By Azubuike Ishiekwene
I first heard it from my son on January 20. As we joined millions around the world to watch the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama on television, my 14-year-old son dropped the bomb.
He said the Internet was blazing with a controversy that the new U.S. president could be the anti-Christ, the great beast that the bible predicts will capture the world with his charisma and whose reign will only end after a fight to the finish with the messiah.
I asked my son if he thought it was true. He replied that he didn’t believe the rumors, but seeing the record numbers of people who braved the bitter cold to watch the historic event at the Capitol on that day—and the billions more watching on televisions around the world—he was not sure what to believe.
The world has gone crazy for Obama; his charm is beyond words. A mountain in Antigua may be named after him. He is every mother’s dream child. Millions worship daily at his portal. Some are even calling him The One (not “that one” as Sen. John McCain famously condescended). Yet, if charisma is all that is needed to be the anti-Christ, Obama will be in good company in a long list that includes Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Mohammed Ali, Nelson Mandela, and Harry Porter.
But the religious right-wing argues that it’s not about charisma alone. They say that he speaks with the beguiling empathy of the fallen angel, promising change on a messianic scale and hinting at the possibility that this change can only come about under a world government. Didn’t he say in Berlin that global citizenship is a requirement and not an option?
If the rhetoric of Obama as the anti-Christ was the fare of fringe blog spots and evangelical scaremongers on talk shows before November 4, the matter moved to the mainstream media after one of Obama’s first executive orders reversing the ban on funding international charities that perform or provide information about abortions and his approval of the first human trials of embryonic stem cells research.
The moves touched many a raw nerve and sparked a feeling among the right wing that their worst fears were about to come true—the resurgence of reason as the basis for public policy.
Obama seems not to wear religion on his sleeve. He’s certainly not as spirit-filled as Ronald Reagan, who scrapped the theory of evolution for that of creationism and yet despised the teaching of history in American schools, or George Bush, who smelled the Axis of Evil many thousand miles away but denied the reality of climate change.
Sure, as evangelicals, Obama’s support for abortion rights and same sex union makes us queasy—but if these are his mortal sins, they make him no more or less the anti-Christ than did Reagan’s love of shamans.
The conflict between those who seek to use science and reason to advance the common good on the one hand and religious demagogues on the other is centuries old.
One year after Galileo published his book, The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, in Florence in 1632, the Holy Office put him on trial. His crime, according to the Catholic Church, was having the effrontery to suggest that the Earth revolves around the sun. The popular belief at the time was that the Earth was the centre of the universe, a literal interpretation of the bible. Anyone who suggested anything to the contrary was deemed a heretic. The Pope demanded that Galileo should retract his thesis. When he refused, he was placed under house arrest on orders of the Roman Inquisition; his book was banned from circulation.
The history of the world has been shaped by men and women of different faiths and callings. The Baptist preacher Martin Luther King, for example, borrowed his philosophy of non-violence directly from the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi.
Fast forward to the present. In her recent book, Sex, Science and Stem Cells: Inside the Right Wing Assault on Reason, U.S. Congresswoman Diana Degette chronicles how religious demagogues masquerading as politicians have shamelessly and hypocritically short-changed American public policy. She recounts illuminating her colleagues and friend to some shocking truths.
“They know that the religious right denounces embryonic stem cell research, but they don’t know that the same people also believe that more than 400,000 frozen embryos that are in storage from past vitro fertilization procedures and typically discarded as medical waste should be considered as ‘pre-born’ babies and donated to infertile couples for ‘adoption.’ They know that Congress appropriated more than $15 billion for international AIDS relief and HIV awareness, at President Bush’s request, but they are shocked to learn that the money is being distributed in large part through religious organizations opposed to birth control, organizations that refuse to teach the use of condoms as a component of HIV/AIDS prevention.”
This hypocrisy is as much a problem in the United States as it is in many parts of the developing world today where politicians love to play the religious card.
Beyond the attempt of the scaremongers to confuse, befuddle and divide we must keep reminding ourselves why it is important for politicians to rely on science while formulating public policy. In the words of Degette, “if we want to fund rational programs that work, we must ensure that they are based on facts—not gut instinct, and certainly not ideology.”
I do not want my son to grow up thinking that the microchip is the mark of the beast or that anyone who doesn’t share his point of view is an infidel. After all, if he had been born in China, he would probably be celebrating the Year of the Ox, and it would make no difference to him whether a demagogue thinks Obama (or the man next door) is, alas, the anti-Christ. I commend Degette’s book to politicians everywhere, including right wingers who have the ears and willingness to listen.
Azu Ishiekwene has been an investigative reporter, a features writer, a member of the editorial board, and the editor of Punch Titles, Nigeria’s highest selling newspapers. He is currently the executive publications director of Punch and writes a weekly Tuesday column. He is the author of Nuhu Ribadu, a book on Nigeria’s stalled anti-corruption war, the chair of the CNN/MultiChoice African Journalist of the Year Award panel, and a member of the board of the World Editors Forum.