Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Maybe only tangentially relevant to this post, but it resembles the new sticker on my keyboard, so....

I trace this brouhaha from Dohiyi Mir back to First Draft back to Mother Jones back to The American Prospect.

And let's throw in the Thought Criminal for good measure.

First:  we could have an interesting discussion, I suppose, on whether a movie about a Christian evangelist who finds out a bill in the U.S. Congress will give "equal time" to all religions would be framed for murder because he...knows about this bill?; is not really any different from, say, "Enemy of the State," where Will Smith is hounded by an NSA with superpowers and an apparently endless ability to chase people through streets, shoot at them, blow stuff up, and never once draw the attention of any bystander, much less the local cops (I was just listening to a story about the police response to the Boston Marathon bombers (I won't try to spell their names).  There was a small army of police forces, from FBI to Boston Transit police to local constabularies, and every level of state and local in between, turned out for that pursuit.  In most action films?  Nada.).

I mean, really:  is once scenario less realistic than the other?  Yet we can get endless mileage out of the persecution of Glenn Greenwald or the snooping of the NSA, while authentic persecution of Christians does occur (although in foreign countries, so who really cares?  Did Jerry Falwell ever care about Maura Clark, Ita Ford, Jean Donovan, Dorothy Kazel, or Oscar Romero?).  But it doesn't occur here, in America; well, not anymore than black SUV's and helicopters chase people down based on a real-time search of phone conversations which can isolate your location within seconds, and conveniently near NSA agents who can be beside you before you can hang up (yet you can never find a policeman when you need one!).

Can we really talk about realistic scenarios in this context?

More aptly, we have to discuss sensible paranoid fantasies.  "Enemy of the State" is silly but not, somehow, as silly as "Persecuted."  If the latter is sillier, it is because of the people who take it seriously.  Glenn Greenwald probably takes "Enemy of the State" more seriously than "Persecuted," but does that mean the former is more acceptable as action fantasy than the latter?  Injecting religion into action films is always a dubious effort:  I love "Constantine," but only because I treat it as a video-game version of Roman Catholic traditions, and the portrayal of Satan at the end is the best I've ever seen, bar none.  (Be my guest; "Busy, busy, busy, busy!  Need a vacation!").  But in most action films the topic of religion enters only to justify cosmic violence and special effects, and seldom as a commentary on what's really going on in the world.

Still, I don't want to see a film like "Persecuted" because the idea is too dumb for me.  Which I can't quite defend, because I did see the latest Captain America film, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  As a paranoid fantasy, it rates up there with "Enemy of the State."  The difference is, "Captain America:  The Winter Soldier" actually has a Nietzschean worm at the heart of its rose.  I won't give anything away, except to say that those who stare too long into the abyss, find the abyss starting back at them; and those who fight dragons too long, become dragons themselves.

Which makes that film, which also makes no pretense of not being a fantasy, far worthier thing to contemplate than whatever motivates Gene Hackman, or whether an evangelical pastor would ever be persecuted for trying to speak about a law that's going to become public sooner or later.  If anything, I'd rate "Persecuted" alongside "Enemy of the State," or maybe one of the action films that depend on the hero saving the day against all odds (and with lots of explosions, gunfire, and stealthy assassinations):  simply too dumb to spend the time on.  Besides, as Thought Criminal points out, persecution of Christians in the world today is a real thing; we don't need silly fantasies to entertain us or make us think we have real problems din America with such things.  If we are going to consider the subject, let us consider reality, not a persecution fantasy.

But I'm going astray from the point:  should liberals try to be more understanding of the complaints of conservative and fundamentalist Christians?

No.  Not really.

And I say that as a pastor, trained to be open and understanding to opposing ideas; taught to listen to people because life is messy, and preconceptions and pre-digested responses are perfectly useless when trying to counsel people or keep any faction of the congregation from trying to fire you at any one time (some of these things I'm better at than others!).  I say that having spent four years in seminary being pushed to consider that everything, and I mean everything, I know is wrong, and there's just a possibility that someone else may be right, may even be the voice of God for me, and I should take that awkward possibility into consideration at all times, lest I make God an idol of my own preferences and predilections.

No, I don't have to consider their point of view.  And I don't say that from some Niebuhrian stance of protecting the community's identity or even its existence.  I say that because what the groups identified by Waldman and Drum want is to establish a control they never had, and a respect they don't necessarily deserve.  I am mindful, as I don't think Waldman or Drum are, that the reaction against modernity began not so much with German biblical scholarship (that scholarship did prompt the formulation of the "fundamentals"), but with the mockery that followed on the Scopes monkey trial (of which "Inherit the Wind" and the treatment of it in public discourse is a continuing echo).  As Karen Armstrong put it:

Before the Scopes ‘monkey’ trial—when the secular press ridiculed the fundamentalists and said they had no place in the modern agenda—fundamentalist Christians had been literal in their interpretation of scripture but creation science was the preserve of a few eccentrics. After the Scopes trial, they became militantly literal and creation science became the flagship of their movement. Before the Scopes trial, fundamentalists had often been on the left of the political spectrum and had been willing to work alongside socialists and liberal Christians in the new slums of the industrializing North American cities. After the Scopes trial, they swung to the far right, where they remained. They felt humiliated by the media attack. It was very nasty. There was a sense of loss of prestige, and, above all, a sense of fear.

