Posts Tagged ‘Religious Right’

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

Of Gospel and Heresies

June 7, 2017

Of Gospel and Heresies; or, How the Religion of Peace, Love and Justice Led to This Mess

 

And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

—-Luke 18:8

 

In the days of Moses, the people grew impatient. Sure, he had led them out of slavery and put them on the road that would, eventually, lead them to a land of milk and honey; but it was taking too long. So they chose to throw aside Moses and the LORD, and follow a golden calf (Exodus 32). This god was to be powerful and strong, and to lead them back to the lands they had left, the lands of Egypt, which had brought them such misery and poverty but now, for some reason, they thought would be their salvation.

In the days of Barak, the people grew impatient. Sure, he had led them out of the greatest economic disaster that most had seen in their lifetimes, and put them on the road that would, eventually, lead them to 5% unemployment, a record-breaking stock market and the admiration of the nations; but it was taking too long. So they chose —- well, not golden, exactly, but an orangey bronze—- and not a calf, exactly, more like a bull, given what he produced whenever he spoke. He was to be a strong leader, the only one who could save them, and he would lead them back to the lands of the GOP, who had caused them such misery and poverty in the Great Recession of 2007 but now, for some reason, they thought would be their salvation.

Many people, looking on, were perplexed. Why would self-proclaimed godly people, mostly Christians who followed a Messiah who loved the humble and the poor and who taught that even lawful divorce was wrong, embrace a thrice-married self-proclaimed philanderer, who boasted of his skills in dishonesty, and who had left a seemingly endless stream of unpaid bills, unpaid employees, and defrauded customers in his wake? Why would self-proclaimed patriots embrace a man who boasted that he didn’t need to borrow from American banks because he got so much of his money from Russia? Onlookers observed Jesus, poor, humble, weak, afraid to lean on a bent reed lest it break, friend to tax-collectors and beggars and sinners, and they looked at Donald J. Trump, born to riches, boastful, swaggering, bullying, shoving everyone out of his way, world-renowned, more like the description of the Antichrist; and they wondered how so many who said they followed the Suffering Servant had turned for protection to the one they called The Strong Man.

In fact, the answer was always obvious. “Christian values voters” embraced a leader who reflected neither the Christian religion nor its values in his life because they themselves are not, in fact, Christian themselves. Christianity has been supplanted; the Abomination of Desolation has been set up in the Holy of Holies; other gospels have been proclaimed (2 Cor. 11:4).

How did this happen? To answer this, we must go back to the beginning of the Religious Right—- not the myth they have concocted for themselves, but the actual historical truth of their beginning. Christianity is polarized today, but this is not the first time in our history that this has been true. In the 1770s, the 1860s and the 1960s the churches reflected the divisions in their society. People had disagreements about what was right or wrong, and what to do about the ills they saw; the churches, like other social institutions, were made up of people who disagreed and hence reflected those disagreements. Since the late 1970s, by contrast, Christian churches and leaders have actively worked to create divisions and cause conflicts. For example, abortion and birth control used to be a bipartisan issue. Barry Goldwater, one of the most conservative mainstream political candidates of the second half of the 20th Century, was an early supporter of Planned Parenthood. Dr. W. A. Criswell, one of the leaders of the fundamentalist movement that took over the Southern Baptist Convention, himself said that he never thought a fetus was a full person until birth, following Biblical statements that equated life with breath.[1] But later, purely to gain a “wedge issue” to help energize their political efforts following unsuccessful attempts to block desegregation, the leaders of the emerging Religious Right decided to manufacture a controversy about abortion, to stir up their congregations about this great sin (which many had not considered a sin at all until they chose to do so), and to divide the nation and their congregations in order to wield greater political power.[2] The question of abortion was turned from being a legal and metaphysical question to be reasoned out into an emotional holy crusade incapable of rational solution, which could only be “solved” by the religious cultural warriors beating everyone else into submission. Without this cynical maneuvering, we might have long ago settled on ways to keep abortion safe and limited, respecting the legitimate interests of all interested parties, including those who wish the State to protect potential life. At the very least, without the activities of these holy warriors, we might have been spared multiple acts of anti-abortion terrorism and murder.

