Tag Archives: politics and religion

More than Baptism

Few things distinguish American Christianity as much as its divisions. These aren’t precise, however, and often the borders are fuzzy and held more by cultural history than by theological outlook. One of the denominations—indeed, the umbrella for the single largest Protestant denomination in America—often faces the question of its identity. Who are the Baptists? Many Protestant groups can trace their histories to defining moments; consider Martin Luther and his hammer, according to the Lutheran origin myth. Baptists are a little tricker to pin down. Dissenters, yes, convinced that adult baptism should accompany conversation, yes, but beyond that widely divergent. Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins have provided a service by writing Baptists in America: A History. Going back before America, they trace the origins of the sect and quickly bring it into the context in which it would thrive.

Persecuted early in American life, Baptists grew in numbers and recognition during the period commonly known as the Great Awakenings. Suited to frontier individualism, non-doctrinal, and advocating for freedom of conscience, the Baptists gained large sums of converts in this era. With their congregational polity, Baptist cultural influence really only took off when mass media gave its more aggressive preachers a venue not limited by church walls. As Kidd and Hankins point out, however, the denomination proved friable. Splitting apart over various issues, the number of Baptist denominations grew. Their political influence would also grow so that they would become a force with which to be reckoned even today. Few, however, really understand who the Baptists are.

The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest single Protestant denomination in the United States. It defines itself by a radical conservatism that masquerades as “orthodoxy.” Heavily biblical, many in the tradition have a strong preference for inerrancy. Social causes that appear outdated to most modern people are do-or-die issues for this sect within a sect. Baptists in America does a good job showing how contradictory Baptists can be. They were, after all, dissenters from the beginning. Their championing of religious freedom often doesn’t apply outside their own borders. The more political of the denomination know very well how to game a democratic system. Perhaps the lesson they’ve learned most acutely is that being unseen carries with it great advantages. They play the sport of legislative chess very well. In a culture that loudly and repeatedly claims that religion no longer matters, those with conviction have a natural hiding place. From there pieces are easily moved to positions of power.

Turn the Other What?

The man next to me on the bus is reading his Bible. At one point in my life that would’ve made me feel safe. I would’ve known that the person next to me was committed to the same value system as mine—love for all, peace, equality, and acceptance. Now, however, I see that Bible and I’m afraid. You see, I’m reading Chris Hedges’ American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so scared. Hedges’ book was published a decade ago. What he wrote about then is coming true now and it’s because the elites of society—university folk and all—don’t take the radical religious seriously. In their delusional ways, they assume all will be well. If you think like that, read this book.

Dominionism is fascism dressed in Christian garb. It has no room for tolerance. It teaches that those outside its circle are to be ignored at best, and murdered without compunction at worst. This is not exaggeration. It is their teaching. It’s like that computer game that used to come with Macs where a time-traveling dinosaur collected the eggs of other species to save them from the coming asteroid. You could kill other dinosaurs without guilt because you knew they were going to die in 20 minutes anyway. That is very much the way Dominionists feel about you and me. We aren’t saved—their word is “Christian”—God has rejected us, and therefore we deserve to die. Many of them stockpile weapons just for this reason. Their goal, not at all hidden, is to take over the United States and make it a Christian nation. Already many in the houses of Congress are their candidates. They have a president who shares their values. We should be very afraid.

Hedges does a very good job providing the statistics that back his assertions. There is no question that this is real. Those who blithely vote Republican out of fiscal conservatism have risen to the bait. Trump has proved that once and for all. These “Bible believers” do not value or treasure love. They treasure treasure (many of them are very wealthy) and what they desire is power. Tolerance, in their view, is evil and compromising with the literal Satan in which they believe. Their Jesus does not love. He fights. And he fights for white, straight, privileged men. If you’re willing to forsake sleep, read this book. And if you think it’s exaggerating read the headlines.

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.