Posts Tagged ‘current-events’

True and False Religious Freedom

May 2, 2018

https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/27/opinions/paul-ryans-firing-of-patrick-conroy-should-worry-us-all-parini/

The conservative attitude towards religion, and religious freedom, has long been convoluted.  Conservatives have always been vocal about their traditional rights and privileges, and denounce any violation of their “religious freedom.”  However, conservatives have generally been slow to protect the religious freedom of others who disagree with them.  It is natural that this should be so.  Being authoritarian, conformist and conservative are not necessarily the same things, but are definitely connected.  To be authoritarian is to be inclined to submit to “proper authority” and conversely to expect obedience when one occupies a position of authority; to be conformist is to seek to obey the social norms of those around one; and to be conservative is to resist change and to prize stability.  There have been plenty of conformists who were conforming to liberal peers, and there have been plenty of liberals who either sought to obey a charismatic leader or sought to be one.  But the essence of “liberal” is to value change, particularly change that aims to establish equality of all individuals; to be “conservative” is to resist change and to value the stability of a hierarchy.  Thus a conservative is more likely to judge other religions to be “wrong,” not merely in the sense of being mistaken but to be positively harmful.  Other religions challenge the traditional social order and moral values of one’s own group.

Historically, Evangelicals have disrupted social norms, but have done so in the name of a “return” to “tradition” or “heritage.”  Sometimes the “return” is actually something quite novel, but rarely is it recognized as such by its adherents.  For example, through Middle Ages and the Enlightenment there was no systematic culture war between Science and Religion.  Most of the educated people, and thus most of the scientists and philosophers, were themselves clergy or monks, or at least educated at religious schools.  As the Enlightenment moved towards the Modern period, there were increasing numbers of atheists like Hume and Nietzsche, but also many intellectuals who were believers (Descartes, Kant, Leibniz, Kierkegaard, etc.).  Likewise, most religious thinkers accepted the teachings of science, and sought to offer theological responses to developments in the natural and social sciences.  The intense “Culture Wars” we accept as normal only really began in the 20th Century, with the publication of The Fundamentals.  In attacking Darwinism and science as a whole as an alien ideology, Fundamentalist Protestants redefined what it was to be a Christian, without really realizing what they were doing.  While once almost every Christian recognized that the Bible had allegorical as well as historical truths and often felt the allegorical, moral meanings were more important than historical literalism, today large portions of American Protestantism argues that unless the Bible is 100% literally historically true, it can’t be trusted to have any moral or spiritual value.  This would have struck most Christians as absurd for the first 1900 years of our history.

In the case of the Prosperity Gospel, even preachers who recognized that they were changing the traditional teachings of their religious communities have simultaneously denied that they were anything other than Bible-believing conservatives.  Jim Bakker turned the Assemblies of God from an anti-materialistic Evangelical subculture resisting too much integration into the commercial or political mainstream into avid consumers and political players, fully comfortable with and even hungry for wealth and power.  The religion that taught “You cannot love God and Money” and “The love of money is the root of all evil” was transformed into a religion that not only accepts money, but expects it as the reward of faith and which measures spiritual worth by financial worth.  This is way beyond the notion of the “Protestant Work Ethic.”  Our Puritan ancestors might have thought that hard work was a virtue and that God would bless the faithful with material rewards for their labors, but we go further; we look at a billionaire and assume that he is morally and spiritually praiseworthy, since God wouldn’t give a bad person money.  This is a radical change from the Biblical witness, which has a much more nuanced and mixed view of prosperity.

But the Prosperity Gospel and other forms of conservative Evangelicalism do share one thing in common:  religious intolerance.  While they jealously guard their own religious freedom, those “liberals” challenge the social order and the rightness of their own views by threatening to bring in other perspectives.  In the face of such threats, conservatives are likely to respond either defensively or judgmentally.  Glenn Beck famously denounced “progressive” churches that advocated for “social justice,” warning his millions of television viewers and radio listeners to flee such evil places; he was quite unaware that his own Mormon religion was itself one of those “social justice” churches until the leaders pointed out that he was changing their traditional religious message to suit his 21st Century agenda.  Paul Ryan behaves defensively; a Jesuit challenged his views, threatened his moral authority, and rather than just let the priest spout his powerless words, Ryan gave him the only power true Christianity has ever known:  martyrdom.  Ryan fired a chaplain for expressing his religious views.  That is pretty much the opposite of the “religious freedom” Republicans pride(!) themselves for upholding.  But today, “religious freedom” often means nothing more than the freedom of conservatives to enforce their values and views on others and demand accommodation, while denying any sort of accommodation to others.

