Apologies? No–Justice.

Central, I think, to the feedback Joel recently received about white people owning up to our racial mistakes is the idea that white people today shouldn’t have to apologize for past racial injustices that they didn’t commit. After all, some whites–just like some blacks–don’t have family trees that even touch American slavery!  This is a common argument, so I want to focus on it.

Factually, it’s not wrong. Lots of white immigrants came here after the Civil War was over, just as lots of black immigrants have come since. If what is being sought is an apology from those whose families fought for slavery to those whose families were enslaved, we’d have a real mess. Some of us had families on both sides of the war. Some of us have ancestors who were slave owners and ancestors who were enslaved–either at different points in history or at the same time, producing enslaved children from rape. If apologies were in order, lots of individuals would be apologizing to themselves.

Image result for civil war union soldier grave kentucky

Above, a Civil War cemetery for Union soldiers in Kentucky. To my family’s great pride, one of our ancestors fought for the Union. He was white, was willing to die to end slavery, and still benefited from white privilege. How do we know? Because he got $1o of pay per month for soldiering, compared to a black soldier’s $7 per month. The US government finally granted equal pay–and supplied it retroactively–after black soldiers refused to re-enlist.

White people have never had to fight to be equal to blacks. That’s white privilege and black punishment.

But it’s not apologies that are in order. It’s justice.

And it’s not just justice over the issue of slavery (though that needs to happen too). It’s the years of interest that have accrued since then. While some white people deflect by saying that “Slavery was so long ago!” it’s the very “long ago” of slavery that has allowed inequity to build.

Think of it this way: Would you be better off if your great-, great-, great-, great-, great-, great grandpa was a billionaire or if your father were a billionaire?

It depends on how well your family managed wealth. If your family had done a great job, over generations, of managing great-, great-, great-, great-, great-, great grandpa’s wealth, you’d be much better off than if that money had been around for only one generation.

So the issue isn’t (just) slavery: it’s the generations between slavery and now. Over time, systems that are overtly racist have been legally struck down: slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, rampant stop and frisk. But the benefits that white people collected during that time still collect interest. Whites who bought houses in neighborhoods where people of color couldn’t still own those houses, and they continue to rise in value at a rate higher than the houses that people of color were able to purchase. Redlining might be illegal now, but the generations of people it harmed still live with the consequences. And, as Joel says, it’s not just white privilege–it’s also black punishment. A century and a half after slavery, half a century after Jim Crow, it’s still being felt, too.

You don’t just “apologize and move on” because an apology doesn’t right this wrong. It’s a wrong that grows bigger over time, not smaller, because interest accrues one way (if you are white, in your favor, whether your family was here during slavery or Jim Crow or not) or another (if you are black, against you).

And everything I just said assumes that opportunities are equal now, that the deck isn’t stacked in the favor of white people, which just isn’t true.

 

 

 

 

White Innocents and Accomplices

Joel:

Can I talk about race without talking about politics and religion? I’m not sure, because I think that Michael Eric Dyson‘s is a prophetic voice and in reading the passage you shared–

“Even when individual black people confront individual white people, even when we love one another, white innocence still clouds our relationships. We are two historical forces meeting, and the velocity of that history is so strong that it can break the bonds of individual love.”

–I’m a sinner convicted, as I (a white person who too often fails in the fight against white supremacy) ought to be.

Above, the cover of Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson, professor of sociology at Georgetown University. 

I recall watching the incident (“fuck up,” as you honestly called it) you describe, and I felt for you then–mostly empathy and a little anxiety, because I know how hard it is, when you’re white, to question white supremacy all the time, and you actually have to do it all the time to avoid a failure. Everything white people encounter is set up to support white supremacy and to make sure that we, as white people, feel uncomfortable questioning it. I felt empathy because it’s an easy mistake to make (White supremacy makes sure it’s easy.), and I felt anxiety because I have made it too.

