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Christian, Not Conservative

At a White House ceremony in July, President Obama told this year’s recipients of the National Humanities Medal, “Your writings have changed me—I think for the better.” He then turned directly to novelist Marilynne Robinson and said [1], “Marilynne, I believe that.”

It was a spontaneous acknowledgement of Robinson’s prominence in American life and letters, another honor atop the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and host of other prizes her work has collected. For a writer whose novels barely have plots and whose essays plumb the thought of John Calvin, Robinson is astonishingly popular—and not just among readers who share the president’s politics.

Her conservative admirers include Jeffrey Hart, emeritus professor of English at Dartmouth and a contributor for over 50 years to National Review, in whose pages he hailed [2] Robinson’s 2004 novel Gilead as a “masterpiece.” In Gilead, Hart found a rare spiritual gravity: “Despite the unaccommodating phase of ordinary culture through which we live,” he writes, Robinson’s “subject is holiness.”

As he explains further in his critical work The Living Moment, Robinson’s novel “consists entirely of a long letter written by the Reverend John Ames; it does have a plot, but it does not drive the reader urgently ahead. Rather, the letter, while recounting incidents, establishes a meditative pace, inviting you to read patiently, and soon with wonder. Precisely that is the philosophical point of the book: the experience of wonder, of Being.”


Gilead not only won the Pulitzer but sold enough copies to become “one of the most unconventional conventionally popular novels of recent times”—as James Wood put it [3] in the New Yorker—thanks to passages like this one, near the end of the book (and of Ames’s life):

Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it? … Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave—that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.

Chief among the “precious things” Robinson honors is America’s religious heritage. She is in a sense a culture warrior, striving against what her essays call our “impulse … to disparage, to cheapen and to deface, and to falsify, which has made a valuable inheritance worthless.”

For this reason her nonfiction, like her novels, attracts the attention of thoughtful conservatives. In a Weekly Standard review [4] of last year’s essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books, Houston Baptist University professor Micah Mattix praises Robinson’s contrarian projects: defending America’s Puritans (and their forefather, John Calvin) from their caricature as dour fundamentalists, championing the Old Testament as wise and humane, and critiquing the reductionist materialism of the New Atheists. To all this, Robinson brings a “penchant for the ignored fact and the counterintuitive argument.”

The thread that unites these concerns is a tradition neglected today by left and right: liberal Christianity. Though the themes of Robinson’s work resonate with “crunchy conservatives” and others [5] who emphasize virtues like duty, rootedness, and tradition, the author herself is a member of what she calls “that shaken and diminishing community, liberal Protestantism.”

The decline of the Protestant mainline churches has transformed American religion since the protagonist of Gilead wrote his letter in 1956, as has the political polarization of Christianity. While there are exceptions—a small “secular right [6],” a more substantial religious left—in general the more often an American goes to church, the more likely he or she is to vote Republican. In 2012, the overwhelming majority of religiously unaffiliated voters (70 percent) cast their ballots to re-elect Obama; an even larger majority of white evangelicals (80 percent) voted Republican.

Yet Robinson grounds her liberalism in her Calvinist tradition. She responded by email to a question from TAC about the identification of American Christians with the right:

Well, what is a Christian, after all? Can we say that most of us are defined by the belief that Jesus Christ made the most gracious gift of his life and death for our redemption? Then what does he deserve from us? He said we are to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek. Granted, these are difficult teachings. But does our most gracious Lord deserve to have his name associated with concealed weapons and stand-your-ground laws, things that fly in the face of his teaching and example? Does he say anywhere that we exist primarily to drive an economy and flourish in it? He says precisely the opposite. Surely we all know this. I suspect that the association of Christianity with positions that would not survive a glance at the Gospels or the Epistles is opportunistic, and that if the actual Christians raised these questions those whose real commitments are to money and hostility and potential violence would drop the pretense and walk away.

Though Robinson has written that she is “extremely reluctant” to talk about her faith, “chiefly because my belief does not readily reduce itself to simple statements,” her work is suffused with her religious sensibility: distrustful of over-precise dogma, emphasizing spiritual wonder and acts of love.

Like John Ames (and Barack Obama), Robinson is a Congregationalist, a member of the mainline United Church of Christ. And like Ames, she preaches—the occasional guest sermon for her congregation in Iowa City. Unsurprisingly, author and character at times echo one another.

Ames writes “I’m not going to force some theory on a mystery and make foolishness of it, just because that is what people who talk about it normally do.” Likewise, Robinson, responding to a TAC query about her understanding of the Second Coming, demurs:

I expect to be very much surprised by the Second Coming. I would never have imagined the Incarnation or the Resurrection. To be astonishing seems to be the mark of God’s great acts—who could have imagined Creation? On these grounds it seems like presumption to me to treat what can only be speculation as if it were even tentative knowledge. I expect the goodness of God and the preciousness of Creation to be realized fully and eternally. I expect us all to receive a great instruction in the absolute nature of grace.