Paul Ryan’s devotion to the writings and teachings of Ayn Rand are well documented.  It is often forgotten that Rand hated Christianity more than she hated Democrats, likely more even than she hated Socialists.  She correctly saw that Christianity means raising up the weak and pulling down the mighty (see Luke 1:46-55), the very opposite of her teaching that the rich are smarter and more virtuous than the rest of us.  She also saw that Christianity is not about worldly social structures and power, but is “mystical,” in her words, rather than materialistic.  Many conservative politicians and religious leaders alike claim to be both Christian and followers of Rand, but they are either liars or fools, and Ayn Rand would be the first to say so. That is why she urged people not to vote for Ronald Reagan, even when he was running against a Democrat (http://www.openculture.com/2014/10/in-her-final-lecture-ayn-rand-denounces-ronald-reagan-the-moral-majority-anti-choicers-1981.html). In attacking the Capitol chaplain for praying as his religion taught him, saying he was too “political,” Ryan was in fact imposing his politics on another person’s religious freedom; and furthermore, he was attacking someone who actually had a thorough working knowledge of religion, had studied it and was mentored spiritually as well as academically.

It is worth noting that Pope Francis is the first Jesuit Pope.  The Jesuits have a long history of both intense intellectual achievement, and vigorous social activism.  In fact, during the days of European colonialism and the genocide of the American peoples, the Jesuits were frequently attacked by the rich and powerful because they opposed the enslavement and robbery of the poor.  They were even “irrevocably” dissolved more than once.  Compared to what some of them suffered, Father Conroy’s loss of a plum job is so minor as to barely register on the Martyr Meter.  But from a political perspective, it is important.  He was fired for practicing his faith.  Unlike Kim Davis, he didn’t deny anybody else the right to do what they wanted; while she in good conservative tradition asserted her “religious freedom” to deny others their freedom, Father Conroy simply prayed.  Yet she is held up by Republicans as a victim of religious persecution, while he is fired from his job.  Certainly, if “religious freedom” means anything, and if Evangelicals will demand the freedom to speak about their faith, to witness to people even when they have made it clear they don’t want to be witnessed to, then for them to not stand up to defend Conroy is sheer hypocrisy—-or else it is an indication that the phrase “religious freedom,” which sounds so glorious, means something very different in the mouth of a Republican.

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Is There an End in Sight for the Culture Wars? Conservatives Reflect on the Future of the GOP

December 10, 2012

Is There an End in Sight for the Culture Wars?  Conservatives Reflect on the Future of the GOP

            In an interesting article for The Ticket, journalist Brenden James discusses the debate among conservatives over the role of religion in political discourse today.[1]  It is particularly interesting because the event that sparked the article is so backwards.  Senator Marco Rubio, rising star of the GOP, refused to say in an interview for GQ Magazine whether he thought the Earth was billions of years old or only a few thousand.  In response, Rev. Pat Robertson dismissed “young Earth” theories, saying, “If you fight science, you are going to lose your children.”

Let me repeat that, for it bears repeating: Sen. Rubio, an elected official of our officially religion-neutral government refused to accept the claims of over 99% of scientists worldwide.[2]  The Rev. Pat Robertson, a televangelist, founder of The Christian Broadcasting Network, who claimed the 9/11 attacks were the result of America tolerating feminism, Haitian earthquake of 2011 was caused by their acceptance of Voodoo, and linked Hurricane Katrina to legalized abortion, said it was a mistake to be too anti-science.  That is what the GOP has come to:  Pat Robertson is now the voice of reason!

