Archive for the ‘Political Stuff’ Category

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (Review, pt. 4)

September 19, 2017

Jerry Falwell claims repeatedly in his writings that he has direct warrant from the Bible for everything he is saying. Comey convincingly argues that this is not always true. Sometimes, Falwell does indeed cite a specific Scripture that really does state a particular principle fairly unambiguously, as when Falwell cites Romans 13 to argue that all governmental power ultimately derives from God. But often, at crucial points in his political argument, Falwell cites either weak evidence or none at all. Furthermore, Falwell ignores large portions of Scripture that would complicate his simple (or simplistic) theological argument. This is not merely when he glosses over points that would make it difficult for him to argue that the Bible is without contradiction. That’s an important point, since if the Bible really does have contradictions that have to be resolved by the reader/interpreter, then the entire modern fundamentalist project is suspect; but Comey describes these as “small, troublesome passages” which suggests that they are not essential to understanding the Bible’s message as a whole.[1] At the very least, it is easy for Falwell’s exegesis to flow smoothly so long as all he is ignoring are “small” passages. It becomes more difficult to ignore when Falwell ignores entire sections of the Bible, specifically the entire Prophetic tradition, much of the Wisdom tradition, and any portions of the New Testament that do not fit easily into his truncated vision of God’s word.[2] Falwell largely ignores such essential Christian passages as the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his followers to be peacemakers, not warriors; meek, not proud. Jesus tells his followers to each see to himself or herself; Falwell says that Christians must strive to impose strict sexual ethics on others—sexual ethics, but not ethics about care for the poor, or personal humility, themes that are central to the teachings of Jesus. These words of Jesus are to be left to the individual’s own conscience, and fundamentalists even argue that it is a sin to seek to create laws that would “impose acts of charity” by taxing well-off people to provide even basic aid for the poor. So government can impose heterosexuality, and seek to punish sexual license or at least try to make it as dangerous as possible so people “take responsibility for their actions;” but asking them to take responsibility for their neighbor’s wellbeing, or to take responsibility for how their actions might harm the neighbor’s economic opportunity, is seen as out-of-bounds.

Falwell claims Old Testament backing for his nationalist fundamentalist interpretation of the Christian message; but the Old Testament prophets also had a great deal to say about God’s care for the poor, which Falwell ignores. He has a lot to say about saving souls, but nothing to say about how Amos condemns the nation of Israel for allowing the rich to oppress the poor. By contrast, Niebuhr, who rarely claims direct warrant for his theological positions, is able to deal with far more of the Old and New Testaments much more effectively. Niebuhr would say that the Bible reveals God’s Law of Love, which is our ideal. This ideal includes care for the poor and powerless, and equality of all before God—all people, and all nations. This includes even provisions such as the Year of Jubilee, where all those who had bought property from a fellow Israelite were required to return it—not exactly the ringing endorsement of the private property which Falwell claims to find in Scripture! In fact, there are many passages in the Torah that limit personal profit, including restrictions on collecting debts from the poor, restrictions on using one’s own land (such as allowing the poor to walk into one’s fields to glean), and instructions that one invite the poor and resident foreigners into one’s religious feasts to enjoy the meal. The prophets go on to condemn the people who have largely ignored these laws, refusing to forgive debts or free slaves during the Jubilee or who buy the ancestral fields from others and refuse to return the property. Niebuhr would say that this shows again that the Law of Love is an ideal towards which we should strive, but not one that we ever fully achieve in this life; for that reason, we need justice as a fence to protect the powerless from the powerful and to establish a legal and political equality that approximates the full equality of us all as creatures before God. The prophetic condemnations of economic oppression serve as God’s message that social arrangements matter, that their impact on individuals matters, and that any political or legal structure that allows the powerful to run roughshod over the weak violates God’s Law of Love.

[1] Comey, p. 7

[2] Comey, pp. 88-92

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Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (Review, pt. 3)

September 6, 2017

Niebuhr is claiming that the Bible is not early science or “superscience,” nor is it history or any other sort of strictly factual report. It is also not a set of laws and proclamations by the Cosmic Legislator. Rather, Niebuhr sees Scripture as an expression of the true nature of God, the cosmos, and ourselves. This truth is that God is love, and we are free beings capable of living by the law of love but who inevitably choose otherwise because we are anxious. We are anxious because we are free and self-aware creatures. As creatures, we are finite and hence not fully in control of our own fate; we suffer loss and eventually death, and often for reasons that are either unforeseen or unpreventable. Unlike animals (says Niebuhr) we are self-aware, and thus recognize our own limited and mortal nature. As free beings, we are essentially capable of choosing how to react to our nature; we can live in love with one another and in humble reliance on God, or we can fall into anxiety and seek to preserve ourselves and our peace of mind by denying our true nature as creatures before God and in community with others. Because of the pervasive effects of anxiety and our own constant temptation to self-medicate (through prideful attempts to deny our creaturely limits, or sensual attempts to deny our rational and spiritual potentials, etc.) we inevitably sin. As creatures that are essentially created to be good and loving, but who are also anxious and inevitably succumb to sin, we have to rely on justice to approximate the sort of society we should have.[1] Justice is the human attempt to actualize God’s law of love. It is never perfect, but God shows us what perfect love is and calls us to strive to emulate that. The commandments, the prophets, and even the teachings of the Gospel are not so much instruction manuals or to-do lists as they are pictures of what a loving world should look like, and condemnations of what an unloving, sinful world looks like instead. To rely strictly on those words would be to absolutize the historical contingencies of the world where they were first spoken and written, a world very different from our own, where people lacked the factual knowledge that we now have, and where even social experience was primitive. By and large, fundamentalist Christians today tacitly admit this; only a few would insist that diseases are caused by evil spirits instead of germs or that slavery is acceptable. Niebuhr would say that examples like these show that we can and should use the knowledge we have to understand the world, and then apply the law of love in solving the problems that knowledge shows us using the tools that knowledge gives us.[2]

Jerry Falwell takes a very different strategy to understanding the fundamental message of the Bible and to applying it to the Christian’s political life.[3] He does not purport to be discussing the meaning “behind” the words or God’s nature revealed “through” the words; he claims instead that the political principles he advocates are directly spoken by God to the authors of the Bible, who wrote them down without error or contradiction. Proper political activity thus is simply a matter of taking the direct warrant of God’s word and creating laws and enforcement mechanisms as these command. The Bible says that righteousness exalts a nation, so if we want America to be strong we need to be “righteous” and “holy,” which Falwell says means we must uphold strict sexual ethics with heterosexual monogamy or chastity the only options. Falwell asserts that the Book of Proverbs clearly defends the principle of private property, so the Bible supports capitalism as the only righteous economic system. Jesus told us to “make disciples of all the nations,” so America must remain militarily strong so that it can serve as a launching pad for worldwide evangelistic missions. If, at any point, science, moral philosophy, economics or any other area of human thought seems to contradict the Fundamentalist teaching that traditional, patriarchal, laissez-faire conservative American values are God’s will and the true expression of reality, then that science or ethical insight is to be cast aside as a temptation, which has been superseded by God’s revealed truth.

Politically, the difference between the two views is stark. For Niebuhr, the goal of politics is “justice,” which is the human attempt to express the law of love. Such an approach means that the Christian’s political activity should focus on finding where people are suffering, or where people are being denied full and equal participation in society, and trying to adjust the laws of the nation (and international relations) to reduce the suffering and oppression. For Falwell, “justice” is a matter of determining what the law of God is, and making sure to punish lawbreakers. The goal is not to make a more “loving” society, but a more “holy” one, one more pure, more devoted to obeying God’s commandments as spelled out in the Bible, in order to preserve social order and to make America strong. If America is strong, it can serve as the base for evangelism overseas; and if it does that, God will reward it with miraculous wealth, victory over its enemies and every other manner of blessing.

