Chapter 7: Death's Dream Kingdom: Bible Says: The Psychology of Christian Fundamentalism
London: Pluto Press, 2006.
BIBLE SAYS: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF CHRISTIAN FUNDAMENTALISM
— Kenneth Burke
— Senator Joe Lieberman
In Apocalypse, a patient study of Christian fundamentalism based on extensive interviews over a five year period with members of apocalyptic communities, Charles Strozier identifies four beliefs as fundamental to Christian fundamentalism. (1) Inerrancy or biblical literalism, the belief that every word of the Bible is to be taken literally as the word of God; (2) conversion or the experience of being reborn in Christ; (3) evangelicalism or the duty of the saved to spread the gospel; and (4) Apocalypticism or Endism, the belief that The Book of Revelation describes the events that must come to pass for God’s plan to be fulfilled. Revelation thus becomes an object of longing as well as the key to understanding contemporary history. Each of these categories, Strozier adds, must be understood not doctrinally but psychologically. What follows attempts to constitute such an understanding by analyzing each category as a step in the progression of a disorder that finds the end it seeks in Apocalyptic destructiveness.
Before undertaking that examination a note on method. My goal is not to number the streaks of the tulip with respect to Christian fundamentalism but to get to the essence of the thing by offering a psychoanalytic version of the method Hegel formulated in the Phenomenology of Mind. My effort, that is, will be to describe the inner structure of the fundamentalist psyche by examining those beliefs in terms of the psychological needs they fulfill. The examination of each belief will thus reveal its function in an evolving logic tracing the sequence of internal operations required for the fundamentalist psyche to achieve the form required to resolve the conflicts that define it. The difference between my method and Hegel’s is this: Hegel’s effort was to describe the sequence of rational self-mediations required for the attainment of absolute knowledge. Mine is to record the sequence of psychological transformations that must take place for another kind of certainty to be achieved: one where, as we’ll see, ThanatosI (and not Hegelian Reason) attains an absolute status, freed of anything within the psyche that could oppose it. In effect, my goal is to offer fundamentalists a self-knowledge they cannot have, since it is precisely the function of the belief structure we shall examine to render it unconscious. What, after all, is religion but a desire displacing itself into dogmas all the better to assure the flock that what they desire is writ into the nature of things?
Who does the structure we’ll examine describe? George W. Bush and some of those closest to him? The 42% to 51% of those Americans who now identify themselves as fundamentalists? Or perhaps something larger: the over 1 billion viewers worldwide who found Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ a singularly compelling expression of their faith and who are thus already far more fundamentalist in their hearts than they realize? The power of any religious belief system derives from how deeply it taps into collective needs and discontents. In this regard we may already be living in a fundamentalist Zeitgeist with the collective American psyche now characterized ( even among those who seldom or never see the inside of a church) by the emotional needs and psychological principles of operation that find their most seductive realization in fundamentalism. We may even find the same kind of “faith” informing a project that initially appears to have nothing to do with fundamentalism—global capitalism.
Though he does not share their beliefs, Strozier comments often on the charity and gentleness of his interviewees, seeing in that a sign that we should temper any criticism of fundamentalism by acknowledging the good things it does for people, many of whom would be lost or miserable without it. Be that as it may, in terms of the psyche a far different condition might maintain, involving a pronounced dissonance between the blithe sincerity of the surface and the depths where something quite different has taken hold of the psyche. Moreover, to comprehend a belief system the primary concern must be not with the sheep but with the Grand Inquisitors who give them their marching orders; or, in more psychoanalytic terms, who plant in them the super-ego that holds them in thrall to its commands. Our concern, in short, must be with fundamentalism not as a pathetic phenomena, a halfway house for drug addicts and a panacea for those who find in it the infantalization they seek, but with it as what Nietzsche would call (though with horror) a strong valuation; an effort to take up the fundamental problems of the psyche and fashion a will to power out of resentment by developing a system of beliefs that will make one strong and righteous in that resentment, like Falwell, smug in its smug certitudes like Dubya, confident in the right to rule over those it reduces to the status of sheep, blissful in their blind obedience to a Will that has been collectively imposed on them.
Religion remains of course the one topic we are enjoined to treat with kid gloves; indeed, the one area where critique is verboten. Violating this rule is the quickest way to lose what current statistics indicate will be the 93% of one’s audience who believe in God. It’s thus incumbent on me to state up front that this is not a rhetorical contract I can honor. Like Freud (1927), I think it can be demonstrated that religion is a collective neurosis. One implication of the following examination, in fact, is that Freud didn’t go far enough. But let me reformulate this hypothesis in a more convivial spirit. Let’s bracket the whole question of whether religion has an object. On second thought, let me concede it, the ontological truth of all the basic beliefs, ever each one. Only then perhaps can we focus on the question that constitutes the inherent and lasting fascination of religion. Not what people believe, but why. Considering religion as a psychological phenomenon contains, perhaps, an additional value: the discovery that religion is invaluable because it offers the deepest insight into the nature of the psyche and its needs.
Literalism is the linchpin of fundamentalism; the literalization, if you will, of the founding psychological need. That need is for an absolute certitude that can be established at the level of facts that admit of no ambiguity or interpretation. (Fundamentalists, ironically, are the true positivists.) To eliminate ambiguity and confusion one must attack its source. Figurative language. That is the danger that must be avoided because in place of the literal, figurative language introduces the play of meaning and with it the need to sustain complex connections at the level of thought (not fact) through the evolution of mental abilities that are necessarily connected with developing the metaphoric resources of language. The literal in contrast puts an end to thought. It offers the mind a way to shut down, to reify itself. It thereby exorcises the greatest fear: interpretation and its inevitable result, the conflict of interpretations and thereby a world forever bereft of dogmatic certitudes. A metaphor is the lighting flash of an intelligence that sees, as Aristotle asserted, connections that can only be sustained by liberating thought from the immediate.
Literalism is the attempt to arrest all of this before it takes hold. Its innermost necessity is the resistance to metaphor. For with metaphor one enters a world that has the power to unravel the literal mind. Let me offer one example. “There is no God and Mary is his mother.” In this great aphorism Santayana asserts an ontological impossibility that is also a psychological necessity. I once tried the statement out on some fundamentalist acquaintances. They were at first puzzled by its unintelligibility, then amazed that Santayana and I were so dumb we couldn’t see the contradiction. Finally the light went on. Almost in chorus they enacted the literalist equivalent of deconstructionism: “If he wasn’t a God how could she be a mother?” All attempts to suggest that the statement wasn’t meant to be taken literally only produced further confusion then frustration then anger. Santayana’s statement made no sense to them precisely because it was a paradox intended to produce reflection, even introspection. It was there I suggested one would find the key to its meaning; not in their assertion that its meaninglessness constituted evidence that Santayana was perverse or mentally unbalanced. We were, of course, talking at irretrievable cross-purposes with no way to bridge the gulf between us. This was, of course, the point of the exercise.
Literalism is the first line of defense of a mind that wants to put itself to sleep. Through it one creates the sensibility of Nietzsche’s last man who can only blink in blank incomprehension at anything that can’t be immediately understood. Literalism is the great protection against a world teeming with complexities. It offers a way to keep the mind fixed and fixated at its first condition. The way: the refusal to comprehend anything that exceeds the limits of the simple declarative sentence. Two reductions thereby feed on one another: the world is reduced to facts and simples; the mind to a permanently blank slate.
Fundamentalism fosters this reduction of the mind to the conditions of the immediate. For in fundamentalism literalism is raised to the status of a categorical imperative, the law that assures deliverance from all confusion. There is a single text, the Holy Bible. It contains clear, simple, direct messages—proclamations—that establish immutable Truth. All of life’s questions and contingencies are thus resolved by statements that are beyond change and interpretation. In literalism reading and interpretation realize the Cratylean dream: one need only point to the appropriate passage and “Pouf” all doubt and ambiguity about what one should think, believe, or desire with regard to any situation vanishes. One need no longer wrack one’s brain or one’s heart or confront the complexity of a world that exceeds one’s grasp. The Book’s unequivocal meaning and Life are adequated to one another in a relationship of stark and simple imposition. You see, God has a plan for us and unlike secularists and post-structuralists He speaks in clear and unmistakable terms.
