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Taking Religion Seriously

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As part of a series of videos from The Atlantic titled “Unpresidented”, Emma Green, who is a staff writer, presents “Why Don’t Democrats Take Religion Seriously.” She analyzes the support given to Donald Trump by Christian voters and recounts the statistics showing the increasing number of Democrats who self-describe as not religious.

Green uses a video clip where Charlie Cook said, in a 2016 interview, that “The Democratic Party has become a secular party.” She illustrates her argument with the famous incident from 2008 where Barack Obama put his foot in it, saying “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them … as a way to explain their frustrations.”

This would work better if Democrat attitudes toward religion were a simple marketing decision, where they could just stop alienating traditionally religious voters. In fact, the issue is more complicated than that.

The people who are in control of the Democratic Party agenda self-identify as Progressives, and I am going to identify them as such. As we shall see, across all the changes from the Progressive Era through the New Deal to the social justice initiatives of today, there is a fundamental thread that connects them.

Green touched on the difference between Progressives and all Democrats when she cited the statistic that about a third of the Democratic grass-roots opposes abortion, but very few of the national leadership does. The national leadership is Progressive, but not all of the Democratic voters are.

Green also identifies Rev. William Barber II as an inheritor of a Christian spiritual tradition that traces back through Martin Luther King (and, indeed, abolitionists such as Garrison and Phillips), advocating a political viewpoint that is informed by Christian teaching and tradition. However, she notes that he is outside the Democratic Party elite.

For though ours is a godless age, it is the very opposite of irreligious.
— Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (1951).

Whether or not they acknowledge it as such, Progressives already have a religion. They do not worship a supernatural deity. They do not endorse a book claiming to contain revealed truth about that deity. They do not believe that someone can miraculously change water into wine. But these are incidental features; the essential ingredient is faith, and Progressives have that in abundance.

By definition, faith is not open to persuasion. It cannot be proven false. If a believer can be talked out of her faith, it can’t have been very deeply rooted to begin with.

We can compare Christianity and Progressivism, thinking theologically about both of them:

Christianity Progressivism
Focus of faith and worship God The People
Creation Is good
Humanity is given dominion as stewards of creation.
Is good
Humanity is nothing special
Sin I put my will before the will of God I put my will before the General Will, the Public Interest
Judgement You get your reward in Heaven We must make matters right here and now
Redemption Acceptance of Jesus as savior Acceptance of the General Will
Is intrusive? No, you have free will Yes, the power of the state must be used to coerce right behavior from the unbelievers
Grace An unmerited gift of God Earned by right thinking
As a believer, you cannot deserve Grace The results of your efforts
Human nature Conflicted: good and evil contend within and for the soul of every person All good; evil is external to the person
“Love and do as you will”
Cardinal virtues Temperance
Prudence
Fortitude
Justice
Tolerance
Compassion
Guilt
Social Justice
Sacraments Baptism
Holy Eucharist
(Roman Catholics have five others)
Environmentalism
Multi-culturalism
Community service
Self-criticism
Prophets from before the common era Moses
Elijah
Isaiah
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Auguste Comte
Karl Marx
Bearers of wisdom in the common era Paul, born Saul of Tarsus
John Chrysostom
Augustine of Hippo
Theodor W. Adorno
John Rawls
Michel Foucault
Salvation is Individual Collective
Eschatology Jesus shall return to judge the living and the dead; his kingdom shall have no end Social progress shall reveal the truth, allowing us to transcend politics; history will end

A sacrament is defined as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Christians obtain sacraments by ritual actions. Progressives obtain sacraments by ritual promotion of beliefs.

Progressives do not believe that five thousand persons can be fed from five loaves and two fishes, but Christians do not believe that the entire world can be fed without honest effort by all persons.

Even though many Progressives have turned their backs on technological progress or economic progress, their faith in social progress is central. They believe that history will prove them out, justifying their beliefs and repudiating those of the people who disagree with them. They like to say that those who disagree with them are “on the wrong side of history.” For this reason, I find they are properly identified as Progressives.

