Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Interview with James Carroll on US Fundamentalism

Carroll is a former Catholic priest and anti-Vietnam activist. There is a strong leftist religious tradition in the US that is often forgotten and some of it is even angelical. Cornell West is in this prophetic Christian leftist tradition. I have included just a part of the interview. The entire interview is here.

He's a man who knows something about the dangers of mixing religious fervor, war, and the crusading spirit, a subject he dealt with eloquently in his book Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews. A former Catholic priest turned antiwar activist in the Vietnam era, James Carroll also wrote a moving memoir about his relationship to his father, the founding director of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency. Carroll essentially grew up in that five-sided monument to American imperial power. For him, as a boy, the Pentagon was "the largest playhouse in the world," and he can still remember sliding down its ramps in his stocking feet, as he's written in the introduction to his recent, magisterial history of that building and the institution it holds, House of War.

As a weekly columnist for the Boston Globe, he was perhaps the first media figure to notice – and warn against – a presidential "slip of the tongue" just after the assaults of 9/11, when George W. Bush referred briefly to his new Global War on Terror as a "crusade." He was possibly the first mainstream columnist in the country to warn against the consequences of launching a war against Afghanistan in response to those attacks – now just another of the president's missions unaccomplished; and, in September 2003, he was possibly the first to pronounce the Iraq War "lost" in print. ("The war in Iraq is lost. What will it take to face that truth this time?") His stirring columns on the early years of our president's attempt to bring "freedom" to the world at the point of a cruise missile were collected in Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War. In those years, Carroll was a powerful, moral voice from – to use a very American phrase – the (media) wilderness until much of our American world finally caught up with him.

He has most recently completed, with director Oren Jacoby, a stirring documentary film, also entitled Constantine's Sword, in which he explores the roots of religiously inspired violence in our present world. He submitted to a TomDispatch interview back in August 2005 and when, this summer, I suggested that we meet again, he agreed to discuss "American fundamentalisms," a subject that receives remarkably less coverage and consideration than other fundamentalisms of our world.

We met on a warm day, just after a rare downpour in a dry summer, in the study of his house in Massachusetts. His many books dot the bookshelves. Out the window is a piney landscape, not quite the one the Puritans first saw when they arrived early in the 17th century, but beautiful nonetheless. Carroll, his hair graying, has not so much a worn as a well-inhabited face. You can see him thinking as he speaks – not so common a trait as you might imagine. As he warms up to the subject of American fundamentalisms, his voice gains the quiet, yet powerful passion that any reader of his weekly columns has come to expect, a passion that nonetheless leaves room for reason and criticism, for further thought.

I put my two small tape recorders on a modest coffee table, turn them on, ask my first question, and discover that this is an interview in name only. It's more like being back in the most riveting classroom of my life. A single lecture, an hour's genuine education, stretching from our first Puritan moments to George Bush's Iraq, with hardly an interpolation needed on my part. So join me, kick back, and learn something about what's fundamental to us.

TomDispatch: I recently heard this joke: How many neocons does it take to screw in a light bulb? The answer: Neocons don't believe in light bulbs, they declare war on evil and set the house on fire.

(Carroll chuckles.)

TD: That's my introduction to a discussion of American fundamentalism. Any comments?

James Carroll: Well, embedded in that joke is a central idea: that what matters is not outcome, but purity of intent. A mark of a fundamentalist mindset is that one's own personal virtue is the ultimate value. The American fundamentalist ethos of the Cold War prepared us to destroy the world. In other words, a world absolutely devastated through nuclear war was acceptable as an outcome because it reflected the virtue of our opposition to the evil of communism. Better dead than red.

TD: A phrase I hadn't thought about in a long time...

Carroll: Better the world destroyed than taken over by communism. It's profoundly nihilistic, which is also one of the marks of the fundamentalist mindset. An irony, of course, is that so much, then and now, is done in the name of realism, but this is such a profoundly unrealistic way of thinking.

TD: It's in this sense, I suppose, that our president has been unable to learn. So, give me the basics on American fundamentalisms, as you see them.

Carroll: First of all, what is fundamentalism? The word itself was coined in the early 20th century and applied to a particular brand of Protestantism. It comes from a determination to protect what were called, in foundational manifestos, the five fundamentals of Christian belief, particularly the inerrancy of scripture. Scripture can't make a mistake, right? It has to be read literally.

This was a counterattack against so-called liberal religion's embrace of the insights of the Enlightenment and the scientific age. Can you apply normal standards of historical criticism to religious belief? The fundamentalists said no, because normal standards might lead you to understand texts as having been composed in normal human circumstances, instead of inspired by God. So when you read the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus through the lens of historical critical method you may conclude that the three kings never actually traveled to Bethlehem, that it's a mythical story created to make a point – a genre that the people who wrote it were comfortable with.

Fundamentalists reacted against any mitigating of the literal fact of the three kings. To read texts for their theological meaning rather than for their historical literalness would undercut the whole affirmation of the religion. The next thing, you'd be saying that Jesus didn't rise from the dead on the third day. And if that didn't happen, where are you?

That was then. Today, fundamentalism remains a useful point of reference in understanding the human panic that can be engendered by the uncertainties attached to Enlightenment thinking – when the worldview of science tells you that nothing is dependable, that everything has to be submitted to the test of experimentation, verification.

My argument is that religious belief can mature, can be moved to a new level of sophistication by historical, critical, enlightened thinking, but a lot of people are completely threatened by it. Not to denigrate them. Human beings all over the world are dislocated – all of us are – by so many things we don't control, the various revolutions sweeping the globe, the degradation of the environment, the challenge to the very integrity of communities.

