In America, Christianity Ain’t What It Used To Be

If you want to understand how America got this way, reading Chris Lehmann’s book The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity and the Unmaking of the American Dream might help. This is from a review by Barrett Swanson at Dissent:

Though few contemporary Christians would likely admit it, many of the American colonies were built upon the idea of redistribution. Those dour Puritans who first populated the territories of New England were not lured by the promise of windfall profits. Nor had they endured months of seasickness and disease for the chance to start a small business. Instead, they were hopeless utopians, runaway apostates of the established church who yearned to embrace a higher manner of being, one founded upon a system of communitarian ethics.

John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, sketched the tenets of this new society in a sermon called “A Model of Christian Charity,” which he delivered in 1630 while on board a British ship headed across the Atlantic. A gusty ode to American exceptionalism, the homily christened the new continent “The City Upon a Hill,” a metaphor that Ronald Reagan would make a watchword for Republicans some three-hundred-and-fifty years later. But in Winthrop’s eyes what gave the New World its luster were the egalitarian principles of the Protestant gospel, central among them the commitment to redistributing wealth on the basis of individual need. “We must be willing,” Winthrop said, “to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the sakes of others’ necessities . . . we must bear one another’s burdens.”

It is stupefying to consider how, over the course of four centuries, American Christianity would forsake these humble sentiments for the telegenic hucksterism of preachers like Joel Osteen. This Pentecostal quack with a garish smile doesn’t tout the spiritual benefits of communal interdependence. Nor does he acknowledge the ethical requirements of the Christian social contract. Instead, like so many stewards of the “prosperity gospel,” Osteen thinks individual wealth is a hallmark of Christian virtue and urges his followers to reach inside themselves to unlock their hidden potential…. “It doesn’t please God for us to drag through life feeling like miserable failures,” Osteen warns. “God wants you to succeed; He created you to live abundantly.”

How we got from Winthrop to Osteen is the subject of Chris Lehmann’s new book, The Money Cult. Lehmann is interested in how the communitarian spirit of mainline Protestantism was eventually tarnished by the logic of private enterprise. But in the end what he discovers is that, far from being pious victims of a rapacious economic system, mainline churches were very much complicit in “the gradual sanctification of the market.” In fact, throughout the history of the United States, Christian theology was routinely contorted to fit within the narrow priorities of capitalism.

One of the reasons Christianity caught on in the Roman world was that it functioned as a mutual aid society. Helping one’s fellow Christians made a difference in people’s lives, because Rome wasn’t big on universal healthcare or unemployment insurance. But neither was 17th century England. So it makes sense that redistribution (something along the lines of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”) was a guiding principle for the Christians who founded Plymouth Colony.

Today, of course, our fellow citizens who call the U.S. a “Christian” nation think that “redistribution” is a dirty word. A headline in The Washington Post earlier this month noted that “the debate over the Affordable Care Act is really a debate over wealth redistribution”. From Karen Tumulty’s article:

Redistribution of wealth — one of the most radioactive subjects in American politics — has moved from being a subtext in the national debate over health care to being the core of it….

[There is] a bedrock philosophical and ideological question that has always been in the background of any argument about the government’s role in health care: What is the minimum that society should provide for its poorest, most vulnerable citizens, and how much should be taken from the rich and powerful to do it?

…There [are] many ways that Obamacare [redistributes] the burden of medical costs — from the sick to the healthy, with provisions such as the one denying insurers the ability to refuse coverage to people with preexisting conditions; from the old to the young, with a mandate that everyone have coverage or pay a penalty; from the rich to the poor, with an array of new taxes.

It’s almost as if right-wing opponents of the ACA don’t understand what insurance, including health insurance, is. Tumulty quotes economic historian Bruce Bartlett:

“Republicans argue that redistribution is inherently immoral without acknowledging that the very nature of insurance is redistributive. You’re taking money from people whose houses don’t burn down to give it to the people whose houses do burn down.”

As far as I know, Jesus never talked about health insurance and neither did the Puritans. But Christianity in its pure form is clearly pro-redistribution. Any preacher or politician who says otherwise shouldn’t claim to follow Jesus.

If you’re interested in reading more about Christianity as it’s frequently practiced today, I recommend a long article from 2014 by the journalist Kurt Eichenwald. It’s called “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin”: 

…With politicians, social leaders and even some clergy invoking a book they seem to have never read and whose phrases they don’t understand, America is being besieged by Biblical illiteracy.

