Trump’s Con Artistry Masks the Real Threat

Donald Trump tweets a video of the choir and orchestra of First Baptist Church Dallas (Twitter Screenshot)

Donald Trump tweets a video of the choir and orchestra of First Baptist Church Dallas (Twitter Screenshot)

It’s hardly surprising that the perfect symbol of the democratic crisis created by the Trump “presidency” would be found in one of his tweets, and it’s fitting that the tweet arrived on the Fourth of July, a day dedicated to celebrating our long history of resistance to egomaniacal, self-serving, out-of-touch, petty, petulant tyrants. What is distressing is how unsurprising all of this is. Months of constantly embarrassing, un-presidential, and blatantly dishonest behavior by Donald Trump has so numbed us to the erosion of our national stability that the outcry over this latest horror was decidedly muted.

We ignore or understate the multivalent dangers of this particular tweet, however, at our grave peril. In it, a choir from a fundamentalist Christian mega-church appears at the Kennedy Center to perform a cloying, orchestral recreation of Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” Trump’s tweet can be found here. The jingoistic doggerel that comprises the lyrics can be found here.

It is difficult to know where to begin in listing all of the problems with this tweet. Perhaps the easiest place is the largest target: Donald Trump’s stunning lack of comprehension of how to behave in a presidential manner. Rather than celebrating the Fourth by sharing a rendition of a traditional song from the patriotic canon, one all Americans might find unifying, Donald Trump chose to further hammer our citizens with a divisive campaign slogan. Rather than making the Fourth of July about our ancestors’ sacrifices, Donald Trump made the holiday about himself, and rather than seeking an opportunity to unite, he found one more opportunity to divide. That is his “presidential” modus operandi in a nutshell.

The slogan itself is also deeply problematic. Donald Trump responded to eight years of economic, social, diplomatic, political, environmental, and technological progress by claiming that the past decade was a time when America’s “greatness” had been sacrificed, and that we needed to move in a new direction, undoing that progress, to make America “great” again. One wonders who could look at the Obama legacy of prosperous industries, greater equality and fairness, increased international respect, protection from voter suppression, cleaner air and water, and drives toward freedom from fossil fuels and think, “This is terrible! We need to reverse all of this!”

A quick look at the video Trump gleefully posted provides an answer. In it we see a uniformly white crowd of aging, suburban boomers, some even wearing the pearls they presumably clutch in fear as they are fed a steady diet of unsubstantiated ignorance and unfiltered bigotry. This is hardly surprising considering the demographics of Trump voters, but the tone-deaf enthusiasm with which Trump tweeted an all-white choir chanting his reactionary slogan further underscores the racism and xenophobia underlying his campaign’s message of returning to the “good ol’ days.”

Of course, equally problematic is the fact that this is a church choir singing this Orwellian piece of propaganda, which its creator chose to classify as a hymn. As history consistently teaches us, prostituting the Church in the service of Empire never ends well. More surreal, though, is the fact that any Christian group anywhere would have chosen Donald Trump and his slogan as the inspiration for their song.

Yet the overwhelming support of Donald Trump by fundamentalist Christians is well-documented, and ongoing. On the surface, it makes no sense. Trump, after all, has no grasp of Scripture, is a thrice-divorced misogynist who brags about sexually assaulting women, and a professional con-artist and liar whose egocentric self-promotion and lifestyle of venal over-indulgence are the very opposite of Christian piety. This is the man who wrote in Art of the Comeback, “I believe in an eye for an eye – like the Old Testament says” and “Some of the people who forgot to lift a finger when I needed them, when I was down, they need my help now, and I’m screwing them against the wall.” Trump subsequently cited Exodus again during his political campaign, seemingly unaware of Jesus’ categorical rejection of the concept.

Yet, presumably because of his willingness to deny refuge to the stranger; deny healthcare, food, and educational access to the poor; disenfranchise minorities; and, undermine our stewardship of creation, Christian fundamentalists have flocked to his side. This only makes sense if we recognize that Christian fundamentalism (or “conservative evangelicalism” as its proponents prefer to label the movement, to hide its radical, anti-democratic agenda) has nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with advancing a self-serving political ideology of ignorance and bigotry.

The relationship between the ascendency of Trump and the forces of fundamentalism in America, however, is about more than the blind allegiance of pablum-fed, theologically illiterate congregations. Essential to the survival of hucksters and strongmen like Trump is the ability to convince people to ignore the validity of thoughtfully analyzed and sourced information in favor of empty rhetoric. In Trump’s case, the list of confidence games he has perpetuated in the service of his bid for power seems endless.

This is a man who convinced coal miners and factory workers he would bring back jobs that are never coming back (including in manufacturing). This is a billionaire real estate developer who convinced working-class voters he was their ally, and then stocked his cabinet with fellow members of the very class that has been cheating them of their wages for decades, and then said he wouldn’t want a “poor person” in that role. This is a man who convinced voters that the protections that keep their air breathable and their water drinkable were bad for them. This is a President who put in place an Attorney General who wants to make the country “safer” by ignoring decades of evidence-based research on policing. This is a President who claims to love veterans, while cutting the programs that support them. This is a President who ran on helping the middle class, and then “leads” by advocating tax cuts for the wealthy. Every single policy and program of Donald Trump flies in the face of his own rhetoric, logic, and peer-reviewed research – yet tens of millions of Americans are convinced that he is the one to finally make America “great.”

