Posts Tagged ‘Culture Wars’

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” Review (pt. 6)

March 13, 2018

“Falwell… stands labeled by Niebuhr as ‘false prophet.’”[1] And despite praising Falwell’s contention that the Christian must be involved in politics, and despite having misgivings about some aspects of Niebuhr’s theology, the analysis in this thesis largely agrees. Understanding why and in what ways Falwell is a false prophet not only shows us the heart of this thesis, but offers hints into Comey’s own motivations.   These hints are more for the reader’s exercise, since mindreading is an inexact science; so I will try to summarize Comey’s critique of Falwell and let you entertain yourself by speculating what part all this might have played in Comey’s controversial decisions of 2016 and 2017.

Falwell claims that his theological pronouncements are the clear word of God, supported by direct warrant from Scripture. He does not mean by this that there is no room for interpretation; he is not a strict literalist in the sense that if the Bible says to let the word of God be inscribed on your right hand, that you must literally write or tie Scriptures there (Deut 11:18). Or as Comey points out, the mere fact that the Bible reports similar events differently does not mean that Jesus at one time fed 5000 people with no commentary, then did it again with extensive commentary, despite the differences between Mark’s and John’s accounts; rather, we must interpret the Scriptures to make them harmonize. But Falwell does claim that, correctly interpreted, the Bible provides the Christian with direct instruction, and that this instruction is largely identical with the political and moral proclamations of Falwell himself. And upon close examination, this notion does not hold up. Many of Falwell’s claims seem to have, at best, indirect warrant from Scripture, requiring some degree of analogical or imaginative thinking. This is true not just of peripheral issues, but of claims that make up the heart of Falwell’s message. Falwell’s claim that God endorses capitalism and that capitalism is in fact the only economic system that God approves is highly dubious. As Comey points out, Falwell relies on Proverbs for his claim, but the proverb he cites is not particularly direct; it only reflects the idea that hard work should be rewarded and laziness leads to poverty. Falwell simply ignores large portions of Scripture, particularly the Sermon on the Mount and the Prophets, where the Bible makes its most sustained ethical teachings, and which seriously question the unlimited right to property and profit. Instead, Falwell, like other fundamentalists influenced by Rousas Rushdooney, relies primarily on selective reading of the Torah and Wisdom literature. But even in the Torah, the right to property is severely limited. For example, in the Year of Jubilee all debts are to be cancelled, all slaves set free, and most radically, all land sold by anyone is to be returned to that person’s family (Lev 25:8-17). Leaving aside questions like the ownership of Manhattan and assuming that this law only applies to “godly” nations like Israel and (according to Falwell) the United States, imagine what this would do to the real estate sector alone! While houses in “walled cities” may be sold permanently, no one in America lives in a walled city; and in any case, even if you stretch the definition of “walled city” to include any metropolis, this would still exclude suburbs, small towns and rural areas. Every fifty years, all this land would be returned to the original seller’s family. That’s a pretty serious restriction on capitalism! What this points to is that while the Bible allows for people to profit from their own work, or to make a reasonable and fair profit from business, the true source of capital in biblical times, the land itself, belonged to YHWH, which God Himself had distributed to particular tribes and families to manage. It was therefore a mixed economy, neither wholly socialist or wholly capitalist; the ultimate means of production, the land itself, belonged to God and by extension to the nation and people as a whole, while all profits from the land belonged to the individual. Even here there were restrictions, such as the prohibition against going back over your own fields to gather up anything the harvesters missed the first time (Lev. 23:22). Instead, even when dealing with what was unarguably “private property,” the landowner was required to provide for the poor. Again, the treatment of landowners in the Torah is not like the unlimited property rights asserted by Ayn Rand or even John Locke, who claim that private property is an essential right based on one’s right to one’s own body and thus to the “fruits of your labors.” It is not even like a franchise, where a largely absentee owner gives out a license in perpetuity for the franchisee to run the local gas station or McDonald’s as if he or she owned it outright provided certain minimum standards are met. Instead, the Torah treats landowners much more like managers, whose books are subject to evaluation on a regular basis by the true boss, which is God. And in a theocracy like Israel is described and like Falwell seems to want America to be, to say property is owned by God is to say that it is owned by the State as God’s agent. The socialists have a strong case if they wish to claim direct warrant from Scripture, at least as strong as the capitalists do.

The point is not to say that the Bible provides direct warrant for socialism, communism, capitalism or any other sort of “–ism;” the point is that the Bible does not provide direct warrant for our human “–isms” and that we commit idolatry when we claim it does. It is another example of our pride, leading us to exalt our particular preference or heritage to divine status.

[1] Comey, p. 89

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt. 8)

February 12, 2018

I have tried to show here that the stereotypical Christian position on ecology is not the only one, or the oldest, or even the majority opinion. It is a rather recent innovation, which has become prominent in recent years because of a well-orchestrated campaign heavily funded by business interests and driven by social-political concerns, that is, “The Culture Wars.” It is a position that owes more to John Locke than to the Biblical heritage, interpreting Scripture through the lens of Locke’s views on property and a libertarian version of Christian Dominionism. Because it is well-funded, it has a loud voice, and is currently very politically influential. However, it is not the only Christian voice. The other voice I have sought to call attention to is much older, and more widely influential. It begins with St. Augustine of Hippo, and thus is foundational for much of Western Christianity both Catholic and Protestant. While it originated in the conversation between Neoplatonism and the Christian Biblical tradition, its moral and epistemological concerns reach beyond that metaphysical framework. It is a theological vision that sees love as the fulfillment of human life, humility as the cardinal virtue to live the life of perfect love, and pride as the deadly sin that turns us away from the live of love which should be our destiny. This tradition is often drowned out today in the press, but it is not silenced; it continues to speak through Christian thinkers directly or indirectly influenced by Augustine’s insights. This theology offers Christians the best resources to contribute helpfully to facing the ecological crisis brought on by human abuse of our environment, abuse at times abetted by Christianity itself and by the same heritage of John Locke which gave us our Revolution.

