Pots, Kettles, and Projections from the Religious Right

Unlike Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a slut or Newt Gingrich labeling Barack Obama “the Food Stamp President“, I don’t think Stephen Baskerville was trolling when he delivered the annual mandatory-attendance Faith and Reason Lecture ten days ago at Patrick Henry College. On the contrary, I think this was one of those among-the-faithful communications that Alternet’s Amanda Marcotte says the rest of us should be paying more attention to.

Several other writers — at first former PHC students like QueerPHC and David Sessions, then others — have already picked out the outrageous highlights of Baskerville’s speech: gays are responsible for the rise Nazism, prisons are overcrowded because feminists “invented crimes” to control men, sex education is “government-sponsored pornography”, the welfare state caused the financial crisis, and on and on. It’s hard to read more than a paragraph of Baskerville’s text without finding something objectionable.

But I want to back up a step, look at the speech as a whole, and consider what it tells us about the extreme Christianist* mindset. Religious-Right writings are often unintentionally revealing, because of a unique dogmatic quirk: To look at their own worldview as if it were one belief system among many is to commit the sin of relativism.

Self-awareness. People of all religions and philosophies find it hard to “see ourselves as others see us”, but most of us at least pay lip service to the idea that we should. On the Religious Right, though, it’s not just hard to look at your faith from the outside, it’s wrong. (Something similar happens on the political Right with “American exceptionalism”; it’s not just difficult for Americans to see the United States as a nation among other nations, it’s a mistake that should be rejected out of hand.)

This dogmatic quirk has a predictable result: Religious Right speakers and authors have a profound lack of self-awareness. When anybody else would stop and think, “Whoa. What did I just hear come out of my mouth?” Christianist extremists like Stephen Baskerville reject that self-criticism as the voice of the Devil and say “Get thee behind me, Satan.”

That lack of self-awareness is exacerbated when Christianists segregate themselves behind the walls of an institution in which “our Christian faith precedes and informs all that we at Patrick Henry College study, teach, and learn.” Now imagine being a voice of authority in such a place, where those who disagree with you are not just mistaken, they are a corrupting influence on the entire community. What kind of unchecked nonsense would get into your head?

Projection. People who lack self-awareness are prone to what psychologists call projection — their repressed self-criticism doesn’t just evaporate, it comes out as criticism of others. Projection is why liars don’t trust anybody and gossips believe everyone is talking about them. Projection is why puritans imagine that everyone else is obsessed with sex, and ideologues see themselves beset by everyone else’s ideology.

That’s what’s going on in this speech,”Politicizing Potiphar’s Wife: Today’s New Ideology“. Baskerville is pointing to what he sees as an important problem in American society today: Ideologues are politicizing sex and the family.

Where, oh where, might he look to see such a phenomenon?

The setting. As you read the speech, keep in mind that Baskerville isn’t one of those unfortunate professors who had an ill-considered ramble recorded on somebody’s iPhone and posted to the world.

Patrick Henry College is the intellectual center of the evangelical Christian home-schooling movement**. It’s the subject of Hanna Rosin’s book God’s Harvard: a Christian College on a mission to save America. The school’s purpose is to take home-schooled evangelicals and groom them for positions in politics and government. It was a disproportionate source of Bush administration interns.

The Faith and Reason Lecture highlights an annual day-long festival and student attendance is mandatory. The PHC web site quotes its provost:

To me, the Faith & Reason festival exemplifies what Patrick Henry College is all about: committed Christians pursuing the highest level of academic scholarship.

David Sessions recalls that the original Faith and Reason lecture in 2005 was pre-screened by the college president and presented only after numerous changes. So he finds it “difficult to imagine” that Baskerville’s speech was not endorsed by the administration.

Ideology. The “ideologies” Baskerville warns his students against are feminism (renamed “sexual radicalism” or “sexualityism”) and Islamism. He never defines ideology, but he explicitly denies that Christianity can be an ideology.

