Would you want to send your son or daughter off to study at a university founded and long administered by someone who had opposed Martin Luther King, the desegregation of public schools, the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion; had wanted the United States to expand, not end, the war in Vietnam; had supported apartheid, fought legislation forbidding discrimination against gays, spouted anti-Semitic rhetoric, and had voiced the opinion that the Anti-Christ walks among us as a Jewish male; had thought Chief Justice John Roberts not conservative enough, and, to top it off, showed de facto sympathy for al-Qaida by blaming Americans – especially gay and feminist Americans – for 9/11?
What if this person had not even graduated from an accredited college himself? And what if he saw to it that at this university, a fairy-tale junk version of humankind’s origins were favored in biology class over the one key fact – evolution through natural selection -- on which all modern biology stands?
If you’re a decent person, the answer would be no, of course.
Such a one, for those who haven’t guessed, was Jerry Falwell, the Southern Baptist pastor and Moral Majority leader who constituted as malign an influence on America politics as ever existed, and whose considerable bulk crashed to the floor of his office one fine day back in 2007, never to rise again. (Moral Majority’s aim: “Get them saved, baptized and registered” to vote.) The university in question is, of course, Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Virginia. The “moderate,” not-so-flagrantly pious Republican candidate-in-waiting Jeb Bush recently and publicly resurrected Falwell’s ghost, praising his “legacy” and gushing over being able to visit his offspring, who now run the institution. A Roman Catholic himself, and so craving bona fides with Evangelical voters, Bush wallowed in this unction as he began the 2015 commencement address he delivered at Liberty on May 9. Though much of what he said amounted to the sanctimonious insipidities and saccharine, self-congratulatory platitudes Evangelicals habitually shower on one another, some of his words deserve scrutiny, for if Hillary falters, he may well end up in the White House come January 2017.
Draped in what resembled monastic robes, Bush stood on the podium of Williams Stadium facing a crowd of 34,000, with “LIBERTY UNIVERSITY – Training Champions for Christ since 1971” emblazoned on the blue and white banner behind him. He reminded us that his father “thought very highly” of Jerry Falwell and “knew him as a loyal friend.” Former President George H. W. Bush was not as openly devout as his predecessor, the Falwell-enabler Ronald Reagan, yet he managed to offend rationalists all the same by opining that he wasn’t sure “atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots.” In view of this, and of his brother George’s fulsome evangelical zealotry, that Jeb Bush should suffer from the malady of fervent faith seems understandable. In other words, it may not be an act, even if he was preaching to the “wrong” sect.
Falwell, said Jeb Bush, “turned his back on no one.” Well, no one except gays, who, Falwell said, had to endure AIDS as “God’s punishment,” as does “the society that tolerates homosexuals.” And at least for part of his too-long career, Falwell surely would also have turned his back on African-Americans. He boasted of having grown up in the “segregated South,” and believed that “The true Negro does not want integration. . . he realizes his potential is far better among his own race.”
Bush informed his audience that theirs was “the greatest of all callings . . . to know, love, and serve the Lord, and it’s yours by choice.” Sticking to the straight and narrow while “young and trying to live out the message of the Gospels” was not easy, as “The world will never run short of competing offers.”
They really should check out those “competing offers.” There are, surely, many highly intelligent students at Liberty; and now more than ever the world needs all the help it can get. What a pity that smart young people chose to waste their time, money, and brains parsing potentially unreliable translations of often violent, macabre fables composed before human beings knew they were primates, understood what caused illness, or had determined that the Earth revolved around the sun. What a shame that they should have passed four years learning the wrong answers to questions that trouble us all, questions of life’s scope and purpose, of where we come from and what our place is in the cosmos. And what an outrage that in 21st century America, institutions such as Liberty can train classes of otherwise normal men and women in the art of toadying to a tyrant, and one who doesn’t even exist. They have passed four years mastering the intricacies of a colossal sham, and they can’t get those years back. What a waste.
For those who read the above words and wish to accuse me of being a “hater,” let me say this: you’re right. I hate that religion steals our funds – some $82.5 billion through tax exemptions in 2013 alone, for example – that we could have spent on our great needs, including rebuilding our infrastructure and bettering public education. I hate how its ignorant teachings about sex and reproduction cause unnecessary hardship, fostering underage pregnancies and the prevalence of STDs – all most problematic in the God-fearing red states. I loathe how it yearns for the world’s demise, and even has 49 percent of Americans believing that climate change is just another inevitable sign of the End of Days.
I’m not the first to point these things out. Bush understood his audience would have already heard such words. “How strange, in our own time,” he said, “to hear Christianity spoken of as some sort of backward, oppressive force.” Outside of Liberty, he added, “it’s a depressing fact that when some people think of Christianity and of Judeo-Christian values, they think of something static, narrow, and outdated.” This “unfair criticism” could be taken “as a further challenge to show in our lives the most dynamic, inclusive, and joyful message that ever came into the world.”
“Unfair criticism?” Static is the essence of belief in the inerrancy of ancient texts; strictly mandating behaviors varying from the upbringing of children to the variety of sexual relations permitted is narrow; and outdated applies to addressing modern-day witch doctors for guidance on how to live. Apply such a “static, narrow, and outdated” approach to any other area of life and see how counterproductive it would be. Would you, say, entrust your health to a doctor who reassures you that he still follows instructions in the medical textbook he used while obtaining his M.D. three decades ago? Who avoids keeping abreast of developments in his specialty, and ignores the advice of his colleagues? Who insists on prescribing the treatments from centuries past? Unless you’re a fan of lobotomies, leeches and bloodletting, no you would not.
