of those who are uncomfortable with or incapable of approaching any topic on a logical basis? Sin is a result of demons who come to sit on our shoulders, and we must pray to cast them out. There is no personal responsibility. God wills it or Satan is in control.

Legislators placed in office by zealots do not understand, refuse to acknowledge, and/or refuse to participate in the basic principles of informed debate or negotiated compromise, foundations of a democratic representative government. This enormous beam in the rightwing’s eye results in treasonous acts such as newly-elected zealot Senator Tom Cotton’s direct communication with Iran intended to disrupt the multi-nation negotiation on nuclear energy.

The rest of us have failed to fully recognize or effectively counter the threat. There’s been an underlying hesitancy to criticize those who proclaim themselves avid Christians, especially among more moderate Christians. “19 Kids and Counting” has been one of several exposures of this lifestyle to the public view which has brought little to no public censure. Rather, the program resulted in a bemused sense of wonder that anyone could have that many kids. Why worry? These are the good people, aren’t they?

Do we really think these extremists will stop at some point, fold up their tents, and let the rest of us live our lives as we see fit? Come to their senses? Actually comprehend Christ’s teachings about loving their neighbors and not judging?

10000 copyCan we accept the Christian nation these fearful, ignorant extremists envision? What’s the distance between the current effort to “take back America” and armed conflict? The instinctive reaction of people who see themselves as cornered and fighting for a ‘holy’ cause is to stockpile weapons. It’s no coincidence that those most vehement about guns and open carry are also eager to rant about secession or claim there are “10,000 pastors” ready to die for the cause.[3]

We may think the Duggars benign, an isolated amusement that crops up on our television screen. Peculiar, out of sync, quaint—doing their best to be good in a difficult world. It’s past time to sit up and realize they and their kind are about as benign as misdiagnosed cancer.

[1] Pappas, Stephanie. “Low IQ & Conservative Beliefs Linked to Prejudice,” Live Science. January 26, 2012

[2] Blumberg, Antonia. “What You Need To Know About The ‘Quiverfull’ Movement,” The Huffington Post 5/26/2015.

No Ecstasy Here

godWe shouldn’t hold our breath. Phil Robertson and the Church of Christ aren’t going to change. They pride themselves in rigidity, which they see as their unwavering discipline in the Word of God. Descended to American backwoods and byways from the Puritans and Presbyterian Scots tradition of strict religious practice, the practitioners of this fundamentalist sect forbid women to speak in church, refuse instrumental music, and do not offer Sunday school. Worship is intellectual rather than emotional, an embrace of rules and edicts interpreted from the King James version of the Bible.

I was raised in this church. There were preachers in the family, and church formed the social and political center of our lives. We went every time the door was open—literally. Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, plus special nightly meetings with a traveling preacher or “singing” services where the church elders would take turns leading songs…a cappella, of course—all were mandatory to the true Christian.

None of this was fun. It wasn’t supposed to be fun. Oh, there were the sometimes pleasurable associations with others of our own kind. This was our world. There was the benefit of being relieved, temporarily, of our duty to work without ceasing. But whatever enjoyment might be gained in the gathering had to be tempered by the greater framework of our purpose in obedience to the Almighty Father’s plan. Outright laughter in the House of the Lord would have been unseemly.

The teachings were that humans were born with sin, and that we were here to suffer for it. Without a life of suffering, we couldn’t get to heaven. Sensory gratification formed the greatest temptation to sin, especially delight in The Flesh. It all served as major stumbling blocks on the road to salvation. Our embodiment in corporeal form was punishment, no ecstasy allowed. Joy came after life—if we toed the line. Otherwise we would burn in eternal hellfire. Church services dragged on with a few songs to break up sermons where a certain cadence of voice marked the rising passion of the message until the thundering conclusion arrived meant to stir every heart to confess the inevitable sin we all carried.

At the conclusion of the sermon, a song invited sinners to come home. Those with guilty consciences were expected to walk down the aisle of the church toward the front, where—if previously baptized—he/she would kneel and confess before the congregation. If not baptized, this wayward soul would be scheduled for full-immersion baptism, usually on the heels of the regular church program. Everyone would cluster in excited hushed conversation while the sinner was taken to a private room, dressed in a white gown, led to a tank of water which in many cases had not been warmed, and lowered into the water while the preacher called on God to welcome His new servant.