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt. 7)

February 12, 2018

I’ve tried to lay out two significant moral traditions that express themselves in two very different Protestant theologies. One begins with the earliest days of Western Christianity, and continues through religious and even nonreligious thinkers. It is a tradition that sees the greatest moral danger as pride, the cardinal virtue as humility, and the fulfillment of human existence as loving God with all one’s heart and mind and strength and one’s neighbor as oneself. The other crystallized in the English Enlightenment, and influenced European and American thinking, most prominently in the American Revolution, which was justified by appealing to its principles. This tradition sees conflict and oppression as the greatest evils, reason as the greatest virtue, and individual liberty and happiness (understood as a calm, sustained pleasure) as the best human life. I want to point out that there are resources within the Lockean moral tradition to start a conversation on environmentalism. Specifically, Locke’s defense of private property is limited by what he calls “the law of reason.” While a person has a natural right to whatever property his or her work has acquired and he or she can use, a person does not have a right to what cannot be used before it spoils.[1] He also discusses how some lands may be held in common for the good of all the people of a village or nation, which would justify public parks, federal forests and so on, with restrictions on the use of these by individuals.[2] But in the theological current flowing from Locke through Rushdooney into today’s federal government, it rarely does so. I would suggest that there are two main reasons for this; first and most obviously, much of the theology is being funded by large corporate donors, and they donate to amplify the voices that are the most business-friendly; and second, there is a hermeneutical blindness that prevents many preachers and theologians from properly critiquing Locke’s writings. When Locke writes, for example, “God , …has given the earth to the children of men,” it is easy to see this as some sort of divine command which would therefore have no limits; the will of God transcends human reason. In fact, Locke means no such thing. His primary theological writing, The Reasonableness of Christianity, makes this clear. He vigorously rejects religious extremism, or as he calls it, “enthusiasm,” and argues for an understanding of God that is reasonable: no miracles, no arbitrary commands, no resurrections and no one person paying for the sins of everyone. The scissors Jefferson used to edit the Bible were forged by Locke. But to a fundamentalist super-patriot, like Rushdooney or Jerry Falwell, Locke’s words go from being a rational argument capable of rational limits to a divine fiat which treats any question as rebellion. And that is how environmental questions about this “subdue the earth” mentality are treated. As one example, I would point to Kathleen Hartnett White, nominated by Trump to head the Council on Environmental Quality, who claimed that the belief in global warming was “a kind of paganism.”[3]

But even at its best, a social contract philosophy like Locke’s can only treat Nature as a resource for the enjoyment of humans, since only humans enter into the contract. And that is the real problem for theology in swallowing this philosophy, or any philosophy, without some hermeneutical consciousness: that one will try to build an understanding of God on a foundation that does not fit. The Augustinian moral tradition, by contrast, begins with an essentially spiritual foundation: the Platonic belief in the reality of transcendent Good, which makes itself known to those who are willing to receive it, coupled with the Abrahamic belief in one good, loving, personal God who created the world out of love, because it was good for these things to exist. From this perspective, the extreme individualism that Enlightenment social contract theory takes as its starting point is simply the first sign of pride, not an essential reality. The reality, or as Allen puts it, the moral perspective, is that humans are one part of the created order. They do not create order out of chaos by imposing or founding a social contract; they discover their parts as particulars among billions of other particular things, each of which is good in its own way and each of which is perfectly loved by God.

As I have indicated, this is not the theology underlying current U.S. government policies or much of Evangelical thinking. But it, or something like it, does underlie the environmental ethics of other strains of Christianity. The ecumenical National Council of Churches regularly publishes Earth Day liturgical materials, including a 2011 suggested Prayer of Confession which reads:

 

 

God, in all your Creation you have revealed to us the fragile interdependence of life. We confess, at times, we have rebelled against you with ideas of self-sufficiency and extreme individualism. We reap without sowing and do harm without knowing. Open our eyes and hearts to your Creation and all who labor to offer us daily with food, water, energy, and sanitation. Help us to build a just, sustainable community of equitable sharing, solidarity and gratitude.[4]

 

 

While NCC materials tend to focus on human needs and on preserving the environment to better protect the most vulnerable of us humans, they consistently emphasize human interconnectedness, first with one another but also with the rest of Creation, versus “our individualistic culture that is set up so that we will neither notice each others’ struggles, nor bear each others’ burdens.”[5] In Allen’s theology of perfect love, this extreme individualism is the de facto perspective; as he write, “My consumption of resources is well out of proportion to the available supply for mankind, yet I rarely give serious attention to the suffering of those I have never seen, even though I know in theory that their suffering is as real as any I have ever had.”[6] In both the primary religious task is seen as decentering oneself, turning away from excessive concern for oneself and consideration for the worldwide community. This is the Augustinian virtue of humility again, pulling the individual de facto person back from prideful self-love to make room for the moral life of perfect love of others.

