Shooting wars begin as culture wars and culture wars are initiated by ideas. So let’s for a minute set aside Uncle Sam’s amoral adventures in Venezuela; or not—because this issue is partly about what led to it in the first place.
A few years ago Professor Merle Hodge wrote an article entitled, if my memory is correct, ‘Beware the Fundamentalists,’ in which she called attention to the growing presence of US-based Christian fundamentalist denominations, particularly in vulnerable rural communities that took the brunt of IMF neoliberal Structural Adjustment Policies policies in the 1980s.
Many of these evangelical denominations have been in Trinbago since the late 1800s, but in the 1980s they began to be a lot more assertive, which had serious implications given the great intolerance and often flat-out bigotry, masked as piety, for which these faiths were notorious.
The historical racism woven into the religious tradition and the timeline connecting the rise of evangelicalism in the late 60s and early 70s as racist responses to two legal matters that dealt with segregated schools (Brown v Board of Education and Green v Connelly) speak for themselves.
The recent announcement that the US government was recognising Israel’s claim over the Golan Heights which they captured in the 1967 war—and which has never been recognised by the UN—brought swift, angered responses (rightly so) from many quarters of the Arab world, as well as articles like this one from mainly non-corporate media houses.
This event plus Washington’s hijacking of a UN Resolution meant to call attention to the use of rape as a weapon, is only the latest in a bewildering series of acts that bring into focus once again the very real and very troubling influence religion, specifically Christianity, has been enjoying in guiding domestic and foreign policies, especially since Donald Trump took office.
For me, this, like the election of Donald Trump, is of profound importance in that it exposes the lies, fantasies and hubris that the US regularly tells itself, and has been internalised by many in former colonies like this one who refuse to see what is always right in front of them.
In countries like this one where the institutions and values of colonial rule still taint much of what happens here, truly independent-minded persons need to confront and clinically pick apart such things like claims to authority that are masked by religion.
Now is not the time to, as Prof John Henrik Clarke used to say, out-Pope the Pope and out-Mohammed Mohammed: zealously embracing religious ideas, beliefs and values in their purest form. Now is the time to understand that no religion is free of cultural influences.
Western Christianity in particular, is interwoven with ancient Eurasian, Holy Roman and mediaeval European and modern Euro-American, cultural identity and pretensions to being at the pinnacle of human progress. It is central to Western ideology insofar as it is and has been the principal vehicle by which Eurocentric notions of absolute authority (read obedience) can be imposed on those they see as subjects to be dominated or, if that is not possible, eliminated.
See that as the implied message by Mark Leonard in this debate between him and George Galloway. Even the West’s hijacking of monotheism is to be understood in the context of a cultural obsession with absolutist, masculine power.
As people in the region condescendingly considered by the US as its backyard, we need to be particularly critical of each and every narrative that we are encouraged to accept; and this especially applies to seemingly benign, sincere expressions of piety coming from US-based religious institutions. Because it is in no way any different from the ‘old’ religious narratives in its imperialistic intent.
Indeed, the US, following the lead set by Western Europe in the alleged Age of Discovery, has used its brands of Christianity to sacralise its own narrow white nationalist ideology.
And this is the main problem I’m having with most of the liberal media houses that even bother to critique the Trump administration’s almost explicit use of Protestant and Catholic beliefs to determine domestic and foreign policies. To be fair, some do draw reference to George W Bush’s religiosity such as the way he, astonishingly, claimed that ‘god’ instructed him to invade Iraq. If he lied, that was bad, if he was sincere that’s even worse.
But most of the articles, however, are nonetheless problematic and deficient because they still convey the idea that this is something that only surfaced in the last 20 to 40 years—if one includes the Ronald Reagan era, when evangelists began to openly re-emerge, largely because of Jerry Falwell.
No wonder the late writer Gore Vidal called the country the United States of Amnesia. So let’s be clear, much of our current crises, such as what is unfolding in Venezuela, is just the latest case of a continuous disruption of internal politics and economics by the West and particularly the US which often operates unilaterally, often dovetailing with self-serving entities within the targeted state; and religious references—either explicitly or implicitly—are frequently employed to provide justification and manufacture consent among many people.
