Sunday, February 21, 2010

Angry White Christians, Part II


It’s noble and commendable to be charitable with your own money, but it’s something different to be charitable with other people’s money.
Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention

At this very hour… a big event is happening in the USA: Tiger Woods is holding his press conference at 11 o’clock eastern. I think we can learn a lot from that situation, not from Tiger, but from his wife. So, she said, ‘I’ve had enough.’ She said, ‘no more.’ I think we should take a page out of her playbook and take a 9-iron and smash the window out of big government in this country.
Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota Governor, February 19, 2010

In the 2008 Presidential Election, 74% of white evangelical Christians voted for McCain/Palin. Why? They were mostly compelled by the GOP platform regarding social issues (against abortion and gay rights) and economics (against any increase in taxes and against any regulation in the market). Today's white American evangelical, although historically ambivalent towards political engagement, believes that America is at its best when it prioritizes personal morality, free markets and an aggressive military. This political worldview is intimately connected to their brand of Christianity which has an epicenter in the autonomous individual.

Throughout the past century, American evangelicals have shifted away from systemic justice, compassion and peace issues (in the 1800s, many evangelicals had fought against slavery, war and alcohol and advocated for women's voting rights) and towards a personal evangelistic salvation ethos. Dwight L. Moody and Billy Graham have been the prototypes for this kind of engagement with the world. Our duty as Christians, they proclaimed, is to save as many souls as we can. The fundamental message of Jesus and Paul was "the gospel," which (for them) is an invitation to have a personal relationship with God (through Christ's sacrificial death on the cross) and enjoy eternal life when one dies. The classic phrase that signifies this era of evangelicalism comes from the radio ministry voice of Charles Fuller (the founder of Fuller Theological Seminary where I received my MA in theology) who exhorted his millions of listeners in the 40s to recite a prayer "to invite Jesus into your heart."

This salvation narrative, rooted in the rugged individual, is uniquely American. It follows the Jeffersonian impulse that the government exists to guarantee liberty to each citizen to be the best that he can be. It glorifies hard work, duty and personal responsibility, spawning the American Dream that each and every person living the US can and should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps to make it in this world. The 20th century evangelical has simply bolstered the story with spirituality: receive the gift of salvation and be a good, honest, hard-working, church-attending American. Beyond "evangelism," the evangelical Christian mission addresses the symptoms (not the systems) of societal sin: generosity is rooted in charitable giving to church, private organizations and to needy individuals.

Author and activist David Korten in The Great Turning (2006) proposes that today's political (and theological) conservatives continue to win the battle of American storylines that answer three key questions about our society:

1. How do we prosper?
2. How do we maintain order and keep ourselves secure?
3. How do we find a sense of purpose and meaning in life?

Evangelicals believe that people in the world prosper when big government gets out of the way of hard-working, responsible citizens. The poor and marginalized in our country have not worked hard enough to make it and shouldn't expect the government to bail them out. Evangelicals believe that we maintain order and security through a strong, well-funded military abroad (to fight the evils of fundamentalist Islam) and with tough policing and sentencing on the domestic front. The opposite of this is to be soft with the bad-guys and give in to corrupt crooks and terrorists. And lastly, Evangelicals believe that we find a sense of purpose and meaning in life through a personal relationship with Jesus who has a specific plan for each of our lives.

In addition to individualism, the modern conservative Evangelical is dualist and reductionist. Dualism posits that the world is divided into two camps: good or bad...right or wrong...saved or damned. Reductionism posits that the problems and solutions of our world can be reduced to quite simple solutions, usually communicated in the form of principles or universal truths. So, anyone living in an alternative narrative (who answers these three key questions differently) is suspect in the eyes of white Evangelical Christians. Any claim to use government for anything more than national defense (and to prohibit "sin" like abortion and homosexuality) is characterized as "socialist" or "liberal." Everything is dualistically and reductively measured through the perspective of the individual, while the structures and systems that have created our current context (war on terror, major national debt, dire health care costs, skyrocketing unemployment) are never examined. Conservatives always stay on message: morality, markets and military. Anything that dilutes this message is the problem. And anything that dilutes this message becomes the source of their righteous indignation. 2012 GOP Presidential candidate Pawlenty summarized this stance at the Values Voter Summit 5 months ago:

People are worried and they’re afraid and they see an uncertain future. They see an un-secure future with a lot of the things that are swirling about in our great nation. They know that this government centric viewpoint of this administration and the Congress and the federal takeover of so much, and more by the hour, more by the week, more by the day, is corrosive to our culture. It’s corrosive to our individual spirit and our spirit of freedom.

This form of Christian political engagement is simple, certain and based in fear. However, the truth of our current context is much more complex and systemic and any sort of constructive intra-Christian dialogue becomes very difficult. EasyYolk represents a brand of Christianity that embraces a more prophetic (transcending the autonomous individual) and postmodern (transcending dualism and reductionism) worldview. We answer the three key questions differently. In short, life is more than just personal morality, free markets and an agressive military.

A lot of Americans have, indeed, pulled themselves out of prosperity with their own ingenuity and hard work. However, countless Americans have been even more creative and determined and have not broken out of poverty and marginalization. There are many systemic reasons for this continued struggle that cannot be addressed in this post.

In addition, we believe that our nation can maintain security and order through much more dignified and humanizing policies. This must include a serious theological dialogue about the righteousness of American geopolitical cause in Iraq and Israel, as well as the major civilian casualities in Afghanistan and Pakistan due to failed drone bombings (US soldiers using joysticks stationed in NEVADA!). On the domestic front, does closing Gitmo and trying "suspected terrorists" in civilian courts really make us less safe? Many scholars and investigative journalists are, in fact, proposing that these policies, over the past 8 years, have made us more vulnerable to terrorism.

Lastly, meaning and purpose "in Christ" comes from a vocation that takes seriously the prophetic call, as beautifully summarized in Micah: "to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God" (6:8). The Hebrew prophets lamented the systemic oppression that denied dignity and opportunity (and prosperity and security) to the orphan, widow and immigrant, as well as the overwhelming temptation towards greed and idolatry, leaving God's people with massive wealth inequality and economic exploitation of workers, while religious leaders legitimized the whole project. Jesus and Paul cannot be properly understood apart from the prophetic strand of Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos that the little cult called "Jews for Jesus" inherited in the days and years after their leader was murdered by the oppressive Roman and Jewish powers that be.

When the narrative of morality--markets--military strips certain marginalized Americans and global citizens of dignity, then it is the duty of the prophetic people of God to speak and act alternatively. Living on the other side of 30 years of the legacy of Reagan's policies, we Christians must be honest truth-seekers, analysing where, when and how we have become more aligned with Reagan (usually in the form of Limbaugh, Palin or anything on FoxNews) than that 1st century prophet Jew named Jesus. This will take an open dialogue within the American Body of Christ that must transcend individualism, dualism and reductionism, as well as the narrow political packages labelled "liberal" and "conservative," or "Democratic" or "Republican." Unfortunately, most of this dialogue is sidetracked by fear-based name-calling: when the free market is questioned or government regulation is proposed as a solution on any issue (from health care to the increasing political power of banks and corporations), the cry from the right is "socialist;" when any aspect of American imperialism or domestic authoritarianism is critiqued, the cry from the right is "soft on terrorism;" and when our Christian mission is framed as addressing the systems, rather than the symptoms, of injustice, the cry from the right is "social gospel" or "liberal."

Back in the very first Christian decade, the legendary apostles Peter and Paul dialogued their differences before a council in Jerusalem and everyone prayerfully weighed their decision (Acts 15). Miraculously, they came to a consensus decision over an issue that was far more controversial (How can gentiles become full participants in the people of God?) than anything we are dealing with today. Let's talk...

-Theological Autopilot

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