But, of course, it’s easier to fight when supremacy when you’re white than when you’re not–and you can give up when you’re tired and still get credit for your efforts. So, as you say, sympathy should only extend so far.

White supremacy is a marvel of social construction. We rarely see its architecture, but we occupy its space all the time. What you describe as a “fuck up” is exactly what this system is designed to produce; it’s not a mistake but the purpose.

As white people, we can design against this (and here I mean design in both the sense of mindfully creating and in the sense of plotting). For example, I use a lot of visual illustrations with my students. I’m deliberate about it–about 25% of my students are racial minorities, mostly African Americans, and I overrepresent people of color in my positive examples. It takes a very small extra effort. If I’m searching for images, say, of older married heterosexual couples, Google Images shows me mostly pictures of white people. Same if I’m searching for “librarians” or “scientists” or “happy families.” I have to add “African American” or “Hispanic” or “Asian” to my search terms if I don’t want a bunch of white people to show up. The search terms that yield black faces? “Criminal.” “Mugshot.” “Single mother.”

My inclusion of faces of people of color in lectures doesn’t dismantle white supremacy, but it matters–just as the inclusion of children of color in photos in newspapers matters. At our mid-term check-in, I ask students in an anonymous survey if they see people like them represented in our course content, from the readings to the images and examples used in lectures. In the open-ended response section of the survey, many students of color self-identify and share that they hadn’t noticed that I’d been including positive representations of racial minorities but that, with this question, they now did–and that they appreciated it. A colleague does a similar experiment in class, teaching a string of all white authors, then asking students if they’ve noticed anything about the course up to that point–a course that focuses on racial minorities in the US. Few students recognize that their classroom knowledge about racial minorities has, so far, been informed only by white perspectives, which then prompts a discussion about why we think about white men as the norm and everyone else as deviant–even to the extent of treating them as experts on non-white people. What often surprises white students about these exercises is that their peers of color often don’t notice either that we’re being deliberate about including faces and voices of color or that we’re teaching only white men (or, if they notice, they don’t mention it in class). That doesn’t mean that our students of color are “color blind”; it means that they, too, have been trained by white supremacy not to expect anything else and not to complain about it.

So, we can design to push against white supremacy. But sometimes we fail to design well enough. And if we are well-intentioned, historically-informed, empathetic, sociologically-aware white people committed to not just equality but to justice, we feel bad about it (because we should) and often defensive (because sometimes our failures are complicated and we might have reasons for them that aren’t obvious to our critics–though the only thing that ultimately matters is the harm we do or the good we advance). We can try to correct it, clean it up, and help the people we’ve wounded. We try to do better. We can individually repent–apologize and change.

But we also have to recognize that our failures don’t, as you say, happen in isolation. White supremacy is full of tricks, and one of its tricks is to convince “good” white people (you know, not the kind that wear hoods) that our mistakes are individual–“not all white people”–and ahistorical.  But my racist errors aren’t errors–they are weapons crafted and refined by hundred of years of culture that devalues black and brown bodies, lives, and experiences, and when you are white, you are armed with them all the time. They are embedded in our language, our laws, and our social structures. As a white person, you might use that weapon only occasionally and by accident, but when you are a person of color, you face assault all the time. And the wounding is physical as well as spiritual, emotional, and mental. It changes the DNA of its victims, which means it changes families across generations. 

Just as “for many minorities in America, the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” it isn’t past for whites, either. We are armed with white supremacy unless we decide–in every interaction–to put it down.  We can’t be innocent while we are holding a weapon.

But innocence shouldn’t be our goal. Repentance means knowing you’re guilty and then seeking to restore (which keeps the focus on the other person), not to be forgiven (which is about our own feelings). We should seek to be accomplices, guilty of actively tearing down white supremacy, actively lifting up people of color, actively opposing individual and structural racism, actively stepping back so that people of color can step forward, actively defending black-and-brown-only spaces, actively funding efforts initiated and led by people of color, and doing what we’re told by people of color gracious enough to tell us how to do better.

