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. 

 

The Spiritual Tribalism of American Christians

I shared in an earlier post that my attraction to the Mennonite faith was due to my respect for their commitment (not always lived out perfectly) to opposing the status quo, to the “upside-down kingdom” that privileges the poor, sides with the weak, and triumphs in death. This model requires some folks—the high and the mighty—to lose. Christians shouldn’t be afraid to lose; in fact, it’s what we’re called to do—to humble ourselves, even to the point of losing everything, even to the point of death.

But if we define Christianity according to what the conservative Protestants who have such cultural power in the US right now do with their faith (the “lived religion” way of defining religion), the picture doesn’t look promising. In fact, I’ll lob a pretty big insult at them, one they’ve hurled at Catholics for ages: they are cultural, nominal Christians, NASCAR Christians who can’t be bothered with church if it interrupts the race (the equivalent of C&E Catholics), people who care more about political power than the gospel and who identify as Christian only in that life is easier when they do so; their Christianity is a way to protect, not risk, themselves. Also, they’re lazy and uninformed about the religion they claim to adhere to. That’s not just me sneering (it actually hurts my heart): the research shows that the poorer their understanding of their faith and the weaker their ties to religion, the more committed they are to Donald Trump.

Joel wondered if American Christians are more tribal than spiritual, but their spirituality and their tribalism work together.  (In fact, tribalism is too kind of a word for their practices. Tribes care for their members. And spirituality is probably too kind of a word for their faith.) An entire theology of selfishness and entitlement—best exemplified in the prosperity gospel that has been so influential in Trump’s outreach to Christians but also integral to Christian arguments in favor of “Biblical immigration” and the end of welfare—circulates in Religious Right churches and media in softer and harsher versions.

Speaking from a scholarly perspective, it may be a losing formula. Conservative churches are bleeding members right now, especially young people. (It’s tough—you have to balance the donations of the old folks against the longevity of the younger members. I’m sure some consulting firm has a formula to figure out how far you push each demographic before losing funds or future congregants.)  Younger people are tired of the culture wars but yearning to put their faith into action in ways that don’t harm their LGBT loved ones. My own students (overwhelmingly Baptist or Church of Christ) rarely want to talk about abortion or gay marriage, but they are eager to talk about sex trafficking and human slavery.

The result of a continued commitment to spiritual tribalism may be smaller, less diverse, and more ideologically pure churches; more unaffiliated “spiritual but not religious” young people; a continuing small stream of new converts to the Episcopal tradition, Catholicism, and the Orthodox Church, which provide sacramental life without quite so much of the political baggage; and more religious “nones”—those who are done with the whole endeavor. Conservative churches may become even more conservative, louder, and more dangerous to democracy.

Panel - Christ Feeding the Five Thousand

Above, a late 12th/early 13th century stained glass depiction of Jesus feeding the 5000, currently in the William and Eileen Ruddock Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The story does not tell us that he asked anyone he fed for their passport, visa, or birth certificate; he did not inquire about pre-existing conditions, political ideology, or the details of their faith. He did not demand they provide proof of income to insure that they were among the “worthy poor.” He fed them simply because they were hungry, even though he was personally tired.  Some of them probably even wasted their food or were ungrateful. Some of them probably didn’t join up with his movement, despite his generosity.  He seems to be okay with all of that. 

Speaking from a Mennonite perspective, the spiritual tribalism of much of conservative Protestantism is wicked, an offense to the wideness of God’s mercy, a show of disdain for scripture, and a usurpation of the authority of God, who did not charge us with gatekeeping. (For those who would like to toss out my perspective because you might assume that Christian progressives don’t care about sin, scripture, or God as sovereign—read that previous sentence again.) We have no models of Jesus scolding anyone for being too generous in their sacrifice, their love, or their hospitality—and plenty of models of grand and often dangerous gestures of generosity.

WHO is Christianity for?

I love that Joel starts with the big questions: What is Christianity, anyway? And what is it supposed to be for? And is Joel weird? The answers, in order, are: Good question, wrong question, and yes, but only in that he’s not a cynical as some others of us, for which I am grateful. I’ll tackle them each briefly.

What is Christianity?

Writes religion scholar Sam. D. Gill on the effort to define religion: “Most religion scholars have grown weary of the effort… despite the widely accepted principle that a word that cannot be defined is a word of limited…  value.” But defining religion isn’t merely an exhausting academic exercise: if we don’t know what religion is, how can we insure that it is protected by the First Amendment? Right now, for example, rightwing anti-immigrant forces are attempting to define Islam not as a religion but as a political ideology in order to strip Muslims of First Amendment rights.

But just because it’s important to know what religion is doesn’t mean that it’s easy.

The humanist tradition stresses religion’s distinction between the sacred—what sociologist Emile Durkheim called “things set apart and forbidden”—and the profane—the petty concerns of an individual’s everyday, ordinary life. In religion, says the theological Paul Tillich, we are “grasped by an ultimate concern.” Rudolph Otto said that, underlying all religion, was the numinous experience of mysterium tremendum et fascinans—experiencing a Wholly Other that, despite its awesomeness, attracts us.

