Vinoth Ramachandra

Conspiracy Manias

Posted on: March 12, 2013

Can the North American Church become more Christian by learning from the history and politics of countries like India and Sri Lanka ?

Even to suggest this must come as bit of a shock to those small but highly vocal sections within that Church who believe they have nothing to learn from other peoples, even non-American Christians. In their political discourse, the USA is the bastion of liberty, democracy and prosperity, a beacon to the rest of the world. Somehow Christianity, the U.S Constitution and Supply-Side Economics are fused together. Economic libertarianism is identified as Christian freedom. That precariously-won freedom is now threatened by the likes of Obama, Muslims, the UN, Jim Wallis, George Soros and the IPCC.

How such a diverse crew ever got lumped together baffles me. This bizarre discourse trades on fears engendered by the changing ethnic and religious landscape of the U.S. This self-enclosed worldview, frequently invoking the rhetoric of “persecution” and the threat of Big Government is making strong inroads into the minds of kids brought up not only in the Bible Belt but Christian colleges and fundamentalist seminaries throughout the U.S. It dominates the ugly genre of fundamentalist apocalyptic and the new “conspiracy fiction” (e.g. David Kullberg’s sensationalist War Against God); pseudo news-media such as Fox and World Magazine, and parochial “academies” such as the InterCollegiate Studies Institute and the Acton Institute. There are many more, all massively funded by corporate America.

My first encounter with the tiny intellectual and social worlds of these “Tea Party Christians” (for want of a more accurate term) immediately reminded me of the Sinhala-Buddhist discourse in Sri Lanka and Hindutva (or Hindu Nationalism) in India. While the various schools of Buddhism comprise clusters of religious and ethical practices, beliefs and institutions (such as the sangha, or monastic order), what is labelled “Sinhala-Buddhism” is a political ideology. Sinhala is the majority language of the island, and all Buddhists here speak it. If I were to define the core elements that form the mental map of Sinhala-Buddhists, they would be:

1. Sri Lanka is historically a Sinhala-Buddhist country. All other ethnic and religious groups (Hindus, Muslims and Christians) live here at our sufferance. They must not aspire to equality but accept their proper place within the social and political hierarchy.

2. The high civilization of Sinhala-Buddhism is responsible for all that is good in our history. All that is evil comes from Hindu invasions and Western colonialists (Portuguese, Dutch and finally the British).

3. Even though we are, numerically-speaking a majority (65-70 per cent) on the island, we are threatened by powerful minorities who are aided, economically and politically, by “foreign powers”. Today Muslims, heavily funded by Saudi Arabia, are seeking to take over the state and impose their laws on us. Christian missionaries are in the pay of the CIA and other American powers that want to destroy our ancient civilization.

This is the mirror-image of “Tea Party Christianity”. This is not mere ethnocentrism, to which we are all prone. It is nothing less than racism. It thrives on one-sided national histories, ignorance of other people and their faiths, growing economic insecurity, and the fear of losing traditional privileges. And just as we seek to persuade our Buddhist friends to distance themselves from this distorted caricature of Buddhism, so it may be the role of Muslims, Hindus, atheists and others in the US to help “evangelical” Christians in the US to publicly distance themselves from such distorted caricatures of historic Christianity.

Indeed American Muslim migrants can learn from the Roman Catholic experience. For much of the nineteenth century, Catholics in America were the  feared “religious other.” Not only did many not speak English, but some of their religious women- nuns- wore distinctive clothing. Their primary allegiance was to the Roman Catholic Church and not to the U.S Constitution. It took them more than a century to be accepted as equals by white Protestants. At the same time, however, American Catholics helped re-shape parts of their own Church. The Jesuit, John Courtney Murray, was decisive in helping the Second Vatican Council endorse religious freedom- so much so that, ironically, the papacy has become the greatest global champion of religious freedom today. Can Muslim migrants in the US, while not being intimidated by the phobias of the American “right”, still help to re-shape the politics of their home countries in the light of their more positive experiences of American life?

