RELIGION IN AMERICA….Atrios has some words today ? inspired by a Nick Kristof column in the New York Times ? about media coverage of religion. I think I would have skimmed right past it except that I happened to read a book review in the LA Times this Sunday about the Left Behind series, a novelized version of the story of Revelation:
Had these books simply found a small niche audience, we could ignore them as cultural flotsam, no more or less disturbing than Guns & Ammo magazine, militia survival guides and the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult. But the “Left Behind” series is not a fringe phenomenon, and the story is not treated as fiction by many of its readers.
The review bothered me. I’m exactly the kind of person it was aimed at ? nonreligious, suburban, liberal, educated ? and yet the contempt was so obvious and the review so vitriolic that even I had a hard time swallowing it.
“Not treated as fiction by many of its readers”? No, of course not. It’s a novel, sure, but many ? perhaps most ? Americans believe in the prophecies of the Bible, including the Book of Revelation. This includes quite a few of my suburban friends, none of whom, I think, read militia survival guides or belong to suicide cults. I honestly can’t imagine the Times running a similarly sneering review about any other religious community’s beliefs.
The author of the review was Zachary Karabell, “educated at Columbia, Oxford, and Harvard University” and an expert on “American politics, history, and culture” who “lectures frequently on current affairs, religion, and politics.” So I’m sure he knows what he’s talking about, and what’s more, I likely agree with him about most of the dangers of evangelical (and fundamentalist) influence on American culture: creationism, abortion zealotry, antagonism toward science, and so forth. But when he starts talking about politicians ? and George Bush is his obvious, though unnamed target ? who “press for policies that emerge from the theology of the end of days,” I start to wonder just who the conspiracy theorists are. He goes on to say:
Yet there is no open debate about the virtue of these ideas as drivers of public policy and national security. Is a belief in the necessity of the ingathering of the Jews in Israel a good justification for U.S. foreign policy toward Israel and the Middle East? Are we more or less secure as a nation as a result of policy that may stem from that belief? Is the conviction that the U.N. is a prophesied prelude to the coming of an Antichrist-led world government a sound reason for bypassing the U.N.? And does the belief that world conflagration is inevitable lead to policies that make it so?
I wonder about these things myself, and yet I’m not aware of any real evidence that George Bush’s foreign policy is based on any of this. In fact, there are a large number of influential Jewish neocons who support George Bush from both inside and outside the administration, and it’s hard to believe they would support someone who they suspected was truly driven by end-time Christian theology.
I’m left without much to wrap this up with. I’m pretty thoroughly nonreligious, but I try hard to fight only the policies I dislike, such as creationism, without vilifying the religious beliefs themselves. Every movement has its lunatic fringe, but treating all of evangelical Christianity as a lunatic fringe, as Karabell seems to, makes me nervous. Perhaps that makes me credulous ? or lacking the courage of my convictions ? but there you have it. I’m open to suggestions on how we should proceed.
UPDATE: Here’s another look at the Left Behind phenomenon from The American Prospect. I think it sets a better tone ? we should fight the policies and ideas of the religious right, not demonize the practitioners ? despite the fact that the Prospect is an overtly political magazine and would therefore be far more justified in taking a more aggressive stance.