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March 26, 2007

Politicized Religion, Retail Version

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards--

Although the U.S. Constitution prohibits an established religion, it doesn't prevent politics and religion from mixing.

My impression is that Establishment Media have a tendency to cast evangelical Christian churches as hotbeds of right-wing politics where preachers send hordes of zombie-like members to the polls to vote as they have been ordered.

The rightie blogosphere, on the other hand, is quick to point out the foibles of Mainstream Protestant churches at the national organization level -- their liturgical changes, consecration of certain bishops, divestment of funds in Israeli-based companies and so forth.

Those are what I'll term "wholesale" views of the religion-politics picture. But what about the local scale? -- "retail," if you will. I can't offer a comprehensive answer. However, I'll toss out a few examples based on personal experience.

One of my husbandly duties is to accompany my wife to church most Sundays. I have no problem with religion in the abstract sense. Yet I've never, ever liked going to church; nevertheless, I go to please her.

My wife, being of Scandinavian descent, is partial to the Lutherans. In California she attended a church with a small congregation where the pastor steered clear of politics.

Seattle is different. We have been attending the church where she was confirmed as a teenager. It's two blocks from the University of Washington.

Here are items in the program booklet from March 25th.

The Service of Confession and Absolution includes the following:

In a world where poverty abounds, we confess our pride that makes us think that we can possess or consume whatever we desire.

We confess our fear that compels us to spend more on preparation for war than on the feeding of those who are hungry or housing those who are homeless.

We confess our greed that convinces us that we can possess more than we need to sustain our lives.

We confess our anxiety that causes us to store up treasures on earth beyond the end of our days.

We confess our guilt that prevents us from being moved by God's Spirit to respond to this global impoverishment.

None of the above was said in the California church. The Seattle pastor spent most of his latest sermon dwelling on poverty (an apparent obsession of his, if the above confessions and the church's community outreach programs are any clue) and at one point ridiculed "hard-core capitalists" (his exact words).

In the announcements section of the program booklet was this item:

BANG POTS AND PANS FOR PEACE in honor of columnist Molly Ivins at noon today on 45th St, NE outside of University Congregational UCC. Bring your own signs, pots and lids! Join members of U. Congregational who want peace. Plan to be noisy for 15 minutes or so.

Farther down the page in an events-of-the-week table was a 5:30 p.m. Monday meeting of the Freedom Socialist Party.

In the room where post-service coffee was being served I noticed an activist bulletin board that had, among other announcements, two anti-war items. I saw nothing that supported the war effort.

I suppose the pastor and perhaps some readers will argue that this church is simply doing God's will and that none of the above is political.

My contention is that these items cited above reek of politics. I further assert that this church is paying the price of driving away potential members through its activism. Its membership was greater in decades past and there was more than one Sunday service, whereas now there is but one service and the pews were about half filled.

True, this is part of a national trend for Mainstream Protestantism in America. But I think the pastor with his allies and their politics are making matters worse at the local level than they need to be.



posted by Donald at March 26, 2007


Oy, that Protestant guilt; it'll get us all in the end.

Posted by: ricpic on March 27, 2007 4:39 AM

I do not encounter this at the Catholic Church I attend... and this is in Woodstock, NY.

Politics (and the state) is the religion of the left. The church you're attending doesn't just reek of politics... it reeks of sanctimony.

The left has refused to learn the lesson of the 20th century... the tyranny of good intentions. Read the Woodstock Times (it's online) and you'll discover an entire community mezmerized by the piety of its intentions. Utopian idealism continues to rule this community. There is an absolute refusal to recognize where Utopian idealism lead humanity in the 20th century, namely to Nazi-ism and Stalinism.

My pastor, Father George, is great. He does remind us of our obligation to be compassionate to the poor, but he is not a cause monger. Try the Catholic Church in your area.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on March 27, 2007 7:16 AM

Does he ever mention . . . you know . . . SIN?

Posted by: beloml on March 27, 2007 7:52 AM

If I'm not mistaken, the Lutheran Church is one of the few major denominations that generally steers clear of the political extremes and in fact usually doesn't get involved in political matters at all. The activism at the Seattle church sounds like it's due to the pastor's views rather than overall church policy, and may be affected by the location near the university.

Posted by: Peter on March 27, 2007 8:44 AM

As someone else who, as you aptly put it, "being of Scandinavian descent, is partial to the Lutherans", I would agree that his liturgy is more political than it needs to be. Were I in that church, I might go around on a weekday and chat with him about it.

On the other hand, Lutheranism has always had a strong anti-war bent, emphasis on concern for the poor, and a somewhat Calvinistic view of materialism (which is why when Southern Baptists of certain sorts preach a "prosperity gospel" which offers that if you're rich it means God likes you and wants to reward you, Lutherans like me have a look on our face like we've gotten into some bad lutefisk). So it's not drifting too far from what I've heard during services all my life.

I think he could genericize those statements and make them say the same thing without being so political.

Posted by: yahmdallah on March 27, 2007 8:58 AM

Well, one of Jesus' main messages is to help the poor. How do you and Thomas feel about the recent "God Wants Us to be Rich movement? Is that OK? And what about the Pope's condemnation of the Iraq war? Is he merely being political?

Posted by: the patriarch on March 27, 2007 9:09 AM

"My pastor, Father George, is great. He does remind us of our obligation to be compassionate to the poor, but he is not a cause monger."

