Friday, February 27, 2009

Religion and politics: Sympathy for the exorcist

Bobby, why are you doing this to me?

Bobby Jindal got panned by even Republicans and very Republican-friendly media outlets that you would have expected to hype his memorably poor nationally-televised response to Barack Obama special State of the Union address on Tuesday. Then Rush jumped in to express his man-love for Bobby and demand that the Republican dittoheads fall in line.

Max Blumenthal in Bobby Jindal's Secret Past The Daily Beast 02/25/09 writes about an article Jindal did about an exorcism in which he participated as a young man.

During his years at Brown University, Jindal pursued his Catholic faith with unbridled zeal. Jindal became emotionally involved with a classmate named Susan who had overcome skin cancer and struggled to cope with the suicide of a close friend. Jindal reflected in an article for a Catholic magazine (called “Beating a Demon: Physical Dimensions of Spiritual Warfare”) that “sulfuric” scents hovered over Susan everywhere she went. In the middle of a prayer meeting, Jindal claimed that Susan collapsed and began convulsing on the floor. His prayer partners gathered together on the floor, holding hands and shouting, “Satan, I command you to leave this woman!”

While under the supposed control of satanic demons, Susan lashed out at Jindal and his friends. “Whenever I concentrated long enough to begin prayer, I felt some type of physical force distracting me,” Jindal reflected. “It was as if something was pushing down on my chest, making it very hard for me to breathe ... I began to think that the demon would only attack me if I tried to pray or fight back; thus, I resigned myself to leaving it alone in an attempt to find peace for myself.”

Toward the conclusion of what Jindal called “the tremendous battle between the Susan we knew and loved and some strange and evil force,” Jindal and his friends forced Susan to read passages from the Bible. "She choked on certain passages and could not finish the sentence 'Jesus is Lord.' Over and over, she repeated "Jesus is L..L..LL," often ending in profanities," Jindal wrote. Finally, evil gave way to the light. "Just as suddenly as she went into the trance, Susan suddenly reappeared and claimed ‘Jesus is Lord.’ With an almost comical smile, Susan then looked up as if awakening from a deep sleep and asked, ‘Has something happened?’"
(Warning: This is definitely one of what Dave Neiwert calls "long-form" blog posts.)

The article to which Max refers is Beating a Demon: Physical Dimensions of Spiritual Warfare by Bobby Jindal New Oxford Review Dec 1994.

The version linked appears to be the full article; the article appears to the same as the original; the first three paragraphs match to the partial text available at the New Oxford Review Web site. For $1.50 and the risk of getting an additional source to spam you, you can get the original online. This following cheesy graphic of what is presumably a demon's head is featured at the magazine's site:

I'll refrain from "demonizing" the political opposition by restraining myself from comparing that graphic to the heart of any recent Vice President.

The indicates that "some of the names ... but none of the details" had been altered by Jindal. I actually dug up the original at the library and that intro is in the original. But the demon's head is missing and they actually have a pretty good graphic there, I mean if you like St. Michael and the Dragon pictures, which I do.

By the way, for you apocalypse fans, that scene depicts the story in the middle of Revelations, Chapter 12. That chapter is one of my favorite stories in the Bible.

But back to Jindal's story.

David Brody of the Christian News Network also provides most of the text of the article in Bobby Jindal's Story about Demons and Spiritual Warfare 02/24/09. Brody is cautious about characterizing the story. But he seems to be offering an alibi against Jindal being persecuted by that Christian-hatin' librul press:

I’m sure some will read this and afterwards try to label Jindal as someone with strange religious views. But in typical Jindal fashion, he dissects the situation intellectually. He experienced something that clearly had a major impact in his life. Now if he does run for President, this incident will be under the microscope and he’ll be put on the couch by the mainstream media.
I do think it's a legitimate issue for a Presidential candidate to have to address. After all, he wrote the account himself and published it in a religious journal. It's perfectly legitimate for journalists, if there are any real ones left, to quiz him about how he analyzes that same situation now.

