I’M STILL HERE: A LETTER FROM 1995

The piece I teased last time is up now at Loner Magazine, you can read it here:
I’M STILL HERE: A LETTER FROM 1995

It’s a departure from religion or politics, yet it’s an important journey through a part of history that’s still there but harder to find in the digital age.  I was happy I was able to follow up with a loved one of one of the letter writers in a comic book from 20 years ago, but there was actually a lot more from that letters page I tried to cover but for various reasons was unable to.

I didn’t get ahold of Norrie May-Welby like I wanted.  The same issue was dedicated to DC Creative Director Neal Pozner, who had just died.  Pozner’s partner and caretaker until his death was future superstar Phil Jimenez, who I’ve met at conventions on multiple occasions.  Unfortunately, space didn’t permit me to pursue that angle this time.  Maybe someday there will be a part two.

As I say in the article, everybody has somebody else’s untold story.  I hope this can inspire some other bloggers to keep someone’s memory alive like I’ve tried to do, or to help share Kevin’s story with the world.  Please feel free to share any of your stories in the comments.  Thanks for reading.

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Latest Piece: Black Churches Matter

I’m continuing to branch out in my writing profession, my latest contribution is for Longer Magazine, you can read it here:

Black Churches Matter

This one was kind of a challenge because it was the first time I had been assigned a subject, but the editor seemed to have been impressed.  She also accepted my pitch for another article that I’m eagerly working on at this very moment and can’t wait to share.  That one will be less political or religious.  To give it a little tease, it all started with an Incredible Hulk comic book twenty years ago and currently has me trying to contact a transgender activist in Australia.  It might be my favorite piece I’ve ever written.  Stay tuned.

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Is Ruth a Rapist?

You were probably expecting something pertaining to same-sex marriage today.  This article does focus on the story of Lot, but as we know, that story has nothing to do with homosexuality or gay marriage.  I previously wrote about rape in the Bible and how, contrary to popular criticism, the rapists are handed some of the most severe punishments in the Old Testament.  However, this only seems applicable to male rapists; it’s troubling that the female rapists in the Bible all seem to get away with it with impunity.  Lot’s daughters rape their own father by deception in Genesis 19:30-36.  Tamar, in disguise, similarly tricks her own father-in-law into sleeping with her in Genesis 38.  While technically not a rape, Potiphar’s wife sexually assaults Joseph in the next chapter.

Lot’s daughters are the example of the most intertextual importance.  The story shares a common form to Noah’s post-survival narrative which suggested sexual misconduct by his son, Ham (Gen. 9:18-28).  But more importantly, the oldest unnamed daughter gives birth to Moab (19:37), and this incestuous etiology informs the complicated Israelite-Moabite relationship in the rest of the Bible, from their co-existence after the conquest of Canaan, to their place in the genealogy of the Lord.  Particularly, this should be contrasted with a difficult passage in the only book of the Bible named after a Moabite, Ruth.  Sunday school lessons tend to focus on Boaz’s compassion for Ruth as she gleans in the field, while ignoring their overnight encounter.  Scholars are in disagreement of this incident at the threshing floor in chapter 3:

When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. In the middle of the night something startled the man; he turned—and there was a woman lying at his feet!  Ruth 3:7-8

'Landscape with Ruth and Boaz', Josep Anton Koch, 1768

‘Landscape with Ruth and Boaz’, Josep Anton Koch, 1768

Moral sensibilities tend to predetermine the interpretation that this was an asexual encounter.  The protagonists, it is argued, could not have committed anything considered sinful by virtue of this book’s placement in the canon (This same rationale also drives a sanitized interpretation of Song of Solomon).  But if “uncovering his feet” is an obscured euphemism, their spending the night together is harder to overlook.  To modern standards of mutual consent, Ruth’s actions while Boaz sleeps border on assault even if there was no sexual contact.  It also doesn’t help that she leaves almost shamefully “before anyone could be recognized” (3:14).

