The Heretic Hunters of Liberal Christianity
If Democrats are pushing conservative Christians further away from them and into the arms of the GOP — see here for more on this point — then Ed Kilgore says conservative Christians are pushing liberals out of Christianity. He takes as his example opinions expressed by a conservative radio talker, as well as a NASCAR driver:
And even at this year’s breakfast, the message of the “non-controversial” keynote speaker, NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip, was a very blunt contradiction of the president’s injunction to humility about religious truth:
If you don’t know Jesus as your Lord and Savior, if you don’t have a relationship [with Him], if He’s not the master of your life, if you’ve never gotten on your knees and asked Him to forgive you of your sins, [and] you’re just a pretty good guy or a pretty good gal, you’re going to go to Hell.Not much holy doubt in that mind, is there?
I find myself halfway between Waltrip and Obama. From the president’s remarks at the Prayer Breakfast:
So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try. And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe.
And, first, we should start with some basic humility. I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt — not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.
Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth — our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments. And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process. And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty. No God condones terror. No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.
And so, as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion — any religion — for their own nihilistic ends. And here at home and around the world, we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom — freedom of religion — the right to practice our faith how we choose, to change our faith if we choose, to practice no faith at all if we choose, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination.
I do not have the capability to peer inside the president’s soul and judge whether or not he’s a “real” Christian. If he is a Christian, he is very far from an orthodox one, but honestly, I don’t much care. He’s the commander-in-chief, not the pastor-in-chief. I would rather have an atheist president who was committed for whatever reason to protecting religious liberty and advancing policies that served the common good than a Christian president who was eager to get the nation into a war, or whose liberal Christianity made him more enemy than ally of religious liberty for Christians like me.
I think Obama was historically ignorant and politically ill-advised to bring the Crusades into the discussion, for reasons we have discussed in this space (in short, because the historical phenomenon is far too complex to be shoehorned into a neat, politically useful narrative). Nevertheless, he was certainly right to say that no religion has a monopoly on virtue or vice, and to call for all of us to be more humble and loving. What’s most interesting about his speech, though, is how he assumes that his watery, secular-ish liberal take on religion (both Christian and otherwise) is the authentic religious stance.
How do we know who is “misusing His name,” and who is being true to their faith? How do we know that faith is being “perverted and distorted”? By whose standards? When we say that “no God condones terror,” what does that mean to the jihadist who believes in all sincerity that he is not engaged in terror, but is simply being obedient to his god?
True story: A few years back, I sat across the table in a north Dallas steakhouse from a local Muslim CAIR leader who objected by my having called the teachings of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, “violent.” I responded that Qaradawi taught that it was permissible for Muslim men to beat their wives, and that homosexuals should be stoned to death. “That’s violence,” I said.
He denied it. “You call it violence,” he shot back. “We call it protecting our families.”
He was sincere, and I respect that sincerity. I don’t think that Islamist at the steakhouse would say that these acts weren’t violent, strictly speaking, but rather that they were morally necessary forms of violence, in the same, or at least similar, way that a Christian like me would see dropping a daisy-cutter bomb on a nest of ISIS militants in Syria as morally necessary (if regrettable) to stop a far greater evil. The question is not whether these acts are violent; the question is whether the violence of these acts are permissible, or even prescribed by God.
“No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives,” says the president. Well, did fighting Nazism justify the taking of innocent lives in bombing raids over Germany? “Or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number,” he adds. Well, it’s hard to get fewer and weaker than fundamental Mormon polygamists; I suppose the president will be commuting Warren Jeffs’ sentence. Yes?
No, of course not. The point is that in his speech, the president seems to believe that liberal humanitarianism is the same thing as normative Christianity, and indeed normative religion. By his reckoning, a religion that “justifies the taking of innocent lives” and “oppresses” the weak and the few, and whose god “condones terror,” or justifies “oppression, violence, or hatred” cannot be true religion.
This is nonsense. What is oppression? What is violence? What is hatred? Did that CAIR Islamist not have true religion because he believed that defending his family required him to endorse wife-beating and killing gays? I believe he did have true religion. I’m not saying he had “true Islam,” because I’m not in a position to say. But I believe he sincerely believes that God requires this of him. And I believe he is damnably wrong. This happy-clappy, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism of the president’s is simply not true. I think the president truly believes what he said, but what so many liberals who espouse this kind of thin-gruel civic Christianity don’t seem to realize is how perfectly their idea of religion coincides with the secular liberal worldview.
James Kurth, in a brilliant essay a few years back, described how what he calls “the Protestant Deformation” (Kurth is an active Presbyterian layman) has always shaped US foreign policy. He says the decline of Protestantism has worked itself out in the secular realm. Excerpt:
Stage 4: The unitarian transformation. As the focus on grace faded, so too did the focus upon the agencies of grace, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Thus Reformed Protestantism, with its highly articulated trinitarian doctrine, turned into unitarianism, with its abstract concept of a Supreme Being or Divine Providence. Unitarianism was an actual denomination, of course, complete with its own churches, but it was also a more widely held theology and philosophy. This was the stage in the Protestant declension that some of the American political elite, including some of the Founding Fathers, had reached by the end of the 18th century. Thus the public documents of that time frequently made reference to the Supreme Being or Divine Providence and rarely to Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit.
