THE BLOG

Their Mullahs -- and Ours

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET

This morning I was sitting around minding my own business, bothering nobody, rereading the Constitution of the United States. News of the Middle East was on in the background. I was only half listening but it hit me, how much their mullahs are like our mullahs -- our Christian fundamentalist mullahs, the Catholic bishops, some of our Supreme Court, the political Thought Police -- it's a long list and growing longer.

Probably you realized it, but to me it was a new concept. Mullahs everywhere tend to have a world view based on three core beliefs, about theocracy, infallibility, and patriarchy.

First, theocracy
. Mullahs push for a fusion of church and state even if they seem to endorse the separation. A nice example is the First Encyclical of Benedict XVI.

In God Is Love he yokes his peculiar definition of love to secular politics. Love, he says, means helping one's neighbors. But the church decides what is loving and what isn't. (Presumably teaching "abstinence" would be loving, distributing condoms to AIDS-afflicted Africans would not.) After some jaw music about separateness of the state from mother church he says, "Yet at the same time, she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice." In other words, communion should be denied to politicians who are pro-choice.

The church has always sought absolute separation from secular scrutiny when, for instance, its finances are concerned. But now, Benedict says, the church is "duty bound" to intervene at times in secular politics for "the attainment of what is just." It wasn't so long ago that, to them, separation of church and state meant harboring hundreds of pedophile priests who should have been turned over to attorneys general in many states -- and their crimes, well known to their bishops, were covered up for years.

Second, infallibility.
Sacred texts come directly from God, whose words are flawlessly written down by prophets and translated into hundreds of modern tongues with perfect accuracy. Mullahs see the Bible, the Qur'an, and the Constitution as perfect in their internal consistency, hold their propositions to be inerrant, and teach that their words are to be interpreted literally with reference to the original intent of the writer.

Belief in the literalness of sacred writings is more than ever before our eyes in the current presidential race. Half the candidates don't "believe in" Darwin's theory of natural selection. Many of them say homosexuality is wrong, based on condemnations of it in three verses in the Old Testament and two in the New Testament. Literal interpretation of these five verses almost outweighs the importance of all the other verses, of which there are a total of 31,174.

Self-serving argument, inconsistent and promiscuous interpretation of precepts, fragments taken out of context, fantastic and tortured logic -- all these are standard tools of mullahs. But if you think religious absolutism is only found in red states and less educated people, brace yourself for the Supreme Court's decision in District of Columbia v. Heller. I predict tsunamis of outrage from mullahs in academia whose pet interpretations of the Second Amendment may be skewered by a decision against strict gun control.

Of all the complicated arguments for and against a simple and commonsense interpretation of the Second Amendment, the clearest and most persuasive to my mind is context: All the other amendments in the Bill of Rights refer to individual rights, not collective rights. It makes little sense to argue that only the Second Amendment treats of collective rights (of the states to have militias), whereas all the other Amendments guarantee individual rights. It's the same species of mullery to decontextualize a few words about militias as to outweigh five verses in the Bible against the sweep of ideas in the other 31 thousand.

And third, patriarchy. Women are property -- or so it's been through most of human history. In most cultures even today, a woman carries either her father's or her husband's name as part of hers.

Larry Summers stumbled blindly into the pent up resentment of women toward old white dudes (and spare me please about the science of what he literally said). For his pains, Summers lost his job as president of Harvard, to be replaced by Drew Faust. (By the way, she's dropped the maiden name, Gilpin, from her signature in recent letters to the Harvard community.)

It took me forever to realize that many battles of the culture wars reduce to the myth that women belong to men. The idea may be explicit or buried deep in the collective unconscious, but it's there, women are property, and to contradict it causes massive anxiety in many people. Somebody asked me the other day whether I was for gay marriage. "Hell no!" I said, "If they give gays the right to marry, they'll have to give women the vote." Thinking about it later, I wondered how true on some level, how much of homophobia is actually displaced misogyny. Even in gay culture, butch guys have higher status than effeminate ones. And in the larger world, if a pro football player comes out of the closet, it's less cringe-making to your average joe than the very pink Gay Pride parade in Provincetown.

A question emerges from these similarities that want to be differences. Why does one group of mullahs tend to hate -- and hate, and hate -- other mullahs, when their basic beliefs are so similar? The explanation is probably sunk in the steamy swamps of the unconscious, so I'll defer to Freud. This loathing in others of mirrored traits we hide from ourselves he called "the narcissism of small differences."

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