Posts Tagged ‘Reinhold Niebuhr’

What the Right Gets Wrong: about Idolatry

January 4, 2021

What the Right Gets Wrong:  about Idolatry

I the Lord your God am a jealous God

—-Exodus 20:2

            What is “idolatry”?  The Religious Right would say that such things as Santeria and Voodoo are idolatrous.  They combine Christian and non-Christian religious practices into one religion.  In the case of Santeria, more common in my native Florida, they sometimes quite explicitly rename and rebaptize the orisha of Yoruba sorcery as Catholic saints.  Although in the days of slavery there was an attempt to make the religion seem Christian to outsiders, its emphasis on animal sacrifice, spirit possession and other traditional African practices show that it is far different from the Catholicism of the Cuban plantation owners and masters. 

            Many in the Religious Right consider Catholicism and Orthodoxy to be idolatrous as well.  Both religions use images of Christ and the saints in worship, and Catholicism in particular has a strong emphasis on the saints as intermediaries who can receive prayers, intercede with God on behalf of the faithful, and even perform miracles to aid those who call on them.  All of this is abhorrent to Evangelical Protestants, and as a child I was often warned to be wary of those idolatrous Catholics.  Today however the Religious Right includes both Catholic and Protestant and they often set aside their theological differences in favor of political cooperation.

            Catholics and Orthodox, and maybe some followers of Voodoo and Santeria, would say that these saints or spirits are lesser beings than the Creator, even servants, and therefore it is no disloyalty to the Creator to pray to them.  Fundamentalist Protestants, on the other hand, reject all this imagery and iconography and ritual and prayer to intercessory powers, saying they are violations of the majesty of the One God.  God will surely smite such false worship, for the LORD is a jealous God.

            But many of the largest, richest Protestant churches, and the most powerful and celebrated preachers, are themselves idolaters.  The foremost example in the 20th Century was the Christian Nationalists.  In the 1930s a particularly odious example arose, the “German Christians.”  They sought to combine their primarily Lutheran heritage with the militarism and nationalism of Adolf Hitler. To them, any church that dissented from the rising political regime of the Nazi party was not only threatening the unity of the nation; it was rebelling against God, who established all nations and leaders and had chosen their nation to dominate all others as the foundation for the new Kingdom of God, the Holy Roman Empire reborn.  Not all Christians agreed with this mixing of nationalism and Christianity, however, and in 1934 a gathering of Reformed, Lutheran and United church leaders met in Barmen, Germany, where they approved and issued The Theological Declaration of Barmen.  Relying explicitly on Scripture for each of its main points, it argued that not only was this Christian nationalism theologically wrong, but that it was heresy.  In seeking to give the Church explicit political power, and in seeking greater union between Church and State, the German Christians were actually demoting the Church and turning it into an organ of the State (Barmen Declaration II, 5).  The Church should obey the Gospel alone, and not be swayed by allegiance to political movements (Barmen II, 3).  The declaration culminates with the final anathema, “We reject the false doctrine, as though the church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans” (Barmen II, 6).  While the German Christians argued that the Nazi state was a Christian nation and thus the protector of the Church, those now known as the Confessing Churches argued that this pretense really meant replacing Jesus with the State as the center of concern.  The Church was being seen and being used as a means to an end, that end being the unity and strength of the State, and in particular the strength of the ruling political authorities of the State. 

            The Religious Right would say that this happened in a foreign land; while those Europeans were easily deceived, the United States is a blessed nation, a Shining City on a Hill, and could never be lured into idolatry.  Or, they might go further and say the Germans were corrupted because they were socialists; after all, Socialism is right there in the name “National Socialist German Workers’ Party.”  Sure, they fought Communists, first on the streets of Germany and then across Europe; but really they were Socialists just like Stalin and Hugo Chavez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:  all Socialists, all exactly the same.  The Religious Right, on the other hand, are all Capitalists and thus love Freedom and are Good and Right—again, it’s there in the name “Right Wing.” 