Also, this statement of yours', Thomas, what exactly does it mean? I take it as simply thinking about the condition of the poor once a week at church and "feeling" compassion for them makes you feel good enough about yourself, without actually having to do anything. Hey, that's fine with me, I'm not out on the streets passing out food, but I do appreciate the efforts of those who are actively try to help. You seem to hold them in disdain.

Posted by: the patriarch on March 27, 2007 9:13 AM

Good questions from the patriarch.

My parish attends to the needs of the poor through charity. We've contributed generously to the relief effort in New Orleans. Recently, we hosted a priest from Nigeria who explained to us the needs of his community, and we sent him home with a generous donation. My parish maintains a soup kitchen as well. My girl friend's parish, in New Jersey, donated a fire truck to a community in Louisiana that lost their truck in Katrina.

It is the Pope's job to oppose killing, since killing violates one of the Commandments. I have not read the current Pope's comments about Iraq, so I don't really know what he said. Catholic theology, as I understand it, postulates that we are all sinners, and that we can all attain redemption through confession and the forgiveness of sins. This is true for all sinners... even murderers.

And, I don't know exactly how to address your comments about my views of the poor. I grew up in poverty, and many members of my family still struggle to escape ignorance and poverty. Jesus must have had a very difficult life, because I can attest from experience that loving the ignorant and poor is very difficult. They have awful habits and they are often depressed, angry and veangeful.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on March 27, 2007 9:35 AM

Where to begin? Does this priest thinking "confessing" is a substitute for "doing it differently next time"? It's one of the things I just don't get about sermons in church, period. So...its really OK to ignore the poor and be proud and be an "evil capitalist" (as he seems to view it), as long as you go to Church once a week and "confess" that you've been proud and selfish? Is that his point? He obviously is making a heap of value judgements about certain types of belief and behavior and why we do it, but before we even get to that, is he giving fire-and-brimstone-you-are-going-to-hell-if-you don't-change-your-ways speeches? Or just saying you have to "confess" your weaknesses, and then it's all OK? The whole thing seems so...impotent.

Posted by: annette on March 27, 2007 10:05 AM

When I lived in Louisville, I went on a tour of several churches in the city, and was surprised to find left-leaning politics on display more than once (and to be fair, I've heard it's far more right-leaning in the country). One Baptist(!) preacher I heard had an entire sermon against the Iraq war. Another church (packed, by the way) had an open session at the end of each service where members could ask others to sign their petition or whathaveyou. An Episcopal Sunday School class spoke on Liberation Theology, and members were creating anti-war signs.

I noticed the Catholic churches were a bit different in that they weren't so direct, but everyone knew which churches had which political tilt. The more conservative ones were more likely to have all of the old icons and statues, and would emphasize the Church's stance on abortion. The more liberal parishes had far fewer icons and emphasized the Church's teaching against the death penalty. As an outsider, this was very interesting to observe.

Posted by: Mike on March 27, 2007 10:28 AM

"It is the Pope's job to oppose killing, since killing violates one of the Commandments."

So it follows that parish priests should preach against it as well, and specifically so, which would mean to speak out against the Iraq war. That is my opinion.

My main gripe about Donald's post is that a lot of church-going folk are uncomfortable with any mention during a service of actively getting involved in a specific activity. They seem to prefer their religion in the abstract and at arm's length. For a priest or other religious leader to ask something directly of their congregation, to ask them to make an actual sacrifices in their lives, is unseemly.

Again, I'm not saying I'm any better than anyone else, I don't do anything outside of giving to certain charities. But I understand and even appreciate religious leaders who ask more of their flock, to ask them to bring their faith to life. It's fine to disagree with that leader, but to say he/she shouldn't be speaking out is a bad idea, in my opinion.

It flies both ways, of course. I abhor how many religious leaders feel about homosexuality, but I'd rather them speak honestly about it. On that subject, do you feel there is a difference between, say, a priest speaking out against a war or for/against a policy relating to the poor (both major messages of Jesus) and a priest speaking out against homosexuality (a few lines in the Bible)?

Posted by: the patriarch on March 27, 2007 10:38 AM

Do churches get any sort of tax advantage? An exemption or two, perhaps? If so, that blatant politicisation is surely risking it?

Posted by: dearieme on March 27, 2007 10:50 AM

I think the vibe Donald and other are getting from the Seattle church, patriarch, is that the talk is cheap. The "confessions" Donald quoted reek of smugness, and for all that they claim to be confessions of their own faults, they have a whiff of self-righteous condemnation of others rather than any call to meaningful change.

Posted by: CyndiF on March 27, 2007 11:01 AM

I remember back in the '60s, when a lot of religious professional suddenly convinced themselves (or were liberated to feel, or something) that it was ok for them to lecture everyone on politics. At the inane little whitebread-nothing Presbyeterian church my family attended, for instance, our preacher (I think we called him a "reverand") one day took to lecturing everyone about civil rights. It really took possession of him as an issue, week after week. And not just in a general "let's all be nice to each other regardless of color" way, but in political specifics -- he liked busing, for instance, and thought it was one's Christian duty to support busing. Needless to say, people quickly got bored, some got hostile, and attendance plummeted.

I wonder if anyone's done a study of how it affects attendance figures, what happens when a preacher gets the political bug. Maybe in a few churches it works -- maybe it pumps people up and attracts new followers. My hunch is that in most churches it'd drive many people away.

