Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

How the Republican Party Became a Death Cult (pt. 4, conclusion)

August 31, 2021

            So, just as the Religious Right embraced nuclear conflagration as a good thing and thus rejected diplomatic efforts aimed at avoiding the destruction of the world, so too did 20th century apocalypticism support Republican contempt for climate science.  The Revelation of John describes a situation of famine and inflation of basic food prices, so warnings from Al Gore about future famines if global warming ran unchecked didn’t frighten them.  They welcomed the idea that some sort of food crisis would precipitate the U.N. takeover of world government and worldwide food rationing.  A few million or billion humans dead from starvation is a small price to pay for eternal salvation; and besides, “prophecies” from A Thief in the Night to Left Behind have assured Evangelicals that they won’t experience any of this suffering themselves.  They, the faithful ones, will be caught up to Heaven in an instant, while only those faithless, godless hordes and a few weaker Christians “left behind” to suffer oppression and thus fulfill the Biblical warnings that the faithful would be persecuted will have to endure any of this.  While the original apocalyptic writings were addressed to people already undergoing persecution, today’s milquetoast, middle-class prophecies are meant to reassure the comfortable that they can profit now from ravaging the world’s resources, and later miraculously disappear from history to watch the Tribulations unfold on Earth while they sit as the audience in Heaven, enraptured.

            Evangelicals plan to ride to victory with Death, War and Famine; could you really expect they’d turn down the fourth horseman, Pestilence?  The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the full enervation of the Republican Party by this Evangelical anti-abortion, pro-business apocalypticism.  When Donald J. Trump won the New Hampshire primary in 2016, many Evangelicals were dismayed; he was a rich, pampered, self-indulgent, self-promoting New Yorker, nearly everything they’d always claimed to despise.  But he was endorsed by Jerry Falwell Jr. and promised to appoint anti-choice judges; so just as they had overlooked Falwell Jr.’s sexual and financial excesses because of his successful father and his support of “traditional” values, so too they agreed to first ignore, and later even to glorify what they had once regarded as Trump’s sins and shortcomings in exchange for his furthering their political agenda.  Many of us looked at his career, his public statements, his legal history and the words of his confidants, and concluded that he was temperamentally and intellectually unsuited to high office—or low office, for that matter.  We predicted that he would use the office for his own financial gains and to settle personal grudges, and that he would make foolish decisions while ignoring the “experts” because of his own confidence in his genetic superiority.[1]  We predicted that his racist rhetoric and his racist actions in the past showed that he was incapable of governing a diverse society and unwilling to try.  And for these reasons, we believed he would eventually face a crisis that no amount of smug superiority or “power of positive thinking” could overcome, which would wreck his presidency and the nation.  As Jon Stewart said, even if you don’t like Hillary, the worst you might get with her is a bad president.  The nation has survived that before.  Trump was a whole other level of danger.  But to Evangelicals, the dangers of world war, economic collapse, famine, even pandemic were at worst nothing, and at best harbingers of the Kingdom of God; but abortion (something the Bible doesn’t even treat as a sin) is really terrible, while the promise of White Evangelical cultural dominance was intoxicating. So they laughed off the warnings from “socialists” and embraced a man they had once abhorred:  the money-grubbing, pussy-grabbing, bad-mouthing, threat-breathing braggart, Donald Trump. 

            And behold, all that the nasty socialist liberals warned against has come to pass.    He, his family and their associates used their offices for financial gain, whether it was charging the Secret Service to lodge in Trump Tower and various Trump golf courses to protect him and his family, to using a border crisis to force Qatar to “loan” Jared Kushner millions of dollars, to multiple Cabinet members and others using their official power to throw taxpayer money to businesses they were invested in or to kneecap competition.  Despite promising to assemble a team of experts to advise him, he dispensed with them as rapidly and frequently as he does wives and mistresses, driving many into early retirement so that not only did he not have the benefit of their experience, but future governments wouldn’t either.  His racist rhetoric has repeatedly inspired mass murderers and domestic terrorists, while he affirmed that those who walk shoulder-to-shoulder with Nazis were “very fine people.”  He spent years manufacturing crises and scandals, using one to distract from the other until, inevitably, a crisis came along that he couldn’t just wish away because he wasn’t the sole cause of it in the first place.  As his critics had predicted, he not only failed to deal with it effectively, he didn’t even try.  His sole instinct is to create chaos and instability, so that no one has the time to realize how incompetent and venial he really is; so his only plan when faced with a crisis is to make it worse.  He intentionally played the states off against each other, expecting people to blame their governors for the deaths while he took credit for the booming economy he’d inherited and squandered.[2]  He mocked the doctors and scientists who were trying to advise him and the nation, while turning to hucksters and conspiracy theorists who said everything from “it’s just a cold” to “disease is caused by demon sperm.”  As predicted, his reckless policy of “rob the poor, give to the rich” together with his general hubris, indolence, cowardice, impulsiveness and stubborn ignorance led to a national disaster.  And, as his long-time friend, lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen had predicted, he attempted a coup rather than accept defeat at the ballot box.[3]  After all, Donald Trump had spent decades saying that you should never admit defeat, and even claimed his half-dozen bankruptcies were brilliant business moves rather than failures; why would he suddenly start admitting defeat at his advanced age? 

            And, like some mass hysteria or epidemic-level Stockholm Syndrome, the Republican party follows him lock-step, marching over every cliff, seeing themselves as Achilles’ Myrmidons in their loyalty while the rest of us see only lemmings.  At least lemmings don’t drag other animals with them to the sea.  Republicans have become the party that will pay $400 to get a fake “vaccine passport” rather than just get a free vaccine.  They’ll refuse the vaccine because they don’t know what’s in it, while winding up in the hospital with poisoning from ingesting horse dewormer and fish-tank cleaner.  They’ll worry about carbon dioxide poisoning from wearing the same mask their doctors and nurses will wear for twelve hours a day while treating them when they show up at the hospital with failing lungs and bursting capillaries in their skulls from COVID-19.  And when some business tries to protect its employees and customers, or teachers try to protect their students by following the recommendations of doctors and scientists who spent decades studying viruses, they are harassed, threatened, even murdered by Republicans—people who only a few years ago were sane, normal neighbors and friends and steady customers.  The Republican Party has become a death cult, like Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate or the Manson Family, only on a larger scale.  Hitler’s plan to destroy German homes and industry was an attempted national suicide, because he’d lost the war and wanted to take everything down with him.  White American Fundamentalists are even more insane; they see this Gotterdammerung , this self-imposed apocalypse, not as a twilight of the gods but as the great dawn of the Savior they created in their own image.  The Republican Party is an arsonist who thinks he’s a phoenix, and would burn down the whole world so that he can attain immortality.  And like an unvaccinated COVID-19 patient gasping out their last breath, or burying an unvaccinated spouse or child, they will be more surprised than anyone when this fails.


[1] Caroline Mortimer, “Donald Trump Believes He Has Superior Genes, Biographer Claims;” Independent September 20, 2016 (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-president-superior-genes-pbs-documentary-eugenics-a7338821.html)

[2] Charlotte Klein, “The 5 Most Damning Things Jared Kushner Told Bob Woodward about Trump’s COVID Strategy;” Intelligencer October 28, 2020 (https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/10/the-5-worst-things-kushner-said-about-trumps-covid-strategy.html)

[3] Rob Porter, “Michael Cohen Predicts Trump Will ‘Never Leave Office Peacefully’ Because He’s Terrified of Being Sent to Prison;” Business Insider August 14, 2020 (https://www.businessinsider.com/michael-cohen-book-foreword-trump-will-never-leave-office-peacefully-2020-8)

How the Republican Party Became a Death Cult, pt. 3

August 28, 2021

            The so-called “Moral Majority” and “Religious Right” jumped into politics just as apocalypticism was on the rise, and they used it as a motivational force to fire up their voters.  It also came to drive much of their thinking on political policy, and these notions in turn began to take over Republican thinking in general.  The Antichrist was predicted to be a “world leader,” so Evangelical “prophets” devised an elaborate fantasy whereby the United Nations and its Secretary General would take over the entire world, which would be pretty amazing given the general fecklessness of the organization to date.  (This had the added advantage that it saved them from asking uncomfortable questions about who really is said to be “the most powerful man on Earth,” the Caesar of the 20th Century’s greatest empire, and thus the most logical applicant for the role of “all-powerful world leader” which they were advertising—POTUS.)  Israel plays a major part in the Apocalypse despite the fact that it wasn’t even an independent nation when either Daniel or John wrote, so the Religious Right became Zionists; but the final Battle of Armageddon takes place in Israel, so the Religious Right had to oppose any possibility of peace that might have ensured Israel’s existence.[1]  Instead, since their vision required a nuclear conflagration before Jesus returns, the Religious Right has consistently pushed for more militarism, more war, more international tension, and either pooh-poohed the dangers of World War III (since the Good People will be raptured away to Heaven) or actively sought to encourage it.  No war, no Jesus, so they have to have their war.  The Religious Right thus pushed the Republican Party to become, quite simply, pro-death, pro-war, pro-Armageddon. 

            The same logic drives GOP contempt for diplomacy also drives much of its contempt for climate science.  The Revelation of John depicts a world in famine, with both land and sea in near-total environmental collapse.  Since this disaster for humanity (not to mention nonhumans, since these superlative Christians never mention them) is actually a blessing for the “true believers” who expect to be raptured away into Heaven before things get really bad and then to return with Jesus to rule over the miraculously restored new Earth, they actually welcome all the dire warnings of environmentalists.  They want the Earth to burn with wildfires and drought. They want crops to fail and fish to die.  All of this is simply the fulfillment of their vision of the End Times.

            I cannot emphasize enough how mistaken and self-serving all of this is.  The original apocalyptic writings have two things in common.  First and most obviously, they are all extremely symbolic.  Many of these symbols are traditional, practically a code which is understood by the community but unintelligible to outsiders.  When the original readers of Daniel read a description of a series of kingdoms ending in a divided kingdom (Daniel 2:31-45) they knew to whom it referred:  the kingdoms of the Persians and the Greeks, to Alexander’s empire which was divided at his death, and which they believed would be replaced by the reign of God.  When John’s readers read a description of a beast with seven heads, they knew it meant Rome and the Caesars (Revelation 13:1-10).  They did not expect a literal beast, and for the most part they were not too surprised when the world didn’t end and they had to reinterpret the prophesies.  We can see this in the Gospels, where the more apocalyptic Mark (the first written) was succeeded by others that depicted the Kingdom of God as an ongoing, growing reality, the Church.  The oldest versions of Mark end at the empty tomb; Luke by contrast wrote a sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, where the Kingdom of God is seen being fulfilled not in the end of the world but in the ministry of Paul in Rome.  The end of the world prophecies that most Christians believed were fulfilled as the world they had known did, in fact, end, replaced by a new and unimaginable reality:  the Roman gods thrown down, and worship of the God of Israel spread around the world.  But the end and the new beginning were different than they’d expected, and for the most part they rolled with it.  Today’s Fundamentalists,  with their selective biblical literalism, demand a literal end of the world, while claiming the authority and mission to change how these ancient symbolic writings were understood to fit the political agenda they desire—their dislikes become demons, their ideological targets become the Antichrist, and so on. 

