Friday, April 08, 2005

Friday Theology (cont)

I've suggested a couple of reasons why attempts by the Democratic Party to appeal to Christians on the basis of a shared humanitarian social and economic agenda may not bare fruit. One, the social gospel ranks below the issue of debating whether God exists or not and whether He created the world. Two, today's U.S. Christians are basically materialistic and don't really take the New Testament and its teachings that literally at least to the extent that it would threaten their lifestyle and material aspirations.

A third reason is that the Christian Right's agenda and its following is stimulated by what one of my fellow bloggers (sorry, can't remember where I read this) has identified as an "outrage" quotient (my paraphrase). Terri Schiavo, Ten Commandments, school prayer, abortion, gays, Christian Nation, etc, are all issues that are designed to provoke outrage and fear on the part of the Christian community that they and their existence is threatened by the Secular Left and liberal democratic institutions (see the recent hysteria about the courts). Trying to appeal to most Christians' compassion for others simply doesn't generate the same level of outrage, if it provokes any outrage or concern at all. In the case of corporate abuses, most Christians are not conditioned to see this as a threat against Christianity or themselves, while considerably less substantive issues, like school prayer, do seem more like a threat, and are so framed by members of the religious elite to stoke up their congregants' resentment that they--Christians--are under seige. The need to help the poor doesn't provoke the same kind of reaction.

And among many Christians, there is a not uncommon view that at least in the U.S., the Poor aren't really "poor". And compared to the poor of other countries, there's some truth to this view.

But in any event, the conservative symbolic issues that have gained traction among Christians have done so because of their ability to provoke fear on the part of Christians that they can't or soon won't be free to practice their religious beliefs. As a Christian myself, I don't share these fears, and I think the Christian Right's attempts to manipulate church goers this way takes advantage of our relative ignorance of political issues and our naturally inclined self centeredness and desire for self preservation.

So, unfortunately, I suspect appeals to U.S. religious identifiers on the basis of a more humanitarian gospel will not have a great impact. But I'm willing to be convinced wrong.

Friday Theology

Majikthise has a theologian in residence who contends that Democrats can and ought to appeal to Christian adherents on the basis of the progressivism of The New Testament and the teachings of Jesus.

I won't disagree that there isn't some room for Democrats to win over religiously-principled persons and to reframe the values debate in a manner that would reconcile the positions and advance the ideals of both.

But I'm less optimistic about this than I once was. The two basic problems I see are:

1) The evolution versus creation debate; and paradoxically,
2) Liberal assumptions about how "literally" most Christian conservatives take the Bible.

On the first point, the debate over our earth's and humanity's origins is what we might call a basic "worldview" conflict. In other words, this issue is likely to trump most others, and if Christians think (or are convinced by their religious elite) that Democrats are the "liberal" party, and that "liberals" essentially discount God's influence in creating us and sustaining the world (and are against "school prayer", the planting of religious monuments on government property, and other issues of highly symbolic, if lowly substantive value), then Christians are likely to discount anything else Democrats may put forward for a political agenda. In addition, Christians may justify to themselves their support of corporate appeasing Republican policies on a number of grounds so as to avoid ideological and mental "dissonance" or confusion in order to prioritize their basic worldview. Of the justifications Christians typically offer to minimize political support for more liberal economic policies are a) support for the poor should be carried out by individuals and churches and not the government; b) government programs are wasteful and ineffective (The "failure" of The War on Poverty, for example); c) blaming the poor themselves (personal responsibility); d) social programs are socialism-communism; e) more important to keep taxes low (so Christians can give more to charity, etc); and on and on.

As to point two, it's a paradox that the "strict constructivism" if you will, that Christians apply to Genesis and Exodus, and the belief that the Bible is infallible and should be understood literally, typically doesn't carry over to the New Testament where in most Christian churches, the essentials of Jesus's teachings simply don't get much attention. The Christian church of today is essentially a middle class phenomenon, concerned with its own and its members' prosperity. Strangely, while movies about Christ's death may sell in Evangelic-nation, movies about his ministry and teaching haven't. My basic point here is that most Christians are more likely to take their political cues from their pulpit than from the Bible. In other words, I'm afraid that the popular form of Christianity today is elite-driven and may not be suseptible to a "bottom up" revolution inspired by the followers in the pews.

I Wrote the Infamous Schiavo "Talking Points" Memo

I, Senator Jay Billington Bulworth, wrote the memo, and I'm terribly sorry. I admit I was playing politics with the issue and wished only to advance my own sorry, stalled career. But a lot of innocent Republican officials and conservative bloggers have suffered from my chicaneries. And for that, I wish to confess my wrongs.

