Posts Tagged ‘Christian Dominionism’

Of Gospel and Heresies: Hmm…. Needs More Salt

July 14, 2018

Of Gospel and Heresies: Hmm…. Needs More Salt

 

 

22 So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.[f] 23 Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” 27 Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33 And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

—Genesis 18:22-33

 

Before anyone asks, no, this is not going to lead into a silly comment about Lot’s wife.

There is a popular theology these days. I say “popular” because it dominates many of the largest churches in the United States, the most prominent Christian colleges, politicians travel to seek its blessing and, when they are elected, they bring its preachers to their offices to pray with them, so that the preachers in turn receive the blessing politicians have to give—-prestige, visibility, pride, and worldly influence. In this popular theology, the United States does not have to be a particularly just nation. It does not have to be a particularly good nation. In this popular theology, it does not have to be a particularly wise or smart nation. It does not have to be a particularly hard-working nation. No, in this popular theology, the only thing that the United States has to do is put “Christians” in charge—but not just any Christians, no: only a special kind of Christians. Christians who pay attention to the 92 times the Bible tells us to show kindness to immigrants—we don’t need those. Christians who pay attention to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says “blessed are the peacemakers”—- away with them! Only Christians who know that even though Jesus never mentioned abortion or homosexuality, these are the sum and substance of the Gospel—-those are the sort of Christians who need to run the nation and make its laws. If we make laws that require the rich to pay taxes to provide food for the hungry, we rob charity of its moral worth; but if we make laws requiring people to be straight or to never have sex without risking disease or pregnancy, then we not only support the moral worth of those things but we deserve an extra reward—for forcing others to be good. And the extra reward for those who force those others to obey and be good, while not forcing the rich and powerful to do anything at all, is that God will reward them by making them rich and powerful themselves, giving the crowns of the world to the saints. This popular theology is called “Christian Reconstructionism,” or more broadly, “Christian Dominionism.” It’s no wonder it’s so popular. In the Middle Ages you had to pay money to buy indulgences to get out of living according to the Gospel; now, you don’t even have to do that. Simply by seeking to rule over other people, you get the blessing of God, who gives you the power you seek, so long as you agree to never use it against those who already have wealth and power or use it to make others do anything Jesus actually asked them to do. And not only will the individual Dominionist be rewarded, but the nation itself will be magically blessed. God will give the nation military power, without scientists to design weapons; God will give them wealth, without economists to understand how tax policies affect the nation; God will give the nation influence in the world, without the hard work of diplomats trying to listen to and understand other nations to find common ground. Close some abortion clinics, round up some immigrants, throw the gays on an island and watch them die out, and Jesus will fly up on a magic sleigh drawn by Peter, Paul, and the other reindeer, to give everyone toys—I’m sorry, I got a little confused there for a moment.

The Reconstructionist theology names itself for its claim that Christians must reconstruct society. Democracy, they say, is flawed because it doesn’t put Christians in charge; we need to get rid of democracy, get rid of the social safety net, get rid of public schools and public hospitals and rely solely on Jesus and the churches—but of course, we also need to close all those “progressive” churches, so only the right sort of churches, the ones that don’t think society should help the poor, are available help the poor? I think I got confused again. Let me back up and start over.

Reconstructionist theology reconstructs the Gospel in its own image. According to Reconstructionist theology, Sodom was destroyed because godly men like Lot weren’t in charge. Only if Lot and Abraham had conquered the city and imposed laws banning homosexuality could Sodom and Gomorrah been saved. And unless conservatives can overthrow the pluralistic, democratic society that weakens us now and impose their views on the majority, God will destroy the U.S. the same way; but if conservatives do take over, and impose strict laws controlling everyone’s sex lives, every other problem will be solved without effort.

That’s one vision of how Christians can save the world: by taking over and making everyone else live like them. That is NOT the vision presented by Abraham. Abraham prays for Sodom. He does not say, “Spare them, and I’ll take over and run things right.” He says, “LORD, will you destroy the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? What if there are only ten? Will you spare the whole wicked, wretched city for ten people?” And God says, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” We don’t have to run the world to save it. We don’t have to outnumber the wicked or to dominate them. We can’t. There will always be more wicked; being wicked is just too damned easy. And they will always have political power. Satan said to Jesus that he had the ability to give thrones and kingdoms to whomever he wanted, and Jesus did not dispute that; he simply rejected that sort of power. But as long as there are a righteous few, judgment will be delayed, and more will have time to hear the good news and repent.

How can so few people do any good, if they aren’t rich or powerful leaders but just ten righteous people out of thousands? Abraham’s prayer appeals to God’s justice. God, it seems, doesn’t accept “collateral damage;” God practices collateral healing. Rather than destroy a few good people in order to punish the wicked, God would spare the wicked to save the few good ones.

Jesus echoes this idea. He tells the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds to say that God will not root out the wicked from the world immediately, lest this injure some of the righteous as well; rather, the wheat and the weeds grow together until the end of things. That is one way to say that Christians should participate in society; just by being in society, they help it since God will preserve the society for the sake of the faithful. But that doesn’t suggest much in the way of a positive contribution. It doesn’t suggest that the society is improved or helped. Sodom would still have been Sodom even if ten righteous persons had been found in it.

Jesus uses other models to suggest how we should live in the world and participate in society. You are the light of the world, he says. It isn’t enough to just be in the world, hiding your goodness away like a precious gem, afraid to risk losing or tarnishing it. You have to let it shine like a lamp in the darkness that everyone can see and use to guide their own steps as well            You are like salt. Salt was so precious in the days of Jesus that people were paid in salt; our word “salary” comes from the Latin word for “salt.” Salt is necessary for human life. It also preserves food, which is one of its most valuable characteristics in the warm Mediterranean climate without a nice cold fridge around. And even a little can flavor a whole lot of food. It lends its nature to what is around it. It doesn’t, as they say, dominate the taste of the food; it enhances and preserves it, bringing out what is best and perhaps covering up what is not.

Jesus even says we should be holy like God is holy. In the Books of Moses, God’s holiness is a separation. God is so holy and powerful that when God gave the Law to Moses, it was forbidden for anyone else to approach the mountain; even animals that wandered onto the holy mountain were to be killed. But Jesus says we should be perfect as God is perfect, who allows the sun to shine on good and bad alike, and sends rain to the just and the unjust. God’s holiness is his omnipresence, not withdrawing from those in need but providing even for those who do not acknowledge their need for God.