I do not doubt that discrimination against orthodox Christians has been increasing in American universities and the mass media. Those who oppose abortion or gay marriage are regularly pilloried and even excluded from public forums. But Christians betray their faith by their strident cries of “persecution” and lobbing grenades at people, even among their own ranks, from a safe distance. They can become more winsome and credible in their persuasive skills by being consistently “pro-life” (in ways that I have explained in other Blog posts), renouncing racism and nationalism. and being more willing to learn from others. And the place to begin is by switching off their pseudo-Christian media networks, taking their kids out of home-schooling, closing down their sectarian colleges and mono-denominational seminaries, living in ethnically and religiously mixed neighbourhoods, and joining the mainstream of cultural and social life. That is how the rest of us live.

18 Responses to "Conspiracy Manias"

Vinoth,

Thank you for your challenge to an aspect of the American Evangelical cultural dynamic. I forwarded this to my 18 year old son who enters a very respected business college this fall with a focus on international business. He is beginning to form his ideas and ideals concerning politics, economics and faith. This timely post will help me continue my dialog with him about world views, civic responsibilities, social justice and economic responsibility. My hope is that younger American Christians like my son are open to listening to the Christian community beyond the borders of the USA.

Blessing

Dennis

It often seems that the (white) church in America has confused a fundamental principle of the gospel: namely, that the Kingdom reaches the strong by way of the weak, that it is in the folly and offense of the cross that the gospel goes out. Jesus’ emphasis on the blessedness of the poor has mostly been forgotten as we tell ourselves that we must be blessed because we have grown so wealthy, and if we begin to lose that wealth we must be acting as bad stewards.

But, to be honest, this is a hard teaching.

This blog post saddens me. You close with valid points about conspiracies and what persecution really is, but your first two paragraphs consist of the same kind of vitriol you often (rightly) complain about.
Some people have come to the conclusion that smaller government is better. So what? Why do you have to cast such people in a negative light? There is plenty of scholarship out there which makes a strong case for smaller government, and one does not need to be the evil fundamentalists you paint them to be.

@James, maybe Vinoth might respond to your comment, but would you please give more information on the scholarship on “small” government, which you refer to, and by the way I agree with. My fundamental problem with US Christians so averse to “big” government, which may or may not be the case in comparison to other governments around the world, is their complete blindness and indifference to “big” banks and global cooperation (See Vinoth’s previous post on big Agribusiness). If the principle is ‘subsidiarity,’ why not support localism and smallness when it comes to the financial sector and business enterprise.

Philip, I suppose I could dig some up, but that’s not my point. My problem was not with Vinoth’s disagreement with political conservatives, but with his dismissal of them/us, as if those who have come to such a position have done so by simply relying on simple-minded fundamentalism.

Normally, when such tactics are employed, it is at the expense of intelligent, civil discourse between those who take different positions. In the past, Vinoth has proclaimed his opposition against that kind of discourse, which is why I was disappointed in the way the first part of this post was written.

For the record, I understand the problem with acquiescing to the wishes of big business. Those of us who tout smaller government don’t necessarily want to hand over power to big business. In my case, it’s not even about scholarship, or raw data. My problem with liberalism is that I have observed, in the poorest in our country, how dependence upon government is bad for the soul. Can I find some scholar somewhere who will back that up with a published work? Not likely. But the truth of that notion stands.
.

James, please don’t sidetrack this conversation into a debate about “conservatism” versus “liberalism”. This Blog post is not fundamentally about either! (I only have a brief phrase about the perceived “threat of Big Government”).

If you want to know why I am cynical about the “limited government” talk of American “conservatives” (not only the folk I call “Tea Party Christians”) you can read some of my other posts (e.g. “Not the Economy, Stupid!”).

Vinoth,

As someone who grew up in a white, conservative, evangelical, home-schooled American family (do I fit the prototype?), I can vouch for a lot of what you’ve said, if from slightly a different perspective. Thankfully, my own parents valued education and intellectual curiosity very highly and generally rejected fundamentalism. However, among other Christians I commonly encountered the sinister defensiveness and cultural isolationism that you spoke of.

This kind of fundamentalism, rather than a political orientation, seemed to me to be born out of a prideful and defiant orientation of the heart. So, instead of facing the “threats” from secular culture with strenuous spiritual and intellectual engagement, fundamentalists retreat into insulated ghettos, clinging to their prophets, myths and conspiracies. Or, never challenging their own beliefs, they remain intellectually shallow and are satisfied with weak or unsound arguments which are easily refuted.

