Posts Tagged ‘Pat Robertson’

Things the Right Gets Wrong, pt. 2: Abortion

April 1, 2020

THINGS THE RIGHT GETS WRONG….about abortion!

 

I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”

——-Rev. W. A. Criswell, Pastor First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, 1973

 

 

White American Evangelicals say that Donald J. Trump is the most, even the only Christian candidate for President of the United States. When asked why, they don’t generally point to his strict adherence to the Ten Commandments; after all, they themselves attribute Christly titles to him such as “Chosen One” or “King of Israel,” and he gladly accepts this idolatrous praise. He never attends church, preferring to spend the Lord’s Day on one of his privately-owned golf courses where the U.S. government pays him many times his official salary as President every time he swings. He’s boasted of his adulteries and how he gets a special thrill out of sleeping with the wives of his friends. His life has been defined by his covetousness. He lies and slanders with the impunity of a crumb-covered toddler denying he’s eaten a cookie. Nor do his followers cite Trump’s strict adherence to that central statement of Christian ethics, the Sermon on the Mount. While Jesus said to love the poor, Trump has repeatedly committed charity fraud, taking money meant for children with cancer, for veterans, for anyone. When Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” Trump says, “When someone attacks me, I always attack back…except 100x more. This has nothing to do with a tirade but rather, a way of life!”—- a “way of life” much more like the Satanic Bible than the Gospels: “if a man smite you on one cheek, SMASH him on the other!” (Book of Satan III, 7). When Jesus councils humility and urges his followers to “take the lowest seat,” Trump literally shoves world leaders out of his way so that he can be in the front of the picture. Trump has even said that he’s never sinned, he’s never had to ask for forgiveness—-denying a central teaching of Christianity and arguably the central tenet of Evangelicalism. All of this and more, Evangelicals say, is simply irrelevant. What they care about, what proves that Donald John Trump is the greatest defender of Christianity ever and that “going against him” is a sin against God. is that he’s appointed judges who opposed abortion. Nothing else—-not slander, not incitement to violence, not calling for violence against his opponents or peaceful protestors or even people found innocent of any crime, not corruption, not any possible charge one could make——can possibly match the great good he’s done by appointing “pro-life” judges.

But what if this is not true? What if this vilest of sins, abortion, is in fact not a sin at all? What if the entire controversy was simply created by Republican politicians, and right-wing clergy wishing political power, as a club with which to beat up Democrats, to whip up conservative voters, and to relieve the would-be righteous of the burden of actually fulfilling all that stuff about forgiving enemies and giving to the poor? If that is true, then not only is the Evangelical adulation of Donald Trump unfounded, but it is actually blasphemous, idolatrous; in vain do they worship, teaching as divine commandments what are only human teachings (Mark 7:7).

I want to start by saying that this is aimed at Protestant Fundamentalists and other so-called “biblical literalists.” Roman Catholic teaching is not “literalism” and has never claimed to be. Catholics say there was a Church well before there was a Bible, and that the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church is a second source of divine revelation alongside the Bible. In fact, prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962) Catholics were generally discouraged from reading the Bible itself, since laypeople required the Church (through its priests or at least the missal) to interpret it correctly. Catholic teaching on abortion has changed over time, as the judges in Roe v. Wade themselves noted; it was never solely based on the Bible, which hasn’t changed, but also on Catholic philosophical and theological teachings, on changing scientific understanding of reproduction, and on papal authority. Of course, if you are Catholic and it is part of your faith that even early-term abortion is a sin, you should follow that teaching; for whatever is not of faith, is sin. But good Catholics like Charles and Daniel Carroll, leaders of the American Revolution and early Constitutional debates, might not have believed this, since many prominent Doctors of the Church (including St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas) held that the fetus did not gain a human soul until at least forty days after conception. Early-term abortion might have required penance in the medieval Church, but it wasn’t murder. Only as the biology of reproduction was more fully understood did the Church settle on conception as the moment of ensoulment, in the 1800s. Given that history, the Supreme Court asks in its Roe v. Wade decision, how can we impose one religion’s view on the nation? And not only one religion’s view, but one part of one religion, and only one part of the historical view of that one part of that one religion? Catholics should follow their faith, and they have every right to try to persuade others to follow their faith and their moral teachings. But as I said, they are not pretending this is the “literal, uninterpreted, direct Word of God.”