 

Out of Religion, Deeper into Bigotry

Conservative churches bear responsibility for rising bigotry.

“For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960s and ’70s would fade,” writes Peter Beinart in The Atlantic. “It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.”

Beinart’s “Breaking Faith” is a fantastic, comprehensive, terrifying examination of how religion and politics are splintering. The most worrisome part isn’t that Black Lives Matter activists aren’t using the Christian model of MLK (one many see as catering to white notions of respectability, a position a bit ahistorical, but who can blame them in the time of a whitewashed King?). It’s that conservative whites are leaving conservative Christianity, which taught, at least officially, that, in God, “there is no Jew nor Gentile”–in other words, that, before God, all people are equal.

When white progressive Christians leave Christianity, it’s often because even the most progressive form of the faith is too conservative. (“Ding, ding! Unitarian Universalism! Last stop before ‘religious none‘!”) When white conservatives leave their faith, they don’t become more liberal. Argues Beinart, “They become intolerant in different ways.” White conservative Christian defectors are more racist, more Islamphobic, and more xenophobic than their peers who stay in church–but less homophobic (which may tell you about how much homophobia gets preached and taught in churches).

Beinart isn’t arguing causation; it could be that dropping out of church makes you more of a bigot, or it could be that bigots are more likely to drop out of church. But what is clear is that conservative churches are missing an opportunity to help white people overcome bigotry.

In fact, churches are likely contributing to the problem. Beinart doesn’t go this far, so I want to be clear that this is my argument, not his. Beinart draws his supporting data mostly from quantitative research on church attendance and political views (which makes sense as he’s a political scientist). My work is qualitative and draws from texts (sermons, Sunday school curricula, radio broadcasts, blogs, etc.) produced by religious believers and leaders.

Conservative churches support bigotry when they claim that America was founded as a Christian nation.

First, it’s not true. This means that attempts to make it true require telling lies about our history, including erasing the many non-Christians who participated in the nation’s founding,and pretending that native genocide and the slave trade were somehow “Christian.” Second, this claim shows a fundamental misunderstanding of our form of government, which has no place for religion in it.

Above, a video promoting David Barton’s Wallbuilder’s tour of Washington DC, which explores America’s “Christian heritage.”

When churches repeat this lie–for example, peddling the work of pseudo-historian David Barton or booking his “Christian heritage” tours of Washington DC–they are really saying We are willing to lie to insert ourselves into a place of importance.  They are also saying, This is country is ours, not yours. 

Conservative churches support bigotry when they claim that America is a falling nation. 

Few Christians go so far as to say that we’re doomed (though Westboro Baptists ran godhatesamerica.com for years; it highlighted all the reasons why God hates the USA), but many Religious Right fundraising newsletters are filled with the claim that we’re just on the brink of losing God’s blessing. That threat is used to inspire participation in all kinds of foolishness–from engagement in the “War on Christmas” to blind support for Israel. In Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction, Kathryn Gin Lum traces out much of the history of the declension narrative (We need a volume II, Redemption to the Present). The good news is that this history is long–we’ve apparently been angering God since the start, but he’s not destroyed us yet.

Image result for righteousness exalteth a nation AND billboard

Above, a billboard includes the first part of Proverbs 14:34: Righteousness Exalts a Nation. The second part of the verse stresses that “sin is a reproach to all people.” The lower part of the billboard encourages voters to “Vote Biblical Values.” In the middle, there is an image of a colonial-era American flag and a Minuteman, implying that the US was founded as a Christian nation and was exalted before God because of Christians’ righteousness. 

When churches teach that America is falling apart, that our nation is dying or already doomed, and that the only way to save it is to diminish the rights of others, they are really saying, It’s non-Christians’ fault that the nation is a mess. 

