Why Are Religious Conservatives So Wrong?

Asher Black
10 min readJun 4, 2023

Sometimes we’re wrong, even if we’re right. Anthony (“Tony”) Campolo is an American sociologist, Baptist pastor, and spiritual advisor to Bill Clinton. You may have seen him on The Colbert Report, Charlie Rose, or Larry King Live. He’s an evangelical who advocates decidedly progressive views on healthcare etc. In a witty, hilarious sermon entitled “It’s Friday, Sunday’s Coming,” which is also an astute act of social science, Campolo refers to a trend in the Black Power movement of the classic rock era asserting that Jesus was a black man. Campolo says, “They had a point, but the point was distorted.”

I’d like to relatively briefly analyze five commonalities among religious conservatives that I think are not widely understood. They come from a place of gut instinct. They are, in fact, one fairly normal reaction of an ape (we are all just apes, after all) to feeling afraid, overwhelmed, pushed, confronted, and confused. In fact, each of those five emotions correlates fairly neatly with a common fundamentalist ‘belief’ that most of us experience as transgressive.

CONSPIRACY: Pick any of the common ones, but don’t even bother with the new stuff post-2015. Go all the way back to the ones that persist since the founding of the Birch Society. ‘The Vatican is controlling the world. Religious holidays are an attempt to spread paganism.’ etc. The normative ape instinct in play is fear of control and loss of individuality. The expression of it as a conspiracy theory, aside from the insistence that confusing events are explained more simply by an overly complex narrative, revolves more around the notion that more powerful people wish to pull the wool over our eyes and decide how we live. What we should be hearing when the dirge of conspiracy is trotted out is the ape’s bid for personal dignity and rebellion against control. Those are healthy impulses, but they’re distorted in the execution. In the form of conspiracy theories, a ‘right’ (or basic) instinct becomes a ‘wrong’ (or unhelpful) resort. The humanity in reaching for a conspiracy is evident in that sometimes we’re right. Was Hilary Clinton correct in referring to a vast right wing conspiracy to obstruct the Clinton presidency? Were the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) and Judge Jim Garrison right about JFK having more than one assassin? Your High School textbook questioned the sinking of the Maine and the Gulf of Tonkin incident, if it was any good at all, because everyone did—with good reason and that question is a reflection of our history—of who we are. When we are immune to evidence, however, we’ve distorted that identity.

BABYLON: Overwhelmed by the complexity of the urban context, national plurality, and global disorder, each of which is accelerating, we raise the metaphor of the City of Sin, the ‘Vanity Fair’ of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The metaphor of the Great Whore, Babylon, a city (by design) but specifically a city reflecting the fall of man in the fall of an individual personage, a prostitute, is as old as the written word. St. John the Apostle wrote in the Apocalypse, “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird.” The shift from a rural, pastoral, agricultural economic context to a broadly urban one, the changing demographics and plurality of lifestyles of the nation, and the shift from a stable ‘balance of power” geopolitic of empires to one of balkanized conflict and competition between nation-states has come with quantum moments of travail, each sparking renewed vigor for the Babylon narrative. Those in the path of relentless Westernization, more to the point, the totalism of a monoculture, have routinely reached for such metaphors. From national revolutionaries to Muslim fanatics who refer to the West as “the Great Satan”. An ape overwhelmed by such seismic changes needs a way of processing something that is pushing past his capacity to do so. While going back to a plantation system, a yeoman farmer context, or a steampunk modernity powered by coal, is unrealistic, such efforts are really pleading for us to “slow down a little”. They’re a distorted reflection of the normative stress that occurs when an ape’s environment is changed either too fast, too much, or both at once. All apes experience such stress, and the results can be catastrophic, violent, tragic. We are all critical of mass society, the rise of the surveillance state, and the conversion of human beings into implements of mass production. It IS dehumanizing. Most thoughtful people critique the Castle (Kafka reference) and its flat earth for the unaccountable commoditization of everything we once valued. When we descend into calling for a Sodom and Gomorrah airstrike or take zip ties to the Capitol Building, we’ve distorted love into schadenfreude.