How is this possible? How is it that so many members of the American electorate are willing to ignore facts, research, and logic? How is it that the President of the nation that gave the world the concept of a free press has millions of Americans celebrating when he sends out a video showing himself pummeling a mainstream news organization – a news group so rigorous in its commitment to journalistic integrity that it fired three journalists for an erroneous news story? How did we get to the point where tens of millions of Americans lack the critical thinking and intellectual sophistication to differentiate legitimate journalism from right-wing propaganda? How did we get to the point where tens of millions of Americans cannot tell when a con artist lies, explicitly, to their faces?

As much as it pains me to admit it as a person of faith and a member of the clergy, the answer is: religion. Not all religion, certainly, but specifically the vile, cancerous form of it that is fundamentalism. The very cognitive process that allows fundamentalism to thrive is the same one that gives legitimacy to Donald Trump’s agenda of anti-intellectual fakery.

I will give one hypothetical example as an illustration. An atheist scholar studying the first three chapters of the biblical book of Genesis, lacking any theological imperative and working simply off the extant facts, would likely conclude that they represent two different, regional variants on an older, Babylonian creation myth. A mainstream Christian scholar at a seminary like the one I attended, or – less hypothetically – teaching a Hebrew Bible course like the ones I have taught to undergraduates, would make the exact same observation. As Christians, we would add, however, that the relevance of these two creation myths comes from trying to hear what eternal truths our ancestors in the faith found in each story, separately, such that they saw fit to preserve them.

A fundamentalist Christian “scholar,” on the other hand, would insist that the myths must be read as one, historical account – all literary, anthropological, linguistic, physical, and geological evidence to the contrary. The fundamentalist approach requires that facts, logic, and good sense must be abandoned when they come into conflict with dogma. Consequently, in order to research their pre-ordained conclusions, a fundamentalist must undermine, ridicule, or simply ignore any research based on verifiable or observable data, intellectual rigor, or professional expertise.

Whereas mainstream Christianity and scientific/humanistic scholarship can co-exist without conflict, fundamentalism cannot do the same. Fundamentalism, like its anachronistic followers, cannot live comfortably in the modern world. As a result, fundamentalism must inculcate into its adherents a complete mistrust of all of the expertise and scholarship of educators and researchers, because the conclusions of experts inevitably erode the ear-tickling creeds of fundamentalist religious leaders. Accordingly, fundamentalist congregants are conditioned to rely on the charismatic rhetoric of their clergy, while also being trained to ignore all other sources of information.

This mindset – trusting only those charming speakers who tell them what they want to hear, no matter how incoherent – is the perfect breeding ground for the cult of personality and anti-intellectualism that has driven Donald Trump to power. Trump’s presidency will undoubtedly deal devastating blows to the viability of the United States as a modern, healthy, secular democracy, but he is merely the symptom. The near metastatic threat to our future as a nation is not in the Oval Office, it’s in the pulpits of the fundamentalist mega-churches. Until we can resolve the larger issue of a significant voting block that is immune to critical thinking and scientific research, we will constantly find ourselves pulled back into the medieval superstitions and neo-feudalism of Trump’s policies.

Share This:Print this pageEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

The GOP is Not the Conservative Party

Oath of the Horatii - Jacque-Louis David (1784) (Wikimedia)

Oath of the Horatii – Jacque-Louis David (1784) (Wikimedia)

As Donald Trump’s campaign of racism, ignorance, and misogyny collapses around him, some members of the Republican Party are now, finally, trying to distance themselves from his candidacy. Their ongoing argument, especially after Trump’s spectacular defeat in November, will be that the Trump candidacy was an aberration, and that his views did not reflect the actual, “conservative,” values of the Grand Old Party. This will only be partially true. The fact is, Trump’s vainglorious lies and pleas to radical bigotry are not “conservative” values, but they are completely in line with the longstanding Republican practice of selling self-serving rhetoric to the American people under the guise of “conservatism.” In so doing, Republicans have shifted the debate away from meaningful discussions based on both facts and civic virtues, and toward a false dichotomy between their self-interest and the hypothetical liberalism that opposes it.

Defining Real Conservatism

Real conservatism is about preserving the hard-won, received wisdom of our ancestors rather than simply embracing something because it is novel. To be conservative is to value tradition, and to care more about the substance of an idea rather than whether or not it is au courant. To be conservative is to tread lightly in the presence of elders, or others deserving respect, because their struggles have earned them that courtesy. To be conservative is to cherish, preserve, and pass on the concepts, behaviors, and rituals that elevate us above our baser instincts and bring out what is best in ourselves: as individuals, as a community, and as a nation.

I have lived and worked in a number of settings that value actual, conservative values like honor and tradition. I graduated from the U.S. Army Airborne School in 1992, and in 1994 was the top graduate from my PLDC class, making Sergeant in under three years. Although it is not how I earn my income, I am a seminary graduate and a member of the clergy, and my post-seminary, graduate work focused on preserving the historic liturgies of the Church. I am currently a police firearms instructor whose work focuses on counter-terrorism and public safety. I am, by many definitions of the word, a “conservative,” but I vote straight down-ballot Democratic because the modern Republican Party shares none of my conservative values.