God doesn’t demand that Christians should strive to dominate human politics. God also doesn’t ask us to withdraw from the world. We are told to teach the world, to help the world, to do good and show kindness and love mercy and walk humbly with God. It is a narrow road for sure, neither going too far into politics or not enough. Jesus says we are to be salt; and if the salt has lost its distinctive nature, lost its saltiness, then what good is it? It is fit only to be cast out. As Christians in the world but not of the world, we are forced daily to be involved with things and people that do not follow our ways. We are told we cannot serve God and Money, but we must have money to survive. We are told to serve the world, but often that means working with politicians who have the power to help or stop us, and who have little regard for God or people. No doubt we would be safer to live as monastic communities, apart from the world. Many days I think the Amish are on to something. But that is not, I think, what Jesus intends for us, his disciples. We need the church as a place of rest where we can renew our faith and energy from time to time, but we then need to go out and continue being salt. One day Christ will return. We pray every week, Lord, thy kingdom come. But God has told us that in the meantime, we are not kings yet. We are salt. We are servants. We are preachers and teachers. We are the ten righteous people in the city who can save the whole from destruction for another day. That is our call, and that is the Gospel.

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Of Gospel and Heresies: American Idol (conclusion)

June 21, 2018

Moses had military and political power. He led people, he led armies, he conquered foes, he founded a nation in the name of the God of Abraham. Muhammad had military and political power. He led people, he led armies, he conquered foes, he founded a nation in the name of the God of Abraham. Of the three great Abrahamic religions, Christianity is unique in that its founding prophet, God’s Anointed One, was powerless as the world measures power. Throughout the centuries, this has created unique challenges for Christians. Some Christians have sought to reject all force and all politics, as Jesus himself did in life, leaving the world to run its own affairs. Others have sought to blend religious and political power, calling on the Church to bless everything the State did, including the slave trade and the Holocaust. Those who wanted a “strong man” to protect them, “a king like the other nations,” have often been too willing to overlook when that king failed to protect others with the same justice they sought for themselves. And when, just as Samuel warned, that strong leader went too far and the people cried out, there was no one to deliver them (1 Samuel 8:18). During the Protestant Reformation John Calvin saw what a strong king with unchecked power can do, as the French king massacred thousands of peaceful, loyal Protestants. For this reason he came to advocate for checks and balances in government.[1] Likewise, after our American Revolution, or as it was known in England, “The Presbyterian Revolt,” those heirs of Calvin did not seek to establish Biblical law. They agreed with Calvin that the Law of Moses was given directly only to Israel; instead, they sought to be guided by the law of love, and by the principles of justice as these were revealed in the Bible, but to express these through creating a political order with limited power, since no sinful human could be trusted with unchecked power over the rest.[2] Those Revolutionaries did not want a “strong” leader, but rather a strong nation with strong interacting and cross-checking political institutions, which could preserve peace, order and justice while also humbling the pride of arrogant politicians grasping for power.

If history has taught us anything, it is that when one person or one small group has unchecked power, all are in danger and the Church itself liable to be attacked. That is why our Presbyterian Church adopted the Declaration of Barmen as one of its fundamental statements of faith.[3] This document was written primarily by Karl Barth and adopted by the Barmen Synod in opposition to Hitler and the nationalist Christians who were taking over the State and Church. It reads in part:

 

“Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (I Peter 2:17.)

Scripture tells us that, in the as yet unredeemed world in which the church also exists, the State has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace. [It fulfills this task] by means of the threat and exercise of force, according to the measure of human judgment and human ability. The church acknowledges the benefit of this divine appointment in gratitude and reverence before him. It calls to mind the Kingdom of God, God’s commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility both of rulers and of the ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word by which God upholds all things.

 

We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the church’s vocation as well.

 

We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.[4]

 

 

Our Reformed heritage is that no one person, and no one State can be allowed to become the sole goal and ordering principle of human life; that role belongs to God alone. When a “strong man” (or strong woman) demands unlimited fealty, that is a sin and a disaster in the making. And when a church claims the political mantle, that is simply the other side of the same bad penny, a human institution going beyond its God-given limits and mission. Those who claim they are exalting the Church by claiming Christian dominion over the State are instead demeaning it, turning it into an organ of the State rather than a holy priesthood set apart for service to God.

When we look around the world, we see forces of totalitarianism resurgent in countries that once seemed on the road to democracy, where Church and State blend to give their blessings to oligarchs. When we look at home, we see millions of Christians, including many in the highest ranks of government, who espouse Christian Dominionism, the belief that democracy should be replaced by government by and for Christian people only. The delegates to the Barmen Synod, with the Confessing Churches of Germany, can teach us much about the dangers of this heresy. Whether the Church seeks to become the State, or the State seeks to control the Church, it ends up the same way: political power gains control over religion, and the Church shrinks to being just another department in the government bureaucracy, another prop for humans seeking power over other humans. And ultimately, this idolatry of the State collapses into idolatry of an individual who claims, as that French king who massacred Protestants once said, “I am the State.”  “L’etat, c’est moi.”

The “strong man” sought by many Americans is just another idol. God does not want us to seek from political leaders what we should seek only from God. This is, no doubt, an unsettling, anxiety-filled world; but the cure for this anxiety is not devotion to a leader, it’s faith in God. May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7).

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, “On Civil Government” sections VIII, XXX

[2] John T. McNeill, editor, Calvin: On God and Political Duty (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1956) pp. xviii-xix, 63-6

[3] The Theological Declaration of Barmen, (http://www.westpresa2.org/docs/adulted/Barmen.pdf) downloaded June 19, 2018

[4] Declaration of Barmen, section 5

Of Gospel and Heresies: This Holy Nation

April 25, 2018

Of Gospel and Heresies: This Holy Nation

 

 

            The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LordThus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”

            For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.           

 

—–Jeremiah 7:1-15

 

Does God need us? From the perspective of traditional Christian theology, the question seems almost silly. God is omnipotent and omniscient and perfectly good: how could God need anything from humanity? God offers Israel a covenant, but there’s no indication in the Torah that God would be the worse if Israel refused; rather, it was Israel, not God, who was told “I have set before you life and death; choose life, and live.”

Israel is God’s chosen people, and they have always understood that this is a privilege and a gift. Sometimes, however, they seem to have thought it was an advantage, a perk rather than a responsibility. That was certainly the case in Jeremiah’s day. He preached to the nation of Judah in its final days, when it was really reduced to just its capital, with the superpowers of Egypt on one side and Babylon to the other. Despite their precarious situation, many were confident, and their priests and prophets told them not to worry. After all, the Temple was in Jerusalem, and God would not allow the last and greatest center of worship to be destroyed. After all, if the Temple were destroyed, who would recite the psalms glorifying the LORD? Who would teach Torah to the people, and where would they go to learn it? How would God receive sacrifices and vows? God needed the Temple, so God needed to protect the nation; without it, worship of the LORD would vanish from the Earth.