An even clearer call to what Allen calls “perfect love” appears in “Earth Care Congregations: A Guide to Greening Presbyterian Churches.”[7] It states:

 

 

Our faith urges us to strive for eco-justice: defending and healing creation while working to assure justice for all of creation and the human beings who live in it. This call is rooted in the human vocation of “tilling and keeping” the garden from Genesis 2:15, as well as Christ’s charge to work with and for the most vulnerable. Because of their love for Christ who is the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15), churches are challenged to live in a manner consistent with God’s call to not only care for creation, but commune with creation.[8]

 

 

I don’t have any reason to think that the writers of this document had read Allen, but it seems clear they speak from the Augustinian moral tradition that he exemplifies. I find it remarkable how closely this justification for eco-justice follows Allen’s list of ethical implications of the experience of perfect love. The call to defend justice for “all creation and the human beings who live in it” reflects the humility of perfect love. Humans are to see themselves not as the beneficiaries of creation, those for whom all other things were created, but rather as one part of the vast created cosmos. The love of creation is referred back to the love of Christ, and all things done to harm or heal the Earth are seen as harming or healing Jesus himself (fourth on Allen’s list of five ethical principles). While some theologies discuss the believer in terms of ruling over Creation (an apocalyptic reference to the place of the saints in glory after the final judgment), the Earth Care statement discusses humans as servants, “tilling and keeping” God’s garden, not ruling over creation but “communing” with it as equals. As Allen said, we should not see ourselves as living in glory before our time; in this live we are de facto persons who are inclined to exploit, but in the afterlife we will be freed from this bondage to our egos and able to rule creation as God rules it—without selfish need, out of perfect love alone, as moral persons—-though of course without the omnipotence, still humble servants only.

All these documents we have examined so far have been supplementary educational materials. While all were available through my home denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA, some were originally published by the National Council of Churches and mention Episcopal, UCC and Lutheran leaders. This gives us some glimpse of the broad influence of the Augustinian moral perspective on environmental thinking within Christianity. Nature is valued and to be protected not merely because it is good for humans, but because it is good in itself. The last document I would like us to look at is the “Brief Statement of Faith” found in The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) pt. 1: Book of Confessions. It states:

 

 

Ignoring God’s commandments, we violate the image of God in others and ourselves, accept lies as truth, exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care. We deserve God’s condemnation. Yet God acts with justice and mercy to redeem creation.[9]

 

 

Again, the emphasis is not solely on human interests; instead, exploitation of both human and nonhuman creation is condemned, and God is said to act to redeem all creation.

[1] John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, chapter V, sect. 31-

[2] Locke, sect. 31-41

[3] Veronica Stacqualursi, “White House to Withdraw Environmental Pick’s Nomination.” CNN February 3, 2018 (https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/03/politics/nominee-withdraw-council-environmental-quality/index.html)

 

[4] National Council of Churches, “Where Two or More are Gathered: Eco-Justice as Community;” National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Programs (2011) Bulletin insert

[5] “Where Two or More are Gathered,” p. 6

[6] Allen, p. 77

[7] PC(USA), Earth Care Congregations: A Guide to Greening Presbyterian Churches, version 3, 2013 (www.pcusa.org/earth-care-congregations)

[8] Earth Care Congregations, “Why Should We Care for the Earth?”

[9] The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) pt. 1: Book of Confessions (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church USA, 1996) 10.3: 34-40 (emphasis added)

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology

January 18, 2018

This is the working draft of a paper I am preparing for a local Earth Day conference, but see no reason to wait until then to start a conversation.

 

 

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology

 

 

Abstract:    In this paper I shall discuss the concept of humility, as discussed by Augustine of Hippo, Søren Kierkegaard and Diogenes Allen. In the Augustinian tradition, pride is the original and deadly sin, from which all others derive; humility is the cardinal virtue of not thinking more of oneself than is the truth. Through Kierkegaard and Allen, this theological virtue becomes an epistemological virtue as well, providing a basis for ways to think about the environment beyond the man/property/wilderness framework often found in fundamentalist theologies and libertarian economic ethics. Finally, I shall use the concept of humility to analyze and critique the environmental pronouncements and policies of my own religious tradition, the Presbyterian Church (USA).

 

 

The 18th century philosopher Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) once said that the fundamental mistake of modern theologies was their tendency to take over the dominant philosophies of their day, and try to talk about God based on those constraints. The problem in Hamman’s eyes was that these philosophies began from a more or less atheist starting point; building on this flawed foundation, any theological edifice was bound to be unstable. At the risk of anachronism, I would claim that much of 20th century Protestant American Fundamentalism falls into this trap. The philosophical foundation for writers such as Rousas Rushdoony and Jerry Falwell is a libertarian political philosophy rooted originally in John Locke. Locke’s philosophy, particularly as laid out in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, profoundly shaped the thinking and the direction of the American independence movement, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that he was the grandfather of the American Revolution. His thinking influences our culture still in ways most of us scarcely realize, and I am grateful for most of it. But when it comes to environmental thinking, his thought is unhelpful and, in its current incarnations, downright dangerous. I want here to briefly survey how Locke’s views on property and nature affect much American thought, including Fundamentalist theology. Next, I want to go back to the Augustinian tradition, and look at how the Augustinian concepts of pride and humility can give us a new starting point for discussing our relationship with nature. In particular, I will be discussing the book Finding Our Father, written by one of my favorite professors in seminary, Diogenes Allen. I will be writing this primarily as an exercise in or examination of Christian theology, but I hope the treatment will be interesting and helpful for others as well.