There are obvious comparisons intentionally made to Lot’s daughters in the text, and it is through this lens that it can be better understood.  Instructed by a relative, Ruth sleeps with a close relative after he has been drinking, as Lot’s oldest daughter impregnated herself with her drunk father and then compelled her sister to do the same.  Lot was unaware when his daughters lay down or got up, but while Ruth enters stealthily and leaves without being recognized, she does reveal herself to Boaz in the middle of the night.  Ruth’s narrative is deliberately structured after the prior rape incident, but as a literary construction it actually functions as its opposite.  Lot’s daughter gives birth to Moab through incest and rape, but it is her descendant Ruth who redeems her people even as she is redeemed by her near kinsman.  Unlike her ancestor, Ruth does not engage in deception and seeks a legitimate and lawful relationship with a man who had previously shown interest in her. As is typical for Biblical narratives to undo a curse in a like manner to its origin, the ambiguity of the passage in Ruth can be attributed to the text’s forced similarities to Lot’s daughters.  Scholars and clergy will forever debate the extent of Ruth and Boaz’s premarital romance, but it should certainly not be confused with the rape text that it intends to counteract.

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Dennis Hastert Is Every Republican Scandal Ever

It’s been a busy week, my Josh Duggar piece was the most popular article ever on Political Moll, and I’ve got another one up now.  Please check it out here:
Why Dennis Hastert Is the Face of Republican Hypocrisy
Of course, as is typical, after I submitted the final draft I read a quote on Facebook that I wish I had written myself:

Leave it to a conservative Republican hero to hit the hypocrisy quadrifecta: sexual abuse of a minor, closeted homosexuality, political corruption and cover-up.

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What Conservatives Don’t Get about the Josh Duggar Scandal

My latest piece is up at Political Moll and is getting a lot of attention!  You can check it out here:

What Conservatives Don’t Get about the Josh Duggar Scandal

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Islam Is Not the Liberal Cause You’re Looking For

On Sunday, there was a contest held in Garland, TX featuring cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.  It was attacked by a pair of Muslim terrorists who drove there from Arizona.  Unlike previous attacks over harmless cartoons, however, only the terrorists were killed after they shot at the event’s armed guards.  And unlike previous incidents, this time the West did not unite in solidarity with the cartoonists, like the Je suis Charlie slogan.  Instead, the conversation seems to have revolved more around criticism of the event’s organizer, incendiary blogger and professional protester Pamela Geller.  Perhaps this was partly because the conservative Geller is known for being offensive and provocative, and partly because, thankfully, there were no innocent victims to mourn this time.  But another factor seems to be an inexplicable rush to defend the Muslim faith when Muslims have threatened innocent people.

Conservatives and liberals usually take divergent, knee-jerk positions in the wake of Muslim terrorism, positions which often seem more concerned with contradistinction to their political opponents than with an honest discussion about modern Islam.  Conservatives will tally another notch as proof that Islam is a violent and dangerous religion; they may genuinely believe this, but it may also be motivated by tribal one-upmanship to make their own religion or ideology appear better.  Liberals will often argue that this it is not all Muslims committing terrorism, that either all religions or all religious extremists are equally bad, or that Islam is a peaceful religion.  Unfortunately, these defenses do more to derail the discussion than resolve it.  True, the nearest terrorists had to drive across two states to reach their target, but that kind of determination renders their small numbers almost insignificant; just one terrorist willing to go through such great lengths is more dangerous than all the other religious extremists in the country.  The leftwing condemnation of all religion may equally just be one-upmanship by the nonreligious.  And the question of whether Islam is a religion of peace or not is debatable.  Like every religion, it’s really only as good as the individuals who practice it, so asserting this statement as the starting point of the conversation rather than the conclusion is being simplistically doctrinaire. 

Arguing that Islam is supposed to be peaceful is a pointless distraction to very real violence committed by devout Muslims in the name of Islam.  LIke it or not, Pamela Geller’s point has been proven true: if you mock or criticize Islam, Muslims may try to kill you.  She may be an agitator, but she is not the instigator.  This conflict started years before when some Muslims killed innocent people over cartoons that were not even intended to provoke a violent reaction.  When Muslims behave like other religions and no longer try to silence criticism and mockery, there will be less to ridicule and criticize.  Or at least it will be less appealing to provocateurs.  Until then, both sides are in a perpetual cycle of antagonism, but we should not be misled by fashionable pundits who argue both sides are equally to blame.  They are not.  One side has drawn offensive but harmless pictures, the other side has killed innocent people.  There is no moral equivalency between the two, as the point was made on the Daily Show: “It is not okay to shoot other people because you’re offended by what they draw, even if they drew it to offend you.”