Conservative churches support bigotry when they claim that Christianity should be given special honor by our government. 

Fifty years after mandatory faculty-led prayer was removed from public schools, conservative Christians still feel the sting of being told that they aren’t special–at least in terms of public support for their faith. Their resentment at being denied their rightful place (see “founded as a Christian nation” above) in our culture and politics is a constant source of humiliation–and motivation for ridiculous efforts to force Christianity on everyone. The great Baptist tradition of keeping the government out of one’s religion has long been set aside by the Religious Right. When churches teach that Christianity should be given special honor, they are really saying, People unlike us should be treated worse than us. 

These messages form the core of conservative churches’ teachings about the place of Christianity in the US. Evidence to the contrary–like the fact that church attendance was pretty low throughout most of US history or that our premarital sex rate has always been pretty high or that the pledge didn’t always include Under God and that our money didn’t always include In God We Trustdoesn’t mean much when folks are committed to seeing themselves as very special and underappreciated.  When these churches say that they are welcoming, what they mean is that they welcome people like them. It’s not hypocritical for them to say that non-Christians don’t belong because they don’t believe that non-Christians founded the nation, help the nation, or deserve to be in the nation.

When these messages are combined with the many failures of the US church today–its derision of working class and the working poor, its judgments about gender that rob poor men and women both of their dignity, its failure to support the reality of families–the result is that many white conservatives leave, and they leave genuinely hurting. Maybe they believe in God or maybe not, but it’s not clear that he or religion has done much to improve their lives.

But they keep believing some of the messages they’ve heard at church (and that are reinforced in messages they from their narrow selection of rightwing news sources and their conspiracy-minded political leaders): This country is mine, not yours.  It’s your fault that this country is a mess. If people like me dominated, it wouldn’t look like this. You deserve less than me. You are a danger to this nation. 

Conservative churches bear responsibility not just for the departure of former believers but for where they end up next–and for how that endangers everyone.

 

Yes, Rod Dreher, Irrelevant Christians Should Go Away

My pendulum doesn’t swing quite as far as Joel’s when it comes to Rod Dreher. I am grateful for his work on Catholic child sex abuse. I can’t imagine the anguish of leaving his beloved Catholic church in light of that, but I admire him deeply for following his conscience. And I’m appreciative of his honesty about his regret for supporting the Iraq War. I think we need to give everyone (ourselves included) ample space to turn around when we’ve made a mistake.

But Dreher has done a lot of damage, too–especially in collapsing gay priests and pedophile priests, a move often used by those who scapegoat gay men for the child rape scandals that have rocked the Catholic church worldwide in their effort to defend the church’s cover-ups. And his worry that LGBT acceptance will be the end of Christianity is so overwrought that you have to wonder if it’s not the the result of some kind of spiritual or psychological wound, not just a gross, ahistorical statement. (The argument for Indian genocide or the enslavement of Africans was a much bigger affront to faith.) I wish Dreher could see how child sex abuse, misogyny, and anti-LGBT sentiment are related. Both rely on patriarchy, secrecy, and shame. I wish Dreher, who has shown himself to be a “big picture” thinker in many ways, could see that bigger picture.  Obviously, he’s not a pedophile priest, but his anti-LGBT statements and commitment to repressive gender norms also endanger children.

So when Dreher threatens to head to a monastery, I’m not sure I’d miss him.

Image result for meteoraAbove, a Greek Orthodox monastery in Meteora. Six active convents or monasteries, plus now-emptied ones, rest like eyries upon gigantic rock formations. It’s one of my favorite places. Dreher looks to the monastic tradition as a model for retreating from the world, to “embed ourselves in stable communities of faith,” in order to deepen spiritual faith. 

