Monday, September 14, 2009

A Reflection on the Thinness of Secularism

What's someone to do who's been emotionally terrorized by evangelical Christianity? That's one of the questions posed by Max Blumenthal in a Nation article on Matthew Murray, a young man who was raised according to the strictest tenets of "movement Christianity," profoundly rejected the faith of his parents, and ended up killing four people at a Youth with a Mission Center in Colorado.

Certainly, the child-raising techniques of Matthew Murray's pentecostal parents were grotesque enough. Here's a lengthy quote from Murray: mother was into all the charismatic "fanatical evangelical" insanity. Her and her church believed that Satan and demons were everywhere in everything. The rules were VERY strict all the time. We couldn't have ANY christian or non-christian music at all except for a few charismatic worship CDs. There was physical abuse in my home. My mother although used psychotropic drugs because she somehow thought it would make it easier to control me (I've never been diagnosed with any mental illness either). Pastors would always come and interrogate me over video games or TV watching or other things. There were NO FRIENDS outside the church and family and even then only family members who were in the church. You could not trust anyone at all because anyone might be a spy.
Murray was home-schooled from the third grade forward with his parents "educating" him according to the principles of Christian-right, self-help guru Bill Gothard. From Blumenthal's article, the main emphasis of Gothard's approach was the complete isolation of children from the larger society, intense paranoia concerning "outsiders," and a primary emphasis on submission to authority. First graders in Gothard's program sang this song about obedience.

Obedience is listening attentively,
Obedience will take instructions joyfully,
Obedience heeds wishes of authorities,
Obedience will follow orders instantly.
For when I am busy at my work or play,
And someone calls my name,
I'll answer right away!
I'll be ready with a smile to go the extra mile
As soon as I can say "Yes, sir!" "Yes ma am!"
Hup, two, three!

Scary stuff! I would say it was cult-like, but I wonder if most "cults" are this systematic in their indoctrination. Perhaps it would be better to say that a lot of cults are "Gothard-like." I'm not sure. It would be interesting to see what the Gothard approach to Christian home-schooling said about Jesus and the doctrines of the New Testament. One of the things that characterized the ministry of Jesus was reaching beyond the limits of Judaism as the religion of proper and respectable Jewish people and connecting to Roman centurions, Phoenician women, prostitutes, tax-collectors, beggars, and other outsiders and disreputable people. But this seems like the last thing Murray's parents had in mind. From Blumenthal's account, Matthew Murray's parents and their role models were much more focused on Satan than Jesus.

The situation for Murray got worse after he went to a "discipleship training school" of Youth With A Mission (YWAM):

But as soon as Murray enrolled at YWAM's training center in nearby Arvada in 2002, he found himself trapped in an authoritarian culture even more restrictive than home. He realized that, as another student of YWAM bluntly put it, the school's training methods resembled "cult mind-controlling techniques." Murray became paranoid, speaking aloud to voices only he could hear, according to a former roommate. He complained that six of his male peers had made a gay sex video and that others routinely abused drugs. Hypocrisy seemed to be all around him, or at least dark mirages of it.
After being booted out of the YWAM center, Murray began his path toward mass murder by first becoming a follower of Satanist Aleister Crowley and then engaging in:

"every sort of sexual pervrsion [sic]...that's legal," from anonymous gay sex to bestiality. He boasted of his proclivity for binge drinking, his love for death metal bands, and his penchant for spewing "blasphemy." He envisioned his new experiences as positively transcendent. "In a way it's like I'm just about completely rebelling against christianity [sic] in any way that I can," the enragé mused, "but this is a little different of a rebellion."
Blumenthal expresses surprise that Murray did not move from "hardcore Christian culture" to "secular humanism, a natural position for jaded skeptics like him." But this is where I can't follow Blumenthal. Murray was far from being a "jaded skeptic." He was an enthusiast who was highly committed to doing the opposite of what his parents wanted. Matthew Murray was just as enthusiastic a follower of Aleister Crowley as his parents had wanted him to be of the pre-fallen Ted Haggard (his mother's favorite minister). Likewise, he seems to have thrown himself just as energetically into "anonymous gay sex," "bestiality," "binge drinking," "death metal," and "blashphemy" as his parents wanted him to throw himself into mission work.

I also wonder about Blumenthal's reference to "secular humanism." I'm an atheist and a long-standing participant in the world of progressive internet writing. But Blumenthal's association of "secular humanism" and "jaded scepticism" reinforced some of my current dissatisfaction with the progressive media. Why is it the case that Blumenthal views secular humanism in terms of being jaded? My best guess is that political progressivism and secular humanism have been mostly about opposition--opposition to the Bush administration, neo-con warmongering, the religious right, and the current conservative freak show. Opposing these things is important and necessary and I've been an energetic participant. But it's also like we've gotten so "jaded" in our political opposition that we haven't developed a sense for the kind of things we're seeking for American society. Not really knowing what we want, we also don't have much of a language for articulating our ideas politically. Likewise, progressive media institutions are much more effective at "opposing" than they are at "advocating." It's not just the power of the right and the cowardice of the blue dogs that keeps us from moving forward, it's the "thin" character of our opposition mentality.

It's not like progressives are "jaded" personally. I'm a college professor who spends a lot of my time and am committed to helping students and colleagues. Lots of progressives are in helping professions like medicine, teaching, social work, and psychotherapy. But political progressivism has not done enough to articulate themes like friendship, love, mutuality, shared responsibility, and community. We don't have much of a political language for reaching out to people like who have grown up in the Christian right, participate in "death metal," are heavily into guns, and the like. Not paying attention to these dimensions of American culture, we have no way to reach out to people who are living in these ways and might be dissatisfied like Matthew Murray. We have too much of a tendency to be limited to our own liberal communities. Taking Max Blumenthal as an example, we're coming off as oppositional and "jaded" even to ourselves.

We also fail to recognize the power of cultural motifs we don't share--like the gun culture. In the case of Matthew Murray, he started elaborating on a suicide fantasy in which he kills as many Christians as he can before he dies. Then he stockpiled an arsenal for getting the job done.
As winter approached, Murray acquired a fearsome arsenal of assault rifles, including a Bushmaster XM-15 ("Beltway Sniper" John Lee Malvo's weapon of choice) and an AK-47. At a local UPS store where Murray maintained a mailbox, employees observed that he was ordering "boxes and boxes" of ammunition. Murray's bogus tales of preparing to deploy with the Marines quelled whatever suspicions burned-out UPS employees might have had. Meanwhile, Murray's parents, who were adept at ferreting secular media material from his desk drawers, had no idea his stockpile even existed.
One way to express the power of the gun culture in America society is that it was a logical place for Matthew Murray to move after leaving the religious right. Given that most progressives like myself refuse to participate in the gun culture and therefore have little "feel" for it ourselves, we have a difficult time understanding its attraction to millions of other Americans. If we are going to be an attractive option to disaffected Christians like Matthew Murray, we need to be more interested and effective in addressing people like him.

Let me be clear. I don't think that progressives should stop opposing the religious right. It's important that we do so. Likewise, I don't think a "better progressivism" would have saved Matthew Murray from becoming a mass murderer. But Max Blumenthal's article on Matthew Murray does contain themes that should give progressives pause and lead us to think about our own limitations and weaknesses as well as those of the religious right.

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