Posts Tagged ‘Politics and Christianity’

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)

Advertisements

POSTSCRIPT: Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP? (pt. 2)

October 1, 2012

POSTSCRIPT:  Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP? (pt. 2)

 

In her interview on The Colbert Report, Rand scholar Jennifer Burns identifies three aspects of Rand’s philosophy that she considers vital for understanding its reception by American conservatives:  rationality, selfishness and laissez-faire capitalism.[1]  While conservatives generally like Rand for the latter two, they generally reject her views on rationalism.  For example, Paul Ryan has said that reading Ayn Rand is what inspired him to get into politics, and he requires his staff to read her fiction.  However, he also says that when he read her philosophy, Objectivism, he “of course” rejected it because of its atheism.  In other words, he, and most American conservatives who claim to be inspired by Ayn Rand, treats these three elements of her philosophy as independent modules, to be swapped in and out at will.  In the case of laissez-faire capitalism, this is not true.  Rand’s defense of capitalism is the conclusion of the rest of her philosophy.  Capitalism is the best economic system because it recognizes, affirms and rewards selfishness.  Systems that seek to repress selfishness ultimately destroy nations that adopt them.  Only capitalism, based on selfish striving, can generate the wealth that would be necessary to improve the lives of others.[2]  Anything else is simply criminal robbery of the rich, generating nothing good.[3]  Ultimately, any system other than pure laissez-faire capitalism is simply a step on the road to Stalinism.[4]  Either the individual is completely free of all controls and regulations, or the individual is a slave.  There is no middle ground.

Rand’s faith in capitalism is logically dependent, therefore, on her positive evaluation of selfishness.  This in turn is dependent on her definition of “selfishness” and its link to rationality.  As she writes:

 

            The Objectivist ethics proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness—which means: the values required for man’s survival qua man—which means: the values required for human survival—not the values produced by the desires, the emotions, the “aspirations,” the feelings, the whims or the needs of irrational brutes, who have never outgrown the primordial practice of human sacrifices, have never discovered an industrial society and can conceive of no self-interest but that of grabbing the loot of the moment.

 

The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.[5]

 

 

So it is not just any selfishness, but only rational selfishness that Rand upholds.  Furthermore, that is the basis for her rational capitalism.  The rationally selfish person does not desire to exploit anyone.  The worker does not desire to rob the boss; neither does the boss wish to rob the worker.  The rationally selfish banker does not persuade poor people to take out loans they will not be able to repay, simply to get a bigger bonus; the rational banker explains the terms, risks and benefits of the loan and expects the rational customer to take it or not.  In such a rational world, there would be little need of regulations; the free market and the informed consumer would be enough.  And the rationally selfish person takes personal responsibility, which means he or she doesn’t attempt to shift the costs of his or her errors onto others.  Rand would say that applies, for example, to the old person who didn’t plan adequately for retirement; a rationally selfish person would not want Medicare or Social Security.  It would also apply to the millionaire banker who engaged in foolish or criminal trades; he or she would be liable for the losses to those he or she deceived.

As Burns points out, today’s conservatives like Rand for her defense of selfishness and capitalism; and as Weigel points out, politicians often simply grab snippets of quotes to use without regard to their context or true meaning.  And as I said, sometimes that matters, and sometimes it doesn’t.  What happens to selfishness when we take rationality out of the equation?  Quite simply, Objectivism collapses into Nietzschean nihilism.  If selfishness is not based on rationality, then it is based on whim; and that is the essence of Nietzsche’s subjectivism.[6]  And the whims of individuals naturally clash, so instead of the free and orderly market of fair traders Rand envisions, we end up with reciprocal robbery and caveat emptor.  And if you introduce religion into Nietzsche, that simply becomes a tactic in the struggle between wills to subjugate one another.  It is the philosophy of the underman, of the failure.

