Culture and Religion

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Governed by Fear

Various religious and political leaders have claimed that America is a Christian nation. I suppose this means that Christians in this country seek the afterlife and maintain various other Christian beliefs. It does NOT seem to mean that the government of this country rules with trust and compassion for all citizens and that the people in this country live a life filled with love and compassion for their fellow human beings, which I suspect some might think should characterize a proverbial Christian. Much of this country seems upset with so many things, whether they feel fearful of terrorist attacks or the disruption in their lives due to the unwanted influences of homosexuals, atheists and other cultural dangers or whether they are dissatisfied with the way their government is dealing with all the important national issues including its intrusion into their privacy.

How did our country get to this state of distrust?

I recently read 'A People's History of the United States' by Howard Zinn. This is a good companion to 'The Reformation' by Diarmaid MacCulloch (that I read sometime ago). Together the two books chronicle the evolution of Western society after the Dark Ages, starting with the religious upheavals as the Catholic Church lost its grip on European society, through the conquering of the Americas by primarily Spain and England with their destruction of the native peoples, the slave trade, the Industrial Revolution with its accompanying transition from rural to urban society, to the wars that consumed so many lives (Civil War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam).

There is a common theme through the history of the last 500 or so years. The role of government in worsening the human tragedies is consistent. At the start of the Reformation Europe was essentially the remnant of the Holy Roman Empire, the partnership between the Roman Catholic Church and the government. Over the course of the Reformation, the governments in various countries and municipalities aligned with one or another of the Christian sects, as the Church disintegrated, to persecute and even attack opposing Christian sects and their governments.

Just as Spain had sought a pure Catholic population (through the persecution of its Jews and Moors), in the Western Hemisphere the conquistadors sought the conversion the native Americans to Catholicism while plundering their lands.

As the Europeans settled in North America, there was a consistent practice of oppression and plundering of the natives. Though many colonists came to escape religious persecution and to follow their religious beliefs here, there seemed little importance to the conversion of the natives; they were not Europeans so in many cases they were treated as if they were not really legitimate human beings. When the colonies broke from England and formed the United States, this plundering did not stop. The governments at all levels signed treaties with the natives only to break them every time, pushing the natives out of their lands that were desired by settlers and developers. Through all this mistreatment of the natives, the slave trade was another abomination that the national government took no effort to stop. The Civil War was about the political struggle between the North and South and had nothing to do with slavery.

As the Industrial Revolution changed our culture from a rural to urban lifestyle, the national government consistently sided with the business owners in their oppression of their workers who were enduring unsafe conditions and low wages. Though there were popular elections through these years, the government acted according to the wishes of those with the most influence, the big companies and banks. Possible rebellions could be handled in two ways. The first was to put different rebellious entities against each other. For example by emphasizing racism, the lower class whites could be pitted against the poor blacks, where all were competing for whatever jobs could be found. If the poor whites could be taught to fear the blacks then they might blame them for their various problems, rather than those really to blame for their suffering. The other way to suppress unrest was to offer the democratic process as the solution, by suggesting those seeking change should compete for office. However, even as election cycles might have made some changes in the people in office, rarely were significant changes achieved through this process. The government is rarely directly accountable to its populace for the way the various priorities (people vs business) are dealt with.

At the start of the 20th Century, with the Spanish American War, the American government discovered the benefits of conducting a war. The people could be persuaded that they must defend their government from foreign attacks and this threat is always far more important than any of their personal or societal problems. Wars would be fought many times by American troops in distant lands (and sometimes not too distant, with the various Latin American incursions) in many future administrations.

During World War I and through the Depression, there were many government programs that sought more government control of people and business. Many were impressed with the fascist policies of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini and the FDR New Deal programs also sought more central government control of the economy. These controls evolved under the corporate influence of this bureaucracy, leading to collusion rather than control.

After the conclusion of World War II, the American culture changed to a commercial society. Since the European countries had been essentially destroyed resulting in minimal international competition, the American economy blossomed and brought with it a large middle class possessing some wealth, sufficient to provide a much more comfortable life style than ever imagined by earlier generations.

