Moral Compass

Recently I was introduced to The Poor People’s Campaign, in its most recent iteration.  I was drawn in because I was raised in a poor family and have struggled to make up the shortfall my entire adult life.  Those raised in middle class (and above) households often don’t realize that when you start below zero, in a humanities-based career it may take literally decades to catch up, if you ever do.  There’s no safety net and there’s no inheritance.  You begin with years of higher education debt and sub-standard pay in your profession.  But I digress.  The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival is non-partisan and it is about more than just the poor.  It’s about restoring true morality to our political system.  Organized by the Rev. William J. Barber II, it has had some success in presenting the plight of the poor to a congress that has largely failed to care.

Politics is full of dirty money and lobbying to the point that many people are cynical and convinced that morality has no chance of survival in this city set on a hill.  The pony and puppet show in a White House run by an entrenched narcissist shows just how far concerns for justice are from the aims of our government.  Barber and his colleagues actually read from the Bible (which, it turns out, advocates justice) rather than just saying that they do.  Compared with Martin Luther King’s 1968 campaign by the same name, The Poor People’s Campaign today is smaller, but growing.  More and more citizens with a conscience realize that our government requires rescue if any semblance of fairness is to throw its hat into the political arena.  We’ve become the victims of to government’s bread and circuses, but without the bread.

The most disturbing aspect of our current political spectrum is the complete lack of a moral compass on the side of politicians who cynically use issues to win elections only for personal enrichment.  We have an Oval Office occupant who refuses to divest himself from his own business interests while using his position to increase his own wealth.  Others in his party follow suit.  The Poor People’s Campaign is non-partisan because corruption easily crosses the political aisle.  At least one party seems to be aware that the poor really do suffer even as the White House tells them tax breaks for the wealthy will make everything better.  When a government proposes “camps” for the homeless to get them off the streets, we should see that we’re clearly in trouble.  And unless someone sounds the alarm the wealthy will never bother to take notice. 

The New Purple

Those of us who grew up Evangelical hold an unusual place among our liberal peers.  We’re often able to peer around, over, and under that wall that has been built between those who want a faith-based nation and those who want a free one.  Angela Denker is a fellow traveler on this road, and her book Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump is a useful roadmap.  Some of us fall further from the tree than others, but one of Evangelicalism’s more endearing traits, when taken seriously, is the love of those who are different from you.  That love is often forgotten in the political rhetoric daily whipped into a froth by an unstable president being used by his party to install agendas that hardly fit the moniker “Christian.”  That’s why books like this are so important.

I confess that reading studies such as this make me uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable because my Evangelical past haunts me worse than any ghost, but also because Denker is clearly right that basic humanity is being left in the garbage as battle lines are drawn up in what could be a great, diverse nation if a leader were determined to work for unity.  I recently wrote about lunar landings.  Kennedy was a Catholic who had to work to bring a nation together around a common goal.  Instead of tearing the country apart for his personal aggrandizement, he pointed to the moon.  Sure, there was a xenophobia concerning the Soviet Union, but at least in this pocket of the world there was a sense that we should work together.  When religion entered politics with Richard Nixon and his followers, a deep rift opened up.  The two topics you were never to discuss—religion and politics—were now in the same bed.

Red State Christians is an extended road trip on which Denker interviews people who largely fall under the Evangelical umbrella.  Some of them are Catholic.  Some of them are Hispanic.  Some of them are less concerned with social issues, but are hard-working laborers often overlooked by the Democratic Party.  The resulting pastiche is one in which Americans are cast not in sharp relief, but rather with the hazy edges that are a far more accurate way of understanding human beings.  Many, it becomes clear, elected Trump out of fear, or out of fear of his opponent.  These aren’t bad people, but they are people afraid.  This wasn’t an easy book to read, but it is an important one.  And those who want to work for a future that might include realms beyond the moon might find this work a small step in the right direction.

Power of Parables

Parables come in all sizes and shapes, horror movie-shaped, some of them.  In my perpetual struggle to catch up, I finally got to see Get Out.  One of the raft of well-made, intelligent horror films that have been released recently, it’s been out long enough that I suspect my spoilers will be well known.  The Armitage family, resident in upstate New York, has been kidnapping and using African-Americans to make up for the perceived weaknesses of their family and friends.  One of their main means of obtaining victims is through their daughter Rose, who brings her boyfriends home for the weekend so they can be hypnotized by her psychiatrist mother and operated on by her neurosurgeon father.  The reveal comes slowly, but the discomfort begins early on.

