Saturday, June 6, 2015
The Demise of The Right Cross
Now we come again to a theme which we have explored in previous posts on this blog, namely, the role and purpose of American civil religion in American narcissism. This week's post will compare that religion with the thing for which it is often mistaken in this country, namely Biblical Christianity. I will be quoting a fair amount of Scripture, and I'll get a bit theologically “heavy” at times, so if some of you feel like bailing out on this post, I'll not take it personally. But hey, you've come along for the ride this far, so why not ride a little more with me? (Some may wonder how my posts of the last several months are related to the original theme of this blog. I'll get around to explaining that sooner or later.)
Let me begin by quoting the New American Standard translation of 1 Peter 1:1 – “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who reside as aliens, scattered...” The King James Bible renders the verse thus: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia,...(etc)” In my opinion, the King James rendering is rather sleepy. The wording of the New American Standard translation is here more evocative: “To those who reside as aliens, scattered...” In other words, a chief characteristic of those whom Peter is addressing is that in the earthly places where these people reside, they reside as aliens – as a people apart, a culture apart. This is a chief characteristic of such people wherever on earth they reside. They are “expatriados” (Spanish, RV 1960 translation), “extranjeros” (foreign, alien) (1 Pedro 2:11), “пришельцам, рассеянным” (1-е Петра 1:1). Among the meanings of рассеянным are “dispersed,” and “broadcast” (as seed). This lines up quite nicely with the way the Lord characterizes His people as seed sown in diverse places in His parable in Matthew 13:24-43, and the way in which the lifestyle of the Lord's people is to be a declaration that they are strangers and pilgrims on earth, as stated in Hebrews 11:13-16.
Thus, those who call themselves Christians are to live as strangers in whatever society they happen to be embedded. They are to seek a Kingdom which is to come, having become citizens of a Kingdom which is not from here (from earth, that is) as it says in John 18:36. This is how the early Church conducted itself in the Roman Empire in the days from the first century until the day that Augustine conferred earthly secular political power on the Church. Note that I did not say that the Church is to have no effect on the society in which it is embedded. Rather, the Church is to have a profound effect, realized by the active doing of good in the larger society.
But according to Scripture, what the Church is not called to do is to try to build an earthly kingdom, using earthly, temporal power or laws to create a “Christian” nation. There are reasons for that, some of which I explored in a post I wrote many moons ago. I'll expand on one of those reasons in today's post.
If the Church is not called to create earthly “Christian” kingdoms by earthly, secular, temporal means, why do so many well-placed American evangelicals insist on trying to “baptize” Uncle Sam? Moreover, where did they get the notion that the United States of America is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles? And are those who say they want to “bring the nation back to Christian ideals” saying that they want to take us “back” to a place where we've never been?
If you try to find the roots of the “Christian” principles on which this nation was founded, you will find that a fair number of the Founding Fathers were not orthodox fundamentalist Christians. Thomas Jefferson is a notable example of a non-fundamentalist, and late in his life he published a book titled, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, in which he removed all references to the supernatural or the Divinity and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In fact, Jefferson valued Christ only for His teachings and believed that the writers of the New Testament were ignorant and superstitious men. Jefferson was also on friendly terms with Joseph Priestly, the founder of Unitarianism. A solid majority of the Founding Fathers were against the use of the state to impose any religious creed, dogma or observance on the citizens of the United States. (See this and this.) Many of the Founding Fathers were Deists, and a significant minority of the generals and statesmen of early America were Freemasons.
It can thus be argued that in the early United States, there was very little effort made to cast this nation as a “Christian” nation. There are a few notable exceptions when it comes to those whom the nation wished to venerate as heroes. For instance, a number of larger-than-life stories about George Washington were the fabrications of a man named Mason Weems , whose account of Washington has been thoroughly debunked by a number of historians. It can also be argued that the United States of the 1800's was certainly “Christ-haunted” (but in a way that even Flannery O'Connor might not have imagined), yet certainly not Christian in the main. Later in the 19th century, there were efforts by denominational leaders to make the government and tokens of the United States more explicitly “Christian.” Thus, during the Civil War, the words, “In God We Trust” were added to American currency, among other minor victories.
But a Princeton historian argues that it was not until the early decades of the 20th century that religious activists in the United States really began a concerted push to cast the United States as a “Christian” nation. In his book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Kevin Kruse argues that the notion of the United States as a Christian nation founded on Christian principles was the product of an intense marketing and propaganda effort on the part of big businessmen and government figures from the 1930's onward, to produce a perception in a nation suffering the effects of the greed of these authority figures that patriotism was the same thing as godliness. They used religion as a weapon to stave off the welfare state (and to protect the wealthy from having to give up some of their riches to help the poor). In the process they enlisted prominent religious figures such as Billy Graham and prominent denominations whose de facto interest lay in maintaining a certain social and political status quo.
In the process, American fundamentalism (and the American evangelicalism into which it later evolved) became a sort of loosely organized, fractious, yet de facto state church. This state church performed (and still performs) many of the same functions historically performed by state churches in European history, namely, to bless, sanction and promulgate the imperial ambitions of the secular state that supports it. (You may not know this, but during World War 1, religious leaders in both Germany and England goaded their populations to slaughter – Germany with its “Gott strafe England!” and the Anglican Church with its calls for a “holy war.”)
