Book Review

Michael Parenti’s, God and His Demons, review part 2:

Do secular and religious conservatives walk hand in hand to advance their privileged positions in the social order? Of course they do. And often enough they get caught, a little too often to dismiss as just a few bad apples, kind of like the catholic priests and pedophilia.

Pope John XXIII’s relatively progressive reign provided an opening for those in Latin America concerned for the extremes of wealth and poverty prevalent there, giving rise to the Liberation Theology movement, soon squashed once John’s successor, right winger Pope John Paul II, took over in the late ’70s. Ordering priests to focus on “spiritual” affairs and stay out of politics he commenced to push right wing politics, stacking the church hierarchy with conservative clergy and taking hysterical positions on abortion and birth control. When Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered in El Salvador by right wing death squads the Vatican refrained from denouncing the perpetrators, calling the death “tragic”, having only days before respectfully received high-ranking members of the Arena party, the legal arm of the El Salvadoran death squads, complaining about Romero’s public statements on behalf of the poor.

The following quote gives a sense of Parenti’s eloquent and incisive writing, “Holy Hypocrites, both lay and clerical, crow a devotion to traditional morality while pursuing material and emotional plunder more rapaciously than any of us ordinary infidels and libertines.” Examples abound. The three main republican presidential contenders for 2008, Newt Gingrich, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani had between them five divorces all
involving infidelity. Numerous anti-gay crusaders turned out to be gay themselves, notably J. Edgar Hoover of FBI fame, Roy Cohn, McCarthy-ite crusading investigator and Cardinal Francis Spellman, often known to party together with choice male escorts. Earl “Butch” Kimmerling, an Indiana anti-gay republican activist was sentenced to 40 years in prison for raping an 8 year old who he had intervened to prevent a gay couple from adopting. One investigator catalogued over 100 cases of sexual criminality and misconduct committed by republican officials or supporters in recent years including at least 44 involving children. Democrats are of course not immune but they are far fewer and tend not to be known as anti-sex crusaders. The Republican Party apparently offers a more hospitable climate for hypocrisy. The Catholic Church pedophiles, and Vatican cover-ups, are well known but it’s worth mentioning the recent revelations involving 30,000 children sexually and physically abused over 60 years in Ireland by priests and nuns. These sad stories are of course not limited to catholics. Protestants in the U.S., especially the southern U.S., have their sordid tales as well. Can you say, Jimmy Swaggart? He’s not alone.

Parenti compiles a list of Devout Swindlers: Tom Delay, who led Washington prayer breakfasts, was indicted for criminal conspiracy and money laundering. Jack Abramoff, close to Delay and President Bush, pleaded guilty to bilking Indian tribes of $20 million, promising help in opening or preventing competitive casinos. Involved also were Rev. Louis Sheldon, James Dobson and Ralph Reed, all who, in addition to the usual right wing hypocrisy, were nationally known opponents of the evils of gambling. Charles Keating, founder of moralistic censorial groups netted $200 million in the savings and loan scandal, serving only four years. The Hunt brothers, devout Jesus freaks, ran into legal problems in their attempt to corner the silver market. There are plenty more fun stats like this in Parenti’s book but he offers only a primer due to space limitations.

Moving on to Church and State, the right often insists that the Constitution established the U.S. as a Christian nation, so claimed in the Texas Republican Party platform and by John McCain in his run for president. In fact, to quote some of the founding fathers: James Madison – “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind.” George Washington urged that all should be free to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience. Ben Franklin doubted the divinity of Jesus. Jefferson was proud a law he saw passed in Virginia “brought freedom for the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammaden, the Hindu and the infidel and every denomination.” This was freedom of and freedom from religion. The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli negotiated by President Washington and ratified by the senate has the clause, “The government of the U.S. is
not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” However, in Maryland, North & South Carolina and Texas an atheist cannot hold public office. In Arkansas an atheist “is incompetent to testify as a witness in any court.” And cruelest of all perhaps, atheists cannot join the Boy Scouts of America.

Bush set up bible study groups in the White House, regularly entertaining fundamentalist ministers. A chilling quote you may recall, “I’m driven with a mission from God”… “God told me to strike at Al Qaeda… then instructed me to strike Saddam.” Bush diverted funds from federal agencies to religious charities which blatantly discriminated against “non-believers” and used federal monies to promote religious belief. The U.S. Air Force Academy increased its staff of chaplains to 18, fundamentalist of course, once again using public funds to advance a religion, Christian you’ll be surprised to hear, and predictably anti-Jewish, Muslim… even catholic. The entire class was marched to a hall and forced to watch Mel Gibson’s, The Passion of the Christ, standing at attention. This practice spread to the other military academies and was only partially and half-heartedly rolled back when publicized. Another chilling incursion is the FEMA program that trains clergy and other religious representatives to become secret police enforcers, teaching their congregations to “obey the government.” With backup provided, including swat teams. This all in preparation for implementation of martial law and “round ups” of subversives in the event of some unspecified emergency.