As Comey points out, Falwell’s claims of direct warrant for all his policy recommendations do not bear close examination. His claim that the Scripture is one harmonious message is only sustained by deliberately ignoring passages that seem to contradict each other. As Comey writes, Falwell’s harmonization of Scripture “flows smoothly in large part because small, troublesome passages are ignored.”[4] And while he offers direct warrant for his claim that all governmental authorities are ordained by God, citing Romans 13, he offers no such citation for his claim that life begins at conception because there is in fact no such obvious, clear scriptural backing. The Bible simply doesn’t discuss abortion at all.[5] It wasn’t an issue. His claim that God endorses capitalism is similarly baseless. Falwell often, at crucial points in his argument, simply claims to be speaking the plain and clear word of God when he is doing no such thing. Instead, Comey points out that Falwell’s own autobiographical statement is that he was a patriotic American before he became a born-again Christian, raising the possibility that Falwell is interpreting the Bible selectively to support his conservative political assumptions rather than deriving his political claims from the Bible as he says.[6]

[1] Comey., pp. 25-33

[2] Comey, pp. 33-54

[3] Comey, pp. 55-74

[4] Comey, p. 7

[5] Comey, pp. 9-10

[6] Comey, p. 93

Niebuhr is claiming that the Bible is not early science or “superscience,” nor is it history or any other sort of strictly factual report. It is also not a set of laws and proclamations by the Cosmic Legislator. Rather, Niebuhr sees Scripture as an expression of the true nature of God, the cosmos, and ourselves. This truth is that God is love, and we are free beings capable of living by the law of love but who inevitably choose otherwise because we are anxious. We are anxious because we are free and self-aware creatures. As creatures, we are finite and hence not fully in control of our own fate; we suffer loss and eventually death, and often for reasons that are either unforeseen or unpreventable. Unlike animals (says Niebuhr) we are self-aware, and thus recognize our own limited and mortal nature. As free beings, we are essentially capable of choosing how to react to our nature; we can live in love with one another and in humble reliance on God, or we can fall into anxiety and seek to preserve ourselves and our peace of mind by denying our true nature as creatures before God and in community with others. Because of the pervasive effects of anxiety and our own constant temptation to self-medicate (through prideful attempts to deny our creaturely limits, or sensual attempts to deny our rational and spiritual potentials, etc.) we inevitably sin. As creatures that are essentially created to be good and loving, but who are also anxious and inevitably succumb to sin, we have to rely on justice to approximate the sort of society we should have.[1] Justice is the human attempt to actualize God’s law of love. It is never perfect, but God shows us what perfect love is and calls us to strive to emulate that. The commandments, the prophets, and even the teachings of the Gospel are not so much instruction manuals or to-do lists as they are pictures of what a loving world should look like, and condemnations of what an unloving, sinful world looks like instead. To rely strictly on those words would be to absolutize the historical contingencies of the world where they were first spoken and written, a world very different from our own, where people lacked the factual knowledge that we now have, and where even social experience was primitive. By and large, fundamentalist Christians today tacitly admit this; only a few would insist that diseases are caused by evil spirits instead of germs or that slavery is acceptable. Niebuhr would say that examples like these show that we can and should use the knowledge we have to understand the world, and then apply the law of love in solving the problems that knowledge shows us using the tools that knowledge gives us.[2]

Jerry Falwell takes a very different strategy to understanding the fundamental message of the Bible and to applying it to the Christian’s political life.[3] He does not purport to be discussing the meaning “behind” the words or God’s nature revealed “through” the words; he claims instead that the political principles he advocates are directly spoken by God to the authors of the Bible, who wrote them down without error or contradiction. Proper political activity thus is simply a matter of taking the direct warrant of God’s word and creating laws and enforcement mechanisms as these command. The Bible says that righteousness exalts a nation, so if we want America to be strong we need to be “righteous” and “holy,” which Falwell says means we must uphold strict sexual ethics with heterosexual monogamy or chastity the only options. Falwell asserts that the Book of Proverbs clearly defends the principle of private property, so the Bible supports capitalism as the only righteous economic system. Jesus told us to “make disciples of all the nations,” so America must remain militarily strong so that it can serve as a launching pad for worldwide evangelistic missions. If, at any point, science, moral philosophy, economics or any other area of human thought seems to contradict the Fundamentalist teaching that traditional, patriarchal, laissez-faire conservative American values are God’s will and the true expression of reality, then that science or ethical insight is to be cast aside as a temptation, which has been superseded by God’s revealed truth.

Politically, the difference between the two views is stark. For Niebuhr, the goal of politics is “justice,” which is the human attempt to express the law of love. Such an approach means that the Christian’s political activity should focus on finding where people are suffering, or where people are being denied full and equal participation in society, and trying to adjust the laws of the nation (and international relations) to reduce the suffering and oppression. For Falwell, “justice” is a matter of determining what the law of God is, and making sure to punish lawbreakers. The goal is not to make a more “loving” society, but a more “holy” one, one more pure, more devoted to obeying God’s commandments as spelled out in the Bible, in order to preserve social order and to make America strong. If America is strong, it can serve as the base for evangelism overseas; and if it does that, God will reward it with miraculous wealth, victory over its enemies and every other manner of blessing.

As Comey points out, Falwell’s claims of direct warrant for all his policy recommendations do not bear close examination. His claim that the Scripture is one harmonious message is only sustained by deliberately ignoring passages that seem to contradict each other. As Comey writes, Falwell’s harmonization of Scripture “flows smoothly in large part because small, troublesome passages are ignored.”[4] And while he offers direct warrant for his claim that all governmental authorities are ordained by God, citing Romans 13, he offers no such citation for his claim that life begins at conception because there is in fact no such obvious, clear scriptural backing. The Bible simply doesn’t discuss abortion at all.[5] It wasn’t an issue. His claim that God endorses capitalism is similarly baseless. Falwell often, at crucial points in his argument, simply claims to be speaking the plain and clear word of God when he is doing no such thing. Instead, Comey points out that Falwell’s own autobiographical statement is that he was a patriotic American before he became a born-again Christian, raising the possibility that Falwell is interpreting the Bible selectively to support his conservative political assumptions rather than deriving his political claims from the Bible as he says.[6]

To be continued…

[1] Comey., pp. 25-33

[2] Comey, pp. 33-54

[3] Comey, pp. 55-74

[4] Comey, p. 7

[5] Comey, pp. 9-10

[6] Comey, p. 93

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (review; pt. 2)

August 30, 2017

The fundamental difference between the two, as Comey presents it, is the different ways each uses Christian scriptures to support his views. Following David H. Kelsey, Comey distinguishes between “direct” versus “indirect” authority.[1] Direct authorization is when a claim is based on a direct quote from Scripture, or is analytically true based on a direct quote from Scripture. While Comey does not give an example, I would presume that refusing to eat pork because Scripture says that you shall not eat any animal with cloven hoofs that does not chew its cud would fit. What Kelsey does say is that it is hard to find examples of direct authorization, because usually the scripture is more the basis of the theological command and not its content. Again using my example, the Torah commands the Israelites to “bind these words (the Shema) as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead,” but it does not say how to do this; Orthodox Judaism has interpreted this mitzvoth to come up with the form of the tefillin. It’s not much of a leap, but it is an interpretation; that makes this an indirect rather than a direct authorization. Why write the scriptures on a paper and put them in a box, rather than write them on a ribbon and tie them on?

Further complicating the question of scriptural authorization for a theological proposition is that the Scripture may serve any of several functions. It may be a direct warrant for the theological conclusion, or it may be backing for a warrant, or data in the argument, or even a rebuttal. In each case the use of the Scripture will be different. For example, in the abortion debate, there simply is no direct warrant saying “thou shalt not commit abortion.” It simply wasn’t an issue that they debated or felt needed much explanation.[2] Instead, attempts to produce a biblical pro-life argument will use some scriptures to attempt to show that the unborn is in fact a person (data) and others to show that killing a person who has committed no crime is wrong (backing) and that since abortion is thus the killing of an unborn person, abortion itself is wrong (an indirect warrant).

