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Holding the Line

In Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s epic novel of the Soviet era, “The Gulag Archipelago“,  a Russian peasant ended up in a prison camp, for no reason he could discern.  The clocks were changed at the camp for daylight savings time, and the peasant was convinced that this was because the Soviet state had moved the sun.

A Siberian chill should run down our spines, now that our President has claimed the power to move a hurricane.

Democracy is precious, in no small part because it is fragile.  And its existence became yet more tenuous when the President altered a weather forecast map with an added line, falsely including Alabama in the path of a coming hurricane.  A visual lie in support of his previous verbal fabrication.

While his daily mendacity is unprecedented, I found this lie particularly disturbing.  It crosses a critical line.  The swoop on the map was so obviously a crude addition that it insulted the eyes.  And that was the point.  Its bald-faced absurdity was his message:  “Reality is whatever I declare it to be.”  The rhetoric of despots everywhere can be reduced to this one sentence.  When the people give assent to it, overtly or by weary acceptance, government of the people, by the people, and for the people is lost.  And with it is lost the freedom of religion, which necessarily includes the freedom to be free of religion.

At its heart and at its best, religion is the practice of humility.  It is the disciplined recognition of an Ultimate Reality that exists independently of any particular human being.  In worshipful awe, we approach but a semblance of knowledge of this Ultimate Reality.  Good religion inspires us to question everything, including religion.  We may need to arrive at conclusions based on the best evidence before us, but in humility before the Holy One, we recognize that they are always tentative.  An election decided by a majority of voters is the imperfect but best way for a society to reach tentative conclusions about the conduct of the common life of the people.  In order to practice good religion, we must have the freedom to question what our leaders say in politics, society, and the church.  We must have the freedom to seek the truth and follow where it leads us, or we will lose our democracy and lose our faith.  Good religion is a foundation for democracy, and democracy is a foundation for the flourishing of good religion.

When the President says that he’s thinking about staying in office longer than his lawfully permitted term, he’s not just joking:  he’s actively creating a constituency of people in support of that plan.  When he continues to claim that he lost the popular vote by fraud, he’s actively advocating for the tyranny of a minority.  His political party is so unpopular that its existence depends on gerrymandering districts and demoralizing and disenfranchising voters.  Desecration of democracy has become the survival strategy of the Republican Party.  When the President insults reporters for spreading “fake news”, he is intentionally undercutting the trust of the American people in the press, and also in the idea that there could be a source of veracity other than his his own tweeting fingertips.  Without a commonly accepted set of facts, understood to exist independently of any individual,  we will have no shared basis for evaluation of the soundness of public policies.  Then, the loudest voice will dominate.  Since the Electoral College result in 2016, the Republican rip-off of a seat on the Supreme Court, gerrymandered Congressional districts, and a bunch of Senators who represent more cows than humans, we’ve suffered a period of minority rule.

But now we must resist the current slide toward permanent minority rule.

The fake line on the hurricane map was so ludicrous that it inspired a burst of comic creativity.  The humorous reactions – like an image of a wall consisting of hastily-drawn magic-marker lines on a picture of the Mexican border (and the map I drew, above) – might give us some emotional release and relief.  But the dark force that drew the line on the map remains in power.  The damage to democracy continues.  It’s a death by a thousand tweets.

Politics is and always has been a messy, dirty business – far from perfect, across the spectrum of political persuasions.  But what we’re witnessing is orders of magnitude worse than garden-variety political posturing that went on before 2016.  At least since Ronald Reagan declared that “government is the problem”, right-wing politicians in America have been actively working to undercut democracy.  If people are convinced that government is hopelessly ineffective, then they expect it to be run badly, and they lose interest in civic participation.  When people who don’t believe in government are elected to run the government, sure enough, they run it badly, which reinforces the dogma.  Religion has been sucked into this black hole.  As evangelical leaders fall into its gravitational thrall, the Christian gospel is pulled and twisted like taffy, beyond recognition.  Much of a generation of young people has thrown up its hands at the cynicism of their pastors and given up on the faith altogether.  This cycle has been playing out for decades in America.  But in the last few years, it has accelerated at a breathtaking rate.

At stake are not just important public policies regarding social welfare, health care, environmental protection, and regulation of business.  Critical as they may be, they pale in significance compared to the danger to democracy itself.  The President has stirred up the worst passions of millions of people.  There is a very real threat of violent civil conflict if the President contests the outcome of the upcoming election.  Hundreds of thousands of bikers, mostly white and male, have sworn fealty to him and have appointed themselves as his defenders.  (An eerily similar biker organization stands behind Vladimir Putin in Russia.)  The President’s cabinet members are purging their departments of employees who lack loyalty to him or generate facts that might pierce his force-field of falsehood.  Members of the press feel physically threatened and verbally assaulted.

The President is running the government very badly indeed, and if people resign themselves to this status-quo, conditions will become ever-riper for autocracy.  Our trend-line aims directly toward the kinds of sham democracy that prevail in Russia, Turkey, and Hungary, where the heads of state have snuffed out all meaningful opposition by browbeating the press, manipulating elections, and concentrating power in the hands of oligarchic interests.  Before 2016, it would have been hyperbolic to say such a thing.  But not today.  Fox News has become Pravda.  White evangelical Christianity has become the Russian Orthodox state church, dutifully offering divine blessings on the powers-that-be.

Let us with one mind recognize that what the President wrote on that hurricane map is not just an occasion for mockery. The line he is drawing isn’t just around Alabama.  It is a line around the entire United States of America, which he aims to take by storm and control completely.  With our vigorous civic engagement, with our practice of good religion, with our insistent voices, we must erase that line.

Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: MINDFULCHRISTIANITY.ORG  Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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