My prob with p-o-v's like the Patriarch's is that I find it very hard to derive specific political policies or stances from the kinds of general and abstract observations and convictions religion tends to specialize in. On poverty, for instance, if we all agree we wish the poor well, and do unto others, etc., well, what then? It's possible to make the case that we should give all our money away to the poor. But it's also possible to make a good case that a tough-lovier approach would do the poor more good than simply handing a lot out to them would.

This is all complicated by the fact that many religious types, however wise and admirable etc, are awfully naive and over-trusting where the world is concerned. If someone announces good intentions, why then we must support him! They often seem ignorant of the fact that good intentions are sometimes foolishly implemented, and that worse, they're often a cover for political and financial powergrabs.

So it seems to me wise for churchy types to avoid (usually) getting too specific where worldly affairs are concerned -- 1) because they'll often be wrong (out of naivete) 2) because there are many, and often conflicting, actions one might derive from something like the Golden Rule, and 3) because they're likely to drive away the faithful.

What might the exceptions to this be? Fun to think about that too ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 27, 2007 11:08 AM

I'm rusty on my Catholic Catechism but in response to Annette's question, I don't think Confession alone is what absolves the sinner.

For a priest to give absolution (forgive the sins), the Confession must be sincere: the sinner must feel remorse and strive to sin no more. Absolution is also conditional upon the sinner's performance of the sacrament of Penance, which is normally the proverbial "ten hail marys" for common sins to very difficult and strenuous tasks for serious transgressions.

There is a story of a hardened murderer who underwent a religious conversion while on death row. This was when executions were done in public. Prior to his execution, he confesses to the priest, who, as Penance, told him that he must plead for his life like a coward in front of the crowd, rather than go with dignity. This was to steer potential young delinquents in the crowd away from admiring and eventually emulating a murderer.

The Church does not have to grant absolution. It can even go so far as to excommunicate the sinner. Modern weepy liberalism that has spread through the Church nonwithstanding, this stuff is hardly impotent.

Posted by: PA on March 27, 2007 11:22 AM

OK, here's my answer, patriarch.

Father George does not address his parish on the specifics of the Iraq war. Every Sunday he asks us to pray for the safe return of our soldiers, and we also pray that our leaders (and specifically the President) find the courage and wisdom to bring this conflict to a peaceful resolution. I think that this is the right thing to do.

On the issue of homosexuality, which for some reason seems to be our eternal obsession, the Church teaches that homosexuality is a sin, and so does Father George. I don't remember him getting very excited about it or mentioning it very often. As is well known, many priests are homosexuals, including a close friends of mine. To quote the Karaoke Queen: "If he wasn't a priest, he'd be a drag queen." Priests have taken a vow of abstinence, and I believe that that includes abstaining from homosexual acts.

The Church continues to teach that all uses of sexuality outside of procreation are sinful. I certainly haven't lived up to this standard, and that makes me as much a sinner as any homosexual. Ask me to make sense of this, and I'll have to tell you that I just can't. I don't have the explanation for everything.

I do believe that, in the ideal, the primary purpose of sexuality is procreation. What can I say? I am a sinner. It does me a lot of good to bow down before the Father on Sunday. That doesn't mean I've ceased to be a sinner.

I'm a musician, not a politician. I believe that great art tells the story of this life better than politics. And the story of this life is not rational. In my opinion, it's not meant to be rational.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on March 27, 2007 11:32 AM

Do churches get any sort of tax advantage? An exemption or two, perhaps? If so, that blatant politicisation is surely risking it?

Churches don't pay income tax and usually are exempt from property taxes. They're not supposed to get involved in political activity if they want to keep their exemptions, but in practice enforcement is limited.

One issue that's come up lately is with churches that sponsor voter-registration drives among their parishoners. They cannot exhort parishoners to register as Democrats or Republicans and cannot promote specific candidates. This restriction is largely irrelevant with fundamentalist Christian churches, which are the main sponsors of voter registration drives, because everyone knows that virtually all of their parishoners who register and vote will vote exclusively Republican.

Posted by: Peter on March 27, 2007 11:58 AM

Peter forgot to mention African American Baptist churches, which are also main sponsors of voter registration drives, and everyone knows that virtually all of their parishoners who register and vote will vote exclusively Democrat

Posted by: PA on March 27, 2007 12:15 PM

"It is the Popes job to oppose killing, since killing violates one of the commandments."

"So it follows that parish priests should preach against it as well, and specifically so, which would mean to speak out against the Iraq war. That is my opinion."

The Catholic position on killing is nuanced. The Church recognizes that there is a difference between the murder of a wife by an intruder in a home, and the killing of the murderer by a husband in the attempted defense of that wife.

It recognizes that a soldier who kills in the performance of his sworn duty to serve and protect is not to be equated with a criminal who kills. Priests serve with, and bless, the troops. That alone should tell us that the position of the Church is not simple on this matter.

The Church also has a doctrine of Just War.

I am not a Catholic. But even I know that the Church's position on killing (and war) is complex.

Posted by: ricpic on March 27, 2007 12:17 PM

I have no idea what the religious background of the patriarch is, but if he were to actually read and study the New Testament, he would find out that the idea of "serving the poor" has more to it than the type of socialist wealth transfer he has in mind. Jesus defined poverty as spiritual poverty. He wasn't against rich people or the acquisition of wealth as long as it didn't interfere with the individual's following of the religious law or spiritual relationship with God. Jesus healed the sick to attract people to his spiritual message, and he believed in serving the poor as they would be more open to his spiritual message than those more comfortable. It is the spiritual message that ties the whole New Testament together, not marxist wealth transfer.

