Frank Rich on “The God Racket”

In his farewell column in the arts section, The New York Times’ Frank Rich provides a seething analysis of the “theatrics” of the Schiavo case in which he argues convincingly that the government signed on to a “full-scale jihad” last weekend with their congressional intervention. He quotes constitutional lawyer Lawrence Tribe to the effect that not even Joe McCarthy went as far as Congress and Bush have in this case, in conspiring to “try to undo the processes of a state court.” But as usual his analysis goes beyond rhetoric with a fine contextual analysis of the place of this drama in the broader sphere of public culture

Culture is often a more reliable prophecy than religion of where the country is going, and our culture has been screaming its theocratic inclinations for months now. The anti-indecency campaign, already a roaring success, has just yielded a new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Kevin J. Martin, who had been endorsed by the Parents Television Council and other avatars of the religious right. The push for the sanctity of marriage (or all marriages except Terri and Michael Schiavo’s) has led to the banishment of lesbian moms on public television. The Armageddon-fueled worldview of the “Left Behind” books extends its spell by the day, soon to surface in a new NBC prime-time mini-series, “Revelations,” being sold with the slogan “The End is Near.”…

That bullying, stoked by politicians in power, has become omnipresent, leading television stations to practice self-censorship and high school teachers to avoid mentioning “the E word,” evolution, in their classrooms, lest they arouse fundamentalist rancor. The president is on record as saying that the jury is still out on evolution, so perhaps it’s no surprise that The Los Angeles Times has uncovered a three-year-old “religious rights” unit in the Justice Department that investigated a biology professor at Texas Tech because he refused to write letters of recommendation for students who do not accept evolution as “the central, unifying principle of biology.” Cornelia Dean of The New York Times broke the story last weekend that some Imax theaters, even those in science centers, are now refusing to show documentaries like “Galápagos” or “Volcanoes of the Deep Sea” because their references to Darwin and the Big Bang theory might antagonize some audiences. Soon such films will disappear along with biology textbooks that don’t give equal time to creationism.

James Cameron, producer of “Volcanoes” (and, more famously, the director of “Titanic”), called this development “obviously symptomatic of our shift away from empiricism in science to faith-based science.” Faith-based science has in turn begat faith-based medicine that impedes stem-cell research, not to mention faith-based abstinence-only health policy that impedes the prevention of unwanted pregnancies and diseases like AIDS.

He also points to the peculiarities of “faith-based news” in recent months and the propensity of journalism – particularly American journalism – to embrace and amplify positive stories of the “miraculous” but leave unexamined the dark side of religious faith:

Ashley Smith, the 26-year-old woman who was held hostage by Brian Nichols, the accused Atlanta courthouse killer, has been canonized by virtually every American news organization as God’s messenger because she inspired Mr. Nichols to surrender by talking about her faith and reading him a chapter from Rick Warren’s best seller, “The Purpose-Driven Life.” But if she’s speaking for God, what does that make Dennis Rader, the church council president arrested in Wichita’s B.T.K. serial killer case? Was God instructing Terry Ratzmann, the devoted member of the Living Church of God who this month murdered his pastor, an elderly man, two teenagers and two others before killing himself at a weekly church service in Wisconsin? The religious elements of these stories, including the role played by the end-of-times fatalism of Mr. Ratzmann’s church, are left largely unexamined by the same news outlets that serve up Ashley Smith’s tale as an inspirational parable for profit.

Rich is right to point to these three stories as indicative of “something” however I am not completely convinced that his analysis is spot-on. I took note of the Ratzman and Rader cases and certainly wondered at the role of end-times fatalism in these events but I am not convinced that the connections are as direct as Rich implies they might be. There are all sorts of complex cultural interactions going on here and Rich is right that these stories remain unexamined. But none of these stories may be as religious as they sound – including Smith’s story of triumph, which relies on the interaction between new-age self help philosophies and religion not just a traditional Christianity. These stories are puzzling ciphers that need to be looked at.

I Furled a couple of reports about the cases with some vague thought that I must come back to them for my thesis. It seems to me that they are in some senses cipher’s of the apocalyptic breaking through into the everyday. It is precisely in their strangeness, their evocation of the unheimlich that they are interesting, not as easy equations of religiosity/crazyness/murder.

2 thoughts on “Frank Rich on “The God Racket”

  1. Yes, there is definitely something very unheimlich currently afoot here in the United States; in my 50+ years I have never seen anything quite like it. We have always had a certain number of Revelation-soaked crazies around (particularly since the days of McCarthyism and the Cuban Missile Crisis), but until only recently they were always nothing more than that, in the public mind: just marginal crazies of no real consequence. One is tempted to claim 9/11 changed everything; but the fact is that the Bush administration was riddled with Dominionists from the very beginning – and has itself been the primary force sowing irrational hysteria about 9/11′s antecedents and consequences ever since.

    Please forgive me, if I bubble over into anecdotal intemperance in the following; but the hoopla surrounding the Schiavo case strikes me as the absolute apex of hypocrisy and ugliness in every possible way. I personally served as the primary caregiver for a homebound Alzheimer’s patient – a maternal aunt – for some 14 years of my life. During the last four year’s of that person’s existence, I spoon-fed her every meal, because she was no longer capable of feeding herself. When the end finally came and she forgot how to chew and swallow, I spent mealtimes during the following three weeks just holding her in my arms on my lap and telling her how loved she was and how much appreciated … while she gently wasted away unto death, because invasive “heroic” interventions at that stage would have been both ultimately futile and painful for her to endure. This is a reality of life and death that people face every day on this planet. So when a bunch of self-appointed, pseudo-religious assholes stand around outside a hospice pretending to pray and shouting that state and federal judges are “murderers” for refusing to order the force-feeding of a brain-dead individual incapable of taking nourishment by natural means, I take it personally.

    According to the UN FAO (http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2004/51809/index.html), more than five million children worldwide die every year from hunger and malnutrition: every sixth second a child dies somewhere because not enough people care about their diets. Now all these people go on TV, and some people pass useless, unconstitutional “emergency legislation,” and others stand around wailing and tearing their hair in agonies of indignation about Terri Schiavo’s unhappy fate, but they say not one word about any of these millions who might actually live productive and active human lives, if only the world could be bothered to notice them and feed them. This is pseudo-religious hypocrisy and hysteria of the highest possible order; the federal government is both appeasing and abetting it. All this bodes very ill for the future peace and order of the United States and the world.

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