Christ in America

God rewarded this servant with multiple mansions
This post is about the problems caused by American evangelicals, fundamentalists, and conservative Catholics. My knowledge is based upon my childhood in the fundamentalist Church of Christ; my education at an Independent Methodist college and a Southern Baptist college; listening to National Public Radio for hours everyday; reading the monthly newspaper, Freethought Today, cover to cover; paying close attention to the issues that Christian voters care about, and watching the national and local news regularly. Based upon these sources, it seems to me that a large majority of evangelicals, fundamentalists, and conservative Catholics: 

1) Oppose gun control, abortion rights, social welfare programs,  environmentalism, homosexual rights, and Palestinian autonomy

2) Regard science as the gateway to atheism; deny evolution, global warming, the "Big Bang," and the antiquity of the universe; believe that dinosaurs and humans coexisted; think that Biblical "science" should either replace or supplement evidence-based science in public school curricula.

3) Favor harsh prison sentences and capital punishment.

4) Are quick to support military intervention, imprisoning suspected terrorists indefinitely without a trial, and inflicting torture to gain information. Believe that America should stay out of other nation's affairs, thereby giving tacit support to human rights abuses and predatory dictators.

5) Believe that religious employers should have the legal right to deny contraceptive benefits through their insurance plans; that religious pharmacists should have the legal right to refuse to fill prescriptions that violate their personal beliefs; and that religious pastry chefs, florists, and others should have the legal right to refuse orders from atheists, Muslims, homosexuals, and anyone else of whom they disapprove.

6) Believe that America is a Christian nation founded on Christian values; that its prosperity is proof of God's preference; that Christian specific prayers should be a part of government meetings and school functions; that Christian symbols and monuments should be allowed in public parks, public schools, and in and around courthouses, post offices, city halls, and police stations; and that anyone who opposes any of these things is guilty of persecuting Christians.

7) Believe that foreigners who are here illegally should be expelled even if they were brought here as infants, have no ties to the country of their birth, and would be in danger if returned to the country of their birth.

During my coming of age years in the 1950s and '60s, most of America's churches held that attempts to mix religion with politics were unworthy of a people whose kingdom "is not of this world." They subsequently turned their attention to "preaching the gospel" and upholding morality. Now that religion has no part in the lives of a fourth of Americans, and non-Christian religions are on the increase, America's churches are desperate to regain a control that was formerly theirs simply by virtue of the fact that their values mirrored the values of the general public. 

This means that the church's newly found emphasis on transforming America into a conservative Christian theocracy doesn't come from a position of strength but from a desperation to return the nation to an era when white Christian conservatives ruled the nation and, legally or illegally, suppressed all challengers, a time that was like the materialistic 1950s when "In God We Trust" was put on the nation's currency; "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance; and tax breaks were given to "ministers of the gospel." As such, it is doomed to failure, a failure that is being accelerated by the church's willingness to abandon its own ethical teachings in the pursuit of power and wealth. I hold that the dominant face of modern American Christianity is morally, intellectually, and spiritually bankrupt; a purveyor of lies; a perpetrator of war; and an enemy of the poor. 

Despite all this, America's Christians believe that they are unique among all the peoples of the earth in their faithfulness to the teachings of Jesus Christ, no matter that their smugness, materialism, unprincipled pursuit of earthly dominance, and loathing of such "not nice" people as gays, atheists, and Muslims, are in contradiction to Jesus' message of love, humility, simplicity, peacefulness, and the renunciation of worldly power. I offer the following to support my contention:

1) While the public in general, and younger Americans in particular, are moving ever more in the direction of tolerance and inclusion, the church is openly embracing bigotry. For example, the Christians of the state of Alabama were so outraged a federal requirement that sexual orientation not be taken into account when issuing marriage licenses, that their lawmakers are working to end the issuance of marriage licenses altogether. Because Alabamians commonly hold that the Bible is a static record "of God's unchanging word," they can cite chapter and verse to prove that God wants them to go much further than putting an end to gay marriage; he wants them to criminalize homosexual relationships if not to actually execute homosexuals. Unfortunately for them, federal law makes these things impossible.

2) " their fruits you will know them." Matthew 7:20

America's evangelicals, fundamentalists, and conservative Catholics, have traded their belief that, if you do good and trust in God, God will make things right, for a world view that they formerly condemned as the hallmark of "Godless Communism." I refer Machiavelli's statement that, "The end justifies the means." The resultant pragmatism is what made it possible for Christians to support one politician who boasted of sexually assaulting women and another who raped children, and it is what is still inspiring America's Christians to protect clergymen who are accused of molestation. I could cite almost endless other instances of the church: violating the law to proselytize inside public schools; diverting public monies for its private use; petitioning for the installation or retention of religious monuments in publicly owned parks and buildings by claiming that such monuments have no religious significance; and supporting notoriously corrupt and otherwise unqualified politicians as long as those politicians favor right-wing religion.