The use of religion to convey nationalistic impulses has been a feature of the United States from its very founding. What is sometimes known as Manifest Destiny as well as rigid notions of US exceptionalism is something Euro-Americans, despite their pretence to having church and state separated, inherited from ‘Old’ Europe’s projection of Christianity.
The injection of this missionary, evangelistic behaviour is a central feature of the West since the beginnings of the so-called Age of Discovery. Judging by the contents of the log of his first voyage, Christopher Columbus’ intent had little to do with any trading but bringing the peoples encountered under the authority of the Spanish, partly through religion.
In the very first line of his 1539 essay ‘On the American Indians,’ theologian Francisco Vitoria wrote that the justification for Spanish settler-colonialism came from the biblical instructions in Matthew 28:9 to: “go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the father, son and holy ghost.”
This is very instructive given that this biblical passage is a forgery and is not found in the earliest known manuscripts.
Nonetheless, this and other passages provided the Western powers with what they needed to impose themselves on the global south and to loot the mineral resources and lands they desperately needed—and still need—if they are to remain global powers. Between the 13th to the 18th centuries, nationalist ideas streamlined being Christian with being European and both with being white.
In the late 19th century journalist W T Stead asked and answered this question in his book ‘The United States of Europe.’
Question: “What is England’s mission abroad?”
Answer: “To maintain the European Concert—that germ of the United States of Europe—against isolated action; to establish a Roman peace among the dark-skinned races of Asia, Polynesia, and Africa; to unite all branches of the English-speaking race in an Anglo-Saxon Bund, and to spread Liberty, Civilization and Christianity throughout the world.”
‘Roman peace’ incidentally means peace achieved though armed force. The ‘darker-skinned’ races were—and still are—considered perpetual savages with reflexively violent and sexual impulses, who could only be kept under firm control through violence: physical and psychological.
To that end, WT Stead—together with Cecil Rhodes and Lord Milner, the principal architect of apartheid in Azania/South Africa—brought together a group of like-minded people whose dream was to unite the entire English-speaking world, using the United States’ political system as a model against their potential enemies which included other European countries like Russia (which wasn’t communist yet) and Germany as well as Asian countries like Japan.
What was the unifying ideological thread? Christian religiosity. What did it mask? Eurocentric (white) nationalism.
All of this connects to the United States, first as a British colony, then as an independent nation. Since the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock (who then landed Plymouth Rock on the First Peoples), the young colony was seen by John Winthrop as: “a city on a hill and the eyes of the world shall be upon us.”
Through the long period of westward Euro-American expansion, from the seizing of lands from the Native Americans to the seizure of Hawai’i, the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico, much of the justification was couched in the language of missionary obligations; the ideas of Vitoria and John Locke were as influential as were those of Plato and Aristotle.
The cultural fear of nature of the Greeks diffused to Christian thought. As such, the Puritans regarded the North American forests and the native peoples and the fact that many of them treated forests with deep reverence, with deep suspicion.
In their worldview, nature, forests and peoples who venerated them as sacred were considered corrupting. The fact that forests and water were also identified in these cultures with the Divine Feminine—with corresponding social customs and politics—only made it worse.
Women were (still are) considered with contempt in Western Christian thought and the idea of the old woman with her sagging breasts and wrinkled skin, the image of the corruptible flesh, transferred onto old trees and thus encouraged the mentality of destroying nature in order to ‘develop’ it.
Paradoxically, it is the image of a woman that is frequently used to project the notion of ‘pure’ civilising intentions of white settler-colonists imposing themselves in territories occupied by indigenous peoples.
The image may be presented as a damsel in dire distress as the image of the princess imprisoned by the dragon conveys among the British. She may also be idealised as an angel spreading light to ignorant savages.
There is a somewhat famous painting of a woman, dressed in white, holding a Bible in one hand as she floats through the air trailed by telegraph wires and settlers in wagons while ‘savage’ Native peoples flee before her.