When approached literally, the Book necessarily takes on a number of other characteristics. Everything in it must be factual and nothing outside the Book can contradict those facts. The very possibility of scientific investigation is sacrificed a priori to the need to proclaim the text’s inerrancy. Every word of it must be the unalterable and unchanging word of God, which of course can contain no contradictions. One irony of fundamentalist reading is the rather considerable constraints it places on the deity. He proclaimeth and what He says remains so forever, beyond development, change, revision. Whatever abomination of sex hatred one unearths from Leviticus must remain gospel today. The Book cannot be read progressively or retroactively, despite the repeated claims of Jesus to cancel the old law. An eye for an eye remains true for all time however repugnant to the law of charity. After all, “It’s in the Bible.” That repeated assertion expresses the essence and fundamental paralysis of the literal mind. The idea of reading the Book along the pop-Hegelian lines pursued by Jack Miles as the story of how as He develops God changes his mind, softening his prematurely hardened heart, is anathema. God’s role is set by the limitations of the literal “imagination.” His job is to lay down the Law, once and for all, and in no uncertain terms; to be that super-ego who operates by the only logic that literalism permits—binary opposition. All conflicts and confusions must be resolved into a simple and comprehensive opposition between Good and Evil. Else comes again the fit of contingency and ambiguity. Binarism is the realization in logic of the literalist attitude toward language, the reduction of language to the declarative statement matched by a logic that turns everything into an abstract allegory.
The most interesting reach of literalism comes, however, in the interpretation of the prophetic writings, especially Revelation. Here confronting what even it must see as image and metaphor, literalism performs the only operation that to it makes sense. The metaphoric is literalized. Armageddon must takes place on the plain of Jezreel near the ancient military fortification of Megiddo (35 miles southeast of Haifa), even though this patch of land is not large enough to bury the vast multitudes who will perish there. Gorbachev must be the Beast (how else account for that red swath on his forehead); Saddam Hussein must be the Antichrist—or Arafat or Bill Clinton... Anything and everything that happens in the Middle East must be scanned as a sign that we are, indeed, moving toward the Tribulation. When he speaks prophetically God is playing a little game with us, to activate what in fundamentalism passes as the exercise of imagination. To make sense of the text thus requires the precise matching of its ornate and expressionist images to persons, places and events which are thereby assigned the only meaning they can have. Mapped onto history the Bible offers us an absolute certitude about history, thereby vanquishing the greatest contingency. In dealing with the Middle East, for example, a fundamentalist Presidency need not confuse itself with the messy details of political history or develop a nuanced appreciation of Islam. Such things only breed confusion. All one need do is literally match a prophecy to a contingency and Voila! literal certitude is attained; or what amounts to the same thing, the fantasmatic imposition upon reality of what one wants to believe.
In all these operations sustaining a literal interpretation of the Bible is a desperate necessity. For once let go of that and the Book slips into the hands of those who eventually will find anything in it—liberation theology, Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity, a searing message of love—since reading and interpretation will now be guided by nothing other than the attempt of a heart in conflict with itself to use the Book to pry open the most conflicted registers of its own interiority. Who can tell, perhaps this approach could even lead to the discovery that the Book hates the simple minded; that it is, indeed, Kafkaesque in presenting parables and prophecies that only deepen our burden by demanding of us an intelligence equal to the convoluted chambers of the human heart.
Literalism is a cardinal necessity of the fundamentalist because it guarantees the primary psychological need. For a certitude that in its simplicity puts an end to all doubt, even to the possibility of doubt. That is what one must have and, once attained, what nothing can be permitted to alter. The literal meaning of words one need only point to for their meaning to be established once and for all must be imposed on the world without a blink of hesitation, a shadow of doubt, and, when necessary, beyond any appeal to the claims of our humanity. Two examples. Perhaps the most chilling moment in a recent CNN special on fundamentalism occurs at the end of an interview with a young girl—between 8 and 10 years old—who her mother tells the interviewer was saved at age 3 and who is now so firm in every article of the faith that she no longer needs doctrinal help from her parents or teachers. (Earlier when her mother was asked if she’d ever let the children watch South Park, the young girl intervened before her mother could reply: “I wouldn’t want to watch a program like that.”) The interview ends with the all important question: “what happens to those who don’t believe?” Like a trumpet call, in the blinking of an eye, even less, without batting an eyelash, the child answers: “They go to hell.” What made this statement so chilling was the absence of the slightest sign of doubt or pity. If there’s an innocence left here, it lies in the possibility that, unlike her parents, the child has not yet started to feast on images of the damned. She is however already in league with where fundamentalism will take her because she’s attained the correct posture: the assumption of an absolute certitude in which there is and can be no conflict of the heart with what it is told to believe, no questioning of a God who is capable of the titanic condemnation she’s just asserted as an absolute article of faith. Nor, of course, is there any longer alive in her the possibility of the only legitimate choice such a “truth” would demand—the rejection of such a God. 2 +2=5. Whatever one is told the Book says becomes the truth one clutches it to one’s bosom, locking oneself in step to its every command, Kadavergehorsamkeit. My second example comes from poor Mel Gibson who judging from a TV interview accepts with apparent indifference the belief that barring conversion to Catholicism his own wife (mother of his 7 Catholic children) will suffer eternal damnation. Such is the literal nature of his faith, and the power of that literalism to seal off everything else in him, that we need not fear Gibson will ever find himself in the place of Milton’s Adam, who choose death because he couldn’t bear the thought of an eternity apart from the woman he loves. Literalism protects the heart from everything, even its own deepest urgings.
There is something terrifying in our first example; something appalling in our second. Together they reveal the emotion in which the literalist passion is grounded. Hatred—of all complexities. And the need to impose that hatred upon the world in a totalizing way. It is sometimes alleged that fundamentalists are just like the rest of us, confused by the world and seeking something to hang onto as a portal in the storm. This view is invalidated by the kind of answers that the fundamentalist finds: answers that annihilate the problem, turn the desire for knowledge into a farce, and make confusion the motive for self-infantalization. (By their answers ye shall know them.) Literalism is the way, but hatred is the through line. That is why fundamentalist certitude always becomes rectitude; and the Bible mined for all the things one can label abomination. Thereby a sensibility that wants to have nothing to do with the world takes revenge upon it. On the surface, literalism looks like something free of psychological motives; on investigation it reveals itself as one of the clearest signs of the psychological need in which the fundamentalist project is grounded; the first realization, in fact, of the informing fear and hatred of all the contingencies that constitute being in the world. That is the first threat fundamentalism must vanquish. The second, we’ll find, lies at a more intimate register.
— Immanuel Kant
This category is best approached through narrative. Fundamentalism is in love with a single and common story it never tires of telling. This story is the key to the transformation it celebrates and the absolute split that transformation produces. A subject finds itself lost in a world of sin, prey to all the evils that have taken control of a life. A despair seizes the soul. One is powerless to deal with life’s problems or heal oneself because there is nothing within the self that one can draw on to make that project possible. The inner world is a foul and pestilent congregation of sin and sinfulness. And there’s no way out. One has hit rock bottom and totters on the brink of suicide. And then in darkest night one lets Him into one’s life. And all is transformed. Changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born. Before one was a sinner doing the bidding of Satan. Now one is saved and does the work of the Lord. The old self is extinguished. Utterly. One has achieved a new identity, a oneness with Christ that persists as long as one follows one condition: one must let Him take over one’s life. Totally. All decisions are now in Jesus’ hands. He tells one what to do and one’s fealty to his plan must be absolute. There can be no questioning, no doubt. For that could be the sign of only one thing—the voice of Satan and with it the danger of slipping back into those ways of being that one has banished forever. The self one once was is no more. Such is the power of conversion. A psyche has been delivered from itself. And it’s all so simple finally, a matter of delivering oneself into His will, following His plan as set forth in the Book, and letting nothing exist within one’s consciousness but the voice of Jesus spreading peace and love throughout one’s being.
