Getting Out of the Bubble: The Urgent Need for a New Christian Realism

September 12, 2006, 9:54 am | Posted by

From Rev. Peter Laarman, Director of Progressive Christians Uniting and valued partner of FPL.

The Right’s appropriation of Reinhold Niebuhr’s legacy is, to me, a significant if minor footnote to the larger chronicle of a triumphant conservative resurgence over the course of four decades. What the right-wingers like about Niebuhr, it goes without saying, is his willingness, especially later in his long career, to sanction the use of U.S. military power for worthy ends. My purpose is not to apotheosize Niebuhr or to excuse his susceptibility to the blandishments of the powerful. I want simply to focus in on Niehbuhr’s core insight that Christians should see the world as it is and act ethically in the light of a clear-sighted realism. For the neoconservatives and for most other Right ideologues, “realism” means understanding how bad they are–all the “enemies of freedom,” “Islamo-fascists,” etc.; yet surely a major part of Niebuhr’s realism entailed understanding our own propensity to sinning, our own capacity for self-deception and hubris. It’s this kind of Christian Realism that is in critically short supply right now.

Clear-sighted realism, whether Christian or otherwise, is a scarce commodity in all of contemporary U.S. culture, suggesting that American Christians, for the most part, are every bit as encapsulated in the corporate-media mystification bubble as everyone else. The fact that fully 40 percent of adult Americans–and a solid majority of self-described Christians–still believe that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9-11 attacks only begins to scratch the surface of Americans’ willful ignorance and credulity.

Other evidence of the advanced decay of critical faculties in this land:

- a public that seems barely aware, let alone alarmed, over the implications of Bush’s push to get his official eavesdropping, his military tribunals (which allow the use of coerced evidence), and official U.S. government torture legalized by Congress; this latest push–and this administration’s concomitant fearmongering about terrorists at the gate–amounts to nothing else than an attempted coup d’etat, but almost no one seems attuned to that reality. All the White House needs to do to advance its agenda is to bray, “Do you want to give Miranda rights to terrorists?” Very few seem to be fazed or outraged by the depth of such villainy.

- an American public that continues to be ruled by fear. So fearful are we that it is hard for us even to imagine how the Londoners of 1940, who saw 30,000 (not 3,000) of their neighbors die, and 100,000 houses destroyed, during the first days of the Luftwaffe blitz, kept going about their business with quiet calm and courage, refusing to surrender to their fear.

- a public that may have finally turned against the Iraq war but only because that war now looks unwinnable and not because the whole premise of the invasion and subsequent occupation was profoundly immoral and illegal

- a huge majority of self-described Christians who can still judge George W. Bush to be a deeply moral and decent man despite his obvious lack of a moral compass

- almost no public agitation for the impeachment of this president for his easily-documented high crimes and misdemeanors: misleading Congress in the run-up to the Iraq war, recklessly endangering members of our armed forces, openly violating key provisions of the Constitution, etc.

- an American public that still doesn’t seem to understand how thoroughly its pockets are being picked by the set of policies that constitute what Bush and his cohorts are pleased to call an “ownership society.”

It is this last blindness, I think, that holds the key to the rest. The heart of our collective stupor is connected to the way Americans think of themselves as consumers rather than as citizens. So we don’t care, for example, if the oil is running out or if carbon emissions are suffocating the earth itself; what we care about is whether the price of gas is going to go up to $4. We tell pollsters that we’re still doing okay because we’re still spending at a rate that makes us happy, even if our household savings are in the negative zone and we are funding our purchases on maxed-out credit cards and shaky home equity loans. We take comfort in the fact that the U.S. still has the world’s most productive economy, but we fail to see that the price of that productivity is chronic overwork, not technological innovation or wise use of productive capital.

Consumption is a lonely pursuit, but it is a pursuit that accords perfectly with the high level of small-bore anxiety that rules our culture. Shouldn’t I trade up and out of this tired-looking house? Have I bought them enough gear to make my kids feel okay with their school peers? Why can’t I take the kind of vacation my co-workers take instead of going to the same old place every year? I don’t have an I-pod or a Mac computer or a plasma TV–is there something wrong with me?

Consumerism pits me against other consuming monads. It invites me to think about how well I will fare when I’m ready for retirement, how I am going to cope with outrageous health care costs, how I will finesse getting the education I need in order to compete for material success; it definitely does not invite us to think collectively about how we will fare in retirement, maintain our health, or gain education for the enhancement of life itself rather than for purposes of workplace competition. This latter way of thinking–thinking about the “we” and doing so with the benefit of critical consciousness–is the business of citizenship, not consumerism.