When politicians embrace religious dogma and base public policy on it, and religious leaders reject dogma for political reasons such as not losing the youth vote, things are running backwards.  Politicians are supposed to be leaders of this world, and thus to seek this-worldly solutions to this-worldly problems.  That is not to say that they should not have religious principles; but when they seek to bring their principles into their politics, they have to be mindful of the worldly impact and have a worldly goal.  If I believe God wants us to be a morally committed nation, and that we should follow the moral principles of the New Testament, I can explain those principles and how they would be applied to society in terms that even a non-believer could understand.  I can say, for example, “As a Christian, I believe that the family is important and that we should support traditional marriage.  As a politician, I have read studies that show the deleterious effects of divorce upon children, and how children raised in single-parent homes suffer economically and emotionally.  Therefore, as a matter of public policy, I say we should try to promote marriage and discourage deadbeat dads and illegitimacy.”  We can have that conversation; even someone who doesn’t share my religion can discuss whether or not those policies will have a positive impact on society.  And if they won’t, then I may have to modify the policies to try to make them consistent both with my Christian principles and objective reality.  It is hard to see the scientific advantage to believing that 99% of all scientists who have studied evolution are nevertheless wrong, based on my personal religious convictions.

But what is much more remarkable in this backwards relationship is what it reveals about the influence of politics on religion.  We have a religious leader making a political calculation as to what would be the most politically advantageous, and then declaring that a particular religious belief should be abandoned because it is not popular with a particular voting bloc.  Why should fundamentalist Christians deny what they believe is the Truth for any reason?  And of all the reasons to deny the truth, isn’t majority opinion the worst?  What does it profit a man to gain electoral victory and lose his soul?  And yet, that is what the Religious Right has done.  The theological arguments against accepting the science of climate change were always dubious, to be polite.  No one ever said, “I believe green tech would be good for the national economy and good for the planet, but I will oppose it because God wants us to rule the world and have dominion over it so there is a divine command to pollute and destroy.”    The arguments against accepting the scientific arguments about man-made climate change were always economic and political:  it will destroy jobs, hurt profitability and competitiveness, interfere with our national sovereignty, and so on.  Religious leaders like Jerry Falwell had a natural desire to support the politicians who had been friendly to them personally and to their social causes; and they saw the environmentalists as aligned with their political foes.  Therefore, they found theological reasons to attack “the myth of global warming” from the pulpit, as if Jesus wants us to reject science even at the risk of destroying all life.  At the beginning of the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970’s, conservative pastors sought to exercise moral and spiritual influence on politicians; but over the years the flow of influence has become reversed, and now it is political and business leaders who sway the teachings of conservative pastors.

I believe there is a proper way for religion to influence politics, and an improper way.  When religion produces men and women of good character, love of neighbor, reverence for justice, and a faith that their own virtue will be rewarded in Heaven if not in the polls (and that their sins will be punished by God if not by the voters), and those politicians then try to solve political problems, how could that not be positive?  But when politicians try to use religious assumptions to save themselves from the tough job of thinking through political problems, or religious persons try to use political reasons to decide moral and spiritual questions, you end up with bad politics and bad religion.  The easiest example I can think of is Muqtada al-Sadr.  He was known as a mediocre religious student, more interested in video games than his studies.  His father was an important Shi’ite cleric in Iraq and an opponent of Saddam Hussein.  Despite his mediocre religious achievements, Muqtada had great influence simply because of his family background.  He used that influence to establish a political and military power base after the American overthrow of Saddam.  As a politician, his policies have led to increased violence and suffering for the Iraqi people; for example, his paramilitary fought against American efforts to provide cheap propane in Sadr City because it undercut his group’s profits selling fuel to the people at a higher price.  He has promoted and encouraged violence in a country that needed no encouragement, largely to the benefit of Iran, where he studied religion before the war.  He has used political methods to become a major religious influence, when neither his education nor his achievements merited such influence for one so young; and he has used religious fervor to generate support for counterproductive political policies that benefit foreign sponsors more than his own people.