Most American conservatives would say they are not throwing out rationality; they are only adding religion to Rand’s essentially rational philosophy.  In much the same way, I am not killing you; I am just quickly adding an ounce of lead to your heart.  Religion is not rational; both its detractors and its adherents agree to that.  Rationality is what everyone can observe and agree to; it is the objective, the publicly discernable, the factual.  Rationality is the natural; religion is the supernatural.  When Paul Ryan, or any other politician claims to be defending rational selfishness while also defending belief in God, that politician is asserting the right to be irrational, and to set public policy based on whims, fantasies and/or wishful thinking.  You believe, as Ayn Rand did, that a woman should have control over her own body?  You are wrong; God told me that we men have the responsibility to defend the unborn person, which I know to be a person because God told me.  You believe tax money should not be spent to teach creationism because it isn’t rational?  You are wrong; God has told me that the world was created in a totally supernatural and unverifiable way, and I have every right to demand my particular religious belief be taught in public schools.

A fully rational society, like Rand describes, would probably be a pretty nice place to live.  Government would let you live your own life according to your own morals, instead of trying to impose values on you.  You would not be required to take care of the unborn embryo in your body, or the poor person outside your door; you would have every right to choose to do either.  Sellers of goods and services would not try to cheat you, and would freely take responsibility for their own mistakes; so there would be no need for government inspections of meat packing factories or of stock brokerages.

However, we do not live in this rational utopia, and it is unlikely that we ever shall.  First, it is clear to any unbiased observer that “rational” individuals by Rand’s standards are as rare as warm winter days in Wisconsin.  When people defend the right to be “selfish,” they are rarely if ever defending the right to be rational; more usually, they are defending the right to promote their own self-interests at the expense (or at least disregard) of others.  What for Rand is a principle of social harmony (like Kant’s Categorical Imperative or Spinoza’s confidence that rational people’s interests won’t really conflict) becomes, for many of Rand’s self-professed disciples, something more like Callicles’ notion that the superior man should live as a wolf among sheep, using his wits and strength to exploit others at will.  Rand complains that this is a distorted meaning of “selfishness,” foisted on us by the preachers of “altruism” (primarily Christianity).  She admits that her definition of “selfishness” is not the usual one, although she argues that hers is more correct.[7]  In reality, it has more in common with Kant’s definition of autonomy than it does with what we commonly think of as “selfish;” Rand comes close to quoting Kant’s Categorical Imperative herself.[8]  But neither Kant nor Rand would have any room for the voice of God overruling natural reason, universal logic and the normal laws of causality.  To be “selfish,” or “self-directed” as Kant would put it, is to trust reason and reason alone, not any outside authority and least of all a supernatural one.  And it is to desire that oneself should be judged by those same standards, and to be willing to condemn oneself if one fails to live up to them.  Very, very few are willing to abide by the strictures of rationality, or even capable of putting their own desires and prejudices aside long enough to try.

Second, since American conservatives continue to let God into the conversation, there is no rational way to resolve conflicts.  The same Bible that is used to justify persecuting homosexuals or banning abortion also denounces  greed and selfishness.  “He who has two shirts must give to him who has none.”  Both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures put severe limits on what one can do with one’s own property, in the interest of protecting the poor.  Every Bible passage that can be used to argue that the poor are lazy and/or dishonest can be countered by one that claims the poor are God’s special children, victims of oppression by the rich, and/or unfortunate brothers and sisters who deserve our love and help.  If anything, the number of Bible passages on the liberal end swamps the conservative side, which is why Rand rejected Christianity as an irrational, mystical attack on selfishness for the sake of “altruism” and the self-sacrifice/suicide of the individual.

When politicians claim to be arguing in favor of Ayn Rand’s rational selfishness, they are generally either self-deceived or lying.  That is a problem because Rand minus rationality is not “Rand Lite;” it is nihilism.  Paul Ryan, Rand Paul and the others do not offer us Ayn Rand improved by the blessing of Jesus; they offer us mere subjectivism, irrational whims and the clash of will-to-power with will-to-power, disguised as religious prophecy and moral crusade.  It is no wonder that our politics today consists almost entirely of point-scoring, excoriating Them for doing something We praised last week, ad hominem attacks, red herrings, circular reasoning and every other logical fallacy ever cataloged.  We have to rely on emotional manipulation and subterfuge, when we have lost faith in rationality and facts to lead us to solutions that all or even most can share.


[2] Ayn Rand, “Collectivized Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York:  Penguin Group USA, Inc. 1964) p. 97

[3] “Collectivized Ethics,” pp. 95-6.

[4] “The Monument Builders,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 100-101

[5] Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 34

[6] “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 33

[7] “Introduction,” The Virtue of Selfishness

[8] “Objectivist Ethics,” p. 30