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We Have a Dumb Religion Problem -- Not a Political Problem

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The media failed to tell the real story of how we reached the shutdown and brink of default. To get what's happening to the GOP and, to America, you need to understand the theology of the extremist frankly stupid and misinformed evangelical heartland. We don't have a political problem. We have an evangelical stupidity problem. The Republican Party has fallen into the grip of an evangelical-led group of religious fundamentalists who are either true believers or who know how to cater to them. Now the experience of the hostage taking these "Christians" did in the shutdown is over, it's worth figuring out how things got so crazy because they will again-- until we admit who and what is at the root of our political dysfunction.

In the late 19th Century a battle began between fundamentalists and liberal Protestant theologians. The battle between those who claimed to believe in the Bible literally and those who wanted to bring historic fact, science and nuance to their faith raged on into the 20th Century. By the mid 20th Century the liberals had won the argument but they lost the popular vote as it were. But for all its popularity fundamentalism was no longer intellectually respectable. So it was rebranded by a core group of image conscious preachers and evangelists as "evangelicalism" to take the edge off the scorn reserved for faith rooted in biblical literalism.

The echoes of the bitter theological battle left the evangelicals feeling embattled and adversarial. Then from the mid 20th Century forward, Billy Graham, and many other evangelicals (including my late evangelist father and religious right founder, Francis Schaeffer) convinced a huge swath of America to convert to born-again faith. While the evangelical camp grew the mainline denominations shrank. The fine print of conversion to a hot literal faith included a directive to not to trust facts (the way those liberals did) but to look for special information which was visible only to the faithful. This way of thinking led inadvertently to an us-or-them view, revealing those with whom you disagree to be not just wrong, but lost, or even willfully evil. When politicians operate from this mindset, the agenda is no longer political. It's a holy war.

While the Tea Party gets blamed, there tends to be silence about these folks' religion. But to cover the story of the takeover of the GOP by extremists without delving into the beliefs behind it is inexcusable. I'm not anti-religious. I'll be in church next Sunday. I'm just against the insanity of literalistic, retributive theology that's the basis of the bitterness evident in the recent shutdown and near default.

The evangelical subculture has bought into an angry God whom we must placate by being saved through a revivalist born-again formula. This pits the true believer against not just science but any information that comes through nonapproved channels. There are two kinds of facts: theirs and ours. This theology has trained millions of brains to choose between God and truth. The folks that believe in a literal Bible don't believe in evolution, in global warming, in gay rights or, we now know, even in increasing the debt limit. These are not theological issues per se but the spirit of sectarian warfare is at the heart of the bitter refusals to be swayed by mere facts.

Delusional religion has become delusional politics. The evangelical establishment teaches a literal return of Christ to judge -- and kill -- the unbelievers. This is extreme stuff, and that spirit of retributive extremism has jumped the tracks into our politics. That is why we are where we are. And it's a fact that the media, today's mainline denominations, the more moderate members of both parties and the general population seem to find too embarrassing to address honestly.

When secular pundits wonder why a segment of the population seems hard to convince of basic economic or environmental facts and that segment opts for their own special facts mainlined from talk radio or Fox news or the religious right media, what they miss is that the political, fact-free beliefs are possible only because of the religion that demanded a choice between facts and faith, between science and theology. What they miss is that this is just the latest battle in the liberal fundamentalist confrontation of the early 20th Century carried on by other means.

Where will it all lead? We've certainly not heard the last of the Tea Party, or whatever the group of mostly white right wing evangelicals next forms itself into. Expect more self-inflicted chaos.

What can we do about it? The media can start by dropping the idea of some moral equivalency. Wake up pundits: it's not only OK to call dumb religion stupid it's necessary to do that for the good of our country. (You could do worse than learn just how nuts these guys are by reading latest book -- And God Said, "Billy!" exploring the roots of American religious delusion, and offering another way to approach true spirituality.)

Sure there are extremes on all sides. But one party is not being dominated by people who believe that Noah loaded dinosaurs onto the ark and that the earth is 6000 years young. One party is not dominated by leaders ready to destroy the good name, faith and credit of our country out of theological spite, nor spurred on by false claims that our president isn't a real American or a Christian.

So let's tell the truth: a fanatical religious element is dominating our political life these days. Until this hard truth is called what it is and squarely faced, we'll be stuck with these guys... and gridlock. Wake up: our evangelical-led right isn't interested in policy. They are an apocalyptic cult led by the none-too-bright. And they won't quit. The answer isn't dialogue but to marginalize the impact of religious delusion. Most Americans are sick of the charade. Political leaders who tell the truth will hear a sigh of relief from their constituents, as will religious leaders who show their congregants another way to approach the mystery of faith besides trying to destroy our government, dismantle our economy, and undermine our sense of decency.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book -- And God Said, "Billy!" exploring the roots of American religious delusion, and offering another way to approach true spirituality, is on Kindle, iBook and NOOK for $3.99, and in paperback.