I completely understand the disgust with Geller and her inflammatory methods, I am not going to argue that anybody has to like her.  But I support free speech even when I don’t like the person or the message, because that’s really the only time it matters.  What bothers me, though, is the eagerness with which some liberals are willing to abandon the principles of free expression under the guise of politeness.  You may have heard, “I support free speech, but…” then blaming the organizers for being hateful, offensive, or in some way causing the violence.  After Sunday’s attack, Salon argued that “free speech is not a license to be stupid.”  This couldn’t be more wrong or more illiberal: nobody’s right to speak is subject to anyone else’s evaluation of their intelligence.  The mere insinuation that free speech is licensed in any way is a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept.  “Hate speech” is not a crime in the United States, if it were anybody could restrict any criticism they dislike with the mere accusation that they found it hateful.  Direct incitement to violence or lawless action has been established as the only speech punishable under U.S. law, and even then it must meet rigorous criteria.  Comparisons of Geller’s provocative views to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” are refuted because the attack demonstrated her warning was not false.

Criticism misdirected at the target rather than the attacker is a disconcerting trend.  A few days after the Texas incident, Salon published an op-ed by Rula Jebreal calling ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali “dangerous.”  Now the article doesn’t mention that the apostate Hirsi Ali has to travel with bodyguards because of her criticism of Islam, including a film she made with Theo van Gogh which resulted in the filmmaker’s death at the hands of an angry Muslim.  To call a peaceful author, activist, and victim of Muslim extremism “dangerous” is not only unreasonable but inexcusable.  Instead of devoting so much attention to attacking harmless critics of their religion, moderate Muslims would do far better outreach if they attacked the extremists who would try to murder them.  If you only attack the critics of your religion while ignoring the extremists of your religion, then you’re not really a moderate, you’re an enabler.  Jebreal’s irresponsible hyperbole is far more dangerous because it has more potential likelihood to incite real violence against Hirsi Ali and her loved ones than Hirsi Ali’s words do to actually harm any Muslims. 

The Left’s overreaction to defend Islam from Rightwing criticism may actually be making liberals less liberal.  There are obvious double standards when liberals freely bash other religions while withholding criticism of Islam for the same or even worse offenses.  Some liberals have retaliated for the offensive Muhammad cartoons by encouraging offensive cartoons of other religious figures.  This should not be confused as a brave stand for free speech, because it’s only attacking religions that they already know will not respond violently.  Pamela Geller may be passive aggressive, but this is just cowardly.  Similar observations on the liberal hypocrisy when it comes to Islam were summarized by Allen Clifton last year:

“It’s a point Bill Maher actually made a few weeks ago.  He said when it comes to religion, liberals often have no problems bashing Christianity.  Yet he often finds many of these same liberals defending Islam and outraged if someone might dare call out radicalism within the Muslim community.”

It’s admirable to stand up for the rights of Muslims to live and practice their faith without discrimination or oppression, as we should for people of any or no religion.  But many liberals seem to have mistaken Islam for a progressive cause, which it is not.  The main battles which have characterized liberalism for the last century–women’s rights, gay rights, and individuality–are all at odds with Islam.  It is not intolerant to acknowledge this fact.

I would be a hypocrite for writing an article critical of the Christian Right’s opposition to same-sex marriage while giving Islam a pass on gay rights.  It would actually be progressive if Muslim countries were merely resisting the right for gays to legally marry, but sadly the majority of Muslim countries still criminalize homosexuality, and in at least 10 countries it is punishable by death.  In any city in the U.S. you can find a gay-affirming mainline church, but finding a gay-affirming mosque anywhere in the world is a challenge, and virtually impossible in the Muslim world.  The gay community justifiably has a lot to criticize Islam for, and these deplorable human rights violations should not be swept away by the honor brigade.

Like anybody, Muslims individually may be more progressive than their professed creed.  Congressman Keith Ellison’s support of gay rights is acknowledged and appreciated, in the same way as the support of Republicans even though their Party’s platform still opposes same-sex marriage.  There certainly are progressive Muslim voices like Irshad Manji, but unfortunately her books are banned even in supposedly moderate Muslim countries like Malaysia.  Liberals should not lose focus in the gap between how we think the world ought to be and how it actually is; the sobering reality is that Islam is presently  far behind liberal ideals.  So much so that it is also behind modern conservatism in its progress.  It doesn’t always have to be this way, other religions have undergone dramatic reforms in their doctrines on slavery, caste, women, and sexuality.  But as outsiders (aka infidels) we don’t get to tell Muslims what their religion is supposed to be, that’s something they have to decide for themselves.  In the meantime, let’s stop pretending it is something that it isn’t.  And let’s rightly condemn violent attackers and not their intended victims.  