The pattern set in the abortion debate has been repeated again and again. Jesus taught his disciples that true religion was about self-reform. You must take up your own cross and follow. You must take the plank out of your own eye before you can help another remove the speck of sawdust from his or hers. You must not, under any circumstances, bind huge burdens on the shoulders of others, which you yourself will not lift a finger to bear. That may be a good way to win the Kingdom, but it won’t win any votes.

Instead, the Religious Right has embraced heresies. A heresy is not, usually, an utter lie; rather, it takes a religious truth, pushes it beyond its original bounds, ignores other religious teachings that might limit it, and proclaims that pared-down, simplified message as the absolute truth. Four heresies in particular are embraced by the Religious Right today: premillenialism, dominionism, capitalist libertarianism and the Prosperity Gospel.   Together, they add up to one central message: the task of the Christian is to punish and suppress sin in others, so that the good and faithful punishers can be rewarded with wealth, ease and power in this world and eternally. All the xenophobia, militarism, sexism and despising of the poor that we see in Evangelicalism, and which is so confusing to those who look from Jesus to his disciples and expect some sort of conformity, flows from some mixture of these influences. Each heresy sees the Scriptures through its own tinted lens, making some parts brighter and larger than they would be otherwise, while rendering other parts invisible. And it is a seductive vision, promising everything Christ promised to his faithful followers, without all that servile, suffering humility that humans find so difficult.

My goal in these next essays is to make visible what has been obscured by these heresies, so that all may be seen in its true light. There is some truth in heresy too, and I hope not to reject any truth no matter its source; but truth is one and truth is whole and must be accepted whole (John 14:6). As long as there is only one God the Creator, there can be only one reality created by God, and therefore only one truth; while it may be that no one of us has all the pieces, they must all fit together into one truth, even if it is knowable by God alone. There are either pieces of truth, that fit together even if it would take eternity to assemble them all, or there are lies, that do not fit at all. But if anyone should say he or she has “alternative truths,” as if reality meant nothing and there were no God and every individual were free to make up his or her own truths and impose them by force or trickery, then let that person be anathema!

 

[1] Randall Balmer, “The Real Origins of the Religious Right,” Politico May 27, 2014 (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133#.U4d_e_ldW2E)

[2] Randall Balmer, “The True Origins of the Religious Right,” lecture given at Emory University (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Gf4jN1xoSo) uploaded May 11, 2009

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.

Commentary: Egypt’s Impending(?) Coup

July 8, 2013

While I primarily seek to address philosophical and theological topics, sometimes I just want to write about politics.  I do try to apply my theological, philosophical and scholarly training to the situations I analyze.  I hope you enjoy, and maybe find something useful. 

Commentary:  Egypt’s Impending(?) Coup

Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.  Mark 12:17  (NRSV)

 

 

            I recently read an article on President Morsi’s failure as a leader, and how it has led Egypt to the brink of political collapse.  The author, Amotz Asa-el, argues that Morsi’s mistake was the same that John McCain made in 2008:  failure to recognize the importance of economics.[1]  It occurred to me that this seems to be a chronic problem for religious politicians, whether Muslim Brotherhood or the GOP.  —–“Now stop right there!  The GOP is nothing like the Muslim Brotherhood.  They aren’t trying to overthrow democracy or impose a state religion; they defend democracy and the Constitution from bloated government budgets and power-grabbing.” —- Yes, you are right.  There has been a lot of loose talk for years equating Republicans with the Taliban, as if killing a boy for flying a kite was somehow morally equivalent to offering tuition vouchers for parents who want to send their children to religiously-run private schools.  The GOP is not the Taliban.  For that matter, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the Taliban, either.  But in the politics of the Religious Right in the USA, there are faint echoes of other, more blatantly theocratic voices; and the lessons we can gain from Morsi might help the GOP as it undertakes its much-publicized self-analysis.  More importantly, though, it might help all of us understand our world and ourselves a little better.

