From Liberating Spirituality to Oppressive Dogma: The Politics of Religion

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By Mel Seesholtz, Ph.D.

Spirituality is intrapersonal. It’s a liberating and uplifting awareness. It nurtures personal growth. It inspires more conscious perceptions. But when personal spirituality is organized into a religion, an institution is produced and, as all institutions, it then produces a hierarchy who concoct dogma that has nothing to do with spirituality and everything to do with maintaining social and political control.

The Roman Catholic Church lied about and covered-up decades of child abuse by priests. When finally exposed, they responded by banning “gay priests.” But as Kathryn Conroy, assistant dean of Columbia University’s School of Social Work, pointed out in a New York Times piece following the Vatican’s ban on “gay priests”:

What is forgotten in all of the hysteria about priest sexual abuse is that pedophilia is about a sexual attraction to children (most often, regardless of their sex) and about access. …

Reliable studies show that pedophiles (those adults who sexually abuse children) are overwhelmingly heterosexual. In fact, homosexuals are statistically underrepresented as those who sexually abuse children. …

Further, women have far lower rates of sexually abusing children than men do. So if the church were really serious about protecting children from sexual abuse by priests, gays would not be excluded from the priesthood and ordination would be extended to women.

But the Church isn’t really interested in gender equality or protecting children. Its only interest is protecting itself, which accounts for the decades-long cover-up and the scapegoating of gays. Consider these examples from the Philadelphia district attorney’s report on sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests:

An 11-year-old girl was repeatedly raped by a priest who took her for an abortion when she became pregnant.

A teenage girl was groped by a priest while she lay immobilized in traction in a hospital room.

A sadistic priest enjoyed having children play the roles of Jesus and other biblical characters in parish Passion plays. He made them disrobe and whip each other until they had cuts, bruises and welts.

Moreover, the Church doesn’t seem interested in real people at all. Again, their prime directive is maintaining dictatorial social (and political) control through their anti-human dogma.

The 300-year Unholy Inquisition and the subsequent wholesale slaughter of the native peoples in the “New World” are part of the Church’s bloody history. One would have thought they’d have learned from their inhumanity to humanity. They didn’t. Dogma first, people second.

In the 1980s – when Africa was experiencing a terrible drought and a devastating famine – Pope John Paul II, replete in his papal splendor, addressed a huge crowd under the blazing hot African sun.

As the television cameras panned out, viewers saw a sea of people, mostly women, most with a child on each breast, many with older children at their feet. All the children were fly-covered, emaciated and had grotesquely distended abdomens: the marks of famine, the omens of death.

“His Holiness” was preaching against birth control. Was JPII saying “God” likes to see suffering and dead children? It was difficult to read any other message into his dogmatic pronouncements.

Pope Benedict XVI recently continued his predecessor’s ignominious, hypocritically tradition:

Vatican City – Pope Benedict spoke in support of Christian marriage and traditional family values Sunday [October 8, 2006], urging couples to resist modern cultural currents inspired by hedonism.

“May Christian couples build a family that is open to life and capable of handling, united, the many, complex challenges of our times,” Benedict said as he delivered his traditional Sunday blessing from his window overlooking St. Peter’s Square.

“There is a need for families who won’t let themselves be swept away by modern cultural currents that are inspired by hedonism and relativism,'” the pontiff added.

“Hedonism and relativism”: the pontiff said that while wearing his gaudy, hedonistic robes and vestments of gold, silk, fine linen and, no doubt, the high-priced Italian designer leather shoes he seems so fond of.

“Hedonism and relativism”: the pontiff said that from the balcony of what, relatively speaking, can only be called his palace, the Vatican.

Hypocrite, n. One who [professes] virtues that he does not respect…

– Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Benedict has repeatedly damned the love of two adults who wish to validate their monogamous, family-building commitment to each other through the state-sanctioned civil union called “marriage.” He seems to believe the Church can dictate to civil, secular governments: “Pope Tells Canada To End Gay Marriage,” “Pope Assails Gay Marriage Ahead Of Visit To Spain,” “Spain’s PM Tells Catholic Church To Keep Out Of Gay Marriage Debate.” The pope has consistently been told by national governments to butt out.

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, a Catholic, has supported a proposed law that would conform to court rulings in defining marriage as a union between two people, rather than a man and a woman.

“As prime minister of Canada, he has the moral responsibility to protect the equality of Canadians,” spokesman, Thoren Hudyma, told the Globe and Mail newspapers in explaining that Mr. Chretien's duty was to the public, not his Church.

– AP, July 31, 2003

In Belgium, where three-quarters of the population is Roman Catholic, the Flemish Christian Democrats who voted in favor of the law [legalizing same-sex unions] said the issue boiled down to supporting all kinds of families. “For us, what's important is sustained relationships,” said Luk Vanmaercke, a party spokesman. “We do not want to exclude gay couples from sustained relationships. On the contrary, we want to encourage them to take that responsibility too.” …

“It's the Vatican’s good right to make statements like this [opposing marriage equality], but here in the Netherlands, we have separation of church and state,'” said Kathleen Ferrier, a spokeswoman for the largest Dutch conservative party, the Christian Democrats.