Stage 5: The American Creed. The fifth stage in the Protestant declension was reached when the abstract and remote God, the Supreme Being or Divine Providence, disappeared altogether. Now the various Protestant creeds were replaced by the American Creed, which reached its fullest articulation in the first half of the 20th century. The elements of the American Creed were free markets and equal opportunity, free elections and liberal democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law. The American Creed definitely did not include as elements hierarchy, community, tradition and custom. Although the American Creed was not itself Protestant, it was clearly the product of a Protestant culture — a sort of secularized version of Protestantism as it had come down through its fourth declension.
Stage 6: Universal human rights. The sixth and final stage in the Protestant declension was reached only in the 1970s, essentially in the last two generations. Now the American Creed was replaced by the universal conception of human rights. More accurately, the elements of the American Creed were generalized into universal goods. Then in the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and communist ideology, and with the stagnation of the German “social market” and Japanese “organized capitalism”, every familiar alternative to American economic and political conceptions seemed discredited. America had thus brought the world to “the End of History.”
This is where I come down on the side of the NASCAR driver at at the prayer breakfast I am temperamentally unlike him, and I am sure I don’t subscribe to his particular brand of Evangelical Christianity. If I had to have dinner with one of them, I would find far more to talk about with the president, I am sure.
But for all his crudeness, the race car driver understands the real stakes in religion. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, if there’s nothing more to it than liberals (of the right or the left) at prayer, then to hell with it. From Ralph C. Wood’s great study of O’Connor and Southern culture:
O’Connor had little patience with “mass” Catholics who receive the weekly sacrament without its making any discernible difference in their lives. “The Church for them,” she wrote, “is not the body of Christ but the poor man’s insurance system.” When once asked what kind of Christian she would become if she were not a Roman Catholic, she replied, far from jestingly, that she would join a Pentecostal Holiness church. Belief for Flannery O’Connor must be radical or it is not belief at all. Faith is not another item in the laundry list of one’s loyalties: it is all or nothing at all. Thus did she confess that she was “a Catholic (not because it’s advantageous to my writing but because I was born and brought up one) and at some point in my life I realized that not only was I a Catholic but that this was all I was, that I was a Catholic not like someone else would be a Baptist or a Methodist but like someone else would be an atheist.” O’Connor had no patience for a merely polite piety. She admired Camus and Sartre and Nietzsche because they took God seriously enough to deny his reality.
By the way, if you missed Damon Linker’s great piece on Eugene O’Neill, the Catholic atheist, by all means read it. And speaking of Linker (who’s a friend), back in 2009 he celebrated Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as the ideal civic religion of America:
Theologically speaking, this watered-down, anemic, insipid form of Judeo-Christianity is pretty repulsive. But politically speaking, it’s perfect: thoroughly anodyne, inoffensive, tolerant. And that makes it perfectly suited to serve as the civil religion of the highly differentiated twenty-first century United States.
Whether you share this optimism about the “salutary” advance of moralistic therapeutic deism ultimately depends on whether you share Linker’s sense that the biggest problem facing America in the Bush years was the “siege” of secular America by orthodox Christians. The more you fear the theocon menace, the more you’ll welcome the Oprahfication of Christianity – since the steady spread of a mushy, muddle-headed theology is as good a way as any of inoculating the country and its politics against, say, Richard John Neuhaus’s views on natural law.
But let’s say you think that the biggest problems facing America in the Bush years were, I dunno, the botched handling of the Iraq occupation and a massive and an unsustainable housing and financial bubble. In that case, you don’t have to look terribly hard to see a connection between the kind of self-centered, sentimental, and panglossian religion described above and the spirit of unwarranted optimism and metaphysical self-regard that animated some of Bush’s worst hours as President (his second inaugural address could have been subtitled: “Moral Therapeutic Deism Goes to War”) and some of his fellow Americans’ worst hours as homeowners and investors. In the wake of two consecutive bubble economies, it takes an inordinate fear of culture war, I think, to immerse yourself in the literature of Oprahfied religion – from nominal Christians like Joel Osteen to New Age gurus like Eckhart Tolle and Rhonda Byrne – and come away convinced that this theological turn has been “salutary” for the country overall.
Look, I think there is nothing that Obama said in his prayer breakfast speech that George W. Bush wouldn’t have said, and probably believed. My point is simply that if liberals are pushing orthodox Christians out of the Democratic Party, and Christians are pushing social liberals out of the Christian religion — both of which I concede are happening to some degree — then it has to do with heresy.
That’s fine. Heresy, I understand. No religion, however liberal, can do without the concept of heresy (nor can a political party). Heresy is simply the drawing of lines. As ever, though, the galling thing is that the liberal mind so often draws stark and uncompromising lines while concealing from itself its own line-drawing and heretic-hunting. This is why whenever I see one of those COEXIST bumper stickers, I assume that the person driving that car imagines herself to be a paragon of religious tolerance, but is in fact as dogmatic and as humorless a religious liberal as you can imagine.