But aren’t Christians supposed to be about the “we”? Did not Jesus teach us to pray, “Our Father, who art in Heaven” and “give us this day our daily bread”? Did Jesus not warn us not to “store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt and where thieves break through and steal”? Did Jesus not say, “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” and also (this one is hard) “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation”?

For more than three centuries of the North American experience, a very significant number of Christians did in fact concern themselves with matters of citizenship–with the defense of the commonweal–and did not attend only to their private thriving. As Randall Balmer demonstrates convincingly in his new book, evangelical Christians were among the staunchest agitators for a godly commonwealth in which all would have access to the good things of life: food and drink, rest and recreation, good public schools, decent housing and health care, and a secure and dignified old age.

When and how this shifted decisively–when and how North American Christians ceased to believe in the importance of the commonweal–is a matter for dispute and debate, but it does certainly seem that the seeds for the final ascendancy a false consumerist paradise– and for the manufacturing of consent–were sown in the period of unparalleled prosperity that followed the Second World War. Even then, however, there were powerful voices–voices like Niebuhr’s, in fact–asking not just whether the consumerist paradise is the best of all possible worlds but also asking quite specifically whether it is a paradise that Christians should find themselves celebrating.

Now, of course, we begin to see the full extent of the damage done by our complete and unconditional surrender to consumerism. Now we begin to see the full apostasy of our habit of evaluating politicians and their proposals in good consumerist fashion on the basis of packaging, not substance. We begin to see, but just barely, the decadence of ignoring, say, the legalization of torture in our name because, after all, the new television season is already upon us and the kids are starting school and, well, there’s just a lot going on right now.

The paramount challenge facing progressive Christians, I believe, is developing the courage and the tools needed to puncture the mystification bubble; the challenge is finding the capacity open the eyes and awaken the consciences of our fellow Christians and of the body politic as a whole to the suffering and danger all around us.

I do not pretend to have a blueprint for how we meet this challenge. I do know that we won’t meet it unless we immerse ourselves much more deeply in scriptures of hope and liberation. Perhaps a place to begin is with the insight that this is not the first time God’s people have found themselves inside a bubble of mass deception:

“Stupefy yourselves and be in a stupor…For the Lord has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep; he has closed your eyes, you prophets, and covered your heads, you seers…

“Because these people draw near to me with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing…

“…on that day the deaf shall hear the words of a scroll, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. For the tyrant shall be no more, and the scoffer shall cease to be; all those alert to do evil shall be cut off.” (Isaiah 29)

add a comment »

A Post Labor Day Round Up

September 8, 2006, 1:45 pm | Posted by

While Labor Day found most people savoring the last hours of summer, bloggers were keeping busy with their own takes on the true meaning of the holiday. Jspot looks at immigrant workers from a Jewish perspective while Chuck Currie speaks out about unions and the labor movement and CrossLeft ranted about the state of the American economy. The Peace Blog ranges farther afield with a call for action and solidarity in dealing with the conflicts in the Middle East.

Progressive Christian tries to spread the good news with posts about recent articles from Christianity Today and the Associated Press.

Cristo Lumen revamps a classic Bible story with “The Parable of the Good Homosexual.”

With former Clinton officials butting heads with ABC about their forthcoming docu-drama about 9/11, everyone has something to add to the growing tirade against the film. Faithful Progressive claims the airing of the film would be a “new low in public discourse.” The Vanity Press agrees: “Soon, thanks to ABC, everyone in the United States will know this story: Clinton could have killed Bin Laden but he was too obsessed with Monica,” and Street Prophets chimes in with a call for action. Meanwhile, Danny Fisher announces the opening of the somewhat less controversial Saint of 9/11.

Political views held by ministers and their congregations are “widely divergent,” according to Blog from the Capitol. At the same time Mainstream Baptist worries that Democrats are coming “dangerously close to blurring the line between left-wing religion and the state” with the launch of the new website “Faithful Democrats.”

For an argument against the “Jewifying” of political positions, check out Radical Torah.

Corrupt Generation pokes fun at Karl Rove.

With 24 comments so far, Debra Haffner sparks controversy over the benefits of Natural Family Planning.