            And because they are capitalists and capitalism is Good, many of them embrace a theology known as “The Prosperity Gospel.”  According to this theology, which has roots in the “power of positive thinking” of Norman Vincent Peale and more recently in such preachers as Jim Bakker, God wants all the faithful followers of his son Jesus to have “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17).  Whatever you ask for, if you believe, you will receive (Matthew 7:7; Mark 11:24).  And so on, and never mind where the Bible hints that these are spiritual blessings (Luke 11:13); God knows you want nice clothes and a minivan and a good job and early retirement and three square meals plus a day, and God is good and wants you to have whatever you ask.  So just believe in God and Jesus, as the preacher tells you and describes them, and you will get all the worldly goodies you desire.  Believe in God and Jesus SO THAT you can get all the worldly goodies.  In the Prosperity Gospel, in the version of Christianity taught by chair of the spiritual advisory board serving Donald Trump, God and Jesus are there waiting for you to show up with your spiritual ATM card to withdraw cold, hard cash to buy everything you desire; or, if your credit runs out, it’s because you didn’t believe hard enough or obey your preacher closely enough.  Just as your worldly job is a means to an end, that end being your paycheck, so too does the Prosperity Gospel proclaim that if you work for God, He will give you an even bigger paycheck, and all this faith is the means by which you can attain worldly prosperity. 

            In Catholicism, we pray to the saints and to the Virgin Mother, who prays to the Father for us, who saves us from our sins, and that is called “idolatry” by the Evangelical Protestants.  In Evangelical Protestantism you pray directly to the Father through Jesus, and the Father will give you miracles and magic and fulfill your wishes for comfort and profit and even for power over others, and somehow that isn’t idolatry?  One prays to something that is not God to reach what is God; the other prays to God like a letter to Santa, making God the tool and prosperity the goal.  But of course, that’s Capitalism and therefore Good and therefore holy.  Right?

            No!  Idolatry is not whether you have an empty cross or one with the crucified Christ.  It is not whether you have no pictures in your church, or only pictures of Jesus, or pictures of all the saints.  Idolatry is when you make the ultimate reality, God, a tool of your own tiny ambitions.  As Kierkegaard put it:

If someone who lives in the midst of Christianity enters, with knowledge of the true idea of God, the house of God, the house of the true God, and prays, but prays in untruth, and if someone lives in an idolatrous land but prays with all the passion of infinity, although his eyes rest upon the image of an idol—where, then, is there more truth?  The one prays in truth to God although he is worshipping an idol; the other prays in untruth to the true God and is therefore in truth worshipping an idol.[1]

            Idolatry is, in a way, the natural default for the human-deity relationship.  It is the childish (in Kierkegaard’s terms, “esthetic”) understanding.  God is to be understood and used; God acts and thinks just like us, and can be flattered like us, grows cross like us, kicks ass like we imagine we would do if we were gods, and showers money, political control, fame, military might and everything else we imagine as “good” on those who please Him.  And since most of us live in a patriarchal culture, we imagine God as an older, rather stern male ruler.  We want, as Kierkegaard said, a direct relationship to God, one that is straightforward, where we know the rules and know how to work the rules to get what we want, like a teenager who knows that if he or she just gets good grades and isn’t arrested for drinking then Dad will give them a car next birthday.  What we don’t want is what Kierkegaard says is true worship:  to love God, to know that God is beyond all comprehension, to orient all one’s own personal ambitions and values around that idea of being utterly transparent in the presence of God, who wants to be in that relationship despite the fact that literally nothing one could do could possibly “earn” one a spot in Heaven.     The Prosperity Gospel is not “gospel” at all, in any meaningful sense.  It is not “gospel” in the sense of being a message about Jesus, who said that if you follow his way you’ll end up like him, serving God and loving unconditionally, with no place to lay your head, carrying your cross.  It is not “good news,” but just the old “works righteousness,” the old magical thinking, the old drudgery, where you do everything to try to follow the rules laid down by your taskmaster the preacher in the name of the boss in Heaven and, if you’re good, you’ll get a raise and maybe even a Christmas bonus.  And in the sense that we use “gospel” to mean “truth,” it is most assuredly not gospel.  It is just a way to make the rich comfortable since they can measure their virtue the way we measure our value to the company by our paycheck; and it is a way to humiliate the poor in the same way, while pacifying them that if they just obey their human taskmasters who claim to speak in God’s name, they too can earn a promotion.  It is idolatry, pure and simple. 

