God on my side ... A Conspiracy Theory? (2006)

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Andrew Denton's movie, God On My Side, put evangelical Christians under the microscope on the assumption that they are key actors in a 'clash of civilizations'.

However that assumption seems invalid because religious fundamentalists do not seem in reality to be in the drivers' seat on any side. In particular:

  •  the Islamist extremists, who are assumed to be the other side in such a 'clash', are by no means the equivalent of evangelical Christians (eg there are many indications that the extremists seek to be modernising Western-influenced reformers rather than a fundamentalist  faction within the Islamic world); and
  • despite evangelical Christians' political support of the US President, US decisions about the 'war on terror' have apparently been based on fairly conventional geo-political (rather than religious) criteria.

Moreover the most significant potential 'clash of civilizations' which Western (and Muslim) societies face seems to be with East Asia. Skirmishes between Islamists and the US's allies are merely a diversion.

Though God On My Side was a well-meant attempt to penetrate the 'fog' that surrounds current global events, a great deal more study of the situation is required allow understanding to emerge. 

Commentator's Reactions God On My Side: What Others Have Said

The film allows a group of prominent evangelical Christians at a conference in the US in February 2006 to explain their beliefs on the assumption that these are what are influencing 'our side' (as opposed to presumed Islamic fundamentalists) in a clash of civilizations [1, 2].

Commentators suggested that the evangelical Christians were portrayed as:

  • providing the political support base for the current US president (many of whom regard him as 'God's man'); [1, 2, 3, 4]
  • blaming all problems on a lack of faith, immorality and the separation of church and state, rather than examining the government or economic system [1];

  • having a dogmatic hostility to Muslims [1];
  • having a similar message to Islamic fundamentalism, ie that there is only one truth [1];
  • exhibiting bigotry and prejudice and hate, wrapped up in a blanket of Christian love.  [1, 2, 3];
  • hating homosexuals [1];
  • warmongering [1]; and
  • subscribing to a belief in 'end times' and the 'rapture' of the church [1, 2, 34] - which amongst other things leads some to unlimited support for Israel on religious grounds [1, 2].

Commentators also variously suggested that:

  • there is a Holy war between Islam and Christianity [1];
  • the film did not resolve the fact that there are divisions amongst Christians on the views expressed by those interviewed [1];
  • the movie shows how religion can lead people to reactionary politics, but does not examine the powerful interests behind Christian fundamentalism (eg the alignment that now exists with Jews) [1];
  • the movie reminds believers of all faiths that violence done in the name of religion insults God [1];
  • Andrew Denton sees religion as the central cause of most of humanity’s woes, and as preying on humanity’s fear of death and desire for immortality.  He is concerned that fundamentalist extremists could start a war about God. A pessimistic view of the world has weighed heavily on Denton himself [1];
  • Denton, who subscribes to no faith, would never say 'There is no God', [1]
What's Real?

What is Really Going On?

Andrew Denton's documentary (God On My Side), and many of the commentaries on it, illustrate an unfortunate lack of study of the global situation that seems to prevail amongst supposedly-educated groups that has led to a failure to come to grips with serious difficulties.

There are defects in the premise underlying this movie - ie that evangelical Christians should be closely studied because they are key actors in a 'clash of civilizations' - just as there appear to be limitations in the understanding of the group whose views the movie sought to study.

First, in so far as Islamist extremists are assumed to constitute the 'other side' in a clash of civilizations, evangelical Christians are probably by no means the Western equivalent, because:

  • Islamist extremists do not seem be be traditional 'fundamentalists' (ie those who simply believe that a scripture is true - which the film implies applies to evangelical Christians). Rather the extremists seem to be a Westernised faction, outsiders to traditional Islam, who are trying to gain political power in the Middle East (by displacing traditional political and religious authorities) on the assumption that if Islam were modernised it would be an effective basis for government. Provoking Western responses in Muslim nations and selective use of traditional Islamic ideas are the tactics being used to recruit supporters (see Discouraging Pointless Extremism for an undoubtedly inadequate attempt to identify the ideology which motivates the extremists);
  • Islamists' goals are primarily political - ie the overthrow of governments and the creation of a new political order in the Middle East - rather than focusing on the significance of religious faith to individuals (which seems to be the primary concern of evangelical Christians);
  • a former Islamist leader in the UK, withdrew from involvement with such groups because he found that those involved knew little about, and were not really committed to, Islam as a religion [1];
  • Islamists would probably not regard any variety of Christians as leading the West in a 'clash of civilizations'. Their views would be likely to reflect those expressed by Sayyid Qutb (the intellectual source of the Muslim Brotherhood - one of the streams from which al Qa'ida apparently evolved) who regarded what the West offered as worthless because it was seen to be godless and materialistic. Islam has always regarded the 'people of the book' as a higher class of human being than other infidels - on the grounds that they at least acknowledge God and some of his messengers.

Second, while the US president may draw upon evangelical Christians as part of his electoral base, this is most unlikely to have been a primary determinant of government policy, because:

More: Traditionally US foreign policy was dominated by 'realists' (ie those who assumed it was impossible to change the world, and that working with unsatisfactory regimes was the best that could be achieved).

CIA analysts recognised in the 1980s that when 'realists' endorsed autocratic regimes this could lead to 'blow-back' against US interests. So 'idealist' Neo-cons envisaged using US power to create better regimes - and perceived Iraq (whose regime was the most morally and politically discredited) as a good place to try this.