As Ames writes, “I think Calvin is right to discourage curious speculations on things the Lord has not seen fit to reveal to us.”

Calvin looms large in Robinson’s work: Gilead and its 2008 companion novel, Home, are surely the only bestsellers to hinge on a scene where a preacher ruminates about predestination. In her essays, Robinson presents Calvin as a Christian humanist—contrary to his stereotype as a cold-hearted theocrat—and his intellectual heirs as a vital corrective to our cheapened discourse.

As she tells TAC:

Something I find regrettable in contemporary Christianity is the degree to which it has abandoned its own heritage, in thought and art and literature. It was at the center of learning in the West for centuries—because it deserved to be. Now there seems to be actual hostility on the part of many Christians to what, historically, was called Christian thought, as if the whole point were to get a few things right and then stand pat. I believe very strongly that this world, these billions of companions on earth that we know are God’s images, are to be loved, not only in their sins, but especially in all that is wonderful about them. And as God is God of the living, that means we ought to be open to the wonderful in all generations. These are my reasons for writing about Christian figures of the past. At present there is much praying on street corners. There are many loud declarations of personal piety, which my reading of the Gospels forbids me to take at face value. The media are drawn by noise, so it is difficult to get a sense of the actual state of things in American religious culture.

Most Americans still call themselves Christians, but Robinson finds our politics afflicted by a debased and un-Christian view of ourselves. “We have forgotten that old American nonsense about alabaster cities, about building the stately mansions of the soul,” she writes in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. Instead, we “adopted this very small view of ourselves and others, as consumers and patients and members of interest groups.”

“Our idea of what a human being is has grown oppressively small and dull,” she continues in When I Was a Child, and proposes an alternative anthropology: “What if we were to say that human beings are created in the image of God?”

Calvin writes in the Institutes that man’s creation in the image of God establishes a duty of unlimited love: “The image of God, by which he is recommended to you,” he writes, “deserves your surrender of yourself and all that you possess.” The social consequences, Robinson believes, are clear: an “unqualified requirement of generosity” that is repeated again and again in the Christian tradition: in Deuteronomy, the Gospel, Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards.

In “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism”—a lecture she delivered at the Princeton Theological Seminary—Robinson observes, “There is clearly a feeling abroad that God smiled on our beginnings, and that we should return to them if we can.” This would mean a return to the moral seriousness with which our ancestors undertook their duty to the poor and needy.

“Those among us who call themselves traditionalists, and who invoke things like ‘religion’ and ‘family’ in a spirit that makes those honest words feel mean and tainted, are usually loyal first of all to a tooth-and-nail competitiveness our history does not in fact enshrine,” she writes in The Death of Adam. Later essays in When I Was a Child continue her attack on these purported traditionalists.

Conservatives are taken aback by the bracing tone here. As Mattix contends, when Robinson turns her eye on contemporary politics, her typical nuance and generosity can fail her. In her anger at what she sees as depredation, Robinson caricatures conservatism as a bundle of jingoism, mean-spiritedness, and tribalism, dismissing out of hand the notion that Christians who are conservative espouse limited government because they believe it best secures not only liberty but also prosperity—including prosperity for the poor. sep-issuethumb [7]

Yet the caricature, if uncharitable, is at least understandable—just consider the willingness of Republicans to cut food stamps, but not corporate welfare, from the recent farm bill. As Robinson writes in When I Was a Child, Jesus does not say, “I was hungry and you fed me, though not in such a way as to interfere with free-market principles.”

Asked about “compassionate conservatism” and whether a Christian can fulfill the duties of love while being skeptical of government redistribution, she tells TAC:

Skepticism is appropriate in all cases, especially where money is involved. There should always be checks and balances. We all know of non-government charities whose CEO’s have done very well for themselves. As Christians, we must be concerned with outcomes—are the hungry fed, are the naked clothed, are the sick visited. The more strategies that are brought to bear on the problem—which current policy or lack there of has made a pressing problem—the greater the likelihood that it will be dealt with as Christ, who identifies himself unambiguously with those in need, tells us it must be. There is no analogy to be drawn between a beleaguered community governed, in effect, by a hostile and alien occupation and a modern society that can indeed govern itself and care for its own as it chooses. If we were indeed a Christian country I think we would be making other choices than many self-proclaimed Christians are trying to impose on us now. No talk of compassion impresses me when the tone of all reference to those who are struggling is hostile and judgmental. And of course anyone can be open-handed. But, as an American, I want to be able to help an American child in Detroit, an American family in Alaska, because they are as much my own as my dear Iowans. The national government is without question the most efficient means for this kind of ‘redistribution,’ a word that distracts from the deeper fact that one naturally wishes to share one’s blessings with one’s own.