First, liberals need to admit that Republicans are not trying to establish a theocracy.  Conservatives need to admit that there are many Americans, called “Christian Dominionists” or “Christian Reconstructionists,” who do openly express the desire to use the Constitutional protections of free speech and freedom of religion to, in their own words, overthrow that same Constitution and establish a Christian theocracy; and furthermore, much of the Religious Right supports their agenda either entirely or in part, and the Religious Right in turn is the driving force among “social conservatives” within the Republican Party, so the views and policies of Christian Dominionism have an inordinate influence within the GOP even when the true agenda of the original purveyors of those ideas is not recognized.  It is as absurd to say “Republicans are Christian Taliban” as it is to say “No Christian Taliban are Republicans.”  If “Christian Taliban” is popular shorthand for Christians who wish to impose a rigid, intolerant version of Christianity on the rest of the nation, either by force or initially through more subtle means, then there are “Christian Taliban” in the U.S. who are politically active within the Republican Party today; and there are many more who would not endorse their whole agenda or welcome the Dominionist end-game, but who wittingly or unwittingly ally with key parts of their agenda to impose their version of “God’s Kingdom” upon the individuals and social institutions of this nation (such as weakening “the kingdom of education” through government financial support of private schools and home-schooling, with the ultimate intention to replace public education).

So let’s admit that there are some relevant parallels between the methods and intentions of Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and some U.S. Republicans.  Both groups are religiously motivated, and look to the next world rather than this one for their ultimate validation.  Both believe that God has called them to use the political structures of secular democracy to establish a society that is more “scripturally based,” though they disagree somewhat on what that means.  And while they disagree as to which Scriptures should provide the foundation for society’s laws and policies, the actual policies they advocate are very similar:  suppression of homosexuality, government control of women’s reproduction,[2] suppressing pornography,[3] suppression of scientific research and teaching,[4] laissez-faire capitalism,[5] and above all, suppression of religious nonconformism.[6]  If a government is in place that will enforce proper values, God will be pleased and will bless the nation; so this-worldly solutions to problems like economic decline, environmental collapse or crime are misguided and unnecessary.[7]  If a large portion of society seems to disagree and social unrest increases, that just shows how much we need to impose Godly rule on society; democracy leads to pluralism and disagreement, but if everyone would just convert to one religious code then all social unrest would cease.  Besides, if I have declared myself and my friends as the Party of God, then anyone who opposes us is not just a political rival with different economic or moral theories; my opponents are ungodly, evil, symptoms of the cancer that is threatening our culture, and compromise with them risks drawing down the wrath of God upon myself and the nation.

            I had written up to this point when the “threatened” coup became an actual “coup?” depending on the speaker.  Whether diplomats call it a “coup” or not, we philosophers of a pragmatic streak tend to fall back on the logical principle, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck and lays eggs like a duck, it’s a duck.”  I’m seeing just now an interesting op-ed piece on the New York Times editorial web page, that is agreeing with much of what I had thought about the Egyptian situation.[8]  I am particularly struck by an argument which the author, David Brooks, borrowed from another author:  that the Muslim Brotherhood, and any Islamist, simply denies causality since to imply the world was a causal system would diminish God’s power.  Instead, the Islamist simply rejects any fact that does not feel right.  To switch to a Colbertism, the Islamist embraces truthiness rather than truth.  My concern is that this is a universal trait of all religious ideologues, and that this same trait now drives much American politics, and that if we wish to understand ourselves or others we must understand the problems with religious politics.  But I digress.

Morsi was done in by the fact that he is not a big fan of facts; he’s a big fan of principles, theological principles, having little connection to the rule of the material world he was attempting to govern.  My contention is that Morsi’s ignoring of economic realities is of one cloth with other religious conservatives who ignore science or history at their whim (and their peril).  A second problem with theocratic politics is that it protects incompetence in both theology and politics.  A good example of this is Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr.[9]  Sadr was never a good seminary student, never much of a theologian, but he had his father’s fame and his Iranian political connections to fall back on; in American terms, he sounds like the classic legacy student.  These connections allowed him to build a political party and a brutal militia.  And while the Sadrists were able to provide street-level services almost as well as the Americans could (and used their military force to prevent the Americans from providing better health and other basic aid to the people of Iraq, thus eliminating that source of competition), they were never very good at the basic work of government; but because so many of their followers are motivated by religious loyalty and piety rather than practical concerns, they have a solid political base.  So Sadr covers for his theological incompetence with political clout, and hides his political failures under his religious mantle.  He is not, however, the only current political leader to combine poor theology and poor management into a successful career, either in or out of the Middle East.