A faith in The People also requires a priestly class to interpret the inexpressible will of The People. Just walking up to actual people and asking them what they want appears to be both unreliable and unsatisfactory. One needs special abilities to discern between the public interest and one’s own special interest, much the same way that not everyone can discern between the Will of God and their own wills.

There are, to be sure, persons who are both Christian and Progressive. They are serving two masters; if they think otherwise, they have another think coming. The People are also a jealous god, demanding that the faithful have no gods outranking The People. The two beliefs of human nature and the two concepts of spiritual authority are wholly incompatible.

In the late 1800s there was the Social Gospel movement. Leaders of this movement called for social redemption of the entire community, giving this priority over redemption of individual believers. As John Taylor summarized it, “The Social Gospel adherents considered it to be their mission to fulfill, in this life, the New Testament’s call to bring about the perfect Kingdom of God.” One Social Gospel leader, Charles Sheldon, introduced the question, “What would Jesus do?”

The problem for the Social Gospelers was that, if the goal is to achieve social salvation on earth, God is at a disadvantage compared to the State. As noted above, God is not intrusive; the State has the means to be very intrusive, marshaling its police power to coerce desired behaviors. Thus, for those whose goal was to be the reform of society along these moral lines, the State was a much surer bet than God. Instead of sitting around praying for change, you can seize power and make people obey. In this way, the Social Gospel served as a gateway ideology, leading many persons to a point where they would switch their faith to The People and the power that sits at the right hand of The People, the State. This is entirely consistent with Comte’s three-stage theory of societal development, and John Dewey is a notable example of a person who followed this path.

The so-called mainline Protestant churches tried to square the circle, to endorse Progressive agenda items while remaining Christian. These churches include the Episcopalians, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA) — distinct from the Presbyterian Church in America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church — and the United Church of Christ. As Lyman Stone wrote for Vox.com, they “focus more political efforts toward Christian social relief rather than Christian moral teachings.” And they are losing membership, while eyeing with envy the full parking lot at the evangelical church down the road.

So, while Green calls upon Progressives to make peace with those faithful to traditional, deity-centered religions, they really have no room to do so. Progressives have a religion to which they are strongly committed. I argue that Progressives do have moral beliefs, just that those do not sit well alongside Christian moral beliefs. It is unfair to accuse Progressives of not having moral beliefs; they think their beliefs are fully moral. Their ideas of what people deserve, whom ought to be helped in society and on what terms are rooted in their faith. Their beliefs about justice, equity and a good life are informed by their faith every bit as much as the parallel beliefs of Christians and Jews are informed by theirs.

The culture wars are over; they lost, we won. … For liberals, the question now is how to deal with the losers in the culture wars. That’s mostly a question of tactics. My own judgment is that taking a hard line (“You lost, live with it”) is better than trying to accommodate the losers, who – remember – defended, and are defending, positions that liberals regard as having no normative pull at all. Trying to be nice to the losers didn’t work well after the Civil War, nor after Brown. (And taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945.)
— Mark Tushnet, “Abandoning Defensive Crouch Liberal Constitutionalism“. Balkinization, 6 May 2016.

(To be fair to Tushnet, he did recognize at the end of his essay, “Of course all bets are off if Donald Trump becomes President.”)

The normative pull Tushnet cites is the moral basis of his beliefs, founded in his faith and those who believe along with him. The only element of hubris in his argument is his assertion that the issues are already settled (and his history would have you believe we adopted the Morgenthau Plan). I sincerely doubt he would say that he is having a hard time talking about morality. He has a simple moral message: We’re right; they’re wrong. Come to think of it, James Carville wrote a book with that title in 1996.

The foundation in faith is what makes the issue really matter. My disagreement with Green’s analysis is not an idle point of theory — and give her proper credit: her essay is a great starting point. We need to understand the religious nature and righteous characteristics of Progressive faith in order to really understand how much trouble we as a society are in.