It’s little wonder conservatives are drawn to the liberal Robinson, when she not only writes beautifully but does so with a thoughtful Christianity that transcends our current political divisions and economic ideologies. Robinson’s critiques, if at times broad-brush, provide an always-needed reminder that the church should never allow itself to be simply the Republican Party at prayer. As Robinson writes in “Open Thy Hand Wide,” the Christian story is “too great a narrative to be reduced to serving any parochial interest or to be overwritten by any lesser human tale.”

Robert Long, a summer 2013 editorial assistant for The American Conservative, studies philosophy of mind and of religion at Brandeis University.

Follow @rgblong [8]

40 Comments (Open | Close)

40 Comments To "Christian, Not Conservative"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 15, 2013 @ 2:41 am

I really appreciated these observations.

There’s just one hitch.Nowhere in my New Testament do I see a single requirement by Christ or the Apostles to fully appreciate I should be well schooled in arts ad letters.

She knows scriptural adherents from the comfy of her living room I think, though I am guessing. Watching to many mass media clips of christians of the faith and practice she refers.

Apparently never having spent an afternoon in there homes or amidst their lives where the power of human care (our common humanity) love and giving is poured out every day on the lives of the sick, the oppressed, the unemployed and the poor walking through the mess of life — ohh not so eloquently as john dunne — but all a human and caring. Women who watch their husbands trot off to work, return hime and trott off to work again at a second job. I would say that music of the fed children and eventually warm soft kisses between husband and wife are are human arts and letters enough in birthdays card and and father’s day cards to pass through this life – though perhaps they have never seen or heard a Chopin, a Mozart or laughed and cried through Cyrano de Bergerac.

My academic betters never cease to amaze me at their arrogance in assessing their christian brothers and sisters they know little about.

But having gone with many to evening prayers and concerts — a life as fundamentalists have made them no less appreciative of Chopin or Shakespeare, Neitze or Michaelangelo nor the previous scenario of the less educated men and women of god.

#2 Comment By spite On October 15, 2013 @ 5:04 am

“I want to be able to help an American child in Detroit, an American family in Alaska, because they are as much my own as my dear Iowans”. This is a problem that so many liberals believe, that a nation is basically a big family, its not. A small nation like Liechtenstein is not a family nor is a homogeneous nation like Korea a family, America with 300 million very different people is most definitely not a family. The view that the government is the mother and father and its citizens are its children, is best left for places like Turkmenistan where the despot declares himself father of the nation (Niyazov did).

#3 Comment By Aaron Gross On October 15, 2013 @ 6:47 am

As I [9], it’s crazy that Robinson doesn’t get reviewed in The American Conservative. This is one of the most natural places for her books to be reviewed. The editing at TAC is great, but I don’t know why you guys ignored her book.

#4 Comment By Michael N Moore On October 15, 2013 @ 7:03 am

There is no question in my mind that the primary intellectual founder of the United States was John Calvin. His world view so permeates our society that it can be hard to notice for a native.

It was Calvin who ended the feudal world when he changed the sin of usury into the virtue of capital investment. The Catholic Church and Luther lagged far behind on this momentous change.

Calvin turned Christianity from a ritual into an operating theory for life that still resounds throughout the World. All of this is heresy in the modern academy, where Enlightenment values are seen as our sole founding ideology

#5 Comment By jweaks On October 15, 2013 @ 9:03 am

“…As Mattix contends, when Robinson turns her eye on contemporary politics, her typical nuance and generosity can fail her. In her anger at what she sees as depredation, Robinson caricatures conservatism as a bundle of jingoism, mean-spiritedness, and tribalism, dismissing out of hand the notion that Christians who are conservative espouse limited government because they believe it best secures not only liberty but also prosperity—including prosperity for the poor.”

I think that is putting it kindly. Ms. Robinson’s portrayal of conservatism and those who are Christian and conservative is simply false.

Being hostile and judgmental toward people because they are deemed hostile and judgmental is always problematic.

However, one can still appreciate it when she is right in other areas.

#6 Comment By Stephen P On October 15, 2013 @ 10:57 am

Robinson’s pretty harsh (and sometimes seems to be attacking a caricature) when writing about free market conservatism, but it’s a critique that is strongly rooted in plausible readings of the Bible and Christian tradition. Christians who are also conservative need to grapple with what she’s saying.

At her best, Robinson is “liberal” in the sense of being “gracious” and “generous,” rather than in the political sense. And thankfully, contemporary politics is not a central theme in most of her work.

#7 Comment By J.A.A. Purves On October 15, 2013 @ 11:30 am

Criticizing extreme rhetoric and the religious right does not mean Robinson is a liberal. If THAT is what makes one a liberal, then she is in good company:

“It is undoubtedly true, though it may seem paradoxical; but in general, those who are habitually employed in finding and displaying faults, are unqualified for the work of reformation: because their minds are not only unfurnished with patterns of the fair and good, but by habit they come to take no delight in the contemplation of those things. By hating vices too much, they come to love men too little.”
– Edmund Burke

“Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ‘cause’, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce …”
– C.S. Lewis

“What frightens people most about the Religious Right is the rhetoric that is sometimes used. There ought to be some thought given, for example, as to how you formulate your antihomosexual position: it should be more pastoral than vitriolic. If, at the end of a broadcast by Pat Robertson, fewer people are disposed to Christianity than were before he came on … then that would be awful if that were so.”
– William F. Buckley, Jr.