Falwell, as you probably suspect, generally claims that his interpretations of Christian ethics and political goals are directly warranted by Scripture. He is a fundamentalist and hence an inerrantist. Comey points out that this does not mean that he is always a literalist. Falwell is claiming that all Scripture is inerrant, without error or contradiction; in cases of apparent contradiction, he is quite willing to claim that a particular passage is not literally true. For example, when Jesus says “if your eye offends you, pluck it out,” that is not a literal command to self-mutilation but rather a hyperbolic expression to teach the importance of avoiding sources of temptation.[3]  Furthermore, because the Bible must be without mistake or contradiction, seemingly contradictory passages must be harmonized, rather than allowed to stand in isolation or to remain distinct in tension with each other. For example, Mark says the women who went to the tomb of Jesus did not find him but were met by an angel who said he was alive, and that they were so terrified that they ran away and told no one. Matthew says they did tell the apostles. Luke says Jesus appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. John says that Jesus appeared in person to Mary Magdalene, and that she told the apostles. Rather than accept that there are four distinct witnesses to the same event that report it differently, the fundamentalist must attempt to harmonize all the accounts into one story incorporating all (or at least most) of the elements of each. Furthermore, it cannot be left to the individual to decide what “really happened,” what one actuality lies at the basis of all four reports; the fundamentalist commentator must produce the harmonious interpretation and present it to the layperson as the authoritative understanding.[4]

Reinhold Niebuhr, by contrast, relies on indirect warrant from Scripture for his theological thinking.[5] While fundamentalists like Falwell treat the Bible as factually true, even describing it as “superscience” and insisting that the philosophy, history, science and even basic cause-and-effect reasoning have no place in Christian faith, Niebuhr argues that the Bible is in fact often factually wrong and even calls it “myth.” He argues that the Bible tells great truths, revealing the true nature of God and of ourselves, but that it “falsifies some of the details” in order to express a deeper reality. As Comey puts it, “Science and history give the facts while religion and myth tell the truth.”[6] The purpose of the myth is not to report facts, but it is not mere fiction either; it is a symbolic expression of realities that exceed the ability of the human speaker or writer to express directly, and likely exceed all human ability to verbalize.

From the Fundamentalist perspective, this sort of reasoning is hopelessly vague at best, and blasphemy at worst. If you can’t trust God’s truthfulness on things like the origin of the world, then you won’t be able to trust Him about heavenly things like salvation; therefore, you must hold onto the belief that everything in the Bible is not only “true” but also “factual.” Niebuhr argues that not only is this sort of factuality demonstrably false, it also falsifies. It risks making our historically conditioned, finite judgments about God into absolute eternal truths, rather than recognize that they are true expressions of God but only partial.

Both Falwell and Niebuhr would say that the Bible is central to all human thought about God and about our place in God’s creation. For Falwell, it is the accurate, direct statement of what God has done in history and what God has commanded humans to do. Scientific, historical and ethical thinking must first accept the inerrant revelation of truth through the Bible; any human thought is only appropriate as it is necessary for explaining and applying that core biblical data. For Niebuhr, the Bible expresses God’s nature and our own, not by revealing literal events and literal words but by expressing fundamental truths. For example, to Falwell it is essential that the Christian affirm the creation of the world in six days. For Niebuhr, the truth of the Creation story is that God is in command, God is other and beyond the world as well as involved with it, that God loves the world and us and that the world is good; and we too are originally and essentially good, although we also fall into sin and separate ourselves from God and our essential nature.

To be continued….

[1] Comey, pp. 3-4

[2] Comey, pp. 9-10

[3] Comey, pp. 4-7

[4] Comey, pp. 6-8

[5] Comey, pp. 18-23

[6] Comey, pp. 18

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (review)

August 28, 2017

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.”  Honors thesis, College of William and Mary, 1982.

 

After President* Donald Trump fired James Comey, several news stories appeared discussing his undergraduate senior thesis on Reinhold Niebuhr and how his theological convictions might have affected his performance of his duties as Director of the FBI. My first thought, naturally, was, “Wow! A religion major found a job!” My second though was, “ I have got to read that thesis!” So much is on-line these days that my first thought was to Google it. No luck there. So I went to the public library, found the thesis title listed in a database of college theses, and requested it through Interlibrary Loan. Unless I get permission from the College of William and Mary to post it, I suggest you go to your library and request it yourself; it is a fascinating read, well-written and informative, reflecting some deep thinking from its young author.

Comey’s thesis compares two theologians who each had a powerful effect on Twentieth-Century American politics. The first, Reinhold Niebuhr, was one of America’s most influential religious thinkers from the 1930s through the 1960s, still widely read after his death in 1971. The second, Jerry Falwell, was at that time something of the new kid on the block, described by Comey as “a well-known fundamentalist television preacher” and an example of the Religious Right, which had been very influential in the 1980 presidential election. [1] Both were Protestant Christian theologians who urged Christians to become involved in politics as part of living out their faith. However, while both rejected Communism and urged the United States to oppose its spread, they had very different political agendas and very different strategies for linking their political teachings to their biblical studies. Comey’s project was to compare the two theologians, to examine each one’s approach to the Bible, politics and the task of connecting them, and to critique the strengths and weaknesses he found in each writer’s position.

To be continued….

[1] Comey, p. 1

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything, pt. 4

August 17, 2017

For Christians, the Hebrew Scriptures are the first covenant, which we humans broke through our injustices and sins. Even as this sin bore its fruit in the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian Exile, God promised through the prophets that there would be a new covenant, one not written on stone tablets but in the hearts of all of God’s people. We don’t believe that God simply replaced the old covenant; God fulfilled it and continues to fulfill it today, because even if all of us prove false, God is always faithful to us and to the promises (Romans 3:3-4). And as before God called slaves out of bondage in Egypt to be God’s own free people, so we believe that through Jesus God called out people from slavery to sin and to the corruption of this world, to live as free children of God together. The apostles and evangelists who wrote to the early Church saw themselves as joining in Christ’s work to start a new sort of kingdom of Heaven, a society of people living on Earth but living by God’s rules. And just as Moses had warned the people not to be led astray by the wealth and pomp of this world, they wrote to the early churches to warn them that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (I Timothy 6:10). None wrote more forcefully against the corrupting idolatry of wealth than did James. It isn’t that having money is in itself a sin. Some philosophies and religions teach that all attachments to this world or enjoyment of any sort are spiritual faults, but that is not the teaching of the Bible. What James says is troublesome about wealth is its power to turn us against each other. We all are naturally attracted to rich, successful-looking people. Psychologists and anthropologists say it’s an instinctual human trait, part of our being social animals. We are all drawn towards the Alpha, either to follow or to try to raise our own status by association. The church is made up of humans, and shares this same tendency. A billionaire or celebrity is seen as a role model by some, as a natural leader by others. To still others the rich person may just be a mark of distinction, something to brag about or to quietly pat oneself on the back about. “Did you see who was sitting right in front of me in church today?” Once the prominent families in churches had their own pews where everyone could see them, with their names written on metal plates. Today, the super-rich and super-famous don’t feel the need to show up or show off in church, so we get fewer chances for that sort of “American Idol” worship. But we don’t have to look just at the church itself; as we move through the world on the other six days of the week, we know how often we give reflexive, uncritical deference to the rich and famous, and how often we despise the poor. Wealth divides us from one another, not by itself but by our allowing it to play on our love of social hierarchies. James reminds us that while we may think the rich are better people who deserve our deference, in fact they are often no better than anyone else, maybe even worse, maybe even enemies of us and of God. Are they not the ones who drag you into court? James asks.

We who aren’t rich are divided from one another because of our tendency to idolize wealth. And the rich are also divided from others for this same reason. Just as it is human nature for the rest of us to bow before wealth and celebrity, it is human nature for wealth and celebrity to expect the rest of us to bow down. That does not mean it is inevitable. It does mean that when it does not happen, it is by the grace of God. And too often, it is the churches that get in the way of this grace, by flattering the rich and endorsing their sense of superiority. One of the founders of the Prosperity Gospel, Norman Vincent Peale, used to lace his sermons with examples of rich people held up as role models. The millionaires who came to his sermons were far more likely to hear themselves praised as paragons of virtue than they were to hear about some old prophet in a hair shirt eating locusts and wild honey. They were rich because they were good, and the proof they were good was that they were rich. They had harnessed the power of positive thinking; and what is faith, if not expecting good things?

