The danger of American fundamentalism
I WANT to start by urging readers to listen to the Better Off Red podcast, especially Episode 34 (âLance Selfa Halfway; More Meaning of Lifeâ), with its insightful and nuanced discussion of religion, and Episode 36 (“Sean Larson on History’s Lost Revolution; The Return of Anti-Semitism”), with his equally insightful discussion of the resurgence of anti-Semitism and the Pittsburgh Massacre.
As the comrades who host the podcast point out, a few years ago, one could have said that anti-Semitism was a marginal phenomenon because it had been completely discredited by the experience of the Nazi Holocaust. But since Trump’s election, there has been a worrying increase in anti-Semitic crimes and hate attacks.
I fully agree with them that our analysis must focus on the political, social and ideological functions of anti-Semitism. Corresponding to these lenses, we must identify and critique how anti-Semitism fits in with the politics of white nationalism; how it is a divide and rule form of racism for the ruling class; and how it is a scapegoat tactic to blame for deteriorating economic conditions.
Moreover, as they remind us, anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, because Zionism is not Judaism. Zionism is basically a political project and not religious. The charge of anti-Semitism is used cynically by the State of Israel, and we must fight fiercely against these efforts to amalgamate the political interests of the State of Israel with the religion of Judaism.
Having said that, I want to add something from a South Asian perspective. We would be remiss to ignore the distance the United States must travel to become a fully secularized society. I think in our effort not to alienate the religious person who is heading in our direction politically, we sometimes downplay the danger and threat of religious fundamentalism and obscurantism in this country.
As we can learn from the experiences of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, religious fundamentalism is a toxic thing, and once it takes root it is difficult to counter it, and even less to uproot it.
WHEN I became a socialist in the early 1990s, I was still new to American politics and learned a lot about the United States from comrades in the International Socialist Organization (ISO). I remember how animated and agitated comrades were when they spoke of the “new right” which had taken on hideous proportions during the Reagan-Bush years of the 1980s.
It was the Christian Right – from mega-churches and televangelists to Klan men and Nazis. In the decades that followed, this fundamentalist base was key to the popularization of creationism, the claim that life begins at conception, the denial of climate science, and a host of other obscurantist claims. which are now central elements of the dogma of the extreme right.
But lately I see little mention of these people in our discussions about the resurgence of the far right. So while we are right to expose how the Zionists falsely accuse their critics of anti-Semitism and to point out the Politics anti-Semitism, we must not forget the anti-Semitic fascists for reasons of faith – that is, because they are fanatics and religious fanatics.
In India, the Hindu far right currently heads the central government, its cadres regularly wreak havoc in the streets and its ideas have become hegemonic, especially among the urban middle classes. What can we learn from the Indian experience?
1. Even a highly syncretic and pluralistic body politic can split along religious and / or sectarian lines under certain conditions, or to put it in terms more suited to the context, a syncretic culture can become “communalized” under the right conditions. Neither liberal pleas for tolerance nor exegetical arguments can successfully counter the rise of religious fundamentalism once it has taken root among a critical mass of fanatics.
I appreciate the ‘Jesus was a socialist’ argument, but in India, attempts by liberal and progressive Hindus to reclaim religion from fundamentalists have been spectacularly unsuccessful.
2. The use of legal methods to stem the growth of religious fundamentalism is also doomed to failure. We can applaud certain court decisions that roll back the fundamentalist cause, but the cultural decay, once started, is difficult to contain.
(Not to mention that in India, these same courts tolerate reactionary censorship, including bans, of secular historiography on the grounds that it may “hurt the feelings of a certain community.” clandestine the execution of an innocent Kashmiri Muslim, Afzal Guru, claiming he was to be executed to appease âthe conscience of the nationâ.)
3. The task of building a united front against fascism invariably falls on the shoulders of the socialist / communist left, and if that left is unable to respond proportionately to the cultural and ideological assaults of fascism (and not just political ones) then it quickly becomes a battle. lost for popular hegemony.
In other words, the fight against right-wing authoritarianism must be waged in the field of civil society with as much energy and emphasis as it is waged in the political sphere.
4. Hindu fundamentalists have managed to rewrite textbooks to reflect their perspective on the history of India and South Asia. Just as creationists did in the United States, fundamentalists convinced a considerable number of Indians to see (Hindu) mythology not only as a competitor of history, but as indistinguishable from it.
Purely academic efforts, or efforts of academia alone, have failed to stem this attack on secular historiography. A broader approach to the social movement is needed, and the socialist left is best placed to propose such an approach within a larger anti-fascist united front..
5. Fundamentalists peddle myth as fact, astrology as astronomy, and narrative as testimony against rationalism and scientific temperament in discussions of socio-political and cultural issues. The Indian Marxist left has been at the heart of the popular science movement (successfully but with limited geographic reach), and we should learn more about their efforts – their successes and their failures..
With these lessons in mind, how should we integrate the fight against Christian fundamentalism with the broader fight against the far right and fascism, and what are some of the challenges we will face?
I think that we are already active on some of these fronts, and we are obviously involved in struggles against fundamentalists, in particular around the right to abortion.
Socialist publications should more widely report and discuss activism against Christian fundamentalism: for example, anti-creationism movements taught in schools, or students who refuse to take the pledge of allegiance. Socialists should try, as much as possible, to work with and strengthen these efforts.
Religious obscurantism is a fertilizer for right-wing authoritarianism, and Marxists have rightly been at the forefront of efforts to popularize science and combat irrationalism at the cultural / ideological level. We must help to amplify âscience for the peopleâ initiatives within the framework of a socialist project.
Progressive black churches, other progressive and militant churches, labor unions (especially teachers’ unions), schools, professional associations, community organizations and college campuses have a role to play in anti-fundamentalist work. within our largest anti-fascist united front coalitions.
We should think about what it would mean to fight Christian fundamentalism while simultaneously building solidarity with attacked black churches and black pastors who are fighting against white nationalism and white supremacism.
In the other direction, we will have to distinguish our criticism of Christian fundamentalism from that of the ânew atheistsâ who do not distinguish between majority and minority expressions of religious identity. In other words, we must be able to criticize religious obscurantism without giving in to Islamophobia which often parades like secular atheism.
Complacency with religious fundamentalism is dangerous. For too long now, the American media and politicians have propagated the myth that we live in an exceptionally tolerant and secular society, so that religious fundamentalism is seen as something that only afflicts Muslims and majority nations. Muslim.
It is time to tackle this myth head-on as we fight against the far right.