Saved From a Perverse God

Oh my name it ain’t nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I was taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side

Bob Dylan[1]

Bob Dylan’s, “With God on Our Side,” describes how one’s name or age or distinctive characteristics may not be a primary mode of identity, but having God on your side is an identity that overrides individual details. The song recounts the various wars of the United States, beginning with the slaughter of native Americans and ending with the necessity of launching weapons of mass destruction, with each verse describing a particular war and each refrain of the song assuring “God is on our side.” The conclusion, “And you never ask questions When God’s on your side,” certainly raises questions about the nature of this God and his subjects.

 Dylan has captured in an uncanny manner the pervasive identity in which one’s life is defined by service rendered to an ineffable Other. Service to God and country describes a regional ethos, but it also fits exactly how identity can be had through being an object-instrument of this Other (God, country, the law). Dylan’s lyrics sum up what psychoanalysis describes as perversion and it depicts a predominant form of human subjectivity and the reigning view of deity throughout history. In technical terms, the pervert locates himself as object of the drive rather than being himself the subject (the subject who directly enjoys). The degree to which one is caught up in perversion may or may not be put on display in perverse acts, as psychoanalytic perversion refers not to acts but to a structure in which, as Dylan describes it, questions are rendered impossible. This structure may lead to evil acts, though this is not what qualifies it as perverse, but these acts, as with the perverse structure, cannot be questioned.

One may not buy the psychoanalytic explanation of how this structure evolves (a denial of the mother’s missing phallus or a denial of sexual difference and the attempt to cover over this difference or to fill in what is perceived as lacking) but there is no question that the perverse structure of serving and establishing the law (or the reigning symbolic order) is the predominant form of human subjectivity.

As Julian Jaynes has described it, we can mark the point at which a new sort of subject appeared in which the law began to be questioned. Historically, prior to this questioning, it was as if the left side of the brain existed as an unquestioned authority through which the various cultural authorities spoke. The burial of the important dead, as if they still lived and spoke, is common to almost all ancient cultures. The Egyptian pharaohs, preserved in their pyramids, the kings of Ur entombed with their entire retinues buried (sometimes alive) for continued service, along with food and drink and even yoked draft animals, point to a static (unquestioning) entombed culture.[2] The undead, and the authority they represented, continued to speak through hallucinated voices or through the gods (often the dead are simply deified). In Assyria, Mesoamerica, and Japan, the dead are directly called gods and the various mystics or priests might be possessed by the dead so as to give them voice. Hesiod speaks of a golden race of men who became the “holy demons upon the earth, beneficent, averters of ills, guardians of mortal men.” Four centuries later, Plato refers to heroes who after death become the demons that tell people what to do and he has Socrates mention that in his own time “God-possessed men speak much truth, but know nothing of what they say.”[3] Socrates marks the point before which the human condition is to listen and obey but not to question or discern.

 Jaynes is tracing a time when, in the bicameral period with its bicameral brain, everyone heard the voice of authority, but as the brain shifted only the possessed, idols, oracles, or mediums give voice to the gods. Cuneiform literature often refers to god-statues speaking, and the Old Testament refers to speaking idols (Terap) and depicts the king of Babylon consulting with several idols (Ezekiel, 21). Aztec history began, according to their reports to Spanish conquistadors (following their own perverse God), when a statue from a ruined temple belonging to a previous culture spoke to their leaders and commanded them to set out across the lake so as to come to a new land. They were sent zigzagging here and there, following their own Moses, into a new land. In Peru the conquering Spaniards presumed the voice ordering the culture was the Devil. The first report back to Europe said, “in the temple [of Pachacamac] was a Devil who used to speak to the Indians in a very dark room which was as dirty as he himself.”[4] It did not occur to the Spaniards to question their own genocidal authority.