“To maintain that all normative truth may be found in the Bible or in any other sacred book, is to fall into the error of what Coleridge called ‘bibliolatry.’ Though the Decalogue is the word of God, it is not the sole source of the commandments for mankind.”
– Russell Kirk

“The law does not exist to enforce controversial moral views against those who disagree with them, but to reconcile differences and establish government by consent. It is not always easy to achieve those goals. But it is certain that we will not achieve them, if we regard the law as open to capture by ‘special moral interests’, so as to become a weapon wielded by one section of the community against another.”
– Roger Scruton

“Evangelicals do not think or act like conservatives. This failure stems from the odd combination of certainty about morals and indifference to first-order political considerations about legitimate authority, national sovereignty, freedom, the common good, civic virtue, and the best conditions for human flourishing.”
– D.G. Hart

#8 Comment By Charming Billy On October 15, 2013 @ 11:45 am

Sadly, many people link mean spirited conservatism with Christianity precisely because mean spirited conservatives themselves explicitly make that link. True, there are mean spirited secularist conservatives, but their views either don’t make it outside of the local Objectivist reading group that meets on Tuesdays at 7:00 at the public library; or, more sophisticated secular conservatives have learned they can successfully market their unChristian views disguised as mean spirited Christian rhetoric because large numbers of Christians will find that appealing.

It would be nice if Robinson acknowledged that it’s debatable whether or not the federal government is the best way to administer the charitable giving that is required of all Christians. And I’d like to see her make a clearer distinction between the sort of conservative Christian she’s targeting and the crunchy cons and decent, if stodgy, conservative Christians. But more often than not she’s right. All Christians are better off doing Christ’s work than worrying about how.

#9 Comment By Mr. Patrick On October 15, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

The thing about people who reject conservatism is that they aren’t as prone to charitable interpretations of conservatism as conservatives are. Why does this shock?

#10 Comment By Sexton Blake On October 15, 2013 @ 1:57 pm

‘But does our most gracious Lord deserve to have his name associated with concealed weapons and stand-your-ground laws, things that fly in the face of his teaching and example? Does he say anywhere that we exist primarily to drive an economy and flourish in it? He says precisely the opposite’


#11 Comment By William Dalton On October 15, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

We conservative Calvinists have long believed what Marilynne Robinson is preaching – that the doctrines of God’s sovereignty, of pre-destination, one finds in the Institutes are among the most liberating words one can find outside the Bible. With her, we, too, have long reproved the “works righteousness” crowd from across the spectrum of Christians, Jews and Muslims, not to mention radical atheists, who believe that ridding the world of its moral failings from fornication to racism, dirty dancing to driving without a seat belt, must be the obsession of every righteous American.

But there are two abiding failings in liberal Christianity which are causing it to wither on the vine, particularly as it tries to maintain its adherence to the Christ of the Scriptures.

The first is that it is no longer liberal, but socialist, in its agenda. For all the Scriptural authority it can marshal to call the Church to care for the poor, the hungry, the prisoner, the alien, it always ignores the query whether there is any Godly call to slough off these responsibilities upon the civil government. Particularly in a nation founded upon the separation of the functions of the Church and those of the State, to which priciple Liberal Christianity most zealously adheres, how can advocate, not to mention tolerate, these, the most clearly defined offices of mission Christ has ordained the Church to perform, be abdicated in favor of a Godless state? Not only has the development of the welfare state deprived the Church of some of its most basic functions, leading growing numbers of people, even religious, to believe the Church is irrelevant to 21st Century America, but the growing dependency of ever larger segments of the population upon being served by the government is creating the gravest encouragement to the most serious of all sins – idoloatry. Where Americans historically have placed their faith, their hope, their trust for their future, in Christ and His Church, they now place these things, and increasing worship, at the alter of the State. In this liberal Christians remain sanguine.

The second failing of liberal Christianity lies not in its refusal to pursue and eradicate sin, as it accuses conservative Christians of doing, but its attempts, by accretion, of redefining sin. Granted, a church long obsessed with drinking and smoking and gambling, none of which fall within the parameters of the Ten Commandments, except when they become addictive ends in themselves, needed to reform its priorities in this regard. But to give license to the world’s increasing obsession with sex, as an end in itself, as the defining quality in a person’s identity, or even to relegate it to status of recreation and amusement, betrays everything the Scripture teaches about the Creation of the human race male and female, so that each might leave their father and their mother, and cling to the other, not for a day or for a season, but for the remainder of their lives on this Earth. There is nothing liberating about this kind of sexual liberation – only a promise of freedom that never satisfies, that leads one down the pathway of pain, alienation, resentment, loneliness and despair, that is characteristic of all paths that lead away from God. And yet the Church gives it succor, if not in the realm of celebrated Sacraments, then in its definition of civil rights. In this it not only encourages moral failings but also blasphemes against the Holy God who bestowed upon us the human rights that are validly ours.

