When the American Taliban Came to Louisville

by Sunsara Taylor

Revolution #002, May 15, 2005, posted at revcom.us


Louisville, Kentucky . Dressed all in black they rise in the balcony, their gray and blond hair catching the ceiling lights. Something unusual, and heartening, is happening in this church. One by one, the defiant and spectacular voices of an all-gay choir, Voices of Kentuckia, hover in the air, overlap, play with each other, and gather in a crescendo. The crowd, first sitting in silent awe, erupts in warm and welcoming applause.

Just hours later, across town, a bigger crowd in a much bigger church cheers as Bill Donahue bellows that the idea that a man should be able to marry a man "belongs in an asylum." And, "The people on the secular left say, ’We think you’re a threat.’ You know what? They’re right!"


A cold front of moral absolutism and self-righteousness is crusading across the land, colliding with a hot front of critical thought, diversity, and dreams of a global community. Welcome to storms of America in 2005. Welcome to the clash of civilizations.

And here in the "heartland," an important new conversation is beginning to pick up speed. "Theocracy" is a word now playing on the lips of pundits and clergy, scientists and scholars, in a way that months ago would simply have been scoffed at.

For days the media has barraged the country with news of "Justice Sunday," an event where Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist joins leading theocratic evangelicals in denouncing anyone who opposes them or Bush’s judicial nominees, as "against people of faith." Under a false veil of populism, they have been launching assaults on the rule of law, restricting the rights of women and gays, and pushing relentlessly towards theocracy. Through it all they pose as the victims.

I am just off the plane from the Midwest and tired after days of travel, but as I join the people streaming into a progressive church in Louisville, the mood of excitement and urgency snaps me awake.

I have come here because I heard that a group of clergy from around the country assembled themselves almost overnight to oppose the theocratic trend and express a different Christianity and a different morality through an event they are calling Social Justice Sunday . I want to learn more about what motivates them and how they see going forward. Also, from my vantage point as an atheist, I want to join them in opposing the horrors of the Bible enforced literally.

I take my seat next to a local woman who holds a small, handmade sign, "Stop the Christo-fascists from destroying America." She first heard the slogan from her daughter, a lawyer, but soon a small crowd of people around her have written the same slogan on their programs and hold them up as well. Other signs are strewn about the church: "Civics 101, Separation of Church and State." My personal favorite: "The Christian American Taliban, Welcome Mullah Omar Frist."

Reverend Phelps, a local minister, whose church has a very similar name to that of the one hosting Justice Sunday, released a statement the week before to make clear that the whole religious community was not behind the event. When he speaks, he ridicules the religious right’s claim of being persecuted saying, "That’s not what [it’s called] when you hit a bump on the road to total domination."

Reverend Dr. William Kincaid, pastor and president of Lexington, Kentucky’s Interfaith Alliance of the Bluegrass, argues repeatedly against the notion that any religious faction has a monopoly on God. "I don’t know a bigger burden than only knowing a certain sliver of the truth. We need each other as we journey for the truth."

Different and conflicting themes emerge, many from the same people, as the speakers wrestle with how to understand the dangers of the hard religious right and how to act accordingly. Many share their pain at seeing the community of faithful so deeply divided and express a desire for dialogue and healing. Many draw lessons from the Jesus they worship, one they describe as tolerant and uniting. Some roll up their sleeves and decry the "hijacking" of their faith by extremists. One warns of "Taliban tactics." Almost all speak of a dangerous rising theocracy, the need to draw a line right now, and to act urgently to turn this direction around.

The people in this church are not radicals. Many of them have never been to a demonstration. They are patriotic. Applause booms when speakers call the Christian right "un-American" and booms some more when speakers speak of the need to defend "our great democracy." But mixed in with this patriotism is an acute sense that something extreme is going on, that the response from the politicians is insufficient, and that the people themselves have to be actively part of an urgent response.

Reverend Dr. Joan Campbell, Director of Religion at the Chautauqua Institution speaks last. She recalls one of her favorite slogans in the movement to stop the war on Iraq, saying it is appropriate for people of faith to begin using it now: "Not in my name." She captures the severity of the moment and the seriousness of people’s resolve, bringing the audience to their feet with cheers when she ends saying, "There comes a time when silence is betrayal. That time is now. Let’s leave here determined to speak truth to power, to act, to say with Esther [of the Bible].when confronted with the destruction of her people, ’I go. And if I perish, I perish.’ "

Amidst the talk of a rising theocracy, hints of fascism, and mention of an American Taliban, I sense we are not unlike similar gatherings in different countries at different times. A relative handful, beginning to give a name to the dark shadow looming ever larger on the horizon while most of society buzzes along like things are "normal."

How bad is it? Is there some way to deescalate, to avoid a confrontation? Or should we be mobilizing and building strength so we don’t lose when the full confrontation comes? How to speak to the people caught up in the reactionary frenzy? Is there even any point?

