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April 2003

ON ZEALOTS & ZEALOTRY

 

By Henry William Brownejohns

 

In the whole great catalogue of human faults, I propose the least forgivable and most appalling of them is that unmeasured devotion to doctrine, jazzily encompassed by the dictionary as Zealotry.  Here is a trait so demeaning to human dignity that it goes for generations unexamined, lest the zealots in our midst take offense and act out the worst of their abilities.  But unless the occasional courageous author takes up the issue, these sorts will continue to prance through history, befriend us, demean us, take our votes, and lead our civilization into the dregs.  For the zealot often appears attractive to the moderate – playing upon an innate, if foolish, admiration for the traits of Passion, Determination, Lucidity, and Certainty, though taken one by one, it should be clear that each of these characteristics is detrimental to the practical functioning of a complex human being in a complex society. 

The Passionate waste their energies on singular concerns, and by losing the measure of their composure, are bound to mismeasure everything else.  The Determined, similarly, if their determination is not tempered, will overwhelm their faculties in pursuit of a solitary treasure, and will have ignored both the pleasure of life, and its utility.  The Lucid – and in this instance I intend those who would describe themselves as such – are almost certainly not so.  To believe in one’s lucidity, in the midst of such a vast and maddening universe, is the apogee of murk.  And Certainty, also, signals a narrow view; I contend any hominid who wakes in the morning utterly sure of himself deserves every cataclysm he is in for.

     When combined, undiluted, all these traits suggest the making of a zealot – an unwavering aggressor for his own cause, who may take any route to the persuasion of the rest of us.  And by the time the zealot has been made, it is futility to reform him.  Only by placation, tolerance, and suppleness of opposition can the zealot be kept from inflicting the greatest harm to the marvelous heterogeneity of humanity.

     Even the most block-headed pedestrian must realize that zealotry is manifest in many forms – there are political, religious, plainly ideological types - but each is characterized by an identical impulse to action: his own surety, coupled with a disproportionate capacity for incursion.  It is a mere ideologue who stands convinced of his own correctness; the zealot betters that by exercising his conviction against everyone else’s.  Yet this essay does not have the pulp or the patience to list every type, let alone to give adequate description of each.  And so I shall focus on that sort of zealotry that seems both the most appropriate to our day, and is, incidentally, the most egregious, because it tampers with the most profound senses of the human animal, where reason and moderation have such lubricous footholds: that is, religious zealotry.

 

     And here I shall take for my example not the contemporary simplicist’s paradigm of fanaticism - that handful of Islamic extremists lately so prevalent in the news - but instead our nation’s own executive, Mr. Bush, whose zealotry is the more despicable because it is wielded in the name of reason, ostensibly for the sake of the Enlightenment’s beleaguered utopia, the United States.

     To the youthful observer, and the exhausted and disheartened secularist, it may seem that the American presidency has been held by prayerful evangelicals as long as history can recall, but I must reveal to the readers, both rational and faithful, that this is a relatively new phenomenon.  It was only with the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter, in fact, that an outwardly religious character shambled into the Oval Office, and with the reign of the crusading Mr. Reagan that the American people came to expect a blessing at the end of every speech.

But it has become popular in late years for sacrists to argue that God has always had a place in American government; such contentions are as historically grounded as the space-alien conspiracies of the Western desert – certainly, Yahweh has made a few appearances in the political oratory, and he doesn’t lack for references in the American apocrypha, but nobody has ever discovered an explicit endorsement of Christianity as the official religion of the State, nor have they found a Martian vessel in the Mojave.  Held to task for the beginning of state-sponsored ‘faith-based’ social programs, the recently devout Mr. Bush refers all dissidents to the alleged godliness of the American Founders.  The Founders themselves - at least according to the plurality of historians and their own yellowed diaries - were in fact something Mr. Bush would shudder to encounter: deists.  This was the unofficial church of the Enlightenment, a doctrine that never explicitly discarded the old notion of an omnipotent deity, but also forged enough intellectual wiggle-room to allow for the development of Enlightenment inquiry, science, and the establishment of secular government.  The conceit of deism was that there was a common morality to every religion, and that this suggested a framework for the laws of man – but such laws were necessary precisely because of the apparent absence of a meddling god.  To the deists, including Washington, Jefferson, and the majority of the Constitutional Convention, god was the Prime Mover, the instigator of the universe, but afterwards the affairs of men were their own problem.  This is quite contrary to Mr. Bush’s useless dogma: “Events aren’t moved by blind change and chance,” but by a “just and faithful God.”  When Benjamin Franklin suggested that the delegates at the Constitutional Convention try prayer to get the wheels turning on the formation of a new government, the motion was soundly defeated.  The United States was to be born out of the lovely chaos of human design, because it was just that sort of chaos it was meant to govern.  For the first two hundred years of its history, god was nothing but a hypothetical spectator to the worldly due process of the American states, making appearances only at appropriate funerals and the odd seance.

     But come the mid-twentieth century, the rigid enforcement of atheism in the Communist blocs during the Cold War inspired a knee-jerk contrarianism in American government – everything the Russians did, it became American policy to do the opposite.  Thus, if they shunned god, then we shall embrace the old coot; regardless of the founding principles.  This is how god made his way into the Pledge of Allegiance (during the fifties), and how, by 1980, religiosity had gone from being a liability in a secular government (Woodrow Wilson, the nation’s most religious executive until Mr. Carter, was soundly chastised for letting his religious idealism cloud the practical matters of waging war and enforcing peace), to an acceptable political stance.  Mr. Reagan performed his role as the devout clergy-cowboy of capitalist democracy so convincingly that by the end of the decade, most Americans would never believe that a non-observer, let alone an atheist, had even or would ever again hold office.

