What is it about “death with dignity” that Christian fascists don’t understand? Recently the ultra right wing crackpot at the blog American Power came out swinging against dearly departed Satanist Elizabeth Edwards. Apparently the ailing Edwards wasn’t clear about her submission to God in her deathbed message to family and friends.
In a final Facebook posting before her death on December 7th Edwards said that she was sustained in life by “three saving graces—my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope." Blasting her “nihilism” Power wrote that “Edward’s non-theological theology gets props from the neo-communists.”
Of course, “neo-communists” are the ones that molest children and cover it up, bash gays, commit acts of domestic terrorism, and loot millions from poor people on Sundays in the name of…atheism. Not content with the patriotic tradition of burning blasphemers at the stake, now Christian fascism demands that an individual’s own reckoning with death be policed in the cutthroat blogosphere. But the bashing of Edwards is just a footnote to the larger trend of right wing demonization of secular and left forces reignited by the Tea Party. This trend builds on Cold War “better-dead-than-Red” hysteria equating patriotism and “authentic” American citizenship with being god-fearing. In this universe, communism, totalitarianism, and atheism are the same anti-American McCarthyist mish mash all over again.
Good patriots can never be atheists. Not even football playing alpha males like Pat Tillman, the soldier and atheist whose “friendly fire” death was infamously covered up by the U.S. Army. Tillman made the grievous error of being a dirty infidel and a critic of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East. During a September interview on the Bill Maher show, Tillman’s brother Richard blasted folk who’d given his family religious blessings and bromides about Pat going to heaven.
Non-believers, skeptics, and humanists have always been conflicted about declarations of how the (“virtuous”) dead will be speedily dispatched to heaven. Ultimately, the so-and-so is going to heaven or being called “home” claptrap is a lazy way of legitimizing the brutality and finality of death. It is a craven deferral of the hard questions about how chance, circumstance, and randomness inform living in the rude, crude, unjust, savagely precarious wilderness of planet Earth.
Wandering through the savage god-fearing wilds of evangelical America in his book Republican Gomorrah, journalist Max Blumenthal recounts how James Dobson, psychiatrist and oracle of the Religious Right, courted serial rapist and killer Ted Bundy for a Death Row conversion. According to Blumenthal, Bundy’s leap onto the Jesus train was a crowning achievement for Dobson — a man whose greatest Christian therapy was beating the crap out of misbehaving children. Dobson’s obsession with corporal punishment and zero tolerance child-rearing methods is part of a continuum in the near epidemic of pedophilia, sexual abuse, marital infidelity, and domestic violence that “upstanding” male Christian and Catholic leaders have been embroiled in.
While all of these behaviors are about violence, power, and heterosexist social control, if you have the power to define, police, and control the boundaries between self and other then your crimes aren’t really transgressions but distorted entitlements. The transgressions of male offenders can be magically purged by repentance to a forgiving Jesus. Jesus after all, is one of them; tough, hard, manly or, as Blumenthal notes, “a stern, overtly masculine patriarch charging into the fray with his sword raised against secular foes.” As long as the high profile male offender is literally and figuratively on top, and goes through the proper channels to repent, moral order is restored.
While heaven is overpopulated and over-mortgaged, hell’s cultural capital has declined somewhat. Public or graveside damnations of evildoers to a robust churning hell are less profitable these days. In an era of pseudo-scientific religious cosmology evocations of hell seem to have lost their purchase with all but the most florid fundamentalists. In an open homage to hell, Jerry Falwell famously declared the 9/11 terrorist attacks God’s revenge on a spiritually corrupt U.S. overrun by moral degenerates like gays, lesbians, and feminists/abortionists. Now, a smugger Christian fascism, far more insidious than the televangelist performance art of Falwell and Pat Robertson has prevailed. The fall of the former Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has bolstered a kind of Christian fascist triumphalism that is not just hell bent on imperial domination but on Orwellian thought policing.
The mainstream view that the U.S. is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles reflects Middle American ethnocentrism about the synonymity of democracy and Christianity. And since nationhood and religious belief are still so closely intertwined in the fevered American psyche, even spiritual “equivocators” like Elizabeth Edwards are fair game. As for us unrepentant atheists, we can make room in hell.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and the author of the forthcoming Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America.