James had a rather different view of the wealthy. He writes:

 

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure[a] for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. (James 5:1-6)

 

“The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out!” Who would do such a thing? Who would refuse to pay someone who has done work for him or her? Our president, for one.[1] But he is just one of many; in fact, rich corporations not paying their bills to smaller family businesses, or paying late or paying a fraction, is so common that it is often defended in court as “standard business practices.”[2] And managers forcing employees to work “off the clock,” refusing to pay for overtime or simply refusing to pay workers at all is shockingly common.[3] The Prosperity Gospel tells all of us that the rich are to be praised and imitated, because their success shows that they are not only better than the rest of us, but they are also blessed by God. James seems to think their wealth is an indictment, and they have to show that they are not in fact guilty of sins against God and their neighbors.

[1] Steve Reilly, USA Today Exclusive: Hundreds Allege Donald Trump Doesn’t Pay His Bills;” USA Today, (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2016/06/09/donald-trump-unpaid-bills-republican-president-laswuits/85297274/) also Emily Flitter, “Special Report: Trump’s Art of the Deal—Dispute Your Bills;” Reuters November 13, 2015 (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-trump-bills-specialrepor-idUSKCN0T214Q20151113)

[2] Stephanie Storm, “Big Corporations Pay Later, Squeezing Their Suppliers;” The New York Times April 6, 2015 (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/07/business/big-companies-pay-later-squeezing-their-suppliers.html) as one example.

[3] “Wage Theft Costing Low-Income Workers Billions;” NBC News September 28, 2014 (http://www.nbcnews.com/business/economy/wage-theft-costing-low-income-workers-billions-n212406)

They Support Him, but Don’t Trust Him: Why That Matters

August 10, 2017

They Support Him, but Don’t Trust Him: Why That Matters

 

 

The definition of “reality” should be “true whether you like it or not.” Yet somehow, today even reality is a partisan issue. According to polls, only 24% of Americans believe what the White House says.[1] President Trump’s approval ratings are higher, currently about 34-38%. That means that around 10-14% of Americans think their President is a liar, and still trust him to run the country and trust him to keep his promises to them. If one of us were trying to give advice to a friend who was in love with a partner who lied and cheated, and the friend admitted this, we’d tell that friend, “Are you nuts? Get out of this relationship! You are saying you know this person is no good, so how can this be good for you?” But in today’s politics, many of us choose the leader of the most powerful nation on the planet with less care than we would put into deciding whether to break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend.

This is largely the result of the fact that this White House does, in fact, say things that are demonstrably false, that the person saying must know are false, so casually and easily that it stuns those of us accustomed to honest communication. From the very first presidential press briefing, where the White House lied about whether Obama or Trump had bigger crowds at his inauguration, to lying about meeting Russian lobbyists and intelligence officers (and then admitting, and then admitting more, and more) to lying about whether the President is golfing when people post pictures of him golfing on Instagram and Twitter, and on and on, people have become so accustomed to White House lies that they hardly notice them. They expect lies. Even many in the President’s own political party openly question his honesty, even as they support him. Many working in the White House leak information about the lies, even while continuing to work for and support the administration. Collectively, they are saying that some things matter more than honesty. Some things matter more than having a government and having policies that are rooted in reality. Party loyalty and partisan agendas and culture wars are more important than whether what anyone says is true, or whether the government is going to do what it says it is going to do, or cares about what it says it cares about, or even whether what it proposes could possibly work even if it were implemented. So people give up on trusting their government; those who were opposed become more so, the neutral become more opposed, and even supporters lose trust but continue to support a government that they acknowledge does not deserve their trust, but which the are emotionally devoted to anyway.

This is no way to run a democracy. That is not a partisan statement. We have a real-life experiment that supports this claim.   Liberia is an African nation that was founded by freed American slaves. It uses U.S. dollars as its currency, and in other ways has long-standing cultural ties and debts to the U.S. It has come through a very nasty civil war, and is working to reestablish democracy. People can vote for their leaders, and the leaders for their part are constrained by rule of law, at least somewhat. They can’t simply demand obedience and shoot any dissenters, as North Korea does; the Liberian government, like ours, depends on most of the people doing as they are told voluntarily. The Ebola crisis was, arguably, even more dangerous than the civil war; the war killed far more people, but Ebola had the potential to spread over the whole world. The government tried to get people to cooperate in containing and fighting the plague. Many of their orders restricted individual freedoms, such as requiring infected people not to travel. Other orders contradicted long-standing social traditions; in Liberia, it is common to kiss the dead good-bye, regardless of how they died. The government told people that traveling could spread disease, that touching the dead could spread disease, that they needed to stay home, report any illness to the government, get medical care, and stay away from sick or dead victims of Ebola. The people did not trust their government. They had been lied to many times, by warlords and dictators and even, they felt, by the democratic government. When they were told something that they didn’t like, they simply refused to believe it. They wanted to believe that they could leave their home when a family member got sick, or even travel to see family at the first sign of fever to get care; they wanted to believe that they could kiss their dead relatives goodbye; and in short, they wanted to believe that their government was lying to them and that things were not so bad and that it wasn’t really a crisis. So they believed what they wanted to believe, did not trust their government, did not cooperate, and thousands of people died before the rest decided that maybe, this time, the government was telling the truth.

For the Trump supporters, the problem would seem to be different. They trust their government and apparently will trust it no matter what happens. In an emergency, presumably they would obey unquestioningly. For a democracy, that is not necessarily good, if it is not actually an “emergency.” One of those helpful patriots went to Comet Pizza in D.C. with a rifle and fired a few shots because InfoWars, one of Donald Trump’s favorite news sources, told him that the Democratic Party was running a child sex ring in the basement. This is not only a sick slander, it is laughably false; the pizzeria doesn’t even have a basement. But people could have been killed, and an apparently decent (but gullible and obedient) man is destined for time in prison or perhaps a mental hospital, all for believing a news source endorsed by his President. This is just a small foretaste of what awaits if a future election does not go the way the Trumpists want it to go, and they have to choose between accepting a democratic result or believing that millions of invisible illegal aliens voted for the other side.

Right now, the entire world is suffering the results of the White House and GOP sacrificing its credibility over a series of silly and easily-proven lies. The United States and North Korea are engaged in an increasingly violent war of words, with both threatening the other with nuclear destruction. We are used to this sort of bombast from North Korea, and   the world has seen that they don’t carry through on their threats. But when the President of the United States uses the same language and bombastic threats as the tin-pot dictator of North Korea, no one knows how to take it. Are we headed towards a full-scale nuclear war on the Korean peninsula, and possibly beyond? When the Secretary of State says we should not take the President’s speech literally, should we believe him, when we’ve seen other White House officials say one thing only to be overruled by the President hours or days later? If there is a war, and the President assures the world that it was necessary and unavoidable, or that the U.S. does not intend any harm to any nation other than North Korea, will anyone take him at his word? For that matter, if there is not a war, will we believe it is because diplomacy has won out, and not because of all those millions of dollars invested by Trump Inc. in Macau and elsewhere in China, that might be threatened in a war between the U.S. and a Chinese ally?

The fact is that today’s society is enormously complex. It cannot function without trust. We each have to assume that the others will do what they are supposed to do, whether it is buying food and expecting it not to be poisoned, or electing politicians and expecting them not to start wars either in a fit of temper or based on their personal business portfolio. Civilization is one enormous trust fall. Without trust, we pull our money out of banks and stop using credit cards (or accepting them), we can’t buy cars we can’t personally repair (so goodbye to modern computerized cars), and we open the door with a gun in our hands whenever anyone knocks: in short, anarchy, the opposite of civilization. And right now, we have a President of the United States who is not trusted by most people in his own country or around the world, who is not trusted even by some of his own supporters, and who for his part actively works to undermine trust in everyone and everything else—-attacking the press, Congress, judges, even his own political party and his own Cabinet and other officials. We stand on the brink of nuclear war, maybe; we can’t even know. And if this erosion of trust continues, it will be impossible for civilization to survive.