Republican Misappropriation of the Term

Instead, the GOP has come to shield two completely unacceptable behaviors behind the conveniently benign label of “conservative.” The first is defending bigotry and oppression under the guise of “religious” values, in other words equating “fundamentalist” with “conservative.” The second is lying – about science, about the Constitution, about the consequences and motivations of legislation – in the interest of protecting either wealth or power. There is nothing “conservative” about either category of action, and disingenuously labeling those actions as such does a great disservice to the spectrum of political discourse in this country, a conversation that is almost always framed as a dichotomy between “conservative” and “liberal.”

As a result of that framing, and of the misappropriation of the “conservative” label, actual conservative and liberal views get lumped together in the convenient binaries of political journalism as “liberal,” because the “conservative” position is already staked out. This means that there is no viable debate between conservative and liberal arguments, but rather simply between the Republican position and “everything else.” These Republican positions, as noted above, fall into one of two distinctly non-conservative categories: fundamentalism or self-service.

Equating Fundamentalism with Conservatism

Let’s begin with the issue of Christian fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is a modern movement that grew out of the resistance of some early twentieth-century Christian groups to the ways in which science undermined their superstitious understanding of faith. By the end of the twentieth century, whether in Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, fundamentalism had become primarily a tool by which those whose personal or political power is threatened by the modern world – generally men with little or no education – clung to that power by hiding their racism, bigotry, and misogyny behind religious rhetoric. Two clear examples of this are: the fundamentalist Christian opposition to the American Civil Rights Movement (until it became politically untenable); and, the oppression of women and suppression of free speech that resulted in Iran after the takeover of their government by fundamentalist theocrats, something many modern Iranians continue to oppose.

It makes sense to tie American and Iranian fundamentalism together because fundamentalism in a monotheistic religion typically has more in common with other forms of monotheistic fundamentalism than it does with ideas from its own religious tradition. This is to say, fundamentalist Christianity has more in common with fundamentalist Islam or fundamentalist Judaism than it does with traditional Christianity. The reason for this is that fundamentalism doesn’t grow organically out of the historic beliefs of the tradition, it grows out of a desire to gain or retain power, and to justify that power with religious rhetoric.

Conservative Christianity

Actual, conservative Christianity is concerned with preserving the teachings of Jesus as recorded in Scripture and as practiced in the early Church. This should be self-evident, since – to be “conservative” – the goal should be to conserve the full breadth of the earliest records we have of what it means to be a Christian. In practice, though, this leads to such radically difficult and counter-cultural behaviors that anyone who truly seeks to live this way stands out for how bizarre they are. A conservative Christian:

That’s what conservative Christianity looks like. Anything less is just culturally-conformist Christianity. Personally, I’m so far removed from that it seems like hubris to even call myself a Christian, but my one saving grace is knowing how far removed most of us are from such a high standard. Additionally, not all of the practices of the Early Church (most notably, slavery) are ones I would endorse. Others are so difficult that the few who manage to implement them consistently are called “saints.” Nonetheless, what the media and the GOP consider “conservative” Christianity ignores this theological reality and replaces it with a cobbled-together collection of ideas that reinforce a white, straight, male narrative that the world was better when they were in charge.

Republican Christianity

The GOP form of “conservative” Christianity claims to be counter-cultural because it counters certain social values of cosmopolitan, urban, American culture, but actual, conservative Christianity is genuinely counter-cultural – not just in New York City, but in Kansas City as well. The priorities of real, conservative Christianity are so radically different from everyone else’s that those who practice them lead lives of extreme poverty and asceticism in their desire to fully live out the clear mandates of Scripture. They fit in nowhere, because they are not of this world.

In those instances where Republicans concede that the biblical writers genuinely meant what they said on these issues, they make the disingenuous claim that Christians aren’t expected to use the tools of the state to compel the redistribution of wealth that defines Christian piety. Yet, on the very small number of issues that define “conservative” Christianity for fundamentalists and for the Republican Party – limiting women’s reproductive freedom (while ignoring the needs of those women and their existing children), LGBT rights, teaching an unscholarly approach to Scripture and myth alongside science, insisting on sexual abstinence, and controlling, in particular, female sexuality and appearance – the GOP has built its modern brand demanding that the government compel compliance with their extremely limited understanding of “conservative” Christianity. This is not because of any theological conviction on their part. Requiring political action and authority is essential to their message, because the goal is to use religious rhetoric to acquire political power.

Consequently, those who claim that fundamentalists and Republicans are preserving “conservative,” “Christian” values are committing blatant hypocrisy, both in ignoring the vast majority of Christian teachings and in building a political platform based on the government compelling compliance with their limited, sophomoric pietism. They are not “conserving” anything but a desire to impose their will, in a biblically and theologically inconsistent way, for a limited range of issues. Calling these views “conservative” does a disservice to actual conservatives, and gives these bigotries far more credibility than they deserve.

Protecting Self-Interest and Calling it “Conservatism”

This is even more blatantly true for the second category of shameful behavior that Republicans now cloak under the “conservative” label: telling lies to protect a vested interest of money, power, or both. In every instance where this happens, Republicans betray an actual conservative value while pushing forward an agenda that – while hiding behind the language of conservatism – is really just shameless egocentrism and self-preservation. Here are a few examples.