To provide context for fundamentalism as sketched above Parenti goes back to the Rome of AD 395. Once Christians came into power they were not satisfied to be the dominant religion, they must be the only religion and that intolerance was put into uncompromising force. We call it the dark ages. Creco-Roman rational inquiry was dead. Feeding Christians to the lions seemed quaint in comparison to what the new rulers had in mind, and carried out. Well, being fed to lions wasn’t a lot of fun, admittedly, but the big difference was in numbers of victims. Until the Enlightenment, and beyond, these folks ran things and we would be well advised to consider whether we want to return to those dark days. John Adams, founding father with unquestionable pedigree, was grateful that religious fanatics could not whip, burn nor mutilate people in the U.S. But he believed they would if they could. We need to make sure they can’t.

An obvious difference today between fundamentalists in the U.S. and Islam is that while in the U.S. they have a definite foothold their dream of dominating, as of old, remains a dream. In many places in Islam the dream is reality. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Afghanistan (under Taliban) are firmly controlled by fundamentalists. Islamic theocrats are a major force in many other countries. What transpires in some of those nations ought to be a warning against complacency here. A student was put to death for printing an internet article questioning why men were allowed to have multiple spouses but women were not. We’ve all heard horror stories of what happened in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Women were put under the dominion of men and forbidden to engage in basic human behavior. Music was banned, secular writing and worse. In Iraq, previous to the illegal U.S. invasion a fairly secular society, extremist religion has arisen, complicating daily life, especially for women, some being killed for exposing too much skin. In Saudi Arabia a woman lawyer was raped and sentenced to 90 lashes for being in the company of a man who was not a close relative. The rapist went unpunished. I guess she must have been asking for it. Hand amputations, lashing, death, often for activities legal here (so long as the fundamentalists fall short of their goals). A married woman was raped by her brother-in-law and punished for adultery. This fate awaits also those involuntarily forced into prostitution. There have been bombings of girls’ schools, terrorizing students into illiteracy. It should be emphasized that the majority of Muslims, like the majority of Christians, Jews, Infidels, simply want a modestly abundant simple life with friends and family but when the fanatics get power, forget it. The difficulty preventing them coming to power is as nothing to getting out from under when they succeed. Like Jim Crow days in the old south, a minority of fanatics maintain, by terroristic threats, an extremely reactionary social rigidity. What percentage of white citizens supported Jim Crow as opposed to just going along? I was in Georgia in 1962, in the army, witnessing segregated theatres and water fountains, a shocking sight for a Northern Michigan boy. By 1976, when I moved back here, I saw blacks and whites working and dining together in restaurants, suggesting to me that Jim Crow was shallow. Were it not for the threat of racist violence segregation would have ended sooner, perhaps never been instituted. It is the shock troops who enforce “sharia” as it were and it is the shock troops who must never gain respectability, whether they are Muslim, Jewish, Christian… or infidel.

When the U.S. suppresses movements, as in Central America in the 70s and 80s, that attempt to address gross inequities, opulence on one hand, malnutrition on the other, little is left the survivors but retreat to superstition which result is the intended one. Quiescence and apathy are no threat to the oligarch. Yet, deprived of hope and discouraged from rational criticality citizens become ripe for the demagogue, and his shock troopers.

One more sacred cow comes under Parenti’s scrutiny, the revered Dali Lama. Actually a mixed bag, his “holiness” has taken conservative as well as progressive stances. Few of his supporters seem aware of the cruel feudalism of the former Tibet, feudal in the full sense of the word: indentured serfs-for-life, rampant corruption among the “lords”, clergy, whatever, slavery, yes, slavery… and an army to police proper obedience and to hunt down those who attempted to escape. The Chinese invasion also netted mixed results. Serfdom was ended, land reform instituted, slavery ended. All unlike the popular notion that a peaceful Shangri La was destroyed by godless hoards. The usual occupational elements not surprisingly accompanied the invaders: bureaucratic domination and insensitivity, corruption etc; One peasant opinioned that, “Life under the Chinese is not easy but it’s better than life under the feudal lords that preceded them.”

After many pages of less than cheerful reading Parenti attempts to end on a positive note. He cites statistics that show 20% of younger adults in the U.S. have no religious affiliation and that specifically secular organizations are growing, including “faith” elements who recognize the need for separation of church and state. The best-selling books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and the popularity of their speaking tours are signs of increasing tolerance. Lord knows, we need it.

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Illustration by Tom Ferguson.
Tom Ferguson

Tom Ferguson

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