The Devil Made ‘Em Do It: Social Crisis and the Misuse of Faith in America

Tim Wise

Association for White Anti-Racist Education

I find myself in airports about 200

times a year. As such, I overhear lots of comments from other travelers. Usually

they’re of a particularly banal sort, screamed over a cell phone which seems

permanently attached to the ear of one of a few thousand interchangeable corporate

automatons. “Sell the damned stock, I said…” is one of my favorites. Followed

by “Every time I go out of town, the whole operation goes to shit…what’s wrong

with you people?” Better yet: the ubiquitous “Bye honey, I love you,”

mouthed into the phone by some white guy in suspenders sweating Bourbon and Coke, who two

minutes earlier was ogling the cleavage on the waitress at the B Concourse bar.

Occasionally, the airport chatter

turns to more serious subjects, as was the case recently when I found myself unhappily

locked in conversation about the school shootings in Colorado. As I waited for my row

number to be called, a man sat down next to me and offered–completely

unsolicited–that all these shootings were clear verification of Satan’s presence

on Earth, and demonic possession of America’s youth. Trying not to be rude, I more or

less ignored him, thinking that although I was pretty sure he was wrong, it would be a

real pisser if he was right. I mean, what does one do if Satan really is the author of all

this unhappiness? I’m pretty sure that at that point gun laws and conflict resolution

training become sorta’ useless.

Fortunately for him, he assured me,

he didn’t have to worry about things like that because his children didn’t

attend one of those Godless cesspools that are part of the public education system.

“I home school my kids. Gotta keep ‘em away from negative influences,” he

explained. While I’ve been told there are leftists who home school, let it suffice to

say I’ve never met one. Just guys like this who think if you throw a little Jesus in

with the Calculus, that somehow you and yours will be immune to family and social

dysfunction. When I asked how this could be, especially since Littleton appears to be one

of the most Christianized communities this side the Massachusetts Bay Colony,  I was assured that Satan picked out Littleton for

precisely that reason: to test the faith of Christ’s loyal minions. If true of

course, this would mean his family is in serious trouble, what with Beelzebub zeroing in

on the flock and all, but I thought I’d best leave that one alone.

Ever since the spate of school

shoot-em ups, hundreds of voices have poured forth with one or another version of the same

tune: we have to get back to God, prayer in school, traditional families, and “the

way things were.” Get back, they say, to an American innocence which millions seem to

think actually existed in the days of their youth.

This longing for bygone days strikes

me as nothing if not a desire for control. Control over one’s life, one’s wife,

one’s children. It’s no wonder the folks expressing this yearning are almost

always white. Only white folks could think we were “losing control” of anything.

After all, people of color never had that much control to lose. Only white folks

could look so sanguinely upon the past. Only white people could forget that the Christian

morality they seek launched wars of extermination on Native folk, was used to justify the

enslavement of Africans and the taking of land from Mexico, and drove the colonial

mentality of expansion around the globe–all in the name of God, and in direct

violation of at least two of that same God’s commandments to Moses. What’s more,

it’s the same Christian morality that is today conjured up by folks like Mr. Home

School in the Detroit airport to attack gays and lesbians and assassinate doctors who

perform abortion. In fact, just thinking about it makes me pretty sure that these

folks’ brand of Christianity is precisely what we need less of in this country.

That these same white Christians

think God will protect them if only they’d pray harder, go to church more regularly,

and reinstall the man as the unquestioned head of the household seems not only silly and

patriarchal, but really rather racist. After all, they don’t say God is the answer to

problems in communities of color. There it’s all about bad black culture, or

defective DNA, or single mommas who can’t stop having babies. But somehow when evil

comes to their doorstep, it’s time to turn to Christ for deliverance. But if God

couldn’t and wouldn’t save Emmet Till, I’ve often felt like asking, then

what in the hell makes you think she’s gonna save your white ass? I didn’t get

to ask my newfound friend this question, as it was time to board the plane, but I’m

sure he wouldn’t have understood what I was talking about anyway.

