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Imprimatur of the Almighty? The Christian Question in American Politics

The Christian Question in American Politics

by JUSTIN E.H. SMITH

In his 1844 work On the Jewish Question, Karl Marx, himself of Jewish background, reasoned that Judaism is a religion, religion is superstition, and consequently any progressive thinker will aim towards the complete dissolution of the Jewish identity in the struggle for socialist revolution and proletarian utopia. The subsequent century and a half have demonstrated, if nothing else, that religion is not at all on its way out. It may be irrational, but, as Marx’s contemporary Kierkegaard already convincingly argued, rationality is tedious, and only what is irrational has the power to command our passionate commitment.

Kierkegaard has triumphed over Marx, at least in this respect. While a few creative anachronists like the philosopher Daniel Dennett and the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins have declared themselves ‘brights’ (we’ll see if this meme can survive a few years of natural selection) who are simply too clever to need the crutch of religion to get themselves through the day and who believe everyone else should pull themselves together and proceed likewise, those of us with a more sensitive finger on the pulse of the Zeitgeist concede that religion is, like it or not, a force to contend with.

And, for us Americans, this doesn’t mean just any religion. George Bush père, however gauche in coming right out and saying as much, was correct to announce that the US is, for the most part, a Christian nation (according to the polls it is more so than Israel is a Jewish nation, India a Hindu nation, or Egypt a Muslim nation), and so the religious world-view in need of attention from those of us perhaps not quite as bright as Dennett and Dawkins, but still concerned with understanding our fellow citizens, is, again like it or not, Christianity.

Many on the left are likely to think of Christians as natural enemies. Christianity has given us literally cannibalistic Crusaders, the Inquisition, Opus Dei, pandering Nazi collaborators in the Vatican, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and countless other despicable and hypocritical public prayer- mongers. To think in this way is, however, to forget about, e.g., the early Christian martyrs who went to the grave in the name of equality, the Quakers who ameliorate the conditions of prisoners without judging them, the Liberation Theologians who have struggled against CIA-backed dictatorships throughout Latin America. And it is also to forget about Christ himself.

So could there be any way of taking Christ back from his right-wing kidnappers and promoting laudable political ends in his name? And why bother trying? One good reason to try is the reasonable worry that secular political principles such as justice or equality just aren’t sufficiently commanding or powerful to drive real change in society. One must go beyond, to a principle such as love, in the Christian sense of agapê, unconditional charity that reflects God’s infinite love for his creation.

St. Augustine, for one, believed that an earthly political order could only achieve good and desirable ends if it modeled itself after the divine order. The earthly city must be a reflection of the City of God. Augustine believed that, in the defense of Christendom, war is often necessary (though, he says, always regrettable), and the only way to wage war without in so doing sinning is to “[b]e peaceful… in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace.” Loving thine enemy, then, is not incompatible with killing him. Indeed, killing him can itself be an act of love.

This example suggests that no principle, no matter how divine and powerful in its inception, is immune from transformation into a reason for aggression. With good reason then, it has been widely agreed in the modern liberal tradition that a healthy society can’t permit itself what the late American political philosopher John Rawls calls a “comprehensive doctrine,” i.e., a world-view that contains specifically moral values and the cosmological theories that ground them. At most, the government of a liberal society can tolerate groups such as churches that find it necessary or convenient to appeal to some comprehensive doctrine or other, but itself cannot express commitment to a comprehensive doctrine.

And yet our current president invokes the sanction of the Almighty at every opportunity, and last year our vice president quoted Benjamin Franklin out of context on his Christmas cards, asking “[a]nd if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” Manifest destiny is alive and well.

Can, then, the United States continue to be considered a liberal society, as Rawls thought it was? And I mean ‘liberal’ here in Rawls’ own sense, not in the banal and empty sense promoted by Rush Limbaugh and happily, ignorantly accepted by the establishment left— liberal as in the view that liberty is the supreme virtue of a political order, not as in Susan Sarandon showing up at the Oscars in an electric car.

The answer is that those in power will make the United States as illiberal as its citizens allow them to make it. For George Bush fils is not astute enough to comprehend the value of leaving comprehensive doctrines to the churches and focusing on the merely political ends of liberty and justice. In Bush’s hands, moreover, otherwise merely political virtues have been magically transformed into core features of a comprehensive doctrine. For him, liberty, justice, and other secular political virtues only become comprehensible when referred back to a transcendent moral order. Weighing in decisively on a riddle first posed by Plato in the Euthyphro, for Bush it is not that God, if he exists, would be constrained to approve of liberty and justice because they are good in themselves, but rather, they are good because God, who in fact exists, in fact does approve of them.

As Bush has demonstrated, then, concepts that were once innocuous and universally positive staples of secular liberalism can be facilely incorporated into an illiberal comprehensive doctrine. In his remarks to the US Conference of Mayors on February 23, 2004, to choose one of many examples, Bush asserted that “freedom is the Almighty God’s gift to each man and woman in this world.”

Secular principles, though, even when kept safe from the sort of sacralization Bush has pulled off vis-à-vis freedom, even when we come down on the opposite side of the Euthyphro problem and affirm that justice, equality, etc., are good in themselves and God, if he exists, should approve of them, even then, these principles may still be rather too nebulous to be of much real benefit to the disadvantaged. St. Augustine already demonstrated centuries ago that even those who justify their actions by appeal to God’s unconditional love might not really have your best interest at heart. Shouldn’t I be all the more careful to watch my wallet, and my back, when someone in power starts to invoke justice as a reason for pursuing his preferred course of action?

