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Press: Eagleton identifies surrogates for the Almighty

26 April 2024


THE slow surge of religion back from the margins of the printed media continues. There is a lovely quote from Terry Eagleton in the course of his long Marxist explanation of culture for the London Review of Books. I could quote a whole column’s worth of fun, and I can’t resist one temptation to irrelevance: “Marxism is about leisure, not labour. The only good reason for being a socialist, apart from annoying people you don’t like, is that you don’t like to work. For Oscar Wilde, who was closer in this respect to Marx than to Morris, communism was the condition in which we would lie around all day in various interesting postures of jouissance, dressed in loose crimson garments, reciting Homer to one another and sipping absinthe. And that was just the working day.”

But the most thought-provoking paragraph is this: “The nation itself resembles a work of art, being autonomous, unified, self-founding and self-originating. As this language might suggest, both art and the nation rank among the many surrogates for the Almighty that the modern age has come up with. Aesthetic culture mimics religion in its communal rites, priesthood of artists, search for transcendence and sense of the numinous. If it fails to replace religion, this is, among other things, because culture in the artistic sense involves too few people, while culture in the sense of a distinctive way of life involves too much conflict. No symbolic system in history has been able to rival religious faith, which forges a bond between the routine behaviour of billions of individuals and ultimate, imperishable truths. It’s the most enduring, deep-rooted, universal form of popular culture that history has ever witnessed, yet you won’t find it on a single cultural studies course from Sydney to San Diego.”

The entanglement of religion and nationalism is most visible here over the Gaza war — as if anything that anyone in England did could affect matters on the battlefield. The American government is a different matter, and, of course, you cannot understand American engagement in the Middle East without taking into account Evangelical Protestantism.

MORE interesting, though, is the part that Republican Evangelicals are playing in the Ukraine war. Here, they seem to be working quite effectively against Donald Trump, as three stories this week indicate.

Time magazine had a story about religious persecution in Ukraine which started with torture: “After they beat Azat Azatyan so bad blood came out of his ears; after they sent electric shocks up his genitals; after they wacked him with pipes and truncheons, the Russians began to interrogate him about his faith. ‘When did you become a Baptist? When did you become an American spy?’. . .

“There are over thirty cases of religious clergy killed and kidnapped. 109 known cases of interrogations, forced expulsions, imprisonments, arrests. 600 houses of worship destroyed. And these are just the confirmed numbers, with the real ones in information blackout of the occupied territories will much likely be higher.

“Evangelicals are targeted by the Russians disproportionally, and Azat’s story is typical for Russia’s systemic persecution of Protestants in occupied Ukraine.”

The same story appeared with an entirely different spin on the left-wing site Salon. “If you see evangelical House Republicans softening their opposition to military aid for Ukraine, don’t assume it’s divine intervention,” Jonathan Larsen wrote. “Religious media outlets have started to notice how Russian President Vladimir Putin is waging a war on that most sacred of right-wing cows: Religious freedom.

“That message is coming — with elements of truth but also an agenda — from a small but well-connected cadre of Ukrainian and American evangelicals, including prayer-breakfast leaders.”

For the American Left, this represents a choice between plague and cholera: Trump and Putin on the one hand, who want to end democracy, and, on the other side, the Evangelicals who want to end the sexual revolution. Whom to hate most?

THEN there is The Washington Post, whose columnist Perry Bacon, Jnr, tried to explain why the Republican Party was increasingly the party of white Evangelicals, while the country as a whole moved away from them: “Polls suggest there are many Republican voters who would prefer a GOP that wasn’t trying to make abortions impossible and ban books written by LGBTQ+ authors from public schools and libraries.

“But those Republicans aren’t organized into well-funded activist groups working at the local, state and federal levels. . . Those on the religious right argue that abortion, same-sex marriage, people changing their gender identities and other actions condoned by liberals are violations of core religious tenets. So they aren’t willing to set aside those views just because they poll badly. It’s hard for nonreligious Republicans to win intraparty arguments when the religious bloc is speaking with such passion.”

Which brings us back to Terry Eagleton. I don’t doubt that that secular nationalism is a religious passion, but not all religious passions are equal, and they all need refreshment by ritual. I write just before the local-government elections, and, honestly, it’s a rare church service that manages to be quite as uninspiring as a polling station, however much we need to comminate the Government.

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