But maybe I had it backwards. Maybe

it was I who didn’t understand what he was talking about. I had assumed he was

serious; that he really believed prayer and home schooling would fix the nation’s

problems. And yet, the more I thought about it the more I realized he didn’t likely

believe any of this, but that wasn’t the point.

He didn’t home school his kids

or take dominion over his wife to reduce the crime rate, or improve the tenor of civil

society. He does these things, and fundamentalists everywhere do them for control, and

no other reason. In fact, people like this need dysfunction and social

breakdown. Without chaos and suffering, why would anyone listen to them? Unless you can

single someone out for as a deviant, how will anyone know to pat you on the back for what

a fine, upright citizen you managed to become? In other words, for guys like this, the

massacre of schoolchildren is a functional occurrence. While he might mourn the

senselessness of the tragedy, there is deep down a part of him that needs horrible

things like that to happen.

These are the kind of folks who see

every horrible occurrence as “proof” of the need for ever more repression; ever

less pluralism and tolerance; ever more movement towards theocratic institutions. The kind

of folks for whom religion is a bludgeon, wielded over the heads of their terrified

children until the kids get the message and become convinced they really chose their

spiritual path of their own free will. It brings to mind something James Baldwin said in

The Fire Next Time: “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only

be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we

got rid of him.”

Whether or not the concept of God

can in fact make us any of those things remains an open question, for there are clearly

those seeking to make sure God is used for far less universal purposes. After all, it was

Randall Terry, of Operation Rescue, who said Christians might have to “take up the

sword” to forge a culture “based on Biblical Law.” And it was Pat Robertson

who in 1992 predicted a religious war in America, complete with “physically

bloody” confrontations, “like Lebanon.” Yet, even with this apocalyptic

rhetoric, no one suggested a crackdown on fundamentalist Christians, the way some of these

Christians have called for a crackdown on Goths,  or

Marilyn Manson. Over 160 abortion clinics have been bombed or burned in the past twelve

years, mostly by Christians; the Murrah Federal Building was blown up by someone who

professes to be a Christian; and gays and lesbians are being beaten, burned, and tied to

fenceposts by Christians, and no one, anywhere, blames the church.

So why not? Why

isn’t the church to blame? Why aren’t these good “Christian” parents

to blame? Parents like the one who told me a few years ago after a speech I’d given

on homophobia that her children were her “property,” and she had every right to

teach them that homosexuals were evil, Satanic, and deserving of death.

I’d love to know why we seem to

give fundamentalist lunacy such a free ride every time it rears its head after a tragedy

like Littleton? Maybe it’s because we’re so afraid to forge a different

understanding of what faith could be; so convinced that there isn’t any place for an

alternative understanding of spirituality, that we’ve just conceded that ground to

the crazies. Perhaps the rationalism and humanistic impulses on the left have made us

unwilling to enter this discussion. Not that I’m suggesting getting into one with

folks like that guy at the airport. But unless we’re willing to meet people where

they are–which for 9 in 10 in the U.S. means believers in God–we’re

probably going to be in trouble. Unless we can offer an alternative explanation of why bad

things happen, and how good people can make a difference and change those things, there

will continue to be folks who in their desperation for easy answers will content

themselves with the version offered by Gary Bauer, Ralph Reed, and James Dobson.

I make no claims to know exactly how

we should do this. I have no pretensions that countering the misuse of public tragedies by

the right to push a reactionary agenda will be easy. But we’d best keep our eyes

open, knowing full well that whether it’s home-schooling, or vouchers, or school

prayer, or a campaign to get working moms back in the home, the forces of rollback are

poised to make good on their promises for a “Christian Nation.” We would all do

well to pay close attention, and to recognize that for most of us, the bigger threats to

public safety and the nation’s well-being don’t go to raves on Saturday night

with their friends after a long day of Nintendo, but rather, walk out of church on Sunday,

Bible in hand, ready to do battle with Satan, who after all, is you, me, and everyone else

who fails to profess the one true faith.

Tim Wise is a social critic and

antiracist activist, based in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the Director of the Association

for White Anti-Racist Education (AWARE). Since this commentary has pretty much nothing to

do with his work at AWARE, those seeking to reach him should do so at his personal e-mail:


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