The Protestant “Religious Right,” as established by Rousas Rushdoony, Jerry Falwell Sr., Pat Robertson, W.A. Criswell, Phyllis Schafley and many others, do claim to be Biblical literalists, defending the original faith which every true Christian must embrace. Furthermore, they claim that since this is a Christian, and even a Protestant Christian nation, any true American must oppose abortion because our Founding Fathers established this nation to follow God’s law.   But what if that is not true? What if literally none of that is true? What if the Founding Fathers did not oppose abortion, what if this “Christian nation” allowed abortion for the first century of its existence, what if the Bible itself allows abortion, and what if the Religious Right was not even founded to fight abortion and did not oppose abortion when the Roe v. Wade ruling was originally pronounced?

Let’s work backwards through history. The Religious Right (as we understand generally understand it) was originally founded to defend segregation: specifically, the right of private Protestant Christian schools to exclude black students based on their claim that the “clear, literal truth of the Bible” mandated that the races should remain separate. Their argument was that God created the various races and nationalities and assigned each to live in different parts of the world; if God had wanted them to all live together He wouldn’t have confused their language at the Tower of Babel and scattered them across the earth. When the Brown v. Board of Education ruling came down, requiring desegregation of public schools, white Protestant Christian racists began establishing private religious schools where they could keep minority children out based not on the now-debunked “separate but equal” argument, but because it was their religion. One of the more prominent of these was Bob Jones University. The U.S. government threatened Bob Jones with loss of tax-exempt status and all federal support if they did not allow non-white students to enroll and take classes with the same rights as every white student.

Protestant conservatives fought the Federal government for years to protect the tax-exempt status for Bob Jones University and other overtly racist institutions claiming religious backing for their discrimination. In the end, they lost, and Bob Jones was forced to at least officially cease discrimination on the basis of race. However, by that time a number of Protestant pastors and activists had organized and campaigned, legally and politically, for years, and had built a strong grass-roots organization which we today would call the “Religious Right.” At the same time Paul Weyrich, a Republican activist, had been working for years to lure Evangelicals away from the Democratic party and into the Republican camp. Now there was this network of politically involved and ambitious Evangelical clergy, if only they could stay together. After the final court ruling against Bob Jones, there was a conference call between a number of these Evangelical activists, to plan their next move. They had an organization, and at least the beginning of a movement. Fighting on behalf of segregationist religious institutions had brought Evangelicals into politics more forcefully than they had been since the disaster of the Scopes Monkey Trial. They didn’t want to lose that momentum, and that chance to reclaim political and cultural leadership of the nation. They needed a cause, something that they could rally around and could rally their congregations around. Some anonymous voice suggested, “What about abortion?”

Up until then, abortion had been a Catholic issue. Protestants opposed sex out of wedlock, but had no theological stance against abortion per se. The legal opposition to abortion in the USA was primarily driven by the anti-sex campaign of Anthony Comstock, a moralistic zealot who fought birth control, pornography, sex toys and anything else he considered “obscene.” Thus the opposition to abortion was moral, not theological; the feeling among anti-abortionists was that anything that made sex easier was immoral, unless the sex was necessary for married procreation. Prominent Evangelical leaders, such as W. A. Criswell, were at least moderately pro-choice, as was the Southern Baptist Convention overall. Politically, even vigorous conservatives like Barry Goldwater could be found in leadership positions in Planned Parenthood. But some six years after the Roe v. Wade ruling, Protestant Fundamentalists began working to convince other Evangelical clergy and congregations that abortion was not only an invitation to free love, but a sin against God, and that the clear and unvarnished Scripture said so.