Whether or not Jaynes is correct in his description of brain development, there is no question that the world has gone and is going through a shift in notions of subjectivity and personhood in which the old voices of authority, the authority of the law in Paul’s description, once unquestioned and absolute have now grown silent. In psychoanalytic terms we might say that human history has been predominantly perverse in its service of God and the law, and perverse unquestioning personalities have certainly been in the majority. The individual who protests, who questions, who challenges, is usually in a small minority. In fact, in most cultures the notion of questioning the order of the culture is a near impossibility. It is hard to imagine someone from a traditional culture, say an Apache brave in the old American Southwest, objecting to the whole “macho-warrior image.” I supposed it never occurred to any brave to say, “Chief, I am going to hang back at the teepee today to play my flute and think about life. I am just not feeling the whole raiding and pillaging thing today.”   

Perversion functions at both a corporate and individual level, but what is obvious is that corporate perversion, while more socially acceptable and even socially commendable, is also likely to be more profoundly evil as one is incapable of challenging authority and presumes the law, the father, or God, justifies one’s actions, no matter how evil. Corporate perversion is the most compelling and predominant, as the oxymoronic nature of “individualistic Nazis” gets at the point, murderous perversion is most easily mass produced. But whether corporate or individual, to challenge the evil deeds would be on the order of questioning the authority of God, whether it is participating in genocide in an unjust war or publicly exposing oneself in a theatre, the act is rendered in unquestioning service of the structure (the Other).

If this predominance of perversion is the case, then could it also be true that Christianity and Christ are primarily aimed at defeating a perverse notion of God and a perverse subjectivity? Isn’t it precisely the leading Jews’ notion of God which would result in the death of Christ and isn’t it this notion that he defeats? He defeats it, first of all in the incarnation and the fleshing out of what God is really like, and then defeats death and the perverse orientation in his death and resurrection. Perversion depends upon being able to project upon God whatever human structure, personal or corporate, needs support in the symbolic order. God as the ambiguous Other who justifies the worst forms of human perversion is defeated by God in the flesh. Flesh itself is changed up in Christ, no longer written over with a perverse orientation to the law.

The Apostle Paul describes himself as one who excelled in the law and law-keeping and this excellence was precisely what made him the chief of sinners. He only had access to God and himself on the basis of this perverse orientation to the law. The problem is not, of course, with God or the law but with the orientation to both, produced by the deceit of sin. Christ’s defeat of sin in the flesh is precisely aimed at the overcoming of this universal perversion. As Paul argues, the Jewish problem of doing identity in accordance with the law is universal. All people suffer from some form of the prototypical sin of the Jews and of Paul himself, at least that is the thrust of Paul’s argument.

The tragedy we are living through at the moment is that Christianity, through penal substitution, Christian nationalism, and a fusion of right-wing politics and religion has become the main support of a perverse form of the faith. In this understanding, Christ died to meet the demands of the law, and God’s righteousness is equated with the law. This translates, in response to such issues as white supremacy and critical race theory, into a literal unwillingness to question the constitution and the laws of the land.

According to Mike Pompeo, “If we teach that the founding of the United States of America was somehow flawed. It was corrupt. It was racist. That’s really dangerous. It strikes at the very foundations of our country.” To question the construct of race or whiteness or to question the law, is anathema in this religion. Yet, the recognition that this country’s law and legal institutions not only privilege one race but served to establish that race is simply another manifestation of the biblical depiction of the function and malfunction of the law. Jewish privilege and Gentile exclusion constitute the hostility built into the law (the wall in the temple was a concrete representation of the law as a dividing wall of hostility). White privilege (or receiving unwarranted advantage) and black and brown exclusion from privilege, it should not be a surprise, is structural and legal. It is not those who receive the privilege but those who are denied it (Gentiles, slaves, and women, in Paul’s description) or those made to suffer under the law which notice its disparities. As long as the Jews insisted on law keeping, entailing their privileged position, and as long as they insisted on the primacy of the law, this excluded them from Christian salvation (freedom from the law).

Where the religion is reduced to the law, the constitution is not to be questioned, the powers that are ascendant are not to be questioned, lest the foundation of the country be undone. The sexual perversions of this religion, on continual display in the failings of evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell Jr., Ted Haggard, Ravi Zacharias (etc. etc.), the perversions of evangelical political leaders in their devotion to the most obscene of presidents, and their devoted unquestioning followers, are simply a pointer to this perverse structure. In other words, rather than Christianity doing the work of saving from perversion, the faith is made the primary support of a perverse religion on the order of that which killed Christ.

