Tag Archives: Christianity

Michael Gerson’s Jeremiad

Students of early American history will recognize the term jeremiad, a favored form of sermon delivered by Puritan pastors of the time. Wikipedia tells us that a jeremiad is “a long literary work lamenting the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective.” The term comes from the prophet Jeremiah, who catalogued Israel’s fall from fidelity and warned of the horrible judgments to come.

I wouldn’t apply the term “invective” to the recent, lengthy essay in the Washington Post by Michael Gerson, but I would definitely  call it a jeremiad.

Gerson is best known as a speechwriter for George W. Bush, and as a devout Evangelical Christian. Along with other intellectually-honest Republicans, he has been appalled by Donald Trump, and like other genuine Christians, disheartened by the embrace of Trump by those who claim the Evangelical label. He is especially distressed by the fact that “much of what considers itself Christian America has assumed the symbols and identity of white authoritarian populism.”

Gerson’s essay is long, and it is definitely worth reading in its entirety. This post cannot do it justice. He begins by recognizing that many conservative religious people feel disrespected and defensive, and believe that their values are under assault by government, big business, media and academia.

Leaders in the Republican Party have fed, justified and exploited conservative Christians’ defensiveness in service to an aggressive, reactionary politics. This has included deadly mask and vaccine resistance, the discrediting of fair elections, baseless accusations of gay “grooming” in schools, the silencing of teaching about the United States’ history of racism, and (for some) a patently false belief that Godless conspiracies have taken hold of political institutions…

The political alignment with MAGA activists has given exposure and greater legitimacy to once-fringe ideas, including Confederate nostalgia, white nationalism, antisemitism, replacement theory and QAnon accusations of satanic child sacrifice by liberal politicians.

Gerson acknowledges the influence of population density and the rural/urban divide on patterns of belief– and the political reality that America’s electoral mechanisms skew in favor of geography over population. But his essay is mostly concerned with the damage MAGA Republicanism is doing to Christianity.

Strangely, evangelicals have broadly chosen the company of Trump supporters who deny any role for character in politics and define any useful villainy as virtue. In the place of integrity, the Trump movement has elevated a warped kind of authenticity — the authenticity of unfiltered abuse, imperious ignorance, untamed egotism and reflexive bigotry…

Conservative Christians’ beliefs on the nature of politics, and the content of their cultural nightmares, are directly relevant to the future of our whole society, for a simple reason: The destinies of rural and urban America are inextricably connected. It matters greatly if evangelicals in the wide, scarlet spaces are desensitized to extremism, diminished in decency and badly distorting the meaning of Christianity itself — as I believe many are.

To grasp how, and why, it’s important to begin at the beginning.

Gerson follows that sentence with a lengthy history of Jesus’ background and teachings- his preaching against religious hypocrisy, his welcoming of “social outcasts,” and a “future age in which God’s sovereignty would be directly exercised on Earth.”

What brought me to consider these historical matters is a disturbing realization: In both public perception and evident reality, many White, conservative Christians find themselves on the wrong side of the most cutting indictments delivered by Jesus of Nazareth.

Christ’s revolt against the elites could hardly be more different from the one we see today. Conservative evangelicalism has, in many ways, become the kind of religious tradition against which followers of Jesus were initially called to rebel. And because of the pivotal role of conservative Christians in our politics, this irony is a matter of urgency.

He follows those paragraphs with an indictment of Christian Nationalism, concluding that

Evangelicals broadly confuse the Kingdom of God with a Christian America, preserved by thuggish politicians who promise to prefer their version of Christian rights and enforce Christian values. The political calculation of conservative Christians is simple, and simply wrong.

Gerson goes on to list numerous ways in which that calculation is wrong–and dangerous to democracy.

As I said at the outset of this post, this is a lengthy essay. It is also and obviously a product of considerable distress over the political grievances that have distorted and displaced authentic faith. As he concludes, “It is difficult for me to understand why so many believers have turned down a wedding feast to graze in political dumpsters.”

Gerson’s jeremiad puts him firmly within the camp of those of us who have been warning Americans about the dangers of Christian Nationalism–and reminding them that Christian Nationalism is very different from actual Christianity.

I admire Gerson’s attempt, but somehow I doubt the Christian Nationalists will listen.

 

Christian Nationalism

I frequently inveigh against Christian Nationalism without explaining exactly what it is. In the wake of Marjorie Taylor Green’s recent declaration identifying herself as a Christian Nationalist, I decided I should be more explicit about what that label means–because it doesn’t simply indicate a religious identity.