The City on a Hill

Carroll: For our conversation, fundamentalist Christianity is a perfect paradigm within which to understand what's been happening in America, a profoundly Christian super-culture. America is also a secular nation, of course. The separation of church and state was a critical innovation, giving us this special standing as a people. The separation's purpose was to protect the conscientious freedom of every individual by making the state neutral on questions of religious conscience. An absolutely ingenious insight.

It's important, however, to understand the profoundly American origins of this insight. The argument began in the first generation. John Cotton, a Puritan preacher, embodied the first idea America had of itself, captured in the image his colleague John Winthrop used in defining the new settlement as "the city on a hill," a phrase that's fodder for political speeches every four years.

Americans don't generally like to think this way, but the United States of America is more descended from Massachusetts than Virginia – an important distinction because the people who settled Virginia were adventurers and entrepreneurs. The people who settled Massachusetts were religious zealots who had left England as an act of dissent against the Church of England, which they considered too Popish. Their dissent was against a certain kind of religion, but not in favor of religious freedom. They came to America assuming the power of the state over the religious convictions of the civic body.

TD: They just wanted a different religion to do the coercing?

Carroll: Exactly. Of course, these folks thought of themselves as reenacting the journey of Exodus. What was the city on a hill? Jerusalem, of course – a biblical reference. They had been brought out of the slave condition of a Popish church. They were now across the water – think of "the Jordan River" as the Atlantic Ocean – in the promised land, the land flowing with milk and honey. Hello, there are Canaanites here.

Finally, after 1,600 years, the true vision of Jesus Christ was going to be realized – and there was no room for another way of looking at it, no room for what we would call dissent, and certainly no room for any tolerance of the "paganism" of the Native Americans. One of the first manifestations of the settlers' zealotry was the religious coercion that began to mark their relationships with the Native Americans they met right here in this very place where we're now talking. They felt empowered to offer the ancient choice of conversion or death to the people they called the Indians.

One of the members of this early party objected. His name was Roger Williams and he rejected the coercive violence he saw wielded against native peoples. He rejected the whole idea that the magistrate should be in charge of the religious impulse of the citizen. As a result, he was banished from Boston, exiled to Salem, then banished from Salem. Finally, he started his own foundation in what we call Rhode Island and organized a new kind of state in which the magistrate would have no power over the religious practice of the citizens. This is all within the first generation.

Roger Williams lost the argument in his own day, but he planted the seed of something. He was the first person to use the phrase, "wall of separation" between the magistrate and the religion. One hundred eighty years later, Thomas Jefferson picks up that phrase to describe the distinction between the church and the state.

The point here is that the initial city-on-a-hill impulse has never stopped being part of our self-understanding – the idea of America as having a mission to the world or, in biblical terms, a mission to the gentiles. "Go forth and teach all nations," Jesus commands. This commission is implicit in George Bush's war to establish democracy – or "freedom" – everywhere. When Americans talk about freedom, it's our secular code word for salvation. There's no salvation outside the church; there's no freedom outside the American way of life. Notice how, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the Soviet system, there is still something called the "Free World." As opposed to what?

A Special Mission to Iraq – and the World

Carroll: This missionizing in the name of freedom is a basic American impulse. Lincoln was the high priest of this rhetoric, "the last best hope of mankind." The United States of America is justified by the virtue of its mission. The entire movement of American power across the continent of North America was a movement to fulfill the "manifest destiny" of a free people extending freedom. Because this is understood as a profoundly virtuous impulse, we've seldom criticized it. As a nation, we have begun to reckon with the crime of slavery, but we haven't begun to reckon with the crime of genocide against the Native-American peoples. That's because we haven't really acknowledged what was wrong with it.

Think of that phrase – "manifest destiny." A key doctrine in what I am calling American fundamentalism. It remains an inch below the surface of the American belief system. What's interesting is that this sense of special mission cuts across the spectrum – right wing/left wing, liberals/conservatives – because generally the liberal argument against government policies since World War II is that our wars – Vietnam then, Iraq now – represent an egregious failure to live up to America's true calling. We're better than this. Even antiwar critics, who begin to bang the drum, do it by appealing to an exceptional American missionizing impulse. You don't get the sense, even from most liberals, that – no, America is a nation like other nations and we're going to screw things up the way other nations do.

TD: That kind of realism is in short supply here.

Carroll: It hardly exists even now.

Let me make one final point about that missionizing impulse, and the way it transcends right and left. One reason we're in Iraq today is because, in the 1990s, the left was split on the question of American violence, the proper use of American power. It was split over the issue of what was called "humanitarian intervention." There are times, it was argued, when the forceful exercise of American power is necessary for the sake of humanitarian causes. Human rights, beginning in Jimmy Carter's day, became a new form of American religion. If conservatives go abroad speaking the language of freedom; liberals go abroad speaking the language of human rights. And if we have to destroy a nation so that it can exercise human rights, so be it. That's why, in the early days of the Iraq war, so many surprising people supported it.

The liberal embrace of humanitarian intervention is part of what set loose this new phenomenon of the Bush moment – an explicit appeal to religious motivation in the exercise of American power. Since George W. Bush came to power, the religious right has been set free to use overt religious language, missionizing language that actually moves from "freedom" to "salvation," as a justification for American power. We cast ourselves against Saddam Hussein entirely in terms of a binary evil-versus-good contest. Bush's appeals to evil were a staple of his speechmaking from the earliest days of this war. The purpose of his war was, he told us, not just to spread democracy, but to end evil. You see what's happening. We've moved into specifically religious categories and that was all right in America.

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