Adaptive Christianity

Pope Francis will address a joint session of Congress on September 24, the first time the head of the Roman Catholic Church has ever done that. House Speaker John Boehner, the Republican from Ohio, himself a Catholic, invited him, without thinking things through. Sure, the Catholic Church has always opposed abortion, as no more than murder, and contraception too – so the Church was a useful ally in the Republican efforts to get rid of Obamacare. But this new Pope has issued an encyclical on global warming – it’s real and it’s every Christian’s moral duty to do something about it. God does not approve of us ruining the planet, for profit. He put a lot of work into it. So this is a difficulty for Republicans. In fact, the new Pope has been saying it’s time to ease up on obsessing about abortion and contraception, and on demonizing gays, and on deciding who’s got the doctrine just right and who should be shunned and ridiculed for not being angry enough about this minor doctrinal issue or that. There are more important things, or so the new Pope has said:

Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

Oh shit! This guy is attacking everything the Republicans have been saying for generations. Sure, Catholic social theory always demanded universal healthcare, but this goes even further:

How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

This guy sounds like Obama, particularly since he sees a need for state action, not just vague trust in the big-heartedness of the powerful. He’s all for economic regulation and democratic supervision of the capitalist system, where the people, in general, get to curb the actions of the rich few:

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.

Yep, the new Pope recommends vigilance for the common good, perhaps as with Dodd-Frank and the new Consumer Protection Bureau, which the Republicans have done their best to destroy, but there is such a thing as common decency, and he’s not seeing a whole lot of that:

In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.

The Pope thinks we should deify the Deity, not the market. There’s only one Invisible Hand, and it’s not the one Adam Smith was talking about. Talk of the highly moral Makers versus the lazy immoral Takers doesn’t impress him either. This guy is coming to Washington to say the unthinkable – Jesus was not a Republican – and this should be interesting. For at least thirty years, give or take, Americans have been told that He was. Most Americans shrugged – whatever. This was a given. Democrats talked about solving problems. Republicans asked what Jesus would do. So what else is new?

That’s not to say there weren’t some difficult moments. In 2010, Bill O’Reilly reminded all Americans that it says right there in the Bible that “the Lord helps those who help themselves” – so Jesus really thought stuff like unemployment insurance and welfare and food stamps and all the rest were immoral, because charity creates a “moral hazard” for those who receive it. That would mean that when Jesus said that “the poor are always with us” it’s obvious that He was simply exasperated with such losers, who can’t ever seem to get their act together.

That devastating quote from the Bible that O’Reilly thought he found caused quite a stir – because there are no such words in the Bible. Stephen Colbert reminded O’Reilly that Bill was actually quoting Ben Franklin. In subsequent interviews, O’Reilly sputtered that that’s what was clearly implied in the Bible, if you thought about it. O’Reilly also protested that he was a fine Irish lad, who had gone to Catholic schools all his life, and the nuns had taught him that kindness, which the Church calls Charity, can ruin everything.

This was not Bill O’Reilly’s finest moment, but the moment passed. Equilibrium was restored. Americans knew what they knew. Democrats were the practical secular people, talking about fairness and common decency and common sense. They don’t talk about God. We can solve this stuff. Republicans were the highly moral people, talking about God’s wrath, and about what must be done because God says so. Sometimes that means disregarding fairness and common decency and common sense, because there are certain people – gays and the poor and the unlucky – who must be shunned and shamed and marginalized. Yes, that’s unfair. So be it.

Fine – Jesus was a Republican once again and we can expect the Republicans to scold the Pope in late September – with sad regret of course. But that doesn’t solve the current problem, which Frank Bruni explains here:

Let me get this straight. If I want the admiration and blessings of the most flamboyant, judgmental Christians in America, I should marry three times, do a queasy-making amount of sexual boasting, verbally degrade women, talk trash about pretty much everyone else while I’m at it, encourage gamblers to hemorrhage their savings in casinos bearing my name and crow incessantly about how much money I’ve amassed?

Well, this seems to work for Donald Trump:

Polls show him to be the preferred candidate among not just all Republican voters but also the party’s vocal evangelical subset. He’s more beloved than Mike Huckabee, a former evangelical pastor, or Ted Cruz, an evangelical pastor’s son, or Scott Walker, who said during the recent Republican debate: “It’s only by the blood of Jesus Christ that I’ve been redeemed.”