St. Paul said that those who will not work shall not eat. In the early Christian communities, it seems that lazy parasites were also abundant. There's a big difference between those who are poor because of illness or other uncontrollabe circumstances, and those who are simply lazy, irresponsible derelicts who prey on the labor of others. It used to be common sense that you made a distinction between the the deserving and undeserving poor. But I guess that's been lost by a lot of people. In truth, Christians are supposed to act out of a love for God, not pity for individuals who create a mess. I can't see any part of the Bible where God loved irresponsible and destructive behavior, and made his followers cater to those who practiced it.

I always find it interesting that those on the left who like to sling around the Bible to justify their socialism never apply the Biblical moral priciples to thier individual actions. Obviously, Biblical morality is good enough to beat others over the head with but not good enough to practice oneself. I believe Jesus called people like that Pharisees, or hypocrites. It just goes to show that marxists are religious people without a God, and since they are responsible to no one, they don't hold others accoutable for their individual actions either. Without punsihment, there is no crime (or violation of morality). No judgement, just bad outcomes. No condemnation, just pity.

Unless, of course, one is a political conservative. What that has to do with religious Sunday services escapes me.

Posted by: BIOH on March 27, 2007 12:21 PM

And one more thing about the Biblical message against violence. The Bible absolutely okays the use of violence and killing for self-defence. It is aggressive killing, for gain, that is a sin. Defending yourself against such people is okay, to the point of killing them, which is why capital punishment is fine.

Jesus preached non-violence because he thought that the cycle of violence was encouraged by retaliation. He preached breaking the chain of violence by turning the other cheek--that this action would break the cycle by loving your enemies, and they would respond in turn. This idea makes no distinction or allowance for the motives of the enemies, such as those who simply killed for material gain and not revenge, or for those who were sadists and enjoyed killing. If Jesus intended his words to mean the non-violent acceptance to all attack, he was wrong. But it wouldn't surprise me that he had that attitude, as he had an apocalyptic outlook. This was true of many of the biblical prophets also. Jesus' philosophy anticipated the coming of God's kingdom on earth in a a rather short order, which is clear.

I think the relevance of his message is that, whether or not God re-establishes His kingdom here or not soon is irrelevant. Our own lives are short enough. My own idea about it all is that there is no perfect philosophy in this world, and I'm willing to live with a bit of hypocrisy if the overall philosophy is sound. I think the Bible is an imperfect document. But its a hell of lot better than the solutions of the marxists and socialists, who are the most hypocritical, rapacious, and murderous lot of all history. We would have to be stupid to adopt their silliness, seeing how badly it has already failed. The fact that it proliferates in our churches is an indication of the feeble-mindedness and moral confusion of large numbers of clergy and churchgoers.

No wonder the West is dying. It seems like the majority of our cultural institutions are bent on promoting suicidal behavior, all based on the idea of pseudo religion and amoral moral superiority. Like the embrace of homosexuality, birth control and abortion, paying people not to work, rewarding and pitying failures, appeasement of our violent enemies, etc.

Posted by: BIOH on March 27, 2007 12:43 PM

For a priest to give absolution (forgive the sins), the Confession must be sincere: the sinner must feel remorse and strive to sin no more. Absolution is also conditional upon the sinner's performance of the sacrament of Penance, which is normally the proverbial "ten hail marys" for common sins to very difficult and strenuous tasks for serious transgressions.

Right...except in Donald's example, no Penance is recommended, just a sanctimonious list of "forgive us for (fill in the blank) because we are assholes." Why the need to say it again the next week, if anybody in the congregation really thinks they are assholes for doing that stuff? It's like both the priest and the congregation are just buying an insurance policy. "It's OK to do all this stuff, if I just say once a week I'm a jerk for doing it."

Plus, in Donald's example, there is definitely a political agenda behind what it is this minister thinks we need forgiving for.

Posted by: annette on March 27, 2007 1:02 PM

Wow, BIOH, you really took what I said and did some creative writing with it. I never said I was for the redistribution of wealth, nor against the acquisition of wealth, nor am I in any way a Marxist, nor do I ascribe to the idea that Jesus was a Marxist, an idea that is barely trotted out any more. I simply stated that I have nothing against a religious leader preaching specifically about ways to serve the poor, something Jesus spoke a great deal about, then made the comparison with preaching against homosexuality, something the Bible barely mentions.

I find your interpretation regarding Jesus' motivations toward helping the poor and healing the sick interesting. I'm no Bible scholar, so are there passages where he speaks of those motivations? I'm not saying there aren't, I'm just asking for citation as I am genuinely ignorant of such passages.

St. Paul did indeed say that about those who will not work. One line. One of Jesus' CENTRAL messages is helping the poor. It's the imbalance between Biblical text and the amount of emphasis put on it that bugs me. So St. Paul's one liner absolves us of helping the poor? Look, able-bodied people who refuse to work don't get my sympathy, but the use of Bible one-liners to justify on thing or another, when there are whole passages stating the opposite, is not logically consistent to me.

"If Jesus intended his words to mean the non-violent acceptance to all attack, he was wrong."

