Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Fearful Christians (And The Damage They Do)...

Image result for fear

One open secret of elections is that people very often aren’t voting for a candidate but against another candidate. They aren’t putting someone in office, but keeping someone else out.

Another open secret of elections is that people often vote out of insecurity and fear- fears for their incomes, jobs, savings, for their children’s futures, that they’ll be worse off under another candidate’s regime…

Finally, there’s the open secret that the fear many people vote from are unfounded or irrational- that the government is plotting to make your religion illegal, allowing immigrants to ‘pour’ into the country, will make owning a gun illegal, founded and funds foreign terrorist groups…

What makes fear so destructive to democracy and social stability is that it’s by its very nature irrational. Unlike someone exercising caution, sober-mindedness, risk assessment, and carefulness, a fearful person is usually uninformed (working without good information) and/or selfish (obsessed with their own safety or desires without attention to others’).

Fear often leads to overreaction- impulsive, knee-jerk action- or, conversely, paralysis- the inability to make good decisions or implement important activity.

Out of fear that our children might take drugs, we’ve ended up creating a multi-billion dollar prison infrastructure and incarcerating millions of nonviolent offenders as part of our ‘war on drugs’;

Out of fear of ‘terrorism’, we’ve severely curtailed the civil liberties of millions, illegally ‘profiled’ certain ethnic groups, cultures, and religions, and waged undeclared war on huge swathes of the globe, raining entire regions with drone strikes and bombing campaigns;

Out of fear for personal safety (and property values), we’ve militarized our police forces, criminalized the homeless, and reinforced structural racism in our courts, prison systems, and grand juries.

Much reporting and analysis during this election has focused on the fears of many Americans, and one group of Americans has stood out- Christians.

This election has been in the thrall of fearful Christians. A quick google search yielded me a whole page of headlines about fearful Christians- 

Christians who fear the loss of their guns; 

who fear Christianity is slowly becoming illegal; 

who fear the presence of Muslims and other faiths openly expressing themselves in their towns; 

who fear that LGBT people are destroying America; 

who fear Common Core curricula is poisoning their children...

The tragedy for me, as a theologian, is that this shows the extent to which so much American Christianity- of every denomination- is disconnected with theological reflection and the biblical text.

The biblical text is rife with exhortations to have no fear of anything. The righteous are not to worry or be anxious. The Hebrew book of Proverbs, the Psalms- and for certain denominations, the Book of Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon- in dozens of instances all stress clear-thinking, wisdom, and sober-mindedness.

For Christians, Jesus on numerous occasions told his disciples not to fear what was going on, as well as to love their enemies, not fear them.

It is vital to remember, however, that we are not to be indifferent, nor are we to think that nothing really matters, that all situations are equal, or that we are not to care what happens.

Rather, whatever is going on around us, we are to actively pursue, as Jesus did, the Kingdom of God- peace, justice, and kindness;

We are to declare, as Jesus did, the year of God’s favour, not his wrath and his judgement;

We are to declare and live out, as Jesus did, the Good News of the Gospel- food for the poor, sight to the blind, release to the prisoners, freedom for the captives, life for the lifeless, a voice for the voiceless;

But what if, many argue, we feel legislated against? What if they legalize what we hold to be sin? What if they allow what we see as disgusting?  What about creating godly courts and governments?

St. Paul, writing to Christians who were often socially disadvantaged, looked down upon, or legislated against, never told his readers to be fearful of the future or strike back out of fear:

the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law (Gal. 5:22-23).

Whatever happens, love one another; do what is right; live peaceably with your neighbours; keep your head. There’s no law against that…

When was the last time in this election season you heard a Christian priest, pastor, or politician say that?

What if, many argue, the situation is serious, even grave? What if we’re attacked? What if cataclysm falls upon us? What if the Antichrist appears? What if our enemies destroy what we hold sacred?

As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, his disciples came to him privately and said, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”  Jesus answered them, “Watch out that no one misleads you.  For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will mislead many.  You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. Make sure that you are not alarmed, for this must happen, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise up in arms against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.  All these things are the beginning of birth pains… So when you see the abomination of desolation—spoken about by Daniel the prophet—standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains (Matt. 24:1-8,15-16).

Armies will march; persecution will come; God’s Temple will be destroyed…   But make sure you are not alarmed; this isn’t the end of the world; God has not abandoned us… No need to fight; no need to form a resistance; just run, run away, save yourself, save your family; love God and your neighbour...

When was the last time in this election season you heard a Christian priest, pastor, or politician say that?

Socially, fear- and fearmongering- never nurtures democracy. It never builds social capital. It is never the foundation stone of beneficial public policy.

