15 May 2015

Why defend religion? Let Jeb explain

Liberty University is part of the pilgrimage trail for Republican presidential aspirants. Ted Cruz opened his campaign there a little while ago, in a way some of the students resented. Last weekend Jeb Bush went there to burnish his Christianist credentials. More so even than Cruz, the former Florida governor of the royal line presented himself as a defender of the faith. He specifically defended Christianity against an alleged attack campaign by progressives, backed by the power of the Obama administration. He described a kind of persecution of the humble folks who defy government mandates or dictates as a matter of conscience. These people, Bush said, have been misrepresented by their oppressors.

How strange, in our own time, to hear Christianity spoken of as some sort of backward and oppressive force.  Outside [Liberty University], it’s a depressing fact that when some people think of Christianity and of Judeo-Christian values, they think of something static, narrow, and outdated.  We can take this as unfair criticism, as it typically is, or we can take it as further challenge to show in our lives the most dynamic, inclusive, and joyful message that ever came into the world.

The former governor went on to defend Christianists' right of conscience without ever mentioning that recently guaranteed right of theirs, the exercise of which angers progressives the most.  Bush was happy to portray Christians as compassionate, charitable, and pacific, and even willing to endorse openly their opposition to abortion ("Wherever there is a child waiting to be born, we say choose life, and we say it with love."), but not once in the transcript submitted to the news media in advance does he affirm, as his audience might expect of him, that homosexuality is sin. Instead, he spoke vaguely against "secular dogmas" including "restrictions and rights that do not exist in the Constitution." He denounces Obama's "aggressive stance against" religious freedom, and says sarcastically that "Somebody here is being small-minded and intolerant, and it sure isn’t the nuns, ministers, and laymen and women who ask only to live and practice their faith." No, I guess not. It couldn't be the superstitious homophobes who only have "tradition" and "revelation" to justify themselves who are small-minded and intolerant. It has to be those who tell others not to be small-minded and intolerant.

Leaving that topic aside, Bush's speech is further proof that Christians, like every other group, define themselves idealistically and selectively. For every person for whom the essence of Christianity is "Thou Shalt Not" or "Burn in Hell," there's at least one who echoes Bush's alternate definition of its essence. For him, Christianity's message is that "God’s favor is upon the gentle, the kind, and the poor in spirit, and that, as Jesus said, "“Blessed are the meek … Blessed are the merciful … Blessed are the peacemakers.” Unsurprisingly, he repeats the claim that individual human life had no value before Jesus. He imagines a world without Christianity and describes, "power without restraint, conflict without reconciliation, oppression without deliverance, corruption without reformation, tragedy without renewal, achievement without grace." It actually sounds pretty familiar, except that it reminds me of a world where Christianity does exist. With blinkers on, Bush presses on, predictably quoting Martin Luther King: "No law in the world could have produced such unalloyed compassion, such genuine love, such thorough altruism." For what it's worth, King said this while making a distinction between "love," to which the quote refers, and justice. "A higher law is needed to produce love," he wrote, while "Man made laws are needed to ensure justice." While King may have felt that justice itself depended on some form of "love," he still made a distinction that may be lost on Bush and his audience. King meant that no man-made law can make you love someone, not (at least on this occasion) that Christianity made the rule of law and liberal civilization possible. But Christians love to think that the whole edifice of civilization would collapse if we forgot Jesus or, perhaps more importantly, the taboos of his time. Take God out of public life and we'll be back to human sacrifice in a heartbeat, because that's happening in all the non-Christian countries out there.

Some subtleties are inevitably lost on a layman like Bush, but I wonder whether his Liberty audience was capable of finding one line of the speech as unintentionally hilarious as I did. As part of his apologia the former governor said, "Offhand, I cannot think of any more subversive moral idea ever loosed on the world than “the last shall be first, and the first last." It isn't funny that he finds this subversive; it's funny that he doesn't find it subversive of his own party's ideology. "The last shall be first, and the first last," doesn't seem compatible with tax breaks for the wealthy or resistance to any form of wealth redistribution -- but I forgot: the last shall be first and so on in the kingdom of heaven. Down here you had better be grateful for all that loving Christian charity. Bush is all for charity, of course, on the age-old assumption that a good deed is more good when it's voluntary, results counting for less with God, apparently, than the charitable frame of mind. At least I assume that's what his answer would be if we asked: if it's right, why shouldn't it be a duty? Bush said himself that he trusts "the Little Sisters" more than he does "Big Brother," after all.

But why wouldn't Bush put the best face on his faith? All faithful do it. Even some Islamic State savage will tell you that his is a religion of peace. It's always something else, something exterior to the essence of religion, that forces the faithful to fight, kill and conquer. Once the infidels are dead or have submitted, all will be well. Of course, those outside circumstances often determine how we see not just our own religion but other peoples'. In his Nation magazine takedown of Karen Armstrong,  David Nirenberg made this point by citing a 1957 U.S. intelligence document that deemed Islam an asset in the global Cold War. Back then, the beliefs shared by Christians and Muslims were more important than their differences, since they made the faiths natural allies against atheistic, materialistic Communism. Now the differences between the two are foregrounded so sharply that many Americans assume that Islam is antithetical to their secular and spiritual values. Bush said nothing about Islam in his Liberty speech, except implicitly in his comments about the persecution of Christians around the world, but just as his definition of Christianity is shaped by the perceived antagonism of secular progressivism, the perceived challenge of Islam no doubt also drives him to emphasize the meekness and peacefulness of Christians. Muslims, too, may have agreed sixty years ago that similarities outweighed differences in the face of the godless threat, but today they define themselves defensively in the face of aggression they insist on identifying with Christianity. Maybe Jeb Bush should tell them that those godless progressives are the source of all the trouble -- but maybe he isn't that dumb.

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