            The second, and essential reality of apocalyptic writings are that they were addressed to the poor and persecuted.  Both the writings of Paul and contemporary nonchristian sources indicate that most (not all) early Christians were from the lower classes—not too surprising given the demographics of the Roman Empire, but apparently noteworthy enough at the time.  The writings of Daniel were addressed to the victims of persecution by Antiochus; the writings of John were addressed to Christian churches in Asia Minor, which were under pressure from social, political and economic powers around them.  They were messages to inspire hope in those who had no earthly reason to hope.  By contrast, today’s White Evangelical community is culturally and politically dominant, a powerful force worldwide and particularly in the United States, the most powerful nation on Earth.  While the original apocalyptic writings were meant to comfort the afflicted and condemn the comfortable, the new apocalyptic writings of Hal Lindsey and Tim LeHaye, Jerry Jenkins and company are meant to comfort the comfortable, and thus often end up afflicting the afflicted.  They are aimed at showing White, middle-class Fundamentalists that they really do know more about science, economics, politics and everything else, and that those people who didn’t believe them will burn in Hell.  They aim to show that weak and poor nations deserve to be weak and poor, while the United States is rich and strong because God has blessed it for being the home to Christian Fundamentalism.  They aim to reinforce the economic status quo; there’s a direct line between the Christian Dominionism of R. J. Rushdoony, the Christian nationalism of Jerry Falwell, and the Prosperity Gospel that tells the poor that if they show their faith by sending money to the TV preacher God will make them rich.  John of Patmos wrote from exile and imprisonment, but today’s apocalyptic writers are well-funded by the rich who want to wrap themselves in this new gospel that protects their wealth from condemnation.[2]


[1] Mary Jane MacKay (correspondent) and Michael H. Gavshon (producer), “Zion’s Christian Soldiers,” 60 Minutes aired October 6, 2002 (https://www.cbsnews.com/video/zions-christian-soldiers/ transcript https://www.cbsnews.com/news/zions-christian-soldiers/ )

[2] This alliance goes back to the early intellectual fountainhead of the Religious Right, R. J. Rushdoony, who was bankrolled by businessmen opposed to FDR’s New Deal. See Michael J. McVicar, “The Libertarian Theocrats:  the long, strange history of R. J. Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism;” September 1, 2007 (https://www.politicalresearch.org/2007/09/01/libertarian-theocrats)

How the Republican Party Became a Death Cult (pt. 2)

August 26, 2021

Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority

            While Rushdoony and his Chalcedon Foundation originally acted as a “think tank” rather than a lobbyist or activist organization, another Evangelical organization arose that began as legal/political activists and later added more theological and intellectual argument (much of it drawn from Rushdoony).  In response to the Republican Eisenhower Administration’s efforts to desegregate the South, White Evangelicals had established a network of private schools from kindergarten through college.[1]  In these schools, “race-mixing” was taught to be a sin, a violation of God’s intention in creating people as different races and nations.  The argument was that since segregation was a religious belief, and the Constitution protects freedom of religion, the Feds had to allow the White racist religiously-backed private schools the freedom to discriminate against nonwhites and to teach White supremacy.  Jerry Falwell and the other early leaders of the Religious Right started their political careers fighting to demand that racist schools like Bob Jones University be granted Federal funds and tax exemption, effectively requiring taxpayer support for their racism.  Ultimately, they failed in the case of Bob Jones, which was forced to choose whether it wanted Federal support or racism.  But in the years of legal and political fighting, Falwell and his allies had built a political organization, and they didn’t want to let it falter.  They had developed a taste for political power and activism Evangelicals hadn’t had since their heyday fighting Darwin in the 1920s.  As the segregationist cause faltered and Evangelical leaders realized they couldn’t ride to victory on a White horse, they began searching for another cause.  In the meantime, Republican activist Paul Weyrich had spent years looking for a cause—any cause—that would move Evangelicals to the Republican party.  Six years after the Roe v. Wade decision declaring abortion a Constitutional right, Weyrich, Falwell and others decided to fight abortion and make that a religious doctrine as well as a political weapon.  Prior to this, Protestants generally saw abortion as a “Catholic issue;” the Pope opposed it, but Fundamentalist Protestants followed the Biblical teaching that life begins with the first breath.[2]  As the 1970s were ending and, coincidentally, I was reaching voting age, White Evangelicals were lining up behind the Republican banner to fight abortion.

Celebrating Armageddon

            The 1970s were also a time of the rise of apocalypticism in the popular culture.  Poorly-made movies like A Thief in the Night, depicting the sudden Rapture, the rise of the Antichrist as UN Secretary General, a world government persecuting Evangelicals and so on were hugely influential in Fundamentalist circles, but had little impact beyond them.  Books like Hal Lindsey & Carole Carlson’s The Late, Great Planet Earth broke into the pop culture, feeding into Cold War anxieties about nuclear annihilation.  The End of Days has always been an effective trope for Evangelical preachers, ever since “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” was preached by Jonathan Edwards in Colonial New England; as the end of the world became a technological and political possibility, such notions moved from sermons and revivals to widespread secular worry.  So as White Evangelicals were beginning to move into the Republican party and become more powerful politically than they had been in decades, they were also becoming more apocalyptic.  For all the language of Falwell and others about the importance of preserving the physical, political United States as a bulwark against atheist Communism and a launching-pad for evangelism, millions of Evangelicals (and others) were increasingly convinced that neither the United States, nor anything else was likely to survive more than a few years.  For Evangelicals, this fear of nuclear annihilation was countered with the hope of apocalyptic writings in the Book of Daniel, the Revelation of John and other biblical texts, so that the destruction of the world became not just something God would ultimately overcome, but actually an essential part of God’s redemptive work.  Just as God had destroyed the world through water in Noah’s time so that a cleaner, less sinful world could be established, so soon, very soon God would destroy the world again, this time through nuclear fire, and Jesus would finally be able to return and create a new Kingdom of God that would last for all time.

            Rushdoony’s son-in-law, Gary North took over the leadership at the Chalcedon Foundation, pushing it in a more activist and more apocalyptic direction.  He earned the derisive nickname “Scary Gary” for his repeated dire predictions of some coming catastrophe, most notably Y2K, each of which was just around the corner and would lead to the collapse of civilization.  His political goal was that the U.S. Constitution should be scrapped and replaced with a Christian theocracy, and that the churches should be ready to step in and provide vital services such as education and all social welfare when government collapsed.  The only government structure that would remain (or be rebuilt) after whatever disaster he was predicting at the time occurred would be a bare minimal libertarianism.  In many ways, he combines Ayn Rand with the very sort of religious “mystery” that she so much despised.  This differs from Rushdoony’s original vision in that it makes the Church central even over the family, and it pushes political activism and campaigning to advance towards this Christian libertarian utopia rather than relying on the grace of God. 

to be continued….


[1] Randall Balmer, “The Real Origins of the Religious Right;” Politico May 27, 2014 (https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133/)

[2] See Bob Allen, “Evangelicals and Abortion:  Chicken or Egg?” Baptist Global News November 6, 2012 (https://baptistnews.com/article/evangelicals-and-abortion-chicken-or-egg/#.YQrGtR1Onb4); also David Roach, “How Southern Baptists Became Pro-Life;” Baptist Press January   16, 2015 (https://www.baptistpress.com/resource-library/news/how-southern-baptists-became-pro-life/) and Neil Carter, “What does the Bible say about Abortion?” Patheos October 23, 2016 (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/godlessindixie/2016/10/23/what-does-the-bible-say-about-abortion/)

How the Republican Party Became a Death Cult (pt. 1)

August 24, 2021

How the Republican Party Became a Death Cult

Most troubling of all, perhaps, was a sentiment the expert said a member of Kushner’s team expressed: that because the virus had hit blue states hardest, a national plan was unnecessary and would not make sense politically. “The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy,” said the expert.

—–Katherine Eban, “How Jared Kushner’s Secret Testing Plan Went ‘Poof’ Into Thin Air” [1]

            The political world has turned upside-down since I was a child.  Growing up in the South in the 1960s, the Democratic Party had near total control of politics, and was often corrupt (Huey Long, etc.) and/or violently racist (Faubus, Wallace, etc.).  White Evangelicals, still stinging from the rebuke they suffered in the Scopes Monkey Trial debacle, often counseled the faithful to stay out of politics and let the state run its affairs; this had the added payoff that it allowed the Southern Baptist Convention and other churches to officially stay out of the segregation debate as a secular political issue unrelated to “saving souls.”  It was generally held that in many areas, particularly the rural counties that were the majority in the South, no one could win office without at least the passive acceptance of the Klu Klux Klan.  Republicans in the South were a minority of the racially progressive, the pro-business (which often meant pro-Northern business, as the South was economically undeveloped), and/or the educated, any group that couldn’t easily ally itself with the KKK. 

            What the Hell happened to the GOP?  How did they go from Teddy Roosevelt anti-corruption progressivism to millions of Americans googling “Emoluments Clause” virtually every day from 2016-2020?  How did they go from Eisenhower sending the 82nd Airborne to desegregate Little Rock  to Donald Trump sending in armed marshals to attack unarmed and peaceful protestors for a photo-op?  How did they go from the Party of Lincoln to the party that stormed the Capitol waiving Confederate flags?  The short answer is, “Nixon’s Southern Strategy,” but I’d prefer a bit more detail.

            R. J. Rushdoony and the Chalcedon Foundation

            Evangelicals did not simply wake up one day and decide all that “character matters” stuff was bunk, Northern billionaires were better than working-class people and having Russia like us was more important than protecting our own troops when a KGB officer-turned-politician puts a bounty on their heads.  The monster that is Trumpism (or Qristianity) flowed from a noxious cauldron bubbling with the worst political impulses of Western civilization.  And the guy who provided the first poisoned toad[2] was an avowedly nonpartisan and rather apolitical theologian:  Rousas John Rushdoony. [3]  Rushdoony was a rather eccentric and extreme Fundamentalist Calvinist even by the standards of the party of Barry Goldwater.  His opposition to Communism, evolution and the general breakdown of morality he saw around him led him to call for the end of democracy and even of the nation-state.  He argued for a Christian society where the government would be too weak and decentralized to interfere with businesses, but would punish non-Christians with death by stoning.  A child of refugees from the Armenian genocide, he went on to become a Holocaust denier and allied with neo-Confederate slavery apologists.  To an outsider, he seems to be a mass of contradictions.  He was initially funded by businessmen who were looking for a moral and theological cloak for their anti-New Deal policies; later even the more secular libertarians and more visible Evangelicals alike distanced themselves from him, while adopting and mainstreaming many of his views.  His central theme was that post-Enlightenment  civilization had turned away from God, who is the only source of truth; to regain their moral compass, their political cornerstone and their scientific guiding light, humanity must return to God’s revelation as it is expressed in the Bible.  This would mean a society resembling an idealized version of the Book of Judges more than Locke’s vision of a civil commonwealth:  a society where nonbelief was exterminated as a deadly threat, but without any central authority beyond the family.  In its original form, Christian Reconstructionism is rather utopian and mostly harmless.  Rushdoony expected this social revolution to occur spontaneously, by the grace of God, and not through human political activity or imposition.  It might take a thousand years, but eventually humanity would recognize their liberal errors and return to the Gospel (as that Gospel was interpreted by Fundamentalists like himself and his Orthodox Presbyterian Church).  But already, the poisonous brew that threatens to destroy our nation was coming together.  Rushdoony was funded by capitalists looking for a Christianity that would counter the dominant theologies of the day, which mostly supported a stronger social safety net.  FDR’s policies may have saved thousands of Americans from starvation and millions from permanent generational poverty, and Eisenhower’s policies may have started a movement towards racial justice that was centuries overdue, but Rushdoony was worried about the dangers of liberalism rather than the horrors of genocide and oppression which had afflicted Jews, Blacks and even his own Armenian people just in his lifetime.  He allied himself with business interests who cared more for protecting their own profits than in building up their nation; and he later joined in the historical revisionism of slavery apologists and Holocaust deniers.  While he himself was suspicious of political activism, his efforts to publicize his views brought together money, racism and Christian Dominionism.


[1] Katherine Eban, “How Jared Kushner’s Secret Testing Plan Went ‘Poof’ Into Thin Air;” Vanity Fair July 30, 2020 (https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2020/07/how-jared-kushners-secret-testing-plan-went-poof-into-thin-air)

[2] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 4, scene 1

[3] Mary Whorton, “The Chalcedon Problem:  Rousas John Rushdoony and the Origins of Christian Reconstructionism;” Church History vol 77, no. 2, (June 2008, Cambridge University Press ) pp. 399-437

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: Third Thesis: A “citizen” is one who both obeys the laws and has a part in making them.

July 22, 2021

Third Thesis:  A “citizen” is one who both obeys the laws and has a part in making them.

But surely men praise the ability to rule and to be ruled, and the virtue of a citizen of repute seems to be just this—to be able to rule and be ruled well.

—–Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapter iv, 1277a25

            Aristotle’s Athens and the United States of America have at least one thing in common:  both had to think about what it means to be a “citizen.”  The USA had to think about citizenship because the nation was born out of revolution; and in defining the citizen, the State and the relationship between them, its Founding Fathers drew explicitly on the intellectual history of which Aristotle is an important part.  Aristotle, and the other thinkers of his day, had to reflect on the nature of citizenship because the ancient traditions were not so universally accepted as they had been.  Greece itself was governed by different, often warring city-states, with different political institutions and different views of government and citizenship.  Greek merchants traded with empires and nations that differed even more drastically from the Greek assumptions.  Western philosophy began along the coast of present-day Turkey, where Greek and non-Greek cultures, religions, moral and political assumptions from different nations collided on a daily basis.  At first, the earliest of those we now call “philosophers” primarily focused on scientific questions, such as how the world was made; living in a region where Zeus and Marduk and others all claimed the title “Creator,” some Greeks decided to try to use human reason to answer the question instead of relying on religious traditions and myths alone.  Later, this rational, humanist approach to seeking truth was extended even to morality and politics.  Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other great thinkers lived as the Athenian way of democratic government was collapsing; Aristotle’s own student, Alexander the Great, would go on to destroy the independent Greek city-states once and for all.  It was a world in political transition, and transition demands attention.  What is a citizen? 