I agree, which is why I take the Bible, along with all other religious texts, with a grain of salt. Once you start cherry-picking which things you agree with and which you don't, you start coming around to my agnostic point of view.

This is getting off topic. I will say that I do realize the Catholic/Biblical position on violence is nuanced. For instance, the Church was not against WWII, but it has been against Vietnam and now Iraq. Agree or disagree with those positions, as you see fit.

Posted by: the patriarch on March 27, 2007 1:25 PM

Michael writes that it's "very hard to derive specific political policies or stances from the kinds of general and abstract observations and convictions religion tends to specialize in." It's always difficult to translate abstract observations and convictions about how the world works or should work into real-world action. But it doesn't seem to me to be *uniquely* difficult in the case of religion, or that the law of unintended consequences only applies to the actions of religious do-gooders.

Libertarians, to take a random example, have a lot of abstract (and in my view, woefully naive) observations and convictions about how the world works that they feel free to translate into specific political policies and goals. Yet I wouldn't argue against them getting "too specific" or trying to effect specific kinds of change based on their abstract beliefs. I say, let 'em get their ideas for specific policies out in the open where we can mock them roundly.

And then there were the Founding Fathers, who started a successful war and country based on a lot of absurdly naive beliefs about the rights of men and trusting notions of common men's ability to govern themselves. And there were "churchy types" in the South who successfully agitated to end slavery and Jim Crow based on woolly-headed notions of morality and human dignity. These groups combined their abstract goody-goody convictions with real-world savvy to effect worthwhile change.

Certainly religious types need real-world smarts to be effective. And it's easy to mock '60s preachers who agitated for forced busing (not too many of those around anymore, I'd wager -- and why is forced busing, 30 years after the fact, still a favorite right-wing straw man? but I digress...). But *everyone* has observations and convictions about how the world works or should work. And we all use these to make our way in the real world. Why, I recall a few posts back Michael Blowhard himself agitating for a change in the priorities of the National Trust based on his abstract, idealistic notions of what constitutes good architecture and what the mission of the Trust really should be. It doesn't seem to me that there should be one standard for political involvement for the Blowhards of the world and another for a Lutheran minister.

Posted by: Steve on March 27, 2007 2:19 PM


Regardless of whether it is or isn't "trotted out anymore," have you ever considered the possibility of considering the idea that Jesus was a Marxist?

Of course, considering the historical order of things, we'd kind of have to reverse this, wouldn't we? We'd have to say not that Jesus was a Marxist, but that Marx was a Christian. Or more properly, that Marxism was a sect of Christianity.

Note that there are two groups that are likely to be horrified by this proposition: Christians and Marxists. By my count, this is, oh, pretty much, everybody.

On the other hand, as free thinkers, why should we accept the word of either Christians or Marxists on the subject? Is Christianity a form of Judaism? Is Islam a form of either? Most people now would say no - but how can Islam be non-Christian, and Mormonism be Christian?

Certainly, if you define Rousseau, Marx and Hitler as Christian reformers, differing only in doctrinal absurdities from Luther and Calvin, you get a very different picture of recent history.

Is there any effective difference between "mainline" Protestantism as practiced today, and Marxism? Can anyone describe an act, for example, that an orthodox Marxist would consider unethical and Donald's church would consider ethical? Or vice versa?

Posted by: Mencius on March 27, 2007 2:19 PM

yamdallah wrote: "which is why when Southern Baptists of certain sorts preach a "prosperity gospel" which offers that if you're rich it means God likes you and wants to reward you..."

Noooo. You are referring to Presbyterians, not Baptists. Presbyterians most certainly do believe in the concept of predestination, which implies that God already has things sorted out and the blessed are marked out by their prosperity. I'm not sure what Baptists believe, but I know what they DO NOT believe.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on March 27, 2007 2:47 PM

Steve -- A lot of good points, tks. May I offer a couple of tweaks, though? I wasn't talking about religious people generally, but about religious professionals, who often seem spectacularly unworldly. The translating-convictions-into-action discussion is a good one, of course, as you point out, but maybe not one that religious leaders should be guiding from beginning to end. And my own feelings about traditionalist architecture aren't any derivation from abstract principle, they have to do with what experience has shown works and what doesn't. FWIW, of course, and who cares anyway, but I'm not someone who makes a lot of use of abstract principles, at least not much beyond wishing everyone (a few psychopaths aside) well. Oh, wait, here's one: that excessive reliance on abstract principles will often land people in a lot of hot water. But in my case that's more of a hunch and a feeling than it is any well-reasoned-out abstract thing. Modernist architecture is an example of what results from over-reliance on abstraction and theory. Looking at Modernist buildings and planning and saying, "Hey, that doesn't work, it's plain awful. So let's ditch it and return to something that has a great batting average instead" is just reflection on experience.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 27, 2007 2:51 PM

"Is there any effective difference between "mainline" Protestantism as practiced today, and Marxism? Can anyone describe an act, for example, that an orthodox Marxist would consider unethical and Donald's church would consider ethical? Or vice versa?"

For vice versa, how about liquidating the Kulaks? or the landlord class in China?

It seems the useful distinction between old-time Marxists and squishy-left Christians (I know the latter very well) is the Marxists' pronounced willingness to break eggs (read: heads) in order to make their omlettes. For all the mean things one can say about soft-left Christians, they're not like that, at all. There's a reasons the hard-core Marxists called them "fellow travellers" or "useful fools" rather than "our kind of people".