Their strategy (which was poorly communicated through the US's fairly ineffectual administration) seemed to be to eliminate the breeding grounds of terrorism by enhancing the political and economic prospects of Muslim peoples using Iraq as an example of what could be achieved.

 In this they found common ground with Israel whose think-tanks had concluded about a decade earlier that the only prospect for peace was political reform and economic prosperity in the Middle East.

However the considerations that were the basis of the Neo-cons' post-9/11 strategy had nothing detectable to do with religious considerations. Any serious study of the official literature produced in the US and of the realities of the global situation suggests that fairly conventional geo-political considerations motivated their proposals.

In particular the growing incidence of failed / dysfunctional states (of which the largest identifiable group are Muslim dominated) could be seen to (a) breed terrorists who might potentially use weapons of mass destruction and (b) further undermine the effectiveness of global institutions such as the UN (which could only work properly if its member governments genuinely act in the interests of the people they governed).

The undiscussed considerations that were the basis for that strategy were probably similar to the issues outlined in The Second Failure of Globalization?.

As is often the case, utopian thinking was undermined by real-world complexity.

Thus it seems that real religious fundamentalists have not actually been very influential on either side in this conflict.

Some Evangelical Christians' Views

As an aside in relation to the particular views expressed by, or ascribed to, evangelical Christians in God On My Side:

  • the film is seen to portray evangelical Christians as believing in 'truth', and to suggest that anyone who does so should be suspect [1, 2]. However dismissing the concept of 'truth' (ie that language can be used to express ideas about reality whose meaning can be generally understood) raises horrendous problems. For example, doing so undermines the whole basis of democratic government, as acceptance  of 'public truth' is essential to make political debate meaningful;
  • it is (perhaps) possible to justify belief in imminent 'end times' on the basis of the current global situation (eg considering environmental challenges; and global political frictions) and various biblical references (eg 1 Thessalonians, 4:16-18; 1 Corinthians. 15:51-53; Revelation 3:10 ; Luke 17:26-36; Matthew 24:37-44; Luke 21:34-36). However this surely can't be based on the teachings of Jesus, because he reportedly specifically warned (eg Mark 13) that any who claimed to understand what was happening should be viewed with suspicion;
  • while the film was seen to portray evangelical Christians as suffering many failings, surely the whole basis of Christianity is individual acceptance of personal failings and a consequent dependence on God;
  • while the present writer has no way to judge whether evangelical Christians in the US generally 'hate' homosexuals, the apparent 'upstream' and 'downstream' links between homosexual behaviour and child neglect and abuse suggests that no one should endorse homosexuality without considering the related social evils;
  • as argued above, it is impossible to understand social and economic problems purely in terms of religious teachings. However any evangelical Christians who try to do so are by no means the only group who take an overly simplistic approach to complex problems. The makers of God On My Side apparently fell into the same trap.

Comparing Fahrenheit 9/11: Another Conspiracy Theory

The film invited comparison with Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 which presented a conspiratorial view of the 'war on terror' (and primarily focused on linkages between the US president's family and Saudi elites).

Though it took a more sympathetic approach to its suspects (evangelical Christians) than is normal, God On My Side is like Fahrenheit 9/11 in falling into the 'conspiracy theory' genre. That genre is typified by a search for scapegoats whose evil plots can be blamed for perceived problems, and the lack of any attempt to analyse, or identify solutions to, those problems presumably because theorists have little understanding of how the world actually works.

Other commentators suggested variously that:

  • God On My Side was better because it allowed people to express themselves, whereas Fahrenheit 9/11 merely presented what Michael Moore thought [1]; and alternately that
  • Fahrenheit 9/11 succeeded because it presented truths about how the system works (links between business, the US government, and the war on Iraq), while God On My Side did not consider how social, economic and political interests shape Christian fundamentalism [1].
The Bigger Picture

Seeing the Forest behind the Trees,

The most significant potential 'clash of civilizations' in which Western societies are currently involved is not with Islamists but rather with East Asia - where modern societies are being built on the basis of fundamentally different and incompatible traditions (ie different approaches to: knowledge; power; governance; strategy; and economic goals).

The incompatibility and unsustainability of this 'clash' are revealed by global financial imbalances - whose origin appears to be cultural differences that have received almost no attention.

Skirmishes with Islamist extremists, whose political aims seem incapable of leading to anything of any practical significance (and who ironically are seriously challenged by the gains under the quite different approach to spirituality embodied in East Asia's neo-Confucian traditions), are merely a diversion which increases the risk that much bigger issues will remain un-examined and thus unresolved.

Conclusion Conclusion

The public debate which has surrounded responses to to the 9/11 attack in America has been childish - presumably partly because:

  • the issues involved are too complex to be condensed into simple slogans that politicians can use. For example, Paul Wolfowitz noted that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were publicly quoted as the reason for invading Iraq because this was the only thing that everyone agreed on;
  • politicised civil services had very limited ability to address the complex cultural issues involved;
  • the military / security response which which was adopted to 9/11 events was forceful rather than sophisticated;
  • democratic political systems are able to be influenced by diverse special interest groups;
  • clear statement of strategies would have potentially alienated some allies whose support was hoped for;
  • political leaders chose to be autocratic.

God On My Side has been an attempt to penetrate the resulting 'fog' in the public mind, but has primarily illustrated the need for much more work to allow the 'fog' to be lifted.