Reckoning with the God Squad
Fundamentalist bullies cannot
be appeased. They must be confronted.
by Bill Moyers
In These Times magazine, October
At the Central Baptist Church in Marshall,
Texas, where I was baptized in the faith, we believed in a free
church in a free state. I still do.
My spiritual forbears did not take kindly
to living under theocrats who embraced religious liberty for themselves
but denied it to others. "Forced worship stinks in God's
nostrils," thundered the dissenter Roger Williams as he was
banished from Massachusetts for denying Puritan authority over
his conscience. Baptists there were a "pitiful negligible
minority" but they were agitators for freedom and therefore
denounced as "incendiaries of the commonwealth" for
holding to their belief in that great democracy of faith-the priesthood
of all believers.
Such revolutionary ideas made the new
nation with its Constitution and Bill of Rights "a haven
for, the cause of conscience:' No longer would "the loathsome
combination of church and state"-as Thomas Jefferson described
it-be the settled order. The First Amendment neither inculcates
religion nor inoculates against it. Americans could be loyal to
the Constitution without being hostile to God, or they could pay
no heed to God without fear of being mugged by an official God
Squad. It has been a remarkable arrangement that guaranteed "soul
It is at risk now, and the fourth observance
of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 is an appropriate time to think
Four years ago, the poet's prophetic metaphor
became real again and "the great dark birds of history"
plunged into our lives.
They came in the name of God. They came
bent on murder and martyrdom.
Yes, the Koran speaks of mercy and compassion
and calls for ethical living. But such passages are no match for
the ferocity of instruction found there for waging war for God's
sake: "Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah, and
those who reject faith fight in the cause of Evil:'
So the holy warriors came-an airborne
death cult, their sights on God's enemies: regular folks, starting
the day's routine one minute and in the next, engulfed by a horrendous
But it is never only the number of dead
by which terrorists measure their work. It is also the number
of the living-the survivors-taken hostage to fear. The writer
Terry Tempest Williams has said "the human heart is the first
home of democracy:' Fill that heart with fear and people will
give up the risks of democracy for the assurances of security.
Fill that heart with fear and you can shake the house to its foundations.
Having lost faith in all else, zealots
have nothing left but a holy cause to please a warrior God. They
win if we become holy warriors, too; if we kill the innocent as
they do; strike first at those who had not struck us; allow our
leaders to use the fear of terrorism to make us afraid of the
truth; cease to think and reason together, allowing others to
tell what's in God's mind. Yes, we are vulnerable to terrorists,
but only a shaken faith in ourselves can do us in.
Muslims have no monopoly on holy violence.
As Jack Nelson- Pallmeyer, an assistant professor of Justice and
Peace Studies at University of St. Thomas, points out, God's violence
in the sacred texts of both faiths reflects a deep and troubling
pathology "so pervasive, vindictive and destructive"
that it contradicts and subverts the collective weight of other
passages that exhort ethical behavior or testify to a loving God.
We know we can go through the Bible and
construct a God more pleasing to the better angels of our nature.
We also know that the "violence-of-God" tradition remains
embedded deep in the DNA of monotheistic faith. Inside that logic
you cannot read part of the Bible allegorically and the rest of
it literally. If you believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, his
crucifixion and resurrection, and the depiction of the Great Judgment
at the end times you must also believe that God is sadistic, brutal,
vengeful, callow, cruel and savage - that God slaughters.
Let's go back to 9/11 four years ago.
The ruins were still smoldering when the reverends Pat Robertson
and Jerry Falwell went on television to proclaim that the terrorist
attacks were God's punishment of a corrupted America. They said
the government had adopted the agenda "of the pagans, and
the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians,"
not to mention the ACLU and People For the American Way. (The
God of the Bible apparently holds liberals in the same low esteem
as Hittites and Gergushites and Jebusites and all the other pagans
of holy writ.) Critics said such comments were deranged. But millions
of Christian fundamentalists and conservatives didn't think so.
They thought Robertson and Faiwell were being perfectly consistent
with the logic of the Bible as they read it: God withdraws favor
from sinful nations-the terrorists were meant to be God's wake-up
call: better get right with God. Not many people at the time seemed
to notice that Osama bin Laden had also been reading his sacred
book closely and literally, and had called on Muslims to resist
what he described as a "fierce Judeo-Christian campaign"
against Islam, praying to Allah for guidance "to exalt the
people who obey Him and humiliate those who disobey Him:'
Suddenly we were immersed in the pathology
of a "holy war" as defined by fundamentalists on both
sides. You could see this pathology play out in General William
Boykin. As a member of the US military, Boykin had taken up with
a small group called the Faith Force Multiplier whose members
apply military principles to evangelism with a manifesto summoning
warriors "to the spiritual warfare for souls:' In uniform,
Boykin attended evangelical revivals preaching that America was
in a holy war as "a Christian nation" battling Satan
and that America's Muslim adversaries will be defeated "only
if we come against them in the name of Jesus." For such an
hour, America surely needed a godly leader. So General Boykin
explained how it was that the candidate who had lost the election
in 2000 nonetheless wound up in the White House. President Bush,
he said, "was not elected by a majority of the voters -he
was appointed by God:' Not surprising, instead of being reprimanded
for evangelizing' while in uniform, General Boykin is now the
Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence. (Just as it
isn't surprising that despite his public call for the assassination
of a foreign head of state, Pat Robertson's Operation Blessing
was one of the first groups to receive taxpayer funds from the
President's Faith-Based Initiative for "relief work"
on the Gulf Coast.)
