Starting over

Malise Ruthven

  • Cities on a Hill by Frances FitzGerald
    Picador, 414 pp, £4.50, March 1987, ISBN 0 330 29845 3

The title of Frances FitzGerald’s new book comes from the sermon John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, delivered on board the Arabella shortly before landing in the New World in 1630. Fully conscious of the exemplary character of their enterprise, he urged his companions to walk humbly in the ways of God by remaining true to the Puritan tenets of a faith they could no longer practise in England. ‘We shall find that the God of Israel is among us,’ he promised, ‘when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when he shall make us a praise and a glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: the Lord make it like that of New England. For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.’

The Puritan separatists were the first to try to realise a dream that recurs like a refrain in American history: what FitzGerald calls ‘starting over’ or rebuilding the world from scratch. Winthrop’s utopian archetype, with or without the Biblical trappings, informed a great number of religio-social experiments, from the Shakers, Mormons and Oneida Perfectionists of the 18th and 19th centuries to the communes and cults which still flourish, especially in the West. FitzGerald sees the same impulse at work in four of the communities she studied for this book: the Castro Street quarter in San Francisco – centre of its gay community and a beacon for homosexuals everywhere; Liberty Baptist Church, the fundamentalist empire created by Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority and America’s best-known ‘televangelist’; Sun City, a retirement community in the Florida sunbelt; and the ill-fated commune in Oregon created by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, guru of free sex and Rolls-Royces.

The fact that three of these communities or ‘lifestyle enclaves’, to use the sociological term, have been dedicated to essentially hedonistic ends – sexual indulgence, ‘personal growth’ and full-time leisure – does not invalidate FitzGerald’s perception of the common Puritan tradition. ‘Rootlessness and the search for self-definition’, she argues, are ‘permanent and characteristic features of American life’, the result of ‘occupational and geographic mobility and the loose weave of the society’. Jerry Falwell, the Rajneeshee, the gay activists of San Francisco and the inhabitants of Sun City all laid claim to the Puritan ‘tradition of radical dissent, separation and heroic struggle to build a new world on hostile ground’. None of them, of course, are Puritans in the theological sense, since all reject, implicitly or explicitly, the Calvinist doctrine of salvation by grace alone. But in America Calvin was buried long ago – in the great revivals of the early 19th century when preachers like Charles Grandison Finney taught that it was possible for people to redeem themselves by their own efforts. The followers of Mother Anne Lee, Joseph Smith and John Humphrey Noyes were all, in different ways, antinomian perfectionists who considered themselves free to challenge or abandon existing norms (particularly sexual ones) and to create new ones based on their own idiosyncratic readings of Scripture. Even separatist Baptist Churches like Falwell’s until quite recently maintained themselves as islands of dissent, based on literalistic theology and crypto-racism. The aim of FitzGerald’s book is not just to describe these enclaves as discrete entities, but to chart the course of their interactions with the ‘real’ world outside.

It is a strength of her study that the obvious contrasts between her subjects serve to point up the much less visible similarities. On the face of it, nothing could be further apart than the cultures of the Castro, the world’s first ‘gay republic’, and the turgid fundamentalism of Falwell’s base in Lynchburg, Virginia, lodestar of the New ‘Christian’ Right. The lifestyle of Castro is flamboyantly extrovert, like San Francisco’s domestic architecture, and retains a surprisingly optimistic outlook even after thousands of its denizens have died of Aids and as many as 70 per cent, it is now thought, may have contracted the disease. In its heyday in the early Seventies Castro was the cutting edge of the gay revolution, the place where thousands of young men (and some women) flocked from all over the country to enjoy a totally new kind of freedom. Gay liberation, FitzGerald observes, was part of the Civil Rights struggle,

but it was much more than that. Now that the feminist movement had passed its radical phase, gay activists saw themselves as the avant-garde of the sexual revolution and the revolutionary change in sex and gender roles. Specifically, their goal was to overturn one of the oldest and strongest taboos in the culture, but beyond that it was to challenge all the conventions surrounding the ‘traditional’ nuclear family. It was also a carnival where social conventions were turned upside down just for the pleasure of seeing what they looked like the wrong way up. At the Castro Street Fair, on Halloween or on any of the other gay holidays, men would turn up as Betty Grable look-alikes, as Hell’s Angels toughs, as nuns on roller skates ... This was play; it was at the same time a meditation on the arbitrary nature of gender roles and costumes; it was also real life for men who had found themselves in the excluded middle of the terms male/female.

