News Intelligence Analysis

 

 

When Christianity Is UnAmerican

 

By Terri Murray

February 22, 2008

 

Approximately three out of four Americans identify as Christian (77% in 2001, according to a survey by the Barna Group). Phrases inscribed on the U.S. currency or recited in oaths in American classrooms and courtrooms have led some to claim that America is a Christian nation. Christian nationalists and revisionists are reinterpreting the original intent of America's founding documents, to illustrate that America’s wall of separation was built to protect churches from state intervention, and not the other way around. But my object here is not to engage the revisionists. This task has been accomplished admirably elsewhere.[1] My purpose is merely to outline discrepancies between an authoritarian ideology (commonly mis-identified by some of its advocates as a “Christian worldview”) and that of modern liberal democracies, such as America has traditionally been.

 

There is a growing chasm between the values of America’s founders and the values of the theocratic Christian right, who claim that their version of authoritarianism is a more authentic interpretation of American values than the Enlightenment values so cherished by our nation’s forebears. But their values are irreconcilable with those of America’s past. Hence they are not giving a more authentic interpretation of American values but replacing those values with an entirely different doctrine, while attempting to transfer the prestige of the label American to their own antithetical doctrines. This prestige is not theirs to own, however, as it comes from the very principles they reject. As with all of the debates they have undertaken to win their culture war the Christian right’s pundits control the cultural conversation by controlling the discourse -- shifting the meanings of words to reflect an agenda alien to the referents that once gave those words their meaning. The best way to stop this abuse of language is to refuse to accept their terms, and to demand that they define them before deploying them in new contexts with new referents.

 

Since one of the key words the authoritarian Christian nationalists have grossly distorted is “Christianity” itself, it will be necessary to clarify my own terms before I proceed with my critique of the so-called “Christian worldview.” It is rather misleading to refer to America’s politicized theocratic movement as Christian (their preferred term), because the word has so many different referents, many of which bear no resemblance to this movement. To allow this network of politically active social conservatives to monopolize the term Christian is grossly misleading. I prefer theocrats because it more accurately describes the values this movement represents. It seems the proper question is not whether it is ‘Christian’ to be homophobic, feminist, or “anti-contraception and anti-abortion”.[2] Rather, the question is whether the word ‘Christianity’ refers to any single thing. Mainline moderate Christians concede too much to their theocratic rivals by taking for granted the unity and coherence of the New Testament (i.e. the Christian Bible).

 

There has simply never been a coherent Christian moral philosophy capable of reconciling the inherent tension between the Synoptic Gospels and Paul’s letters. The latter are commentaries on the significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for human salvation. Paul demonstrates astonishingly little knowledge of, or interest in, the traditions about Jesus. This, according to Dr. John Ziesler, is “one of the strangest and most puzzling areas of early Christianity.”[3] The West has no single, coherent basis for ‘Christian’ ethics because the New Testament contains two conflicting ethical systems. One can be traced to the traditions of the followers of the historical and fully human Jesus of Nazareth (i.e. the ‘Q’ source), and the other takes its authority from the salvation-by-atonement interpretation of Jesus’ death found in Paul’s epistles.

 

Jesus was a polemical figure precisely because he came on the scene at a time when Judaism was facing the threat of radical transformation from within. On the one hand, there were authoritarian legalists, who acted as guardians and interpreters of God’s will. Their job was to do the interpretation of Scripture to the daily lives of the Jewish people. There was no separation of church and state, all law was divinely ordained and biblical. But within Judaism were many people of faith who recognized the human abuses inherent in this interpretative legalism, and they were keen to replace God’s self-appointed ‘mediators’ with a direct and personal faith grounded in God-given human reason and compassion.

 

Jesus was a catalyst who exacerbated these tensions endemic in first century Jewish culture. Ironically, the tensions in ancient Jewish culture were not unlike those that presently divide America over how properly to interpret Christian ethics. At the time of Jesus’ ministry, there was widespread controversy between those who exercised rabbinical priestcraft in a literalistic, legalistic manner and those who understood biblical literature as metaphorical and hoped to derive a philanthropic ethic from it. The former group was probably fairly reactionary -- they appear to have used a good deal of Midrashic[4] license in order to adapt the old texts to newer, unprecedented situations as their culture came into contact with the surrounding Greco-Roman environment.

