Friday, January 3, 2014

Ridicule, Bullying, and the End of Dissent: A Perspective on the Decline of American Christendom




There must be something deeply embedded in the human psyche that is allergic to dissent.  I’m trying to figure out what lies behind the latest spasm towards intellectual totalitarianism that seems to be gripping our (American) society.  I’m thinking in particular of the current discomfort felt by many in our country, especially in religious communities, over the legalization of homosexual relationships and the imposition of legal gay marriage in a rapidly increasing number of states.  For many Christians in particular, our world seems to have changed, and to have done so with dizzying speed.  Our views used to be the views of the land.  Not so anymore.  In fact, not only do most people seem to disagree with the traditional Christian perspective on the issue, any opposition to this very recent change in the status quo is branded by the new majority as bigotry, as if that settles the matter.   


Adherents to the new norm behave as though they are shocked that anyone would dare to disagree with them, that anyone would attempt to impose any restrictions on their personal rights to do whatever they want to with their body and with whomever they wish.  Dissenters to this new norm are the new heretics, and there are concerted efforts to shame them, ostracize them, bully them, force them to recant and, that not succeeding, deny them access to the public square and cut off any further discussion.  We’ve seen this all before.   

Friends of Westboro Baptist Church making a point.

In my comfortable, white, small town South Carolina of the 1950s and 1960s, personal and institutionalized racism was the controlling cultural ideology, dissent from which resulted in disparagement, ridicule, threats of violence and worse.  And if one happened to be Black, worse is more often than not what resulted if one dared to differ.  Any white person who questioned the prevailing standards of the day was immediately branded a ‘nigger lover’, as if that was the worst thing someone could be. 


I remember the Sunday morning in the early 1970s when an African American couple entered our church and found a seat by the aisle in the middle of the sanctuary.  I was sitting up in the balcony and watched as several of our elders approached the couple, spoke with them, and then escorted them back out of the church.  Undoubtedly they were just being helpful by giving them directions to the nearest colored church on the other side of the tracks.

The Triumph of Reason (my title) - The French Revolution

The faction holding power, whether that faction is in the culture, the media the government, the church/mosque/synagogue, the school, the faculty, the clique, even the marriage, does not react kindly to having its place/power/position/perks/perspective challenged.  When gentle reminders of who is really in charge do not work, the strategy to hold on to power becomes increasingly assertive, increasingly shrill, increasingly overt.  Ridicule, disparagement, name-calling, mockery, derision – all are employed to keep others in their place.  There is no place for disagreement, no place for argument or dissension.  People who continue to disagree are denied a seat at the table of power.  Ultimately those who stand in the way are systematically dehumanized.  The next step is elimination.  This makes it easier to dismiss their ideas as being Neanderthal at best, unworthy of the present debate.

Someone perceived as a threat to Mao's Cultural Revolution


We almost never learn from history, as all of this has happened before, with results that range from the pathetic to the genocidal.  It would seem that the fomenters of every new round of intellectual, cultural or relational totalitarianism genuinely believe that they are right, and that rightness justifies imposing their rightness on everyone else, and of dealing with those who might disagree.

A Recent Final Stop for Nonconformists and Other Uncomfortable People

This is presently going with the apparent sea change in our culture’s perspective with regards to gay rights and gay marriage (I could make a similar argument with respect to drug use).  Never mind that the status quo and the norm for 95% of our country’s history was a position that acknowledged sexual relations between a man and a woman within the boundaries of marriage as normal and desirable.  Those who hold such a position today, along with the 10+ generations of Americans before the current one, are viewed as aberrant and enemies of humanity, at least according to some of the rhetoric to which I have been subject.  Supporters of the emerging consensus are quick to point out that for generations, gay people were persecuted and forced ‘in the closet’ by the majority culture, and denied basic rights of relationship enjoyed by the recognized marriages of the mainstream.  But though they loudly decry having been treated in a dehumanizing and discriminatory manner by the Christianity-informed wider culture, there seems to be no hesitation to use the same means to repress all dissent now that cultural power has shifted into their own hands.  The hypocrisy is breathtaking, but not surprising.

The Crusades.  Remember them?

The great problem facing our nation is not that gay rights is in the ascendancy, or that taking drugs recreationally is now legal (pot in Colorado, for example), or even that access to abortion is the law of the land.  The great problem is that the Christian consensus that over-saw, balanced and bounded the constitutionally defined rights of the individual and the rights of the state no longer exists.  The constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of course remain.  But the guiding morality assumed by the culture that produced our constitution, one informed by the Christian faith of the vast majority of the citizens of earlier Americas, has been replaced by a noisy plurality of conflicting faiths and philosophies.  The philosophies and secular faiths that now control the heart of our culture (media, entertainment, technology, education, the markets) are hostile to the values of Christians and their beliefs.  And so now Christians find themselves increasingly subject to the same pressures to conform that other cultural minorities faced when Christians were the ones controlling the culture.

Nobody likes heretics.

‘Culture wars’ is a phrase I’ve heard for a number of years now, used in contexts having to do with mobilizing Christians to reclaim their culture for Christ and make America safe for raising Christian children.  But I find it instructive to remember that neither Jesus nor the apostles launched a culture war.  Jesus and the first Christians were all part of majority cultures, both Greco-Roman and Jewish, that were hostile to the values that Jesus taught and lived.  And even subsequent ‘Christian’ cultures, achieved when Christians attained the levers of power in government and culture, turned out to be hostile to the values that Jesus taught and lived.  One could make an argument that the American ‘Christian’ culture of the past decades and several centuries was actually hostile to the values that Jesus taught and lived, especially with respect to how one treats ones neighbor (and particularly, how one treats the neighbor with whom one disagrees).  History demonstrates again and again that cultural majorities raison d'être is to maintain the position and perks of the majority.  And when Christians have played that game (which we have again and again throughout history), the results may have been impressive with regards to Christian power and empire, but completely disastrous with regards to what Jesus himself seemed to be about.  Power seems to have the same effect on us as on everybody else.   Just saying.

The Borgia Renaissance Pope, Alexander VI [NOT a role model for Francis I, or you and me either]

So to sum up, the new cultural majority is doing unto Christians what Christians did unto them for so many years.  And we are finding it uncomfortable.  And while the new cultural majority finds no irony in their own use of abusive and dehumanizing strategies to neutralize dissent, the stories of cultures that adopt such tactics never end well.  And we Christians, who have forever been tempted to adopt the world’s ways to advance our own agenda, should have learned long ago that groups that look like ducks, quack like ducks and behave like ducks are no longer Christian.  They’re ducks.  It is Jesus’ fault, after all.  I don’t recall that he ever promised his followers that they would achieve cultural hegemony.  Rather, he said ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.’  Seems like we are having one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to rethink our place as followers of Jesus in the world. What do you think?