The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Divine Rights, Ancient Mythology, and Modern Politics

Earlier today, I was listening to an interview with Jeff Sharlet, a journalist who has been writing extensively about the semi-secret sectarian political organization known as the Family. As I listened to the interview I was, as I always am when I hear discussions about this group, by the way in which this organization embodies two things that I remember well from my academic training. The first is historical, the second is anthropological. I'll write about the historical one today, and the anthropological one in the next week or so.

For those unfamiliar with it, the Family began as a religious organization dedicated to recruiting powerful individuals, especially politicians, in order to advance a political agenda that included union-busting and an advancement of lassies-fare free-market economics. It had this agenda because it's founder, one Abraham Vereide, claimed that Christ came to him in a vision and announced that the Christian churches of the world had it all wrong, and that Christians should not be ministering to the poor and downtrodden, but rather to the wealthy and powerful so that the wealthy and powerful could re-shape society into a more Christian mold, thus (allegedly) improving society for everyone. Mind you, by "improving society for everyone," what the leadership of the Family actually means is that they wish to force everyone to obey their own particular interpretation of Christianity, and as this group is both very power-friendly and has a strong current of anti-Catholicism (which they manage to keep under wraps for the most part), their vision of Christianity is likely one that not even most hard-right-wing Christians would recognize.

The organization has traditionally focused on economics, but has recently begun adopting many of the causes of the modern religious right (anti-abortion and anti-homosexual politics), and then running with them. And it has long reached outside the U.S. in its search for powerful men to whom it wishes to minister. It was tied in to U.S. Support for the regime that led to Somalia's current problems, and more recently it has backed Ugandan politicians wishing to push for the death penalty for homosexuals*.

The rationale given for the backing of these sorts of disgusting individuals is that the Family holds that the New Testament is a document not about the things most of us think about - hope, faith, tolerance, etc. - but rather a document about power. David Coe, the current leader of the Family, will often say that those 20th Century men who most understood the Gospel were Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung. He will immediately follow this up by saying that he believes these men to have been evil, and that their policies were reprehensible, but that their rise to power represents that they understood, and that they rose to power because God wanted them there and they are therefore God's representatives on Earth.

And this brings us to the historical concept that this reminded me of - the family's core philosophy is nothing other than a modern re-packaging of the concept of the divine right of kings.

The divine right is a mythological construct, it is a model that seeks to make sense of the condition of the world by reference to the supernatural: if God controls all, then nobody can reach a position of power unless God wants them to do so. Since God controls all, anyone in a position of power, therefore, is there to carry out God's will.** Although it reached its apex with the Medieval Period, it was nothing new even then, and there is archaeological evidence that this sort of belief has been around for as long as humans have had permanent social stratification (so, for at least the last 10,000 years or so).

This concept began to be eroded in the west with the rise of a middle class during the late Medieval and early Renaissance periods - even the Magna Carta, though preserving an aristocratic social order, helped to ease this out of the way. Governmental changes in northern Europe during the Renaissance introduced new, non-monarchic models, damaging the divine right concept even further. By the late 18th century, it was struck a fatal (though slow) blow by the rejection of monarchies in what would become the United States and in France (though France reinstated a monarchy, and an empire with Napoleon Bonaparte, before too terribly long).

By the dawn of the 20th century, royalty was becoming obsolete, and by the middle of the century, even powerful countries that retained a monarchy (such as the United Kingdom) either relegated their monarchs to largely ceremonial roles or greatly diminished the monarch's power and influence.

And so, here in the early 21st Century United States the notion that anyone is divinely appointed rather than being selected based on merit seems weird and un-natural. However, this belief is itself the creation of a modern mythology about American meritocracy (the actual rode to power in the modern U.S.A. is paved with many different materials, merit only one of them, and sometimes a minor one).

Regardless, the idea that those in power, whether there through inheritance, conquest, or election, are chosen by God is a natural consequence of the belief that God is all-powerful. That even most religious people in the western world today don't recognize this speaks to the fact that most people don't really think through the propositions that they claim to believe to their conclusions. In some believers, such a belief can actually be beneficial to social cohesion after political upsets ("well, I voted for McSmarty, but McBrainy won, such is the will of God, and I suppose I'd better work to make things good under McBrainy"), but as is shown by the rather odd alliances formed by the Family, and by pretty much all of Medieval history, this can also be a destructive force in that it provides a way for those who support despots to persuade themselves that they are doing what is good and right.

The Family's activities are, at any right, proof that ideas that most of us had thought dead with the end of the chastity belt as a fashion accesory are in fact alive and well. Perhaps it's simply a permanent part of humanity's cultural landscape.

* Listen to the interview for further information, and while you're at it, write to the White House and your elected representatives and let them know that you oppose these sorts of human rights abuses. Uganda is dependent on U.S. assistance in a number of ways, and as such, we can do some good here.

** A similar idea underlies the trial by combat: clearly you can not win a fight unless God wants you to win it, so whoever wins a fight must be on the side of God's righteousness and therefore should be the winner of a trial.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I still want to know why we have a National Prayer Breakfast in this country. Be wary of any event that "blesses" an elected official. This should not happen in a democratic republic. Our rights do not come from God, but dominionists like The Family would like to get people comfortable with that idea. China maintains that people get their rights from the government. This is also an error. Our Constitution makes a legal fact of the rights belonging to every American citizen. Nobody trumps this document, imaginary or otherwise. We said that to King George and we should say it to any newcomer who says God has handed him the keys to the Kingdom.