I recently asked a theologian for whose learning I have tremendous respect, “How things are going in [that person’s home state]?” I asked it as a general, conversation-opening question—could just have easily had said “at [name of educational institution]” as “in [name of state].” But the moment the name of the state escaped my lips, I realized that it would be taken as a reference to recent political developments in that state, whose current government is notably and aggressively Trumpy. And maybe, to be honest, that’s what I was really thinking.
Sure enough, the answer I just got was, “Just fine! What about it?”—and a hard, wild-eyed stare. I sat back, said something like “Never mind, I’m not going to go there,” and let others at the table continue the conversation. The moment passed.
But I have been thinking about it. Where else have I seen that particular look in someone’s eyes?
This morning it occurred to me. Frodo.
In recent months my wife and I had some driving to do, and between the driving and after-dinner time on our deck, we listened to the whole audiobook of The Lord of the Rings. That’s where I had “seen” this same look. Whenever Frodo felt that anyone else was showing any interest in taking the One Ring from him, all his virtue and all his understanding were hit with a brown-out; he experienced a surge of fear, anger, possessiveness, resentment, and pugilism. Fight or flight, with strong emphasis on the former. It showed clearly on Frodo’s face. If anyone tried to suggest that the One Ring was dangerous for him, was having a malign effect on him, that was his reaction.
The same look exactly flashed in the eyes of my theologian.
This occurred to me this morning when I read the latest number in Heather Cox Richardson’s daily “Letters from an American.” She notes that on Saturday two things happened: lots of rallies against new anti-abortion laws, and the announcement of “the Pandora Papers,” a huge trove of documents that reveal “a vast international network of financial schemes to hide money from taxation, investigators, creditors, and citizens.” As she says: “The two stories are not unrelated.”
Her insight is not new. Randall Balmer long since revealed—proved, as much as any historical statement can be proved—that the inception of the Religious Right as a politically powerful movement occurred when Republican politicians discovered that they could simultaneously exploit and cover up White Christian anger over school desegregation by disguising it as righteous indignation over abortion. (He sums up the case concisely in his recent book, Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right.) The strategy succeeded so brilliantly that it has been extended to cover up many other things, including the antidemocratic and even criminal impulses expressed in a whole range of activities that have effectively made the Republican Party the instrument of oligarchs and plutocrats even while it remains the party of many ordinary Americans, especially White conservative Christians. The massive mischief revealed in the Pandora Papers is directly related to the vote-suppression and election-subversion measures that dominate the news recently. And many White American conservative Christians—including my theologian friend—are just fine with all of it because somehow they see it all under the heading of Protecting the Innocent Unborn.
Does the Democratic Party share some of the blame for enabling this state of affairs? Yes, it surely does. In the last presidential primary season, the Democratic candidates were all falling all over themselves to make the strongest affirmations of a woman’s right to choose, to be in control of her own body. Which is a good thing: I too think that women (and men), not government regulators, should be in control of their own bodies, and so do a majority of all Americans. But a majority of Americans also believe that at some point a developing baby in a mother’s womb becomes something more than a part of that woman’s own body, becomes a human being with no power but with human rights; and for some reason the Democratic candidates in the last primaries—in line with the national Democratic Party establishment as a whole over recent years—have insisted on suppressing that reality (both the reality that a fetus is a human life, and also the reality that most Americans do not believe that abortion should be unrestricted throughout the entire time from conception to birth). Not a whisper of any of that from any of the candidates, not even the Catholics! Some Democratic candidates and officeholders who agree with the majority of the American people in these matters have been reviled and shunned by the national party leaders and apparatus. That is a huge problem. Huge.
But it does not excuse Republicans who in response allow themselves to be conned by the idea that the Republican Party’s aims and policies are authentically and comprehensively pro-life.
The thing is, it’s not simply a con job, and those who fall for it are not unaccountably stupid rubes. This is what I was missing before. It is the Ring of Power. The promise of theocracy is the Ring of Power. The idea that you can slip a righteous moral and theological impulse (save the babies!) onto your finger and then use the power that it gives you to govern righteously is the great temptation into which White conservative American Christians have fallen.
As readers of Tolkien know, when you slip the ring on, you begin to see things differently. You can do all kinds of things without yourself being seen. And you think you can use that power to do the good that you intend. But you make yourself the slave of a will far more powerful than your own. The power will wield you. It will blind you to its own purposes until it is too late, until you are abjectly and permanently enslaved to its purposes. And it will in the end most definitely not accomplish that righteous and good thing whose prospective attainment enticed you to slip the ring onto your finger in the first place.