One obvious reason why Christian faith is not an ideology is because of its unique and highly qualified relationship with the state; Christianity does not augment state power but limits it. Yet equally plausible is that Christianity is not an ideology because it has a unique theology of resentment. All true ideologies channel grievances into government power, with the ultimate aim of settling scores against politically defined criminals. Christianity alone offers a theology of forgiveness that neutralizes resentment and channels its sources into service for others and for God.

I’m sure that women forced to have unwanted vaginal probes or scientists who have to fight for their right to teach science in public schools will be comforted to learn that Christianity does not augment state power. LIkewise, I’m sure people who knew and loved Dr. George Tiller appreciate the Religious Right’s forgiving nature. And all you have to do is finish reading Baskerville’s speech to find a litany of Christianist resentment and grievance, a topic I have written about at length elsewhere. You will search in vain to find any hint of Baskerville neutralizing his resentment or channeling it into service — he can’t neutralize his own resentment and grievance because that only exists in other people.

Having defended against self-awareness, he goes on to express clear insight into resentment:

resentment is simply the form of pride that is directed at those possessing power that we feel we deserve.

Just so, Stephen. Just so.

Ending disagreement. Since Baskerville doesn’t define ideology, the only way to know what he means is to watch how he uses it. We’ve already seen that Christianity isn’t an ideology. Further “Ideology is a defining feature of modernity” that didn’t exist until it was invented, along with other modern notions like political parties, the left-right spectrum, and progress.

What he’s actually pointing to is ideological conflict: two or more ideologies co-existing in the same society. That really is a feature of modernity. Christianity by itself doesn’t lead to ideological conflict, but a Christianist society that lets Islam or feminism into the public square does have ideological conflict. If only we could get back to a society where Christianity is the only ideology and all other views are aberrations, then we could ignore the existence of ideology altogether. That seems to be his goal.

My argument is not that we must win the ideological wars but that we should be endeavouring to put the ideological genie back into the bottle.

Freedom is slavery. Slavery is freedom. Baskerville admiringly quotes Puritan minister John Geree from 1641:

There is a service which is freedom, the service of Christ; and there is a freedom which is servitude, the freedom to sin. There is a liberty which is bondage and … a bondage which is liberty.

This Orwellian principle explains how PHC can advocate repressive policies against women, gays, and non-Christians under the college slogan “for Christ and for Liberty”. Forcing others to live by Religious Right principles “liberates” them from the bondage of sin. Conversely,

sin enslaves and license destroys freedom.

The frame here is addiction: When your child is addicted to heroin, you may be justified in locking him up until he finishes going through withdrawal. (He may thank you later, once the craving is gone.) If you apply that model to, say, homosexuality, you are justified in packing your kid off to an ex-gay camp to be deprogrammed.

In the larger world, Christianists picture themselves in the parental role and see the rest of us as addicted to sin. This frame justifies them in seizing whatever power they need to make us behave, all in the name of “liberty”.

This view has become part of the conservative mainstream. In the 2012 campaign, for example, Rick Santorum redefined the Declaration of Independence’s inalienable rights as “God gave us rights to life and to freedom to pursue His will. [my emphasis] That’s what the moral foundation of our country is.” So gays, feminists, and Muslims can be enemies of freedom, but by definition true Christians cannot.

Tactics for seizing power. Once you put aside the dodge that Baskerville is talking about other people, his criticisms are right on target.

What Gottschalk has stumbled upon is our own homegrown version of Stalinism: the process by which triumphant radicals first challenge and then commandeer both traditional values and the instruments of state repression for their own purposes as they trade ideological purity for power.

Quite right, Prof. Baskerville: America does have a movement that justifies its quest for power by commandeering “traditional values”.

The new ideology uses sexuality — and also its products, children — as instruments to acquire political power. … If one wishes to enact measures that intrude into the private lives of adults, the way to neutralize opposition is to present it as being “for the children.”

