By: Roberto Rivera|Published: August 7, 2009 6:36 PM
Needless to say, this is not what we have been taught. Then again, what did you expect?
To: The Local Group
Tennessee state senator Paul Stanley recently joined an increasingly not-so-select club of American politicians caught with their pants down—in Stanley ’s case, almost literally.
The Shelby County pol, who is married and has two children, is alleged to have had an affair with a 22-year-old legislative intern.
“Alleged” is putting it politely. The intern’s boyfriend “discovered a computer memory disc with sexually explicit photographs of [her] that appeared to have been taken in Stanley's apartment. [The boyfriend] then blackmailed Stanley, demanding $10,000 in return for keeping quiet.” Stanley then went to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which dutifully set up a sting that resulted in the boyfriend’s arrest.
Unfortunately for Stanley, it also resulted in details about his—er—outdoor activities becoming public knowledge. To add to the humiliation, Stanley is, by all accounts, one of the Volunteer State’s most outspoken social conservatives. As a state representative, he “introduced a bill prohibiting the showing of pornographic materials in a moving vehicle.” (?) More recently, he co-sponsored a bill banning same-sex and other unmarried couples from adopting arguing that “when you're married, there's a commitment there” that presumably benefits the adoptee.
It’s been a long two months—John Ensign, Mark Sanford, and now this. To make matters worse, the failings haven’t exactly been on the QT and very hush-hush. They’ve involved angry husbands, fellow pols urging substantial payments to the mistress and her family (at a “Christian fellowship home on Capitol Hill” no less), mommy and daddy cutting a check, Danielle Steel-style confessionals to major news outlets, an American euphemism to match the Brits’ “discussing Ugandan relations,” and police stakeouts at Mexican restaurants.
I’ll leave you to imagine what people who aren’t social conservatives have to say about the juxtaposition between what these pols ostensibly represent and how they conduct themselves in private.
But it isn’t only “liberals” who are questioning the place of a distinctively Christian—which in the American cultural-political context means “Evangelical”—voice in American politics. If all you knew of recent American politics was what some Republican/conservative types had to say, you would infer that last fall Americans disregarded eight years of peace, prosperity, and world-beating governance because they were perturbed at efforts to save Terri Schiavo’s life and opposition to same-sex marriage. The key to a restoration of GOP/conservative fortunes, we are assured, lies in throwing social conservatives under the bus and repositioning the party and movement for a more inclusive liberaltarian age.
Unfair? Sure, but what did you expect? Just ask William Wilberforce. Here at Prison Fellowship, Wilberforce is regarded as a hero, but many historians and Victorian politicians blamed Wilberforce and his ilk for the greatest and bloodiest revolt against 19th-century European imperialism: the Indian Mutiny of 1857.
The consensus, reflected in books like Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India and The Last Mughal, goes like something like this. For a century, the East India Company had a very good thing going in the sub-continent. Not only were its commercial activities immensely profitable but the encounter between east and west had produced a tolerant hybrid Anglo-Indian culture. British men took Indian wives and dressed in native garb. Some of them even converted to Islam and, less frequently, Hinduism. Kumbaya and pass the hookahs.
Then, Wilberforce and his fellow Clapham-types convinced Parliament to make permitting missionary work in India a condition for the renewal of the Company’s charter in 1813. The Company’s insistence that missionary work in the area it ruled “caused disaffection among Indian citizens and undermined British political authority” was justified by what happened over the next four decades: Evangelicals, both inside and out of the Company’s ranks, flooded into India .
They replaced the tolerant status quo with a judgmental and, frankly, racist attitude toward the natives. Gone was the hybrid culture with its bibis and occasional religious syncretism, replaced by a kind of Apartheid. The Evangelicals trampled on native religious and cultural sensibilities and, worst of all, talked of converting India to Christianity, by force if necessary. It was the assault on India ’s religion that was to blame for the Mutiny.
Unfair? Sure, but what did you expect? It’s easy to imagine an evangelical bull in an Indian china shop. And there were a number of Evangelicals who spoke about using the power of the British Raj to convert India to Christianity en masse. The question is: is that number four or five? I ask because in my admittedly less-than-exhaustive reading on the subject the same names—in particular an unfortunate Mrs. Mackenzie—come up over and over again.
What’s more, the trampling included things like educating widows and orphans, who were shunned in their traditional societies, and teaching them a trade. Quel horreur! Oh yeah, and the outraged religious and cultural sensibilities included Sati, the burning of widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres.