Bosch Fawstin's award winning cartoon

Bosch Fawstin’s award winning cartoon

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Latest Article: The Road to Baltimore Was Paved with Racial Injustice

Please check out my latest piece published on Political Moll:

The Road to Baltimore Was Paved with Racial Injustice

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How Did Christianity Become the New Relativism?

“It’s true for me”  This was said during a famous debate between conservative political commentator and Christianity-enthusiast Bill O’Reilly and atheist scientist Richard Dawkins.  In my fundamentalist upbringing, I had been conditioned to eschew this wishy-washy postmodernist thought.  “True for me but not for you” was liberal, “worldly” thinking that Christians were supposed to know how to combat, not use themselves.  Yet here it was the conservative Christian saying it and not the godless liberal.  Apparently just as shocked by this role-reversal, Dawkins responded with the absolutist logic which I had previously only associated with Christianity: “You mean true for you is different from true for anybody else?  Something’s either got to be true or not.”

Christianity and relativism have been at odds since the dawn of postmodernism.  Christianity is a religion which makes absolute claims of truth, and relativism is an ideology which rejects the very concept of absolute truth.  Yet strangely, it is increasingly Christians who have unwittingly been the proponents of relativism in recent times.  I’ve previously written about how sectarianism tends to prioritize subjective and relative morality over objective morality.  Most Christians today haven’t transcended the culture of postmodernism even if they claim to be against it; they are still very much products, if not prisoners, of that mindset.

Even Christians who believe relativism is a problem may not be able to correctly identity what relativism actually is.  For instance, some Christians erroneously oppose any religious pluralism because they have mistaken it for cultural relativism.  But while relativism is a form of pluralism, not all pluralism is relativistic.  Pluralism, in the narrow distinction between the two, is simply the tolerance of opposing beliefs; it is the pragmatic acceptance that those who hold beliefs which are untrue still have the right to equally coexist in the same society.  Relativism, on the other hand, is a doctrinaire opinion that there is no objective truth.  Relativism leads to the same tolerance as pluralism, not for the admirable reason that people who are wrong should still be treated fairly, but rather because it cannot make an evaluation of right or wrong in the first place.  Pluralists, however, can still tolerate relativists without losing objective truth.

Unfortunately, Christians have not only attacked the wrong problems but also promoted the wrong solutions. For years Christians have been incorrectly told that absolutism is the counter to relativism.  They’ve been led to believe that as long as they refuse to compromise on their beliefs then they are immune to relativistic influences.  Doubling down on the Bible or church authority as their sole argument for everything, they’ve ignored that this sort of weak reasoning can and is exercised by people of all faiths.  Christians are usually at a loss to explain why Islamic or Mormon claims to absolute truth on the basis of their sacred texts differ in any way to Christian claims to absolute truth based only on the Bible.  Obviously, anyone can be an absolutist on any position, that in itself is not a remedy for relativism.  The missing component is objective truth, truths which can be communicated and accepted without first having to believe in a religion.  Religious identity is the last resort of people who have failed to present an objective truth.  Saying “I can’t have an abortion because it’s taking an innocent life” is a more compelling argument than saying “I can’t have an abortion because I’m Catholic.”  If the only justification you have for why you do something a certain way is your religion, then you probably don’t have a sufficient reason; otherwise, you would have given that as your reason in the first place.

The same-sex marriage battle is a fascinating study of how conservatives in general have lost all sense of objectivity.  At seemingly every turn, they have contradicted their own arguments if it suited their cause.  When the Defense of Marriage Act was on the books, they argued that federal law trumped state law, but after DOMA was ruled unconstitutional (and even before) they’ve been champions of so-called “states’ rights” ever since.  Conservatives heavily criticized the Obama administration for not defending DOMA before the Supreme Court, but then remained quiet when governor Scott Walker similarly refused to defend Wisconsin’s domestic partnership registry in court.  Contrary to purported claims about executive duty and the rule of law, the rightwing will seemingly take up whichever argument they feel will support their predetermined crusade.  While there’s no denying these conservatives are absolutely against gay marriage, their duplicitous attempts to try to achieve their ends at any cost betray any claim to objective reasoning.

