Friday, May 20, 2005

How Chain Restaurants Win the War

The connection between space and psyche are well-known, but little are they employed (by the mainstream media) to help us understand the predicament of America. This month's Harper's deserves widespread dissemination. Its portrait of the modern-day conservative movement and religion is insightful and scary without casting its characters as moronic. What they are, and this is what is scary, is different. Their otherness comes through and every page. What becomes apparent is that this difference is played out over and over again, not only in their beliefs, but in their economic choices. The authors could not have captured the strange marriage of religiosity, economy, politics and human feeling that feeds the Religious Right any more accurately. Take the following passage:

...[Linda] opened her eyes and explained the process she had undergone to reach her refined state. She called it "spiritual restoration." Anyone can do it, she promised, "even a gay activist." Linda had seen with her own eyes the sex demons that make homosexuals rebel against God, and she said they are gruesome; but she did not name them, for she would not "give demons glory." They are all the same, she said. "It's radicalism."

She reached across the table and touched my hand. "I have to tell you, the spiritual battle is very real." We are surrounded by demons, she explained, reciting lessons she had learned in her small-group studies at New Life. The demons are cold, they need bodies, the long to come inside. People let them in in two different ways. One is to be sinned against. "Molested," suggested. The other is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. You could walk by sin--a murder, a homosexual act--and a demon will leap onto your bones. Cities, therefore, are especially dangerous.

It is not so much the large populations, with their uneasy mix of sinner and saved, that make Christian conservatives leery of urban areas. Even downtown Colorado Springs, presumably as godly as any big town in America, struck the New Lifers as unclean. Whenever I asked where to eat, they would warn me away from downtowns neat little grid of cafés and ethnic joints. Stick to Academy, they'd tell me, referring to the vein of superstores and prepackaged eateries--P.F. Chang's, California Pizza Kitchen, et al.--that bypasses the city. Downtown, they said, is "confusing."

What is fascinating and brilliant about Jeff Sharlett's "Soldiers of Christ" (Harper's May 2005) is that he brings out the elisions of belief and action at the most automatic of levels. It is not the "mission" and the overt behaviors that is most revealing of the right-wing religious movement, it's the nearly invisible shift in behavior that define them. The fear of a demon entering one's body renders downtowns "dangerous" while consuming processed food from a corporate entity is considered "normal," "safe," "good." The economic spaces of division are the echoes of a hyper-fundamentalist religion. The the need to eat is coupled with, on one hand, the desire to remain "pure" and, on the other, the fear of the other's race, gender or sexuality.

While one might argue that religion and food have often looked to each other for definition--strict Kosher practices, for example--what is most interesting and historically contradictory about the Religious Right's iteration of this practice is that the content and preparation of food remain unimportant. What is important is where one eats and with whom, and the food itself is neither pure nor impure, save drugs or alcohol. Fundamentalist Christian food practice is not about the body or the incorporation of belief systems in food (the substance), but, rather, it focuses on an implicit "corporate cleansing" of food. (This is radical. If one looks at Jewish Kosher practices, Sharia or Transubstantiation--the Catholic practice of Communion--ingesting or refusing specific foods is tightly wound with absorbing something more than the food itself, such as the body of Christ.) Fundamentalist Christians must embrace the chain restaurant not only as a "neutral" food substance, but as a spatial embodiment of its racism. Moreover, "Corporate Cleansing" (processing) of food is an extension of power, of dominion; it is a reminder that humans, master of plants and beasts, retain control and have no moral obligation to think about sustainability, the environment, or other terms that would imply humans' less-than-central role on the planet.