In the U.S. we have few politicians who are also ordained religious leaders, so we don’t see such a pure mixing of the two spheres in a single individual.  We do see it, of course; but it is rarely so unabashed.  When it is, it is often punished at the polls.  For example, when Richard Mourdock said that the conception of a baby, even from rape, was a gift from God, he was stating something that makes theological sense.  If you believe that God is ultimately in charge of the universe, then it follows logically that the conception of that fetus was the will of God.  That does not mean, theologically, that God wanted that rape to occur; depending on one’s theological stand on free will versus providence, perhaps God allowed that horrible action to occur because free will is a necessary part of the world and that means that people are free to do horrible things.  God is, to put it anthropomorphically, trying to make the best of a terrible situation, taking the shattered shards of a horrific event and assembling something better.  I’m not going to try to follow this line out further, since I’m not endorsing it myself.  What I am trying to do is point out that, if you accept the theology that Mr. Mourdock seems to accept, and which is accepted by millions of Evangelicals, then his statement is logically consistent and even logically necessary.  But it is terrible public policy.  It is one thing for a person to say, “I will take this burden onto myself and nurture this child, conceived from violence against me, and try to do God’s work of turning evil into good.”  It is something entirely different to say, “You will take this burden onto yourself, nurture this alien presence in your own body, conceived by violence against yourself, and continue the work the rapist started, because I believe that is God’s will for you.”  And under the Bill of Rights, wherein the idea that the government shall establish no religion is enshrined as the highest law of the land, to impose one religious interpretation of the status of a fetus and to base public policy on that is simply unpardonable.  As the Supreme Court pointed out in Roe v. Wade, there is no religious consensus regarding abortion, and no scientific consensus when the fetus becomes a person with legal rights.  The Constitution may grant citizenship to anyone born in the U.S. but not to everyone conceived there (you thought anchor babies were bad; wait until we start seeing anchor honeymoons!).  What Mourdock, Paul Ryan and others have done is take their particular religious beliefs, and translate them from being personal beliefs which they gladly shoulder to being public policy which others will bear whether they agree or not.  “Rise, take up your cross, and follow Me” has become “Take your cross, and make another bear it.”

These politics have become self-destructive, and many in the GOP are questioning the influence of religious beliefs on their party’s policies.  But the corruption of religion by politics may perhaps be even more destructive.  As Brenden James points out, as the influence of the Religious Right on the GOP has grown, so too has the percentage of unchurched young people.  Rev. Robertson is not just sounding a warning to the GOP; he is warning his fellow Evangelicals as well.  Continue to let conservative politics drive Christianity, and Christianity will suffer as young people abandon politicized churches.  As James writes:

            “Young evangelicals don’t look at the country as a battlefield, but rather a mission field,” says James Wilcox, a George Mason University political science professor. “They’re are less scared than their forbearers: They see the ‘War on Religion’ narrative as nonsense; they see churches thriving, the outlets they have, and the extent of religious pluralism in this country.”

The new generation sees community activism, rather than electoral politics, as the means for their faith to shape the world, Wilcox argues. They may disagree with liberals about same-sex marriage, but they also believe that states have the right to determine such policies.

Many younger evangelicals are also serious about addressing climate change, even as many high-profile conservatives have expressed doubt about whether climate change is real—with nominee Mitt Romney cracking jokes about it at this year’s Republican National Convention.[3]

I would say that the Republican Party does need to retreat from religion if it wants to be a major political force in the future.  However, I think the most important question is not, “Does the GOP need a religious retreat?” but rather, “Does the Religious Right need to retreat from the GOP?”  In choosing to play the game of power politics, religious conservatives have debased their own message and weakened their ability to influence Democrats and independents.  While the GOP debates whether or how to become a “big tent party” instead of a special interest lobby for angry white guys,[4] Evangelicals have been debating for years how to fulfill the Great Commission to preach the Gospel to all people:  young as well as old, immigrants, women, and every ethnic group.  And while the NAE has taken significant steps to open its doors wider, the fact remains that the Religious Right does not speak to the religious or political convictions of many young Christians today.  The “spiritual, but not religious” numbers have grown even as Evangelical pastors have fought for the right to spout politics from the pulpit without losing their tax exemptions.[5]   Is it surprising that those who believe climate change is a problem, that poverty and hunger in the richest of nations is a problem, and that whether or not there is a mosque down the street is NOT a problem would be turned off by a religion that seems more interested in its right to defend corporate interests and bigotry while keeping its sweet, sweet tax breaks?  Jesus asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”  If Christians want the answer to be “yes,” then they should stop tying the Gospel to worldly politics, to scientific fraud, and to the corporate profit motives that drive both.