Falwell’s Thomas Road Church in Lynchburg was at the opposite pole of American political culture, a world which reminded FitzGerald of Fifties television commercials: ‘a family at breakfast in a sunlit kitchen, the two tow-headed children clamouring for Sugar Pops or Tastee Treats – a suburban idyll with sparkling linoleum and perfect teeth’. It was also a world of patriarchal values, with strict prohibitions against ‘drink, tobacco, drugs, cursing, dancing, rock and roll and extra-marital sex’, along with ‘specific prescriptions for dress, child-rearing and the conduct of marriage’.

‘The Bible clearly states,’ says a handbook written by the church’s family guidance pastor, ‘that the wife is to submit to her husband’s leadership and help him fulfil God’s will for his life ... She is to submit to him just as she would submit to Christ as her Lord. This places the responsibility of leadership upon the husband where it belongs. In a sense submission is learning to duck, so God can hit your husband! He will never realise his responsibility to the family as long as you take it.’

What links these worlds is not so much mutual antagonism (the nuns on roller-skates, known as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, organised a ‘puke-in’ when Falwell provocatively visited San Francisco with a battery of New Right personalities on the eve of the 1984 Democratic Convention) as the way in which both have been forced for different reasons to engage in strategies of accommodation. Castro came to terms with the outside world mainly as a result of Aids. An initial refusal to face the fact that anonymous ‘high-risk’ sex in Castro’s celebrated bath-houses had greatly facilitated the spread of Aids gave way to a collective decision to acquiesce in their closure. FitzGerald documents this transition, made much more painful by the assassination of Castro’s outstanding political personality, Harvey Milk. She vindicates the refusal of the City’s chief medical officer to close the baths under public pressure before the gay community had taken the decision for itself, knowing that high-risk sex would merely be driven elsewhere. While some San Francisco gay activists still insist on the desirability of anonymous sex, because it allows ‘total liberation’ by divorcing sex from emotions, the Castro community now offers several exemplary models of self-help in dealing with PWAs (persons with Aids). Politically, the community has also come of age: in a recent election, Harry Brit, Milk’s successor as the gay representative at City Hall, was defeated by a woman candidate, Norma Polisario, because for the first time since Milk’s campaign in the Seventies the gay and lesbian communities had ceased to vote en bloc. Homosexuality there is returning to where it belongs in civil society – not to the ‘closet’, but to the sphere of the private and personal.

Falwell’s accommodation with the world has been made in a more typically American way – via capitalism, as befits a leading ideologist of the Right. His Old-Time Gospel Hour and associated religious money-spinners raised an estimated $100 million in 1986. Now that he has acquired control over the ministry of the disgraced Jimmy and Tammy Bakker, whose Praise the Lord (PTL) network, with its associated Heritage Theme Park in South Carolina, earned $126 million in 1986, his income will be larger still. To ensure that the funds which keep him at the top of the televangelist league continue to roll in, Falwell, like his predecessor Billy Graham, has had to dilute the fundamentalist message in favour of more traditionally conservative positions. FitzGerald traces the first of these shifts to the 1980 election campaign, when Falwell’s Moral Majority backed Ronald Reagan. This decision to enter the politics of ‘the world’ represented a break with the Southern Baptist tradition of separatism to which Falwell originally laid claim. In 1965 he was preaching the traditional doctrine that there is no political agenda for salvation:

As far as the relationship of the church to the world, it can be expressed as simply as the three words which Paul gave to Timothy – ‘Preach the Word.’ We have a message of redeeming grace through a crucified and risen Lord. This message is designed to go right to the heart of man and there meet his deep spiritual need. Nowhere are we commissioned to reform the externals. We are not told to wage war against bootleggers, liquor stores, gamblers, murderers, prostitutes, racketeers, prejudiced persons or institutions, or any other existing evil as such. Our ministry is not reformation but transformation.

By 1980 Falwell had repudiated this sermon as false prophecy, vowing to start a campaign of civil disobedience if Congress voted to draft women into the Armed Forces.

