Tuesday, November 30, 2004


During the 2000 presidential campaign, at one of the Republican primary debates, the candidates were asked to name the philosopher they most admired. George W. Bush famously said, “Jesus Christ. Because he changed my heart.” Some pundits found this nutty –– more a sign that Bush didn’t know any philosophers (he himself has admitted that he never ever reads books) than that he had thoughtfully considered the philosophy of The Gospels. Four years later another reading of that answer seems the most likely – namely, that it was a fairly calculated way for George Bush to communicate a plain and simple faith to Christian voters, particularly (but by no means exclusively) to those voters known collectively as “the Christian Right.”

The Christian Right is a group whose political time, energy and capital are spent overwhelming on three issues: 1) fighting against the right of women to have abortions; 2) fighting to have Constitutional authority for prayer and the presentation of religious symbols in public schools and other public and governmental spaces, while garnering federal assistance for religious institutions via so-called “faith-based initiatives”; and 3) fighting against the “normalization” of homosexuality – the idea that homosexuality is neither deviant nor sinful but is, rather, a normal (if comparatively infrequent) sexual orientation which has no bearing whatsoever on one’s ability to be a good child, parent or citizen. This includes fighting against the rights of homosexuals not to be fired from their jobs or assaulted or kept from adopting children or kept from teaching in public schools or married by a Justice of the Peace in a civil ceremony.

That’s it. That’s the Big Three of religious conservatism, from the Pope to Pat Robertson. Anyone who’s been attending mass at a conservative Catholic parish for a while or watching The 700 Club knows this to be the case. There is one fellow-traveler with the Big Three, however, which is not specifically religious but tends to be packaged with them – that is, the tax cut. Of course it wouldn’t do to suggest that multi-millionaires like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell want a tax cut for the same reason other multi-millionaires do (for those napping at home, it’s because they want more money to accrue consumer goods and earthly power); so, instead, the argument runs like this: it is immoral for you to give money in the form of taxes to a government that supports abortion and won’t let your kids pray in their public school. Of course, you have to give them some to keep out of jail, but the less the better. Thus, among some members of the Religious Right, MONEY is discussed with a quasi-religious reverence.

Why have we Americans come to equate this four point agenda with Christianity? When I see Jerry Falwell (as I did on Thanksgiving Day) actually selling a financial investment plan on TV to his flock and using the language of “faith” to do it, I am reminded of Jesus’s famous proviso,

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.” (Luke 20:46-47)

Makes you think twice about wanting to say a prayer out loud in a public place like a school, doesn’t it?

My message today is simply this: the idea that cultural conservatives could be followers of Jesus Christ is LAUGHABLE – or would be if these people hadn’t used Christ’s name to promote their profoundly anti-democratic and, indeed, anti-Christian agenda. When they did this to apologize for – and even promote! – slavery in the “red states,” pro-democracy Christians all over the U.S. and the world seized the initiative and hollered from the rooftops that these so-called Christian slave-owners were, in the most wretched and disgusting way, anathema to everything Jesus stood for. As Emerson asked in 1841 (and continually in the years preceding the Civil War), “in Christendom where is the Christian?”

Today, however, when “conservative Christians” put the weight of their institutions behind George W. Bush’s anti-democratic agenda, we just shrug. We call them “crazy Christians” as if following the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament actually lead in some obvious way to violent military interventions abroad, massive tax cuts for the wealthiest people in the world, and a total faith in a *human being* leading a secular nation into a foreign war while refusing to admit he has made a single mistake during his tenure. I support unequivocally the right of anyone and everyone to neither read nor follow the Christian Gospels – democracy depends on this right, among others. But more and more I have come to see the choice to concede those Gospels to cultural conservatives (a choice accelerated by the assassination of the last great Christian in American public life, Martin Luther King, Jr.) as a deeply lazy and boneheaded decision.

So, I asked myself a question: where would I begin if I were to explain that American conservatism has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus. Then I decided to email my friend John Parker. John’s dad was a Seventh Day Adventist, his mom a Methodist. He reads Martin Luther in the original German, reads Latin and Greek, and knows a thing or two about the Gospels. I asked John the same question I had asked myself. And he responded with the following passages and commentary.

1) "Repent, for the Kingdom is at hand!" (Mt 3.2, 4.17; Mk. 1.15)

The Lord commands his followers to admit their mistakes. Only in this way can they prepare for the Armageddon that their mistakes are about to bring upon us. Change course! The word of the Lord.
It's worth noting, in connection to this verse, the supreme irony of a self-proclaimed born-again convert touting *steadfastness* as his greatest virtue and branding any change of opinion in his opponents as a sign of weakness. Save for his own "flip-flopping" W would still be the cocaine-snorting booze hound he used to be. On the other hand, if the mantra of AA is any indication, once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. Not even Jesus can change that. So that probably W really *is* as steadfast as he proclaims, and therefore *remains* a cocaine-snorting booze hound, if not at the level of actual substance abuse, then at the level of personality, which is, in this case, a very low level indeed; in fact, the most craven, self-destructive, adolescent, vaguely Oedipal recklessness to seize global power since, perhaps, Christ's own emperors, Caligula and Nero.
Speaking of whom....

2) Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God what
is God's (Mt. 22.21; Mk 12.17; Lk 20.25)

Is it good to pay taxes? The Lord commands that you pay your taxes. He does not tell his disciples that “it’s their money;” he does not advocate tax cuts. On the contrary. He commands that you give your wealth to the state, on the grounds that the state has made your wealth possible in the first place: that is why money has other people’s pictures on it, and not yours. Jesus specifically *befriended* tax-collectors. It was a tax collector who wrote the Gospel according to Matthew.
The same verse clearly commends the radical separation of Church and State. There is the Kingdom of God, on the one hand, and the regular old kingdom on the other, and till the former should supercede the latter at the end-time of history, the secular kingdom remains secular and the Kingdom of God remains, in effect, non-existent. It is your religious duty to support the secular kingdom with taxes.
In fact....

3) “Sell all you have, and distribute unto the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven....how hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Lk. 18.22-5; Mt. 19.21; Mk. 10.23)
This is why you have to pay capital gains tax when you sell all the stock you have: in order as to *distribute unto the poor*. Period. Anyone who receives undue tax breaks and does not aid the secular state in distributing unto the poor WILL NOT GET INTO HEAVEN! The word of the Lord, people!

4) "And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and distributed them to all men, as every man had need" (Acts 2.44-5).
The early church, as one learns from this verse, was a communist organization. Each according to need, was their motto. There follows an instructive anecdote about a man named Ananias and his wife Sapphira, both of whom followed the conservative doctrine of hoarding their own while profiting from the collective. For this they are openly denounced by Peter, then fall down instantly and GIVE UP THE GHOST! True! (Acts. 5.5, 10).

So, to recap:
1) Admit mistake and change course, for the kingdom is at hand!
2) Until the kingdom actually comes, Pay Taxes to the Kingdom that's already here.
3) Redistribute wealth.
4) Redistribute wealth or DIE!

Among other things, the passages John quoted put the lie to the whole notion of Christian Fundamentalists “reading the Bible literally.” Are fundamentalist Bush supporters reading these passages literally? Oh really? I imagine one could do a whole lot of interpretive gymnastics with these passages and still manage to end up as a “Christian” holding on to your money. But a “fundamentalist”? Uh-uh. I give you Matthew 6.24: “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Period. (By the way, the same goes for the so-called “strict constructionist” judges and the U.S. Constitution.) As always, John had gotten me thinking. There seemed to be an endless number of directions I could pursue. I could note, for instance, that Jesus talks endlessly (endlessly!) in the Gospels about the evils of economic greed, while he has nothing (not one single thing!) to say about homosexuality. I could meditate on cultural conservatives’ obsessive return to selectively chosen rules and restrictions from the Old Testament books of law (Leviticus, Deuteronomy, etc) and answer them using Paul’s complex meditation on Judaic law in his letter to the Galatians (where he writes that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law” and “now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian” (3.13, 25). Hopefully I’ll get to these and much more down the road.

For now I think it’s important to deal with the Iraq War. I was disgusted to learn from one of my wonderful aunts at Thanksgiving that she had received a Catholic voter guide at Mass before the election which listed these five “non-negotiable issues”: abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and homosexual marriage.

How in the world did we get to this point? THESE are the five? Where is the torturing of prisoners? Not sufficiently in the news? Did the Church miss the Bush memo authorizing it? It was written by incoming Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. Is torture not non-negotiable? Is the decision to hoard wealth while eight million uninsured American children go without proper healthcare not non-negotiable? Not worth putting in the pamphlet? Is the Iraq War – where 1252 American soldiers and tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians have been killed – a morally negotiable war? The very idea of this sickens me. Of course I’m not totally surprised by a Catholic Church which once turned a blind eye to the evildoings of Hitler and Mussolini, but I respond with revulsion nonetheless. And in any event it is time that we stopped letting rightwing so-called Christians apologize for such a war.

It is absolutely, unequivocally clear that Jesus would have died on the cross a thousand times before he uttered a single kind or even ambiguous word for the Iraq War. If the Gospels are any indication, he would have condemned it in the strongest possible terms and called on its architects to repent before they were cast into the bowels of hell. Here’s Jesus talking about violence and retaliation during his Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Mt 5.38-45).

Could this be any more clear? Iraq War? Puh-lease! And if there was any doubt that Jesus might not practice what he preaches, here is his reaction – as described in Luke and Matthew – the only time one of his followers ever attempts to violently defend him:

LK 22.49-51: When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, "Lord, should we strike with the sword?" Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, "No more of this!" And he touched his ear and healed him.

MT 26.51-52: Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

I don’t know that it has ever been stated any better.

It is your right to support George W. Bush. But if you do, for God’s sake, stop calling yourself a Christian, it’s embarrassing.

On the other hand, there are many reasons besides Christian service to oppose this administration. But if you are truly a follower of Jesus, take to the streets immediately in protest.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the salvage effort, Mike. I always forget what a left-wing, commie, hippie, pinko girly-man Jesus was. Thank God for left-wing, commie, hippie pinko girly-men! For they will indeed inherit the earth (if not the House, the Senate, or the White House).

No time for a real comment. But for more on "the moral minority" of religious lefties, check out The Sojourners, at www.sojo.net, a group who effectively translate their Christian faith into a progressive agenda on human rights, the economy, the arts, etc. Also, *Hebe* magazine has an excellent essay about the religious left in their November issue (along with a great article about The Fiery Furnaces, the best pop band out there today).


November 30, 2004 at 10:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post about the hypocrisy of the so-called 'religious right'. It isn't Christian, and thanks for saying it.

This church needs a REVIVAL!!!

December 1, 2004 at 1:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Michael,

*is proud to have you as a cousin and applauds*


December 1, 2004 at 6:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was brilliantly said, sir. Brilliant

December 3, 2004 at 2:05 AM  
Blogger Jim Lemire said...

It amazes me how often one hears about the so-called separation of church and state in the U.S. - it's a bunch of crap. All the analysis I heard after the election revolved around how the Democrats lost because they are out of touch with the cultural foundation of America - that is, they lost a "cultural war" - and by 'cultural' you really have to read 'religious'. "Family values" (read homophobia, anti-choice) is the soap-box of Republicans, especially the Religious Right. What gets me most is the attack on homosexuality - can you name one SECULAR reason given against homosexuality? The only reasons given behind banning same-sex marriages are relilgious in nature - "to protect the SANCTITY of marriage". How can we honestly talk about a separation of church and state? If this separation were an actuality the ban on same-sex marriages should never be an issue - religious arguments should not be allowed, nevermind given government support. Perhaps Democrats/liberals need to better understand this. Perhaps they need to stop ignoring the religious arguments or dismissing them by citing "separation". Perhaps we need to do a better job of *dismantling* the religious arguments like Mike and John have started here. The longer we continue to delude ourselves about the separate existence of church and state the longer we will continue to lose the "cultural war". Fight fire with fire.

December 4, 2004 at 2:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sir, I admire your well written essays. It seems that for you "the gloves are off". That is as it should be. Yet, call them what you will, these people will still be a threat to a functioning society. The hordes of Ragnarok are self-selctied people that have rejected leaving their small towns for the corrupt city. They reject the science and the frame of mind that has built the prosperity of the modern world, yet they want the fruits of that world to be delivered to them in the form of various government handouts.

They practice the religion of agriculturalists in an time when industrial life is evolving into something new. Their spirituality is now twice removed from the vital edge of society. I can no longer muster a wane smile about their hypocrisy, its too dangerous.

Paul Goodman

December 13, 2004 at 4:49 PM  
Blogger Q said...

Apparently my piece has contributed to this discussion:


January 13, 2005 at 12:21 PM  

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