And that is where we are now. Abortion was once almost entirely a Catholic issue; but for purely political reasons, white Protestant Evangelical leaders decided to create a new sin, to make it the centerpiece of their moral teaching and political organizing, and to use that issue to bring White Evangelicalism into the Republican fold. Once abortion would have been a personal matter for Protestants, a decision each individual made after consulting God in prayer and their doctor in the clinic. Now, it has become a shibboleth for all would-be religious conservatives, and even for irreligious conservatives. A businessman can be convicted of thousands of acts of fraud, can boast of his adulteries, can do business with known criminals, can brag about bribing politicians, can brag about his history of sexual assault and improprieties even with underage beauty-pageant contestants, can reject the words of Jesus about forgiving others and the words of Paul about the need for repentance, and can still win 80% or more of white Evangelical votes. So long as that politician opposes abortion and gay rights, there is literally no other sin he can commit that would strike Evangelicals as disqualifying. And while there are certainly Scriptures in the Torah and in Paul that oppose homosexuality, there is, I repeat, nothing in the Bible that condemns abortion.

It could be argued that in the 1970s the culture was becoming excessively libertine. Drug use, promiscuity, and general frivolity were praised everywhere, or so it seemed. Even “conservative” mainstream entertainment suggested that the society was falling apart, from the “Dirty Harry” and other movies where the “good guys” upholding law-and-order must turn vigilante against their incompetent and feckless bosses, to cop shows as diverse as “Kojak” and “Barney Miller” showing how all the police offices were shabby, with antiquated equipment, the cops themselves overworked, and generally showing a legal and law enforcement system underfunded and on the verge of collapse. It isn’t surprising that the message of the Religious Right found a sympathetic audience. The nation was struggling economically, the social fabric was frayed, we had seen riots and assassinations and domestic terrorism left and right, and millions of Americans expected a nuclear apocalypse in their lifetimes. Leaders such as Jerry Falwell Sr. and Pat Robinson spoke to this situation and urged America to reform itself morally. As a college student in the 1970s I shared some of those concerns, if not the near-panic that others felt.

But over time, worries about all these other excesses, and concerns about proclaiming the Gospel, seem to have slipped into the shadow of the one great monstrosity, Abortion. A billionaire playboy who indulged in virtually every excess of the 1970s, and who said he’d never had a sin to repent despite his life of drug-fueled sex parties, was not only accepted but is now praised in literally messianic terms. When nonbelievers look at the words of Jesus written in the Bible, about forgiving and loving and caring for the poor and humble, and then look at the modern Nero to whom Evangelicals make obeisance, the Gospel itself is discredited (Romans 2:24). Preaching and calling the nation to repentance has been replaced by power-politics, and as a result the desire for a gentle Shepherd had been replaced by a longing for a “strong man” who will protect his followers and humiliate their opponents. And what is most striking to me is that the Right seems largely unaware of how their message and values have changed, and how recent all those changes are.

The actual Biblical backing for this literalist anti-abortionist stance is surprisingly weak. As W. A. Criswell noted, the Genesis account of Creation states that Adam became a living soul when God breathed into his nostrils (Gen. 2:7). The Hebrew understanding of the nature of human life was that it was a living body; it did not preexist the body, and when it died and went to Sheol it was largely devoid of personality. The Psalms regularly depict the afterlife as a gloomy place regardless of whether one was “good” or “evil” (see Ps 6:5, 115:17 as examples). That is why Christians preached “the resurrection of the dead,” which was “to Greeks foolishness.” To the Greeks, and specifically to Platonism which was the dominant philosophy of the time, souls were immortal: they existed before birth, existed after death and were reborn into bodies according to their deeds and personalities (see Phaedo). Much Christian thinking about souls owes more to this pagan philosophy than to Hebrew understanding, because it was the common way of thought among so many early Christians. In this regard the Sadducees, who denied all notion of an afterlife, were more “fundamentalist” than were their Pharisee rivals, because the Sadducees rejected all Scripture except the Torah, and rejected the notion of an afterlife (Luke 20:27-33, Acts 23:8).   Much of the later debate about “ensoulment” depends on this Platonic metaphysic that Christians inherited from their culture, their previous lives as pagans, and from Neoplatonic philosophy which influenced important Christian theologians such as Origen and Augustine.  The original Christian teaching was much more in line with the Hebrew understanding:  that the dead are dead, and our hope in in a resurrection of the body, when both body and its animating soul will be restored to life by God, rather than in a soul that either was floating around in Heaven waiting to be born or which floats around after death waiting to be reborn.