The politicisation of fundamentalism, as FitzGerald points out, is not entirely new: in the Twenties pastors not only preached against the liberal Social Gospel but indulged in xenophobic attacks on Bolshevism, the League of Nations and ‘garlic-eating immigrants’. The recent, more radical departure from the separatist tradition, however, occurred in response to the Civil Rights movement of the Sixties, when liberal preachers followed Martin Luther King’s use of religious vocabulary to challenge the status quo: the success of the movement demonstrated to conservatives like Falwell that preachers could be politically effective. Intelligently, the preachers of the New Right saw that they would get nowhere by demanding the restoration of the status quo ante: instead, they shifted their target to the public school system, where integration was actually happening. Although Falwell has a few token blacks in his church and its affiliated Liberty Baptist schools and colleges, the congregation remains more than 90 per cent white and ‘with an unwritten law against inter-racial dating, white parents can still see the schools and colleges as alternatives to the fully integrated public schools.’ As well as voting, as it were, with their children’s feet, fundamentalists of the new, economically self-confident South assault the public schools educationally, attacking them for the alleged dissemination of ‘secular humanism’, a crypto-atheistic ideology which, they maintain, is being indoctrinated into American children behind the constitutional ‘wall of separation’ dividing church and state. While this campaign has its farcical side (for example, in the removal of books by Hawthorne and Hemingway from school curricula), the consequences are likely to be ambiguous from Falwell’s point of view. The secularisation of church culture is as probable an outcome as a constitutionally threatening Christianisation of the state.

Falwell’s role in this transformation has been relatively benign, based more on opportunism than fire-breathing evangelical zeal. In FitzGerald’s account he emerges as an amiable Elmer Gantry, a former college prankster with a fondness for sport whose pulpit talents led him to make a ‘career decision’ to become a preacher. He is less charismatic (both sociologically and theologically) than his principal rivals, the now-disgraced Bakkers and the sweating Southern pentacostalist Jimmy Swaggart, but his jovial and down-to-earth avuncular manner makes him liked by those who know him. His targets are safely distant and generalised: anonymous liberal theologians, whose work is Satan’s, but never local liberal churches or ministers; drink and pornography, but not the sale of drink in Lynchburg supermarkets or the plant of Meredith Burda, publishers of Penthouse magazine. Falwell’s skeletons, so far as is known, lie in the financial rather than the sexual part of the cupboard. (Emotionally-charged Pentecostalists like Bakker are no doubt more prone to sexual temptation than textual nit-pickers like Falwell.) It may seem ironic that Falwell, who so mismanaged his own church’s financial affairs that they had to be taken out of his hands, should now be presiding over the troubled affairs of PTL – an organisation which could be forced into bankruptcy if a tax decision goes against it – but maybe Falwell was right when he told the staff of PTL after his take-over: ‘God led us to assume this responsibility at this hour.’ God moves mysteriously, especially when it comes to money.

For the outside world, money and sex were the main ingredients of the extraordinary commune in Oregon created by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the guru famous for his collection of Rolls-Royces and Beautiful People. Rajneesh was in many respects a 20th-century version of Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. What Smith created out of folk magic, popular romances, Bible-reading and Freemasonry Rajneesh achieved with a blend of Eastern mysticism and the psychotherapy of the Human Potential movement. A teacher of philosophy turned guru, he set up an ashram in Poona which became a magnet for Westerners on the spiritual tourist routes. His discourse, delivered in fluent, if imperfect English, was highly accessible, his teaching was free from asceticism, that boulder which usually faces Occidentals treading the mystic path. He was ‘an Enlightened Master who could quote Heidegger and Sartre, who furthermore believed in technology, capitalism and sex’. The move from Poona, where group psycho-sex-therapy, drug scandals and unpaid taxes brought the unwelcome attentions of the Indian Government, enabled him to shed all but a select few of his Indian followers. Only Westerners, and affluent ones at that, were ripe for Enlightenment. Indians, still emerging from under-development, were too concerned with material things: ‘If you came face to face with God,’ Rajneesh used to tell them, ‘you’d ask him for a Chevrolet.’

