"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

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“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Monday, March 19, 2018

A Simple Desultory Philippic

First, yup:*

Trump’s background and beliefs could hardly be more incompatible with traditional Christian models of life and leadership. Trump’s past political stances (he once supported the right to partial-birth abortion), his character (he has bragged about sexually assaulting women), and even his language (he introduced the words pussy and shithole into presidential discourse) would more naturally lead religious conservatives toward exorcism than alliance. This is a man who has cruelly publicized his infidelities, made disturbing sexual comments about his elder daughter, and boasted about the size of his penis on the debate stage. His lawyer reportedly arranged a $130,000 payment to a porn star to dissuade her from disclosing an alleged affair. Yet religious conservatives who once blanched at PG-13 public standards now yawn at such NC-17 maneuvers. We are a long way from The Book of Virtues.

But I have to point out the author of "The Book of Virtues" was not a pastor, nor a religious leader of any congregation.  Then again, neither is James Dobson, Pat Robertson, nor even Billy Graham, who has figured prominently in Michael Gerson's writings since that former's recent death.  A few people mentioned in Gerson's article are pastors of congregations, but none of them are members of a denomination actually designated "Evangelical."  That distinction belongs to one person mentioned, critically and in passing, in Gerson's apologia for religious conservatives:  Reinhold Niebuhr.  And the distinction between Niebuhr, the "son" of the German Evangelicals, and the "evangelicals" as Gerson understands them, is an important and fundamental (!) one.

But back to Christian ethics for a moment.  Reinhold's brother Richard wrote extensively on Christian ethics, as did Reinhold himself (the latter created the Christian ethical school of "Christian realism," but Richard was the more exacting scholar).  The people Gerson mentions never used ethics for anything more than a club, a weapon against perceived enemies.  William Bennett wasn't interested in morality, he was interested in judgment; and the judgment came down on him when (as Gerson fails to note, ironically), the author of The Book of Virtues was found to be a compulsive gambler.

Sic transit gloria.

Gerson mentions some of the religious figures, mostly TV figures with no discernible ties to a congregation at all, whose hypocrisy caught up to them, and that hypocrisy isn't my point.  My point is, untethered from any discernible group of people who can hold one accountable, individuals tend to start believing their own farts are the smells of a beautiful garden, and behave accordingly.  This is something Gerson singularly fails to understand; just as he fails to understand what the word "evangelical" even means.

It comes from the Greek, where it is found (in transliteration, since I'm too lazy to essay Greek letters here), as euangelion.  The English word "angel" is buried in there, also taken from the Greek, where it meant (at least in the New Testament koine Greek) "messenger."  The euangelion is a messenger, a messenger of the good news.  The meaning Gerson assumes the term has always had in English is a new one, actually.  When it came into English as a term for a church membership, it came from Germany (actually Prussia) as the German Evangelical Church, which combined in America with the Reformed Church of Germany to become the Evangelical and Reformed (E&R) church.  Gerson makes no mention of this, confidently identifying "evangelicalism" with mainstream Protestantism until the early 20th century and "higher criticism" from Europe (mostly Germany) which subjected the Bible to analyses many conservative Christians, and especially those who came to call themselves "fundamentalists," could not accept.  It's a very broad brush and it tends to call all Protestants (but never Catholics!) "one of us," which sweeping away those who are not "mainstream" (a term that tends to mean what pleases the eye of the beholder) as irrelevant.  What happened, in Gerson's telling, is the arrival of "modernity":

Fundamentalism embraced traditional religious views, but it did not propose a return to an older evangelicalism. Instead it responded to modernity in ways that cut it off from its own past. In reacting against higher criticism, it became simplistic and overliteral in its reading of scripture. In reacting against evolution, it became anti-scientific in its general orientation. In reacting against the Social Gospel, it came to regard the whole concept of social justice as a dangerous liberal idea. This last point constituted what some scholars have called the “Great Reversal,” which took place from about 1900 to 1930. “All progressive social concern,” Marsden writes, “whether political or private, became suspect among revivalist evangelicals and was relegated to a very minor role.”
This, by the way, is the root of the "sociopathy" Bruce Gibney thinks he has discovered, which makes it as American as violence and cherry pie.  It wasn't the Baby Boom generation, in other words, who first listened to the serpent in Gibney's American paradise.

