Posts Tagged ‘Christianity and Politics’

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

Advertisements

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.