 

P.S. If you’ve read The Management of Savagery, the al Qaeda strategic manual, you know that this is precisely what the jihadists have been aiming for all along. The jihadists believe that their terrorism will cause trust to break down, civilization to collapse, and society to disintegrate into warring factions and tribes, allowing them to take over in the resulting chaos. Donald Trump is just the latest in GOP efforts to help the jihadists achieve their otherwise impossible goals. Jihadist terrorism is not nearly enough to either bankrupt the U.S. or to cause regions and ethnic groups to turn on each other; but GOP economic mismanagement has done a pretty good job of destroying the economy of Kansas and weakening other states, and some of the people who helped drive Kansas to the brink of bankruptcy are now helping devise federal policies. And with the rise of the alt-right and the state-sponsored xenophobia we see around us, and the conservative threats to use violence against anyone who opposes them, al Qaeda must be feeling very encouraged about its chances to break up the United States. Without the GOP cooperating with their agenda at every opportunity to serve its own desire for power, the jihadists would not have a chance.

 

[1] Brian Stelter, “Fact-Checking of Trump Falling on Deaf Ears? Far From It.” CNN August 8, 2017 (http://money.cnn.com/2017/08/08/media/media-white-house-credibility-cnn-poll/index.html)

Of Gospel and Heresies: Those Ain’t Your Friends

July 15, 2017

Of Gospel and Heresies: Those Ain’t Your Friends

A reading from the book of Job, chapter 42, verses seven to nine.

After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.” So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the Lord had told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.

 

 

One of the first things I learned in college was that I could save a lot of time in the morning if I stopped shaving. Another thing I learned was that Caymanians hate beards. When I started meeting my Caymanian relatives after I grew my beard, I heard many complaints. My grandmother said to my sister that seeing me with a beard was the greatest tragedy of her life. She was a widow. I’ll let that sit there a bit.

My great-uncle Dillon was more direct. He told me directly that I should shave. I told him that many of my friends at school thought it looked good. He replied, “Those ain’t your friends, they’re your enemies!”

Now, Dillon was a bit of a jerk, and despite what my Caymanian relatives thought or think, I saw several of my friends trying to grow beards after I grew mine so I still think I was onto something. But what I want to focus on today is not my choice of facial styling. I’m interested in that saying. Dillon was PROBABLY not saying that those people who I thought were my friends were really wishing me harm. What he meant was that they were giving me bad advice, they were misinformed, and they were harming me when they tried to help.

Our scripture for today is about three of the best-meaning, least-helpful friends in the whole Bible. We should pay attention to this, both in what they do and what they fail to do. I believe this book has much to teach us today, because we humans are slow and still haven’t learned all the lessons of the book of Job.

First, let’s be clear that they really were good friends. Job 2:11-13 says that they each heard that Job had suffered many calamities, and met together to comfort him. When they saw him, he was so sick and so miserable, having lost his wealth, his children and finally his health, that he was unrecognizable. “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” I can barely manage a few words of consolation at a funeral; they sat with their friend seven days! They didn’t just say they were sorry he was sick; they stayed and shared his pain with him. They didn’t speak until they were spoken too. The writer wants us to understand both the depths of Job’s suffering, and the depths of his friends’ suffering for him. It’s important both for providing us with the emotional background to feel the story, and the information to interpret what happens next.

Finally, Job breaks the silence and curses the day he was born. It is an expression of despair and anguish, an expression of Job’s feeling that his life is miserable, and meaningless. In death, he says, the rich and the poor, the prisoner and the taskmaster, the wicked and the good are all together, and whatever happened before no longer matters. Suffering is bad enough, but meaningless suffering is worse; we need a sense of meaning or a goal to help us keep going through the rough times. Job says he sees no meaning in his life, or in life at all. Perhaps that is why Job’s friends thought a little theology would help. The bulk of the book is a series of admonitions from the friends, and replies from Job. Initially, the eldest friend, Eliphaz, seems to have thought that he was comforting Job. He assured him that life does indeed have meaning. If one is suffering, it is because one has done something wrong. No one suffers meaninglessly or unjustly; God would not be so callous. Therefore, Job need only repent of his sin, and his prosperity will return. Job insists that he has done nothing to deserve misery and suffering; it has just happened to him, and there is no reason why. Later speeches by the friends become more insistent; not only do they seem determined to reveal Job’s supposed guilt for his own good so he can repent, but they begin to get a little angry at him because he seems to be finding fault with God. Their intentions seem to drift from comforting their friend, to analyzing his situation and instructing him, to rebuking him and defending God. What they are saying was, in fact, a common theology of the time. As stated in the book of Deuteronomy, God punishes sin. If Israel lost a battle or was oppressed by an enemy, it was because the nation had sinned. If an individual was sick, that person had sinned, or maybe someone close—God was said to visit the sins of the fathers on their children. And likewise, if someone was well-off, it was because that person was blessed by God, and thus was both virtuous and pious. We see claims like Proverbs 13:4: “A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.” We see this sort of reasoning even in the Gospel of John, the last of the gospels to be written down, when Jesus encounters a man born blind and his disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)

It is an idea that is as old as the earliest written Scriptures and carried through even until today.   Today we call this thinking “the Prosperity Gospel,” and it has been particularly well-suited to the American character. There is certainly Biblical justification for this idea, although many of today’s Prosperity preachers don’t make much use of Scripture. And in some ways, it can be a very comforting idea. If I am feeling miserable, I can do something about it; I can work harder, I can pray more, I can tithe and show my faith and faithfulness, and then God will reward me with wealth, health and happiness. And if I am feeling great, then I can feel even better because the Prosperity Gospel tells me that my good fortune shows that I am not merely lucky or merely blessed, but smarter, more industrious, more virtuous, more devout, more worthy than other people. It is no wonder that Prosperity preachers, from Norman Vincent Peale to Paula White, have been so popular with the rich and powerful, and why they in turn have been so enamored of those worldly celebrities. Unfortunately, as Job’s friends show us, this theology has a dark side: it is very easy to move from “if I obey God, God will bless me” to “God has cursed you, you are miserable, therefore you must have done something wrong; you deserve to be miserable, because God would not allow undeserved suffering.” Often today we take it a step further than Job’s friends did, moving from “you deserve to suffer” to “I need not care about you, because you deserve to suffer.” The great evangelist Jonathan Edwards, preaching nearly three hundred years ago when this country was still a group of British colonies, opened this door a crack when he said that after the Last Judgment the righteous in Heaven would look upon the suffering of the wicked in Hell, and rejoice at seeing justice done. Edwards did not, however, say that we should love our living neighbors any less, even if they are wicked, for they are still loved by God and forgiven sinners like us, and Christ died that they too might repent and be saved.[1] But too often today we get ahead of ourselves and are quick to turn away from those who have done wrong in our eyes. And Edwards knew that not all who suffer in this world are sinners, and not all who are at ease are righteous. He did not say we should cease to love our neighbor who was sick, or whose crops had failed, or who otherwise was suffering. But too often today, Christians do say such things. We are so obsessed with stopping the unworthy from getting a “handout” that we are willing to deny many more whose need is genuine and undeserved. And we are quick to assume that everyone who is rich has worked hard and done well and must be smarter and better and more worthy than the rest of us, when our only reason to believe this is the fact that they are rich. There’s much less interest in requiring the undeserving rich to help the deserving poor than there is in requiring the poor to contribute to the welfare of the rich. It gives us comfort to believe this, because the alternative is to admit that we don’t control our own lives, that God alone rules and rules in ways we might not understand, and that we can’t assure ourselves of wealth and health simply by tithing and working. And it gives us comfort to think that we deserve what we have and that those who lack have no claim on us because they deserve to suffer.