     And we have achieved a new degree of fervency with the ascendance of Mr. Bush, whose Christianity is not even as old as his familial grudge against Saddam Hussein.  The adage about the ferocity of converts is apt: Mr. Bush seems intent on packing fifty years of blind faith into four years in office, and the sheer momentum of all that concentrated sanctity has turned him into nothing less than a dogmatic zealot, with an entourage barely canny enough to temper his public displays of piety, lest it get too sweet for the electorate.

     And it is worth noting that Mr. Hussein, the villain in Mr. Bush’s fable, is playing a role quite the opposite.  Anyone with a library card is able to discover that Mr. Hussein, of the colorful biblical rhetoric, is in truth a secularist that Voltaire would be proud of.  But the tendency among the increasingly impoverished people of Iraq and the Arab world has been to rediscover devotion, and ever the crackling politician, Mr. Hussein has adjusted his style to seem more devout – he has even begun the construction of hundreds of mosques throughout Iraq, all of which will carry his name, as a wily means of entrenching his worldly power in the otherworldly faith of his constituents. 

     The wide public perception in this country of Mr. Hussein as a raving Islamic fanatic bent on the establishment of a new empire under Allah is the result of the Bush administration’s own devotional propaganda.  In reality, Mr. Hussein is a materialist dictator, surely no democrat, but a man infinitely more interested in surviving a long time in comfort and power than counting on the unlikely pleasures of the afterlife.

     To the contrary, Mr. Bush has proven himself a religious zealot of the first order, whose own moral certainty has precedence over the objections of two-thirds of the world’s living, non-ethereal population.  And if the wavering reader is uncomfortable with this insistence that Mr. Bush’s zealotry is particularly a religious one, and not a purely despotic sort, look only to the president’s own admission: regarding waging war in the Middle East, he states that God’s “call of history has come to the right country.”  It was God, after all, that told him to run for the presidency in the first place.  If he is merely hearing voices, that is a matter for the White House psychologists; but the voices he hears claim substantial authority in  the universe, and they have explicitly ordered him to invade the sovereign nations of Arabia, and they are voices louder in his ear than four billion human ones.  All of the Bush administration’s worldly compulsions toward belligerence in the Middle East are afterthoughts to the missionary zeal of their chief – if it is otherwise, it remains for them to produce evidence of it better than accusation and hypotheses.  It is a decidedly medieval stance, in a world long refurnished by empiricism.

    

It might be argued that any action compelled by religion is zealotry; religion only informs us well when it informs us to be passive.  Regardless of the name of the sect or the shape of the god, religion’s proper use is as a reminder to turn the other cheek, to tolerate, to compromise, and to accept what is not within our power or right to change.  The better aspect of every human faith has always been an insistence on non-aggressiveness.

     The zealot, meanwhile, forges his belief into a bludgeon.  Aggression, conversion, crusade, and the infliction of principles all characterize the most loathsome application of religion.  While Mr. Bush is urged from all sides not to betray his compulsions, they are clear in his diction: more than once he has described his belligerence as a crusade, and countless times he has framed his position with the idiotic and ambiguous use of ‘Evil.’  The posturing, flowery rhetoric of the Arabian desert is remarkably similar to Mr. Bush’s muddled Texan ultimatums – while, if I am not misinformed by an adequate grammar-school education, the whole original aim of American intervention has been to pour the cool, distilled water of Reason over the fires of dogmatic barbarian conflict.

     Religion, if it must participate in worldly affairs, ought to give us fortitude for inaction only.  It should remind us how to be adaptable, supple, and how to be victorious through patience and temperance.  When we are compelled by the intangibles of faith into action, we must realize that it is a perversion of the very principle.  No god ever condoned an act of aggression, whether it be physical or ideological.  The screwy fervor of Mr. Bush is a perfect example of why religion was never meant to be part of the structure of American political power.  The leftists, atheists, and pagans have been issuing apocalyptic warnings about Mr. Bush’s skewed agendae since his dubious ascent to office – now it falls to those sensible citizens who are also god-fearing to recognize that the once attractive piety of their candidate is indeed the worst perversion of their beliefs.  Conscientious Muslims everywhere have strained to distance themselves from the abstracted form of worship practiced by the extremists of that faith, and which were borne out in the notorious hijackings of 2001; Christians in the United States had best follow their lead, and recognize Mr. Bush’s own ‘faith-based initiatives’ in Mesopotamia are as crooked a conception of their beliefs.

     That the vilified Republic of Iraq is today a more secular state than the District of Columbia should appall not only the doves on the steps of every City Hall, but the foamy patriots in suits and uniforms throughout the bureaucracy; both the sensible clergy and the insensate laymen.  Both our nations are in the grip of autocracy (the Patriot Act leaves even your gentle essayist now subject to surveillance, and arrest without charge); the only hope for our own is that the will of an informed populace is not too badly broken next November, and someone ever-so-slightly more Jeffersonian might steer us off the missionary course, and deliver to the god-blind American electorate a history lesson about our own worldly, be-wigged prime movers – who feared god less than they feared zealotry on Earth, and the degradation by despots of humane self-government.    

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