Bill Maher continues his weekly Christine O'Donnell video clip releases, with this week's showing the Republican Senate candidate claiming to have explored becoming a Hare Krishna.
"I was dabbling into every other kind of religion before I became a Christian," O'Donnell says:
I was dabbling in witchcraft, I've dabbled in Buddhism. I would have become a Hare Krishna but I didn't want to become a vegetarian. And that is honestly the reason why — because I'm Italian, I love meatballs!
To understand this bizarre, and untrue, statement, you have to understand the peculiar place that Hare Krishnas hold in the rhetoric of America's evangelical Christian subculture. "Hare Krishna" doesn't refer, specifically or literally, to the belief system that bears this name. It's a shorthand signifier representing something like "every other possible alternative that anyone could imagine."
As with her claim to have "dabbled into" a Warnke-esque form of Satanism, O'Donnell is here embellishing her "personal testimony" in an attempt to make it seem more compelling, more exciting and more authoritative. This kind of runaway exaggeration is encouraged in the evangelical subculture by giving such dramatic testimonies a more enthusiastic response than is generally provided to the more honest and accurate, but blander, sort of testimony that begins, "I've been attending this church my whole life …"
But these false embellishments aren't only intended to provide drama. More perniciously, this sort of artificially enhanced testimony is also encouraged as a debate tactic — especially in "witnessing," when one is attempting to argue someone into conversion.
Imagine you're at your local Ford dealer shopping for a new car. You've expressed some interest, but you're also looking at the Toyotas and the Hondas.
"Trust me," the dealer says. "I've driven them all. I've dabbled in every make and model there is and I know all there is to know about all of them, so trust me when I tell you that only the Fords are any good."
That is what this "Hare Krishna" business from O'Donnell is about. It's a tactic for discounting and dismissing the competition. She doesn't want to say that her evangelical faith is all she's ever known because she worries that might leave her vulnerable to the accusation that she simply doesn't know any different or any better. So she tries to head this off by making the implausible sweeping claim that she's test-driven them all — that she's experimented with every religion and found her own faith to be the best and only satisfactory alternative.
She hasn't really done so, of course, as evidenced by her continuing lack of understanding of what those other faiths actually believe. Plus she simply hasn't had time to carry out such a comprehensive spiritual journey. Her claim might be slightly more plausible coming from an older person — a late-in-life convert after decades of a Razor's Edge-style quest. But this claim is patently ridiculous coming from O'Donnell, who has been a vocally earnest evangelical since high school.
This claim of supposedly comprehensive experience also doesn't really carry the authoritative weight that those making it seem to think it does. What is intended to come across as experienced, expert and worldly wise instead just seems indicative of spiritual inconstancy, inconsistency and incontinence. Trusting such a person for religious advice would be like going to Larry King for marriage counseling. Who would you rather hear from for advice about quitting smoking: Someone who quit only once, 30 years ago? Or someone who had quit dozens of times in the past week?
Those who make this kind of argument imagine that they're improving their own religious testimony — making it both more exciting and more authoritative. But the truth is that it diminishes whatever power their own story might have had. A false testimony lacks conviction and honesty — the very things that make anyone's own story compelling. And it betrays a lack of confidence — a lack of faith — that one's actual beliefs honestly conveyed can withstand testing.
The false claim of comprehensive knowledge of every alternative is unbelievable because it is inherently duplicitous. It's like saying, "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I thoroughly examined both of them so you must defer to me as an expert on all possible paths." That's obviously not true. Sorry, you could not travel both and be one traveler. To claim to have done so is to claim to have been more than one traveler — the very definition of duplicity.