            Rather than rely solely on tradition, or on the laws of his own city-state, Aristotle sought to look at all the various definitions and to define what “citizen” meant in all of them.  To be a citizen, he said, was to be eligible for “honors,” that is, public office.  One who was a citizen had the right to have a part in making the laws, or in carrying them out by participating in the civic institutions.  This, he said, was what it meant to be a “citizen” whether one lived in a monarchy or some more representative state.[1] 

            At the same time, though, to be a “citizen” in a properly-run state is more than just giving orders and rendering judgments.  Aristotle argued that a properly-run state, whether it was governed by one person, a small group or by the majority, was run according to rule of law.  If the leaders acted according to the state’s constitution and for the good of the nation, it would be a healthy, stable society where its members could practice their personal virtue and strive for eudaimonia as well as their nature was suited; if the leaders acted without regard to the laws and traditions of the society, seeking their own good rather than the good of the society, it was a “deviation.”  Even a monarch needs to rule according to the laws and traditions that define the monarchy; for example, the Spartan kings had clear limits on their power, with institutional checks such as the Ephorate.  A king with no limits is a tyrant, acting only as suits his own whim.  Likewise, a government by “the best” could be an aristocracy, led by the most noble and virtuous persons respected by the society as a whole, or an oligarchy, rich property owners ruling the state in whatever way made themselves more money.  Majority rule could be democracy, where the people vote on whatever pleases them without regard for the overall health of the state and without limits on their fiat; or, Aristotle said, they could vote and govern within the limits laid down by their constitution, following the laws and traditions of the society that would ensure stability and the overall good.  Aristotle describes this sort of nation as a “polity.”  In each case, whether the nation is ruled by one, a few or many, the good option is the one that aims to carry out the laws and constitution, acting on prerogative only where the law is not sufficiently precise; the deviation is where the rulers replace law with their own will.

            Thus, even in a healthy monarchy or aristocracy, a citizen must be someone who is eligible to exercise civic authority, and also obey authority—even the monarch is bound by the constitution.[2]   But this understanding of “citizen” is particularly true in a democracy/polity, where all citizens are equally entitled to office, and the same person alternates between being ruler and ruled.  I myself, in today’s society, could be called to be a juror and thus to carry out the laws of my community, exercising judicial authority; that is one sort of ruling.  I choose the leaders of my society, who act as delegates for me and the other voters; that too is authority.  I could run for office; as we have seen, the requirements for public office today are surprisingly low.  In all these ways even I must alternate between being ruled (most of the time) and ruler.  That is the essence of a democratic polity.  And according to Aristotle, it is also the essence of statesmanship:  only one who is capable of being ruled is fit to rule free citizens.[3] A leader who cannot also obey, who has never known what it was to be under authority, is a tyrant, fit only to rule over slaves, not free people.[4]  Slavemasters or tyrants need not understand those under their command; they need only know how to use them effectively.  The leader of free people must know what is it to be a citizen, and must understand those they lead, in order to exercise authority for the good of the citizens.

            If we take Aristotle’s thoughts seriously, we much that is relevant for understanding democracy in the USA today.  In 1980, at the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, Republican strategist and activist Paul Weyrich delivered a speech where he argued against the prevailing wisdom that Americans should support democratic participation in society.[5]  Until then, it had been part of our nation’s culture and education from childhood that to be a citizen was to vote; it was your “patriotic duty.”  Yes, sadly, much of our politics has also involved voter suppression, suppression of immigrants, of Black people and so on; but this was not so much inconsistent as it was a recognition of the principle that to be a citizen was to be a voter—racists and religious bigots didn’t want those “others” to be citizens.  This idea of fighting to keep citizens from exercising their civic duty to vote was the way Republicans should work to win power was different.  Now, people like me, who had attended compulsory Civics courses in state high school so that we’d be good citizens, who had grown up hearing that our nation was “the arsenal of freedom” and “a shining city on a hill,” were now to be kept away from the polls and discouraged from even wanting to vote.  At first, these efforts seemed small; Republicans began fighting against voter registration drives by nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters, they began fighting against candidate debates sponsored by neutral parties and so on, seeking to make it harder for potential voters to learn about candidates or register to vote or become interested in politics, so that the most likely voters would be the older and more reliably Republican base who would, as they said, “crawl over broken glass” to vote against anything labeled “socialism.”  They founded FOX News and other partisan “news” organizations to not so much inform listeners from a particular ideological perspective, but rather to un-inform them, to rouse the emotions rather than feeding the mind.  These were attacks on the spirit of democracy, and attempts to weaken civic engagement in the majority.  These tactics aimed to promote apathy and non-participation, but didn’t directly attack the practice of democracy by people who sought to do so; it was most often a psychological warfare against democracy.  But in the last few years, Republicans have turned from attempting to dissuade people from voting or informing themselves, to actively seeing to stop even qualified and motivated people from voting.  Repeated efforts to “clean up voter registration rolls” or “fight voter fraud” removed tens of thousands of eligible, registered voters in Republican-dominated states.  Research was done to see where non-Republicans were most likely to live and what sorts of identification non-Republicans, and non-whites in general, were likely to carry, and to ban these as proof of voter eligibility; at the same time, gun permits and other sorts of ID which White Republicans were thought more likely to carry were declared the only legally acceptable proof that one was a voter.[6]  From the Republican perspective, this is just politics, doing what you can and must to win.  This is also why Republicans denounce efforts to allow more American citizens to vote as a “partisan power grab;” their own efforts in the opposite direction are a long-term strategy to grab and hold power, not by having the most supporters or even the most voters, but by disallowing and disenfranchising anyone who seems somewhat likely to vote against them.

            But while all of this may seem to Republicans like mere moves in the political game, from the Aristotelian perspective they are changing the constitution of the state itself, and attempting to strip millions of Americans of their citizenship.  The constitution, as Aristotle says, is not just a piece of inscribed parchment in a museum; it is the arrangement of offices in the state:  “the citizen-body is the constitution.”[7]  Who is eligible to hold office, and what those public offices do, is the constitution of the state; and who is eligible to hold office is a citizen of the state.  For most of us, the only public offices to which we aspire and for which we are undoubtedly qualified are voter and juror.  As voters, we delegate our authority to make laws, wage wars, enforce justice and otherwise govern on our behalf to proxies who take oaths of office to act on our behalf, not for their own selfish benefit.  As jurors, we act to give a voice to We The People in how those laws are applied to our fellow citizens.  Stripping someone of their right to vote, whether it’s based on their race, their zip code, or some more subtle method selected, as the courts said, “with surgical precision” to disenfranchise them, is denying them their citizenship.  Republicans like to talk about the Right to Bear Arms as a “sacred” right, enshrined in the Constitution; but the right to vote, and as a registered voter to be eligible for jury duty, are the true sacred rights of citizenship.  They are the very definition of citizenship.  What the Republican Party is engaged in today, with hundreds of bills introduced in state legislatures dominated by Republicans, is nothing less than a strategic campaign to strip citizenship from millions of taxpayers, millions of people who either serve in our military or have family who served, millions of people either born in the this nation as the children of citizens, or who have undertaken to study and learn and withstood an examination of their worthiness more rigorous than any which many Republicans could possibly pass.  It is, as Aristotle says, an attempt to change the constitution, not through the prescribed method of amendment, but through skullduggery, corruption, intimidation and deception.  It is far more serious than what we often think of as “political games,” which reasonable people often ignore; and the results could be far more serious than those who are carrying out this plan want to admit, or even realize.  It is an attempt to drastically curtail, if not eliminate American democracy, all for the sake of winning one more round against the Democrats. 

            If you think democracy is important, if you think it matters, you must do everything possible to break the GOP, to either crush it into dust or to force it to reform itself.  This can only be accomplished if American independent voters, Democratic voters, and even Republican voters who love their country and their democratic (small “d”) heritage, vote straight Democratic in every possible election.  Not voting, or voting third party, will not accomplish this.  Voting for the “good Republican candidate” in the general election is still to vote for someone who made their peace with this decades-long plan to subvert not just the democratic process, but to undermine civic participation and patriotic duty for all citizens.  Whether liberal, moderate or true conservative, we must “mindlessly and mechanically” vote against literally all Republican candidates, including those who run in ostensibly nonpartisan races like School Board but whose public statements or voting record show them to be QAnon, Neoconfederate, “very fine people on both sides” Republicans—because all Republicans, at this point, have declared that both Nazis and anti-Nazis are either equal or the Nazis are better, simply by remaining in a political party where Nazis are welcomed, given tours of the Capitol by sitting Congressional representatives days before attempting a putsch, and whose crimes are covered up by elected Republican officials and their party information/propaganda outlets such as OAN, FOX News, etc.[8] 

            On the other hand, if you don’t value democracy, then perhaps you should continue voting Republican after all.  What, if anything, might Aristotle say to persuade someone on this point?

To be continued…..


[1] Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapter 1, 1275a22

[2] In the United States, and many other nation-states today, the “constitution” is a written document, the founding charter of the nation, spelling out the foundation of the laws and the political institutions.  Aristotle’s definition is looser.  While most states had a historical or mythological lawgiver, Aristotle only specifies that the arrangement of the offices of the country is its constitution; thus even a nation with no written constitution, governed by longstanding tradition and legal precedent, would have a “constitution” in Aristotle’s sense—so, good news for Great Britain.  Also, it is common for authoritarian regimes to have a written “constitution” that promises all sorts of rights, while the reality is very different; in this case, Aristotle would say that the actual constitution is what is actually done. 

[3] Politics book IV, chapter iii, 1277b7

[4] 1277a33

[5] Miranda Blue, “Seven Times Conservatives Have Admitted They Don’t Want People to Vote;” Right Wing Watch September 24, 2015 (https://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/seven-times-conservatives-have-admitted-they-dont-want-people-to-vote/)

[6] Rebecca Leber, “In Texas, You Can Vote with a Concealed Handgun Permit—but not a Student ID;” The New Republic October 20, 2014 (https://newrepublic.com/article/119900/texas-voter-id-allows-handgun-licenses-not-student-ids) ; also Camilla Domonoske, “Supreme Court Declines Republican Bid to Revive North Carolina Voter ID Law;” NPR May 15, 2017 (https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/05/15/528457693/supreme-court-declines-republican-bid-to-revive-north-carolina-voter-id-law), as well as other efforts in Florida, Georgia and elsewhere, which historically have led to tens if not hundreds of thousands of voters being purged, only to subsequently proved only a few hundred were actually ineligible.

[7] Politics Book III, chapter vi, 1278b6

[8] Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes, “Boycott the Republican Party;” The Atlantic March 2018 (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/03/boycott-the-gop/550907/)

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: Second

June 9, 2021

Theses Attributable to Aristotle:  Second

Second Thesis:  A well-run state must pay attention to the relationship between economic and political power

For if the work done and the benefit accrued are equal, well and good; but if not, there will inevitably be ill-feeling between those who get a good income without doing much work and those who work harder but get no corresponding extra benefit.

—–Aristotle, The Politics, Book II, chapter V, 1263a8

ABSTRACT:  In discussing both the idealized states proposed by philosophers, and some states of his day widely considered to be well-run, Aristotle examines the role of wealth in society.  He rejects the extreme egalitarianism of Plato and Phaleas, as well as the restrictions put on the wealth of Spartan rulers, as being unbearable as well as impractical.  At the same time, he admits that rivalry between rich and poor can lead to factionalism and instability.  He argues that citizens need enough property to not merely live, but to live well; but he does say the state must have laws and policies to prevent the gulf between the wealthy and the rest from becoming so great that it undermines social unity’

            Book Two of Aristotle’s Politics is a survey of proposed ideal states, as well as some actual constitutions which were widely held to be successful.  Half of the chapters are devoted to criticism of Plato’s theories, particularly regarding property.  Plato himself was very concerned with the relationship between wealth and political power; it is therefore worthwhile to recall Plato’s views in order to see in what sense he and Aristotle might agree, and to better understand the nature of their disagreement.

            Plato’s political speculations in Republic begin with the individual rather than the group.  His Socrates and other characters are debating what sort of life is best for an individual, when Socrates proposes that they look at the State as an individual magnified.  In understanding how a well-run state would function, the group hopes to see how the individual soul should be arranged.  The individual can be said to have reason, passion and appetite; a city-state can be imagined as reflecting this structure.  The majority of people are farmers and other sorts of producers.  They are primarily concerned with material goods and satisfying their appetites.  They have no inclination or patience for higher education, or abstract thought, or for moral concerns beyond what is good for themselves and their households.  If they are drawn to political power, it is only as a business like any other, to enrich themselves.  Others are more drawn to military careers, as they desire honor and fame more than wealth and comfort.  These are the people governed by passion or spirit (Greek:  thumos).  In any society, only a few will be philosophers, lovers of wisdom, primarily governed by reason and desiring nothing more than to learn and understand.