The Bible is not the book many American fundamentalists and political opportunists think it is, or more precisely, what they want it to be. Their lack of knowledge about the Bible is well-established. A Pew Research poll in 2010 found that evangelicals ranked only a smidgen higher than atheists in familiarity with the New Testament and Jesus’s teachings. “Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it,’’ wrote … pollsters and researchers whose work focused on religion in the United States. The Barna Group, a Christian polling firm, found in 2012 that evangelicals accepted the attitudes and beliefs of the Pharisees—religious leaders depicted throughout the New Testament as opposing Christ and his message—more than they accepted the teachings of Jesus.

No doubt, Paul Ryan would beg to differ. But who sounds more like Jesus? Was it Ryan when he said the healthy shouldn’t be taxed to help the sick, or John Winthrop when he said “we must bear one another’s burdens”? Here’s a hint from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10:  

“One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

Religion and I (Continued Again)

Did a powerful being create the universe? If so, does that being know absolutely everything about its creation? And could that being change the way its creation works with no difficulty at all? Damned if I know.

Of course, many of us claim to know. I never have. When I was little, I was impressed by the miracle stories. Later on, I learned that stories about miracles are much more common than miracles themselves. 

Eventually, I concluded that I was an agnostic. It seemed like the only reasonable position to hold. Take the proposition that God exists. The possible responses are: 

  1. I know that God exists;
  2. I don’t know if God exist;
  3. I know that God doesn’t exist.

Choosing (2) means you’re an agnostic. (You could also say (4) “I don’t know what ‘God exists’ means”, but let’s put that aside as overly argumentative.)

But consider a proposition like “The Easter Bunny exists”. If we replace “God” with “the Easter Bunny” in those three sentences, it feels easier to choose (3): “I know that the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist”. Why? Well, because I know there’s no Easter Bunny.

Seriously, only little children believe in the Easter Bunny; there is no worldwide religion devoted to believing in the Easter Bunny; no philosophers or theologians have argued for the existence of the Easter Bunny (well, some have in a way, but not many). Under pressure, I might agree that it’s not completely impossible that the Easter Bunny exists, but I’m much closer to believing (3) “it doesn’t” than (2) “I don’t know”.

As I was thinking about writing these posts, I came across something called the Dawkins Scale. It’s from a book by the biologist Richard Dawkins. It’s also known as the Spectrum of Theistic Probability. In theory, each of us belongs somewhere on this scale:

dawkins_scale

Although I usually think of myself as an agnostic, Dawkins would say I’m an atheist, i.e. (6) “De-Facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable”. Not everyone agrees with the way Dawkins defines the word “atheist”; some of his critics think that to be an atheist, you have to be completely sure that God doesn’t exist.

I’d forgotten, however, that ten years ago, when I stood in front of the congregation at the Unitarian Church, reading my “theology” or “credo”, this is what I said:

This leaves me as either an atheist or an agnostic, depending on how those words are defined. Using language from the biologist Richard Dawkins, my position is that I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that God is not there.

Hence, ten years later, still number 6 on the Dawkins Scale.

Even so, I recently began watching a Public Broadcasting program called “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians”. Most of the program was familiar from books I read years ago, and it was a little annoying how often they stopped the narrative for ethereal singing and beautiful video of the sun and clouds. But listening to how the New Testament was written and cobbled together decades after Jesus lived, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to read the “books” of the New Testament in chronological order.

I don’t mean “chronological” in the sense of “as the events supposedly occurred or will occur”. That would mean starting with the birth of Jesus and continuing on to the Apocalypse. I mean reading the parts of the New Testament in the order in which they were written. (There is at least one version of the New Testament, called Evolution of the Word, arranged that way. The book’s description says it “reveals how spiritually and politically radical the early Jesus movement began and how it slowly became domesticated”.)  

Scholars believe the first book of the New Testament was written by Paul the Apostle roughly 20 years after Jesus died. That’s 1 Thessalonians, written around the year 50. That was followed by six or seven other letters written by Paul. The first gospel, Mark, wasn’t written until the year 70 or so. The first gospel that appears in the New Testament, Matthew, was written around 20 years after that (60 years after Jesus died).

Maybe reading the New Testament in the order it was written will show something important about how Christianity began. So far, I’ve read three of Paul’s letters. He comes across as a true proselytizer, someone saying whatever he can to turn his audience into followers of Jesus. I’m not sure I’d have trusted him, since he seems like such a self-promoter, although it would have been a relief to hear him say it wasn’t necessary to follow the Jewish dietary laws or be circumcised in order to become a Christian.

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul blames his fellow Jews for killing Jesus. I assumed that was an accusation from later times created in order to foster anti-Semitism. In Galatians, he calls the world “evil”. Paul emphasizes that faith in Jesus is the one true path to salvation. When Jesus returns, the faithful will be lifted up into the clouds, after which they’ll live with the Lord forever.  