In his Second Treatise on Civil Government, John Locke lays out some very radical political theories. Having argued in the first treatise against the divine right of kings, in the second he argues that political power is in fact the expression of the will of the majority of the people. A nation, he says, is a group of people who have agreed to live together and work together to solve their disagreements peacefully and to protect each others’ life, liberty and property. They achieve this by creating a government which therefore ought to include representatives chosen by the people to make decisions on behalf of the rest, and who are subject to replacement by popular vote. In an era where the people were often treated as property of the monarch as much as the land they farmed was, the idea that the king, courts and Parliament existed to serve the people and carry out their will was quite literally revolutionary: it was born in response to the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, and it led to the American Revolution a generation later. Instead of considering individuals first as subjects ruled by others, Locke said each was essentially the ruler of himself or herself. No rational being owned another; rather, each owns his or her own body. Nature, by contrast, is not consciously rational, so natural resources such as water, fruit trees in the forest and so on are unowned, or common property. But if some person adds his or her own effort to the natural object, say by gathering the apples from the tree into a basket, then that formerly unowned resource is not a mixture of the natural and the efforts of some person’s body, and thus becomes by extension that person’s private property. Whenever a human shapes or changes nature, that human adds a little of his or her own body to it, and it becomes private property.

Locke does have some constraints on this natural acquisition. Importantly, he said that no one has a right to more of anything than he or she can use before it spoils. It would be irrational, a violation of the law of Reason which rules even in nature, for one person to gather all the food and hoard it until it spoils while others starve. But essentially, Locke treats the natural world as having worth only as it affects humans. People turn nature into property, and have an inalienable right to do so. Locke’s Second Treatise had a powerful influence on America’s Founding Fathers, and his philosophy both explicitly and covertly influenced our culture and still does. Explicitly, it shaped the Declaration of Independence, and Locke’s idea for a tripartite government is the foundation of our Constitution’s division into executive, legislative and judicial branches. Less explicitly, his views of property were very congenial to colonial and frontier farmers/plantation owners, justifying their wholesale conversion of wilderness to private farmland. Locke basically assumed that Nature was inexhaustible, an idea that was questionable on the British island but which seemed obviously true to the Englishmen and later Americans looking west towards apparently limitless horizons. And even today, this view of Nature is powerful, particularly in the business community: nature is raw material, and essentially limitless, unless pesky regulations get in the way.

Locke often used religious language in his political writing, referring to the law of Nature, Reason and the will of God more or less interchangeably. This made it easy for later American religious conservatives to take over his philosophy and incorporate it more or less unaltered into such theologies as Christian Reconstructionism. This represents a major and important misunderstanding of Locke’s thought, one that in turn delegitimizes this entire theological project. In his primary theological work, The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke argues that the true heart of Christianity is a moral monotheism. He has no real use for miracle stories, or the idea that one guy could die for the sins of others; his religion and thus his God is philosophical, ethical, and like the title says, reasonable. But at least since Rousas Rushdoony and continuing through Falwell and others, as well as countless Evangelical Protestant preachers, this idea that humans have a “divine” right to treat nature as an inexhaustible source of human wealth has been treated as an Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not hinder private property. For Locke, saying this was divine law was the same as saying it is reason’s law; thus, we can use reason to interpret it. For some conservative Christians, the “law of God” is more like the absolute eternal pronouncement of the Divine Lawgiver, so far beyond all human reason that even to hint that we might be harming the Earth is literally said to be rebellion against the LORD. Not only is Nature treated as an unlimited resource with value only as human property, but to say otherwise is, in some theological circles, literally a sin. And while this attitude is not the majority opinion of religious people, it has an outsized influence on American politics through the influence of well-financed lobbyists and media organizations supporting and supported by religious celebrities and mega-congregations.   Returning to Hamann’s observation, rather than start with a religious standpoint, derive their ecological theology from that and then dialog with American culture, a large swath of American fundamentalism adopted a humanistic attitude towards nature derived from Locke’s views on property as these were expressed through American culture and particularly American business culture; then, tacking on a fundamentalist Divine Commander to the rationalist foundation, they derived a theological approach to Nature that severely limits what religion can say to humans that they are not already happy to say to themselves. There can be no prophetic voice when the theology is merely an echo of the interests of economic and political powers.

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (Review, pt. 5)

