How evangelical fantasists lead the way into turning politics into a circus sideshow
After reading all the posts about it at Double X, and also Jesse’s post from this morning, I went ahead and read all 16 pages of Todd Purdum’s Vanity Fair profile of Sarah Palin. Jesse’s right about the thick layer of bullshit piled onto the piece, and I’m glad he alerted me to the fact that Palin isn’t the first politician that Purdum has diagnosed from afar as a narcissist. (I thought having a giant ego was a mandated part of being a politician, and let’s face it, McCain’s huge ego is also what drove him to pick Palin in the first place.) This is too bad, because in focusing all his energies into showing us how fucked-up Palin is, Purdum misses the larger story, which is that politicians like her are inevitable as long as the Republicans continue to rely on the growing fundamentalist community to cough up the votes required to keep them in office. Because it’s not just Palin. The Mark Sanford situation (and Larry Craig and David Vitter) shows that when you lay down with the Christian nutters, you wake up in a swirl of fantastical bullshit, corruption, and sordid sexual drama.
The right wing evangelical community has been perceived as a godsend by the more staid Republican punditry for a long time. It’s easy to see them as a dream constituency for Republicans, since they’re motivated strictly by having their egotistical belief that they’re the Real America stroked, and don’t really care very much about any policies. They’re “fiscal conservatives” by default, because they’re easy to motivate by the idea that Not Real America is a bunch of welfare cheats and losers who don’t deserve their piece of the pie. But what really gets them going is anything where they get to write their “values”—i.e. a bunch of religious dogma to mark their tribal identity—into law. The purpose of abstinence-only, abortion bans, school prayer, faith-based funding, creationism, etc. seems to be less about creating actual changes to people’s behavior so much as establishing that they’re the only Real Americans, and our laws reflect their tribal dominance over the competing tribe of secular humanists (who don’t generally think of themselves as a tribe fighting for cultural dominance, though that’s changing under an onslaught of evangelical abuse). Not that they don’t want to see these actual changes, but as the Palin situation shows, particularly with the Bristol Palin baby situation, what you do is fundamentally less important than what you say. What outsiders perceive as hypocrisy—okay, well, it really is hypocrisy—is experienced differently on the inside. I think it has a lot to do with the fantasist elements of evangelical Christianity, the deliberate breakdown between reality and fantasy. A lot of churches practice demon exorcism and speaking in tongues, and observers are confused by how participants both believe and don’t believe in what they’re doing all at once. (Speaking in tongues is supposed to be a channeling of the Holy Spirit; however, you’re instructed to practice it so that you can perform it better. Just one example.)
I find this space between belief and not-belief to be an interesting thing, and it crops up more with adolescents than anyone else. You’ve probably been there—it’s not like suspending your disbelief at all. It’s having the experience of believing something while functioning as if you don’t believe it. When teenagers tell each other ghost stories, they are in this space. A lot of urban legends rely on people entering into this space, which is why urban legends proliferate in evangelical circles. Living in this space is encouraged in these circles, which is dangerous, because it instills a disrespect for the truth and it encourages a lot of drama and bullshit. To make things worse, the people that are drawn to evangelical churches in the first place are often a mess to begin with, which is why they crave the structure. But the community has come to terms with the idea that having a bunch of rules doesn’t imply that people follow them. If anything, the gap between rules and behavior is exciting, because it means non-stop drama. The Bristol Palin situation is pretty typical, actually—impossible standards are set, people don’t even try to meet them, there’s a cycle of guilt and recrimination, but the standards are never questioned, in no small part because that would deprive everyone of the cycle of excitement and guilt. Take abstinence, for instance. It’s a big deal for the evangelical community, and getting your chastity ring is a big rite of passage. Evangelical teenagers, it turns out, also have sex at younger ages than pretty much any other group of kids. Is this hypocrisy, or just a natural outgrowth from living in a space where reality, statement, and fantasy are collapsed into each other, and high emotion and drama matter more than boring things like truth?
We’re getting another taste of it with Mark Sanford, I’m beginning to see. I theorized early that maybe he flipped out because he’s never been in love before, but now he admits that he’s been bouncing around and having heavy duty flirtations with a bunch of women. Sex is just more fun if it’s sinful.
As much as I like to make fun of Ross Douthat for his incoherence, I think this sort of thing is what he was thinking of when he suggested there’s a red state culture of debauchery that obviously incites his sexual imagination. Douthat isn’t alone in the habit of openly fantasizing about how the Bible-thumping rednecks have more fun, because they’re too wrapped up in the cult of masculinity and Jeebus to think of things like using condoms. But the roller coaster ride thing isn’t actually more fun or even necessarily more exciting. (It may even be less—the same research that shows that evangelical teenagers have sex younger also shows they’re weirdly prudish about it, and avoid things like oral sex.) Like I pointed out, every screws, cheating is rampant, people have all sorts of adventures and dramas. It’s just a matter of how much you’re willing to take basic responsibility and not be a big ol’ weeping drama queen about it, i.e. who uses condoms and divorces amicably instead of going through huge public dramas and making statements like, “I’m trying to fall back in love with my wife.”
You can get them to vote for you, and that’s the appeal. The fantasist element of the Christian right means that they like to vote for statements, not realities. The “pro-life” movement is an interesting example, because a lot of the rank and file doesn’t understand that government-enforced laws are dramatically different things than their stated-but-not-observed “values”. It’s against god’s law to get an abortion, but you can do it and pay your dues by carrying on about how sad you are over it. I don’t think that they think much past “and make everyone have to agree we’re right” when voting these ideas into law, which is why, when asked, “How much time should a woman do if caught aborting?”, they go stupid, because they didn’t really think about it that way. They were too busy weeping dramatically over the touching story of a woman like Sarah Palin who bravely went ahead with that pregnancy.
Sarah Palin, right down to her politics-by-vendetta mentality, is exactly what the Republicans signed up for when they decided to go with Christian right identity politics. She is pressed right out of Ross Douthat and David Brooks’ fantasies (some sexual, some not) of the simple, self-righteous, exciting red state America. Her good looks are a huge part of this, whether you like it or not, because the hard right has always had an obsessive desire with forefronting this ideal of womanhood—always white—that they feel proves something about their masculinity, that “their” women are hot, fertile, entertaining, but still submissive. Just like Mike Huckabee and other right wingers from the bowels of the fundamentalist church, she’s got the perfect mix of faux folksiness and a confessional air about her. Her relationship to reality is hazy. And all this is increasingly what the evangelical base will be demanding in return for their loyalty to the Republican Party. But as the Palin example shows, if you bring on evangelicals for their pluses as a base, you sign up for the minuses, with erratic behavior at the top. Or, as we see in Mark Sanford’s case, the assumption that you can do whatever you want as long as you confess it and make a big show out of how sorry you supposedly are, which is fun in church but in politics just keeps the story from going away. And while the Democrats certainly have played their part in the tabloidization of politics, we’re never even going to come close to competing in the heavyweight league with people who think that they cheat and lie because demons sneak in their ears while they’re watching music videos.