            The truth be told, however, idolatry is not confined to the so-called “Prosperity Gospel.”  It is central to the entire so-called “Religious Right.”[2]  Jerry Falwell Sr. described the USA as the last bastion for Christian mission and for worldwide evangelism.[3]  Without the United States, God would have no earthly basis for spreading the Gospel or for any of the other missions to feed the poor, bring medicine and other good works done by the Southern Baptist Convention.  Thus it is the duty of every Christian to support the U.S. military and American efforts to fight Communism everywhere.  While God may be able to raise up children for Abraham out of these stones here (Matthew 3:9) apparently God needs the U.S. Army, Navy and all the rest to guard and spread His kingdom.  And in exchange for doing the good work of God, God will give the U.S. security and prosperity.  What hubris!  No longer are Christians to regard themselves as mere unprofitable servants (Luke 17:10); instead we can expect a payoff in this life.  If the U.S. government fights legalize marijuana, fights pornography, upholds traditional heterosexual marriage and enforces other purity and behavioral laws, it can expect God’s blessing.  However, doing that stuff Jesus talked so much about—-feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and so on (Matthew 25:31-46; see also Amos chapters 1-8, Micah 3, Isaiah 3:14, Isaiah 5:8, Ezekiel 18:5-9, Luke 16:19-31, and the Epistle of James)—that would be too expensive, that would be “socialism” and take away from spending on the all-important military, and would reduce the poor person’s dependence upon the churches and thus might reduce their control.  What hubris!  What arrogance!  The Jesus who tells his followers to put away their swords, and assures them that he could call upon twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:52-53), but who tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) needs the USA to carry out his purposes; and the God who could do all this needs the nation so much that He is willing to bargain with its leaders that if they’ll enforce this strict moral code (much of which is nowhere in the Bible) while leaving the private sector to decide whether or how to care for the poor (though the prophets said rulers would be judged by how the poor were treated) then God will provide worldly success and prosperity to the nation.  This is little more than the Prosperity Gospel for nations instead of for individuals; and it is just as idolatrous. 

            We don’t have to take my word, or Niebuhr’s word for the claim that nationalism is a form of idolatry, a betrayal of true and faithful religion.  The prophet Jeremiah dealt with much the same thing, in the final days of the kingdom of Judah (Jer. 7).  His book, which seems to have been dictated by him directly to his scribe Baruch, describes the sins of the rich and powerful as they plotted and blundered their way to destruction by the Babylonian army.  There was plenty of straight-up idolatry, the sort that literalists denounce, with people praying to the Baals even at shrines set up in the temple of YHWH.  But along with this, Jeremiah condemns as equally bad the social sins, such as oppressing the resident immigrant and the poor, stealing, perjury, and adultery.  But the people who did these things felt safe and had no desire to repent, because the temple of YHWH was there in the city and God needed that temple, the last one left after the ravages of the Assyrian and Babylonian armies.  Speaking to the faithful church-goers, the people entering the Temple to worship the true God, Jeremiah says, “Do not trust in these deceptive words:  ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’” (Jer. 7:4).  Only if you repent of your sins, Jeremiah tells them, can you or the nation be saved.  But they did not repent, either of their crimes against the poor or of their combining of worship of YHWH with foreign deities.  And in the end, God allowed the city called by God’s name, the throne of David, and the Temple built by Solomon to honor the one true God to be destroyed—undoubtedly to the astonishment of those firm believers in Israelite exceptionalism, convinced as they were that God needed them and their nation and that thus they could bargain with God.  They were sure that if they agreed to offer sacrifices in the Temple then the LORD would simply look the other way while they robbed and oppressed the poor.  And as the prophet Amos made clear, it is not just the one who breaks the law to rob the poor who will be punished; even the powerful ones who creates unjust laws and profit from them are damned (Amos 2:8). 