We can't wiggle out of this. Were talking
about a powerful religious constituency that claims the right
to tell us what's on God's mind and to decide the laws of the
land according to their interpretation of biblical revelation
and to enforce those laws on the nation as a whole. For the Bible
is not just the foundational text of their faith; it has become
the foundational text for a political movement.
The radical religious right has succeeded
in taking over one of America's great political parties-the country
is not yet a theocracy but the Republican Party is - and they
are driving American politics, using God as a battering ram on
almost every issue: crime and punishment, foreign policy, health
care, taxation, energy, regulation, social services and so on.
They have brought intensity, organization
and anger to the public square. They use the language of faith
to demonize political opponents, mislead and misinform voters,
censor writers and artists, ostracize dissenters, and marginalize
the poor. These are the foot soldiers in a political holy war
financed by wealthy economic interests and guided by savvy partisan
operatives who know that couching political ambition in religious
rhetoric can ignite the passion of followers.
In recent weeks a movement called the
Ohio Restoration Project has been launched to identify and train
thousands of "Patriot Pastors" to get out the conservative
religious vote next year. According to press reports, the leader
of the movement-the senior pastor of a large church in suburban
Columbus-casts the 2006 elections as an apocalyptic clash between
"the forces of righteousness and the hordes of hell:' The
fear and loathing in his message is palpable: He denounces public
schools that won't teach creationism, allow teachers to read the
Bible in class or allow children to pray. He rails against the
"secular jihadists" who have "hijacked" America
and prevent school kids from learning that Hitler was "an
avid evolutionist" He blasts the "pagan left" for
trying to redefine marriage. He declares that "homosexual
rights" will bring "a flood of demonic oppression' On
his church Web site you read, "Reclaiming the teaching of
our Christian heritage among America's youth is paramount to a
sense of national destiny that God has invested into this nation'
The corporate, political and religious
right have converged, led by a president who, in his own disdain
for science, reason and knowledge, is the most powerful fundamentalist
in American history. And radicals on the Christian right are now
the dominant force in America's governing party. They control
much of the U.S. government and are on the verge of having it
all. Without them the government would not be in the hands of
people who don't believe in government. They are culpable in upholding
a system of class and race in which, as we saw last week, the
rich escape and the poor are left behind. And they are on a crusade
against government 'f, by, and for the people" in favor of
one based on biblical authority. So the Grand Old Party -the GOP-has
become God's Own Party its ranks made up of God's Own People "marching
as to wan"
It has to be said that their success has
come in no small part because of our acquiescence and timidity.
Our democratic values are imperiled because too many people of
reason are willing to appease irrational people just because they
are pious. Republican moderates tried appeasement and survive
today only in gulags set aside for them by the Karl Roves, Bill
Frists and Tom DeLays. Democrats are divided and paralyzed, afraid
that if they take on the organized radical right they will lose
what little power they have.
As I look back on the conflicts and clamor
of our boisterous past, one lesson about democracy stands above
all others: Bullies-political bullies, economic bullies and religious
bullies-cannot be appeased; they have to be opposed with a stubbornness
to match their own. This is never easy-these guys don't fight
fair. "Robert's Rules of Order" is not one of their
holy texts. But freedom on any front and especially freedom of
conscience-never comes to those who rock and wait, hoping someone
else will do the heavy lifting.
Christian realism requires us to see the
world as it is, without illusions, and then take it on. Christian
realism also requires love. But not a sentimental, dreamy love.
Reinhold Niebuhr, who taught at Union Theological Seminary and
wrestled constantly with applying Christian ethics to political
life, put it this way: "When we talk about love we have to
become mature or we will become sentimental. Basically love means
... being responsible, responsibility to our family, toward our
civilization, and now by the pressures of history, toward the
universe of humankind:'
Christian realists aren't afraid to love.
But just as the Irishman who came upon a brawl in the street and
asked, "Is this a private fight or can anyone join in?:'
we have to take that love where the action is. Or the world will
remain a theater of war between fundamentalists.
BILL MOYERS is a broadcast journalist
and former host of the PBS program "NOW With Bill Moyers."
He also serves as president of the Schumann Center for Media and
Democracy. This article was adapted from a recent address at Union
Theological Seminary in New York, where Judith and Bill Moyers
received the seminary's highest award, the Union Medal, for their
contributions to faith and reason in America.