There are some things that might have caused Indians to mutiny for which Evangelicals cannot be blamed: the hardening of racial attitudes, which were never as tolerant as the consensus would have us believe. After all, a few outliers going native and the willingness to sleep with local women isn’t the same as equality or even tolerance. What’s more, the hardened racial attitudes were codified by the definitely-not-an-Evangelical Cornwallis (yes, that Cornwallis) and his equally-not-an-Evangelical successor Lord Wellesley years before missionaries were admitted into Company-ruled territory.
Then there was the small matter of how the Company came to rule over that territory in the first place—by conquest through a series of increasingly bloody wars waged by not-remotely-Evangelical ambitious men looking to make their fortunes at the expense of the Indian peoples. Their greed, and that of the Company’s shareholders, dictated what the people in their territory could grow—i.e., opium and indigo instead of food—and how much of the fruit of their labor they could keep.
Finally, there was the introduction of cartridges greased with pig and cow fat for use with the Company’s rifles: a move that managed to offend the religious sensibilities of both Hindu and Muslim sepoys. It’s difficult to imagine how missionaries could be blamed for the actions and policies that led to the mutiny—yet they are.
The consensus would have us believe that the Indian peoples were just peachy with being conquered and subjugated by the ferengi (yes, that’s where the name came from); not only that, but they were okay with infidels and unclean (in the ritual and caste sense) foreigners sleeping with their women. (One British author not only said that they were but that the Indian women enjoyed all that sex. Really.) But a few tracts, some missionary schools, and the lone, sometimes intemperate, evangelist preaching at local festivals was too much to bear.
(For what it’s worth, the Bollywood epic about the Indian Mutiny, Mangal Pandey: The Rising, never mentions missionaries or Evangelicals at all. The only mention of Christianity is when Company officers ask the most sympathetic British character why they don’t see him in church, to which he replies because he is Catholic. While it would be silly to look to any movie for genuine historical insight, movies can tell you something about how the filmmakers and their intended audience understand their own history—in this instance very differently from the consensus.)
This “blame the religious, i.e., Christian, folk” isn’t limited to Evangelicals in 19th-century India . The so-called Wars of Religion are said to be the reason why our modern liberal order requires religion (in other words, Christianity) to be a private matter with little, if any, public consequences. The alternative to people killing each other over irreconcilable religious theological differences is to “secularize public discourse in the interest of minimizing the ill effects of religious disagreement.”
William Cavanaugh begs to differ: In “’A Fire Strong Enough to Consume The House’: The Wars of Religion & the Rise of the State,” Cavanaugh argues that evocation of this story is really intended to “legitimize the transfer of ultimate loyalty to the modern State.” As he puts it, “at issue in these wars was not simply Catholic versus Protestant, transubstantiation versus spiritual presence. The Queen Mother who unleashed the massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day was not a religious zealot but a thoroughgoing Politique with a stake in stopping the nobility’s challenge to royal pretensions toward absolute power.”
What was true in France was also true in Germany : a nascent centralized state wages war on those who would oppose the centralization of power. “The principal promoters of the wars in France and Germany were in fact not pastors and peasants, but kings and nobles with a stake in the outcome of the movement toward the centralized, hegemonic State.”
Needless to say, this is not what we have been taught. Then again, what did you expect? A fairer and more balanced account would call into question the founding myth of our modern liberal order, and everything that flows from it. Since, as Alasdair MacIntyre put it, “contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals and radical liberals,” that kind of question is virtually intolerable. (Irony intended.) Likewise, the alternative to “Wilberforce and his ilk are to blame for the Indian Mutiny” is an embarrassing scrutiny of the British Raj and talking about the British policies that killed ten of millions of Indians as documented in Late Victorian Holocausts. So it’s “Out, damn’d Evangelical spot!”
What we shouldn’t expect is fairness. This isn’t cynicism or bitterness—it’s an acknowledgment of the limitations of “modern political systems.” Even under the best of circumstances, only a thoroughly tamed and domesticated kind of religious argument is permissible, and then only under the terms dictated by people whose principle (or secondary or even tertiary) concerns are not ours. Our “seat at the table” comes at a high price: we must promise to behave; we can’t ask for anything that puts their real concerns at risk; and when conservative liberals, liberal liberals and radical liberals fail in their efforts to create the society of their dreams, it will be our fault. Kumbaya and pass the hookahs.
Roberto Rivera is a senior writer for BreakPoint.
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