Liars & Lunatics
Updated: May 29, 2021
Somewhere in the trajectory that saw the rise of Ralph Reed and the Moral Majority, Rush Limbaugh and FOX news, Newt Gingrich and the Tea Party, and the birther controversy and subsequent election of Donald "grab their pussies" Trump, the conspiracy known as Q-Anon morphed into being, and it did so, as this trajectory implies, not in a vacuum but in an incubator called the Republican-Evangelical party, which is what the Republican party has effectively become -- a politico-religious entity that looks, acts, and feels more and more like a cult than a legitimate political party, and as each day passes, the threat of such a marriage made in hell becomes increasingly consequential. The latest polls suggest that the Q-Anon conspiracy is as large as mainline Evangelical Protestantism.
Dear Sheep: Meet the guard of your hen house, and please feel free to look past his long and hairy snout.
How did we get here? As always, a full answer to that question is well-nigh impossible to mark out, but what is possible is to delineate a clear narrative thread that runs straight through the Books of Daniel and Revelation and the rise of conservative evangelicalism in the 1920s-50s to Q-Anon and the Trump phenomenon today. You can call it by many names, as it is a shape-shifter, but we can just agree to settle on a single moniker: Fundamentalism. If you Google the term, this is what you find:
fun·da·men·tal·ism /ˌfəndəˈmen(t)lˌizəm/ noun
a form of a religion, especially Islam or Protestant Christianity, that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture. "there was religious pluralism there at a time when the rest of Europe was torn by fundamentalism"
strict adherence to the basic principles of any subject or discipline. plural noun: fundamentalisms "free-market fundamentalism"
I first encountered this beast up close and in person on a Sunday in the late 60s/early 70s in our tiny bario church in the Philippines called Simbahan Sa Nayon, or Village Church, and I remember well the impact it left on my wide-eyed and impressionable 7 year-old self. The little one-room church was filled that sweltering morning with faces I didn't recognize, and the chancel was decorated with tiny flags, colored tinsel, and a gold microphone. Three men in outsized suits sat in large red velvet chairs at the front facing the congregation, and when the festivities got started, they were introduced to us as "the millionaire, the murderer, and the evangelist," a sort of butcher/baker/candlestick-maker trio of oddities that would have been more at home in a Flannery O'Connor story than in our little rural sanctuary.
Each took a turn addressing the congregation, and none of them was shy. The service lasted 3-4 hours in what effectively was a long diatribe in three parts on Sin, hell, the devil, the prophecies of Daniel, and the hidden messages of Revelation (not to mention a laundry list of the millionaire's and murderer's past evil deeds). I'd never heard such things in my young Christian life, and I grew up on a seminary, for God's sake (literally)! I was mesmerized, at least at first, then frightened, and finally just annoyed. Even at that age I had the sense that these clowns were certifiable, and yet the people in the church sat entranced (or was it just trapped by protocol? I don't know).
Somewhere late in the service, my friends and I managed to escape to the tiny cement wall just beyond the main doors under the covered porch to get out of the oppressive heat, and it was the millionaire, I think, in his sweeping silver hair and open collared suit shirt (that made him look more like a South American gaucho than a Filipino preacher) who addressed us directly, us tiny lambs sitting in a row on what amounted, at least that morning, to a makeshift sinners' bench. He looked at us with his fiery eyes from across the wide scape of that long center aisle and said in an imperious tone, "Sa tingin mo mainit dito? Maghintay hanggang madama mo ang apoy ng impiyerno!" (translated: "You think it's hot in here? Wait until you feel the fires of hell!").
Which brings us back to the Q-Anon conspiracy, which trades on the same base instincts, plays on the same scandalous rhetoric, and curries the same sort of nativist impulses, and does each of these with about an equal amount of veracity as the murderer, the millionaire, and the evangelist. But, of course, a lie gets half way around the world before the truth has even got its shoes on. How? Because, like the lunatic in Chesterton's Orthodoxy, a lie isn't hampered by common sense and restraint. In an extended quote from this book, in a chapter aptly titled "The Maniac," Chesterton captures in words what exactly was happening that Sunday morning fifty years ago in my little rural church in the Philippines, and what happens, sadly, in pulpit after pulpit in American evangelical churches today:
The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle. It is exactly such careless and causeless actions that the madman could never understand; for the madman (like the determinist) generally sees too much cause in everything. The madman would read a conspiratorial significance into those empty activities. He would think that the lopping of the grass was an attack on private property. He would think that the kicking of the heels was a signal to an accomplice. If the madman could for an instant become careless, he would become sane. Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
The madman's explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ's.
Nevertheless, he is wrong.
What we face when we look into the eyes of Q-Anon and its millions of followers is what has been reaped from generations of fundamentalist homiletics, which is religion gone mad. As I've said elsewhere, the main difference between Christianity and a conspiracy is a matter of tone more than substance. Christianity has never depended on certainty, but has been forced to be content with the vagaries of faith and on creeds that, at their best, rely on trust, which is why all creeds begin with the words "We believe..." (which is translated credo in Latin). A conspiracy, on the other hand, depends entirely on certainty for its very existence, which is why all conspiracies begin with the words, "We know..."
I would say that it is time for the reasonable people of this country, religious and non-religious alike, to stand up against the madness of Q-Anon and Evangelical Fundamentalism before they ruin the very foundations of our democracy. But I would be saying this all too late, and to a populace that, alas, feeds off of conspiracies of its own. What can we expect, after all, from a society that has imbibed the gospel of modernism in all its forms and facets, from the puerile fantasies of G.O.T to the political prevarications of the GOP? Not much, I'm afraid. And so we are forced to watch this whole ugly thing play out and simply hope and pray that cooler heads will somehow
prevail when all the dust has settled.
Or perhaps the dust settling will be the dust of a nuclear winter, or a 21st century dust bowl, or the dust that has gathered like a filament on the pages of our Constitution, so late a guide for civic life. I am reminded of Wordsworth's poem, "The World is Too Much With Us," an elegy of sorts that he penned during the First Industrial Revolution for the lost and lonely state of modern British life. The same, I think, could be said of American life today:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.