You'll note "evangelicalism" is a vague and amorphous term for Gerson; where it was once good, it has long ago lost its way, and with the embrace of Trump, come to ruin.  It's a funny analysis because, as I said, he references Reinhold Niebuhr once, in a way I've never heard anything about, and can't find any support for as a matter (however minor) of history:

When Graham planned mass evangelistic meetings in New York City in 1957, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr editorialized against his “petty moralizing.” But Niebuhr’s attack on Graham provoked significant backlash, even in liberal theological circles. 
I've never heard of this, nor did I find any evidence of "backlash."  The irony is in Gerson's earlier mention of the Social Gospel:

Religious progressives sought common ground between the Christian faith and the new science and higher criticism. Many combined their faith with the Social Gospel—a postmillennialism drained of the miraculous, with social reform taking the place of the Second Coming.

The postmillennialism is a canard, there, a reflection of the theological beam in Gerson's evangelical eye (concerns with the apocalypse, much less a "millennia," were the province of a minority in my Christian childhood.  I remember studying the topic as a brave new world in college having, I thought, been raised in Christianity.  Millenialism, pre-, post-, or a-(none) struck me then, and now, as a bizarre concern with how history would end and what benefits it would bring a person like me.).  More interestingly is that Niebuhr's "Christian realism" drove a stake in the heart of the Social Gospel, even as it pointed (and still points) the way to be a Christian in a political and secular world.  Niebuhr's work is far more influential and important than even the preaching of Billy Graham (quick, name one of Graham's sermons).  That Niebuhr slapped Graham's "petty moralizing" I don't doubt (Graham's preaching was of a piece with Bennet's later moralizing about Virtues); that Niebuhr's criticism goes to the heart of evangelical preaching about sin v. the study and subject of Christian ethics, is completely beyond Gerson's grasp.

Which is the problem for me with Gerson's story.  Millenialism, either pre- or post- (when the millenium comes; before or after the Battle of Armageddon, another feature of future history I never learned about in my mainstream Presbyterian church) is so important to Gerson's definition of "evangelical" that the shift from one to the other changed the very nature of the church in the world:

This general pessimism about the direction of society was reflected in a shift away from postmillennialism and toward premillennialism. In this view, the current age is tending not toward progress, but rather toward decadence and chaos under the influence of Satan. 

But that vision of "the end" was not a dominant feature of American Protestantism as defined by the major denominations:  Lutheranism, Methodism, the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, etc.  That fixation of "end times" was a always a feature of "fringe" Christian churches, never of the mainstream.  So how it is that "evangelicals" and "mainstream American Protestantism" can have at one time been virtually indistinguishable is rather hard to reconcile with what drove the fundamentalists to their frenzy, and "evangelicals" to embrace an amoral clown like Donald Trump.

One of the fundamental (that word again!) problems here is ecclesiological:  that is, the "evangelicals" as Gerson describes them, don't have one.  Yes, he ropes in Southern Baptists with the term, but he also includes a lot of non-denominational figures, like Dobson and Robertson (yes, some of these people arguably have denominations, but they don't make any appearance of being bound by them or to them.  Several of the more famous ministers of recent times, while members of "mainline denominations," appear to hold the same fealty to their denomination, i.e., none at all.).  Gerson grudgingly admires the ability of the Roman Catholic church to create a "tradition," but he displays no understanding of the ecclesiology of that "tradition":

In practice, this acts as an “if, then” requirement for Catholics, splendidly complicating their politics: If you want to call yourself pro-life on abortion, then you have to oppose the dehumanization of migrants. If you criticize the devaluation of life by euthanasia, then you must criticize the devaluation of life by racism. If you want to be regarded as pro-family, then you have to support access to health care. And vice versa. The doctrinal whole requires a broad, consistent view of justice, which—when it is faithfully applied—cuts across the categories and clichés of American politics. Of course, American Catholics routinely ignore Catholic social thought. But at least they have it. Evangelicals lack a similar tradition of their own to disregard.

Evangelicals lack that "tradition" because, as Gerson defines the term (or doesn't), evangelicals don't really exist.  It's impossible to determine who is and isn't an "evangelical" from Gerson's article, although the term usually means a proponent of a soteriology that rests heavily on a metaphysical premise dating back to Anselm, a soteriology that places "salvation" through acceptance of Jesus Christ as your personal "Lord and Savior" as the central claim and act of a Christian, and that without such salvation you are individually damned to hell for all eternity.  Coupled with that is the unstated conviction that the salvation of the believer is only assured by bringing as many "souls to Christ" as possible, effectively turning Christian churches into pyramid schemes where the most "successful" member is the one with the most recruits further recruiting new "customers."

