Tag Archives: politics and religion

Voting Belief

No one knows the origins of religion. Before the advent of writing we can only guess, based on artifacts. Even in the era of scriveners, nobody jotted down the origin of belief until modern times, long, long after it began. Once writings about religious practice become reasonably clear, we find temples in the service of palaces, and vice-versa. Monarchs needed the validation of deities and priests required the support of the crown. Together they brought the two swords together and managed to keep the unruly masses in check. This isn’t cynical, not necessarily, since it reflects, the best we can reconstruct, how western organized religions began. Power was always part of the picture.

A recent Washington Post story, “The stark racial and religious divide between Democrats and Republicans, in one chart,” by Christopher Ingraham, shows the diametrically opposed pie-charts of self-identified white Christians (Republicans) versus non-white or non-Christian (Democrats) Americans. Such survey results tell us much about ourselves. We vote with our faith (or lack thereof) and not with our rationality. This has long been the piece of the political puzzle that Democrats have failed to comprehend. Not to take away from Barack Obama’s charisma, but people were afraid of Mormon Mitt Romney in 2012. Although conservative, white, and evangelical, Mormons have long been questioned as to their Christian identity by other evangelicals. It would seem, in the light of present circumstances, that understanding the “white Christian” mindset might be the only way out of the morass.

Typically self-defeating, academic institutions have shown little interest in understanding religion among hoi polloi. Long ago they bought into what Peter Berger admitted was his biggest blunder, the idea that religion was dying out. By the time he made that admission, academics had ceased to pay much attention to religion. It has, of course, come back as the ghost that haunts us. Or is it a zombie, once dead and now back to life? The fact is religion was never dying. It is as much of being a human as is driving a car or owning a cell phone. When times are uncertain, we turn to what is perceived as unchanging—religion. In truth, religion is constantly evolving to fit outlooks influenced by science, technology, and social progress. Worldviews change. Our culture is becoming more diverse. Republicans have a natural voting bloc that identifies itself by race and religion. Information about the former is readily available. You’ll need to look a bit harder to find quality information about the latter, no matter how important it may be.

Good Newsists

In the interest of avoiding conflict thereof, I cannot yet give a review of Randall Balmer’s Evangelicalism in America. Since I’m writing a review of it for Reading Religion, I’ll use it as a springboard into a topic that should concern all who believe in religious freedom. One of the resounding themes of Balmer’s treatment is that Evangelicalism, after it wedded to the Religious Right, lost its soul. Those are my words, not his, but the sentiment’s about right. For anyone who wasn’t politically aware in the 1980s, it may seem a surprise that religion didn’t enter into politics before that decade. With the exception of the fear of the Catholic in the case of John F. Kennedy, religion wasn’t used as a political wedge until the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The Religious Right, unhappy with the born again Southern Baptist in the White House, moved to solidify the Evangelical bloc.

Evangelicals had been an underground movement for half a century. Many had no idea what being “born again” meant when Carter first claimed the sobriquet. Balmer points out that it was the threat of the withdrawal of tax-exempt status to discriminating Christian schools that led to political action. Bob Jones University, fearful of racial intermarriage, didn’t admit African American students. Leaders of the Religious Right saw the loss of tax-exempt status as a move against their sacred segregated culture and a push that required a shove. Coopting the abortion issue (historically Evangelicals had supported women’s rights, including the right to abortion in many cases), they nailed together a platform for political activism which put women “back in their place,” kept racial “purity,” and romanced a total aberration in Christianity—the “prosperity gospel.” All of this is well documented. And well hidden.

Looking at Evangelical politics today, abortion—the control of women—has become THE issue. It’s hard to believe, as Balmer amply illustrates, that Evangelicalism used to be allied with the Social Gospel. It was a religious view with a conscience and it supported issues that are now polarized as “liberal” and leftist. This shift came about gradually, but not accidentally. There were political players—Balmer names names—who had one goal in mind, and that goal wasn’t Jesus or what he’d do. It was the sweet prize of political power. Evangelicals, you see, are born followers. A leader with a strong voice can lead them just about anywhere. Many Evangelicals today would deny their more liberal history, but it is right there for anyone who’s willing to learn something about who they once were.

Informed Deceit

I sign a lot of petitions. That’s because the job of prophet doesn’t pay well enough to support a family any more. What it does mean is that I get a lot of emails from causes looking for supporters. I don’t sign blindly. That was brought home to me the other day when I had an email from the “White House.” A more obvious effort at trying to scramble for table scraps of respectability I cannot imagine. Already since January our government has swooped to new lows of deception and now false news comes right to your inbox. This email informed me that Neil Gorsuch has overwhelming bipartisan support for his Supreme Court nomination. Being an individual with a working brain, I know that’s not true. The “White House” wanted me to sign a petition supporting Gorsuch when I’ve already signed several protesting his candidacy. It’s clear that our government wants a court prophet.