I don’t know if I’ll keep reading, or if I’ll share what I read. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that I won’t be moving higher or lower on the Dawkins Scale.   

Religion and I (Continued)

Somewhere along the way, I got interested in the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, the great rationalist thinker of the 17th century. Spinoza argued that “God” and “Nature” are two names for the same thing. That one thing is the universe as a whole. It’s the only thing that truly exists. Everything else (atoms, thoughts, you, me) is a mode or modification of that one infinite substance, God or Nature (Deus sive Natura).

Reading Spinoza made me try to think about the universe (the whole of nature) in a religious sense, as a sacred thing, a worthy object of worship. Obviously, there have been nature religions since prehistoric times. But the idea didn’t work for me. The universe is totally amazing and the Earth is our treasured home, but I never got close to thinking of nature in religious terms.

Neither of us being drawn to any of the standard religions, my wife and I began attending a local chapter of what’s often called the Ethical Culture Society. That was in the 1980s. The organization’s actual name is the American Ethical Union. It was founded in New York City in 1877 by a former rabbinical student named Felix Adler. Here’s an explanatory paragraph from their site:

Ethical Humanism, also called Ethical Culture, is an evolving body of ideas that inspires Ethical Societies. Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity (Humanist Manifesto III). For Ethical Humanists, the ultimate religious questions are not about the existence of gods or an afterlife, but rather, “How can we create meaningfulness in this life?” and “How should we treat each other?”

We didn’t stay in the neighborhood long enough to become serious followers of Ethical Culture, but some years later, in the 1990s, we began attending our local Unitarian Church. We both felt at home there. The minister was a scholarly man and an excellent speaker. He also doubted that Jesus was a real person, let alone the son of any god. Like the American Ethical Union, the Unitarian Universalist Association welcomes those who believe in God and those who don’t, because its principal focus is on ethical behavior. From the UUA site and the organization’s bylaws:

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:

  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person; 
  2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations; 
  3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
  7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

… Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.

The high point of my time as a church-attending Unitarian was ten years ago. The church offered a class called “Building Your Own Theology” (the perfect title for Unitarian adult education). The culmination of the class was supposed to be a personal statement from each of us regarding our fundamental beliefs, which we could then present to the congregation as part of a regular service. I think only two of us chose to address the congregation. The minister helped me with some editing, I put my blue suit on and one Sunday morning I gave it a go. It made me happy that it was well-received.

Here’s some of the conclusion (rearranged a little – consider it a theology that’s still being built):

Is there anything sacred, anything I might revere instead of God? The answer is yes: personal ideals like rationality, curiosity and courage; ethical ideals like generosity, honesty and kindness; and political ideals like justice and democracy. Our ideals and actions, insofar as they exemplify our ideals, can be sacred.

My view is that, if a god existed, it would be a middle-man between us and what is truly sacred, the ideals we hold dear.

I fell away from the church as the years passed. I didn’t feel like I was getting much out of it anymore, especially after my favorite minister retired. But I still love some of the jokes:

Q: How many Unitarians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey, you have found that light bulbs work for you, that is wonderful. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb. Present it next month at our annual Light Bulb Sunday Service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, 3-way, long-life, and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.

Q: Why can’t UUs sing very well in choirs?
A: Because they’re always reading ahead to see if they agree with the next verse.

The children in a UU church school class were drawing pictures. The teacher asked one, “What are you drawing a picture of?”
“I’m drawing a picture of God,” was the reply.
“But nobody knows what God looks like,” objected the teacher.
“They will,” said the child, “in a minute.”

And, finally, from the comedian Lenny Bruce: “I know my humor is outrageous when it makes the Unitarians so mad they burn a question mark on my front lawn.”

Again, almost certainly next time: I found a label for what I believe, and have begun reading the New Testament in a way I never thought of before.

Religion and I

My parents were Protestants, but rarely attended church. I never went to Sunday School, but always said a prayer before going to bed. When I was young, it was always the well-known (but morbid) prayer from the 18th century:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Amen.

At some point, I graduated to the Lord’s Prayer. As best I can remember, it was the long Protestant one with “debts” and “debtors”, instead of “trespass” and “trespasses”, and the extra praise at the end:

Our Father who art in Heaven,
Hallowed be thy name;
Thy kingdom come;
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts
As we forgive our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom
And the power
And the glory,
Forever.

Amen.

By the way, did you know that “amen” is roughly translated as “so be it” and that it came from Hebrew, or maybe Aramaic, through Greek and Latin and then to us? In other words, just like the rest of the Bible.

