A few decades ago I was awakened at seven o'clock one Sunday morning by the persistent droning of my downstairs door buzzer. I was living then in a back apartment on the top floor of an East Village walk-up that was without an intercom or the capacity to buzz visitors inside. This circumstance made it necessary for me to descend five flights of stairs to personally open the frosted-glass front door and to see who it was.
In this instance it was two Jehovah's Witnesses.
At the time I bore no animus toward people who presented themselves as fervently religious. Though I deemed them delusional, I respected both their right to their delusion and their need of it. The proselytizers I encountered were more likely to draw pity from me than to provoke my ire.
So if I had good reason to be put out by the inconvenience they'd caused me, an inconvenience compounded by the ungodly hour they'd picked to pay a call, my reaction to the elderly and finely attired black couple with soft Georgia accents who greeted me—he with a bible in one hand and a straw hat in the other; she wearing a hat bedecked with white and yellow flowers—wasn't in the least bit hostile. In fact, while I made it clear that I had no use for the message they were delivering, I was as courteous as I could be. I didn't want to tamper with their fantasy or hurt their feelings and when I closed the door on them it was very gently.
But that was a while back, before religion assumed the weight and influence that it has in our cultural and political affairs and before I understood just where the so-called "True Believers" are coming from.
We tend to allow that, unhinged as we may judge them to be, evangelicals, in their efforts to make converts or to bring "more religion" into the culture, are doing the work of a God they feel with genuine confidence to be real. Some of us might even imagine that they care about our salvation. But this isn't what's happening. Dealing with their fear of death, a fear exacerbated by 9/11 and the destruction of the myth of American invincibility, and wanting desperately for a God and the potential for eternal life implicit in the concept of God to exist, the real mission of these people isn't to share a revelation but to validate beliefs they're not sure of by securing the agreement of others. To prove the existence of God to themselves by achieving a universal consensus on the matter (the only way to achieve something like certainty about anything) is the true aspiration of the religious right.
And I mightily resent the manifold ways in which their ambition to, for starters, make a formal theocracy of America—a more than adequate means of certifying their beliefs—is already poisoning the lives of the rest of us.
I'm speaking, of course, of their interference with a woman's freedom to end a pregnancy and of homosexuals ability to marry one another. I'm also talking about the brakes they managed to apply to government sponsored stem-cell research and the role they played in obliging us to endure a George W. Bush for a second term (let alone what his presidency has left in its wake) because he professed to share their faith in Jesus Christ. And I'm referring as well to what turned out to be a politically pivotal quantity of Tea Party candidates that they were instrumental in electing to Congress.
And, again, none of this has been, at bottom, to the purpose of spreading a vision (which could maybe have claimed some level of legitimacy), but rather to, in their own minds, ratify by numbers, law or custom, the presence of a deity.
Since there remains a sufficient population of heathens to challenge their beliefs and to keep their uncertainty alive, reaching their unspoken goal will only become more urgent for the evangelicals. They will get louder and more insistent. And their successes will be more pernicious. Is a President Rick Perry completely out of the question?
I should say that having a few issues of my own with the prospect of death, and quite capable myself of distorting reality in order to live in the world with a semblance of equilibrium, I can, even under the present conditions, experience some empathy for the Christian right's agenda. (And I can also appreciate the necessity and durability of religion itself. I'm always taken aback when people whose minds I admire predict that human beings will one day "outgrow" the need for religion, as if it were merely a stage in our evolution. Like the biologists who are looking for a religion gene, they miss the point. For as long as death is a precondition of life, a need for some kind of invented deity, with a plan for mankind—and a collection of rules and practices which, if scrupulously followed, offer the promise of an afterlife—is going to prevail for a large percentage of humanity.)
But while I'm not insensitive to the evangelicals' cause that doesn't make its increasing encroachment on the lives of the secular any more acceptable to me. I repeat: Is a President Rick Perry out of the question? No. If there was once a time when we could indulge the folks of the Christian right at no substantial cost to ourselves, that's not the case any longer. Their quest to conscript us into their immortality project has gotten too much out of hand and leaves no room for such generosity. At this point there's little choice but to do battle with them; to fight and resist their actions at every turn. The consequences for those of us who live for this life rather than the next one have become too dire to let them slide.
Robert Levin is the author of When Pacino's Hot, I'm Hot: A Miscellany of Stories and Commentary (The Drill Press), and the coauthor and coeditor, respectively, of two collections of essays about jazz and rock in the '60s: Music & Politics, with John Sinclair (World Publishing), and Giants of Black Music, with Pauline Rivelli (Da Capo Press).
To the writer
Though I fully understand you do not want religion forced upon you, I do disagree with your references to any belief of God as just imagination ("I didn't want to tamper with their fantasy"). I personally am a UK based Christian. I am not fully clued-up on US Christians, and I admit some of them on the news are, well, mad.
However, there is no reason to say that they must be stopped and are forcing their views on others. By writing this article, could you be forcing a secular view onto religious people?
I leave you with this. I have an apple in my lunchbox. Tell me, is it bitter, or sweet? Do you believe me when I tell you this? The only way to know is to go into my lunchbox and take a bite. Is there a God? Is he kind? The only way to find out is to go searching for him and find out.