Whither the Birth-ers?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Someone recently posed the question as to whether the release of the President's birth certificate had any effect on peoples' perception of the legitimacy of his citizenship. This generated a few thoughts. (This may not seem like a timely subject now, but doesn't our interest too often follow the news cycle? Perhaps we should more frequently revisit important topics after the "buzz" has died down. )

I believe it took a lot of air out of the birthers' argument. Maybe for most conservative types, pursuing the birth certificate issue seems pointless after a while and maybe even embarrassing. I feel the birther phenomenon is simply a recent manifestation of the religious right's infatuation with conspiracy. In other words there is a larger story here, and it is not about president Obama. Rather it says more about American Christianity and its intersection with politics.

The tenacity with which people hold onto such conspiracies is related- I feel- to the apocalypticism that is so much a part of religion in America. Rarely is it suggested among conservatives that American national weaknesses or religious failures are the result of our own misunderstanding of the faith or the Bible, or policy. The default assumption is that if we (faith community and/or country) are "undone", it is the result of diabolical schemes and powerful interests conspiring against us. And why not? We are the faithful. We are the remnant that keeps the forces of darkness from destroying completely the unique Christian culture that God intended for the United States. We are the target for grand deceptions.

The critical issue for religious conservatives, I believe, is not so much the *positive proof* of Obama's citizenship as it is the possible *negation of a conspiracy*. An altered birth certificate implies a larger plan to deceive. Such a plan on the part of the liberal Left (and probably global interests too!) fits neatly into modern Dispensationalism theology. Obama would be a real life Manchurian candidate. The drama is too perfect *not* to be true. Why would conservatives hang on to such a conspiracy so tenaciously? In short, we want our conspiracies confirmed, and by extension, our world view.

But why would so many conservatives let go of such a conspiracy at one fell swoop? So much religious and emotional energy is invested in these kinds of conspiracies that no amount of rational consensus concerning the birth certificate would change anyone's mind. ("Consensus" is suspicious anyhow, isn't it?) We will not change our minds until an authoritative conservative figure (note: not necessarily Christian, but necessarily Republican) gives their affirmation. Enter Donald Trump.

The birther phenomenon reminded me of the "North American Union" rumors that were circulating in the mid 2000s. Any person (even conservative economists, journalists, and analysts) who attempted to debunk the conspiracy were labeled as "stupid" or "sheep" or "they have the will pull over their eyes". It was not until Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) finally released his own statement on the topic that it died out. But only months prior conservative radio had people whipped into a frenzy regarding this nonexistent international conspiracy.

So Donald Trump, the consummate capitalist, may not have been exactly "one of us" from the perspective of the Republican establishment or the religious right, but he brought the birther issue back to the fore and at least offered conservatives the satisfaction of making the President jump; by forcing the president to once and for all show his cards, as it were. Politically that's worth something to them.

As the baby boomer generation decreases I feel that (among other drastic changes in our culture) we will see an abandonment of apocalyptic and conspiratorial belief. We can always hope. We now have a generation who's world view was shaped by 9/11. The paradigm of the boomers- fighting the global communist conspiracy and equating modern Israel with Old Testament prophetic authority- will make less and less sense to generations Y and Z.


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I teach them all the good I can, and recommend them to others from whom I think they will get some moral benefit. And the treasures that the wise men of old have left us in their writings I open and explore with my friends. If we come on any good thing, we extract it, and we set much store on being useful to one another. - Socrates, Memorabilia
What we maintain is that in none of the problems of life can men afford to lose sight of the storehouse bequeathed to them by the ancients. In the complexus of everything which differentiates man from the brute creation, the voice of antiquity must be heard...

-H. Browne, quoted in "Classics and Citizenship" The Classical Quarterly, 1920