The writer of the book of Job wanted us to see the problems with that sort of easy equation of material comfort with spiritual worth. Even decent, well-meaning and godly men like Job’s friends, people who I think might have otherwise been better men than I am, were led astray by this idea that worldly suffering is always deserved. Their theology conflicts with their sympathy. And furthermore, they begin to rebuke Job for insisting that his suffering is not deserved, and that therefore God owes him an explanation. Job says he has searched his heart and can find no sin; he has not neglected to sacrifice and show his devotion to God, nor has he failed to show kindness and to give aid to the poor and unfortunate when he had abundance. His friends say that his current state is all the proof they need that Job has failed somehow, and that to believe otherwise is to disrespect God. No evidence that the other side can give will convince any of them. Only God’s appearance can answer the unanswerable questions raised by inexplicable sufferings. God speaks first to Job, and in fact God’s answer to Job seems a little strange. He never tells Job why he has suffered, that it was all a test to prove that Satan’s charges against Job were false. Job seems satisfied simply to realize that God is so much more than he had realized before, and that even his suffering has a place in God’s plan; he doesn’t demand to know what that place was, but humbly acknowledges his ignorance. But God is much more direct to Job’s friends, saying to Eliphaz “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” It is only when Job prays to God for his friends that they are forgiven, and it is only after Job forgives his friends and asks God to forgive them that his good fortune is restored.

The book of Job was written both to comfort the suffering, and to discomfort the well-off. Things happen for reasons we cannot understand from our human perspective. Because of this, we are all together, both the rich and the poor. Job comforted the suffering when he was prosperous; when his world fell apart, he found comfort from his friends, but also judgment. The attitude of the Hebrew Scriptures towards wealth and poverty is, as we have seen, mixed. If it were not, we would not need the book of Job, because there would be no unexplained or undeserved suffering. Instead, we find again and again through the ages that we do need Job, both to give voice to our mourning when we are in distress, and to remind us of our place when we are the ones who are well-off and witness the suffering of others.

[1] http://www.biblebb.com/files/edwards/contemplated.htm

An Open Letter to Mitch McConnell

July 12, 2017

Dear Senator McConnell:

Republicans have been saying for many years that a nation that cannot guard its borders is no nation at all.  As a point of geography, this is not really true; there are many national borders today that are not patrolled or even fenced, where a person may wander from one country to another without realizing it, and still those nations thrive.  Why?  Because physical boundaries do not matter nearly as much as the ability to govern and control.  If a nation is able to make and enforce laws within an area, it exists.  I could live in Canada for twenty years, in a shack, thinking I was in the U.S. because the border was unguarded and I can’t read a map, and it would not threaten Canada in the slightest, so long as when I finally broke the law in some way Canadian police were able to arrest me, and Canadian courts were able to judge me according to laws made by and for the people of Canada.

Currently, in the United States, we cannot say with confidence that we are a nation.  Our ability to choose our own leaders is under attack.  Without the ability to choose our own leaders, we cannot make our own laws.  Without our own laws, our courts are reduced to enforcing the laws made by others.  When our own courts cannot enforce our own laws, our police and military are merely security guards protecting someone else’s property, following the directions of the boss who actually makes the rules.  And right now, Russia is striving to be that boss.

We know that the Russian government hacked at least 21 state election boards.  We are told that they didn’t change any votes, but we do not know that since no one has actually investigated this.  To say “we have seen no evidence that any votes were changed” when there has been no serious (or even cursory) investigation by DHS is like the “three wise monkeys” with their eyes and ears and mouths covered, so that they cannot see, here or say anything bad. (Source:  http://www.thedailybeast.com/dhs-never-ran-audit-to-see-if-votes-were-hacked).  It is a farce.  But instead of investigating this very real, proven threat to our national sovereignty, you, the Republican Party, are wasting millions of taxpayer dollars investigating voter fraud, which even you, Sen. McConnell, admit never happened (sources:  http://www.cnn.com/2017/07/03/politics/kris-kobach-letter-voter-fraud-commission-information/index.html and http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/17/opinions/mcconnell-call-out-trumps-rigged-election-comments-douglas/index.html).  You yourself said in February of this year that no tax money should be spent on this snipe hunt; but still, a Federal government commission is demanding that state governments aid in its “investigation,” tying up millions of dollars to pay for an investigation using up the time of public servants who could be better employed preventing Russian hacking of the 2018 and 2020 elections.  The executive branch of this government has repeatedly called the entire Russian hacking investigation a “hoax” and “fake news,” with our President even repeating in Poland that “we don’t know” who was involved in hacking our election.

A nation that cannot guard its own methods of choosing its leaders is no nation at all.  The Russian hacking of our nation’s elections systems is a direct attack on our national sovereignty.  By comparison, everything else—-health care, tax reform, even military spending—is irrelevant.  What difference does it make whether we have the best military in the world, if the leaders who command that military are chosen by a foreign power?  We will simply be mercenaries for the Russians.

The Founding Fathers of this great nation, the authors of our Revolution and of our Constitution, were profoundly influenced by the philosophy of John Locke.  His was one of the first and most effective pens to be raised in defense of government of the people and by the people, at a time when England and most other nations still proclaimed the divine right of kings to absolute power.  When the leaders of the Thirteen Colonies sought to articulate the weight of their oppression and the justice of their cause, they turned to John Locke for guidance.  Here is what John Locke writes in his Second Treatise of Civil Government:

 

The delivery also of the people into the subjection of a foreign power, either by the prince, or by the legislative, is certainly a change of the legislative, and so a dissolution of the government: for the end why people entered into society being to be preserved one entire, free, independent society, to be governed by its own laws; this is lost, whenever they are given up into the power of another. (Second Treatise of Civil Government, Chapter XIX, sect. 217; http://www.constitution.org/jl/2ndtr19.htm)

 

Since the 300 year old English can be a little clumsy to the modern ear, please allow me to rephrase:  When the leader of a nation, whether it be the Executive or the Legislative branch of the government, turns power over to a foreign government, that nation has dissolved, and the citizens are on their own to live as individuals, or to join together, take up arms to defend themselves, and to form a new government more responsive to their will.  That is the threat under which we now live:  the end of the United States of America.  And just as John Locke’s words justified a revolution on the far shores of the Atlantic eighty-six years later, there will be people who will say that they justify another one, should you, Senator McConnell, and your fellow leaders, allow this nation to hand its elections over to a foreign power.

I do not exaggerate when I say the United States faces an existential threat.  Here we are, threatened with the loss of our nation’s ability to control its own affairs in its own borders, while the Executive branch is focused instead on justifying the President’s fantasies of popularity and the Legislative branch is focused on passing legislation which the voters do not want and which don’t matter two whits if we cannot say with confidence that our nation is really ours.  Your behavior is as if the nation’s capital were again being burned to the ground by an invading army, and Congress were busy planning for the coming Cherry Blossom Festival.  What will future generations say, when our children or grandchildren ask how it came about that a mighty nation, at the height of its power, suddenly fell into subjugation and humiliation?  How will you be remembered, who allowed this to happen?

Put aside all this nonsense and distraction.  Health care will wait another year.  Tax reform will wait.  These things may flatter the Republican ego, allowing you to feel like you won over the Democrats; but only a fool fights in a burning house.  Focus your attention on something that will actually get bipartisan support, something that might actually unite our troubled nation, and something that actually matters.  Form a bipartisan, independent commission to discover what the Department of Homeland Security seems so uninterested in:  what the Russians are doing to influence state and national elections, and how to stop them.

Thank you for your time.

Of Gospel and Heresies: Prophets and Profits

June 23, 2017

Of Gospel and Heresies: Prophets and Profits

 

 

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?

—– ”Mercedes Benz,” by Bob Neuwirth, Janis Joplin, Michael Mcclure 

 

 

When I was a child, “mainline” churches like the Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians and Lutherans, as well as moderate Baptists, were all growing denominations, growing even faster than the population. It is not hard to imagine why. Catholicism was still often seen as an “immigrant” religion; it wasn’t until JFK that anyone seriously thought a Catholic could be President, or that the United States of America would survive if one did. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Native American religions and other faith groups were all small and, for the most part, either fringe faiths or dominant only in small, ethnically-defined communities. In short, there were some very this-worldly reasons to join the “mainline.” While the “no Irish welcome here” signs were largely gone, it was also a fact that the business community of the 20th Century was often a “good old boys network,” and if you wanted full access to the movers and shakers, you were probably better off joining their churches, or their country clubs (that often had “no Jews” policies, for example), or their fraternities. If you wanted your children to attend public schools, you had to accept that Protestants would be writing the prayers your children would be required to recite every day; otherwise you could pay taxes to support schools you didn’t use, and keep your children out of the mainstream American culture in parish schools, or yeshivas, etc. It was simply easier, and even more profitable to simply go along with the mainstream. Mainline Protestantism was always pretty business-friendly, since so many of the larger churches in any town depended on tithes from the well-off businessmen; in exchange, the churches gave the businessmen who wanted it some moral guidance, and the others could at least gain some moral respectability and gratitude from those who appreciated their contributions and didn’t know too much about where the personal ethics of the contributor.

