05/19/2010 12:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Fundamentalist 'Voodoo'

Sarah Palin recently claimed that American law should be based on the Ten Commandments. Glenn Beck addressed the graduating students of the late Jerry Falwell's Liberty University saying that "God's finger ... wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution."

The Ten Commandments, the story goes, were written nearly 5000 years ago by the finger of God for the theocratic nation of Israel. I'm totally unaware of any political manuscript, whether in Scripture or otherwise, that purports to have been written by "God's finger," possibly excepting, in a figurative sense, the Koran.

I suppose one might conjecture that the documents of the founding fathers were influenced indirectly by God via Enlightenment and Deist thought parsed with the relics of Reformation dogma -- but to suggest, even as a metaphor, that they were written by the "finger of God," thereby granting America the status of a chosen theocracy, is innovative, to say the least.

Kurt Vonnegut's take on the use of the Ten Commandments in American law:

For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that's Moses, not Jesus. I haven't heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere ... "Blessed are the merciful" in a courtroom? "Blessed are the peacemakers" in the Pentagon? Give me a break!

The advent and ascension of the fundamentalist Evangelical Right in America, as represented by Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, presents an odd syncretism of religious sentimentality and political ideology that is no less a synthesis than the practice of Voodoo, which is a cultural concoction of polytheistic, animist African tribal belief and the religious ethos of exoteric Roman Catholic ritual.

The Evangelical Right doesn't accurately represent either authentic Christianity or traditional conservative thought. The end result is an insidious conflation that combines apocalyptic fears with political zeal posturing as religious fervor, a fundamentalist voodoo that is as superstitious and credulous as the Voodoo practiced in Haiti or in some sections of New Orleans.

There is a lot to deconstruct here, including my own bias. I am a former Evangelical who in the late eighties more or less swallowed it wholesale. The people I knew were not religious or political leaders. They were not crackpots, crazy, or stupid. They were, and are, normal people with normal jobs, families, ambitions, and lives. They are often very intelligent, sincere, and compassionate. They are people I still know and love and respect. They were, and are, the base that unwittingly allows authentic spirituality to be politicized by very cynical people, or perhaps incredibly deluded people, who play upon our abstract (and often misguided) doctrinal commitments, as well as on our fears.

The evil in the world that is out to get us, per the ethos of fundamentalist voodoo, always uses the tyranny of force, comes in the guise of government, bloodthirsty for the gray equality of an egalitarianism that lowers everyone to the level of dust and ashes. It wants to kill our babies and grandmothers, destroy our marriages, restrict our rights to life and liberty, our freedom to pursue happiness (which, by the way, Mr. Beck, was a code word God used in the Declaration for "private property"). They want to annihilate us, per George W., because they are jealous of our freedoms. Or, they want the power all for themselves, gradually leading the world, it stands to reason, to embrace a one-world government controlled by the Antichrist.

It isn't that there isn't some basis for fear, given the bloody history of Enlightenment atheism played out in the twentieth century under totalitarian governments. Tens of millions of people were murdered, after all, thrown into concentration camps and gulags, subjugated to terrible indignities and personal restrictions of liberty. And we did, moreover, experience a monumental attack in 2001 that claimed thousands of lives. Moreover, Christians around the world are still being persecuted every day (but usually not by secular governments).

However, there is a difference between reasonable caution and jumping at shadows. People like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck make a huge personal profit, both politically and monetarily, by playing on the fear of the credulous, and claiming this equals that when it plainly does not. Add to this the promise of manifest destiny, the clearly heretical doctrine that God wrote the founding documents of our country, the notion that we are a unique nation chosen by God to be a Christian nation whose laws are based on the Bible (never mind the actual history), and the Voodoo works its strange magic.

The most malevolent evil, though, per Palin, Beck, and cohorts, is the government. There is apparently nothing more demonic than the Nazi-like, fascist, and Antichrist political desire to steal our money via taxation. The irony here is thick. Love of money, according to the Scriptures, is the root of all evil. Failing to love God and one's neighbor, and more, according to Christ, failure to love one's enemy, is immoral. Investing your life in the abundance of your possessions (the endless pursuit of private property) is foolishness and idolatry.

St. Basil put it this way in the fourth century: "The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help."

In the end, it turns out that fundamentalist voodoo may well be a convenient smokescreen that hides the real enemy in our midst, while jumping at pretend shadows in the dark. The real enemy isn't fascism or socialism or communism or any ideological "ism". The enemy isn't the quasi-religious/political zealots, either.

According to Jesus, who said that it is out of the heart of the man that proceeds his evil deeds, the real enemy is our own greed, lust, and the desire to hold on to our things in which we put our trust, even if it means other people are dying all around us because they do not have what we have -- money, housing, food, health care.

That may well be the crux of the point. It's far easier to politicize spiritual life and to blame and scapegoat someone "out there" -- the homosexual, the socialist, the leftist, the fundamentalist, the African American, the atheist, the Jew, the illegal alien, the other -- than it is to blame oneself, and to actually strive to be virtuous.

As Alexander Solzhenitsyn writes in The Gulag Archipelago, "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"