Traditionally, as Americans we believe in honoring and protecting the people who work the land, through their own sweat and muscle. Farmers built the backbone of our nation, and carved out the frontier that made our unprecedented growth and prosperity possible. Defending big corporations like Monsanto when they try to crush small farmers, especially when they try to destroy established farming practices that go back thousands of years, is not “conservative.”

Traditionally, as Americans, we value those who’ve worked their whole lives in hard jobs, not just the bosses who made millions off of them. We recognize the dignity of hard, back-breaking work, and we honor the debt we owe to those who do the jobs we cannot or will not do. Denying healthcare and pensions to coal miners is not “conservative,” especially if you shill to those same miners as a defender of the jobs created by the coal mining industry.

Traditionally, as Americans, we cherish the lush abundance of our natural resources. Poisoning the air and water, through processes like fracking, for short-term gain is not “conservative,” especially when you trample the rights of local communities to protect those resources. Denying the rights of our citizens to act through local government to protect the land that is our birthright is not a “conservative” act. Likewise, choosing profit over protecting our citizens’ health and the viability of our ecosystem conserves nothing, and destroys what we hold most dear.

Traditionally, as Americans, we privilege innovation and problem solving. The freedom that defines our nation has allowed our scientists to pursue truth, unfettered by political expediency or consequences. Silencing those scientists because their overwhelming consensus – that industrialization without strong environmental regulation is destroying the planet – hurts the bottom line of the wealthy is not “conservative.” There is also nothing “conservative” about the intentional, politicized scientific ignorance consistently displayed by the GOP, especially its members of Congress. Protecting the truth is a conservative value, no matter how high the price.

Traditionally, as Americans, we hold the right to vote as a sacred trust. Denying citizens that right through plainly partisan voter ID laws, limiting early voting, and inhibiting the votes of college students, all despite virtually no evidence of voter fraud in this country, is not “conservative” behavior. In fact, anything short of ensuring that every citizen has an easy and unimpeded access to voting, is hostile to the conservative, American value of preserving the constitutional rights of our citizens.

Traditionally, as Americans, we honor those who serve and sacrifice in the uniforms of the armed forces and of public safety. Refusing to: meet their needs, fund their physical and mental healthcare, assist them in re-entering the civilian work force, and protect them from the brutal health consequences of their heroism – that’s not “conservative.” In fact, it betrays every conservative value that defines us as a nation.

Choosing the wealth of the few over the freedom of all of our citizens whose work makes this country great, choosing short-term wealth over the long-term good of the country, ignoring facts and telling lies because they’re bad for business, denying civil rights because they are politically inconvenient, and refusing to care for our warfighters and first responders – these are the “values” that the GOP consistently defends and promulgates. Not a single one of them is “conservative,” yet the media’s acquiescence to the Republican insistence on that vocabulary and narrative creates a dichotomy where anyone who opposes this shameful agenda is, implicitly, a “liberal,” thus allowing the Republican agenda to proceed unhindered.

Concluding Thoughts

This pattern neither began nor ends with Donald Trump, but his campaign has taken full advantage of it. Decades of meaningless misappropriation of the “conservative” moniker has allowed countless Republicans to push an agenda that has consistently undermined the foundations of our country, while gleefully claiming that they are actually championing “conservative” causes. Trump is no different, he’s just more transparently fatuous than most Republicans, so his hypocrisy and doublespeak is easier to spot.

Once Trump disappears from the national stage, and the Republicans attempt to rebuild their party from the wreckage he leaves behind, it is important that the media and the general public refuse to allow the GOP to reclaim the “conservative” label that they and their party have hijacked and brutally abused. When Republican politicians argue for a fundamentalist position, it should be labelled as such: “Fundamentalist Christians assert that homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity, while the majority of mainline Protestant denominations in the US disagree, although conservatives and liberals within those denominations continue to differ on what constitutes a Christian sexual ethic.” When Republican politicians argue for a position that is patently self-serving and not rooted in fact, the narrative should be: “On climate change, those who profit from or are funded by the fossil fuel industry deny its reality, whereas conservatives are looking for ways to create new jobs through the industries supporting environmental protection, and liberal activists want to stop the destruction of the environment, regardless of the cost.”

We need to hear conservative and liberal voices in our political dialogue. The modern Republican Party has consistently demonstrated that it is neither, but is instead a curious blend of the desperate bigotries of fundamentalism with the self-serving deceptions of the wealthy and powerful. Their use of the “conservative” label for their destructive agenda is an outright lie, one that threatens the freedoms, resources, and values that make the United States of America uniquely great. And the truth is, America has been and remains, great.

We don’t need to reclaim the nation’s greatness, we need to reclaim “conservative” ideology and language, and make them great again. It is imperative that we find a more precise vocabulary for discussing the implications of political decisions. In addition, we have to eschew the lazy habit of speaking in ill-informed generalizations about the attitudes of various demographic groups, especially diverse constituencies like “people of faith.” Finally, as an informed electorate, we need to insist on dialogue that ignores media or party-imposed labels and focuses instead on issues, values, and outcomes. Otherwise we cede far too much power to those who benefit from obfuscating the consequences of their agendas behind empty bombast.