January 9, 2018

Just as God’s love establishes equality between individuals as the ideal, so too, Niebuhr says, does God demand equality and peace between nations. Falwell, Niebuhr would say, idolizes his own particular nation.[1] Patriotism, in and of itself, is fine, and a natural expression for the morally praiseworthy virtue of altruism. However, when patriotism and nationalism are distorted by pride, love of nation becomes a worship of one’s own nation and a desire to dominate others.[2] Niebuhr argues that the only defense against this idolatry is prophetic religion, that criticizes even the best nation by holding up the standard of perfect love. This is a recurring and important theme in Niebuhr’s thought, beyond the limited area Comey discusses: that Christian ethics is God’s perfect, unattainably high standard held up for us to strive towards, not a goal we can expect to fulfill. In An Interpetation of Christian Ethics, Niebuhr describes this in terms of the individual. I may feel pretty good about myself, if I only look at myself and what I’ve done. If I look at others, I may feel worse or better, depending on whom I look at. I feel pretty good about giving my spare change to a homeless person.   If I look around me, and see how many others only offer contempt, I may even feel pretty smug about my moral superiority. But if I look to the Gospel, and see what perfect neighbor-love would look like, I am humbled if not ashamed to realize how far I am from fulfilling God’s law of love. I do not give my sweater to the one who asks for my coat (Matt: 5:40); I don’t even give the coat. I don’t even give away my T-shirt collection (Luke 3:11). I allow practicalities and even fear to hold me back from fully loving others who need all the help they can get. And honestly, I’m going to keep doing so. But I can at least begin to grow morally when I stop measuring myself in comparison to any relative standard, and instead use God’s standard. This can lead me to repent, and to admit that my moral pride was undeserved; and knowing I still have some growing to do, I can strive to be better rather than bask in my self-satisfaction.

The same principle applies to nations. The “prophetic religion” which Niebuhr advocates holds up the ideal of the law of love. The Christian in politics should not judge his or her nation by looking at the others and feeling superior; rather, the Christian should look at the description of the Kingdom of God, where all are equal and love, not power, rules. No human nation, not even the best, will ever measure up to God’s perfect standard. This does not mean that all nations are equal or that one cannot judge between them; Niebuhr clearly and forcefully argued that the U.S. had a moral and religious duty to oppose Hitler with force, for example. But it does mean that the patriotic Christian must still admit that his or her nation needs to improve, and must call out the nation when it fails to uphold justice and protect the weak. Otherwise, the patriot will fall into idolatry, worshipping the State as if it were divine and attributing perfection to it as if it were God.

Falwell, too, would say that Christianity is a prophetic religion, and that the true Christian patriot must be a prophet. But “Falwell’s identification of America as Christian civilization and his belief in America as a new Christian Israel makes him a false prophet.”[3] Jerry Falwell claims that America is the best, most godly nation that has ever been. His evidence for this seems to be twofold. First, he would say, just look at us: founded by Christians as a shining city on a hill, preserving the Christian heritage better than any other, doing good for other nations, sharing our food, offering the protection of our military, establishing peace, promoting free trade and protecting trade routes so everyone can get richer as God intended, defending capitalism, which is the most godly economic system, and so on. Second, America’s wealth and power proves its righteousness: as “righteousness exalts a nation,” and the promise of the Bible is that God will bless the faithful nation, and God has clearly blessed America above all other nations, this must be the most faithful nation. * As Comey points out, this claim is subject to multiple objections. First, the biblical basis for this claim is not nearly as strong as Falwell asserts. There is no “direct warrant,” simply because the “United States of America” is never mentioned in the Bible. The indirect warrant from Scripture is also questionable, since it is not clear what “blessed” means or whether only faithful nations will ever be powerful. After all, at the time Falwell was writing, the “godless” USSR was considered an existential threat to the US, having quickly risen from the most backward of European nations to become a vast, powerful empire with worldwide trade and diplomatic influence; to any impartial judge, it would seem to be at least nearly as blessed as America. Falwell simply ignores apparent counterexamples to his argument, however, even asserting that part of the great righteousness of America is its opposition to the materialist, socialist totalitarianism of the Soviet Union; far from showing their blessedness, the Soviet strength only makes their evil worse. Falwell also ignores national sins of the U.S. such as segregation and racism. And more insidiously, Falwell fails to understand that spiritual pride can undermine even national virtues and turn them into vices, a process Niebuhr describes as “irony.”[4] Without a healthy skepticism born from a religious awareness of pride, American power easily becomes imperialism and oppression of other nations, American wealth and success can lead to the impoverishment of other nations, and American democracy is rejected by other nations as mere cover for the exploitation of the poor by rich capitalists and landowners. Falwell’s shock at the ingratitude of other nations towards America seems to incarnate the irony Niebuhr described years earlier. Here we are offering food, education, financial and military support to all these other nations, and they won’t even say “thank you”? But what Falwell never asks, and Niebuhr says the Christian must ask, is “Are we doing this for ourselves?” When we allow ourselves to become convinced that our nation has a unique divine mission, we all too easily cease to consider either the shortfalls and self-serving nature of many of our virtues, or the possible harm our nation and even our virtues may cause others. Furthermore, our pride can allow us to see our national actions as neither self-serving nor even simply good, but so superior that we deserve credit for going above and beyond the call of morality.

[1] Comey, pp. 75-89

[2] Comey, pp. 75-56

[3] Comey, p. 86

* Today we might say this is a sort of nationalized version of the Prosperity Gospel.

[4] Comey, p. 80

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/

An open letter to a FOX News viewer

November 8, 2017

I’m writing this to a family member who, I’m told, has been posting FOX News.  Perhaps you also have a loved one who needs intervention; if so, I hope this helps.  Friends don’t let friends drive news cycles.