I’ve just finished The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation published by Sentinel, Penguin’s right-of-center imprint, and Dreher’s argument is pretty clear: we are in “post-Christian Dark Ages,” and the only way for Christians to keep their faith is to withdraw. He doesn’t call for them to head to actual monasteries but to create stronger Christian “villages”–for example, by homeschooling and living within walking distance of others of faith. The goal is twofold: to strengthen individuals’ faith and also to allow Christianity to survive (and maybe one day reappear triumphant, as it did after the Dark Ages).

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To the left, an image of St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of the western monastic tradition. 

Gabriel A. Almond, Emmanuel Sivan, and R. Scott Appleby have developed a model for understanding religious groups’ orientation to the world: world conquerors, transformers, creators, and renouncers, patterns influenced by structure, chance, and choice. Dreher is calling for Christians to choose to renounce the world.

I’m empathetic to Dreher’s position, to an extent. As a native of rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I grew up isolated both physically and culturally. I headed off to a small liberal arts college in the rural mountains of Pennsylvania, a college with historic ties to religion in a region filled with churches and religious believers. In the lead up to Y2K, the land around me was being turned into bunkers–a really extreme Benedict option. I’ve taught in similar places. I currently live in Utah, where the LDS history of retreat and empire building continue to inform politics and faith. And I’ve loved living in religious and ethnic enclaves. When I taught at Hesston College, a small Mennonite college in Kansas, I drove past a half dozen Mennonite churches on the way to work. Each morning, I dropped off my child at the Mennonite childcare center and preschool that was located inside the Mennonite nursing home that was on the same block as my Mennonite college. Each afternoon, I returned to find my Mennonite baby being rocked by old Mennonite ladies who volunteered in the center. My child could have lived much of his life–infancy through pre-K, college, then retirement–on that single block.  My membership is in a church that started as an intentional community with a common purse. This kind of life can be lovely and also stifling.

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Above, “The Cliffs,” a place for retreat and mediation above within walking distance of Juniata College, my alma mater. The Juniata River runs through the valley below.

The Amish might be die Stille im Lande, but American Mennonites have generally been a rural, quiet people too, disengaged from politics, doubtful about the ability of government to get good results, and focused on their spiritual citizenship. The result has been a privileged ignorance about how the overwhelming whiteness of American Mennonites has benefited from institutional racism–like the Homestead Act, which allowed for cheap rural Midwestern settlement after the indigenous people of the region had been removed.

The Mennonite focus on rural life and retreat hasn’t always been our story, though. Early Mennonites were urban radicals, rabblerousers  who, in rejecting both Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation, were also rejecting the government and demanding radical change in politics. Though much reporting on Mennonite political engagement is about the shock of discovering that Mennonites are politically engaged, engagement, not just retreat, is part of our history. We haven’t always been–and many of us still aren’t–world renouncers.

World renouncers are relatively rare in Christianity–and for good reasons. First, isolation to a religious community has to be something you are called to; it can’t be something you impose on someone else–even one’s one children. What is faith if it’s not worked out? And how can it be worked out if it’s given or demanded by one’s parents or community? How strong is a faith that is never tried? How useful is it?

Those drawn to retreat won’t survive it if they are choosing it out of fear of the world, as Dreher seems to. A faith that can’t survive a pluralistic society won’t survive a purified one, either.

Dreher is quite right in his insistence (the real gift in this book) that “what we think does not matter as much as what we do—and how faithfully we do it.” And there are times when we must exit the world in order to wrestle with and renew that faith. But these are moments–maybe some moments every day, maybe shorter or longer uninterrupted periods of retreat. For most of us, our calling (and our challenge) is to learn to think and,more importantly, to do our faith in the world where we already are.

Those who retreat in order to save Christianity, as if it is some priceless artwork to be hidden from the Nazis, already have little faith. If your Christianity can’t weather the world, it’s not worth much. If it doesn’t speak to the needs of this present world–the only one we can serve–then the world doesn’t need it, and it doesn’t deserve to survive.