“Dynamic, inclusive, and joyful?” We’ve dispensed with “dynamic” above. “Inclusive” denotes the polar opposite of what any of the three Abrahamic faiths has ever purported to be, with votaries of each doctrinally beholden to “revelations” declaring the singular salvific viability of their own particular cult. A cult doesn’t qualify as “inclusive” if it ordains that anyone who accepts it qualifies for heaven; this excludes the inexorably expanding population of young rationalists, not to mention rival religionists. “Joyful,” if it is accurate at all, is contingent on the secular nature of our state today. When the religious ruled in Europe, things were somewhat less cheery, with the Church, among other things, tithing and taxing and amassing fortunes, deciding what was true and decent and permissible, impeding science and progress, and sending out sadists to disport themselves by methodically ripping off breasts, crushing skulls, and winding racks to snap apart bodies, joint by joint, as they coaxed confessions of “heresy” from innocents. That Christianity could now be called “joyful,” thus, has everything to do with the wall of separation between church and state Jefferson built.
And let’s not forget that the 6 million Jews exterminated during the Holocaust owe their deaths to Christianity’s rather fickle “inclusiveness.” Remember, Hitler’s anti-Semitism derived from two millennia of genocidal preachments coming from the Catholic Church, which eventually entered into a pact with the Fuhrer. (Fascist Italy, in fact, signed the 1929 Lateran Treaty, which birthed the Vatican as an independent state.)
Later in his address, Bush called anti-Semitism “the oldest bigotry” and announced, “We reject that sin against our brothers and sisters, and we defend them.” (In response he got only grudging applause, which came about only after his long, admonitory pause.) Such “defense” nowadays expresses itself most foully in the fetid alliance between Falwell-style fundamentalist Christians (with their political clout and money) and fanatical Jewish settlers on the West Bank. This union has done much to kill hope of enacting a two-state solution, and is premised on a mutual yearning for the End Times.
Anyway, whatever cooing twaddle Bush and his co-religionists emit, Liberty University’s rotund founder once summed up a truth no honest Evangelist can deny espousing, in one form or another: “If you’re not a born-again Christian, you’re a failure as a human being” – and, thus, of course, doomed to burn. "I am the way and the truth and the life,” said Jesus (in John 14:6). “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Expunge verses such as this from the Bible and we can talk about inclusivity. But then it wouldn’t be the Bible.
Bush then took the unoriginal step of calling on graduates to love their enemies “as a bold challenge to leave our comfort zone and lift our sights to larger purposes.” This summons is prima facie contradictory and absurd, and appears even more so after some reflection. How can one love “as a challenge?” Amorous sentiments cannot be conjured up at will, and certainly not toward those who inspire animosity. Hypocrisy can, though – good reason to distrust the beatific (in fact condescending) smiles evangelicals so often display toward nonbelievers. More to the point, your enemies are probably your enemies for valid reasons. For instance, say you’re a rationalist, and practitioners of occult dogma intend to impose the teaching of young-earth creationism in your child’s science class as an “alternative” to the fact of evolution, just to “show all the possible explanations.” (This is just what Liberty University does in its biology courses.) Such folk are indeed your enemies, with whom no compromise is possible. Your red-hot anger over the damage they would do your child should impel you to take action to stop such dangerous obscurantists from getting their way.
Bush then uttered shopworn prattle about God favoring the “gentle, the kind, and the poor in spirit,” which might sound anodyne. But it should be infuriating. The rank hypocrisy – the word keeps arising in relation to Christianity -- of this line, uttered by the scion of one of America’s most powerful dynasties, and in the satrapy of a preacher who ran (and bequeathed to his family) a hugely profitable enterprise thriving off the generosity of the gullible and deluded, hardly needs explication.
“No place where the message [of Christianity] reaches,” intoned Bush, “no heart that it touches is ever the same again.” Quite true. The Wondrous Word so deforms the psyche of so many of its dupes that those who have managed to detox themselves of it have formed their own mutual assistance associations. (Some of the testimonies are heartrending and should torture the consciences of all pastors and parents indoctrinating their defenseless charges.) The cold, withering grip that faith has had on the souls of so many has long made for sublimely tragic literature – read, for example, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” or better yet, Flannery O’Connor’s novella “Wise Blood” (which is a masterpiece film by John Huston as well). Please note: Christianity has inspired some of the greatest poetry (Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Dante’s “Inferno,” John Donne’s “Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God”), to say nothing of the literary treasure that is much of the King James translation of the Bible (try “Ecclesiastes,” for example). But you don’t need faith to appreciate any of these works.
“Christians see in nature and all its creatures designs grander than any of man’s own devising,” said Bush. But are the faithful the “protectors of creation” (the environment)? The pious Republican legislative deniers of climate change (in the 113th Congress, 90 percent of the representatives identified as Christian), funded heavily by dirty-energy campaign contributions, thought differently, at least when it came to enacting legislation. Among their successors, 92 percent believe in Christ, and may be expected to rival or surpass their predecessors in helping bring about brimstone on Earth. It may be too late, anyway, and the heating of the atmosphere will soon pose a dire threat to the security of the United States. The rise of the religious right, spearheaded by Falwell and his like, has coincided exactly with the onset of the “End Times” for life as we have known it. Only without the heaven part.
“May you always be His instrument,” Bush intoned as a valedictory, the ambiguity of which (what is a synonym for instrument?) is almost too ironic to contemplate without a sad chuckle.
I peered into the young faces of the audience, to which the cameras periodically panned for variety’s sake, and felt a pang of despair. Falwell is dead, yet from the halls of Liberty surely such a one as he will arise, and continue his work.
In a much more enlightened time than our own, the revolutionary Thomas Paine remarked, “The whole religious complexion of the modern world is due to the absence from Jerusalem of a lunatic asylum.”
The lunacy goes on, once propagated by barefoot prophets, but now, by the duly capped and gowned.