As with all state churches, therefore, the current American evangelical church is called “Christian,” but does not look like 1 Peter 1:1. (If you bring me an animal that can't climb trees, but does howl at emergency vehicles, lifts its hind leg when relieving itself, barks and chases postal workers, should I believe you if you tell me it's a cat?) The American evangelical church has become merely another weapon of those who strive for secular earthly power. As a young adult, I once read a science fiction novel by Larry Niven in which one of two men in a brawl picked up a cat and attempted to use it as a weapon against the other man by swinging it at the other man's head. So Christianity and the Bible are being used today in the United States by people who want to maintain a last vestige of earthly supremacy, as they were used to build that supremacy and hegemony in the first place – sometimes by missionaries who were spies and servants of the earthly empires which sent them (see this and this and this for instance), and sometimes by missionaries who preached to conquered natives the duty of turning the other cheek and of not looking for rewards in this earthly life while the missionaries celebrated every holiday of their home countries in which their home countries refused to turn the other cheek.
To see the way in which American evangelicalism has become a dog whistle for those who seek earthly supremacy, we need look no further than the most recent evangelical scandal which has blown up like ordnance cooking off in a fire. Let me introduce you to Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and their nineteen children. They are a wealthy white family who are part of a couple of rather wacky “Christian” movements in the United States, one of which is the Quiverfull movement and the other of which is the “Christian Patriarchy” movement. I'll leave it to you to look up the information on these movements, but I'll summarize them as movements led by men who want to restore white male privilege and domination over family life, and ultimately over both the United States and the world – “all for Jesus, of course!” Jim Bob is also actively involved in Arkansas state politics.
One characteristic of the leaders of such movements is that they always hold themselves and their families up as models of people who have done everything right, who have followed all the rules, and who therefore have earned the right to demand that the rest of us submit to them. So Jim Bob and Michelle used their family and their religious profession as a weapon, to the point of insinuating themselves onto network television with a “reality” TV series called “19 Kids and Counting,” which began airing on 19 September 2008. The only trouble with the series (and with their perfect image) is that in 2002 and 2003, their eldest son Josh molested (or is that sexually assaulted?) a number of underage girls, and that the Duggar family covered this up with the help of the Arkansas state police. Josh also sued the Arkansas DHS in 2007 to block their investigation of these incidents. And in 2013, Josh became the executive director of the legislative action arm of the Family Research Council, a conservative “Christian” organization founded by James Dobson.
Now I don't intend to get on a soap box to denounce Josh Duggar's sin. We are all sinful. But what really makes me angry is the way in which this hypocrite and his hypocritical family continue to try to use their religion as a weapon in what is actually very much like a barroom brawl, just as the cat was used in the story I mentioned. The de facto state church of America is a hypocritical entity composed of people who use religion to try to secure earthly dominion for themselves, yet they can't keep their own rules. They love the doctrine of justification by faith when they can apply it to themselves, but they reject the need of personal repentance in the same way that children will sometimes refuse meat and vegetables in order to chow down on dessert. But they are quite willing to shove all sorts of rules and obligations down the throats of the people over whom they wish to exercise dominion – among whom are all nonwhite people and all women.
The trouble for them is that they are now in decline. (See this and this.) Their leaders would say that this is because they haven't been effective in communicating their message, but they might want to consider that the reason is that they don't practice what the Good Book preaches. They are not the salt of the earth. They are unwilling to repent of their own greed and selfishness; therefore, they are unable to call a nation to repentance over its greed and selfishness – greed and selfishness manifested in oppression of the poor, the foreign-born, the non-white, the citizens of other nations; oppression also manifested in the endless calls to war so that the United States can “liberate” property (land and natural resources) which rightfully belongs to people other than Americans while destroying the earth with its outlandish per capita consumption. In short, American evangelicals have become distasteful people to be around. Thus their children are choosing to separate from them and their religion.
But this does not mean that the true Church is in decline or in trouble, or that Christianity is about to disappear from the United States. Rather, the immigrant church is quite strong here. And immigrant Christians, especially those from poorer countries, are much quicker than many American evangelicals to remember what it means to be a stranger and a pilgrim. Therefore, they have much to teach us. One immigrant Christian, a man named Soong-Chan Rah, wrote a book with a rather provocative title, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. His book caused a bit of narcissistic injury among some American evangelical leaders, but that's okay, they'll get over it.
If you are thinking of going to church tomorrow, you might therefore try out an immigrant church. Many of them have headphones and translators for English-speaking visitors. The Hispanic churches are friendly and welcoming, as are the Karen (Myanmar) churches. The Vietnamese churches can also be quite welcoming. The Ethiopian (Oromo) churches are good, although they can be very, VERY LOUD!!! (Dude, step away from the mic!) If you go to a Russian or Slavic church, they are more formal, so be sure to dress in your Sunday best, because for them, Church Is Serious. When you go, be sure to listen for the differences in worldview which exist between their preachers and the vast majority of American evangelical preachers. You'll be intrigued.