True Religious Extremism: A Response to Giles Fraser

gilesFraser.jpgGiles Fraser recently published a short opinion piece at the Guardian arguing that the problem with religiously-motivated terrorism is not that such terrorists–like the man who drove a truck into crowds on Bastille Day this past summer in Nice, France–are too religious, but that in fact they are not religious enough. Fraser goes on to argue an important theological point:

It’s a very basic point. The truth of God’s existence does not depend on me. It does not depend on me filling my church with believers at midnight mass. Nor does it depend on me (or anyone else) winning or losing arguments about God’s existence on Twitter. God is not like a political party that lives or dies on its support or lack of it.

Fraser is reiterating a fundamental theological doctrine central to the Abrahamic faiths: that of God’s utter sovereignty. God creates but is not created. God upholds, but is upheld by nothing except God’s own self. God defines without being defined. Fraser’s argument is simple: those of us who profess religious faith should be “more extreme” in our total reliance on God–and this should lead to less terrorism and less religious coercion rather than more. The more we depend on God, he argues, the less we will try to act as God’s guardians or agents. The more secure we are in our faith in God, a faith based on God’s solidity and not our own confidence or energy, the less anxious we will feel, the less need we will have to assert our beliefs on others.

To some extent, this strikes me as a good argument. Certainly, I will always applaud any public declaration of this kind of theology. Asserting the super-ontic, as it were, primacy and security of God over and above the material world or human thought and activity is something we need more of, and it’s refreshing to find this kind of discourse in the Guardian, which is not known as a place one goes for metaphysical subtlety (this is of course not a critique, as the Guardian is a newspaper generally focused on current events).

And yet, I have to say I have a problem with Fraser’s argument. While it may be the case that we believers in God need not defend God’s being or honor in public, and that we need to trust God more and our own actions less, I worry that, taken on its face, his argument could lead to a sort of religious quietism: trusting in the goodness of God while the world burns.

But this kind of extreme, to borrow Fraser’s own diction, understanding of God’s sovereignty and power is, in fact, un-Scriptural. It is certainly true that the Bible–both the Hebrew Bible and the much shorter Christian New Testament–frequently acclaim God’s ineffability, power, and utter sovereignty, yet both texts also make it clear that faith must always mean action. It’s true that God doesn’t need us in order to be Real, in order to be God. But! God does call us to action, to serve a broken a world, to heal wounded people, to speak truth in a time of falsehood. God may not need us, but God’s world does.

Perhaps the clearest expression of this is in the famous passage of the goats and the sheep in Matthew 25:31-46. I quote it here at length and encourage you to read it, even if it is familiar to you:

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

It is easy to miss the central thrust of this passage by either dwelling on the implicit threat contained in this passage, or by snickering over the comparison of Christ’s followers to “sheep”. But note the main point Jesus is making: those who care for those in need have already entered ‘the Kingdom’, they are already doing the work of building the just and peaceful reign of God in the world. Meanwhile, those who profess faith while refusing to live that faith are proving themselves to be obstacles to God’s work, God’s plan for a creation imbued with justice and love.

jesuscleansesthetempleThat is to say: “extreme faith”, as Fraser calls us to have, should not lead us to disengage from politics, social action, or advocacy for what we hold to be true or right. This point can be summarized even more succinctly by John 14:15–“If you love me, keep my commandments.” One who professes faith in a sovereign God but refuses to endeavor to live a renewed life of love in light of that faith, does not really have faith at all. Or, as St. James put it, much to Martin Luther’s later chagrin: “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:17).

Thus, I worry that Fraser has oversimplified what it would mean to live an “extreme” faith. I agree wholly with him that those who kill, exploit, enslave, or disregard others in the name of God are indeed not nearly religious enough. But I disagree with his conclusion that this means that religious people ought to retreat from acting on their faith. It’s just that we must be very clear about what kind of action God calls from us. Let’s let Jesus’s word guide us again:

‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. (Matt. 7:15-19)

Those who are truly, and “extremely”, religious, will be people whose fruits are acts of love, kindness, compassion, social and economic justice. This means refusing to use force and violence in the name of God, to be sure, but it does not mean retreating from all religiously-inspired activity. To do so would be to abdicate our responsibility to build the just and loving society God calls the human community to be.