Theologically, fear- and fearmongering- is never described as a good or healthy spiritual trait. It is warned against in hundreds of passages in the biblical text. It is antithetical to the person and message of Jesus as he is described in the Gospels.

It is because of fear, scare tactics, and lowest-common-denominator fearmongering that we stand on a social and democratic precipice- and the fear of many Christians has played no small part in bringing us to this point. 

Those Christian leaders, clergy, the Christian politicians they prop up, and the ordinary Christians posting to Facebook and Twitter who have sown so much fear into the hearts and minds of their congregations, constituencies, and friends have done them, the country as a whole, and American democracy an enormous disservice.

For that, we must all repent…

… And model something very different. 

Monday, 24 October 2016

White Christian Voters: How 'Right' Is Too 'Right'?

I presently live in the Flathead Valley of Northwest Montana. Between Flathead Lake, the Swan Range of the Rocky Mountains, the nearby Glacier National Park, and our endless ‘big sky’, residents of this corner of the US never have cause to doubt that we live among some of the most breath-taking scenery in the world.

The Flathead Valley is a great place to live. People are friendly, the schools are great, and the pace of life is easy. There’s great local restaurants and bars, local entertainment, many local artists and galleries, several local microbreweries and winemakers and- believe it or not- a lively Irish traditional music scene, of which I have happily become a part.

I really like living here.

But the Flathead Valley- and Montana in general- also has a darker side: a small, but extremely active far-right movement.

There are several local individuals and groups holding public meetings, running websites, and having demonstrations expressing a toxic mix of white supremacism, white nationalism, and Neo-Nazi, anti-immigrant, anti-Native American, and anti-Semitic rhetoric.  

The history of some of these people goes back decades, working under one incarnation or another. More often than not, it’s been fairly under the radar and hasn’t really touched upon mainstream politics.

That has changed, however, over the past year, as Donald Trump’s campaign for the US Presidency has mainstreamed things that used to be whispered about or only spoken aloud in carefully-coded conversation.

By ‘mainstreaming’ I mean that a lot of ideas and rhetoric that, until a very short time ago, could have only seen on far-right internet forums like Stormfront or the New Century Foundation are openly expressed by official candidates of a mainstream political party- one of them exactly one vote away from securing the White House.

Please understand that in no sense am I accusing the majority of Republican Party members of racism or white nationalism; what I do mean is that the Trump Presidential run- and the GOP leaderships enabling of it- has widened the parameters of acceptable discourse to include issues, topics, and solutions that would have previously been considered dangerously extremist.

Like it or not, thanks to Trump, more and more right-wing extremists feel welcome in the political mainstream.

Our own local example of this is Taylor Rose, running for the District 3 Montana House seat.

The Montana Human Rights Network and the Southern Poverty Law Center have assiduously documented Rose’s long-standing ties with European neo-Nazi groups, US neo-confederate groups, and local Montana far-right organizations.

He has spoken and written extensively in his own publications, radical right-wing magazines, news outlets, and online; the evidence is public and extensive.

Nevertheless, he is a self-professed Christian and is running as a Republican, and the local GOP have assiduously papered over or dodged questions of Rose’s far-right associations.

I’ve spent the past few days writing to our local newspapers, calling on local GOP leadership, as well as ordinary voters, to repudiate Rose and make clear that there is no place in party politics for candidates so openly associated with hate groups.

Looking at all this as a theologian, I think this touches on an issue that just might be the defining issue for American Christianity at this historical moment.

I’m mindful of the large Christian presence here in the valley-the vast majority of whom are white Evangelicals, many of whom, as I wrote about in my last post, have gravitated to Trump.

Needless to say, I have no concrete idea how these people are going to vote- though, again as I wrote about in my last post, white, older Evangelicals are a key Trump demographic.

When I look at our local politics, I’m not interested in whether or not they vote for Trump;

I’m very interested in if they will vote for Rose...

Simply put, if the fruit of this election cycle is a reinvigorated, uncloaked far-right as a viable presence in US politics, will white Evangelicals gravitate towards openly segregationist, anti-immigrant, aggressively Islamophobic, anti-Semitic candidates once again?

Yes, I did say ‘once again’…

There was a time- and not just in the South- when white Christians supported openly racist political candidates and movements all the time. The Ku Klux Klan, the John Birch Society, Catholic demagogue Father Charles Coghlin... Protecting a white, Protestant status quo- and doing so openly- was the benchmark for many Christian voters.

There has been excellent scholarship and commentary recently about how American Christians of all denominations engage with electoral politics. In the background of it all are the racial, social, and religious shifts going on in 21st-century America. 

