A Matter of Time

"The Great Controversy" -- a religious book -- is being mailed to 600,000 Chicagoans. (Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune)

"The Great Controversy" -- a religious book -- is being mailed to 600,000 Chicagoans. (Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune)

Back when I was a religion professor, I used to teach courses in American religious history with a focus on the Constitution. Because of that, I occasionally receive calls from journalists who want to get some perspective on religious liberty issues and the workings of the First Amendment.

I was talking to a reporter the other day, for a story she was working on about American religions in the 21st century, and I was helping to give her some background on the subject. As is often the case in these conversations, we covered a spectrum of topics. We talked about religious persecution and religious protections, and about Mormons and Muslims, and why there’s “In God We Trust” on the dollar bill.

Then she asked a question that I have heard with increasing frequency, especially among my more progressive friends. Even though I have heard this question a lot, the bluntness with which she asked me was a little surprising. I usually hear it worded a little more delicately, but she asked me directly, “Why are Christian fundamentalists so closed minded?”

If she surprised me with the question, I think I surprised her as well with my answer: “They’re not.”

You can understand why the question was on her mind. Fundamentalists have been in the news.

For example, Time Out Chicago, the Chicago Tribune, and other news sources have been reporting this last week about a book that Seventh-Day Adventists have been mailing lots of copies of to lots of folks here in Chicago, as well as North Carolina, and other targeted areas of the country.

The book is The Great Controversy, Past, Present, Future: How Will it End? It was written by the founder of the denomination, E.G. White.

According to the article in the Tribune:

“More than 600,000 copies have been mailed out – unsolicited – across Chicago and residents started getting them in the past week, said Dwight Hall, chief executive officer of Michigan-based Remnant Publications Inc., a Christian publisher behind the mailing blitz in Chicago and several other cities. In the past few years, copies of the paperback were also mailed to New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Charlotte.”

The book had an address card inside, addressed to “Current Resident.” Since “current resident” is what I am, I got one. On the flip side of the address card, there’s a long explanation (of sorts) as to why it was sent, which includes the following helpful exhortation:

“This book accurately depicts monumental events in history… It also reveals how these truths impact you today and in the near future. With our world in such disarray, with so little time left, we don’t have time to bash religions or people or ideas - we only have time to discover the truth before it’s too late.”

Before it’s too late. Indeed.

When my reporter friend asked me why I didn’t think Christian fundamentalists are closed minded, I suggested she try to think about it this way:

Imagine you are walking down the street, and you see a building on fire. Moreover, you see people are trapped inside the building, in danger of being burned alive. How would you respond? Would you take time debating theories about the nature of fire with them? Would you spend time with them in discussions about how the fire first started?

Of course not. If you could, you would use every means necessary to rescue those in danger, as quickly as possible, and to get them to safety.

Certain religious people, I said to my reporter friend, view the world just like that. They see the world as a burning building - on fire with sin, or apostasy, or insults to holy order. Furthermore, because they believe the fire is already raging, they see the world around us in a state of immanent collapse.

Just like the address card in the book from the Adventists says, they don’t have time to debate religious ideas - instead, they see it as their duty to get as many people, both loved ones and strangers, to safety before the whole thing is engulfed in flames and ash.

They want to make sure your soul is right with Jesus. In other words, say this prayer, please - the roof is about to fall in.

In a democracy, a view like this has to be balanced with many other, differing viewpoints. Some believe the world is on fire, and some do not. Those differences in the basic way we see the world can lead to some intense disagreements. If you have ever had an uncomfortable conversation around the dinner table at Thanksgiving with a relative, you may have had a glimpse into what I mean.

It gets more complicated. If you are a person who thinks the world is in danger of burning due to sin, then you might also have the belief (which comes to us through the centuries from writers like Augustine and John Calvin) that this same sin causes blindness to those who are sinning. In other words, those who are in danger will not know they are in danger.

This can get a little infuriating, if you happen to be a person who does not think the world is burning. Because your assurance that you do not think you are in danger is (to some eyes) only an indication of just how deep into the fire you already are. So not only are you being told you are in danger (from a fire you do not see), but you are also being told that you are not seeing the world as it really is.

This gets us to the question of the “closed mindedness” my reporter friend was asking me about. When this dynamic enters the public sphere, it may look like Christian fundamentalists (indeed, most fundamentalists, of any religious stripe) are having an argument with progressives about public policy issues. They are not. They are having arguments with progressives about the very nature of the world itself.