The White Devil Among Us: White Supremacy and the Church

confederate skull EDIT2The terrorist massacre of nine black Christians on June 17 in Charleston, South Carolina, has already received massive treatment online, on air, and in print. Most editorials on the subject seem to fall into two groups: many use the opportunity to call for stricter regulation of firearms, while others emphasize that the real root cause of tragedies like this is not the availability of guns, but the prevalence and non-treatment of mental illness. While both topics deserve attention (as does the question of what interests each narrative might be serving), there have been those who have instead called for a need to understand that violence of this nature has deeper structural and cultural roots. What both the gun-control and mental illness policy recommendations miss, essentially, is the primacy of the culture and ideology of white supremacy.

This topic is, unsurprisingly, treated much more frequently by people of color than by white Americans. Though this is unsurprising, it is ultimately a major blindspot in white Americans self-understanding. By responding to violence of this kind with only narrow policy proposals–as worthwhile as those may actually be in their own right–we white Americans sidestep an uncomfortable discussion about our identities, our history, and the structure of the cultural, political, and economic systems in which we operate.

White Christians have generally been no better than our secular counterparts in taking white supremacy seriously. This is, again, a major failing of white Christians’s self-awareness, for one cannot understand the history of the Church in the Americas without understanding the history and development of white supremacy. Indeed, a historical account of the rise of the complex of attitudes, ideas, and theories that constitute white supremacy is absolutely necessary to disabuse oneself of many of the convenient fictions we white Americans often like to tell ourselves. Nonetheless, for white American Christians, there is yet another level, perhaps for us even deeper still than history, that needs investigation.

If the above conversations discuss the intersection of policy, of literature, of popular culture, of history, etc. with white supremacy, here I would like to query the intersection of theology and white supremacy. This could, of course, also take a historical route: we could investigate all the ways in which white supremacists attempted to backstop their political and economic views and interests with Christian imagery and texts. But such a project would be best left to those with the historical acumen to dig into the relevant texts. I’d like to ask what white supremacy means theologically.

White supremacy stalks white Christianity today, and this can be appreciated–and regretted–without an in-depth historical analysis of the rise of white supremacy since the 1670s (though, again, such a historical understanding is unquestionably valuable!) The theological gravity of white supremacy can, I think, be summed up by a quote that James Cone employed in his 2012 The Cross and the Lynching Tree: Cone cites an older white man who, in the 1950s, said that “lynching is a part of the religion of our people” (135).

This short quote encapsulates, I believe, much of what we white Christians do not understand–or want to understand–about our past, about the formation of our culture, and about our relationship to Christ. If indeed lynching is a part of the religion of this people–white people–what does this say about white Christians? What religion, exactly, is this man talking about? And what role does it play? Half a century after the passage of seminal Civil Rights legislation, and with a black President, it would be easy for us to assuage any feelings of guilt or uneasiness on the subject of race, trusting that Progress is already delivering us from our historical sin. Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine black Christians should remind us that the devil still sits in our pews.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree is undoubtedly received differently by different readers. Its chapters are diverse and divergent: moving from an ethical critique of the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, to a cultural celebration of the achievements of the Harlem Renaissance, to a historical account of the tactics of survival employed by black Americans in the early 20th century. Cone offers a rich meditation on race and religion that lacks any unifying thesis; instead, he moves between frames, trying to draw the reader to consider the gravity of his topic. The effect of this broad presentation is to offer a book that speaks different truths to different readers. For me, as I have already made clear, one line stands out above all others. Reading this old man’s witness, that, with lynching suppressed, he feared for the survival of the religion of his (my!) people, appeared to me as a sort of revelation–or, actually, condemnation. John Macquarrie argues that God’s judgment is just the obverse of God’s grace–perhaps then, God’s condemnation is God’s revelation received by one who recognizes a horrific failing, the weight of a historical sin.

“Lynching is a part of the religion of our people.” Assuming this man identified as a Christian, this statement at first must seem only incoherent. Even the most virulent fan of Richard Dawkins would not accuse Christians of publicly defending human sacrifice or murder as a central tenet of the faith (though some pagan critics did attempt this critique of the early Church). Furthermore, the fact that many (though not all, as Cone points out) of the victims were themselves also Christians seems to exclude this interpretation. So what religion is he talking about?