As the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty recently wrote,

Christian nationalism is a political ideology and cultural framework that merges Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s promise of religious freedom. It relies heavily on a false narrative of America as a “Christian nation,” founded by Christians in order to privilege Christianity. This mythical history betrays the work of the framers to create a federal government that would remain neutral when it comes to religion, neither promoting nor denigrating it — a deliberate break with the state-established religions of the colonies.

Though not new, Christian nationalism has been exploited in recent years by politicians like former President Donald Trump to further an “us vs. them” mentality and send a message that only Christians can be “real” Americans.

An article in The Week pointed to the substantial role played by Christian Nationalists in the insurrection on January 6th. As one observer reported  “Crosses were everywhere that day in D.C., on flags and flagpoles, on signs and clothes, around necks, and erected above the crowd,”  Bible verses were plentiful in the crowd, and a number of rioters actually paused for prayer during the attack. One rioter recorded herself justifying her participation by saying  “We are a godly country, and we are founded on godly principles. And if we do not have our country, nothing else matters.”

A 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center identified 77 percent of Republican respondents as “church-state integrationists” who hold a variety of views “consistent” with Christian nationalism. That might be overstating things somewhat. A 2017 survey found that one-in-five Americans hold such views. The scholars at Political Behavior found that “support for the Capitol attacks is a minority position among any slice of the American religious landscape.” But they also noted that 17.7 percent “of white weekly churchgoers fall into the joint top quartile of justification of violence, Christian nationalist beliefs, perceived victimhood, white identity, and support for QAnon.” That percentage — while relatively small — “would represent millions of individuals.”

The article noted that Christian Nationalism is gaining an “increasing foothold ” in Republican politics. Greene and  Boebert are two of the more explicit proponents of Christian nationalism, but less well known members of the party are also adherents. “Doug Mastriano — a former Army officer who chartered buses to ferry protesters to Washington D.C. on Jan. 6, and who has declared the separation of church and state a “myth” —  is the GOP nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, and is now running a close race with his Democratic opponent.”

What is truly terrifying is that Christian Nationalism is being normalized. Republicans who shared the ideology  but previously denied the label are increasingly willing to admit to it: as the linked article notes, ” Marjorie Taylor Greene might have made news by openly embracing the term, but she might not be that unusual.”

As the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty wrote,

I care about dismantling Christian nationalism both because I’m a practicing Christian and because I’m a patriotic American — and no, those identities are not the same. As Christians, we can’t allow Greene, Boebert or Trump to distort our faith without a fight.

We must speak loudly when our faith is used as a political tool, we must uproot it from our own churches and communities and we must form alliances with religious minorities and the nonreligious — who suffer the impact of Christian nationalism the most.

Religion, and Christianity in particular, has flourished in America not because of government aid or favoritism, but for the opposite reason: religion’s freedom from government control. Government involvement in religious affairs doesn’t aid the free exercise of religion. And as Christians, we are called to love our neighbors rather than make them feel unwelcome in their own country…

Christian lawmakers don’t need to erase their faith from politics. My fellow Baptist, Georgia Democrat Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock, has modeled what it looks like for a pastor to serve in Congress without insisting on a privileged place for Christianity in law and society….

It’s not just Christian political leaders that need to do better, it’s all of us. Earlier this summer, I joined a group of prominent Christian leaders in launching the Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign. More than 25,000 Christians have joined the campaign as we seek to elevate an alternative Christian public witness.

The Christian Nationalist takeover of one of America’s major political parties poses an enormous threat to us all.

 

 

 

God And Country, Redux

In 2007, I wrote a book titled God and Country: America in Red and Blue. It explored a question that had preoccupied me for years: how do religiously inculcated world-views affect our political behaviors? I was–and remain–convinced that a number of ostensibly secular policy positions are (consciously or unconsciously) rooted in religious ways of seeing the world.

In order to examine the religious roots of America’s cultural and policy divisions, I needed to do a lot of research. I was–and am– far from well-versed about my own tradition, which is Judaism, and I knew little or nothing of the 2000-plus Christian denominations in the U.S., or how religious beliefs affect socialization. Writing the book required a “deep dive,” and I remain very grateful to Christian friends–including a couple of clergy members (you guys know who you are!)– who patiently read drafts and checked my conclusions.

Those conclusions are detailed in the book (which is still available) and it is not my intent to recite them here. I share the fact of that rather extensive research because it is the background with which I approached a recent column by John Pavlovitz and a New York Times guest essay about America’s rapidly growing secularism.

