Posts Tagged ‘Politics and Religion’

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything, pt. 4

August 17, 2017

For Christians, the Hebrew Scriptures are the first covenant, which we humans broke through our injustices and sins. Even as this sin bore its fruit in the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian Exile, God promised through the prophets that there would be a new covenant, one not written on stone tablets but in the hearts of all of God’s people. We don’t believe that God simply replaced the old covenant; God fulfilled it and continues to fulfill it today, because even if all of us prove false, God is always faithful to us and to the promises (Romans 3:3-4). And as before God called slaves out of bondage in Egypt to be God’s own free people, so we believe that through Jesus God called out people from slavery to sin and to the corruption of this world, to live as free children of God together. The apostles and evangelists who wrote to the early Church saw themselves as joining in Christ’s work to start a new sort of kingdom of Heaven, a society of people living on Earth but living by God’s rules. And just as Moses had warned the people not to be led astray by the wealth and pomp of this world, they wrote to the early churches to warn them that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (I Timothy 6:10). None wrote more forcefully against the corrupting idolatry of wealth than did James. It isn’t that having money is in itself a sin. Some philosophies and religions teach that all attachments to this world or enjoyment of any sort are spiritual faults, but that is not the teaching of the Bible. What James says is troublesome about wealth is its power to turn us against each other. We all are naturally attracted to rich, successful-looking people. Psychologists and anthropologists say it’s an instinctual human trait, part of our being social animals. We are all drawn towards the Alpha, either to follow or to try to raise our own status by association. The church is made up of humans, and shares this same tendency. A billionaire or celebrity is seen as a role model by some, as a natural leader by others. To still others the rich person may just be a mark of distinction, something to brag about or to quietly pat oneself on the back about. “Did you see who was sitting right in front of me in church today?” Once the prominent families in churches had their own pews where everyone could see them, with their names written on metal plates. Today, the super-rich and super-famous don’t feel the need to show up or show off in church, so we get fewer chances for that sort of “American Idol” worship. But we don’t have to look just at the church itself; as we move through the world on the other six days of the week, we know how often we give reflexive, uncritical deference to the rich and famous, and how often we despise the poor. Wealth divides us from one another, not by itself but by our allowing it to play on our love of social hierarchies. James reminds us that while we may think the rich are better people who deserve our deference, in fact they are often no better than anyone else, maybe even worse, maybe even enemies of us and of God. Are they not the ones who drag you into court? James asks.

We who aren’t rich are divided from one another because of our tendency to idolize wealth. And the rich are also divided from others for this same reason. Just as it is human nature for the rest of us to bow before wealth and celebrity, it is human nature for wealth and celebrity to expect the rest of us to bow down. That does not mean it is inevitable. It does mean that when it does not happen, it is by the grace of God. And too often, it is the churches that get in the way of this grace, by flattering the rich and endorsing their sense of superiority. One of the founders of the Prosperity Gospel, Norman Vincent Peale, used to lace his sermons with examples of rich people held up as role models. The millionaires who came to his sermons were far more likely to hear themselves praised as paragons of virtue than they were to hear about some old prophet in a hair shirt eating locusts and wild honey. They were rich because they were good, and the proof they were good was that they were rich. They had harnessed the power of positive thinking; and what is faith, if not expecting good things?

James had a rather different view of the wealthy. He writes:

 

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure[a] for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. (James 5:1-6)

 

“The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out!” Who would do such a thing? Who would refuse to pay someone who has done work for him or her? Our president, for one.[1] But he is just one of many; in fact, rich corporations not paying their bills to smaller family businesses, or paying late or paying a fraction, is so common that it is often defended in court as “standard business practices.”[2] And managers forcing employees to work “off the clock,” refusing to pay for overtime or simply refusing to pay workers at all is shockingly common.[3] The Prosperity Gospel tells all of us that the rich are to be praised and imitated, because their success shows that they are not only better than the rest of us, but they are also blessed by God. James seems to think their wealth is an indictment, and they have to show that they are not in fact guilty of sins against God and their neighbors.

[1] Steve Reilly, USA Today Exclusive: Hundreds Allege Donald Trump Doesn’t Pay His Bills;” USA Today, (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2016/06/09/donald-trump-unpaid-bills-republican-president-laswuits/85297274/) also Emily Flitter, “Special Report: Trump’s Art of the Deal—Dispute Your Bills;” Reuters November 13, 2015 (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-trump-bills-specialrepor-idUSKCN0T214Q20151113)

[2] Stephanie Storm, “Big Corporations Pay Later, Squeezing Their Suppliers;” The New York Times April 6, 2015 (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/07/business/big-companies-pay-later-squeezing-their-suppliers.html) as one example.

[3] “Wage Theft Costing Low-Income Workers Billions;” NBC News September 28, 2014 (http://www.nbcnews.com/business/economy/wage-theft-costing-low-income-workers-billions-n212406)

Of Gospel and Heresies: Those Ain’t Your Friends

July 15, 2017

Of Gospel and Heresies: Those Ain’t Your Friends

A reading from the book of Job, chapter 42, verses seven to nine.

After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.” So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the Lord had told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.

 

 

One of the first things I learned in college was that I could save a lot of time in the morning if I stopped shaving. Another thing I learned was that Caymanians hate beards. When I started meeting my Caymanian relatives after I grew my beard, I heard many complaints. My grandmother said to my sister that seeing me with a beard was the greatest tragedy of her life. She was a widow. I’ll let that sit there a bit.

My great-uncle Dillon was more direct. He told me directly that I should shave. I told him that many of my friends at school thought it looked good. He replied, “Those ain’t your friends, they’re your enemies!”

Now, Dillon was a bit of a jerk, and despite what my Caymanian relatives thought or think, I saw several of my friends trying to grow beards after I grew mine so I still think I was onto something. But what I want to focus on today is not my choice of facial styling. I’m interested in that saying. Dillon was PROBABLY not saying that those people who I thought were my friends were really wishing me harm. What he meant was that they were giving me bad advice, they were misinformed, and they were harming me when they tried to help.

Our scripture for today is about three of the best-meaning, least-helpful friends in the whole Bible. We should pay attention to this, both in what they do and what they fail to do. I believe this book has much to teach us today, because we humans are slow and still haven’t learned all the lessons of the book of Job.

First, let’s be clear that they really were good friends. Job 2:11-13 says that they each heard that Job had suffered many calamities, and met together to comfort him. When they saw him, he was so sick and so miserable, having lost his wealth, his children and finally his health, that he was unrecognizable. “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” I can barely manage a few words of consolation at a funeral; they sat with their friend seven days! They didn’t just say they were sorry he was sick; they stayed and shared his pain with him. They didn’t speak until they were spoken too. The writer wants us to understand both the depths of Job’s suffering, and the depths of his friends’ suffering for him. It’s important both for providing us with the emotional background to feel the story, and the information to interpret what happens next.

Finally, Job breaks the silence and curses the day he was born. It is an expression of despair and anguish, an expression of Job’s feeling that his life is miserable, and meaningless. In death, he says, the rich and the poor, the prisoner and the taskmaster, the wicked and the good are all together, and whatever happened before no longer matters. Suffering is bad enough, but meaningless suffering is worse; we need a sense of meaning or a goal to help us keep going through the rough times. Job says he sees no meaning in his life, or in life at all. Perhaps that is why Job’s friends thought a little theology would help. The bulk of the book is a series of admonitions from the friends, and replies from Job. Initially, the eldest friend, Eliphaz, seems to have thought that he was comforting Job. He assured him that life does indeed have meaning. If one is suffering, it is because one has done something wrong. No one suffers meaninglessly or unjustly; God would not be so callous. Therefore, Job need only repent of his sin, and his prosperity will return. Job insists that he has done nothing to deserve misery and suffering; it has just happened to him, and there is no reason why. Later speeches by the friends become more insistent; not only do they seem determined to reveal Job’s supposed guilt for his own good so he can repent, but they begin to get a little angry at him because he seems to be finding fault with God. Their intentions seem to drift from comforting their friend, to analyzing his situation and instructing him, to rebuking him and defending God. What they are saying was, in fact, a common theology of the time. As stated in the book of Deuteronomy, God punishes sin. If Israel lost a battle or was oppressed by an enemy, it was because the nation had sinned. If an individual was sick, that person had sinned, or maybe someone close—God was said to visit the sins of the fathers on their children. And likewise, if someone was well-off, it was because that person was blessed by God, and thus was both virtuous and pious. We see claims like Proverbs 13:4: “A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.” We see this sort of reasoning even in the Gospel of John, the last of the gospels to be written down, when Jesus encounters a man born blind and his disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)

It is an idea that is as old as the earliest written Scriptures and carried through even until today.   Today we call this thinking “the Prosperity Gospel,” and it has been particularly well-suited to the American character. There is certainly Biblical justification for this idea, although many of today’s Prosperity preachers don’t make much use of Scripture. And in some ways, it can be a very comforting idea. If I am feeling miserable, I can do something about it; I can work harder, I can pray more, I can tithe and show my faith and faithfulness, and then God will reward me with wealth, health and happiness. And if I am feeling great, then I can feel even better because the Prosperity Gospel tells me that my good fortune shows that I am not merely lucky or merely blessed, but smarter, more industrious, more virtuous, more devout, more worthy than other people. It is no wonder that Prosperity preachers, from Norman Vincent Peale to Paula White, have been so popular with the rich and powerful, and why they in turn have been so enamored of those worldly celebrities. Unfortunately, as Job’s friends show us, this theology has a dark side: it is very easy to move from “if I obey God, God will bless me” to “God has cursed you, you are miserable, therefore you must have done something wrong; you deserve to be miserable, because God would not allow undeserved suffering.” Often today we take it a step further than Job’s friends did, moving from “you deserve to suffer” to “I need not care about you, because you deserve to suffer.” The great evangelist Jonathan Edwards, preaching nearly three hundred years ago when this country was still a group of British colonies, opened this door a crack when he said that after the Last Judgment the righteous in Heaven would look upon the suffering of the wicked in Hell, and rejoice at seeing justice done. Edwards did not, however, say that we should love our living neighbors any less, even if they are wicked, for they are still loved by God and forgiven sinners like us, and Christ died that they too might repent and be saved.[1] But too often today we get ahead of ourselves and are quick to turn away from those who have done wrong in our eyes. And Edwards knew that not all who suffer in this world are sinners, and not all who are at ease are righteous. He did not say we should cease to love our neighbor who was sick, or whose crops had failed, or who otherwise was suffering. But too often today, Christians do say such things. We are so obsessed with stopping the unworthy from getting a “handout” that we are willing to deny many more whose need is genuine and undeserved. And we are quick to assume that everyone who is rich has worked hard and done well and must be smarter and better and more worthy than the rest of us, when our only reason to believe this is the fact that they are rich. There’s much less interest in requiring the undeserving rich to help the deserving poor than there is in requiring the poor to contribute to the welfare of the rich. It gives us comfort to believe this, because the alternative is to admit that we don’t control our own lives, that God alone rules and rules in ways we might not understand, and that we can’t assure ourselves of wealth and health simply by tithing and working. And it gives us comfort to think that we deserve what we have and that those who lack have no claim on us because they deserve to suffer.

