The beginnings of all things are weak and tender. We must therefore be clear-sighted in beginnings, for, as in their budding we discern not the danger, so in their full growth we discern not the remedy. — Michael de Montaigne: Essays, III, 1588
This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. — Isaiah, as quoted by Jesus in Matthew 15:8,9
There is a movement among some of my fellow Christians to establish America as a Christian Nation, the vanguard of the Kingdom of God. In their vision of America abortion will be made illegal, women will be discouraged from working outside the home, the death penalty will be applied more frequently and with less review, homosexuality will be re-criminalized, and Christianity will become the State Religion. Other religions will be banned or strongly encouraged to disappear before Christ comes with Power and Glory. Our judges will be required to interpret law in accord with a literal interpretation of scripture. Science will no longer be allowed to challenge religion, but will be made to serve it, as will politics, education, and every other aspect of social and private life. Every one will acknowledge the Bible (usually the King James Version - Latter Day Saints prefer the Book of Mormon) to be the inerrant Word of God, and we will be ruled by Church approved Regents, until He comes. Of course, we will convert the rest of the world, including Communists and Jews, by a judicious combination of persuasion and military power.
To its advocates it's beautiful. To its opponents it's laughable. To me it is cause for soul-searching about faith and politics. The Christian Rightists seek to get this society under control in order to achieve unity and purity of thought - they want to enforce assimilation of everyone into a Christian Fundamentalist mold, and to reject anyone who will not or cannot fit. This desire may come from a yearning in the soul akin to the Nazis' desire to achieve purity of race - to enforce assimilation into an ideal Aryan mold. The analogy may seem far-fetched, but the Christian Right neglects to condemn consistently the so-called "Christian Identity" Movement which consists of Skin-Heads, Neo-Nazis, and Klansmen who use the Bible to justify racism and anti-Semitism in the name of "kicking the Canaanite out of our land." Now, I don't really expect the Christian Right to inflict a regime of brutal violence, if it gains power. But I do expect it to enact increasingly repressive laws and to erode civil liberties in the name of God until freedom of speech applies only to those who say what the Christian Right wants to hear. Then dissenters will be dealt with severely, as were Jesus and the prophets.
Although the Christian Right is not yet strong enough to elect its own presidential candidate (Pat Robertson in 1988, Pat Buchanan in 1992), it is strong enough to set the agenda for presidential and other campaigns to a substantial degree, and to influence Presidential appointments. We Americans must remember that the Nazis seized power in Germany, not because they ever had a voting majority, but because they wanted to win so badly. They were willing to use any means necessary for as long as it took. Their opposition was not, and it lost, with terrible consequences. My main point is that the Christian Right poses a danger to freedom of thought and action in our society, to which liberals and conservatives have not responded. This lack of response may enable the Christian Right to dominate American politics without being a majority, giving them effective control over what we think and do.
Of course, to mount an effective response to true believers, you have to believe in something yourself. These days American conservatives believe in God, Country, and Family Values (perhaps blasphemously assuming these ideas to be necessarily harmonious) and generally go along with the Christian Right, whether or not they completely support the Christian Right agenda. After all, Christianity gives a high moral tone to their general abandonment of the already disenfranchised. Liberals want to care for people and the planet, but beyond that they seem to have abandoned their beliefs, including their belief in civil liberties and in the idea that America has a necessary and legitimate role in the world that must sometimes be furthered by force. Hence, the 1988 presidential election was declared by its loser to be about competence, rather than ideology. In other words, at least in the area of political rhetoric, the Christian Right is largely unopposed with the exception of the abortion issue. (The "politically correct" brand of pseudo-intellectualism seems to me to include a kind of assault on the idea that being an American is a creedal heritage based on affirmation of the Constitution, rather than an ethnic heritage - it actually aids the Christian Right by diverting the energies of the political center.)
Compounding the weakness of the liberals and the dishonesty of the conservatives, is a devaluing of dissent in America. In June 1989 the President of the United States began attacking the first amendment guarantee of freedom of expression by calling for an amendment to the Constitution making it illegal to damage the flag. Whatever his real motivation he managed to divert the attention of Christian Rightists from more difficult issues like school prayer, etc., while still retaining their favor.
Now flag burning is dissent not against the American Government, but against the American People and the American Way of Life. It is usually done by kooks, but needs to be protected because the majority of Americans can be and have been wrong, as when we interned Japanese Americans in concentration camps during WW II. We didn't kill them, as the Nazis killed the Jews, but we did ruin the lives they had made for themselves as they tried to live out the American Dream. The US government is now paying reparations to the victims, or to their estates, for this unjust act. By protecting the freedom to burn the flag we Americans can remind ourselves of our capacity for collective self-righteousness and tyranny of the minority by the majority.
But, according to Newsweek polls, 70% of us would rather forget. We Americans may yet vote away one of our freedoms. In October 1989, the Democrats (who would rather sell out civil liberties than defend their liberal tradition) pushed a law against flag-burning through Congress. It is in this political climate - conservatives pandering, liberals selling out (or in the case of "PC" flaking out), and the peoples' desire to feel good about themselves extending to self-righteousness - that the Christian Right is attempting to become powerful.
Christian Right ideology begins with the Born Again Experience, because most Christian Rightists are Born Again Christian Fundamentalists. By being Born Again they refer to a particular experience, a religious conversion in which you feel the bottom drop out of your life and soul, and in which you may hear, see, and feel God pick you up and put you back together. On the other hand, my mind will sometimes experience neural activity while I am asleep, and in order to explain the activity to itself, it will produce a dream. Similarly, while I think the conversion experience may be genuine (I'm sure of it in some people I know), I'm dubious of the conclusions many people draw after such an experience, particularly those who take on a rigid belief system rather than a simple childlike trust, or faith.
Once you are Born Again, you are Saved from Hell. Now Hell is so important to the Christian Fundamentalists that they get homesick for it if they go too long without hearing about it from the pulpit. It is as central to their belief as Jesus Christ, himself. It fulfills their need for revenge - Heaven is made sweeter for them when they contemplate the fate of their detractors. It helps them with self-control by providing the threat they need to coerce themselves into behaving as they want to.
I think Hell also names the overwhelming anxiety Christian Fundamentalists feel at the prospect of losing control of their soul, of their being, at death. It is not the fear that death is oblivion, but the fear that it is falling alone into an infinite abyss of time and space, that it is being "Lost," or worse. Many Born Agains describe that kind of anxiety prior to their conversion. Just as a phobic will do anything to avoid the object of his or her phobia, a Christian Rightist will do anything to avoid experiencing that dread. As such, the Threat of Hell is often a more powerful motivator for him or her than the Love of Christ. The last thing a Fundamentalist wants to do is to screw up in God's eyes and lose his or her Salvation.
Paradoxically, the anxiety named by Hell is why many Christian Fundamentalists exhibit an aggressive confidence which admits no possibility of error or doubt - it's called "cover-opposite" in the counseling trade ("reaction-formation" to Freudians). They can't stand to feel doubt because it exposes them to the fear of Hell, so they block it out, and cover up the fear with an opposing emotion, certainty of belief. Thus, many Christian Fundamentalists control their thoughts very carefully, keeping them away at all costs from certain aspects of the reality in their own souls. As a formerly Christian Fundamentalist friend of mine put it, "When you buy into the program, they put black holes in your personality that you can't look into."
They also block out external realities. A Christian Fundamentalist cannot risk the company of sinners, unless he or she is trying to "save" them, too. Otherwise, the contact may induce the Christian Fundamentalist to sin - if you listen to the sinner, you may see it his way - which will cause God to loose his fragile grip, and let you slip into the dreaded Hell. Those who will not be saved are therefore to be shunned by the Christian Fundamentalist, if not persecuted. I mention persecution because the flip side of fear is anger. If someone pushes you in front of a speeding car just to scare you, you will react with hostility. If you challenge even the least central beliefs (and I affirm the most central belief) of a Fundamentalist, he or she may become as hostile as if you had pushed him or her in front of Hell. It is well to remember that Jesus got himself killed when he challenged beliefs of the Pharisees.
And it is easy to challenge the beliefs of the Christian Fundamentalists, because they perceive almost any comment on their dogma to be such a challenge. You see, in the face of Hell, you have to be right about all of what you believe, in the smallest detail. You become an all-or-nothing perfectionist because you can't afford any mistakes. If a chink can be found in the walls of your belief, there might be another, and another, and the walls might come tumbling down. And then, it's just you and Hell. So, you cling tightly to the historical traditions of your belief system. You accept no modifications, no new information regarding them. It's got to be all fixed, immutable, and written down. And for everyone else to be saved, they have to be just like it says, just like you. If they're not, then they'd better become like you, because they're dangerous to you and to themselves. So, if you're Saved, you either try to fix them, get away from them, or get them away from you. Anything to maintain control of your Salvation - except simply trusting in God, as it says in the Bible.
In other words, deep down Fundamentalists know that God is angry. They swallow the camel of their dogma like an elixir to anesthetize themselves to further experience of God's Wrath, and call the absence of it God's Love. Perhaps that explains their tendency to act out the Wrath upon those who do not conform to their dogma.
Up to this point, we see the Christian Rightist as having accepted an anxiety-ridden belief system from a religious experience. With this pre-structured belief system or dogma, the Christian Rightist drags issues into the center of his or her faith that are really peripheral. This making peripheral things to be as important as God is a kind of idolatry, of setting up false gods.
The beginning of that idolatry is literalism (called inerrancy by the literalists), the idea that the Bible is literally true in every word, that it is the unaltered word of God. The adjective "unaltered" is hard to justify, since even the King James Version has been changed since its first printing. Specifically the 15 books of the Old Testament Apocrypha, which appeared in the original edition of 1611, were omitted in some editions in 1616, and were gradually dropped altogether. Long before that, the ending verses in Mark (16:9-20) were added by an editor in the second century A.D. And then there are contradictions in the text itself. Matthew and Luke disagree concerning Jesus' lineage, while Mark doesn't know about His lineage, or considers it unimportant. Matthew and Mark disagree on how many blind men Jesus healed, and on how many men with unclean spirits Jesus cured by casting the spirits into swine. Two contradictory accounts of the same event cannot both be literally true in every word. Literalism is wrong. To insist on literalism is to attempt to make God into your image of what you want God to be. And that is idolatry, because your image is not God. Or as a Born Again Christian friend of mine put it, "Literalism is reading the word without the Spirit."
The literalists may try to save themselves by insisting that I pick on trivial things rather than important ones, and that there are no contradictions in the Bible on any important points. I happen to agree, but they have abandoned their case by admitting that the Bible is subject to interpretation, at least as to what is and is not important in it. And here is where the literalist makes the second plunge into idolatry - selective literalism. Because the literalist needs to feel secure in salvation, to be right, he or she tends to gloss over some of the more challenging sections in the New Testament about loving the unlovable, and to emphasize some of the more self-congratulatory parts of the Old Testament about purity of body and belief. Now, finding only what you want to find in the Bible is another form of idolatry - instead of manipulating the image of God, you manipulate God's message. All Christians do it to some extent - it's just that literalists don't admit it. And because they don't admit it, they are not open to alternative interpretations, explanations, or points of view - they are unrepentant in their idolatry.
Literalists also insist that the whole Truth is in the Bible (which the Bible itself denies), and nowhere else. Moreover, they consider all of life to be merely a test (which, of course, they have passed by believing the correct doctrine) of who will get into Heaven, and all of history a test of which peoples are chosen. Now if this were true, life for Christians would be pointless. God could read the Bible to us as disembodied spirits and send us to paradise or perdition depending on how we liked it. But life can't be described, it has to be lived to be known - just as Kurosawa's cinematography has to be seen to be appreciated. In other words, the Truth is a living Truth in which we must participate for the Book about it to make sense. Part of the literalists' idolatry is that they deny the living Truth when it comes in the form of people's experience, science, history, or literature - whenever it surprises them by being greater than they imagine.
As a religious scientist, I can't resist mentioning Creationism as an example of how literalists deny both biblical and extra-biblical truth. Creationism is the literalist doctrine that the story of Creation in Genesis 1-3 is true as history, rather than as an allegorical description of our spiritual situation. In the form of fossils, the stones cry out (to borrow a phrase from Luke 19:40) that a literal interpretation of Genesis is false. Some Creationists claim that fossils were put there either by God or the Devil to test us, but that argument is equivalent to claiming that God weaved, or allowed someone else to weave, deceit into the fabric of Creation, rather than Truth. Creationists should shudder to advance such blasphemy.
Creationism is not only false, it is idolatrous in the sense that Creationists make God out to be the God they expect from their particular reading of Genesis, rather than the God who is and who reaches into our personal experience. Why then do some folks insist so strongly on it? By interpreting Genesis literally, you can imagine that Original Sin is something someone else did long ago, that is mysteriously being held against you. It doesn't feel so bad that way, because it doesn't seem really a part of you. It can be washed off, and you can still be you. In particular, if you think you're already de-sinned, you think you can still be the same old you on both sides of Death. Death won't bring on any frightening changes. Thus thinking that you are already "fixed," you can allow yourself to be (in fact, you need to be) self-righteous, which is itself sinful. In short, Creationism is bad religion.
It's also bad science. Science is the discipline of searching for truth by always being open to doubt about your ideas, and continually testing them against the world around you, and the ideas of your colleagues. "Creation Science" doesn't work this way at all. It has a built-in bias that the data can only be interpreted in a certain way. It admits no possibility of falsification, and therefore no possibility of being tested objectively. To teach Creationism as science is to teach students willfully to ignore and distort the evidence of their own eyes, in the same way that the Church refused to acknowledge that the earth moves around the sun, despite the evidence of the eye and telescope, because such facts were not mentioned in the Bible. To teach kids to distort data cripples their minds - it robs them of their God-given freedom to explore and to know God's Creation as it lies before them, and as they take part in it. And once you can get kids willfully to ignore reality, you can get them to believe whatever you want. It's a form of mind-control.
So, to sum it up, the Christian Rightists have embraced a religion based more strongly on the fear of Hell than the Love of Christ. They try to control others by converting them, forcing them to modify their behavior, or shunning them, so that they will receive only those impressions from reality that harmonize with their beliefs. (In fact, many so circumscribe their world that they read nothing but the Bible and certain commentaries on it - a sort of book burning mentality.) They even try to control God (whom they apparently distrust) by second guessing His Judgment. They selectively ignore the Scripture that Judgment is the prerogative of Him who gave Himself for us. When they judge people to be Saved or Lost, they dehumanize them instead of treating them with respect and love. In short, I believe that while the Christian Rightists are Saved, some of their doctrines are inconsistent with their Christianity.
So much for the who Christian Right people are and what they believe. Now let's look at what they want, the political issues the Christian Right is using to further its agenda of reuniting Church and State in America.
Take the issue of school prayer. The Christian Rightists want teachers to begin each day by leading their students in spoken prayer. The liberals, by determined foot-dragging, have been able to get the Christian Rightists to try for a simple moment of silence (or to use the Pledge of Allegiance as a substitute issue). Still, liberals answer this one weakly, repeating that the Founding Fathers wanted separation of Church and State. That's true, but it lacks punch. I, however, prefer that kids learn to pray - and the last thing I want for them to be taught is to chant in unison with other kids led by a paid agent of the State and to call it prayer.
You see, the issue is not prayer, it's power. In Matthew 6:5, Jesus criticizes those who make a public show of piety, admonishing his followers to pray in private. In other words, not only is there no Scriptural basis for school prayer, there is basis in Scripture to argue against it. The Christian Rightists are being selectively literalist here by ignoring an injunction from Christ in order to force kids to pray. It's a way of making them better, of sculpting their kids in their own image, of keeping them under control. (It's ironic, too, because it is in becoming like their parents that children inherit their particular style of Original Sin - see "Reviving a Dead Language" in this collection.)
That power is at issue really becomes clear when we consider the Christian Right attempt to control sexuality by attempting to suppress sex education. Considering that there is a growing list of incurable sexually transmitted diseases, and that one of them (AIDS) is fatal, I think failure to provide children with adequate information on sex to be, well, un-Christian. Remember that the father of the prodigal son set his kid up to return - broke, hungry, and humiliated, but alive and well. He did not set his kid up to die because he disapproved of the kid's behavior, as the Christian Rightists do by attempting to suppress information about safer sex. In other words, the Christian Right's making a public health issue into a moral one continues to hamper efforts to prevent the spread of AIDS.
As long as we're on the subject of sex, how about abortion, an issue on which the Christian Right faces vocal opposition? Not all anti-abortionists are Christian Rightists, but the Christian Right uses this issue because it gets so much support from people who otherwise disagree with them. It is a way of amplifying the power of a minority to effect a change in the law, which will make it easier to effect other changes later. After all, you can't enter a room until you get your foot in the doorway.
The following two paragraphs are grayed because, after months of reflection, I cannot refute Mulry Tetlow's objections to them. Please see the Abortion Plank for an updated discussion. Also, I was unaware of the issue of late-term (sometimes referred to as "partial-birth" ) abortions at the time of this writing. I now have a separate piece on that issue. I have let the paragraphs stand here, because I still think they have some useful points.
The abortion debate is joined by two groups, "Pro-Choice" and "Pro-Life." Both terms are misleading. The Pro-Choicers work harder to resist the anti-abortionists than to improve women's other reproductive choices. And if the Pro-Lifers really care about life, why do most of them favor the death penalty, why are they willing to let teenagers die of AIDS instead of giving them safer sex information, and why do they forget to help women in our inner-city ghettos (which have an infant mortality rate higher than the national average) find prenatal care? Why are they not more active in stopping child abuse, improving day care, and seeking funds for pediatric medical care (as many Pro-Choicers do), rather than policing abortion clinics and maternity wards? The issue for the anti-abortionists is neither reverence for life, nor care of children, but self-justification. They want to show off to God how good they are by forcing pregnant women to have their babies. (There are also side issues driving this debate, such as the economic pressure two-career families put on one-career families, hostility to social change, and the idea that children are punishment for sexual promiscuity — an idea which invites child neglect and abuse.)
But to address the issue itself, everybody knows that when a woman has an abortion, a living being gets killed. The "Pro-Lifers" argue that fetuses have a "right" to life, while the "Pro-Choicers" argue that a pregnant woman has a "right" to a safe and effective medical procedure. I think all this talk of "rights" polarizes the debate in a misleading way. A fetus is not the chattel property of a pregnant woman, nor is she a hostage to her fetus. Rather than to make the abortion debate one of individual rights versus the State, or, a mother's rights versus those of her unborn fetus, all parties to the debate need to realize that the Law is a blunt instrument, unsuitable to a situation as delicate as this one. As a society we need to do more to care for children after they are born, and while they grow up. Then mothers would be less motivated to get rid of their unborn children. Or to put it theologically, the solution is more ministry and less moralizing. And not ministry by preaching, but ministry by caregiving, by helping with whatever kind of help is needed (including getting the father's help) to keep the mother a going concern as a human being , and to raise her children. We also need ministry to help women achieve status without having to become mothers, unless you like overpopulation and dysfunctional families. You see, if you're not willing to help raise those kids, then maybe you shouldn't be so eager to use the Law to force someone else to do so.
The abortion issue has of course raised the issue of judicial activism. When the US Supreme Court struck down state laws banning abortion in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the Christian Rightists were against judicial activism. Now that the federal judiciary is dismantling Roe (due to judicial appointments by two presidents in a row, Reagan and Bush, who pandered to the Christian Right) they are changing their tune.
After all this discussion of killing, let's turn to the death penalty, itself. It's a wonder to me that the Christian Right favors it. Pretend you're living in the Roman colony of Judea. Would you be willing to argue in favor of the death penalty as the State leads two career criminals and one holy man to their crosses? The Christian belief is that God showed up as a homeless, condemned criminal. While the death penalty was pretty common in the Old Testament, every time the people applied it in the New Testament, they got the wrong guy. First they got Jesus, and then they got Stephen, the first lay minister. You'd think there would be a message in that.
Put in secular terms, the idea that we can apply the death penalty more justly than in ancient times is merely the idea that we won't nail anybody important. What really happens is that the powerful apply it to the powerless, in order to preserve their power, and "the way things ought to be." It's a way for the majority to self-righteously say, "We are not like you - we are good, and we'll be even better when you're not around." On the other hand, it was Jesus who stopped a perfectly Levitically legal execution of a prostitute by saying, "Let one among you who is without sin cast the first stone."
If it seems absurd that one associated with nuclear weapons would oppose the death penalty, consider the following. We threaten or perform an act of war in order to get others in our power (or to keep them from getting us in theirs), whereas a convicted and incarcerated criminal (like a defeated enemy) is already in our power. If we have the will to keep him or her in our power, then execution is justified only by our anger - and anger of one form or another is the motivation for the convict's crime in the first place. By execution we compound anger with anger, rather than take an opportunity to be generous toward one least deserving. And if we have not the will to keep the convict in our power, we are killing the convict to make up for our own weakness.
Another Christian Right agenda is to recriminalize homosexuality. Jesus apparently said nothing about this subject, however. Not only are the Gospels silent regarding homosexuality, they are silent about Christ's sexuality, perhaps because those issues are not as important as His followers sometimes make them. To construct an anti-homosexual message from the letters of Paul, without paying heed to the silence of Christ, is to commit the idolatry of selective literalism. It is remaking your religion to support your sexual politics. It is also denying the reality that about 10% of all people are homosexual, and that people do not choose their affectional orientation (a term having more to do with love than sex), any more than they choose their gender. If you're straight, consider this: could you feel the same way about someone of your own sex as you feel or felt about the love of your life? Not a chance. Being straight is not a matter of choice, it's just the way you are. Gays and lesbians don't get to choose, either. Nor do bisexuals, who are stuck in their ability to go both ways.
Now the Christian Right wants us to buy this shopping list of social issues, despite its price - which is more than the neglect of poverty, disease, and violence - it is servitude to their will, which they claim to be identical with God's.
As I stated earlier, the Christian Rightists want to seize State Power, including the power of life and death, in order to control what people do, say , and think in order to maintain control of their salvation, rather than entrust it to God. In particular, the Christian Rightists want to control everyone else partly as a means of controlling themselves (if no one else can get away with sin, the Christian Rightists will be less tempted) and partly as a way of reassuring themselves that they are chosen (earning brownie points in Heaven). The social issues the Christian Rightists raise are mostly those easiest to use to further this agenda.
Well, is it Christian to seize State Power? Christ didn't seem to think so. He said that one who would be first must be last, and that one who would lead must be the servant of all. According to Christian belief, he could have taken over the government - indeed many thought he would - but he chose not to do so, even at the cost of his life. He chose to be a homeless wanderer, and to comment from within society.
And that should be the moral function of the Church - to inform society rather than to control it. When Christianity got in bed with the State, both became corrupt, because neither had another earthly power to which they needed answer. (And the Christian Fundamentalists are not immune to corruption - Mr. Bakker and Mr. Swaggart remind us of that.) The corruption stimulated the development of the idea of the separation of Church and State, and eventually the Protestant Reformation. Let me put it another way: There is not one among us fit to rule in Christ's stead. By trying to eliminate Sin in others by force, by organizing to take control of the government, we merely compound the sins of others with those of our own. We can love one another in His name, but not rule.
So in a nutshell, while the Christian Right is Christian, its dogma, issues, and agenda are not. The liberals should be less afraid to say so. The point of all this haranguing on my part is not so much to criticize the Christian Right, but to lash the liberals for ceding to them the moral high ground.
Liberals, however, do not feel legitimate in criticizing the Christian Right at this level, because the Christian Right has a legitimate criticism of them. Liberals don't seem to know what they believe in. They have some amorphous ideas about individual rights, and social welfare, and some ideas that government programs alone can solve deep social problems. They tend to think of military and social expenditures as "guns versus butter," even though our experience in Somalia indicates that we must have both. If there is any theme that unites these beliefs, it's what the Christian Rightists call Secular Humanism.
Now Secular Humanism is a misnomer in this case, because the liberals are not necessarily secular, nor are they sincerely humanist. Many of them are churchgoers, and the moral outrage of the unchurched at the hypocrisy of many Christians is an emotion that is itself religious. As for the humanist part, they like humanity all right, and the poor, but only as long as they are somewhere else. For most liberals, government programs serve to assuage their guilt for their unwillingness to get personally involved with the people they subsidize. But social change cannot be bought by money alone — it needs your personal involvement in the lives of others. And not out of a sense of noblesse oblige, but out of genuinely wanting to be in community with them. The price of social change is not just your money, it is your time, it is you.
The problem with the liberals is not Secular Humanism, it's moral relativism, the idea that the Good is unknowable. The fallacy of that idea is that the Bad is knowable, and throughout human history, we have known it often and well. Moral relativism just isn't up to dealing with hard-core evil.
But the liberal brand of moral relativism isn't so much relative as perfectionist. They have a "sense" of the Good, but nobody comes anywhere close to meeting it. I met a young very liberal musician who adamantly argued that there was no fundamental difference between the actions of the Soviet Union and the actions of the United States. That we did not militarily occupy or subjugate our allies (as did the Soviets — remember Germany and Japan were our enemies in WW II), that we did not institute artificial famine, killing millions of our own citizens to make economic "progress" (as did the Soviets), etc., seemed to make no impression on him. I'll admit that he is an extreme case, but his type is common. He denies that the United States is basically good, because it is imperfect. He prefers to bemoan the flaws in this country rather than consider ways to use the country's strengths to correct them. (He also forgets that international politics is like the politics of a dysfunctional family - and that acting sane when everyone else is acting crazy can put you at a disadvantage.)
This attitude is partly based on a kind of learned helplessness that comes from a distorted individualism. If you as an individual can't do anything about the evils you see in the world, you tend to think the problems are insoluble, and give up. This defeatist attitude amounts to amnesia regarding the successful community organizing by many liberals in the 1960's and 1970's. Of course you can't do anything about social, national, or global problems by yourself. You have to act in community with your fellow human beings. And if your fellow human beings simply do not form a community, you have to create it.
A striking description of the sense of community was given by a drill instructor (Captain Pingree, USMC, 1982) filmed by Gwynne Dyer's crew for his PBS television series WAR. The instructor tells his recruits that they should rescue a wounded comrade under fire, "because he's a Marine, and he's in your unit. He's one of you." The drill instructor imbues his men with the belief that they are going to go out there and do good. And, if we ask them to fight only for good causes, they will do good, relatively speaking. But we must remember that Adolf Hitler also created a sense of community (Scott Peck would say pseudo-community) among his people, and got them to do evil. Lesson one, liberals: sometimes a sense of community is created by leaders with strong beliefs. Lesson two: if you do not create community for the Good, you leave a moral vacuum which someone else may fill by creating community for something less than the Good.
Lest this sound like implicitly regarding the public as simply a mobile vulgus, a mob, I point out that following a bad leader in no way absolves you from guilt for your actions. (The United States and its allies said as much at the Nuremberg trials.) You are indeed responsible for yourself as a moral individual, and no one else is responsible for you. But you are also responsible to the community in which you find yourself, to make it a moral community, as it is responsible to you, to correct you when you get too far out of line. You and your community must simply take care to use moral means to achieve your objectives, so that you will not have done great wrong, in case you turn out to be mistaken.
The creation of moral community is hampered by the lack of moral, emotional language, what I call the language of faith. Good, old fashioned words like sin, evil, judgment, deliverance, faith, hope, and ministry, have all been cheapened by their misuse in the sales pitches of the Christian Rightists. The Christian Rightists have even abused the name of God, by ascribing to him a limited, human ideology. Now to use these words you don't have to subscribe to Christianity, or any organized religion. But you do need to have convictions of some kind, and to be clear about them. If you say you have none, you are probably lying, and in any case I don't want you for my leader.
The liberals have thus far failed to create a national community, and have abandoned the field (as they slide leftward) to a group of true believers, the Christian Rightists, whose agenda is mistaken if not in part evil. The Christian Rightists can move people with their passionate rhetoric, while the liberals shun such rhetoric because it smacks of demagoguery. But the liberals must get passionate in order to convince people to follow them. To get passionate they must believe that they know the Good, and yet retain the grace to doubt their beliefs, and even to change them when they're wrong. (I think belief without doubt is simply denial of reality, in the sense that drug abuse counselors might use that phrase - it is a "God-addiction.")
And what is the Good? Knowledge of the Good has eluded philosophy for centuries because it's a religious problem. The Good is something you come to know, rather than something you can deduce by unaided reason. Reason can (and must) check an idea of the Good against reality, but it cannot generate that idea. To do good, you must act on faith without leaving your brain behind.
The error made by the Christian Rightists, their conservative fellow travelers, and their muddle-headed liberal opponents is failure to scrutinize their beliefs; they allow themselves to be ultimately concerned about things that are less than ultimate. The consequence may be the Self-Righteous State, an America in which freedom and justice are sacrificed to appease a Fundamentalist misconception of God, by a self-willed people hell-bent on showing Jesus how right they are about his Word.
- For a discussion of New Testament as distinct from family values, see L. William Countryman, Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and their implications for today, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1988.
- The reflexive pacifism associated with liberals after the Vietnam War may have undercut their ability to speak convincingly for domestic social justice, because conservatives consider reflexive pacifism to be a threat. See for an extreme example, David Horowitz, "The 'Peace' Movement," Second Thoughts Project, PO Box 2669, Hollywood, CA, 1991. Horowitz contends that the peace movement has "sold its collective soul to the revolutionary enthusiasms of the political Left," which he characterizes as "a nihilistic force whose goal is to deconstruct and dismantle America as a democracy and a nation," because "what the Left wants is that the U.S. should have no army at all." In light of this fear, conservatives may view attempts to change part of "the system" as covert attempts to dismantle all of it.
- Perhaps this attack on individual liberty is encouraged by the idolatrous practice of putting our national flag in churches. I consider this idolatrous because, while I love both my God and my country, I save my worship for God alone -- as far as I'm concerned, the flag stays outside the sanctuary.
- Or the sin of Pride. See for example C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Collier Books, New York, 1952, pp 108-114.
- I distinguish between Born Again Christians who I believe serve as reminders of the living Christ, and Born Again Christian Fundamentalists who I believe cover their religious experience with idolatry and willfulness.
- Religious conversion experiences are described extensively in William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, New American Library, New York, 1958.
- If you haven't had the experience, see The Varieties of Religious Experience, op. cit. You can find a vivid portrayal of one variety of it in James Baldwin's Go Tell it on the Mountain and of its effects on personality in his Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (in this variety the experience is filled more by the desire to escape from oneself than to be with God -- it is similar to the denial and transformation of self that some people try to achieve by attempting suicide). Another variety of it seems like the experience of kensho described by some Buddhists -- see Roshi Philip Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen, Anchor Press, Garden City, NY, 1980. I think some people have a mostly emotional experience, and believe they have been born again, while others have experiences that go much deeper, as St. Augustine describes in his Confessions.
- If you've never felt such anxiety, read The Tibetan Book of the Dead in a lonely place. For more on anxiety and faith see Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1952.
- Many Christians still believe that God is a vengeful, spiteful, mean-spirited tyrant. A striking and humorous discussion of this is in Warren S. Smith, ed., The Religious Speeches of Bernard Shaw, McGraw-Hill, 1963. In particular, Shaw describes how he once pulled out his pocket watch and challenged God to prove his existence by striking Shaw dead in five minutes, which God declined to do. I think that those who claim that God will abandon them on any pretext may not know him as they claim they do.
- Some Christian Fundamentalists say that being with certain unsaved people "brings them down." That is, they mistake an emotional state (which is fragile) for Salvation (which is infinitely robust). Perhaps they are using their beliefs to evade dealing with their emotional problems, which enables them to feel good about themselves while they turn their churches into self-congratulatory societies (the self-flagellation in their sermons is partly initiatory hazing for newcomers, and partly a smokescreen -- the expressions of sin most easy to confess, the sexual and material, are typically substituted in place of the harder ones like betrayal and false witness). This is ironic, because evading one's emotional problems worsens one's self-estrangement (a form of Sin -- see "Reviving a Dead Language," herein). Thus, some Fundamentalists may abuse their faith to strengthen their Sin and call it Salvation. Perhaps they might do better to explore this feeling of being "brought down," and to get to know themselves as they are, i.e., to Confess. Then they would realize that their Salvation is founded not upon the sand of their loving God, but on the Rock of God's loving them.
- See "Introduction to the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books" in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, edited by Bruce Metzger and Roland Murphy, Oxford University Press, 1991.
- See the notes to these verses in The New Oxford Annotated Bible or The New Jerusalem Bible , edited by Henry Wansbrough, Doubleday, New York, 1985. For accuracy of translation into English, and level of scholarship in the annotations, these two translations of the Bible are probably the best. However, since there is also truth in beauty, I also read the King James Version.
- See also Richard W. Hinton, Arsenal for Skeptics, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1934, and Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason , 1794, republished by Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1984. Richard Elliott Friedman discusses the sources of some of the contradictions in the Hebrew Bible in Who Wrote the Bible? , Harper and Row, New York, 1989.