The Torah did not have an idea of life prior to birth, and its concern was primarily for God’s blessing in this life. The famous Biblical quote, “Choose life,” had nothing to do with abortion; it is an admonition to obey the Torah so that God will grant you, the adult hearing these words, a long life (Deut 30:15-20). Exodus 21:22-25 states that if two men are fighting and accidentally injure a pregnant woman so that she miscarries, this is treated as a civil crime against the woman’s husband, not as a murder; only if there is injury to the woman is there punishment of “life for life.” Later Christian attempts to interpret this as not referring to the woman’s injury but only to the child’s does not fit the original Hebrew or the history of Jewish interpretation. It also does not fit with Numbers 5:11-31, which actually requires abortion in the case of suspected but unproven adultery. And while there are passages in the Prophets and the Psalms about how God knew me before I was born, while I was being made and so on, these are mostly poetry and intended as imagery and praise rather than scientific statements of the biology of personhood. Anyone who thinks the Bible does not use imagery or metaphor needs to explain how God walked through the Garden, sat on His throne in Heaven, or wrestled with Leviathan. The straightforward passages must guide our understanding of the less straightforward; and in this case, the Torah indicates that the fetus is not the same as an adult life. It is special, it is precious from the moment of conception; it is even said to be a blessing from God. But the Torah puts it in the hands of the parents, and does not tell the government to impose its will on the family.

I am not saying that abortion is morally permissible. I am not saying abortion is impermissible, either. I am saying that it is a moral decision, and requires the consideration of philosophers as well as religious and legal experts. It is not as straightforward as it is depicted by The Right, who did not even care much about it until it became a convenient club with which to beat The Left and a convenient flag to rally around. If it is recognized as a serious issue, nothing more or less, then people of good will can debate it and seek moral consensus. But today, people of insincere political ambition treat it as the highest commandment, outweighing everything the Bible and human moral reason has to say about racism, sexism, social justice, feeding the hungry, providing clean air and water for our children and their children’s children, or providing a sound economy, or peace, or anything else. Every sin, every incompetence, every corruption, every blasphemy has been forgiven by The Right so long as the corrupt, blasphemous, stupid, mentally unstable and unrepentant sinner is a president willing to appoint judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade. Literally all morality, all political reason, and all religion has been overturned and buried beneath the one commandment: Thou Shalt Not Allow a Woman to Choose to Abort a Pregnancy, for Woman is Too Immature, Unstable and Wicked to Make Choices On Her Own. Millions of the so-called Party of Lincoln are ready to require rape and child molestation victims to have their attackers’ babies, which is the very definition of sexual slavery. These people say it is morally necessary to require a woman to risk her health and her life, to give up nine months of her life to make whatever sacrifice she must to try to ensure a healthy pregnancy, and will gladly shame her if her pregnancy is outside of wedlock regardless of the circumstances——but if we require a rich man to pay even one percent more in taxes so that we can feed, cloth and shelter that baby once it is born, as Jesus commanded us to do, then that is said to be immoral, to be exploitation of the poor persecuted rich person, as a punishment for being rich, and even slavery. Making a woman give up at least most of a year and then endure greater pain than most men will ever know—-that is good and righteous; but making a man obey the express word of God to clothe, feed and shelter the poor, even when he can do it with the money he was going to pay for a tenth yacht—-that is horrible, unthinkable, slavery! How truly Isaiah prophesied of this generation: they set aside the word of God and replace it with the commandments of men.