The writer of the book of Job wanted us to see the problems with that sort of easy equation of material comfort with spiritual worth. Even decent, well-meaning and godly men like Job’s friends, people who I think might have otherwise been better men than I am, were led astray by this idea that worldly suffering is always deserved. Their theology conflicts with their sympathy. And furthermore, they begin to rebuke Job for insisting that his suffering is not deserved, and that therefore God owes him an explanation. Job says he has searched his heart and can find no sin; he has not neglected to sacrifice and show his devotion to God, nor has he failed to show kindness and to give aid to the poor and unfortunate when he had abundance. His friends say that his current state is all the proof they need that Job has failed somehow, and that to believe otherwise is to disrespect God. No evidence that the other side can give will convince any of them. Only God’s appearance can answer the unanswerable questions raised by inexplicable sufferings. God speaks first to Job, and in fact God’s answer to Job seems a little strange. He never tells Job why he has suffered, that it was all a test to prove that Satan’s charges against Job were false. Job seems satisfied simply to realize that God is so much more than he had realized before, and that even his suffering has a place in God’s plan; he doesn’t demand to know what that place was, but humbly acknowledges his ignorance. But God is much more direct to Job’s friends, saying to Eliphaz “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” It is only when Job prays to God for his friends that they are forgiven, and it is only after Job forgives his friends and asks God to forgive them that his good fortune is restored.

The book of Job was written both to comfort the suffering, and to discomfort the well-off. Things happen for reasons we cannot understand from our human perspective. Because of this, we are all together, both the rich and the poor. Job comforted the suffering when he was prosperous; when his world fell apart, he found comfort from his friends, but also judgment. The attitude of the Hebrew Scriptures towards wealth and poverty is, as we have seen, mixed. If it were not, we would not need the book of Job, because there would be no unexplained or undeserved suffering. Instead, we find again and again through the ages that we do need Job, both to give voice to our mourning when we are in distress, and to remind us of our place when we are the ones who are well-off and witness the suffering of others.

[1] http://www.biblebb.com/files/edwards/contemplated.htm

Of Gospel and Heresies: Prophets and Profits

June 23, 2017

Of Gospel and Heresies: Prophets and Profits

 

 

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?

—– ”Mercedes Benz,” by Bob Neuwirth, Janis Joplin, Michael Mcclure 

 

 

When I was a child, “mainline” churches like the Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians and Lutherans, as well as moderate Baptists, were all growing denominations, growing even faster than the population. It is not hard to imagine why. Catholicism was still often seen as an “immigrant” religion; it wasn’t until JFK that anyone seriously thought a Catholic could be President, or that the United States of America would survive if one did. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Native American religions and other faith groups were all small and, for the most part, either fringe faiths or dominant only in small, ethnically-defined communities. In short, there were some very this-worldly reasons to join the “mainline.” While the “no Irish welcome here” signs were largely gone, it was also a fact that the business community of the 20th Century was often a “good old boys network,” and if you wanted full access to the movers and shakers, you were probably better off joining their churches, or their country clubs (that often had “no Jews” policies, for example), or their fraternities. If you wanted your children to attend public schools, you had to accept that Protestants would be writing the prayers your children would be required to recite every day; otherwise you could pay taxes to support schools you didn’t use, and keep your children out of the mainstream American culture in parish schools, or yeshivas, etc. It was simply easier, and even more profitable to simply go along with the mainstream. Mainline Protestantism was always pretty business-friendly, since so many of the larger churches in any town depended on tithes from the well-off businessmen; in exchange, the churches gave the businessmen who wanted it some moral guidance, and the others could at least gain some moral respectability and gratitude from those who appreciated their contributions and didn’t know too much about where the personal ethics of the contributor.

This was not always so in the early days of Christianity. When Christianity broke off from Judaism some 2000 years ago, it was a persecuted and largely underground faith. Rome was actually very religiously tolerant; as long as a group was willing to burn incense to worship and strengthen the Emperor’s family spirit and the Imperial cult, Rome accepted them. To refuse to worship the Emperor was like refusing to pay taxes today: an unpatriotic betrayal, a declaration that your allegiance to yourself and your group was in conflict with the health and strength of the community. Christians were, in fact, willing to obey most laws, generally, but not to contribute to the spiritual warfare against the barbarians by worshiping the Imperial cult along with Jesus. They were thus enemies of the State and, depending on attitudes of local governors or Imperial edicts, subject to enslavement, torture and death. When the persecution ended in the Fourth Century, people flocked to join Christianity; once the Emperor started supporting it, it became a way to greater economic and social security. As a result of this wealth and power, the real devotion of individual Christians seems not as, well, devoted. In reaction, those believers who wished to experience real spiritual focus began to withdraw from society, first as hermits and later as monks and nuns living in isolated communities. This pattern held through the Middle Ages: the majority lived their lives while worshipping God as the Church told them to, while the spiritual elite, the monks and nuns, rejected full involvement in the world of money and business and power so that they could focus on prayer, meditation and study. Even Popes, who often combined wealth, power and religious authority, could be cowed by the connection to God of a monk or nun known for spiritual discipline and mystical spirituality. And among the people as a whole, it was simply a given that a monk or nun was more spiritual than anyone else, even more than the village priest who still had to live with the rest of us sinners.

That changed with the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other Reformers argued that monasticism was in fact “works-righteousness,” an attempt to curry favor with God instead of trusting God’s love and power alone. Anyone who thinks they can earn and deserve God’s favor did not really love God; God should be seen as a loving parent, not a demanding employer, and we are God’s children who cannot and need not earn what God gives us. Therefore, they said, to love and trust God is not to hide away from the world, but to live and work in community with all your neighbors, to hold a job and do your best, to earn your living rather than relying on the tithes and charity of those who work. Luther asserted “the priesthood of all believers:” that is, the idea that all Christians are equally close to God and can pray directly to God, without the aid of a priest or monk. Calvin went even further, modernizing Christian theology to better suit an economy moving away from medieval agrarianism and towards a society based on commerce and manufacture (such as loosening medieval prohibitions on lending money at interest, which allowed Christians to be bankers).

As Christianity was going through these changes, Europeans were exploring and colonizing America. Catholic lands continued to follow the religious and social patterns of the Medieval Church. Monks and nuns were the religious elite, the missionaries and teachers; nobles were the rich landowners and political leaders; and the majority were farmers laboring to support the Church and the nobles, without any expectation of being anything else. In English and Dutch lands, by contrast, Protestant theology reconciled spiritual devotion with mercantile ambition, so that merchants, traders and investors strove to become wealthy while also being considered godly. In fact, their hard work was seen as a sign of spiritual devotion, and their growing wealth seen as a sign of God’s blessing; at the same time, conspicuous consumption and waste was seen as arrogant and also poor stewardship of God’s blessings. This is the beginning of the so-called “Protestant Work Ethic.” Protestants were encouraged to work at their jobs as vigorously as monks and nuns worked at praying and fasting, and to prize comfortable lives as signs of God’s favor the way a monk or nun would prize mystical visions or inner peace; naturally, the “Yankee trader” who followed this direction became rich, even if he lived in a community with legal restrictions on wasteful spending. As a result, the money could just pile up.

The third-generation Puritans may have lived lives of material success undreamt of by their Pilgrim forbearers, but they still remembered that spiritual devotion and material comfort were not always linked. Their settler ancestors had suffered greatly, and many had died, despite and because of their faith. “Being good” did not always mean “doing well,” and “doing well” was not always a sign that one was good and blessed by God. This was part of the trigger for the Great Awakening, where the descendants of these early religious refugees and now children of their successful grandchildren sought to revive that earlier religious fervor in themselves.

The 19th and 20th Centuries are when the growing material comforts of the United States prompted the Protestant Work Ethic to metastasize into the Prosperity Gospel. The Industrial Revolution created new opportunities for wealth and comfort for some, with poverty and dehumanizing drudgery for others. This divide grew greater, and took on spiritual dimensions, as the country recovered from the Civil War. The U.S. would not have recovered so well, perhaps not at all, without the so-called “robber barons,” the tycoons, industrialists and financiers who remade the nation and the world economic system while enriching themselves. Some, particularly Rockefeller and Carnegie, were strongly religious men of strict personal morality, and they tried to promote good religion and good lifestyles among their workers and in the world. Most famously, Carnegie said that the first half of a man’s life should be devoted to making money, the second to giving it away; he and Rockefeller competed to see who could make the most when they were young, and who could give away the most before they died. They certainly did not think they were choosing between being good men and good businessmen.

In the 1930s the age of the robber baron gave way to the Great Depression, but the mixing of religion and business only increased. The Christian Business Men’s Committee began in 1930 as businessmen gathered to pray for spiritual revival in Chicago; the movement grew and spread. Now not only were a few millionaires bringing religion into their business (and vice versa); average businessmen across the nation were gathering to seek ways to do so. In all this, there were definite continuations of the Colonial and early national Protestant work ethic: God wants you to strive to be successful, and then to use what you make to help others. The tycoons and less amazingly successful capitalists tended to attribute their success to their own daring, ability and (often) good, godly lives; those who were poor, particularly if they seemed to resent the rich or complain of bad fortune, were simply lazy and jealous. There’s a bit more of a notion that poverty says something about the poor character or poor spirituality of the person, since obvious sorts of “acts of God” like plagues, famine and so on were rapidly becoming things of the past.

At this point past becomes prologue, as President Donald Trump’s favorite preacher, Norman Vincent Peale, began his ministry in New York.[1] Peale did not rely much on Scripture or on traditional Calvinist theology, despite being a Presbyterian pastor. He drew mostly from the therapeutic theories of French psychologist Émile Coué to develop his own theory, outlined in his book The Power of Positive Thinking. If you believe that you will be successful, you can tap God’s power to achieve all manner of success, including wealth and health. Peale did not talk about sin, grace, or salvation; he preached more often about the great examples we could see in the lives of rich, successful businessmen. While guilt and repentance had little part in Peale’s preaching, there is a definite moral implication; if you are not personally successful, it is because you are doing something wrong. Perhaps your faith or your self-confidence is lacking, or perhaps you are just not a good, industrious person, so God’s blessing cannot flow through your life to give you material success. This is the beginning of what we would recognize as “The Prosperity Gospel” in full flower. Not only is material success seen as a gift from God; the lack of success is seen as a sign of one’s spiritual or moral failure.

Peale may be an early proponent of the Prosperity Gospel, but he was not an Evangelical. Peale was a Presbyterian pastor, part of the “mainline Church.” Business leaders were most likely to be moderate, denominational Protestants. In the 1930s it was perfectly legal to refuse to hire someone because of his religion; if you wanted to be a full participant in the business world, you needed to be part of the Protestant culture. Evangelicalism was not part of the mainstream culture; having been badly humiliated during the anti-evolution fights of the 1920s, Evangelicals spent most of the 1930s through the 1970s turning their backs on “the world” with its debauchery, its science, and its materialism. The Protestantism a successful businessman would embrace would be one that his community, potential customers and partners, also embraced: the mainline Protestant churches.

This started to shift in the 1970s but really became a force in the 1980s, when Evangelicals jumped back into politics to back Reagan. They also jumped on modern mass media more successfully than any mainline religion, first through Billy Graham’s radio broadcasts and then, when television took off, through televised revivals, then UHF religious networks, and finally through the Christian Broadcasting Network and Trinity Broadcasting Network, and other cable religious networks. The “TV Preacher” was born, with glitzy broadcasts and lavish lifestyles.