#12 Comment By pardoner On October 15, 2013 @ 2:29 pm

A wonderful article, well written and generous.

I find the tribal instinct wearisome. At 37, I’m no longer certain how to draw myself in relation to the crude caricature of American political life. I favor thoughtful, deliberate, prudent stewardship of progressive change. I value tradition as a trove of practical and efficacious ways of living, a long trajectory of virtuous refinement to the human condition, while recognizing that not all traditions are virtuous and that progress and change are not the enemy of conservatism. Socially, I’m fairly liberal (as that word is commonly used). Economically, I’m a moderate. I’m an atheist who empathizes deeply with my theist brethren and the awe they carry of the ineffable, which they call God.

What place is there at the table for me? Where am I to sit?

#13 Comment By J.A.A. Purves On October 15, 2013 @ 2:55 pm


You’re welcome to sit at the same place at the table along with writers like Irving Babbitt, Wallace Stevens, Max Eastman and Theodore Dalrymple. We might occasionally have differences, but there is still much we can agree on.

#14 Comment By Michael N Moore On October 15, 2013 @ 4:17 pm

I gotta say: No one can unleash a jeremiad the way William Dalton can unleash a jeremiad.


It is pointless to argue about God’s “existance” within the modern use of the term “to exist”, which indicates a place in time and material space. Under current parlance of course God does not “exist”. The important thing is that, in your tenuous, empty, and absurd life, you should try to touch something eternal.

#15 Comment By An Anachronistic Apostle On October 15, 2013 @ 4:33 pm

“What place is there at the table for me? Where am I to sit?”

As the Ineffable once said long ago, you might first consider selling all that you have, then giving away the proceeds to the poor. It’s a risky business as Merrill Lynch sees things, of course; but the resurrected poor may then have reasons galore to make a welcome place for you, at the table.

Be truly honest with yourself, in other words. You are here asked to be truly selfless, and less self-congratulatory about your niceness; to be truly “socially liberal,” instead of worrying about the self’s cushy seating and comfort at a table, whatever the expense to others both great and small; the kingly presidential, or cellularly embryonic.

But if you can’t, or you simply won’t forget the self … and it’s not within the abilities or ken of any mortal to completely and unfailingly do so … nevertheless, don’t turn away from the Ineffable, who made Himself poor and a worm, so that you could be rich.

#16 Comment By Anne Ahlstrom On October 15, 2013 @ 4:43 pm

Gilead has been my favorite book since its publication. I’m delighted to read this article about Robinson and the discussions on religion, politics and ethics in this time of turmoil.

#17 Comment By Glaivester On October 16, 2013 @ 2:06 am

For all the Scriptural authority it can marshal to call the Church to care for the poor, the hungry, the prisoner, the alien, it always ignores the query whether there is any Godly call to slough off these responsibilities upon the civil government.

From a Scriptural standpoint, the Church has a duty to care for these people. That means we all have a responsibility to give yo our local Church, and for our local Church to involve itself in community service, and to donate to parachurch organizations that serve the needy (Prison Fellowship and Salvation Army are examples, although you may prefer others).

A true Christian wants to give through organizations that spread the Gospel message along with serving those in need.

Whether or not you believe in a strong welfare state, the Church needs to be a force to do these things. A welfare state is not a substitute for these things and its existence should not let you off the hook.

Alternately, if you rail against the welfare state, you need to help develop a Christian alternative.

Either way, Christians must personally give to help others in ways that include exposing them to Christ, regardless of anything else.

#18 Comment By Jonathan On October 16, 2013 @ 8:45 am

“Christian conservatism” and “christian socialism” are oxymorons. Both conservatism and socialism are philosophies of the world, based on the worldly idols of “tradition” and “progress” respectively. But Christ is concerned with neither of those, He taught that all things of this world would pass away. There is no political philosophy in the Gospels except “render unto Caesar”, and the advice about being a willing aide to the legionaries.

#19 Comment By Thursday On October 16, 2013 @ 2:08 pm

Taking a look at Charlton’s post, I have to ask the same of Wendell Berry. How seriously does he take his own ideas? His earlier essay on marriage had implications that were radically in contradiction with same sex marriage, yet years later he unloads on SSM opponents.

#20 Comment By Ray A. On October 16, 2013 @ 2:44 pm

Glaivester: ” A welfare state is not a substitute for these things and its existence should not let you off the hook.”

No, it is not. In fact, it an impediment. When a single income family can lose more than a third of their income to federal, state, county, property and sales taxes, it becomes increasingly difficult to fund the “alternative.”

