Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The wrath of the Lamb

by Lewis H Lapham

Harper's Magazine (May 2005)

The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption, which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.
- Edward Gibbon

At a press briefing in Washington early last March, the National Association of Evangelicals declared its intent to lend a hand in the making of an American politics faithful to the will and "abundant wisdom" of God. Taking into account the many and atrocious proofs of God's incompetence as a politician, the announcement in less troubled times might have been seen as a clownish hallucination or a bleak postmodern joke, but the association numbers its membership at thirty million exalted souls, one fourth of the nation's eligible voters, and so the news media in attendance were careful not to laugh when the telegenic pastors, smooth-faced and smiling, distributed a twelve-page manifesto for a Bible-based public policy entitled "An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility". The words were pretty enough, but to read the document with any care for its meaning was to recognize it as a bullying threat backed with the currencies of jihadist fervor and invincible ignorance. Like the prophet Isaiah, who beheld the foul sewer of the earth "polluted under the inhabitants thereof", the latter-day bringers of joy and righteousness from the suburbs of Los Angeles and the mountains of Colorado believe themselves obliged to cleanse the world of its impurities - to render justice, reward merit, mete out punishments - and the first few sentences of their joint statement stand as fair indicators of the tone in which they describe the rest of the program:

We engage in public life because God created our first parents in his image and gave them dominion over the earth. (Genesis 1:27-28) ... We also engage in public life because Jesus is Lord over every area of life ... to restrict our stewardship to the private sphere would be to deny an important part of his dominion and to functionally abandon it to the Evil One. To restrict our political concerns to matters that touch only on the private and the domestic spheres is to deny the all-encompassing Lordship of Jesus (Revelation 19:16).

Elsewhere in the document the pastors complain of "the bias of aggressive secularism" so entrenched in the liberal news media that "the presence and role of religion in public life is attacked more fiercely now than ever".

Would that it were so. No citizen can stand for public office in the United States without first pledging allegiance to the King of Kings. Far from being scornful of the messages blown through the trumpets of doom, the news media make a show of their civility and a virtue of their silence; here to please and not to think; every American free to worship the reflection of his or her own fear; no superstition more deserving than another, no imbecile vision in the desert that can't be sold to a talk show, a circus, or the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives.

We used to know better, and to clear away the mess of sanctimony that now seeps into so much of the public mumbling about religion, I find that I'm better served by some of the country's nineteenth-century writers, among them Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and Robert Green Ingersoll, than by a contemporary press too often wrapped in the cellophane of political correctness. Twain discovered in the Bible "noble poetry ... some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; ... a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies"; on the off-chance that a few of his readers had missed the point, he later extended his remarks with a brief sketch of the merciful and Almighty Father revealed in the books of the Old Testament:

The portrait is substantially that of a man - if one can imagine a man charged and overcharged with evil impulses far beyond the human limit; a personage whom no one, perhaps, would desire to associate with now that Nero and Caligula are dead. In the Old Testament His acts expose His vindictive, unjust, ungenerous, pitiless and vengeful nature constantly. He is always punishing - punishing trifling misdeeds with thousandfold severity; punishing innocent children for the misdeeds of their parents; punishing unoffending populations for the misdeeds of their rulers; even descending to wreak bloody vengeance upon harmless calves and lambs and sheep and bullocks as punishment for inconsequential trespasses committed by their proprietors. It is perhaps the most damnatory biography that exists in print anywhere.

Like Twain, Ingersoll understood that nobody with a sense of humor ever founded a religion, and as the foremost orator of America's Gilded Age, he was famous for the public lectures in which he comforted the sinners and confounded the saints with the tenor of his wit: "Is there an intelligent man or woman now in the world who believes in the Garden of Eden story? If you find any man who believes it, strike his forehead and you will hear an echo. Something is for rent." Or again, on the separation of church and state, "An infinite God ought to be able to protect himself, without going in partnership with State Legislatures".

As an unbaptised child raised in a family that went to church only for weddings and funerals, I didn't encounter the problem of religious belief until I reached Yale College in the 1950s, where I was informed by the liberal arts faculty that it wasn't pressing because God was dead. What remained to be discussed was the autopsy report; apparently there was still some confusion about the cause and time of death, and the undergraduate surveys of Western civilization offered a wide range of options - God disemboweled by Machiavelli in sixteenth-century Florence, assassinated in eighteenth-century Paris by agents of the French Enlightenment, lost at sea in 1834 while on a voyage to the Galapagos Islands, blown to pieces by German artillery at Verdun, garroted by Friedrich Nietzsche on a Swiss Alp, and the body laid to rest in the consulting rooms of Sigmund Freud.