How accurately the dangers are identified, how clearly they are called to the attention of others, how quickly our side moves and how we draw dividing lines will have implications for everything to come. The lives of millions in this country and well beyond will bear the burden of inaction—or possibly soar to new heights—based on our answers.


Later in the day—

A different group of progressive clergy is assembling, wearing their robes. One holds a sign that reads, "We are people of faith with moral conviction—you don’t speak for us."

Another appreciates the signs held by the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade amidst a cloud of red flags, "The Bible Taken Literally is a Horror" and points it out to his friends.

Despite the biting wind and cold, they are joined by dozens of people from the morning event.

Behind us, Highview Baptist Church, the host of Justice Sunday, looks something like a gimmicky, road-side theme park...on steroids. Later, I’ll laugh when John Stewart, referring to the term megachurch, says we should be scared when churches start sounding like they can take on Godzilla. Well-dressed parishioners are escorted in from the other end of the walk. None of them make eye contact.

A polite young man walks by with a box of chips and an armful of coffee. At first I am impressed at the forethought and concern of the protest organizers, but then I realize the young man is from the megachurch.

I joke loudly, "Hmmm, women as full and liberated human beings...or reproductive slavery and a bag of chips?" When he comes back with a garbage bag to collect wrappers and cups, a protester yells, "All the trash is inside." He replies earnestly, "There is no such thing as human trash."

I get the sense that he means it, so when he walks by I challenge him that the Bible treats many people like trash. I point out the kinds of things (rape, religious slaughter, stoning to death of women) you have to uphold if you follow people who promise to enforce the codes of the Bible literally. And when I get to the part where Moses, the bearer of the Ten Commandments, demanded the massacre of the Midianites, he patiently explains that I am taking things out of context. He tells me that Jesus loves me "so much" even though I, like him, am a sinner.

I try again, this time citing the first Bible quote that stung me as a child, attending a family wedding, "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord." (Ephesians 5:22) His response is jumbled and makes no sense. He doesn’t even acknowledge what I am raising, so I begin to interject. He is forceful now, "I let you speak. Now you quiet down and listen to me." Soon he’s explaining that God does want men to have authority over women, but that I don’t understand what he means by authority.

It occurs to me that it really is okay with him if I am enslaved by reproduction, as long as I get some chips and coffee with it.

By now the cold has driven away all the other protesters, but we are still locked in conversation.

He has spun off in every direction, bringing up wars, famines, diseases like AIDS, threats to the environment— but all of it only reinforces his belief that man has fallen and the horrors of this planet are punishment for sin.

I am trying to understand how it all fits together for him. I ask about everything. In particular I press him to explain the realities not spoken of in the Bible: dinosaurs, imperialism, outer space, atoms, and epilepsy.

I keep probing him further, finally asking what he makes of all the thousands of years of human societies that existed before the Bible—did all those people just go to hell?

"What people?" he asks, "There were no people."

His words hit me hard. He actually does not grasp the obvious contradiction posed by the fact that humans inhabited the earth long before the Bible was written. He is really living in the land of lies.

How much history, how much reality, how many people have to be made invisible for his worldview to hold up? How many more people would he allow to "disappear" and how much destruction would be justified if this worldview is consolidated in power?

A photo I saw once at an art museum flashes before me. It is a dump in China entirely filled with computer parts. The caption explains that whole villages of people live off these dumps and these villages are now named after the type of computer that the people make a living recycling bits of.

But I don’t bring it up. It doesn’t fit into his universe. Or, if it does, at this point, it will only be another example of the need he feels to turn away from the horrors and challenges of the real world.

To make sense of these villages you need to talk about reality, history, imperialism, and globalization. To envision a way out of this mess you need to know that once the elders of these villages stood up and made socialist revolution. Before this revolution was reversed, they had driven out the foreign powers and begun mastering science, philosophy, art, and the economy and now a challenge exists to go beyond what they had done.

I appreciate anew the difference between the progressive clergy I listened to this morning and the variety of ignorance and self-righteous madness being fostered in the megachurch behind us.

In particular I appreciate those who realize that the gulf between this man and me cannot be bridged by talking about a loving Jesus rather than a vengeful Jesus.

To make sense out of the global cabal of contradictions he keeps raising, he needs a whole different worldview. He needs to know about evolution and change, about science and thinking critically, about human history and natural history. This is not as comforting as the simple answers he has been provided with. It takes work and confronting uncertainties about the world.

But it also holds open the only possibility that we can solve these problems.

From his side of the universe he notices that my body is shaking in the cold. He is polite again. He looks back to the church that could take on Godzilla and offers to get me a hot cup of coffee. "We serve Starbucks," he adds. Apparently he does not consider Starbucks a sign that man has fallen.

I leave without the Starbucks coffee but with a renewed appreciation for the challenge to come.