Scott Walker is getting a bit desperate these days but Bruni sees “the selective and incoherent religiosity” of this crowd:

What’s different and fascinating about the Trump worship is that he doesn’t even try that hard for a righteous facade – for Potemkin piety. Sure, he speaks of enthusiastic churchgoing, and he’s careful to curse Planned Parenthood and to insist that matrimony be reserved for heterosexuals as demonstrably inept at it as he is.

But beyond that? He just about runs the table on the seven deadly sins. He personifies greed, embodies pride, he radiates lust. Wrath is covered by his anti-immigrant, anti-“losers” rants, and if we interpret gluttony to include big buildings and not just Big Macs, he’s a glutton through and through. That leaves envy and sloth. I’m betting that he harbors plenty of the former, though I’ll concede that he exhibits none of the latter.

But they love him anyway, and Bruni is puzzled:

Maybe it’s Trump’s jingoism they adore. They venerated Ronald Reagan though he’d divorced, remarried and spent much of his career in the godless clutch of Hollywood.

Maybe their fealty to Trump is payback for his donations to conservative religious groups.

Or maybe his pompadour has mesmerized them. It could, in the right wind, be mistaken for a halo.

I’m grasping at straws, because there’s no sense in the fact that many of the people who most frequently espouse the Christian spirit then proceed to vilify immigrants, demonize minorities and line up behind a candidate who’s a one-man masterclass in such misanthropy.

From Trump’s Twitter account gushes an endless stream of un-Christian rudeness, and he was at it again on Monday night, retweeting someone else’s denigration of Kelly as a “bimbo.” Shouldn’t he be turning the other cheek?

Bruni doesn’t get it:

I must not be watching the same campaign that his evangelical fans are, because I don’t see someone interested in serving God. I see someone interested in being God.

Heather Parton at Salon is less flippant:

In South Carolina this week, Trump explained that evangelicals love him, and he loves them. And he loves the Bible more than anything, even his own book, “The Art of the Deal,” which he loves very, very much. He declined to identify his favorite Bible passages, because he says the Bible is so intensely personal to him, but he was more forthcoming awhile back when pollster Frank Luntz asked him if he’d ever asked God for forgiveness.

“I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t…” Trump said. “When I drink my little wine – which is about the only wine I drink – and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed. I think in terms of ‘let’s go on and let’s make it right.'”

Who needs God’s forgiveness? He has work to do.

Even that didn’t turn the evangelicals away, but something else may be going on here:

According to writer Amy Sullivan, who covers the religion beat, evangelicals are not that different from other Republicans, in that they are perpetually let down and disappointed by their leaders, but more than anything are just looking for a winner after eight years of living in a liberal horror movie. Apparently, they are just as mad as hell as the rest of the GOP base and Lord knows, Trump is the one who’s most effectively channeling that rage.

But this article in The Daily Beast, by Betsy Woodruff, shows that Trump has surprisingly been cultivating the religious right for several years, making substantial donations to various Christian organizations and reaching out to Christian leaders and groups. All the way back in 2012, he spoke at Liberty University, where Jerry Falwell Jr. called him “one of the great visionaries of our time” and praised him for his leadership and political skills in “singlehandedly forcing President Obama to release his birth certificate.”

Parton can only offer this:

The evangelicals are very upset with the status quo and like the fact that Trump isn’t taking any guff from the GOP establishment. And rather than thinking he might be wobbly on the issues they care about, they seem to be impressed with the only kind of evolution they believe in: the evolution from pro-choice to pro-life, which Trump has embraced with the fervor of the recently converted. This stands in sharp contrast with their concerns about Scott Walker, who has been a committed evangelical his entire life and yet has been put on notice by the leadership for having very slightly deviated from approved religious-right rhetoric.

And there’s another possible factor:

They actually appreciate it when someone respects their power enough to pander to them and pretend that they believe something they don’t. Perhaps the conservative Christians in particular see religious hypocrisy in terms of the old cliché that it’s “the tribute vice pays to virtue,” and feel that a blatant phony like Trump might actually be more likely to follow through on his promises to them, whereas someone like Walker took them for granted.

And there’s this:

Trump announced yesterday in South Carolina that he’s going to partner with Cruz on a big event in Washington next month to stop the Iran nuclear agreement. This agreement is loathed by virtually all Republicans for a variety of reasons, but the Christian right hates it because they believe it is bad for Israel, which is central to their political involvement.