            People seeking power either to feed their material desires, or in a lust for fame, are the least suited to hold power and will inevitably abuse it, putting their own gain before their duties to the State.  Only those who care the least about material comforts or the adoration of the mob can be expected to lead their society responsibly and intelligently.  Thus, the first division Plato proposes is between those who seek wealth and are denied political power, versus those who care little about gaining wealth for themselves and thus can be trusted to protect the rest:  the producers and the guardians.  These guardians are warrior-philosophers, devoted to a lifetime of physical and intellectual training, including martial and gymnastic practice, geometry, music and philosophy.  The producers want wealth and are welcome to pursue it; in exchange, they support the leadership and obey its instructions.  Among the guardians, the younger and more high-spirited individuals serve as auxiliaries, using their military training to enforce the law and to protect against invaders; they are driven by their thumos, and prefer honor over wealth, so they are rewarded with military honors and accolades for their service.  The older and wisest seek neither praise nor wealth, but wish mostly to be allowed to pursue knowledge; these are the leaders who guide the state out of a sense of duty, sharing the fruits of their learning to direct the state justly and wisely.  In return for their service, they are allowed ample time for study and philosophic contemplation.  Neither the guardians nor the auxiliaries are allowed any private property; they are supported entirely by the State, which collects taxes from the producers.  They thus have no incentive to accept bribes, or to engage in aggressive wars to gain loot, or any of the other personal or corporate corruptions that would undermine the smooth running of the state; they simply live peacefully as far as they can, prepared to defend the modest national wealth they possess but otherwise seeing to their own welfare.  Plato’s ideal republic is, in short, a society where those who have money are denied power, and those who have power are denied money but instead “give according to their abilities and receive according to their needs,” as a later philosopher put it.  Furthermore, Plato explicitly links the mixing of economic and political power as the corruption that undermines even the best state and, step by step, leads it to tyranny, where the government is entirely devoted to the profit of the tyrant and his toadies.

            Aristotle is also aware that differences in wealth can undermine a nation, and the desire for wealth can corrupt its leaders; but he rejects Plato’s radical solution of doing away with private wealth (at least for the leadership) altogether.  He agrees that the citizens definitely share some things; “at the very least, a constitution being a form of association, they must share in the territory, the single territory of a single state, of which single state the citizens are sharers.”[1]  But in Plato’s ideal republic, the Guardians are to have literally all things in common:  not only having common meals and sharing all property, but even sharing wives and children.[2]  Aristotle criticizes this excessive unity.  While it is possible to imagine such a society, Aristotle says that in fact the state benefits from being a diverse association.  Different individuals, with different abilities and aims, come together and work together for the benefit of the whole; that is what makes the state more self-sufficient than the individual or even the household.[3]  And while Plato explicitly seeks to break down the natural family relationships among the Guardians so that all will equally care for all the children, Aristotle argues that in fact this will lead to weakening concern for any children.  He makes a similar argument when it comes to property in general.[4]  Where one person is responsible for one household, that person will take care of the people and associated property; there are clearly designated areas of responsibility for each person.  Where everyone is equally responsible for caring for all the children and maintaining all the property, no individual has a specific responsibility to do anything.  When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.  Thus, Aristotle argues, it is better that each man be responsible for his own wife and children, and that the property of the state be divided, some (like temples) for common use and cared for by the people as a whole, while others (such as farms and other means of production) privately owned, the responsibility of particular individuals who will bear the consequences if they neglect their proper work. 

            Aristotle also discusses Plato’s last dialogue, his Laws, wherein he seeks to give more concrete detail to the somewhat abstract idealism of Republic.[5]  While Laws is Plato’s longest dialogue, Aristotle has relatively little to say about it, since it is in many ways a rehashing of RepublicRepublic is an idealized state, and thus lacking on details and not too concerned whether its ideas could be actualized; the Laws keeps most of the original notions of Republic but provides more detail and clarification, attempting to present not just an ideal state but a framework for establishing a state based on those notions.  There are, for example, lengthy discussions of how to arrange households and farms, the role of foreigners such as traveling merchants, details of the education curriculum, and more.  Most of the details which Aristotle discusses have to do with property laws:  how much each citizen would be allowed to own, laws regarding its management, and political implications of these laws, among other matters.  There are two points in particular that appear in this book, and will become recurring themes later in the Politics:  the problem of faction, and the types of political structure.  As to structure, Aristotle mentions monarchy, oligarchy and democracy, and argues that Plato combines elements of oligarchy and democracy into a type Aristotle calls “polity.”  Aristotle in fact prefers so-called “mixed” constitutions over any pure example of the three types, seeing them as having the chance of avoiding the weaknesses peculiar to the pure types while drawing on their strengths.  He will say much more about this later in the Politics.

            Aristotle has more to say about the issues of money and politics.  He points out that a state like Plato proposes, where individual estates are limited by law, will in serious trouble unless population is controlled as well.[6]  In most states, neither births nor property acquisition are strictly regulated; people have as many children as they are able, and sometimes even more than they can support.  This “inevitably causes poverty among the citizens, and poverty produces faction and crime.”  Plato’s Laws would start each producer citizen with an equal estate, and limit the maximum increase of wealth to five times that, with the number of such farming estates firmly established; thus if the population were to grow, there would simply be no way for the excess to start their own households, and seemingly no way to absorb the new population into the economy.  Aristotle goes on to discuss another utopian thinker, Phaleas, who also discusses the social problems related to wealth.[7]  Phaleas too was concerned with how inequalities of wealth can undermine the stability of the state, by breeding crime and factionalism.  His answer was simple and direct:  eliminate differences in wealth.  The factions that so often divide and can even destroy the state are largely conflicts between the poor many and the rich few; eliminate the differences, and you eliminate the chief cause of factionalism.[8]  Poverty would be eliminated, and thus crime would disappear as well, Phaleas claimed, since no one would have to steal to feed themselves.[9] 

            Aristotle appreciates the effort Phaleas makes to head off factionalism, but finds several faults with this plan.  First, Aristotle says Phaleas pays inadequate attention to national defense; we don’t have any evidence to judge this claim, and the question doesn’t seem essential; the issues of foreign relations could be addressed without seriously undermining the internal economics, if equality of property were workable.  Aristotle’s other objections seem more substantial, as they touch on human nature itself, and provide reasons why such equality would be impossible.  Suppose, Aristotle says, it were possible to determine the perfect level of property for everyone, so that no one was either corrupted by luxury or ruined by poverty, but each had enough to live moderately and well; even then, there is no guarantee that everyone would be content.  Unless people’s appetites are also equal, what seems a reasonable allowance to one will seem to be penury to another; thus, unless education is equal so that all have the same characters and expectations, they will become discontent even with equality.  (He does concede that maybe Phaleas has assumed this equality of education, but doesn’t think this is clear.)  Furthermore, people don’t resort to crime merely from poverty; some, perhaps most are trying to get far more than they need, and it is the desire for easy luxury that drives them.  And people do not compete merely for greater wealth, but also for distinction, status and honor. Those who have worked harder, or who have fought bravely in defense of his nation, or who otherwise consider themselves “better” will resent being treated “the same.”  So while Aristotle sees some merit in paying attention to the divisiveness of wealth, he finds this sort of extreme state control of wealth unviable.

            Much of the difference between Aristotle and his mentor Plato is visible in their discussion of the Spartan government.[10]  Plato cites the Spartan as one of the best constitutions, largely because it separates the aristocratic, military leadership from the producers; the leaders strive for honor, while the others are focused on farming and producing goods.  His only fault with the Spartan model is that they don’t practice philosophy; compared to his republic, it is as if the Guardians proper were gone and the Auxiliaries were left in charge, without the benefit of learned, wise, steady leadership.  In Plato’s telling, even the perfect republic would eventually decline, first by abandoning the leadership of the philosophers, and then as a result becoming increasingly interested in money.  First the aristocracy declines to an oligarchy, rule by the rich few; from there it deteriorates to a democracy, where everyone rules and everyone simultaneously pursues their own private wealth, further mixing politics and money-making; and finally it devolves into a tyranny, where the most corrupt and ruthless individual seizes power and turns the state into a money-making enterprise for himself and his cronies.  It is a rationalist explanation, deriving from the principle that corruption of the individual or the state occur when the appetites overrule reason; and it is a somewhat idealized presentation of the Spartan constitution as well.

            Aristotle is much less enthralled with the Spartan ideal and more interested in the Spartan reality.  While Spartan men are supposed to be pure warriors living lives of material simplicity and concerned only with honor, Aristotle says in fact there are great differences in wealth between them, which weakens the nation and in particular leaves the Ephors, magistrates drawn from outside the aristocracy, open to bribery.  And it is not just the Ephors who fail to live up to the ideal of Spartan austerity; Aristotle writes, “They live a life of undue ease, while the rest have a very high degree of austerity in living, so high indeed that they really cannot endure it but secretly get round the law and enjoy the pleasures of the body.”[11]

            On the other hand, Aristotle writes somewhat approvingly of the council of Ephors itself, an institution Plato generally ignores.  While there seems to be no constitution with which he doesn’t find some fault, and he minds much to say about the character and competence of the Ephors, he does agree that they contribute to the stability of the state.  The Ephors were a council of five men, elected from and by the people, who shared power with the Spartan kings.  This clearly is a deviation from the aristocratic ideal, which is likely why Plato ignores it in the Republic; he is presenting a clean typology, while Aristotle is looking closer at actual cases.  In fact, he says, Sparta has this democratic element in its government, which may weaken the aristocratic ideal but does keep the people “quiet because it gives them a share in the highest office…  The point is that if a constitution is to have a good prospect of stability, it must be such that all sections of the state accept it and want it to go on in the same way as before.”[12]  This is a point that Aristotle returns to:  a “mixed” constitution is often better than a “pure” type, because it can draw on the strengths of several types of government.  Aristotle is greatly concerned about the causes of  factionalism and instability in the state, and how to avoid it.  Plato’s solution to the problem of instability is to put the most reasonable people in charge, and preserve them from the corrupting influence of money by forbidding them to own any private property—including even spouses and children.  Those with power, have no wealth; and those who are allowed private property have no power.  Aristotle says this is unbearable, and thus people will circumvent such restrictions if imposed on them; also, no one can practice the virtues of such as liberality, which involve proper use and sharing of wealth, if they have none.  Plato’s republic, or Sparta’s aristocracy, ultimately lead to the corruption of the people by denying them scope to practice the virtuous use of wealth, while allowing them only corrupt opportunities to obtain the wealth that people naturally desire.  So Aristotle argues that it is better to allow people the ability to obtain enough wealth, while also limiting the gap between rich and poor if it threatens social stability.

            Aristotle’s survey of philosophical political theories and of actual constitutions doesn’t focus exclusively on economic policies, but this is at the center of many of his criticisms.  There is advice here that would please the American “right” and “left” wings, which I suppose makes it “centrist” and perhaps even “practical.”  Conservatives would undoubtedly agree with Aristotle’s objection to Plato’s extreme egalitarianism, even communism.  Our conservatives would echo Aristotle’s view that each person will see to their own property better than the society as a whole can manage extensive common property; if you want production and trade to thrive, let specific individuals run their own businesses.  The view that the one who works should see a profit from their labors will also appeal to conservatives in our day.  And Aristotle’s view on the relationship between private wealth and virtue has parallels to conservative arguments against taxpayer-funded social programs.  Conservatives often argue that if society collects taxes to help shelter, feed and cloth the poor, this will undermine morality since it means taking money away from individuals who might have shared it freely, and also because if society as a whole is helping the poor, then no one individual is exercising the virtue of charity or liberality by sharing what specifically is that individual’s own wealth to give away.  Just as Aristotle says it is important that citizens not only have enough to live, but even enough to enjoy and enough to share, American conservatives today would argue that a society with high taxes to fund things like universal health care and tuition-free college not only robs individuals of the incentive to work, but also robs them of the ability to do good, and to be good and virtuous people, by giving personally to help others. 

            Liberals would reply that what matters is that the poor are fed and sheltered, and that if the state can accomplish this better then that is how it should be.  They would applaud Aristotle’s awareness that vast differences in wealth can divide, weaken, and possibly destroy a society.  A government that wishes to last must be a government that provides justice in the eyes of its citizens, and that includes justice for the hungry and cold.  While the rich may claim that they deserve more as the “better people,” everyone has a right to life, which means everyone must have a right to the requirements for life; if a society fails to provide either a chance to earn a living wage or help for those who cannot, that society devolves into a cold war between the rich and the poor, which could eventually go hot and end the society. 

            Aristotle is seeking political structures that avoid either extreme.  He is neither Rand nor Marx, though he could see the point in both perspectives.  Instead, he wants a society that can provide enough to every citizen to live a good life, while giving those who want more a legitimate and socially helpful way to earn it.


[1] Politics, Book II, chapter 1, 1260b36

[2] Plato is often criticized today for his totalitarian tendencies, but it is interesting to note that he treats women as people, with the same rights and responsibilities as men; he says they should have the same education and even be trained for military service.  Aristotle states that women are inferior, and in much of this chapter explicitly treats them as property more than people. 

[3] Politics, Book II, chapter 2

[4] Book II, chapter 5

[5] chapter 6

[6] Book II, chapter 6, 1265a38

[7] Book II, chapter 7

[8] chapter 7, 1266a31

[9] 1267a2

[10] Plato, Republic, book VIII, 542-550; Aristotle, Politics, book II, chapter ix

[11] 1270b28

[12] 1270b17

Democracy Versus Authoritarianism:  Political Philosophy in a Time of COVID

May 13, 2021

Democracy Versus Authoritarianism:  Political Philosophy in a Time of COVID

 For since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which everyone designs secure by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making, whenever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any further obedience…

John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government

Since the first shots of the American Revolution, this nation has been devoted to the notion that only representative government is just and morally legitimate.  With somewhat less unanimous affirmation, we have also held that representative government was the best.  As one of our former overlords, now believers in democracy, put it:  “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time..”  By contrast, others have argued that democracy might be “just” but that it was just too inefficient to survive; and still others have declared that democracy itself is not only inefficient, but also in some sense immoral and corrupting of its citizens.  Fascists, for example, complain that democracy makes a nation “soft” and “effeminate,” too peace-loving, coddling children and putting families ahead of the national economy.  Theocrats claim democracy is too “secular” and turns people away from God, specifically the theocrat’s own religious dogma and organization.  The rich complain that democracy allows the rabble too much power, failing to protect the powerful from victimization by the poor.