Oh, sorry, "customers" is the wrong term, isn't it?  Except it isn't, really, because as Gerson makes clear, "success" in ecclesiological circles is measured by the number of warm bodies in the pews on Sunday morning:

Over time, evangelicalism got a revenge of sorts in its historical rivalry with liberal Christianity. Adherents of the latter gradually found better things to do with their Sundays than attend progressive services. In 1972, nearly 28 percent of the population belonged to mainline-Protestant churches. That figure is now well below 15 percent. Over those four decades, however, evangelicals held steady at roughly 25 percent of the public (though this share has recently declined). As its old theological rival faded—or, more accurately, collapsed—evangelical endurance felt a lot like momentum.
It's still all about "winners" and "losers."  Isn't that what Jesus said, somewhere in the Gospels?   He who has the most members wins?  Right?

The core of Niebuhr's understanding of Christian ethics is the traditional core of Christianity:  humility, the Christian as servant, the first of all being so because she/he is last and servant of all.  There's precious little humility in the public personae of the religious figures Gerson cites so approvingly (Billy Graham being, in small part, the exception that proves the rule).  Most of the people Gerson mentions have avidly promoted themselves above others, presented their moral sensibilities as superior, and in all things been more Pecksniff than Chuzzlewit, more Malvolio than sympathetic (if roguish) Toby Belch.

Why, in the end, have evangelicals come a cropper?  Because they are human.  Ironically, again, Reinhold Niebuhr seemingly forecast their fate almost 70 years ago, in lectures first given in Edinburgh:

The second main emphasis of Biblical and Hebraic faith consists in the hazardous assertion of a meaningful history.  The effort to discern meaning in all the confusions and cross purposes of history distinguishes Western culture and impart historical dynamic to its strivings.  It must be distinguished from all religions, mystical or rationalistic, which equate "salvation" with flight from the confusions and responsibilities of man's historic dynamic with two evils inhering in the historical emphasis.  One is the evil of fanaticism, the consequences of giving ultimate significance to historically contingent goals and values.  The other is the creative, but also confusing, Messianism, the hope for a heaven on earth, for a kingdom of universal peace and righteousness.  
We can't drain history of meaning (that way lies nihilism), but the assertion of meaning is not without its own dangers, too.  To abandon, as Gerson rightly points out, the moral responsibility of Christian ethics is to "equate 'salvation' with flight from the confusions and responsibilities of" of being ethical.  To put that a bit better into context:

The third problem about human selfhood has to do with its moral stature.  I believed and still believe that human evil, primarily expressed in undue self-concern, is a corruption of its essential freedom and grows with its freedom. 
The religious supporters of Trump Gerson names are all acting out of what Niebuhr politely calls "undue self-concern."  The primary concern of an ethic is to raise the individual out of that self-concern and transform the concern to a concern for others.  And the core of the problem, as Niebuhr hints at, is the apocalyptic concerns which Gerson makes such a central part of his definition of "evangelicals" and their concerns.  That, of course, is to equate salvation with a flight from history (which will resolve itself in Armageddon, ready or not because here it comes, soon as the Anti-Christ arrives), which leads directly to "the evil of fanaticism," the word that gives us our modern appellation, the "fan."  All the people Gerson mentions are clearly "fans" of Donald Trump.

Which, in their own language, doesn't leave much space in their hearts for Jesus Christ.

Both bands of evangelicalism, as identified by Gerson, are present in Niebuhr's analysis.  Millenialism is the hope for, the belief in, "a heaven on earth...a kingdom of universal peace and righteousness."  I have that hope, but I have it based on Isaiah's holy mountain vision (compiled from Isaiah 11, Isaiah 56, and Isaiah 65, so I can't link you to one convenient passage) and his idea of the kingdom as a place where you buy wine without money and food without price.  My hope is not in a heaven on earth, or even in a heaven apart from earth.  Before this becomes about me v. Gerson and the evangelicals, let me point out the problem with soteriology Gerson overlooks and assumes is basic to Christianity.

What, after all, is the euangelion, the "good news"?  That you are saved from damnation?  But if you didn't know you were damned, as the Eskimo asked the missionary, would you need to be saved?  And what's the point of a salvation so cut off from historical contingency, arising from a religion which proclaims the God of Abraham is a living god suffused in human history?  Niebuhr points us toward an answer:

It must be observed that while the classical view of human virtue is optimistic when compared with the Christian view (for it finds no defect in the center of human personality) and while it has perfect confidence in the virtue of the rational man, it does not share the confidence of the moderns in the ability of all men to be either virtuous or happy.  Thus an air of melancholy hangs over Greek life which stand in sharpest contrast to the all-pervasive optimism of the now dying bourgeois culture, despite the assumptions of the latter that it had merely restored the classical world view and the Greek view of man.  "There is nothing, methinks, more piteous than a man of all things that creep and breathe upon the earth," declares Zeus in the Iliad, and that note runs a constant strain through Greek thought from Homer to the Hellenistic age.  Primarily it was the brevity of life and the mortality of man which temped the Greeks to melancholy.....