Jeremiah was called to go preach condemnation and warning to God’s people. This was dangerous work; people got killed for preaching what the king didn’t want to hear. But Jeremiah obeyed and said to the people: God doesn’t need this temple. God doesn’t need you. God loves you, God cares, God wants to teach you. But if you will not treat your fellow human beings with respect and justice, if you will not love your neighbor as yourself, if you will not care for the alien, the widow and the orphan, the immigrant and the aged and the poor, then God will cast you and this temple away. God doesn’t need the smug, the self-righteous, the entitled. God wants the humble, the caring, the grateful.

This attitude towards God, and this message, existed long before Jeremiah and long after. In the days of Amos, during the reigns of King Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam II of Israel, two of the most successful rulers of their nations, he warned God’s people that they were being judged based on how they treated the poor among them; “they who trample on the head of the poor and thrust the afflicted out of the way” would be punished just as surely as any of those “wicked, pagan” nations around them.

Amos 9:7—Are you not like the Ethiopians to me,
O people of Israel? says the Lord.
Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,
and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?

Yes, God says, I take care of your nation; it is the apple of my eye. And I also care about all nations, and establish them; and I judge them, and will judge you. If you are arrogant, taking God’s love as a possession and a magic charm, as if the covenant binds God and not you, then you will be the one who loses. You need God; God doesn’t need you.

In the days of the Messiah, the prophet John the Baptizer spoke against the religiously complacent, the arrogant who thought being God’s chosen meant a free pass. “Repent! And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘I have Abraham for my father.’ I tell you that God is able to make children for Abraham out of these rocks here! Do what God tells you to do; love your neighbor as yourself, be honest with each other, and love God with all your heart and mind and strength.” God doesn’t need the people. God doesn’t send John, or Jesus, because God is desperate for love or for help. God sends prophets and priests and finally the Son because God loves us, and God knows that while God doesn’t need us, we need God.

Despite the many Scriptural criticisms of nationalism, it has become the cornerstone of the Religious Right. In the 20th Century, probably the most important Christian Nationalist was Jerry Falwell Sr. In books such as Listen Up, America! as well as in sermons and other public statements, Falwell argued that without the United States to serve as a base for world evangelism, Christianity itself might be endangered and could even vanish from the earth.[1] The world is caught up in a death struggle against the godless Communist Russia and the Christian United States; if the United States did not survive as a launching point for missionary activities, godlessness would win. It is thus essential to the Kingdom of God, Falwell says, not only that the United States remain morally pure (this defined primarily in terms of sexual discipline and general asceticism) but also militarily and economically dominant. Thus, Falwell ignores the Torah, Prophets and even Gospel passages that seem to contradict laissez-faire capitalism or militarism, since he believes God needs a strong army and a strong business community to preserve his earthly outpost. Without strong men, whether generals, tycoons or potentates, to support God’s Kingdom and to keep all the bad people in line, God’s kingdom will fail.

This is not the theology of the Bible, however, but only the edited version preached by Christian Dominionists like Rousas Rushdoony and Jerry Falwell. How can I dare say this? How can I, a mere insignificant dust mote in the winds of history, dare challenge the leaders of one of the most powerful political movements in the most powerful nation known to humanity? Only because it has happened before. The theology that said that God needed an earthly Temple and earthly political protection motivated the false prophets who challenged Jeremiah, who spoke lying words of comfort, and who supported the rich and the powerful in Jerusalem by saying that no matter how terribly they treated their poor neighbors and rejected God’s calls for justice, God would never allow the nation to fall because God needed the Temple and the priests and the kingly line. That theology failed. It was proven false when God did, in fact, allow Jerusalem to fall, the Temple to be destroyed, and the rich and powerful, the political and religious leaders, to be killed, enslaved or exiled. But that was not the end for God’s reign; it was only the beginning. The end of the Temple meant the beginning of the synagogue, which brought teaching of the Torah to all the nations where the Jews had settled. And in time, God raised up a new ruler, as is written in Isaiah:

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
and the gates shall not be closed:
2 I will go before you
and level the mountains,*
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
3 I will give you the treasures of darkness

and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.  (Isaiah 44:45-45:4)

 

God calls Cyrus, King of Kings of the Persians, an anointed one, or in Hebrew, “Messiah,” even “though you do not know me.”   God uses whomever and whatever God needs, whether or not that person consents or even knows it. God used Cyrus and Cyrus’s ambitions for God’s own purposes. God allowed Judah, the self-righteous nation, to fall, and used Persia, who did not know God, to rebuild Jerusalem and to fulfill a far greater mission than Israel and Judah had ever conceived.

The Biblical foundation underneath today’s so-called Christian Dominionism, or Christian Reconstructionism, or Christian Nationalism, is that which was announced in the book of Deuteronomy: obey the covenant with God and be blessed, rebel and be punished. It structures much of the Bible’s understanding of Israelite history. Scholars have noted too that Jesus quotes Deuteronomy more often than any other book in the Hebrew Scriptures. But even in those same Scriptures, the Prophets criticized that same theology, and in particular how humans, with our inclinations towards selfishness, self-aggrandizement and short-term thinking, have often twisted that theology to suit our own pride. The prophet Jeremiah even announced that the old Deuteronomic covenant was being replaced because humans had broken it so thoroughly. In its place would be a new covenant, not written on stone but on the hearts of believers. That is the covenant that was proclaimed by Jesus: the covenant that everyone would love the Lord their God, and their neighbor as themselves, and would be loved in turn by God directly. It does indeed call for the redemption of the nation, but it does so not by establishing an empire of rulership over other peoples but by loving and redeeming each individual.

 

[1] As discussed by James Comey, “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics,” honors thesis, College of William and Mary, 1982 (https://publish.wm.edu/honorstheses/1116/) p. 57

Comey, James B., “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics” (1982). Undergraduate Honors Theses. Paper 1116.

December 21, 2017

I’ve been reading and discussing Comey’s thesis for awhile, mostly with the personal goal of understanding his mind a bit better and seeing how a theologian like Reinhold Niebuhr might have played a pivotal role in our nation’s history.  I’m posting a link to the full thesis here, and would be happy to discuss it further.