It should have been clear to all that my Republican friends and conservative colleagues had no political ambitions with the Schiavo case. After all, they passed a bill in Texas that explicitly allows hospitals to pull the plug on patients, regardless of the family's wishes, so why would they have sought political advantage from this one case? In addition, if the Republicans really wanted to play politics with the "culture of life", why, they wouldn't have proposed such drastic cuts in the Medicaid program, which as I understand it, was helping to underwrite Terri Schiavo's care. Finally, the fact that Republicans have pushed so hard for legislation limiting medical malpractice awards--the kind which supported most of Ms. Schiavo's care--and for legislation restricting the ability of working families to declare bankruptcy due to medical crises, should have perfectly illustrated the Republican Party's stance on this issue and the broader range of "culture of life" matters.

So, regardless of whatever you may hear in the next few days about some staffer from Senator Martinez's office having written the memo, rest assured dear friends, that I, Jay Bulworth, deserve the blame for this terrible tragedy. However, I bare no responsibility for the words uttered by Tom DeLay, when at a recent gathering of the Family Research Council, he said:

Its more than just Terri Schiavo. It is a critical issue for people in this position, and it is also a critical issue to fight the fight for life, whether it be euthanasia or abortion. And I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, one thing that God has brought to us is Terri Schiavo, to elevate the visibility of whats going on in America...This is exactly the issue thats going on in America, of attacks against the conservative movement, against me and against many others. The point is, the other side has figured out how to win and defeat the conservative movement, and that is to go after people personally, charge them with frivolous charges, link that up with all these do-gooder organizations funded by George Soros, and then get the national media on their side. That whole syndicate that they have going on right now is for one purpose and one purpose only, and thats to destroy the conservative movement. Its to destroy conservative leaders, not just in elected office but leading. I mean, Ed Feulner of the Heritage Foundation was under attack in the National Journal. This is a huge, nationwide, concerted effort to destroy everything we believe in. You need to look at this, at whats going on, and participate in fighting back. One way they stopped churches from getting into politics was Lyndon Johnson, who passed a law that said you couldnt get into politics or you were going to lose your tax-exempt status because they were all opposed to him when he was running for President. That law were trying to repeal; its very difficult to do that. But the point is, when they knock out a leader, then no other leader will step forward for a while, because they dont want to go through the same thing. If they go after and get a pastor, then other pastors shrink from what they should be doing. It forces Christians back into the church, and thats whats going on in America...

So, again, don't blame the Republicans or Powerline for the Schiavo memo. President Harry Truman was known for the placque on his desk that said The Buck Stops Here. Well, friends, the buck truly does stop here. I wrote the memo and deserve whatever penalty may befall me.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Exceeding Low Expectations

If you've been watching any of the after-death-Pope coverage on cable (and face it, how can you get away from it?) than you might have noticed many of the punditeers praising the deceased Pope's commitment to the "culture of life". This is univerally seen to be a very great thing. Even Franklin Graham, son and apparent heir to father Billy Graham's evangelical ministry, louded the Pope's contribution to the "culture of life".

Now, maybe Graham, and the rest of them, didn't know what else to say. But does it seem to you, as it does to me, that this bit about the "culture of life" in regards to the Pope is rather a strange way to praise a just deceased priest, a man of the cloth, a someone who was the head of the Catholic Church for 26 years? Having a commitment to the "culture of life" seems to me to be a rather low bar of expectations. I mean, what did they think the Pope would do? That the Pope would have led a bloody inquisition? That he would have announced his support for a new "abortion on demand" policy?

It is true that a few anti-hagiography pieces about the Pope have been printed in the last few days, namely one from Thomas Cahill in yesterday's NYT, detailing not only the decline in Catholic church attendance in the U.S. and Europe during the Pope's reign, and the decline in the number of priests, but the authoritarianism of this Pope, which has created a certain climate of conformity and "yes" men among the Cardinals he's appointed, and a stifling of intellectual and moral dissent.

It's also strange in a way that the multitude of anti-papacy voices among the Protestant congregations and evangelical elite have been strangely muted through all this. Even Franklin Graham preferred to stress the similar goals, rather than the theological differences, existing between Catholocism and Protestantism.

I've been thinking of trying my hand at addressing some of those distinctions in the coming days. Perhaps the advent of a new Pope will provide an opportunity for these issues to be discussed on the nation's airwaves. But I doubt it.