I have an alternative explanation of events that, on the one hand, is probably more generous than most Democrats are inclined to be about young Bobby's college experience. On the other hand, my interpretation doesn't say anything very good about Jindal's adult ability to process real-world information.

To begin, I'll say that I find both the Pentecostal and the still-to-be-found style of beliefs in demons and demon-possession not only superstitious but dangerous. In the context of the Catholic Church - and Jindal in the article is speaking from his own Catholic perspective - validating and promoting exorcism and belief in literal demons is considered downright reactionary theologically. The Church still has the rite of exorcism "on the books", i.e., it's still permitted as an official Catholic procedure. But it is also required to be done in the context of medical care and psychological evaluations. Like "alternative medicine" is often understood, it is seem as a kind of comforting supplement to individuals suffering from certain kinds of medical disorders.

Still, even in the milder official form the Catholic Church officially approves, it implies a belief that there are demons floating around that infect people's bodies kind of like germs. There are lots of very practical problems with seeing things that way.

For one, there's no actual evidence of any such thing. Second, it's a silly-ass version of Christian theology to take the Biblical references to demons that way. It encourages a terrible mystification of emotional conflicts. It can lead people to neglect needed medical treatment. It can make the person who's suffering from some kind of physical and/or emotional problem think it's happening because they're a bad person. At the same time, it encourages a childish ethical attitude: it's not me that's having lustful thoughts, it's a demon attacking me. Belief in demon-possession is the kind of thing that cult leaders can and do exploit.

Having said all that, the ritual Jindal describes in that article is really not something that unusual in the context of Protestant Pentecostalism. Check out Matt Taibbi's article Jesus Made Me Puke: Matt Taibbi Undercover with the Christian Right Rolling Stone Online 05/01/08. The article is something you don't see nearly often enough in American journalism these days: an actual investigation.

In this case, what Taibbi was investigating was the church of John Hagee, the warmongering Christian Zionism whose endorsement John McCain finally wound up rejecting during the 2008 Presidential primaries. The culminating moment of the weekend retreat was a exorcism ceremony in which participants were encouraged to physically vomit out their demons. Aside from being a good read, it puts the exorcism ceremony into its Pentecostal ritual context. The version Taibbi describes does not have the safeguards that the Catholic Church officially requires.

The point I'm making here is that even though the ritual may attract crazy people, and even though it can do real harm to participants, in the context of Pentecostal (or "charismatic") Christianity, believing in it or participating in it can't be automatically regard as "crazy".

My alternative take on what Jindal describes of his college friend "Susan" goes like this. It's my suggestion for an alternative framing, assuming that he has related the facts more-or-less accurately.

Bobby and "Susan" (which may or may not have been her real name) were conservative Christian college students. They were friends and attracted to each other. Both of them subscribed to religious beliefs that told them it was a sin to have sex before marriage. Probably even a sin to risk "heavy petting".

But youthful hormones are also persuasive things. He describes Susan's post-exorcism thoughts about her experience:

Susan, who had experienced visions and other related phenomena as a child, thought her intense flirting with guys and straying away from God had led to this punishment. [my emphasis]
He also relates that Susan "had other guys in her life". Let's assume that Susan had preserved her virtue for marriage to her future divinely-selected husband. But, taking into account the Pentecostal language and assumptions, she's pretty much saying explicitly that she felt terrible guilt because of her own sexual desires.

I'll save my rant about the barbaric effects of religious sexual repression for another post.

Now, I'm not trying to suggest any kind of scandal for pure young Bobby. I assume he was preserving his virtue, as well. But he says that both a previous girlfriend and Susan accused him of not being able to love. How might Susan have come to such a conclusion? Well, Jindal describes visiting her in her dorm room to have a talk about her troubled feelings after a bump on her head had been diagnosed (according to her) as skin cancer:

Against my will, I found myself reaching out and holding her hand. I promised to stand by her forever, to be the rock against which she could lean, to accompany her to the doctor's office and the operating room. I never stopped to think of the significance of my valiant pledges; I assumed any good friend would react similarly in the same situation. How could any de­cent person turn away a desperate woman in such need? ...