Israel is Jesus Land after all, but Parton is worried:

It always feels as though Trump is winging it, running off at the mouth, not knowing what he’s going to say and basically just riding the wave without any idea where it’s going to crash. What this religious outreach shows, though, is that Trump has been strategizing this presidential run much more consciously than perhaps anyone realized. It’s hard to know what’s more disconcerting – that Trump is winning because he’s crazy, or that he’s winning because he’s crazy like a fox.

As for winging it, there’s Trump’s interview with Mark Halperin and John Heilemann:

I’m wondering what one or two of your most favorite Bible verses are and why.

Well, I wouldn’t want to get into it because to me that’s very personal. You know, when I talk about the Bible it’s very personal. So I don’t want to get into verses, I don’t want to get into—the Bible means a lot to me, but I don’t want to get into specifics.

Even to cite a verse that you like?

No, I don’t want to do that.

Are you an Old Testament guy or a New Testament guy?

Uh, probably… equal. I think it’s just an incredible… the whole Bible is an incredible… I joke… very much so. They always hold up The Art of the Deal, I say it’s my second favorite book of all time. But, uh, I just think the Bible is just something very special.

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum sees this:

We’ve seen this shtick from Trump before, of course. He’s stunningly ignorant, and routinely refuses to answer whenever someone asks about a factual detail more than an inch below the surface. Needless to say, he refuses because he doesn’t know, but he always pretends it’s for some other reason. “I don’t want to insult anyone by naming names,” he’ll say, as if this isn’t his entire stock in trade. Or, in this case, “It’s personal,” as if he’s a guy who leads a deep personal life that he never talks about.

The interesting thing is that this shtick also shows how lazy he is. It’s been evident for several days that someone was eventually going to ask him for his favorite Bible verse, but he couldn’t be bothered to bone up even a little bit in order to have one on tap. … Even when he says something that’s going to raise obvious questions the next day, he never bothers to learn anything about the subject. I guess he figures he’s got people for that.

Of course, there is an advantage to handling things this way. By shutting down the Bible talk completely, he guarantees he’ll never have to talk about it again.

That works. This doesn’t work:

Donald Trump – who says the Bible is his favorite book but is unwilling to cite his favorite verses – is now facing scrutiny for his church-going record. Marble Collegiate Church, a church in Manhattan which Trump has claimed he attends, told CNN that Trump is “not an active member.”

Earlier this week, when Trump was asked by reporters about his religious practices, he said, “I’ve just had great experiences at church, whether it is Sunday school or whatever it may be, but now I go to Marble Collegiate Church.”

He also said he was “Presbyterian Protestant.” The denomination of Marble Collegiate Church is a Reformed Church in America, according to CNN.

“Donald Trump has had a longstanding history with Marble Collegiate Church, where his parents were active members for years and one of his children was baptized. However, as he indicates, he is a Presbyterian, and is not an active member of Marble,” the church’s statement to CNN said.

They may forgive him that, and at the New Republic, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig sees this:

Everything that might register as an obvious lack of affinity with evangelical values – his inability to name a favorite Bible verse, his open Christmas-and-Easter attendance patterns, his ranking of the Bible as only a smidgen better than his own book – might be coming off as a sight better than the same old GOP pitch. Before joining his campaign, Trump’s national co-chairman Sam Clovis wrote in an email that “Trump left him with questions about Trump’s moral center and his foundational beliefs” – adding that Trump’s “comments reveal no foundation in Christ, which is a big deal.'” And it might be, but Trump is brazenly straightforward about the whole affair, routinely supplying very little religious window dressing for what is primarily a revanchist campaign against the un-American, the un-patriotic, and the effeminate.

Meanwhile, Trump’s competitors for evangelical attention have compromised their credibility with Christian voters. In September of last year, Ted Cruz inexplicably took pot shots at Middle Eastern Christians gathered to protest violence against their countrymen because, in Cruz’s view, they were not sufficiently supportive of Israel. Mike Huckabee has busied himself making off-color remarks about the Holocaust and ingratiating himself in the most public way possible with the Duggar family, now marred by a child sex abuse cover-up scandal along with confessions of infidelity. Trump, for all his filthy dealings, has at least never painted his deeds with a veneer of Christian righteousness.

