Thursday, March 11, 2010

Auto de, Auto da, Auto dum (revised)

[Note: I had originally written this in pieces, and the results were uneven. You can read them, below, in "De, Da, Dum."]

I work at a place where there are rumors that a statement of faith is coming. It's not so remarkable. Many, many, many parochial and non-parochial institutions have things like that. Heck, entirely secular places have these statements of belief that employees have to sign, but they're called "statements of principle" or "memos of understanding." It got me thinking, though, about why a group that has given absolutely all credible evidence of belief in behavior needed to be sent through a signed confession.

There's a lot of it about.

Does anyone here remember the hubbub of the flag pin in the presidential elections last year? It was all about wearing a pin showing the U.S. flag. Only patriots wore them, and anyone who didn't wear one was no patriot. Oh, my European readers will not believe anything so trivial really happened, but it was an encouraging improvement. Before that, there was a furore about the "Pledge of Allegiance." Back in the late 80's and early 90's, politicians vied with one another to say it loudest. They also made sure to sing the national anthem, or bits of it. (The fact that this came from Lee Atwater is not surprising, really.) When they were all singing and pledging and swooping their arms over their hearts with greater and greater passion and stage tears at the mention of soldiers, it prompted me to think that the ministers of Lilliput, who had to dance on a high wire to get elected, were chosen on a more rational basis than conservative politicians in the U.S., because the public was more entertained by a high wire walker than these old white men trying to look grave without looking dead. The flag pin, in comparison, didn't bite down.

The idea was that by his pin shall ye know him. By his pledge shall he be known. FoxNews has been convicted of passing along an e-mail slander about candidate Obama in 2007-8 that claimed that he "refused to say the pledge of allegiance." This is part of the portfolio they were building of proof that he was secretly a foreign agent.

Think about that. Do you not wonder now why no one ever made Robert Hanssen say the pledge?

You see, the thing about all such pledges and tokens is that they represent a search for a set of magical words, a set of words that, if spoken by the unbeliever, will cause the cursed tongue to burst into flames. They therefore represent a wish rather than a tool. They testify to the desire of the affected group, not the social coherence of it. A group can be entirely uniform in belief, completely loyal, entirely certain, and yet it can reach for the formula of the loyalty oath, the pledge, the confession of principles that all "real members" must sign or say or sing or dance (really, in some societies it's a dance). Indeed, the groups that employ these devices frequently are quite homogeneous.

In each case, the invocation of the magic is a demonstration that the group feels like it is impure, is fearful that it is infiltrated, is nervous that its ideas or ideology haven't strength enough to survive a test (whether the test is foreign trade, education, free speech, open assembly, or discussion varies group to group and place to place).

When the Republican Party goes after a Purity Pledge, swearing to pure Ronald Reagan, they not only grant Reagan the apotheosis that Christian fundamentalists within the party really ought to object to, but they also seem to say that they are afraid that these principles are not capable of surviving in their party without such oaths. Particularly, the device is aimed at "accountability." A politician who "passes" the purity test (with its connotations of sexual inexperience being simply another troubling aspect, given that this is a party most dogged by closeted politicians and hidden pedophiles currently) can then be "held to account" when he or she casts a vote that presumably violates the pledge or test later. What's implied is that the pure principle cannot survive the jarring of practicality or negotiation. What is actually stated is that the demand is for inflexibility and "pure" or nothing. It is an ideology that exists in and emerges from the framework of war.

If a religious institution makes its priests swear to agree to the dictates of dogma, it is presumably because the institution is in a struggle not among, but against all other religious organizations. If it has them swear to be religious, then it is at war with non-religion or with Satan. If it has them swear to be exactly in the model and mode of a particularized list of things and thoughts, then it is at war with conceptual interchange and fearful of that enemy. Oaths, in other words, create and announce their own enemies. If a political group has its members swear to the founding idea of the party, then it is against the opposing position. If it has its members go to a list of particular points, then it is against discussion and modulation and negotiation (against, in other words, civil exchange). No harm comes to a society if people are at war with evil, or Satan. Considerable harm comes if a society is in civil war. Considerable harm comes to a group if it is in intramural war.