The most striking thing about this narrative is the transparent nature of the psychological defense mechanism from which it derives and the rigidity with which it employs that mechanism. Splitting—which as Freud and Klein show is the most primitive mechanism of defense employed by a psyche terrified of its inner world. The conversion story raises that mechanism to the status of a theological pathos. Though the story depends on recounting how sinful one’s life once was (often in great, even “loving” detail), the psychological meaning of conversion is its power to wipe all of that away. Magically one attains a totally new psyche, cleansed, pristine, and impermeable. One has, in fact, attained a totally new self-reference. For the self now is a function of one’s total identification with Jesus. Consciousness is bathed in his presence. It has become a scene in which his love expresses itself in the beatific smile that fills one’s face whenever one thinks of one's redemption, the tears that flood one’s blessed cheeks, the saccharine tone that raises the voice to an eerie self-hypnotizing pitch whenever one finds another opportunity to express the joyous emotions that must be pumped up at every opportunity in keeping with the hyperconsciousness required to sustain the assurance of one’s redemption. The whole process is a monument to the power of magical thinking to blow away inner reality, and as such a further sign of the primitive nature of the psychological mechanisms on which conversion depends.
The power of conversion to produce a saved self makes the Catholic confessional the operation of rank amateurs. There, through forgiveness, one gets temporary relief from sins that in all likelihood both priest and penitent know will be committed again. One gets a momentarily cleansed psyche, but not a lasting transformation. Through conversion, however, one achieves an absolutely new beginning. One’s life is divided in half. Split between B.C. and A.D. Everything one once was is washed away. Everything one now is becomes its antithesis. Such was the miracle that descended on Dubya by the end of his walk along the beach with Billy Graham. The man George W. Bush was was no more. That person was but the stuff that the dream of conversion was built on; and now all that once characterized that person’s life has vanished leaving not a rack behind. Dubya is reborn to the very depths of his being. Everything that follows thus becomes a pure expression of the new self he now has. Thanks to Jesus. For that’s the key both to conversion and its aftermath. The individual is powerless to effect this transformation. Agency is the Lord’s. He enters one’s psyche and performs precisely what the psyche could not do for itself. Moreover, the new agency that results from conversion is also his. Everything one now does derives from his Will. One has become the medium through which the Diety achieves its Purpose. Individual will finally has nothing to do with it. One is the servant of his Will, doing what He tells one to do as He makes His purpose known. That’s also why error is inconceivable, why, when asked, Dubya was unable to discover any mistake he’d made as President. That incapacity serves a deeper exigency. His will put one in the position of the most powerful man in the world and He must have done so because He had something special in mind.
Such for the fundamentalist is what it means to have a self. To live an abstract allegory. Devil before, god after, with the self dissolved under the force of the one or the other. And never the twain shall meet. Except as absolute antagonists. One could say that conversion transforms the self, but it would be more appropriate to say that it annihilates it. That is in fact its function. For salvation to occur the self is precisely what must be rendered powerless then transcended through a transformation that can only come from without. That transformation produces accordingly a split that is absolute and must be maintained at all costs. That split is what the psyche depends on to deliver it from everything disruptive and unstable in itself. Even if at times one finds oneself again a sinner, that sinfulness is the work of the Big Other, Satan. Salvation is deliverance and such is fundamentalist despair over the self that deliverance must be total.
Conversion thus presents the antithesis of what happens in an authentic psychoanalysis. A contrast between the two will bring out what happens within a converted psyche. The key to an authentic analysis is the assumption of full responsibility for who one is through the attainment of a concrete and intimate knowledge of one’s psyche, of the unconscious desires and conflicts that have structured the history of one’s life. Attaining such knowledge entails three steps. (1) Recognition that one is the author of one’s condition; not Satan, not the parents, not demon rum in its effects on a pre-existing physiological condition. The psyche in its bankruptcy is the function and fruition of a desire. That is why Freud insisted that one listen to the details of one’s illness because it is in the details that one will find the seeds of genuine change. (2) Through the second recognition: that the problem of the psyche is not to extinguish desire but to reclaim it by seeing that the destructive pattern of one’s life is something that one has (like Oedipus) brought upon oneself through one’s effort to avoid knowing oneself. The solution is not flight from oneself into the hands of a saviour, but the recognition that inner conflict is and remains the burden and reality of the psyche. (3) This begets the third recognition: that change requires taking on a total responsibility for one’s psyche. Rather than fleeing one’s conflicts, one must engage them. Life is a process of becoming responsible for oneself by becoming aware of all that within oneself for which one must assume responsibility. A genuine analysis thus turns on the assumption of a tragic agency. One is not freed from one’s disorder but delivered over to it.
Working through (Durcharbeit), the most important part of any analysis, is essentially an education in the process of assuming a tragic relationship to oneself by accepting the suffering that self-knowledge entails. Rather than seeking a magical solution to depression, one must sustain it as that melancholy that Keats called “the wakeful anguish of the soul.” Becoming responsible for oneself depends on a single circumstance: the concrete and bitter immersion in the particulars of one’s life in a recognition of one’s responsibility as cause. No satanic agency produced one’s condition and no messianic agency will come to blow it away. One must uncover those things in oneself that have shaped the self-lacerating history of one’s heart. There is only one source of inner strength and the way to it is full acceptance of the suffering that is our deepest attunement to ourselves. Authentic self-analysis is based on the recognition that there is no deliverance from desire and inner conflict. Satan, in contrast, is the blank check that puts an end to that process before it can begin. Consider the contrast between two statements. “ I was a lustful man and a fornicator who worshipped the Beast within me.” “I was a man who hated women and used sex to injure them psychologically in order to act out the emotional conflicts of my relationship with my mother.” The difference between the two statements is enormous. The first obliterates the need for further description, exorcising the possibility of self-knowledge. The second is but overture to the painful problem of probing and taking on responsibility for every word of it.
Conversion is flight from such action. The psyche is safely delivered into the hands of abstraction. No real responsibility exists because one was under Satan’s power when one did all those terrible things. That’s how He works. He invades a soul like a thief in the night and under his spell we do all sorts of things that are against our nature. But once we let Jesus in we are cleansed. Born again. All before was the work of an otherness that invaded us. It is now burnt and purged away. We can of course feel remorse, but at the same time those we harmed should know it wasn’t really our doing. The cause is not in ourselves but in the virus that tried to destroy our soul. Psychoanalysis delivers the subject over to itself as a relationship that cannot be transcended. Conversion delivers the subject from itself. What one was is not a disorder one must plumb concretely in the full horror of all that one must come to know about oneself as author. It is, rather, all that conversion enables one to blow away. Such is the power and pleasure of splitting as a mechanism of defense. In its absolute reliance on that mechanism fundamentalism renders up its secret.
Here, then, is the real truth of conversion: fear and hatred of the psyche and a desperate desire to be rid of it. Any sign of its continued presence after conversion produces panic anxiety. That is why for conversion to work one must ever after maintain a carefully limited subjectivity preoccupied with the self-hypnotic iteration of all the signs and behaviors that proclaim one’s salvation. The presence of anything else within fills the fundamentalist psyche with terror, loathing and the need for a fresh exorcism. The psyche is the problem in fundamentalism not because it’s sinful but because it’s exacting and what it teaches is not things about the devil but actual deeds one has done to the harm of others that one must admit as the price of remaining human. How perfect then to find a way to be done with the whole thing, to shed one’s former life the way a snake sheds its skin and then be reborn with all one was consigned it to the past. The only way to sustain that state, however, is by constantly pumping up all the positive emotions and happy talk that witness one’s oneness with the Lord while guarding against the expression of any emotions that would suggest the opposite. Proclaiming one’s salvation has become an obsessional necessity. Life comes down to a single thing. Proving at all times—especially to oneself—that one is on God’s side.