On the evidence presented in the history books, the exit strategy wasn't as important as the good news that the Great Man was well and truly gone. Over a span of nearly 2,000 years, He had let loose upon the earth a sea of blood almost of a match with Lake Superior, and in the long list of religious wars, inquisitions, jousts, massacres, persecutions, and burnings at the stake, I remember the Albigensian Crusade as the baseline measure for all the rest. Pope Innocent III gave his blessing to the program of systematic terror sustained for nearly twenty years against the townspeople of the Languedoc, and to the command of the papal armies he assigned Arnaud-Amalric, the ruling abbot of the Cistercians. When the abbot's troops burned the city of Beziers in 1209 and made prisoners of its 15,000 inhabitants, they asked the supreme monk how they were to distinguish between those still faithful to Holy Church and those who had strayed into the paths of wickedness. "Kill them all!" Amalric is reported to have said. "God will recognize His own". The word to the wise has come down to us through the centuries in the form of policy initiatives blessed by Lucretia Borgia, Torquemada, the bishops of Siena and Rouen, Suleiman the Magnificent, Vlad the Impaler, Generals Erich Ludendorff and Alexander Haig, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Al Capone, Osama bin Laden, and the US Air Force.

My unassigned wanderings in the Yale libraries and bookstores invariably led to authors with a sense of irony or humor, and by the time I left college in 1956, I assumed that God's once awful and majestic presence had been contained within the walls of a museum or the music of J S Bach. The mistake was an easy one to make for a young newspaperman loose in the city of New York in the 1960s with a secular habit of mind and enough money to pay the tithes both to Eros and to Mammon. My travels seldom took me anywhere except to California, and although I heard rumors of the religious enthusiasms roaming the American plains, I chose to regard them as preposterous. If in Florida I sometimes ran across a true believer in an airport or hotel bar, I avoided the embarrassment of a conversation about the Second Coming in much the same way that I'd learned to withhold comment when asked for an opinion by the author of a misshapen novel.

By the middle 1980s, I understood that God had worked another of his miracles, risen from the graves of skepticism and science, moving east from Oklahoma with a great host of gospel-singing Baptists. He began to appear at political rallies clothed in the raiment of Jesus, introduced by the apostles of the newly awakened Christian right as the man to see about buying real estate in heaven - no money down, no homosexuals in the golf shop, every condo equipped with a barbecue pit for the roasting of chestnuts and secular humanists.

As a sales promotion for the sweet hereafter, the message brought by Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority borrowed more heavily from the vicious prophecies of the Old Testament than from the gentler teachings of the New, but during the decade of the 1990s, it attracted increasingly large numbers of increasingly enraged and paranoid disciples who came together as a political constituency in time to provide George W Bush with a winning margin of electoral votes in last year's presidential election. Responsive to the kind of people on whom it depends for support, the White House grounded the campaign on the twin pillars of fear and intimidation - the promise of never-ending Holy War on terrorism accompanied by political favors for those of the nation's pastors who threatened their congregations with the news that a vote for John Kerry was a one-way ticket to eternal damnation. On the day after the election, Bush received a note from Bob Jones III, president of the eponymously named university in South Carolina: "... if you have weaklings around you who do not share your biblical values, shed yourself of them ..."

Advice administered as threat conforms to the ethic of the government currently in office in Washington, consistent not only with the character of the deity portrayed in the Old Testament but also with the modus operandi of the Corleone and Gambino crime families. Profess loyalty, show respect, launder the money, or expect to wind up whacked or left behind. The born-again capos and underbosses of the Bush Administration (the President himself; Tom DeLay, majority leader in the House; Senators Rick Santorum [R, Pennsylvania] and Sam Brownback [R, Kansas]; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) make their bones by robbing the poor to pay the rich and holding fast to the doctrine of preemptive strike, as certain as the prophet Ezekiel that on the day of wrath when the Lord redeems mankind in a flood of purifying fire and a wonder of Hollywood explosions, the faithful and the pure in heart shall find their way home to Paradise.