Jim Bakker was an early leader. An Assemblies of God pastor, he early dropped his denomination’s emphasis on personal simplicity. Pentecostalism grew out of the Holiness movement, which is a style of Evangelicalism that stresses a strict, simple lifestyle, such as avoiding drinking, dancing, make-up or jewelry or fancy clothes. Preachers like Bakker dropped the Holiness emphasis on voluntary poverty. His PTL Club promoted conspicuous consumption and even luxury for Christians, claiming that if believers had enough faith (“faith” being demonstrated in willingness to tithe to the ministry, not through acts of charity for the poor or personal self-denial) then God would pour wealth down upon them. Self-examination, contrition, guilt, and repentance were gone. There is no need to wait for treasures in Heaven; if you tithe, God will pay you off in this world.

The Prosperity Gospel obviously helped reconcile Evangelicalism and capitalist consumerism. This is a religion that the capitalist can understand; faith is a financial investment, and God always pays off eventually. And the Evangelical’s suspicion of “the world” and of wealth is replaced by not just acceptance, but even veneration for the wealthy; those who have a lot must be the ones who love God the most and thus have been blessed the most. And contrariwise, since wealth comes from having faith and doing one’s job, if one is not wealthy one is impious and lazy.

[1] Tom Gjelten, “How Positive Thinking, Prosperity Gospel Define Donald Trump’s Faith Outlook;” All Things Considered August 3, 2016 (http://www.npr.org/2016/08/03/488513585/how-positive-thinking-prosperity-gospel-define-donald-trumps-faith-outlook) NPR

An Open Letter to Senator Rand Paul, Republican/KY

February 18, 2017

Hello Everyone:

I wrote Sen. Paul an e-mail, because his office has stopped picking up their phone for calls from voters and his voicemail box is full, asking him to support the movement within the Senate to investigate Donald Trump’s collusion with Russian spy services to subvert the American election the way Russia has corrupted or sought to corrupt elections throughout the free world.  In exchange, I got a newsletter ignoring my original concerns, and instead praising Sen. Paul’s efforts to weaken environmental protections (enjoy your leaded water!), to “broaden the tax base” by shifting taxes away from the rich and onto the middle class and the poor, and to ram through even the least competent of #Dolt45’s Cabinet appointees without even a tenth of the “extreme vetting” that seems appropriate for a Syrian infant escaping bombing by Russian jets.

I attempted to respond to Sen Paul’s newsletter, but, big surprise, the reply bounced.  It seems he doesn’t want to hear from his constituents in that manner either; he only wants us to shut up and listen.  Rather than let my efforts go totally to waste, I’m posting my reply to him here.

Dear Sen. Rand Paul, and whatever staffer might happen to get this message:

What’s Old is New Again

November 10, 2016

What’s Old is New Again

Yes, and how many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
Yes, and how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

 

—–Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ in the Wind”

 

 

Historical progress is not inevitable. We are always one generation away from barbarism. We always have been. We always will be.

We all know the facts. There are today four groups of Americans.   One group is known today as the alt-Right. When I was born in 1960, they were known by different names: the KKK, white supremacists, Nazis or The Man. They controlled those around them by fear and violence. They were terrorists, and very often they were also the police and elected government officials at the same time. As I was growing up, I remember thinking about The Klan the way some of you would think about some dangerous animal you had never actually seen, but which you knew still lurked just beyond the city limits. I never remembering thinking they were defending my rights as a white man; I always knew that they would turn on me or any other white male in an instant if they sensed “disloyalty to your race.” And as a child of educated parents who believed that moral goodness and intellectual ability were not limited or granted by race, I was and am one of those “enemies.” But I have the privilege, or temptation, of keeping my mouth shut and passing through life relatively unmolested, if cowed. I didn’t have black friends. Thanks to redlining and segregated neighborhood schools, I don’t recall even seeing a black kid my own age until high school. I did try to be friends to the younger black kid in the small private school I attended when I was around fourteen. I was frequently bullied but I can’t say it was specifically for that. I did, however, always know that the same people who hated me for being educated and eager in school also hated others because they were a different skin color or religion.

There is a second group, the group of those who see the racists and thugs as terrible people, but who still see them as fellow travelers and allies. They know from experience what I know from observation and from opinion surveys: that half the people who support Donald Trump are in fact racists, homophobes, and willing to use sexual harassment and rape to keep white males in control. They themselves claim to be disgusted by that behavior. However,—-and that is the point. That recognition is followed by a “however.” Sure, Donald Trump follows KKK and Nazi groups on Twitter and repeats what they say as fact, proving from his own words that he embraces those views, and like Mike Pence they say they are personally horrified by such people; but like Mike Pence they refuse to call them “deplorable” and continue to consider them friends, even leaders. They may consider the burning of a black church and the scrawling of “Vote Trump” on the site to be bad taste, but not as bad as wearing a T-shirt that says “Black Lives Matter.” For every racist, there is at least one of those enablers and allies who claims to be better than that, but who supports the rights of racists, terrorists, and oppressors. When I was a child, most white Southern Christians claimed to believe that Jesus came to save everyone regardless of race; but they also chose to look the other way when some of their so-called Christian friends murdered blacks or Jews or some liberal who thought she was just so smart. The Southern Baptist Convention even wrote it into their theology: it is not the Church’s place, they said, to meddle in politics or criticize the State. And as long as they saw the State as protecting their protected status as white people, they were more than happy to ignore segregation and lynching and focus on stamping out drinking or dancing or games with dice. You know, like Jesus said.

There are today people who are shocked and horrified. Some, like me, may remember the history of Southern racism, and the Klan in Indiana and other Midwest states, and the anti-immigrant violence of the Know-Nothings in the cities, and how a person could be beaten or even killed if someone even thought he might be gay. Others are themselves non-white, or immigrants, or non-Evangelicals, or non-straight, or simply have friends or family that fall into one of those groups. They now know they have a target on their backs, and that they have elected officials like Gov. Matt Bevin or Senator Richard Burr who talk about how great it would be to literally shoot any of us who are not like them. We know the chance of random unprovoked violence against one of us is much higher today than we thought it was even a day ago, and that even those who are supposed to be protecting us are in fact encouraging it.

And then there is the fourth group. They sat out this election. They thought that we could never go back to the America I grew up in, where gay-bashing and lynching were considered “disorderly conduct” at worse. They thought progress is inevitable whether or not they fight to protect it. They voted to legalize weed, but allowed a federal government of Congress, President and Supreme Court to come into power that has promised to fight the “drug war” and won’t give a damn what your state law is. Whether a woman has a right to abort a fetus she is carrying that is either dead or dying within her, and which is killing her, is a decision that they say should be left up to state law; but whether a person in the privacy of his or her own home should be allowed to smoke a joint is a Federal matter, even if that person grew the marijuana and paid no foreign drug runner a penny. They knew that Clinton was just as sleazy as Trump, because they saw advertisements from Trump that told them so and read stuff on Facebook that was written by Trump supporters in the U.S. and Russia, and still think they are morally pure because they chose to believe the propaganda. They felt anxiety at having to make a difficult choice, and like many people they chose to simply not make that choice. Now the choice is made for them. Good luck stopping oil pipelines through tribal lands now.

I can’t say anything to the people in the first group. They are simply evil, and you can’t argue with evil. Jesus didn’t argue with Satan; he rebuked him. Jesus rebuked Satan when Satan tried to get Jesus to further his ministry on Earth by embracing showmanship and power politics. Jerry Falwell accepted the Devil’s offer. I can’t argue over that; I can only be repulsed by it.

I can’t argue with the second group. I’ve tried. They are not irredeemable, but they have protected themselves from reality and facts and history and logic. If the news reports something that they don’t like, that’s “lamestream media” and they can ignore it. If a Nazi says something they do like, they can embrace that claim without evidence because it feels good, and not ask whether someone who advocates killing other Americans might not be a reliable source. They may be taught, but they can’t be reasoned with.

I hope I can say something to the third group. The U.S. survived this sort of thing before. It is not inevitable that the U.S. will survive. In the 1930s we were very, very close to losing democracy forever. There were a lot of people who were angry and afraid as the Great Depression wiped out their livelihoods. They wanted a strong man to lead them to prosperity and fix all the problems. They looked at Hitler and said, the way Trump says about Putin, that at least he is a “strong leader,” not like the ones we elect in this country, and they wanted American leaders who would imitate Hitler or Stalin and silence the press, crush nonconformists, and make America great again: white, male and Evangelical Christian. Many of the richest and most powerful businessmen in this nation, job creators like Henry Ford, supported Hitler and repeated anti-Jewish propaganda originally written in Tsarist Russia. The same way Trump retweets things written by the paid Russian trolls and propagandists today, businessmen like Ford and celebrities like Charles Lindberg swallowed the propaganda of our nation’s worst enemies and repeated it. And for many, many years large swaths of this country were controlled by white supremacist terrorists, many of whom were also prominent politicians or police officers. We survived the 1930s through the 1960s and created an America that really was a shining beacon on a hill, one that at least came close to living up to those words on the Statue of Liberty. It was worth fighting for then; it is worth fighting for now. We can’t fight for it successfully by killing those who threaten to kill us. I know that, when you’re scared and angry, that is a temptation. But that is exactly what the first group, the alt-Right, wants you to do. They want to create a world where they can say they are morally equivalent to civilized people, and where they can claim their lies and bullshit are equal to actual empirically true facts and logic. When they do that, they can keep that second group in their control. The only way to save those people, and the only way to weaken the truly deplorable, is to be prepared to suffer. Jesus did not kill; he died. Jesus did not say, “Well, Caesar has a bad personal life, but he preserves law and order;” he said, “Take up your cross.” Mahatma Gandhi did not drive the British out of India by force; he let them beat him and his followers, both Hindus and Muslims together being beaten by white Christians, until enough of those white Christians realized that what was being done in their name was worse than anything that was supposedly the danger—worse not only to those who were suffering, but even worse to those of us it was supposedly helping. I don’t know if I will have the courage to let myself be beaten or shot, if the time comes. When I think about it I get scared and angry and want to imagine fighting back. But I pray that I will stand with those who are not like me, and suffer with the suffering as my religion and my philosophy tell me I should. I have friends of different races, religions and sexual orientations, and I hope I will have the courage to stand with them always. I believe that is what Jesus wants me to do; after all, it was Jesus who said that in the end times those who truly love God would be persecuted and killed by those who say they love God, but who love money and power more.

To the fourth group, I say this: You made a choice. Your choice was to allow a known racist, who denies all science and logic and who brags about being a serial sexual predator and about defrauding people, and who is even facing legal trials for these crimes to which he has in fact confessed, to become President. You either didn’t vote, or you voted in a way that you knew would likely allow this to happen. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, or gay marriage bans are reinstated, and the Supreme Court returns to being the enemy of justice that it was in the days of the Dred Scott decision and Plessy v. Ferguson, well, you built that, and that choice will be with us for thirty years. If you think that makes you morally pure, fine. Morally pure people will bleed with the ones who voted a different way. Morally pure people will march in protest against evil and oppression, not hide in their gated communities or college safe spaces. And truly morally pure people may have to make a choice between doing good and feeling morally superior. You may have to march with Democrats next time. Greens, Libertarians: the GOP is not your friend. If you care about individual freedom, by definition you are a classical liberal. The GOP does not care about individual freedom. Conservatism fought against the American Revolution. Look it up. Religious and non-religious liberals fought for freedom; conservatives fought for the Crown and for law-and-order. After the revolution, those liberals argued among themselves, and sometimes they made bad choices or took a very long time to make the right choice; but first they had to join together and do what was necessary to create a society where we COULD argue and disagree and use our words. Trumpists do not like to use their words; they call that “PC.” They like to beat people up and then claim the bloody sack of flesh at their feet was trying to assassinate their leader.