#21 Comment By Emilio On October 16, 2013 @ 10:36 pm

What a great article and comments thread. I arrived at deism after a stretch of skeptical atheism, which was preceded by a Catholic education, and I still love active and vocal liberal Christians because I see them as vigorous liberalism and vigorous conservatism co-existing in one personality. And it seems that at my best, I ought to display generous quantities of both.

Regarding the notion that the State has usurped the role (and standing) of churches by taking over the task of distributing alms to the poor, that’s a difficult one to believe. More likely, the reason why the New Deal and all other major redistributionist social welfare programs were put in place was that the need was/is beyond the capacity of all other available institutions.

#22 Comment By Linda A On October 17, 2013 @ 4:36 am

It is disappointing to me that, the majority of people commenting here are defensive rather than reflective on what she has to say. And it is sad that Michael N. Moore calls pardoner’s life “tenuous, empty, and absurd” simply because pardoner doesn’t identify as a Christian. If you are wondering why people turn to the state for help instead of the church, you may look close to home and whether you are being intolerant, judgmental or hateful (as Robinson put it). I think that is in part the message she is trying to get across.

#23 Comment By pardoner On October 17, 2013 @ 10:50 am

I took Michael’s comment as a general existential remark—human lives are, as a whole, “tenuous, empty, and absurd” absent a source of meaning—and an exhortation to ponder the large questions and make peace with the deep mysteries.

#24 Comment By Michael N Moore On October 17, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

Linda A said: “It is disappointing to me that, the majority of people commenting here are defensive rather than reflective on what she has to say. And it is sad that Michael N. Moore calls pardoner’s life “tenuous, empty, and absurd” simply because pardoner doesn’t identify as a Christian.”

Pardoner said: “I took Michael’s comment as a general existential remark—human lives are, as a whole, “tenuous, empty, and absurd” absent a source of meaning—and an exhortation to ponder the large questions and make peace with the deep mysteries.”

Pardoner has the correct meaning of my statement. I should have said “our” lives and not “your” life. I was channeling Sartre and not ringing doorbells with a Bible.

#25 Comment By James Williams On October 17, 2013 @ 3:37 pm

I’m not sure why this lady’s words are considered admirable. She is being lifted up as someone who is against those who insist their way is the only way, yet she is quoted here as saying “the national government is without question the most efficient means for this kind of ‘redistribution,’”
By saying her POV is correct “without question” she’s making it clear that this point is not open for debate.

“If we were indeed a Christian country I think we would be making other choices than many self-proclaimed Christians are trying to impose on us now.”

The irony is that we feel that liberals are imposing their will upon us every time they pledge to use government as the main way to take care of those in need.

And then there’s this:

“of course anyone can be open-handed. But…the national government is without question the most efficient means for this kind of ‘redistribution,’ a word that distracts from the deeper fact that one naturally wishes to share one’s blessings with one’s own.”

If she had changed “redistribution” to “forced redistribution”, then she’d have been more accurate, but then that would have conflicted with the last part of her sentence, about how Christians should want to share of their own free will.

By calling for liberal policies (that is, forcing taxpayers to help those in need) in the same sentence where she exalts the idea that we all naturally want to give of our own free will, she conflicts with herself. Either it’s a good thing to give freely, or it isn’t.

#26 Comment By Kari Q On October 18, 2013 @ 2:41 am

I love Robinson’s work. I have made the rare move of rereading Gilead, because it is a because that requires and deserves rereading, both for the thought and the language.

I, too, find the defensiveness and hostility toward her opinion of social spending by the state distressing. The reason that social programs such as Social Security, food stamps, WIC and AFDC (previously welfare) got started was because private giving was simply not enough to meet the needs of the poor. Private giving also has the drawback of being cyclical – people give more in a strong economy and less in a weak economy, while the needs are the exact opposite.

I can understand the desire to do away with these programs, but before we decide to simply cut off food stamps, for example, we should be sure that those who are depending on them have access to resources adequate to their needs. Half of all seniors rely on Social Security to lift them above the poverty level. In my state, the unemployment rate is still nearly 9%. It’s hard to imagine private charity could be adequate to meet those needs.

#27 Comment By Michael N Moore On October 18, 2013 @ 6:14 am

Regarding the State spending: I think that the prime mover on this was Keynesian economics, which came to the fore in the Great Depression.

Karl Marx identified the central problem of capitalism to be the owners drive to lower wages undermining the purchasing power of their customer-employees. Keynes believed that this problem could be solved by turning the state into an irrational shopper and giving money to those most likely to spend it.

Social Security was started as a classic Keynesian scheme. People were saving for an old age that they believed would happen to them. To get them to spend their saving the state promised money at age 65. The vast majority never reached this age. Medical science has changed this and we now have a fiscal disaster waiting to happen.

#28 Comment By Barry On October 18, 2013 @ 6:25 am

“The thread that unites these concerns is a tradition neglected today by left and right: liberal Christianity. ”

It’s not neglected on the left, it’s just not acknowledged by the MSM or the right.

