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Ripe for the Picking

A person who spends his or her entire life, from the moment they hear human voices, imbibing the flavored, highly sweetened and vibrantly-hued Kool-Aid of religious indoctrination are often assured that only they are drinking of the pure, “living water.” So ubiquitous are the children’s hymns and poems and axioms to which they are subjected, they often don’t realize that what they are being force-fed is flavored at all. It is simply part of their environment–the way life is. The pedagogy makes certain to tell them that their doctrine is the norm–so normal and banal as to be mundane and common sense. If there exists a superior color and flavor, theirs must be it while all others are either entirely bland and colorless or flamboyant distractions, vicious counterfeits, or well-meaning perversions. That’s how they begin to see anything and everything that conflicts with the world-view their parents and clerical leaders have carefully curated in them since their mother first sang nursery hymns to them as she held them to her bare chest.

Like a battery in the matrix, how could a human brain, so wired to embrace tribalism and Us vs. Them categorization, and ready to accept the reality presented to them at face value, ever become aware of such programming? David Foster Wallace’s recounting of an old fish encountering two young fish makes the point succinctly. The older asks the younger, “How’s the water today?” The two young fish smile and swim on and, when beyond earshot of the older fish, one young asks the other, “What’s water?”

Children raised in an immersive religion that informs every aspect of their life, belief, knowledge, and world-view consider their faith-environment and ask “What’s belief?” To them, their faith is the only pure and wholesome and reasonable option there is. To them, their faith is as normal and as easy and as pervasive as the air around them or the ground beneath their feet. When presented with actual, clear water, they sneer at its transparency (a metaphor completely apropos) and balk at its plainness. “No wonder you’ve lost the light of ________ in your eyes,” they say. Of course you have. You’re drinking something so bland and meaningless! Obese in their certainty, they continue drinking their familiar Kool-Aid and wonder how anyone can get through a day without purple-stained mouths and the near-catatonic sugar rush.

The reality is that youth raised to think this way become adults who struggle to think in any other way. And the emotional and social costs required to change their firmware and update their operating system are just as painful as the clerically instilled terror has made them fear. Their mental and emotional firmware are so programmed as to run only programs that protect their system’s integrity. Programs or information that challenge their belief system can’t even be run to begin with. When they do run, they may cause the entire system to crash. Luckily, the anti-virus programs of many cults and religious traditions can often weed out and restore normal operations with little harm done. Shame and fear and blind devotion can even overcome the effects of abuse and manipulation from the organization itself. Individual Stockholm Syndrome overwhelms the Streisand Effect for even a tenuous belief. All other religions are guilty of horrible atrocities but my religion isn’t.

Objectivity: Error 404. Operation not found. Exe: Special Pleading

The foundation of modern religion comes from ancient texts. The Ultimate Man or human is a prophet or savior of the past. A man who rose above everyone else to impart the word of god/gods/God to the deplorable masses of men and women. By their nature as bronze-aged texts born of agrarian, feudal societies while being the story of the greatest man to ever live, they implicitly make the values taught–values beholden to and quite literally the product of their time–the greatest and most wonderful of all values! They aren’t just good ideas, they are the very mind and will and words of unchanging, infallible, omnipotent-scient-present Daddy-deity!

Despite the blathering Karen’s of The United States Congress, most Americans still believe that pluralism and Jefferson’s “separation of church and State” should be guiding principles for our republic. For the image driven, sixty-second-Tik-Tok-preferring populace, news cycles will always depend on provocative headlines and abridged reports that will still keep the Wheel of Fortune crowd tuned in.

For the good news: religiosity has been on the decline for decades in the United States and Europe among younger generations. This fact alone is evidence of a widespread embrace of people willing and free to ask themselves, “Do I really love big brother?” and to admit that “2+2 does not equal 5.”

Over the last few decades, the proportion of the U.S. population that is white Christian has declined by nearly one-third. As recently as 1996, almost two-thirds of Americans (65%) identified as white and Christian. By 2006, that had declined to 54%, and by 2017 it was down to 43%[4]. The proportion of white Christians hit a low point in 2018, at 42%, and rebounded slightly in 2019 and 2020, to 44%. That tick upward indicates the decline is slowing from its pace of losing roughly 11% per decade.