This was not always so in the early days of Christianity. When Christianity broke off from Judaism some 2000 years ago, it was a persecuted and largely underground faith. Rome was actually very religiously tolerant; as long as a group was willing to burn incense to worship and strengthen the Emperor’s family spirit and the Imperial cult, Rome accepted them. To refuse to worship the Emperor was like refusing to pay taxes today: an unpatriotic betrayal, a declaration that your allegiance to yourself and your group was in conflict with the health and strength of the community. Christians were, in fact, willing to obey most laws, generally, but not to contribute to the spiritual warfare against the barbarians by worshiping the Imperial cult along with Jesus. They were thus enemies of the State and, depending on attitudes of local governors or Imperial edicts, subject to enslavement, torture and death. When the persecution ended in the Fourth Century, people flocked to join Christianity; once the Emperor started supporting it, it became a way to greater economic and social security. As a result of this wealth and power, the real devotion of individual Christians seems not as, well, devoted. In reaction, those believers who wished to experience real spiritual focus began to withdraw from society, first as hermits and later as monks and nuns living in isolated communities. This pattern held through the Middle Ages: the majority lived their lives while worshipping God as the Church told them to, while the spiritual elite, the monks and nuns, rejected full involvement in the world of money and business and power so that they could focus on prayer, meditation and study. Even Popes, who often combined wealth, power and religious authority, could be cowed by the connection to God of a monk or nun known for spiritual discipline and mystical spirituality. And among the people as a whole, it was simply a given that a monk or nun was more spiritual than anyone else, even more than the village priest who still had to live with the rest of us sinners.

That changed with the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other Reformers argued that monasticism was in fact “works-righteousness,” an attempt to curry favor with God instead of trusting God’s love and power alone. Anyone who thinks they can earn and deserve God’s favor did not really love God; God should be seen as a loving parent, not a demanding employer, and we are God’s children who cannot and need not earn what God gives us. Therefore, they said, to love and trust God is not to hide away from the world, but to live and work in community with all your neighbors, to hold a job and do your best, to earn your living rather than relying on the tithes and charity of those who work. Luther asserted “the priesthood of all believers:” that is, the idea that all Christians are equally close to God and can pray directly to God, without the aid of a priest or monk. Calvin went even further, modernizing Christian theology to better suit an economy moving away from medieval agrarianism and towards a society based on commerce and manufacture (such as loosening medieval prohibitions on lending money at interest, which allowed Christians to be bankers).

As Christianity was going through these changes, Europeans were exploring and colonizing America. Catholic lands continued to follow the religious and social patterns of the Medieval Church. Monks and nuns were the religious elite, the missionaries and teachers; nobles were the rich landowners and political leaders; and the majority were farmers laboring to support the Church and the nobles, without any expectation of being anything else. In English and Dutch lands, by contrast, Protestant theology reconciled spiritual devotion with mercantile ambition, so that merchants, traders and investors strove to become wealthy while also being considered godly. In fact, their hard work was seen as a sign of spiritual devotion, and their growing wealth seen as a sign of God’s blessing; at the same time, conspicuous consumption and waste was seen as arrogant and also poor stewardship of God’s blessings. This is the beginning of the so-called “Protestant Work Ethic.” Protestants were encouraged to work at their jobs as vigorously as monks and nuns worked at praying and fasting, and to prize comfortable lives as signs of God’s favor the way a monk or nun would prize mystical visions or inner peace; naturally, the “Yankee trader” who followed this direction became rich, even if he lived in a community with legal restrictions on wasteful spending. As a result, the money could just pile up.

The third-generation Puritans may have lived lives of material success undreamt of by their Pilgrim forbearers, but they still remembered that spiritual devotion and material comfort were not always linked. Their settler ancestors had suffered greatly, and many had died, despite and because of their faith. “Being good” did not always mean “doing well,” and “doing well” was not always a sign that one was good and blessed by God. This was part of the trigger for the Great Awakening, where the descendants of these early religious refugees and now children of their successful grandchildren sought to revive that earlier religious fervor in themselves.

The 19th and 20th Centuries are when the growing material comforts of the United States prompted the Protestant Work Ethic to metastasize into the Prosperity Gospel. The Industrial Revolution created new opportunities for wealth and comfort for some, with poverty and dehumanizing drudgery for others. This divide grew greater, and took on spiritual dimensions, as the country recovered from the Civil War. The U.S. would not have recovered so well, perhaps not at all, without the so-called “robber barons,” the tycoons, industrialists and financiers who remade the nation and the world economic system while enriching themselves. Some, particularly Rockefeller and Carnegie, were strongly religious men of strict personal morality, and they tried to promote good religion and good lifestyles among their workers and in the world. Most famously, Carnegie said that the first half of a man’s life should be devoted to making money, the second to giving it away; he and Rockefeller competed to see who could make the most when they were young, and who could give away the most before they died. They certainly did not think they were choosing between being good men and good businessmen.

In the 1930s the age of the robber baron gave way to the Great Depression, but the mixing of religion and business only increased. The Christian Business Men’s Committee began in 1930 as businessmen gathered to pray for spiritual revival in Chicago; the movement grew and spread. Now not only were a few millionaires bringing religion into their business (and vice versa); average businessmen across the nation were gathering to seek ways to do so. In all this, there were definite continuations of the Colonial and early national Protestant work ethic: God wants you to strive to be successful, and then to use what you make to help others. The tycoons and less amazingly successful capitalists tended to attribute their success to their own daring, ability and (often) good, godly lives; those who were poor, particularly if they seemed to resent the rich or complain of bad fortune, were simply lazy and jealous. There’s a bit more of a notion that poverty says something about the poor character or poor spirituality of the person, since obvious sorts of “acts of God” like plagues, famine and so on were rapidly becoming things of the past.

At this point past becomes prologue, as President Donald Trump’s favorite preacher, Norman Vincent Peale, began his ministry in New York.[1] Peale did not rely much on Scripture or on traditional Calvinist theology, despite being a Presbyterian pastor. He drew mostly from the therapeutic theories of French psychologist Émile Coué to develop his own theory, outlined in his book The Power of Positive Thinking. If you believe that you will be successful, you can tap God’s power to achieve all manner of success, including wealth and health. Peale did not talk about sin, grace, or salvation; he preached more often about the great examples we could see in the lives of rich, successful businessmen. While guilt and repentance had little part in Peale’s preaching, there is a definite moral implication; if you are not personally successful, it is because you are doing something wrong. Perhaps your faith or your self-confidence is lacking, or perhaps you are just not a good, industrious person, so God’s blessing cannot flow through your life to give you material success. This is the beginning of what we would recognize as “The Prosperity Gospel” in full flower. Not only is material success seen as a gift from God; the lack of success is seen as a sign of one’s spiritual or moral failure.

Peale may be an early proponent of the Prosperity Gospel, but he was not an Evangelical. Peale was a Presbyterian pastor, part of the “mainline Church.” Business leaders were most likely to be moderate, denominational Protestants. In the 1930s it was perfectly legal to refuse to hire someone because of his religion; if you wanted to be a full participant in the business world, you needed to be part of the Protestant culture. Evangelicalism was not part of the mainstream culture; having been badly humiliated during the anti-evolution fights of the 1920s, Evangelicals spent most of the 1930s through the 1970s turning their backs on “the world” with its debauchery, its science, and its materialism. The Protestantism a successful businessman would embrace would be one that his community, potential customers and partners, also embraced: the mainline Protestant churches.

This started to shift in the 1970s but really became a force in the 1980s, when Evangelicals jumped back into politics to back Reagan. They also jumped on modern mass media more successfully than any mainline religion, first through Billy Graham’s radio broadcasts and then, when television took off, through televised revivals, then UHF religious networks, and finally through the Christian Broadcasting Network and Trinity Broadcasting Network, and other cable religious networks. The “TV Preacher” was born, with glitzy broadcasts and lavish lifestyles.