I do not want to reduce this discussion to the idea that, If Progressives would just shape up and get with our faith, we wouldn’t have all these problems. That has already been said; meanwhile Progressives are saying similar things about others, including me. There is no room to persuade people. How does one be heard if one says, I know your faith calls you to do A, B and C, but you really need to compromise on B and C to get A? No group of faithful believers has ever been receptive to this kind of message. If you truly believed, would you want to back down and settle for half a loaf because someone is arguing with you? Militant faith demands that you go out and get it all, or die in the attempt. Anything less is moral degeneracy and faithlessness. There are souls out there depending on you.

Sir, let me tell you that which is true, if you do not break them, they will break you; yea, and bring all the guilt of the blood and treasure shed and spent in this kingdom upon your head and shoulders; and frustrate and make void all that work that with so many years’ industry, toil, and pains you have done, and so render you to all rational men in the world as the most contemptiblest generation of silly, low-spirited men in the earth, to be broken and routed by such a despicable contemptible generation of men as they are; and therefore, sir, I tell you again, you are necessitated to break them.
— Oliver Cromwell

This is how you get a holy war, like those that consumed Europe after the Reformation. When Mary I had Protestants burned or John Calvin had Michael Servetus burned, they thought they were following the only moral course of action. The various dissenters were putting their wills before the will of God. They would lead everyone astray if they were allowed to do so. Such behavior cannot stand, especially if we are ever going to get to Jerusalem. You are necessitated to break them.

What we have here is a holy war in the making. At this time, we cannot say how hard is the road ahead. We sense that it will be hard going indeed, and we sensibly fear it. But we cannot turn from it. It is a road we must travel to get to our destination.

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.
— Abraham Lincoln, “Cooper Union Address”, 1860

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No King in Israel

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In the current month of The Atlantic, Michael Gerson has written about the conflicted relationship between many evangelical Christians and President Donald Trump. Gerson has included a partial history of the political challenges evangelicals have faced in America over the past 150 years. He’s an evangelical himself, and I do not dispute his direct experience. I like context, and appreciate the history. But it is incomplete in several respects, and I am taking up the task of filling it out.

The Book of Judges has many instances of Israel being led by people whom most people would not have chosen. Ehud was a murderer. Deborah was a woman living at a time and place where women were not considered worthy wielders of power. Gideon was the runt of the family. Jephthah was the son of a prostitute, exiled from his father’s house. The people always visualize their leader as a great king, who will drive their enemies before them, but God has other ideas. The ultimate example is Jesus himself, who, instead of leading the people to victory over and freedom from the occupying Romans, died on the cross.

The Third Great Awakening

Tom Wolfe wrote that the 1970s were seeing the Third Great Awakening, but he was off by one. The actual Third Great Awakening started shortly after the Civil War. It had mostly sputtered out by 1900.

In many respects, the period was full of solutions looking for problems. The Civil War had brought about the bloody end of legalized slavery. What great achievement would be left to the successor generation? For some, the call was to convert the rest of the world to the person’s accepted form of Christianity. There was a great burst of missionary activity, both within the US and around the world. The 1842 Treaty of Nanking, which ended the Second Opium War, opened China to missionaries. After the Civil War, American missionaries joined their British brethren in China. Henry W. Luce was an important American missionary in China; he was the father of the Henry Luce who started Time, Life, Fortune and Sports Illustrated magazines.

Another important movement was the Social Gospel movement, which Gerson also mentions. The Social Gospel declared that the focus of salvation must be at the community level, rather than the individual level. I have previously addressed the problems of the Social Gospel in a previous essay.

Prohibition

The third important outgrowth of the time was Prohibition. Although it was not achieved until 1919 when the 18th Amendment was ratified, Prohibition was an important goal that was taken up by many of the faithful. Prohibition would become their greatest short-term success and hang a millstone around their necks for decades.

Evangelicals went all-in on Prohibition. As late as 1933, C. Oscar Johnson, president of the Northern Baptist Convention, told FDR:

Baptists are back of you 96.8 percent. We cannot go the other 3.2 percent.

