Sunday, December 05, 2004


The book review section of Sunday New York Times has found another reviewer who thinks liberals are all scum. This time it's Stephen Prothero, the chairman of the Religion Department at Boston University and author of American Jesus : How the Son of God Became a National Icon.

Prothero implies that we're all scum in the first paragraph of his review of James Ault's Spirit and Flesh:

Last year two books called anti-Catholicism the last acceptable prejudice. But like anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism isn't really acceptable in polite America. At least when it comes to religion, the last acceptable prejudice is anti-fundamentalism. Paradoxically, this bias draws both its justification and its power from the rhetoric of religious tolerance: If fundamentalists can't tolerate gay people and atheists, then why should we tolerate them?

"Spirit and Flesh," by the sociologist turned filmmaker James M. Ault Jr., is a mix of ethnography and spiritual autobiography that deserves a hearing from fundamentalism's cultured despisers.

Got that? Let's review. If you're a critic of fundamentalists, there's no defense -- you're a bigot, plain and simple. Oh, sure, you think it's tolerance that makes you dislike the message of fundamentalism, but you're just using the rhetoric of tolerance -- in fact, you're a "cultured despiser." (Is that anything like a "rootless cosmopolitan"?)

Now let's consider Prothero's rhetorical question:

If fundamentalists can't tolerate gay people and atheists, then why should we tolerate them?

But where is Prothero's evidence that we don't tolerate fundamentalists? There's no movement in America to close their churches or forbid the publication of their books. But there is a movement on their part to ban abortion, to roll back gay rights, to force children of all creeds (and no creed) to begin their schooldays with sectarian prayers, to declare that this is a Christian nation.

So who's intolerant here?

The book Prothero is reviewing focuses on the Reverend Frank Valenti, a fundamentalist preacher in Worcester, Massachusetts:

Valenti ... enrolled in Jerry Falwell's Liberty Baptist College in Lynchburg, Va., in 1974 and founded Shawmut River Baptist Church in the late 1970's. There he railed against homosexuality, denounced Christian rock music as a tool of the devil and dismissed the Roman Catholic Church as "the biggest cult in America."

Gee -- what a swell guy. No wonder Prothero thinks we're bigots for being critical.

(Sorry for the sarcasm -- guess I'm just being a "cultured despiser.")

Prothero continues:

The stereotype, of course, is that fundamentalists are Manichaean moralists. And the ethical rules they follow certainly seem to be black and white. In the application of these moral absolutes, however, Ault finds plenty of gray.... Divorce, for example, is prohibited, and Valenti tries to talk his parishioners out of it. Yet when they call a marriage quits, he is the first to let bygones be bygones. "While fundamentalists' timeless, God-given absolutes may appear rigid from the outside," Ault writes, "within the organism of a close-knit community where much is known in common about persons and situations, they can be surprisingly supple and flexible."

Isn't that nice -- We've just watched Reverend Valenti as he "railed against" this and "denounced" that -- but when behavior he considers immoral takes place within his congregation, "he is the first to let bygones be bygones." Sweet deal! So why doesn't it apply to us, the people in the larger world? Isn't this just hypocrisy?

Two days before Prothero's review appeared, the Times published this letter in response to the recent David Brooks column praising the fundamentalist preacher John Stott. It's also a pretty good answer to Prothero:

Unlike David Brooks, I don't see any real difference between the evangelists John Stott and Jerry Falwell. Both would say to me, "I believe something you don't, and I'm right, and you're wrong."

Of course, I would say the same thing back to them. So far, so good, and hooray for diversity.

But: Whereas I would then be happy to let them go on their way, they have decided they must stop me, change my mind, modify my behavior and regulate my access to rights, freedoms and services.

That's not humility. That's arrogance. And it doesn't need "understanding." It needs opposition.

Lee Child

Pound Ridge, N.Y., Nov. 30, 2004


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