The guarantee of terrible punishment for God's enemies, combined with the assurance of an ending both happy and profitable for God's business associates, provides the plot for the Left Behind series of neo-Christian fables (thirteen volumes, 62 million copies sold) that have risen in popularity over the last ten years in concert with the spread of fundamentalist religious beliefs and the resurrection of the militant Christ. The co-authors of the books, Tim LaHaye and Jerry P Jenkins, tell the story of the Rapture on that marvelous and forthcoming day when the saved shall be lifted suddenly to heaven and the damned shall writhe in pain; like most of the prophets who have preceded them to the corporate skyboxes of boundless grace, they express their love of God by rejoicing in their hatred of man. Just as the Old Testament devotes many finely wrought verses to the extermination of the Midianites (also to the butchering of all the people and fatted calves in Moab), LaHaye and Jenkins give upward of eighty pages to the wholesale slaughter of apostates in Boston and Los Angeles, the words as fondly chosen as the film footage in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ or the instruments of torture in a seventeenth-century Catholic prison. The twelfth book in the series delights in the spectacle of divine retribution at the battle of Armageddon: "Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ".

Twenty years ago I would have discounted the stories as childish entertainments comparable to a Tom Clancy or a Harry Potter novel, but the same stupidity now shows up in the "biblically balanced agenda" brought down by the evangelical pastors from Mount Ararat in Colorado and by the gospels of fear and hate (cf page 55) espoused by Dr James Dobson's Focus on the Family. Guided by God's command to impose His sovereignty over "every area of life", public and political as well as private and domestic, Pastor Dobson's apparat endorses political candidates who favor the execution of homosexuals and of doctors who provide abortions. I don't think they're joking. The House of Representatives now shelters 130 members who believe themselves born again in Christ, and in late March, under pressure from the communities of religious fervor gathered in the country's prayer tents, it voted (on behalf of a Florida woman's divine right to life) to replace the laws of the United States with what it was pleased to acknowledge as the will of God.

The faith-based initiative descends upon the multitude in the glorious cloud of unknowing that over the last twenty years has engulfed vast tracts of the American mind in the fogs of superstition - the regressions apparent on the liberal as well as on the conservative aisles of the political argument, evident in the challenges to the teaching of evolution mounted in forty-three states, attested to by the popular belief that Saddam Hussein possessed a magical store of nuclear weapons, by the drainings of public money from the research sciences and the study of history, most wonderfully of all by President Bush's offering his ignorance as the proof of his virtue, claiming that America can rule and govern a world about which it chooses to know as little as possible.

The delusional is no longer marginal, and we err on the side of folly if we continue to grant the boon of tolerance to people who mean to do us harm in the conviction that they receive from Genesis the command "to take dominion over the earth", to build the Kingdom of God, to create the Christian Nation. The proposition is as murderous as it is absurd, and by way of rebuttal we would do well to refer to the sarcasms of Twain and to the intelligence of Ingersoll's essay "God and the Constitution":

When the theologian governed the world, it was covered with huts and hovels for the many, palaces and cathedrals for the few ... The poor were clad in rags and skins - they devoured crusts, and gnawed bones. The day of Science dawned, and ... There is more of value in the brain of an average man of to day - of a master-mechanic, of a chemist, of a naturalist, of an inventor, than there was in the brain of the world four hundred years ago.

These blessings did not fall from the skies. These benefits did not drop from the outstretched hands of priests. They were not found in cathedrals or behind altars - neither were they searched for with holy candles. They were not discovered by the closed eyes of prayer, nor did they come in answer to superstitious supplication. They are the children of freedom, the gifts of reason, observation and experience - and for them all, man is indebted to man.


Bill Totten


  • Bill,
    Thanks for putting this on your website. I searched for it in vain on Harper's website. It is the ultimate response to any and all Republican rants regarding "moral values", and I intend to use it for that purpose whenever and wherever possible.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:08 AM, June 25, 2006  

  • Bill,
    I've been reading Left Behind and been hungry for information about the wrath of the lamb. Its been exciting to read your post. Thanks a lot!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:35 AM, May 26, 2007  

  • Thank you, Anonymous, glad to see someone looking that far back into the archive. Bill

    By Blogger Bill Totten, at 3:56 PM, May 26, 2007  

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