The 3.2 percent was an allusion to 3.2% beer that was already available in many states.

Evangelicals thus made themselves outcast for a generation, gaining a reputation as national prigs, indifferent to the failure of a well-intentioned national crusade that had only served to benefit violent crime syndicates. David Frum would later write:

For all that, a Christian who in 1955 applied an “In Case of Rapture This Car Will Be Unoccupied” bumper sticker to his car would attract puzzled looks from his neighbors.
How We Got Here, p. 156.

The majority of the GI generation was cold toward evangelicals, who were politically marginalized in America in the 1950s.

Fundamentalism

Gerson also mentions fundamentalism. This arose from a series of challenges posed by modern society to orthodox belief, including evolution and biblical scholarship.

The immediate source of fundamentalist doctrine was a series of documents published between 1910 and 1915, titled The Fundamentals. The core beliefs that fundamentalists identified to distinguish themselves were:

  1. The inerrancy of the Bible;
  2. The literal truth of the biblical accounts;
  3. The virgin birth of Christ;
  4. The bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ;
  5. The substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross.

The publication of The Fundamentals started the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy in American Protestantism. In 1922, Harry Emerson Fosdick launched a counterattack with his sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?“.

At the same time, there was the controversy over evolution, which Gerson discusses. Secular, sophisticated America considers the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial to have been the decisive milestone that, once and for all, made the opponents of evolution look ridiculous. But this is also a tenet of faith; evangelicals do not share it. Writing in 1963, Richard Hofstadter reported with some degree of evident mortification:

A few years ago, when the Scopes trial was dramatized in Inherit the Wind, the play seemed on Broadway more like a quaint period piece than a stirring call for freedom of thought. But when the road company took the play to a small town in Montana, a member of the audience rose and shouted “Amen!” at one of the speeches of the character representing Bryan.
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, p. 129.

By 1940, the Protestant churches we generally identify as “mainline” went modernist, and the evangelicals predominantly took up fundamentalism. The Baptists actually cease to be considered “mainline” to the extent they support fundamentalism.

The Remnant

There is a constant tension in Christianity between beliefs that assert salvation is open to all and those that maintain only a remnant of the people can be saved. After World War II, evangelicals took the remnant position and retreated into their own communities, where they could be true to their faith as they understood it.

However, the forces of secular modernism followed them. Let the evangelicals speak for themselves on this:

The 1960s ushered in another set of rapid cultural and political changes. Local controversies over textbooks and sex education in public schools, the tax-exempt status of religious schools, and gay rights raised concerns. Activists motivated by their religious beliefs began grassroots efforts to promote their causes locally, and their efforts eventually captured national attention.
— Amy Black, “Evangelicals and Politics: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Headed” [https://www.nae.net/evangelicals-and-politics/]

Challenged by the twin attack vectors of public policy and television, it was becoming harder for evangelicals to maintain their own values in their own communities. By 1980, many evangelicals felt like they were colonists in their own nation, dictated to by faraway people who do not share their values and seek to impose their own norms upon the evangelicals. If only out of self-defense, evangelicals had to mobilize politically.

The Abusive Boyfriend

So evangelicals get involved in politics. As I outlined in this article, they found themselves in the Republican party, in coalition with libertarians, right-corporatists and Republican “wets” who want everyone to get along. What generally happens is that the donors get the policies they want and the rest of us get a lot of sunshine blown at us.

Consider the issue of gay marriage. Evangelicals detest it, because they believe it to be contrary to scripture. Libertarians think it’s a great idea, and why don’t we legalize polygamy while we’re at it? Corporate types need this as an issue like they need holes in their heads; gay people have money to spend that is just as green as anyone else’s, and the corporate people are not anxious to alienate that market. So what happens is that elected officials generally make inconsequential noises to keep the various coalition members interested, making sure that nothing meaningful ever really happens.