There are numerous things that churches have absolutely opposed in no uncertain terms, only to completely reverse their positions later: abolition, women’s suffrage, integration, interracial marriage.  The Republicans’ latest retreat into “religious freedom” measures–allowing business owners, workers, or officials to refuse business or involvement in same-sex wedding ceremonies out of personal religious beliefs–underscores the consummation of modern Christianity’s journey into fully realized postmodernism (it should be pointed out that there was never any regard for religious freedom of churches who performed same-sex marriages before it was legal).  As has already been demonstrated in case after case, conservative Christians are completely at a loss to present any objective reasoning why consenting adult same-sex couples should not be afforded the same legal protections as opposite-sex couples.  Now that this loss seems inevitable at the Supreme Court level, conservatives seem to be preparing to cease universal bans and instead allow individuals to opt out.  It’s noteworthy that conservatives didn’t really entertain this solution in their past failed culture wars.  While some Christians still tried to maintain segregation in their private schools, they don’t try to allow volunteers at polling places to refuse women, or to permit businesses or state officials to refuse interracial weddings.  These Christians are now put in the awkward position of having to justify why a nationwide ban was considered so absolutely necessary yet the same practice is now permissible on a personal level.  There just doesn’t seem to be an objective way to re-phrase “I won’t provide this service for you that I do for everybody else because you’re gay.”  Effectively, these individuals would be telling gay couples that their beliefs are “true for me but not for you.”

Conservatives would argue that this is merely a legal compromise on an issue forced upon them, but that alone doesn’t explain why this strategy is being deployed here when it wasn’t for other positions they opposed just as absolutely.  This is likely because conservatives came to the simple realization that there were no satisfactory reasons to forcibly segregate drinking fountains.  Conversely, conservatives have held their ground more capably on the abortion issue where they were able to find objective arguments based on life ethics.  If conservatives behaved the same on gay marriage as they do on abortion, then we ought to have expected a stronger reaction than it simply being a matter of personal conscience (but perhaps they’ll surprise me and start an insurrection in June).  While they may not be intentionally relativistic in their reasoning, this nevertheless has all the trademarks of it.  Little by little, conservatives are eroding a cooperative pluralistic society by not merely tolerating nonfactual beliefs, but by permitting those beliefs to have dominance over facts.  Conservatives haven’t outright rejected that an objective truth exists, yet their inability to objectively support their positions has netted the exact same results as if they had.  Or perhaps worse, it looks like they’ve achieved cultural relativism without the pluralism that usually accompanies it.

Conservatism, with Christianity at the helm, is now steering us towards a relativistic society where individuals are free to ignore anti-discrimination laws if they claim it violates their personal beliefs.  As much as they want to limit it just to homosexuality, I have yet to hear a good reason why sincerely held beliefs on sexuality should be protected more than equally sincere Bible-based beliefs on racial superiority or gender inequality.  They might argue that sexual orientation shouldn’t be a protected class, usually for disingenuous reasons such as claiming homosexuality is a choice, somehow differing from other protected categories like religion, pregnancy, or marital status which are also choices (I should also point out that, contrary to what many conservatives erroneously think, the classes in anti-discrimination laws do not single out minorities, women, or gays for heightened protection; instead they are based on universal attributes applicable to everyone: race, gender, and sexual orientation).  I would counter-argue that needing to protect classes of people should be unnecessary in the first place, and contrary to Republican assumptions, an individual doesn’t actually need to be a member of a group on an itemized list to make a valid case of discrimination.  It says more about the flawed deontological morality of these discrimination advocates that they only seem to believe it’s wrong to refuse service to a black person just because the law specifically prohibits discrimination on race.  Ultimately, their problem is the same fault underlying all relativism: they don’t really know basic right and wrong.

In a bizarre twist of the Republican party’s role reversal from formerly being the progressive party to presently being the conservative party, the GOP has also become a powerful champion of postmodernism.  Their challenges to the Affordable Care Act have been some of the most blatant postmodern arguments in recent memory.  The first case challenged the birth control provisions strictly on the personal beliefs of the employer, because they disapprove of birth control or incorrectly believe it causes an abortion.  The present case before the court amounts to trying to invalidate the law on the basis of a strict reading of a typo rather than the stated intent of the law, which commenters have compared to the “Moops” doctrine from the sitcom Sienfeld.  Of course, the irony is that the ACA originated as a conservative idea, effected in Massachusetts by Republican Governor and Obama Presidential opponent, Mitt Romney.