It should not really be surprising that secular political principles, just like those that draw on a transcendent moral order, also tend to come up only when their self-proclaimed defenders wish to exploit these nebulous notions for their own ends. It is worth noting, in this connection, that almost every dictatorship to emerge in the twentieth century, even North Korea, made sure to include ‘democratic’ somewhere in the official, long-form version of its name.

On the conception of politics suspicious of the invocation of both overtly religious principles like love as well as secular concepts like freedom (which in the case of Bush’s rhetoric is just a religious wolf in secular sheep’s clothing), the best concepts to focus on are the rather more earthly ones, not so much concepts as plans of action, like the provision of food, water, and medicine, the balanced distribution of scarce resources, the alleviation of pain, and the elimination of overt cruelty.

Some may be alarmed by the suggestion that this orientation, while at once the more materialist (in the Marxist sense), is also much more truly Christian than the one that perpetually boasts about its commitment to something higher. But Christ never resisted pulling off miracles such as the one involving loaves and fishes on the grounds that food is a lowly, earthly thing and so can have no part in his revolutionary moral movement. His insistence that what really matters is the kingdom-to-come only gained the legitimacy it did in the eyes of his followers because he took seriously their suffering here and now and alleviated it.

This materialist-cum-Christian approach is also more useful in simply trying to figure out what’s going on in the world. As Gore Vidal once brilliantly put it, politics is a matter of who gives what money to whom for what, and nothing else. The talk about freedom coming from the Bush crowd should not be of any interest to the politically perspicacious; it is only the oil wells and the contracts give without competitive bidding to insiders that are relevant to our understanding of what we are doing in Iraq.

This may seem an excessively strict interpretative approach with respect to contemporary events, but much less so if we look back a few hundred years. Who today really believes that concern for the savages’ souls had anything to do with the colonization of the New World? The colonizers wouldn’t have been nearly so concerned if the preterite natives hadn’t been sitting on huge reserves of natural resources. Of course they wouldn’t have been. And of course no one would be talking about freedom and democracy in Iraq if this talk didn’t lubricate the path to greater riches. There might be some who are sincerely convinced by the rhetoric (Bush, perhaps, in contrast with Cheney), but this is due to a deficit of clear-sightedness, not an abundance of virtue.

I have been claiming that the truly Christian approach to political questions is the one that shuts up about principles and concerns itself with mundane questions like the distribution of goods. Of course, the Gospels say a lot of different things, and one might reasonably object that there is no answer forthcoming to the question: What are the core, essential features of Christian doctrine? But loving thine enemy seems fairly central, and it is difficult to imagine –St. Augustine’s strange argument for love through battle notwithstanding– an enemy taking any expression of love seriously that does not express itself through an earnest effort to alleviate his or her suffering. This love, according to Saint Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians, is the supreme virtue a Christian can manifest: “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” Also central, evidently, is the imperative to avoid making a big scene of one’s piety (Matt. 6:1, 6:5, 6:16, 6:23).

On both of these counts, conservative Christians could evidently use some remedial Sunday school. The best way to teach them the relevant lessons about Christianity, though, is not to deride religious faith as an unfortunate medieval vestige in the modern world, as the left at least as far back as Marx and Engels has so much relished doing. Marx and Engels were right about the historical collusion of the church establishment in Europe with state power, a collusion that at various times made the two bodies indistinguishable. But this tradition has been wrong to hold that religion can only ever be an opium for the masses. Religion can be many things in many different contexts.

In the current context of presidential prayer breakfasts, national days of prayer aiming for the re-election of the current crusading president, prayers for the victory of preferred football teams, campus crusading, coerced displays of religiosity in the workplace and in public life, sincere and unhypocritical religion has the potential to expose religion’s shameless exploiters for what they are, to drive them out of the temple, as it were. The best way to do this is to proceed in Christ’s image: with unconditional charity towards the victims of pseudo-religious aggression, charity that has no need to piously advertise its own divine sanction. The Christian right, in other words, can best be resisted not by condescension, but by the shining example of conduct rooted in the moral core of the New Testament.

It is by no means necessary that such conduct flow from commitment to the theological doctrines of the trinity, the resurrection, transubstantiation, etc. I’m inclined to doubt, in any case, that the majority of Christ’s self- appointed representatives themselves really believe in such things. Their declarations to the effect that they do are performative utterances, announcing and thus bringing about membership in a certain social group, rather than describing an inner conviction that some proposition about, say, bread’s taking on the substance of Christ, is true. How many practicing Catholics today, after all, understand the first thing about the metaphysics of substance, that recondite doctrine that emerges in Aristotle and takes shape over several centuries of Scholastic hair-splitting? But how can they ‘believe’ in transubstantiation without such background knowledge? Again, belief here can only be understood as an expression of group identification, not of epistemic assent.

And again it will be useful to return to Matthew 6:1 to remind ourselves that to follow Christ cannot be merely to proclaim one’s group membership or to dress up in one’s Sunday best. All of this is mere piety. The religious life, in contrast, consists in deeds that flow not from beliefs but from love, performed for no other reason than the alleviation of suffering, and witnessed only by oneself and by God (should s/he happen to exist).

Justin E. H. Smith teaches philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.

He can be reached at: justismi@alcor.concordia.ca