"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, January 15, 2021

Why Demagoguery Works–Politics And The Facile Faith Of Religious Fundamentalism

Sinclair Lewis understood that for all Elmer Gantry’s silver tongue, charm, and virility, it took hundreds of gullible, willing, suckers to fill his revival tents. It is the same for political demagoguery.  For every attractive, convincing, alluring politician, there must be thousands of enabling, credulous followers.  It takes two to tango, and the unholy alliance between true believers and those willing to cash in on their naïve faith is only possible if both dance to the same tune.

Image result for images burt lancaster as elmer gantry

Elmer Gantry is but the fictional representation of  hundreds of real-life charlatans who fill megachurches, preach to millions on television, and who fill their coffers every Sunday with promises of salvation.  All it takes, they say, is to find Jesus, a willing and welcome guest in everyone’s empty spiritual house.  He is yours for the asking, the preachers say, if only you have faith.

These preachers come by these promises of salvation honestly.  Jesus in answer to the Devil’s temptation, replied that man cannot live by bread alone; and in so doing established the foundation for the institutional relief in the Church.  Dostoevsky, in the words of Ivan Karamazov, challenges the returned Christ and says that he has sold the unwitting, credulous faithful a bill of goods.  Not only did he not promise salvation ipso facto – faith, trust, and investment in him is required and even then only he would be eternity’s gatekeeper – he denied the faithful what they wanted most, relief from suffering, penury, and a miserable death.   As a result of these self-serving promises, confused and desperate Christians whose faith consisted only of a desire for miracles, mystery, and authority, turned to the Church and its own brand of chicanery.

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The lesson was never learned, and the world went on to be a very Christian one indeed; but in 1518 it was never the same.  The Catholic Church was unnecessary for salvation, Martin Luther said.  There was not only no need for spiritual intermediaries, they would in fact impede the process of salvation.  Find and take Jesus as your personal savior and be done with it, he said.  None of the miracles, mystery, and authority of the Church; no jumping through sacramental hoops, no resort to guilt, remorse, and confession.  The road to salvation is an easy one.

Image result for images martin luther protestant reformation

The Catholic Church has objected to such fundamentalist cultism for centuries and most recently Pope John Paul II reiterated the doctrinal principles of the early Church.  Without the structure, logic, discipline, and wisdom of Augustine, Thomas, Tertullian, and Clement, true faith is not possible, and such facile claims of televangelists and revivalist preachers are deceptive and wrong.  Understanding the concepts of the Trinity, the duality of Christ, the Cross, universal redemption, and ultimate salvation, debated for centuries and finalized and codified at the Council of Nicaea, is essential to belief.  Spiritual demagoguery, said John Paul, is a Protestant thing.

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Not surprisingly Protestant fundamentalism has taken hold in every corner of the world.  Why put up with the demands and interdictions of Islam, Judaism, or Catholicism when all it takes is to find Jesus yourself; and he, as many have said from the pulpit,  is very available.  While there can be no Popish intermediaries to salvation, there can be facilitators; and that is where Elmer Gantry comes in.  His fiery rhetoric, his Biblical incantation, his tearful imprecations, his spiritual possession put the seeker in the spiritual space into which Jesus is sure to come.  Without these enablers, devotion would be vapid, impersonal, and certainly spiritually remote.  No one finds Jesus in the secularized churches of liberal Protestantism; they only follow what they see is is Biblical example of social righteousness.   Salvation is not only not in the cards in these sedate affairs, it is not even in the deck.

Yet the preachers would be howling to a distant moon about Jesus and salvation if there was no one to hear its call.  The faithful who crowd revival tents and megachurches, and the millions who watch on television want to be cajoled, hectored, and inspired.  They want to see sweat and tears, feel the waves of faith from the pulpit.  They want to be joyous, communal, and in the swell of a Christian haj – a journey with fellow Christians to a rapturous epiphany.

Political chicanery and demagoguery are no different.  People go to hear inspiring, motivational orators who promise them progress, Utopia, and happiness and can deliver no such things.  They, like their fundamentalist brothers and sisters, fill campaign treasure chests as if there were no tomorrow, enriching those with a facile message who, unlike them, can simply move on after defeat.  It is no surprise that Donald Trump has so many holy rollers among his faithful – men and women who hang on his every word, buy ever bit of fabricated nonsense, subscribe to every cockamamie promise, and see him as the savior of America.  Trump, master showman, canny manipulator of the ingenuous (as he was on television, in Hollywood, and on the mean streets of New York), powerful orator whose timing, hyperbole, irony, cockiness, and arrogance rile up the faithful who want to be riled up, who need anger and foment for satisfaction.  Who’s to blame for excess? Trump or the wild, hysterical fools who love him? Neither and both.  It takes two to tango.

Image result for images trump emotional followers rally

Shakespeare is well-known for his dismissive verses about the mob.  Marc Antony’s ‘Brutus is an honorable man’ said over the murdered body of Caesar was genius – a subtle, compelling, ironic twist of the truth to implicate Brutus and to convince the crowd.  Coriolanus, ambitions Roman and pretender to the throne, cannily manipulates the mob to his will.  Alexander Hamilton argued long and hard with Jefferson against popular rule.  The mob, the majority, the unwashed were not to be trusted with the affairs of state, democracy, or governance.  The political chaos of today, one ruled by the unholy alliance of demagogues and their faithful, by irrationality, and ill-considered belief proves their point.

Image result for Images Alex Hamilton

The American Left, while having no one demagogue in high office, has many in lesser positions.  The ‘Squad’ a notional group of ultra-liberal young women in Congress, pound the public with the same exaggerated oratory and inflammatory statements as Donald Trump.  America, if one were to listen to them, is virulently racist, sexist, and homophobic; financially corrupt, ignorantly Biblical and fundamentalist, economically predatory, and socially backward. Black Lives Matter activists have put these inflammatory, anti-social, anti-democratic calls, into action.  There is no institution in the United States that deserves to survive the progressive juggernaut.  A new, better, more compassionate and unified country can only come about if the old, patriarchal, white, elitist, corrupt one is destroyed.

Both parties have their share of insurrectionaries and rabble-rousers, and both sides aim their attacks exclusively on them, not their enabling followers.  If Trump has his hysterical minions, so do the Squad and the progressive coalitions of the Left.  The unholy alliances between manipulative preachers and desperate followers are common both in politics and religion; and neither are likely to dissolve in any foreseeable future.

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