#29 Comment By MikeS On October 20, 2013 @ 10:13 pm

I guess different people have different definitions of liberal Christian. I would see her as a rather traditional Christian who takes some liberal political or cultural positions. I would reserve the word liberal for someone like Bishop Spong, who favors reconceptualizing Christianity to make it plausible to what he sees as modern thinking.

#30 Comment By Slartibartfast On October 21, 2013 @ 8:34 am

I want to be able to help an American child in Detroit, an American family in Alaska, because they are as much my own as my dear Iowans

I applaud this sentiment, and encourage her to go ahead and help those people. I even encourage her to write about helping them, after having done so.

Does that make me a bad person?

#31 Comment By The Crafty Trilobite On October 21, 2013 @ 2:09 pm

Responding to James Williams, who says

Interesting, how you don’t suggest you would give freely if not ‘forced.’ So often, objecting to the means is a cover for the true objection, which is to the ends. If you wanted the naked clothed and the hungry fed with your money, you would vote for it. Nobody objects to taxes in principle when the $$ goes to something they like, only when it’s for something they resent having to pay for at all. This sort of faux objection to process reminds me of all those high-minded folks who complain that states’ rights are being ignored, yet somehow the only states’ right at issue always turns out to be something about race. If you resent helping the poor, own up to it, don’t hide behind glibertarianism.

#32 Comment By The Crafty Trilobite On October 21, 2013 @ 2:10 pm

Drat, I blockquoted the opposite of what I tried to. I was trying to quote James Williams saying:
“If she had changed “redistribution” to “forced redistribution”, then she’d have been more accurate, but then that would have conflicted with the last part of her sentence, about how Christians should want to share of their own free will.”

#33 Comment By Hey, Jude On October 22, 2013 @ 4:57 am

This completely disregards the many Bible verses calling for honest work. I Timothy 5:8 says “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

The welfare state encourages people not to work and to rely instead on the government (not God). Sure, many are truly in need, but how many more could be working? How many people sit back and expect the benefits of the labor of taxpayers?

The enormous tax burden on the middle class takes money from their budget that they would prefer to give to the church or charities and gives it to a system that is rife with corruption, thereby WASTING so much that is taken.

If the money is being forcefully taken, can it be considered to be charity? No, I think not.

And finally, this completely ignores the fact that conservatives are much more likely to give than liberals! [10]

#34 Comment By Interested Commentator On October 22, 2013 @ 6:51 am

That was a nice piece on the work and thought of Marilynne Robinson. I would agree with another commentator that she seems to be a religious conservative and political liberal.
One of her reviewers once said that the most refreshing thing about her is her absolute refusal to take her opinions second hand.
However, I believe her politics is second hand from the academy or church or wherever. My limited experience with the federal social safety net is enough to convince me that despite any efficiencies, the federal system is inflexible, impersonal, and ultimately not compassionate. Her failure to really even understand other perspectives like mine indicates that she has little experience dealing with it.

#35 Comment By Separation of church and State? On October 23, 2013 @ 9:42 am

“I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them” – Thomas Jefferson

“Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government” – James Madison

“Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service, when it is violating all His laws.” – John Adams

#36 Comment By Jayq On November 1, 2013 @ 11:33 am

To EliteCommInc. …..I take your very well made point, but I fear you’re being a tad defensive. First and foremost, Robinson isn’t a literalist, so I doubt she’s reading into the Bible any requirement towards arts and letters. Second, I think you’re missing the point of her comment. She’s praising Christianity for the role it once took in society as a great intellectual (as well as charitable) bastion. Her point, at least to me, seems to be that because certain conservative so-called Christian groups have given up the former in favor of simplistic literalism and even doctrinal hostility, global (global as in non-discriminatory) charity has often–though of course not always–suffered. Robinson isn’t chiding you for a lack of intellectualism. And she herself–from other interviews I’ve read with her–seems actively charitable. It reads to me that she’s mourning the loss of Christianity’s once-respected place in society–both as a a religion that thinks deeply and loves universally. Moreover, she has no obligation to apologize for her own status as an academic and an intellectual. I’m sorry that it makes you feel misunderstood, but I’d argue that that’s your own problem and nothing that Robinson is trying to pin on you.

#37 Comment By Jan Rogozinski On December 14, 2013 @ 5:06 pm

The problem runs deep. One aspect is that Americans are taught that they have a right to have and yell out an opinion on every subject, especially those subjects they know nothing about. Another is that Americans know no history.

It constantly disgust me that Fundies and Evangels actually think that they are Christians because Christianity did not exist until they were born. Hey! There’s 2000 years of tradition out there. Why reinvent the wheel. Why not read some of the Latin and Greek fathers and the medieval scholastics as well as Calvin and Luther.

