By Phil Gillen
For someone raised secularly, or Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Methodist, or any other religion of a bygone age, there are probably few things as confusing and disconcerting as the presence of the monolithic, heavily conservative variation of Christianity used by politicians and/or businessmen to justify any and all travesty or money-making scheme. It’s called Evangelicalism, and the more barbaric the thing you want to excuse, the more fundamentalist you must get with it. Allow me to explain.
While most of my comrades proudly claim to have been leftists basically since birth, telling tall tales of adolescent anti-capitalist exploits and sometimes boasting a lineage of curmudgeonly New Left ancestry, I was a red-diaper baby of quite another sort. In the early 80s, as neoliberalism became the defining characteristic of the global system, it expressed itself domestically in Cold War anti-communism, Reaganite conservatism, and a new brand of fundamentalist, Evangelical Protestantism.
What remained of positive, progressive values in the Christian religion were no longer compatible with the desperately austere and cruel world of neoliberalism, and so a similarly austere and cruel variation of Christianity emerged. Like neoliberalism, it depended even more heavily than its predecessors on individualization, alienation, and commodification — convincing disoriented people in a crisis-ridden world that the key to their liberations was inside of themselves, inside of their small nuclear family units, and far away from society itself.
My parents were caught up in this cynical wave of Bible-pushing campus crusaders, bought heavily into the pyramid-scheme distortion of Christianity, and became extremists. People who aren’t acquainted with the more fundamentalist expressions of Evangelicalism often have difficulty in understanding just how wild this world is. The best way to describe it is to compare it to another evangelical fundamentalist movement: ISIS. ISIS might as well be using the playbook of those early Christian fundamentalist evangelists. Target disillusioned, disoriented young people and convince them that through this ideology they can fill the social void in their souls. Keep them hooked by feeding them a steady diet of paranoid propaganda and explaining every social ill they encounter in terms of religious enemies. ISIS may be in fact a more pure religious movement than the fundamentalism of the US, because the end result desired by them is a religious utopia: an Islamic state. For Christian fundamentalists, and Evangelicals in general, it’s often just a way to justify their pursuit of money. Wherever these sorts go, a string of dubious business efforts, products, and services follows. Multi-level-marketing schemes are a comically consistent feature of evangelical communities, as are megachurches and TV pastors.
There is also a heavy focus on apocalypse and world collapse, another area of potential windfall for the pious profiteer. Kids are being sent to barely-accredited Christian private schools with the money their dad makes by writing a new World’s End prediction book every year. Playing with the fears of a desperate world, while profitable and useful to excuse almost anything in business or politics, is playing with fire.
For example, anti-abortion rhetoric is a fairly straightforward way of both distracting a political base and maintaining as much control as possible of women as a class, the benefits of which are all very cynical and practical for a businessman or politician. The rhetoric itself is so extreme that it demonstrates its own cynicism and futility: if the Pro-Life marcher really believed their own banner, that every aborted fetus is a murder victim in a Holocaust-level massacre, it would be absurd for them to simply participate in a protest once a year and write ignorant screeds on facebook. But however cynical the rhetoric is, unfortunately there do exist some true believers, who take what they are being told at face value, and go on to do ISIS-style violence.
The world of fundamentalist evangelicalism shows the underlying dysfunction of our society. By accepting a categorically false consciousness, one intentionally removed from reality, the people in this world are completely determined by the ruling ideology, and all the nasty things that come with it. Stories of shocking violence, sexual dysfunction, domestic abuse, and depraved crime, often come from the most pious of Evangelical enclaves, the most puritan of homes. Every religion has had its abuses, abuses proceeding from the nature of the social systems they arose within. We have the misfortune to live, as the saying goes, in “the time of monsters.” The system we live under, neoliberalism, is the last clawing grasp of a thoroughly diseased world order, and as a result, its cultural expressions are grotesque to the extreme.