 

The Little Faith of Erick Erickson

In his effort to support a revision of the budget to shift even more money from the poor and oppressed to the wealthy and powerful, Erick Erickson, who, despite claiming to read the New Testament in Greek (according to a tweet on March 17), invoked Matthew 25 to justify a limited government. It’s an overt attack on those who would say that Christians have a duty to care for the vulnerable and the poor by arguing that, in fact, Jesus meant the Christian vulnerable and poor, not the poor in general.

EE tweet

Erickson’s tweet is pretty sloppy. First, there were no Christians during Jesus’ time. There were a few people who consistently followed Jesus around and supported his work, and Jesus did speak about them, but he didn’t talk about them as Christians. The term wasn’t used until after his death; the author of Acts says that the term was first used in Antioch (Acts 11:26). In fact, Jesus himself wasn’t called “the Christ” in the gospels, though he was anointed (the meaning of the word) with both oil and the Holy Spirit according to the gospels.

But let’s read Erickson generously–after all, he had just 144 characters–and say that he meant that Jesus was talking to his followers at the time and also looking ahead to after his resurrection, when he knew that those who would become Christians would be in need of help. We have lots of advice to these people from Paul, whose talent was in forming and supporting new churches–greet each other with a kiss, honor each other’s talents, work together in unity. We get some advice from other New Testament writers–don’t chatter pointlessly in church, pull your weight in the community as you are able, bear with each other. We do get some advice that Jesus clearly gives only for his disciples: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Erickson is asking a bigger question than one narrowly addressed by Matthew 25. It could be that the Matthew 25 passage he’s referring to does address only Christian-Christian relationships, though it may be more accurate to read the text, even in this light, as talking about “the teacher and those who are taught,” regardless of whether “the taught” are Christians.

The larger question is how particular or universal Christian charity should be. While the “least of these” passage could be read narrowly–that is, to be applied just to Christians–so many of Jesus’ other words and actions show mercy and generosity toward “non-Christians” (or Jesus’ non-followers) that it’s hard to justify through Christianity the draconian budget choices Erickson is defending. Maybe Jesus is talking about fellow Christians or even only fellow Christians when he instructs listeners to feed the hungry and care for the sick, but that doesn’t undermine his call to “love thy enemies”–which includes walking an extra mile with them and giving them your coat. He performed miracles for those with faith as well as for those without it.

Image result for good samaritan fine art

Above, Domenico Fetti’s Parable of the Good Samaritan, in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Jesus answers the question “Who is my neighbor?”  with the story of a Jew injured by robbers who is ignored by other Jews. Finally, a Samaritan, a man from a despised group, picks up up, tends his wounds, sits him upon his own animal (as in the scene above, where the Samaritan is hoisting the injured man on his donkey), and takes him to a nearby inn, making an open-ended promise to pay for his care at whatever cost.  The passage says that Jesus took up the question because a man (not named, but perhaps Erick Erickson?), “wanting to justify himself,” wanted to reduce his obligations only to those within his religious circle.  Jesus says no to that foolishness. 

Oh, and the cruel, oppressive government, which exploits the poor to the benefit of the rich–it’s always the bad guy in the New Testament. It’s not bad because it’s European-style socialism. It’s bad because it takes from the poor to give to the wealthy and demands allegiance that belongs to God.

Jesus characterizes the tribalism that Erickson is calling for as the most basic of responses. It’s an instinct to care for our own. That’s a standard even unbelievers can meet. It’s not hard to love those who love you–even sinners can do that, Jesus tells his followers. We don’t need to make much effort to tighten our ranks, support our own kind, and ignore the suffering of those unlike us; it’s when we act counter to our own selfish interests to care for the one unlike us that we demonstrate that we are worthy of being told to “go and do likewise.” In fact, it’s the only way to “be perfect like your Father in Heaven is perfect.”