Share This:Print this pageEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

Consider the Lilies – The CBF & Homosexuality in 2016

Calling of the Apostles - Domenicio Ghirlandaio -1481

Calling of the Apostles – Domenicio Ghirlandaio -1481 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

At the turn of the millennium I was present when the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship voted to establish their now-infamous policy against hiring LGBTQ persons. I was there as part of the first class to graduate from the CBF’s flagship seminary, the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University, located in the same building as the CBF headquarters. My studies at Mercer had taught me to hope for a future in which Baptists would be united with our fellow, mainline brothers and sisters in a commitment to social justice, progressive theology, ecumenism, and responsible biblical scholarship.

As I wrote at the time, the experiences of that CBF meeting significantly disabused me of those hopes. I listened as speaker after speaker expressed concerns that “good” churches, particularly from Texas, would refuse to join if the CBF set a precedent for inclusion. There was no discussion about the vibrant, thriving LGBTQ-inclusive congregations whose lives and work would have been validated and renewed if the policy were voted down. Instead, I watched as greyed head after greyed head nodded enthusiastically while old men who represented everything I had come to McAfee to escape played to their fears and prejudices.

When the vote was finally tallied, and I listened to the uncharitable comments directed at those of us who had argued for inclusiveness, I realized that the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was not trying to make a complete break with fundamentalism. Instead, the CBF was destined to be a home for people whose far-right conservativism wasn’t quite fundamentalist enough for the fringe-right gatekeepers of the new Southern Baptist Convention, and who wanted to recreate as much as they could of their memories of the Leave-it-to-Beaver era of the old SBC.

In a concession to the common sense conclusions of the first part of the century that had already ended, they were open to the possibility of female clergy, as long as they did not become too prevalent. Nearly a generation later, the common sense of this century is also starting to intrude into CBF deliberations. Hundreds of people connected to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship signed a “Statement of Solidarity” with LGBTQ persons. (It is worth noting that this statement aligns closely with the position of the older but smaller Alliance of Baptists, which has ordained LGBTQ persons since its inception in 1987.)

In response, several CBF leaders have weighed in, with differing perspectives. Don Durham continues to preserve his prophetic voice, calling CBF to account for its sin of exclusion. He concludes, “I came to CBF over a decade ago with the unfortunate perspective that CBF was the most exclusive inclusive group I’d ever tried to be a part of. I’ve held on more or less faithfully for 25 years in hopes my tribe would prove me wrong.” Bob Setzer has written an excellent piece about why he has changed his view since his “Yes” vote of sixteen years ago. His recollection of the process that created the policy is far more charitable than mine, but I think his logic is sound that it is time to reverse this “increasingly damaging and disastrous personnel and funding policy”

Conversely, Robert Parham, Executive Director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, has written an opinion piece in which he resurrects the arguments from the meeting that closed the previous century. Subordinating the transcendent power of the gospel to the earthly priorities of denominational wealth and power, Dr. Parham asks, “Given what has happened with mainline Protestant churches, what evidence is there that such illumination will lead to church growth and expanded global mission efforts?” The answer, of course, is in Luke 12, when Jesus explains, “For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”

Even more offensive than Dr. Parham’s prioritization of earthly institutional success – over the eternal priority of offering an inclusive gospel – is his understanding of the key social justice issue of this generation. His article completely ignores the heartbreaking consequences of the Church’s historic prejudice against LGBTQ persons. Instead, Dr. Parham primly dismisses an issue of justice and civil rights as an attempt to “validate [modern] culture’s sexual mores.”

Apparently the “moderate” Baptist movement’s top ethicist needs a primer on the difference between sexual orientation (which relates to either the biological sex or gender identity of one’s sexual partner) and sexual morality (which concerns itself with conditions under which it is ethical to have sex with one’s sexual partner(s)). It saddens me that, in 2016, any theological leader would write in a way that ignores this simple concept. In his defense, however, it is a distinction that would also have been completely lost on the authors of our Scriptures, whose understandings of sexuality were linked deeply to the patriarchal and misogynistic political systems that sought to control wealth and heredity, female sexual autonomy, and the commodification of women’s bodies.

Consequently, Scripture is as useful a guide on marriage and human sexuality as it is on slavery. Which is to say that our Bible has a wealth of valuable contributions to make in helping us to develop a healthy, Christian ethos on those and many other topics; but that contribution will not be found through replicating the worldview of the people who wrote and edited the Bible. We have found a Christian ethic of human rights and dignity that rejects slavery, despite Jesus telling stories that looked favorably on masters beating their slaves, and St. Paul’s instructions for slaves to obey their masters. Likewise, when it comes to human sexuality, we have to find a way to apply the principles of Christianity to our modern social setting in a way that is not compelled to carry forward the anachronistic superstitions and prejudices of the ancient world that birthed our tradition.

Failing to separate the core values of our faith from those prejudices is at the heart of the fundamentalism which “moderate” organizations like the Baptist Center for Ethics claim to oppose. This is what makes the myopia of Parham and those who share his views all-the-more dangerous. Rejecting biblical literalism about slavery and women, but preserving it on sexuality, also preserves the underlying logic that makes fundamentalism possible, even if it does not apply that logic universally.

“Moderate” opponents of an inclusive view of marriage and sexuality often argue that sex and marriage should be treated as a separate category from the other topics whose relevant passages they re-interpret or ignore. They are quick to point out that marriage is often a metaphor for the Church’s relationship with Christ, and therefore is “unique” among the ancient institutions described in Scripture. This approach, however, ignores the fact that we do not feel compelled to continue to farm using first-century methods, nor are we obliged to preserve the first-century pearl trade.