(3) "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world." James 1:27

In what part of the New Testament did Jesus embrace politics, and where did he encourage patriotism? Why, then, is the rallying cry of millions of Christians "America First," and why did the church go from visiting widows and orphans to deporting them; from respecting peacemakers to extolling violence; from helping drug addicts to imprisoning them? Liberals are made to feel unwelcome in most of America's churches because if there is one thing of which America's Christians are certain, one thing that their preachers tell them from the pulpit (in violation of a federal law that prohibits them from endorsing candidates), it is that God wants his people to vote Republican, and if Jesus prefers Republicans, then liberalism is clearly a sin. 

(4) It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." Mark 10:25

The heroes of the church are no longer the Kings, Bonhoeffers, and Schweitzers, with their emphasis on courage and sacrifice; nor is it the humble pastor of my childhood who turned down a raise so the money could be spent on what he regarded as higher things. The heroes of the modern church are rich politicians like Donald Trump, and rich preachers like Joel Osteen who lives in a tax exempt 17,000 square-foot mansion, and earns $55-million a year telling his16,800 person audience that they can be rich like him if they please God by giving generously to the church. So far as I'm aware, our modern era marks the first time that amassing wealth was officially endorsed by the church itself as proof of God's favor, the implication being that the poor have only themselves to blame and therefore don't deserve help.

(5) "Jesus answered, 'My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom.'" John 18:36

While American religion tries to hide its unbridled lust for power beneath a veneer of piety, the effect is like that of a cat who hides beneath a chair with his tail sticking out. When religion wants to effect political change, it goes all out to pass discriminatory laws, but when it wants things to stay as they are, it offers prayers. Consider some typical responses from Christian politicians following the Parkland, Florida, school shooting:

"When we say 'thoughts and prayers,' it's frowned upon. And I take real offense at that because thoughts and prayers are the only thing that's gonna stop the evil." Florida state senator Kelli Stargel

"I think of those kids who went back to school today after than horrific shooting, and they need something more. They need a belief in God and Jesus Christ."
Former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz 

"And if there's ever a time to return prayer to the classroom, now's the time." U.S. Congressional candidate Steve Lonegan

American Christianity is a world turned on its head, but at least in the case of praying for an end to mass murder, it can't be positively proven that prayer is the complete failure that it appears to be. Potholes are another matter, but this didn't stop Jackson, Mississippi, mayor, Tony Yarber from tweeting: "Yes....I believe we can pray potholes away. Moses prayed and a sea opened up."

Is it not disingenuous to claim that banning guns won't save lives, but that banning abortion will; that social programs for the poor won't assuage poverty, but tax breaks for the wealthy will; that a commitment to helping disadvantaged youth won't prevent crime, but a commitment to building more and bigger prisons will; that any number of prayers by any number of people for any number of years can repair a single pothole or accomplish anything else of value, anything at all?
A people can be forgiven for having tried but failed, but how is one to forgive a people who pretend that good is evil and that evil is good? I know I cannot. 

"For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness." 
Matthew 23: 27-28

Bastet and Other Bewitchers

The goddess Bastet
A happy aspect of studying cats is that when I see the same book or story referenced repeatedly, I seek it out, my favorite fictional cat thus far being Paul Gallico's Jennie. Yet Jennie didn't exist even in the context of the book, but was rather an injured boy's hallucination. I went from not liking Gallico when I first encountered him, to liking no one nearly so much when I got to know him. Gallico's enormous respect for cats (one of his books was entitled Honorable Cat), prevented him from using the cat as a literary device, not that there aren’t some very fine stories by cat-anthropomorphizers. Take Saki’s “Tobermory,” which chronicles the life and death of a talking cat who proceeds from charming the guests at a weekend house party to inspiring them to murder when they hear what he has to say. Such is the common fate of truth-tellers. Then there’s Kipling’s, “The Cat That Walked by Himself” with its playful introduction:

“HEAR and attend and listen; for this befell and behappened and became and was, O my Best Beloved, when the Tame animals were wild. The Dog was wild, and the Horse was wild, and the Cow was wild, and the Sheep was wild, and the Pig was wild--as wild as wild could be--and they walked in the Wet Wild Woods by their wild lones. But the wildest of all the wild animals was the Cat. He walked by himself, and all places were alike to him.”