Everyone who is saying, “This is not my America:” this is America.   This is the segregationist, religiously bigoted, sexually repressive, anti-intellectual, paranoid, self-pitying America I grew up in as a Southerner. If you don’t like it, you had better stop watching reality TV and start preparing to change reality, again.

Boredom, Anxiety and Envy: a Kierkegaardian Attempt to Understand The Trump Question (pt.4)

July 6, 2016

CONCLUSIONS

In Two Ages, Kierkegaard compares the present age to a Roman emperor, fat, bored, wandering through his palace and through life looking for something to amuse himself. He isn’t evil, exactly, so much as simply sullen, lethargic and self-centered, and desperate for something new to stimulate his senses. He torments others simply out of boredom. Likewise, Kierkegaard says, the present age delights in having a tabloid press to torment and humiliate the best and brightest, anyone who stands out from the crowd, simply so the rest of us can watch and be entertained for awhile. Kierkegaard started his authorship with a discussion of boredom, and here when he is beginning a new phase in his career he is returning to it. Boredom and envy are connected, in a way neither is to anxiety, leading Kierkegaard to mention them both in the same breath.

The connection is passion. This seems to be an easy concept to misunderstand; in The Logic of Subjectivity Louis Pojman, who is normally a pretty sharp cookie, compares Kierkegaard’s discussion of passion to Hume’s notion that “reason is a slave to the passions.” This is clearly off target, since Hume’s point is that we have no real freedom to act against our desires while Kierkegaard is saying we should strive to free ourselves from just that sort of bondage to our whims and appetites. Taking what Kierkegaard says about passion in various references and bringing it together, it is clear that the essential quality of the life of passion is that the individual feels that what he or she does matters. Don Juan, lost in the moment of pure pleasure, feels absolutely alive.[1] He is totally immersed; no part of him stands outside what he is engaged with; he is passionate. However, that sort of passion cannot survive reflection or even self-awareness; it starts to collapse as soon as it is put into words. The pre-moral, esthetic life described in Either/Or is a life lived for arbitrary goals, and thus is essentially meaningless; the more one becomes self-aware and reflective, the more one finds oneself standing outside oneself, unable to fully immerse in whatever arbitrary project one has chosen. It is simply too small. And being essentially meaningless, it is essentially boring. Don Juan can pull it off mostly because he is a fictional character in an opera, and exists only in imagination and music; a real person is never safe from the threat of self-reflection. Kierkegaard thus depicts the egoistic, pre-moral life of the esthete as something of a willful self-deceit, where the esthetic person either invests his or her life in some petty project or rotates between petty projects, and avoids boredom mostly by luck if at all.

In the age of revolution, people are swept up in a shared passion. That may not be a good thing; the same passion that led to the overthrow of tyranny also led to The Terror and to the destruction of the Napoleonic wars. Passion, in and of itself, may not be moral; but it is at least alive. People feel that things matter. Without reflection to go along with that passion, you can have wildness, irrationality, and a loss of sense of individuality; but at least you have the vital force. With both reflection and passion, you have liveliness together with self-awareness, and you have a community of moral individuals. With reflection and no passion, as in the present age, you have triviality. Nothing matters, and what’s more, we feel clever because our reflection has shown us that nothing matters so we are not being fooled. We don’t fight for the good or against the evil, because we don’t feel that either matters; we simply don’t think those words apply to us. We might temporarily flare up in some passing enthusiasm, but it soon fades because it is as arbitrary as anything else, and we lapse into bored triviality. I think of how outraged we all were when Cecil the lion was killed, for awhile, but how little most of us think about the extermination of the world’s most majestic species. No one really cares about the moral principle; they just wanted to be part of the moment and part of the crowd gathered to mourn Cecil. If anyone had actually acted on all that outrage, either to avenge Cecil or to dedicate his or her life entirely to saving Earth’s endangered animals, we would have considered it madness. It is acceptable to get angry and to tweet death threats even, to sign a petition and to talk about it endlessly on Facebook for two weeks; but then, really, you have to get on with your life, right?

In an early journal entry, written when Kierkegaard was merely a perpetual student, he wrote that he was seeking “the cause for which I can live and die.” That is what it is to live a life of passion! And that is what is lacking in the present age, according to Kierkegaard. No one has a cause. In the age of revolution, everyone has a cause, whether you are a revolutionary or a reactionary; either way, you are part of the same passion, and the revolution matters. People in a revolutionary age don’t all agree, but they all care about the same thing; even if some love it and some hate it, “it” is the same. In the age of reflection without passion, we have no cause, and those who do seem strange, even fanatical.

In this boredom, when nothing matters, our attention has no common focus and no higher focus than one another. That reflection that tells us that nothing matters turns on our neighbors, as we determine to prove that any claim to “matter” is arrogance. Therefore, we level. Leveling is the prime social expression for passionlessness, which is the literal meaning of “apathy.” The leveling society is the apathetic society, knocking down the highest out of sheer boredom.

The escape from boredom, which Kierkegaard traces through Either/Or to the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, is to choose to live a life where things do matter. As his pseudonym The Judge says, it is not to choose the good, but first to choose to allow the concepts of “good” and “evil” into one’s life. As Ron Green points out in Kierkegaard and Kant: the Hidden Debt, Kierkegaard starts with a very Kantian notion of what “ethics” means: that one lives according to the moral law that one discovers with one’s own moral reason. Just as logic is a purely mental law that dictates what is rational or irrational thinking, so the moral law is a purely rational principle that dictates what is moral or immoral action. To reject either logic or morality is certainly possible; in fact, few of us live totally logical or moral lives. But insofar as a person is not a slave to whims and appetites and irrational impulses, one lives according to these laws of rationality and morality that one finds within one’s own reason. The only way one can escape being determined by the essentially meaningless pursuits of the egoist is to choose the ethical life. When one does this, one has something far more important to deal with than whether one’s neighbor is getting too uppity; so the moral passion of the ethical life can be the antidote to envy.

Thus, the escape from boredom and from envy is the same: reject apathy and embrace the life lived for what matters. However, at this point anxiety rears its head. As Kierkegaard says, to live with the knowledge of good and evil is to live in anxiety. One first becomes aware of the distinction by becoming aware that one has done the evil, and cannot undo it, and might even do it again. The more one tries to escape from anxiety through one’s own power, the more anxious one becomes. Eventually, since anxiety is “the dizziness of freedom,” the only escape from anxiety is to try to escape from one’s own freedom. For this reason, says The Concept of Anxiety, the person may be tempted to try to immerse himself or herself in the trivial and philistine life of social conformity. I find myself to be desperately bored; I realize my life and my concerns are meaningless, and seek to find what really matters, that is, what is good; when I find it, I realize that I have in fact done what is worthless and evil, and that it still remains a tempting possibility; the more I try to live a meaningful life the more stressful and anxious I find this constant threat of falling again into what I now know to be the evil; and finally I choose to simply embrace the soulless conformity of the passionless, reflective society. Thus boredom and envy are not just the problems of those who know nothing more in life; they are much more the characteristics of those many who are actively choosing to live lives without a relationship to what is truly good.

The only true escape from anxiety and envy, according to Kierkegaard, is to choose the religious life. Again, this is a claim that is likely to be misunderstood by postmodern Americans. Most of what we typically call “religious”— social conformity and judgmentalism, blindly following a charismatic leader, allowing others to tell us the moral rules and convincing ourselves that using our own minds is somehow wicked and rebellious—- this is actually what Kierkegaard would consider more of that anxious, envious, self-immolating life that Kierkegaard labels “objectivity,” “idolatry” or “demonic.” True religiousness starts with the attempt to find the good: that is, with the ethical. For Kierkegaard, the attempt to live an ethical life by following one’s moral reason serves much the same function as the Law in Paul’s epistles and Luther’s theology.[2] One must first try to live according to the ethical, and fail, and in failing realize one’s need for grace. At the same time, grace is not there to free one from trying to live a good life; it is there to free one from the burden of one’s past failures, so that one can try again. Grace allows one to finally be free from the overwhelming burden of anxiety, which otherwise leads one to flee the whole attempt to live a life as a morally directed individual.[3] Particularly in Concept of Anxiety, but consistently throughout Kierkegaard’s authorship, “the good” is individuating; to pursue the good is to be an individual, and to try to evade the personal effort of being an individual moral agent before God is to choose the evil.

The irony of envy is that from the religious perspective, it is right. Envy says, “You are no better than me;” the religious person says, “Indeed, I am no better than you; we are both individuals before God, dependent entirely on grace.” Accepting this is what allows the truly religious person to escape the bondage of envy. The faithful person has the complete security of being worthwhile and even loved by God, despite knowing himself or herself to be morally unworthy of that love. The faithful one thus has no need to enviously tear down others, and can rejoice in their value before God as much as in his or her own. Therefore, if you see someone whose sense of self-worth is dependent on asserting superiority over others or tearing them down, you can be sure that this is not “religious” zeal but is in fact faithlessness.

The desire to tear down scientists and scholars and “the elites,” while adulating some self-promoting huckster whose only claims to superiority are the purely mathematical ones of wealth and popularity, is an expression of faithlessness and the bondage of sin, as Kierkegaard understands it. This is true whether the would-be idol is a political demagogue or a religious charlatan, or some combination of the two. It is a sign of an age that has, in Kierkegaard’s words, “annulled the principle of contradiction.” It is an age that fears to let Yes be Yes and No remain No, and wants to eliminate all ultimate distinctions between true and false, good and evil, logical and irrational, so it can avoid having to make a decisive choice. The present age says that all truths are partial and relative and based on perspective, so there is no need to rationally discuss or to question one’s own views; the reflective and passionate view is humbled by reflection but inspired to seek truth nevertheless, admitting that the quest for truth is never-ending while remaining devoted to the quest regardless.