(not my photo)
The purity pledge, the idea of cleanness, ends up slashing the throats of those who devise such tests. The institutions, whether they're church affiliated colleges or businesses or political parties, that institute oaths and pledges for purity are stipulating a "not them" as the definition of "a good one of us." This is, first of all, an identity built on opposition, which is guaranteed to be absurd or tragic. Secondly, though, it means that the person who devises the oath is subject to the same examination by the next test giver. "Are you Baptist enough, friend," the test giver asks the test maker. "I see that you ask them to swear that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, but you do not make everyone swear that it is the inerrant literal Word of God." In turn, that reformer is challenged, later, by another who can say, "I love the oath that you have devised, but you did not have the statement of principle say anything about how we all affirm the sanctity of unborn life, and we certainly don't want any baby killers around!"

Once an instrument of purity, or Puritainism, is in place, "purity" goes on indefinitely. Our friends the Menonites are pure. To them, the most fundamentalist protestant churches are hopelessly corrupted by man. Each element of a defining principle can become exaggerated to become an identity, and then a test question, and all in an effort to sort out the good from the bad on the assumption that the bad cannot speak lies and the good will never hesitate to swear.

"Auto de fe" is the original of what we now know as the "auto da fe." Originally, it was an act of faith. If you were sorry for your sins, you would show it in an act of faith. No one would tell you to, and no one would tell you how. The confessor would simply watch to see if you did something that showed that your faith was back so that he could be sure that you weren't paying lip service to the oaths. You see, the old church folk actually knew that people could be forsworn, that bad people had no problem swearing that they were good, that people without conscience would gladly swear to whatever was convenient. The auto de fe was not a test imposed by anyone, but rather a sign manifested by the will of the person.

Well, we all know what happened. Once the institutionalized fears came in, once the Roman Catholic Church became convinced that its ideas might not stand up in free interchange, they adopted tests of faith. Then came hunts for heretics. Then came increasingly elaborate tests to prove that a person was or was not serving Satan or Martin Luther. Then come the Inquisitors. After a person was tortured, that person would sign or say a grand confession in public, and this was the auto da fe. What had been a sign from the person became a testing outcome for assessment.

It's sad, amazingly sad, to see tests come in like this -- attempted tests of the soul, of the heart, of the mind, as if some combination of syllables could be an ascultation of the inward self. It's sad, deeply sad, to see Christian schools, particularly protestant ones, adopting, increasingly, oaths, as if unbelievers will not sign or that they will somehow demonstrate their non-belief. It tells us that the groups at the helm are afraid that their faith is not strong, that their ideas cannot survive free exchange, that they believe that prosecution of their members is better than construction of their ideology. What's more, it tells us that they are, in their fear, willing to forgo looking at a person's expression of faith in favor of demanding a formulaic satisfaction of a ritual.

If the Republicans want to be a party again, they need to have dissent, debate, and discussion, and not purity. If protestant churches want to triumph, they need to have faith -- faith in the power of Christ, power in the Word that conquered the world -- faith in life's diversity and the glory of God who creates not in one type, one model, or one mold, but in endless variety.


Clyde Penquin said...

"We will NEVER have true harmony and peace and brotherhood in this country until we hunt down all the Republicans and chop them up with machetes."
--Art Linkletter

I had to sign a "loyalty oath" when I first began working at a large Southern state university in the 70s. In it, I swore I was not seeking the overthrow of the government. :-)

BTW, that's a great photo!

The Geogre said...

In the 1970's, swearing you weren't going to overthrow the U.S. was an anachronism, and therefore it wasn't in force. On the other hand, at the moment of invocation, those oaths are a testimony to a McCarthyite moment, and by that I do not mean a moment of intolerance, but a moment of fear. Fear of what? Fear that "we" are no longer "us."

It's insane, seeing all this going on now, because, unlike the McCarthyite moments, the feeling I get is that these are not groundswells, not populist. These are tiny whitecaps, while the tide moves along.

(I think the fireworks people got their truck and tent from a bankrupted Bible college.)