Ultimately, Erickson is asking Christians to be afraid–that we won’t have enough to care for ourselves, each other, and non-Christians. He entices us to feel resentful–after all, what if those non-Christians I feed, clothe, or shelter end up being unworthy of my effort? What if they take advantage of me? What if I end up poor and they end up rich because I gave them so much? This ungrateful thinking asks us to forget that all we have is God’s and to doubt God’s providential care for us.

And there is another way that Erickson is wrong: Christian generosity to non-Christians doesn’t threaten Christianity; it grows it. 

Erick Erickson’s Low Standards

Joel, you are quite kind to engage Erick Erickson as if he had something of theological substance to offer.

Erickson whined this week that people who aren’t Christians and “don’t believe in Jesus” shouldn’t criticize politically conservative Christians for cutting funding to Meals on Wheels–as if it’s wrong for non-Christians to note Christian hypocrisy.

If Erickson cared about Christianity, he would be begging non-Christians to call Christians out for being hypocrites so that Christians would act with more integrity. Religious believers’ hypocrisy is a major reason why so many are turned off from religion. It was actually a major theme of Jesus’ teaching: to take the plank out of your own eye rather than pointing out the splinter in someone else’s. If non-believers are willing to call Christians out for their failures, Erickson should thank God  that they are still paying attention and still expect Christians to act like Jesus.

And, as you keenly point out, “If they want to hold society to their standards, it’s only fair that the rest of us try to hold them to their standards too, no?” Why should the rest of us have to honor the Bible and say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” if conservative Christians aren’t going to even bother caring for widows and orphans in a way that actually cares for widows and orphans?

Above, an image from a charismatic church service in Illinois, with men on one side of the church and women on the other. Churches were overwhelmed by needs from congregants and were often unable to care for even members, leaving those outside of churches even more vulnerable. This 1939 photo was by Arthur Rothstein, who captures many such images of rural life during the Depression. It is housed in the Library of Congress. 

The Trump budget that Erickson is defending illustrates an old argument between Christian conservatives, who say that it’s churches and voluntary organizations that should provide welfare services (because it’s not “compassionate” to make people pay for services they don’t directly benefit from), and Christian progressives who say that Christianity demands that we collectively care for the poor via the government. Conservatives are all about being “subject to governing authorities” but a lot more hesitant about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s when they think that Caesar is redistributing wealth downward.

Christian conservatives are wrong in their argument because, though religious organizations do tremendously valuable work in caring for the needy, they can’t do it alone; the need is simply too great. Alison Collis Greene’s fantastic No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta shows us what happened when churches couldn’t meet the need of the people. And some jobs–protecting the environment, discovering cures for diseases, creating a public transportation system–are well beyond the scope of a church and can only be accomplished by the government. And conservative Christians are hypocritical in their argument that Christianity shouldn’t be invoked when it’s part of an argument for social welfare but should be invoked when supporting war or prayer in public school and opposing gay rights and abortion. Which is it–we obey authorities and pay up or resist them?

Conservative Christians like to point out that progressive Christians are hypocrites for invoking religion in defense of immigrants, refugees, and the environment and rejecting religious arguments against feminism or mandatory public displays of religiosity. This, though, is a false equivalency: progressive arguments rooted in Biblical mandates to care for the vulnerable (hungry elders, hungry children, the sick, the imprisoned) support policies and programs (Meals on Wheels, free and reduced lunch, the ACA, prison reform) that are also supported by social science. I think the fact that my religious beliefs work in reality is a pretty good sign that they’re good beliefs–you can’t get good fruit from a bad tree, after all. Conservative Christian budget ideas… well, they yield bad fruit.

Above, an Orthodox depiction of Jesus cursing a fig tree that had no figs on it. To be fair, it wasn’t fig season. But when Jesus wants figs, you better produce! 

Mick Mulvaney lies: we know which programs work and how and why, and we have good ideas about how they can work better. In contrast, conservative Christian arguments for government intervention are far more often supported by religion alone. (I’m going to carve out a big exception here for abortion, which I think can be opposed on grounds that aren’t religious.) There is no reason to argue that we should “put God back in school” or prevent same-sex couples from getting married except for religion.

