Tweeting Treason

Partisan politics can be very depressing. Religion seldom helps. Good ol’ boys hepped up on Jesus and lynchings creep me out a bit, especially when they’ve got political ambitions. Florida’s continual struggle with reality reawakened this fear when I read, in a Huffington Post story about Joshua Black’s recent tweet. A Republican candidate for the state house, Black is a former street evangelist who allegedly tweeted that a hanging is the way to solve, in his not-so-humble opinion, ills in the White House. To be fair, Black suggests that a trial for war crimes should precede the stout rope, but I’m afraid I’ve lost faith in due process. Anyone who’s tangled with the evangelical version of justice knows that there’s just no way to win. And yet, despite the many compromises on the political front, the religious right takes any excuse to make ever more outlandish claims.

Looking back over the history of Christianity, I wonder where hatred entered the mix. Jesus, according to the Gospels, had a temper but he never suggested the death penalty for his political enemies. Even standing before Pilate and Herod, he didn’t trump their human political ambitions with the divine trump card to win earthly power, hands down. As I recall, the early evangelists spent quite a bit of time huddled in dark corners for fear of the rule of government. They didn’t suggest hanging Tiberius, although one has to wonder what even the Romans made of Caligula. There were, no doubt, multiple Christianities as play in those early centuries, but the biblical picture, the one that evangelicals claim as their own, shows the true believers frightened and utterly subservient to the dictates of empire.

That haircut will never pass Evangelical muster

That haircut will never pass Evangelical muster

Constantine may be the most important figure in western history. The religions we recognize as Christianity today may have largely been crafted by Paul of Tarsus, but they would never have become the foundation of empire without Constantine’s conversion. The Christianization of the Roman Empire grew into the immense power of the Vatican in the Middle Ages, and fueled the political ambitions of colonists to this land that they claimed theirs by manifest destiny. And our presidents, no matter their personal predilections, have become more and more Christian ever since. Thomas Jefferson could not be elected in today’s political climate. Even Jefferson repented of having held slaves. There was a time when accusing a law-abiding president of war crimes would itself have been considered treason. A lot of water has passed under the Watergate since then, and partisan politics now holds hands with an uncompromising Christianity that suggests the death penalty is more to be desired than health care for all.

Civil Rites

Sundays’ op-eds often have sensitive fingers on the pulse of the American religious scene. A piece by Tom Deignan in Sunday’s New Jersey Star Ledger raised a very interesting point about civil religion. Civil religion is, loosely defined, the acting out of religion in a civil-political forum as a cheap form of nationalism. We do it because it works. Noting that a presidential candidate denying the divinity of Christ in the twenty-first century would be engaging in political suicide, Deignan rightly points out that many earlier “Protestant” presidents would—and did—do just that. He notes that Taft, a Unitarian, came outright and said it. No matter the protestations of the Neo-Cons, the founding fathers were Deists, not believers in Christ’s divinity. Thomas Jefferson went as far as to excise all the miracles from his version of the New Testament. The idea that religio-politicking is business as it’s always been done is a myth.

And what a persistent myth it is! Many Protestant denominations trace their ancestry back to founders who believed that they were closer to the apostolic faith than the next guy. They legitimately believed their faith was the original, intended by God, Christianity. Thus it was in the beginning, is now, and forever shall be. Only it’s not true. Religion was purposely written out of the Constitution of the United States with the Bill of Rights declaring its freedom the ideal. What presidents believed hardly played into the concept of their fitness for national leadership in the early days. Now little else seems to matter. Deignan rightly wonders why Mitt Romney is so tight-lipped about his Mormonism. Could it be he fears what critics might say about devising a national budget through rose-colored glasses? Surely his vast personal wealth belies that concern.

So what was the original Christianity? On this point the Bible is amazingly unobscured; early Christianity was Judaism. Jesus was called “Rabbi,” and his teachings weren’t too far distant from Hillel and others near his generation. Paul of Tarsus, who pointed the nascent religion towards its evolution into Catholicism, was also Jewish. Following his faith in resurrection, some early Christians moved into the direction of eventual ritualism. The fancy hats of the papacy, it is fair to say, were never in the minds of Jesus or Paul. Not even Peter. Modern religions, even the primitivist movements, cannot reclaim the Christianity of the first century. That religion does not fit into a world of Internet, cell phones, and automobiles, let alone presidential candidates with wealth befitting King Herod. Let’s just grow up and admit where we are.

Jefferson’s Legacy

With the gears grinding in the political machine and candidates for the GOP nomination each trying to show they are more righteous than the others, the name of Thomas Jefferson gets used quite a bit. Jefferson’s famous Bible, literally cut-and-pasted together by one of our better presidents, removed miracles from the picture, and Jefferson’s writings leave open the question of whether Deist or Atheist is a more accurate description. I’m in Charlottesville, Virginia right now, home of that paean to Jefferson, the University of Virginia. For a state university, UVA has perhaps the largest religion department in the country. I noted with some irony, that the religion department is housed just above the political science department in Gibson Hall. While waiting for my first appointment, I sat in an alcove where two students began talking about politics. (This was in the religion department.) My chagrin grew as my grin faded with their lament about how poor the Republican candidates are, “but we have to get Obama out of the White House.” In order to do so, they’d elect a man whom they believe unqualified for the office.

Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying a person who doesn’t start out as a liberal has no heart, but who remains a liberal as an adult has no brain—or some such nonsense. The fact is, compassion never should go out of style. It seems to me that somebody changed the terms and what they mean. “Conservative” used to equate to a fiscal position that, while it favored the wealthy, still had sympathy—or even empathy—for those less well-off built in. Now it has come to define “selfish disregard of those different than me.” We see it all the time, not just in political speeches, but in acts passed in the name of Christianity. Jefferson’s Bible is being trampled underfoot. And we are told repeatedly that America was founded as a Christian nation. Of the students discussing politics here, the more conservative of the two was the woman.

Does she not realize that without the liberalizing tendencies of the suffragettes her own future would be limited? That does not excuse in any way the patriarchy that made suffrage necessary in the first place, but it does speak to how quickly we are taught to forget. Even in the land of Jefferson, there are those who would protect privilege and call it divinity. “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” The words of Thomas Jefferson. In our great universities those who actually do learn are sometimes taught that empathy is weakness and fiscal gain is god. Unless it’s an election year. With great wealth going into the carnival we call the nomination process, we might legitimately ask what’s to become of us if those with no empathy are elected. After all, what are we, apes?

One of the few presidents worth casting in bronze

In Our Own Image

Word is out that Andrew Schlafly, spawn of Phyllis, is working on a new Bible. In a stunning move that will amaze even many conservative Christians, Schlafly has decided that the Bible itself is too liberal. On his alternative to “liberal” Wikipedia, Conservapedia, he cites the ten principles for translating the Bible in a conservative-acceptable way. Unable to attain the lofty heights of rhetoric on Conservapedia’s Conservative Bible Project page, I need to quote verbatim the 10 Commandments of Schlafly’s ideal Bible:

1. Framework against Liberal Bias: providing a strong framework that enables a thought-for-thought translation without corruption by liberal bias
2. Not Emasculated: avoiding unisex, “gender inclusive” language, and other modern emasculation of Christianity
3. Not Dumbed Down: not dumbing down the reading level, or diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity; the NIV is written at only the 7th grade level
4. Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms: using powerful new conservative terms to capture better the original intent; Defective translations use the word “comrade” three times as often as “volunteer”; similarly, updating words that have a change in meaning, such as “word”, “peace”, and “miracle”.
5. Combat Harmful Addiction: combating addiction by using modern terms for it, such as “gamble” rather than “cast lots”; using modern political terms, such as “register” rather than “enroll” for the census
6. Accept the Logic of Hell: applying logic with its full force and effect, as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell or the Devil.
7. Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning
8. Exclude Later-Inserted Inauthentic Passages: excluding the interpolated passages that liberals commonly put their own spin on, such as the adulteress story
9. Credit Open-Mindedness of Disciples: crediting open-mindedness, often found in youngsters like the eyewitnesses Mark and John, the authors of two of the Gospels
10. Prefer Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness: preferring conciseness to the liberal style of high word-to-substance ratio; avoid compound negatives and unnecessary ambiguities; prefer concise, consistent use of the word “Lord” rather than “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” or “Lord God.”

Am I the only one to sniff a strong scent of Orwell here? Principle 1 stipulates that the translation, by converse logic (the kind apparently in favor) should be biased, as long as the bias is neo-con. In principle number 4 we are told that the word “word” has changed in meaning. Suddenly I’m reaching out for the railing – steady, steady! Principle 7: “free market parables”? Here is Jesus made-over in the image of Rush (I Can’t Have the Rams) Limbaugh; remove the kindness and compassion please. Jesus’ only goal is to be the CEO, or at least his only son. The translators reserve the right to remove objectionable material traditionally attributed to Jesus. Even Mr. Rogers could spell Revisionist!

Sure, Bible translators need to give the readership what they want. Thomas Jefferson removed the miracles and divinity claims for Jesus before publishing “the Jefferson Bible.” And he was a president! Suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton led efforts to produce the Woman’s Bible, removing masculine bias from the text. Bible scholars, however, do not accept their efforts as original biblical manuscripts. Even the general public knows better. What Mr. Schlafly is proposing is giving a gullible readership a Bible that contains what God meant to say; i.e., if God were me. What is disturbing about this is not that one person is offering his or her own version of the Bible – that’s been done before – but that it is intended to lead the unwary to a vision of Christianity that is new but claiming to be apostolic.

I think I feel a podcast coming on.

Woman's Bible

Woman's Bible

Jefferson Bible

Jefferson Bible