Desmond Morris' various works are probably the most comprehensive of the nonfiction books about cats, but Frances and Richard Lockridges' 1950 Cats and People is exemplary for its humor and opinionation, and for something the authors couldn't have foreseen. I refer to the enormous changes that human/cat relationships have experienced in the ensuing 68 years. Then there's Barbara Holland's 1988 Secrets of the Cat: Its Lore, Legend, and Lives. Best known as a crusty advocate of cursing, drinking, eating fatty foods, and chain smoking cigarettes, Holland was a keen observer who filled her book with the immediacy of her personality.

I also enjoy books of cat poetry, cat humor, cat photographs, cat quotations, cat paintings (I have one book entitled Why Paint Cats? and another called Why Cats Paint), or some combination of the above. Few have charmed me more than Lorraine Chittock’s Cats of Cairo: Egypt’s Enduring Legacy, in which she combines seven years of photographs with 4,000 years of Middle Eastern thoughts about cats.

As with my last post, this one is meant to illustrate how very differently—and often contradictorily—different peoples in different times and places have regarded cats. Given that the basic reality of cats is ever the same, and the reality of humans ever changeable, what insanity inspires us to laugh at past generations while maintaining a dogged faith in our advancement no matter how badly we behave? Is it really conceivable that the ancients’ worship of a Great Tomcat is less laughable than humanism’s insistence that “people really are good at heart” (Ann Frank), or Christianity’s belief in a triune god which had one third of itself murdered as a sacrifice to itself? As Whitman wrote concerning our fellow animals:

“I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.”

The remainder of this post consists of some excerpts from Cats of Cairo.

Who is this Great Tomcat? He is the god Ra himself. —Coffin Text, 2000 B.C.

O peaceful one who returns to peace, you cause me to see the darkness of your making. Lighten me that I can perceive your beauty, turn toward me, O beautiful one when at peace, the peaceful one when at peace, the peaceful one who knows a return to peace.
—prayer to Bastet, 2000 B.C.

The name of the god who guards you is Cat. 

—from the Book of the Dead, 1250 B.C.

She has bewitched me with her darkness and light as she appears to be made of ebony and ivory.
—Ibn Tabataba, died 815 A.D.

My sorrows will be over when I find companionship in a cat. —Ahmad Ibn Faris, 920-1040 A.D.

When a cat dies unexpectedly, the dervishes bury her and say, "Go on my friend, may God give you peace and peace for us." On that grave, they'll put a stone… and cry hot tears. —a Dervish custom

The yellow one from the bakery smelled like a cream puff--she followed us home. We buried our faces in her sweet fur.
One cat hid his head while I practiced violin. But he came out for piano. At night he plays sonatas on my quilt.
One cat built a secret nest in my socks.
One sat in the window staring up at the street all day while we were at school.
One cat loves the radio dial.
One cat almost smiles.

—Naomi Shihab Nye, 1952-

The black cat used to move from one table to the other, looking for crumbs and little pieces of fish, loitering at the customers’ feet and rubbing against their legs, with the idleness of one spoiled by luxury... The customers bandied jokes and anecdotes, and got more intimate by expressing their complaints and grievances to each other. Sometimes, one with a clear voice would start a merry song so that this damp buried place overflowed with happiness. "There is no harm in forgetting for an hour or two the problems of poverty and children." "And forgetting the heat and flies..." "And forgetting there is another world outside these bars..." And enjoying playing with the black cat." —from "The Tavern of the Black Cat" by Naguib Mahfouz 1911-2006

Cats Make Beautiful Women: Islam Versus Christianity

Old Maids at a Cat’s Funeral, John Pettit, 1789

The idea of a cat who turns into a woman is found in the legends of all countries and peoples.
Fernand Mery

"There was once a black cat, and every night she would crawl up through a dark well deep below the ground. Then she would shed her cat skin and go to the owner of a nearby house in the form of a woman. They would savor the joys of love night after night until morning prayer at which time she would disappear below ground again. Every morning when he awoke he would find some money she left for him in appreciation of their time together. Through the years their friendship grew so strong that she helped his daughter go on pilgrimage to Mecca."  
Moroccan folktale

Unlike similar stories from Christian lands, the Moroccan tale came from a culture that esteemed cats prior to the advent of Islam, and continued to do so afterwards. By contrast, here are three story plots from Christian Europe: (1) A man realizes that his demure young bride is really a cat when she drops to all-fours and chases a mouse. (2) A man awakens to find that a cat is lifting the latch to come into his bedroom. He cuts the cat's paw off with an axe, and realizes that his wife is not in the room. She comes home days later with a missing hand. (3) A man surprises a coven of black cats in the midst of a Satanic ritual. He slashes the leg of one of the cats with a sword, and his wife comes home the next morning with a sword wound in her leg.