But, if I’m taking Erickson as a sincere believer, there is an even bigger problem with Erickson’s argument: instead of humbly asking how conservative Christians can better live out the first and second greatest commandments–to love God and to love their neighbor–he implies that non-Christians must be less Christ-like than Christians simply because they are non-Christians.

Who cares if they are? Shouldn’t Christians act more Christ-like than non-Christians? If believing in Jesus doesn’t produce Christ-like Christians, what is the point of believing? Why believe if it doesn’t matter? Erickson sets a pretty low standard here. Many non-Christians have considered their experiences with Erickson and his co-religionists and have reached their own conclusions, as the continued decline in religious believers suggests.

 

Discerning Divine Foolishness

 

I think Joel’s got it exactly right: Jesus asks his followers to act counterintuitively in ways that level the playing field and even preferentially treat the weak and poor. The world sees this as foolishness, but Jesus says that it is the kingdom coming.

Large groups of Christians have, as Joel has noted, unfortunately, picked up the wrong kind of foolishness. Joel cites anti-climate change teachings, which are the perfect example of a broader, longer trend: religiously-justified anti-intellectualism. The anti-science effort, in particular, is long-standing. Some Puritans, for example, objected to lightning rods because they were an effort to control the will of God. When Boston was struck with awful earthquakes in 1727 and 1755, many explained it as God’s punishment for people who thought they could avoid his punishment via lightning rods. (Some Amish sects today still forbid them out a belief that they are a sign of lack of belief in God’s providence.)  The first generation of anti-vaxxers thought the same way: vaccinations were just an effort to thwart God, who might have wanted to smite you with smallpox.  Such anti-intellectualism is foolish, but not in the way that makes the first last and the last first. In fact, anti-intellectualism today tends to be foolishness that destroys vulnerable populations in an effort to protect and bolster the wealthy—say, oil companies profiting at the expense of indigenous people and cultures.

dinosaurs

Above, dinosaurs deny the reality of an asteroid about to hit the earth. A T-rex proclaims, “Fake asteroid!!!” and a triceratops says, “Lying media!!” as the asteroid approaches.  Christians deny climate change to everyone’s peril.

Christians compound this foolishness when they use religion to justify anti-science and anti-intellectualism.  Instead of being countercultural in ways that result in them loving their neighbors as themselves (the second greatest commandment), they fight against efforts to make life more peaceful and just. And then, they drag God into it.

Exodus 20:7 delivers this pretty important commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” The NRSV is a bit clearer about what in vain means: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” The question then becomes What is the right use of God’s name?

For Christians, the New Testament shows us when people rightly and wrongly invoke God. The religious leaders of his day frequently got it wrong—like when they asked Jesus about whose wife a remarried widow would be in the afterlife or hoped to criticize him for healing on the Sabbath.  They were invoking God, but their goal wasn’t to free the oppressed but to maintain the status quo, which harmed women and those with disabilities. Their use of “but religion says so!” wasn’t just vain (in the sense of pointless)—it was an effort to make trouble for those already burdened with troubles.

woman caught in adultery

Above, Christ and the Adulteress by Titian, 1508-1510. The painting is in the collection at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow Museums in Scotland.  Trying to make trouble with the name of God, the religious leaders ask Jesus if they can stone a woman caught in adultery, as Moses said.  Jesus is remarkably patient with them and instructs the one without sin to cast the first stone. In a rare moment, they seem to get it and leave the stones on the ground.

When political leaders today invoke God, you can almost always bet that they aren’t doing so to lift troubles from the shoulders of those already weary.   Instead, they are being foolish—careless, wasteful, vain, wrong, mischief-making, exploitative—with God’s name. You can always tell by who their actions serve and who they harm.