To be saved is to enter a condition in which one only has positive, Christian emotions, which are always played “over the top” because the primary purpose of the performance is self-hypnosis. This is in keeping with a duty that cannot be shirked: one must become the walking embodiment of one’s simplest version of the love that God has for us since any other kind of love would be exacting whereas this one offers the bliss of self-infantalization. That’s the source of the monotonous sameness of fundamentalists: the aping and mimicking of one another in the identical smile of mindless bliss, the tearful displays, the saccharine tone in the prosletyizing voice, the need to constantly proclaim how wonderful it feels to be saved and to bear witness to that fact by turning every possible occasion into a chance to inflict on others (even or especially strangers) a bevy of uplifting sentiments as if being a Christian amounted to becoming a walking Hallmark card. In all this the believer labors under a manic necessity. But it isn’t enough. That mania must find a practice that will enable one to complete the circle in which one moves by re-enacting, as it were, the process and content of one’s conversion.
— Beckett, Endgame
Evangelicalism is that act: the manic repetition whereby the split in the psyche created by conversion is projected onto the world. Thereby one confirms the identity one has attained through a fresh exorcism of the one that was vanquished. Evangelical activity offers the fundamentalist the only way to sustain the reborn self: by attempting to recreate the experience of one’s conversion in others in order to reenact an unending exorcism. In the other one locates the split off self one once was, but now placed totally outside oneself. It becomes the fantasm through which one perceives the other. For those not saved must be wallowing in error and sin, their minds awash in the torrents of secularism, dumb to the clarity that comes from the Words through which one brings them enlightenment, could they but hear. This is the root cause of the frustration that quickly comes to those who make the mistake of bidding entry when the fundamentalist knocks on the door. In vain one offers discourse to those who are seized by a necessity. It’s not just the repeated citation of biblical truism as absolute truth (“do you know that Satan was once an angel close to God; that’s why he’s so powerful”); or the repeated refrain that puts an end to every discussion (“well I believe the Bible and the Bible says…”); or even the inability to hear any objection except as a sign that one’s auditor has not yet grasped the truth that’s galling. It’s the recognition that despite the charitable demeanor, evangelical activity is based on a total lack of respect for the minds of those who are being offered salvation.
That lack of respect is, however, necessary. Anything less would be a confession of doubt, which would make the other a threat rather than an image of what the world in its unregenerate condition represents; namely, the field for the projection of everything that conversion supposedly removed from one’s psyche. That’s the dirty little secret that must remain unconscious. Through evangelicalism one engages in a necessary repetition compulsion. The only way to prevent a return of the projections is through their continued projection. By locating evil, sin and error outside oneself and waging an “attack” on them one is delivered from the spectre that they might still exist within. Everything bad is now outside oneself and one must do everything to keep it there. One can share with one’s auditors a confession in the abstract that one is a “sinner” too, but the discussion better shift quickly to the evils of the world: to homosexuals and abortion and the entertainment industry and, best of all, the imperiled state of a nation bereft of “moral values.” One is well tuned then. Thereby the manic drive sweeps to a revenge upon anything that can be even remotely associated with one’s former self. One has entered a dream state of desire primed for wrathful discharge upon a world drenched in sin. Evangelicalism thus offers the psyche a chance to be cleansed again of everything that may still fester within somewhere, longing to break out. Though splitting and projection produce denial, one is always in danger of slipping. One needs a ritual to reaffirm who one is by once again exorcising what one was. This is the function proselytizing has for the fundamentalist.
It should now be evident that what looks at first like the least important of the four characteristics of fundamentalism perhaps fulfills the deepest psychological necessity. Without evangelical activity the fundamentalist psyche would implode. The obsessional need to preach the gospel, to let every stranger one meets know as soon as possible that one is a born again Christian, are practices that derive not from a lack of social skills but from a manic necessity. For the saved there is and can be nothing but salvation as the master narrative to which all lives must conform, a tale told as often and as ardently as the Ancient Mariner tells his. Though for antithetical reasons. The Mariner tells his tale to relieve an inner suffering by injecting it into the consciousness of listeners who will be existentially individuated by the tale. Evangelists tell theirs to reassure themselves about their “identity” by trying to compel others to participate in it. Structurally and psychologically, however, both tellers labor under the same necessity. Repetition as the attempt to retain an identity in order to flee something else—in the Mariner’s case a suicidal depression; in the fundamentalist perhaps the same thing—that is buried deep in the unconscious. One piece of evidence in support of this hypothesis: without the chance to engage in evangelical activity the fundamentalist psyche sinks into a state of empty boredom.
Thus the lassitude of Dubya before 9-11 and the hectic messianic energy that has defined him since. 9-11 gave him what he needed—the chance to transform a stalled Presidency by adopting an evangelical stance toward the entire world. Preemptive unilateralism is not just a political credo. It’s an evangelical necessity. The world must be divided into Good and Evil. And one must deliver that message to the world in the same way the fundamentalist does when visiting the doorsteps of the unconverted. If those one addresses—the United Nations, other Countries, members of the Republican Party—aren’t converted that can only be a sign of their error. Or worse. As Ashcroft never lost an opportunity to remind us, their complicity with the enemy. The whole world is either with us or against us. And nothing anyone says can have any other meaning. Our message cannot be tainted by saucy doubts or fears. The fundamentalist mind, closed off from discourse by its own certitude, can only project itself upon the global stage in a way that serves inner psychological necessity: manic activity under the guise of rectitude as the proof that one has triumphed over all inner conflicts. And thus a new necessity beckons. The opposition between Good and Evil must be extended as far as possible—from Afghanistan to Iraq to the Axis of Evil to the 60 nations identified as supporters of terror—because God has chosen one not just to convert the World but to wage war on whatever one labels evil. The only certainty here is that one will always find fresh targets because doing so is the projective necessity of a mania that can only achieve the omnipotence it requires by pushing the war on Terror to some ultimate realization. Moreover, in waging this war what one does is justified beyond any appeal to conscience. In terms of policy this assurance results in another doctrinal innovation that distinguishes Dubya from all previous Presidents: the assertion of the right to a first strike use of nuclear weapons and, accordingly, the developments now under way to create a host of new “tactical” nuclear weapons. To deliver the world from the spectre of nuclear terror we must ready ourselves to wage a nuclear war on the world. Paranoia thus projects as policy an omnipotence drive beyond MAD. And so we should all indeed be trembling in our boots to know the mind-set that now has its finger on the nuclear trigger. Happiness is a warm gun.
The war on terror has many meanings, not the least of which the blank check to disseminate an Orwellian fear whenever the Administration desires. Its deepest meaning, however, is as the founding moment in which politics in Amerika became inseparable from the projection of a religious ideology. 9-11 told Dubya that the time was ripe for a mission that the Diety elected him to perform. A seamless transition thus exists from an evangelical presidency to the fourth characteristic of fundamentalism, the one that, as we’ll see, informs and completes the others thereby taking us to the heart of the disorder, the innermost necessity that hallows all its dreams.
IV. Apocalypse Now
Apocalypticism is the capstone that completes the process of fundamentalist self-fashioning. Without it, as we’ll see, the entire edifice would crumble. In the Apocalpytic moment the disorder at the core of the fundamentalist psyche achieves a final form, passing over to the register of the sublime. The sublime register is tapped when the desire that informs a psyche achieves an unbounded expression. All conflicts are then resolved in a release of tension that is total, bringing on what Lacan terms jouissance. As we’ll see, each structure described in the previous sections requires Apocalypticism and achieves completion in it. The Apocalyptic fantasm gives ultimate expression to the conflicts that define the fundamentalist psyche by projecting the grand action needed to bring those conflicts to their only possible end.