When “the principle of contradiction has been abrogated,” as Kierkegaard said using the language of Hegelian philosophy, there is no absolute truth. Every concept is simply one side of a larger reality. Hegel still had an historical optimism underlying his annihilation of the distinction between truth and falsehood, good and evil; he believed history is progressing towards a state of greater human consciousness, and eventually the race will attain an apprehension of reality that encompasses all of the various perspectives. But for Hegel, that day is not yet; in the meantime, your moral values are simply expressions of your culture’s values and your own class interests. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th and the French Revolution was succeeded by the Munich Putsch, that optimism was harder to sustain. Today we have even more thoroughly abrogated the distinction between true and false, epistemologically and ethically, in what Cardinal Ratzinger called “the dictatorship of relativism.” There is no truth, so anyone who claims to know truth is simply an oppressor trying to impose his (maybe her) will on others; thus the only morally proper and epistemologically correct option is to admit all views are equally valid, even contradictory ones. The problem with that is that the “tolerance” and “honesty” that supposedly demand this admission are themselves moral and epistemological virtues, and thus themselves become victims of reflection. What we end up with is moral nihilism and a contest of irrational wills. As Harry Frankfurt discusses in On Bullshit, today we have a whole category of verbal behavior that is neither truth nor lying, because the speaker is simply unconcerned with either sharing or avoiding the truth. And this may explain Trump’s method and success. Donald Trump does not lie; he bullshits. He says whatever will serve his purpose, and is not concerned with whether what he says is true. Much of the time he does not even know. And to the morally and intellectually vacuous public today, this seems entirely appropriate. In a world where no one can “dictate” truth, and where truth itself cannot dictate, every single person can believe whatever he or she wants to believe. If I want to believe that slavery never happened, or that solar energy sucks heat out of the air and will freeze us all to death unless we burn more coal, or that most American Muslims are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers even though I don’t actually even know how many Muslims there are in America, then I have a right to my opinion. Truth and goodness are replaced by the language of “rights,” and the stupidest and most selfish has as much right as the wisest, for we are all equal. The ability to get others to agree with you is seen not as a triumph for fact over fantasy, but just as a victory of one will over the others. From the point of view of the postmodern person, there is no truth and the best leader is merely the best bullshitter; and the bullshitter who has persuaded the most people to give him or her the most money is clearly the best. From the point of view of the one who is religious in Kierkegaard’s sense of the word, the wisest is the one who recognizes that there is truth, who loves the truth (particularly moral truth) and who attempts to live according to the truth so that his or her life might have some real meaning, but who knows that human existence is always to strive for truth, never to possess it completely. That person will know that anyone might have a piece of truth, and thus anyone is worth listening to, just as Socrates listened to politicians and slaves alike as he went around Athens asking questions. And just as Socrates seemed more than a little odd in a society dominated by demagogues and Sophists, so today any real truth-seeker seems goofy at least, if not absolutely insane. The popular teachers in the days of Socrates were the ones who said “man is the measure of all things, what is that it is, and what is not that it is not;” and the popular leaders were the ones who did not try to make their citizens better morally or better informed, but took them where they were and pandered to their appetites. And in the days of Socrates, that sort of relativism led to moral and epistemological nihilism, leaving nothing to guide the society but the naked ambition of its politicians; and themselves being unguided either by moral principles or factual truth, they led the nation into defeat and destruction. The age without faith is the age without truth, without a love for truth, and thus without guidance how to live or what to choose, a mindless herd following the loudest voice without knowledge of whether it is being led to the sheepfold, or to be sheared, or to the slaughterhouse.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, “The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical Erotic,” in Either/Or, v. I, edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987) pp. 45ff

[2] see W. Glenn Kirkconnell, Kierkegaard on Ethics and Religion, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008) pp. 76-107

[3] see W. Glenn Kirkconnell, Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010) pp. 40-57

 

Boredom, Anxiety and Envy: a Kierkegaardian Attempt to Understand The Trump Question (pt.2)

June 15, 2016

Next, anxiety: Kierkegaard wrote during the 19th Century, which was a famously optimistic period in most of Europe. It was an age of exploration and experimentation, of invention and economic growth, of capitalism and commercialism. Kierkegaard frequently criticized the philosophy and theology of his time as both shallow and overconfident; his advice, through his pseudonyms as well as in his own name, was to cultivate a humble spirituality. His words largely fell on deaf ears, and he was nearly forgotten in the years after his death. His greatest influence was in the early 20th Century and beyond, in response to some of humanity’s darkest times. As theologians and philosophers sought to understand how so many millions of their fellow citizens could gladly throw away their freedom and their professed religion to follow earthly self-proclaimed Fascist and Communist messiahs, they found Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous discussions of anxiety to be uniquely instructive.

Most of Kierkegaard’s discussion of anxiety comes through his pseudonym Vigilius Haufniensis, in the book The Concept of Anxiety. Important additional insights come through his religious discourse, “Every Good and Perfect Gift is from Above,” one of his Four Upbuilding Discourses (1843). Haufniensis describes anxiety as “the dizziness of freedom.” What does that mean? The experience of freedom is the realization that one can do something that one knows one ought not to do. Haufniensis takes the story of Adam as a true account of anxiety and sin, and points out that before rebelling against God Adam is described as “without the knowledge of good and evil.” But Adam did know that there was something he ought not to do. There was a possibility, a real possibility. And realizing that there was this real possibility of something was both attractive and repulsive, like the sudden urge to jump off a cliff. We can’t really say Adam chose to do evil, since he didn’t know what evil was; but once he had chosen what was evil, he both knew what good and evil were, and that he had chosen badly.

http://www.gocomics.com/9chickweedlane/2006/06/27

At least as far as Kierkegaard was concerned, only human have the freedom to choose in this way, what the later pseudonym Climacus called an “existential choice,” a choice of what would be the highest guiding value of one’s life. And the realization that one has that freedom is disorienting. Every human falls, Kierkegaard claims, and falls in this same way: by throwing away his or her innocence and choosing to do wrong, as Adam did, one finds that one has succumbed to this vertigo of freedom. It cannot be explained more than that, because it is a free choice and thus has no “cause” that can explain it. Without that freedom, one would not be a rational spirit; but while an animal cannot help but obey God and be what it was made to be, humans have the ability to make themselves, an ability they discover only when they choose first to deform themselves and then must strive to be remade.

In the pseudonymous Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard’s alter ego writes from a psychological perspective only; then the discussion gets too theological he breaks off with a comment that “at this point, we leave the problem to dogmatics.”[1] When he writes in his own name, he is much more explicitly religious. In “Every Good and Perfect Gift is From Above (1843)” he discusses how Adam’s sin breaks the sense of God’s presence, and the results of this. Before his disobedience, Adam “walked with God,” as Genesis puts it, in apparently easy fellowship. There was no division between God’s will and Adam’s, or between Adam and any other part of Creation. Once they made that initial decision to try to “become as gods, knowing good and evil,” Adam and Eve both realized that the world is outside their control, and thus threatening. The anxiety gave the occasion for freedom to break from God; the choice to actually do so creates a separation that then opens the door for genuine fear. Concept of Anxiety focuses on how human freedom apart from divine grace, responds to this situation. Asserting my freedom meant separating myself from God and thus also from God’s creation; now I am surrounded by threats and by mysteries. Once I knew what it was good for me to do, since it was simply to obey God; but now I am left to seek the good, and faced with the danger that I will again choose what I know is wrong. And that anxiety also leaves me fearful, and particularly fearful that I could die separated from my ultimate fulfillment. “To be or not to be?” becomes a terrifying question for one caught in anxiety.[2] Every attempt to gain a sense of security and certainty by my own efforts just leaves me with an overwhelming sense of my own inadequacy. The world is simply too big and too confusing for me. There are only two possible responses. One is faith, at which point I leave the psychological and philosophical perspective of Concept of Anxiety and turn to God, accepting that “every good and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change or shadow of variation” (James 1:17). But most of us never reach that state of faith; for most of us can only escape this overwhelming anxiety by choosing to throw away our freedom. We submerge ourselves in the spirit-numbing social conformity of the modern commercial society, which Kierkegaard calls “philistinism.” Instead of struggling to find our own life values, we let the crowd around us dictate our life choices. This was the aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought that so intrigued the existentialists and dialectical theologians, as they watched their world go mad. What would make civilized people swarm into a stadium where they could throw their arms in the air and shout “Sieg Heil!” until they were hoarse? What could make millions of people worship a Stalin or Hitler or other tyrant? Anxiety offers a key. If trying to create my own values has become an overwhelming burden, turning to a strong authority who promises to tell me what is good and evil is a relief, not an oppression. And if my anxiety about myself has metastasized to fear of the world, a strong protector becomes a shield, not a cage.

No, I am not saying that Trump is just like Hitler or Stalin. But the impulse towards social conformity and authoritarianism is certainly the same in both. It is the same force that drives the Christian Dominionist and the Muslim Jihadi. It is the desire to be part of a herd and to have a strong, visible, concrete shepherd. Polls say Trump does well among self-described Evangelicals who only occasionally attend church. That is, he does not do well among those whose faith is a daily part of their lives or a directing force; he does do well among those who are social Evangelicals, who long for a traditional world with stable values and a single voice replaces the clamor of all the hawkers in the marketplace of ideas.

[1] Kierkegaard’s reasons for using pseudonyms are too complex to deal with here; for more on this, and some pointers on sorting it all out, look at W. Glenn Kirkconnell Kierkegaard on Ethics and Religion and Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation, both published by Continuum Press

[2] For an example of a person who, though not Christian, is quite religious in Kierkegaard’s sense, look at Socrates in the Apology. He says that either death is like a long, dreamless sleep, which is actually a pretty good night, or else it is a beginning of another existence; and he is confident that if death leads to an afterlife, that it will be a just and therefore enjoyable one. Thus he accepts the death sentence from the Athenian jury without regrets. In Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous work Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Socrates is presented as the archetype of prechristian faith.

To be continued….

Is Islam More Violent?

June 9, 2016

Is Islam More Violent? A Response to Nils Petter Gleditsch and Ida Rudolfsen

 

War and civil war have decreased — leaving, primarily, fighting in Muslim countries

—-Nils Petter Gleditsh and Ida Rudolfsen, “Are Muslim Countries More Violent?”

 

 

In their article, “Are Muslim Countries More Violent?” authors Nils Gleditsh and Ida Rudolfsen reject the idea that violence around the world is driven by a “clash of civilizations.”[1] They point out that in fact, there is relatively little violence around the world that rises to the level of “war,” and furthermore that almost none of that warfare is between nations. Instead, they point out, most of the world’s large-scale violence consists of civil wars within predominately Muslim nations within a broad geographic swath stretching from central Africa to South Asia. They then consider several explanations that have been commonly offered as to why this is the case. They discuss and largely reject the notion that Islam is itself inherently more violent than any other religion, correctly pointing out that most major religions have both violent and peaceful messages which human agents choose to emphasize to suit their own purposes. Jerry Falwell famously argued on the television show 60 Minutes that Mohammed was a terrorist, while Jesus and Moses were men of peace.[2] The pacifism of Moses would come as a surprise to the Amalekites, or other peoples who opposed Israel on its march towards Canaan; and Moses’ successor Joshua destroyed entire city-states from the fighting men down to even the animals. The pacifism of Jesus is more pronounced, but the pacifism of Christians is largely refuted by the words of the evangelists interviewed by Bob Simon. For example, prominent televangelist Kay Arthur insists that God sanctioned the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin. Christians who, like Arthur and Falwell, wish to find excuses for violence in the name of God are able to do so, largely by mining the apocalyptic literature; those like the Amish or Quakers who wish to push for total pacifism can find other passages, particularly the words of Jesus; and those like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas who wish to argue for a more moderate “just war theology” emphasize other texts, particularly Paul’s letter to the Romans. Other major religions present the same varied inheritance; neither Christianity nor Islam are markedly more or less inclined to violent rhetoric than these others.