[1] Brenden James, “Does the GOP Need a Religious Retreat?”  The Ticket 4 December 2012 (http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/ticket/does-gop-religious-retreat-103526580–election.html ) accessed 12/4/2012

[2] For information on the scientific consensus, see “Claim CA111:  Many Scientists Reject Evolution and Support Creationism; The TalkOrigins Archive:  Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy, (http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CA/CA111.html) accessed December 4, 2012

[3] “Does the GOP Need a Religious Retreat?”

[4] Rosalind S. Helderman and Jon Cohen, “As Republican Convention Emphasized Diversity, Racial Incidents Intrude;” The Washington Post August 8. 2012 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/as-republican-convention-emphasizes-diversity-racial-incidents-intrude/2012/08/29/b9023a52-f1ec-11e1-892d-bc92fee603a7_story.html)  See esp. the quote from Sen. Lindsey Graham

[5] M. Alex Johnson, “Pulpit Politics:  Pastors Endorse Candidates, Thumbing Noses at the IRS;” NBC News 4 November 2012 (http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/04/14703656-pulpit-politics-pastors-endorse-candidates-thumbing-noses-at-the-irs?lite)

Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP? (Postscript) pt. 1

September 24, 2012

POSTSCRIPT:  Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP?

 

I recently had three doses of Ayn Rand:  listening to a panel discussion on The Diane Rehm Show, an interview with Jennifer Burns on The Colbert Report, and watching The Fountainhead.  The two discussions raised a very interesting question, which the movie began to address.  These three together prompted me to reexamine my earlier discussions on Ayn Rand and the modern conservative movement in the U.S.

The Diane Rehm Show focused on Rand’s influence on Republican politicians, including Paul Ryan.[1]  The panelists discussed Rand’s philosophy, the various elements of it and whether she would support Paul Ryan today.  Jennifer Burns, author of Goddess of the Marketplace, recounted Rand’s rejection of Ronald Reagan and her warning people against him, comparing this to the similar views expressed by Ryan.  Asked whether she would support Paul Ryan, Burns replied:

 

I think it’s a pretty safe bet that she would not. We have a lot of evidence, as much evidence as one can have from a deceased historical figure on views of analogist politicians. So one of the last things she ever published was a denunciation of Ronald Regan and it was specifically because Ronald Regan mixed religion and politics.

And because he supported the abolition of abortion so he was pro-life and she wrote a letter to her followers saying, “Reagan is the worst kind of conservative. He’s a dangerous man who’s mixing religion and politics, who doesn’t understand the fundamental importance of the separation of church and state. Don’t vote for him and don’t support him.” So I think she would look at Paul Ryan in much the same way as someone who, while he sounds close to her in economic and fiscal matters, has really missed a lot of her larger messages about the proper role of government.

 

 

Journalist David Weigel, asked about the way conservatives pick and choose the elements they like from Rand, had a slightly different view.  He said:

 

 

There are no avowed atheist Republicans in Congress. I think in the speech Jennifer’s talking about, which she — what Rand referred to as the god-family tradition swamp which is not something that you ever hear a Republican say. The way they square this circle is by saying, government when it intervenes is going to mess up. When it intervenes in charity it’s going to screw that up.

But take government out of the way and churches are going to fill the gap. Churches are going to provide what poor people need, individual relationships are going to pull people out of bad economic straits. That’s how they get around and I like the way that Jennifer’s putting that. I think it’s coherent in a couple of ways. It’s not a coherent adaptation to everything that she says but that’s not uncommon in politics. I mean, a lot of politics is aphorism and taking a quote and using it for your own purposes.

And that’s, you know, when Ryan talks about Rand, it’s not in the greatest detail. He just mentions John Galt’s speech, some passages in the novel about the meaning of money. They’re interesting, but I think, when people refer to “Atlas Shrugged,” they’re referring to a novel that takes quite some time to read, it’s a 1,000 pages long and the way that it gets into politics is just in a couple metaphors and analogies. So I think it’s fair they take some of that and just, you know, staple it to the other things they believe as religious, you know, as religiously influenced conservative politicians.