In this cycle of pride and ignorance, we become an island of truth and righteousness in a world where everyone else is evil. A little humility could save us all. So yes, to answer your question, we do have plenty to learn from you. So continue to share.

@James, thank you for your response. I am unable to decipher what ‘truth’ you are referring to in your statement ‘dependence upon government is bad for the soul.’ Are you referring to the 47% Mitt Romney mentioned, and what kind of badness are you referring to? I am genuinely curious to find out. A caution to remember would be, without giving careful thought to what the proper role of government should be, the pernicious nature of global capitalism, and the moral and legal obligations of citizens towards the poor in society, it is easy, knowing or unknowingly, to use a phrase like ‘dependence upon government’ to dismiss a whole category of people and set of issues. The key point for me in what Vinoth has written is the striking mirror-image between Tea-party Christian fundamentalism in the USA and religious fundamentalism in South Asia. In my understanding, Christians of all people must not be fundamentalist or reactionary, or be vainglorious for some golden past, and instead must be “open” towards the unknown future, including sharing living space with culturally and ethnically diverse people, because we as Christians are informed and shaped by the reality of the resurrection of Jesus for the reconciliation of all things. Unfortunately those who have enjoyed privileges, collectively though it may not be individually, from the status quo will feel threatened by changes to it, and this has to be do with our human nature. But Christians are called to demonstrate to the world a life that transcends the mere impulses of human nature, and I think that is what Vinoth is calling for in this blog-post both from Christians in the USA, and elsewhere.

“Tea Party Christians” remind Dr. Ramachandra of the “Sinhala-Buddhist discourse in Sri Lanka and Hindutva (or Hindu Nationalism) in India”. Interestingly, Dr. Ramachandra reminds me of the “Tea Party Christians” – narrow minded, highly opinionated on topics about which they are not well informed, and very angry.

American Christians are not the only ones who have much to learn from non-American Christians. If Dr. Ramachandra’s blog is indicative of his “off-line” life, he could learn quite a bit from non-American Christians above love, grace, forgiveness, and joy in the Lord

Greg, you already have a reputation on this Blog for crude personal insults. You’ve been rebuked for this several times, but still you persist. I would like you to explain why you think I am ill-informed; and, if you cannot, would it not be better to simply remain silent?

Intriguing, I am prompted to read your blog, starting with your newest essay, with new eyes after learning that Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina has been elected the next Pope of the Roman Catholic church, choosing to serve the church with the name Francis I.

Already, much has been made of the fact that Francis I is from Argentina, that he refused to live in the Archbishop’s palace in Buenos Aires, that he traveled by public buses, that he cooked his own meals, and that he was a champion of the poor against big business and their interests in globalization.

I am particularly struck by these lines, “…This is not mere ethnocentrism, to which we are all prone. It is nothing less than racism. It thrives on one-sided national histories, ignorance of other people and their faiths, growing economic insecurity, and the fear of losing traditional privileges. …..”

I will guess that we are going to be hearing many more voices from beyond the borders of the USA, in all domains – government, social policy, and theology. I will not be surprised that we hear more from Latin Americans, starting with Pope Francis I, voicing ideas that will be disconcerting for North Americans.

Thank you Vinoth for this challenge to our complacency in this and all of your blog essays. Forgive us when we get testy, instead of engage the issues you raise. Thank you for your comments about the history of Sri Lanka that provide an intriguing comparative lens most of us rarely possess when thinking about the history of our country. Will we do any better than India and Sri Lanka when dealing with the social changes that are occurring here as peoples from many more cultures become part of the American family? Especially, will we be apprentices of Jesus ready to serve as He served, and repeatedly called by Jesus to serve like Him? Intriguing, photos of Francis I washing and kissing the feet of the poor now dot the internet.