A side effect of the Right’s opposition politics is an inability to articulate what they actually stand for.  They seem to be willing to reverse a position to spite an opponent, or commit to one in spite of facts.  Even when I specifically ask conservatives what they’re for, I get a response that’s merely a restatement of what they’re against.  Liberal positions, on the other hand, do not depend on a pre-existing “other” to oppose.  When liberals stand for equality, we mean that everybody should be treated the same under the law; inequality does not need to be an antecedent.  Positions, not principles, seem to drive conservative strategy these days.  Principles are what guide us to conclusions, whereas positions are fixed conclusions irrespective of principles.  The use of contradictory arguments to support the same position is patently unprincipled reasoning.  While changing a position because of new information is admirable, changing principles relative to a position is not.

Maybe objectivity is something Christianity has lost, or maybe I just wasn’t paying close enough attention in my youth and conservatives never really had a grasp on objective truth.  Either way, if Christianity is going to find its foothold, it cannot be with the same logic advanced by conservatives for the past decade.  Just pointing out conservative relativism can get you accused of being a relativist yourself, but only because that identifies your opposite belief as liberal and conservatives associate liberalism with postmodernism.  Conservatives need to stop basing their beliefs on what their opponent believes and find out in objective terms what they actually believe themselves.

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I’m Now a Contributor on Political Moll

I’m excited to announce that I’m now a contributor on Political Moll.

You can read my first article there now:

The Real Reason The Right Wants To Ban Gay Marriage

Going forward, posts that are more political in nature will be appearing there, but I’ll still be tackling religious topics on this blog, and of course I’ll let my readers know when a new article posts over there.  Stay tuned.

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The Republican Party Is a Cult

The Republican Party has changed considerably in my lifetime.  When I was a kid, my impression was that conservatives dressed conservatively, were well groomed, well behaved, spoke intelligently, and valued principles.  I never expected to see a vulgar reality TV star like the Duck Commander, Phil Robertson, delivering folksy speeches at conservative political events in a full beard and camouflage.  But they’ve had more than just a cosmetic makeover, with the infusion of the Tea party the GOP has undergone dramatic ideological and epistemological changes.  Their positions may have remained more or less the same, but what is noticeable is how much their principles have changed in order to remain static.  For instance, the party defended the federal Defense of Marriage Act while simultaneously championing “states’ rights” to regulate marriage, so long as the end result was a ban on same-sex marriage.  Republicans also criticize the Obama administration for dereliction of duty in not defending DOMA at the Supreme Court, but were then silent when Governor Scott Walker refused to defend Wisconsin’s domestic partnership registry in court.  This ends-justified mentality seems closer to what I’ve observed in cults, and in many ways I would argue that’s exactly what the Republican Party is becoming.

Cults love to catch people off guard with new information, this is the signature tactic of a successful cult.  It’s precisely why Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses still go door to door, as prepared speakers trying to catch unprepared people in their homes, or why Scientologists try to catch passersby in a public park to offer a “free stress test.”  It doesn’t even matter if the information they offer is true or not, the fact that the listener is unfamiliar with it gives the cultmember illusory superiority.  The advantage is that the cultmember doesn’t actually have to be more knowledgeable on a subject, they just have to have knowledge of something that the other person doesn’t.  It matters little how much a Christian knows about the Bible, if they don’t know anything about the Book of Mormon then that’s a weakness the Mormon missionaries will focus on.  Zealous Christians trying to convert the missionaries would have to know more about the Book of Mormon than the Mormons to have any hope of succeeding. 

It doesn’t stop with converts, either.  Secret doctrines are the stock in trade of cults, and even the initiated are incrementally bombarded with previously hidden information as a means to keep them advancing further, like when Scientologists reach level OT III and are finally shown L. Ron Hubbard’s sci-fi creation myth.  The distinction between a religion and a cult can sometimes seem arbitrary, but students of religion can easily recognize a cult when they reach the limit of information that can be acquired as an outsider.  You can learn everything about Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. without having to convert to those religions, but you can’t learn everything about Mormonism or Scientology without being a member (although the internet is changing that).  Even then, the selective information that is taught on the inside differs from the total information available on the outside.  Cultmembers characteristically operate with a different set of “facts” than nonmembers.  A conflict between the cult’s “facts” and reality are dismissed as a conspiracy by their organization’s perceived enemies–which can literally include anything outside the cult.