- Another guise of literalism is the abuse of the idea that the Bible "interprets itself" when one compares one part of scripture with another. The comparison is typically done via "word studies" in which passages containing related phrases are found with the aid of a concordance. When used with humility, such word studies can enrich your appreciation of the Bible. On the other hand, they can be abused in such a way as to make of the Bible "a talisman that is meticulously looked at rather than read," as I think Harold Bloom stated -- subjecting God's message itself to idol worship, and leaving the would be follower of Christ straining to find deeply hidden meaning while ignoring and often disobeying meanings that are perfectly obvious. Or as Christ put it, straining at gnats and swallowing camels.
- For Born Again Christians, the intimate experience of God's presence (described in such terms as the "indwelling of the Spirit of God" in one's soul) breaks through their estrangement from God, which is the most basic form of sin. Nevertheless, the tendency to estrange oneself again is something these folks struggle with as long as they live. That is, they are Forgiven, rather than perfected, in this life.
- For a detailed scientific refutation of Creationism, see Stephen Jay Gould, Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1983.
- To be fair, the Christian Right deserves credit for emphasizing a deficiency of public school sex-education programs. In order to separate sex-information from any particular religious morality, educationists often divorce sexuality from morality altogether. I think that in sexual expression people must care for themselves, each other, their potential progeny, and all of the rest of us who would otherwise be burdened or endangered by their carelessness. That is, sexuality has a way of connecting each of us to all the others which morally obliges us to kindness, if not love. That much can be taught in public schools. Beyond that, it is up to the Church to respect the separation of Church and State, and to do its job in Sunday School. See also Not Just Sunday School at this web site.
- Let's be honest. As Pope John Paul II argues in his encyclical "Veritatis Splendor" (L'Osservatore Romano, 40, 6 October 1993, par 78-80), abortion is one of those acts whose object cannot be ordered to God. It is a "negation of the honour due to the Creator," and therefore intrinsece malum, intrinsically evil. I differ with His Holiness in that I question the "goodness" of using the Law to force women to carry their babies to term. See the tract Splendor is as Splendor Does, and the Abortion Plank at at this web site.
- As St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians, "The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the Law." One interpretation of this (which most Christians rationalize their way around) is that we can abuse the Law (our understanding of God's commandments) to make our Sin worse than it already is. If Sin is estrangement (see "Reviving a Dead Language, herein) then using the law to prohibit abortion can make our Sin worse by widening the already sinful separation between the legal interests of pregnant women and those of their fetuses. Moreover, both sides of the abortion debate trivialize the concept of "rights" by attempting to argue for them in a context (the first trimester of pregnancy) in which it is currently beyond human competence to render a factually based decision regarding such rights. I regard such trivialization as arrogant and dangerous.
- Yes, I know that the Marquis de Sade opposed the death penalty, too. Apparently even some perverts think it's a bad idea. The moral problems associated with nuclear weapons design are discussed in Obscenity and Peace, at this web site.
- Maybe the Gospels have to be silent. Had they described Jesus as single or married without children, detractors of his time might have accused him of failing to keep his part of Israel's covenant relationship with God by forgoing his duty to procreate. Had they described him as married with children, struggles would have ensued as to "the succession" as did in Islam, even though the Prophet left no direct male descendants. And of course, the church after Paul could never have reconciled itself to a married Christ. In other words, when it comes to sex there's just no pleasing us human beings. The reader should note that some Gnostic writings allude to Jesus having had affectionate relations with Mary Magdalene - See The Nag Hammadi Library in English, James M. Robinson, ed., Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1988. And few people would have the faith to accept Jesus as the Messiah had the Gospels reported him as gay or female. See also "On Becoming a Christian" at this site.
- As evidence I cite "The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles and Values," from the Fall 1989 issue Free Inquiry, a publication of the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH). It is a creed. Moreover, CODESH is encouraging the formation of humanist groups around the country — effectively secular churches in which believers can meet to encourage one another in the faith. Finally, the anti-religious articles in various issues of the publication show that it is parasitic — if the Church did not exist, neither could this kind of Secular Humanism.
- See M. Scott Peck's The Different Drum, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1987, although he speaks more of community for its own sake rather than community with a specific agenda.
- The coalition that propelled President Clinton into the White House may be short-lived, since most Americans disagree with parts of the usual pre-packaged liberalism, and Mr. Clinton has yet to abandon the Democratic left wing, in terms of some of his policies and political appointees.
- An idea discussed at length in C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp 74-78.
- Some liberals are anything but muddle-headed in their attempts to circumvent the law and the constitution to silence and disempower their opponents. I refer specifically to "dirty tricks," lies, and lawsuits I witnessed during a local political campaign. It seems that some liberals embrace a variant of moral relativism that states "I'm smarter and morally superior because I'm liberal, therefore what I want is right, regardless of what the law says." Apparently liberals can themselves present a danger to our republic when they lose site of "the moral law as a whole," as C. S. Lewis put it. When liberals lose the Grace to Doubt, they step into the gray zone between Good and Evil, just like anybody else.