Monday, February 23, 2015

Two conditions that often appear alike

So now the question is:  is President Obama really a Christian?

And the answer is:  how do you know?

For one thing, is Jeremiah Wright really a Christian?  Some of us would say yes.  Some would say no.  Who is right?   Of course, the answer depends on what you mean by "Christian," and that definition depends on what confession of faith you accept as validly Christian.

Sam Harris has his answer.  Others have theirs.  Gov. Scott Walker, walking in the footsteps of Rudolph Giuliani (f/k/a "America's Mayor"), raises a different question:  is Obama really a Christian, or does he just say he is?

How do you get out of that one?

There is, of course, no escape from it:  whatever you say, your opponents merely nod and say "Yes, but does he really mean it?"  (You can do the same about Obama's patriotism, and Giuliani did).  We could chase this down pretty hard, because ultimately the answer is the same as "How do I know you love your wife?"

The only honest answer to that is:  "You don't.  You have to take my word for it."  Ordinarily, of course, that's good enough.  No one else has an interest in whether or not I love my wife but me.  The profession is a social convention for the world, a matter of importance only to the two of us.  Ideally no one would have any interest in whether or not the sitting President is of a particular faith, or of no faith at all.  It doesn't really matter to the country.

Except now, apparently, it does.  And here is the real problem with a religious test for public office:  how do you know?

I knew many a fine Southern Baptist in the East Texas town where I grew up, and members of other denominations, who always voted to ban liquor sales in the county, and always kept a fully stocked liquor cabinet.  One of the oldest jokes in my hometown is that you always take two Baptists to go fishing, because if you only have one, he'll drink all your beer.  Are such people real Christians?  Or do they just make the right noises at the right times?

And what about you?  From what privileged position do you judge?  Which is the real problem with Scott Walker's non-position, as Dana Milbank points out:

There will always be people on the fringe who say outrageous things (and Giuliani, once a respected public servant, has sadly joined the nutters as he questioned the president’s patriotism even while claiming he was doing no such thing). But to have a civilized debate, it’s necessary for public officials to disown such beyond-the-pale rhetoric. And Walker failed that fundamental test of leadership.
I will pause here to say, I considered not posting this at all.  Then this morning I read Charlie Pierce's round-up of the Sunday political blatherfest, and oh my good and heavenly Lord, they pulled me back in!

BARBOUR: Well, it's about how you can match up the opportunities. And I remember Jeremiah Wright, who is very unpopular among the people who would be voting in the Republican primary. Now, if someone were asking me about that question, that's the way, if wanted to be political, I wanted to take the question. I think Scott Walker's probably just being truthful, you know. He is a son of a preacher. He is a Christian. And he may have taken that question the way I did the first time I heard about it, do you believe he's really a Christian, or do you believe he just professes to be a Christian? But I don't know the answer to that, either.
First, that "son of a preacher" line.  That's like the tee-totalling Baptist who drinks all your beer in the fishing boat.  Seminary was rife with stories about "PK's" ("Preacher's Kids") who usually are the ones the girls lose their virginity to in the choir loft (yes, presumptively the boys; and no, I don't really imagine this was true for Scott Walker, but anyway).  Preacher's kids are not given special dispensation to read the hearts of others.  Second:  is Scott Walker a Christian?  He says he is, but I just don't know.  Maybe I believe he just professes to be a Christian.  After all, he's shown little or no concern for the poor, for the widow and the orphan, for the marginalized and the powerless.  He's shown a great deal of ability to take care of Scott Walker by preying on the gullibility of others.  So maybe he is a preacher's kid after all....

But who am I to judge?

And Barbour admits the issue is purely political; it's just red meat for the GOP primaries.  On the other hand, he says Walker is just being truthful.  Well, not as truthful as Jeremiah Wright's namesake:

The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse--
who can understand it?
I the LORD test the mind
and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings.

Jeremiah 17:9-10

The heart is devious; it cannot be understood, even by God.  But the nature of politics is to exploit that ambiguity.

There is a philosophical bent to this (of course!):

In the Cartesian Meditations, Husserl pointed out that the intentional acts that make up the flow of the other's conscious stream are inaccessible to me; they cannot be known to me without becoming mine, without destroying the alterity of the other.
And I cannot really destroy the otherness, the "alterity," of the other.  I may think I can, but I delude myself; the other remains other; beyond my grasp, and more sealed of from my understanding the more I attempt to destroy that otherness in order to gain understanding.

Haley Barbour, of course, is not interested in destroying the otherness of Barack Obama, but increasing it.  I suppose it's only coincidence nobody ever raised this issue about Bill Clinton.  Yeah, that's it....

NTodd has pointed out this isn't new in American History, so I don't take this as the latest sign of the apocalypse and the end of civilization as we know it (two favorite tropes of commenters on the intertoobs).  But it is tiresome; and there's still (as ever) that question of the splinter and the log; maybe the preacher's kid and now Gov. of Wisconsin knows that story.....

1 comment:

  1. I heard a discussion of "Presidential Candidate Tests" today (on MSNBC, per always), discussing Giuliani and the reactions (lack thereof) by the GOP candidates. Bill Clinton's "Sister Souljah Moment" was mentioned, and the Republican panelist said "Hey, Obama never had one!", and I immediately thought J Wright. Condemning a rap artist you'd never heard of till 5 minutes ago is one thing (Clinton), but condemning your own pastor? Takes MUCH more cojones.