Clearing away some of the piles this morning, I found my copy of the new book by Candida Moss, professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame and, unknown to me while she was here just recently, visiting professor at The Uof Chicago Divinity School.
http://divinity.uchicago.edu/faculty/moss.shtml

Her book – The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom – is sure to set some teeth on edge, but her historical work is important, especially for our own time.
http://www.harpercollins.com/books/The-Myth-of-Persecution-Candida-Moss?isbn=9780062104526

“In The Myth of Persecution, Candida Moss, a leading expert on early Christianity, reveals how the early church exaggerated, invented, and forged stories of Christian martyrs and how the dangerous legacy of a martyrdom complex is employed today to silence dissent and galvanize a new generation of culture warriors……

“The traditional story of persecution is still taught in Sunday school classes, celebrated in sermons, and employed by church leaders, politicians, and media pundits who insist that Christians were—and always will be—persecuted by a hostile, secular world.

“While violence against Christians does occur in select parts of the world today, the rhetoric of persecution is both misleading and rooted in an inaccurate history of the early church. Moss urges modern Christians to abandon the **conspiratorial assumption** that the world is out to get Christians and, rather, embrace the consolation, moral instruction, and spiritual guidance that these martyrdom stories provide.”

In my Catholic parochial school years, we heard a lot about the nasty Protestants, particularly of the Elizabethan sort, and what ‘they’ did to ‘us’. Horrible, terrible…
When I moved onto the other side, I found out about the tenderness of the Inquisition, and of course ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Those ghastly Catholics…
Oh, my.

Thanks Vinoth. Although I´m sometimes troubled by the tone of your posts, I am nevertheless very often challenged by them. As one who was part of the American evangelical landscape for some years but who now resides in Europe, I can say that simply being in another culture for an extended period of time has forced me to re-think almost everything. That said … it´s very much a slow, evolving process. Getting out of the ghetto is sometimes not very easy. My hope is that more Americans (Christian or not) allow themselves to being to see beyond the insulated walls that surround them. There is much we can learn from the way — as you say — the rest of the world lives each and everyday.

Supply-side economics and Economic Libertarianism aren’t that closely related in today’s U.S. politics. Most economic libertarians are non-interventionist in foreign policy, and are more focused on Federal Reserve policies and a balanced budget for the Federal Government than they are for tax cuts. Those who criticize our foreign Aid do so because 80% of our USAID budgets are already earmarked to support projects that favor the transnational corporations that you (Vinoth) criticize.

I’m a non-partisan and non-nationalistic american Christian who despises the two sets of talking points that seem to control the our culture’s ability to think through many tough issues. To my dissappointment, this blog post makes me feel as if you are trapped as well – it’s just that you appear to choose the other set of talking points. If you were to really engage the complexities of our political culture, you wouldn’t lump divergent interests and people into as cheap a construct as “tea party christians.” Thank for at least not calling them “tea baggers” as many of my friends who depend primarily on PBS, NPR, the NYT, and MSNBC for their intellectual growth do.

A review to correct your misrepresentation of the novel, The War Against God. (I suggest you read books before characterizing them, Vinoth. You admitted that you hadn’t read it). Also, you might Google “Soros and Wallis” to see that, after his initial denials, Jim Wallis finally had to admit to receiving multiple funding grants from anti-Christian and anti-Semitic billionaire, George Soros. Wallis helped to confuse and divide the Church for an Obama victory, using Bible words to help politicians who, well, aren’t very interested in Biblical authority. It’s a fact that should not “baffle” you. It is a well established reality, tragic but true. I’ll provide links for a review of the novel by a careful reader, and below that the Soros / Wallis story covered by many reputable writers.
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithwalkers/2013/01/the-war-against-god-a-book-review/

Jim Wallis’ attempted cover-up on funding by atheist billionaire, finanical speculator, and Obama supporter, George Soros: http://blog.christianitytoday.com/ctpolitics/2010/08/wallis_admits_t.html

Kelly, I got the term “conspiracy fiction” from the website promoting your husband’s book The War Against God. That is how the book is described. I made no claim to have read it, but I read the website thoroughly to find out what is was all about. And the title of the book speaks for itself. As for Soros, I dislike him for other reasons than yours. But there are many projects his foundation funds which are worth supporting. And I have no idea why the fact that he is an “atheist” should prohibit one from receiving funds from him for worthwhile causes!

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