And thirdly, this is indeed poor theology.  “Theology” is the attempt to take the religious revelations and teachings about the divine and present them in some sort of rational structure.  Any sincere religious individual or community has had experiences where the simple, nursery-school theology that equates God with Santa Claus (or the djinn in the lamp, or whatever premodern, paganish gift-giving spirit is recognized in the culture) did not match up with the felt experience.  Ultimately, in most major religions this leads to an attempt to set religious experience in a wider cosmic context, seeking to see the value of what is because it is while still seeking to make it better.  Evil and suffering become not just uncomfortable facts to be ignored or misfortunes to be blamed on outsiders who don’t believe as “we” do; they become challenges both to our own egocentrism and our own moral complacency, calling us both to humility and to moral action.  But the same religious thinking that rejects causality also seeks to put God in a nice theological box, as if God alone were the only reality we could causally understand; if I do x, God will inevitably do y.  If I drive out the gays, God will protect the nation for hurricanes and terrorist attacks.  If I drive out the Christians, God will inevitably restore the nation to material prosperity and to its rightful, righteous place as the head of a worldwide caliphate.  If I commit suicide while killing a bunch of God’s enemies (who, big surprise, are also the very people I would have gladly killed on my own time), God will reward me with all the good things of this world which I didn’t have but always lusted after (the ascetic Muslim fanatic sees God as a pimp who will provide unlimited sex, while the humble Christian sees God as a political powerbroker who will make him a ruler in the Kingdom of Heaven, with a golden crown and a gleaming throne).  Instead of submitting to God’s will, the theocratic believer temporarily submits to God in order to get God to submit to him later.  That’s not piety or love; that’s trading.  Piety says, “Many of the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” and yet still strives to be one of the good ones who is “first” not out of an expectation of always being “first,” but only out of love for the universe and its source and a desire to contribute to the task.

Both the Islamists and the American social conservatives have these shared traits:  a rejection of the causal laws and material requirements of this world while simultaneously demanding rulership of this world; a tendency towards political and theological mediocrity while using power in one sphere to impose its will in the other; and a fetishism that seeks to turn the numinous and the holy into a lucky charm giving power to attain quite worldly and egocentric satisfactions.  Morsi’s problems were, thus, “in the cards,” as an idiom based on another such fetishism would put it.  Does that mean his overthrow is a good thing?  Or is it the death of democracy in Egypt, and perhaps in the Arab world?

What is democracy?  I would say that it is primarily a mechanism to prevent civil war, by allowing political disagreements and struggles to be carried out through political mechanisms rather than by force of arms.  When the will of the majority is the guiding principle of the nation, and the desires of majorities are sufficiently met so that they still feel themselves to be part of the ongoing national project, the society works.  The Muslim Brotherhood loved the part about the will of the majority being the ruling power, as long as they were the majority; but there were many other groups that still had both a vested interest in Egypt’s national project and the power to express their desires.  When the democratic processes were not sufficient to allow the Christians, the liberal secularists, the middle class in general to participate in the life of the nation, the official democratic structure was overthrown.  But that does not necessarily mean a more informal democracy is not in action.  In the U.S. we went through a period of anti-sedition laws, the Whiskey Rebellion, and other crises before we hit upon the Bill of Rights, including free speech and Church/State separation, to protect the rights of minorities while respecting the will of the majority.  We still had a Civil War, which many millions felt was the death of democracy in America as the anti-slavery forces imposed their will by force upon people who thought their property rights over other people were both God-given and democratically established.  Democracy survived and grew despite, and even because of this breakdown in democracy.

I regret the coup in Egypt.  As someone more knowledgeable than I said some years ago, the Islamists have to be allowed into the democratic process, allowed to implement their policies, and shown to fail.  As long as authoritarian means keep them out of power, they can blame the world’s wickedness for everything.  But the Islamist strategy, among diverse groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and even al-Qaeda, has been pretty much the same:  promise an end to the endemic political corruption of their societies and provide basic social services from cooking fuel to hospitals, win elections because of the people’s confidence that they will continue to provide for their social needs, and then use that power to put all those social services on the back burner while the “important” work of earning God’s blessing by banning alcohol and requiring long beards and child marriage becomes the main national agenda.  When the people protest that they signed on because of the promises of social services and not for forced social conformity, the religious longing for a holy war is awakened and the popularly elected theocrats resort to violence and warfare against their “enemies” both domestic and foreign.  It would probably have been better to let the Islamists be defeated in an open election.  But if Egyptians themselves decide that they have learned the lesson themselves and are ready to try for a true democracy, they can still attain a stable and modern society.