If you are a fundamentalist, then you believe the world was created with an order, and you believe it has been brought to disorder by sin, and we are in immanent danger of punishment for that sin.

As I said to my reporter friend, this helps explain why sometimes folks are not be interested in entertaining alternative viewpoints - not because they are closed-minded, but because they “know” (even when their progressive friends do not see) that the clock is ticking.

Now this is very complicated for a democracy, because the one thing a democracy absolutely presupposes is adequate time.

The presupposition of adequate time is baked into the very notion Thomas Jefferson and other founders had about the “marketplace of ideas.” In this model, conflicting viewpoints present their case in the public square, each sharpening the other until - over time - the best approach to public policy emerges.

You can see the problem already. A democratic process is a great approach to take if you want to decide what color drapes to buy, or where the group should go to lunch. But it is more tricky to make the case that a democratic process will help you in a crisis. In fact, there are many who will tell you that you can’t take time to debate best practices in the “marketplace of ideas” if the building is already on fire.

A crisis is always the hobgoblin of a democratic process.

A progressive worldview assumes that public policy - and reality itself - is on a steady trend of improvement in the marketplace of ideas. That notion of constant progress is inherent in the very term “progressive” itself.

But fundamentalists instead see no time left for progress. A decision must be made now - stay in the fire and die, or quickly take the path to safety - and that path is narrow. In other words, one must, to borrow a pithy phrase from fundamentalist friend of mine, “get right, or get left.”

Nevertheless, the danger my fundamentalist friends see is a danger invisible to my progressive friends. Their conversations pass each other much less because one sees the world clearly and the other does not, but because they quite literally see two different worlds.

Now let’s flip the script. My fundamentalist friends are not the only ones who see the world in such apocalyptic terms. To take but one example: progressives and environmentalists also see the world in dire peril - in the form of catastrophic climate change.

I do not need to rehearse the last decade of arguments around this issue - you likely know them already, and have very strong opinions on the matter. Suffice to say that many of my progressive friends follow the lead of Naomi Klein when she says (in her most recent book of the same title), “this changes everything.”

The “this” is the danger of cataclysmic disaster caused by passing the tipping point along a line of average temperature increase. The sense of danger is coupled with the basic assumption that “this” is something we humans have done to ourselves and our world.

Because we caused it, so say my progressive friends, we are in a position to fix it, but we must act fast. We must act immediately.

Acting immediately means “changing everything” - which might include changing our economies, our daily practices, and even our very morality.

The suggestions for changes are in the realm of personal behavior and public policy, and they often include curtailing personal freedoms and market forces. Thus, they are suggestions that will automatically trigger suspicion or anger from the more conservative side of the conversation.

In this example, it is the urgency of my progressive friends that gets them hamstrung in the very same civics problem that enrages my fundamentalist friends: Whaddya mean? The facts are clear, and you want to sit around and debate about it? WE HAVE NO TIME TO DISCUSS IT!

A democracy assumes time for the marketplace of ideas to work. The question today is, do we have time?

A characterization from my friends on the left - meant to be a knockout blow - is that they are listening to science and reason, and their opponents are mired in superstition. Perhaps, and I am often inclined to agree.

But the founders of our constitutional republic - for many complex reasons - decided to build into our process of self-governance an express set of protections for exactly those sorts of superstitions. Like it or not, part of the very DNA of our American democratic process means giving perspectives we might see as superstitious their due process in the public square. It is not clear we can get rid of the one, and save the other.

In both examples - fundamentalist and progressive - these debates are not really about a commonly-held set of facts. The marketplace of ideas assumes the facts are in dispute. Moreover, it’s not exactly correct to say the debate is about the evidence. By its nature, the marketplace of ideas assumes the evidence is in dispute.

The debate is first and foremost about what world we live in. From these differing views of the world - fundamentalist and progressive, liberal and conservative - you get differing notions of what a fact looks like, what a good result looks like, and what counts as evidence on the path to getting those good results.

So is the world at a moment of crisis? It depends who you ask:

  • For my progressive friends, the world is certainly in crisis. The choices we are making are setting the world on fire, and we are in danger, and we must change everything, before it is too late.
  • For my fundamentalist friends, the world is certainly in crisis. The choices we are making are setting the world on fire, and we are in danger, and we must change everything, before it is too late.

What does it mean to be “open minded,” in the face of such choices?

For those of us who still hold out hope for the promise of democracy, we try to balance these competing Chicken Little world views against a ticking clock. Are there enough moments left for the marketplace of ideas to do its work before the roof caves in?

For all of us in this American experiment, it comes down to a question of time.

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