I quoted Amy Sullivan in the referenced essay, but her observations are worth repeating:

Like an abusive boyfriend, Republicans keep moderate evangelicals in the coalition by alternating between painting their options as bleak and wooing them with sweet talk. You can’t leave me-where are you going to go? To them? They think you’re stupid, they hate religion. Besides, you know I love you-I’m a compassionate conservative. The tactic works as long as evangelicals don’t call the GOP’s bluff and as long as Democrats are viewed as hostile to religion.
“Why Evangelicals Are Bolting the GOP”  [http://www.beliefnet.com/News/Politics/2006/03/Why-Evangelicals-Are-Bolting-The-GOP.aspx]

Republicans were correct in their belief that most of the evangelicals were not going to go over to the Democrats, but they never dreamed that a Democrat would come over to them.

Enter the Serpent

Donald Trump promised to be like no other politician, and he has definitely delivered on that. Be careful what you ask for — you just might get it.

Throughout the 2016 campaign, evangelical leaders were rather clear on their criteria. They were looking for a President, not a youth pastor. They wanted someone who would get in the political arena and fight for what they wanted.

Trump has been very busy appointing federal judges. Given the scope judges currently have to take an activist role in laying down black-letter law, there is a lot for evangelicals to like.

Also consider how willing Trump is to take the political initiative. Look at his State of the Union speech. No other Republican since Reagan has been willing to take the fight to the opposition like that.

I can understand why evangelicals might look at Trump as their last, best hope. They certainly would not be alone in that regard. There is no Republican on the horizon who has demonstrated any readiness to seize the favorable terrain on messaging.

Note that I did not say, “take the high ground,” because where Trump is involved, that would be laughable. That is the problem facing all Trump supporters, particularly those who want an intact reputation after the Trump era ends.

It is remarkable to hear religious leaders defend profanity, ridicule, and cruelty as hallmarks of authenticity and dismiss decency as a dead language. Whatever Trump’s policy legacy ends up being, his presidency has been a disaster in the realm of norms.
— Michael Gerson, “The Last Temptation”

Gerson documents how the evangelicals are doing it again. Just like with Prohibition, they are going all-in for Trump. It is not enough for them to like what Trump is doing for them; they feel this need to like him. They have to like, or at least excuse, everything he does. By doing so, they are prostituting themselves.

Solzhenitsyn wrote about the message Soviet culture was constantly drumming into their heads: “The result is what counts.” But he saw through it:

But that is a lie! Here we have been breaking our backs for years at All-Union hard labor. Here in slow annual spirals we have been climbing up to an understanding of life—and from this height it can all be seen so clearly: It is not the result that counts! It is not the result — but the spirit! Not what — but how. Not what has been attained — but at what price.
The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. II, p. 609.

Spiritual leaders are supposed to know this. They will pay a high price for ignoring this truth.

Written by srojak

March 12, 2018 at 5:58 pm

Unalienable Rights

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Spare some critical thought for this famous passage from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

In order for them to be unalienable rights, they have to be endowed by God. They can’t come from human society, or else human society would have the power to revoke them. Without endowment from God, they would only be privileges that the state allowed for its own purposes and could claw back any time it was expedient.

This is what President Eisenhower was talking about when he said:

Our government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.

Here is the full quote, from a 1952 speech:

And this is how they [the Founding Fathers in 1776] explained those: ‘we hold that all men are endowed by their Creator…’ not by the accident of their birth, not by the color of their skins or by anything else, but ‘all men are endowed by their Creator.’ In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal.

He wasn’t being superficial about faith, and he wasn’t advocating being spiritual but not religious. He was encompassing all persons of faith in a Deity of revealed truth, but offering wide latitude to the varieties of belief in that Deity.

The twentieth century has exposed the fact that there is nothing self-evident about these truths. Some of us believe them; others don’t. They are fundamental and derived from faith, but hardly self-evident.

Written by srojak

December 17, 2017 at 9:27 pm

In Defense of Humanism

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I find it odd that Protestant Evangelicals have such a negative view of humanism.