There is making God an idol of your preferences; and then there is making God a defender against that which you fear.  Read The Gospel of John with the idea that John's community is persecuted and under attack, and you get a wholly different idea of why it is the only gospel to consistently reference the "Jews", and why it is the likeliest source of anti-Semitism in Christianity.  Matthew, Mark, nor Luke are so concerned with setting themselves apart from the "Jews" (I use the term carefully in this context) as John's community is.  The sense of loss of prestige, and "above all, a sense of fear," is palpable in that gospel.  I've always been bothered by "the gospel in miniature," John 3:16, for it's exclusionary flavor.  That exclusion is more purposeful than it is Godly, and I have a hard time reconciling it with Isaiah's image of all the nations drawn to Israel because Israel has finally become the light to the nations God promised it would be.

But, again, I wander; getting back to the main path, we have to recognize that some of the "militantly literal and creation science" was caused by ridicule and humiliation.  The corrective to that, however, is not to take seriously the inflamed passions of those who now want to play the part of victims of a secular age.  Yes, as Waldman points out, there was a race to be more victimized than anyone else, and so claim the moral high ground.  This was not the teachings of either Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, the two icons of the civil rights movement of the '60's (a movement far more complex than those two figures, but that's yet another digression); it was a corruption of their teachings, a result of the lack of leadership after both men were killed.  But it happened; and fundamentalist
Christians picked it up as their justification for power.  It was spurious before; it's spurious now.

Here is Waldman's key paragraph, the one Drum and almost everyone else, picks up on:

But liberals should acknowledge that for more fundamentalist Christians, there's a genuine feeling that underlies their fears. In many ways, the contemporary world really has turned against them. Society has decided that their beliefs about family—in which sex before marriage is shameful and wicked, and women are subordinate to their husbands—are antiquated and worthy of ridicule. Their contempt for gay people went from universal to acceptable to controversial to deplorable in a relatively short amount of time. If you are actually convinced that,  in the words  of possible future senator and current congressman Paul Broun, "I don't believe that the Earth's but about 9,000 years old," then modern geology is an outright assault on your most fundamental beliefs. And so is biology and physics and many other branches of science.
Again, I was trained as a pastor to respect the "genuine feelings" that may underlay another person's  fears.  But that's respect was meant to allow me to enter into their thinking, not to regard their feelings as legitimate and worthy of continuation.  The fears of fundamentalist Christians may seem genuine to them, but that doesn't mean those fears are grounded in reality.  The matter of ridicule is, I think, a valid issue.  We ridicule the ideas of others at our own peril.  Our ancestors after the Scopes trial essentially made the world we are wrestling with now.  But by the time you get to "modern geology is an outright assault on your most fundamental beliefs," all I can say is:  time to recognize the universe truly is "other" to you, and if reality assaults your "fundamental beliefs," it's time to let go of your fundamental beliefs.  Protestantism has a long history of recognizing and denouncing "superstitions."  It might be time to resurrect that tradition.

As the brief internet history of this meme shows, it becomes sillier and sillier the more it is taken seriously.  Drum expands it to cover prayer in schools and creches and the Ten Commandments, all of which Athenae eviscerates without quite touching on why Drum brings it up:

Needless to say, I consider these and plenty of other actions to be proper public policy. I support them all. But they're real things. Conservative Christians who feel under attack may be partly the victims of cynical politicians and media moguls, and a lot of their pity-party attempts at victimization really are ridiculous. But their fears do have a basis in reality. To a large extent, it's the left that started the culture wars, and we should hardly be surprised that it provoked a strong response. In fact, it's a sign that we're doing something right.

As far as I'm concerned, the culture wars are one of the left's greatest achievements. Our culture needed changing, and we should take the credit for it. Too often, though, we pretend that it's entirely a manufactured outrage of the right, kept alive solely by wild fantasies and fever swamp paranoia. That doesn't just sell the right short, it sells the left short too. It's our fight. We started it, and we should be proud of it.
This is where the whole thing turns into the intertoobs version of that old game "Telephone."  Drum is actually critiquing Waldman's original post.  I'm not sure Athenae gets that.  On the other hand, the way Drum makes his argument, it's hard to be sure exactly what he's trying to say.  Be that as it may, Drum's critique is really not that well thought out.  The consequences of war are never what the parties to the conflict think they will be.  In "Mr. Selfridge" last Sunday night, Jeremy Piven's character assured his staff that, if the politicians were right, the war in Europe begun in 1914 would "be over by Christmas."  As it turned out, it wasn't truly over until 1945.  The mockery of one party to the Scopes monkey trial (where most onlookers thought the case for evolution made sense, once they heard it.  The Tennessee law was passed in fear, not in knowledge.) in part created the polarized situation we are in today.  Should we, then, champion this war, and put on the armor of righteousness?  Besides, do the fears of the right have any basis in reality?  Any more than the fears of the left about creationism and religion in public discourse?  I've read a lot of people saying religion stops discussion because it establishes an authority that is absolute; those same people relying on the absolute authority of science, or ideology, without a trace of irony.