In fact, oppressing people over hyper-literal fidelity to a metaphor seems remarkably similar to the passionate conflicts of prior eras in which Protestants found themselves the minority group arguing against the literalism of transubstantiation. That argument turned out to be more about politics and regional/generational alliances than theology, something that I suspect is always the case when one group or another claims to simply be following their religion’s Scriptures.

If the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship wants to remain relevant into the next century, they need to move beyond a tentative, piecemeal denunciation of fundamentalism. Instead, they must reject fundamentalism of all stripes and in all its incarnations. Christianity survived learning that the universe is not geocentric, and that women and men are equals, and that some people cannot own others. Christianity will survive the gradual and eventual elimination of all vestiges of the bigotries and superstitions of the era that produced it. The question is, will the CBF?

Share This:Print this pageEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

Jesus Already Answered the Refugee Question

The Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670)

The Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670) (Wikimedia)

Politicians and theologians in the United States frequently turn to the writings of the Christian Bible for guidance on contemporary political issues. Often this requires some stretched or complicated logic, and, at times, texts from the Torah have to be weighed against Jesus’ teachings in the gospels or Paul’s paranetic guidance in his epistles. This is hardly surprising, since the writings in our Scriptures span over a thousand years of different political events, all of which took place in times with radically different questions from our own. Applying those texts to modern circumstances requires some skill and effort.

That is why the question of the Christian response to the Syrian refugee crisis is so refreshing. It’s one of the few times where we have clear, unambiguous, explicit guidance from Jesus about what is expected of those of us who claim to be Christians. That guidance is found in what is perhaps Jesus’ most famous parable, that of the “Good Samaritan” found in Luke 10:25-37. The story is so widely known that in popular, secular culture, someone who goes out of their way to help a stranger is often called a “Good Samaritan.” News reporters and the general public, however, would probably think twice about using the phrase if they knew how Jesus’ original audience would have heard it.

The northern and southern regions of what was – for a brief time under Kings Saul, David, and Solomon – a united kingdom had a long history of enmity and conflict. After the death of Solomon, the northern region formed the Kingdom of Israel, and the southern region formed the Kingdom of Judah. Samaria was the capital of Israel, and Jerusalem the capital of Judah. Over time, religious practices increasingly diverged, with what would become modern-day Judaism centered around Jerusalem and its temple. By the time of Jesus, Jews had over eight hundred years of fractious, sometimes violent, conflict with Samaritans. They hated each other for political, ethnic, and theological reasons. Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem viewed Samaritans as polytheistic pagans whose scriptures and practices were, at best, a perversion of the true worship and commandments of God.

Jesus’ own teaching on scripture and practice indicate that, as an orthodox Jew, he agreed with them (see Matt 5:17-18 as an example). In fact, Jesus’ religious movement was so completely entrenched in Judaism that his closest disciples taught for years after the crucifixion that you had to convert to Judaism if you wanted to be saved (they changed their view after the Council at Jerusalem). With that in mind, and considering the centuries of hostility and conflict, if you want to hear how Jesus and his audience heard the word “Samaritan,” imagine how an evangelical Christian living in the United States would hear “Muslim.”

So, with that as our historical framework, let’s look at the parable of the “Good Muslim.” It begins when someone comes up to Jesus and says, “I want to inherit eternal life. What do I need to do?” At this point, anyone who went to the Sunday School I went to as a child knows the answer is, “Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior!” Jesus, however, gives a very different answer. As a good teacher, he first asks the student, “What’s your read of Scripture?” The response is, in brief, “Love God and love your neighbor.” Jesus answers, “That’s right!”

Apparently it occurred to the person asking the question that if “neighbor” meant more than just the people who are like us and whom we like, “loving” them might be a bit too much to ask, even if the reward is eternal salvation. Their follow-up question is, “So, um, who exactly is my neighbor?”

Jesus responds with a story. I’ll paraphrase it here. A deacon from a church in Nashville came to Atlanta for a religious conference, and was staying at a hotel near the airport. As he was walking back to his hotel from a nearby restaurant, three strangers held him up at gunpoint. They took his wallet, his smartphone, his wedding ring, and then, just for fun, made him strip naked and beat him so badly he couldn’t walk. They left him there, bloody and naked on the sidewalk.

The pastor of the local First Baptist Church was attending the same conference, and was on his way to the restaurant the man had just left. He saw the poor deacon lying there, bleeding, and immediately crossed the street, not wanting to get involved. He was afraid that the man might be an HIV-positive homeless person, and that he would be exposing himself to the disease if he got too close. A Roman Catholic priest, also there for the conference, saw the bloodied, crying man and thought it might be a trap of some kind. What if, knowing there was a religious conference in town, a bunch of thugs had disguised one of their own as a crime victim, hoping to lure a naive clergyman into coming over so that they could ambush the do-gooder? The priest decided to play it safe, and crossed the street as well.