Isn’t it odd, I mused, that a government that has no intention of listening to the majority is sending a petition to support one of its own? We know that the Russian Party (formerly known as the GOP) will support anything Thurston Howell the President hands them. Such a petition is only a way of saying “I told you so.” I miss the days when Isaiah could walk right into king Hezekiah’s bedroom and say “Thus saith the Lord…” These days the Lord tweets and the chirplings in the nest beg for more worms. You see, court prophets know which side their palms are crossed on. This isn’t Ash Wednesday, it’s Ash Administration.

Court prophets, in ancient times, were those paid by the government to support what the king wanted to do. It was a cushy job. What the reigning Trump wants at the moment he or she (for the modern court prophet can double-cross her own gender) proclaims it as God’s will. No experience necessary. The thing about the Bible, though, is that court prophets are pretty roundly condemned. The real prophet could generally be told by the fact that he (less commonly she in those days) was dead. Or soon to be. Those in power seldom care for criticism. Especially when skeletons are fighting each other for elbow room in their closets. Even so, Holy Writ says, figuratively, that it’s better to be a living politician than a dead prophet. If that doesn’t sound biblical, read the words of the prophet: “Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia’s Dismal Swamp… and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon.”

Beating around the Bush

You know things are bad when another president who couldn’t win the popular vote criticizes you. Don’t get me wrong—criticism is good. In my academic existence (on life-support for over a decade now) I’ve received plenty. The point is you can’t improve if you’re not willing to take a few blows. Defensive academics don’t survive long. The problem seems to be, if I may speculate from my knowledge of biblical studies, the word “criticism.” Growing up, one of the last things I wanted to have was criticism. Already overly self-conscious of my sins, criticism only felt like making an already bad situation even worse. Then I was introduced to biblical criticism.

Biblical criticism sounds like the worst kind, but in reality it’s absolutely necessary. The idea is to study the Good Book rationally. I knew, and still know, many people who believe biblical criticism to be evil. If you trust any history—either secular or divine doesn’t matter—you quickly learn that nothing is simply one-sided. The Bible itself offers examples of this: did God or the Devil tempt David to take a census? Just how many angels were in that tomb on Easter morning and who arrived there first? Only one answer can be right. Criticism is, typical of academics too long out of the sun, a poor word choice. Nobody’s picking on the Bible. All the biblical critic is trying to do is to find out what it really says by asking questions of the text.

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That’s the heart of the matter. Autocrats don’t like questions. The assumption that the inherent authority of a position should be unquestioned undermines any attempt at democracy. As I was often told in church—Christianity isn’t a democracy. Our political system, we’re told, is. That why checks and balances were built into it. Either extreme and the applecart is upset. No matter what believers believe the same applies to biblical studies. Some rampant Harvard toadyism remains, but for the most part we recognize that a scholar with—shall we call them “critical skills”? may emerge from even a school shorn of ivy. We understand that’s how learning works. No one’s above criticism. Only those with something to hide can’t take their lumps like the populace that allow them to claim the name populist. Nobody likes it, but we all have to take criticism from time to time. Even the Good Book.

United or Untied?

Beliefs can be most problematic things. I’ve spent the better part of the last five days in one of the reddest of “Red States.” People in Texas were unfailingly friendly and kind. They seem genuinely interested in helping me although I’m pretty stereotypically a “blue stater” (the beard, the tweed, the glasses—there’s no mistaking it). They help me when I’m lost. They look out for my well-being. But I’ve been conditioned to think poorly of my neighbors. My father was a high school-educated working man from South Carolina. I grew up poor in Pennsylvania. This man taking my check ticket is amiable and solicitous. He doesn’t ask me what I believe.

Sometimes the Founding Fathers got it wrong. The Electoral College has created Red and Blue States. God created people. I want to think that those who are from elsewhere are different. Predatory. Out to get me. In reality what matters is that you and I are beside each other right now, and we’re perfectly happy to be so. We are people. I don’t know what you believe. You don’t know what I believe. It really doesn’t matter unless you believe you should harm me or I should harm you. (I don’t.) This isn’t normalizing the devastating administration constructed brick-and-mortar on hate. There are legitimate foes to face. Me? I’m on the side of the people. All the people. Female people. “Foreign” people. People who love those who are biologically similar or different or anywhere in-between. I can’t believe that our government has tried to drive such a deep wedge between us. From Camelot to Asphodel in one lifetime.