The necessity of Apocalypticism is a direct outgrowth of the psychological mechanism on which the fundamentalist relies to structure the world. The only way to prevent a return of the projections is through a final evacuation. Thus the need to picture a world beyond redemption held under the brand of an all-consuming wrath. That image finalizes the split that defines the fundamentalist psyche by giving sublime expression to the way the world must be viewed when seen from the standpoint of one’s salvation. Apocalypticism thereby completes the psychological operation that has been employed repeatedly from the beginning. One cleanses oneself by projecting one’s disowned desires unto the world. The resulting split must then be maintained rigorously with nothing allowed to fall outside its scope. The psyche must be voided of everything save the serenities of the saved. For that to happen, however, the world must become the object of a violent attack on all that one has externalized there. And this act must be endless lest the projections return. By its internal logic fundamentalism is thus driven ineluctably to a need for quantitative expansion through the discovery of greater, more insidious forms of evil. The mathematical sublime beckons, the need to produce greater and greater magnitudes. The world becomes the polluted chamber of one’s foulest imaginings with no way to check the demands of that vision. Within the psyche an even greater transformation occurs. One craves constant expression of an emotion that one must just as strenuously disclaim. Hatred. Fresh supplies of it are as necessary to the inner world as is the need of Amerika to ransack the globe for fresh supplies of oil. No matter how loudly one proclaims that one has been purified in the blood of the lamb, hatred has become the innermost necessity to which one is wedded. Moreover, that hatred must break free of any containment. Hatred of one’s former self is no longer sufficient. One now hates the world and is driven to seek out everything in it that one can claim caused or can cause an inner condition other than the purity of the saved. One hates, that is, everything that resists surrender and absolute obedience to the system of literalism and literal commands to which one has committed oneself. As the scope of what one hates grows apace it necessarily maximizes the binary opposition that is essential to it. Good and Evil divide the world in two, giving ontological form to the rigidity of the split that defines the fundamentalist psyche. All differences, all particularities, all complexities must give way to the demands of a comprehensive abstraction. And the fury of that abstraction can brook no exceptions. Everything thus resolves itself into the ultimate necessity required by the informing hatred. One longs for and demands an end to all the contingencies that have from the beginning been sources of fear and confusion. One dreams apocalyptically of what one has always sought. To be done with all of it. With the contingency of the human. To be done with all ambiguity and complexity and confusion. Done with the feeling that history has no purpose other than chaos or meaningless repetition. Done with embodiment itself—and all the unwelcome desires it imposes on us. Done with the very source of all that one hates and fears. To locate it all ontologically in a single principle—evil—and then be rid of it all once and for all through sublime and triumphant expression of that hatred that has the power to extinguish it all.
Literalism tried to keep the world at bay by reducing everything to the simplest formulas and the mind itself to the most unproblematic blink of consciousness in stupified adherence to the fixations needed to banish metaphor, ambiguity, and uncertainty. But it wasn’t enough. The world kept seeping it. There must be a way to be done with it, once and for all. To find what one has craved from the beginning. The end. But a proper end—one that will give sublime expression to the true object of one’s worship. Death. The longing for death transformed into a sublime celebration of death. Life in its complexity demands too much of us. That in a nutshell is the fundamentalist message. Only death can deliver one from the threat life poses. One is safe from a return of the projections and an eruption of the repressed only when life is done. One has always longed for deliverance into a realm free of desire and its temptations. Death alone offers the comfort one seeks. The resentment in which the psyche has centered itself demands no less. One must work one’s hatred of the world into a frenzy and feed that hatred with sublime images of evil in order to bring it to a fevered pitch. Release and satisfaction then come with the deliverance of that world into the hands of an angry God expressing his wrath in an orgy of pure destructiveness. Thank God for The Book of Revelation. For the only way both to satisfy and to purge one’s hatred is to express it on a massive world-shattering scale. The death one seeks projected into the death one delivers. The self is thereby done with life, freed for transport of the saved split off self to a realm of bliss freed from all cares. A psyche wedded to thanatos has found in thanatos the final solution. One’s resentment against life has been turned into a righteous and of necessity cosmic attack upon it.
In Transformations (1965) Wilfred Bion tries to conceptualize a destructiveness “that goes on working after it destroys personality, time, and existence.” Such is the desire that feeds the fundamentalist fixation on The Book of Revelation. A psyche wedded to thanatos, seeking sublime expression of that desire, finds repeated satisfaction in Revelation, since its author, like the director of the next disaster movie, keeps seeking the perfect image to feed his rage or to bring it, with each repetition, closer to that sublime image in which destructiveness will find its objective correlative. One makes allowances, of course, for the author of Revelation, what with his people under genocidal persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire. But how account for the fixation on such images, as if they were the only real source of pleasure, of those whose greatest fear is that their wife will find the G spot or that Mommie’s little darlings will see MTV before the V chip is installed? How account for the persistent unscratable itch for picturing the great Whore of Bablyon while anticipating the delectable synesthesia of the golden cup “in her hand filled with abominable things and the filth of her fornications”? How account for the thrill that comes with each new reading of the incomparable description of all the plagues that will be visited upon the earth? And how else account for the necessity of the grand crescendo to which everything moves as the enraptured reader approaches Armageddon and the final battle that will put an end to that folly, human history, thereby giving the reader the true pleasure of the text, since one has believed all along that history could have no purpose or meaning other than its destruction? One loves this book and longs to see all its prophecies come to pass so that one can see fulfilled on a cosmic stage the very process that has structured one’s psyche, as if the apocalypse one suffered on the little stage were but a prefigurement meant to whet one’s appetite for the Big One.
Here, then, a reading of the function that Revelation plays in the fundamentalist psyche. In the depths of its psyche, fundamentalism is ruled by catastrophic anxiety, the condition of a self tottering on the brink of a dissolution in which it will fragment imprisoned in a world that will impose all of its terrors and evils upon it. (We fail to understand fundamentalism as long as we resist seeing how close it is to a psychosis.) Fundamentalist rage is the attempt of that subject to hold itself together in the only way it can: by waging war on all that terrifies it. The psyche commits itself to destructiveness to allay a destruction that already threatens it from within. The result is a paradoxical situation that finds its only possible solution in Revelation. Destructiveness must be given a full, unchecked expression and the psyche must somehow survive that act. The drive toward death thus repeats itself in increasing magnitudes as it moves toward a final conflict that will obliterate all future conflict, transporting the self to a realm of unending bliss. The slight textual support (1 Thessalonians 4:17) notwithstanding, the Rapture is a psychological necessity. It embodies the magical thought that the coming of global destruction is also the coming of salvation. One has always dreamed that a feast of aggression would lift one to a condition free of the world. That is why when that moment comes it is impossible to prevent the surfacing of a long suppressed and twisted sexual desire. Thus: as destruction approaches so too does ascent to a realm in which one is free to project a marriage consummated in the sky with Christ serving as Bride. The randy delights of that image should not prevent us from seeing what has happened here. The longing for death has been turned into an ecstatic embrace of it; a rapture so complete in its jouissance that one can no longer disguise the fact that all of ones libidinal energies have gone into the quest for such a complete and final unbinding, an extinction within consciousness of everything save the ecstatic recognition that one is saved and that all the connections that once bound one to the world have been severed once and for all. The psychotic attack on linking finds its apotheosis in Apocalypticism. The Rapture must be interpolated into Revelation at precisely this point because one’s salvation corresponds of necessity with the arrival of something else—the dawning of the cataclysmic aggressions that must be vented in order to bring destruction upon the earth, ushering in the millennium. In the clouds, safe with Jesus, one can continue to rejoice, free of life, or cast a cold eye down upon it from time to time like one looking back on the moment just before one’s conception but free now (an angelic Onan) to nip it in the bud. In either case one spends the 1000 years millennium in bliss because one is assured that though peace reigns, destruction will come again, one last time, with the dead themselves resurrected so that they can be slain again in a greater destruction than has ever been visited upon the earth. Rev. 19-20. And then, as if that isn’t enough, the evil are consigned to torment day and night— forever. Only then is the rage that informs John’s text discharged. And only then can love be expressed without leading to a new burst of rage. Only then can a new heaven and a new earth be celebrated in language admittedly of great beauty with God himself wiping away all tears, putting an end to death, pain, and sorrow, making all things new, delivering believers from those realities that they could never see as anything but arguments against life. Long before Nietzsche conceptualized it, Revelation revealed resentment as the essence of religion. A great love feast at the end. It’s a pretty fantasy. As if once rage fashions its masterpiece the heart will open and what has been frozen for so long will become a warm and virgin spring.