The last half of the 20th century brought more turmoil to the political environment as a result of previous wartime government policies. As President Eisenhower mentioned in his Farewell Address in 1961, the military industrial complex now had much influence on national policies. Through the following administrations, military expenses would take much more of the tax burden and generate no useful commercial goods, a very effective parasite on the national economy. With the recent War on Terror, military expenses continue to grow to outrageous levels. Our American government is now essentially run by an elected military dictator, one not subject to Congressional oversight and one whose powers are limitless when conducting an unbounded 'war' on global terrorism.

In the past few decades, the Religious Right has gained substantial influence on national government policies. With the growth of an intelligent middle class, the importance of Christianity had become diminished. Just as political leaders had succeeded in gaining power by emphasizing various foreign threats, religious leaders succeeded in gaining power for themselves by emphasizing certain problems in society and claiming that their authoritarian policies, based on narrow interpretations of Biblical teachings, could solve those problems.

Our national government is now based on the culture of fear on several levels, the fear of foreign evil in terrorism and unfriendly foreign governments (though none actually pose any kind of military threat to our monstrous armed forces) and the growing fear of domestic evil in homosexuality and science (e.g., evolution).

At the start of Howard Zinn's book, one of the interesting observations involved a cultural comparison. As the Europeans subjugated the native Americans and the native Africans, those foreign advanced cultures were different. The native Americans had sought friendship initially with the strangers, before discovering the invaders sought only to plunder. There were advanced cultures in Africa (e.g., the Kingdoms of Timbuktu and Mali were known in Europe in the 16th Century) though just as in America there were also tribal communities.

However the Europeans doing the plundering apparently cared little of such things since in practice these non-Christians peoples were not treated as human beings but as just obstacles or as property to be used and discarded. The human suffering that resulted from such attitudes is astounding.

In recent years, many American businesses (and big international corporations as well) have begun to seek new peoples to plunder. In an effort to maximize profits by finding people that can be worked for as little as possible, with minimal concern for unsafe working conditions, many products are now being manufactured in Latin American and Asia. There have certainly been many documentaries made that chronicle the low wages and health hazards (both for the workers and for their communities) in these third world manufacturing operations. Just as the African slaves had sustained the economy of the early American South and the poor European immigrants had sustained the early manufacturing operations in the North, wage slaves among the world's poor seem destined to sustain the economy of the new global economy.

In the past 500 years, the typical Western community has gone through a number of transitions, from a rural community based on farming, through an urban community based on manufacturing, to a suburban community based on commercial enterprise. Will the typical community evolve to one that offers a tolerant, loving environment or is strife and discord on the horizon?

Now our culture is being driven increasingly by forces that emphasize fear. The persistent war mongering can only lead to military suppression here. The religious fanaticism can only lead to persecution of minorities (whether by race, religion, sexual orientation or any other human attribute).

One major consequence of such intolerance is the restrictions put on the teaching of any ideas or history that do not conform to a predefined plan. That becomes an unfortunate cycle that feeds on itself because lack of knowledge will inevitably lead to misunderstandings.

I can only hope that somehow our culture can avoid the destruction that awaits falling to this trap. It is so important for each person to treat others with respect and tolerance, whether they are friends, neighbors or strangers. Unfortunately, in this dense fog of fear it is difficult for many to feel compassion for others. I expect that tolerance and compassion must be fostered to grow and the cultural landscape is becoming rather barren for that seed.

The imminent dangers brought on by our imperialistic national government are also difficult to derail. The task of getting rid of the bloated government, with its corruption, abuse and bureaucracy that our democracy beholden to corporate interests has created, to get a limited government unable to seek foreign adventures and domestic oppression seems impossible.

The outlook is bleak politically except for one promising development: the campaign of Ron Paul for President in 2008. His campaign has provided an opportunity for the electorate to be reacquainted with the concept of a limited national government, that does not seek a foreign empire and that lacks a huge bureaucracy to smother the population. Though he has an excited following (his speeches generate more enthusiasm among the listeners than any other candidate), it remains to be seen whether his message can get through the mainstream media (which discounts his campaign and his ideas) to sufficient people to make a difference.

created - October 2007
last change - 10/13/2007
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