Monday, May 09, 2005

Religion: the New O. J.

Something was nagging at me about America's current obsession with religion. Something familiar.

OK, so this is what it's come to. We've got Wal-Churches, Focus on the Family, The Christian Coalition, Fox News, Karl Rove, Albert Mohler, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Bill Frist, dozens of channels of TVangelists with shiny teeth and greasy hair, a dead pope, a pope just slightly this side of dead, and a president who speaks in tongues. A national fixation with homosexuality. A nation of hundreds of millions of people who all know exactly when life begins or ends. We have a vast, interdenominational clergy that approves of the rich getting richer while the rest watch their income dribble away into the pockets of the corporations and the war makers and the oil barons. And we have an obsessive-compulsive media monster that absolutely cannot stop talking about it.

Where have I had this feeling before?

Let's see... in the 80s we had the Moral Majority, led by of dozens of self-anointed celebrity TVangelists, all of whom later got caught stealing or screwing or lying or embezzling or gold plating all kinds of silly shit in their palatial bathrooms. We had a president, Ronald Reagan, who acted immorally in almost every policy initiative, while gladly riding on the backs of the TV preachers. We had a nation of hundreds of millions of people, who all knew exactly when life begins or ends. And we had a vast, interdenominational clergy that approved of the rich getting richer while the rest watched their income dribble away into the pockets of the corporations and the war makers and the oil barons.

And yet, the deja vu just isn't the same.

As maddening and sad as Reagan was, with his dementia, his insulting trickle-themed economic programs, his insipid First Lady, his Iran-Contra, his Poindexter, his Ollie, his head-shaking self-righteousness, his threats to nuke the world, his corrupt cabinet, his ketchup-as-a-vegetable philosophical depth, and his see-no-AIDS, crack-the-blacks, rich- white- male-supremacy campaigns, it just wasn't the same. Somehow, despite all that utter bullshit, the religiosity fueling Reaganomics wasn't quite as bitter and hateful and Talibanistic as today's brand.

So where have I had this feeling before? This feeling that we're under a scratchy, woolen, 24/7 blanket of obsessive compulsion? That every act, no matter how large or small, no matter how mow-the-lawn tedious or boil-some-noodles mechanical, is somehow, some way, connected to God or Jesus or Satan or Osama or Dubya or Mohammed or the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals or Deuteronomy or Revelations or some self-important, retarded Christian asshole's nincompoop notion of boobs or doobs or tubes or pubes?

Christ, as an American news consumer, I think about religion more than the Pope. And I don't even believe in religion.

For most of my adult life, I've been pretty successful at ignoring religion completely. I've always believed that the world would be a much better place if religion had never been invented. Religion is what is keeping us from figuring out how to be decent to each other. Just as a religious obsession with the afterlife causes people to devalue this life (see Bush, G.W., or War, Iraq, or Texas, Death Penalty), a religious obsession with the superiority of one's own religion causes one to devalue another's religion. For each good act, most religious people cause two bad ones. I mean, seriously. "What would Jesus do?" He would take one look at most Christians and puke, that's what.

Except guess what? The man is dead. There'll be no puking.

Poor Jesus Christ. If he were alive, he would probably say, "Crucifixion was a momentary discomfort compared to 2000 years of maniacs committing atrocities in my name."

An important disclaimer: I did not say the world would be a much better place if religion ended. I said the world would be a much better place if religion had never been invented. If someone (say, God) could take religion away at this point, it would be a disaster akin to giving a kid a deep-fried Snickers and taking it away again. Religion's yummy, crunchy-golden, nougat-filled plenary indulgences are just too damned irresistible. Why fuck with personal responsibility when you can pray and tithe your way into eternal salvation and a hereafter Hummer full of virgins? No, unfortunately, the Jesus is out of the bottle and there's no putting him back. So instead of seeking a better world through our own talent and ingenuity and goodness and science and psychology and philosophy and common sense and rules and laws and loving kindness, we lean on superstitious institutions based on fairy tales that have failed humanity time and time and time again.

For most of the 80s and 90s I went merrily along, studying secular humanism and positive atheism and trying to follow the golden rule and putting my mouth as close to my money as possible and generally making a concerted effort each day not to be a dick. Because I think that's pretty much all it takes. If everyone would just try not to be a dick, we'd have a pretty decent world. And I pretty successfully ignored religion completely.