Part 1:  I’ve been told you’re posting links to FOX News.  Those of us who share your concern that Donald Trump is destroying conservatism in this country, and destroying this country, wonder why you would start repeating stories from a source that dedicates itself to promoting his virtue, accomplishments and authority even when these claims are contradicted by his crimes, vices, failures, bullying, lying, pettiness and proud, profound ignorance.  I thought I would take the opportunity to remind you, and others, about “the FOX News Effect:”

http://www.businessinsider.com/study-watching-fox-news-makes-you-less-informed-than-watching-no-news-at-all-2012-5

https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2016/07/21/a-rigorous-scientific-look-into-the-fox-news-effect/#609265ce12ab

There are many other reports, but these two cover things pretty well, and so far as I know neither can be accused of liberal bias.  It is simply a fact that FOX News viewers, on average, are less informed, and less willing to become informed, than people who watch no news at all, according to some research; other less thorough studies suggest that perhaps they aren’t more ignorant than the totally uninformed, but still know less (while thinking they know more) than NPR listeners, PBS watchers, or even CNN consumers.  There are some important caveats:

  1.  MSNBC viewers do not do much better.  The problem seems to be not so much right vs. left, but right hemisphere vs. left hemisphere.  FOX and MSNBC are both partisan, serving up lots of slanted, emotionally appealing news stories to their chosen niches while avoiding stories that might challenge their narratives.  The right side of the brain is more involved with the emotions; the left side is more analytical, logical, and factual.  The partisan news media, whether left-wing or right-wing, appeal more to people who do not value facts or critical thinking, and encourage people not to try.
  2. As the Forbes article points out, correlation is not causation.  We’ve done little research to find whether FOX viewers are ignorant to start, or whether viewing FOX makes them ignorant.

At the same time, there are reports like this:  http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2016/11/23/503146770/npr-finds-the-head-of-a-covert-fake-news-operation-in-the-suburbs and https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/201003/why-liberals-are-more-intelligent-conservatives and https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/201003/why-liberals-are-more-intelligent-conservatives

What these suggest are:

  1.  Either smarter, better-educated and better-informed people tend to be more liberal, or being liberal makes you smarter.  Conservatives tend to be more gullible, either because they are less educated and informed, or because they tend to be more trusting.  Conservatives are more authoritarian, more trusting of people seen as leaders; and they are more group-oriented, more inclined to trust people within group boundaries and inclined to distrust outsiders.  That’s not intended as an insult; it’s a psychological and definitional fact.  To be a social conservative is to be anti-multicultural and more respectful of authorities and institutions, whether they are Rush Limbaugh’s “dittoheads” or the people who won’t watch the NFL because players “disrespect the flag.”  That does not mean they respect all authority, but they do respect the authorities that they accept more uncritically than liberals do.  Liberals tend to be more skeptical, more cynical, and more willing to accept ambiguity and open questions.
  2. Being too extreme either way could be bad, but the liberal echo chamber is less impermeable and less effective than the conservative one.  The false news manufacturer had more trouble creating fake liberal news, because eventually some liberal would fact-check him; conservatives were far more likely to keep repeating a story that was factually false, but which fit their preconceptions and which seemed to be endorsed by a trustworthy authority (i.e. a leader of their group as opposed to an outsider).

Part 2:  The particular news story in this case illustrates much of the problem.  The story is originally reported as “Michelle Obama Speaks At Obama Foundation Summit.”  http://abc7chicago.com/politics/michelle-obama-speaks-at-obama-foundation-summit-in-chicago/2591352/ The original story, reported by the local news, mentioned how this was a meeting of young future leaders from around the world, how entertainers and artists as well as people in the political realm made speeches intended to advise and inspire, and Michelle Obama was one who spoke with a message encouraging young women in particular to be self-confident and to seek to be a positive force in the world.  The article also mentions, towards the end, that she advised young people to think twice before posting their opinions on social media.  This was at the end of a report that discussed comments from Manuel-Lin Miranda, Chance the Rapper and President Obama, as well as mentioning performances by other artists.  Overall, the event appears to have been a very large, star-studded, exciting and positive experience for those who attended.

CNN reported the same event somewhat differently:  “Michelle Obama to Young People:  Never Tweet (sort of)” http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/01/politics/michelle-obama-chicago-twitter-men/index.html.  The CNN report barely mentions the event, doesn’t mention any of the other events or participants at all outside the interview, and presented it more as a slap at the Tweeter-In-Chief than as simply advice to young people.  It then goes on to discuss other advice and encouragement she gave to the participants, and particularly to young women.  She discusses how most societies today are traditionally dominated by men, and that often women are overlooked, harassed or exploited by some men.  This is made easier because the traditional upbringing for young girls is to be nurturing and supportive, to take care of others; Michelle urged her hearers to find their own voice and their own destiny.

FOX News seems to be reporting on a different event:  http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/11/01/michelle-obama-says-men-are-entitled-self-righteous-because-women-protect-them-too-much.html.  Not only is there barely any mention of the event and no mention of other participants, there is hardly any discussion of anything Ms. Obama actually said.  This isn’t fake news; she did say the things that are discussed, but they are edited and spun to seem more like the rants of a castrating harridan than the advice of an accomplished and educated woman of color speaking to other young women starting out on the path she has traveled.  There is no mention of her advice to avoid blasting your unedited and thoughtless opinions into cyberspace, which CNN presented as an attack on Donald Trump since he does exactly that; and there is little mention of anything else she said.  The only part of the event that receives any real attention in the FOX story is her comments on males and females.  They report:

“It’s like the problem in the world today is we love our boys, and we raise our girls,” Obama said. “We raise them to be strong, and sometimes we take care not to hurt men — and I think we pay for that a little bit.”

This is presented as an unjustified slam at men, who feel “entitled” and “self-righteous” but who are in fact being unjustly maligned.

