First was that post I did a long time ago asking the question What Scandal Could the Bush Administration Not Get Away With? The consensus was that there really wasn't one (oh, to be wrong—the bliss!), and one of the notions that came up several times was that, caught with his pants down, Bush could appeal Bakker-style to his base, to good Christians across America, telling them he was a sinner and asking for their forgiveness. It's not hard to see (or it wasn't then, anyway) how easily it would have played out, with him becoming a tragic hero, flawed but brave. And so, I think there is a sense of sinfulness, and being sinners, among the type of conservative Mannion describes—to one degree (disingenuous though it may be) or another.
The second thought was of a sign outside a church near our house that drives Mr. Shakes and I both nuts. It says "If you can't take the heat, stay outta hell." And the reason neither of us likes it is that it seems to be so flippant, so indicative of one of the things that I don't like about certain religious types, who seem to be of the "confess on your death bed" variety, treating religion and faith as a get out of jail free card—as if eternal salvation is not a pass/fail test, but something you can kind of cram for in your final moments and scrape by with a D. Staying out of hell, versus earning a place in heaven.
After thinking about why those two things were evoked while reading Mannion’s post, I finally got my bearings. It's the why of it that was bothering me. What's missing is the second layer of why behind the why that Mannion adeptly addresses:
The moral calculus decent people measure their behavior by is this:What's missing is the born-again stuff.
Some acts are sins. People who commit those acts are sinners. I have committed one of those acts. I am a sinner.
These conservatives probably think they use the same measure. But they don't, because they start with the belief that it is impossible for them to commit those bad acts because bad acts are what others do. Crime is the act of others. Sin is the moral failure of others.
So their personal moral calculus winds up looking like this:
Good people do good things. Bad people do bad things and bad people are the others. I am one of the good people. Therefore the things I do must be good.
This is why if Jesus were around today and a woman taken in adultery ran to him for protection and he said to the crowd, Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone, forty-six Republican adulterers would bean her with rocks.
Born-agains, like Bush, have a different attitude about this stuff than, say, traditional guilt-ridden Catholics or Lutherans, or even your average atheist. There's a sense of accumulation among the latter—the feeling that life is a continuing thread, and bad behavior may be past, but hasn't disappeared. Believers in souls might suggest that each sin leaves an indelible mark; absolution may wash the soul clean, but its shape is forever changed by the dings and dents of living a mortal, and hence imperfect, life. Non-believers might say that your mistakes stay with you, even after you have made amends, and leave a mark on your psyche, in your memory, on a strand of time. Whatever the language, the principle is the same—our flaws are a part of us, and it's usually considered a good thing. You’ve learned. Built character. When we fall in love and find ourselves, on a lazy weekend morning, investigating a new and mysterious naked skin, we ask about the scars our fingertips find. How did you get this one? In the same way, we come to know who a person is by finding out about the bad things that have defined them, as well as the good that’s ever more readily apparent.
Born-agains start with a 'clean slate' somewhere in life, and many of them mistakenly use the 'rebirth' as an excuse to ignore all opportunity to learn from their past mistakes, often denying them completely. They don't just see you and I and everyone else as a sinner, a criminal, separate from themselves; they see themselves in two pieces—the sinner, the criminal, the dead self that was bad, now gone through being born again, replaced with the new self who is good, and God-full, and gifted with the ability to avoid the same pitfalls that the old self knew so well.
It's their inability to reconcile their lives, to incorporate the old with the new, that creates this dynamic. When I fuck up, the only concern is fixing it. My slate ain't been clean in 31 years; I'm not especially worried about a new chalk mark. Bush, though (and those like him)...well, they intend to keep those slates clean. They carry around their erasers, fastidiously erasing any sign of a mark on their shining slates and bemoaning the states of ours, messy as they are. The only good slate is a clean slate. They can't see the artwork that the rest of us see, finding beauty in each other's flaws and pain and mistakes and scars. It’s not only why born-again conservatives feel free to cast the first stone; it’s why they cannot admit they are wrong, why they hate us, and, most tragically, why they hate themselves.