But then 9/11 changed that. Ever since Osama and Dubs started their Battle of the Network Saviors, it has been impossible to ignore religion. It's everywhere. It's on TV, on the radio, in the newspapers, all over the Web, on the tips of everybody's tongues, and -- in some cases -- in the churches. It's everywhere. And it won't stop.

Where have I had this feeling before?

It's an epic battle, a struggle for popular opinion and righteous supremacy. The cable stations aren't sure how to cover it, so they just create nonsensical graphics and let the talking heads yammer on without so much as a coherent sentence. The radio stations are never more than five seconds and the blogs are never more than two clicks away from The Story: God. Jesus. Mohammed. Stem cells. Abortion. Homosexuality. The headlines scream about it and the movie theaters and the bookstores are infested with it.

And then one day I thought, Ya know, all this clusterfuck lacks is a 30-mph televised Ford Bronco chase and a glove that does not fit.

And I realized, that's it! That's where I've had this feeling before! Religion is the new O.J.! There is only one time in my life that I can recall a national obsession so complete, so out of line with its significance, so totally irrational that it was positively dreamlike, and that was the O.J. Simpson trial. Nothing -- not the freak show that is Michael Jackson, not the blood lust for Saddam Hussein, not the peepshow that was Bill and Monica, not even the cable TV Satanizing-for-your-protection of Osama bin Laden -- has ever quite reached the same level of harebrained, frothing obsession as the OJ Simpson trial. Until now.

That's when I realized that this is all going to disappear faster than Kato Kaelin's agent. One day soon we're going to wake up and our long national religious nightmare is going to be over once again. Sure, there will always be religious wackadoos. And the fundy churches will continue to mass-produce their shallow promise of salvation-through-moralistic-myopia. But the religious right is seriously overstepping its boundaries right now and America won't put up with it much longer. Soon, Dobson will be this fiasco's Marcia Clark and people won't even remember his name without some help from Google. And that idiot Mohler won't even reach Ito status.

But I've decided I'm not going to wait. For me, it's over now.

I remember just where I was when they announced the O.J. Simpson verdict. And I remember vague specks about what happened leading up to the verdict and tidbits of what happened afterwards. I remember "fit/acquit." But I also remember that a long time before that verdict, I successfully stopped paying attention. I stopped reading the news stories about the trial and I changed the channel when it came on the radio. And that is what I've stopped doing today when the news is about religion.

I have friends who are religious without being assholes about it and I appreciate that about them. I also know that many deeply religious people all over America believe in my First Amendment rights not to be subjected to their faith. And I return that favor by believing in their First Amendment rights to practice their faith without pissing in my Cheerios. With all those people I have no quarrel. I suppose I feel about religion in much the same way that most of the world feels about America: I have a deep suspicion, distrust, and fear of the institution while finding the people themselves surprisingly likable (albeit somewhat preternaturally fascinated with cars and guns and sex and power).

I believe in science. I believe in the Constitution of the United States. I believe in civil rights. And I believe in America. And now that religion has launched a coordinated, all-out assault on all of those cherished notions, I'll stand up against religion whenever I have to. I believe it's our patriotic obligation to challenge Mohler and Dobson and every other bigoted, hateful Jesus freak whenever they try to steal our nation for their foolish, superstitious, cynical ends. I'm sure I'll have to do this in the coming years. But the rest of the nonsense, I'm ignoring. I'm not going to read about it and I'm not going to write about it and I'm not going to talk about it.

So, Courier-Journal, New York Times, blogosphere, NPR, Hollywood, TV news, Amazon, et al, listen up: here are some keywords I'm blocking: faith, church, religion, Jesus, God, Baptist, Southeast Christian Church, evangelical, Christianity, pope, ayatollah, priest, moral values, pulpit, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore (not because of religion; I'm just fucking sick of hearing about them, too).

Yeah, I'll have to pay attention when science is outlawed. And I'll have to protest when women's rights are denied. And I'll speak out against capital punishment and war and imperialism and gay-bashing whenever religion supports them. But I'm done following the moment-by-moment fetishist stories of Bibles, bigots, burkhas, Baptists, and buttsex.

I'm confident that religion's assault on American values is on the way back out of fashion. Soon, cooler heads will prevail and this sorry moment in our history will be just like the O.J. debacle that preceded it: a head-scratching conundrum, eventually giving way to e-mail joke fodder. (Head start: When did the toothache stop? When we removed the Mohler! Pa dum pum!)

But I can't wait for that. I'm tuning out right now. Religion is once again dead to me. Thank God!