Pavlovitz is a writer, pastor, and activist from North Carolina, and a favorite among my Facebook friends, who share his posts rather frequently. He’s what I consider a “real” Christian (granted, deciding who is “real” is pretty arrogant coming from a non-Christian…). This column was titled “How You Know if You Have the Wrong Religion,” and what struck me was that his message–with which I entirely agreed– addressed the longstanding divide between faith and works. (Traditional Christian denominations are typically concerned with belief; Judaism prioritizes works.)

Growing up and later ministering in the Church, the elemental heart of spiritual community was the stated or implicit sense that we alone had cracked the God code; that we’d figured out what every other faith tradition (and many communities within our tradition) had not. Evangelism was less about sharing God’s love with the world around us but about getting the world to be as enlightened as we were by completely agreeing with us.

Believing the right thing was everything. The world was sharply divided between the saved and the damned and the greatest imaginable sin was to reject that idea. And it wasn’t enough to believe in God, you had to believe in the correct God, adopt the correct doctrine, and pray the correct prayers—or else your sincerity or judgment (not to mention, your eternal destination) were questioned.

Pavlovitz isn’t the only critic of those ostentatiously pious believers whose faith never quite translates into good works or even loving-kindness. There’s significant research suggesting that the growing exodus from churches and organized religion is a reaction to precisely that form of religiosity.

And that brings me to a New York Times guest essay by a Baptist pastor who is also a college professor. After charting the steady decline in American religiosity since 1988, he reports

Today, scholars are finding that by almost any metric they use to measure religiosity, younger generations are much more secular than their parents or grandparents. In responses to survey questions, over 40 percent of the youngest Americans claim no religious affiliation, and just a quarter say they attend religious services weekly or more.

The partisan implication of that statistic, which he duly notes, is a reduction of support for the Republican Party, which is heavily dependent upon religiously observant Christians, including but not limited to Evangelicals. As he also points out,  however, Democrats will have to balance policy priorities “between the concerns of the politically liberal Nones and the more traditional social positions espoused by groups like Black and mainline Protestants.” 

Whatever the partisan consequences, Christians like Pavlovitz are offering a way forward that would significantly reduce  today’s religious tribalism–and ultimately, redefine what counts as genuinely religious.

If you claim to be a “God and Country “Bible-believing Evangelical,” great. But if you have contempt for immigrants or bristle at white privilege or oppose safeguards in a pandemic, your Christianity is ineffectual at best and at worst, it’s toxic. You might want to rethink something.

If you believe because you prayed a magic prayer to accept Jesus at summer camp when you were 13,  that you can inflict any kind of adult damage to the people and the world around you and you’ll still be golden, while gentle, loving, benevolent atheists and Muslims go to hell—you’re doing religion wrong.

So many of America’s problems stem from “doing religion wrong”…

 

Liberty Or Favoritism?

As we wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide another religious liberty case–this time, concerning the constitutional propriety of a 40-foot cross in Maryland–it might be helpful to revisit the origins of the competing definitions of “liberty” that are at the heart of so many of these cases.

We are told that the colonists who originally settled in what is now the United States came to the new world for religious liberty. And that’s right; they did. But their view of religious liberty was that it was “freedom to do the right thing.” And that involved establishing colonies where the government would make sure that everyone did “the right thing.”

Around 150 years later, George Washington became the first President of a country founded upon a very different understanding of liberty. Liberty was conceived of as freedom to do your own thing, so long as you did not thereby harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as you were willing to accord an equal right to others.

What had changed the definition of liberty? The scientific and intellectual movement we call the Enlightenment, which had occurred in the interim between the original Puritans and the Revolutionary War.

The U.S. Constitution may have been based upon the definition that emerged from the Enlightenment, but America still is home to lots of Puritans. And their “sincere belief” is that liberty means the government should be able to impose–or at least, privilege– their religion.

An editorial in The New York Times explains the case currently pending before the Court:

This week’s hearing, in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, involved a 40-foot cross in Bladensburg, Md., that was erected 93 years ago to honor fallen World War I soldiers. The question before the court: Is Maryland in violation of the First Amendment because the memorial is on public property and maintained with public funds?

There would be no constitutional violation if the cross were on private property. The issue is government endorsement of religion, which is prohibited by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The editorial notes that there is considerable confusion about the application of the Establishment Clause to public monuments.

Lower court judges are confused about how to apply the Supreme Court’s dictates in this area of the law, so more clarity from the high court — if not a definitive, bright-line rule — is in order.

Alas, such clarity doesn’t seem to be on the horizon. After Wednesday’s hearing, the court seems poised to allow the cross — which otherwise bears no religious inscriptions — to stay. But the justices don’t appear to be any closer to consensus on this issue than they’ve ever been.