Christians should be the most sensitive to the hostile divisions incorporated into law, undone only in Christ, and the fact that it is evangelicals protesting the loudest, seems to indicate the perverse structure of their religion. The notion that justice and righteousness (life) are enshrined in law, the very definition of sin in Paul’s depiction, is a case in point of the universal deception and perversion. Christians are those who are no longer deceived by this sin in regard to the law (Romans 7:8), but where Christianity is made the support of deception and perversion there is a doubling down on perversion in making the problem the supposed Christian solution.


[1] Thanks to Matt for the suggestion of this song, several other suggestions, and the editing of this blog. Also, thanks to our Tuesday night class for the inspiration behind the blog.

[2]Even the ordinary dead were often treated as if they still needed feeding.  In Mesopotamia it is recorded a dead person was buried with 7 jars of beer, 420 flat loaves of bread, 2 measures of grain, 1 garment, 1 head support, and 1 bed.  

[3] Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (p. 161-341). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

[4] Jaynes, 174-175.

Have the Dark Ages Returned?

How is it that the United States is entering yet another war, a war which is arousing enthusiasm for Trump among his evangelical base? In the rhetoric of various evangelical leaders (as Franklin Graham has put it, Islam is “a very evil and wicked religion”), war seems to be part of a “necessary” clash of religions and civilizations? This seemingly medieval perception is, I would claim, precisely that – medieval in its theological/Roman Catholic roots. How is it that a medieval ideology has come to dominate evangelical religion and American politics?

The fusion of the Republican party with evangelical religion begun under Ronald Reagan and the rise of the Christian Coalition (with Pat Robertson designating Ralph Reed as its leader), the turn to partisan politics and the cry for cultural war begun by Newt Gingrich (a convert to Roman Catholicism), is the first phase in this two-part story. Gingrich’s name-calling, conspiracy theories, strategic obstructionism through government shut-downs, all in the name of bringing religion back into the public square, is certainly echoed in the Trump phenomenon.  But underlying the politics is the rise of a peculiar Catholic sensibility first expressed by George W. Bush.

Three days after the massive terrorist attacks of September 11, president Bush assured the nation that America’s duty was clear – not only to “answer these attacks” but also to “rid the world of evil.” Bush concluded his address by invoking St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (8:38-39) that nothing can divide us from the love of God. America set out on a holy war as Bush described it, “our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there.” The “mission” was not merely to bring justice to the men and the groups that had attacked the country but also to “defend freedom” in a world where “freedom is under attack.” This battle for freedom would be “civilizations fight,” led by the United States. In this struggle, both military and metaphysical, “the outcome is certain,” since “freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.” In Bush’s picture we would win the fight against evil through violence, war, and the destruction of hundreds of thousands of lives. Bush began a crusade which would fuse state and church in the fight for Christian civilization and in his conception of this world struggle, it is precisely Catholic intellectuals to whom Bush would turn.

Damon Linker in his book, The Theocons, traces the key thinkers and shapers behind Bush doctrine and the fusion of right-wing politics and theology. Richard Neuhaus, founding editor of the right-wing Catholic journal First Things, proposed that the American experiment in self-government be reconceived in terms of a communal “covenant” under God. The political and theological implications may be most simply expressed in his understanding that “when he died and stood face-to- face with his creator, he expected to do so as an American.” He holds that the American experience is a “sacred enterprise.”

In Michael Novak’s view, Christianity, modern democracy, and modern capitalism arose from and continue to share “the same logic, the same moral principles, the same set of cultural values, institutions, and presuppositions. Markets don’t simply produce economic growth; they mirror the divine Trinity in the way they enable many diverse individuals to function as one in perfect harmony. For Novak, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” guiding the market was quite simply the hand of God – and the rise and spread of democratic capitalism in the world is the “Greatest Story Ever Told.”