Then one night when I was 13 or so, in the grip of burgeoning skepticism or adolescent rebelliousness, I decided not to recite my nightly prayer. It felt like a major step. I’d never felt religious, except maybe around Christmas. But I wondered whether going straight to sleep would mean I’d end up in Hell. (Obviously, the jury is still out.) I think I’d concluded that God probably doesn’t exist. For roughly ten years, I’d simply been talking to myself, rather like Peter O’Toole in The Ruling Class:

Lady Claire Gurney: “How do you know you’re God?”

Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney, 14th Earl of Gurney: “Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself.”

Within a few years, I was studying philosophy and my skepticism increased. Philosophers are trained to question assumptions and offer evidence. Citing tradition or faith as justification for one’s views isn’t enough. Plus, the philosophical arguments for the existence of God are uniformly weak. As a rule, therefore, philosophy is hard on religion. So much for religion, for the next twenty years.

Then, however, I began thinking about religion again – not because I wanted to become religious, but because I wanted to understand its popularity. Where did religion come from? Why do so many people take it so seriously? Why, for example, have religious authorities been so concerned about sex?

I began reading about the history of Christianity in particular. I read William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, and about the “historical” Jesus, and the Council of Nicea, and several books by the historian of religion, Elaine Pagels. I read about the idea of Satan, and the Gnostics, and Paul’s conflict with Jesus’s brother James.

The conclusion I reached is that the history of Christianity is much more complex than most people realize. What got into the Bible and what is promulgated in church could have turned out very differently if other people had translated or copied the texts or won the arguments about church doctrine. People will say it’s all been decided and documented according to God’s hidden plan. I think it’s much more likely to have been a messy, contingent, unpredictable process, like all other major human endeavors, and there’s nothing supernatural about it.

Probably next time: I found a label for what I believe, and have begun reading the New Testament in a way I never thought of before.

Trump, the Christian

Peter Wehner had various jobs in the last three Republican administrations. Now he works at a conservative think tank called the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t pay much attention to what he has to say about anything, but his thoughts on “The Theology of Donald Trump” are worth reading. 

After Mr. Trump met with hundreds of evangelical Christians a couple of weeks ago, James Dobson, who is among the most influential leaders in the evangelical world and serves on Mr. Trump’s evangelical executive advisory board, declared that “Trump appears to be tender to things of the Spirit,” by which Dr. Dobson meant the Holy Spirit.

Of all the descriptions of Mr. Trump we’ve heard this election season, this may be the most farcical. As described by St. Paul, the “fruit of the Spirit” includes forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, hardly qualities one associates with Mr. Trump. It shows you the lengths Mr. Trump’s supporters will go to in order to rationalize their enthusiastic support of him….

The calling of Christians is to be “salt and light” to the world, to model a philosophy that defends human dignity, and to welcome the stranger in our midst. It is to stand for justice, dispense grace and be agents of reconciliation in a broken world. And it is to take seriously the words of the prophet Micah, “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?”

Evangelical Christians who are enthusiastically supporting Donald Trump are signaling, even if unintentionally, that this calling has no place in politics and that Christians bring nothing distinctive to it — that their past moral proclamations were all for show and that power is the name of the game.

Trump’s success demonstrates beyond any doubt that millions of Republicans are morally bankrupt, despite their claims to cherish rock-solid moral values. The support Trump is receiving from “Christian” leaders demonstrates that they are morally bankrupt too, no matter how much they claim to foster Christian values.

Something to Keep in Mind When a Bomb Goes Off

As long as there are religious fanatics who think it’s a good idea to blow themselves up in public places or otherwise kill as many innocent bystanders as possible, we shouldn’t be surprised when it happens in Europe or even in America. If you want complete protection from suicide bombers and their ilk, don’t go out in public. And if you do, avoid crowds. (While you’re at it, never, never get in a car, smoke, get drunk, eat fast food or keep a gun in the house.)

We should keep in mind, however, that these mass attacks on civilians happen a lot more often in places like Iraq and Pakistan than in Europe or the United States. While we all heard about the massacres in Brussels six days ago, three times as many people were murdered in Lahore and Baghdad this week.

On Friday, an ISIS suicide bomber killed 41 and injured more than 100 at a soccer stadium in Baghdad. Yesterday, a Taliban group that supports ISIS set off a bomb in a public park in Lahore, killing at least 70 people and injuring hundreds more.

We can always say these attacks don’t get as much attention in the West because they happen far away and they happen so often. Still, we should remember that the most frequent victims of radical, fundamentalist Islamic groups like ISIS and the Taliban are other Muslims. These fanatics aren’t waging war on the West so much as they’re waging war on the rest of the human race, and in particular on innocent Muslims who pose no danger to us or anyone else.