Recognizing that abortion is a moral issue, as is taxation, adultery, political corruption, hunger, the environment and the rest would mean that we could consider all the moral duties and moral values in this issue. It would mean that we would not allow ourselves to treat the rights of women who are born and persons according to the Constitution matter less than future persons who are not considered persons under the Constitution. It is possible to argue that abortion is morally wrong without resorting the idolatry of the so-called “pro-life movement.” Granted, that would mean having to actually argue, which means listening to both sides, offering reasons the other side can understand, and striving for compromise that preserves values both sides respect instead of relying on legal force, murdering doctors and other attempts to replace civility with power and oppression.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

 

Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)

 

Abelfatah, Rund. “‘Throughline” Traces Evangelicals’ History on the Abortion Issue.” NPR June 20, 2019: https://www.npr.org/2019/06/20/734303135/throughline-traces-evangelicals-history-on-the-abortion-issue

 

Balmer, Randall. “The Real Origins of the Religious Right.” Politico. May 27, 2014: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133.

 

Ravitz, Jessica. “The Surprising History of Abortion in the United States.” CNN. June 27, 2016: https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/23/health/abortion-history-in-united-states/index.html

 

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)

The Rumble in the Air Conditioned Auditorium 2012: O’Reilly vs. Stewart (review)

October 17, 2012

The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium:  O’Reilly vs. Stewart 2012

A Review

 

 

When I realized that I was one of the few people who had actually managed to watch the entire debate when it was broadcast live, I decided I should write something about it in my blog for the benefit of those who didn’t get to see it.  But then I couldn’t get it to download or to re-stream, and I hadn’t taken notes during the first showing, so I waited until I could watch it again.

First, let me provide a little background for anyone who might read this and not know what the heck I’m talking about.  On October 6, 2012, FOX News pundit Bill O’Reilly and The Daily Show’s fake news anchor Jon Stewart held a live debate in the Lisner Auditorium of George Washington University.  Anyone expecting a real spoof of politics and debate would probably have been disappointed; while both disputants showed considerable humor, the debate was real.  It was moderated by E. D. Hill, currently an anchor for CNN and formerly a reporter for FOX News, who seemed determined to keep a tighter reign than did Jim Lehrer at the Presidential debate three days earlier.  The first hour was done in (relatively) formal style, with both disputants standing at podiums responding to questions posed by the moderator, as well as replying to and rebutting one another.  Following precedent established with candidate Michael Dukkakis in the 1988 Presidential debates, the shorter disputant was allowed a boost; O’Reilly is somewhere between a foot to a person taller than Stewart, so he had a powered platform behind his podium to allow him to appear as tall or taller than O’Reilly at will.

It would be pointless to simply describe the debate, and beyond my powers of recall, and also a bit immoral.  The interview is still for sale at $4.95 (go to http://www.therumble2012.com/index.html for details), and half the profit goes to charity; so telling all the jokes would possibly spoil the experience for anyone who might purchase the download, and if it served as an alternative to purchasing then it would deprive those charities as well.  So I will confine myself to an evaluation of the three major participants, and their positions.

E. D. Hill took her role about as seriously as she should.  Yes, she introduced Jon Stewart as “a hobbit-like 5’7” tall,” but she also posed the questions and sought to hold the disputants to the time allotted for each topic.  This was before the Vice Presidential debate, but after Jim Lehrer had been trampled by Romney and Obama both; she was more assertive than Lehrer and perhaps less so than Martha Raddatz.