During Susan's next wave of tears, I found my­self putting my arm around her to provide both physical and emotional support. We were soon sit­ting on the bed next to each other, and I told her a fairy tale. Instead of tackling all of her problems at once, we took each individual concern -- e.g., up­coming finals -- and magically solved it. Her prob­lems began to seem insignificant and our ability to overcome adversity soon assumed heroic propor­tions. We were soon laughing, and despair was defi­nitely vanquished, at least for the night. We were both startled to find my arm around her shoulder, but she asked that I continue to hold her for just a few moments longer. I happily complied and we embraced her problems away; along with my sooth­ing words, the simple gesture of a hug was enough to bring peace to Susan's heart for one night.
Dude! For a devoutly chaste Pentecostal woman, this is aggressive seduction! You're sitting on the bed. In her room. Alone. Hugging. Things are very emotional. If you stayed on the bed for a while longer, you might have gotten around to other things besides just hugging. And if, you know, one thing led to another, then "it just happened". And if you didn't use birth control, that just shows you didn't really intend to sin.

But instead they (apparently) stayed pure. And for a month, Susan didn't want to have much to do with Bobby. She even broke a dinner date and Bobby didn't talk to her for a week. I don't blame her. Here she was putting her immortal soul in peril to get Bobby into the sack and he wouldn't go for it.

I'm really going to have to start working on that post about the barbaric effects of religious sexual repression!

The exorcism took place after they had made up, in a chaste kind of way. It was a prayer meeting to prepare her for the cancer operation for the bump on her head. So she staged a possession scene that looked weird and scary to Bobby. But was familiar to her from seeing Pentecostal exorcisms herself and/or from movies and TV. As described in Max Blumenthal's account quoted above, she suddenly came out of "possessed" situation and professed to remember none of what had gone on during the session. The memory loss is consistent with the ritual, but unlikely.

Jindal related that after the exorcism was over, people in the group seemed particularly concerned about what he thought of the experience. This indicates that in some way, the other participants saw the exorcism as a kind of recruitment/conversion experience by which Bobby would be initiated into accepted of distinctive Pentecostal/charismatic beliefs and rituals.

A final interesting tidbit. Susan claimed after the operation that the doctors found no cancer, though the biopsy had indicated cancer. She took this to mean that along with the exorcism, she was also healed from her cancer. This kind of story is completely routine in the faith-healing racket. According to Occam's Razor - by which the simplest explanation that accounts for all the facts is probably the best - this presents the same less-miraculous possibilities that most such claims do. The diagnosis could have been mistaken. Susan could have been lying about either the diagnosis or the doctor's report back to her. Jindal in the article didn't indicate that he had done further investigation, such as requesting to see the doctor's actual records.

I don't see anything in this account that can't be reasonably explained in terms of the convergence of raging youthful hormones, fear of illness, sexual repression, school stress and normal religious and emotional issues of the transition to adulthood, all filtered through Susan's very religious, Pentecostal understanding of the world. Add in the non-improbable possibility that some of her other boyfriends weren't so chaste as Bobby, maybe a pregnancy that had to be aborted, and the presence of malignant supernatural forces isn't required to understand what he describes.

Jindal was 23 when that article appeared and working for the prestigious McKinsey & Co. consulting firm. It's certainly reasonable to ask if he still takes so credulous a view of that experience. And it's not a matter of general "judgment" or "character", two of the Establishment press' favorite hooks on which to hang any silly story they want to flog. But if he runs for President, we should know how much he supports real science. And, on the other side, to what extent his very conservative political and (apparently) religious view incline him to support anti-birth-control, anti-stem-cell-research and pro-"creationist" pseudoscience.

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