How can you be so arrogant, conceited, and self-worshiping as to think you can pick up some translation of a book written by members of a totally alien and incomprehensible culture 2,500 years ago–and then, based on two or three words taken out of context invent a form of idiolatry you call Christianity. (It’s really deformed Judaism, but very puerile deformed Judaism)

To set the record straight
(1) The entire concept of separation of Church and State, which in practice means separation of God from our lives, is a weird 20th century invention. Church and state should be one because human beings are one, single union of souls and bodies. Note that the countries with the most advanced protection of every human being–Britain, Sweden, Norway, Denmark–all have monarchies and an established state church.

Private charity never has and never can be sufficient. It is true that in the Middle Ages the Church was responsible for charity. It also is true that the government and pious individuals donated vast tracts of land to monasteries and cathedrals. And the government also exempted Church bodes from taxation. All this, so that they could feed the poor. In effect, state and Church were one, as they should be.

(2) The Roman Catholic popes last condemned the sin of usury sometime in the 1700s. Luther and Calvin also condemned it. Then, I guess, priests and pastors all gave up trying. (But the condemnations are still there in the record and have never been abolished.) Usury is defined as taking money away from another without giving him something in exchange. I.e., banks and insurance companies today that charge 20% interest on risk-free loans guaranteed by the government they control.

It is amazing how Republican and Conservatives pretend to be Christian while worshiping usury and bankers. Morgan-Chase has to pay back 14 billion in fines on those thefts the government has caught them at. Yet, the CEO suffers no punishment. He is still [falsely] idolized as a “wealth creditor”by the same Conservatives and Republicans that are incensed that some poor starving person on food stamps might spend $5 on beer instead of rice and beans.

(3) This is the most serious problem. Anyone familiar with Christian literature knows the following. The hatred of the poor by Conservatives and Republicans (who prentend to be Christians) is unique over a history of 2,000 years. The contempt, the vitriol, the loathing with which folk like Erik Cantor speak of the poor is unprecedented. It’s Social Darwinism on steroids. Conservatives believe that the poor are nasty, brutish, disgusting, filthy greedy pigs solely and only because they are poor and for NHO other reason. While they believe that the very rich are–solely because they are rich–holy, virtuous, sinless saints, who must never ever pay even a penny in taxes.

There is no precedent for this. Yes, Calvinists condemned drunkenness, gambling, prostitution, fornication on the part of the poor–but also on the part of the rich. But they never condemned poor folk simply because they are poor. They would never, as Republicans and Conservatives do, express contempt and loathing for a virtuous widow with young children merely because she is a widow. They found ways, not excluding pure charity, of getting the children fed. As opposed to today, when Republican preened to dislike abortion, but allow the child to starve to death after it is born. What disgusting hypocrisy. The very stones weep.

(PS. It is irrelevant if Cantor is Jewish. The prophets said the same thing as Jesus. Or, more probably, Rabbi Jesus was quoting the prophets.)

#38 Comment By mark On December 30, 2013 @ 1:08 pm

All these wonderful thoughts are interesting. How many of you really see the effect of helping the “poor”. I’ve seen plenty. I’ve seen the poor sitting in a home with their rent paid every month,food stamps,gifts from charities running out of the closet. Able body men and women who are suppose to be looking for a job and sit at home all day eating ,drinking and watching tv and complaining they need more help! you folks need to really get outside your office and LOOK at the real world. I feel sorry for working Americans who go to work everyday to FUND this liberal,conservative goody goody feel good not reality thinking. I will be the first in line to help anyone who needs help but last in line to fund such nonsense. By the way the bible also says if you don’t you don’t eat. Lastly how can our government be the overseer of our poor? They can’t balance their own checkbook!If I balanced mine the way they do I would be in jail!!!

#39 Comment By Kate On December 17, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

Her statements are, in whole, logically ridiculous. She has a penchant toward florid writing that surprisingly and superficially appeals to Conservative sense of nationalism and religion, but the core of her message is unabashed liberal nonsense based not in logic but in uncritical emotion.

If the families in Detroit and Alaska are deserving of “her” help (with the help of the government to make sure she helps them) because they are American, then why not Mexican families? Why not Chinese families? Why not Nigerian families? A family in Detroit might be as culturally different from her as the average Mexican family. Is geopolitical definition her criteria for her Calvinist generosity? if so, that definition can and may be readily remedied to include Mexicans in the future. If her religious sense of duty to the poor is defined by national borders, than it is not confined to all. But that’s the essence of her florid, cynical deception. She doesn’t believe that it is. She’s an obvious Universalist and Internationalist looking to couch her arguments in intentionally flawed nationalist logic that is meant to crack under any future liberal critique. She’s merely offering conservatives a religious-political map that is designed to result in incremental Universalism. I can respect people with politics such as hers when they are direct. I can’t appreciate them when they are intentionally deceptive. No thanks.

#40 Comment By Kate On December 17, 2014 @ 5:38 pm

…”then it is not defined *at* all”.