Has there really been a culture war waged by the "left"?  I don't remember a war, or even the "moral equivalent of war,"  for the "free love" movement of the '60's.  No-fault divorce wasn't a result of a war, either.  Racial tolerance came about with a lot of violence attached, but Brown v. Board of Education wasn't prompted by a war from the left, anymore than the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts were.  The latter were largely products of the intentionally non-violent movement headed by Dr. King.  Interracial marriage wasn't the result of a concerted effort to change state laws one at a time; it was overturned by the Supreme Court.  Was that part of a war?  Or was it all just social change, which the opponents took as offensive and as a kind of war?

I've mentioned before my experiences in East Texas when Brown v. Board was finally implemented 17 years after the original ruling.  There were fights and struggles, but the "war" came entirely from those who opposed the rule of law and the court's order; it didn't come from the "left" insisting integration happen in 1955 (as I say, it took 17 years to reach there, and longer still to get to Boston.  I still remember watching the riots over bussing there, and wondering how that was possible in the "enlightened North.").  So where does the metaphor of "war" come from, if not the opponents of social and legal change?  And what is their impetus, if not rejection of the poor and the brown (who are, in the public mind, largely assumed to be the majority in the former category, even if they aren't)?  I think one could easily trace the reaction against LBJ's "Great Society" to the hidden wound of American racism, a racism that is so deep in our culture we participate in it even while insisting we don't really mind our daughter bringing Sidney Poitier home for dinner.  Why else has the anti-New Deal/anti-Great Society movement in American public life come to a head under our first African American President?

Waldman is naive, and Drum too simplistic in his triumphalism.  "War" is by and large what has been waged to keep the status quo from changing; it is not what has been done to effect social justice and equality for all.  It is the same "war" as the one to preserve slavery; the South started that because it resisted the changes coming from the North; not because the North invaded in order to free slaves from cotton plantations.  Of course, the downside to the Civil War is that the notion of "states rights" was never truly vanquished, and the punishment of Reconstruction guaranteed grievances would be nursed down to the present day, some 150 years later.  So there is something to the warning to avoid triumphalism, and to consider the positions of your opponents; if only in the interests of civility.

But I have no reason, in my theology, to consider the validity of people who insist the Scriptures are both inerrant and literally true in all aspects.  For one thing, I don't want to do the mental gymnastics required to reconcile the "facts" of the Lukean and Matthean nativity narratives.  For another, I'm just not going to give such a stupid premise any serious consideration.  I might want to understand it in order to fully understand why the literalists are wrong (I don't want to be like Richard Dawkins, critiquing what I am ignorant of and taking pride in my ignorance), but I don't have to give it a regard it does not deserve.

Which is not to say I need to sneer at it, either.  I can recognize the fears of the fundamentalists as genuine; I can even find in what they teach something of value, if it is there (generalities will always lead us away from seeing something worthwhile in particularities).  Do those fears, however, have a basis in reality?  I'd say, rather, that their fears have a basis in the language games they play.  I do not speak dismissively, here, when I use the word "games."  I mean the language game they employ, the rules for meaning that they adhere to, are not my rules.  My soteriology, to put it bluntly, is not their soteriology; my God is not their God.  My God is involved in history, but it not bound by history.  Their insistence that God abhors same-sex marriage is, in my mind, no different from the arguments prevalent until Loving v. Virginia that God abhors mixed-race marriages, too.  Their argument is that God's presence in the world is best known by adhering to standards that prevailed in an earlier day, because that generation was closer to God than we are now.  I disagree.

It is not that we should awaken to a new day every day, with new rules and customs for guiding our behavior; but neither are we bound to what we think was normal in our childhood as normal for all times and places.  God is not active in the status quo; God is active as the power that tosses the powerful off their thrones and raises up the lowly.  God is not concerned with the practices handed down by our ancestors, the feasts and sacrifices and burnt offerings of old; God is concerned with our doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with the Creator.  To the fundamentalists "salvation" means being assured a place in heaven; to me, "salvation" means discerning God's will in how I live among other human beings, here and now.  I know, from long experience, that while we use the same vocabulary, we do not speak the same language.  Does that make them afraid of me, or even fearful for the state of my immortal soul (I've experienced both reactions, over the years)?  So be it.

Waldman and Drum are right, in one respect:  I should acknowledge the fears and anxieties of the groups they identify.  But they are also wrong:  I should not treat them as warriors on the wrong side of a cause I champion, nor as groups only.  I should treat them as individuals, whether they treat me as one or not.  I should recognize that while we may use the same words, we attach very different meanings to many terms.  And while I shouldn't demonize them, I can give legitimacy to their personhood, their individuality, without giving legitimacy to their ideas.

If anything, I should invite them into a consideration of what identity is, and how our thoughts about it govern our behavior, and our treatment of others.  That is a point where some of the people we think are afraid of "our world," might actually have something to teach us.

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