Too Ironic to Resist: An “Establishment” Republican on Trump

It’s a good thing I don’t write this blog in order to make my four readers happy. If I wanted to make you happy, I wouldn’t write the word “Trump” ever again.

So, here in this vale of tears, someone named Peter Wehner published a nicely-written article in the New York Times pointing out that he and his fellow evangelical Christians shouldn’t support Trump. It’s hard to disagree:

This … man humiliated his first wife by conducting a very public affair, chronically bullies and demeans people, and says he has never asked God for forgiveness. His name is emblazoned on a casino that features a strip club; he has discussed anal sex on the air with Howard Stern…He is a narcissist appealing to people whose faith declares that pride goes before a fall.

Mr. Trump’s character is antithetical to many of the qualities evangelicals should prize in a political leader: integrity, compassion and reasoned convictions, wisdom and prudence, trustworthiness, a commitment to the moral good.

When Bill Clinton was president, evangelicals ranked moral probity high on their list of leadership qualities. Supporters of Mr. Trump, a moral degenerate, justify their support by saying we’re electing a president rather than a pastor. Why a significant number of evangelicals are rallying round a man who exposes them as hypocrites is difficult to fathom.

Part of the explanation is that many evangelicals feel increasingly powerless, beaten down, aggrieved and under attack. A sense of ressentiment, or a “narrative of injury,” is leading them to look for scapegoats to explain their growing impotence. People filled with anger and grievances are easily exploited….

Enter Donald Trump, alpha male.

Mr. Trump’s evangelical supporters don’t care about his agenda; they are utterly captivated by his persona. They view him as the strongest, most dominant, most assertive political figure they have ever seen. In an odd bow to Nietzschean ethics, they respect and applaud his Will to Power. And so the man who openly admires tyrants like Vladimir V. Putin and praised the Chinese crackdown in Tiananmen Square because it showed “strength” has become the repository of their hopes.

Set aside the fact that Mr. Trump is a compulsive and unrepentant liar. Set aside, too, that he has demonstrated no ability for statecraft or the actual administration of government and has demonstrated much incompetence at business to boot.

Bracket for now the fact that Mr. Trump has been more erratic, unprincipled and proudly ignorant when it comes to public policy than perhaps any major presidential candidate in American history.

What stuns me is how my fellow evangelicals can rally behind a man whose words and actions are so at odds with the central teachings of our faith. They overlook, rationalize and even delight in Mr. Trump’s obsessive name-calling and Twitter attacks, his threats and acts of intimidation, his vindictiveness and casual cruelty (including mocking the disabled and P.O.W.s), all of which masquerade as strength and toughness. For some evangelicals, Christianity is no longer shaping their politics; with Mr. Trump in view, their faith lies subordinate.

Aside from his misreading of Nietzschean ethics (Nieztsche would presumably regard Trump as a dangerous buffoon, not an Übermensch) and his misguided attack on Planned Parenthood (which I deleted), Mr. Wehner makes a pretty good case. Trump is more antichrist than Christian. 

But getting back to Mr. Wehner. According to the Times, Mr. Wehner, the professed Christian, “served in the last three Republican administrations”.

The last three Republican administrations? That would include Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush! Talk about three men who lackedintegrity, compassion and reasoned convictions, wisdom and prudence, trustworthiness [and] a commitment to the moral good”! Who exposed evangelicals as hypocrites and exploited people’s feelings of anger and fear! Who demonstrated a lack of interest and competence! Oh, brother.

Wehner rightly refers to the following as “Trumpism”:

[It’s] a purposeful effort, led by a demagogue, to incite ugly passions, stoke resentments and divisions, and create fear of those who are not like “us”…

Yet it’s the modern Republican Party, which stopped being the Party of Lincoln decades ago, that has succeeded in poisoning our politics with a strategy built on inciting ugly passions, stoking resentments and creating fear. The top Republicans are masters of demagogy and division.

Looking back on his long career serving Republican Presidents, Wehner should know all about making his faith subordinate to his politics. In embracing the Republican Party, he and other professed Christians “are doing incalculable damage to their witness”. Trumpism is Republicanism writ huge.

(While you’re here, check out John Oliver’s campaign to make Trump “Drumpf” again: drumpfinator.com might make you happy.)

Update:  Or if happiness is out of the question, read “Trump Might Not Be a Fascist, But He’s Merrily Leading Us Down That Path”, originally posted here. It’s long, but important, especially the second half or so.