GOLDEN ERA: Listen closely to the song of religious conservatism and it is no longer so much the “up yonder” or the “sweet by and by”. It is less about Heaven and more about a return to a previous time. The specific time varies. The 1950s. The time of the Early Church. The time of the Founding Fathers. The antebellum South. In each case, however, the chosen time period is distorted. It’s a 1950s that never was, a colonial America where Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine all agreed. A first century Christianity in which the Church was not (supposedly) rent by controversies. In every case, the ‘golden age’ is painted over with the brush of uniformity, homogeneity. There’s a muting of strife, an erasure of discord. The impulse is perfectly sound — a desire to relax contention, minimize conflict, indeed reach accord. Do we not all want this, if our heads are screwed on straight? The distortion comes from feeling pushed by the rapidity of change to grasp at some fixed locus or reference point for tradition. It’s not only religious conservatives who are distorting history. Progressives who insist ideological changes should happen immediately without reference to what human apes can actually handle have wildly distorted notions of how terrible things were. Human beings are the utter sum of their flaws, without reference to their contributions. Winston Churchill is canceled right along with Hitler, and the distinctions are effectively muted. For this crowd, Kevin Spacey is the equivalent of Stalin the way Nanci Pelosi is the equal of Satan for their opponents. Both sets of apes are losing their shit — one trying to create a golden era of conformity by fiat and force of lynching outliers, the other trying to recreate it to the point of carrying ropes to the US Capitol. Apes can only be pushed so far, and the golden age begins to be treated as an existential necessity. We all ‘miss’ some era. I miss classic rock. I miss the time before cell phones. I miss analog. Devaluing tradition with the simple axiom, “you can’t roll back the clock” is trogladyte, not thoughtful. The distortion is that any plausible future era that we can love will be neither the French Terror, where all tradition is abolished, nor a neoclassical return to the horse and buggy, because we can’t all live on family farms. The golden era is one we aspire to, even if we don’t actually succeed in creating it, and that’s a thick planning where it works for everyone feasibly, not just members of our clique. Speaking of which…

CHOSEN PEOPLE: Take any group/tribe of apes and surround it with other groups competing for dominance, altering norms by force of numbers, shaking up the social order established for generations, and you get a reaction. The differences might seem, at first, slight. One group is a slightly different shade and has a slightly different reproductive arrangement and structure for how roles are assigned and food is distributed. That’s really all it takes for a species to divide into heartfelt ‘tribes’. We might like to ridicule this as ‘star-bellied sneeches and plain-bellied sneeches’ but just try to bring this up at the Puerto Rican Day parade (referencing the classic, controversial Seinfeld episode). There’s not a clear, unambiguous line between pride in national identity and concern for encroachment. It’s inaccurate to say that one is all in someone’s head, the other a fact. Nations are constructed, race is perception, heritage is a social construct. Unpopular to point out, but THAT is a fact. When we are confronted by disconcerting numbers of other demographics, others of the same species but a different perceived ‘tribe’, the ground shifts from certainty and security to uncertainty and nervous vigilance. It’s not enough to say we shouldn’t be perceiving other tribes. Everyone who says that could take a simple neurological test to demonstrate they instantly perceive simple physical differences (color, for instance) in a particular way. If we call that ‘racism’, then we rob that term of substantive and historical meaning and there’s no basis for critiquing it as an ideology. There’s a distinction between what is optional here, and what is not. For all that the 60s promised to emancipate us from these distinctions, there immediately formed the clique of the ‘in crowd’ who were copacetic, cool, groovy. Hip, if you like. The ‘hipster’ movement and ‘woke’ tribunals are just Jacobin regurgitations of this impulse. When we have to live in close quarters with tribes who won’t do and say as we do and say, we apes create a chosen people. For religious conservatives, it might be “Christians” whether or not they actually practice Christianity. It might be MAGAs. It might be Qanon believers. It might just be people who have read certain books. The common thread is direct or indirect confrontation. The impulse is universal and therefore normal. The distortion is a bit like praying your football team wins. The other side is saying the same prayer, so it solves nothing unless we embrace a philosophy of total annihilation, where we are chosen and the non-chosen must be reduced to dust. We are all dust.