Let us focus on the subject of the sentence: the act of lynching, of publicly torturing and murdering someone (after 1865, nearly always a young black man) and celebrating the event with postcards and at times even collecting body parts as souvenirs (or relics?) suggests that this act is essential to this religion, perhaps functioning as its central cultic action. In short, we seem to be describing a religion which was formed around organized white violence against black people. Historical, cultural, economic, and political forces and explanations for this behavior abound, and of course are essential in understanding the activity. But, again, interpreting via the lens of theology, and recognizing the sacrificial trappings of lynching, I believe we must admit that white supremacy functioned, and indeed functions, as a truly religious force within white America.

Only by understanding white supremacy as a religion can we understand the old man’s statement, and having understood it as such, the full importance and effect of lynching, too, becomes clearer. This was not only an act meant to discipline and terrorize black folks, it was also an event which solidified the white community, reminding its members of their identities, their shared interests, and reinforcing the racial ideology that formed the backbone and glue to their political and social culture. To understand lynching in this way is, basically, to apply fundamental anthropological tools to the phenomenon.

The work of Emile Durkheim or Mary Douglas could be leveraged here, but I think an even more powerful analytic tool might be the work of Rene Girard. In his books The Scapegoat and I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard outlines a simple but powerful idea: human religiosity is always founded on an initial act of violence, in which the stresses, dangers, and uncertainties of a community are symbolically (that is: actually, psychologically) loaded onto a single person, who is then killed. Not infrequently, either the real set of problems happens to dissipate after this violence, or the act of violence effects sociological and psychological changes that result in the community feeling as if the problem has been solved or at least has temporarily abated. For this reason, Girard argues, some of those killed are posthumously deified, and a religious cultus develops around their memory. So, if there is an attack of the plague in some settlement in prehistory, and some man, who is perhaps targeted because he is marked with plague scars, is “scapegoated” and then killed, and then (for, of course, biologically unrelated reasons) the plague dissipates, or a number of sick people get better, some members of the community will interpret the scapegoat’s presence as that of a divinity, and his exit (via murder) as a divine act. The person  becomes seen as both the source of as well as the solution to the threat the community faced. It is critical to remember that Girard understands this act of killing and the subsequent deifications as real events that actually happened in the past. Some real person was really killed in the past, and the community who murdered them deified them–Girard sees this as the actual genesis for the vast majority of human religions, including the deities of the Greek and Norse pantheons.

Whether one buys Girard’s argument that this sacrificial behavior can explain the genesis of human religiosity (and if you are curious, I definitely recommend both texts, especially I See Satan…), I believe the general mechanism he outlines can be usefully employed to the theological question we have been meditating on. Lynching, seen through this Girardian lens, is the sacrificial cult that continually reinscribes the religion of white supremacy. Black others are essential to this religion precisely because they come to symbolize threat, danger, and degeneration for white people: the very human bodies that formed the foundation for the American economy were, nonetheless, religiously and culturally perceived as only liminally human, a nuisance to be controlled. The occasional lynching could then function as a sacrificial rite, reminding white people of their whiteness and thereby reinscribing white supremacy, and insulating white people from realizing the obvious: that much of their culture and economy was predicated on exploiting and torturing fellow human beings–indeed, quite often, fellow Christians and, after 1865, fellow citizens. Lynching was not, then, a spontaneous and unfortunate event that occurred in an otherwise healthy society progressing smoothly to a democratic future. Lynching was a necessary and predictable manifestation of an ingrained culture.

Theologically, lynching must be seen as a sacrificial cult of a clearly non-Christian religion which, nonetheless, took up residency within much of the white Church in the US. Lynching is the cultic activity of a widespread apostasy, manifesting the failure of the Church to actually live its teachings, to live the Gospel. White supremacy set up the ideal of the White Race in the place of God, and consumed the flesh of black persons–many of them Christians–in order to reproduce itself. If any extant, popular religion approaches the depravity Christians have historically feared lurked in what we generally call Satanism, surely, white supremacy fits the bill. White Supremacy is worship at the alter of the idealized (white) self: it is Satanism. This connection between murder, religiosity, and the objectification of evil as Satan is something that Girard himself makes clear.

