Friday, September 5, 2008

Christians and American politics in a post-9/11 world

OK what the heck, I've tackled abortion rights, so I might as well talk about Christianity since it has been injected into the presidential campaign on both sides (Obama/Rev Wright; McCain/Hagee; Palin/Assemblies of God; Biden/7-11 clerks-ouch).

Most of my liberal and progressive friends have little use for organized religion at all, and even less for religious values intruding into politics. And on a lot of days (even-numbered license-plate days, like Jimmy Carter gas rationing) I agree with them. On the other days....

The first thing I notice is that to the MSM and most bloggers there are really only three varieties of Christians: Catholics, Evangelicals, and liberal Episcopalians.

Catholics are those people represented in the media as being led by a cadre of bishops who are either (a) permitting child abuse and subverting stem cell research and family planning [therefore repressive and medieval]; or (b) opposing nuclear weapons and the war in Iraq as unjust [therefore unAmerican and weak on communism/terrorism]. Given that there are roughly 65 million Catholics in the US, that's a pretty strong indictment of 20% of the American population.

Evangelical is a term used almost (and I am really tempted to scratch that almost) synonymously with fundamentalist, which equates with nutcases who want abuse barefoot pregnant women who have never been taught to read, introduce Creationism into our schools, and plaster the 10 Commandments over all government buildings. They think God is a white middle-class American capitalist.

Liberal Episcopalians want to ordain gays and lesbians as priests and bishops, so they can't seriously be Americans (that "Church of England" and "Anglican" thing should have been a dead giveaway), and besides, they're politically impotent, so who cares what they think in the first place.

To the modern MSM, the term Christian intellectual has become an oxymoron. Or just a moron.

So, a couple of clarifications:

1) Not all evangelists are fundamentalists, and not all fundamentalists are evangelists. As Mel Gibson unconsciously proves, there are certainly fundamentalist Catholics out there.

2) The two chief differences between Catholics and Evangelicals are these: (a) Catholicism holds that theology should be interpreted through the Bible and the traditions of the Church and its leaders over the centuries, while Evangelism sees the Bible as the only authoritative holy source, a difference that stems from (b) Catholicism has a strong attachment to human reason in the interpretation of scripture, while Evangelism holds to the thesis that human reason has been so corrupted through Original Sin that only the Bible and direct revelation from God are the only reliable guides to scripture and reason. This places them quite obviously at odds with much of Enlightenment thinking....

But it doesn't equate with anti-intellectualism. I have met and read works by many thoughtful, insightful evangelicals, whose societal critiques are carefully crafted and spot on.

What annoys me about the past eight years is that Dubya, who is arguably a Fundamentalist masquerading as an evangelical, has conned many fundamentalists and evangelicals into accepting a congruency between American nationalism and the will of God. In so doing he and they have come very close to corrupting the universalist aspects of Christianity.

What annoys me even more is that there either (a) haven't been enough Christian intellectuals discussing this issue; or (b) the MSM and academia haven't deigned to cover them, having more fun pitting Reverend Hagee against Richard Dawkins than in reporting on serious thought.

I think it's the second, compounded by the fact that serious thinkers (unlike hucksters of my own kind) don't really do well in getting their messages out until after they're safely dead.

But the voices have been there, and I feel the need to showcase some of them.

Since I drone on and on, I'll limit myself today to two examples.

First, Professor Michael Buddle of DePaul, writing in 2004 on the implications of mobilizing Christianity in support of American foreign policy:

The reglobalization of Christianity poses potential political problems for aggressive American ambitions that presuppose certain minimal levels of public support for armed interventions and attack. For more than two decades, American elites worried about a 'crisis of patriotism' among large sectors of the polity--insufficient zeal for American symbols and stories, pools of cynicism and apathy, and inadequate appreciation for 'being American' as one's ultimate allegiance and identity. Official US policy is now committed to an open-ended war to 'rid the world of evil, in President Bush's words to a prayer service that sounded as much like a war rally on September 14, 2002. This policy promises aggressive steps to preserve and extend US national interests and 'values.' Given this, or similar policies that might follow, the need to reaffirm state loyalties is more evident than ever, and the incipient reglobalization of Christian solidarity is an obstacle to be overcome. For if Christians in the United States become more reluctant to kill their brothers and sisters in Christ who live under another national banner, the capacities of American power projection become uncertain. Christians who begin struggling with orders to kill other Christians are but one short step removed from hesitating to kill non-Christians, whom Christians believe are also children of a loving and generous God.

In this context, governmental and private initiatives to boost patriotism also aim to encourage a narrow, truncated ecclesiology within the Christian world. Christians who ignore the corrosive effects of resurgent nationalism in all its expressions overlook the war on the churches that is part and parcel of the renewed glorificiation of America. Nationalism, especially when armed and on the march, ought to be seen as a sectarian heresy in conflict with the universality of the Christian gospel and God's construction of a new people from all peoples and nations, and whose allegiance is to the kingdom of God rather than to the fragmented lesser powers of the modern state system.


Short version: Christianity loses its moral authority and purpose when it is reduced to being a cheering section for specific national political agendas.

And then there's Arthur Paul Boers, a Mennonite, writing also in 2004:

One concern I have as a pastor is how God-language and Christian vocabulary are usurped for the purposes of war and patriotism. This is especially striking now. I was not listening to the radio on September 11, but was informed of the events by my born-again auto mechanic, who promptly proceeded to make hateful remarks about Muslims. I later watches with great sorrow as outspoken Christians and churches supported US violent responses in Afghanistan and Iraq. The largest American flag I have ever seen(make that the largest flag I have ever seen) is draped on the outside wall of a local church. One bumper sticker reads: "It's God's job to forgive Osama bin Laden. It's our job to arrange the meeting." God is being called on to bless all things American and, I might add, all things commercial. I am perplexed when I see patriotic slogans and claims about God's blessings on stores and gas stations.

Thus, in absolute seriousness, I say we must for God's sake bear a different witness. We must not coast along with such agendas. Christians need to take a stand on the national urge to violence. If we do not, our laothing and denunciation of the violence on September 11 is hypocrisy.


Both essays and many more can be found in an obscure but important book--Anxious About Empire: Theological Essays on the New Global Realities, edited by Wes Avram. By the speed with which it made its way to the Atlantic Books discount bin, I suspect it was probably remaindered before more than a few dozen people read it.

Which is, in and of itself, a sad commentary on the state of intellectualism in America, religious or secular.

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