Just Right of Scripture

Depending on who you ask, America is either a devoutly Christian nation or a nation that’s been taken over by devout Christians.

“Devout” defines this discussion, even if its implication is contested. People don’t define America as “having a lot of Christians”, so much as having very serious Christians, and not even very serious Christians so much as a very pronounced and contentious Christian narrative. Talking about Christian America evokes a pretty clear image, and it’s not a Catholic, coastal, or communitarian one.

Whether it’s characterized as some Leave It to Beaver Eden slipped from time or a backwards landscape of Children of the Corn-esque villages stretching from New York to Los Angeles, Christian America isn’t associated with how the religion looked for most of its history in a supposedly Godless Europe or even, really, the content of the book it was founded on. This isn’t to say that the Christians of the United States have somehow lost their way, or that there was a way to lose in the first place, but it seems that in the religious and moral landscape, Reagan’s indictment of the evil empire looms larger than Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. At the very least there’s recently been more religious quibbling over the differences between the Treaty of Paris and the Treaty of Tripoli than the books of Luke and John.

A Patriot’s Almanac

As always, the internet’s dedicated Weird Shit Retrieval Network has pulled up one of the strangest, most exaggerated examples of this trend. In 2006 a civil engineer named Andy Schlafly, tired of the rampant liberal bias on Wikipedia and the internet as a whole, decided to provide the good people of the web a fairer, less biased alternative. He called it Conservapedia. Now boasting “[o]ver 245 million Views & Over 836,000 Edits [sic]” and articles like “Atheism and obesity,”“Liberal logic,” and “Scientific Illiteracy and Liberals [sic],” Conservapedia has grown to provide a fantastic vista of the world through the eyes of a cheap political cartoon come to life.

What’s genuinely frightening is that this isn’t just a political statement or a sounding board for a particular group’s frustrations. It is, apparently, a legitimate attempt to make an encyclopedia. The site bothers to catalogue things that are politically unsexy, like the size of Serbia and the history of the potato, while, with equal authority, accusing Katamari Damacy of encouraging multiculturalism and establishing a link between lesbianism and obesity. These are clear signs that the hands behind this have been working on something bigger, something which readily converts into a stage where the only performance is “The Death of Objectivity (As a Meaningful Concept)”.

Fear of a Vulgar Vulgate

The real showstopper in this exercise in accidental theater, however, is the spectacle of a worldview eating itself. It seems that in their zeal to provide a cohesive guidebook to the secretly Christian-Conservative universe, the contributors’ noticed something strange about the ancient book that their values came from. While the Bible was undeniably Christian, it failed to live up to the faith that they’d been raised with. Indeed, certain passages seemed downright un-American. Being a true man of faith, Schlafly deduced that the original intent of the Bible had been corrupted by liberals in the past, and commissioned the “Conservative Bible Project,” an attempt to re-translate the Good Book without such confounding perversions as “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,” and using “powerful new conservative terms to capture better the original intent,” like using “idle miser” rather than “rich man” when Jesus talks about who will have a harder time entering heaven than a camel passing through the eye of a needle.

This exemplifies the strange undercurrents in America’s relationship with Christianity. The project explicitly values a strong sense of conservative principles over linguistic training and familiarity with the original languages, which makes the project less about whether or not the new words approximate the old, and more about whether or not a passage seems like something God would say. God’s will seems less like something to be divined and interpreted and more like something to be assumed.

More specifically, something that’s assumed to adhere to a local socio-political ideology, complete with the use of native buzzwords like describing Jesus’ contention with the Pharisees as “politically incorrect.” This seems to place God more as a servant than a master. At the end of the day it’s hard to take issue with the Bible’s lack of free-market parables and still say that it serves as your highest moral authority. Even if Schlafly and his followers are just a fringe group (they are,) it’s hard not to see glints of their larger-than-Christ ideology in religious discourse nation-wide.