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Evangelical Ziggurats, and The State of Babel after the Fall | Righting America

by Camille Kaminski Lewis

Camille Kaminski Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. She holds a Ph.D. from Indiana University in Rhetorical Studies with a minor in American Studies. Her book, Romancing the Difference: Kenneth Burke, Bob Jones University, and the Rhetoric of Religious Fundamentalism, was a scholarly attempt to stretch the boundaries of both Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical theory on tragedy and comedy as well as stretch conservative evangelical’s separatist frames. (The story of that publication is available at The KB Journal.)  Last year she published an edited volume, White Nationalism and Faith: Statements and Counter-Statements on American Identity (Peter Lang); see here for our interview with Lewis about this book. Finally, her latest manuscript – tentatively entitiled Klandamentalism: America’s Most Dysfunctional Romance – is under consideration for publication.

Painting of the Tower of Babel painted by Pieter Brughel the Elder.
“The Tower of Babel” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1563). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. (Genesis 11:1)

The story of Babel is largely mythological—an origin story to explain linguistic diversity. Like the story of Jonah, the empirical facts are not the point. The point is that we were one, and then we’re confusingly not.

Well, we thought we were one. Our hubris made us think we were one. We thought we all agreed. We didn’t need to listen to our neighbors. They were already with us! Who could be against us? This Tower is so impressive!

And in our unity we thought we could reach perfection. We could transcend the earth. Like Icarus, we could fly to the sun.

But we never could.

Let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. (Genesis 11:7)

The goal to be not-human goaded us to make us even more human. We were confounded.

In a moment completely free of self-reflection, Ken Ham is building his own Tower of Babel to “take aim at Critical Race Theory.” His spokesperson argues that “a large part of CRT is the ungodly idea that we must instruct people to see and judge people based on the melanin level in their skin, which is the opposite of what Scripture teaches.”

With the Ham ziggurat, Critical Race Theory—that academic study intended to foreground the infinite variety of the human experience—gets conflated under a singular and simple “ungodly idea.” For Ham, Babel is not about language at all. It’s about a specific amino acid called “melanin.” It’s not metaphysical. It’s physical. It’s not words. It’s skin.

In this use, Genesis 11 is not a Biblical story that can be applied to our own hubris, including Ham’s. It’s a factual account that only applies to those outside. Genesis 11, then, is not about a unified pride. It’s about diversity. It’s not us. It’s them.

Ironically, Ham the fundamentalist is taking the most liberty with the Text. He’s mangling it for his own specific purpose, building a ziggurat to political oneness, even to whiteness.

Ham doesn’t need to listen to a Critical Race scholar. He doesn’t need to listen to a Biblical scholar. He doesn’t need to listen to anyone outside of his own self. Listening is too vulnerable after all. It leaves you open to change. And change is bad. Oneness is good. Oneness gets you to God.

Rhetoric is concerned with the state of Babel after the Fall. (Burke, Rhetoric of Motives, 23)

In a strange way, we are all facing our own Towers of Babel in the weeks ahead. We may never go to Ham’s ziggurat, but we’re standing at the foot of the man-made tower intended to touch the face of God. We’re wondering what to do. Do we join in or scatter? Do we build our own tower or walk away? Or maybe something else entirely? 

Do we give thanks with our recalcitrantly anti-vaxxed family? The New York Times naively suggests that we can just call them up and ask for their suggestions about how to dine safely: 

Start by calling your unvaccinated family members and soliciting their ideas on how to gather safely.

If we trust their unvaxxed and unmasked idea of safety, we’re walking a few steps up their ziggurat. We’re standing on the same ground that they have paved with counter-factual conspiracies. 

The ziggurats to presumed unity are everywhere. John Hagee’s Texas church hosts a rally with South Carolina pastor Mark Burns leading a “Let’s go Brandon” chant. QAnon doctors tout they are “doing God’s work” by lying about VAERS data. Anti-vaxxers yell around a KN95 mask that your three Moderna shots prove you are a cruel, anti-life advocate. An assault-rifle-waving teenager claims he is the victim while a judge shrugs behind his cookie catalog.

We’re all wringing our hands over the “polarization” in our culture, as if we are nostalgic for never-existed unity. But perhaps like those Babel-builders, that unity just cloaked infinite diversity.

Maybe unity isn’t the goal at all. With unity as our purpose, polarization and “tribalism” are inevitable. Polarization just builds multiple ziggurats—one in Kentucky, one in Colorado Springs, one in Lynchburg, one at Mar-a-lago, one in Greenville, South Carolina too—but a neighborly ambiguity does something else. Is this what Kenneth Burke calls “the characteristic invitation to rhetoric”? When you put “unity” and “division” ambiguously together, so that you don’t know for sure where any one person resides, rhetoric steps in to strategically manage the potential difference. 

This week my student was wrestling with Francis Bacon’s metaphor for rhetoric. Bacon said that dialectic—or the philosophical pursuit of truth—is a fist, and rhetoric is an open hand. The way she talked about it stopped me cold. She said that rhetoric’s open hand presumes that you’re listening to the person on the other end of your hand. It’s adaptive. It’s empathetic. It’s other-focused, but still connected to you. In a sense, rhetoric is anti-ziggurat. It’s even neighborly. 

I’ve chosen the metaphor of a neighborhood here, as a kind of anti-ziggurat system. Towers make terrible communities. They demand adherence and an upward march. There’s little rest or even play. 

But within a neighborhood, good fences—or what psychologists call boundaries—still make good neighbors. Sometimes the property lines need to be scoped out precisely. Sometimes the lines need only be porous. A neighborhood feral cat will still prance through or a puppy will still race over. Their Bermuda grass will still make its way into our Fescue. But when real harm exists—a fire, a fast car, an unpredictable virus—the boundaries between the neighbors are not as important as safety. And we need to sound an alarm for the sake of each other, even if that neighbor doesn’t admit there’s a looming threat.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote here that conservative evangelicals were managing the pandemic by talking like Billy Sunday. That is, we were ignoring the material reality of a virus. We were ignoring the multiplicities of bodies and the irrationality of viruses and their variants in order to protect our singular and metaphysical unity of “love.”

It’s another ziggurat we evangelicals have built. It’s our monument to our own hubris, another attempt to be god-like, another way to caulk over difference for the sake of an illusion. Carl Sandburg dismantled Billy Sunday’s pride. He does it for us too. 

When are you going to quit making the carpenters
build emergency hospitals for women and girls
driven crazy with wrecked nerves
from your goddam gibberish about Jesus –

I put it to you again:
What the hell do you know about Jesus?

Carl Sandburg, “To Billy Sunday”