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on March 27, 2007 2:58 PM

Mencius, I honestly can't tell if your most recent comment is ironic or not. Ha. Anyway, yeah, I've considered the Jesus=Marxist issue, and I know it was quite popular in the early 70s. It's just a bad thing to bring up in that it immediately polarizes the discussion. I don't know what Jesus was. I don't know what he'd do. We can bend Him this way and that to suit our needs. That's all I know.

Posted by: the patriarch on March 27, 2007 2:59 PM


I find your assumption that the American rebellion, the Yankee invasion of the South, and the "civil rights" movement are all axiomatic examples of success, quite interesting.

It certainly seems that many people share this perspective. Perhaps that makes it correct.

Similarly, if success is defined as victory, truth is again on your side. All these (not unrelated) movements were indeed victorious. And their institutional successors are victorious still.

On the other hand, if one had a bad attitude and nothing better to do, one might search for alternate definitions of success.

Perhaps, for example, we could compare the world these movements tried to create - as measured by their words at the time - with the one that actually exists. Since they have, after all, been victorious, defeat is hardly a credible excuse.

For example, we can compare the US federal government to the description of that institution offered in the Federalist Papers. We can compare Abraham Lincoln's plan to make North America safe for free white men by deporting the Negroes to Liberia or Cuba, with the present state of these races and regions. We can compare the level of racial integration in the US today - and the devices needed to achieve even that level - with the vision offered by Martin Luther King.

You see, yes - MB believes in something. So do you. MB, on the other hand, seems to feel he has to convince us of his ideas. Whereas yours are apparently just obvious.

Posted by: Mencius on March 27, 2007 3:51 PM


I just fundamentally disagree with your definition of who the poor are. I've heard and read the New Testament all my life, and Jesus was talking about spiritual poverty and a divorce from God, not material wealth. There are whole passages talking about that too. BTW, the admonition not to kill is one line also, but I see that hasn't stopped anyone from quoting it.

And who's kidding whom? Secular morality is heavily based on Christianity here in the West. Its just that individual moral responsibility has been dropped, as well as an accountability to God. For someone who takes the liberal arts seriously, I can't fathom how you can regard organized religion with a grain of salt. Like most people I've seen, religion is dropped because they don't find it conducive to getting what they want, usually with regard to immediate gratification. But your own turning away from religion has little to do with its relevance and importance in our wold at large. And it certainly doesn't negate the fact that secularism is a substitute religion that is now working its way into organized religions, to our detriment. That socialist and secular values are dethroning traditional religious ones, including a re-interpretation of established doctrine, is important to traditional churchgoers, of which you are not one. I don't understand your stake in the argument anyway, if you have such disdain for organized religion. I think you just like calling Christians hypocrites.

The primary purpose of religion is to make a connection of the individual and God. Good works is only one of several ways to achieve that goal. And the overemphasis on and distortion of performing good works for anyone who is in material want, regardless of morality and concern for the spiritual aspects of the parties involved, is not only wrong, it is actually sinful. It would be nice if our religious leaders would recognize this and pass it on to their parishoners instead of warmed-over socialism, which is both anti-God and anti-nature, and leads people away from God, rather than toward Him.

Posted by: BIOH on March 27, 2007 3:56 PM


You're comparing violent Marxists with pacifist Christians. You find that the former are violent and the latter are pacifist. C'est vrai.

But the kulaks were liquidated by Lenin, not Marx. There's a reason they call it Marxist-Leninism. And there's no reason to think that Marx's reaction to Leninism would have been any different from, say, that of Emma Goldman or Rosa Luxemburg.

You can certainly find the roots of violence in Marx's writing. And in Jesus's. "Not peace, but a sword..."

As for today's huggy-bunny left, it is what it is.

But it's also a matter of historical fact that it is the direct, uncontested, lineal descendant of Henry Ward Beecher, Horace Greeley, Julia Ward Howe, etc, etc, etc.

These were folks who made Hamas look like Bill Moyers. The only reason they didn't have suicide belts is that 19th-century explosives were expensive and unreliable. Christ, Osama pretty much ripped off his whole routine from John Brown.

So is it really that surprising to learn that Marx had a column in Greeley's newspaper?

Posted by: Mencius on March 27, 2007 4:05 PM


It's rude of me to blacken anyone's reputation by associating them with my own cynical, bitter ideology, but that said I'm probably closest to Robinson Jeffers' "Inhumanism."

As an Inhumanist it strikes me as self-evident that both "secular humanism" (ie, Marxism-Rousseauism) and "fundamentalism" are impossible to explain except as sects of Christianity. Since my only interest in this system of thought is historical, it's easy to be detached. And I suppose detachment is always easy to mistake for irony...

Posted by: Mencius on March 27, 2007 4:30 PM

Fair enough, Mencius, but your phrase was "orthodox Marxist", which I took to mean, not the man himself or someone like Rosa Luxemburg, but more like a mid-20th-century Communist or Communist sympathiser, people who spent a lot of time breaking or glossing over the breakage of eggs/heads. If you meant a 70s/80s academic Marxist like my old neighbour Leo Panitch, then, yeah, he's within spitting distance of the soft-left Anglican types, though without the sappiness.

Likewise, John Brown may have been (arguably) a more authentic Christian than the earnest lefty Lutherans in Donald's church, but it was those we were talking about.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on March 27, 2007 4:45 PM

"I don't understand your stake in the argument anyway, if you have such disdain for organized religion."

