Bad Religion: The Empire Strikes First

Bad Religion
The Empire Strikes First

If you were head honcho Greg Graffin, you’d be miffed, too. After having popped the question way back in the early days of Reagan (How Could Hell Be Any Worse?), it must grate to see a not-clinically-moronic goon like Bush trump your rhetorical query with all manner of new and interesting (“May you live in interesting times” interesting) answers in real life real-time. If you’ve been yelling at the top of your lungs over the warm winters caused by air pollution, what’s left to say when the ice caps melt and New York is the new Atlantis? What happens to the Doomsday prophets when Doomsday actually comes? (Do they file for unemployment?)

If you’re Graffin, you continue on with the same urgency that you’ve always used (because you didn’t have the foresight of getting speakers that go to 11). Never musically catchy enough to transcend their message, Bad Religion are good enough to make unwieldy but meaningful lyrics compelling. For all the ferocity of their sonic assault, they still rise or fall on the symbiosis of message redeeming music and vice versa. Like Michael Moore, Graffin pushes propaganda. Which is fine and, under the circumstances, necessary. But good propaganda should rally the faithful as well as convert the infidels. Especially now, with Bush’s fundamentalist crackdown on civil rights and preemptive class war strike on the poor, the traditionally liberal wedge of the population — and that definitely includes Bad Religion’s cadre of socially conscious fans — is already itching to beat Bush (again).

Given the times, it’s reasonable that Graffin and Gurewitz should be even more pessimistically “us and them” than usual. And, in theory, I’m glad they finally decided to concentrate on sticking it to hypocritical Christian fundamentalists with all the gusto their name implies. That they do so now shows that they know what’s going on from day to day, that they haven’t become so desensitized by their own 20-plus years of proselytizing that all their visions of apocalypse are now as much knee-jerk reactions as “Los Angeles is Burning”.

Still, despite Graffin and Gurewitz’s intelligence and historical awareness, their artistic vision here suffers from oversimplification. Consistent with the album’s association of religious extremism with war, “Atheist Piece” posits secular rationalism against the dangers of unquestioning faith. From the “bitter cold winds of discontent” (of, presumably, the last century), Graffin declares, “the modern world emerged triumphantly / But now it seems we’ve stalled and it’s time to de-evolve and relive the dark chapters of history.”

Certainly, the World Wars that devastated Europe bred an existentialist crisis (and actual existentialism) that eroded religion. And, certainly, the Christianity versus Islam undertone running through Bush’s speeches (or John Ashcroft’s “Jesus is America’s only king”) (or Condoleezza Rice’s “Those people don’t think like we do”) would have been understandable to a Crusader.

But to argue simple de-evolution ignores the more complex realities. Without dismissing the losses Americans suffered or sacrifices they made, the World Wars caused tremendously more damage in Europe and Asia. Moreover, the Second World War ended with America eagerly taking up the mantle of defending the free world from Godless communists. If the rest of the world experienced an existential crisis in the wake of the Wars, many Americans took the opposite step of extending Manifest Destiny — and all its self-assured religious underpinnings — beyond their own shores.

Before it began, the current disgrace in Iraq was overwhelmingly more popular in America than in any other major country (heck, maybe any country), even England. The rest of the world hadn’t unlearned the lessons of the previous century any more than Americans had unlearned theirs. Rather, each party behaved according to type. After beating the atheist Soviets, America had the power but not the cause; thanks to Al Qaeda, she had pretext for the actual, honest-to-God Crusade the devout always knew we had it in us to fight. Just as Ambrose Bierce defined piracy as “commerce without its folly-swaddles, just as God made it”, attacking Iraq was — after the drawn-out, geographically scattered Cold War — Crusading done Divinely Right: in the Middle East, with real weapons and killing and stuff, against (supposed) Islamic extremists.

Thankfully, the recent overt showing of the (Christian) fanaticism that has always existed in America hasn’t gone unnoticed by the rest of us. If anything, this is — at least in America — the last stand of the Dark Agers. Or the secular rationalists, depending on how you look at it (and what happens in November). But to say that the Dark Agers actually went anywhere between 1945 and now misses the point.

As propaganda, this fails by offering little to convince the five percent who haven’t decided to — but might — vote Kerry. Those undecided will likely have to be convinced with concerns like personal finances and Medicare benefits rather than from ever having the chilling realization that Bush and his gang are thugs and bullies (Bush is the sort of person you can sit down and have a beer with). With so much on the line, it’s understandable Bad Religion should be desperate, offering a too-simplistic vision distilled from actual knowledge (kind of like Bush, but with actual knowledge). But propaganda this extreme and — unlike Moore — humorless will only incite the choir to appear even more frighteningly fanatic to the five-percenters than they already seem. Far be it for me to badmouth an album that badmouths Bush, but anyone willing to give this repeated playings already stands an excellent chance of finding Dubya’s name on a ballot no more tempting than bin Laden’s.