The third person to come along was a Muslim man who was staying at  the same hotel, waiting out a layover on his international flight. It had been a long day for him. The hotel was full of impassioned Christians all attending workshops on “Muslim extremism.” The looks and attitude he had been getting from the guests had not been exactly kind. None of that mattered, however, when he saw the battered man, crying in pain, by the side of the road. The Muslim man immediately took off his shirt, tearing it into bandages to stop the blood from the other man’s wounds. He then picked up the stranger, summoned a cab, and took him to the nearest hospital. At the hospital, the Muslim man gave his credit card, to make sure that the injured deacon would get the best possible care despite his lack of identification or insurance card.

After telling the story, Jesus asked his audience, all good, faithful Christians,  “Who is the one who loved his neighbor in this story? Who is the one who will have eternal life?” They knew the answer before he even asked:  The Good Muslim.

The parallels are less than subtle. When we look at a Syrian, Muslim refugee we see someone who is politically, ethnically, and theologically a “stranger.” Jesus makes it extraordinarily clear, however, that there is only one way to see them: as our neighbor. Knowing that, Jesus’ command is clear. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is, along with loving God, the heart of all God’s commandments (Mark 12:30-31; Matt 22:37-40). Simply put, if a person claims allegiance to the teachings of Jesus, there is no other option than to help someone in need, no matter how different they may be from us, no matter how much we may dislike them, even if we think it’s a trap or dangerous, and even if they are our sworn enemy.

Few of us live up to that command perfectly, and I sincerely hope that God will be more merciful to us (in our failures to love one another) than we are toward those whom we are commanded to love. Let us pray that is the case, because, in the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus taught about who would be saved, he did not say anything about what people believed regarding who was their “personal Lord and Savior.” Jesus gave only one criteria: those who help vulnerable people when they are in need are the ones who are saved (Matt 25:31-46).

Our political leaders are quick to claim religious justification for the policies that serve their interests. They would do well to remember Jesus’ words of caution. Simply claiming to act in his name is not enough (Matt 7:21-23). Jesus expects us to act, not according to some bigoted stereotype of what we think it means to be a Christian, but in accordance with his clear and unambiguous teaching that every single person is our neighbor, our brother or sister.

An entire nation of people very different from (yet remarkably like) us is lying, bloody, by the side of the road. We can cross the street and pretend it’s not our responsibility, or we can take the risks and costs on ourselves to help. For those who rely on secular sources of guidance, the appropriate response may be more complex or nuanced, but for those who claim the label “Christian” the choice is clear. Like the Good Samaritan, we must find a way to help, even if it means reaching deeply into our national resources of ingenuity and wealth to do so safely, effectively, comprehensively, and quickly. It’s the neighborly thing, the loving thing, and the Christian thing to do.

Share This:Print this pageEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

The Sky Is Not Falling

Icon of the Council of Nicaea

Symbolum Nicaeno-Constantinopolitanum (Wikipedia)

The astonishing rhetoric from the far right has reached such a level of absurdity, that is easy to confuse it with parody. Presidential candidate Ted Cruz called this “some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history.” An American Family Association editorial by Bryan Fischer compared Obergefell v. Hodges to the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and D.C., and then made the even more astonishing claim that American citizens are now “serfs on a plantation run by cultural elites wearing black robes.””Crunchy Con” pundit Rod Dreher used an opinion piece in Time to continue to push for his “Benedict Option,” making the melodramatic claim that orthodox Christians “are going to have to learn how to live as exiles in our own country…with at least a mild form of persecution.

Common to these and other impassioned screeds from the far right, is the claim that full inclusion of LGBT persons is an attack on Christianity. In making their case, far-right Christians have even partnered with non-Christian groups to fight in every sphere against that inclusion. This means that socially conservative voices have elevated the issue of LGBT rights to the level that it trumps issues of actual theology, e.g. the nature of God, the Church, and humanity. The irony is that they make these partnerships, including with groups who actively work to undermine Christian orthodoxy, because of their desperate claims that it is Christianity itself that is under attack. This is patently absurd for several reasons, in particular: the nature of Christian orthodoxy, the diversity of Christian views on LGBT rights, and the actual impact of full LGBT inclusion on American life.

The Nature of Christian Orthodoxy

The history of Christian orthodoxy offers little support for the far-right’s claims that Christianity itself is under attack.  Literally meaning, “straight belief,” the concept of “orthodoxy” in Christianity grew out of the need for increasingly geographically separated Christian communities to establish a framework for what defined “Christian” belief.  Over the course of hundreds of years, through a process of ecumenical councils, Christian leaders worked to find consensus about what common, core beliefs defined our shared identity as “Christians,” despite our many differences in practice.  The foundational statements of those beliefs are found in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.

Elsewhere I have written about how these beliefs break down, how fundamentalism damages the strength and meaning of traditional orthodoxy, and how orthodox Christian beliefs are not an impediment to social progressivism. I will not restate those essays here. The short version is this:  throughout history, Christians have disagreed about what it means to act as a Christian. The members of the early Church had no personal possessions and were pacifists. For over fifteen hundred years, most Christians were comfortable with the institution of slavery. Festal and feasting obligations, baptismal practices, and a wide range of other issues have been sources of disagreement and debate for Christians since the Apostles first argued about whether or not uncircumcised Gentiles could be Christians, twenty years after the crucifixion. And yet, despite our many differences, we have all remained Christians because what defines Christianity is not our diversity of beliefs about specific behaviors, but rather our common beliefs about the nature of God, the person of Jesus, the character of humanity, and the good news of the gospel. This is the totality of Christian orthodoxy. Consequently, unless there is a sudden and overwhelming cultural push to deny the Trinity, or the unique divinity of Jesus, or that humanity is restored to God through Jesus’ sacrifice, then there is no “attack on Christian orthodoxy” in mainstream culture. In fact,  the most prominent group in the US to attack the Christian understanding of the nature of God and humanity is the Latter Day Saints, but the opponents of marriage equality consider the issue of same-sex marriage so much more important than actual Christian orthodoxy that they are willing to overlook real doctrinal issues for the sake of their pet casus belli.

