Wednesday’s post went into some detail about the competing American cultures identified by David Brooks. Brooks concluded (among other things) that an “autonomy culture” has prevailed over the traditional belief in obedience to an established external authority (aka God). He did acknowledge several of the negative aspects of the latter culture, but the more I’ve thought about his critique, the more I recognized the significant problems he failed to identify.
One obvious problem is that honest religious adherents cannot claim to know with confidence what their particular deity requires. (There’s a popular Facebook meme saying something along the lines of: isn’t it interesting that your God hates the same people you do?)
How many wars have been fought by men trying to prove that their God is bigger and better and more correct than someone else’s?
The bigger problem with Brooks’ description of what is really a culture of subservience is, ironically, theological. My clergy friends– who all exhibit what I consider appropriate moral humility– point out that authentic religious belief requires the freedom to choose.
Forced piety/obedience is inauthentic by definition.
What got me thinking about all this was a recent column by Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post. Rubin was pointing to Americans’ disinclination to “tell it like it really is.”
It’s not the plague of “polarization” or “distrust,” some sort of floating miasma, that has darkened our society. Bluntly put, we are in deep trouble because a major party rationalizes both intense selfishness — the refusal to undertake even minor inconveniences such as mask-wearing or gun background checks for others’ protection — and deprivation of others’ rights (to vote, to make intimate decisions about reproduction, to be treated with respect.)
What Rubin dubs the “White-grievance industry,” composed of right-wing media, politicians, pundits and think tanks, is enraged over the loss of a society where “far fewer women competed with men in the workplace, White power was largely unchallenged, and diversity was less pronounced.”
Encouraging that rage has required the (mis)use of religion.
Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, wrote recently in Time about the MAGA formula, ascendant after the United States’ election of its first Black president: “the stoking of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-Black sentiment while making nativist appeals to the Christian right.
”The nostalgic appeal of ‘again,’” Jones observes, “harkens back to a 1950s America, when white Christian churches were full and white Christians comprised a supermajority of the U.S. population; a period when we added ‘under God’ to the pledge of allegiance and ‘In God We Trust’ to our currency.”
Our future as a tolerant, decent society ultimately may depend on White Christian communities’ recovering their moral equilibrium and support for American democracy, and rejecting the movement to turn churches into platforms for QAnon and white nationalism. But we cannot wait for an evangelical reformation.
Rubin and Jones are hardly the first to point out that people purporting to be “bible believing Christians” have perverted the previously understood teachings of that religion to serve political ends. But in the following paragraph, she contrasts that faux Christianity with the behaviors of people who take philosophical and religious teachings and the “norms of civilized societies” seriously:
MAGA voters think everyone else is the problem. As perpetual victims, they feel entitled to ignore the demands of civilized society — e.g., self-restraint, care for actually vulnerable people, pluralism, acceptance of political defeat. Their irritation with mask-wearing gets elevated over the lives of those most susceptible to a deadly pandemic. Their demands to display an armory of weapons mean schoolchildren become targets for acts of mass gun violence. Their religious zealotry, fed by the myth that Christianity is under attack, means poor women cannot have access to safe, legal abortions.
My friends and family members follow a wide variety of religious traditions and none. Virtually all of them– devout and nonbeliever alike–have come to their beliefs via the exercise of personal autonomy–choice. They have examined the teachings of their their own and other religions, adopted those they’ve found persuasive and rejected others.
Several are people I regard as real Christians. They follow a very different Jesus than the John Wayne clone manufactured by political Evangelicals. (For one thing, their Jesus isn’t an ahistorical White guy with blue eyes.) They attend–and in a couple of cases, lead–churches that avoid the moral absolutism buttressed by cherry-picking bibles that have been translated from their original languages over the years. They respect people who are racially and religiously different, and they understand why authentic religious belief requires separation of Church from State.
They’re the ones I consider “kosher” Christians, and the ones I know are really, really tired of the White Supremicists who have appropriated –and continue to disgrace–the name.