 

Jesus appears to have been at the vanguard of the anti-theocratic movement, (claiming that his kingdom was not of this world) and was often seen deflating the hubris and pretension of the scribes and Pharisees of his own religion, which must have seemed quite blasphemous to their ilk. Although their livelihood came by interpreting and enforcing the will of God for all, they hypocritically accused Jesus of arrogance, despite his humble example. Where they saw the measure of faith as obedience to publicly recognizable conventional rules of behavior, Jesus taught that the rules were only as good as the people who used them. The Sabbath was made for mankind, not mankind for the Sabbath.

 

We can never know with any certainty whether or not Jesus claimed to be Divine, since he didn’t sit down and write on that topic, or any other. What we can know, from reading what evangelists recorded about his life and teachings, is that his ethic was not reducible to exterior rules of normative behaviour, but emphasized the intention of the agent over catalogues of right and wrong acts. This is because actions in their external aspect tell us nothing about the motives behind them. To understand what a particular act means, we need to take human intentions into account. Westerners attempt to do something of this sort in our modern law courts. We establish guilt or innocence based on the interior aspects of a given act. This allows us, for instance, to distinguish between different acts of killing. One act of killing may be premeditated murder while another may be accidental homicide or self-defense.

 

Likewise, Jesus made a radical distinction between the dirtiness or cleanliness of acts-in-themselves and the intent to do good or harm by means of those acts. This was a new approach, and threatened to undermine the biblical-legalistic method of proclaiming particular categories of actions as absolutely wrong, regardless of intent or circumstance. Jesus taught that biblical laws needed to be flexible to adapt to the human situation, which can turn an ostensibly friendly act (such as a kiss) into betrayal, or a seemingly charitable act (like giving alms) into vainglory.

 

If Christianity has failed to make a radical departure from the Pharisaic Jewish modus operandi (which was oriented towards scriptural legalism) then we have St. Paul to thank. Christian talk radio hosts do not quote the Synoptic Gospels. The Synoptic Gospels would contradict not only their theocratic posturing, but also their political agenda. Can you imagine a talk radio host quoting Jesus’ injunction to “turn the other cheek”? Sayings like “He who is without sin among you, cast the first stone” or “Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” would be incompatible with the theocratic agenda. Instead they quote Paul.

 

Jesus was never a Christian. He died a Jew. Christianity was founded by St. Paul and did not exist until approximately twenty years after Jesus’ death. As historian Paul Johnson has noted, it was Paul who insisted that Jesus was God.[5] This insistence on the divinity of Jesus, says Johnson, is the only thing that really matters, otherwise the Pauline theology collapses, and with it Christianity. The divinity of Jesus is crucial to maintaining theocratic authority. If Jesus was a human being who set the supreme example of human virtue, then his followers could strive to imitate him. Many people who today call themselves “Christians” are followers of Jesus’ teachings, including the one that enjoins them to “pick up your crosses and follow me.” But Pauline Christianity rests upon the doctrine that this is impossible. By making Jesus into an instrument of God’s agency Paul was able to preserve the myth that human free will, unassisted by God’s saving grace, cannot bring about any good. This move preserved the mediating function of the theocratic authorities, and protected the theocratic form of government from the immanent threat of democracy and direct personal faith grounded in the individual’s relationship to God.

 

On one level, St. Paul appears to acknowledge a dualism in human nature between Spirit and flesh. But in fact Paul’s premise is that humans can will the good but they cannot do it. Spirit is not something within humanity, it is a gift from God. Human will is weak and cannot overcome the sinful passions of the flesh. This, of course, makes nonsense of human moral agency. Having established this monistic and deterministic model of human nature, Paul goes on to assert a cosmic dualism between human nature (sin) and divine nature (redemption). It is only because humans accept their utter moral impotence that they have to depend on an external authority for salvation (grace). This pessimistic picture of human nature flies in the face of the modern, dualistic Cartesian picture of rational human subjectivity and responsibility that was in vogue when America’s founding fathers were drafting the Constitution.[6] Our forebears’ assumption was that humans become virtuous or vicious through their own choices, not through the past sins of Adam and Eve.