And I would say that the social conservatives and Religious Right in this country follow much the same pattern.  In Texas, millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent on repeated special sessions of the state legislature, all in an attempt to ram through the virtual abolition of the right to choose abortion which the Supreme Court of the United States has affirmed is protected by the Constitution.  The party that ran on the promise to save money is now spending it, not on badly needed social services but instead on a political power-play intended to impose a particular religious ruling on others.

Democracy works because it is responsive to the will of the people.  As Amartya Sen argued in his Nobel-prize winning work, democracy is economically more powerful because any democratic system has to provide material prosperity; an authoritarian system can spend money on guns, on largesse for the political elite, on whatever it wants, but democracies have to provide economic development.[10]  And democracy works politically because it creates buy-in among the citizens.  When all, or as good as all feel they have a vested interest in the society and that it respects and represents their interests, there is loyalty among the citizens and a willingness to work within the governmental institutions and informal cultural systems; when sizeable numbers feel alienated and disenfranchised, they are likely to choose to opt out of the social contract through violence, crime and parasitism, or to de facto form a new community and attempt to overthrow their oppressive overlords. Democracy works best when it is a system for seeking consensus, for trying to reach the broadest possible appeal consistent with implementing workable policies; it starts to break down when ideologues and demagogues promise one thing (economic prosperity) but deliver another (shelving economic concerns and focusing instead on winning “the culture wars”).

So is democracy dead in Egypt?  If the Egyptian people believe it is dead.  A true democracy would aim to create buy-in for Islamists, Christians, the poor, the middle class, the wealthy, men, women, everyone.  Democracy used as a tool by theocrats has failed, since consensus and practical solutions to real-world problems was never a priority for Morsi; but that does not necessarily mean it can never work.  Maybe this is more of a reset on the democratic project; I hope so, at any rate.  Only a society that is truly responsive to its people’s needs and in which citizens truly feel a sense of inclusion and joint responsibility can be truly stable.


[2] suppressing abortion of course, but also suppressing birth control generally, while limiting a woman’s ability to work outside the household for the same pay a man would get, and so on.

[3] which always thrives when suppressed, but is more easily controlled by men; look at the widespread prostitution and pornography available both in the Victorian Era and in the 1950’s

[4] specifically paleontology, evolutionary biology, astronomy and anything else that might lead to information conflicting with a prescientific, literalist interpretation of religious scriptures

[5] because socialism is unwarranted government interference on the rights of individuals and undermines the moral and religious value of charity, while government imposition of private virtue supports rather than subverts personal moral worth

[6] because “freedom of religion” means freedom of the right religion from oppression by all others; but freeing others from wrong religion, by law or force, is good; and the Islamist or Dominionist always is certain that his particular brand of religion is the unadulterated “good.”

[7] For example, Pat Robertson famously blamed feminists for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and homosexuals for Hurricane Katrina, because God would have protected us from these things if only the nation had been governed according to the religious teachings of The 700 Club.

[8] David Brooks, “Defending the Coup,” The New York Times July 4, 2013 (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/05/opinion/brooks-defending-the-coup.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0)

[9] Lucky Severson, “Shia-Sunni Conflict,” Religion and Ethics Newsweekly September 29, 2006 (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2006/09/29/september-29-2006-shia-sunni-conflict/1795/)

[10] This works, Dr. Sen argues, if the society is a true democracy, having not only free elections but also a free press, rule of law, and truly free markets not dominated monopolies (either government or private), foreign control (as in colonial India, which he analyzed extensively) or in any other way not really accessible to or controllable by the people themselves.