Rick Warren is the founder of Saddleback Church in California and an author of several books, most notably The Purpose Driven Life. In this sermon, Warren discusses various philosophical viewpoints. I agree with him wholeheartedly when he says, “Ideas have consequences.” But he goes on, at about 32:00 in the audio, to equate humanism to the belief that:

I am my own god; I am the center of the universe.

One could make the argument that secular humanists believe this, but there are other kinds of humanism.

Gerald Robinson and Bob Sjogren have a non-denominational ministry called UnveilinGLORY. They have published a book, Cat & Dog Theology, based on an insightful observation:

A dog says, “You pet me, you feed me, you shelter me, you love me, you must be God.” A cat says, “You pet me, you feed me, you shelter me, you love me, I must be God.”

I think it is rather intuitively obvious which animal has it backwards. However, they maintain that humanism is a “cat” way of looking at life:

Humanism is defined as a system of though or actions concerned with the interests or ideals of people. Translating that definition into simpler terms, we might assert that humanism proclaims that the reason for all existence is humanity’s happiness. It’s all about us and making certain we are happy.
Cat & Dog Theology, p. 152.

They might assert that, but they would be wrong. What they’ve got hold of there is hedonism.

Humanism is the belief that human life on this earth has intrinsic value. Life is not just something to be endured to get to heaven.

No Humanism, No Protestants

Dante Alighieri completed The Divine Comedy in 1320, prior to the introduction of Renaissance ideas. Dante identified corruption and worldliness in the Roman Catholic church, finding several former popes in the eighth circle of hell for corruption. He called out the temporal political activity of the Papacy:

O’er Rome, the world’s great healer, used to shine
Two suns ; and by their several light were shown
Two ways diverse — the Worldly and Divine.

One has the other quenched ; since now in one
Are twinned the Sword and Crozier, needs must be,
That ills arise from such false union,

The two, thus join’d, from mutual fear are free.
— “Purgatorio”, Canto XVI

However, Dante would never have dreamt of a reform movement that would secede from the Roman church. Yes, the church was corrupt, but so what? The popes and bishops will answer for their behavior in the afterlife. This earth is only a way station we pass through, a vale of tears. Put up with it; it’s only three score years and ten, if that.

There was no place for Martin Luther in this worldview. In order for the Reformation to occur, people had to belief that life on earth has intrinsic value. People had to believe that the form and context of their spiritual lives on earth matter to rebel against the worldly power of church authority and risk a gruesome and agonizing death.

I am not saying that Martin Luther was a humanist; this would be a stretch. Luther believed that people were incapable of redeeming themselves without the give of God’s grace. I am saying that Luther would not have had his followers without Renaissance humanism. Without humanism, his 1520 treatises To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation and On the Freedom of a Christian would have made no sense to his readers because spiritual life on earth would not matter. A belief in the intrinsic value of life on earth was a necessary prerequisite to the Reformation.

Without humanism, Rick Warren would at most be a Roman Catholic Monseigneur in charge of a parish wherever the bishops sent him. He would not have had the opportunity to build his megachurches in southern California.

No Humanism, No Freedom

Robinson and Sjogren wrote of the sacrifices made by some of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Some lived on the run for years. Many were ruined financially. These men were patriots and put “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” at risk for what they believed.

But if you repudiate humanism, what is the morality of the American Revolution? So the king is a tyrant — welcome to the real world. Thus it ever has been. You’re going to start a war and bring about death, disease and suffering to your own people as well as the British soldiers who are doing their duty — for what? Absent humanism, this is just something we have to endure, as our forbears have for time out of mind. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.

Only a belief in humanism gives morality to the idea of fighting a war against tyranny and for self-determination. Only a belief in humanism makes it matter what faith you practice on earth, even it is not the faith of the ruler. Only humanism allows us to say:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I could understand a Roman Catholic theologian attacking humanism. That would at least present some degree of intellectual consistency. But there is a biting-the-hand quality about Protestants who deride humanism.

Written by srojak

February 1, 2016 at 5:26 pm