When the Berlin Wall fell, it was heralded as the final victory of democracy over authoritarianism and oppression.  The contest was settled; freedom had won.  Some called it “the end of history.”[1]  But with the rise of Islamist dictatorships and insurgencies, and Christian Dominionist and nationalist populist movements in the West, the longed-for golden age of prosperity and peace vanished before our eyes.  Instead, 2016 saw Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro and many other retreats from the free politics and free markets that were supposedly triumphant, and a worldwide rise of isolationism, xenophobia, protectionism, racism and authoritarianism.  Nowhere was this more visible, or more catastrophic than in the United States, where a shallow, decadent, close-minded, deeply ignorant, deeply fearful egotist backed by oodles of inherited wealth took over first one of the major political parties, then the presidency, despite multiple scandals, ties to hostile foreign governments and losing the popular vote.  Despite the obvious lack of a serious mandate, he and his fellow business cronies threw themselves into reversing decades-long national priorities, undermining allies around the world while appeasing generational foes, and rewriting policies in ways that enriched themselves and their business interests.  Other nations looked on, our traditional democratic allies in dismay, dictators and strongmen in triumph.  In a few years the political conversation in the popular culture went from “Is history solved for all time?” to, “Is democracy dead?  Has the age of the authoritarian finally arrived?”

In 2019, the author of the notion of “the end of history” expressed disappointment about the rise in religious and populist authoritarianism, which seemed to refute his optimistic claims.  In the meantime, authoritarian governments had grown steadily bolder and more boastful over the supposed failure and imminent collapse of democracy.  Even the U.S. government chose people for important posts who said things like, “I’m not a big fan of democracy.”[2]  However, this year which supposedly showed the failure of democracy actually showed the ultimate weakness of authoritarianism.  If the authoritarians win, 2019 has shown us that the ultimate end of civilization, and possibly humanity itself could result.

As 2019 drew to a close, a doctor in China noticed a SARS-like virus in some of his patients.[3]  He sought to warn his fellow doctors, in an online conference, to take extra precautions to avoid infection.  The government of China, an authoritarian regime which prides itself particularly on its superior efficiency compared to the chaotic, individualist West, responded by immediately threatening him with prison for spreading seditious rumors.  By the time they finally admitted he was right, and that his efforts were heroic and patriotic, it was too late; the doctor himself had become infected and died of COVID-19, one of the first of what soon would be millions.  Donald Trump, who had earlier disbanded the NSA group formed to fight pandemics because it was an Obama initiative, declared that concern over the coronavirus was “the Democrats’ new hoax.”  While he initially seemed to be saying the the disease was real but the worry was politically motivated, his followers heard “hoax” and insisted (and still do) that the disease was fake.  Trump supporter Rush Limbaugh said COVID-19 was just the common cold.  FOX News called it a “hoax.”[4]  All echoed Trump’s claim that the virus would never become a problem in the United States; we had 15 cases and soon it would be zero.[5]  Anyone who said otherwise, Trump, the Republican Party and the right-wing media proclaimed, was just trying to stir up trouble for political gain—pretty much what the Chinese government had said to silence the doctor who tried to warn others about the new virus.  By the end of his presidency, Trump’s non-response to the epidemic ravaging the nation had wrecked the growing economy left him by Obama, killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, sickened millions, left many thousands with long-term or permanent disabilities, turned states against each other to compete for resources to fight to save their citizens without direction from the federal government, polarized the nation and left most of his base still convinced that the whole thing is just  hoax, and anyone who says otherwise or seeks treatment or a vaccine is a traitor.

Brazil is still a young democracy, having rid itself of a military junta in 1985. In 2019, right-wing populist and former military officer Jair Bolsonaro was elected President, and in 2020 he, too, faced the threat of the oncoming pandemic.  His response has been no different than the other authoritarians:  deny, suppress, scapegoat, and fail.  Brazil was on track to surpass the United States for the worst response to COVID-19; then along came India.  India, the world’s most populous democracy, initially seemed to fair pretty well against the pandemic, and its leader boasted about his nation’s superior response and mocked the nations who had warned of India’s vulnerabilities.  Instead, the authoritarian leader of the right-wing HIndu nationalist BJP, like his political ally Donald Trump, continued to hold massive political rallies, push for huge public gatherings, while failing to consistently advocate for masks, social distancing and other measures that are proven to provide cost-effective protection for the people.  As I write this, the Indian health care system is collapsing under the strain of literally countless multitudes of sick and dying patients; the dead pile up faster than they can be cremated, and bodies are being thrown into the Ganges river rather than being left to rot on land.[6]

None of this should be particularly surprising, and it points to the fundamental, often fatal flaw in authoritarian politics.  This nation is a 200+-year old philosophical experiment, attempting to prove that the theories of representative government laid out by such thinkers as Rousseau and John Locke are workable, despite all that was said against them at the time and since.  The guiding principle of Locke, and the revolutionaries inspired by him, is that legitimate government authority derives from the people themselves, and it is the task of the government to enact the collective will of the people.  Locke’s “social contract” style of thought has dominated American political thinking from the time we were arrogant colonials casting off the ties God had forged binding subject to king.  But Locke’s thought is itself partly founded on the previous Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes, an apologist for absolute monarchy.  Hobbes argued that the government was based on a tacit agreement or “covenant” between the people and their government; they would give up certain rights such as the right to personal revenge against anyone they felt had wronged them, and agree to obey the laws of the government and trust in its justice; in exchange, the government (or “sovereign”) would protect the people’s fundamental, “inalienable rights.”[7]  Outside of such a commonwealth, every individual had a right to do or act as he pleased;[8] but since everyone had such a right, no one had any duty to respect the rights of others.  Without a strong outside force to bludgeon the rest of us into line, there would be unending conflict, war of each against all, and life would be nasty, brutish and above all, short.  The sovereign creates the laws of the commonwealth, imposes them upon the rest of us, and crushes opposition; we accept this because the alternative is miserable anarchy.  And since the sovereign creates the laws, it is not itself subject to them; it is above the law. 

Hobbes acknowledged that “the sovereign” could be a group as easily as an individual, but favored an absolute and unitary monarchy over a divided and hence weaker government.[9]  One reason he gives is that a king will be more attentive to the welfare of the kingdom.  Every person is most concerned with his personal wellbeing; if the national interests conflict with the personal interests of a leader, the personal will win out.  In a oligarchy or democracy, multiple leaders compete against each other and their interests will thus often be at odds with those of the nation as a whole; but a king’s personal interests are identical with those of the nation since it is his nation.  His ego is tied up with its success; its glory is his glory, its wealth his wealth.  Thus an absolute monarch will, Hobbes says, strive for the welfare of the people, not because he must or owes it to them, but because it is more glorious to rule over a rich, enlightened, peaceful, literate and artistic nation than over a vulgar, dirty, impoverished rabble.  The pride of the authoritarian leader is the motivation for national policy and guarantor of the national welfare.

This doesn’t work, but it does make one valid point:  authoritarians are motivated by their own egos, not some slavish devotion to “the common good.”  That is why Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, and so many others held super-spreader rallies during a pandemic, where they could stand before thousands of adoring worshippers willing to risk their lives, and the lives of their families and neighbors, to stroke the Dear Leader’s ego.  It’s also why showing any concern for public health is denounced as disloyalty; it implies that something matters more than the leader’s glory.  As Amartya Sen argued in his Nobel-winning research in economics, fully-functional democracies (ones with a free and independent press, rule of law, free and fair markets and easy access to a meaningful vote) don’t have famines, and generally have longer life expectancies, because they must; if the people have power, the government must see to the people’s welfare or be voted out.  Where there is a compliant propaganda press, leaders who ignore the law without consequences, markets dominated by a few powerful monopolies controlled by oligarchs, and elections rendered meaningless by manipulation or flat-out fraud—-as we increasingly have under Republican policies, particularly during the Trump years——the government feels free to tell people they should be proud to die to keep the economy humming and to support the president.[10] 

In fact, as Aristotle pointed out long ago, the authoritarian cares about holding power; this might mean seeking to be loved by the people, but often means instead weakening, depriving, harassing, oppressing, and essentially warring on one’s own people.[11]  Kim Jung-Un is only one extreme example of this sort of tyrant; for every one “benevolent despot,” there are scores of Amins or Kims.  If the people are terrified, or simply too hungry to muster the energy to rebel and too ignorant to imagine any other possibility or figure out how to resist their oppression, the tyrant is safe.  And above all, the authoritarian wants to feel safe. 

The paradox is that the more power the authoritarian can seize, the closer he or she comes to being a full-blown tyrant, the less secure the authoritarian is.  The true patriot, who cares about the nation, its laws and traditions, can feel the most secure precisely because the true patriot considers power something to be used for some worthy goal, not something to be grasped for its own sake.  There is likely no one who fully meets that ideal, but some come closer than others; those are the ones who can lose magnanimously, win humbly and gratefully, lead or follow as required, and rejoice when the nation prospers regardless.  Plato’s ideal leader was one who didn’t wish to lead at all, but who recognized that the price of good persons refusing power is to have bad ones in charge over them.  Aristotle defined a “citizen” as one who both had a hand in making the laws, and was bound to obey them, capable both of leading and following as required.  But anyone who starts to love the power and the status will start to fear losing it.  Saddam Hussein, after becoming undisputed master of Iraq, predicted that if he ever lost power they wouldn’t find even the tip of his fingers intact; his enemies would cut him to pieces.  He had near godlike control over his subjects, with fifty-foot tall idols of himself and multiple palace complexes, but he lived in fear every day.  Aristotle observed that a stable country is one where as many people as possible feel they have a stake in its stability[12]  Locke said that the ultimate foundation of a true civil society is the will of the majority of the people.  Both are making much the same point:  that the state, and thus also the leaders, are actually stronger when power is shared.  The authoritarian fears their own people; that is why, Aristotle says, tyrants recruit foreigners as bodyguards, while in democracies the leaders are guarded by their own citizens.  The tyrant, and any authoritarian to the extent that they approach maximum personal power, is at war with their own people. 

Trump’s followers like to claim that he was a very successful president until he wasn’t, and that he can’t be held responsible for that because his wildly successful presidency was derailed by an unpredictable and unavoidable catastrophe.  The principle facts of this claim are disputable; Trump’s success through 2019 was not as stellar as he boasted, and many warned his administration of the dangers of a possible pandemic and even left a “playbook” for fighting one, which he threw away.  But these disputed facts aside, the real lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic is that authoritarian governments will fail to protect their people in the event of a catastrophe.  They do not feel themselves answerable to the people, so they look first to their own preservation and enhancement of power; the first instinct of the authoritarian is to regard warnings of disaster to be attacks on the leader’s image and power.  First, they will seek to silence the prophets of doom; next, they will seek to cover up the crisis when it occurs; then they will deny they were warned and/or deny that they refused to act; and at last they will grow impatient with the cries of the victims who make the leader look ineffective and too weak to fix the problem.  Whether it was a pandemic in 2019, or a war, or recession, there was always going to be some crisis.  And in a crisis, while a democracy might stumble as various groups try to wrap their collected heads around the problem and find a response based on multiple perspectives and interests, an authoritarian can be trusted to act swiftly and decisively—-for the protection of the leader, and against the needs of the people. 

I would like to believe that the failure of Trumpism to handle even a predicted crisis for which our government had spent years preparing and which we had months to see coming would lead to a world-wide recognition of the weakness of authoritarianism, and a return to the pro-democracy trends we saw towards the end of the 20th century.  However, the eagerness of Republicans to first act surprised at an attempted coup despite many warnings, then to ignore it and ask everyone to forget it and “move on,” and finally to justify it with false claims about the election, does not give me much confidence that they’ve seen any fault in the authoritarian model.  In 1980 Paul Weyrich argued before the National Republican Convention in Dallas that Republicans do better when people don’t vote, and therefore it was in the party’s interest to work against the democratic principles this country claims to champion.  Since then, the Republican party has worked vigorously to make voting as difficult and as pointless as possible, to undermine people’s confidence in the democratic process, to discourage civic interest or participation by the majority of citizens, and to convince their base that any fact that didn’t fit their preconceived notions, whims or prejudices was simply politically motivated “fake news” from “liberals” and should be ignored.  The culmination of this forty-year project has been to create a conservative electorate that lives in its own alternate reality, rejects science and history and any other expertise while blindly obeying any party mouthpiece, denies that it is even possible for them to lose an election, and is willing to resort to violence when counting the ballots tells them otherwise.  Republicans are so far from the principles of representative government that they openly work for minority rule, and embrace a failed coup leader as their best chance for victory—-victory for their party and the oligarchs who back it, regardless of the fate of the nation. 

