Part IV in a series on Vision Forum's History of America Mega-Conference
Part I: First Impressions
Part II: Doug Phillips on God in History
Part III: "Religious Liberalism" and Those Magnificent Mathers
Part IV: Kevin Swanson Is Tired of Losing
Part V: Messiah States and Mega-Houses
Part VI: Doug Phillips Rages Against the 20th Century
Part VII: Christian Vikings, Godly Explorers, and Strange Bacon
Part VIII: Closing Thoughts
After celebrating July 4th, I returned to the History of America Mega-Conference on July 5th to observe more workshops. On Friday morning Kevin Swanson presented a workshop entitled "Why 19th Century Literature Was at War with God". Swanson, host of Generations Radio, has a long history of eccentric comments documented by Right Wing Watch, and he was no different in person. I'm not sure what troubled me more: Swanson's acidic tone, or the hyperbolic content of his talk. His seething hatred for The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and other 19th century writers was both irrational and unsettling.
Swanson began his talk by lamenting that America is not the Christian nation it supposedly once was and is not doing as well as it had in the past. The United States is breaking down, he claimed, because the Western world is slowly "apostatizing" as families and civilizations disintegrate.
Swanson reserved special rancor for liberal professors. Citing Ken Ham's 2011 book Already Compromised, he told listeners that liberal arts professors in Christian colleges are highly likely to believe in evolution because of their liberal leanings. Apostasy always begins in the liberal arts departments of Christian colleges, Swanson insisted, adding that many liberal arts colleges are "corruptible" because of their very foundations. Harvard and Princeton have already been "compromised", and many professors at Wheaton College voted for Obama, Swanson said with regret.
Swanson further caricatured liberal arts studies with bombastic words. He sneered at liberal arts departments for their admiration of Karl Marx, whom he called a "Satanist" and "atheist" with an wrong-headed epistemology and a flawed view of history. Swanson also looked askance at liberal professors for their love of Harry Potter books and the gay Dumbledore character. Society is locked in a battle between worldviews, one with battle lines laid out in liberal arts departments where the next generation is receiving its education, he said.
"I am tired of losing!" Swanson shouted. "Is anyone else tired of losing?" The audience applauded.
Swanson proceeded to rant disjointedly against Catholics, LGBTQ persons, and other people he blamed for "apostasy". The Roman Catholic church represents so much "apostasy" from the Christian faith is because of its liberal arts heritage, starting with Thomas Aquinas, he claimed. He wondered aloud how America went from the Christian primers of its early history to children's books such as Heather Has Two Mommies.
Swanson seemed baffled that America has allegedly come to lead the "Neronic* agenda", his term for the LGBTQ equality movement. Even "pagan" leaders in Africa were disgusted by the "hatred toward God" expressed by President Obama's support for same-sex marriage.
The root of the present situation, Swanson posited, is that powerful intellectual men, "many of whom were possessed by the Devil himself", introduced dubious ideas into universities. Swanson called these men nephilim (a reference to human-angel hybrids in Genesis 6:4 and Numbers 13:33) because they led to the destruction of the world through the Great Flood in the Bible, just as they are destroying society today.
Feverishly, Swanson launched a polemic against Thomas Aquinas. In Summa Theologica, Swanson explained, Aquinas separated sacred and philosophical knowledge, with philosophical knowledge based on human reason. This division of knowledge gives man the ability to "think autonomously" apart from God, which Swanson blasted as Aquinas' greatest error. Over a span of 400 years, thinkers such as Locke and Descartes celebrated philosophical knowledge and the supremacy of the human mind, which Swanson branded as toxic to faith.
In the 1700s and 1800s, tension between the Bible and classical writings -- the beginnings of "apostasy" -- could be found in the writings of the Founders, Swanson asserted. By the turn of the 19th century, most Americans rejected the idea that God holds authority over human actions, Swanson claimed. Such was the idea undergirding 19th century "cults" that rejected the idea of the Trinity and embraced Arianism, he insisted.
Swanson was furious that in today's world, science says that the universe is billions of years old, parents are discouraged from spanking children, and the Bible is being rejected because it doesn't jive with humanism. Ethics, philosophy, and science have been divorced from the Bible, he lamented.
Swanson pointed to Emersonian Transcendentalism as a powerful influence on 19th century American religion. Emerson's aunt raised Emerson in the Hindu religion, Swanson claimed, describing Emerson as a pacifist who encouraged others to follow their hearts and make it up as they go along. Swanson further caricatured Transcendentalism as a system in which man allegedly defines his own ethics as he goes along and creates his own reality.
Swanson was especially livid over the popularity of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter in high school and college literature classes. He accused Hawthorne of hating his Christian heritage and dying a nihilist who allegedly saw no purpose in life. He further blasted Hawthorne for allegedly attending seances, marrying into one of the worst "progressive" families of his era, and having ties to Horace Mann, a supporter of public schools. Hawthorne allegedly mocked Christianity in his writings, referring to Cotton Mather as a devil. Finally, Swanson accused Hawthorne of allegedly doing enormous damage to America's Christian heritage with his writings. Events such as the History of America Mega-Conference have such small attendance because people have read Hawthorne and become corrupted.
And here's where things get ... weird.