O’Reilly and Stewart showed their moderator more respect than did Romney and Obama, even when mocking her; in the context of the “real” debate O’Reilly’s expressions of contempt seemed more like parody than disrespect.  Both of them ignored the first question in order to give their opening statements; and in many ways I found the opening statements the most telling part of the evening.  O’Reilly is a staunch conservative, but is also a fairly independent mind.  He did not attempt to ignore or support Romney’s “47%” statement, but instead modified it; and that modification lies at the heart of his overall position.  O’Reilly stated that in fact there is about 20% of the nation who truly are lazy, feel entitled to free stuff, and couldn’t care less about the consequences for others.  He also said that number was growing, and that this represents a significant danger to our nation.  His primary concern, therefore, is irresponsibility.  He feels that Democrats should stop whining about Bush, who has been out of office for four years; after the first two years, you need to own up to your own responsibility for the state of affairs.  He claimed that liberals are fostering an entitlement mindset, and that it is necessary to curtail government services to force everyone to take personal responsibility.  Taking from the rich to give to the poor means taking from the responsible people to give to those who might not be responsible; and if the poor are to be helped, those that have should take responsibility to do so without being compelled by the government.  If the government gets involved, it will simply foster irresponsibility while delivering goods inefficiently and for political ends, and ultimately destroy the very producers it was counting on to fund things.

Stewart’s statement did not reply either to Ms. Hill or to Mr. O’Reilly.    Instead, he presented a long monologue describing “Bullshit Mountain.”  Its inhabitants, he said, live in a world where normal rules of facticity and logic do not apply.  On Bullshit Mountain, everything was wonderful until about four years ago, when a Kenyan-Fascist-Muslim-Socialist-Communist-Radical Racist was elected President and began destroying everything.  Before Obama, Congress and the President were bipartisan and effective and the economy was solid and we were respected in the world and every individual wanted nothing more than to work hard and lift himself up by his own bootstraps, and he could; now, totally because of one man, we’re polarized and paralyzed and lazy and worthless.  The real problem, Stewart argued, is a failure of our problem-solving mechanisms and the ability of the inhabitants of Bullshit Mountain to perceive or acknowledge reality.

In short, the two men were talking across each other.  O’Reilly was arguing ethics and Stewart epistemology; O’Reilly was arguing values and virtues while Stewart was arguing facts and history and practical solutions to the nation’s problems.  When they began to give real solutions, the two actually were fairly close on a number of issues.  O’Reilly was asked about partisanship, and blamed “haters and assassins” in the media who know they can make a lot of money simply by saying inflammatory things, regardless of truth.  He didn’t name any names and didn’t state any one ideology to which the haters belong.  I’m sure Stewart would agree; he has said much the same thing.  O’Reilly was specific enough to denounce the people who hate Obama and think he is evil and traitorous; he claimed himself to like Obama, while thinking his policies are misguided.  In this, he is clearly distancing himself from Hannity, Limbaugh and most other right-wing pundits, as well as the left-wingers he would describe as equally close-minded.  Stewart would agree with O’Reilly that the profit motive in news broadcasting has created a toxic atmosphere, where truth is second to showmanship and illuminating minds less important than enflaming passions.  Likewise, both men support our military and have taken concrete steps to help the troops in the field and after their return.  When I was a child, a “liberal” was someone who referred to our own soldiers as child-killers and rapists.  By those standards, there are almost no “liberals” left.  There are definite differences between the two; O’Reilly supports trickle-down economics, while Stewart supports a single-payer medical system.  But compared to the ideological schism of the 1960’s, today we hardly seem to be divided at all.  Both liberals and conservatives are patriotic, and at least some on both sides are God-fearing people.  Many of the liberal ideas of today, like the individual mandates in the Affordable Health Care act, were conservative ideas yesterday.