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

December 10, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The Age of Anxiety (pt. 2)

August 31, 2012

The Age of Anxiety (pt. 2)

 

            With the “postmodern” age, both the confidence in shared truth and in inevitable progress are shattered.  Instead of truth, there are truths, and in the new pluralism it is rude and oppressive to claim that one’s truth is better than anyone else’s.  My belief that individual freedom and self-discovery are merely Western values; the Chinese Communists can claim that individuality is an evil, a threat to social harmony and an intolerable burden for any person; and who is to say which is right?  If I want to say Cleopatra was black because she ruled in Africa and believing she was black empowers my sense of self-worth, who is some historian to point out that her ancestors were all Greek conquerors who never married into the native population, and indeed rarely married even outside the family?  If I want to believe that Washington, Jefferson and all the other Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to free the slaves, who are you to point out that they and most other Founding Fathers actually owned slaves throughout their lives?  Stop imposing your liberal elite historical facts on my truth!

And if shared truth and shared value have been tossed aside, a shared sense of progress is impossible.  How can we possibly all believe in progress, when we can’t agree on where we are going or where we should be going?  After the 9/11 attacks, people of many different religions, political affiliations, nationalities and social classes felt themselves drawn together.  To many, it seemed as if the world had been changed forever.  From now on, the defining conflict of our society, and indeed of the world itself, would be the conflict between civilization and barbarism, rational debate and violent anarchy, rationality and superstition.  And while we mourned the tragic deaths and the future deaths that were certain to follow, we were united in the sense that there was good and right and that the forces of humanity and life were now aligned together against the forces of death and chaos.  What I for one did not anticipate, however, was how deeply threatening that vision was to the people who now call themselves the Tea Party.  To the hard-core culture warriors, the “Religious Right,” this all was deeply threatening.  These were people whose entire defense against anxiety is based on an entirely different reality than that shared by many others.  Where some see nations coming together as equals to talk through problems, they see Satan attempting to enslave the world.  Where some see peace as good, leading towards a better life for all, they see war as good and inevitable, since only when the whole world is plunged into nuclear conflict will Jesus return to save the righteous and establish his reign on Earth.  Where some see the United States as perhaps the best nation, but still one nation that ought to deal with others fairly and respectfully through persuasion, they see God’s nation in a cold war with virtually the entire rest of the world (except Israel).  Where some see Americans, they see Us and Them, Real America versus Liberals.  And their entire identity is tied up in that tribalism.  The day after 9/11, the leaders of the Religious Right began a concerted effort to fight the growing sense of unity Americans felt with one another.  And they succeeded.

Is that good or bad?  In the postmodern world, there is no “good” or “bad.”  There is no truth; there are only truths, each held by its own tribe.  The modern conservatives are the perfect embodiment of postmodernism.  Once it was the Marxists who said that oppressed peoples had the right to reject bourgeoisie truths, such as adherence to science and history, in order to embrace claims that advanced their political-economic struggle.  Now, conservatives claim they are the ones who are oppressed, and thus claim the right to create their own truths.  Once, I saw myself as conservative, because I rejected the right of liberation theologians to write such things as the claim that Cleopatra was black and that Europeans are innately selfish and vicious “ice people” while Africans are naturally peaceful and generous “sun people,” (ignoring the obvious empirical realities that Cleo was a Greek whose family tree was Egyptian only in that it has as many branches as a Nile papyrus reed, while the history of war shows that Africans and Europeans and Asians are all equally human in their capacities for greed and violence, generosity and mercy).  I saw myself as conservative because I believe firmly that all Americans should learn a core curriculum of shared history and cultural values, and learn the good of even the “oppressor” dominant culture as well as of other cultures.  When liberals laughed at the idea of devoting oneself to the study of dead white males, I saw myself as keeping a flame alive, because while I freely acknowledge the many shortcomings of Euro-American culture, I also see good in it, including a capacity for self-criticism.  But now, I find that I am a liberal, without myself changing one bit so far as I can tell; because now it is the conservatives who reject scientific and historical and empirical reality for the sake of self-empowering myths.  If once I was conservative for advocating a certain core curriculum for high school and college students, now I’m a liberal for advocating college at all.  If once I was conservative for advocating critical assessment of the truth claims of liberals, now I’m a liberal for advocating critical assessment.

My point is that, in the postmodern age, there is no point.  There are only points, points on a compass, and everyone runs as fast as possible in all directions.  One anxious person invests his sense of security in his identification as a “real American and true Christian.”  Another invests her sense of identity in being a “good Muslim,” outdoing all the born Muslims in her adherence to all the external rituals of her newly acquired faith.  Another is gay, another liberal, another Latino and so on.  To varying degrees perhaps, each has his or her own unique truth claims, which he or she believes are beyond all rational criticism or justification.  And to varying degrees, all find the others to be profoundly, existentially threatening, because the mere existence of an Other with other values calls my idolization of my particular values into question.  The other must be demonized; he or she is not real, not human, not part of my country or even my world.  For the postmodern person, the Other represents a call to individuality, because the Other is a living embodiment of the reality that one’s own values are partial and perhaps arbitrary.  We could discuss those values, perhaps find a more inclusive truth or at least ways to work together productively; but when the very presence of the Other awakens anxiety, the natural response is to want to do away with the Other.  Whether that “doing away” is achieved by extermination, self-deportation, concealment, or by dehumanizing the Other as some lazy, ignorant, vice-ridden Them, it is all the same; as long as my idol is victorious, I need not think for myself or awaken my own freedom, and anxiety with it.

I call this “The Age of Anxiety” because our anxiety seems so much closer to the surface, and our evasions are so much more fragile.  Once I had to look over the mountain to see a community whose values challenged my self-security; today, I cannot walk ten feet outside my door, or turn on my television or the internet, without encountering Others whose self-certainty challenges my self-certainty.  Athens had one individual, Socrates, and found him intolerable; today, there are Others everywhere, some individuals and some who are just members of a different tribe or clique, wherever I look, their differentness challenging my trust in my private values.  How can I trust my sense of superiority and control, when all around me are others with different values and an equal sense of their own superiority?  The faithful response would be to recognize that indeed I am not superior to anyone else, and to “leap, then, into the embrace of God.”[1]  As a single individual relating to God as an individual, I would find true faith, what H.R. Niebuhr described as “radical monotheism,” and thus not so much escape anxiety but rather be sustained in it.  But most of us all the time, and all of us much of the time fail to sustain such faith and individuality.  Instead, the all-too-human response is to dig deeper into one’s own idolatrous tribalism, to take comfort in one’s own herd and in its values and choices.  In the words of Isaiah 51:10, “Which of you fears the LORD and obeys his servant’s commands?  The man who walks in dark places with no light, yet trusts in the name of the LORD and leans on his God.”[2]  It is terrifying to be in the dark; most of us are like those the prophet warns us against, those who light their own light so they can see for themselves rather than letting God lead them by the hand.  Anxiety is that darkness; it is the possible, the not-yet, the undefined.  Life must be lived forward, choosing without a clear guide, trusting God alone to guide us.  Life is only understood in retrospect.  But of course, we want to go where we can see clearly, which means ultimately we always wish to go backwards, away from anxiety, away from possibility, away from the future, towards the safety of the dead past certainties and dogmas.

Kierkegaard said that anxiety is the mark of the individual; the more anxiety, the more self.  In that sense, living in an age where it is so hard to escape from anxiety is a blessing.  The futility of our evasions and the incompleteness of our idols are always before us.  On the other hand, the depth and omnipresence of anxiety also evokes even stronger efforts at evasion, and even more hostility towards Others.  It is natural that an age where technology and politics and social mores and the very Earth itself seem to be in such rapid flux, that we should also become the most tribal, the most partisan, the most fanatical and close-minded.   Many of us cling to our old myths even to our own harm, with the desperation of a drowning man clinging to a razor blade.[3]  The inexplicable is not that some should insist on the falsehood of global warming and the truth of trickle-down economics despite all empirical and historical evidence to the contrary.  The inexplicable is that anyone should recognize these truths, recognize the challenge they present to the American myth of inevitable progress and the omnipotence of the rugged individual, and yet still remain ultimately patriotic and hopeful that a better future might still be possible, if only by the grace of God.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages:  the age of revolution and the present age; a literary review; translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1978) p. 108

[2] From the New English Bible

[3] Agatha, Christie, Witness for the Prosecution; directed by Billy Wilder, Hollywood CA, Arthur Hornblow, producer:  1957