This is interesting to no one but me, but since you asked, I don't have any disdain for organized religion, I just have a hunch there is no God. Lots of good advice in much of the more established religions. Lots of crap, too, in my opinion, but I don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. I've gotten much out of the Catholic faith, and more recently, Buddhism. People like Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh are my heroes. I'm not kidding. You and I simply have VERY different ideas of what the primary purpose of religion is, although I think our goals are the same. And now this is way off topic.

"I've heard and read the New Testament all my life, and Jesus was talking about spiritual poverty and a divorce from God, not material wealth."

I'd say he was talking about both. There are plenty of passages where he speaks explicitly about the poor meaning those who lack material wealth. Of course, words like "poor" and "hungry" can also mean spiritually poor and hungry for spirituality. I actually like those definitions better, but there is no doubt that there's an awful lot of space on the materially poor in the Bible.

Posted by: the patriarch on March 27, 2007 5:46 PM


Yeah, "orthodox" is definitely ambiguous in this context!

Patriarch and BIOH, I find your debate over the nature of Christianity fascinating, because it's so clearly and frankly expressed - people have been having exactly this argument for almost the lifetime of the tradition!

I suspect both of you might enjoy a book I'm reading now, Charles Freeman's Closing of the Western Mind. Freeman is obviously a liberal, but he's a good historian and usually manages to keep his weird 20th-century opinions to himself.

Posted by: Mencius on March 27, 2007 6:53 PM

The last thing I have to say on this topic is that Jesus told his followers to help the poor as a way of getting them to accept his spiritual message as they would be more open to it in that condition. That's why the poor were blessed, in his opinion, because they would be seekers, and open to his spiritual message. Same with the meek, those in mourning, etc.--inother words, those unhappy, sick or unsatisfied would be open to change. The rich would not be, as life was treating them well, and they had no desire to change or be open to a new message (the Good News). In fact, this issue is at the heart of the debate as to whether or not it is good works or simply faith alone which is the prerequisite for eternal life. St. Paul thought faith alone was sufficient. But this idea has caused a lot debate and schism in the Christian religions.

I doubt that we are that much different on the topic either, but I would say that I went through the doubting Catholic and alternate religious stuff a lot earlier than you (late teens, early 20's), and I found such approaches as an impersonal God, reincarnation, and the other eight yards to be pretty unenlightening in the end. Like James Joyce said (paraphrasing), when asked why he didn't reject his Catholicism for Protestantism or atheism, he replied that he had no intention of discarding a logical absurdity for an illogical one. I have problems with Catholicism and mainline Christianity too, but they are far preferable to the alternatives, in my opinion, if you take the various religions seriously.

Posted by: BIOH on March 27, 2007 7:05 PM

Menicus, you're quite correct -- I was assuming that the American Revolution and the anti-slavery movement were successful because today I live in a country called America and it does not allow the ownership of slaves. Sorry if this wasn't obvious.

Posted by: Steve on March 28, 2007 12:10 AM

"I doubt that we are that much different on the topic either, but I would say that I went through the doubting Catholic and alternate religious stuff a lot earlier than you (late teens, early 20's), and I found such approaches as an impersonal God, reincarnation, and the other eight yards to be pretty unenlightening in the end."

For the record, I've been ambivilant regarding religion for as long as I can remember. Also, my interest in Buddhism has absolutely nothing to do with reincarnation, nor do I ascribe to some kind of impersonal God.

Mencius, I know. This arguing religion is something I avoid like the plague, normally. So quaint and pointless.

Posted by: the patriarch on March 28, 2007 12:36 AM

"If Jesus intended his words to mean the non-violent acceptance to all attack, he was wrong."

That statement doesn't make sense to me. Jesus was preaching a way of life. Live by it, die by it if necessary. It's not consequentialist. You choose to accept it or choose not to. Check out Max Weber in "Politics as a Vocation", on the ethic of politics (responsibility) vs. the ethic of true Christianity. Christianity can be judged by the politician as "irresponsible", but it internally consistent on its own terms and a profound and heroic way to live.

Also, on the post, there are of course a ton of churches that are politically right-wing, and very actively so, from the pulpit and so forth.

Posted by: MQ on March 28, 2007 1:25 AM

Good point, MQ. If there can be situational ethics, I guess there can be situational spirituality. Convenient, isn't it?

Posted by: the patriarch on March 28, 2007 9:30 AM

Arguing about religion tends to strike me as a terrible trap and mistake. But discussing it? ... I dunno. It can be hard, I guess -- feelings and such get hurt, people explode. But that's partly why it's interesting too, no? People's deepest conviction and hunches and experiences ... Why be silent about all this? It can get mighty lonely, keeping important matters all to yourself. Plus, how else are you/us/we/one ever going to get smarter, or clearer-headed about such things without comparing notes about 'em?

But, hmmm. Maybe one of the nice things about yakking about art is that it lets you sidle up to the Big Questions gently and indirectly, and so allows such conversations to be more civil ... Hmmm.

Anyway, I always find it interesting to hear about people's experiences with the Big Questions, and I think Big Questions go underdiscussed in our culture. People hide from them, I'm not sure why. Are we scared of being pretentious? Do we not feel entitled to be our own philosophers? Maybe the general culture is so materialistic and gung-ho that most of us sensibly put a carapace around some of these intuitions and feelings and thoughts to protect 'em?