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Our deeply divided country is in need of healers, regardless of belief. From everything I’ve heard there is no health in the incoming administration. Business has long been the enemy of people—long before Adam Smith formulated its name those who have, without intervention, take advantage of those who have not. Its no coincidence that those wounded in service of their country are given purple hearts. Not red hearts. Not blue hearts. I’m here among people who wish me well, and who, although they’ve disagreed about politics in the past, have never allowed an election stereotype them so badly. We need to end the Electoral College and its unholy progeny of red and blue and swing states. Let people be people who unite against the real enemy—the one that’s trying to tear us apart. That’s something I truly believe no matter how problematic it might be.

By Their Love

One of my high school teachers—I don’t have to say who; if you attended my high school you’ll already know and if you didn’t you won’t know him anyway—wrote in my yearbook, “I hope you get what you deserve.” I wasn’t very good in this teacher’s class, but he explained to me, “I sign everyone’s yearbook the same way. If you do well, I hope you get rewarded. If you don’t do well, I still hope you’ll get what you deserve.” This teacher had a reputation for being somewhat of a philosopher, and his words have struck me as particularly appropriate for this moment. We, in the cosmic scheme of things, get what we deserve. As a nation I guess we deserve a First Lady, in an example to young women everywhere, has appeared naked on the internet. Her husband married her after two previous women and has made his views on gender perfectly clear. My conservative friends went to the polls knowing that. I hope they get what they deserve.

The problem is the rest of us are stuck with him too. I’ve lived through bitter, spiteful campaigns before. The genteel art of campaigning is thoroughly deceased. 2016, however, is the first year that I saw pure hatred as a political platform. And it wasn’t on both sides. Trump made of virtue of hating one’s neighbor and claimed the election was rigged until he won—then it was, of course, impossible that it would’ve been rigged. Former First Lady Hillary Clinton, who kept her dignity throughout, never stooped to inciting hatred of fellow Americans. It likely cost her the election. To the people now saying this is just politics and stop complaining I say we have all been victimized and we all ought to feel very ashamed. This election wasn’t about money. Or financial positions. Or foreign policy. It was about hate.

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Hate can only be counteracted by love. I have seen many women responding to a man who considers them mere sexual object by reaching out in kindness to strangers. Women organizing to try to make this country a more positive place. Meanwhile, I hear men I know saying at last we have a strong leader who will bring them prosperity. If money is what you care for, you have my pity. This country is about freedom, equality, and fairness. All of that was jettisoned last Tuesday. Even those saying “get over it” are doing so with a smugness that is a thin veil over intolerance. I’ve never carried on with frustration so long after an election before. That’s because never before has an election—no matter which party triumphed—been won by a platform of evil intent. My grandmother, a Teutonic matron of occasional Valkyrie disposition, used to sum it up well when we boys were getting out of hand. “Schäme dich!” she used to scold. I know a country that could use her words right now.

Final Frontiers

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Is there such a thing as an existential illness? Answer that if you want to, but it’s rhetorical. I’ve been voting since 1980 and I’ve taken my fair share of bruises in the process, but this time my soul feels as if God has hung his “gone fishin’” sign on the pearly gates for good. I am ill. Maybe it was the ebullience that came from having eight years of progress where, although things weren’t perfect, they were sort of holding steady. I’ve always considered myself a populist. I don’t know how a billionaire can convince millions of people he’s one. To be populist you’ve got to be one of hoi polloi. Growing up poor, I took my licks then and I’m still taking them now. No, this wound goes deeper than the bone. Deeper than the viscera. It’s an existential illness.

All things considered, I don’t write too much about politics on this blog. All my adult years I’ve been an unapologetic Democrat. I confess to having grown up Republican. But I believe in the fair treatment of others. I know not everyone will or can be happy. I also know that it’s wrong to denigrate anyone because of their gender, race, orientation, or physical ability. Seems to me that our country was sort of the final frontier where you could go if you believed this kind of thing. Where can you go from the final frontier? There are no other land masses to discover. Maybe if I put on enough layers, Antarctica might not be so bad. Beyond that, where can one go to be a liberal in a world that desperately need some heart? Where money isn’t the measure of all things. Where Mom is right just as often, if not more than, Dad.

It’s a strange thing, this existential illness. Politicians are already cooing their pleasantries, as if nothing more than a slight upset occurred. It seems to me that whenever there’s an upset the popular vote disagrees with the electoral college. It also seems to me there should be a place where the wealthy aren’t considered better by virtue of their material status. I have this existential illness, but I can still dream. Is there a way forward from here? Sometimes I think I can see that horizon where all people are treated fairly and equally, and sometimes the sun seems to be rising over that horizon. Today I feel motion-sick from being jolted backwards. I’ve been disappointed before, but I don’t remember it hurting this badly. If anyone knows a good existential doctor, please pass along her name.