I don’t know if the authoritarians will ultimately succeed, or if freedom-loving patriots will put aside previous partisan divides to defeat them.  What I do know is that there will continue to be crises that threaten this nation, and even this world.  And I know that authoritarian governments will not meet these crises.  It is in their interests, and in their nature to ignore bad news, cover it up, blame others for their failures, make bad things much worse and corresponding good fortune less beneficial for any but the ruling elite.  Eventually the people lose all faith in their government, which suits the authoritarian fine when things are going well since an apathetic and dispirited populace is more easily ruled.  However, when the government finally realizes that it must act, it will find that not only is it too late to avoid disaster, but the people will likely refuse to cooperate.  I cite as example the experience of Liberia during the Ebola crisis; the people had been lied to so often that when the government really needed them to undertake basic safety measures, they refused, and turned a crisis into a catastrophe.  As J.S. Mill wrote in his essay “On Representative Government,” even the most “benign” despotism tends to infantilize its subjects.  People under an authoritarian regime become passive, detached, and thoughtless.  And I would argue, authoritarianism also infantilizes the leaders.  We mature by encountering others with whom we must reckon and negotiate; but the authoritarian will not tolerate equals and thus never encounters an “other.”  Instead, as Aristotle said, the authoritarian surrounds himself with flatterers and sycophants.  A functioning democracy is a society of adults, who argue in good faith, who accept reality, who strive to be rational and just.  A despotism is a nation led by an overgrown toddler, who seeks to bully the other children on the playground.  In a high-tech, fast-changing world such as ours, with an unending stream of crises small, large and existential, we will not long survive as a race of toddlers.


[1] Tamer Fakahany, “‘The End of History’?  30 Years on, Does That Idea Still Hold Up?” Associated Press Nov. 7, 2019)

[2] Peter Wade, “Trump’s Fed Nominee Isn’t a ‘Big Believer in Democracy;’” Rolling Stone April 14, 2019 (https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/stephen-moore-democracy-comments-822153/)

[3] Stephanie Hegarty, “The Chinese Doctor Who Tried to Warn Others about Coronavirus;” BBC 6 Feb 2020 (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-51364382)

[4] JM Rieger, “Sean Hannity denied calling coronavirus a hoax nine days after he called coronavirus a hoax;” Washington Post March 19, 2020 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/03/19/sean-hannity-denied-calling-coronavirus-hoax-nine-days-after-he-called-coronavirus-hoax/)

[5] Mary Papenfuss, “It’s Been 1 Year Since Trump Boasted 15 COVID-19 Cases Would Soon Be ‘Close To Zero’” Huffington Post Feb. 26, 2021 (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/donald-trump-15-covid-19-cases-anniversary_n_6039a526c5b601179ebd8ccc)

[6] “Amid India’s COVID-19 Surge, Dozens of Dead Bodies Found Floating in Ganges River;” CBS News May 11, 2021 (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/india-covid-ganges-river-bodies/)

[7] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, part II, chapter 17

[8] I say “he” because Hobbes meant “he;” he treats women not as citizens themselves but as one of those things men fight over.

[9] Leviathan chapter 19

[10] Bess Levin, “Texas Lt. Governor: Old People Should Volunteer to Die to Save the Economy;” Vanity Fair March 24, 2020

[11] Aristotle, The Politics, Book V, chapter xi

[12] Politics Book II, chapter ix

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: introduction

March 30, 2021

Theses Attributable to Aristotle:  introduction

Lawgivers make the citizens good by inculcating good (habits) in them, and this is the aim of every lawgiver; if he does not succeed in doing that, his legislation is a failure.

—–Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book II, chapter i, 1103b

            From the end of the 20th Century until now, I have seen a lot of division and confusion regarding our politics.  As a child I was largely oblivious to the existence or the end of legal segregation.  As a schoolchild I was part of the struggle over desegregation, and while I could observe the poverty of Black schools and desired that adults would fund all schools better, I was still a child and had little sense of involvement.  As I got older, I began to think more consciously about the relationship between myself and the nation I lived in, between the citizen and the state, the meanings of these terms and the mutual obligations entailed.  Without my quite being aware of it, these social questions that were affecting me, such as court-ordered bussing or draft registration, were parts of one larger question:  the relationship between the individual and the state. 

            Unknown to me at the time, the political parties were defining their different views on this question.  Race and the draft were the two issues that got people out in the streets when I was a child watching television.  We didn’t have as much discussion of things like “wealth gap” in those days, partly because it wasn’t nearly as big an issue; the wealth gap was a fraction of what it is now, and the middle class was strong and growing.  Both liberals and conservatives agreed that a citizen had a duty to vote, and devoted energy to train children to become citizens—-thought it is sadly ironic that there was still a lot of conflict and even violence over whether this citizens’ right and duty to vote should apply to nonwhites.

            My first introduction to philosophy was Walden, and I was particularly influenced by Thoreau’s essay “Economy.”  Thoreau presents his vision of human nature:  the ideal life is one close to Nature, eschewing luxuries, working enough to sustain life but little more, so as to allow ample leisure time for thought, writing and other pursuits to feed the mind and soul.  I don’t remember if I read his essay on civil disobedience at this time, but I still have the book I used and it includes that famous essay so I think I did.  Either way, I was already reading political philosophy at the age of thirteen, including critiques of consumerism and capitalism, representative versus radical democracy, and the general relationship of the individual to society.  Metaphysically and epistemologically, Thoreau is something of a mystic; the believed that God was literally in Nature and could be experienced directly by experiencing Nature, getting away from crowds and civilization.  In the woods, by his beloved pond, Truth gave itself directly to Thoreau.  In the bustle of society, in the ambition of politicians and the pressures to conform and in the strivings of empires, he found only falsehood and sin.

            I think the next major piece of political philosophy I picked up was Plato’s Republic.  Plato too is a mystic; Truth and The Good are transcendent reality, known directly by the mind open to receive them.  And also like Thoreau, Plato was something of an ascetic; he too thought luxuries and the pursuit of profit lead one into greater unhappiness and ignorance, while embracing simplicity in life allowed greater devotion to fullness of thought and spirit.  But whereas Thoreau politically was a cynic and almost an anarchist, Plato was anti-democratic, yearning for a Philosopher-King who would combine the philosophical insights of Athens with the rigid class distinctions and social discipline of Sparta.  In high school I didn’t really notice the disagreement, as I saw Plato’s republic as merely a thought-experiment expressing how reason should rule in the life of the individual; but as time has gone by I have come to see that Plato took this idea of enlightened monarchy seriously.  Plato is not an individualist; he yearned for a society with a wise division of labor, where those who were good thinkers did all the thinking and policy-making while those whose hearts turned towards business devoted themselves to producing and making money and left the running of society to the intellectual elite.  So while Thoreau is heir to Plato in many ways, politically he follows the example of Diogenes the Cynic, the fierce individualist, who rejected political partisanship and creature comforts alike in his pursuit of complete personal freedom. 

            Plato and Diogenes were both students of Socrates, but took different lessons from the teacher’s words and fate.  Which is best:  a well-ordered, stable society where everyone knows his or her place and strives to benefit the whole, or a society which is an aggregate of individuals, each striving to live out their own ideals and pursue their own happiness?  It seems to me that this is a conflict that occurs repeatedly in the history of thought, since it is intrinsic to the project of human social life in general.  China had Confucius and Chuang-Tzu; the Hellenistic Age had the Stoics and the Cynics; the Enlightenment had Hobbes and Locke; nineteenth-century America had the Capitalists and the Transcendentalists.  As societies grow beyond family-groups and clans, we’ve had to turn our brains to intentionally work out the relationship between the individual and the group, with some placing the emphasis on one and some on the other.  Does the individual exist to serve the group, and is the nature of the individual defined primarily as part of the group?  Or does the group exist to serve the individual’s needs, so that anything that does not nurture the individual is to be discarded?

            There’s been something of a resurgence of Aristotle in recent decades.  Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum have been arguing for a return to virtue ethics, and a view of ethics as aiming for some sort of “good life,” some fulfillment of human nature.  On the other hand, political conservatives in the USA have promoted Aquinas and other Aristotelians, as well as Plato’s anti-democratic republicanism, not so much from any intellectual consideration as because they see both Plato and Aristotle as useful cudgels in their ideological war against “liberals.”  I’ve taught Aristotle as part of my Ethics classes for years, but only recently have I become interested in his political philosophy.  I believe he has much to say, and much that would defy the easy liberal-versus-conservative polarities we seem to love so much today.

            Aristotle’s Politics picks up about where Nicomachean Ethics leaves off. Aristotle’s ethics rests on his view that humans are rational animals, and thus not only have needs for basic essentials for life and desires for pleasant sensations while avoiding misery, but more essentially they need to live lives “guided by reason, or not apart from reason.”[1]  To attain this sort of life, one must cultivate habits that contribute to it; these are the virtues.  By contrast, habits that lead away from true human fulfillment (or “eudaimonia,” often translated “happiness”) are termed “vices.”  For Aristotle, the ethical life is a matter of cultivating virtues by acting virtuously, reinforcing those beneficial habits while avoiding acts that would tend towards vices.[2]  And in support of his linkage between morality, character and habit, Aristotle mentions that states themselves often employ legal codes that will shape the character of their citizens by using rewards and punishments to encourage good habits while discouraging bad ones.  For instance, we ourselves seek to be properly brave, neither too reckless nor cowardly, because if we are wise we know that hitting the virtue defined as the proper midpoint between these extreme vices will lead to our own true happiness; and societies seek to encourage bravery, industriousness and other virtues in citizens as a whole for the wellbeing of the community, so they use laws and other social pressures to encourage each individual to become a better person.  Aristotle would say that in doing so, the society is pushing the individual to become not just more socially useful, but also more personally happy.

            So even in his exploration of personal ethics and personal happiness, Aristotle sees an important role for the State.  This certainly distinguishes him from some ethical schools which have been important in American history, such as Transcendentalism; and it distinguishes him from some successors to Socrates, such as the Cynics and the Epicureans.  Today’s successors to Aristotle will likewise be less individualistic, but also concerned about the ultimate fulfillment of the individual; Aristotelians will not sacrifice the individual to the State as a Hobbesian would, since the individual’s happiness is the goal of the individual’s own activity.  Also unlike Hobbes, an Aristotelian will stress the character development of the individual, and stress the importance of cultivating the virtues.  Because of Aristotle’s view of the importance of both the individual and the group, it was natural that he would write both personal ethics and political philosophy, and base the second on the first. 

To be continued…..


[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book I, 1097b22–1098a20

[2] Nicomachean Ethics, book II

Of Blood and Bullshit

January 14, 2021

Of Blood and Bullshit

            I am particularly interested by the fact that the Capitol Hill insurrectionists imagine themselves to be patriots.  One rioter was allegedly heard sobbing, “They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.”  Never mind that BLM never stormed the Capitol, that when rioters did attempt to storm government buildings they were met with far more force than the Capitol Hill insurrectionists faced, that BLM or Antifa never posed an existential threat to the nation, sought to overturn the normal functioning of the nation, or planned to seize and execute government officials, as the white supremacist rebels did.  It is a strange riot, a curious rebellion that, without a trace of irony, expresses outrage that its use of force is met with force.  They think they’re the heroes, that they’re the only patriots, that they are saving America. They expected the police to join them, the American people to either greet them as liberators or to slink away cowed, and Donald Trump to march up to the Capitol and reveal how their storming the enemy citadel would now insure his continued benevolent and completely successful reign for at least another four years.  Why?

            As Harry Frankfurt describes in his 1982 essay On Bullshit, there are lies, truth, and then this other sort of verbal action that is neither.  A truth-speaker says what the speaker believes to be true.   A liar finds the truth inconvenient, and instead speaks what the liar believes to be false.  And then there’s the bullshitter.  The bullshitter doesn’t care and often does not even know what is true.  Bullshit is disconnected from the entire true/false dichotomy.  The bullshitter is engaged with some other sort of activity.  Maybe it’s to impress or amuse (the “fish that got away” stories).  Maybe it’s advertising (“cats ask for it by name”).  Maybe it’s to win election (“My opponent is a socialist like they have in Venezuela who will destroy this country”), or to puff up one’s own ego or motivate one’s voters (“The only way I could lose this election is if it rigged”).  Whether the statement is true may not matter at all to the speaker; what matters is the reaction of the receiver.  The bullshitter seeks to manipulate rather than inform. 

            When everyone is sort of in on the joke, it doesn’t matter and, in fact, the BS might even be beneficial.  Imagine a coworker or friend who was always serious, who never exaggerated or speculated or dreamt; that would be pretty boring.  But if the hearer or reader mistakes BS for actual factual claims, then that receiver is deceived.