BIBLE: The most ‘useful’ “bible” in this context isn’t literally ‘the Bible’ as in the 66 books of Protestant scriptures. In fact, for religious conservatives it might be an inflammatory white supremacy tome like The Turner Diaries or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. For campus radicals at one time, it would have been Mao’s red book or Silent Spring. Any time someone says, “you HAVE to read this” it’s a bible in some fashion. I have a lot of bibles. Animal Farm and 1984, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, Brave New World, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It’s a normative instinct for the human ape to seek out ideas through reading, because we can, and to favor some books as repositories of key ideas that take firm root in us — of metaphysical constructs to which we frequently return for insight, guidance, and their explanatory power. We do this with art. I’ve watched West Wing more than a dozen times. I’ve listened to Subdivision by Rush since I was a kid. I’ve felt strongly connected to the poetry of Alice Walker and Langston Hughes as well as the Romantic poets, since I first encountered them. We seek these things to aid in our personal quests to acquire meaning, for ourselves and the world and the experience that lies between. We reach for them when there’s ambiguity. We do so even faster when there’s perceived chaos. There’s order in chaos, and we apes go in search of it. When Trump ran for office in 2015, I bought back books I had sold from you youth. Hannah Arendt’s books on Totalitarianism. Luttwak’s book on Coup d’Etat. “On War” by Clausewitz. I created a Spotify playlist called “In a Trump Regime” which had a mix of songs from the VietNam era. For religious conservatives, whichever bible or bibles they are reaching for comprise an attempted antidote to the ambiguity of metaphysics in which we find ourselves. Particularly the questions in play are around moral philosophy and politics which, as in Plato’s Republic, is a template for the structure/order of society along with implied behavioral guidelines. We all do this. We did this when creating a nation, reaching for Locke, Hobbes, and Montesquieu in an attempt to posit a framework for moral and social order. You will have your own bibles for this same purpose, even if you haven’t touched them in a while. There’s a reason you can still recall certain points in writing from your youth. The impulse, to resort to art and literature, is one of the greatest facets of being a literate species. The distortion is that eventually the ability of any one work (even the King James Bible) to demolish ambiguity by becoming the wrapper that explains all other philosophical innovations, becomes increasingly tenuous. We cannot outmaneuver all other categories and systems of thought by claiming with Vivekenanda, “All religions are true, but this truth is the highest truth.” Because then, someone just comes along and says, “All theories of religion are wrong. But my statement is the least wrong.” and we’re back in the game.

It’s not just religious conservatives. It’s all of us.

Conspiracy, Babylon, Golden Era, Chosen People, Bible. We all do this. If you think you don’t, I suspect you’re insufficiently reflective on your own attitudes. Welcome to apehood. That habit and momentum without reflection are part of it too. Skipping that point, though, think of the last time you felt afraid, overwhelmed, pushed, confronted, or confused. What did you think about? What transgressive thoughts did you have to overcome to get out of it? That’s where we are. In that liminal space between how we’ve all felt as apes and what we’ve had to reflect upon to get over the hump. Sometimes there’s no clear answer, because we really aren’t built to be able to live with too much change too fast without melting down. That’s normal too. You’ve had it happen in a job, home context, or elsewhere, and you remember what it was like. If you comported yourself flawlessly, please excuse me. More likely, you wondered about people’s intentions, critiqued an institution, wished for a better time, thought of certain people as being fundamentally unlike yourself — you and they a different ‘type’, and remembered a line from something you read or heard in a song or on TV, or went looking for that with the remote control or your amazon account.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way. Don’t lie. The reason we get it wrong so often is precisely that we DO have a point. Sometimes we’re right even if we’re wrong. Just, the point is distorted. And we have to reconcile those two facts.

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Asher Black

Asher Black is a storyteller, musician, & karateka satisfied w. the life he always wanted. Profile not yet rated. Parental discretion. Views do not reflect. Etc