Religion of Fear Redux: Jason Bivins Responds

A few days ago, I posted a set of reflections on Jason Bivins, Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism. Jason left some comments on that post and has consented to have them reprinted here as a guest post. Jason is presently working on a book about jazz and religion, and promises a post on that subject here at the blog sometime later this summer. The tentative title: Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion. As a onetime devotee of the Church of John Coltrane, I await that work eagerly. REad more about that and Jason's other thoughts on Religion of Fear and other subjects in his interview here.

Writing Religion of Fear
by Jason Bivins

It was a strange journey to conceive and then labor over this book during the madhouse years. And as I write in the conclusion, my sense of this political religion’s power (and of its unsavory implications) was equaled only by my frustration over the relatively apolitical character of American religious studies. Or at least over its blandly political character: strolls down tired old paths in new shoes, or chewing the cud at a safe (but always “inoffensive”) remove (maybe Delillo would call this Bovine Studies, Paul!).

But what really drove me was not just my desire to offer a fresh approach to studies of religious conservatism, to chronicle a different kind of doom (the secular version perhaps, where conspiracy, apathy, solipsism, and intolerance spawn a virally circulating cultural resignation), or to document some important subcultural strains of American evangelicalism. What really drove me was the hope that everything I write about in the book would disappear. Not religion or conservatism (anyone who takes that from the book, well, I worry about their reading skills), but unreason, stentorian shrillness, and splenetic visions of holy gore. This isn’t to say that I expected my book would facilitate this fading (though I confess that I nurtured dreams of “crossover” sales), for that would be too much to hope for. Nor is it to say that I bought too heavily into campaign year ebullience. I simply hoped.

Of course I knew that ROF wasn’t going anywhere. It never has. It only adapts and mutates. The sense that hostile others are responsible for our ills is too potent, too fluid an explanation, and too efficient a means for evading the ambiguous responsibilities of democratic citizenship. Just consider Glenn Beck's recent "appropriation" of Thomas Paine. There is, of course, more than this going on in my story and in others like it. But the very tensional relationships, the flourishing agon, the open-endedness of deliberation on which democracies rest, these are the stakes with this incarnation of the religion of fear (which, in light of Todd’s comparative questions, might mark a difference from other instances).

Alas, we are still mired in this stuff. But at the end of the day, I have enough faith in the field, in its possibilities, in its gifts, to think the project was worth seeing through. And, despite sometimes seemingly overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I have confidence in my fellow citizens. That might sound bizarre, and I don’t mean to suggest that what’s wrong is simply the disproportionate influence of a warped few; rather, like all of us, I know that the arts of conversation and respect can be realized far more easily than we might think. To pin our hopes on governmental or administrative change is too much and too remote. But as political theorists like Romand Coles write so cogently, it’s possible to think and perceive and practice differently on a much smaller scale, to sustain those values we think are worth sustaining, and to seek out ways of realizing them with other humans.

So despite my pessimism (you should have seen the first version of the ending!), and despite the enduring power of these frights, perhaps it’s possible simply to turn away from the ROF and start cultivating (or reviving) other sensibilities. I look forward to those moments when the field stops wringing its hands at the sidelines quite so much.


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