Aristotle confessed that "not to be born is the best thing and death is better than life," and gave it as his opinion that melancholy was a concomitant of genius.  The philosophers were optimistic in their confidence that the wise man would be virtuous; but, alas, they had no confidence that the many could be wise.  The Stoic Chryissipus could conceive happiness only for the wise and was certain the most men were fools.  The Stoics tended on the one hand to include all men in the brotherhood of man on the ground that they all had the spark of divine reason; but on the other hand they pitied the multitude for having no obvious graces of rationality.  Thus their equalitarianism rapidly degenerated into an aristocratic condescension not very different from Aristotle's contempt for the slave as a "living tool."  Seneca, despite all his pious universalism, prays "forgive the world:  they are all fools."

There is a final observation which I will leave at the first sentence of the paragraph following the above in the original text:  "Neither Greek nor Roman classicists had any conception of a meaning in human history."  That, too, would be a part of the "good news."  Indeed, simply place the plain teachings of Jesus of Nazareth from the gospels in the context of the classical world and, while scholars like Dom Crossan and my New Testament professor will argue the presence of influences from the Stoics and the Greeks in the gospels, epistles, and early Church doctrines, the parables and lessons and dunamis (miracles) of Jesus point to an optimism and hope not based on universal rationality or happiness arising from wisdom alone, and there is certainly no Christian observation that the world be forgiven because they are all fools.  In this light the "good news" is not the offer of a metaphysical solution to the problem of the afterlife, a forgiveness from damnation, but a guiding solution to the problem stated so well by Tolstoy:  "How should we then live?"  Salvation is offered by identifying meaning in existence and, more importantly, meaning in living with and for and among others:

How good and pleasant it is to live together as brothers in unity!
It is like fragrant oil poured on the head
and falling over the beard,
Aaron's beard, when the oil runs down
over the collar of his vestments.
Is is as if the dew of Hermon were falling
on the mountains of Zion.
There the LORD bestows his blessing,
life for evermore (Psalm 133)

And it's here I close by pointing out the evangelicals identified by Gerson (I continue to limit myself on that point) insist that those "brothers" who live together in unity be only the "brothers" they find acceptable, not just in theology or soteriology ("Are you saved?" is a very specific question seeking a very specific answer.), but in political ideology.  If they have indeed sold their birthright for a mess of pottage, that is their burden to bear.  That they would do it is, from a Christian point of view, no surprise at all.  Gerson never quite explains precisely what happened to the evangelicals he identifies with, but no longer.  The closest he comes is to say that:  "evangelicals would prove highly vulnerable to a message of resentful, declinist populism."  But that is only to say, in their own terms, that they proved to be all too human.  What they lack is not the leadership to guide them in the right way, as Gerson concludes; what they lack is the humility of a Christian, to admit they were wrong, are wrong, and rather than be a leader of all, they should seek to be the servant of all.  Gerson thinks they need new leaders, although he's not entirely wrong about the cause of the problem:

Evangelicalism is hardly a monolithic movement. All of the above leaders would attest that a significant generational shift is occurring: Younger evangelicals are less prone to political divisiveness and bitterness and more concerned with social justice. (In a poll last summer, nearly half of white evangelicals born since 1964 expressed support for gay marriage.) Evangelicals remain essential to political coalitions advocating prison reform and supporting American global-health initiatives, particularly on aids and malaria. They do good work in the world through relief organizations such as World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse (an admirable relief organization of which Franklin Graham is the president and CEO). They perform countless acts of love and compassion that make local communities more just and generous.

All of this is arguably a strong foundation for evangelical recovery. But it would be a mistake to regard the problem as limited to a few irresponsible leaders. Those leaders represent a clear majority of the movement, which remains the most loyal element of the Trump coalition. Evangelicals are broadly eager to act as Trump’s shield and sword. They are his army of enablers.
This is the result when Christians become one interest group among many, scrambling for benefits at the expense of others rather than seeking the welfare of the whole. Christianity is love of neighbor, or it has lost its way. And this sets an urgent task for evangelicals: to rescue their faith from its worst leaders.

But the leaders are not the wise, and the people are not fools.  The solution is not leadership, but humility.  And the problem, quite honestly, quite frankly, quite humbly, is:  how do you lead the people to that?

*All quotes from Niebuhr are from The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. I, Westminster John Knox Press 1996.  As to Niebuhr's non-inclusive language, the introduction by Robin Lovin says it best:

The noninclusive language of ... Niebuhr ... calls attention to itself sharply when we read it today, and whatever we may think that Niebuhr would write if he were alive now, the discrepancy between his language and ours reminds us that twenty-five years after his death [1996], Reinhold Niebuhr is no longer our contemporary.


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