Swanson believed that Hawthorne's sister was "demon possessed" and sought to see Hawthorne's children possessed as well. He claimed that an unearthly force moved Hawthorne's hand as he wrote The Scarlet Letter, a story "forged in Hell". Outrageously, he claimed that both Hawthorne and Herman Melville admitted to being demon possessed (!?).
Swanson shuddered at the alleged power of The Scarlet Letter, warning listeners not to underestimate the ways that its "Satanic effects" can change nations. Attacking the novel as "stupid" and a "farce", Swanson claimed that The Scarlet Letter represents two gospels. The gospel of Dimmesdale, he claimed, preaches repentance without faith in Christ, as Dimmesdale finds self-atonement rather than substitutional atonement for his adultery. The gospel of Hester, on the other hand, is one of love divorced from law, thus rendering love meaningless, he said.
Swanson's wrath toward the fictional Hester was brutal. He called Hester a "prophetess" of adultery in a later age, when high divorce rates, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock births would surge. Swanson also accused Hester of being the predecessor of Margaret Sanger, Margaret Mead, Gloria Steinem, and other feminists with "unyielding and rebellious hearts". Hester, in short, was the harbinger of a "feminist world" in which the family is crumbling.
As the workshop churned on, Swanson's gave voice to more visceral hatred of The Scarlet Letter. The moral of the novel, he insisted, was that witchcraft, homosexuality, incest, and feminism are better than Christianity. The Bible commands the death penalty for adultery, but Hawthorne and today's average Christians loathe the death penalty.
Wait a minute. Did I just hear Swanson defend capital punishment for adultery? I thought. The audience sat rapt, apparently unfazed by Swanson's rant. Are you people okay with this? Hello!?
Swanson observed that many Christians are embarrassed by what the Bible commands regarding adultery, homosexuality, and witchcraft. Such Christians love Jesus but hate his law, he said, and thus American religion is solidly anti-Biblical law.
Swanson lobbed similarly hateful accusations at Mark Twain, stunned that so many homeschooling families have Twain's books in their homes. According to Swanson, Twain was an "apostate", communist, atheist man who hated the Biblical God and was possibly possessed by Satan (!?). As proof of this, Swanson said that Twain allegedly acknowledged he was writing letters from Satan himself when he composed Letters from the Earth. Twain also encouraged women to commit adultery, Swanson asserted with no small amount of disgust.
Predictably, Swanson blasted Huckleberry Finn, criticizing the eponymous main character for not fearing God and mocking the notion of divine judgment. The novel, he explained, was about slavery, with Huckleberry Finn choosing to help his enslaved friend at the risk of his eternal soul. Rather than praise Finn's moral courage, Swanson launched into a diatribe about vast numbers of Americans being "enslaved to the welfare state" today. He branded "Muslim" slavery, in which people are kidnapped and sold, as evil, but said that he wished he had time to discuss a Biblical view of slavery.
Huh? I thought. Slavery is wrong, no matter who practices it. Full stop. I don't care if there's a "Biblical" form of slavery. It's wicked. What is wrong with this man?
"Do not read the heathen stories to your children," Swanson warned the audience. He urged listeners to teach their children the Bible first, instead of giving them a "Greek" education. "Give them the Bible! Let them know the book of Deuteronomy better than they know The Scarlet Letter," he demanded, to which the room erupted in applause.
Deuteronomy? I fumed. You mean the Deuteronomy brimming with bloodshed and genocide? The Deuteronomy with guidelines for owning slaves? The Deuteronomy that allows warriors to take conquered women as sexual booty? The Deuteronomy that instructs communities to stone rape victims and women who don't bleed on their wedding nights? No, Kev, I'm NOT teaching THAT to a child.
Swanson concluded by encouraging listeners to give their children a "war of the worldviews", to give them Biblical context for supposedly ungodly classics they might read. A 14 year-old is not ready for Plato and Aristotle, he claimed; rather, parents should give their children Christian ideas and writers first, then expose them to "heathen" works in their late teens. That way, children will understand how evil such "heathen" ideas are.
In short, Swanson was advocating a closed information system for homeschooled children, in which parents shield their offspring from non-Christian ideas until they approach adulthood. In my opinion, this approach could only produce children who are utterly disconnected from their cultural heritage, from mainstream America. When such isolated children reach adulthood and leave their bubble, how will they navigate American culture if so many important ideas have been either demonized in their eyes or left out of their education altogether?
Then again, maybe I should be more optimistic. In an age of book stores, libraries, and the internet, young people are likely to encounter ideas outside of their upbringing and read books such as The Scarlet Letter. Swanson and his ilk may find that creating a closed information system for children will be harder than they imagined.
Later, as I recuperated from the workshop in a nearby pub, I tried to digest what I'd just heard. Demon possessed authors? Capital punishment for adultery? Biblical slavery? A closed information system meant to stifle the minds of children? This is sick, I thought. This. Is. Madness.
Swanson's feverish words, and the audience's approval, impressed upon me a disturbing truth: Christian Reconstructionism and superstitious hysteria are alive and well in small corners of our culture. People like Swanson earnestly embrace a fundamentalist worldview, and have every intention of inflicting it on the next generation of homeschooled children.
Stay tuned for more talks from Vision Forum's History of America Mega-Conference!
* A reference to the Roman emperor Nero.