Only if we understand white supremacy through this theological lens, understand it as an idolatrous parasite on the body of the Church in America, only if we come to terms with the extent to which white theology has been warped by its influence, only then can white Christians face the historical sin that lies at the heart of our culture. As Emmanuel Levinas reminds us, when we recognize who we really are and the Infinite who stands before us, we are responsible even for what we have not done. White supremacy is not the work of a few gun nuts or pitiable crazy people; it is a central and highly influential cultural, social, psychological, and indeed religious force still at work in our society. To apply a biological rather than a theological metaphor for a moment, if white supremacy is a virus, Dylann Roof is just the latest outbreak of the infection: not a one-off loon, but the manifestation of a deep evil that lies buried in our culture.

The promise of the Gospel is not easy perfection; obedience to the Gospel is not marked by assumptions of election. God’s revelation, God’s graceful call, falls on those mired in sin as condemnation; grace reads as judgment when we fall short of emulating God’s love. To take the history, the culture, and the idolatry of white supremacy seriously will be deeply painful for us white Christians. It will not be easy, it will not be popular, it will not sell well to Nones, it won’t attract young families. Talking about white supremacy in the Church may make the collection plate lighter on following Sundays; nothing clears a room like an honest sermon. But unless we can be honest about the sin that is white supremacy, we cannot follow Christ. And it really is that simple: will we serve God in Christ or our own convenience and power? Jesus has warned us that we cannot serve both God and Mammon.

May God help us make the right choice, and forgive us for centuries of refusing to.

Materialism and the Logic of Capitalism

Yesterday, Victoria over at Short White Coat, Inc. wrote a penetrating post about the intersection of poverty and health problems in the US, reflecting on her work with AIDS patients who were exiting the criminal justice system, she lamented the reality: despite her training and intentions, these people faced such a host of social, legal, and medical problems that their futures seemed bleak, their challenges intractable:

My patients felt they had paid their debt to society, but society would not give them a chance. Most had limited education and job training, and during the recession, it was difficult enough to find a new job without a conviction. Prior to incarceration, many had suffered mental illness, including substance addiction and depression. All of them now faced complicated HIV medication regimens and doctors’ appointments despite frequently unstable housing, transportation, and employment status. After release, many met criteria for devastating post-traumatic stress disorder, some resulting from horrifying events occurring while under the “care” of the State. Almost all were from poor backgrounds and the majority were people of color. During the interviews, many expressed themes of detachment, a sense of alienation from society starting in childhood. Some intimated a sense that outcomes many Americans view as basic rights or inevitabilities were never options for them, like freedom from an abuser, a safe home and school environment, or deciding what to be when they grew up.

She went on to point out that this isn’t just some unfortunate set of accidents that occurred these people; rather, this nexus of misfortune, poor health, lack of education, and subjection to violence is central to how late capitalism functions. These aren’t bugs, in other words–they’re features.

She linked a post from the Social Medicine Portal that only underscores this reality. It’s a short post, well-worth reading, but perhaps the crux of its argument is here well expressed:

How can one claim to fight poverty if, at the same time, one is carrying out policies that create poverty? By privatizing public services and charging those who use them, by laying off workers and reducing unemployment compensation, by maintaining social assistance at levels below the poverty level, by privatizing pensions… one can only increase the number of poor people.

The very people who are so vocal about combating poverty and building a better future are the same people who are profiting off of labor exploitation and environmental degradation. If extremely rich philanthropists were serious about combating poverty, they’d start by changing the way their very companies work in the first place. Instead, they drive people into poverty with one hand while shaking their fist at poverty with the other. It’s a deeply hypocritical, cynical attitude–exactly what the expression and maintenance of power demands. Slavoj Zizek strikes at the heart of this reality in a talk he gave the RSA:

Unfortunately, the response from the Left has been both uninspired and ineffective, and I want to suggest here that the reasons for its failure are deeper than often perceived. It’s not just that the Left has failed to popularize its discourse or develop strong institutions. These are both valid points, but I think they are more symptoms than causes. Fundamentally, what those who resist capitalism really lack is a consistent narrative. We have not articulated a systematic ideology of resistance, because the primary ideologies of resistance are themselves predicated on the philosophy that undergirds capitalism itself. The Left still speaks of power as the primary issue on the table: we need more of it, we need to marshal it against our opponents.