And finally, Philocrites mourns the demotion of Pluto to a dwarf planet.

add a comment »

All the Faith News Fit to Print

September 7, 2006, 9:38 am | Posted by

As some of our readers likely know, Faith in Public Life’s communications team offers a free, daily electronic news reel featuring highlights from the world of faith and politics. It’s a totally unique resource, covering interfaith issues of interest at the local, national, and international levels. To subscribe now, click here. To get this cool button for your site to spread the word about the service, click here.

The news gets delivered by noon, Monday-Friday. Our tireless news hounds scrounge the web for the best coverage of faith and politics. Articles include direct faith-related news, and featured stories on policy topics of interest to our partner organizations. Sign-up to make sure you never miss the stories that impact your work and our world!

add a comment »

Amy Sullivan in Slate

August 30, 2006, 1:07 pm | Posted by

Amy Sullivan, the editor of Washington Monthly and fabulous inaugural alumna of Faith in Public Live, has a piece posted on Slate that’s worth a read. “Not God’s Party: A new poll shows Democrats are losing (more) religious voters.” As always, she provides sharp analysis of the religion and politics scene, with a sense of perspective that’s always appreciated.

The piece has a great ending, quoted below, but the tone of the poll analysis seems off. From the headline, Sullivan focuses on continued Democratic weakness (which is actually just a leveling that remained within the margin of error from earlier polls), and doesn’t give nearly enough attention to the fact that the Republican party suffered an even bigger hit. This Republican slippage combined with steady numbers for Dems is the real story of the poll. It just may be that the unholy alliances between Religious Right leaders and GOP officials who have no real interest in delivering victories for the Religious Right is finally being unravelled by years of broken promises. It’s not even mentioned that the percentage of the population that sees the Dems as unfriendly to religion is totally level at 20% since 2005. The headline writers at Slate must have missed that.

A great quote below. Note her emphasis on state and local campaigns. That’s exactly what we’ve found through our work with groups across the country. Check our Best Practices page and Mapping Faith resource to see just how many of these groups there are in your community.

The DNC should ramp up that search. But the party’s leaders also should remain calm. The Democrats’ most productive activities on the religion front have taken place at the state level and in local campaigns. This work may not bear fruit nationally for a few years, but it’s important to hang in there and keep funding it. Democrats also need to avoid the temptation to play preacher: One cringe-inducing “Praise Jeeeeezus!” from Howard Dean spoils the quiet faith of Democrats like Tim Kaine and Jennifer Granholm and Barack Obama. And they should shout from the mountaintops about Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid’s plan to reduce abortion rates, talk to every evangelical who will listen about tackling global warming, and re-embrace the concept of the common good that once united religious and political progressives. Democrats, take those lights out from under your bushels.

add a comment »

I Guess Cleopatra Isn’t the Only Queen of Denial…

August 28, 2006, 5:35 pm | Posted by

Katherine Harris, that paragon of upright-judgment, is at it again, as many of you likely know. There’s been much good written about her statement that the Seperation of Church and State is a lie. Check out Vince Isner of Faithful America for a particularly well-put response. Crossposted from Faithful America

First it was Oral Roberts… then Robert Tilton…then Pat Robertson… Now it seems Florida Representative and candidate for Senate Katherine Harris(remember the hanging chad?)is now claiming to speak for God. Now listen up all you Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Unitarians, and other non-Christian U.S. citizens: If you are not electing Christians to represent you, you are simply legislating sin… according to Ms. Harris, that is.

I suppose her most bizarre, off-the-wall comment is that GOD chooses our leaders… If this is true, then why did HER party go to such lengths to impeach one of “God’s leaders?” If God chooses our leaders, then why vote? Why debate? Why question anything? Why not just close our eyes and let the bombs fall where they may, let poverty fester where it will, let AIDS run it course, let innocent detainees rot in Cuban prisons, let the poor in our land starve in the streets, let the earth choke to death, and everybody just sing Kum-ba-ya until Jesus comes to take the faithful few back home for a job well done?

Normally I find such cocksure ignorance amusing – But ignorance of this magnitude and at her level of influence is not funny. If the separation of church and state is, as Harris declares, a “lie” – then why not rejoice, ignore the constitution of the United States, and simply elect only Harris-like fundatmentalist Christians? That would prove to the world we are no longer a free nation, and all of those people “over there” whom President Bush says “hate us for our freedom” can stop hating us and start loving us as brothers and sisters in Christ… We could even teach them Kum-ba-ya…

Thankfully, Harris does not speak for the vast majority of Christians who honor and celebrate persons of other faiths and beliefs, and who believe that our nation is enriched by diversity. Gratefully, the average four-year old has more horse sense than Harris displayed in her remarks.

add a comment »