Sunday, October 09, 2016

American Apostasy

The following passage is commonly attributed to Adrian Rogers, one time president of the Southern Baptist Convention:
You cannot legislate the poor into freedom by legislating the wealthy out of freedom. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving. The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else. When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that my dear friend, is about the end of any nation. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it.
Rogers did not originate this passage; whatever his immediate source, it first appeared in The Cross and the Flag, a virulently anti-Soviet magazine put out by Gerald L. K. Smith, a one-time Disciples of Christ minister who fell into politics, riding the coattails first of Huey Long, then of Father Coughlin, and finally, perhaps, of Strom Thurmond, who wisely refused to acknowledge him. A virulent antisemite, his other views seemed to shift depending upon whose star to whom he had hitched his own. To take this present tract, Smith wrote it in 1957; but in the mid '30s he was the heir to Huey Long's "Share Our Wealth organization, whose aim was largely antithetical to Lewis's later views. Indeed, there is a certain timeliness to the movement's theses, but the later Lewis surely could not condone its redistributionist and tax-heavy principles.

Lewis's other claims to fame were the revival of Eureka Springs and the highly regrettable "Christ of the Ozarks" which he made the centerpiece of his facilities there, but this squib on economics was picked up and passed around by other right-wing agitators, which I must presume is where Rogers found it, rather than alongside Lewis's holocaust-denying rants. Now really, even considering the sorry state of economics, a cleric cannot justify taking this kind of passed-from-hand-to-hand political propaganda and proclaiming it as the word of God.

But as I was trying to find time to finish this post, the dismissal of national charity write above was rudely upstaged by a clip of Donald Trump talking about handling (so to speak) women. Incredibly, that paragon of virtue Ralph Reed blew the matter off with this response:

I’ve listened to the tape, my view is that people of faith are voting on issues like who will protect unborn life, defend religious freedom, create jobs, and oppose the Iran nuclear deal. I think a 10-year-old tape of a private conversation with a TV talk show host ranks pretty low on their hierarchy of concerns.
Meanwhile, the head of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins, came through with this principled statement:
My personal support for Donald Trump has never been based upon shared values, it is based upon shared concerns about issues such as: justices on the Supreme Court that ignore the constitution, America’s continued vulnerability to Islamic terrorists and the systematic attack on religious liberty that we’ve seen in the last 7 1/2 years.
And here we are. In the words of Brent Orrell: "It represents the complete subordination of ends to means; the ugly reality is that this leadership will support anyone who claims to support their issues (mainly abortion and marriage) no matter how laughable those claims of support are and how insupportable the behavior and character of the candidate who makes them." Anyone who has seen Trump in action over the years knows that, when it comes to sexual morality, he has none whatsoever. He is nothing but appetite mixed with egomania and a taste for cruelty, governed by no other principle. Yet these "leaders" are willing to sail with him.

And yet nearly half the country is willing to vote for this man, who is so devoid of any Christian virtue that the only sins he cannot be seen to embody are those for which he has not developed a taste. The Seven Deadlies? He all but exemplifies the lot. Nothing he says or does seems to perturb them, and my impression is that they share his collapse into pre-nursery-school amoral impulsiveness. It hardly matters if these people go to church (and My impression is also that they don't) because it doesn't seem to register on them at all. Christianity is nothing more than not-Islam (and probably not-Judaism), a faint cultural marker that involves no religion.

Not that I am going leave the left out of this. Clinton, however duplicitous and evil you think she is personally, represents a program of civil charity which, if ill-advised, poorly executed, and intrusive, at least has some consonance with the teachings of Jesus. But as I've said before, the church's participation in this seems dictated by secular, essentially atheistic culture which is always in peril of stepping away from the gospel. An Atlantic article on the first presidential debate referred to it as "post-Christian" and noted that the faithfully Methodist Clinton avoided, as usual, the language of faith, which those of us in the same social class knows is the way it is done now. And it isn't as though Clinton's "deplorables" don't have a legitimate grievance with the power structures taking advantage of them, and it isn't as though progressive charity towards these people is influenced by their repugnant racism, sexism, and general classlessness. Trump is not their champion no matter how he pretends so, which leaves them with pretty much nobody. And there is no reason not to think that the upper middle class's drift into irreligion is going to be halted, and that even such charity as is thought of now will also fade.

This, then, is the American apostasy; and it presents a major challenge to evangelism. Religion, left or right, is increasingly just someone telling you not do do what you want, and nothing more. Even moral therapeutic deism, the default faith of Americans only a decade ago, is quickly losing ground to utter lack of relationship to God, so that even strident atheists, even agnostics may be held more religious. How do you articulate the divine message in the face of this? "Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again" is a proclamation which simply goes in one ear and out the other.