Historically the great transformation in the use of Apocalypticism to incite fundamentalist believers to political action came in the 1980’s, during the Reagan years, when Jerry Falwell (to cite but one example) shifted from the pre-millenarian belief that the faithful can do nothing but spread the gospel and wait as the modernist evil that will bring about the Tribulation runs its course to the activist position that fundamentalism must become a political force, indeed take over the country if possible, and make it a Christian Nation worthy of being spared as well as the one chosen to advance the movement toward that long sought, long delayed, deeply longed for and blessed Apocalyptic event. George H.W. Bush was finally a man of restraint with a keen appreciation of the realities of global politics. Dubya labors under no such burdens. His is a mind unencumbered by an countervailing pressure that the world might offer to his singleness of vision. Thus there’s no telling where the faith will lead now that Dubya has his mandate and must deliver to satisfy the grandiose conception of what God himself elected him to do…. Perhaps He wants Dubya to find a straight shining path from the cataclysmic future that defines that paranoiac present that constantly recedes before the fundamentalist unless, that is, the Apocalyptic future can become the Evangelical present? Under Dubya that is now one source for reading what is going on in the Middle East.
The contempt for life that informs fundamentalism is difficult to conceive. As a final example, however, a testimonial to the environmental policies of the Bush Administration, consider the quaint piece of fundamentalist folklore known as “dominion theology.” This tenet of the faith was openly professed by former Secretary of the Interior James Watt, the mentor of the current Secretary, Gale Norton. Dominion theology holds that the Bible commands us to use up the earth’s resources. We glut ourselves not just for capitalist greed but by biblical mandate. And as the end approaches it is our duty to do so globally, since there’s little time remaining to complete that job and thereby bring that final day ever closer. Besides, why bother preserving the planet. After the Second Coming, none of it will matter. And so with each new success—the hole in the ozone, the melting of the ice caps, drilling in the national wildlife refuge, the Alaska pipeline—we give further proof that history is moving in the right direction. Since all is yellow to the jaundiced eye, the only thing the fundamentalist, like the capitalist, can see in Nature is that which must be conquered, used up, then disposed of. The oft-chronicled battle of fundamentalists against environmentalism follows the demands of the manic triad. Triumph, contempt, dismissal. Thereby destructiveness is projected onto life itself. Sublimity for the fundamentalist is not found in the rain forest, but in its ravaging. Through such acts another way is found to project hatred of life onto another object that has the power to deepen our love of it.
It is hard to know which is colder, crueler: the logic of fundamentalism or the logic of capitalism? But then that question assumes that they are different in some fundamental way. And let’s face it we want to hang on to that difference because it offers reassurance, even a guarantee, that we can somehow play the two off against each other. The Bush crowd suffer from no such illusion. They know the secret we need to fathom if we’re to historicize the connection that Max Weber saw between Christianity and Capitalism and thereby learn that Christian fundamentalism and Global Capitalism correspond to one another because they feed on the same destructive violence.
In concluding I offer a summary of how thanatos works in the fundamentalist psyche to bind everything to the search for a sublime discharge. Apocalypticism satisfies both the final evacuation needed to prevent a return of the projections and the jouissance required to bring about the complete unbinding that can come only by putting an end to everything. The hatred in which the psyche is grounded requires no less: the hatred that has total control over the inner world demands a matching totalization. In the images of destruction that warm the fundamentalist heart one sees externalized the process that has ravaged the inner world. In that sense, fundamentalism is the most extreme act of sado-masochism toward oneself that has yet been devised. As such it offers us perhaps the deepest insight into the super-ego as the force of death in the psyche; as an agency that is satisfied with no less than soul-murder. Literal obedience to literal commands is merely the tip of that iceberg. It is within that the true process of soul-murder operates through the willingness of the psyche to sacrifice everything in itself in order to placate an authority that is vindictively cruel in the wrath it directs on the slightest opposition to its will. In an attempt to achieve identification with that force, the psyche wages war first on itself and then upon the world. The former act reveals the destructive power of the super-ego; the latter act offers a way to confirm one’s identification with it. By sacrificing everything in oneself to the super-ego, one attains the right to become the walking embodiment of its wrath. The fundamentalist can loudly proclaim his or her love of God, but the fact of the matter is that they fear Him because terror is the only relationship He permits. And such is His hold over the psyche that all transgression—or the mere thought of transgression—unleashes an overpowering guilt under which the psyche unravels. Super-ego guilt is thanatos in its immediacy ravaging the psyche by punishing it with the loss of a “love” that is indistinguishable from hate so absolute is the sacrifice it requires.
But how does such an agency come into being? On what must it draw to create the enormous energy that gives it such power within the psyche. Could it be that this too has and must have its beginnings in love? We’ve traced the effects of the destructiveness to which the fundamentalist psyche is wedded, but we have not yet considered the cause. Sections 1-4 trace the dialectical progression of a disorder that we must now consider in its genesis. To do that we need to strike through the sound and fury of fundamentalist rage and get at what Ahab called “the little lower layer” by showing how thanatos first takes root in a soul and why it continues to ulcer there until it finds fulfillment in Apocalyptic expression.
Before turning to that examination a brief summary of the psychoanalytic understanding we’ve developed of the four characteristics that Charles Strozier isolates as fundamental to fundamentalism. (1) Inerrancy is the infantilizing need to reduce all complexities to the literal in order to confine the mind to its simplest operations; (2) Conversion is the employment of the primitive psychological defense known as splitting to establish an absolute separation of the saved psyche from the damned; (3) Evangelicalism is the manic activity needed to sustain and project that split; (4) Apocalypticism is thanatos incarnate projecting the event that will satisfy the death-drive that defines the fundamentalist psyche. In discussing these characteristics I deliberately withheld the issue of sexuality until now not in order to minimize its importance but to maximize it by creating a picture of fundamentalism’s defining characteristics that only makes once we grasp the sexual disorder informing the whole. Fundamentalism will then emerge as one of the clearest examples of the old and oft forgotten Freudian insight that sexuality is at the center of the human psyche and the opposition of eros and thanatos at the center of culture. The previous sections describe a super-ego “morality” grounded in thanatos. The following section will describe the sexual roots of that disorder, thereby offering an explanation of how thanatos can assume complete control over the life of a psyche.
V. Sexual Roots of the Fundamentalist Psyche
My goal is to plumb the root cause of phenomena that are well-known. Fundamentalists live in a world obsessed with sexuality. Their favorite citations from the Bible fixate on it. It is also the prime referent of the fulminations against secularism, post-modernism, ethical relativism, feminism, etc. It’s what the vaunted claim of “moral values” is all about. Morality for the fundamentalist is not about a life of charity or the pursuit of justice or the need to open oneself to the depth of human suffering. It's about avoiding certain sexual sins and fixating on that dimension of life to the virtual exclusion of everything else. Battling sex is apparently what life is all about, as if the primary plan of the creator is to put us on earth so that we’ll be tempted by that in us that we must condemn in order to win salvation. By the same token, each new scandal reveals the consequences of sexual repression: the brutal abuse of young boys by a legion of pedophile priests; the sexual license of Jim Jones and David Koresh; the sadomasochistic bondage rituals that Jimmy Swaggart needed prostitutes in order to enact; the epidemic of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse that is the untold story of the fundamentalist family; the world-wide assault of Dubya’s abstincence only policies on the condom. Such events witness an old truth: the repression of sexuality has as a necessary consequence the brutalization of the other.