The most frustrating part of debating with today’s Republicans is having to be on top of all the latest conservative conspiracy theories.  It can be difficult to discuss any political topic with a Republican because they frame most subjects with assumptions that aren’t based in fact.  Claiming Obama is a Kenyan, Muslim, or socialist can derail any serious talk about the President or his politics.  And just like with a cult, it doesn’t matter how knowledgable an outsider is on factual information, because the Republicans are more knowledgable on false information.  Though they might really not know anything about economics or ecology, they’ll consider an opponent ignorant if he’s unfamiliar with Cloward-Piven, Agenda 21, Saul Alinsky, or climate change denial.  The secret doctrines of conspiracy theories have become the norm for the GOP as it has become more and more cultic, to the extent that members might not even be aware of how pervasive they are.  Even conspiracies that originated on the Left, like 9/11 truthers and birthers, have found their forever home in the GOP.  As with cults, their more extreme beliefs tend to be omitted from content accessible to the general public, aside from strategically positioned dog whistles.  Nevertheless, although not all Latter-day Saints are initiated in the temple rituals, all Mormons must accept that all of Christianity is a Satanic conspiracy against the one true church and the Bible, not just a theological disagreement.  Similarly, issues that are in reality just disagreements on politics are interpreted by Republicans to be conspiracies of gays, atheists, or liberals to intentionally destroy marriage, the church, or America.  Republicans seem determined to steer the political conversation towards outlandish claims which inhibit rational political debate.  Rightwing positions on meteorology, sexual orientation, evolution, and U.S. history actually require a conspiracy of elitist academics and liberal media to explain why the overwhelming majority disagree with them.  As with religious cults, if there is a real conspiracy it is to be found inside the party. 

Cult doctrines are notoriously difficult to rebut because they tend to be circular and interdependent on each other.  The Book of Mormon being true depends entirely on Joseph Smith being a true prophet, and faith in the LDS church as the only true church rests on belief in the Book of Mormon.  It’s simple enough to logically articulate why it’s wrong, yet trying to short circuit this reasoning in the Mormon mind can be an insurmountable challenge.  Although their worldview is really a fragile house of cards that should be able to topple with the removal of one or two fundamentals, their belief systems can be so convoluted that they actually forget when information has been refuted and still rely on that false information as the basis for other beliefs.  Similarly, it can be difficult to unravel rightwing doctrines.  Even when Republicans admit that birtherism is a fraud, it doesn’t seem to shake their underlying belief that President Obama is somehow ineligible to be in office; at its worst, birtherism was never more than a pretext for a preconceived prejudice.  Trickle down economics doesn’t work yet Republicans still blindly push it because it supports their tax policy.  Failure to find WMD’s in Iraq hasn’t diminished their faith in the justification of the Iraq war.  Half of Republicans still believe they were found, and Republicans have shown to be more confident in this erroneous belief after being told correctly, like a Mormon “testifying” that the Book of Mormon is true when confronted with evidence to the contrary.  On top of that, cultmembers are trained to distrust sources critical of their religion, and the Republican Party’s distrust of the so-called “liberal media” has only worsened with the rise of blatantly biased conservative outlets and forwarded emails beneath the radar of fact checkers and peer review.  In a sea of conservative misinformation, too many Republicans are helpless to discern truth.

Cultmembers generally resent the allegation that their organization is a cult.  Republicans reading this are probably thinking the same thing right now.  While it’s understandable that nobody likes the stigma associated with the term “cult”, cultmembers are often more concerned with perception than with actually being less cultic.  Cults tend to have several predictable responses to this accusation, none of which involve being less controlling or open to facts.  The first strategy is to argue that if their group is a cult, then every other religion must be a cult too.  This false equivalency projects the cult’s own secretive, conspiracist, and controlling qualities onto religions that are demonstrably dissimilar.  And while theology, like politics, can be unproven hypotheticals, factual disagreements, such as the origin of your sacred text, are verifiable.  Likewise, politicians on both sides will have differing opinions on the possible outcome of a policy, but currently only the Republicans want to have their own facts.  In the end, “both sides do it” is a weak defense for a religion or party that considers itself exceptional compared to its competitors. 