 

In the early part of the nineteenth century Thomas Jefferson began the first of two New Testament studies, which he called ‘The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth’. Almost two decades later he completed his version of ‘The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth extracted textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English’. Jefferson’s primary interest was not so much in investigating the historical Jesus as in identifying the philosophical essence of the religion of the Gospels. Although he was aware that the teachings of Jesus had been subjected to much editing and commentary, Jefferson believed that the fragments remaining reflected a profound teacher, whose “system of morality was the most benevolent and sublime. . . ever taught, and consequently more perfect than those of any of the ancient philosophers.” In 1803, Jefferson wrote in a letter to his friend Benjamin Rush:

 

“[Jesus’] character and doctrines have received still greater
injury from those who pretend to be his special disciples,
and who have disfigured and sophistacated his actions and
precepts, from views of personal interest, . . . “

 

Jefferson was convinced that the real villain in the Christian story was the self-appointed apostle Paul, who had corrupted the religion of Jesus by making it into a religion about Jesus. Jefferson felt that the Pauline teaching, in conjunction with the supernatural outlook of the Fourth Gospel, had produced the perversions of dogma, superstition, and priestcraft, which had become tantamount to Christian orthodoxy. Jefferson blamed “the corruption of [Jesus’] schismatising followers” for the fact that many were throwing out the baby of the gospels with the bathwater of the Pauline perversions. Jefferson attempted to revive the authentic teachings of Jesus of Nazareth by wresting them away from the distortions and allowing them to speak for themselves.

 

If liberals are more sympathetic to secular humanism than to Christian doctrine it is because Christian Scripture is ambivalent in its view of human nature, and second, because Christian doctrine has over-emphasized Paul’s pessimistic construction of human nature. The latter makes nonsense of moral responsibility, because it posits a deterministic model of human nature that is inconsistent with human experience, moral exhortation and human reason. Jesus’ system of morality, which most liberals greatly admire, conflicts with the misanthropy expressed in Pauline doctrine. Jesus’ ethical teachings are more consistent with the values of enlightenment humanism than with biblical theocracy, which Jesus spent his rabbinical career assailing.

 

‘Christianity’ is an abstract concept badly in need of analysis and definition. The authoritarian Christian right have assumed, with little argument, that Pauline doctrine is more essential to ‘Christianity’ than the teachings and traditions about Jesus, where they conflict. And conflict they do.

 

To outline how and where Pauline doctrine is incompatible with the “American worldview” it is important to clarify my terms first. For the purposes of this essay a ‘Christian worldview’ is defined as the Pauline doctrine of salvation, according to which all of humankind are rendered ‘sinners’ by virtue of the past transgressions of our progenitors Adam and Eve, or by virtue of an intrinsic defect in human nature. This same Pauline doctrine also makes it a matter of Christian orthodoxy that Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf atoned for man’s sin and offered each of us redeeming salvation by means of the profession of the Christian faith and obedience to its rules. ‘Christianity’ in this context does not refer to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth but to the Pauline teachings about the significance of his death and resurrection for the salvation of mankind.

 

America was founded during the age of Enlightenment in which reason was the primary basis for authority. The late 18th century zeitgeist included unprecedented questioning of the authority of the established church. The new emphasis on freedom of conscience in religion meant that believers needed to be convinced, not merely coerced. The founding fathers understood that an individual’s confession of faith had to be the outcome of a free choice, and that anything less was not worthy of the name. Nevertheless, America’s founding documents displayed a powerful moral thrust and a commitment to a distinct set of values that set it apart from the monarchies and theocracies of the past. The core values of our founding documents are (1) the primacy of the individual, (2) freedom, (3) reason, (4) justice, and (5) toleration and diversity. Each of these values is incompatible with the definition of Christianity summarized above.

 

The Primacy of the Individual

 

Christianity pictures human nature in the abstract. It begins from the premise of corporate human guilt, as set out in the first chapter of Genesis. When Adam and Eve sinned, they infected the entire human race with ‘original sin’ and mortality. This is a generalized, abstract definition of human nature and the individual is irrelevant to it. In addition, Christianity views mankind as dominated in a quasi-deterministic way by animal nature and biological urges, unable to direct our lives as free rational moral agents, because we are subject to the body’s overpowering selfish instincts. In his letter to the Romans, Paul expresses his conviction that human beings (as a species; not individual humans) are incapable of responsibly exercising free will. “Let not sin,” he wrote, “dwell in your mortal bodies to make you obey their passions” [Rom. 6:12]. He even renounces consciousness of his actions, making nonsense of moral agency: “I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. . . “[Romans 7: 14, 15] “Nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right but I cannot do it.” [Rom. 7: 18] “I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am!” [Rom. 7: 21-24] With these statements Paul asserts his biological determinism in unequivocal terms. Paul’s pessimistic anthropology and his deterministic understanding of human nature makes humanity as a whole dependent on external salvation. His premise is that the flesh dominates the will. Consequently, he pictures a cosmic dualism between man and God. The human species is doomed to immorality and death without the saving grace of God, a super-human source of goodness entirely outside of corrupted human nature. On this model human nature is collectively and permanently corrupted, not because of the wrong choices freely made by human individuals, but because of the past sins of our original progenitors.