            The one who denies food to the poor, or beats up a gay person, or imprisons an immigrant, or despises a different race, or burns down a mosque so that God will see and be pleased and reward them is exactly the same spirit as the one who cuts out a child’s heart as a gift to some god or demon so the sun will come up and the crops be plentiful.  It is human sacrifice, nothing more:  I will sacrifice this other person’s liberty, dignity, even their life so that some powerful spirit being will grant me power and success.  Falwell’s claim that feeding the hungry is a sin if done by a governmental agency but a virtue when done by individuals or churches is, at best, nonsense:  what else is the government for, except to carry out large-scale projects that many people need but that no one individual can achieve alone?  More likely it is not so much confusion and nonsense as it is that old-fashioned sinful evasion of God’s will, pronouncing human precepts as the divine will (Isaiah 29:13, Mark 7:6-8, among others).  It is wrong, Falwell says, to allow a government to do God’s work of justice and care; it is holy to stop the government and leave it to your own will—if you decide to get around to it.  This is idolatry in its purest meaning:  self-worship.  The true worship of the true God is much harder and more troubling:  to care for those God cares for, the poor, the immigrant, the one without family to help (Psalm 146:9, James 1:27 etc.); and to do it knowing that no matter how much you give, it does not earn you anything extra (Matthew 20:1-16) since everything you have was a gift from the start. 


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, v. 1; edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1992) p. 201

[2] For a more detailed yet accessible discussion of this, see James Comey, “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell:  the Christian in Politics;” https://scholarworks.wm.edu/honorstheses/1116/ (The College of William and Mary, 1982), pp. 78-115

[3] Comey, p. 60

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” Review (pt. 7)

March 13, 2018

So Falwell’s faulty exegesis points towards a deeper problem that, in Niebuhr’s eyes, undermines Falwell’s entire project and makes him a “false prophet:” pride. His inability to imagine that America might have faults, might have mixed motives in its foreign aid policies for example, or that racism, segregation and apartheid might be as abhorrent to God as is Stalinism are all examples of this. Really, though, his pride runs deeper than this, to the very foundation of his entire theological enterprise. Falwell’s crusade is based on the claim that America is essential to Christ; without the United States to use as a launching pad for missions, the Gospel could not spread or survive in the world. Falwell’s entire argument rests on this belief. It justifies and motivates his argument that America must stay militarily strong, so that it can cow other, godless nations. It justifies denying help to the poor and vulnerable, since the sole purpose of the State is to be an army guarding the Church, and any penny spent on Social Security or education takes away from the military budget. Those poor people demanding help from their government are dangerous parasites, weakening the State when it has to be strong. Quite simply, the State doesn’t exist to serve the poor; it exists only to serve the Church by physically protecting it from foreign armies and local criminals, and then by getting out of its way. But that “Church” it serves is not, again, just any old religious establishment, and not even any and every Christian institution; it is only the Evangelical churches that spread the properly conservative, economically laissez-faire capitalist message that will empower the business world and the military to do their jobs of making the USA the most kick-ass power on the planet whether on the battlefield or in the boardroom. Other religions, even other Christian denominations, risk God’s wrath and thus weaken the nation, undermining its sole purpose of spreading Christian fundamentalism.

Why does God, who is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones here (Matthew 3:9), need the United States? Why does the Church, which spread under the persecution of pagan Rome as well as the God-fearing religious leaders of its day, need an army so desperately that God must accept a state whose economic policies impoverish other peoples as well as many of its own citizens? It seems incredibly arrogant to claim that the United States is the essential nation, or even an essential nation in God’s plan. This pride prevents any meaningful, prophetic voice from being raised; if the United States is the essential nation in God’s plan, it must be a “godly” nation by definition, and anyone who says it is falling short is challenging God’s judgment in having chosen it and made it the cornerstone of the Kingdom.

And in particular, the purpose of the State seems to be nothing more than to perpetuate and strengthen the State, and otherwise to leave the Church free to send missionaries wherever it wants. Insofar as it does anything else besides strengthen and enrich itself, it imposes controls on individual lives, restricting religious expression that doesn’t conform to Fundamentalist Protestantism, restricting sexual expression, restricting freedom of speech if that should entail criticizing Fundamentalism or capitalism, or in short, the State is to use force to impose Falwell’s theology. Anything else risks God’s wrath, which is the only thing that could weaken the nation. This reasoning was in full evidence on September 13, 2001, when Jerry Falwell Sr. and Pat Robertson agreed on national television that the reason terrorists had been able to attack the United States was because of feminists and other people who disagree with their beliefs.[1] Their pride cannot accept that perhaps bad things happen for no morally good reason, and even less can they allow that maybe they themselves are the ones who are morally judged, despite repeated warnings in the Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles that God will judge nations based at least partly on how they treat the poor. The one sin they recognize is Not Being Like Us; that is what God punishes, because God needs the United States and needs it to be conformed to the theological vision of Jerry Falwell.

In the final days of Judah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel argued against false prophets who preached that God would never allow Jerusalem to fall, no matter how corrupt its government nor how decadent and oppressive its wealthy class, because God needed the Temple. 2500 years later, the pride of the 20th Century gave rise to similar false prophecy. And that pride bore fruit in the Prosperity Gospel: the belief that God rewards good people and good nations with wealth, health and power, so anyone you see who is strong and rich must also be godly and good; and contrariwise, anyone who is suffering, or poor, or a nation that is weak, must be wicked and deserves whatever it gets and even whatever the “godly” people do them. This thinking starts from a sound Biblical starting point: the book of Deuteronomy, the one Christ is said to have quoted from the most. In that book, Moses warns the people that if the nation strays from its covenant with God, the nation will be cursed. From this idea, it was deduced that whenever we see sickness, that person must have done something wrong; and when we see national disaster like famine, the nation must have done something wrong. And likewise, if we see a rich, healthy person or a strong nation, it must be because God has blessed that person or nation for being so good. However, this goes beyond the actual message of the Bible. The entire book of Job aims to refute this simple equation of suffering with wickedness; Job is a righteous man, yet he suffers. His friends insist that he must in fact be wicked, and urge him to repent. He refuses, insisting on his innocence. Finally God rebukes the friends, and says that Job is the one who spoke truly (Job 42:7-9). Jesus, too, criticizes the easy equation of virtue and wealth, or sin and suffering (Luke 13:1-5; Luke 16:19-31; John 9:1-3). Anyone following the logic of the Prosperity Gospel, or even the simplistic, prideful interpretation of Deuteronomy, would confidently claim that the blind beggar or the poor Lazarus were certainly sinners, or at least that their parents sinned and their sins were being visited upon the children. Or, today we might say that Lazarus must be lazy and the blind beggar’s parents were foolish not to have bought health insurance or to have worked hard enough to be able to provide for their son. The idea that perhaps the only “purpose” of suffering people is as a call to the rest of us to do God’s work by caring for them and caring about them—that idea simply does not fit human pride. It would mean admitting that evil and destruction are beyond our control, even when we are doing everything we can to conform to our understanding of righteousness and to force others to do so as well. It would mean admitting that we need to repent, just as much as “they” do. And it would mean that we can be judged even if we have good things that we got lawfully and honestly, simply because we were callous and self-indulgent.[2]

[1] Marc Ambinder, “Falwell Suggests Gays to Blame for Attacks,” ABC News, Sept. 14, 2001 (http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=121322&page=1) The 700 Club, Sept. 12. 2001 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMkBgA9_oQ4)

[2] Remember, in Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, there is no word that the rich man did anything “wrong;” he wasn’t a thief, and he didn’t fail to go to Temple. He was a good, laissez-faire capitalist, as far as the story depicts; and since it is a story, we can’t just say “well, he must have been a bad man, Jesus just didn’t mention that he was an embezzler.” That’s our pride talking, rewriting the Bible to fit our own standards. The only facts that exist about the Rich Man are that he had a good life, and anyone looking at him would have thought him blessed by God; but he ignored the poor man, and for that lack of love for his fellow human being, he wound up in Hades.

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

January 9, 2018

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

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

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

[1] Comey, pp. 75-89

[2] Comey, pp. 75-56

[3] Comey, p. 86

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

[4] Comey, p. 80

Comey, James B., “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics” (1982). Undergraduate Honors Theses. Paper 1116.

December 21, 2017

I’ve been reading and discussing Comey’s thesis for awhile, mostly with the personal goal of understanding his mind a bit better and seeing how a theologian like Reinhold Niebuhr might have played a pivotal role in our nation’s history.  I’m posting a link to the full thesis here, and would be happy to discuss it further.

