Tuesday, December 07, 2004

A Review of A Book Review

The New York Times Book Review last Sunday contained Stephen Prothero's review of Spirit and Flesh by James M. Ault Jr., a book about a fundamentalist congregation in Worcester, Massachusetts. According to Prothero

At least when it comes to religion, the last acceptable prejudice is anti-fundamentalism. Paradoxically, this bias draws both its justification and its power from the rhetoric of religious tolerance: If fundamentalists can't tolerate gay people and atheists, then why should we tolerate them?

Prothero doesn't actually answer this question. Instead, he goes on to discuss Ault's book as partly "a memoir of one skeptic's pockmarked pilgrimage toward hard-core faith", and it's not difficult to see the whole review as a sort of a rewriting of the meaning of fundamentalism. It turns out that fundamentalists actually use situational ethics among each other though they speak about morals in black-and-white terms. It also turns out that:

Ault also takes on the stereotypes about the subjugation of women in fundamentalist circles and finds, to his surprise, that women in many respects rule the roost at Shawmut River. They make up the majority of the congregation (as they do in virtually every other American religious group). And though they adhere, at least in theory, to a stark division between the sexes, they use those sharp distinctions to their advantage. If the husband is, as St. Paul said, the head of the wife, the wife is, as Valenti's spouse, Sharon, puts it, "the neck that turns the head."

This sort of backdoor leadership would not be surprising. That a system is rigidly hierarchical does not necessarily mean that it always succeeds in keeping the rank order fixed. What it does tend to mean, though, is that the means available for women to wield power are "sneaky" ones, based on subterfuge and passive aggressive behavior. Not that many decades ago it was common wisdom that this is how women are: backstabbers and cats and so on. That we no longer hear about this "common wisdom" so much is due to the changed assumptions about how women are allowed to express their needs. In short, I see Ault's description applying to the way all oppressed people try to use power: indirectly and behind the scenes. Prospero appears to view the description as something that should calm any feminist scruples we may have about fundamentalism.

Clearly, I'm not buying this argument. It's a good thing to have thoughtful analyses of fundamentalism and that includes its benefits, and it's indeed important to address the very difficult dilemma about tolerating those who do not tolerate us. But Prospero is subtly off in his treatment of this problem, and this becomes obvious when he states:

Ault argues: remember that fundamentalists are people, too. They are not a species apart, incapable of dealing with ambiguity or change. Their politics are not rooted in greed, inhumanity or mean-spiritedness, but in principled views of community, reciprocity and duty. If Americans can tolerate Buddhists and Hindus, why not fundamentalists, too?

We have come a full circle, back to Prospero's first question about tolerance. The difference between fundamentalist Christians and Buddhists or Hindus in the United States is that the latter groups are not attempting to enforce their beliefs on the rest of the society. The Christian fundamentalists are doing exactly that. And Prospero never really answer that important question: Why should we tolerate intolerant attacks against our own beliefs?