            Example:  “We’ll build a wall and Mexico will pay for it!”  When DT said that, everyone knew it wasn’t going to happen.  Many of his supporters on TV and elsewhere actually mocked “liberals” for treating it as a factual promise.  They said, “Liberals take Trump literally but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously——but not literally.”  Everyone knew and at least tacitly admitted that this was bullshit, but his supporters felt it was an honest expression of their desires and values.  But later, the line between bullshit and lying became blurred, as more and more people believed it was promise, a true statement of intentions with a realistic chance of fulfillment, when in fact it was never going to happen.           

            The “fraud” claims seem to be people believing the bullshit.  It was never impossible for Trump to lose a free and fair election.  As the COVID-19 response (largely another exercise in bullshit, or in DT;s terms “cheerleading” for the nation and “being positive” rather than being providing facts and warnings) faltered, losing became more likely.  But his followers took it as a statement of fact; he can’t lose, so if he does then someone cheated.

            As to DT himself, his “power of positive thinking” approach is that if he says it and convinces himself, it will happen.  So he inevitably believes his own bullshit.  He says what will please his audience (pure bullshit, since he neither knows nor cares whether what he says is true when he is saying it).  Then, since he said it, he is convinced that if he doubles-down, it will happen, whether “it” is a business making money for his investors, a loan being repaid, or a disease disappearing as if by a miracle.  He even argued in court, when suing Forbes for allegedly understating his wealth, that he is worth as much or as little as he feels on any given day; if he feels like he’s worth 10 billion he is, but if later he feels like he’s worth only 1 billion then now he’s only worth that.  So when he’s talking to banks about getting a loan and he feels like he’s worth 10 billion, he’s not lying; but if he’s talking to the IRS and feels like he’s about to go broke, that’s not fraud either.  Whatever he says, lo, it is so.

            At this point, what was probably somewhat self-aware bullshit has become full-blown self-deception.  Donald Trump long ago took Norman Vincent Peale’s philosophy to its illogical conclusion, that if he told himself something and kept positive then the world would conform to his wishes.  As he told others he couldn’t lose, he was telling himself that as well.  As the flatterers told him he couldn’t lose, he believed them; as the true believers sought to motivate themselves and others with an upbeat message, he believed them; and soon his world was echoing that message.  As to his followers, the collection of QAnon cultists, white supremacists and other far-right ideologues that swarmed into the Capitol, all the evidence and their public statements show that they too believe the bullshit.  They are not tethered to the rules of evidence or logic that restrict so many of us, but allow their minds to run free across fantastic battlefields, trampling the bodies of their enemies.  They are the Powerful, Righteous and Knowing, while those who spent their lives learning and serving are the Weak, sheeple who follow “experts” and “recognized authorities” and “science.”   But they are not sheeple; they are too smart to be deceived by people with years of research and years of public service holding them back.  Instead, they are bold and clever enough —- to believe absolutely everything they are told by The Strong Man, The Big Man, Donald Trump, whose many failures in business are never his fault, whose many divergences from reality only reveal his hidden knowledge and his subtle strategy, and whose very excesses and boorishness show that he is One Of Us even though he has lived his entire life literally isolated in a golden tower and has repeatedly stated his “racehorse theory” that he and his family are genetically superior to everyone except other authoritarian billionaires. 

That is why the putsch failed, this time.  As Harry Frankfurt said in On Truth, a society needs truth; not necessarily Eternal Truth, but practical, pragmatic truths, facts about reality and realistic plans given the limitations of reality.  You just can’t do anything unless you know what’s real and what’s reasonably plausible, what needs to be done and what you can do.  The Capitol Hill insurrection was a case of thousands of people believing the bullshit and acting on it.  The factual claims are nonsense; they’ve been refuted in over sixty court cases.  This election literally has been litigated and relitigated dozens of times, and the result is always the same.  At some point, any reasonable person has to accept reality.  But people who believe the bullshit have chosen to reject the rules of evidence and reason that they would apply to any other part of their lives.  The positive spin of Candidate Trump, engaging in a little harmless, standard trumpery that “we’re going to win this election,” metastasized into something more dangerous; from a little harmless bullshit to a major shitstorm.  Then, the bullshit that somehow storming the Capitol would “save democracy” by handing Trump the victory led them to a stupid and dangerous course of action.  There never was a realistic plan; there were just fantasies of revenge and victory.  The terrorists who attempted to kidnap and murder the governor of Michigan have since argued that they were never really serious; it was all just bullshit, guys being guys and talking big among themselves about how they’d like to “get” that authority they hated.  The Capitol Hill thugs were, in some cases, apparently doing the same thing:  bullshitting among themselves, then showing up for a rally to feel good, then following the crowd into the building, but with no realistic plan as to how this was all supposed to work or how it would accomplish anything good.  In fact, investigative reports state that they just assumed that at some point Donald Trump would stride onto the scene and tell them what to do next, set wrongs to right and win the day; while instead he was simply sitting in the White House watching on television, enjoying the chaos and the adulation of himself without any solid plan to give any orders beyond blocking law enforcement from getting any reinforcements from the Pentagon.  So once Pence, Congress and the physical Electoral College ballots escaped, the insurrectionists had nothing to do but wander around, loot and vandalize, post selfies and boast on social media, then leave.  Their delusional state is fully displayed in the fact that even after every member of Congress escaped and thus there was no way Joe Biden’s victory would not be certified, they still thought they’d won, that they were the heroes, and that the only future problems they might face were where they would display their Medal of Freedom.

And because they believed the bullshit handed them by Trump, Cruz, Giuliani, Hawley, Gaetz and other opportunistic politicians looking to gain popularity, people died, people were seriously injured, tax money that could have been used to defend the nation or fight the pandemic will be spent on cleaning up the mess, and many, many people who think of themselves as patriots are facing the real possibility of lengthy prison terms. 

The insurrection of January 6, 2021 is the natural culmination of a political party drowning in bullshit, incapable of engaging with reality in any meaningful way, incapable of solving real problems but well capable of creating them, only solving bullshit problems.  For three years the Bullshitter-in-Chief, DJ Trump, built walls to stop nonexistent caravans, subsidized farmers hurt by his trade war sparked by his misunderstanding of trade deficits, sabotaged the nation’s most reliable alliances through his incapacity to recognize a good deal when he got one while selling out to enemies because he can’t recognize a con, avoided prosecution only because he was President and then thought that meant he wasn’t a criminal who would land in jail the second he was no longer President so he continued adding to his future legal troubles, and finally got himself impeached for a petty shakedown of an allied nation and was again only saved by rank partisanship—-which his bullshit-addled brain turned into a pronouncement of innocence, leading him to repeat all his past mistakes.  He demands a favor in exchange for doing his job, then says it’s not a “quid pro quo” because he said “no quid pro quo;” I want a favor for a favor but don’t call it a “quid pro quo” and then it isn’t one.  That sort of evasion of clear meaning and clear logic is the hallmark of bullshit.  For three years, a reality TV star who’s production crew largely says was playing a part they created has confused his television role with real life, and further confused the selfishness of a family business conning marks with public service to better a nation, and bullshitted his way through. 

But as they say, “money talks; bullshit walks.”  Or as the pragmatic philosopher William James said, truth is what has “cash value.”  Truth is what works, what gets things done.  What works in the long run is what is true in the practical sense.  To update and expand on James a bit, bullshit may work in the short run, but ultimately it fails.  It can’t solve problems; it can only distract from them.  Bullshit, after all, isn’t even engaged with reality; it is oblivious to truth and thus oblivious to the real problems.  When COVID-19 hit, this political party could only respond one way:  bullshitting.  They covered it up, obfuscated, tried to build a wall which was as useless as the other wall they’d built, issued contradictory directions to states and other regional authorities and then told them they were on their own so they could hide behind the confusion they’d caused, all the while lining their own pockets by investing in stocks that would do well when the dam broke.  Which it did.  The President has said he deliberately downplayed the pandemic because he likes to be positive, rather than deal with reality.  His son-in-law and nominal head of the pandemic response has said they intentionally gave contradictory directives.  All this bullshit naturally made things even worse.  At the same time, the Bullshit President encouraged well-armed, poorly-educated paramilitary loyalists to blame the people trying to carry out those directives for all their real and imagined problems.  They prepared to and, in some cases, even killed others to defend their imagined rights against imagined threats, while all the time their real problems go worse.

The bullshit was walking, walking away rather than solving problems.  And finally, the problems became DJ Trump’s problems.  The pandemic he’d ignored and bullshitted was destroying the economic recovery he’d been left by his predecessor like a squandered inheritance wasted on a foolish prodigal son too vain to repent.  Hundreds of thousands of people were dead, millions more sick and unable to work, many crippled for life..  And people who were tired of the ineffective bullshit were looking to his opponent for real answers to their real questions.  But the Republican party, its information machines and candidates and operatives and paramilitaries and wealthy donors alike, are unable to produce real answers; instead they doubled-down on the bullshit.  They started screaming about fraud and undermining democracy itself even before the voting had begun, preparing to reject any result they didn’t like no matter how clear-cut.  And the ones with the guns and the lack of information or critical judgment, the poorly-educated paramilitary militias with their conspiracy theories and bullshit dreams of racial superiority, believed the bullshit.  They launched an insurrection, which has not yet ended, to try to overthrow the freely elected government of their nation based on the bullshit assertion that it was not elected.  They pursued strategies and tactics which could not possibly achieve the goals they wanted, because bullshit knows neither facts nor logic.  The bullshitters who had encouraged them in their delusions were shocked, shocked that anyone would act to save the democracy which the bullshitters had said was being destroyed, by trying to destroy the actual democracy and kill the actual elected representatives of the actual majority of voters.  Then the bullshitters do what bullshitters do:  they tried to bullshit their way out of the problem as they saw it.  This is a public relations nightmare for Republicans; someone believed their bullshit and created real-world problems while the Republican Party was engrossed in solving phony problems only.  So they made fact-free assertions, before anyone could possibly have any facts at all, that Antifa and BLM had been behind the insurrection.  Because that is what bullshitters do:  they bullshit.  They say whatever will help in the moment, and since they are unconcerned for truth they can speak instantly without having to wait for information.  They say, “I want no violence,” the same way they say “No quid pro quo”—-I want you to do this but I want legal cover so I’ll use words that contradict my clearly expressed desires.

In the meantime, the terrorist rebellion they’d incited with their bullshit, and which they continue to incite by sticking with their bullshit claims of fraud and their bullshit endorsement of racists and paranoids, of Proud Boys and QAnon, was left angered and hate-filled (since bullshit is great at stirring up passions) but without any clear direction or realistic goals (since that would require engagement with reality).  They may do a lot of damage; they are plotting mass murder, and no one really knows who will act on those plans and who is just bullshitting.  But they have no real strategy, no actual idea what winning or losing would look like, and absolutely no idea what they would do if they won or how they would solve the nation’s problems.  They only have their bullshit-fueled rage and bullshit-fueled dreams, dreams of vengeance and power and the magical end of all their problems.  And while their bullshit machines at FOX News and talk radio and the internet produce more bullshit, and their voter base drowns in bullshit and loses all sense of reality, the Republican leaders are incapable of offering useful ideas to solve the very real problems of the pandemic, of racial justice, of a floundering economy, and of a growing white nationalist insurgency.  They can only bullshit and hope that somehow the problems go away.

The bullshit has led to bloodshed, and likely will lead to more.  The bullshitters encourage and incite and protect the bloodshed, even as they denounce it.  They cannot do otherwise at this point; it would take too much self-awareness to change course.  They believe their own bullshit, or else simply cannot conceive of any alternative to bullshitting.  Pirro and Hannity and Jones and Dobbs and the rest cannot simply come out and start dropping truth, even if they know it; they’d lose their bullshit-addicted audience without gaining any new one from those truth-lovers, and thus lose all their power.  The demagogues like Hawley and Cruz and Gaetz are in the same fix; they have power over the bullshit mob only as long as they provide more bullshit, and will be cast aside in a second if they deviate from the established party line and thus lose any influence to stop the madness they started.  So the power in the Republican Party today can only be used to stop the solution of problems and to create new ones; it is incapable of being redirected to solve real problems since it is disengaged from reality.  The only real solution is for the nation to disengage from the Republican Party.  Some new, more pragmatic center-right party will emerge to fill the void, eventually; but until then there are only two sides to American politics:  the party that attempts to engage with real problems in the real world and looks for real solutions even if sometimes it misses, versus the party that attempts to avoid reality, that ignores truth, and which if it ever finds a real solution it is only like the proverbial blind squirrel finding a nut buried under a pile of bullshit. 

What the Right Gets Wrong: about Idolatry

January 4, 2021

What the Right Gets Wrong:  about Idolatry

I the Lord your God am a jealous God

—-Exodus 20:2

            What is “idolatry”?  The Religious Right would say that such things as Santeria and Voodoo are idolatrous.  They combine Christian and non-Christian religious practices into one religion.  In the case of Santeria, more common in my native Florida, they sometimes quite explicitly rename and rebaptize the orisha of Yoruba sorcery as Catholic saints.  Although in the days of slavery there was an attempt to make the religion seem Christian to outsiders, its emphasis on animal sacrifice, spirit possession and other traditional African practices show that it is far different from the Catholicism of the Cuban plantation owners and masters. 