Recommended Citation

Comey, James B., “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics” (1982). Undergraduate Honors Theses. Paper 1116.

https://publish.wm.edu/honorstheses/1116/

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 2008 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

Trump, Falwell, and the Siege of Christianity

January 19, 2016

So, Donald Trump went to speak to the students at Liberty University, who ironically were not at liberty to not listen since it was a mandatory student assembly.  And he was warmly received by the school’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr. to put it mildly.  Trump promised to win the War on Christmas by making sure that every merchant and business says “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” when he is President.  It has often been pointed out that Evangelicals feel as if Christianity was under siege.  Some are looking to break that siege, by finding some valiant knight to lead the counterattack to drive off all the armies of secularity and liberalism.  The Atlantic reports that while some evangelical leaders, and many of the students listening that day are unimpressed or even disturbed by Trump, many others are quite enthusiastic.  They report:

“Spirituality is a big issue, but we need somebody who’s strong,” a Kentuckian named Charles E. Henderson told the New York Times. “Lots of times the preachers and everything, they have a tendency to be just a little bit weak.” http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/01/the-religious-rights-donald-trump-dilemma/424575/?utm_source=yahoo

For his part, Falwell equated Trump to Martin Luther King Jr. and said that while he couldn’t endorse Trump, a Trump presidency would be a truly marvelous thing.  After all, he pointed out, Trump cannot be bought by special interest lobbyists, simply because he has so much money that he has no reason to accept a bribe.  Apparently, JF Jr. never heard the proverb: A Wealthy Man Can Afford Anything Except a Conscience (Rule of Acquisition #261). If he had even as much wisdom as any Trekkie, Junior might be a little less confident in The Donald.

WWKD?  What Would Kierkegaard Do?

In his day, Kierkegaard too felt that Christianity was under siege.  He told this parable:  Once there was a fortress, strong, well-defended, well-provisioned, capable of standing against the enemy for a thousand years.  Long it stood firm against the attacks of all its foes.  Then one day a new commander came, who did not quite understand the nature of the defenses and his task.  He wanted to do something bold and new.  Thus, he ordered the gate unbarred, and led his army out of the fortress to attack the enemy on their own ground.  The fortress fell within days.  So too, Christianity is folly to the philosopher and a stumbling-block to the religiously self-confident, a message that could never have arisen in any human heart:  that humans were utterly estranged from God by their own choice and sin, incapable of any action towards their own salvation—but God, for no reason except love, came down to the level of the lowest of the low, was born, lived and taught as one of us, and finally died in weakness and agony, all so that we could regain the strength to live in joy with God again.  This message is so counter to all that normal experience or reason would suggest that it was always going to be alien in the world, besieged by the forces of society; but this faith would stand, if it were faithful enough to rely on God’s grace alone.  Then one day men took it into their heads to build a bridge between Christianity and the world so that Christianity might conquer the world and make it Christendom; and once the gate was opened and the drawbridge lowered, the world rushed in to conquer Christianity.

Kierkegaard’s primary focus were what we today would probably call “liberals” or “modernists:”  philosophers and theologians who sought to show how the Christian message is really just the same as what all religions and philosophies are saying.  But even in his day, there were other voices, notably N. F. S. Grundtvig, who taught a nationalist-historical version of Christianity.  The truth of Christianity, these said, could be seen in the victory of the Church and Christian culture, in its strength and ability to bend all other elements of society to its own will in Christendom.  But whether building conceptual bridges by denying the uniqueness of the Incarnation, or political bridges by linking the proof of Christian superiority to the material and cultural power of the State, these people were merely opening the door of the fortress to let the enemy in.

The Apostle Paul said that “”I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2).  That is the message that challenges and refutes the world.  As Kierkegaard wrote, Christ is the Pattern that the Christian is called to follow.  From time to time Kierkegaard himself preached at one of the local churches in Copenhagen, where he could point behind himself to a large cross with Christ nailed up.  Come unto me, he invites us, you who are weary and heavily burdened, and I will give you rest—come unto me, up here on a cross!  The Christ who says this is not the King in his glory; it was the historical Jesus, who had no power except the truth of his teaching.  Weak, without a place to lay his head (Matthew 8:20), and finally broken and executed as a criminal by the mighty Roman Empire, a sign over his head to show the power of Rome and its gods over all the promises of the Jewish god to send a messiah (Mark 15:26):  that is the Christ who calls us.

And what does that insightful student at Liberty University say?  “The preachers, they seem kind of weak.  Donald Trump is strong and bold.  Give us strong leaders who can save us from all those bad people who won’t say “Merry Christmas!”  We have had enough of bearing the cross of weakness and ridicule that Christ bore.  We want to be a mighty empire!”

So yes, I agree wholeheartedly that Christianity is under siege.  The Gospel is under siege by the Prosperity Gospel, by the Christian Zionists, by the Christian Dominionists, by all those who want to force Christianity to serve their desire for wealth and power and prestige.  It is under siege from millions of people who say they are defending Christianity, but who are actively rejecting Christ the Pattern to follow some other savior made in their own image.  It is under siege from church leaders who throw out that “blessed are the peacemakers” bunk and “The love of money is the root of all evil” hooey, and preach a gospel that promises military might and personal wealth.  And, according to Molly Ball writing for The Atlantic, many Evangelical leaders and laity are themselves waking up to this threat.

WWKD?  Kierkegaard would tell us that Christianity is under no serious threat from those who claim to be its enemies.  It is only endangered by those who claim to be its friends.  It is endangered by those who follow not Christ crucified, but Christ as he was not when he was among us.

 

A Gamer Looks at Politics: the government shutdown (pt. iv)

October 16, 2013

A Gamer Looks at Politics:  the government shutdown (pt. iv)

So let us be blunt about it: we must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.

—-Gary North

 

Thus far, I have tried to discuss the strategy of the Republican party by looking at its moves.  I have shared my impression that their opposition to health care reform was a political tactic to attempt to win the White House, a tactic which failed; and now, faced with the consequence of having lost their best chance to meaningfully influence the health care debate, they are attempting to derail all reform efforts as part of their ongoing presidential campaigning.  In order to regain the leverage they threw away, they are engaged in political brinksmanship, threatening to essentially destroy the United States as the preeminent nation on the planet unless they are allowed to dictate the terms of its survival.

All of this assumes, however, that the GOP actually wants the nation to survive.  Some clearly are patriots; whether you agree or disagree with their policies, it is obvious that there are millions of Americans, from the rank-and-file to some of the leaders, who deeply love this nation.  In fact, some studies have shown that the more deeply someone loves the symbols of the nation, or the more deeply someone is grateful to the military for its work defending the nation, or the more generally patriotic a person is, the more likely it is that this person will be conservative.  This is not surprising; the person who loves what the nation is will naturally want to conserve it, while the one who wants radical change is likely not to feel any great commitment to things that are or have been.  This does not, however, prove that Republicans as a whole, or as a party, are more or less in love with the nation than are Democrats.

