“The Bible stays.” Or so says the Vice President of the United States, as The Wild Hunt covered yesterday. Mike Pence’s declaration to the American Legion referenced a specific, physical Bible, one on display at the New Hampshire Veterans Administration medical center. That Bible had been carried by a soldier during the Second World War and is now maintained within a reliquary in the hospital’s lobby. But the statement gestures also to an understanding of religion within American society – namely, that Christianity must always be given deference and accommodation in public affairs, and that “religious freedom” means, fundamentally, that Christians are free to exercise the powers of the state toward the advancement of their religion.
The Bible in question is perfectly suited to its use as an empty signifier of religion in the service of power (and vice versa.) When it was carried in the POW camps and battlefields of World War II, this Bible was (presumably) referenced for its wisdom, guidance, and comfort; now, having assumed the status of holy object, it is contained within a clear plastic box bolted to a table, unable to be read or referenced at all. It now exists only to demonstrate the mutually-reinforcing power of the U.S. military and the Christian religion.
“We will always respect the freedom of religion of every veteran of every faith, and my message to the New Hampshire VA hospital is the Bible stays,” Pence said during his American Legion speech. Never mind that the Bible had been taken off display because of an objection by a veteran patient who complained that it was an obvious display of religious favoritism in a government facility; never mind that this patient was the fifteenth veteran to make similar complaints.
The “freedom of religion of every veteran of every faith” does not apply to those whose concept of religious freedom extends beyond the primacy of Christian expression at every opportunity.
If my dander seems up about something so seemingly inconsequential, it’s only because of how blatant these displays have become – and because I’ve had dominionism on my mind lately, a result of the new Netflix documentary The Family, based on the book of the same name by the journalist Jeff Sharlet. The Wild Hunt has a long history of covering dominion theology, but for readers unacquainted with the term, it refers to a sort of imperial Christianity that works toward a society run entirely according to “Christian principles.” While the rhetoric sometimes includes the placement of Christian leaders in the “seven mountains” of religion, family, education, government, media, entertainment, and business, cementing political control has been the major project of dominionist groups for many decades.
Sharlet’s work on “the Family,” also known as “the Fellowship,” is illustrative. A radically decentralized organization, the Fellowship is a secretive ministry that caters to the powerful and connected. Their theological line is based on the idea that the Christian god has selected “key men” to rule over the world, and those men require a very specific form of religious guidance. (My use of “men” is intentional; this theology is patriarchal to the bone.)
One might expect that the men chosen by the Christian god would reflect mainline Christian principles, but not so – the Family’s longtime, now-deceased, leader, Doug Coe, was more than happy to associate with leaders most denounced as bloody dictators, often arranging political support and connections for them in exchange for a few conversations about Jesus. By contrast, the Family has been opposed to any kind of mass organization of power from the very beginning – the first major action of its founder, Abraham Vereide, was to help Seattle businessmen break a strike. (Happy Labor Day.)
At the core of this movement is the notion of “Jesus plus nothing” – an understanding of Christianity that takes the idea of Jesus Christ as a “personal savior” to its logical conclusion by excising all those messy complications like “textual interpretation,” “liturgical tradition,” or even the idea of “history” itself.
The Bible is important because it is a symbol of one’s allegiance and one’s ties to power, not because of anything actually contained within it.
The same could be said for Jesus, who, having become a radically individualized projection of divine grace, no longer has much connection to the poor carpenter’s son who lived 2,000 years ago in Nazareth. The trappings of the faith become empty vessels, useful containers for power and influence, though with strangely little room for concepts like “mercy,” “charity,” or “tolerance.” They might as well be encased in plastic.
Symbols matter; I doubt many Pagans would contest this. There is a reason why religions rely on material objects to signify a connection to transcendent ideas like deities, or land-spirits, or wyrd. This is the case even in religions with far less connection to the physical world than ours. Wiccans have chalices and athames because those physical symbols help us to embody and understand the Great Rite; Heathens wear Thor’s Hammers because those hammers remind us not just of Thor, but of the virtues and wisdom that Thor embodies.
A common retort to concerns over the display of Christian symbols on public land is that they are only symbols, and symbols imbued with more meaning than their purely Christian context, besides. Other Pagans have said as much to me in reference to things like the “Peace Cross” in Bladensburg, MD, or the “Ground Zero Cross” on display at the National September 11th Museum; they are symbols of comfort to those who find meaning in them, and they don’t do any harm to us. What’s the issue? (This same logic is, indeed, the foundation of the federal court cases that have ultimately supported the continued presence of these Christian symbols on public land.)
What that argument fails to account for is that interpretations are not fixed. The Bible bolted to the table can be read as a memorial to the sacrifices and hardships of American soldiers who fought against fascism; it can just as easily be read as a statement that the U.S. military promotes one specific religion, despite the clear words of the First Amendment. The “Ground Zero Cross” can be read as an artifact of hope in the face of an unimaginable tragedy; having seen the world we’ve created in the wake of those attacks, it reads just as much as a symbol of Christian imperialism against the Muslim world.
It’s for these reasons that we, as Pagans, as members of minority religions, have to remain vigilant about further encroachments of Christian dominance into public spaces. That would be true even if those symbols were representative of a more liberal and tolerant Christianity, but it’s even more urgent when we consider the long career of politicians like Pence in promoting policies that are antithetical to Paganism.