Humanist Perspectives: issue 154: The Blue-State Evangelicals of the Southside

letter from new york
The Blue-State Evangelicals
of the Southside
by Johnny Diamond

You can hear it a long city-block away: off-key hymns with jazzed-up bass lines (supplied by 14 year olds in Sunday-starched shirts); wailing and screaming and swaying; the badly amplified eructations of old-time Evangelism in urban Spanglish;…

Four evenings a week on Bedford Avenue, the main drag of gentrified Williamsburg (one of Brooklyn’s nouveau cultural/real estate destinations) this small, unadorned storefront meeting place, known as Misionario Movemiento Mundial, hosts enthusiasms, testimonials and public prayer sessions. With seemingly little regard for noise regulations or secular neighbors, the meetings often spill into the streets, flooding most of the block with hosannas of righteous joy; at a distance, they remind one of an amateurish infomercial. [This kind of curbside revelry is not altogether uncommon in the neighborhood; in fact, a block to the south, a very humble dry cleaners has evolved into a weekend destination point for the eight-to-eighty set interested in sidewalk samba. The first time I saw the red and white bunting and the children dancing I assumed it was a store anniversary of some note — but six consecutive Saturdays would indicate otherwise.] The MMM has been around for just over a year, one of many such fervently Evangelicos Pentecostales congregations that have come into existence over the last decade in this largely Dominican and Puerto Rican neighborhood.

The so-called Southside of Williamsburg has gradually undergone a conversion from old-country Catholicism to urban Evangelism, a trend paralleling the changing religious climate of Latin America, where the ever-expanding Pentecostals now make up the second largest religious group after Catholics. And with the recent election of a conservative German to the papacy, it is unlikely that that trend will be reversed. But why does this matter in America? In New York? Politics.

but for once, and it pains me deeply to write this, the Vice President may have had a point.

There has been no small amount of ink spilled over the so-called red state/blue state divide, which has on one side the rural, flag-waving NASCAR Americans, self-identified as Christian and conservative, and on the other, the city-dwelling, Volvo-driving liberals, for whom religion is a seasonal formality. Though the divide is an oversimplification of a complex problem, the sides lined up in predictable fashion in the 2004 Presidential election, with the secular blue coasts surrounding the great red heartland. In fact, Howard Dean recently referred to the Republican Party as a bunch of ‘white Christians,’ a statement that seems intuitively obvious, for which he received strong rebukes from no less a Republican tough guy than Dick Cheney — but for once, and it pains me deeply to write this, the Vice President may have had a point.

this gathering Hispanic-Republican voting block is poised to tip the balance of power into the theocratic void.

With alarming pace, Hispanic Americans are coming to identify more strongly with the very public religious morality of the GOP than they are with the traditional social activism of the Democratic Party — perhaps because the former found its triumphal avatar in George W Bush and the latter has been debilitated by 20 years of inching nervously toward the center. From the ultra-conservative Cuban immigrants of Miami to the growing numbers of urban Pentecostals in Los Angeles and New York, this gathering Hispanic-Republican voting block is poised to tip the balance of power into the theocratic void.

From the dawn of the Civil Rights era the assumption in America has been that the minority vote, that of the poor and systemically disenfranchised, goes to the Democrats; prior to that, it is often forgotten, the Northern black vote went to the party of the great emancipator, Lincoln’s Republicans. But not so in 2004, when a significant percentage of Hispanics voted for Bush, with some polls indicating a 10% increase (35 to 45%) from 2000. And though social support systems created by Hispanic church organizations have done admirable work in depressed areas, as the political wing of the religious Right comes to understand the full power of this nascent voting block, 50% of whom feel strongly that Creationism has just as much place in public education as does Evolution, liberal guilt must give way to liberal outrage. If, as they have been doing so expertly, the Right can continue to shift the discussion from social justice to the realm of faith, the Democrats will continue to lose ground, and as a consequence the opportunity for free and open dialogue — the kind necessary for healthy, secular society — will arise less and less. Incidentally, after attempting to talk two or three times with anyone in any organizational capacity at the MMM, I’m afraid I gave up. Evidently, I didn’t appear to be a good candidate for conversion.

refer to Bush’s reelection as the End of the Enlightenment.

The freedom to worship in America — enshrined as it was by men who’d seen the consequences of politicized religion (or faith-based politics if you will) in a Europe ravaged by a hundred years of war — has always stood as a worthy example of tolerance achieved through legislation. But the mechanisms originally put in place to keep that worship out of the halls of power are being very astutely dismantled from the inside; in fact, the gloomier wags among American progressives refer to Bush’s reelection as the End of the Enlightenment. The FCC has become a de facto White House morality squad, government funding to public radio and television — the only sector of mainstream media willing to be critical of the administration — is being slashed in half, and the appellate courts are filling up with the likes of the recently confirmed Janice Rogers Brown, a judge who has no problem citing ‘a higher power’ in her decisions.

In various levels of American society the religious Right is making bold moves to see its moral program codified in state and local policy, not the least of which is the attempt to set so-called Intelligent Design Theory on an equal footing with Evolution in public schools (a topic no doubt covered in greater detail elsewhere in this magazine). At the very least, religious activists have managed to create enough of an atmosphere of uncertainty and general unpleasantness surrounding the topic of Evolution that capable, but already overworked, science teachers are foregoing the subject altogether — the attendant commotion being too much of a distraction from the rest of the syllabus. Particularly galling has been the religious Right’s shrewd recasting of the term ‘theory,’ which they’ve come to use as a substitute for ‘debatable.’ According to detractors, because Evolution is not wholly and empirically irrefutable there is no ultimate justification for its being taught ahead of any other theories (i.e., Intelligent Design), a stance of rank sophistry and ignorance that would have seemed impossible as recently as a decade ago. But with the ongoing political mobilization of Evangelical Americans, be they Hispanic or white or black, the line between faith and policy continues to fade, and it is dawning on many progressive Americans that things could be getting worse.

we’re not faced with a setback measurable in Presidential terms, but rather in entire generations.

This may sound alarmist and a little hysterical, like the predictable hand wringing of a left-progressive feeling impotent after the election — but there is a sense among many liberal Americans that we’re not faced with a setback measurable in Presidential terms, but rather in entire generations. Between the inevitable stacking of the Supreme Court, the refusal to take seriously any environmental issues, and the ongoing misadventures of empire, this administration could very well destroy any remaining international good will toward the United States — and they are doing it with the help of Evangelical zeal.

What brought this home to me though, wasn’t any particular intellectual argument, but rather a firsthand glimpse at the religious fervor the Right has been harnessing. On the way to do some grocery shopping I glanced into the MMM, which was unusually quiet for that night of the week. A woman was speaking monotonously into the microphone, and she looked to be reading straight from the Bible — there, prostrate before her in the central aisle, lay a single figure, a shabbily dressed man with his face buried in the carpet. Arresting as this image was, it was on the return trip, some 45 minutes later, that I felt in my gut the real power of Evangelism, and what it could mean when translated into votes, money and political will. The woman continued to read, the man lay there still, his face pressed into the ground, but beside him, in identical positions, lay two other figures, one man, one woman, their arms flung out to their sides.

Though they may only count for three votes, it is their apparent resolve, however misguided, that scares me. Here, in the deepest heartland of blue-state America, the power of Evangelism flaunts itself in store windows. I only hope we can keep it out of the chambers of power.

Jonny Diamond is a transplanted Torontonian, who currently works as a writer and editor in New York City. His short fiction has appeared in Geist, prism and Exquisite Corpse.

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