 

When a Christian confesses his faith he is also humbly confessing his inability to take personal responsibility for the existence of moral goodness in the world. As a human individual born into sinful flesh, he is powerless; only with God’s divine assistance can he accomplish great things. (The flip side of this is: nor can he be individually blamed for his sins, [which] are due to his flawed nature, as can be seen in Paul’s musings above). The moral good he is able to do is not his individual achievement, but God’s power working in him and through him. His only pride comes from letting God into his heart and into his life, like a remote control that is finally turned on which allows God to use him as an instrument. Because of his wise submission to a higher power, the Christian also knows that the entire human race is likewise powerless to effect moral improvement of the species. In his humility, the Christian knows that the unsaved are (unlike himself) too proud to let God into their lives. They foolishly cling to the belief that they are responsible for any goodness (or badness) that the species achieves. This is sinful pride. In his humility the Christian also knows that only God is wise, and human wisdom is but folly. Of course, he has to know at least as much as God, if not more, in order to pay Him this ‘compliment’ on His wisdom, but never mind that, faith works in mysterious ways.

 

In contrast to the Pauline picture of human nature, the American Constitution is the product of men who held it was a self-evident truth “that all men are created equal” and posses an “inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. This did not mean that all men are born with equal ability and equal opportunity. What it meant was that all have an intrinsic dignity just by virtue of being born -- quite the opposite of the doctrine of original sin. This was not to claim for mankind as a whole some particular moral status, as though we all deserve moral praise and should adopt an attitude of complacent self-love by virtue of having been born. What it does mean is that there are certain kinds of things that should never be done to a human being, because of his intrinsic worth and potential. In this context, ‘sanctity of life’ means respecting human beings as ends in themselves, not as instruments or objects to be exploited.

 

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), a devout Christian, was perhaps the most influential thinker of the modern era. In common with other thinkers of the Enlightenment, Kant attached great importance to man’s ability to reason. His belief in man’s rational faculty, his ability to think apart from his own circumstances or preferences, distinguishes him from all other creatures. It is this that constitutes man’s intrinsic dignity, and which binds humans to one another.

 

Enlightenment philosophers and statesmen of the 18th and 19th centuries championed a vision of human fulfillment linked to autonomy. They advocated a maturity that suggested human nature itself is trustworthy; it has not been warped by any metaphysical concept such as ‘sin’.

 

The Christian dualism between nature and the divine is therefore replaced by a vision of the universe as one. Reasoning does not transcend the physical universe but is that which characterizes the natural human life. Reasoning is our piece of divinity within the framework of the universe. If there is any tension to be found it is not between man and God, but within man himself. Man is subject to the laws of nature -- mortality being the most ineluctable -- but he is also free by virtue of his ability to distance himself from his immediate instincts and selfish desires and to reflect on his choices.

 

Rene Descartes (1591 - 1650) made a clear distinction between the physical laws of causality, which explain bodies in space, and the strictly mental categories of purpose and will. In the pre-Cartesian anthropology there was not, as yet, any differentiation between the causal laws operating in the realm of human behavior and the causal laws that govern the universe. Human behavior was not particularly associated with human subjectivity or responsibility, but was a kind of conformity to one’s ‘natural’, pre-ordained place in the universe or in society or the family. If you were a woman, your natural duty was to obey your husband and bear children—this was your purpose; the idea that an individual woman had purposes of her own— i.e. goals and projects—was alien. This left little room for any coherent concept of moral agency. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ were closely associated with conformity to, or deviance from, a pre-ordained design. The individual’s needs, abilities, and goals were not to be determined by her, but by her natural place in the order of nature. The same could be said for feudal lords, serfs, or monarchs.

 

The Enlightenment thinkers did not accept a deterministic picture of human nature dominated by the flesh. Unlike an animal whose behavior is instinctual and unreflective, we have subjective desires not controlled by our immediate needs, instincts, and fears. Our will is autonomous. We can distance ourselves from our immediate instincts and selfish desires and reflect on our choices.