Installed at a 640,000 acre ranch in Oregon, the Rajneeshee worked manically to create their version of the New Jerusalem. Therapies (‘Rajneesh Re-balancing’ cost $1300 a whack) and spiritual exercises took second place to irrigation, construction and planting. The PhDs and psychologists who made up a high proportion of the ‘neo-sannyasin’ found themselves joyously driving dump-trucks and bulldozers. In the absence of a formal hierarchy, an ‘atmosphere of good-humoured chaos’ prevailed. A remarkable amount was, in fact, achieved. Acres of wheat, vegetables and fruit-trees were planted. A mall complete with boutiques and a restaurant was built, as was an impressively comfortable hotel and a soaring crematorium with a polished steel chimney that looked like something out of a James Bond film set. While the faithful ‘worshipped’ Rajneesh in this highly practical manner, the guru himself ‘withdrew’ into silence. The ranch’s day-to-day management was entrusted to Ma Anand Sheela, his Indian secretary, and her cronies. Sheela and the ‘Moms’ gradually developed a Stalinist style of government: people who crossed them were condemned to the most menial tasks, forced out of the commune or confined in the special canyon reserved for Aids victims. The development of this paranoid and dictatorial regime was not simply brought about by the effects of the ‘cult’ on the people at the ranch, but was mainly a function of increasingly disastrous relations with the outside world.

Like the Mormons in Missouri and later Illinois, the Rajneeshee found themselves in growing conflict with the rest of society. Their clannishness invited hostility, even before genuine political questions arose. Where the Mormons faced rifles and burnings, the Rajneeshee war was fought with writs and injunctions. Their right to incorporate a municipality on the ranch was challenged by local ranchers and environmentalists. While the issue was being tested in the courts, the Rajneeshee continued to build, to ‘create facts’. They engaged in elaborate plots, contemplated, for instance, mass food poisoning of the population of a nearby town, and the busing-in of destitute people, in order to fix the county elections. These offences, and others committed inside the ranch, finally forced the guru to come out of his ‘silence’. Sheela and her coterie, seeing that the game was up, escaped to Germany with some of the organisation’s funds. But once the guru had agreed to co-operate with the FBI she was extradited, charged and eventually sentenced for a string of crimes, including attempted murder. The guru himself, whose claimed ignorance convinced no one outside his community, was then himself arrested while trying to escape, and departed after pleading guilty to charges of conspiring to evade the US immigration laws.

The Rajneesh commune, which had consumed the time and energy of several hundred exceptionally motivated and highly educated people, along with an investment of some $250 million, was, at least in the material sense, a disastrous failure: an object lesson in how not to build the Kingdom. Some of the Rajneeshee rationalised the defeat by claiming that the guru had meant it that way all along, in order to teach them that Enlightenment is not attained by material means. But this story of failure, which FitzGerald relates with commendable impartiality, succumbing neither to the charms of the Rajneeshee nor to the indignation of their opponents, throws into relief the relative successes of Castro and Liberty Baptist in coming to terms with the realities of American life.

The remaining subject in FitzGerald’s study, Sun City, a retirement community in Florida, is dealt with rather more briefly and, in the overall scheme of the book, less satisfactorily. A private development, it is typical of the Sunbelt areas, including Florida and Southern California, where a growing number of Americans are spending their declining years. Its citizens are mostly retired professionals, white, Protestant and middle-class. They are theologically liberal, but politically conservative. They are pilgrims ‘who have crossed the ocean to take up a new life’: but they are not puritans – they do not regard their work as socially useful. Far from being descendants of the Holy Commonwealth, they are children of the frontier: ‘Like President Reagan they imagine cowboys and live in a world of country clubs ... They live in a town without any history on the edge of a social frontier, inventing a world for themselves.’

FitzGerald’s descriptions of Sun City and its inhabitants are acute, but their world does not spring to life as vividly as do those of her other subjects. Perhaps Sun Citizens are too bland, homogeneous and average-looking for her journalistic eye, trained to observe the bizarre, the abnormal and atypical. Nor does her analysis fit so comfortably within the overall thesis of starting the world from scratch. Indeed, it serves to point up the inadequacies of that thesis as a unifying theme. The development of age-segregated housing belongs to what Christopher Lasch, a more bitter but sometimes more trenchant commentator than FitzGerald, calls the ‘culture of narcissism’ – a concept that is curiously absent from FitzGerald’s vocabulary. Like the passengers on the Mayflower and Arabella, the denizens of Sun City are refugees from a world that does not want to know them. The marginalisation of the old, which encourages them to congregate in separate communities or enclaves, like other peer-groups in American society, suggests a world which, in Lasch’s view, ‘has lost interest in the future’, in its own posterity.