But such a view takes the zero-sum antagonistic worldview of capitalism for granted. It challenges the current distribution of power and wealth, but not the naked exploitation of power and wealth themselves. Marxism is, at its heart, an attempt to transcend capitalism by being ever-yet more materialistic and ruthless than capitalism itself; Marx didn’t primarily argue that capitalism was wrong so much as he argued that it was not fully developed. Communism was to be mature capitalism, fully enlightened and playing out the logic of Marx’s understanding of the progressive development of history. Marxism is unabashedly materialistic and deterministic.

Anarchism tends towards a more romantic implementation and certainly focuses more on the individual as the center of value over Marxism’s more communitarian bent–though anarchism is so diverse that making any such generalization is difficult at best. Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to say that anarchism developed classical Liberalism to its logical end: the individual as the ultimate arbiter of all value and meaning. Others’ rights were to be respected as they too were individual persons, their own centers of value, but this was simply taken for granted. Modern anarchism doesn’t question materialism, it simply asserts the value of subjective beings without accounting for this valuation objectively. It is, in a sense, the ersatz political extension of 19th century Romanticism into the 20th and 21st centuries, a defiant semi-solpsism built around a core of unarticulated primal ethical claims encased in modern materialism, the two mixing as well as oil and water.

What is needed to resist capitalism is a philosophy that actually resists the logic of capitalism. Capitalism is a logical extension of the Enlightenment: the world is an object without inherent value that can–and should–be manipulated by human subjects as they see fit. Ethical and spiritual values are only valid within the sphere of a given individual person and have no ontological basis; the world is material alone and deterministic as well. Morality can be legislated–by groups with sufficient power–but there is no universally recognized set of values, aside from those that guarantee the capacity to accumulate resources as capital: property. The capacity for persons to absolute right over a certain set of resources, can have no limitations–but as a totally secular space, devoid of any sense of sacredness, the world can support no other rights.

Marxism and Anarchism attempt to defy the neoliberal order, but on its terms: power is to be met with power. What makes these efforts so pathetic is not only that, at the outset, such an attitude already concedes the central debate, but that self-styled revolutionary groups have orders of magnitude less power than their adversaries; they have absolutely no chance at success. When they do develop enough power to defeat their opponents, the power itself–quite predictably–reshapes them. Those 20th century revolutions that were successful were successful precisely to the extent that they adopted capitalist and imperialist tactics. Perhaps no state witnesses to this as well as the People’s Republic of China; in its most revolutionary phase it murdered or starved millions of people to death in a few short years. And as Maoist Marxism showed its faults, the Party rapidly refashioned itself along mercantilist lines, becoming one of the most aggressively capitalist institutions in the world.

No, what is needed is a philosophy that explains the world in radically different terms. This is not to say that the realities of oppression should or could be ignored. Indeed, those who claim to speak about social justice cannot ignore the “mundane” everyday needs of the world’s oppressed. But it is precisely here, again, that contemporary radicals so often get their priorities reversed. If the concern is for food stamps (now known as TANF), Social Security, the minimum wage and the rights of unions, then what is needed is a reformist attitude, because these are all assets that have to be negotiated within the current order. What is a revolutionary attitude towards Social Security? This is a question with no answer, because Social Security was a concession given away by the capitalist system in the first place; under revolutionary conditions, would such a system be necessary or even sustainable? So long as we are talking about the everyday needs of the oppressed under the current system, let’s abandon all self-serving talk of revolution.

And if we are going to talk of revolution, then we must talk about a full and real revolution: not just the transfer of power from one group to another, promising to organize capital in a fairer way–though such a move would be quite welcome, it is ultimately a reformist move at its very best. No, real revolutionary activity has to be predicated on a radically different system, one that resists the very logic of capitalism. And this means critiquing–though not rejecting–materialist science, balancing it with what can only be called a relationary realism that affirms the ontological validity of subjects as real entities in the world who are only possible through societies. Individualism must be balanced with community, matter must be contextualized with relationship, analysis must be seen as as depending on its opposite vector: synthesis.

