I was a college student in the height of Jerry Falwell Sr.'s "Moral Majority," when the elder Falwell made the case that the United States had gone off the rails morally. Unsurprisingly, given the Religious Right's continual obsession with what people do with their naughty bits, a lot of it had to do with the acceptance of LGBTQ individuals and the increase in swearing and sex in movies and television.
But at least it was consistent, and (on some level) reality-based. LGBTQ individuals were gaining a greater voice, and there was more edgy stuff coming out of Hollywood. A lot of us, myself included, had no real problem with that -- I've always wondered why in film ratings, nudity and sex were equated with violence and gore, as if a naked human body was as horrifying as a dismembered one -- so I disagreed with their assumptions. But the definition of morality Falwell and others were pushing at least didn't seem to be coming from some sort of bizarre fever-dream.
Which is more than I can say from today's evangelicals. Here's a sampler of rants from prominent spokespeople on the Religious Right, just in the last week:
- "Christian Prophetess" Kat Kerr told everyone that they shouldn't be sad about the deaths of family and friends because in heaven there was a "portal," sorta like a balcony, where all of the deceased love ones could peer down at us. "Literally, these are all over heaven," Kerr said. My general feeling about this is that it's more creepy than comforting -- I know there are times I would really prefer it if Great-Aunt Marie weren't watching. But Kerr doesn't seem to think of this, and says that the dead are especially likely to be there on special occasions. "On your birthday, they go to this place," she says. "They look down… and sing 'Happy Birthday' to you even though you cannot hear them."
- Right-wing commentator Rick Wiles called Hillary Clinton the "queen of sleaze" and claimed that had she been elected, she would have rounded up conservatives and put them in concentration camps.
- Dave Daubenmire, of Pass the Salt Ministries, created a new confection of nastiness by mixing evangelical Christianity with racism and adding a dash of pure lunacy, accusing Meghan Markle of "poisoning the royal bloodline of the crown" because she's "half black," something that's especially awful because "the royal family is the seat of Christianity."
- None other than Vice President Mike Pence said he was "honored to represent President Trump" at a church service wherein LGBTQ people were said to be "demonic spirits working for the devil."
- White House religious advisor Paula White made the news twice this week, first for saying that she had a vision of how Trump was going to participate in the End Times. "God came to me last night and showed me a vision of Trump riding alongside Jesus on a horse made of gold and jewels," White said. "This means he will play a critical role in Armageddon as the United States stands alongside Israel in the battle against Islam." She hit the news again with a response to the bounty offered on Trump's head because of his authorization of the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, saying Trump was going to be fine because she'd invoked the "superior blood of Jesus Christ" to protect him. White, you may recall, is the one who last year at about this time said good Christians should "donate their entire January salaries" to God (i.e., write a check to her as God's spokesperson) so that they'd receive blessings in the coming year.
- The ever-entertaining Jim Bakker issued a dire warning that a number of cities were going to be destroyed by the wrath of God because of their wickedness, and expects people to take him seriously even though he has an exactly zero percent success rate in predicting previous divine smitings. Named specifically as targets are New York City and Long Island in New York, Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Santa Ana in California, New Orleans, Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Bangkok, Thailand, Tel Aviv, Israel, and some unnamed "North New Jersey Towns." As far as why we should believe him, he says, "I know I'm not wrong."
The craziness gets passed along to the followers. Just a couple of days ago, a woman in Pennsylvania named Nadedja Reilly drove her car into oncoming traffic to "test her faith." She herself wasn't hurt (hallelujah) but two people in other cars were, something that didn't bother her in the least. "Reilly related God took care of her by not having her injured," wrote Trooper Bruce Balliet in the arrest affidavit. "Reilly expressed no concerns or remorse for the victims. Reilly also stated she did not care if the other people were injured because God would have taken care of them."
[Image licensed under the Creative Commons HoppingRabbit34 at English Wikipedia, Baptists-against-jews, CC BY 3.0]
If it's not clear from what I've written already, yes, I know it's not all Christians. I have a great many Christian friends of various denominations, and I'm sure they'd be as appalled as I am at all this. But my point is that in the last couple of years events have revealed a deep streak of batshit lunacy in the Religious Right, beyond the intolerance, self-righteousness, and homophobia that has been evident for as long as I can remember. And all too few people recognize this as the same kind of insane extremism and disconnect from reality that exists in radical Islam -- despite the fact that many of the same people who love Pence and Wiles and Bakker et al. consider the outrageous, bigoted, and violent statements made by fundamentalist Muslim spokespeople to be deeply and thoroughly evil.
Maybe they should reread the injunction from Matthew 7 to remove the beam from your own eye before you attempt to pluck the splinter from your neighbor's. Or the message to the Pharisees -- the Religious Right of Jesus's time -- in Matthew 23, where Jesus referred to them as a "brood of vipers" for their pious, hypocritical self-righteousness.
None of that seems to occur to them. A selective reading of the bible is also one of their specialties.
It's all very well to laugh at these people; Bakker in particular is so out in left field that he's almost begging to be ridiculed. But there's the danger that if we poke fun at them, we lose sight of two facts: (1) they're completely serious; and (2) they have a great many followers who believe every word they say.
How to fight against this, I have no idea. Knowing about it is a start, which is why I'm writing this today. But that gets us no closer to eliminating this frightening streak of fanaticism that seems to be getting louder and louder. It puts me in mind of the quote, often misattributed to Sinclair Lewis (its actual provenance is unknown): "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
I don't often recommend historical books here at Skeptophilia, not because of a lack of interest but a lack of expertise in identifying what's good research and what's wild speculation. My background in history simply isn't enough to be a fair judge. But last week I read a book so brilliantly and comprehensively researched that I feel confident in recommending it -- and it's not only thorough, detailed, and accurate, it's absolutely gripping.
On May 7, 1915, the passenger ship Lusitania was sunk as it neared its destination of Liverpool by a German U-boat, an action that was instrumental in leading to the United States joining the war effort a year later. The events leading up to that incident -- some due to planning, other to unfortunate chance -- are chronicled in Erik Larson's book Dead Wake, in which we find out about the cast of characters involved, and how they ended up in the midst of a disaster that took 1,198 lives.
Larson's prose is crystal-clear, giving information in such a straightforward way that it doesn't devolve into the "history textbook" feeling that so many true-history books have. It's fascinating and horrifying -- and absolutely un-put-downable.
[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]