Released early in the Trump White House tenure, the movie is a study in an intense xenophobia that nestles somewhere between Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Stepford Wives.  It’s inherently uncomfortable watching Chris Washington, the protagonist, being treated as if his very presence requires constant comment in the world of white privilege.  He, of course, had misgivings before ever climbing into Rose’s car, but her convincing display of liberalism was enough to overcome his hesitation.  For me, watching the film made it clear that privilege is something assumed, even when it isn’t had in any explicit way.  The Armitage family and their friends are well-to-do but even if the setting were more mundane the message would still have worked—our culture imposes and reimposes its message of white superiority in subtle ways that the camera captures here.

Quite apart from its nature as a parable, Get Out is a demonstration of the social consciousness of horror.  Its reputation as a debased, low-brow appeal to all that’s unsavory to watch is misplaced at times.  While Get Out is uncomfortable it’s that way for a reason.  Were it not, it would lose its important message.  All privileged people need to be able to see through the eyes of those who are culturally disenfranchised, and although the “us versus them” mentality is problematic it has to be faced honestly and openly.  The very fact that a human construct like race could be used as the basis for a horror film in America raises questions that ought to make all of us squirm.  Setting the story in New York, where prejudice might be supposed not to remain only underscores how deeply its roots have grown.  Horror with a conscience is perhaps as much a vehicle for social change as it is a genre more honest than often supposed.  That’s how parables tend to be.

Burger Impossible

On the way home from Ithaca, we’ve learned the hard way to avoid I-80 through the Poconos on a holiday weekend.  Past experience indicates that about 80 percent of the population of New Jersey (to be fair, a percentage of that may be those from New York City) tries to squeeze through the Delaware Water Gap at just about dinner-time the day before work starts again.  There is a longer alternate route, I-476, the turnpike, which you catch north of Scranton and exit in Allentown.  The only issue with this plan is that, unless you want to exit the turnpike to try to find food in rural Pennsylvania, there’s only one travel plaza between our entrance and exit.  It’s a nice enough stopping point, but for a vegan on the road options are limited.  As we pulled in we noticed there was a Burger King.  Would they have the much touted “impossible burger”?

It turns out that they did.  Having last had a whopper well over two decades ago, mouth memory may have faded a bit, but I can honestly say this was like the whopper I remembered.  If you hold the cheese and mayo, you have a vegan version.  This discovery made me strangely happy.  For years at remote locations (and some urban) we’ve stopped when the only other options are meat based and had the BK veggie burger.  It’s not too bad most of the time, but if you want to think you’re eating meat while not contributing to the massive environmental degradation of industrial farming, the impossible burger seems like a reasonable option.  This is one area of technology that I’m glad seems to be catching up with ethics.

I often ponder how much our western point-of-view is based on the Bible.  Our reluctance to include animals in our ethics is another example of how the hard line between species has been applied.  Even scientists are susceptible to worldview bias.  When we realize we’re all part of a continuum of biological relatedness, it’s a lot more difficult to argue for our special place in the divine eye.  At the same time, insisting one’s ethics be applied to all is a form of fascism.  I’m just glad my conscience can be assuaged with some plant-based food options.  After all, I’ve been on the road for a few hours and I’m sitting here happy to be eating at Burger King.  It’s a matter of perspective.

Masked Reality

Before I make my confession you need to consider that I spent much of my professional life as a seminary professor.   Never ordained, I nevertheless donned the cassock and taught future priests what they’d be assumed to know (the Bible) while trying to earn an academic reputation through my publications.  It was a double life in which one half involved the church.  Shortly after that job ended I saw trailers for Nacho Libre, a movie in which Jack Black plays a monk who moonlights as a luchador, a Mexican professional wrestler.  I never saw the film, but I had been raised on a white trash diet of World Wrestling Federation fandom, back in the day when that involved gathering around the television to watch grown men posturing and preening while knowing that none of it was really real.  I secretly wanted to see Nacho Libre.

Recently I visited friends who had the movie.  They warned me that it was corny, but I had already supposed that.  What I didn’t realize until after it was over (for movie viewing is now followed by internet viewing) is that it is based on a true story.  “Based on a true story” doesn’t mean, of course, that a movie accurately portrays events, but I had no idea that a Mexican priest had actually supported an orphanage for over two decades as a masked wrestler under the name of Fray Tormenta.  I followed up the movie with a little web research because the film was remarkably respectful of the church.  The character of Ignacio never criticizes Catholicism, and he clearly cares for the orphans for whom he serves as the cook.  His wrestling winnings go toward purchasing better food for them.