– AP, July 31, 2003

Not surprisingly, more and more people are seeing that “That marriage ‘fence’ excluding gays isn’t protection, it’s bigotry.” Nevertheless, scapegoating and condemning gay people are the pope’s forte. But the Vatican is not the most homophobic organization. That distinction belongs to an evangelical Protestant organization: the Traditional Values Coalition headed by Rev. Louis P. Sheldon.

Sheldon’s and the TVC’s unbridled hatred of gay American is nothing short of legendary, as are their bogus claims and vile attacks. One of their favorites is that gay men and women have a clandestine underground network dedicated to preying upon children in order to “recruit” them into homosexuality.

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson recently exposed rabid Republican Lou Sheldon – a Jack Abramoff beneficiary – and the TVC’s anti-gay “bunk” in relation to the Mark Foley scandal:

One of the central tenets of anti-homosexual doctrine is the notion of “recruitment” – that adult gay people lure young people into homosexuality as a way of increasing their numbers. The most extreme anti-gay activists perceive a full-fledged conspiracy. The Traditional Values Coalition, a group whose homophobia can only be called rabid, goes so far as to claim that, after being enticed into sexual acts, the “young ‘initiates’ into the strange world of homosexuality are to be trained to reject the moral beliefs of their parents.”

This is complete bunk, of course – most new research has tended to support the idea that homosexuality is more a matter of nature than nurture, and in any event the notion of an organized “recruitment” drive is far beyond ridiculous.

Mr. Robinson’s truth-telling obviously lubricated lying Lou who asserted “research and news reports over the past decades show clearly that homosexuals molest children at far higher rates than do heterosexuals.”

Wrong again, as usual. To reiterate Dr. Kathryn Conroy statement, “reliable studies show that pedophiles … are overwhelmingly heterosexual. In fact, homosexuals are statistically underrepresented as those who sexually abuse children” [italics added]. Furthermore, according to a new study in Pediatrics: The Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, children are at greater risk for sexual abuse by their parents than the fictitious marauding groups of organized homosexuals Sheldon claims are lurking everywhere just waiting to pounce.

Not surprisingly, Sheldon retaliated by citing articles from Joseph Farah’s WorldNetDaily, an outlet that regularly features articles by Pat Buchanan, Jerry Falwell, and David Limbaugh. WND is also very fond of articles claiming Armageddon is near. One of WND’s most recent offerings was “Why liberals channel Lucifer.”

Can the ultra-conservative evangelical Christian Right really be confused about why young people are rejecting and abandoning them “in droves”? From The New York Times article “Evangelicals Fear the Loss of Their Teenagers”:

Despite their packed megachurches, their political clout and their increasing visibility on the national stage, evangelical Christian leaders are warning one another that their teenagers are abandoning the faith in droves.

Life – especially for a teenager – should be celebratory, not filled with the doom and gloom, fire and brimstone evangelicals love to rain down on everyone, including their own kids. As the muse Serendipity said in the 1999 film Dogma, some Christians – especially bible-thumping, everything-is-a-sin, we’re-right-all-others-are -wrong evangelical Christians – don’t celebrate spirituality, “they mourn it.” And rightfully so, since they’ve killed it with their concocted, oppressive, anti-human dour dogma.

Dogma n, [L dogmat-, dogma, fr. Gk, from dokein to seem] 1a: something held as an established opinion; esp: a definite authoritative tenet. B: a code of such tenets <pedagogical ~>. C: a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds. 2: a doctrine or body of doctrines concerning faith or morals formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church.

“From dokein to seem… established opinion… a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds... formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church” [italics added].

Dogma is the unsubstantiated opinion of someone or some group that must remain as is despite ever-changing social, cultural and political realities. As one definition in the OED put it, dogma is “an imperious or arrogant declaration of opinion” which uses itself as its source of authority: a perfect description of sophistry, irrationality and the ultra-conservative Christian Right.

So what did the evangelical elders blame for the teens’ mass exodus?

Certainly not themselves or their message of intolerance, hate and bigotry:

I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good...Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a Biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this country. We don’t want equal time. We don’t want pluralism.

– Randall Terry, currently a Republican candidate for the Florida state senate

Certainly not their own hysterical preaching that everyone who disagrees with their extremist agenda is innately evil and the cause of all the world’s evils:

The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.

– Pat Robertson

I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way – all of them who have tried to secularize America – I point the finger in their face and say “you helped this happen. … [God allowed] the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.”

– Jerry Falwell on the cause of the 9/11 attacks

Certainly not the preposterous anti-knowledge, pro-ignorance claims made by prominent leaders of the evangelical Christian Right:

The Bible is the inerrant...word of the living God. It is absolutely infallible, without error in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as well as in areas such as geography, science, history, etc. [italics added]

– Jerry Falwell

They blamed “a pervasive culture of cynicism about religion, and the casual ‘hooking up’ approach to sex so pervasive on MTV, on Web sites for teenagers and in hip-hop, rap and rock music.” Ho-hum. How predictable.

