Unregulated Capitalism and Christian Fervor: Report from the 9/12 Rally at the Capitol

Comparing Obama to Hitler and Al Qaeda, and claiming to be agents of God, protesters in Washington—supported by a coalition of conservative Christian groups, as well as pharmaceutical lobbyists—raise the bar on unreasonable discourse.

In a Hagerstown, Maryland parking lot next to the Cracker Barrel off Interstate 70 Saturday, they started to assemble just after dawn, waiting for the eight buses that would deliver them to the 9/12 march in Washington DC. They waved yellow Don’t Tread on Me flags and carried signs that read, “Stop B.O.” A man with an oxygen tube strapped to his nose shouted, “Which bus is Sarah Palin on?”

A single man stood in the middle of the crowd, hoisting a pink sign that read, “If you don’t like socialized medicine, pay your own hospital bill.”

“I thought other counter-protesters would be here,” said Eric Mackley, as crowd members glared and jeered at him. “I can’t believe I’m the only one. As they prepared to board, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD)—whose Web site quotes him pledging to help “my constituents use facts to guide Congress’ health care reform debate”—gave the crowd a genial send off with a well-known, but fake, quote attributed to Founding Father James Madison:

“We have staked the whole future of American civilization not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments.”

(The quote, used for years as an argument that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, has been never been found in Madison’s writings. Even the Republican activist who popularized it, David Barton, admits it should not be used.)

Then, Congressman Bartlett sent the crowd off, reminding them that they are agents of God.

The buses filled quickly with people from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania and Martinsburg, West Virginia, people whose ancestors may have fought against each other a century-and-a-half ago. Now they were on the same side.

At about the same time, 10 miles south, a group of Civil War reenactors were beginning a march to the Antietam Battlefield where 23,000 American soldiers were killed, captured, or wounded on Sept. 17, 1862—casualties of this nation’s irreconcilable divide. ?

God Bless the Free Market

An estimated 70,000 people came from all over the country to attend Saturday’s 9/12 rally, just one in a series of Tea Party events that began in April, only a couple months after President Obama took office.

To a person who doesn’t see the world this way, the event was baffling.

Just as one might believe that America’s health- are system is in need of serious reform, pointing to the 50 million uninsured, people at this protest believe just as fervently that a public option will create a socialized society that will bankrupt this country.

And it will kill Grandma.

In the beginning, the Tea Parties didn’t have a clear direction; but since the health care debates of August, the groups have streamlined their message a bit. Still, talk to any one person for more than a few minutes and the complaints against President Obama veer off from health care into myriad directions: from federal stimulus spending to opposition to ACORN to “Did you know the printing of money is unconstitutional?”

Signs ranged from “Bury Obamacare with Kennedy” to “Free Joe Wilson” to the all-encompassing, “End all unconstitutional, anti-Christ, socialist, federal, deficit-spending programs.”

Another sign said, “If al Qaeda wants to demolish the America we know and live, they better hurry because Obama’s beating them to it.” If they were universal in anything, it was in a combination of undying support for unregulated capitalism (ironic in light of the fact that it was a year ago this week that the free market led to global economic collapse) and Christian fervor.

“A religious person believes his rights are divined by God,” said Ken Schwenger, a 45-year-old father from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “A secularist believes one gets their rights from government. Rights by man, by government is subject to change. Rights by God aren’t subject to interpretation.”

But no one was here to spread the message of St. Matthew: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” This was all about the Gospel of Supply-Side Jesus.

Hitler a Great Speaker

Robert Goerlich of Chicago stood behind a large poster of President Obama with a Hitler mustache and Nazi uniform. The sign read, “The New Face of Hitler.” Next to the poster was another one of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi wearing a cleavage-busting Gestapo uniform, which said, “She-Wolf of the S.S.” People stopped to praise the posters and take pictures. “Thank you,” one woman said.

Another man, laughing, said, “Well, I understand your point, but he’s not as bad as Hitler.”

“I think he’s worse,“ Goerlich said sincerely. “He’s trying to do what Hitler could never do, take out the U.S.”

“If he takes out the U.S., we’ll take him out,” a man from the crowd shouted.

When asked to explain how one could possibly compare Obama to Hitler, Goerlich said, “They’re both charismatic. They’re both good speakers. Obama hates America and wants to destroy it.”

A woman listening from the sidelines shouted, “How can he love something when he wasn’t raised in it?”

One cannot find reasonable discourse with people in this setting. One might as well try to reason with a tornado—one swirling with confirmation bias, logical fallacy and Fox News-driven non sequiturs.

Still, to be fair, there were some people willing to have a conversation. Schwenger said that almost everybody at the event supports some sort of health care reform. Just not one with a public option. Rather, he says, it has to include tort reform, portability (a point Obama has already endorsed), and the ability to purchase health insurance across state lines.

Sounding like a Reagan Republican, he said for the most part, most of the people at the rally fear the encroachment of federal government in their lives and support free-market solutions.

He believes that most of the people attending the event were reasonable, but it’s the crazy most extreme folk who get all the media attention. He raises a point. Certainly anybody who has attended an anti-war rally knows that there are fringe views at any large gathering; but then one has to also consider the fact that the man comparing Obama to Hitler appeared to draw some of the greatest support from the crowd.

Understanding the Messages

It was more than a little disconcerting to be in the heart of this crowd in DC, listening to people speak in the vernacular of Fox News sound bytes about czarism and socialism and fascism and the paranoid religious rants of the impending Armageddon and the One World Order. And then to realize that these people truly believed, passionately, that every word of what they were saying was true.

There are many reasons for this: the astroturf organizations backed by corporate lobbyists who sponsored and organized the event; Glenn Beck and Fox News and the incessant drum beat of their misinformation campaign.