            Many in the Religious Right consider Catholicism and Orthodoxy to be idolatrous as well.  Both religions use images of Christ and the saints in worship, and Catholicism in particular has a strong emphasis on the saints as intermediaries who can receive prayers, intercede with God on behalf of the faithful, and even perform miracles to aid those who call on them.  All of this is abhorrent to Evangelical Protestants, and as a child I was often warned to be wary of those idolatrous Catholics.  Today however the Religious Right includes both Catholic and Protestant and they often set aside their theological differences in favor of political cooperation.

            Catholics and Orthodox, and maybe some followers of Voodoo and Santeria, would say that these saints or spirits are lesser beings than the Creator, even servants, and therefore it is no disloyalty to the Creator to pray to them.  Fundamentalist Protestants, on the other hand, reject all this imagery and iconography and ritual and prayer to intercessory powers, saying they are violations of the majesty of the One God.  God will surely smite such false worship, for the LORD is a jealous God.

            But many of the largest, richest Protestant churches, and the most powerful and celebrated preachers, are themselves idolaters.  The foremost example in the 20th Century was the Christian Nationalists.  In the 1930s a particularly odious example arose, the “German Christians.”  They sought to combine their primarily Lutheran heritage with the militarism and nationalism of Adolf Hitler. To them, any church that dissented from the rising political regime of the Nazi party was not only threatening the unity of the nation; it was rebelling against God, who established all nations and leaders and had chosen their nation to dominate all others as the foundation for the new Kingdom of God, the Holy Roman Empire reborn.  Not all Christians agreed with this mixing of nationalism and Christianity, however, and in 1934 a gathering of Reformed, Lutheran and United church leaders met in Barmen, Germany, where they approved and issued The Theological Declaration of Barmen.  Relying explicitly on Scripture for each of its main points, it argued that not only was this Christian nationalism theologically wrong, but that it was heresy.  In seeking to give the Church explicit political power, and in seeking greater union between Church and State, the German Christians were actually demoting the Church and turning it into an organ of the State (Barmen Declaration II, 5).  The Church should obey the Gospel alone, and not be swayed by allegiance to political movements (Barmen II, 3).  The declaration culminates with the final anathema, “We reject the false doctrine, as though the church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans” (Barmen II, 6).  While the German Christians argued that the Nazi state was a Christian nation and thus the protector of the Church, those now known as the Confessing Churches argued that this pretense really meant replacing Jesus with the State as the center of concern.  The Church was being seen and being used as a means to an end, that end being the unity and strength of the State, and in particular the strength of the ruling political authorities of the State. 

            The Religious Right would say that this happened in a foreign land; while those Europeans were easily deceived, the United States is a blessed nation, a Shining City on a Hill, and could never be lured into idolatry.  Or, they might go further and say the Germans were corrupted because they were socialists; after all, Socialism is right there in the name “National Socialist German Workers’ Party.”  Sure, they fought Communists, first on the streets of Germany and then across Europe; but really they were Socialists just like Stalin and Hugo Chavez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:  all Socialists, all exactly the same.  The Religious Right, on the other hand, are all Capitalists and thus love Freedom and are Good and Right—again, it’s there in the name “Right Wing.” 

            And because they are capitalists and capitalism is Good, many of them embrace a theology known as “The Prosperity Gospel.”  According to this theology, which has roots in the “power of positive thinking” of Norman Vincent Peale and more recently in such preachers as Jim Bakker, God wants all the faithful followers of his son Jesus to have “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17).  Whatever you ask for, if you believe, you will receive (Matthew 7:7; Mark 11:24).  And so on, and never mind where the Bible hints that these are spiritual blessings (Luke 11:13); God knows you want nice clothes and a minivan and a good job and early retirement and three square meals plus a day, and God is good and wants you to have whatever you ask.  So just believe in God and Jesus, as the preacher tells you and describes them, and you will get all the worldly goodies you desire.  Believe in God and Jesus SO THAT you can get all the worldly goodies.  In the Prosperity Gospel, in the version of Christianity taught by chair of the spiritual advisory board serving Donald Trump, God and Jesus are there waiting for you to show up with your spiritual ATM card to withdraw cold, hard cash to buy everything you desire; or, if your credit runs out, it’s because you didn’t believe hard enough or obey your preacher closely enough.  Just as your worldly job is a means to an end, that end being your paycheck, so too does the Prosperity Gospel proclaim that if you work for God, He will give you an even bigger paycheck, and all this faith is the means by which you can attain worldly prosperity. 

            In Catholicism, we pray to the saints and to the Virgin Mother, who prays to the Father for us, who saves us from our sins, and that is called “idolatry” by the Evangelical Protestants.  In Evangelical Protestantism you pray directly to the Father through Jesus, and the Father will give you miracles and magic and fulfill your wishes for comfort and profit and even for power over others, and somehow that isn’t idolatry?  One prays to something that is not God to reach what is God; the other prays to God like a letter to Santa, making God the tool and prosperity the goal.  But of course, that’s Capitalism and therefore Good and therefore holy.  Right?

            No!  Idolatry is not whether you have an empty cross or one with the crucified Christ.  It is not whether you have no pictures in your church, or only pictures of Jesus, or pictures of all the saints.  Idolatry is when you make the ultimate reality, God, a tool of your own tiny ambitions.  As Kierkegaard put it:

If someone who lives in the midst of Christianity enters, with knowledge of the true idea of God, the house of God, the house of the true God, and prays, but prays in untruth, and if someone lives in an idolatrous land but prays with all the passion of infinity, although his eyes rest upon the image of an idol—where, then, is there more truth?  The one prays in truth to God although he is worshipping an idol; the other prays in untruth to the true God and is therefore in truth worshipping an idol.[1]

            Idolatry is, in a way, the natural default for the human-deity relationship.  It is the childish (in Kierkegaard’s terms, “esthetic”) understanding.  God is to be understood and used; God acts and thinks just like us, and can be flattered like us, grows cross like us, kicks ass like we imagine we would do if we were gods, and showers money, political control, fame, military might and everything else we imagine as “good” on those who please Him.  And since most of us live in a patriarchal culture, we imagine God as an older, rather stern male ruler.  We want, as Kierkegaard said, a direct relationship to God, one that is straightforward, where we know the rules and know how to work the rules to get what we want, like a teenager who knows that if he or she just gets good grades and isn’t arrested for drinking then Dad will give them a car next birthday.  What we don’t want is what Kierkegaard says is true worship:  to love God, to know that God is beyond all comprehension, to orient all one’s own personal ambitions and values around that idea of being utterly transparent in the presence of God, who wants to be in that relationship despite the fact that literally nothing one could do could possibly “earn” one a spot in Heaven.     The Prosperity Gospel is not “gospel” at all, in any meaningful sense.  It is not “gospel” in the sense of being a message about Jesus, who said that if you follow his way you’ll end up like him, serving God and loving unconditionally, with no place to lay your head, carrying your cross.  It is not “good news,” but just the old “works righteousness,” the old magical thinking, the old drudgery, where you do everything to try to follow the rules laid down by your taskmaster the preacher in the name of the boss in Heaven and, if you’re good, you’ll get a raise and maybe even a Christmas bonus.  And in the sense that we use “gospel” to mean “truth,” it is most assuredly not gospel.  It is just a way to make the rich comfortable since they can measure their virtue the way we measure our value to the company by our paycheck; and it is a way to humiliate the poor in the same way, while pacifying them that if they just obey their human taskmasters who claim to speak in God’s name, they too can earn a promotion.  It is idolatry, pure and simple. 

            The truth be told, however, idolatry is not confined to the so-called “Prosperity Gospel.”  It is central to the entire so-called “Religious Right.”[2]  Jerry Falwell Sr. described the USA as the last bastion for Christian mission and for worldwide evangelism.[3]  Without the United States, God would have no earthly basis for spreading the Gospel or for any of the other missions to feed the poor, bring medicine and other good works done by the Southern Baptist Convention.  Thus it is the duty of every Christian to support the U.S. military and American efforts to fight Communism everywhere.  While God may be able to raise up children for Abraham out of these stones here (Matthew 3:9) apparently God needs the U.S. Army, Navy and all the rest to guard and spread His kingdom.  And in exchange for doing the good work of God, God will give the U.S. security and prosperity.  What hubris!  No longer are Christians to regard themselves as mere unprofitable servants (Luke 17:10); instead we can expect a payoff in this life.  If the U.S. government fights legalize marijuana, fights pornography, upholds traditional heterosexual marriage and enforces other purity and behavioral laws, it can expect God’s blessing.  However, doing that stuff Jesus talked so much about—-feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and so on (Matthew 25:31-46; see also Amos chapters 1-8, Micah 3, Isaiah 3:14, Isaiah 5:8, Ezekiel 18:5-9, Luke 16:19-31, and the Epistle of James)—that would be too expensive, that would be “socialism” and take away from spending on the all-important military, and would reduce the poor person’s dependence upon the churches and thus might reduce their control.  What hubris!  What arrogance!  The Jesus who tells his followers to put away their swords, and assures them that he could call upon twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:52-53), but who tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) needs the USA to carry out his purposes; and the God who could do all this needs the nation so much that He is willing to bargain with its leaders that if they’ll enforce this strict moral code (much of which is nowhere in the Bible) while leaving the private sector to decide whether or how to care for the poor (though the prophets said rulers would be judged by how the poor were treated) then God will provide worldly success and prosperity to the nation.  This is little more than the Prosperity Gospel for nations instead of for individuals; and it is just as idolatrous. 

            We don’t have to take my word, or Niebuhr’s word for the claim that nationalism is a form of idolatry, a betrayal of true and faithful religion.  The prophet Jeremiah dealt with much the same thing, in the final days of the kingdom of Judah (Jer. 7).  His book, which seems to have been dictated by him directly to his scribe Baruch, describes the sins of the rich and powerful as they plotted and blundered their way to destruction by the Babylonian army.  There was plenty of straight-up idolatry, the sort that literalists denounce, with people praying to the Baals even at shrines set up in the temple of YHWH.  But along with this, Jeremiah condemns as equally bad the social sins, such as oppressing the resident immigrant and the poor, stealing, perjury, and adultery.  But the people who did these things felt safe and had no desire to repent, because the temple of YHWH was there in the city and God needed that temple, the last one left after the ravages of the Assyrian and Babylonian armies.  Speaking to the faithful church-goers, the people entering the Temple to worship the true God, Jeremiah says, “Do not trust in these deceptive words:  ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’” (Jer. 7:4).  Only if you repent of your sins, Jeremiah tells them, can you or the nation be saved.  But they did not repent, either of their crimes against the poor or of their combining of worship of YHWH with foreign deities.  And in the end, God allowed the city called by God’s name, the throne of David, and the Temple built by Solomon to honor the one true God to be destroyed—undoubtedly to the astonishment of those firm believers in Israelite exceptionalism, convinced as they were that God needed them and their nation and that thus they could bargain with God.  They were sure that if they agreed to offer sacrifices in the Temple then the LORD would simply look the other way while they robbed and oppressed the poor.  And as the prophet Amos made clear, it is not just the one who breaks the law to rob the poor who will be punished; even the powerful ones who creates unjust laws and profit from them are damned (Amos 2:8). 

            The one who denies food to the poor, or beats up a gay person, or imprisons an immigrant, or despises a different race, or burns down a mosque so that God will see and be pleased and reward them is exactly the same spirit as the one who cuts out a child’s heart as a gift to some god or demon so the sun will come up and the crops be plentiful.  It is human sacrifice, nothing more:  I will sacrifice this other person’s liberty, dignity, even their life so that some powerful spirit being will grant me power and success.  Falwell’s claim that feeding the hungry is a sin if done by a governmental agency but a virtue when done by individuals or churches is, at best, nonsense:  what else is the government for, except to carry out large-scale projects that many people need but that no one individual can achieve alone?  More likely it is not so much confusion and nonsense as it is that old-fashioned sinful evasion of God’s will, pronouncing human precepts as the divine will (Isaiah 29:13, Mark 7:6-8, among others).  It is wrong, Falwell says, to allow a government to do God’s work of justice and care; it is holy to stop the government and leave it to your own will—if you decide to get around to it.  This is idolatry in its purest meaning:  self-worship.  The true worship of the true God is much harder and more troubling:  to care for those God cares for, the poor, the immigrant, the one without family to help (Psalm 146:9, James 1:27 etc.); and to do it knowing that no matter how much you give, it does not earn you anything extra (Matthew 20:1-16) since everything you have was a gift from the start. 


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, v. 1; edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1992) p. 201

[2] For a more detailed yet accessible discussion of this, see James Comey, “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell:  the Christian in Politics;” https://scholarworks.wm.edu/honorstheses/1116/ (The College of William and Mary, 1982), pp. 78-115

[3] Comey, p. 60