 William Kristol, the non-Catholic of the group, claims that modern conservatism should be based on a synthesis of religion, nationalism, and economic growth and that republicans should give up their resistance to the transformation of their party into an explicitly religious organization – all for the sake of banishing liberalism, the “enemy,” from American political life (all of this and the manner it came to shape Bush’s doctrine is set forth in Linker’s 2007 book).

Steve Bannon, perhaps the key thinker behind Donald Trump, believes the United States is a Christian nation, not just in the sense that an overwhelming majority of Americans describe themselves as Christians, but also in the sense that the country’s culture is Christian. This means our war with evil is a literal war against Islam: “We” in the West must affirm our Christian identity or we will be overrun by dangerous outsiders (Islamists) who will impose a different identity upon us. In a speech at the Vatican, he said, “We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism.” During broadcasts of the Breitbart News Daily radio show, he alleged that “Islamist sympathizers had infiltrated the U.S. government and news media.” In his dark vision he planned, according to The Washington Post, to make a three-part movie in which radical Muslims take over the United States and remake it into the “Islamic States of America.” According to Newsday, an article published in La Civiltà Cattolica, a Vatican-vetted journal, singled out Bannon as a “supporter of apocalyptic geopolitics,” the logic of which is “no different from the one that inspires Islamic fundamentalism.”

Attorney General William Barr in a recent speech at Notre Dame, warned that Catholicism and other mainstream religions are the target of “organized destruction” by “secularists and their allies among progressives who have marshalled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry and academia.” He insisted that “the traditional Judeo-Christian moral system” of the United States was under siege by “modern secularists” responsible for every sort of “social pathology,” including drug abuse, rising suicide rates and illegitimacy. The Guardian reports that C Colt Anderson, a Roman Catholic theologian has warned that Barr’s brand of radically conservative Catholicism is a “threat to American democracy.” He described the speech as a “dog whistle” to ultra-conservative Catholics. “The attorney general is taking positions that are essentially un-Democratic” because they demolish the wall between church and state, according to Anderson.[1]

As The Guardian notes, while the president enjoys the support of right-wing Christian evangelical leaders and their followers, he has also surrounded himself with conservative Roman Catholics like Barr and Patrick Cipollone, Trump’s White House counsel, both of whom served on the board of directors of a Washington-based organization staffed by priests from the secretive, ultra-orthodox Catholic sect Opus Dei. Ron Dreher is an example of why conservative Catholics are falling in line behind Trump: “As we religious conservatives think about how to vote in the election next fall, we should ponder the fact that under Donald Trump a man of William Barr’s convictions is heading up the Department of Justice. Thank God Bill Barr is there.”

While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is not Catholic but a devout evangelical, his open discussion of Christianity and foreign policy (particularly pro-Israel and anti-Islamic leanings) have raised questions about the extent to which evangelical beliefs are directly influencing recent decisions. The New York Times reports, his was the loudest voice in the administration pushing President Trump to kill Iran’s most important general, Qasem Soleimani.

Perhaps the new middle age has commenced, just as Steve Bannon would have it:

“And we’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if … the people in the Church do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the Church Militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”

The line being drawn between this present moment and the Middle Ages is seen by alt right thinkers as a positive strategy. A variety of Catholic journals and thinkers would counter the cry of “Allahu akbar” with “Deus vult” (“God wills it”) as the call to war against the imagined Islamic enemy. [2] If ever there were a moment for the peace of the Gospel to receive a hearing and to make a difference this would seem to be that moment.

When “Christians” take up the sword to secure themselves and their people they have joined themselves to the power of death, linked to the power of Satan. This means that they have retreated from doing the work of God’s Kingdom, founded on the power of resurrection and not the power of death. As Christians faced with a profound Medieval form of Christianity we must turn firmly away from the means and method of empire. We are not seeking power and security through tight borders, strong military, or the defeat of Islam in war. The danger is that in aligning with the powers and methods of empire, Christians have joined forces with the counter-Kingdom of the antiChrist.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/oct/19/william-barr-attorney-general-catholic-conservative-speech

[2] For example, see the Imaginative Conservative, The American Conservative,