Trump never gets specific, which keeps him out of trouble, and he gets the big picture:

He has been a thoroughgoing antagonist of President Obama, who is in some evangelical imaginations the anti-Christ; he has a certain machismo, which appeals to evangelicals disgruntled with the ‘feminized’ state of our culture; he’s somehow fused issues of religious liberty in America (think lawsuits over wedding cakes) with issues of religious persecution abroad (think ISIS slaughtering Christians and Yazidis).

And Bruenig offers this:

If I had to surmise which subset of the evangelical category Trump has struck a chord with, I would guess it would be that intransigent Pat Robertson crowd, the evangelicals who are perpetually dismayed with the Republican establishment Trump is now confounding. Does this mean they won’t fall in line when the eventual Republican nominee is chosen? Probably not – but between then and now there is plenty of time for cathartic polling.

These are, then, political power struggles, informed by religion. There’s actually very little theology involved. That was settled long ago – Jesus was a Republican. Maybe he wasn’t, but He was adapted to their purposes, or adopted as a mascot – and that means Trump will do just fine here. He understands power politics, even if he’s a bit hazy on theology. The only question now is how these people will handle Pope Francis’ little chat with America in late September. Perhaps they’ll sic Donald Trump on him. The two of them can discuss what’s moral and what’s not. And then Donald Trump can turn to Pope Francis and say “You’re fired!”

It could happen.

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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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One Response to Adaptive Christianity

  1. Rick says:

    And now for something completely different: A Defense of Donald Trump’s Religion.

    Not only is he being mocked for not spouting Bible verses — don’t we usually fault all those holier-than-thou people who do quote the Bible from memory? — but also for claiming he attends Marble Collegiate Church, while self-identifying as a “Presbyterian” — which I guess is supposed to suggest that he’s a hypocrite.

    I hate to be too nit-picky about people being too nit-picky, but there’s really that big a difference between those two? Here’s what my computer’s dictionary says about Presbyterianism:

    Presbyterianism was first introduced in Geneva in 1541 under John Calvin, in the belief that it best represented the pattern of the early church. There are now many Presbyterian Churches (often called Reformed Churches) worldwide, notably in the Netherlands and Scotland and in countries with which they have historic links (including the U.S. and Northern Ireland).

    And here’s what Wikipedia says about Manhattan’s Marble Collegiate Church:

    The church congregation was founded in 1628 as the Collegiate Reformed Protestant Dutch Church and was affiliated with the Dutch Reformed Church, a Calvinist church in the Netherlands.

    Notice that Calvin connection? These two coulda been twins, separated at birth.

    It should also be noted that Jackie Kennedy, without any such controversy, enrolled her son, John Jr., in the Collegiate School, the Marble Collegiate Church’s affiliated prep school on New York’s West 77th street, even though they both were, to the best of my knowledge, not technically Dutch Reform Protestants.

    I was baptized in the mid-1940s in the Congregational church on Northern Boulevard in Manhasset, Long Island (Manhasset, by the way, I think is still Bill O’Reilly’s hometown), which I guess made me a tiny little devout Congregationalist, although I remember over the years my family attending plenty of churches of other protestant denominations, including Methodist and Lutheran and Presbyterian. In fact, living in the New York City area gave us a chance to attend that same Marble Collegiate Church on 5th Avenue, mostly just to see and hear its minister, my dad’s hero, Norman Vincent Peale, of “Power of Positive Thinking” fame — a jolly nice man, I thought, but who said things that made no sense to me. And for one semester of my 5th grade, I was sent to a “high” Episcopal school, which probably had the effect of helping to finally turn me into an agnostic, which I remain to this day.

    But even as an agnostic, I still believe in the freedom of religious belief, which I figure covers not only Lutherans who didn’t want to be forced into being Catholics, or the other way around, but also atheists and agnostics who didn’t want to be Christians — and yes, also the other way around. And a part of this belief is respecting boundaries: Unless someone’s calling your faith into question, don’t go questioning his. Sort of like the Golden Rule.

    I guess what annoys me about the religiosity of politicians is not only their habit of pushing it in our faces, but also their insistence that everyone share their belief system. At this point, I don’t see Trump doing this, especially not to the extent that other Republicans do, and so I can’t — at least not yet — fault him for how he’s using religion in his campaign.

    This, of course, should not be interpreted as an endorsement of Donald Trump, who’s personal closely-held religious beliefs I think need to be respected by all of us, even as, in most other matters, he is still a stinking pile of shit.

    Rick

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