Gleditsh and Rudolfsen also consider the argument that the civil wars in Muslim nations have more to do with economics in those societies than their religion. The fact is that the nations with the most violent civil wars are also nations with past histories of being colonized, with the resultant poverty and lack of political development today; they are nations with little industrialization or other economic assets aside from oil; and they are generally nations with a small rich elite while the majority live in poverty with no economic opportunity. Once you control for the economic factors, the argument goes, the Muslim nations are no more violent than are any others. However, the authors ask, what if the religion is itself contributing to the economic and political dysfunction? If that might be the case, is it in fact feasible or truthful to “control for” and ignore the religious issues?

While their article points out some bad questions and points the way towards some better ones, in the end it doesn’t really attempt to answer the question it asks in its title. For me, the most interesting aspect of the article was that it reminded me of a very helpful book I read in seminary, Islam in the World by Malise Ruthven, and particularly of his comments on the intersection of Islam and politics.[3] Written decades before the Arab Spring and even five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, this book offers insights into Muslim history and political theory that prove prescient, while still being accessible to an amateur like myself. One of the first interesting nuggets is his observation that “the Prophet had been his own Caesar.”[4] Western culture is shaped largely by Christianity, and Jesus was utterly lacking in official power or worldly authority. For the first formative centuries of Christian history, the same can be said of his followers. Islam from the start had to work out the relationship between temporal ruler and the bearer of the divine message. This puts the whole discussion of “the secular state” versus “the Mosque” into an entirely different context. Christians had to learn to live under the political sovereignty of pagans long before they had to work out how to faithfully live while wielding political power themselves; Muslims began with the problem of how to wield political authority over themselves and others, and only later had to deal with the crisis caused by largely losing that autonomy to foreign colonizers.

In the 20th Century, strains of thought originating from this well of the original Medina community nourished Islamic responses to the Cold War.[5]            The former colonies were often ideological battlegrounds between Soviet Communism and Democratic Capitalism. In many cases, local responses sided with one or another of the superpowers and adopted an Islamized or Arabic version of some foreign philosophy (Baathism, with its debt to both Fascism and Soviet support, is a good example of this). But for nations that sought an ideology that was truly neutral between the contending sides of the Cold war, political Islam offered an alternative that was truly different and truly rooted in the culture of the people. Drawing not only from the Quran and hadith but also from the history of Islamic civilization and philosophy, thinkers such as Sayyid Abu’l Ala Maududi strove to work out systems of governmental authority and economic interaction that were something other than just adopting authoritarian collectivism or individualist capitalism. And in particular, these Islamic political theorists sought to work out a theory of political-economic society that rejected the secularism assumed by both Soviet and Western societies.

When I started teaching religious studies a few years after reading Ruthven, Germany was united and even Russia and China were moving towards free-market economics. The Cold War was over. At the same time, there was not yet any talk of a “clash of civilizations” to replace that global polarization. I remember remarking, referring to Ruthven’s observation that Islam offered a third ideology for peoples who did not wish to be either Western or Soviet, that with the elimination of the Soviet alternative the only two ideologies were Western secular liberalism and political Islam. At that time, I wondered how that fact might work itself out. Jumping ahead twenty years, today we see two major forms of political violence: terrorism and civil war. And as Gleditsch and Rudolfsen observe, these civil wars are almost all in Islamic countries with at least one party expressly pursuing an Islamist ideology. I suggest that this is not so much because Islam causes the violence, but that people disaffected enough by the status quo to resort to civil war move towards Islam as a political ideology, to provide some conceptual framework and intellectual foundation for their group. Without this ideology, they would simply become the intellectual mirror image of their enemies, with no distinct characteristics of their own.

Gleditsch and Rudolfsen also point out that while Islamic terrorism gets a lot of attention from the Western press (and is intended just for that purpose), by far most of the victims of Islamic violence are themselves Muslims. Furthermore, FBI statistics suggest that most U.S. terrorists are not Muslim, but anti-government, or white supremacist, or Christian dominionist agents.[6] If you are in America, you are far more likely to be killed by a self-avowed Christian terrorist (like Timothy McVeigh or Eric Rudolf) than by a Muslim terrorist.

Perhaps what we see here is that with the collapse of Communism as a viable political ideology for terrorists, would-be insurrectionists are turning to other ideologies and “tribal” loyalties to justify and conceptualize their violence. And in doing so, they generally turn to some theme within their own culture. In Islamic nations, this means Islamism. In the U.S. this more often means some sort of Christian Dominionism or Christian Identity. “Christian Identity” refers to any of a group of pseudo-Christian groups that believe non-whites are subhuman, that the British people are descended from the biblical Israelites and are the only true heirs to the messianic promise, that Jews are Satanic and that Jesus wants his followers to start and win a race war. They generally are not much of a threat to our democracy for the simple reason that they are so obviously dangerous. The white hoods or Nazi tattoos serve much the same purpose as the bright colors of a wasp.

Christian Dominionism more insidious. Followers of this ideology state that their goal is to use democratic means to elect leaders who will then abolish democracy and establish a Christian theocracy. The more intellectually honest among them argue that the religious tolerance advocated by the Founding Fathers was a mistake; the more willfully schizoid argue that this is a Christian nation founded by Christians and religious tolerance was never intended to apply to atheists or pagans, or to Catholics who include too many “unbiblical” practices such as prayers to saints, or to moderate Protestants who are too tolerant of Catholics and non-Christians. They simply choose to ignore Jefferson taking a pair of scissors to the Bible to cut out all the miracle stories that he thought too silly, or the other Deists, as well as a few Catholics and even an atheist or two who were prominent leaders of the American Revolution and the later Constitutional Convention. If Rev. Rafael Cruz had been an avowed racist (leaving aside for the moment that the Christian Identity movement wouldn’t accept a Latino), his son would never have been a serious politician without first loudly and repeatedly renouncing this poisonous theology. But as a Dominionist, Rev. Cruz can reject the Constitutional separation of Church and State, and insist that God wants Christians to impose their religion and morality on others by force, and his son Ted can be elected a U.S. senator.

Am I saying that Ted Cruz has ties to Christian terrorism? No! But, I am saying that the divide that leads to civil war in some Islamic countries is also inspiring division and even violence in this country, too. The primary ideological opposition to Western democracy is no longer Soviet Communism; it is theocracy. Rafael Cruz, Cliven Bundy, Tim McVeigh and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are all on a continuum, and the essential similarity between them is more decisive than the fact that some claim to be Christian and others claim to be Muslim. So I say that the question is not whether Islam is more violent than Christianity. One could argue that Mohamed was a general and political leader who ordered the execution of whole tribes, while Jesus was a pacifist who submitted to an unjust death sentence; but in fact, Christian Dominionism undoes that difference by leaping ahead to the prophesized return of Jesus, and seeks to make him Caesar now. The same dynamic can be seen in Buddhist and Hindu nations as well; where there is a modern group and another group that resents them, those often turn to some religiously-justified ideology.

In his article, “Why They Hate Us,” Fareed Zakaria writes, “Islamic terrorists don’t just hate America or the West. They hate the modern world, and they particularly hate Muslims who are trying to live in the modern world.”[7] The same can be said of Christian terrorists who bomb abortion clinics or Olympic Park; they hate modernity, they hate and fear the changes that are occurring in the world that clash with their preferred values and lifestyle, and they hate their fellow Americans and fellow Christians who disagree with them. And this is a phenomenon that transcends nationality and religious identity today. In every major religion there are those who accept that the world is changing and try to navigate lives of faith given these changing currents, and others who rage against the tides.

 

 

 

 

[1] Nils Petter Gleditsh and Ida Rudolfsen, “Are Muslim Countries More Violent?” The Washington Post May 16, 2016 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/05/16/are-muslim-countries-more-violent/)

[2] Bob Simon, reporter, ”’Zion’s Christian Soldiers,’ The 60 Minutes Transcript;” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs December 2002 (http://www.wrmea.org/2002-december/zion-s-christian-soldiers-the-60-minutes-transcript.html)

[3] Malise Ruthven, Islam in the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984)

[4] Ruthven, p. 29

[5] Ruthven, pp. 326-29

[6] See Zalid Jilani, “While King Targets Muslims, There Have Been Twice as Many Plots since 9/11 from Non-Muslim Terrorists;” ThinkProgress March 9, 2011 (http://thinkprogress.org/security/2011/03/09/149537/king-muslims-plots-terrorists/) and Washington’s Blog, “Non-Muslims Carried Out More than 90% of all Terrorist Attacks in America;” Global Research; centre for research on globalization May 1, 2013 (http://www.globalresearch.ca/non-muslims-carried-out-more-than-90-of-all-terrorist-attacks-in-america/5333619)

[7] Fareed Zakaria, “Why They Hate Us,” CNN, May 24, 2016 (http://www.cnn.com/2016/04/08/opinions/why-they-hate-us-zakaria/)

White Evangelicals and the Dolezal Syndrome

August 3, 2015

White Evangelicals and the Dolezal Syndrome

 

 

I have been so busy with work that I have badly neglected my blogging duties. However, the conjunction of two events in June seems so revelatory that I can’t resist looking back.

The first event was June 11, 2015.[1] The leader of the NAACP in Spokane, WA, Rachel Dolezal, was revealed by her parents to be white, not biracial as she had claimed for years. Days later, in response to direct questions on whether she was black or white, she responded that “I identify as black.”[2] Hilarity ensued. Panelists on The Nightly Show debated whether you get to pick your ethnicity, and there and elsewhere people debated just what “race” means anyway. After all, well, Caitlyn Jenner. If a famous male athlete can identify as female and even undergo surgery, why can’t a white girl grow up to be a black woman if that is who she feels she really is on the inside? Particularly in a culture that is celebrity-fixated and science-illiterate, this seemed like a valid question (at least to someone who had never actually BEEN black). But to most people, the whole idea that you can just choose your race seemed, and still seems, dishonest or nuts. You can’t really own a history that isn’t yours, no matter how much you may love a culture or identify with the experiences of those who did live that history.

When one white person attempts to claim the black experience as her own, it seems hilarious to many; but what if millions of white people do the same thing? On June 17, 2015, six days after the Dolezal story hit the 24 Hour News Cycle, a young white man walked into the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC and killed nine people. No one who had paid any attention to any of the available facts had any doubt what had happened. After all, the vile, “insane” words of the killer were in fact no different than words that might have been heard on the street anywhere in the South when I was born in 1960: You rape our women, you are ruining our country, you have to go. For a century after the end of the Civil War, thoughts like these were not considered “insane” among Southern whites. They might have been seen as ignorant or bad taste, particularly among the more educated and wealthier folk I grew up around; but we all knew that these views were quite common. Even as a white child in Florida, I knew there were other parts of the state where crosses still burnt at night. They were terrorists, and they worried me even though I knew I wasn’t one of their prime targets. So yes, about ten minutes after the events happened, I knew exactly what had occurred. I am too good a philosopher to say I had 100% knowledge that soon, but I at least knew that the motivation was almost certainly racial hatred.