The phenomena here are variations on the same tired story. Sexual repression breeds foul imaginings, which of necessity fixate on the sexual. What has been rendered foul within runs amuck in the world. Following the dictates of a punitive super-ego the psyche becomes obsessed with the attack on sexuality. The purpose is to render evil virtually everything connected with sex until life itself is reduced to an allegory in which the battle of good and evil is all about the temptations of the flesh, as if nothing else in life matters so complete is the vindictive fixation of the Deity on the human genitals.
The eroticization of thanatos necessarily has a flip side: the demonization of eros. The libidinal economy on which fundamentalism rests is as simple as it is devastating. Eros must be turned into evil, sin, pollution so that all of one’s desire can be channeled into thanatos. Or vice-versa. Once destructiveness has been eroticized all one’s energies become fixated on the erotic, since it poses the greatest threat to the resentment one feels toward life in general. The chicken-egg question of temporal priority misses the necessary dialectical connection. The only way to triumph over eros is by eroticizing death. And the only way to secure that eroticization is by projecting guilt, sin, resentment and punishment into every aspect of human sexuality. Such is the basic logic to which the fundamentalist project is wedded.
To understand why this is so requires, however, an answering to two questions. (1) What must sex be for it to assume such importance? (2) And what must happen to it for the fundamentalist mind set to gain control over the psyche? What is needed is an account of the genesis of fundamentalism through a description of the sequence of formative experiences through which thanatos by invading and poisoning sexuality installs itself as the sole power in the psyche.
Fundamentalism fixates on sex not by accident or divine decree but by the exigencies of immediate experience. Eros is that force which binds us to life as a blessing that can be lived and loved as an end in itself. It is the spontaneity that weds the child to an innocent and unbridled curiosity; the vitality that resists the imposition of any restraints on the outpouring of an affective embrace of life in all its forms; the self-liberating ability to experience natural processes, prior to and free of the ethical, as matters of fascination and exploration. Eros is that in us which wants to incarnate itself fully, to expend oneself in investing all of one’s energies into life. And when all of this becomes overtly sexual it discovers its innermost meaning: to open oneself to another, incarnating in the body the depth of feeling that two subjects can have toward each other. Sexual pleasure is the temple of a holiness that neither wants nor needs other worlds so completely has it found fulfillment in this one. Such an erotic valuation becomes in poets like Whitman and Blake the prime agent of all human perception; in Plato the source of noble laws and institutions; and in Freud that which pits itself against the forces of death. It is also, of course, that which rises up at puberty and at crucial crises throughout life in rebellion against the controls that those who hate and fear it have placed upon desire.
Because it poses a comprehensive threat to the fundamentalist project eros must be poisoned at early as possible. Ironically there is only one way such a project can succeed. Through love. To summarize briefly a concept I’ve developed at length elsewhere, parenting is the act through which the parent’s conscious and unconscious conflicts and desires become the psyche of the child. This transmission is the act through which the child’s psyche is born. The child’s unconditional love is the condition that makes it all possible. For fundamentalists this condition creates an imcomparable opportunity. From an early age the child must be indoctrinated by those one trusts and loves in the primary lesson: that obedience is the price one must pay to retain love. So deep must become one’s need for this love, moreover, that one becomes willing to make any sacrifice it requires. Thereby the condition is set for the greatest transformation. The energy from which the very life of the psyche springs has been invaded by a virus that attacks the subject from within. The process that will issue in the super-ego has taken root. In Lacanian terms, one’s desire has become the desire of the other with that paralyzing bind set as the way one will experience both oneself and the world. Good and evil can now be bred into everything. The body has become the scene of ethical instruction. All natural functions are turned into matters of intense preoccupation. All innocent curiosities nipped in the bud. Spontaneity itself becomes a source of inhibition. The reign of the literal is born. That which most intimately attaches us to life becomes the thing upon which a ceaseless attack is waged. All natural instincts become evidence that the only way to experience the body is as a site of sinful desires. Embodiment itself must become something one hates and fears, a condition in which one finds something evil and disgusting always at work. Everything that desire opens up in the subject must be turned back against itself. Sin, shame, and guilt must come to define the relationship that the subject lives to itself. The goal of fundamentalist child-rearing is to create a subject preoccupied with waging war on itself, with battling against its own desires under the gaze of a judgmental, punitive super-ego.
The super-ego maintains this power because internally a fundamental transformation has occurred. All of one’s desire has been channeled into one’s service to the super-ego. It is thereby empowered to wage an unrelenting attack on anything in the subject that would oppose or threaten its reign. The super-ego is, as Freud noted, harsher than the actual parents. It is so because it fuses prohibition with the quest for love. What is the first and perhaps the deepest attachment of one’s life becomes bound to a force opposed to the very thing from which it draws its energy. Sexuality of necessity brings this conflict to a head. For in it one experiences at its greatest intensity the clash of the two principles that constitute the psyche: (1) that in us that would break free of the super-ego and constitute a desire independent of it and (2) the power of the super-ego, as a result of the love one has invested in it, to crush that effort. This conflict is inescapable for the simplest of reasons. Operating upon sexuality was precisely how the super-ego was formed. It is in one’s sexuality, accordingly, that one experiences the true virulence of a force that has the power to turn the inner world into a place of self-torture. All one has to do is desire what it forbids. One then learns the truth. Capitulation under the unrelenting pressure of internal self-torture is the triumph of a fundamentalist education. In the war on sex, the process of fundamentalist formation completes itself. Its product: a subject living a relationship to itself defined by self-contempt, self-punishment, and self-unraveling. Any attempt to break with the super-ego only serves to increase its power. Appearances to the contrary, the super-ego isn’t about morality. It’s about power—and the irresistible privilege that comes with power: to torture, in fact to erect torture as the relationship the subject lives to itself.
How could it be otherwise? What else could child-rearing be for the parents but the chance to prove themselves to the Lord by taking whatever measures are required to assure that His commands assume total control over the child’s psyche. Getting the child to internalize a super-ego that makes guilt over one’s desires the primary relationship the subject has to itself takes on in fundamentalism the status of a categorical imperative. Life must be filled up with inhibitions and prohibitions in order to assure that sexuality will always be experienced as a fall into sin. Internally that sinfulness is guaranteed by the condition that lays in wait to assault the transgressive psyche, even when the transgression is only in thought or fantasy. Transgression, one discovers, floods the psyche with guilt, shame, and the conviction of a fundamental badness that can only be purged by an attack on oneself. That attack is the nuptial offering that seals one’s marriage to the super-ego. Through it one restores one’s communion with the super-ego. In punishing oneself one experiences the libidinal pleasure of a union that feeds on destructiveness. Thereby one reveals the truth: that thanatos has taken control of the psyche. A subject at war with itself has been created, one that will experience desire itself as a sign of guilt and will loathe it as that within oneself that one must strive to extinguish. Thanatos has created a psyche dedicated to soul-murder—to the murder of one’s own soul. The power that death-work has assumed in the psyche now ravages it. In three interconnected ways. (1) So great is the power guilt has assumed that any opposition to the super-ego unleashes an attack that threatens the psyche with self-dissolution. That’s the truth of this relationship: unending torment with no exit save suicide or psychotic self-fragmentation. (2) To guard against that threat, ego identity thus becomes the active, constant effort to spy out and combat everything in oneself that could be labeled a source or occasion of sin. (3) In the body, consequently, a condition now maintains in which every desire becomes the overture to a war that must be waged until the very sources of desire have been conquered; until everything that might once have been natural has been rendered thoroughly unnatural. Sado-masochism has come to define the subject’s relationship to itself. The only pleasure lies in the coldness and cruelty of an unrelenting attack upon one’s sinfulness and the pleasure one gets from making oneself the abject object of that wrath. A world of perfect self-hatred has been created. A culture of pure thanatos has been installed as the unity of a psyche that must project good and evil, sin and punishment, damnation and salvation into everything until life itself becomes the doleful and guilty passage of a shriveled and shrunken (but saved!) subjectivity toward the only thing it can desire. The End—the death of desire itself, of the unending struggle against it, and the ever-present danger that one will slip and find oneself in the clutches of the damned. The Apocalyptic project is born.