Many Republicans openly doubt that Democrats are committed to this nation.  They view the Democrats as a collection of gays, racial minorities, feminists, non-Christians and the poor who care only about their own little group.  However, when you add up the list of people who are seen as “other” by the people Sarah Palin referred to as “real America,” you find that the really real America is in fact that polyglot, cacophonous amalgam.  No doubt there are still many millions with allegiance more to their own group than to the nation; but for the most part, the old revolutionaries of my childhood have stopped trying to chop holes in the hull of the ship of state, and now spend their energies wrestling over the wheel.

The GOP, on the other hand, has become an alliance of groups that openly admit they do not have the best interests of the nation at heart, if “the nation” is the United States, established according to the Constitution and governed by principles of representative democracy.  For the last forty years, one of the most powerful blocs within the Republican party has been the Evangelicals, or so-called “social conservatives.”  They are impelled by a range of motives.  Some simply love Jesus and seek to express their faith as they understand it.  Some believe that the problems of the nation will be solved if everyone becomes an Evangelical.  Of these, there are two main types:  social conformists and Deuteronomistic patriots.™[1]  Social conformists believe that the greatest problems facing the nation are social division and disagreement; if everyone would just have the same values and goals, all our other problems would quickly vanish. The Deuteronomistic patriots, by contrast, are those Evangelicals whose patriotism is shaped by the view of history that underlies the “Deutonomistic History” in the Old Testament.  The Deuteronomistic History includes the books of First and Second Samuel and First and Second Kings, and outlines how God blessed Israel when it followed the covenant with God as described in Deuteronomy, and cursed it when the people broke the covenant.  This way of thinking holds that if the United States suppressed “sin” (such as homosexuality and female equality) then God would protect the nation from harm.[2]  This may be superstition and may be a reaction to the free-floating anxiety many feel, but it is not essentially anti-American.

Many Evangelicals, however, have little allegiance to the United States, precisely because they are Evangelicals.  Many are eschatological anarchists.  They do not care what happens to the United States or the world, because this world is the realm of Satan.  Any strong governmental or quasi-governmental power is likely the future tool of the Antichrist.  Better to have war, genocide, persecution and mass rape than to have the blue-helmets of the United Nations rolling across the landscape with their ever-efficient and all-powerful “Peacekeeper” armies, imposing the world dictatorship of their Secretary General (see the Left Behind books and movies).  Wars, earthquakes, famine, ecological and political disasters are all signs of the End Times, and therefore a good thing; and in particular, war in the Middle East shows that we are one step closer to Armageddon, when Jesus will finally return to rule the world.  Of course, eschatological believers don’t expect to actually have to endure most of these horrors they wish to unleash; they expect the Rapture to carry them away into Heaven before the seas become lifeless and the skies burn (whether from nuclear war, global warming or the star Wormwood).

The other powerful group within Evangelical political thinking are the Dominionists.  This group expects that the kingdom that Jesus will establish for his followers will be on this Earth, once Christians have replaced the representative democracy of the Constitution with a theocracy.  They openly proclaim that they intend to use the democratic institutions to undermine democracy, since democracy means allowing rights to non-evangelicals of all sorts.[3]  To the Christian Dominionist (particularly according to the Christian Reconstructionism advocated by Gary North and Rousas Rushdoony) anything that weakens any aspect of the United States as it exists today is good, because that will help create the power vacuum into which the true followers of Jesus can take over.  They promote the politics and economic theories of Ayn Rand (while ignoring the fact that Rand thought all religious believers were nut jobs more dangerous even than the Communists) because her sort of extreme laissez-faire capitalism means a weak central government unable to prevent a theocratic revolution.  They promote the destruction of all government social services, because they want people to depend entirely on churches for education, health care, and help for the elderly.  They seek to replace public education with homeschooling and religious schools, and promote state vouchers to divert funds from the public school system as a way to weaken it.  They promote fear and hatred of Muslims and other religions, because they want Christianity to be the ruling religious and political power.  They despise most other Christians because the vast majority of Christians would oppose their plans to impose a Mosaic Covenant theocracy on the nation.

To the Evangelical Anarchists, a debt default would be quite literally a godsend, something they will unhesitatingly work towards.  The eschatologists expect to be snatched up into Heaven as the economic and political chaos begins.  The Christian Reconstructionists want to cause political anarchy so they can take over; a national default will force a bankrupt America to shut down, leaving them to take over all functions of government.  And for every self-conscious Christian Anarchist, there are countless others in the Religious Right who endorse these policies without realizing the intent behind them or the inevitable conclusion that would follow if these policies were ever fully implemented.

A second group that has recently coalesced to sabotage democracy is the neo-Confederates, a.k.a. “Tea Party.”[4]            We can argue that the Tea Party is a fraud created by FOX News to gin up ratings (who can forget the footage of a FOX news producer leading the crowds in anti-government chants at a Tea Party rally?[5]) and financed by billionaires seeking tax breaks and weakened consumer protection laws, or that the Tea Party is just a rebranding of the Religious Right.[6]  However, it is also a revival of the political theories and, to a large degree, the aspirations of the Confederacy.  Much of its political theory rests on the writings of John C. Calhoun, the South Carolinian politician who fought long and hard for the preservation of slavery and the rights of Southern states to preserve their “peculiar institution” despite the fact that the pro-slavery vote was a minority view among voters nationwide.[7]  His theories, particularly the Tea Party favorite, “state nullification,” were designed to empower a white population that feared being overrun by non-whites; and even today, the racist motivations of Calhoun’s doctrine haunt Tea Party political thinking like some covert possession by the ghost of the Old South.  In fact, focus group studies have found that racial fears motivate much of the GOP rank-and-file.[8]  There is a widespread perception that “real America” is being swallowed up by racial minorities, gays, non-Christians, and generally people who are not the core Republican demographic:  whites, particularly older white males.  When the Old South saw that its traditional ways were being threatened by increased immigration and the voting strength of the North, Southern politicians like Calhoun began to argue that their states had a right to either leave the Union outright, or to simply ignore all national laws they didn’t like.  Today, the neo-Confederates see the future, where gays can get married and whites will be a minority and Muslims will soon reach 2% of the population and become the second-largest religious group in America; and they don’t like that future any more than Calhoun liked the idea of blacks voting.  It isn’t usually hatred, exactly; I wouldn’t call it “racism” as much as “xenophobia.”  It is just a fear that these new voters will change things for the worse, that they are not yet ready for the rights and burdens of democracy, and that their political aspirations have to be suppressed until they are.  And if it takes wrecking the greatest superpower the world has ever seen to save that romanticized, “Father Knows Best” world a little longer, that is a small price to pay.

