In a column this past week, James Robison lamented what he saw as the “flickering light of America.” There is nothing new about this sentiment – it’s part of official Republican political theology after all – and this imagery is not to be confused with the flickering light Carl Sagan held out as a defense against the darkness of superstition in 1996’s The Demon-Haunted World. In fact, James Robison’s flickering light is diametrically opposed to Carl Sagan’s candle and represents the very darkness Sagan saw being held at bay by science. What Robison wants is a return to the benighted, post-Enlightenment world fundamentalist Christians have fallen in love with, a world in which Christian dogma holds sway over all aspects of life:
Whatever happened to the “shining city on a hill,” as President Reagan and other leaders once used to describe America? The description, of course, originated with Jesus Christ. Yet our nation, once a shining flame of freedom, is well on its way to becoming a flickering ember of debt, despair, dissension, and defeat. It does not have to continue.
Of course, that freedom did not come out of Christianity. It came out of the very secular European Enlightenment Robison is attacking. The Church, for most of its twenty centuries of existence, has been opposed to freedom at every level of human existence. The shining city on a hill Robison speaks of is diametrically opposed to the “shining flame of freedom” he speaks of in the very next sentence.
History has shown we cannot have the second if we have the first and recent Republican rhetoric confirms that nothing has changed – Robison and his fellow zealots won’t be happy until they have turned America into Afghanistan and turn your town, like Kabul into a place that is, in Peter Bergen’s words, “simultaneously quiet, grim, and boring. Black-turbaned vigilantes roamed its streets like wraiths dispensing their ferocious brand of “Islamic” justice.” Substitute Christian for Islamic and you get the picture.
It’s easy to see why Robison likes that imagery because in the city on a hill the only freedom will be that of Talibangelicals like Robison to force the rest of us to toe the religious line. But like most zealots Robison lacks not only an appreciation of history but of causation. A.H. Armstrong wrote in 1984 of the legacy of Christian intolerance:
The choice of the way of intolerance by the authorities of Church and empire in the late fourth century has had some very serious and lasting consequences. The last vestiges of its practical effects, in the form of the imposition of at least petty and vexatious disabilities on forms of religion not approved by the local ecclesiastical establishment, lasted in some European countries well into my lifetime. And theoretical approval of this sort of intolerance has often long outlasted the power to apply it in practice. After all, as late as 1945 many approved Roman Catholic theologians in England, and the Roman authorities, objected to a statement on religious freedom very close to Vatican II’s declaration on that subject. In general, I do not think that any Christian body has ever abandoned the power to persecute and repress while it actually had it. The acceptance of religious tolerance and freedom as good in themselves has normally been the belated, though sometimes sincere and whole-hearted, recognition and acceptance of a fait accompli. This long persistence of Theodosian intolerance in practice and its still longer persistence in theory has certainly been a cause, though not the only cause, of that unique phenomenon of our time, the decline not only of Christianity but all forms of religious belief and the growth of a totally irreligious and unspiritual materialism.
Armstrong concludes that “the triumph of Christianity carried in it, as perhaps all such triumphs do, the seeds of future defeat. The Church in the fourth century took what it wanted and has been paying for it, in one way or another, ever since.” That Christianity has never learned this lesson can be proven through the simple act of opening your eyes to the world around you.
But Robison wants to double down on the very attitudes that created the world he hates. Robison thinks Christians need to not be more forgiving, more loving, or to turn the other cheek, but to try harder, that they’ve somehow dropped the ball and that they need to get serious about this whole intolerance thing:
While it’s true that these are “the last days,” this in no way justifies a lack of commitment and action. Don’t use foolish, fatalistic apathy to dismiss personal responsibility or reassign blame. The apostle Paul, the disciples, and New Testament Christians believed they were living in the last days. Still, they did not rest. They faithfully began a spiritual revolution, turning their upside-down world right-side up. They were bold, fearless, and uncompromising witnesses. They could not help but speak the things they had seen and heard because they had experienced more than mere words or religion. They were moved to action by the Spirit of God, overflowing from them and controlling every aspect of their lives.
The last days…it’s been the last freaking days since…oh…the 50s C.E. when Paul was writing. Let’s round that to 2000 years. That’s a LOT of days, somewhere on the order of seven hundred thousand of them suckers. Talk about a SLOW BURN. Wet gunpowder burns faster than this.
Interestingly, Robison says Paul, who supposedly spoke with the holy spirit, only “believed” he was living in the last days, which means Paul wasn’t really talking to God like we’re all taught, which in turn means we really shouldn’t be worrying too much about what Paul thought he knew, which sorta invalidates all that “end times” crap in his epistles, doesn’t it?
Oh, he only thought it was the end times! Well, 2000 years later and they still haven’t arrived. I think that tells us all – except Robison and his fellow fundies – something very important about our existence, that maybe we can all be free of that sort of spiritual slavery. And that’s what that candle in the darkness is about – it protects us from people like Robison and their superstition and their spiritual (sometimes actual) slave chains.
It’s all well and fine for Robison and his fellow zealots to be zealous about their beliefs. There have been people like Robison since Paul, spreading doom and gloom far and wide and generally frothing at the mouth. But the problem comes in when their zealotry restricts our freedoms – the freedoms given us not by the Ten Commandments and not by any testament old or new, but by the Constitution which prohibits the establishment of any state religion – including Robison’s.
In the end, diatribes like this – or the belief of Mississippi voters that Barack Obama is a Muslim – say a lot more about Fundamentalist Republicans than they do the society they lament. They are fighting a culture war based on false premises and their bizarre enunciations and denunciations should be seen as an indictment of the religious movement that fuels than rather than of the current state of America.
We know fundamentalists hate the supposedly Satan-ruled “world” – there is a reason “worldly” has negative connotations – and it’s a pity they don’t head off into the desert like previous generations of religious sociopaths and take their Satan and their troubles – and their laments – with them. The world would be a happier place all around.
Image from thereaganvision.org
 Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Ballantine, 1996).
 Peter Bergen, The Longest War, 2011: 174-75.
 A.H. Armstrong, “The Way and the Ways: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in the Fourth Century A.D.” Vigiliae Christianae 38 (1984), 1-2. Emphasis added.