(Hey, I just used the word "carapace"!)

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 28, 2007 9:40 AM


How convenient it is that might makes right. It frees us from so many troublesome questions!

Of course you don't actually believe this. You believe, with Lincoln, that it's actually the other way around - it's right, in fact, that makes might.

It's an interesting exercise to look at history and compare the predictions of these two purportedly contradictory perspectives.

Posted by: Mencius on March 28, 2007 11:57 AM


Perhaps I misspoke - I don't think arguing over theology is at all pointless or unproductive.

In fact, it's the automatic impulse to suppress these kinds of debates that strikes me as creepy. It is too reminiscent of the ancient connection between religion and violence, which we're all supposed to have moved beyond.

There are two ways to overcome this connection. One, people can respect each other and have good manners. Two, everyone can simply be indoctrinated in the same religion.

Unfortunately, our society has wound up on the second path (if you accept my premise that "multiculturalism" is actually a Christian sect). But you and BIOH have demonstrated very nicely that the first remains available.

Of course, it's the Internet, so neither of us can hit the other over the head with a rock or something. (I think they're still working on that feature.)

Posted by: Mencius on March 28, 2007 12:06 PM

A couple of points:

1. Christians formed churches and continue to support churches more in service to the communal relationship with God, not so much the individual relationship. Tons of people work out their individual realtionship with God free of any church and that makes perfect sense; to enter into a church setting, however, means that while a person does "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" on the individual level, churches distinguish themselves from more individually worked out relationships with God because the relationship is understood as communal, as a practice within a body. Niebuhr's concept of corporate sin addresses this. So, I think, does the Seattle pastor's prayers of confession. The church has sinned as a body. What does this mean politically? Church bodies try to work this out all the time and, when at their best, invoke the Holy Spirit for guidance and clarity. It's work that never ends and is prone to error as well as goodness.

2. The Civil Rights marches and non-violent demonstrations sprang from church services, prayer meetings, and Bible studies. Judeo-Christian convictions regarding justice and the Christian idea of the word becoming flesh and the very worldly act of putting oneself in harm's way drove this movement. It is evidence that the church can rise to courage and life-endangering deeds in service to erradicating injustice.

I haven't thought about this enough to know how the Civil Rights movement compares/contrasts to the work some churches have done over the last 30 years practicing the social gospel and opposing war. I know that church workers helping campesinos in El Salvador and Nicaragua were killed. They were working on literacy projects as well as helping with irrigation, crop management, and other very practical projects, in the name of the church. These people don't seem like naive do-gooders to me. They risked themselves to serve others within the framework of the church in ways I've never had the courage to do.

There are plenty of good examples along these lines.

I, too, hate the smugness. Moreover, when it comes to liturgical language, the Seattle pastor's prayers of confession are worse that flat tires; sparks are flying off the rims.

The Judeo-Christian tradition has a long history of social action and one of the church's most prickly and tricky challenges is how and where to respond to injustice.

Posted by: raymond pert on March 28, 2007 12:47 PM


Since Christianity has been a religion of power for about the last 1700 years, you are certainly not the first to grapple with these questions!

The phrase "social justice" is fascinating. Since the concept of justice is intrinsically a social one, if you take the phrase literally it is a pleonasm.

In practice, what "social justice" seems to mean is any action which seems right to the actor as a Christian, but violates the codes of "formal justice."

In other words, it could be plausibly argued that a non-euphemistic synonym for "social justice" is in fact "political violence."

If we look for example at the role that the World Council of Churches played in bringing Robert Mugabe to power, we can see that this is not academic hair-splitting. In fact, versions of the "social justice" concept, which directly contradicted the 19th-century ideal of the Rechtstaat or rule of law ("formal justice"), were central to both Nazism and Communism, and hence responsible for deaths well into the nine figures.

Of course there was not the slightest spark of murderousness in almost all of the "sandalistas" who went to Nicaragua to help with irrigation, etc. But the connection between political violence and the urge to improve the world is by no means remote or abstract - as you seem to grasp quite well.

Posted by: Mencius on March 28, 2007 2:59 PM


Posted by: raymond pert on March 28, 2007 3:35 PM


What I take from you piece is that the church you are attending is politicized, which you seem to disapprove of. (Sorry if I'm making too many assumptions here.)

As I mentioned in a post buried back a few years, it seems to me that organized religion, being social, more or less always has a political dimension--and sometimes a very vigorous one, too. Of course the nature of the politics in question varies tremendously, because churches (or temples, mosques, etc.) by and large are quite blobby, amorphous institutions, where enthusiasts from either the laity or the clergy can rather easily get the bit between their teeth and gallop off. Big chunks of religious history seem so heavily entwined with politics that it would be hard, if not impossible, to draw a line between the two. I would point out the Christological controversies of the Byzantine Empire, the rise of Islam, the Investiture Crisis, the Reformation, the mutli-century struggles between the Calvinists and the mainstream Anglican church and their importance for the (1) English Civil War, (2) the early settlement of the United States and (3) the abolition of the slave trade, etc., etc., among many other examples. I would even argue that in many respects, religious bodies such as churches (or temples, mosques, etc.) are better (or at least more responsive) political bodies than most political bodies, which usually heavily filter any imput from the populace.

So I doubt it will be any different today, or in the future. Just a thought.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 30, 2007 9:36 AM

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