“I mean, it is the foremost symbol of Christianity, isn’t it?” Justice Elena Kagan asked at Wednesday’s session. “It invokes the central theological claim of Christianity, that Jesus Christ, the son of God, died on the cross for humanity’s sins and that he rose from the dead. This is why Christians use crosses as a way to memorialize the dead.”

Justice Stephen Breyer, who in the past has wrestledwith the Constitution’s religion clauses, pondered whether “history counts” when assessing a monument’s legality. Maybe older displays, erected when the nation wasn’t nearly as religiously diverse, should be allowed, he suggested. “We’re a different country,” Justice Breyer said. “We are a different country now, and there are 50 more different religions.”

Not surprisingly, the Trump Administration–which wasn’t a party to the case and need not have offered an opinion–weighed in on the side of those who want the cross to remain.

The editorial concluded:

With its recent rulings, the Supreme Court has only muddied the separation between church and state by taking seriously religious objections to contraception, civil rights laws and the allocation of public funds. It is hard to fathom the justices being nearly as accommodating with a publicly funded monument to atheism or a Wiccan pentagram. And last month, the court couldn’t even agree that a Muslim death-row prisoner from Alabama deserved the same rights as Christians in his final moments.

However the justices resolve this the dispute, they would be wise to not sow more confusion in this area of the law and feed the perception that only certain religions and practices get a fair shake in public life.

When those “certain religions” are privileged, equality before the law takes a hit.

 

Rejecting The Enlightenment

And here I thought Scott Pruitt was just a bought-and-paid-for member of the “mafia” wing of today’s GOP. His long history of combatting environmental regulations while representing fossil fuel industries seemed adequate to explain his (toxic) presence in the Trump Administration.

Now, however, we discover that he is also a True Believer in the Pence mold. According to Politico, Pruitt has a history of statements that would do Pence and the rest of the “cult” wing of the party proud.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt dismissed evolution as an unproven theory, lamented that “minority religions” were pushing Christianity out of “the public square” and advocated amending the Constitution to ban abortion, prohibit same-sex marriage and protect the Pledge of Allegiance and the Ten Commandments, according to a newly unearthed series of Oklahoma talk radio shows from 2005.

Pruitt, who at the time was a state senator, also described the Second Amendment as divinely granted and condemned federal judges as a “judicial monarchy” that is “the most grievous threat that we have today.” And he did not object when the program’s host described Islam as “not so much a religion as it is a terrorist organization in many instances.”

The six hours of civics class-style conversations on Tulsa-based KFAQ-AM were recently rediscovered by a firm researching Pruitt’s past remarks, which provided them to POLITICO on condition of anonymity so as not to identify its client. They reveal Pruitt’s unfiltered views on a variety of political and social issues, more than a decade before the ambitious Oklahoman would lead President Donald Trump’s EPA.

This is the man who is charged with safeguarding the nation’s air and water, the man whose agency is our first line of defense against climate change. Never before has the EPA been headed by a person who actively dismisses and ridicules science and scientific evidence.

When the taped conversations emerged, an EPA spokesman was asked whether Pruitt’s skepticism about evolution– one of the major foundations of modern science– could conflict with the agency’s mandate to make science-based decisions.

Spokesman Jahan Wilcox told POLITICO that “if you’re insinuating that a Christian should not serve in capacity as EPA administrator, that is offensive and a question that does not warrant any further attention.”

Obviously, that was not the “insinuation,” although I for one would agree that a person espousing Pruitt’s particular version of Christianity and its mandates should be kept as far away from the EPA as possible.

Some polls show that less than 30 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe that human activity is the driving factor behind climate change.

And Pruitt has echoed that sentiment, telling CNBC last year that he did not believe carbon dioxide was a primary contributor to climate change. Last week, he told the Christian broadcaster CBN News that he supports developing the nation’s energy resources, a stance that he believes aligns with Scripture’s teachings.

“The biblical worldview with respect to these issues is that we have a responsibility to manage and cultivate, harvest the natural resources that we’ve been blessed with to truly bless our fellow mankind,” he said.

To suggest that criticism of Pruitt is tantamount to saying that religion disqualifies people from heading the EPA is not only appallingly dishonest, it flies in the face of the agency’s history.

Pruitt isn’t the first EPA administrator to openly express his or her religious faith, of course. His immediate predecessor, Gina McCarthy, was a Roman Catholic who visited top officials at the Vatican in 2015 as church officials worked to write Pope Francis’ climate change encyclical. She oversaw the creation of the major climate change and water regulations that Pruitt’s EPA has started to unwind.