When I first came to America, people would ask me why my native country couldn’t get along with its neighbor. After all, memories of India’s three wars with Pakistan were still fresh in American minds then. I would try to explain a millennium of history, but my audience would soon lose interest, saying instead, “Well, what’s the big deal about religion anyway; Hinduism, Islam, they are all the same, right?”
I wanted to ask them, “How do you explain the abundance of churches around the Berkeley campus then?”
“Haven’t you heard of the missionaries in Africa who persecuted the natives until they converted to Christianity?” I wanted to say.
But looking askance at people’s hypocrisy, even among the elite in Berkeley, where I was then a student, I would shut up.
That summer—my first in America—I drove across the country with a Jewish friend. I got a lesson in geography, history, and civics along the way. What I discovered was that Berkeley was an anomaly; that elsewhere in this country people eyed me as if I was a native from the reservation, avoiding addressing me directly.
In Georgia, another surprise awaited me. My relative, who was studying at Georgia Tech, experienced overt racism at the university, so much so that the student lounge in his department was only used by white students. The campus had few non-white students then, and the only people he could make friends with were Southern Baptists out to recruit pagans.
I remember vividly a Sunday morning when two white men and two white women arrived at his studio apartment near campus to escort us to an outing. Before I had a chance to protest, I was huddled into the front pew of a brick church, dressed in a fine sari, facing a pale priest clad in scarlet robes. The reverend looked us straight in the eyes that morning, and spoke of “foreign guests” he hoped to enlighten with Christ’s message.
I have not felt more embarrassed in my entire life. Afterwards, the congregation posed for pictures, marveling at my gold-bordered sari, my red kunku, my glittering earrings.
That was my first taste of American Christian fundamentalism. The Southern Baptists, it turned out, were innocuous compared with their mutations to follow; like Billy Graham and the evangelists, Newt Gingrich and his Family Values crusaders, the Christian Coalition, and now George Bush’s Faith-based Initiative.
We are told today that it was the religious fundamentalists and their passion over issues like creationism, abortion, and gay marriage that defeated Kerry.
So I want to ask all Americans a question: What is the difference between your fundamentalists and ours? What is the difference between a Christian zealot who fights over the ownership of a woman’s uterus and an Islamic fundamentalist who fights over his land in the Gaza? The way I see it, at least the Palestinian in the Gaza is fighting for something far more crucial, namely the very survival of his people who have been relegated to the confines of a concentration camp called a refugee settlement. At least the insurgents in Kashmir are fighting over a magical valley where they have lived for hundreds of years. At least the Taliban, born in a land ravaged by Russians and Americans, are incited by a passion for a lost culture.
On the other hand, it is hard to understand the passion of a Budweiser-swilling, Walmart-shopping Joe Blow, who argues that the world was created in seven days just because some ignoramus dressed in a robe tells him so from the pulpit.
Perhaps human beings need something to be passionate about, be it the rites of marriage or a piece of land. But what I don’t understand is why Americans, elite or otherwise, fail to understand the religious fundamentalism of a Muslim or a Jew or a Hindu or a Sikh, while practicing it themselves. It seems to me a classic case of “Do as I say, not as I do.”
Half a century after my first visit there, I was back in the Bible belt recently, to attend a convention in Nashville, Tenn. Flicking the channels on television the first evening, I found what I thought was a PBS documentary. My jet-lagged brain took a few minutes to realize that this was no PBS, but a Christian fundamentalist program discussing the evil effects of the Kinsey sex studies, complete with made-up facts. There were in fact four evangelical channels and not much else on television, I soon discovered, and the city’s one attraction was the Andrew Jackson Plantation where visitors were told only about the seventh president’s devotion to his wife and her guitar, but not of his removal of “savage” Indians to the west of the Mississippi, causing a “Trail of Tears.” At the nearby Opry, one white musician after another played the banjo, while not a single African American appeared in the line-up, even though the instrument originally came from Africa, and was introduced to America by slaves.
It dawned on me then that Christian fundamentalism had its roots in greed, hunger for power, and cruelty towards those who are deemed “different,” and I experienced once again the panic I have felt ever since Nov. 2.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.