 

‘Good’ and ‘evil’ are terms applicable to the evaluation of human actions. Reason provides the tool with which to decide the limits of our responsibility. Whether mankind becomes good or bad depends upon the choices individuals make, and the kind of lives they decide to create. We cannot generalize. Humanity is not static and can always change, depending on individual humans. Without individual choice (autonomy), the concepts of praise and blame are nonsensical.

 

Instead of being slaves to our generic natural drives (as in Paul’s soteriology) we have the capacity to become autonomously subordinate to a higher master -- self-conscious reason. This is not a rejection of our nature but the highest fulfillment of it. Human beings have a unique ability to reflect upon our desires and to think about our actions. Only a rational agent can have subjective principles according to which he governs his behavior. Such subjective principles are different from mere desires. In acting on desires alone a human being is at the mercy of animal passions and, in this sense, is not genuinely free.

 

Liberty

 

For Paul, obedience is the key to human fulfillment in Christ. This is the only kind of human fulfillment Paul acknowledges. The result is not individual liberty but an emptying of the self and submission to God’s theocratic representatives on earth:

 

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, those who resist the authorities resist what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. [Rom. 13:1-3]

 

Anything but this kind of submissive obedience results in judgement, punishment, and ultimately, death.

 

“Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have becomes slaves of righteousness." [Rom. 6: 16-18, my emphasis]

 

 

“We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.” [2 Corinthains 10:5-6, my emphasis]

 

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” [Philippians 2: 5-8, my emphasis]

 

“And besides our own comfort we rejoiced still more at the joy of Titus, because his mind had been set at rest by you all. For if I have expressed to him some pride in you, I was not put to shame; but just as everything we said to you was true, so our boasting before Titus has proved true. And his heart goes out all the more to you, as he remembers the obedience of you all, and the fear and trembling with which you received him.” [2 Corinthians 7: 14-15, my emphasis]

 

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” [Philippians 2: 12-13, my emphasis]

 

“But we beseech you, bretheren, to respect those who labour among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, …” [1 Thessalonians 5: 12]

 

According to Paul’s Christian worldview, freedom is always freedom from sin. But since sin is the controlling aspect of human nature (residing in our members and making us captive to their passions) only a total rejection of ourselves can lead to true freedom. ‘Freedom’ is thus inextricably linked to an exterior power upon which we are dependent and to which we are obedient, like slaves. Only through submission to this authority can we hope to be ‘free’ from judgement, punishment, and mortality. So ‘freedom’ is a euphemism for total obedience, or slavery. Paul’s version of freedom is conceived politically as freedom from the dread of punishment and death; both result from disobedience.

 

But is this really what we mean by freedom? Can we be genuinely free if our only viable option is between obedience and death, or violent punishment? Even in situations of political un-freedom, we may nevertheless exercise a degree of existential freedom, as Jesus himself illustrated by choosing punishment over submission to the Jewish theocracy, of which Paul was a typical member. But most people conceive of freedom in the political sense – as liberty to pursue our own values, practice our own religion, and seek our own fulfillment in our own ways, i.e. as freedom from unreasonable external constraints. It is arguable whether reluctant, fearful obedience to theocratic authorities constitutes authentic ‘freedom’ at all.

 

But worse, if I am acting from fear of punishment, then my obedience to the moral rules, even if it is arguably ‘free’, is motivated by self-preservation, not morality. Paul always uses threats of punishment and death because he assumes human beings are not autonomous, and so cannot be motivated by values other than self-preservation. Intuitively, however, we know that morality is different from mere prudence. People recognize that desire and duty may conflict. Instincts towards self-preservation may be perfectly natural, but the very notion of morality presupposes that there are predilections and impulses towards selfishness to be overcome.

 

Christians complain that, if we give humans too much responsibility, many will abuse it. External authorities (even if they only use ‘God’ as a cynical Machiavellian means of establishing and maintaining state authority) are there to prevent the worst abuses of human freedom. The price of human freedom is too high. The state must act paternalistically since the individual can not always be trusted to exercise his reason, nor do his moral duty.

 

The problem with this argument is that being free to do my moral duty entails being free not to do it. Freedom involves a genuine choice between at least two genuine options. A world where evil is rendered impossible would be one where virtue is equally impossible. There may be so-called “duties” that I am not free to forego, but such duties cannot properly be called ‘moral’. An agent cannot be worthy of praise or blame for doing the only thing he could possibly have done. Coercive theocracies make nonsense of moral behavior. And when it does occur, they make sure it is exceedingly costly to achieve, by exacting death or torture as the price of freedom (which is its foundation). Punishment is intended to prove the very premise that legitimates it, namely, that humans are wretched and incapable of exercising freedom.