As a game player, all of this does make a certain sense to me.  After all, as I look at the moves and try to determine the strategies of both parties, it certainly seems as if one party is consistently pushing the nation closer and closer to a complete breakdown.  Why do that, if you seriously love this nation and want to preserve it?  Simply because of a misreading of Ayn Rand?[9]  Or is their patriotism more like the love a weak, insecure man professes for his wife right before beating her, until he finally kills her rather than lose control of her?  Or, perhaps, is the solution to the mystery to reject the initial premise, that they love America at all?

Plato compared the state to a ship, and the leader to a captain.  If the GOP is the would-be captain, then Calhoun is the iceberg-lover who drew its chart; the Tea Party is the First Mate who wants to crash the vessel against as many icebergs as it takes to sink it; and the Religious Right is the pilot who believes that ramming through icebergs is the only way to reach Tahiti.  It seems logical, given the fact that we have seen the GOP steer straight for the iceberg of default more than once, to conclude that at least part of its strategy is dictated by groups that really want to sink the ship.  Perhaps the best analogy is something like “Betrayal at House on the Hill,”  “Battlestar Galactica” or “Are You a Werewolf?”   Some of the players are trying to solve the problem, but one or more are actually trying to sabotage the group.  Ostensibly, they seem to be cooperating; but when the moment is right the traitor turns on them and tries to feed the whole group to the monsters or robots or whatever.

As I write this, the news is that the Senate is struggling to find a plan to avoid default on the national debt and reopen the government, while the Tea Party, or anarchists, or neo-Confederates, or Cylons or werewolves (choose your term) in the House of Representatives argue that default is not a bad thing after all, and is certainly better than allowing Obama to win by letting the Affordable Care Act begin to go into effect.   Putting everything together and reflecting on the results, it seems very likely that the Tea Party will refuse any real compromise, demanding either surrender or default.  Most of their constituents have less stake in preserving the United States or avoiding another economic meltdown than they have in promoting their anti-national agenda.  In essence, they are gambling with someone else’s money, since they win even if they (and we) go broke.  Boehner and McConnell have to decide whether to let them stay in the game, knowing they will flip the table if they get mad, or kick them out of the room so the party leaders can finish the game with the Democrats as strongly as they can.  Given the tensions in Team GOP, it is really hard to predict what its next move will be.  Are the Republicans going to play “Presidential Monopoly,” read the polls that show the public demands a solution, and try to find one?  Or are they going to play “Werewolf” and try to win by destroying the group?

The Democrats seem to be made up of some who mix of “Sim City” or “Civilization,” trying to build a strong nation by balancing taxes, infrastructure, military and economic development, while others play “Monopoly” and try to get as many government services (utilities and railroads) and different colors (purples, greens, etc.) as they can.  They don’t want to play “Werewolf” anymore, and are refusing to play anything if that is their only choice.  Given that the Democratic games are more pragmatic and less paranoid, they will probably seek to make some sort of a deal.  However, they are winning the “Monopoly” game and have little reason to give up.  Also, they may not fully realize that the their opponents are playing a different game, and may not want to “win” at all.

Since the Democrats assume that the Republicans are still playing Presidential Monopoly, as they are, they will interpret the GOP intransigence as a political tactic, one which is backfiring or which is designed to help particular Republican Congressmen but not the party as a group.  If the GOP leadership can rally the “moderates,” then this is in fact the game they will be playing, and at the last possible moment, when both sides believe they have extracted as much as they can from the other, they will end this.  But if the GOP is led by the Tea Party, the game will become more like Russian Roulette with one player who is suicidal and another who doesn’t realize the gun is really loaded.  The Tea Party and Evangelicals will gladly pull the trigger for both sides.


[1] All right, I can’t trademark “Deuteronomistic patriots;” nevertheless, I coined the phrase and I am laying claim to it. Until I drop anonymity, please footnote the phrase and attribute it to “Philosophical Scraps” if you use it.

[2] This sort of thinking underlies the claim by Rev. Falwell and Rev. Robertson that the 9/11 attacks took place because of the widespread feminism and liberalism of the United States in the 1990’s, that Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans because of the Gay Pride parade held in the French Quarter earlier that year, or that Hurricane Sandy was punishment for legalized abortion.

[3] See for example Deborah Caldwell’s exposé, “The Far-Right Christian Movement Driving the Debt Default,” Huffington Post, 10-14-2013 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/deborah-caldwell/christian-dominionism-debt-default-_b_4097017.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009 )

[4] Bruce Bartlett, “For Many Hard-Liners, Debt Default is the Goal;” New Republic 10-14-2013 (http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/14/for-many-hard-liners-debt-default-is-the-goal/?partner=yahoofinance&_r=0 ) ; also Michael Lind, “The South is Holding America Hostage,” Salon, 10-13-2013 (http://www.salon.com/2013/10/13/the_south_is_holding_america_hostage/)

[5] Danny Shea, “Fox News Producer Caught Rallying 9/12 Protest Crowd in Behind-the-Scenes Video,” 11-19-2009, (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/09/19/fox-news-producer-caught_n_292529.html)

[6] Chadwick Harvey, “Tea Party Activists are just Evangelicals in Colonial Disguise;” PolicyMic 6-26-2012 (http://www.policymic.com/articles/10086/tea-party-activists-are-just-evangelicals-in-colonial-disguise)

[7] Sam Tnenhaus, “Original Sin:  Why the GOP Is and Will Continue to be the Party of White People;” New Republic, 2-10-2013 (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112365/why-republicans-are-party-white-people)

[8] Stan Greenberg, James Carville, and Erica Seifert, “Inside the GOP:  Report on Focus Groups with Evangelical, Tea Party, and Moderate Republicans;” Democracy Corps,10-3-2013 (http://www.democracycorps.com/Republican-Party-Project/inside-the-gop-report-on-focus-groups-with-evangelical-tea-party-and-moderate-republicans/)

[9] ANYONE who claims to be a Christian and to be a follower of Ayn Rand has definitely misread Ayn Rand.

Commentary: Egypt’s Impending(?) Coup

July 8, 2013

While I primarily seek to address philosophical and theological topics, sometimes I just want to write about politics.  I do try to apply my theological, philosophical and scholarly training to the situations I analyze.  I hope you enjoy, and maybe find something useful. 