President William McKinley justified his taking of the Philippines in 1898 and turning it into a US colony by invoking divine sanction. Speaking to a group of Methodist missionaries he said:
“I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night.
“And one night late it came to me this way—I don’t know how it was, but it came: (1) That we could not give them back to Spain—that would be cowardly and dishonorable; (2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) that we could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government—and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and (4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.
“And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our map-maker), and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States (pointing to a large map on the wall of his office), and there they are, and there they will stay while I am President!”
Now compare that to George W Bush’s statement that ‘god’ told him to invade Iraq.
Make connections through President Woodrow Wilson, the architect of the League of Nations which was the forerunner of the United Nations. He was well known for his deep ties to the Ku Klux Klan but a lesser known fact was that his foreign policies were shaped in accordance with his Presbyterian upbringing.
So much so that Malcolm McGee tells us in his book ‘What the World Should Be’ that Wilson ‘was immersed in a particular Princeton and Southern Presbyterian tradition that he absorbed, quite literally, at the knees of his father, Joseph Ruggles Wilson, his devout mother, Janet Woodrow Wilson, and the religiously active clergy, family, and friends he was surrounded by from his youth onward.’
McGee also tells us that while he headed Princeton University, Wilson made a speech in which he expressed his desire to make the US a ‘mighty Christian Nation and to Christianise the world’ while he himself, was ‘god’s’ divinely appointed messenger. His idealising of the US as a ‘redeemer nation’ destined by God to instruct, mediate and ultimately lead the world was no doubt influenced by the same ‘shining city on a hill’ speech that Reagan invoked at his inauguration address.
Wilson also compared himself to the prophet Ezekiel, saw himself as ‘a missionary for the export of Christian democracy’ and, by equating patriotism with Christianity, may well have laid the ground for the deep culture of reverence many US citizens have for the country—even when confronted with its many crimes abroad or the outrage when faced with the defiance of a Muhammad Ali or a Colin Kaepernik.
President Harry S Truman can also be cited. In 1948, he startled his aides when he not only recognised the state of Israel but did so by saying that he was the modern day King Cyrus. Cyrus was the biblical figure who rescued the Jews from Babylonian captivity circa 600 BCE.
It is not coincidental either that in the late 19th century, at the same time the West was going into Africa, some of these missionaries ended up here in Trinidad. In Trinidad, the elite minority—living under a constant terror of revolt heightened by memories of the Haitian Revolution, the 1857 Indian Mutiny as well as localised revolts, and reinforced by racist academic writings about the violent ‘natural’ impulses of Black/Brown people—resorted to physical and psychological violence to keep the huge African and Indian underclass in a state of obedience, accepting their inferiority and inability to govern themselves and the ‘rightness’ of whiteness in the form of rule, laws, dress, etc. The main psychological tool was religion.
Thus, Christianity, when it was eventually taught to the African labourers, was tailored by Scottish, French, US and Canadian missionaries—upon instructions from the Crown and the plantocracy—to ensure obedience among the labouring classes.
They hardly needed such instructions. Most, such as John and Sarah Morton who were Presbyterian missionaries from Canada, came with entrenched ideas of African inferiority and primitiveness.
The superiority of Western culture and values were unquestioned articles of faith. Dennison Moore in ‘The Origins and Development of Racial Ideology in Trinidad’ posited that the influx of the North American missionaries also ushered in a different level of psychological violence in the form of ‘the language of war’ these missionaries used to describe their efforts to win converts and ‘save’ souls.
Ideas that Christians and all ‘good’ people (considered one and the same) were engaged in holy war against forces of evil was nothing new; it was part of the lexicon of the conquistadors in the 16th century as Walter Mignolo informs us in ‘The Darker Side of the Renaissance.’ However, it seemed to have taken on a new intensity in the North American evangelicalism.
The fact that for about a thousand years the largest cathedral was in Constantinople (present day Istanbul, Turkey) and that there were churches, with bishops, all across North Africa and Asia was irrelevant.