But the real difference between them was their agendas.  O’Reilly wanted to talk about values; on those grounds, he and Stewart were not identical but were not very far apart.  Stewart wanted to treat O’Reilly as “the mayor of Bullshit Mountain,” as if he were identical with everyone else at FOX News and the right-wing echo chamber.  O’Reilly sought to distance himself from some elements of the Right, but Stewart wanted to have that conversation and used O’Reilly as his target.  Stewart’s claim is that the Right exaggerates the problems America faces while simplifying the solution.  While America faces serious problems, they are the same sorts of problems we have always faced:  economic challenges, enemies abroad, questions of social justice and the nature of the social contract.  We have always had a large “entitlement” culture, from the time Europeans arrived in America and thought they were entitled to land occupied by other people.    But the Right speaks as if this never happened before, as if the world has gone completely to Hell just in the last few years, as if we are two weeks away from complete national collapse; and that if we simply give tax cuts to millionaires all these problems will be solved.  It is a combination of factual falsehoods about the past and present, and dubious (or magical) predictions and hopes for the future.

This strikes me as typical of the political debates today.  The so-called Left talks about solving problems, based on what has and what has not worked in the past.  Paraphrasing Stewart, I’m not for smaller or bigger government; I’m for better government.  The “Left” is the party that believes the government can solve problems, and that its job is to solve problems.  For this reason, Stewart emphasizes the need to know facts, to face facts and to act on them.  The Right is not really interested in the facts; the primary problem is not a problem of information but of values.  If we have the right values, we will solve our problems; therefore, we should have good values and then believe those truth claims that support our values.  O’Reilly is not really “the mayor of Bullshit Mountain.”  He does seem to choose to ignore the past failures of supply-side economics because it is most consistent with his ideal of individual responsibility; but in many cases, he is more interested in facts than many conservative pundits, and he is quite aware of this.  The leading citizens of Bullshit Mountain are people like “the assassins and haters,” birthers, paranoid conspiracy theorists, and the congressmen who sit on the House Science Committee while disbelieving science, and openly state that the reason they reject science is because it contradicts their values; for example:

“All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, the Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell,” U.S Rep. Paul Broun said in an address last month at a banquet organized by Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell, Georgia. “And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior.”[1]

 

It’s not that he has different evidence; it’s that he’s chosen to ignore evidence.  Like a good postmodern nihilist, he’s choosing which language-game he wants to play; and it isn’t the Science Game.  He is choosing what will count as believable based on what supports his religious values, not on the laws of cause and effect that govern in science or in normal daily experience, or the opinions of the vast majority of scientists.  That is the real key to “Bullshit Mountain.”  In Harry Frankfurt’s definitive tome on the subject, “bullshit” is defined as the assertion of facts in order to win arguments or status or some other reason, but regardless of whether what is said is true or not.  It isn’t a lie; the liar knows what the truth is but seeks to hide it for some reason.  The mistaken person thinks he or she is asserting the truth, but is simply wrong.  The bullshitter doesn’t care what the truth is.  I’m not sure what Paul Broun is engaged in qualifies as “bullshit.”  Is he trying to persuade, or to score points?  Or is he engaged in some other, completely unrelated activity?  It does seem clear that he is not making his judgment that these scientific foundational beliefs are “lies” is based on his superior knowledge of physics or biology; it is based on a theological/dogmatic judgment.  He wouldn’t say he was oblivious to truth; he would say that science is oblivious to real truth, ethical-dogmatic truth, while he is concerned with these important truths.  He wouldn’t say he is uninterested in solving problems facing the nation and world; he would say the most important problems are not nuts-and-bolts questions like what government policies will give the best possible lives to the most people, but rather the question of how to please God.  When Pat Robertson blamed the 9/11 terrorist attacks on feminism and Hurricane Katrina on legalized abortion, he clearly had a different strategy for solving the problems of protecting our nation from terrorism and natural disasters.  While the “liberal” believes that these things happen for strictly natural reasons and can only be addressed by a government that is robust enough to muster the physical resources required, Rev. Robertson believes these problems have a supernatural cause and can only be fixed supernaturally.