Resistance to capitalism must articulate a vision, not just call for the creation of opposition institutions. A world that has no sacred aspect, a world of mere heaps of matter, is a world devoid of ethics a priori. In such a world, the word oppression is meaningless, and justice is a legal term only. If we are going to challenge oppression and injustice, we have to believe that these are real categories of action, and this demands what is today a radical assertion: people are not just collections of cells, they are real relational entities, and ethics is the ontologically valid study of how such entities can exist and thrive in harmony. Hence, the materialist determinism of Marxism, though not flat-out denied, must be balanced–Hegel wasn’t standing on his head after all. And the desperate post-Romanticism of anarchism must be reconciled with itself–the dualism inherent in it must be transcended and a unity achieved.

The idealist project, essentially dead in the anglophonic world for centuries, was warped and turned in on itself in the early 20th century with existentialist nihilism, which essentially surrendered any ontological considerations to materialism anyway. But the spiritual-ethical impulse has not died, rather it has carried forward as a powerful undercurrent in modern societies. What is needed is to bring it to the surface–and this will require an ontology that can join it with all the valid positions of materialism. Such a project can not only join idealistic realism and empirical materialism, the two positions that have been battling one another for 2500 years in western thought, but can crucially also reveal the folly of late capitalism and the desperate need to move beyond it.

Rand or Christ: Mutually Exclusive

Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s recent choice for Vice President in the 2012 campaign

[Update: I’ve edited the last paragraph below to make my statement about pastors, ministers, and priests’ more precise]

Over this past weekend, the Romney campaign announced Paul Ryan as Romney’s choice for VP going into the Republican convention. I’m not a particularly big follower of electoral politics, especially as the Democrats routinely prove themselves to be only marginally better than the Republicans on almost every issue. Nonetheless, the choice of Ryan, who is famous for his Ayn Rand-inspired economic views and fiscal policy, demands a discussion that the Right has seemingly refused to have: Ayn Rand & Jesus Christ, the Fountainhead and the Christian Scriptures, are they reconcilable?

For anyone who’s read anything by Rand and any part of the New Testament, the answer should be automatic and clear: no way. Where Rand celebrates the individual, selfishness, elitism, and an a-ethical callousness, the Jesus of the Gospels demands selflessness, compassion, a willingness to suffer to build a better world, and a rejection of all the worldly pleasures that Rand seems so jealously to guard. So why is it that, on the right in the US, an increasing number of politicians and activists seem to preach some sort of combined Gospel of Christ-Rand? How is it that people can talk religiously about Christ right before launching into worship of John Galt? The question is especially glaring since Rand was such an avowed and aggressive atheist.

To my eyes, the answer is easy: Christ is hard to follow, but easy to co-opt. The social conservative strategy that was launched in the 1970s intentionally tried to redirect public attention from economic issues to social ones: homosexuality and abortion in particular. This approach, as I have pointed out before, is great for elites hoping to foist their preferred economic policy on the nation, since abortion and gay marriage, whether supported or denied, don’t effect the bottom line of the wealthy. There’s almost no cost to powerful corporations and individuals in supporting the ‘pro-life’ and ‘defense of marriage’ movements. And the trade-off is that those groups are willing to back regressive tax policy, relaxed financial regulation, and a tearing-down of labor protections in order to secure financial resources for their single-issue social policies.

The standard line of the religious right over the past 40 years has been that homosexuality and abortion are such awful, egregious sins that Christians have to be willing to support anyone and anything that will help them combat these existential evils. Nevermind that Jesus never said a word about either, and that he did have a lot to say about wealth, power, and social justice. Nevermind that the grassroots activists involved in the pro-life and anti-gay-rights movements are being exploited and abused by the very people who talk all day long about how they are defending their interests. And nevermind that the whole campaign was clearly launched after the 1960s as the Republicans realized that without some wedge issues, they were never going to have any serious role in national politics again. The whole thing was presented as a moral crusade. Christian ethics was collapsed into a hateful, myopic black hole of prejudice, harnessed to the interests of the wealthy and powerful.