America’s Most Popular News Provider, however, got it stunningly, depressingly, and completely predictably wrong.[3] To them, and presumably to their target audience as well, the only thing that was clear was that this attack was in a church; therefore, the attack was not against black people, but against Christians. That is, this shooting was against “us,” not in the sense that FOX News felt solidarity with the victims but rather in the sense that it was stealing their identity and claiming it for themselves. A veritable parade of Evangelicals stepped up to echo the claim that Christians, the largest religious group in this nation, are under attack.   It is an odd persecution we Christians are enduring. We are over-represented in Congress, with 92% of Congress identifying as Christian while only 73% of Americans overall do.[4] At the state and local levels, our dominance is often even stronger. Recent court rulings have even given us the right to open taxpayer-funded public political meetings with Christian prayers, thus compelling Jews, Hindus, Atheists and others to spend their tax money to honor and invoke our religion.[5] Much has been made of the rise in violent attacks on churches.[6] However, even in the news reports of this disturbing trend, it is reported that more than half of these so-called attacks upon Christianity were actually domestic or personal disputes that were settled in churches. What this report seems to suggest, then, is that in a violent culture, churches are not immune; but of the 75 dead reported in 2013, less than half were targeted specifically because they were Christian. Furthermore, a reported 135 “deadly force incidents” doesn’t sound so bad considering the roughly 350,000 religious congregations in this country.[7] By contrast, consider the violence directed at, say, abortion clinics.[8] In Wisconsin in 2012, one of three Planned Parenthood clinics that offered abortion services was bombed.[9] If one in three churches were bombed, we would hardly be able to walk outside for fear of the shrapnel.

Compared to what our Christian ancestors endured, saying that we today are being persecuted is a joke. Compared to what Christians around the world are enduring in many parts of Africa and Asia, it is an insult to their martyrdom. Why, then, did so many white (and some non-white) Evangelicals leap to the conclusion that the Charlotte shootings were an attack on faith, part of a larger cultural war against Christianity?

Really, ever since Constantine the Great legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313, Christians have faced a dilemma. Suffering for the faith has been central since the earliest days of Christianity. The Gospel of Luke even goes so far as to report that not only did Jesus say, “Blessed are you when men curse you for the sake of the Son of Man;” he also said, “Woe to you when all speak well of you.”[10] But when the Roman persecution ended, it became increasingly difficult to find ways to suffer for the sake of the Son of Man. By 380, Christianity became not only legal, but the only legal religion in the Empire; being Christian became the path not to suffering, but to safety and prosperity. How can we Christians possibly suffer for the faith, when we are the ones running the world?

There have been two standard answers for that riddle. One is some sort of additional asceticism, either monasticism (in Catholic and Orthodox traditions) or joining a strict, possibly separatist denomination (for Protestants). But there is another, easier answer: delusion. There are two styles of this. One is to interpret something one would be doing anyway as a divine command. The holy warrior who kills his (or her) enemies and seeks glory and power, personally or for some group, is one of these; not only do I get to indulge my hatred, I get to present the Almighty with a bill for my services. (The culture warrior is simply a toothless version of this, fighting for his or her preferred mores and, by selective editing of the Scriptures, fighting to defend the parts that condemn others, like “the gays,” while ignoring the parts that apply to himself or herself, like the books of Amos and Luke). The other, and more perfect example, simply takes events that have nothing to do with one’s faith and interpreting them as religious suffering.

And now we come to the full-blown persecution complex. A group of people were targeted for a hate crime, which is to say they were victims of a terrorist attack aimed to injure not only them but all people belonging to their group. They were targeted because they were black, and the attack was intended to terrify all black people. To pretend this was an attack on white Evangelicals is like claiming the 9/11 attacks were part of a vendetta against the airline industry. It is as if the Iranians had come out on Sept. 12, 2001 with the announcement, “Al Qaeda is attacking airplanes; we have airplanes too so we are the victims here. The fact that those planes yesterday were full of Americans and crashed into American buildings is just a coincidence; after all, they didn’t kill Americans in malls or grocery stores, but on airplanes.” That is exactly the sort of logic that led FOX News to say that since the Charleston shootings took place at a black church and not a black disco, it was chosen because it was a church and not because of the people inside. The only difference is that if the Iranians had said that, we would have immediately been outraged and known it was intended as an insult; but we apparently expect less from FOX News and the Religious Right, so we accept that their stupidity is genuine.

Evangelicals know the Bible says they are supposed to be persecuted; but they are in fact wealthier and more politically dominant in this country than anywhere else in the world. Overall, they seem to have even more influence than their vast numerical advantage alone would explain. Black Christians have a better situation than do Christians in many parts of the world, and racism in this country is undoubtedly less than it was fifty or a hundred years ago; but as Dylann Roof shows, those racist impulses are still alive, and the same rhetoric that was used to inspire lynchings when I was born can be used to inspire shootings today. While white Evangelicals might want to believe they are targeted for discrimination, black people actually are still red-lined and segregated, even if it is not as totally as it was and not legally required.[11] By claiming that Dylann Roof was targeting white Evangelicals, FOX News was able to ramp up the anxiety level among its target audience, making them all the more eager to keep watching FOX for news of the latest threats (and more willing to spend their money on gold futures and other high-risk, low-return apocalypse insurance schemes that advertise heavily on conservative news outlets). And by arguing and believing that Roof was attacking them, white Evangelicals were able to appropriate the suffering and persecution of the black victims for themselves, without having to actually suffer or be persecuted in any meaningful sense. And there doesn’t seem to be anything consciously cynical about this impulse to assume their own victimhood; they seem to be at least as sincere in believing that they too were shot at by Dylann Roof as Rachel Dolezal was in her assertion that she “identifies as black.”

It’s one thing to play the race card; it’s another thing to steal the race card from the deck and slip it into your hand. But if Ms. Dolezal did that for her own personal reasons, FOX News attempted to do so on behalf of millions of white Evangelicals. They chose to “identify as” Dylann Roof’s victims, even though birth and social circumstances make that impossible. And just as Rachel Dolezal became a punch-line by claiming to “identify as black,” the cultural leaders of the Religious Right make themselves and their loyal followers ridiculous. We cannot know the full effect of feeding this persecution complex. Certainly it will affect voting patters and thus public policy, replacing rational consideration that might actually solve the problems we face with paranoid defensiveness. It will make the rest of society regard the Religious Right as millions of Little Boys Who Cried Wolf, and thus quite likely make it less, not more likely that others will be willing to address legitimate concerns they raise. And we can be sure that by encouraging white Evangelicals to seek comfortable, socially dominant lives while simultaneously telling them that they are persecuted martyrs for Christ, FOX News and the leadership of the religious right will create millions more Rachel Dolezals, privileged white people who imagine that they are themselves the impoverished victims of oppression that Jesus calls all his followers to become.

[1] Taylor Viydo, “Parents ‘Out’ NAACP Leader as White Woman;” USA Today June 12, 2015 (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/06/12/spokane-naacp-president-ethnicity-questions/71110110/)

[2] Eun Kyung Kim, “Rachel Dolezal Breaks Her Silence on TODAY: ‘I Identify as Black’.” June 16, 2015 (http://www.today.com/news/rachel-dolezal-speaks-today-show-matt-lauer-after-naacp-resignation-t26371

[3] Michael Allen, “Fox News: South Carolina Shooting of Black People was ‘Attack on Faith,’ not Race;” Opposing Views, June 20, 2015 (http://www.opposingviews.com/i/society/fox-news-south-carolina-shooting-black-people-was-attack-faith-not-race-video)

[4] Antonia Blumberg, “A Look at the Religious Make-Up of the 114th Congress;” The Huffington Post, Jan. 5, 2015 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/05/congress-religious-affiliation_n_6417074.html)

[5] Lauren Markoe and Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Supreme Court Approves Sectarian Prayer at Public Meetings;” Washington Post, May 5, 2014 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/supreme-court-approves-sectarian-prayer-at-public-meetings/2014/05/05/62c494da-d487-11e3-8f7d-7786660fff7c_story.html)

[6] “Deaths from Church Attacks in US Rise 36 Percent;” CBNNews.com, Jan. 31, 2013 (http://www.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2013/January/Deaths-from-Church-Attacks-in-US-Rise-36-percent-/)

[7] “Fast Facts about American Religion,” Hartford Institute for Religion Research, (http://hirr.hartsem.edu/research/fastfacts/fast_facts.html#numcong) accessed July 29, 2015

[8] “Violence and Harrassment at U.S. Abortion Clinics;” Ontario Consultants for Religious Tolerance (http://www.religioustolerance.org/abo_viol.htm) accessed July 29, 2015

[9] Laura Bassett, “Planned Parenthood Bombing Suspect Arrested in Wisconsin;” May 3, 2012 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/03/planned-parenthood-bombing-wisconsin_n_1400449.html)

[10] Luke 6:22, 26

[11] Jamelle Bouie, “A Tax on Blackness: Racism is Still Rampant in Real Estate;Slate, May 13, 2015 (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2015/05/racism_in_real_estate_landlords_redlining_housing_values_and_discrimination.html)

A Gamer Looks at Politics: the government shutdown (pt. iv)

October 16, 2013

A Gamer Looks at Politics:  the government shutdown (pt. iv)

So let us be blunt about it: we must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.

—-Gary North

 

Thus far, I have tried to discuss the strategy of the Republican party by looking at its moves.  I have shared my impression that their opposition to health care reform was a political tactic to attempt to win the White House, a tactic which failed; and now, faced with the consequence of having lost their best chance to meaningfully influence the health care debate, they are attempting to derail all reform efforts as part of their ongoing presidential campaigning.  In order to regain the leverage they threw away, they are engaged in political brinksmanship, threatening to essentially destroy the United States as the preeminent nation on the planet unless they are allowed to dictate the terms of its survival.

All of this assumes, however, that the GOP actually wants the nation to survive.  Some clearly are patriots; whether you agree or disagree with their policies, it is obvious that there are millions of Americans, from the rank-and-file to some of the leaders, who deeply love this nation.  In fact, some studies have shown that the more deeply someone loves the symbols of the nation, or the more deeply someone is grateful to the military for its work defending the nation, or the more generally patriotic a person is, the more likely it is that this person will be conservative.  This is not surprising; the person who loves what the nation is will naturally want to conserve it, while the one who wants radical change is likely not to feel any great commitment to things that are or have been.  This does not, however, prove that Republicans as a whole, or as a party, are more or less in love with the nation than are Democrats.

Many Republicans openly doubt that Democrats are committed to this nation.  They view the Democrats as a collection of gays, racial minorities, feminists, non-Christians and the poor who care only about their own little group.  However, when you add up the list of people who are seen as “other” by the people Sarah Palin referred to as “real America,” you find that the really real America is in fact that polyglot, cacophonous amalgam.  No doubt there are still many millions with allegiance more to their own group than to the nation; but for the most part, the old revolutionaries of my childhood have stopped trying to chop holes in the hull of the ship of state, and now spend their energies wrestling over the wheel.

The GOP, on the other hand, has become an alliance of groups that openly admit they do not have the best interests of the nation at heart, if “the nation” is the United States, established according to the Constitution and governed by principles of representative democracy.  For the last forty years, one of the most powerful blocs within the Republican party has been the Evangelicals, or so-called “social conservatives.”  They are impelled by a range of motives.  Some simply love Jesus and seek to express their faith as they understand it.  Some believe that the problems of the nation will be solved if everyone becomes an Evangelical.  Of these, there are two main types:  social conformists and Deuteronomistic patriots.™[1]  Social conformists believe that the greatest problems facing the nation are social division and disagreement; if everyone would just have the same values and goals, all our other problems would quickly vanish. The Deuteronomistic patriots, by contrast, are those Evangelicals whose patriotism is shaped by the view of history that underlies the “Deutonomistic History” in the Old Testament.  The Deuteronomistic History includes the books of First and Second Samuel and First and Second Kings, and outlines how God blessed Israel when it followed the covenant with God as described in Deuteronomy, and cursed it when the people broke the covenant.  This way of thinking holds that if the United States suppressed “sin” (such as homosexuality and female equality) then God would protect the nation from harm.[2]  This may be superstition and may be a reaction to the free-floating anxiety many feel, but it is not essentially anti-American.