Commentary:  Egypt’s Impending(?) Coup

Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.  Mark 12:17  (NRSV)

 

 

            I recently read an article on President Morsi’s failure as a leader, and how it has led Egypt to the brink of political collapse.  The author, Amotz Asa-el, argues that Morsi’s mistake was the same that John McCain made in 2008:  failure to recognize the importance of economics.[1]  It occurred to me that this seems to be a chronic problem for religious politicians, whether Muslim Brotherhood or the GOP.  —–“Now stop right there!  The GOP is nothing like the Muslim Brotherhood.  They aren’t trying to overthrow democracy or impose a state religion; they defend democracy and the Constitution from bloated government budgets and power-grabbing.” —- Yes, you are right.  There has been a lot of loose talk for years equating Republicans with the Taliban, as if killing a boy for flying a kite was somehow morally equivalent to offering tuition vouchers for parents who want to send their children to religiously-run private schools.  The GOP is not the Taliban.  For that matter, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the Taliban, either.  But in the politics of the Religious Right in the USA, there are faint echoes of other, more blatantly theocratic voices; and the lessons we can gain from Morsi might help the GOP as it undertakes its much-publicized self-analysis.  More importantly, though, it might help all of us understand our world and ourselves a little better.

First, liberals need to admit that Republicans are not trying to establish a theocracy.  Conservatives need to admit that there are many Americans, called “Christian Dominionists” or “Christian Reconstructionists,” who do openly express the desire to use the Constitutional protections of free speech and freedom of religion to, in their own words, overthrow that same Constitution and establish a Christian theocracy; and furthermore, much of the Religious Right supports their agenda either entirely or in part, and the Religious Right in turn is the driving force among “social conservatives” within the Republican Party, so the views and policies of Christian Dominionism have an inordinate influence within the GOP even when the true agenda of the original purveyors of those ideas is not recognized.  It is as absurd to say “Republicans are Christian Taliban” as it is to say “No Christian Taliban are Republicans.”  If “Christian Taliban” is popular shorthand for Christians who wish to impose a rigid, intolerant version of Christianity on the rest of the nation, either by force or initially through more subtle means, then there are “Christian Taliban” in the U.S. who are politically active within the Republican Party today; and there are many more who would not endorse their whole agenda or welcome the Dominionist end-game, but who wittingly or unwittingly ally with key parts of their agenda to impose their version of “God’s Kingdom” upon the individuals and social institutions of this nation (such as weakening “the kingdom of education” through government financial support of private schools and home-schooling, with the ultimate intention to replace public education).

So let’s admit that there are some relevant parallels between the methods and intentions of Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and some U.S. Republicans.  Both groups are religiously motivated, and look to the next world rather than this one for their ultimate validation.  Both believe that God has called them to use the political structures of secular democracy to establish a society that is more “scripturally based,” though they disagree somewhat on what that means.  And while they disagree as to which Scriptures should provide the foundation for society’s laws and policies, the actual policies they advocate are very similar:  suppression of homosexuality, government control of women’s reproduction,[2] suppressing pornography,[3] suppression of scientific research and teaching,[4] laissez-faire capitalism,[5] and above all, suppression of religious nonconformism.[6]  If a government is in place that will enforce proper values, God will be pleased and will bless the nation; so this-worldly solutions to problems like economic decline, environmental collapse or crime are misguided and unnecessary.[7]  If a large portion of society seems to disagree and social unrest increases, that just shows how much we need to impose Godly rule on society; democracy leads to pluralism and disagreement, but if everyone would just convert to one religious code then all social unrest would cease.  Besides, if I have declared myself and my friends as the Party of God, then anyone who opposes us is not just a political rival with different economic or moral theories; my opponents are ungodly, evil, symptoms of the cancer that is threatening our culture, and compromise with them risks drawing down the wrath of God upon myself and the nation.

            I had written up to this point when the “threatened” coup became an actual “coup?” depending on the speaker.  Whether diplomats call it a “coup” or not, we philosophers of a pragmatic streak tend to fall back on the logical principle, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck and lays eggs like a duck, it’s a duck.”  I’m seeing just now an interesting op-ed piece on the New York Times editorial web page, that is agreeing with much of what I had thought about the Egyptian situation.[8]  I am particularly struck by an argument which the author, David Brooks, borrowed from another author:  that the Muslim Brotherhood, and any Islamist, simply denies causality since to imply the world was a causal system would diminish God’s power.  Instead, the Islamist simply rejects any fact that does not feel right.  To switch to a Colbertism, the Islamist embraces truthiness rather than truth.  My concern is that this is a universal trait of all religious ideologues, and that this same trait now drives much American politics, and that if we wish to understand ourselves or others we must understand the problems with religious politics.  But I digress.

Morsi was done in by the fact that he is not a big fan of facts; he’s a big fan of principles, theological principles, having little connection to the rule of the material world he was attempting to govern.  My contention is that Morsi’s ignoring of economic realities is of one cloth with other religious conservatives who ignore science or history at their whim (and their peril).  A second problem with theocratic politics is that it protects incompetence in both theology and politics.  A good example of this is Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr.[9]  Sadr was never a good seminary student, never much of a theologian, but he had his father’s fame and his Iranian political connections to fall back on; in American terms, he sounds like the classic legacy student.  These connections allowed him to build a political party and a brutal militia.  And while the Sadrists were able to provide street-level services almost as well as the Americans could (and used their military force to prevent the Americans from providing better health and other basic aid to the people of Iraq, thus eliminating that source of competition), they were never very good at the basic work of government; but because so many of their followers are motivated by religious loyalty and piety rather than practical concerns, they have a solid political base.  So Sadr covers for his theological incompetence with political clout, and hides his political failures under his religious mantle.  He is not, however, the only current political leader to combine poor theology and poor management into a successful career, either in or out of the Middle East.

And thirdly, this is indeed poor theology.  “Theology” is the attempt to take the religious revelations and teachings about the divine and present them in some sort of rational structure.  Any sincere religious individual or community has had experiences where the simple, nursery-school theology that equates God with Santa Claus (or the djinn in the lamp, or whatever premodern, paganish gift-giving spirit is recognized in the culture) did not match up with the felt experience.  Ultimately, in most major religions this leads to an attempt to set religious experience in a wider cosmic context, seeking to see the value of what is because it is while still seeking to make it better.  Evil and suffering become not just uncomfortable facts to be ignored or misfortunes to be blamed on outsiders who don’t believe as “we” do; they become challenges both to our own egocentrism and our own moral complacency, calling us both to humility and to moral action.  But the same religious thinking that rejects causality also seeks to put God in a nice theological box, as if God alone were the only reality we could causally understand; if I do x, God will inevitably do y.  If I drive out the gays, God will protect the nation for hurricanes and terrorist attacks.  If I drive out the Christians, God will inevitably restore the nation to material prosperity and to its rightful, righteous place as the head of a worldwide caliphate.  If I commit suicide while killing a bunch of God’s enemies (who, big surprise, are also the very people I would have gladly killed on my own time), God will reward me with all the good things of this world which I didn’t have but always lusted after (the ascetic Muslim fanatic sees God as a pimp who will provide unlimited sex, while the humble Christian sees God as a political powerbroker who will make him a ruler in the Kingdom of Heaven, with a golden crown and a gleaming throne).  Instead of submitting to God’s will, the theocratic believer temporarily submits to God in order to get God to submit to him later.  That’s not piety or love; that’s trading.  Piety says, “Many of the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” and yet still strives to be one of the good ones who is “first” not out of an expectation of always being “first,” but only out of love for the universe and its source and a desire to contribute to the task.

