The following post first appeared in my weekly column in the Weekly Trust newspaper, Abuja, Nigeria, on January 14, 2006.
Farooq A. Kperogi
The religious expressions of Americans in the public sphere continue to intrigue me deeply. I have lately been learning about the fastest growing sect of Christianity in the United States: the Evangelical Movement.
It is a sect of Christianity that is distinguished from the rest by its extremely fundamentalist, literal interpretation of the Bible, and its intolerance of other religions and, in fact, of other sects of Christianity. This sect not only enjoys phenomenal mass appeal in the United States; it also has huge political clout. Snippet: President Bush is a self-confessed Evangelical Christian.
In the United States, the Religious Right—a group of conservative, often racist, born-again Christians—is powerful particularly in the Republican Party, and is often commonly understood to be the political wing of the Evangelical Movement.
The Bush Administration predicates many of its policy thrusts on what it understands to be core conservative Evangelical values. As a result, criticism of controversial statements by prominent Evangelical leaders habitually falls on the Bush Administration as a whole.
For instance, when a prominent Evangelical Christian and close confidant of the Bush Administration once said that the best strategy to reduce or eliminate crime in the United States is to abort all African-American babies, there was intense pressure on the Bush Administration to dissociate itself from the statement.
Another controversial Evangelical Christian crusader and close friend of the Bush Administration by the name of Pat Robertson last year called for the assassination of the president of Venezuela because, according to him, his government is smoothing the path for communist infiltration and Islamic terrorism in the Western Hemisphere.
The same man this week said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke is God’s punishment for “dividing God’s land” with Palestinians. The statement is still stoking a lot of controversy here. In all these instances, the Bush Administration has felt compelled to dissociate itself from these statements, however tepidly.
The increasing mass appeal of the Christian Right and its success in mobilizing resistance to certain social agendas is often viewed by liberals here as symptomatic of the eerily creeping incursion of Christian theocracy on the country.
While most who consider themselves Evangelicals like to think of themselves as being opposed to theocracy, there is widespread belief among Evangelicals that Christianity should enjoy a privileged and unrivaled place in American public life. Accordingly, those Evangelicals often vigorously resist the expression of other faiths in the American public sphere.
For example, when Venkatachalapathi Samuldrala became the first Hindu priest to offer a prayer before Congress in 2000, the September 21 edition of the online publication operated by the Evangelical Family Research Council raised an objection.
It said, “While it is true that the United States of America was founded on the sacred principle of religious freedom for all, that liberty was never intended to exalt other religions to the level that Christianity holds in our country's heritage. The USA's founders expected that Christianity—and no other religion—would receive support from the government as long as that support did not violate peoples' consciences and their right to worship. They would have found utterly incredible the idea that all religions, including paganism, be treated with equal deference.”
But it is not the political conservatism and xenophobia of the Evangelical Movement that piques me; it is its absurd doctrinal formulations, which remind me of Third World religious zealotry.
One of the core doctrinal formulations of the Evangelical Movement is its belief in what is called the rapture. This belief teaches that the end of the world has come and that all the righteous born-again Christians will soon be transported to Heaven, leaving behind non-Evangelical Christians and believers of other faiths to suffer severe damnation on this Earth for some years before the final judgment day. The most popular book series in the United States today is the Left Behind series, which harps on this apocalyptic vision of the world.
And this theological insanity is not a new phenomenon. I have several friends here, some of them professors now, who have confessed to me that these beliefs have been inscribed into their minds from their impressionable ages. They have told me how, as children, they would sometimes go home from school and meet an empty home, perhaps because their parents had gone to visit a neighbor next door.
They would think the rapture had occurred, that their parents had been flown to Heaven and that they had not been found worthy by God to ascend to Heaven with other family members. They would then cry and live in terror of the unspeakable torment that they believed was certain to descend on them in no time. However, after some time, their parents would appear and wonder why they were crying so hysterically.
This mental bondage continues to this day. It is amazing the millions of Americans who subscribe to this obviously backward belief and live in utter, numbing terror of it. I have discovered, to my amazement, that the war in Iraq and other bellicose foreign policies of the Bush Administration are actually the political manifestations of this Evangelical belief.
Bush believes without a doubt that God is using him to fight evil in the last days before the rapture. And a lot of Evangelicals here have told me that what is happening now in the world is a cosmic cataclysm in which God is using Bush to destroy the ruling powers of evil before the Armageddon.
But these fundamentalists are very ordinary and normal Americans. In personal encounters, they are some of the nicest people anybody can ever wish to meet. They go out of their way to help people in need, in ways I have never seen anywhere.
So how do we reconcile the warmth and good nature of these otherwise obliging, kind-hearted and hardworking people with the repressive politics, intolerance, chauvinism and war-making they support? That is what I have still been trying to come to terms with.