Many Evangelicals, however, have little allegiance to the United States, precisely because they are Evangelicals.  Many are eschatological anarchists.  They do not care what happens to the United States or the world, because this world is the realm of Satan.  Any strong governmental or quasi-governmental power is likely the future tool of the Antichrist.  Better to have war, genocide, persecution and mass rape than to have the blue-helmets of the United Nations rolling across the landscape with their ever-efficient and all-powerful “Peacekeeper” armies, imposing the world dictatorship of their Secretary General (see the Left Behind books and movies).  Wars, earthquakes, famine, ecological and political disasters are all signs of the End Times, and therefore a good thing; and in particular, war in the Middle East shows that we are one step closer to Armageddon, when Jesus will finally return to rule the world.  Of course, eschatological believers don’t expect to actually have to endure most of these horrors they wish to unleash; they expect the Rapture to carry them away into Heaven before the seas become lifeless and the skies burn (whether from nuclear war, global warming or the star Wormwood).

The other powerful group within Evangelical political thinking are the Dominionists.  This group expects that the kingdom that Jesus will establish for his followers will be on this Earth, once Christians have replaced the representative democracy of the Constitution with a theocracy.  They openly proclaim that they intend to use the democratic institutions to undermine democracy, since democracy means allowing rights to non-evangelicals of all sorts.[3]  To the Christian Dominionist (particularly according to the Christian Reconstructionism advocated by Gary North and Rousas Rushdoony) anything that weakens any aspect of the United States as it exists today is good, because that will help create the power vacuum into which the true followers of Jesus can take over.  They promote the politics and economic theories of Ayn Rand (while ignoring the fact that Rand thought all religious believers were nut jobs more dangerous even than the Communists) because her sort of extreme laissez-faire capitalism means a weak central government unable to prevent a theocratic revolution.  They promote the destruction of all government social services, because they want people to depend entirely on churches for education, health care, and help for the elderly.  They seek to replace public education with homeschooling and religious schools, and promote state vouchers to divert funds from the public school system as a way to weaken it.  They promote fear and hatred of Muslims and other religions, because they want Christianity to be the ruling religious and political power.  They despise most other Christians because the vast majority of Christians would oppose their plans to impose a Mosaic Covenant theocracy on the nation.

To the Evangelical Anarchists, a debt default would be quite literally a godsend, something they will unhesitatingly work towards.  The eschatologists expect to be snatched up into Heaven as the economic and political chaos begins.  The Christian Reconstructionists want to cause political anarchy so they can take over; a national default will force a bankrupt America to shut down, leaving them to take over all functions of government.  And for every self-conscious Christian Anarchist, there are countless others in the Religious Right who endorse these policies without realizing the intent behind them or the inevitable conclusion that would follow if these policies were ever fully implemented.

A second group that has recently coalesced to sabotage democracy is the neo-Confederates, a.k.a. “Tea Party.”[4]            We can argue that the Tea Party is a fraud created by FOX News to gin up ratings (who can forget the footage of a FOX news producer leading the crowds in anti-government chants at a Tea Party rally?[5]) and financed by billionaires seeking tax breaks and weakened consumer protection laws, or that the Tea Party is just a rebranding of the Religious Right.[6]  However, it is also a revival of the political theories and, to a large degree, the aspirations of the Confederacy.  Much of its political theory rests on the writings of John C. Calhoun, the South Carolinian politician who fought long and hard for the preservation of slavery and the rights of Southern states to preserve their “peculiar institution” despite the fact that the pro-slavery vote was a minority view among voters nationwide.[7]  His theories, particularly the Tea Party favorite, “state nullification,” were designed to empower a white population that feared being overrun by non-whites; and even today, the racist motivations of Calhoun’s doctrine haunt Tea Party political thinking like some covert possession by the ghost of the Old South.  In fact, focus group studies have found that racial fears motivate much of the GOP rank-and-file.[8]  There is a widespread perception that “real America” is being swallowed up by racial minorities, gays, non-Christians, and generally people who are not the core Republican demographic:  whites, particularly older white males.  When the Old South saw that its traditional ways were being threatened by increased immigration and the voting strength of the North, Southern politicians like Calhoun began to argue that their states had a right to either leave the Union outright, or to simply ignore all national laws they didn’t like.  Today, the neo-Confederates see the future, where gays can get married and whites will be a minority and Muslims will soon reach 2% of the population and become the second-largest religious group in America; and they don’t like that future any more than Calhoun liked the idea of blacks voting.  It isn’t usually hatred, exactly; I wouldn’t call it “racism” as much as “xenophobia.”  It is just a fear that these new voters will change things for the worse, that they are not yet ready for the rights and burdens of democracy, and that their political aspirations have to be suppressed until they are.  And if it takes wrecking the greatest superpower the world has ever seen to save that romanticized, “Father Knows Best” world a little longer, that is a small price to pay.

As a game player, all of this does make a certain sense to me.  After all, as I look at the moves and try to determine the strategies of both parties, it certainly seems as if one party is consistently pushing the nation closer and closer to a complete breakdown.  Why do that, if you seriously love this nation and want to preserve it?  Simply because of a misreading of Ayn Rand?[9]  Or is their patriotism more like the love a weak, insecure man professes for his wife right before beating her, until he finally kills her rather than lose control of her?  Or, perhaps, is the solution to the mystery to reject the initial premise, that they love America at all?

Plato compared the state to a ship, and the leader to a captain.  If the GOP is the would-be captain, then Calhoun is the iceberg-lover who drew its chart; the Tea Party is the First Mate who wants to crash the vessel against as many icebergs as it takes to sink it; and the Religious Right is the pilot who believes that ramming through icebergs is the only way to reach Tahiti.  It seems logical, given the fact that we have seen the GOP steer straight for the iceberg of default more than once, to conclude that at least part of its strategy is dictated by groups that really want to sink the ship.  Perhaps the best analogy is something like “Betrayal at House on the Hill,”  “Battlestar Galactica” or “Are You a Werewolf?”   Some of the players are trying to solve the problem, but one or more are actually trying to sabotage the group.  Ostensibly, they seem to be cooperating; but when the moment is right the traitor turns on them and tries to feed the whole group to the monsters or robots or whatever.

As I write this, the news is that the Senate is struggling to find a plan to avoid default on the national debt and reopen the government, while the Tea Party, or anarchists, or neo-Confederates, or Cylons or werewolves (choose your term) in the House of Representatives argue that default is not a bad thing after all, and is certainly better than allowing Obama to win by letting the Affordable Care Act begin to go into effect.   Putting everything together and reflecting on the results, it seems very likely that the Tea Party will refuse any real compromise, demanding either surrender or default.  Most of their constituents have less stake in preserving the United States or avoiding another economic meltdown than they have in promoting their anti-national agenda.  In essence, they are gambling with someone else’s money, since they win even if they (and we) go broke.  Boehner and McConnell have to decide whether to let them stay in the game, knowing they will flip the table if they get mad, or kick them out of the room so the party leaders can finish the game with the Democrats as strongly as they can.  Given the tensions in Team GOP, it is really hard to predict what its next move will be.  Are the Republicans going to play “Presidential Monopoly,” read the polls that show the public demands a solution, and try to find one?  Or are they going to play “Werewolf” and try to win by destroying the group?

The Democrats seem to be made up of some who mix of “Sim City” or “Civilization,” trying to build a strong nation by balancing taxes, infrastructure, military and economic development, while others play “Monopoly” and try to get as many government services (utilities and railroads) and different colors (purples, greens, etc.) as they can.  They don’t want to play “Werewolf” anymore, and are refusing to play anything if that is their only choice.  Given that the Democratic games are more pragmatic and less paranoid, they will probably seek to make some sort of a deal.  However, they are winning the “Monopoly” game and have little reason to give up.  Also, they may not fully realize that the their opponents are playing a different game, and may not want to “win” at all.

Since the Democrats assume that the Republicans are still playing Presidential Monopoly, as they are, they will interpret the GOP intransigence as a political tactic, one which is backfiring or which is designed to help particular Republican Congressmen but not the party as a group.  If the GOP leadership can rally the “moderates,” then this is in fact the game they will be playing, and at the last possible moment, when both sides believe they have extracted as much as they can from the other, they will end this.  But if the GOP is led by the Tea Party, the game will become more like Russian Roulette with one player who is suicidal and another who doesn’t realize the gun is really loaded.  The Tea Party and Evangelicals will gladly pull the trigger for both sides.


[1] All right, I can’t trademark “Deuteronomistic patriots;” nevertheless, I coined the phrase and I am laying claim to it. Until I drop anonymity, please footnote the phrase and attribute it to “Philosophical Scraps” if you use it.

[2] This sort of thinking underlies the claim by Rev. Falwell and Rev. Robertson that the 9/11 attacks took place because of the widespread feminism and liberalism of the United States in the 1990’s, that Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans because of the Gay Pride parade held in the French Quarter earlier that year, or that Hurricane Sandy was punishment for legalized abortion.

[3] See for example Deborah Caldwell’s exposé, “The Far-Right Christian Movement Driving the Debt Default,” Huffington Post, 10-14-2013 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/deborah-caldwell/christian-dominionism-debt-default-_b_4097017.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009 )

[4] Bruce Bartlett, “For Many Hard-Liners, Debt Default is the Goal;” New Republic 10-14-2013 (http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/14/for-many-hard-liners-debt-default-is-the-goal/?partner=yahoofinance&_r=0 ) ; also Michael Lind, “The South is Holding America Hostage,” Salon, 10-13-2013 (http://www.salon.com/2013/10/13/the_south_is_holding_america_hostage/)

[5] Danny Shea, “Fox News Producer Caught Rallying 9/12 Protest Crowd in Behind-the-Scenes Video,” 11-19-2009, (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/09/19/fox-news-producer-caught_n_292529.html)

[6] Chadwick Harvey, “Tea Party Activists are just Evangelicals in Colonial Disguise;” PolicyMic 6-26-2012 (http://www.policymic.com/articles/10086/tea-party-activists-are-just-evangelicals-in-colonial-disguise)

[7] Sam Tnenhaus, “Original Sin:  Why the GOP Is and Will Continue to be the Party of White People;” New Republic, 2-10-2013 (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112365/why-republicans-are-party-white-people)

[8] Stan Greenberg, James Carville, and Erica Seifert, “Inside the GOP:  Report on Focus Groups with Evangelical, Tea Party, and Moderate Republicans;” Democracy Corps,10-3-2013 (http://www.democracycorps.com/Republican-Party-Project/inside-the-gop-report-on-focus-groups-with-evangelical-tea-party-and-moderate-republicans/)

[9] ANYONE who claims to be a Christian and to be a follower of Ayn Rand has definitely misread Ayn Rand.