It seems pretty clear that there is some spinning going on.  The event was not, as CNN implies, simply a Trump-bashing; nor was it simply two days of man-bashing.  The local news presented Michelle Obama’s discussion as a positive and empowering message for young women, the culmination of two days and multiple speakers and artists reaching out to these delegates.  Both cable news services edited the event to fit their own narratives:  one, the “this president is a twittering fool” narrative, and the other the “liberals be hating men” narrative.  Both left a lot on the cutting room floor to emphasize what they wanted.

Of the two spins, even FOX has been jumping on the Harvey Weinstein story, so it’s more than a little hypocritical of them to act as if these comments about “entitled” men are totally unjustified.  And given their own problems (Ailes, Stone, O’Reilly etc.) it’s a little self-serving of them to simply pretend that too many men feel morally empowered and socially entitled to “grab’em by the pussy” anytime they want, while perhaps other men wish they, too, were powerful and famous so they could do the same.  In fact, as J.S. Mill and Harriet Taylor pointed out a century ago, whenever any system is dominated by one group for a long time, the values of that system will tend to reflect the interests of that group.  For hundreds, even thousands of years young girls have been raised to please and care for others, particularly males.  Until about a hundred years ago, women could not vote, own property, work without the permission of their husbands or (if unmarried) oldest male relative, and those norms hold today in many parts of the world.  And even in the U.S. the idea that women should be subservient and unthreatening to men is powerful.  For example, Donald Trump divorced his first wife because he heard her on the phone talking to people doing business with Trump Inc. and thought she sounded “harsh.”  He said she lost her “softness” when she began working in his business, and that he wasn’t able to see her as a woman once he heard her raise her voice on the phone with someone who was doing business with the Trump casino (http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/donald-trump-1994-putting-wife-work-dangerous-thing/story?id=39537935).  So it seems more than a little disingenuous to pretend that no men think women should focus on taking care of their men first, and themselves second.

The CNN spin, by contrast, is definitely a spin, but does not seem obviously false to the speaker’s intent.  But even if she were totally ignorant of the fact that Trump broadcasts his own unfiltered and often misinformed views, with spelling and grammatical errors that make them look silly even if they aren’t, the fact that she was warning this group of young future leaders to not do what the current president* does would be at least worth noting.  A president of a major nation is supposed to be a role model, not a cautionary tale.  But to imply that it was the main intent of Michelle Obama’s comments is also a falsification.  Yes, she spoke to young people who might be inclined to “tell it like it is” by tweeting without thinking.  Yes, she spoke to young men who might feel inclined to try to dominate and mistreat women, and to young women who might feel inclined to keep quiet and not stand up for themselves.  But her main intent was not to divide and not to discuss anyone who wasn’t actually in the room; rather, her focus was on providing advice and inspiration to young people who hopefully would make their lives forces for positive change in the world.  So both cable news channels were somewhat distorting the original event for their own editorial reasons, but the conservatives were more misleading and uninformative.

Part 3:  “The FOX News Effect,” then, is that viewers of FOX News and other right-wing news organizations are often more ignorant than people who pay attention to no news in particular.  While the apathetic may be uninformed, FOX viewers are often misinformed.  In some cases, this may be flat-out fictions or speculations presented as fact, as in Pizzagate or the Seth Rich story.  This story about Michelle Obama seems to be an example not so much of lying, but vigorous spinning of actual facts.  Yes, Michelle said those words, though they are neither obviously false nor as vicious as suggested.  People who get their news only from FOX are naturally mystified why Michelle Obama hates men and why Crooked Hillary hasn’t been arrested; they’ve heard only a mix of slanted news and the occasional deliberate falsehood, leaving them not ignorant, but misinformed:  not zero knowledge but negative.  Furthermore, they are emotionally agitated, which is the enemy of sound thought and reflection.

The FOX News Effect has been magnified by four further factors:

  1.  The Social Media Effect:  Trump supporters are far more likely to find even FOX News too “mainstream/lamestream” for their tastes, and to report that they get most of their news from Facebook, Twitter, private web sites, blogs and so on.  These are even less well researched, less vetted, and more biased than partisan cable news.
  2. The Falwell Effect:  Conservative religious “authorities,” such as Paula White, Jerry Falwell Jr, Pat Robertson and other Christian Dominionists and Prosperity Gospel preachers, have many millions of devoted followers, and have announced that anyone who questions Donald Trump for any of his known sexual, financial or other sins is challenging the will of God.
  3. The Russia Effect:  as an instrument of state policy, Russia has flooded the world with false news stories and even funded socially divisive social movements, largely through social media and individual blogs.  Furthermore, because Russia is an authoritarian, mostly white nation with a state religion (Russian Orthodoxy), Putin and Russia have been held up by conservative media as superior to democratic and Democratic pluralism.  Thus, FOX viewers, and consumers of alt-right media, are not only not worried about Russian distortion of their news; they welcome it.
  4. The Trump Effect:  President* Donald Trump gets most of his news from FOX and Breitbart and InfoWars, ignoring the CIA, FBI and other government authorities that get their information from actually observing the world.  This turns the conservative echo chamber into an Ouroboros, where the conservative news gets its news from uncritically repeating what Trump says, who in turn is uncritically repeating what they say, turning the old news ticker-tape into a vast Mobius strip where, with a simple twist and by attaching one end to the other, what was once an ongoing narrative becomes a one-sided, infinite, closed circle.  No new ideas can come in, no disconfirming facts can break the circle, and the system runs endlessly.  It is impossible to say whether alt-right news runs the country by flooding Trump’s brain with false and misleading ideas, or he controls them by filling the news feed with his fact-free tweets and rants.