But of course, these social issues aren’t the real issues: they are bridle and bit fitted over rank-and-file Republicans and conservatives, used to rally them to vote for officials who immediately turn around and enact policies that have slowly eroded the lives of those very rank-and-file folks. And the even more perverse reality is that the shift in social issues has also greatly impacted the Democratic party: the Democrats are really only discernible from the Republicans at this point on social issues. And while I’m glad to see that they are at least willing to defend justice when it comes to women’s and homosexuals’ rights, on almost every other issue, they have become the slightly-left-of-Republicans Republicans. On  military issues, on labor issues, on whistle-blowers, on financial policy–across the board, the Democrats are becoming just as beholden to elite capture as the Republicans. This has been, I think, the real victory of the social conservative thrust: even when they lose an election, they really win: if your priority has been to defend, say, the military-industrial complex or the big banks, exactly how has Obama been a problem for you? With many times as many drones flying into Waziristan, Yemen, Libya (and elsewhere?) as Bush ever launched in his whole time in the Oval Office, and with nary a powerful Wall St. insider on the other side of bars, it’s hard to see how Obama has seriously challenged the power that is grinding our democracy to dust. This isn’t to deny that the defense of women’s rights and the rights of homosexuals are somehow unimportant–I want to be really clear on this–but they aren’t enough. Democracy can’t survive vast income inequality, the erosion of habeas corpus, and the collapse of the labor movement just because gay folks can get married in New York (however just and great that may be in and of itself!) Social conservatism has rendered economic policy a done deal, and we’re all the worse for it.

So back to Paul Ryan, who last year proposed a budget that the Catholic Church denounced, and who apparently requires all his staff to read Rand’s books. Where such a radical libertarian would have been on the fringe of the fringe in the 1960s, now he’s a shoe-in for VP pick. This is what the social conservatives have brought us: a country in which a politician can propose stripping money from programs that feed and house the poor while simultaneously calling for lower taxes on rich people who already experience historically-low tax rates–and all too many pastors, ministers, and priests warmly applaud. So many Christians in this country have completely lost sight of what our Gospel actually says. They seem to agree with Margaret Thatcher that “there is no such thing as society,” but Paul made it clear that we are all members of the Body of Christ. It’s one or the other: are we in this together, building the Kingdom? Or are we all out to get ours, neighbor be damned? The answer used to be clear, however often it was ignored. But today, after 40 years of the religious right, too many of Christ’s followers have removed the Cross from the wall and replaced it with a framed picture of John Galt.

Religion is to Liberalism as Emotion is to Reason? A Response to Responses to James Rohrer

Yesterday, James Rohrer posted an article on Alternet and Salon calling on secular progressives to cease lumping all religious people into one antagonistic group. Alternet’s editors themselves agreed with Rohrer’s critique of the often-nothing-but-critical approach that many progressives have to religion. Rohrer’s piece was, I thought, uncontroversial and even a little bland, if also right on the money: it’s just basic political organizing 101 to never alienate potential allies. It’s easy to criticize specific religious institutions and individuals without over-generalizing and dismissing the billions of religious people all over the world.

Nonetheless, the comments section (at least on the Salon page; I didn’t check the AlterNet one) quickly descended into hyper-simplistic dismissals not only of Rohrer’s point, but of religion and all religious people, without exceptions. The very first comme, from “Mike Sulzer”:

If insulting someone’s religion stops him from supporting progressive ideas, then it is unlikely that he would be much of a supporter in any case.

This is a wildly ridiculous statement; you might as well say “look, if black people can’t get past our racism and work with us on these other issues, then that probably just proves they wouldn’t really be helpful after all!” Insulting people is generally not a good way of making friends, political allies, getting along with coworkers, or even fashioning an argument. It’s not like secular folks are different in this regard: you probably wouldn’t open up a speech to a Secular Student Alliance meeting with “Hey, you’re all a bunch of godless heathens who will burn for eternity! But anyway, let’s talk about climate change.” This is just obvious, straightforward communication etiquette.

While some commenters quickly pointed out the error in Mike’s logic, others rapidly made even more asinine statements, attempting to compare “religion” and “liberalism” in a highly simplistic way. Francis E. Dec summarized this approach:

The religious believer values emotion over reason…

Religion demands individual obeisance to authority. God/The Church is more important than any individual. “Free will,” to whatever extent it exists, is subjugated to “divine will.”