The US is no longer a majority white, Christian nation; it’s still majority Christian by a considerable margin, but discounting African-Americans and Latinos, white Christians are only 45% of the population.

Many of the certainties of their former privilege are no longer concrete;

Issues such as ‘law and order’, the ‘war on drugs’, human sexuality, foreign policy, environmentalism, and gender issues are being explored from more expansive and inclusive- and less white and male- Christian perspectives.

And many older, white, and (mostly) male Evangelicals are pushing back…

American Christianity- particularly that of older, white, and (mostly) male Evangelicals- has reached an important crossroads.

How- and how far- are they willing to push back?

Who are they willing to support who promises to shore up their position?

How far back are they willing to look into their idyllic past for inspiration? 

How far to the right is too far right? 

Friday, 14 October 2016

'Reprobate Theology': The Divinity and the Depravity...

If you had to give this US Presidential election a slogan, it really would have to be ‘Yes, This Is Really Happening’…

Look, I won’t bother to catalog in detail here the myriad reasons that I think Trump is singularly unqualified for high office- the hate, the fear, the lies, the conspiracies, the arrogance, the sexual boasting- and go straight to one aspect of the whole thing that has me thinking:

The large number of prominent Evangelicals supporting him.

When news started to filter out some months ago that many influential Evangelical Christian leaders- as well as many suburban, older, white Evangelical voters (this is a very important distinction to make this early in this piece; younger, black, and Latino Evangelicals, who are largely forgotten and ignored when the term ‘Evangelicals’ gets used in a political context, are another matter entirely) were endorsing Trump, many of my Christian friends- particularly the Evangelical ones- were apoplectic. My social media erupted with posts with variations of ‘Why? WHY?! WWHHYYYYYYYYY!!!???’

Me? I wasn’t surprised in the slightest.

Why? Well, I’ll have to preface this by saying the unthinkable: Donald, this has nothing to do with you…

I’ve been cognizant of politics for over 30 years, and in those years, there have been few political realities as enduring as Evangelical Christian America’s dislike for Hilary Clinton.

I don’t mean ‘dislike’ in the sense of the ‘dislike’ one might feel for a politician with whom one disagrees; I mean ‘dislike’ in the same way one ‘dislikes’ smallpox…

Clinton is loathed, loathed on an elemental level; feared for what her presence might mean for their lives and the lives of loved ones; they hope and pray that all possible actions will be taken to stop her before she destroys again.

And like smallpox, she is loathed by many not as a person or a personality, but as an entity, a force; a disembodied, existential threat.

Whenever Clinton ran for President, the majority of suburban, white, older Evangelical Christian America was going to support whoever opposed her.

Last year, Donald Trump- an amoral, a-religious, profane, thrice-married, twice-divorced adulterer and CEO of a bankrupt gambling empire- became that opposition.

Most Evangelicals, of course, initially supported Jeb Bush, Cruz, Rubio, Carson… sometimes for their Evangelical and conservative bona fides, but always, underneath, because of the threat of Clinton. Each of these men in turn succumbed to Trump’s unique and unprecedented brand of insult-fuelled bullying, eventually leaving only Trump…

… and Clinton, the important part of this sentence being the ‘… and Clinton’.

Many observers thought that, for the majority of Evangelicals, support for Trump would be an insurmountable obstacle.

Focus on the Family founder and prominent Evangelical leader James Dobson laid the groundwork for demolishing that obstacle last June, announcing that Trump had recently come to ‘accept a relationship with Christ’ and was now ‘a baby Christian’. He gave no details, even saying he didn’t know when this conversion had occurred, only suggesting that it had been recent.

The right-wing, conservative Evangelical word breathed a collective, almost-audible sigh of relief. Trump was one of them.

What followed was, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating theological developments in the history of American politics, what I’d call ‘Reprobate Theology’.

At the heart of ‘Reprobate Theology’ is a dual commitment to the Christian doctrine of Total Depravity and the Pauline view of salvation. Emerging from Augustine of Hippo, Total Depravity concludes that every person is enslaved to sin, unable to satisfy divine justice in any way other than the unmerited grace of God. Through this grace, accomplished through the death of Christ, according to the Apostle Paul, the utterly depraved human becomes ‘a new creation; old things have passed away; all things are become new (2 Cor. 5:17)’.

So far, so standard Christian theology. But its specific political praxis that ‘Reprobate Theology’ comes into its own.

This praxis is twofold; first, there is the idea that the depravity itself is somehow to be, if not celebrated, then explicitly seen as irrelevant beside God’s ability to use the depraved person to do his will. God’s use of the person effectively takes all concerns, not just of the person’s sinful history, but indirectly their current qualifications, expertise (or lack of either), basic character, and temperament off the table, out of consideration.  