Sexuality has been transformed into the festering wound out of which resentment is born. Because every time desire rises up one experiences again one’s powerlessness to break the strangle-hold the super-ego has over one’s sexuality. A jaundiced eye then casts its gaze on all who have succeeded where one failed. Malevolent envy rises up, offering one the only exit from inner conflict—hatred of the sexual and unending war upon it. That war has become one’s deepest necessity. Envy begets hatred begets rage. The only way to relieve that rage is by projecting it onto the world. That act has an added charm: through it one achieves identification with that super-ego that has never stopped assaulting one from within. As avenging angel damning a sinful world one reclaims as resentment what one has had to sacrifice as desire. The transformation is complete. One is no longer a child tortured into submission by a punitive super-ego. One has become an adult projecting that destructiveness upon the world. A psyche so bound to hatred requires a constant supply of fresh objects and occasions on which to vent itself. It is wedded to the search for a sublime fulfillment of the rage that defines it. And because everything within the psyche opposed to this project has been killed there is no way to halt it. Death has become absolute and craves that total unbinding that can come only with a totalizing Apocalyptic projection. (The destructiveness analyzed in section 4 is the necessary outgrowth of the sexual condition described here. This inversion is the circle confining the fundamentalist psyche to a room identical to the one occupied by Count Ugolino in Dante.)
The process I’ve just described is not a disorder restricted to the reddest neck in the reddest state. It’s a portrait drawn from what typified a Roman Catholic childhood in the fifties—and many times before and since. What Freud struggled to comprehend, Roman Catholicism throughout its history has known instinctively and with a thoroughness that enabled it to raise the whole thing to the level of a system based on the most fundamental of recognitions: that working upon human sexuality is the way to attain dominance over the psyche. The systematic perfection of that labor depends on a single insight : wounding someone in their “soul” is the way one gains the greatest power over them; and one does it best when one takes what is most open, vulnerable, and loving in a child and exploits it to forge the bonds that will enslave that psyche, perhaps forever. The super-ego draws its force from a desperate love it has solicited so that it can appropriate the energies invested in that love in order to wage an attack upon the psyche and thereby eventually on life itself.
Given the genius of Catholicism it should come as no surprise that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is the most popular fundamentalist work of our time, hailed and promoted by fundamentalist preachers. What seems odd at first given the fact that Gibson is not strictly speaking a fundamentalist but a reactionary Catholic on the warpath against Vatican II makes perfect sense when seen in terms of the libidinal structure of Gibson’s film (sado-masochism) and the psychological need (the creation of rage through sacred snuff-porn) it fuels. The long standing fundamentalist hatred of Catholicism is misplaced. Equally misplaced is the attempt to confine fundamentalism to preachers in the Bible-belt. Fundamentalism is on the rise today and takes many forms because it speaks to something that has long been active in Christianity, something that the old Church exemplified. Perhaps it is the core that cannot be expunged from Judeo-Christianity, the source of a continuum that finds in fundamentalism the Hegelian Notion, the telos and immanent logos that develops through the course of Judeo-Christianity until it achieves in fundamentalism its proper and final form.
- Charles Strozier, Apocalypse: On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994).
- See Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (eds.) The Fundamentalism Project. 5 vols. (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993-5). In terms of the psychological study of religion, two other recent projects should be mentioned here: J. Harold Ellens (ed.) The Destructive Power of Religion: Violence in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. 4 vols. (London: Praeger, 2004) and J. Harold Ellens and Wayne G. Rollins (eds.) Psychology and the Bible. 4 vols. (London: Praeger, 2004).
- Fundamentalist readings of Revelation are an exercise in interpretive ingenuity in service to an ox-like stupidity.: every image in the text must be literalized and attached to a specific historical event or person. The great interpretive act would thus match everything in Revelation to every empirical detail of contemporary history. The project ironically calls for constant revision in time. This operation has been performed repeatedly in America since the 1840s when this effort first became fashionable among fundamentalists. For a history of such efforts, see Paul Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More (Boston: Harvard UP, 1992). Thus, as the fundamentalist looks at history, the same drama forever approaches, is forever delayed (and mores the pity) with the empirical forever sacrificed to the mechanical iteration of stock figures strutting their allegorical hour upon the stage. All this is both mechanical and mad: the frantic search for those events that will confirm and tie down the bizarre images of Revelation in order to prove—once again—that it provides the secret code to the meaning and direction of history.
- On the narrative rhetoric of the fundamentalist conversion tale and the “universal” principles of human response and desire that it supposedly satisfies, see Wayne Booth, “The Rhetoric of Fundamentalist Conversion Narratives,” The Fundamentalism Project. Vol. 5. pp. 367-95.
- Wilfrid R. Bion, (1965) Transformations. (NY: Jason Aronson).
- Wilfrid R. Bion (1967) Second Thoughts (NY: Jason Aronson).
- It would be interesting and fun to do a complete reading of Revelation as a psychological text; that is, one where the psyche of the author is projecting the inner drama that defines it. In John’s case we have a repetition compulsion in which each attempt to express love gives birth to an eruption of a rage that can never be successfully discharged. As a result, it necessarily expands with each repetition. John can only free himself of it through a cataclysmic projection that realizes the order of destructiveness Bion describes. Only then can love be expressed without a renewal of rage. That love significantly is for a world that can only exist after this one has been destroyed.
- See Robert Kennedy Jr. (2004) Crimes Against Nature (NY: Harper Collins) for discussion of this view in connection with the massive assault of the Bush Administration on the environment.
- For the reliance on physical and psychological abuse in fundamentalist child-rearing, see Philip Greven (1992) Spare the Child (NY: Random House).
- For a rethinking of Freud’s views and an attempt to articulate an existential and historical concept of the dialectic of thanatos and eros, see Deracination, pp. 133-50.
- There’s a problem with the above two paragraphs which for reasons of length I must consign to a note. Namely, the formulation offered here is insufficiently dialectical. Eros is pictured in quasi-essentialistic terms, whereas the truth of the matter is that it only comes into being properly speaking when it is activated by thanatos. When, that is, the conflict between them issues in what it not a psyche before then. This dialectical connection is the antithesis of binary thinking. It is also the key to what all psychoanlaytic concepts must be. Conflict is the reality. Other categories only take on determination out of that process—to which they also remain tied. See Inwardness and Existence, pp. 266-296, 326-346.
- As it turns out Hal Lindsey and Tim Le Haye are merely the precursors of Gibson. He alone has developed the art that assures that fundamentalist structures of feeling will take root in the psyche of a mass audience. Perhaps the next logical step is for Gibson to film the Apocalypse. But hush!, we don’t want to say this too loudly because one suspects the idea is already rattling around like a loose billiard ball in the empty caverns of his brain.
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Chapter 3: Passion of the Christ in Abu Ghraib
Chapter 4: Weapons of Mass Destruction Found in Iraq
Chapter 7: Bible Says: The Psychology of Christian Fundamentalism
Table of Contents:
|Preface:||The Way We Were|
|PART ONE: THE BELLY OF THE BEAST|
|2||Living in Death’s Dream Kingdom: The Psychotic Core of Capitalist Ideology|
|3||Passion of the Christ in Abu Ghraib|
|4||Weapons of Mass Destruction Found in Iraq|
|5||A Humanistic Response to 9-11: Robert Jay Lifton, or the Nostalgia for Guarantees|
|6||A Postmodernist Response to 9-11: Slavoj Zizek, or the Jouissance of an Abstract Hegelian|
|PART TWO: TO THE LEFT OF THE LEFT|
|7||Bible Says: The Psychology of Christian Fundamentalism|
|8||The Psychodynamics of Terror|
|9||Evil: As Psychological Process and as Philosophic Concept|
|10||Men of Good Will: Toward an Ethic of the Tragic|