The parable of the burning trees
Once there was a man who lived in the woods. His cabin was surrounded by 51 trees, one of them, a large oak so close that its spreading branches shaded the roof. He lived there happily for many years. Eventually, there came a season so hot and so dry that when the sparks from a nearby campfire flew in and touched them, the trees practically exploded into flames. The man watched in horror from his kitchen window as the trees were consumed, one by one. Finally, the firemen arrived and put out the conflagration, but not until 48 trees had been destroyed.
Relieved, the man wiped his forehead and vowed to take preventive measures immediately. So the next morning he called his insurance agent. “I need to protect myself and my property,” he said. “How much will it cost for full flood insurance?”
Religious privilege over personal rights
This past week the U.S. Senate barely voted down an amendment to a highway bill that would have allowed employers to opt out of paying for their workers’ insurance for any medical service they believe is “contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the sponsor, issuer or other entity offering the plan.” (For those who aren’t familiar with the crazy American system, the most common way we get health coverage here is as a benefit from our employers. The recently passed Affordable Health Care act mandates coverage, which has brought the issue to the forefront.) In the media, it was mostly framed as a debate about birth control, with the right wing calling it a freedom-of-religion issue.
But the truth is the law was so vaguely worded that it would have permitted an employer to deny funding for any procedure, any drug, anything at all if he or she has religious qualms. If your boss is a Jehovah’s Witness, he might opt not to pay for your husband’s blood transfusion. If he’s a Christian Scientist, he might not want to help pay for your children’s vaccinations. Does he have moral objections about your upcoming heart transplant? Then maybe you should pay for it out of pocket. His “conscience” trumps your health.
The meaning of the parable
The 51 trees represent the smallest majority vote possible in the Senate. The 48 burned trees are the Senators (3 Democrats and 45 Republicans) who voted to privilege religious beliefs over personal human rights. The cabin is our secular republic. So who is the man in the cabin? That would be Dr. Robert M. Price, aka The Bible Geek.
In the same week that the Senate reminded us how close we are to a Congress with a voting majority that would gladly send us down the path toward a Christian theocracy, can you guess what Price’s most recent “Zarathustra Speaks” essay is about? If you answered “the erosion of the wall between church and state,” or perhaps “the theocrats who hate our Constitution,” you’d be wrong. No, the title of March’s essay is: “Are We at War with Islam?”
This was also the same week in which a viable presidential candidate in a major, national political party (albeit in the far-right wing of that party), ex-Senator Rick Santorum (don’t Google that name!) said that John F. Kennedy’s landmark speech on the separation between church and state made him want to “throw up.”
So in these precarious days in which we barely thwarted another assault on our secular state, Dr. Bob comes to this conclusion about radical Muslims:
I guess this means that we can face the nasty prospect of a war, not on behalf of our religion (especially since “we” don’t have one), but against a religion, radical Islamism. We find it terribly hard to believe this, because we prefer to think we live in a more enlightened age. And we do. The trouble is, they don’t.
Fear and loathing — The state of American media
Let me be clear here. I respect Dr. Price as a scholar of biblical studies and theology. He’s a warm, intelligent, and erudite man. I’ve learned a lot from him. I own several of his books and never miss an episode of his great podcast. Nor do I think that radical Islamists pose no challenges to Western civilization. They do. It’s just that there are fires closer to home that we need to attend to.
And even if the threat from abroad were as immediate as Price imagines, the solution need not be war, war, and more war. Unfortunately, the right-dominated media in my country — fueled by wealthy puppet masters, driven by egomaniacal hate-mongers on TV and radio, and sustained by terrified white people who should know better — has been banging the drum for war against Iran in particular and Islam in general for over a decade now.
While Price is out shopping for flood insurance and stocking up on sandbags, the last few trees have begun to smolder again. In the meantime, every Republican candidate except one (namely Ron Paul, who was recently booed at a Republican debate for quoting the Golden Rule) has been threatening retaliation on Iran — not if they do something we disapprove of but before. Anyone who objects to yet another useless war is in their estimation guilty of “cowardly appeasement.”
Keep the torch lit for us
Insane politics has become an alternative lifestyle in my country. Untethered from reality its practitioners float from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis. They seethe with rage over the “socialist” in the White House, or whatever today’s talking point happens to be. They believe that Iran is seconds away from building a nuke, shipping it to Cuba, and launching an EMP attack against the U.S. I swear I’m not making this up.
These delusional beliefs begin to make sense if you get a steady diet of conservative disinformation. Listen to it long enough and you’ll start to believe that global warming is a hoax and that Newt Gingrich is a man “full of ideas.” Sadly, even an intelligent bible scholar with two PhDs is not immune to the effective propaganda of the right.
And while I would like to tell you that the people who think this way are just a fringe minority here, the truth is they could win the election in November. All it would take is a rise in the unemployment rate and a jump in the price of gasoline. If that happens, I ask the rest of the world to take good care of civilization and remember us — the first modern, secular republic — fondly.