Racist ideology in academia being what it was and still is, that had to remain out of history books in order for certain ‘salvation’ narratives to make sense. Likewise, describing Hindu and African faiths and their devotees as ‘evil forces’ of Satan that required engagement by an ‘army’ of Christ, or that Christian devotees were permanently locked in a ‘battle’ against Satan was part of a process meant to instil a mindset of religious militancy as well as stoke fears of eternal damnation into the minds of labouring classes who had ideas of agitation.
Biblical passages such as 1 Timothy 6 1-2, Luke 12: 47-48 would have been surely invoked as well.
Interestingly, in the 19th century, starting from upscale New York, many of the evangelicals within the US were moving in more progressive directions. Through this evangelical activism, as historian Randall Balmer calls it, many became strongly opposed to enslavement (although clearly, like Wilberforce in England, they did not necessarily believe in racial equality or the humanity of African peoples); they were at the forefront of women’s rights and criticised the growing militaristic culture in the US.
They also championed prison reform and Balmer tells us that the institution of a penitentiary—where the inmate makes restitution, is penitent and rehabilitated before going back out into society— can be traced to them. He even points out, quite ironically, that they were deeply skeptical of capitalism.
Charles Granderson Finney, one of the most important evangelicals of the 19th century, argued in fact that a Christian businessman was an oxymoron because business and commerce placed emphasis upon greed.
Balmer argues that a major turning point was the Scopes Trial of 1925 in which the evangelical stance on evolution was humiliated in a debate against Clarence Darrow. Following this humiliation they retreated from mainstream society, over which they felt they no longer had any control. They set up interlocking institutions including churches, seminaries, bible camps, publishing houses and missionary societies.
Balmer argues that in so doing it was entirely possible to have very little, if any, contact with people outside of that subculture. It was a defensive response to everything they felt corrupted what they considered their faith-based lifestyles.
Many were not even registered to vote as the vast majority had no interest in getting involved in the wider political process at any level. Journalist and ordained minister Chris Hedges tells us that this apolitical, isolated subculture would be preyed upon by prominent self-serving evangelical figures following the Reagan years when millions of working-class whites across the Midwest began losing their jobs, having homes foreclosed by the banks and despair began seeping in.
It is from this demographic that the Republican Party, the Tea Party Movement and Donald Trump drew their core support base.
Now while Balmer paints a picture of a disconnected, isolated subculture—which for the most part it was—it was by no means complete. With specific reference to today’s flash points and societies struggling with violent crime emanating from slum/depressed communities (such as Iran, Honduras, Venezuela, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico, the Congo, Nigeria, etc), the dysfunctional, hollow realities that many anti-colonial struggles in Arica, the Caribbean and Asia became can be traced back to the Dwight D Eisenhower administration, but particularly to the brothers John Foster and Allen Dulles, who were Secretary of State and CIA Director respectively.
Raised in a strict Presbyterian household, and coming from a line of missionaries, the Dulles brothers, particularly Foster, brought to the Eisenhower administration an unbending rigid binary Calvinist worldview that saw the world as divided into good and evil forces—the evil forces, of course, being the ‘godless’ communists which he saw in every social justice struggle, regardless of where in the world they were situated.
Further, as Stephen Kinzer, author of ‘The Brothers’ and Ambrose and Brinkley’s ‘Rise to Globalism’ have pointed out, Foster embodied that hubristic value system we saw with Wilson that saw religion and the ‘American way’ as interchangeable: ‘America’ was the religion—and remains so to this day—that other peoples of the world aspired to be.
His inability to grasp nuances and factor in such things as decolonisation meant that he, his brother and other like-minded persons saw communists and communist influences in many places where there clearly weren’t. This, along with corporate capitalist interests, led them to overthrow or have murdered a number of democratically elected leaders—such as the president of Iran and the Prime Minister of the Congo—install pliant but brutally repressive and/or corrupt leaders and set in motion cycles of dispossession and destabilising violence that continue to this very day.
Editor’s Note: In Part Two of this piece, columnist Corey Gilkes will look at the supposed implications of an apocalyptic vision in the evangelical faiths.