Earlier in the day we watched the movie I’d talked to one of my friends about how religious life, no matter how seriously it’s taken, involves acting.  People generally put on masks before going to church (or any other function in which they interact with others).  Religion requires a level of piety impossible to sustain in the real world.  Early in the history of Christianities it became clear that the church would hire some religious specialists to try to take on the lifestyle toward which all faithful should aspire.  I’ve trained many priests.  I’ve seen them when they’re in mufti.  I know that in the vestibule, at the altar, or in the pulpit they’re wearing masks.  Many of them have the heart of Nacho Libre, but outside the church doors they still have bills to pay and family and friends who know them as they really are.  As we slipped the DVD in I didn’t know what the movie might be like, but it was based on a true story in more ways than one.

Meatings

It was almost a little too real.  As I looked at the fake blood—this wasn’t a horror movie—I had a hard time accepting this wasn’t the real thing.  I mean Beyond Meat’s vegetable-based sausage.  My daughter recently sent me a captivating article about artificial meat.  Unlike many paeans to its virtues by fellow vegetarians and vegans, this was written by an omnivore who unabashedly stated that we’ve reached the point where synthetic meat has surpassed the real thing in flavor and the eating experience.  The piece on Outside made me glad.  Feedlots, apart from being the largest industrial polluters in this country, are a horror film based on a true story.  The way we treat “food animals” violates just about every ethical stance in the book, and it’s a big book.  We do it for profit, of course.  Now that artificial meat is turning a substantial profit, those who slaughter are starting to pay attention.

I recently ate at a local restaurant where our waiter recommended the cauliflower burger.  The thought wasn’t appealing.  Don’t get me wrong, I do like cauliflower.  I prefer it raw, however, since cooking brings out its more cruciferous qualities.  In any case, our server said, “It’s new on the menu.  We offered it once before and so many people requested it that we’ve made it a regular item.”  Now we don’t exactly live in a hippie haven here.  Still, enough people are asking for alternatives that we’re discovering it pretty easy to find plant-based protein in some pretty remarkable places.  It put me in mind of my most challenging course in college: biomedical ethics.

A class that asked, and then pressed on very sensitive questions, biomedical ethics required a term paper.  I wrote mine on animal testing.  This was back in the 1980s, and technology has moved on since then.  Even back in those dark ages of Reaganomics, artificial tissue was being lab grown, eliminating the need for animal testing on many products.  Now we’re reaching the point where the same may apply to comestibles.  I’ve long used vegetarian alternatives (now vegan ones) and they’ve increasingly improved.  When I had the most recent alternative, however, I couldn’t believe it wasn’t meat.  It was too real.  I’m not morally opposed to verisimilitude, I assure you.  The closer they get to the real thing, the better it is for the animals who’ll never need to be born to be killed by us.  It’s just I find the fake blood upsetting, and I’m happy to be reminded that this is only a simulacrum after all.

Somebody’s Coming

Sometimes updates don’t help.  That’s because evil is so good at masquerading as righteousness that constant vigilance is required.  Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism was recommended to me by someone at a local church.  I’ve been giving educational talks to help people understand what Evangelicalism is, so I figured I’d better read it.  The optimistic epilogue to this otherwise excellent book allowed relief after the 2006 midterm elections.  Of course, nobody back then could’ve believed an even less intelligent president than W could ever be put forth by the GOP.  That doesn’t mean Kingdom Coming shouldn’t be read.  It should.  And it should be required reading (aw, gee!  Homework?).  There have been many studies that have demonstrated repeatedly that Christian Nationalism is highly organized and well funded.  Meanwhile intellectuals scoff that religion is dead.

I spent most of the last week in a kind of panic.  I have another public talk coming up, and I needed to read Goldberg before that.  Yes, it is dated.  But yes, we have Trump’s bumbling form of “leadership” with a well funded, highly organized Evangelical subculture calling the shots.  Forget the politicians—they’re only interested in money—it’s everyone else who suffers from America’s growing fascism.  The fact that the GOP won’t stand up to 45 shows that we’ve already turned the corner toward das Vaterland.  Anyone the Republican Party elects from now on could be the new dictator.  Christian Nationalism stands behind this as journalists scratch their heads.

Goldberg’s book has likely been shelved because eight years of Obama made it seem like the threat was gone.  The problem is, silence works to the benefit of Christian Nationalists.  Perhaps the most frightening thing about all of this is that many intellectuals simply don’t take the threat seriously.  At the same time I was reading this, I was also reading about Nazi Germany (because I’m such a cheerful guy).  The parallels are blatant and entirely too obvious to miss.  Christian Nationalism has an agenda and it is fascist in nature.  Even obeying the words of Jesus takes second place to the political objective of making America in their own image.  This may sound alarmist, but it’s based on solid information.  The Devil, they say, is most powerful when people don’t believe in him.  Those who would make America into a theocracy would claim to follow the other guy, but looking at their tactics, it’s pretty clear who’s really in charge.