And, ironically, the more depraved the better, it would seem. Many Evangelical Trump supporters immediately began scouring the Biblical text for serial adulterers given a divine pass. They didn’t have to look far. David! Solomon! Samson! Killers, adulterers, warlords, despots… And God used them! Why can’t he use Donald Trump? After all, he’s depraved! I’m a sinner and God uses me! Stop judging! God’s got a plan…

Thus, bad behaviour is not an indication of a person’s character (regardless of everything drummed into my head from 8 years of Baptist High School…) but of the greatness of God’s forgiveness…

Helpfully, ‘Reprobate Theology’ is cyclically reinforcing; ongoing revelations of depravity serve only to strengthen it; the worse you are, the more God is glorified if he uses you. 

Secondly, ‘Reprobate Theology’ explicitly makes all past depravities off limits in terms of measuring competency or adequacy. Now that Trump is a ‘Christian’- a ‘new creation’- his past is off limits. After all, you can’t judge a brother in Christ. And we’re all sinners, sinners saved by grace…

My social media has been filled for two weeks with ‘Reprobate Theology’, and it’s very difficult to argue against. ‘Trump is a serial misogynist’; ‘So was David, and God used him’. ‘He has a bad character’; ‘So did Samson, and God used him’. ‘He’s woefully uninformed on even the basics of foreign policy, diplomacy, economics, trade…’ ‘’God has used the foolish things to confound the wise’…

The misuse of the Biblical text in this way is profoundly disturbing and personally frustrating for me. I care far, far too much for the Biblical text to see it used to excuse racism, misogyny, and stupidity.

Needless to say, ‘Reprobate Theology’ is meaningless because it can only be used in one direction; it uses the Biblical text to insulate Trump from criticism, but not Clinton herself or her husband. Their past indecencies, indiscretions, and alleged crimes are fair game. 

In fact, they are all magnified, as the election itself becomes, not simply an election, but a spiritual battle of Armageddon-sized proportions.

Why? Because Clinton herself has been so dehumanized for so long, she has morphed in the collective consciousness of ‘Reprobate’ theologians into something almost entirely abstract. She is not simply a liar; she is untruth personified. She is not simply incompetent; she is chaos itself. She is not pro-choice; she is death walking around.

And she is certainly not a Christian, a lifetime of Methodism notwithstanding. Clinton’s Christianity is dismissed out of hand with the same finality as Trump’s is accepted.

The logical conclusion of this is radio host and notorious conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s rant on his radio show:  

(Hilary Clinton) is an abject, psychopathic demon from Hell that as soon as she gets into power is going to try to destroy the planet. 

I’m sure of that, and people around her say she’s so dark now, and so evil, and so possessed that they are having nightmares, they’re freaking out. 

Folks, let me just tell you something, and if media wants to go with this, that’s fine. There are dozens of videos and photos of Obama having flies land on him, indoors, at all times of year, and he’ll be next to a hundred people and no one has flies on them. 

Hillary, reportedly, I mean, I was told by people around her that they think she’s demon-possessed, okay? I’m just going to go ahead and say it, okay?

They said that they’re scared. That’s why when I see her when kids are by her, I actually get scared myself, with a child — with that big rubber face and that — I mean this woman is dangerous, ladies and gentleman. I’m telling you, she is a demon. This is Biblical. She’s going to launch a nuclear war. The Russians are scared of her.


Imagine how bad she smells, man? I’m told her and Obama, just stink, stink, stink, stink. You can’t wash that evil off, man. Told there’s a rotten smell around Hillary. I’m not kidding, people say, they say — folks, I’ve been told this by high up, folks. They say listen, Obama and Hillary both smell like sulfur. I never said this because the media will go crazy with it, but I’ve talked to people that are in protective details, they’re scared of her. And they say listen, she’s a frickin’ demon and she stinks and so does Obama. I go, like what? Sulfur. They smell like Hell.

Before you dismiss Jones, understand that his show attracts 2 million listeners a week and Trump, when being interviewed on Jones’s website in December of last year, praised him. ‘Your reputation is amazing’, Trump said, ‘I will not let you down’…

‘Reprobate Theology’ is similar to the idea of ‘Disaster Theology’ I posted about on 21 August- it’s nonsense. It’s unsystematic, illogical, hurtful, hateful, and utterly biblically baseless. Any theological model that requires so many loopholes and exceptions to ‘work’ is simply bad theology- random, pointless, and anti-Christian.

The theological lesson of the 2016 US Presidential race might just end up being that, if the doctrine of Total Depravity is seriously brought to bear upon it, you just might end up supporting a candidate who is totally depraved…