Recommended Citation

Comey, James B., “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics” (1982). Undergraduate Honors Theses. Paper 1116.

https://publish.wm.edu/honorstheses/1116/

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (Review, pt. 4)

September 19, 2017

Jerry Falwell claims repeatedly in his writings that he has direct warrant from the Bible for everything he is saying. Comey convincingly argues that this is not always true. Sometimes, Falwell does indeed cite a specific Scripture that really does state a particular principle fairly unambiguously, as when Falwell cites Romans 13 to argue that all governmental power ultimately derives from God. But often, at crucial points in his political argument, Falwell cites either weak evidence or none at all. Furthermore, Falwell ignores large portions of Scripture that would complicate his simple (or simplistic) theological argument. This is not merely when he glosses over points that would make it difficult for him to argue that the Bible is without contradiction. That’s an important point, since if the Bible really does have contradictions that have to be resolved by the reader/interpreter, then the entire modern fundamentalist project is suspect; but Comey describes these as “small, troublesome passages” which suggests that they are not essential to understanding the Bible’s message as a whole.[1] At the very least, it is easy for Falwell’s exegesis to flow smoothly so long as all he is ignoring are “small” passages. It becomes more difficult to ignore when Falwell ignores entire sections of the Bible, specifically the entire Prophetic tradition, much of the Wisdom tradition, and any portions of the New Testament that do not fit easily into his truncated vision of God’s word.[2] Falwell largely ignores such essential Christian passages as the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his followers to be peacemakers, not warriors; meek, not proud. Jesus tells his followers to each see to himself or herself; Falwell says that Christians must strive to impose strict sexual ethics on others—sexual ethics, but not ethics about care for the poor, or personal humility, themes that are central to the teachings of Jesus. These words of Jesus are to be left to the individual’s own conscience, and fundamentalists even argue that it is a sin to seek to create laws that would “impose acts of charity” by taxing well-off people to provide even basic aid for the poor. So government can impose heterosexuality, and seek to punish sexual license or at least try to make it as dangerous as possible so people “take responsibility for their actions;” but asking them to take responsibility for their neighbor’s wellbeing, or to take responsibility for how their actions might harm the neighbor’s economic opportunity, is seen as out-of-bounds.

Falwell claims Old Testament backing for his nationalist fundamentalist interpretation of the Christian message; but the Old Testament prophets also had a great deal to say about God’s care for the poor, which Falwell ignores. He has a lot to say about saving souls, but nothing to say about how Amos condemns the nation of Israel for allowing the rich to oppress the poor. By contrast, Niebuhr, who rarely claims direct warrant for his theological positions, is able to deal with far more of the Old and New Testaments much more effectively. Niebuhr would say that the Bible reveals God’s Law of Love, which is our ideal. This ideal includes care for the poor and powerless, and equality of all before God—all people, and all nations. This includes even provisions such as the Year of Jubilee, where all those who had bought property from a fellow Israelite were required to return it—not exactly the ringing endorsement of the private property which Falwell claims to find in Scripture! In fact, there are many passages in the Torah that limit personal profit, including restrictions on collecting debts from the poor, restrictions on using one’s own land (such as allowing the poor to walk into one’s fields to glean), and instructions that one invite the poor and resident foreigners into one’s religious feasts to enjoy the meal. The prophets go on to condemn the people who have largely ignored these laws, refusing to forgive debts or free slaves during the Jubilee or who buy the ancestral fields from others and refuse to return the property. Niebuhr would say that this shows again that the Law of Love is an ideal towards which we should strive, but not one that we ever fully achieve in this life; for that reason, we need justice as a fence to protect the powerless from the powerful and to establish a legal and political equality that approximates the full equality of us all as creatures before God. The prophetic condemnations of economic oppression serve as God’s message that social arrangements matter, that their impact on individuals matters, and that any political or legal structure that allows the powerful to run roughshod over the weak violates God’s Law of Love.

[1] Comey, p. 7

[2] Comey, pp. 88-92

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

September 6, 2017

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

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

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

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

[1] Comey., pp. 25-33

[2] Comey, pp. 33-54

[3] Comey, pp. 55-74

[4] Comey, p. 7

[5] Comey, pp. 9-10

[6] Comey, p. 93

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

[1] Comey., pp. 25-33

[2] Comey, pp. 33-54

[3] Comey, pp. 55-74

[4] Comey, p. 7

[5] Comey, pp. 9-10

[6] Comey, p. 93

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

August 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued….

[1] Comey, pp. 3-4

[2] Comey, pp. 9-10

[3] Comey, pp. 4-7

[4] Comey, pp. 6-8

[5] Comey, pp. 18-23

[6] Comey, pp. 18

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

August 28, 2017

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

 

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

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

To be continued….

[1] Comey, p. 1