Stewart appears to believe the inhabitants of Bullshit Mountain are all willfully deluded for ideological gain; the world was wonderful, Obama ruined it, regardless of all possible facts to the contrary, so let’s get rid of Obama.  O’Reilly does not seem to be that deluded.  He doesn’t think Obama is a Kenyan or an al Qaeda infiltrator or anything of that sort.  He does have economic views that are disputable, but not insane.  He does believe small government and individual liberty are better.  But his initial impulse seems to be the moral concern.  That was his opening point and his recurring theme.  In that his primary interest is moral rather than factual or pragmatic, he has some kinship to the inhabitants of Bullshit Mountain.  And he does work at FOX News.  Stewart is more concerned with establishing a shared reality, something he quaintly calls “facts.”  His argument with the Right is not whether or not America is worth loving.  To some extent, it is over just how to love America best.  But really, Stewart has made a value judgment, the judgment that facts matter and that objective reality trumps what we think “ought” to be true.  Again, when I was a kid in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the notion that there was one reality which we all had to accept was considered a conservative notion; but now, it is the liberals who seem to be demanding everyone accept “the facts” and the conservatives who say, “I have my truths and you have yours.”

I cannot end without remarking on the greatest oddity of this debate:  that it took place.  Technically, it is true that Bill O’Reilly is part of the “entertainment” programming on FOX News.  But that is still FOX News.  Jon Stewart is on Comedy Central.  The fact that these two are treated as somehow equivalent is truly bizarre.  The line between “fake” news and “real” news has been obliterated.  O’Reilly has a good sense of humor, but he is professionally described as a “pundit.”  The dictionary definitions of “pundit” are either an expert, or someone who speaks authoritatively as if he or she were an expert (as when a college dropout with a history of drug abuse becomes a pundit and an authority figure).  In O’Reilly’s case, he is educated and intelligent, though not really an “expert” on all the subjects he comments on.  But he is not a “comedian.”  A comedian is one whose job is not to be right, or to be authoritative, but simply to be funny.  Somehow, right-wing pundits working for news organizations (whether FOX News, talk radio or both) came to be seen as morally and functionally equivalent to comedians, without anyone reflecting on the fact that the latter are professional fools while the former supposedly are not.  When Rush Limbaugh is criticized for saying something stupid and sexist, he is defended by supporters who say, “Well, look what Bill Maher said.”  An honorary member of the Republican Congressional Caucus, whose bust is in the Missouri State Hall of Fame, called by Ronald Reagan “the Number One voice for conservatism,” among his many accolades and awards, more powerful than many Republican elected leaders, who have more than once been forced to publicly apologize after getting on his wrong side—-this man is compared to a stand-up comedian and the male lead in “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death.”  This is considered a defense!  When one praises or defends one’s “pundit, i.e. expert and/or authority” by comparing him or her to a “comedian, i.e. a professional entertainer who uses various verbal and physical means to be amusing,” one really insults the pundit.  Or rather, one reveals that we no longer draw a distinction between those who speak from authority and expertise versus those who speak from ignorance and foolishness.

The O’Reilly-Stewart debate did show that when ideological disputants are willing to attempt to find and abide by the same reality, and who are willing to respect their opponents and to laugh at themselves and admit at least some fallibility (in their allies if not in themselves), it is possible to have a civil and substantive discussion.  In that case, it might be able to find solutions to problems that give both sides what they need, at least sometimes.  As Stewart said, the problem-solving mechanisms of our society seem to be broken; but this debate showed that is possible to fix them.


[1] Dan Gilgoff, “Congressman Draws Fire for Calling Evolution, Big Bang ‘Lies from the Pit of Hell,”, CNN, 10/16.2012 (http://www.abc2news.com/dpp/news/national/congressman-draws-fire-for-calling-evolution-big-bang-lies-from-the-pit-of-hell)