Jim Bakker was an early leader. An Assemblies of God pastor, he early dropped his denomination’s emphasis on personal simplicity. Pentecostalism grew out of the Holiness movement, which is a style of Evangelicalism that stresses a strict, simple lifestyle, such as avoiding drinking, dancing, make-up or jewelry or fancy clothes. Preachers like Bakker dropped the Holiness emphasis on voluntary poverty. His PTL Club promoted conspicuous consumption and even luxury for Christians, claiming that if believers had enough faith (“faith” being demonstrated in willingness to tithe to the ministry, not through acts of charity for the poor or personal self-denial) then God would pour wealth down upon them. Self-examination, contrition, guilt, and repentance were gone. There is no need to wait for treasures in Heaven; if you tithe, God will pay you off in this world.

The Prosperity Gospel obviously helped reconcile Evangelicalism and capitalist consumerism. This is a religion that the capitalist can understand; faith is a financial investment, and God always pays off eventually. And the Evangelical’s suspicion of “the world” and of wealth is replaced by not just acceptance, but even veneration for the wealthy; those who have a lot must be the ones who love God the most and thus have been blessed the most. And contrariwise, since wealth comes from having faith and doing one’s job, if one is not wealthy one is impious and lazy.

[1] Tom Gjelten, “How Positive Thinking, Prosperity Gospel Define Donald Trump’s Faith Outlook;” All Things Considered August 3, 2016 (http://www.npr.org/2016/08/03/488513585/how-positive-thinking-prosperity-gospel-define-donald-trumps-faith-outlook) NPR

Of Gospel and Heresies

June 7, 2017

Of Gospel and Heresies; or, How the Religion of Peace, Love and Justice Led to This Mess

 

And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

—-Luke 18:8

 

In the days of Moses, the people grew impatient. Sure, he had led them out of slavery and put them on the road that would, eventually, lead them to a land of milk and honey; but it was taking too long. So they chose to throw aside Moses and the LORD, and follow a golden calf (Exodus 32). This god was to be powerful and strong, and to lead them back to the lands they had left, the lands of Egypt, which had brought them such misery and poverty but now, for some reason, they thought would be their salvation.

In the days of Barak, the people grew impatient. Sure, he had led them out of the greatest economic disaster that most had seen in their lifetimes, and put them on the road that would, eventually, lead them to 5% unemployment, a record-breaking stock market and the admiration of the nations; but it was taking too long. So they chose —- well, not golden, exactly, but an orangey bronze—- and not a calf, exactly, more like a bull, given what he produced whenever he spoke. He was to be a strong leader, the only one who could save them, and he would lead them back to the lands of the GOP, who had caused them such misery and poverty in the Great Recession of 2007 but now, for some reason, they thought would be their salvation.

Many people, looking on, were perplexed. Why would self-proclaimed godly people, mostly Christians who followed a Messiah who loved the humble and the poor and who taught that even lawful divorce was wrong, embrace a thrice-married self-proclaimed philanderer, who boasted of his skills in dishonesty, and who had left a seemingly endless stream of unpaid bills, unpaid employees, and defrauded customers in his wake? Why would self-proclaimed patriots embrace a man who boasted that he didn’t need to borrow from American banks because he got so much of his money from Russia? Onlookers observed Jesus, poor, humble, weak, afraid to lean on a bent reed lest it break, friend to tax-collectors and beggars and sinners, and they looked at Donald J. Trump, born to riches, boastful, swaggering, bullying, shoving everyone out of his way, world-renowned, more like the description of the Antichrist; and they wondered how so many who said they followed the Suffering Servant had turned for protection to the one they called The Strong Man.

In fact, the answer was always obvious. “Christian values voters” embraced a leader who reflected neither the Christian religion nor its values in his life because they themselves are not, in fact, Christian themselves. Christianity has been supplanted; the Abomination of Desolation has been set up in the Holy of Holies; other gospels have been proclaimed (2 Cor. 11:4).

How did this happen? To answer this, we must go back to the beginning of the Religious Right—- not the myth they have concocted for themselves, but the actual historical truth of their beginning. Christianity is polarized today, but this is not the first time in our history that this has been true. In the 1770s, the 1860s and the 1960s the churches reflected the divisions in their society. People had disagreements about what was right or wrong, and what to do about the ills they saw; the churches, like other social institutions, were made up of people who disagreed and hence reflected those disagreements. Since the late 1970s, by contrast, Christian churches and leaders have actively worked to create divisions and cause conflicts. For example, abortion and birth control used to be a bipartisan issue. Barry Goldwater, one of the most conservative mainstream political candidates of the second half of the 20th Century, was an early supporter of Planned Parenthood. Dr. W. A. Criswell, one of the leaders of the fundamentalist movement that took over the Southern Baptist Convention, himself said that he never thought a fetus was a full person until birth, following Biblical statements that equated life with breath.[1] But later, purely to gain a “wedge issue” to help energize their political efforts following unsuccessful attempts to block desegregation, the leaders of the emerging Religious Right decided to manufacture a controversy about abortion, to stir up their congregations about this great sin (which many had not considered a sin at all until they chose to do so), and to divide the nation and their congregations in order to wield greater political power.[2] The question of abortion was turned from being a legal and metaphysical question to be reasoned out into an emotional holy crusade incapable of rational solution, which could only be “solved” by the religious cultural warriors beating everyone else into submission. Without this cynical maneuvering, we might have long ago settled on ways to keep abortion safe and limited, respecting the legitimate interests of all interested parties, including those who wish the State to protect potential life. At the very least, without the activities of these holy warriors, we might have been spared multiple acts of anti-abortion terrorism and murder.

The pattern set in the abortion debate has been repeated again and again. Jesus taught his disciples that true religion was about self-reform. You must take up your own cross and follow. You must take the plank out of your own eye before you can help another remove the speck of sawdust from his or hers. You must not, under any circumstances, bind huge burdens on the shoulders of others, which you yourself will not lift a finger to bear. That may be a good way to win the Kingdom, but it won’t win any votes.

Instead, the Religious Right has embraced heresies. A heresy is not, usually, an utter lie; rather, it takes a religious truth, pushes it beyond its original bounds, ignores other religious teachings that might limit it, and proclaims that pared-down, simplified message as the absolute truth. Four heresies in particular are embraced by the Religious Right today: premillenialism, dominionism, capitalist libertarianism and the Prosperity Gospel.   Together, they add up to one central message: the task of the Christian is to punish and suppress sin in others, so that the good and faithful punishers can be rewarded with wealth, ease and power in this world and eternally. All the xenophobia, militarism, sexism and despising of the poor that we see in Evangelicalism, and which is so confusing to those who look from Jesus to his disciples and expect some sort of conformity, flows from some mixture of these influences. Each heresy sees the Scriptures through its own tinted lens, making some parts brighter and larger than they would be otherwise, while rendering other parts invisible. And it is a seductive vision, promising everything Christ promised to his faithful followers, without all that servile, suffering humility that humans find so difficult.

My goal in these next essays is to make visible what has been obscured by these heresies, so that all may be seen in its true light. There is some truth in heresy too, and I hope not to reject any truth no matter its source; but truth is one and truth is whole and must be accepted whole (John 14:6). As long as there is only one God the Creator, there can be only one reality created by God, and therefore only one truth; while it may be that no one of us has all the pieces, they must all fit together into one truth, even if it is knowable by God alone. There are either pieces of truth, that fit together even if it would take eternity to assemble them all, or there are lies, that do not fit at all. But if anyone should say he or she has “alternative truths,” as if reality meant nothing and there were no God and every individual were free to make up his or her own truths and impose them by force or trickery, then let that person be anathema!

 

[1] Randall Balmer, “The Real Origins of the Religious Right,” Politico May 27, 2014 (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133#.U4d_e_ldW2E)

[2] Randall Balmer, “The True Origins of the Religious Right,” lecture given at Emory University (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Gf4jN1xoSo) uploaded May 11, 2009