Primarily, though, this line of disingenuous apologetics is not designed for external audiences. It can't and doesn't work for persuading others to choose the path you have chosen. But it does almost work — kind of, sort of, if you're willing to play along without thinking too hard — for internal reassurance. This is true of much of what evangelicals like to call "apologetics" — it's for retention, not recruitment. It's not meant to bring others in the door, but to keep those already inside from heading to the exits.The O'Donnell video shows how painfully sad this whole subcultural self-reassurance seems when someone attempts to apply it to persuade others. O'Donnell gives the appearance of having said exactly this sort of thing before, making exactly these same claims internally, in the context of a hermetically homogeneous subcultural setting in which everyone knew the ritual responses and agreed to play along. "Yes, yes," they would nod, urging her to continue. "We are right and they are wrong and we know this is certain because we've tried all the alternatives, haven't we? We've dabbled and therefore we know that everything else can be ignored."
Once again in this video we see the desperate panic setting in as O'Donnell is confronted with the skepticism of an audience that doesn't follow the liturgical script of reassuring self-deception. "Everybody laughed and amen-ed when the guest speaker made that same exact Hare Krishna and meatballs joke at church — why didn't Bill get the joke? Why is he laughing at me instead of at the Hare Krishnas with their bald heads and robes and stuff?"
Why Hare Krishnas? Why do they always seem to be singled out as the punchline and punching bag in these kind of embellished testimonies? I suppose it's because of their flamboyant religious expression and exotic dress. Plus they're kind of a fringe group, small enough in number that they make an easy target.
For another example of this Hare-Krishna mockery as a form of ritual self-reassurance, let's look at the lyrics to an old Imperials song that was popular back in the 1980s, when both Christine O'Donnell and I would have heard it in our evangelical Christian youth groups.
These Imperials had nothing to do with Little Anthony or "Tears on My Pillow." They were an old Southern Gospel vocal group who had some crossover pop success in the emerging "contemporary Christian music" industry. One such success was a catchy, if aggressively rude, ditty called "Old Buddha." Here's the first verse and the chorus:
Well, Old Buddha was a man and I'm sure that he meant well
But I pray for his disciples lest they wind up in hell
And I'm sure that old Mohammed thought he knew the way
But it won't be Hare Krishna w
e stand before on The Judgment Day.
No, it won't be old Buddha that&
#39;s sitting on the throne
And it won't be old Mohammed that's calling us Home
And it won't be Hare Krishna that plays that trumpet tune
And we're going to see The Son not Reverend Moon!
It's fairly clear that this song was not intended as a way to persuade Buddhists or Muslims to give Christianity a respectful hearing. You'd be foolish to attempt to employ such mockery as a form of outreach. That's not really what it was written for. It was written for internal use — for reassurance and retention.
The triumphalism on display in that song — and in O'Donnell's exaggerated claim to have explored and rejected every possible alternative — is familiar to those of us reading the Left Behind series. The central theme of "one day, they'll see — we're right and they're wrong" is exactly the same as in Tim LaHaye's vindictive victory dance of a story.
This emphasis on an eschatological "I told you so" is at least two steps removed from a healthy spirituality. Two huge steps. Two continents.
First, it's otherworldly, putting the focus on the afterlife rather than this one. We live here, in this life and this world. A faith that recommends itself only due to some promise of reward in another life and another world can't be very fulfilling here and now. Hope is necessary and, as all religions agree, that requires a component of eschatological hope because, as Reinhold Niebuhr said, "nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime." But if hope is exclusively eschatological, we are left hopeless in this life.
A healthy faith has to have something more to it than the promise of pie in the sky when you die. If that's all your faith offers you, then you're bound to lash out at people like the Hare Krishnas because — whatever it is they believe and not matter how kooky they may seem to outsiders — their faith gives them a reason to dance here and now.
But this triumphalism also doesn't seem to offer much of a reward even in the next life. It's not anticipating the glory of heaven, merely the bitter pleasure of seeing others get their comeuppance. It's a vision of heaven as a place of eternal schadenfreude.
When you're forced to describe heaven using untranslatable German words, then something has gone very wrong with your spiritual weltanschauung.
It's no wonder that such a faith requires constant reassurance via songs and stories mocking the fate of outsiders and through disingenuous testimonies claiming to have explored and ruled out every other possible option.
Such a fragile faith cannot withstand the give-and-take of Mars Hill. It might allow its adherents to go there and speak, but not, as Paul did, to go there and listen.