Although as a thoughtful female child I had resisted much of what the preachers had to say, I still wanted to belong to this club. I wanted to be saved, to experience the blessings of God, and partake in the weekly communion of wafers and grape juice given as a symbolic sharing of the body of Christ. I wanted that magical sense of well-being in my otherwise fretful existence. So when I was fourteen I walked down the aisle. My parents wept at my salvation. The water in that small Oklahoma church was ice cold, and I gasped as it surrounded me. Water flooded into my nose and mouth and I strangled. The thin cotton gown hid nothing when I stood up coughing in the miserable icy water, newly formed as a child of God but shivering as the wet fabric clung to my naked pubescent form. The overriding sensation was not that I had been welcomed to the loving arms of Jesus but that I wanted to die of humiliation

I didn’t feel saved, relieved, or welcomed. I would never admit it, not in those early years, but I didn’t really believe in any of it. How could a loving God also be an angry and vengeful God? Why was God a man if we were made in his image? Where did God come from? I asked these questions but quickly learned that these were questions not to be asked. Certain things were to be taken on faith. Shut up and listen.

I wanted to feel ecstasy about God the way I felt when I looked at a stunning blue sky or the wings of a butterfly. Everywhere around me I saw beauty, yet I wasn’t supposed to embrace the pleasures of the earth. Slowly I came to understand that only a sadistic, evil God would create a sensational world and people who gained such joy in experiencing those sensations, and then threaten eternal damnation for enjoying it. Nothing sacred or holy existed in that God. I rejected all of it.

For those who accept this belief system, the official expression is dour. Like Phil Robertson’s stern face, outward demeanor is meant to convey the seriousness of God’s judgment and unceasing fear of His wrath. Everything is sin, but especially certain things that threaten the patriarchal foundations of the faith. Women are advised to be obedient and serve their husbands in the same way that men are to serve God. As the lesser sex, woman’s path to God is through her husband, as he was formed in God’s image and she was formed from man’s rib. Many a sermon centers on woman’s innately sinful nature and her duty to suffer for tempting Adam to eat that damn apple.

In spite of their Christian belief in the role of Jesus Christ and the New Testament as the foundation of their religion, fundamentalists love to dredge up Old Testament bits as a rich source of rules and exhortations, with quoted sections carefully chosen to serve the featured topic of the day. Other parts of these old conglomerated writings, not so useful bits about slaves (how to obtain slaves, how hard you can beat them, and when you can have sex with the female slaves) or war captives (Follow him through the city and kill everyone whose forehead is not marked.  Show no mercy; have no pity! Kill them all – old and young, girls and women and little children.) tend to be left out.

As I grew older and made a point to study the entire Bible’s text, these selective uses of Scripture caused a growing cognitive dissonance that affirmed my instinctive rejection of this narrow-minded view of the world and of God. Perhaps most alarming, those most faithful to the dogma seemed to lack any real belief in their own salvation. Satan lurked at every corner. Constant fear and anxiety haunted my parents and others in the congregation. And ironically, instead of benefitting from their religious practice, they suffered. There was no joy.

To me, the most unacceptable tenant of the Church of Christ was the belief that this faith is the only path to God. Followers of all other belief systems are going to hell. There is no wiggle room on this point of total arrogance and closed-mindedness. Any hint of updating to a more open-minded view of our fellow man is trumped by the feverish fear of offending God.

Mr. Robertson and his ilk risk hellfire and damnation if they don’t exhort against sin. They believe it’s their Christian duty. Perhaps he faintly recognizes that he’s already skirting condemnation because he has accumulated great wealth, and this drives him to an ever-more agitated thumping of his holy book. (“Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”)

If A&E had persevered in its banishment of Phil, he might have secretly welcomed his exile as a suitable end to his dabbling in the perverse world of commercial entertainment and all the divorce, blended families, homosexuality, half-dressed bodies, independent women, and other defilements of God’s plan that are routinely displayed there. Secure in his manly beard and violent conquest of Nature as his God-given right, Phil will always sink to the level of his ultimate comfort, the ways and beliefs he has always known.

As it is, he and his Ducky family can continue to feel righteous as they judge the rest of us. Once again in the tradition of all fundamentalists, they’ve managed to skip over key parts of their own literature:  “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”