Indeed. Christianist attempts to prevent gays and lesbians from marrying the people they love are typically framed as a defense of children. Similarly, the government must intrude into what you read or see on TV or on the internet to protect children.

Baskerville understands that other people’s obsessive focus on sex is bad for society.

It is unhealthy for any society to have its civic life so dominated by sex as ours has now become. When sex becomes a society’s political currency, the public agenda comes to be controlled by those willing to use sexuality as a weapon to acquire power.

A good example of this would be how Republicans used ban-gay-marriage ballot proposals to boost evangelical turnout in key swing states in 2004.

The Hungarian Stalinist Matyas Rakosi coined the term “salami tactics” to describe how determined, disciplined, and organized activists can seize power by wheedling their way into key institutions, such as the police, justice system, penal apparatus, and military.

Baskerville could be describing the mission of Patrick Henry College itself.

The Vision of Patrick Henry College is to aid in the transformation of American society by training Christian students to serve God and mankind with a passion for righteousness, justice, and mercy, through careers of public service and cultural influence.

Later in the speech, Baskerville applies a military analogy to PHC.

This “university” is tiny, but so was the army of Gideon.

And the Bolsheviks. Don’t forget the Bolsheviks.

Grievances. If your plan is to “channel grievances into government power”, then you have to be able to manufacture grievances.

Here too, we also see the familiar pattern of radical ideologies creating the very evils they then re-package as grievances, and which then serve to rationalize further “empowerment”.

Who manufactures more grievances than the Religious Right, with its imaginary War on Christmas and its belief that its religious freedom has been violated whenever it is not allowed to rule over everyone else?

Invented crimes. Baskerville spends a great deal of time talking about “new crimes” that come from looking at the world through a feminist lens: He puts scare quotes around “rape”, “harassment”, “child abuse”, “stalking”, and “bullying”. (I won’t detail this because Libby Anne already has.)

But he ignores new crimes like fetal homicide, which have been foisted upon us by the Religious Right, or the proposal that Virginia women report their miscarriages to the police within 24 hours. Failure to report could lead to a year in prison.

Not hypocrisy. The temptation is to label this kind of double-standard-keeping as hypocrisy. But it’s stranger than that: The Religious Right isn’t hypocritical, it is just profoundly lacking in self-awareness. They really have no idea that the criticisms they aim outward apply more accurately to themselves.

And how would they? In order to see how their criticisms apply to their own actions, they’d have to consider their worldview as one among many. And to them, that’s relativism. It’s just wrong.


* I use Christianist in the same sense that the mainstream media uses Islamist. I am not talking about all Christians, but specifically about those who believe that their particular version of Christianity should control the government, and especially those who are working to achieve that goal.

** It’s not my intention to smear home-schooling in general. I know more than one home-schooling household personally and I have participated in a few of their projects. Parents might home-school to deal with special needs, to be more involved in their children’s lives, to nurture special talents, to escape bullying, or for many other benign or admirable reasons.

But Christian home-schooling often has an additional goal: “protecting” children from learning about evolution, homosexuality, or feminism, or hearing any cogent criticism of a fundamentalist worldview. The more radical a Christianist group is, the more likely it is to advocate home-schooling.

A report by the National Center for Education Statistics said 1.5 million American children were being home-schooled in 2007 (up from 1.1 million in 2003), with 72% of parents citing “religious or moral instruction” as a reason. Not all of those folks are radical Christian supremacists, but given growth and whatnot we still might be talking about a million kids.

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  • By Moral Masquerades | The Weekly Sift on September 23, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    […] This week’s featured articles: “Hunger Games: Who’s Right About Food Stamps?” and “Pots, Kettles, and Projections from the Religious Right“. […]

  • By 7 things @ 9 o’clock (9.24) on September 24, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    […] David Sessions, Libby Anne and Doug Muder all have perceptive things to say about the immensely creepy Stephen Baskerville’s recent […]

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