The Diversity of Christian Views on LGBT Issues

They have no choice, because their fellow Christians are not uniformly on their side. On the individual level as well as on the denominational level, Christians have a diversity of views on same-sex relationships. Beyond that, the trend is unambiguous: Christians increasingly affirm same-sex relationships as equivalent to opposite-sex ones, and the majority of mainline Protestants in the United States no longer view homosexuality as a sin. I have written on this subject, and the relevance of biblical studies, at length. As time moves forward, more and more of us concur with Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, that, “A parent who teaches a child that there is only one sexual orientation and that anything else is evil denies our humanity and their own too.

With these trends in mind, and recognizing the growing body of Christian scholarship in support of LGBT rights, it is virtually impossible to make the claim that “orthodox Christianity” is somehow under “attack” by the movement toward full inclusion of LGBT persons. Many of the people pushing for those rights are themselves orthodox Christians. It is not orthodox Christianity that is under attack, it is fundamentalism, a contemporary movement that emerged when the cumulative effect of hundreds of years of Enlightenment thinking eventually made a superstitious and overly-simplistic approach to Christianity and Scripture untenable. It’s hardly surprising that fundamentalism is increasingly under “attack” by social progress. The movement was created to fight against progressive issues. It is unlikely to survive their victory.

It important to note that fundamentalism is not, however, an implicitly Christian movement. If it were, it would not have so much in common with fundamentalist Judaism and fundamentalist Islam. Fundamentalism is a social movement by people who feel left behind by science, scholarly research, feminism, civil rights, and other areas of social progress. It simply dresses itself up in religious rhetoric in an attempt to deflect criticisms of its irrational claims. As an analogy, imagine if a building were on fire, and there is only one exit. Everyone inside the building is wearing a red shirt. One person, for some unknown reason, wants everyone to die in the fire, so he puts on a red shirt and blocks the only exit. His assumption is that, if he clothes himself like everyone else, his motives will seem to be beyond reproach. Now imagine that everyone in the building shoves him aside to get out of the building. Any claims the man might make that he was being mistreated because of his red shirt would sound absurd. Fundamentalist claims that their views are under attack (again, often by their fellow Christians) “because of their Christianity” are equally absurd.

The Realities of Same-Sex Marriage

Not all people opposing LGBT rights, however, are fundamentalists. There are deeply established cultural norms against homosexuality that are only slowly fading away in some places. Lacking a familiarity with the Church’s long history of diversity opinion, and even profound doctrinal shifts, regarding social issues, they assume that their beliefs regarding homosexuality are substantiated by Christianity. They are often unaware that, were they to be consistent, the same simple biblicism that allows them to casually condemn homosexuality would also require them to affirm slavery and give all their possessions to the poor. They are willing to accept complex theological arguments when it makes their lives more comfortable, and unwilling to do so when it might make them face their own prejudices.

In the coming years, that will become increasingly difficult to do. In the same way that few people feel justified in arguing against multi-racial marriages using religious rhetoric, the shifting cultural consensus will make arguments against same-sex marriage seem equally incomprehensible for future generation. So yes, opposition to same-sex marriage is under attack in the United States, but that is not the catastrophe that the right wing wishes to claim. Ultimately, only one thing has changed: people of the same sex can now get married everywhere in the United States. Some marriages will have two husbands, some two wives. Some children will grow up with two mothers, others with two fathers. Some of the couples growing old together, holding hands in their rocking chairs on their front porches, will be male-male or female-female. That’s the shocking thing about same-sex marriage – it’s just marriage. How can more people trying their best to sustain each other and their families, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, for their entire lives, be a disaster in any way?

The Sky Is Not Falling

The unequivocal answer: it is not. The sky is not falling, civilization is not coming to an end, and Christianity is not under attack. The claims of the politicians fighting this fight simply do not  hold water. “Christian orthodoxy” is not under attack, because social issues are not fundamental to Christian orthodoxy. Christians and Christianity are not under attack, because many of the people actively working for LGBT inclusion are, themselves, Christians. Ultimately, Western civilization is not in crisis, because all we are talking about is people having the chance to spend their lives together, raise their children together, and share in the joys and challenges of marriage.

In his own discussions of the nature of orthodoxy (defending, in fact, the pietist movement that was a forerunner to modern evangelicalism), Rupertus Meldenius concluded, “in essentials: unity;  in areas of question: diversity; in all things: charity.” That is the center of the two-thousand year history of Christian orthodoxy – finding common ground in God, recognizing the limits and diversity of our flawed human logic, and – when in doubt – erring on the side of love. If, in fact, all of us who have worked so hard for LGBT inclusion have erred, it is on the side of love, and the only thing threatened by love is hatred.

Share This:Print this pageEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn