On Taking Religion Seriously

It’s what one might expect from the son an ironmonger, an ironmonger who was also a lay preacher who dabbled in architecture. Of course the son became a humorist. It’s an appropriate response. And that son would be Jerome K. Jerome –now most famous for saying this – “I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”

It’s that British humor thing. One cannot take things too seriously. Jerome died in 1927 – but his spirit lived on in every Monty Python skit and in the work of Douglas Adams and that Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Much of what people take seriously is stuff you can really like, and find fascinating. You can stare at it for hours. But that doesn’t make it any less puzzling.

And of course some of us feel that way about religion. And Los Angeles is a place where you can stare at it for hours. Just down Sunset Boulevard, in Echo Park, you’ll find Angelus Temple – built by the first real celebrity evangelist America encountered, Aimee Semple McPherson – she was really something and she lived well. That’s fascinating enough, but at the other end of Sunset Boulevard, where Sunset Boulevard ends and Malibu begins, you’ll find the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine – Paramahansa Yogananda was cool, and Elvis loved the place, and you can visit Gandhi’s ashes, or at least some of them. But don’t forget the Culver City Hare Krishna Community – across the street from the former MGM Studios, where they filmed the Wizard of Oz. One must consider the varieties of religious experience, like the William James book says. That includes Oz.

But the good stuff is down in Orange County – with the evangelical megachurchs. The most famous of them, the Crystal Cathedral, just went bankrupt – and something’s fishy there – but the others thrive. Just imagine thousands of folks under one roof for one of those Contemporary Christian services – sappy Christian soft-rock music and a lot of hand-waving. That’s the world of Rick Warren and his Saddleback Church (named for the small mountain there) – and Warren wrote The Purpose-Driven Life – his book on how one should live. Fight Satan and join the Republican Party – that will do, although he seems a pleasant enough fellow.

But that’s the world of the Evangelical Right down there – you’re likely as not to find a picture of Jesus on one wall and a picture of George Bush, the younger one, on the other. And there you’ll hear about the Muscular Jesus – Jesus was no wimp, He was a warrior. And you’ll hear about personal responsibility and tough love – when you help another you ruin them, by making them dependent, and that makes Jesus weep. Jesus wants strong self-reliant people, people who don’t whine. And you need to help Him with that. Sermons might revolve around tax policy (you should keep your stuff) or unemployment insurance (it rewards the leeches and fools) or healthcare policy (what’s going on now is evil) – or a defense of torture as righteous and the need to kill terrorists, or those who might be incipient terrorists. One does not love one’s enemies, and of course the meek shall not inherit the earth, as they’re pathetic losers and Jesus, who was a Real Man and not an effeminate wimp, hates them. It is fascinating. You can stare at it for hours.

And of course that’s Tea Party territory. And of course you’ll eventually run across something like this – Steven Grant arguing here that the Tea Party “movement was detailed in the Bible.” You didn’t know that? Well, now you do:

Perhaps you have wondered why you have grown more concerned about what is happening with the United States. You have seen her values criticized and eroded. Now her economy is worsening, and somehow you know you must get involved. Could it be that you have heard God’s voice, urging you to reclaim America? Could it be that He has called, and you are answering? Our society must be changed at every level, and this includes a drastic reformation of our financial system.

Many American citizens treat the current “Tea Party Movement” as a recent innovation, or a novel idea that will disappear in the future. Others tie current thought patterns back to the Boston Tea Party that occurred in 1773. Actually, the thought patterns and mindset of the Tea Party movement finds its origins in a rebellion that occurred more than 3,000 years ago. Believe it or not, this movement was detailed in the Bible.

Today, we are actually a part of the fourth tea party! We can understand this better by studying out the previous three uprisings individually. Today, we will look at each scenario case by case. Together we will see that there was a central issue in each case that was tied to the economic system, unfair taxation, and over-regulation by governmental authorities. The solutions in each case were also the same. The responsibility was given to the people to enact the changes they needed. They were not anarchists, nor were they pacifists. And in looking back, we can discover solutions for our present crisis.

And off he goes. It’s a fascinating read, where key narratives in the Bible are actually about unfair taxation and over-regulation by governmental authorities. God promised Abraham and his descendants financial wealth and national stability, and “they believed God and claimed what He had foretold.” And of course the reign of Solomon “had increased the burdens of government upon the people” –

They had paid higher taxes, and many had been pressed into governmental service, working on various programs (building structures, serving in the ever-larger military force, or serving in Solomon’s court). Now, they were struggling. The forty years of Solomon’s reign had been prosperous, but it also came with a price.

So the tribes had a Tea Party. God was displeased with Solomon and the people took care of his foolishness:

The tribes were asking for less government intrusion, and lower taxes! Rehoboam discussed this request with his cabinet. The seasoned members recommended that the king do as the people wanted, but the younger leaders responded harshly. They suggested Rehoboam increase taxes and control! And Rehoboam agreed with the progressives.

When the ten tribes heard Rehoboam’s response, they were furious. They were being taxed without representation. The government had ceased to walk in God’s ways, and was oppressing the people. It served only itself! What was their response? Rebellion! The ten tribes chose Jeroboam to be their king, installing a new government and forming a new nation in the process.

Well, that’s one way of seeing it. And the second Tea Party was Jesus driving the money-changers from the temple, with a whip no less. And everyone knows the third Tea Party, as it happened here:

The descendents of the Israelite tribes migrated to the colonies, they brought with them a sense of justice that pervaded all areas of life, including the financial realm. Those “common farmers” were well-versed in literature, especially the Holy Bible and Blackstone’s Commentaries on English Common Law. So when the British decided to oppress the people through unfair taxation, they had seen enough.

And they dumped that tea in Boston Harbor, as they were, of course, the direct descendents of the Israelite tribes, as everyone knows. Fascinating, isn’t it?

And PZ Myers just carries it forward:

Yeah, this is the fourth Tea Party movement: the first was after the death of Solomon, the second was led by Jesus Christ himself, the third was the Boston event, and the fourth was begun by a ranting overprivileged ass on the Chicago stock exchange, which makes Rick Santelli some kind of prophet, apparently.

And, from the UK, Tony Woodlief wonders if Christianity in the West may have finally jumped the shark – and that has to do with Christians in Britain establishing a “Not Ashamed” campaign – events like schoolgirls being threatened with expulsion for wearing purity rings and British Airways employees getting fired for wearing crosses drives them crazy. Everyone is always picking on Christians. The British Humanist Association argues long and hard that this is nonsense. Some Brits do lose their sense of humor in the face of too much nonsense.

The Poles are more sensible:

Poland is still an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation, still conservative and still religious, especially when compared with its European neighbors. But supporters and critics of the Roman Catholic Church all acknowledge that the society is changing. They agree that church representatives in Poland have lost authority and credibility, and that much of the population is moving toward a more secular view of life, one with a greater separation between church and state, and a rejection of church mandates on individual morality.

“We are considered the European museum of Catholicism, but let me tell you we are no longer,” said Szymon Holownia, program director for Religia TV, a relatively new station that aims to convince Poles that faith can and should be relevant in modern life with programs like a cooking show led by a nun. “The relationship between faith and state is changing; it is changing dramatically in Poland,” Mr. Holownia said. “It is really huge.”

“Twenty years of freedom and religion is evaporating,” he said. “This is the crisis of Christianity in Poland.”

In the face of too much nonsense that can happen – you have that population moving toward a secular view of life, with a greater separation between church and state, and a rejection of mandates on individual morality. But we’re moving the other way.

Steve Benen in this item discusses the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, this one on the role of religion in government:

Kennedy, seeking to become the nation’s first Roman Catholic president, eloquently explained the value of First Amendment principles. It seems foolish a half-century later, but there were widespread fears in 1960 that JFK would somehow be subservient to the pope. It led Kennedy to proclaim, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President – should he be Catholic – how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.”

He went on to note that he was the target of “the finger of suspicion” at the time, but “tomorrow it may be you – until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril.”

The remarks helped set a welcome, timeless standard for religion, government, and politics that responsible figures in both parties could gladly embrace.

But no more – as Benen notes that Rick Santorum has delivered his own speech insisting that Kennedy had it backwards. And it seems Sarah Palin also argues that in her new book:

As the conspicuously unintelligent television personality sees it, JFK was wrong – religion and government need not be separate, there’s nothing wrong with forcing American taxpayers to support ministries they may disagree with, and it was incumbent on Kennedy, not to vow governmental neutrality on matters of faith, but to “tell the country how his faith had enriched him.”

And Benen points to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend tearing Palin’s argument to shreds with, among other things, this:

Palin, for her part, argues that “morality itself cannot be sustained without the support of religious beliefs.” That statement amounts to a wholesale attack on countless Americans, and no study or reasonable argument I have seen or heard would support such a blanket condemnation. For a person who claims to admire Lincoln, Palin curiously ignores his injunction that Americans, even those engaged in a Civil War, show “malice toward none, with charity for all.”

And Benen adds this:

By some estimates as many as 15% of Americans are either atheists, agnostics, or those who have spiritual beliefs but don’t consider themselves religious. As far as the easily-confused former half-term governor is concerned, this 15% – tens of millions of Americans who have families, work hard, play by the rules – are literally incapable of morality.

That’s astounding.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend says that Palin “fails to understand the genius of our nation.” And Benen agrees. But it’s fascinating to watch.

And there’s Bill O’Reilly with this piece at Townhall – “Keep Christ in Unemployment.” It’s what you hear at the megachurches out here:

America remains the land of opportunity, but you have to work for it. The unemployment rate for college graduates is 5 percent. For high-school dropouts, it is 16 percent. Personal responsibility is usually the driving force behind success. But there are millions of Americans who are not responsible, and the cold truth is that the rest of us cannot afford to support them.

Every fair-minded person should support government safety nets for people who need assistance through no fault of their own. But guys like McDermott don’t make distinctions like that. For them, the baby Jesus wants us to “provide” no matter what the circumstance. But being a Christian, I know that while Jesus promoted charity at the highest level, he was not self-destructive.

The Lord helps those who help themselves. Does he not?

But Andrew Sullivan begs to differ:

No, actually. The radicalism of Jesus’ message is precisely in his endorsement of giving – regardless of the worth of the recipient.

And Sullivan refers to that pesky Sermon on the Mount and adds this:

Notice any conditions in there about being a responsible citizen if you want charity? And that’s the point of Christianity, and a pretty central one at that. God’s mercy is unconditional; so should the mercy and generosity of Christians. Remember – Christians are required to love not just our neighbors or our friends or our families – but our enemies. We are asked to love Osama bin Laden. The Prodigal Son gets more than the loyal one, remember? The rich young man – who was also devout and worthy – was told that he had to give away everything he owned to enter the kingdom of heaven. He was not told to whom. Jesus himself urged us not to worry about material possessions; and he lived as a vagrant, with no source of income. The early Christians were told to seek the mercy and generosity of others in their peregrinations; they were to take as much care of themselves as the lilies in the field. Give us this day our daily bread. Not enough even for tomorrow.

And Sullivan quickly adds that the Sermon on the Mount was not some sort of socialist manifesto:

This does not equal an endorsement of the welfare state. It’s an entirely different argument how one tries to govern a fallen world. But it does equal a very clear and unsettling attack on the kind of fairness O’Reilly supports.

There’s a point to O’Reilly’s argument. But it isn’t a Christian point. The point of Christianity is, in many ways, its irresponsibility – and its injustice by any actual Fox News standards.

And there’s a reason some of us, like Jerome and work, just watch religion. You gotta love it. And it’s fascinating. But let others take it seriously. There’s taking care of your family and friends, and being decent and kind and courteous, as far as you can manage that, and pitching in so everyone gets a fair shake – but beyond that, in the realm of religion, it’s probably best just to watch from the outside.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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