The Perils of a Sentimental Journey

By Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

Marilyn Chandler McEntyreFlannery O’Connor described sentimentality as a form of obscenity. This claim may seem surprising. What could be more harmless than a Hallmark card, smarmy music in the stores at Christmas time, or a stirring rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner”? Even if we resent the manipulation of tear-jerking movies, why get exercised about bad taste?

But some kinds of sentimentality go beyond bad taste, and become both obscene and dangerous. Sentimentality is a powerful political tool. Its power lies in oversimplifications that allow lazy thinkers to rest easy in prefabricated points of view. Sentimentality is a proven cover-up strategy: it masks the ambiguities and complexities that tend to complicate our judgments.

Consider how heavily the “Religious Right” over the past couple of decades have relied upon marketing sentimentalities. “Focusing on the family” and being a “promisekeeper,” may sound appealing, but they uncritically enshrine the modern middle-class white North American nuclear family. The term “traditional family” refers to a family model that is, if anything, an historical anomaly. For most of history the extended family was the norm, in which resources were shared, children passed around, elders cared for, and intergenerational squabbles tolerated. The focus on the sentimental family, in fact, erodes a more inclusive sense of community. This focus is disturbingly reminiscent of the German slogan in the 30’s: “Kinder, Küche, Kirche”—roughly meaning “Children, Fireside, Church.” The message of the Reich was that all would be well if the masses would focus their energies on their families and leave the running of the government, the military, the prisons, and parliament to them. They would take care of the "Fatherland" like a Big Brother. Insularity and paternalism play right into the hands of those who seek to tame critical scrutiny, a prerequisite to functional democracy.

Or consider how a sentimental attachment to the flag, to an abstract civic virtue called “Americanism,” or to myths encoded in nationalistic slogans like “land of the free” and “home of the brave,” and “God bless America” (in its retaliatory violence) work to create and reinforce xenophobia. In times of crisis, those slogans help make it palatable to vilify the “enemy” and accept military campaigns that torture prisoners, kill civilians, demolish homes, destroy infrastructure, and poison soil and water. Uncritical acceptance of official lies is much easier if the officials in question can convince us that they are the God-appointed guardians of all that is good.

The God-appointed part is key. Politics may lend itself to lies, but in this country, where religious and political agendas have been entangled since the days of the Puritans, those lies are much more powerful and effective if they are cloaked in religious language. Indeed, the hijacking of religious language to legitimate American world domination has been one of the most frightening strategies of right-wing extremists over the past decade. They have convinced those who crave protection, strong leadership, and consumer comforts that God is on their side, wherever that side may be located on the shifting sands of the geo-political map.

One of the populations most deeply damaged by sentimentalized religion turned political tool is the faithful believers who seek for God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. When religion dismisses the cries of the poor, the name of the Lord is taken in vain in the truest sense. Jesus’s strongest admonitions were aimed not at sexual sinners, but the wealthy, the powerful and the “religious” leaders whose authority had gone to their heads. The Judaeo-Christian scriptures, the message of Jesus, and the wisdom of all great traditions require soul-searching reinterpretation in every generation. What is most deeply true and reliable is relational rather than formulaic. The law of love must be constantly re-articulated, re-envisioned, and re-enacted.

God is love, and love has a thousand faces. Those of us who believe that the Gospel message is an invitation to stay attuned to the still, small, and mysterious voice of the Spirit that broods over the world and blows where it will, will never trust reductionistic representations of God’s will that discourage intelligent inquiry, dismiss whole classes of humans from humane consideration, legitimize torture, and valorize war, especially modern warfare waged on innocents and on the earth itself. There is no glory in war. It is hell, indeed.

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