I will cite one example, current in the news, which I think illustrates all these factors.  The concept is “collusion.”  In law, this refers to an illegal conspiracy.  In common parlance, it might refer to any secret plot to deceive.  For almost the entire Trump presidency* there has been ample, objectively verified evidence that members of his inner circle and campaign colluded with agents of the Russian government to swing the election towards Trump, as part of the Russian government’s stated support for Trump.  And for years there has been objectively verified evidence that Trump Inc. has substantial financial ties to Russian oligarchs and mobsters.  This fits not only the common definition of “collusion,” but also the legal definition.  It is illegal, under American law, to receive campaign help from a foreign government.

In conservative circles, the focus has been on the Democrats.  Because of the Ouroboros circle, it is impossible to tell whether conservative news created this idea and Trump repeats it, or Trump started the claim as a way to deflect criticism and now they repeat it as news.  There are three threads in this tapestry of bullshit (I use the term philosophically, as developed by Harry Frankfurt in his tome on the subject). One thread is that since the information on Trump deals with Russia, and the researchers who did the research talked to Russians, and the anti-Trump Republicans and the Democrats paid for this opposition research on Trump, they colluded with Russia.  This is just patently false:  talking to Russians is not conspiring with the Russian government, and opposition research is a common part of elections today.  If the Democrats hired a research firm, and that firm in turn contacted a highly-respected former spy to find out things about Trump’s Russian ties, that’s legal, and thus does not qualify legally as “collusion.”  And it isn’t collusion with the Russian government in any case, but only contacts between private citizens.

The second thread, related to the first, is the so-called “Uranium Deal.”  According to this assertion, Hillary Clinton accepted a bribe to allow Russians to control American uranium production.  And yes, given that Russia has sought to ingratiate itself with everyone it could easily do so, it might have donated to the Clinton Foundation hoping for some goodwill later.  However, no actual security or energy expert has said there was any weakening of the U.S. by the takeover of this one mine.  The Russians don’t even have a license to export the uranium; it is just a Russian company that is managing the mine, which produces a small amount of the uranium used in this nation every year.  Most of our uranium is imported, so foreigners controlled it already; in this case it’s just a business deal where the uranium starts and stays in the U.S. and some money goes overseas.  And eleven other people signed off on the deal, so either there was a vast and undetected conspiracy by eleven heads of various agencies, and the employees of those agencies, or this whole thing is nonsense.

The third is perhaps the most interesting, both because it is partly true and it is ironic.  There has long been evidence that the Clinton campaign had used the levers of power within the Democratic party to favor her candidacy over that of Bernie Sanders.  That does seem to fit the popular notion of “collusion.”  It was a secret, albeit open secret, conspiracy to tilt the results of what was supposedly a fair and even competition.  It stinks.  It reminds me of the sorts of games the student government clique ran when I was in college, both for its pettiness and its arrogance.  But it is not, so far as I know, illegal.  A political party can pick its candidates however the hell it wants.  And it is certainly not collusion with a foreign power, which is what the Mueller probe is authorized to investigate as part of the FBI mandate for counter-intelligence and internal national security.  In fact, and this is the ironic part, we would not even know about this apparently legal but distasteful collusion to stiff-arm Bernie if it weren’t for the illegal and unpatriotic collusion to subvert the American political process to aid Russian aims by promoting the Trump campaign.  And at this point, it is simply a known fact that there was Russian support for the Trump campaign, the Trump campaign knew about it at the highest levels, they encouraged it, Trump himself publicly supported it, and thus there is already more evidence against Trump than they had against Nixon for eighteen months after the Watergate break-in.

But you won’t hear about this on FOX News.  What you will hear is a “news” agency that reports excessively on the legal shenanigans of some stupid and arrogant political hacks, while downplaying the illegal crimes of a current president, his family and his closest advisors.  Just as Sean Hannity once defended Cliven Bundy, a tax dodger who supports slavery and says he does “not recognize the United States as existing,” so now Hannity and the FOX (or FAUX) News agency supports and defends the indefensible actions and falsehoods of the Trump-Kushner Crime Family; or, Trump mindlessly parrots what he hears on “FOX & Friends” as if they were an independent verification of his own dreams, rather than simply repeating what he himself tweeted two hours earlier.

So, if you want to be conservative, fine.  As David Brooks said, liberal vs. conservative is an argument over how to distribute the goods of society, and that’s necessary and rational.  But seek out information sources that are themselves as rational and objective as possible.

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

September 6, 2017

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

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

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

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

[1] Comey., pp. 25-33

[2] Comey, pp. 33-54

[3] Comey, pp. 55-74

[4] Comey, p. 7

[5] Comey, pp. 9-10

[6] Comey, p. 93

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

[1] Comey., pp. 25-33

[2] Comey, pp. 33-54

[3] Comey, pp. 55-74

[4] Comey, p. 7

[5] Comey, pp. 9-10

[6] Comey, p. 93

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

August 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued….

[1] Comey, pp. 3-4

[2] Comey, pp. 9-10

[3] Comey, pp. 4-7

[4] Comey, pp. 6-8

[5] Comey, pp. 18-23

[6] Comey, pp. 18

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

August 28, 2017

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

 

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

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

To be continued….

[1] Comey, p. 1