Liberalism is almost exactly the opposite (or is supposed to be – it has of course been perverted in America). Liberal philosophies tend to emphasize the individual – rights and liberties are natural states of existence.

We will, for the time being, ignore the worthwhile questions of whether we can really compare religion and liberalism in such a straightforward way, considering how diverse the former is and how derived from it the latter is. I’d like to hone in on this idea though that Francis seems to want to make–and other commenters too seemed to operate on this paradigm–that religion is all about feelings but liberalism is all about thinking.

Obviously, liberalism’s dawn out of the late medieval period through the Renaissance and European Enlightenment all point to an emphasis on reason over superstition: but does this really mean a preference for reason over emotion? For one thing, we need to unpack classical Liberalism and modern left-wing liberalism. Classical liberalism was indeed an almost absolute glorification of individuality over all other political, social, or cultural concerns. Thinkers like Thomas Paine, John Lock, and David Hume epitomize this outlook. Private property and the non-interference of the government in individual’s lives were the most valued political stances from this approach; it heavily influenced the American Revolution. But modern liberalism is a different animal: though it certainly derived much of its methodology from classical liberalism, it, importantly, breaks with the classical approach in key ways: often valuing the needs of the group over that of the individual; being concerned with the plight of the poor and being willing to use government intervention to assist those in need; valuing the environment and being willing, again, to use government intervention to protect it; and in a host of other ways.

So which liberalism is Francis talking about? Or, to ask a more precise question: if liberalism isn’t concerned with emotion but only reason, what are its ethics based on? Concern for the poor doesn’t arise from some detached, emotionless calculation. People are willing to pay taxes for social programs precisely because they care about other people. The basis for so much of modern liberalism is precisely emotional.

Likewise, although certainly many religious people approach their faith with little critical thought, theology–which has existed in some form or another for millenia–is a very rational approach to belief and thought about religious concepts. Of course, I’m not arguing that the average fundamentalist voter consults Aquinas when they vote or engage in political debate, but this really gets at the crux of the matter: for these commenters, and presumably many other secular liberals and progressives, religious people are seen as a monolith, a block of undifferentiated ignorance and antagonism. While many religious people are both ignorant and antagonistic, not nearly all are. And those who are often the most ignorant are also the poorest, least educated, most embittered victims of modern capitalism; they’re precisely the people secular liberals often claim to care so much about!

I don’t write this somehow not understanding how and why so many people would be hostile to religion and especially to certain religious individuals and institutions. But if these same liberals are as reasonable as they want to think they are, one might hope they would research more and polemecize less, and confront the confusing reality that the world isn’t ever as simple as the black-and-white understanding they have of reason and emotion, religion and liberalism.

Christian Politics: Culture Wars Vs. Social Justice

Even Billy Graham knew the Right was just out to use whatever it could to control working folks.

The recent dust-up over the Komen foundation’s de-funding, and then re-funding, of Planned Parenthood over the past week has now culminated in one of Komen’s Vice Presidents resigning. That Mrs. Handel ran for governor of Georgia in 2010 on a platform that included derisive invective against Planned Parenthood gives the lie to any claim that Komen’s decision was somehow “not political”. Abortion and homosexuality have both been central issues for Republican presidential candidates as well, especially Rick Santorum (for proof of how deeply embroiled he is on the issue of gay rights, just google his last name). At a time when the US economy is barely creating enough jobs to employ the new workers who are entering it each month while millions of other workers have been unemployed for years, when the signs of global warming are only getting more obvious, when we are spending billions of dollars a year on a war with no end and no obvious goal, our politicians are spending huge amounts of time complaining about whom you’re having sex with. What’s going on?

It’s easy to dismiss all the talk about homosexuals and abortion doctors ruining our country as the rantings of old, white, resentful conservatives. It’s easy to blame the trucker-hat-wearing, confederate-flag-waving angry men whom journalists love to interview for the bigotry at the heart of these debates. But it’s not as simple as that. The Culture Wars were begun by a politically astute elite with some explicit and obvious goals. And when we recognize that the focus on social issues is an intentional strategy to distract working- and middle-class Americans from what really threatens them, it becomes clear that those angry, white, working-class men aren’t really the heart of the problem. They’re being manipulated.

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