 

 

That is, of course, the question I asked at first:  is it legitimate to take elements of Rand’s philosophy, and not others?  Is it legitimate to borrow from Rand’s philosophy and Christianity, and claim to be honest to both?

It is not necessary to accept everything a philosopher says to feel indebted to that philosopher, or to reasonably claim to be a student.  Sometimes, there may be some minor part of the philosopher’s thought one chooses to ignore.  There have been many who thought of themselves as Platonists or Neoplatonists, but not all endorsed Plato’s ideas on censoring the arts.  Other times, a philosopher may have large parts of his or her thought that can be detached.  Many thinkers are influenced by Kant’s ethics, without having any interest in his epistemology.  But there are key concepts that are really essential to a philosopher’s thought, such that if one of those concepts is missing the whole thought is changed into something else.  If you decide you really like Aquinas, except for the Aristotleanism in his thought, you aren’t really a Thomist; you’re an Augustinian.  Returning to the question of Rand’s thought, what is truly essential, truly foundational in her thought, such that if it is removed the whole thing becomes something else?  What happens to her thought, if you do try to adopt Objectivism without that key element?

In watching The Fountainhead, I could see why someone like Paul Ryan might think he could just pick parts from Rand willy-nilly without the whole thing collapsing.  In a piece of philosophical fiction like that, there is dramatic development rather than systematic development.  Just as the movie-makers chose to ignore the atheistic elements and to only vaguely hint at the rape scene, so too a reader might selectively choose which scenes and lines were personally interesting, while ignoring others.  The character of Howard Roark is very compelling, and in some ways admirable.  He is creative, he is true to himself and his principles and his art, he demands no break or mercy for himself.  He is hard on others but even harder on himself, insisting that he will neither exploit nor be exploited.  He is called “selfish” by others, and does not dispute the word; but his claim that all interactions between people should be free exchanges rather than any sort of compulsion is the opposite of what most of us normally mean by “selfishness.”[2]  The movie is a celebration of the importance and nobility of the individual creative spirit, and an indictment (if not a straw-man slander) of “collectivism” and the forces of conformity.

Philosophical fiction can be very valuable.  It gives the writer the opportunity to present the abstract concepts in a more concrete and lively form.  Engaging the reader or viewer by head and heart together might help some understand concepts that they would misapply if they only had the intellectual side alone, and tried to integrate these concepts into their own affective existence.  On the other hand, philosophical fiction has limits and dangers.  The writer doesn’t necessarily have to present opponents fairly or accurately, and doesn’t have to present possible problems or flaws accurately.  The Hero is opposed by Villains.  The villains can be as despicable, stupid and ineffectual as the writer wants, and the hero’s plans and principles will always work out in the end.  It is easy to get swept up in the dramatic presentation, and to fail to ask the critical questions.  How many people really would say of themselves, as Toohey does, that they deliberately praise and cultivate mediocrity?  I’ve known some who did, but none who had the self-awareness to fully realize just what they were doing, and none who would have had the honesty to admit it to anyone else if they did ever realize it.  An insane tyrant like Stalin might have done so, but a supposedly typical newspaperman in America?  Roark may rape Dominque, but it’s okay because she falls in love with him because of it; this may be likely in a romance novel but in real life, such behavior is beyond abysmal.  But more concerning to the philosopher, in the film or novel ideas are weighted by their dramatic value, not their intellectual priority.  Roark’s claim that he wishes only to interact with others in a free exchange of equals is a clear statement of one of the essentials of Rand’s philosophy; but if I hadn’t first read her philosophical essays, I likely would have missed the full significance of that part.  Roark’s rationality comes through, somewhat, in his devotion to principles and to architecture; but the full ethical significance of it is really overwhelmed by the overarching themes of genius versus mediocrity and individualism versus the herd. The connections between his creativity, his devotion to his art, his willingness to labor in menial obscurity rather than to design products the marketplace demands, his invitation of martyrdom and his insistence on treating everyone as an equal rather than dominating where he can, all these connections are never made explicit.  To understand why Rand thinks the characters make sense and their motivations are believable, it is necessary to read more than her fiction.

To be continued….


[2] Ayn Rand, “The Fountainhead,” (film) Warner Brothers Pictures, 1949