Why cats, and why only female cats? Why not dogs? One night, Peggy had an erotic dream about our blue heeler (a beautiful dog with a delightful musk), and I learned from decades of walking dogs that the first thing people ask is whether it's a boy or a girl. Members of both species can be sensuously beautiful, and humans clearly care about their gender, so why are there no erotic stories about dogs becoming women and marrying men?

In pre-Enlightenment Christendom, stories about cats that could adopt the form of humans and humans that could adopt the form of cats accompanied the church's brutal subjugation of anything that represented mystery and sensuality. Although roosters and billy goats were also said to be consorts of Satan, they were comedic failures compared to the grace, beauty, and sensuality of cats and women. It was quite another story in the Muslim world. The following is from the Wikipedia entry Islam and Cats:

"In Islamic tradition, cats are admired for their cleanliness. They are thought to be ritually clean, unlike dogs, and are thus allowed to enter homes and even mosques... Food sampled by cats is considered halal [clean] and water from which cats have drunk is permitted for wudu [ceremonial cleansing]."

According to Islamic legend: cats won't walk across a Koran; they seek out people who are praying; they land on their feet because Mohamed blessed a cat by touching its back; the letter M on the forehead of tabbies is the imprint of Mohamed's fingers; Mohamed cut off his sleeve rather than disturb his cat, Muezza, who was asleep on it; Mohamed re-routed his army because a nursing cat was in their path. The following words of Mohamed are from the Hadith (a Moslem text second only to the Koran): "Affection for cats is a part of the faith;" and here are a few other other examples of the affection Muslims feel for cats: a 13th century sultan, al-Zahir Baybars endowed a still extant cat sanctuary in Cairo; cats are welcome in mosques and there was even a Medieval era cat hospital to which people brought food in the belief that doing so would win them the favor of Allah. I could go on.

No living thing fared well when Christianity dominated Europe, but when it came to unbridled cruelty, only heretics were persecuted as viciously as cats and women, and no women suffered more than "old maids," who, after being tortured, were often burned to death along with their cats. In what is surely the supreme irony of all time, Christians suspected that cats were causing the Black Death, and did their utmost to destroy the one animal that might have saved them. 

For decades, the city of Paris held yearly spectacles in which French monarchs presided over a religious celebration in which cranes hoisted iron cages filled with screaming cats above bonfires so the people could "...have the pleasure of seeing the violent movements and hearing the frightening cries that these poor unfortunate beasts are forced to make" (the words of Jean Meslier, a French priest of the period who, upon his death, was found to have been an atheist). If the Bible is God's word, why didn't God insert a verse to stop all this, something like, "Upon pain of hell, thou shalt never, for any reason, kill or torment any person or other creature wantonly or in my name"?

The cat's bad reputation among Christians originated in its high esteem by pagans. What Christianity couldn't appropriate (it made Christian saints out of pagan gods, and Christian holy days out of pagan feast days), it sought to destroy, and the cat's position was worsened by the fact that, unlike its predecessors, Christianity denied that non-humans had a soul. Because cats reminded the Holy Catholic Church and its Protestant off-shoots of women, the way was paved for stories in which, through the help of Satan, cats could become women and vice versa.

Cat in Arabic
When the Enlightenment robbed Christianity of much of its temporal power, the supposed supernatural relationship between cats and women degenerated into a low comedy about cats and old maids that continues to this day (it's a small step from being a "cat lady" to being a "crazy cat lady"). While being mocked was certainly preferable to being burned, the fact that men continued to feel threatened by any woman who could resist their masculine allure didn't speak well of men who, after all, had a long history of doing everything they could to make it legally and economically hard for women to survive without them.

Since every member of the cat family is referred to as "she" simply by virtue of being a cat, the threat to men that is posed by cats would not appear to come from any notion of women preferring cat masculinity to human masculinity, but rather from the fact that women and cats have a long history of being equated. I suspect that it would be hard to find a male cat hater who regards women as his equals, and when a 200-pound man proclaims his loathing of a ten pound creature that is scarcely aware of his existence, his first feeling wasn't hatred; it was the terror that came from having his self-image threatened by any creature's refusal to acknowledge his superiority.

Some relevant books, textual links, and a Youtube video that constitute a partial list of sources:

The Life, History and Magic of the Cat by Fernand Mery
Cats of Cairo: Egypt's Enduring Legacy by Lorraine Chittock
Secrets of the Cat: Its Lore, Legend, and Lives by Barbara Holland