All very charming, but the result of defining religion this way is that much world religion got ignored or derided—and not just the religions of the people Europeans colonized and enslaved the world over but also the religion of European women and poor people. While much religion does, indeed, have to do with the sacred, much of it also has to do with our everyday lives. We might not agree that Soul Cycle is religion, but lots of us have religious experiences that are also mundane, something not possible in Durkheim’s set-up.  We certainly have religion that isn’t about encountering God or being transformed. This notion likely offends evangelical Christians and faithful Catholics (who, after all, are supposed to be encountering the literal body and blood of Jesus at mass each week), but if we are looking for a useful definition of religion, we have to recognize that many religious people are not “spiritual” and that the supernatural is not all that (or even at all) important to them.

We might be better served by thinking of religion as a syndrome—a set of signs that often “run together” and characterize a condition. So we can say that religion often includes a concern for the sacred, a belief in the supernatural, a moral code, a set of prescribed behaviors insuring avoidance of the profane, beliefs, symbols, rituals, revelations, scriptures, and an erasure of the invention of all these things (a key point in the definition for anthropologist Clifford Geertz), but not all religions display all these characteristics.

As for defining Christianity, we can define Christianity by asking self-identified Christians what it is—that is, a descriptive rather than prescriptive definition. That’s a lot of people—about 2 billion, worldwide—with a lot of variation and considerable disagreement even on the basics and some answers that would make our Sunday school teachers sigh in frustration. This is a “lived religion” approach to the question, and I think it’s the one that is most useful.

Who is Christianity for?

Joel actually asked, What is Christianity supposed to be for? but that question is teleological, suggesting a purpose to Christianity that somehow informed its origins—an interesting historical question, but not one that addresses this rather terrible moment in American Christianity.

So I’ll ask instead: Who is American Christianity for today? If you’ll allow me to define Christianity as what Christians say it is, then we can actually measure who Christianity is for by looking at who benefits from American Christianity. And that answer is pretty clear:  the same people who have always had power. American Christianity protects the status quo. If you’re a Christian and that grosses you out—well, I think it should.

Above, Donald Trump speaks at the Values Voter Summit on September 9, 2016. The logos on the wall behind him belong to various religiously conservative political organizations. In his speech, he promised that he would, as president, insure that “our Christian heritage will be cherished like never before.” The our inserts him into the Christian family, while the Christian heritage appeals to both Christian and white nationalists. The will be hints at a legal mandate to recognize Christianity as important in US culture, and the like never before is an appeal to the politics of resentment felt by entitled white conservative Christians who have argued for decades that they have been denied their place of supremacy in American culture. The standing ovation that Trump received for this speech helps us see how American Christians define their faith: as something that deserves to be officially vaunted by the US government.

This is not new. From colonization to Indian removal and “pacification” to slavery and segregation up to today’s social Darwinist delight in the death of the poor, Christianity has insured that the weak stay weak and the strong stay strong. (Note that I don’t say Christianity has been used to do bad things. I’m saying that Christianity has done bad things. Because there is no pure, innocent, ideal Christianity apart from how people use it.) Some heroes have resisted this and risked their lives for a Christianity that  lifts up the downtrodden, but they are the exception. What makes them—Bartolemé de la Casas, William Wilberforce, Corrie ten Boom, Oscar Romero—heroes is that they defied their own Christian traditions (sometimes after too long of a wait) in order to care for those more vulnerable.

I don’t have a lot of love for Russell Moore, who, along with other Southern Baptists, has spent decades now using fear of women and sexual minorities to drum up support for the Republican Party (and that’s beside the fact that, no, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, I do not forgive them for being on the wrong side of emancipation). But while I think that Moore should have taken this position far earlier, I appreciate his effort to remind his fellow Southern Baptists that a marriage of politics and religion is seldom good for religion. As the Baptist hero Roger Williams wrote:

When they [Christians] have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the Candlestick, etc., and made His Garden a wilderness as it is this day.

Moore is getting hammered by fellow Southern Baptists because he opposes the invocation of faith to support the general moral depravity of Donald Trump. But Moore has also long been associating with people who would only use religion to advance their own interests. He didn’t challenge their lazy, self-centered theology earlier because it didn’t upset his thinking about sexuality. The consequence of his anti-gay teaching has been that thousands of queer Baptists kids were spiritually, sexually, and physically abused; many are homeless because their parents refuse to allow the “sin” of gay sexuality in their homes. If the pro-Trump backlash is millstone that drowns him for the violence he’s done to the “least of these”… well, perhaps that is a risk he took.

But I share Joel’s concern for what he sees as “a wound to Southern Baptist integrity.” We are wounded because we expect religion—Christianity broadly and specifically Southern Baptists, who do, with their tradition of religious liberty, have a lot to offer—to do better. I think, in the long run, that’s actually a realistic expectation.