…The proportion of white Christians increases proportionally as age increases. Among those ages 30–49, 41% are white Christian, as are half of those ages 50–64 (50%) and a majority of Americans 65 and older (59%). These increases are offset by sharp declines in the proportion of religiously unaffiliated Americans in each age group. While more than one-third of Americans under the age of 30 are religiously unaffiliated (36%), that proportion drops to one in four (25%) among those ages 30–49, to 18% among those ages 50–64, and to only 14% among those ages 65 and older.

https://www.prri.org/research/2020-census-of-american-religion/

I’m not the best person to evaluate statistics and my observations are often instinctual–a bit too much like faith, perhaps. (The difference is that I have become someone willing to change my mind in the light of new evidence.) Thus, I find interesting is that there are several demographics that tend to vote conservative. (Another widely used term for conservatives that transcends “Republican” in the U.S. or “Tory” in England is the appropriate and descriptive term “Reactionary.”) Older, white males without college degrees overwhelmingly vote for the Republican candidate in presidential elections. I, for one, voted Republican until 2016 when pussy grabbing and bragging about the freedom to murder people on 5th Avenue without consequence turned me off quickly to Comrade Trump. Perhaps it was the then, white, very recently post-Christian male-with-a-doctorate in me that found his language and manner beyond indecent and inexcusable as provocative. I’d like to think it was the investment in reading from Orwell and Hitchens during that time that helped me see him for what he was. But why were my parents and siblings with college degrees and a profound sense of Christian morality supporting someone who lacked common decency like Donald Trump?! I didn’t like candidate Clinton either. But Trump bragged about doing things that made me ill. How could explain voting for him, even if I thought he represented values I shared (I never felt that way) to my daughter? My vote for Clinton was more about keeping Trump out of the White House than anything else. I believed separation of powers would keep the train from derailing over the next presidential term. Four years later, the cult of personality that supported a disgusting populist platform that, like all populists in all countries–only enriched the elites in practice, frightened me even more as Trump began undermining the election the preceding summer.

I’d heard this rhetoric before. Mormons are taught to consider apostates “lazy learners.” That definition means, in practice, that someone either didn’t do any study whatsoever and simply caved to the philosophies of men. Or, because faithful members don’t become apostates due to neglect but by following their integrity in their studious diligence, Mormon’s believe know that their apostate friends and family did indeed study but didn’t do so in faith or, they didn’t study the right way. If they had studied the Mormon dogma and scripture with the appropriate faith, wearing blinders as they stare down the barrel tunnel of piety they would have reached the same conclusion as a believing Mormon. Put more simply: “You’re wrong unless you come to the conclusion that I know is correct.”

I hope the idea of “blinders” put you in mind of Orwell’s old, laborious horse, Boxer. Horses wear blinders to prevent them from being frightened by the world around them. But not for their safety, for the safety of the person driving them and his or her cargo. They use the horse for their own ends. With humans, one cannot simply breed them to fill a role, you have to convince them that what they do is for their own good or for the good of the whole. And you can ply the whip of shame and fear of eternal punishment to motivate them to build the mill until they do, quite literally, “waste and wear out their lives” to build something on a foundation of lies and sexual deviancy cloaked in euphemistic semantics. The trick with humans is that you must put on the blinders from birth–information control–and cultivate that fear and shame that keeps them from trying to peek beyond the blinders edges–emotional, behavioral, and thought control. Even thinking of looking beyond the blinders is made a sin.

Mormons are just one cult who’s regional influence remains largely isolated. I think seeing it for what it was helped me to identify the same “cult of personality” tactics in Donald Trump and see the blind devotion of his adherents riding their MAGA Kool-Aid sugar rush all the way to January 6th. Of course it all started in his first run for President when celebrating pussy grabbing and his power to murder without consequence were dismissed by rabid reactionaries as a septuagenarian who shouldn’t be held accountable for reprehensible, ninth-grade locker room talk. Perhaps this says more about the person who would excuse such language than it does about the rotting jack-o-lantern that said it (my apologies to jack-o-lanterns everywhere). But the former high school classmate I remembered, who made that very excuse for Trump, publicly, on social media, would never have said something like that. Thank goodness for the freedom of expression. Now I think I can tell what he was thinking all these years.

Fast forward through a lazy, degenerative and divisive presidency, and Trump’s rhetoric about the 2020 election became more brazen. He knew he had his committed supporters. He knew they hung pictures of him on their walls next to those of Jesus. He could tell them in an interview with Pat Robertson:

Well they’re going to show up for me because nobody’s done more for Christians or evangelicals or frankly religion than I have. You’ve seen all the things that we’ve passed including the Johnson Amendment and so many things we’ve nullified. Nobody’s done more than we have.

https://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/trump-thinks-nobodys-done-more-religion-him-msna1161781

His acolytes don’t care that, though he stopped enforcement of the Johnson Amendment by executive order, the amendment itself was not legislatively changed at all. He didn’t need to say another word. If he told them he had opened Mars for Christian proselyting, they’d be calling to ask how they could catch a ride to the red planet and, could they name Mars something else? Something that wasn’t a Roman god? Maybe name it something biblical, like Two Corinthians. Or Troth Senshal.

Despots and theocrats take the skepticism inherent in humans and make blinders out of it. You don’t want people to see everything. In the internet age, blinders aren’t easily affixed any longer. Thus, you can create blinders in-effect by simply making the credulous skeptical of everything beyond their paradigm that is in conflict with it. If their preacher doesn’t say it or Faux News doesn’t report it or the Dear Leader doesn’t stammer it incoherently, they are skeptical of it. Orange Kool-Aid is the most tremendous Kool-Aid and everything else is fake. And while you’re at it, don’t call it fake anymore. Newspeak to the rescue: if we say “fake” that implies to the electorate that “fake” or “illegitimate” or “untrustworthy” information actually exists. Maybe they’ll think we are saying fake stuff. Let’s eliminate the word from the vernacular. Let’s rename it “alternate.” Suddenly everything is factual but only our facts matter.

Trump had long undermined any lackey-less news entertainment. In addition, he sought to undermine institutions of government. Only he could be trusted. Not the election process or even the Constitution. If you don’t come to the same conclusion as me, you’re wrong. (Where had I heard that before?) He brazenly declared that if he lost the 2020 election it would obviously mean there was fraud. However, if he won, it’s all legitimate or, legitimate enough. And if he lost, he could send “alternate” electors that represent the “real” results of the election.

How could such a man rise to power in a free society that depends on the rule of law and the ideal that justice be meted out equitably regardless of wealth or station? As Hitchens said of Stalin, “You don’t belong in the dictator business” if you aren’t ready to take advantage of a “reservoir of credulity” prepared for you over centuries of religious indoctrination. Stalin’s regime was propped up by the orthodox church–despite his disdain for and sabotage of it–directly during his reign and indirectly in the preceding centuries by creating a populace ripe for the picking. An entire nation raised to believe that their dear leader was chosen by divinity or providence and that he was something more than a man. Read Katya Soldak’s personal account of a childhood nourished on the Kool-Aid of Soviet indoctrination. Take off your blinders for fifteen minutes and open a browser window in your suppressed intellect with safe-guards turned off, put your religious leader’s name in place of Comrade Stalin and Lenin; put your nursery hymns and scriptures in place of hers and see if it doesn’t overlap almost perfectly.

Evangelical America has been waiting for their own David to come along and slay the mighty, taunting giant of secularism. Ultimately, they await the arrival of their King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The ethos of fundamentalist Christianity might be stated, “A wicked man chosen by God as a king over men is better than a good man chosen to the position by free people in a free and fair election.” Trump, knowing it would be difficult to win another national election, simply perpetuated his fake news and fraudulent election Kool-Aid until the blinded work-horses he’d raised up would storm the Capital for him. They could do the work, pay the price, and he could reap the reward.

What could be more reactionary than that kind of ideology? Trump’s win in 2020 is in part due to effectively mobilizing those who did not regularly vote to cast one for him. As we’ve seen, his electorate was also composed of regular church goers in white, Christian America who’s fundamental, uniting principle is devotion to a bronze-aged text and a deep distrust of everything “non-Christian,” especially education. They pine for the good-old days that will be reinstated when Jesus can reign as King of Kings. Until then, a divinely appointed dictator will do. There’s a word for that: Theocracy.

When you have a romantic view of some bygone, golden-age, why consider the future? The past was better than now and now is definitely better than a future doomed to corruption and “wickedness in high places” to precede the long-awaited and definitely-to-occur eschatology of rapture, war, and divinely imposed peace. “Take no thought for the morrow” is a particularly special ingredient in religious, reactionary political ideology. When the sufficient evil happens, tomorrow, we may react to it. We don’t need to prepare or attempt to mitigate it because God is mindful of the lilies and sparrows and each hair of our head. Why should we worry about protecting the innocent from the growing wave of gun violence? God is mindful of them. Let’s do nothing to prevent the next one and claim that the wake of a mass shooting is not a proper time to discuss politics. After all, why not be content with current “tribulation?” Didn’t Jesus assure us that we would have tribulation in this world anyway? All-the-while, some on both sides, not content to wonder where the next victims will come from, strive to create an environment of pluralism and curiosity to drive medical advancements against the golden-age pining of faith-assured God-botherers.

Christianity was at its strongest in the middle-ages when inquisitions and heresy hunts were not just despotic convenience but sacred duties. Artists’ commissions came, to a large extent, from creating trite devotional works of which each cathedral seemed to need at least one. Like many museums, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence preserves and celebrates hundreds of these works. There exist, just in this gallery and as a single example, dozens of renderings of the baby Jesus with his mother. (The churches within blocks also have their commissioned pieces of this scene.) Each is rich with Christian and, in particular, Catholic, iconography. Halos encircle the heads of Jesus, Mary, and the bishop or pope who is the likely subject of the piece. Knights and dignitaries and clerical authorities pay homage to the inhumanly stoic and benevolent infant. In some he patriarchally places his hands on the head of his mother or a bishop in the attitude of blessing. Sometimes he simply looks on them in solemnity and holds a finger skyward as if directing their attention to heaven. In one I recall, the oddly adult-looking baby cups his mother’s chin and raises it as if offering much-needed encouragement.

By the third room of the Uffizi, I was tired of halos and Catholic-clothed clerics and crosses and babies who, in need of diaper changes and burping, were revered as old and wise sages. The way the paintings deliberately expressed the divine approval and proximity of the church powers became a bore and an irritant. For a largely illiterate populace of people attending the church in which this would have been on display, what better way to communicate 1000 words about the divine right of the Pope or King, priest or noble patron, than with an icon-rich picture? For a feudal lord or ambitious priest and to uneducated and credulous population, how many words is such a picture worth? To the illiterate peasant, such a picture alludes to the authority of their cleric who tells them that all the answers they need come from a book they can’t read but which they know as “The Good.”

Now, with video and social media, church decor is of lesser use. Would-be tyrants need only speak the language of their devotees. Utilize keywords or simply vagaries–tremendous; phenomenal; fake. Appeal to shared mythologies/conspiracies upon which people base their life and against which all other claims must be weighed. Fears kept alive within these mythologies motivate people to pray, pay, and obey.

All a would-be tyrant like Trump has to do is to appeal to his acolytes’ reactionary tendencies with ideas about America no longer being “great,” that drugs and immigration are already beyond horrific, and that America can, once again, be the most tremendous place on Earth and way better than everywhere else. It often feels that reactionaries would rather make history that attempt to really engage with and learn from it to be proactive. After all, they already know all there is to know about the history they were taught in home school and Sunday school. Remind them of the pictures of a wonderful by-gone age–pictures painted in their minds by preachments and revolutionary nostalgia.

What ought to be terrifying is that, because of Biblical and Quranic assurances, a large proportion of reactionary monotheists look forward to something far more insidious than simply returning to a bygone golden age. Despite injuctions to take no thought for the morrow, Christians look forward to A day in the undetermined future. They can be guilty of morrow consideration if their long-awaited future comes to pass tomorrow. Monotheistic parents world-wide are raising their children with the help of priests and imams to understand little that does not fit with their faith convictions. These rely on the idea that they are part of a generation–if not THE Generation–who’s eternal duty is to prepare the world for Armageddon and violent purification. (Which monotheistic sect believes it is their duty to save the world or improve the circumstance of those wont to take refuge on our little planet in an obscure region of the galaxy. Such people are easily taken advantage of by scam artists that know the correct code words and cynically employ them.

Begin, dear tyrant, with the inoculation of the intellect. Luckily for you, the Christian preachers have started this monumental work from birth. Descartes’ oft-quoted quip expresses a truism that to think it is a fundamental component of being human. Like the physical, one needs to hone the skill, but nearly everyone is capable of critical thought until the capacity is inoculated from them. Too many are made to be susceptible to conspiracy theories that fit their bronze-aged mythology. They are made to that they can be an expert on any subject by reading an op-ed or listening to an endless string of distracting questions from Tucker Carlson that cleverly keep him free of direct culpability for his listeners’ fanaticism yet offer no answers or insights. “I’m only asking questions.” We make them think that one real estate developer with no college transcript can know more about biochemistry or meteorology than anyone with a PhD in the field.

Average humans don’t know more than the folks with doctorates about the details of processes they’ve studied their whole life. Average humans are born with the innate ability to spot a crook and a liar. Rather than follow your instinct, you get inoculated to be teachable only when the proper passwords and dog-whistles are spoken by your approved source–such as a man who has done more than Jesus for Christianity. All you hear are the keywords and that means he couldn’t possibly be lying to you. That’s what church did to you. Is it any wonder that evangelicals line up behind him? They are told to ignore science and believe in a young Earth; virgin birth; resurrection; talking asses (I guess that may be why they are in awe of Donald Trump).

A lifetime of this repeated rhetoric in the company of your trusted, adult mentors chanting the tedious string of “Amens” makes a person comfortable with contradictions and adept at recognizing hypocrisy in everyone but themselves and their religious demagogues and in any system but their own. Under the impression that their leader is so in touch with the divine as to know His mind and will, acolytes even swallow such morally and intellectually bankrupt statements as:

That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under anotherWhatever God requires is right, no matter what it is

History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Volume 5, pg 134-35

I could furnish more examples of logical and moral inconsistencies from “Good” books of scripture. Christians would balk at examples from the Quran while being completely incapable of recognizing them from the Bible or Mormon’s from their additional, canonized fan-fiction. The same is true of political parties, particularly those built around adoration of a man or woman and committed to seeing that person in power. The man is right, no matter what. He is chosen by God, therefore what he says or does is, by that endorsement, right.

Mormon’s, in particular, have scripture that promotes the idea of conspiracies in high places that seek only power and the oppression of the good, moral, people of God. In The Book of Mormon, they are known as the “Gadianton Robbers.” These wicked people seemed to have little more motivation than the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s, The Dark Knight. Alfred tells Bruce Wayne that “some people just want to watch the world burn.” Couple that story with the revelatory idea that The Book of Mormon was preserved as a warning to people in the 19th century and beyond. Mormon Prophet, Ezra Taft Benson, among others, affirmed:

The Book of Mormon … was written for our day. The [authors of it] never had the book…It was meant for us. Mormon wrote near the end of the Nephite civilization. Under the inspiration of God, who sees all things from the beginning, he abridged centuries of records, choosing the stories, speeches, and events that would be most helpful to us.

Teachings: Ezra Taft Benson, 140

Propped up by Biblical warnings like that of Ephesians 6:12: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places,” conspiracy prone, pattern seeking individuals trained to surrender their intellect to revelation, easily see the corruption their would-be leader claims is rampant even while ignoring his many amoral statements, actions, and well-published corruption. Benson repeatedly warned the Mormon membership of “secret combinations” high in government seeking to destroy God’s most blessed country of The United States.

I testify that wickedness is rapidly expanding in every segment of our society. It is more highly organized, more cleverly disguised, and more powerfully promoted than ever before. Secret combinations lusting for power, gain, and glory are flourishing. A secret combination that seeks to overthrow the freedom of all lands, nations, and countries is increasing its evil influence and control over America and the entire world.

https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1988/10/i-testify?lang=eng

Since the sixties and seventies, when Benson acquired his apostleship, he spoke this way to the worldwide Mormon church, in the fever of fading McCarthyism kept alive by John Birch fanaticism, generations of Mormons heard and listened and lie in wait until a man so orange as to appear touched by the purifying fires of the finger of God, started saying exactly what their prophet–one who stood on the watchtower to warn the people–had been saying since the 1950’s.

Interesting note: The Gadianton Robbers of The Book of Mormon were characterized by the secret handshakes and code words their order shared only with one another. There is a reason some derisively call the Mormon temple the International House of Handshakes. There are no less than four secret handshakes, four secret hand and arm posturings, and four secret keywords that only the initiated and committed are privy to learning.

If you are a Mormon reading this and thinking, “Yeah, but you’ve got it all wrong. They’re not secret, they are sacred.” You might just be self-deceived. I was there, too. I regurgitated the tired apologetic arguments to skeptics. But the first time I performed the temple rite, I didn’t think how amazing this was or how sacred. I remember thinking, “This is exactly what The Book of Mormon warned me was a hallmark of a corrupt society.” But I was with my parents and uncles and aunts and brother and sisters. They were drinking the Kool-Aid. Maybe it is laced with poison. But I’ll be going to heaven by drinking it, so it’s not really poison…right?