I was probably 9 or 10 when my favorite uncle divorced and remarried. Obviously I don’t remember a lot of details and did not know them anyway at that age. What I did know was that his first marriage was a very unhappy one and the second one much happier. It was the late ’50s, a small town in Arkansas, and divorce carried a heavy stigma. I knew that my Baptist church considered divorce a sin. Yet it just didn’t make sense to me how it could be such a bad thing for my uncle to be in a happy marriage rather than an unhappy one. I could not really put it into words, but when I allowed myself to think about the situation, my own ideas did not match what I was being taught.
“Think for yourself” was the most memorable message I took from my college pastor. He was the most non-traditional pastor I had ever met, a former jet pilot with a dynamic personality. Within that spiritual environment and within the academic environment of a state university I began to encounter all kinds of new ideas and people who promoted those ideas. I took a course in “The Bible as Literature” and another course “The Philosophy of Religion”. It was the late ’60s and cultural upheaval was in full swing. Beliefs I had never questioned before had to be considered in new ways. It was challenging and scary, but a lot like my 9-year old self, I knew I could not accept everything my upbringing had taught me just because that was what I was expected to believe.
Fast forward to 2019. In many ways the cultural turmoil mimics the ’60s with the angry divisions among us. Those divisions are much about whether to accept, reject, or somehow modify the attitudes and the beliefs that we previously accepted with little or no thought. Especially here in the south, where religion and tradition are so deeply entwined in our culture, the influx of new people who “aren’t from around here” and of new ideas creates tension. The ways we have dealt with race, sexuality, authority, the proper roles of men and women, Biblical interpretation and other elements of our way of life have typically come to us wrapped in respect for beloved parents, teachers and preachers. It is disorienting to find our values challenged.
The ’60s did not have 24-hour news and social media. The profound presence of these two enablers has made it far too tempting to find both a good guys’ viewpoint and a bad-guys’ viewpoint. Once both have been found the smug comfort zone of certainty, security and self-righteous anger beckons to retreat into its promised cocoon of safety. When this happens, the TV network of choice or the Twitter feed of choice becomes the only acceptable source of information and interpretation. As surely as the armchair quarterback is a mere spectator to the actual sport seen on his/her screen, the culture warrior locked into a single authority is a mere spectator who allows someone else to do the thinking.
There has always been the urge to simply resist change as a reflex. Nostalgia and fear raise their heads and make the past seem far more appealing than either the present or the future. Fundamentalism is a religious response to uncertainty and upheaval. Fundamentalism is appealing in that context because it offers clear definitions of right and wrong, good and bad. It chooses a limited number of passages from Holy writings (all religions have their fundamentalists) and demands that followers interpret the passages literally with no questions asked. Religious authorities are given the task of thinking for everyone else so that the only decision for followers is to accept or risk being outcast and labeled as heretics.
I believe that the rise of populism is a cultural version of religious fundamentalism. The key comparison is the role of the authority figures and the necessity for followers to not think much about what they are being told. Instead of holy writings, there are slogans and sound bites that promise to make hard things easier to understand. In reality, the slogans simply offer false hope that complex issues can be simplified into some easy fix that will surely happen if the faithful will only rally strongly enough. Both populism and fundamentalism thrive best when they can identify a simplistic issue on which to take a stand and an enemy who must be defeated by any means necessary.
Make no mistake-both conservatives and liberals can be fundamentalist in their beliefs. Populism can veer in the direction of either conservative or liberal. Faithfulness and good citizenship in this atmosphere require great patience, focus and determination. It is far too easy to be provoked into anger/suspicion and attack/defense. We must recognize that the tweet or the post, the talking head on TV or the preacher behind the pulpit cannot do our thinking for us. If we let someone else think for us, we come to believe we understand people and issues when all we really know is some emotional stereotype.
If we are to return to a more civil and respectful sense of common identify, it must be by each of our choice. Thinking for ourselves is a move toward civility. I hope for a day when we can become more curious than suspicious, open our minds and our lives a bit more, enlarge our comfort zone, and lower the walls and defenses that reflexively say “no” to whatever comes to us as being different. Let’s talk …