Perhaps these self-righteous evangelical leaders should take a closer look at themselves and their “morality” that was so well represented by Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and, of course, murder advocate Pat Robertson.

The law-and-order judicial hero of the ultra-conservative leaders of the Christian Right is Antonin Scalia.

Most Americans do not want persons who are openly engaged in homosexual conduct as partners in their businesses … as teachers in their children’s schools...

– Antonin Scalia in dissent of the Lawrence v. Texas, June 2003

He, like they, do not believe that every American deserves civil rights, a concept the vast majority of America’s youth have grown up with and consider “a given.” Perhaps that’s another reason they’re leaving the ultra-conservative evangelical fold. They see through the sanctimonious veneer of its leaders to the bigotry beneath.

Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at the Barnard College of Columbia University, recently asked a poignant question:

Where’s religious right’s outrage now?

Where is the “moral majority” when we need it?

In 1979, Jerry Falwell formed an organization called Moral Majority, part of a larger initiative to register politically conservative evangelicals who would bring their “Christian values” into the public arena. The mobilization of these voters, who became known as the religious right, contributed, perhaps decisively, to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Ever since, the leaders of the religious right have been unsparing in their pronouncements on everything from abortion and welfare reform to Mideast policy and homosexuality.

But on the defining moral issues of our day, the war in Iraq and the Bush administration’s use of torture against those it has designated as “enemy combatants,” these “voices of morality” are strangely silent.

The war in Iraq claims more than a hundred civilian casualties a day and consumes $250 million daily in taxpayers' money – funds that presumably could go toward rebuilding Iraq or New Orleans, hunger relief in Africa, or the revitalization of public education, especially in neighborhoods mired in poverty. And yet, although the Bush administration led us into war under pretext – the supposed al-Qaeda connection and weapons of mass destruction – leaders of the religious right have yet to question the morality of the war in Iraq.

Professor Balmer was correct, mostly. Syndicated columnist Molly Ivins pointed out a notable exception: “Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition is so in favor of torture he told [John] McCain that the senator either supports the torture bill or he can forget about the evangelical Christian vote. I’d like to see an evangelical vote on that one. I don't know how Sheldon defines traditional values…” [link added].

Like other leaders of the Christian Right, Sheldon defines them politically and given the money the TVC, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council and their affiliate organizations have to spend, they “bought” quite a few politicians to push their “values” agenda. The Mark Foley scandal exposed that and the Republicans’ fraud, as Eugene Robinson noted:

It's possible that the Mark Foley scandal could finally end the phony, trumped-up “culture war” that the Republican Party has so expertly exploited all these years…

The Republicans wouldn't be where they are today – in control of the White House and all of Capitol Hill – if they hadn’t portrayed themselves as the stalwart defenders of moral standards and painted Democrats as a bunch of anything-goes libertines. Republicans promised social and religious conservatives that the values they treasure would not only be respected but written into law. …

It was a political masterstroke, but it required creating and sustaining an illusion – that Republican officeholders themselves not only talked the talk but walked the walk, that in their own lives they adhered to these deeply conservative moral standards. Human nature being what it is, there was no way this illusion could be sustained.

So for a party that crusades against gay marriage and welcomes voters that consider homosexuality a sin or a disease, headlines about a gay Republican congressman lusting after underage male congressional pages are a problem. The emerging outlines of a coverup – allegations that the Republican speaker of the House, or at least his aides, got wind of Foley's little problem months or years ago – are an even bigger problem.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. went straight to the point in his commentary “‘Values’ party’s lack of shame: The GOP sells itself as morally better. Inaction on the Foley matter shows what a joke that is.”

But “values guru” Lou Sheldon has a suggestion: get rid of all the gays in the Republican party…

the Republican Party needs to discuss how should it should [sic] deal with homosexuals inside the leadership of the Party Liberal Republicans constantly talk about the Republican Party being a “big tent open to everybody.”

As radical homosexuals have been welcomed into “the big tent,” it has become a less welcoming place for religious conservatives and a dark and dangerous place for children.

Today, Republicans need to take a long and hard look at what they have done by welcoming homosexuals into the GOP. Republicans need to make a simple choice between the innocent children and radical homosexuals who prey on them. [italics added]

Lou Sheldon and the TVC are notorious for twisting already perverted stereotypes of gay and lesbian Americans and then using them as scare tactics. For a more thorough analysis of this political strategy see “America’s New McCarthyism: Homosexual Stereotypes, Myths, and the Politics of Fear,” Popular Culture Review, 16:2 (August 2005), 83-115.

The politics of fear and divisiveness have dominated America since George W. Bush was appointed president. It’s no secret that the leaders of the evangelical Christian Right pull the strings of their puppet president and other faith-based, values voting Republican politicians.

In “Civil Disobedience” Henry David Thoreau wrote that “all voting is a sort of gaming, like chequers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it.” He may have been right. The results of November elections and ballot questions should be interesting…

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