But while this explains the sources of the deception, it doesn’t fully explain the motivation. It doesn’t explain why protesters can argue, for instance, that their Medicare program is somehow a perfect example of free market forces at work, while universal health care is a communist plot to destroy America. “Just because people are carrying 50,000 different signs down the street, doesn’t mean that each group is separate,” said Frederick Clarkson, author of Eternal Hostility: the Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy (and contributor to Religion Dispatches).

To address each message as separate is to miss the point, Clarkson said, because the messengers are the same, whether the issue is abortion, Obama’s birth certificate, or the death panels.

And tying these messages together, for the first time in American history, is a single major network, he said.

Joe Bageant, author of Deer Hunting with Jesus, who also writes about class issues from his hometown of Winchester, Virginia, points to the fact that just as the post World War II economy was built on the backs of black Americans, it was also built on the backs of poor working whites.

Bageant theorizes that those same corporations that exploited the labor of those workers are now using their children and grandchildren as foot soldiers to do battle against their own self-interests.

He said Americans no longer have any language to describe their struggling circumstances, because the words to describe their solutions have been demonized.

“They have thoroughly internalized the messages of a predatory economic system managed by the corporations and financial elites who own their jobs and their schools and their media,” Bageant said.

“They can’t say socialism, working masses, elite—can you even imagine trying to say that as a good thing?—universally. So, there’s a frustration. They know something’s wrong, but can’t express it.”

So, they are reduced to sputtering Fox News- and Rush Limbaugh-provided buzz words, he said.

As for religious motivations, he describes it more as a tribe than as a mission. The same people who identify as conservatives also identify themselves as Christian.

“They don’t show up as Christians. They show up because they’re over there on the conservative side,“ he said. “And there’s a cohesiveness to conservatism. Christianity was a cultural glue in this country for a very long time.”

One man stood in the center of Pennsylvania Avenue as people streamed by, pointing to the words written on gray granite on the front of the Newseum:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

“That’s the First Amendment,“ Harry Fahl of Baltimore told the marchers over and over. “Don’t let Obama change one letter of those words.”

People stopped to snap pictures of it. Others stood and read the words out loud. At one point, Fahl stopped a little girl and took her hand. “You need to read this,” he told her.

When asked if he supported teaching the Bible in public school, Fahl didn’t miss a beat. “Yes,” he said. “This nation was founded as a Christian nation.”

 

Blessed are the Tax Breaks

Congressman Bartlett didn’t really have to remind protesters that they are Agents for God. They had already had been told that.

In addition to the health insurance and pharmaceutical-backed sponsors, another group had been helping to organize the event and drum up support. One that has been working more behind the scenes, but that nonetheless has been strategically working to mobilize conservative Christians to oppose universal health care.

The Freedom Federation, a new consortium of Christian conservative organizations organized in June, has dedicated itself to defeating health care reform. While Freedom Federation embraces such Christian boilerplate issues as opposing abortion and gay marriage, it was organized by Matt Staver of Liberty Counsel, which has been behind the distribution of many of the most strident talking points used by anti-health reform Town Hall speakers.

Freedom Foundation’s mission statement reads:

Bringing together a federation of national faith-based organizations and leaders in order to mobilize a multiethnic and transgenerational movement to preserve freedom and promote justice.

But in terms of justice, its Declaration of American Values contains no “Blessed are the poor” message, no tales of the Good Samaritan.

Among its values statements:

To secure a system of fair taxes that are not punitive against the institution of marriage or family and are not progressive in nature, and within a limited government framework, to encourage economic opportunity, free enterprise, and free market competition.

Recent news headlines include, “Tell the Obama administration to allow offshore drilling here in America!“ and include stories opposing cap-and-trade and the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act. Americans for Prosperity is one of the religious coalition’s featured members.

 

War Between the States

Following the rally, I drove back from DC to the Antietam Battlefield to escape the extremism and angry rants.

It was near evening and the 23rd Virginia Volunteer Infantry reenactors were quietly going about making dinner and a large cast-iron pot steamed over a fire next to the Dunker Church. Two barefoot little boys in gray wool uniforms passed out brownies made by their grandmother. The light shined gold and it was hard to imagine the violence that had once taken place here.

I spoke with Patrick Carmichael, a soft-spoken Confederate reenactor wearing small wire-rimmed glasses and a butternut-colored kepi. In reenactment circles, the Union side is frequently outnumbered and must borrow from the Confederates to fill out their ranks in battle. I asked Carmichael why the Confederate side is more popular.

“I guess everyone wants to be the underdog,” he said. “It’s more fun.”

I told him about the march and wondered what might motivate those who had attended.

He is the first one all day to bring up the subject of race, hesitantly and delicately. But it’s not just race, he said. Even though the rally and people’s opposition to Obama’s policies have its tentacles entwined in our racial history, he said, this is also about a history of genuinely distrusting the federal government. Of people who still resent, vehemently, being told by the federal government what to accept in their community. It’s a fact that can’t be escaped.

He doesn’t raise the issue like it necessarily applies to him—and I have no reason to think it does—but he understands it.

I had seen numerous states’ rights signs throughout the day, but no one could articulate what this actually meant to them, other than to say over and over again, “You’re either for liberty, or you’re for tyranny.”

And whether or not one agrees with this sentiment of federal intervention, doesn’t make it less true in other people‘s hearts. Carmichael said he became a reenactor after his wife, a historian, took him to Gettysburg and he visited the famous cyclorama painting of Pickett’s ill-fated charge. He was moved to tears.

“I thought of how so many people died for things they believed so passionately,” he said. “On both sides.”

 

Read the original article in Religion Dispatches

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