Over at the ever interesting Revealer, Gregory Grieve expands on an earlier post about "moral values" as a Barthian myth.
category of “moral values” was rhetorically powerful because it
operated as an empty signifier, similar to Barthes’ notion of "myth,"
onto which people are projecting their conceptions. As Barthes writes
in "Myth Today":
"The signifier presents itself in an ambiguous way: It is at the same
time meaning and form, full on one side and empty on the other."
What is it that gives this empty form authority? “Moral values” are
empowered by "scripturalism," a pattern of mediation that represents
texts as ahistorical and uses them to legitimize a specific regime of
practices and beliefs. Scripturalism rests upon a transcendental
understanding of religious texts. Scripturalism differentiates itself
from other forms of understanding those religious texts by accusing
them of idolatry—the worship of material human constructions.
He goes on to define scriptualism in relation to his own area of specialty, South East Asian religious movements, and notes that it is "an
idolized notion of scripture that by denying the materiality and
history of the text, authorizes a vision of Christianity that is far
Far from being a neutral taxonomy,
scripturalism tends to structure knowledge so as to benefit a elite,
educated, conservative worldview. It tends to privilege the linguistic,
the discursive, and the cognitized over the visceral and tacit. For
instance, in South Asian religions, scripturalism has forced local
traditions into a "world religion’s" echo of Christian theology. While
in the 19th century the scripturalism may have been solely a Western
concern, by the 20th century scripturalism had become one of the most
powerful rhetorical tropes of Hindutva fundamentalist political groups
such as India’s religious nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
In another Revealer post Omri Elisha proposes a different yet complimentary way of understanding the rhetorical force of evangelical Christianity. If Grieves is interested in the broad discursive level Elisha focuses on the intimate language of believers:
not an evangelical, but I study them as an ethnographer. I listen to
the desires, fears, and ambitions of white, conservative evangelicals
in the so-called red state of Tennessee. I’ve come to know the
evangelicals who are the focus of my research very well, and I’ve
learned to anticipate their sentiments the way that one anticipates the
reactions of a close friend. If nothing else, I can speculate on a
particular structure of feeling that made many American evangelicals
rally their support and their blessings behind the President because,
rather than despite, the fact that his life before September 11, 2001,
seemed to contain so little that would have prepared him for what was
In a beautifully written piece Elisha argues that evangelicals see Bush not as a Messianic harbinger of Armageddon but as a reluctant Queen Esther, "called for a time such as this" as Laura Bush has described her husband in a widely circulated letter to evangelicals and as Esther is described in the Old Testament. Just as Michael Moore has done in a different context, Elisha tries to envision what Bush might
have been thinking while he sat in the classroom looking bewildered for seven minutes after learning that a second plane struck the Twin
What remains significant is how conservative evangelicals read that
moment, and every presidential moment since then. If we come at this
from a perspective that they might take, it follows that evangelicals
did not see a bewildered politician, a man in over his head, stymied by
his own inexperience and geo-political entanglements. Rather they saw
the reluctant Queen Esther struggling to come to terms with the abrupt
realization that she is implicated in a drama much larger than herself.
At that moment, Bush, like Esther, represented the evangelical’s
greatest ambition and anxiety — that one day he/she will be called
upon to surrender him/herself to an irreversible state of being where
personal faith and historical destiny become one and the same. The
higher the stakes, the tougher the personal challenge. Consequently,
the firmer the resolve to follow through — regardless of obstacles or
substantive realities — the greater the faithfulness.
Elisha links this specific Biblical reading into the broader ways in which the American media dramatize and personalise public life
On September 11 we all watched the towers fall, and those who see the
world through particular kinds of dramaturgical lenses — biblical,
cosmic, or nationalistic — also saw what they believe to be the birth
of an unwitting commander. This may be why so many Bush supporters seem
to care less about his past indiscretions: his substance abuse,
questionable service record, and spotty corporate career, for example.
All of that happened before. I don’t just mean before he was “born
again” — this is about a lot more than washing sins away. I mean
before the whisper in his ear that told him “America is under attack,”
and before everyone else saw it happen.
Three years later, people who support Bush are still waiting to see how
the drama will play itself out. Even those disappointed with his
presidency want to know what happens next, how the story will be
resolved. As for evangelicals, they are clearly deeply invested in the
Bush drama for a host of theological and political reasons. But Bush’s
appeal to evangelicals is tied to a particular structure of feeling,
one that expresses itself through scriptural allegories that evoke
notions of obedience, sacrifice, and piety, and affections of
sentimental affinity, barely distinguishable from that which makes
evangelicals feel spiritually connected to that ancient Persian queen,
the one who knew when “such a time” had come.
It is this set of "sentimental affinities" this "structure of feeling," which evolves through public media portrayals, interpretive communities, sub-cultural practices, conversations and private sense making processes, that makes the broader "scripturalist" discourse resonate so powerfully.