Both the Islamists and the American social conservatives have these shared traits:  a rejection of the causal laws and material requirements of this world while simultaneously demanding rulership of this world; a tendency towards political and theological mediocrity while using power in one sphere to impose its will in the other; and a fetishism that seeks to turn the numinous and the holy into a lucky charm giving power to attain quite worldly and egocentric satisfactions.  Morsi’s problems were, thus, “in the cards,” as an idiom based on another such fetishism would put it.  Does that mean his overthrow is a good thing?  Or is it the death of democracy in Egypt, and perhaps in the Arab world?

What is democracy?  I would say that it is primarily a mechanism to prevent civil war, by allowing political disagreements and struggles to be carried out through political mechanisms rather than by force of arms.  When the will of the majority is the guiding principle of the nation, and the desires of majorities are sufficiently met so that they still feel themselves to be part of the ongoing national project, the society works.  The Muslim Brotherhood loved the part about the will of the majority being the ruling power, as long as they were the majority; but there were many other groups that still had both a vested interest in Egypt’s national project and the power to express their desires.  When the democratic processes were not sufficient to allow the Christians, the liberal secularists, the middle class in general to participate in the life of the nation, the official democratic structure was overthrown.  But that does not necessarily mean a more informal democracy is not in action.  In the U.S. we went through a period of anti-sedition laws, the Whiskey Rebellion, and other crises before we hit upon the Bill of Rights, including free speech and Church/State separation, to protect the rights of minorities while respecting the will of the majority.  We still had a Civil War, which many millions felt was the death of democracy in America as the anti-slavery forces imposed their will by force upon people who thought their property rights over other people were both God-given and democratically established.  Democracy survived and grew despite, and even because of this breakdown in democracy.

I regret the coup in Egypt.  As someone more knowledgeable than I said some years ago, the Islamists have to be allowed into the democratic process, allowed to implement their policies, and shown to fail.  As long as authoritarian means keep them out of power, they can blame the world’s wickedness for everything.  But the Islamist strategy, among diverse groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and even al-Qaeda, has been pretty much the same:  promise an end to the endemic political corruption of their societies and provide basic social services from cooking fuel to hospitals, win elections because of the people’s confidence that they will continue to provide for their social needs, and then use that power to put all those social services on the back burner while the “important” work of earning God’s blessing by banning alcohol and requiring long beards and child marriage becomes the main national agenda.  When the people protest that they signed on because of the promises of social services and not for forced social conformity, the religious longing for a holy war is awakened and the popularly elected theocrats resort to violence and warfare against their “enemies” both domestic and foreign.  It would probably have been better to let the Islamists be defeated in an open election.  But if Egyptians themselves decide that they have learned the lesson themselves and are ready to try for a true democracy, they can still attain a stable and modern society.

And I would say that the social conservatives and Religious Right in this country follow much the same pattern.  In Texas, millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent on repeated special sessions of the state legislature, all in an attempt to ram through the virtual abolition of the right to choose abortion which the Supreme Court of the United States has affirmed is protected by the Constitution.  The party that ran on the promise to save money is now spending it, not on badly needed social services but instead on a political power-play intended to impose a particular religious ruling on others.

Democracy works because it is responsive to the will of the people.  As Amartya Sen argued in his Nobel-prize winning work, democracy is economically more powerful because any democratic system has to provide material prosperity; an authoritarian system can spend money on guns, on largesse for the political elite, on whatever it wants, but democracies have to provide economic development.[10]  And democracy works politically because it creates buy-in among the citizens.  When all, or as good as all feel they have a vested interest in the society and that it respects and represents their interests, there is loyalty among the citizens and a willingness to work within the governmental institutions and informal cultural systems; when sizeable numbers feel alienated and disenfranchised, they are likely to choose to opt out of the social contract through violence, crime and parasitism, or to de facto form a new community and attempt to overthrow their oppressive overlords. Democracy works best when it is a system for seeking consensus, for trying to reach the broadest possible appeal consistent with implementing workable policies; it starts to break down when ideologues and demagogues promise one thing (economic prosperity) but deliver another (shelving economic concerns and focusing instead on winning “the culture wars”).

So is democracy dead in Egypt?  If the Egyptian people believe it is dead.  A true democracy would aim to create buy-in for Islamists, Christians, the poor, the middle class, the wealthy, men, women, everyone.  Democracy used as a tool by theocrats has failed, since consensus and practical solutions to real-world problems was never a priority for Morsi; but that does not necessarily mean it can never work.  Maybe this is more of a reset on the democratic project; I hope so, at any rate.  Only a society that is truly responsive to its people’s needs and in which citizens truly feel a sense of inclusion and joint responsibility can be truly stable.


[2] suppressing abortion of course, but also suppressing birth control generally, while limiting a woman’s ability to work outside the household for the same pay a man would get, and so on.

[3] which always thrives when suppressed, but is more easily controlled by men; look at the widespread prostitution and pornography available both in the Victorian Era and in the 1950’s

[4] specifically paleontology, evolutionary biology, astronomy and anything else that might lead to information conflicting with a prescientific, literalist interpretation of religious scriptures

[5] because socialism is unwarranted government interference on the rights of individuals and undermines the moral and religious value of charity, while government imposition of private virtue supports rather than subverts personal moral worth

[6] because “freedom of religion” means freedom of the right religion from oppression by all others; but freeing others from wrong religion, by law or force, is good; and the Islamist or Dominionist always is certain that his particular brand of religion is the unadulterated “good.”

[7] For example, Pat Robertson famously blamed feminists for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and homosexuals for Hurricane Katrina, because God would have protected us from these things if only the nation had been governed according to the religious teachings of The 700 Club.

[8] David Brooks, “Defending the Coup,” The New York Times July 4, 2013 (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/05/opinion/brooks-defending-the-coup.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0)

[9] Lucky Severson, “Shia-Sunni Conflict,” Religion and Ethics Newsweekly September 29, 2006 (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2006/09/29/september-29-2006-shia-sunni-conflict/1795/)

[10] This works, Dr. Sen argues, if the society is a true democracy, having not only free elections but also a free press, rule of law, and truly free markets not dominated monopolies (either government or private), foreign control (as in colonial India, which he analyzed extensively) or in any other way not really accessible to or controllable by the people themselves.