The second strategy to deflect the cult label is to argue against a stereotype of a cult, a uniformed commune of groupthinkers.  But the truth is, most cults aren’t isolated communities of identical people who all dress alike and think exactly the same, yet they’re nevertheless cultic.  Their membership may be from all walks of life and diverse on a spectrum of ideology and loyalty to the organization: some beginners, some moderates, some extremists.  Structurally, however, the organization is still a cult, and they just exploit the demographics of their membership to make people think otherwise.  The Mormon church goes to great lengths to station minorities in visible missions, both as an attempt to dispel the effects of generations of racial segregation, but also to make themselves appear less homogenous.  Their “I’m a Mormon” advertising campaign was trying too hard to fight the stereotypical image Mormons themselves had created.  The GOP has been just as obvious lately in trying to push minorities, women, and young people in front of the cameras, despite its older, whiter, and manlier base pushing them out of the party.  But it’s one thing to make a woman the face of your organization when she’s just volunteering at the front desk of the temple visitor center, it’s another to make an unqualified person your vice presidential candidate because she’s a woman.  Both are undeniably deliberate and shamefully desperate, but at least they’re only superficial. 

The way cults exploit individualism and ideological variances is far more troubling.  No matter how brainwashed people are, they still can’t be programmed to think and act exactly the same all of the time.  Unlike normal religions, members of cults pass through different phases, a fake diversity that the organization will often use to give the illusion of personal variety even if the end goal is to eliminate those differences.  The Church of Scientology perfected the technique of separating novices from the advanced, which helps put a more friendly, relatable face to the general public while isolating the brainwashed zombies.  Full disclosure can be a catch-22, somebody unprepared to receive a ridiculous doctrine could easily be turned off to the organization with that information.  From my own personal experience, the GOP’s fringe tends to be more guarded about its conspiracy theories when interacting with moderate Republicans than with me.  They don’t expose sympathizers to questionable information that could potentially alienate them, but they don’t mind wasting their enemy’s time with those arguments.  Those at the lower level can also serve as a distraction from the more extreme initiates, providing a moderate voice to attack their critics while never criticizing the organization itself.  Although cults strive for complete assimilation, they can also use a member’s individuality for self-serving marketing.  Scientology wrote the book on this strategy by intentionally seeking out charismatic and eccentric celebrities as brand ambassadors.  The Republican Party has taken this to the next level, recruiting the Duck Dynasty cast in full costume, turning politicians into cable news pundits and infomercial hosts, and making candidates and reality TV stars interchangeable.  It’s not just the striking absence of this hucksterism in the Democratic Party, it’s that the Republican Party seems to have no problem being the agency for stardom in the same way that the Church of Scientology has been for aspiring actors.

It’s no secret that the Republican Party has become more conservative in the last 15 years.  Ideological purity has pressured members to take gradually more extreme positions, to the extent that even revered Republicans like Ronald Reagan probably wouldn’t be conservative enough to survive in today’s party.  Every four years the GOP goes through a succession crisis comparable to the Mormons after the death of Joseph Smith, and it will only keep getting worse as they keep losing. In Republican campaigns, every election seems to be the end of the world.  That’s not really hyperbole, they literally believe that.  Democratic candidates may also believe it would be disastrous if they lost (they’re usually right), but they’re not literally apocalyptic about it.  The Republican Party actually mobilizes their base to vote by speculating that their opponents may literally be the eschatological Antichrist.  But this isn’t just exploiting evangelical’s beliefs, because this eschatology has been hijacked to become something that’s no longer distinctly Christian but rather distinctly Republican.  For example, it didn’t matter that Mitt Romney was a Mormon of polygamous descent, who created the precursor to the Affordable Care Act in a state with legal same-sex marriage.  Billy Graham considered him the only candidate standing up for Biblical values, even though it’s only due to political expedience that Mormons today no longer practice polygamy, and only coincidence that Mormons oppose homosexuality (Mormons only believe this because it’s what their current prophet says, not because of anything in the Bible; their prophet could change this at any time).  Somehow a Mormon candidate couldn’t be the Antichrist just because he’s a Republican.  Every election cycle, the alarmist GOP positions themselves as the only hope between mankind and doomsday.  Their repeated failed predictions don’t seem to have eroded faith in the party any more than the Watchtower’s multiple failed Second Comings.  Cults often fatalistically condition their followers to self-destruct if they lose faith, making them think that if the cult’s teachings are untrue, then no religion can be true either.  Similarly, Republicans seem to be conditioned to abandon hope in politics or the country if their party can’t get their way.

There is no easy solution, without a fundamental demographic upset I think we may be past the tipping point.  For the Mormon church to stop being cultic would mean to stop being Mormon, and I think this may be true of what the Republican Party has become.  Too many definitive Republican positions are based on arguments which are verifiably false, to abandon those arguments would be to entertain the possibility of different conclusions.  The Republican Party has shown their willingness to change their principles to continue holding to a pre-determined conclusion, not the other way around as they need to do. 

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