 

In the American political system, liberty is described a natural right, essential to leading a truly human life. Thus a particular conception of personhood is implicit in America’s founding documents and it is not an altogether irreligious one. To quote theologian John Hick (1922 - ):

 

“For freedom, including moral freedom, is an essential element in what we know as personal as distinct from non-personal life. In order to be a person man must be free to choose right or wrong. He must be a morally responsible agent with a real power of moral choice. NO doubt God could instead have created some other kind of being, with no freedom of choice and therefore no possibility of making wrong choices. But in fact He has chosen to create persons, and we can only accept this decision as basic to our existence…”[7]

 

Freedom is the only condition under which we are able to develop and fulfill our human potential. Kant saw reason and freedom as inexorably linked. His idea of autonomy is that we can freely will to obey the moral law. The concept comes from the Greek ‘auto-nomos’, meaning ‘self-law’. This is not license to do whatever one wishes, nor is it the arbitrary liberty of a savage in the state of nature. For Kant, autonomy is regulated freedom under law. It is the activity of recognizing and living one’s life by a moral law that you yourself obey. This is what enlightenment means -- growing up and coming to our maturity, by taking responsibility for one’s actions, as the author of one’s own moral well-being. As a moral agent, I acknowledge that certain principles ought to be obeyed in order for the world to be fair and just for all. But sometimes I subvert my own reasoning (the reasoning that led me to accept the general rule), by hypocritically deciding that I am a special exception. In doing so, I involve myself in a subtle contradiction, acting not autonomously, but from a desire or an inclination, as opposed to what I know is right. I undermine my own freedom in acting contrary to reason. Reason is the very thing that frees me from my self-immured subjection to the impulses of my biological nature.

 

Americans have traditionally preferred the right over the good. That is, the state must remain morally neutral between different moral ‘worldviews’. The state establishes and safeguards the conditions in which people can pursue the good life as each defines it, rather than proscribing or promoting any particular definition of what is good. The American Constitution favors self-determination because its authors recognized that where there is no freedom, [there] can be no virtue. It was precisely because they wanted human beings to be free to fulfill the human need to live morally good lives that our nation’s founders protected individual conscience from the tyranny of theocratic rule.

 

Responsibility means more than obedience to external authorities. A definition of ‘goodness’ based on social conformity to conventional rules is not genuinely ‘moral’ unless it is motivated by reason and conviction rather than fear or self-preservation. To be responsible is not just to do my duty because I know I will be punished if I do not. On that definition a ‘responsible’ person would do any crime he thought he could ‘get away’ with. Responsibility means knowing that I will deserve punishment if I fail to do my duty, whether I am in fact punished or not. People do not feel a sense of moral duty to obey immoral laws, nor should they. To be responsible means that I have a duty to disobey immoral laws even if I risk be[ing] unjustly punished for so doing. To take responsibility is to confront my own freedom and the anguish that comes with difficult choices, rather than pretending that I am not truly free, or disguising my freedom from myself. Responsibility means to act according to reason and conscience and to try, to the best of our abilities, to hold our laws to that same standard -- to require that they conform to the good for humanity. As Jesus said: “The Sabbath was made for mankind, not mankind for the Sabbath.”

 

However, America’s founders recognized that freedom, while being a necessary condition for human flourishing, could not be absolute. Liberty, if exercised without limits, would give people license to abuse others and deprive them of freedom. This, of course, would be self-defeating. The limits that exist, then, are intended to apply to actions that are ‘other-regarding’. State power may rightfully be exercised over the individual, against his will, only if it is done to prevent harm to others. A government official’s desire to prevent me from harming myself is not adequate justification for curtailing my liberty, although states have made exceptions with, for example, statutes requiring seat belts and motorcycle helmets. In general, Americans accept a system that permits the widest possible individual freedom consistent with a like liberty for all. They have also interpreted freedom primarily in negative terms, as freedom from interference or constraint.

 

Reason

 

Christianity gives virtually no importance to human reason. Many of its doctrines require its utter abandonment. In his letters to the Corinthians, Paul sets up an opposition between the wisdom that “we” (Paul and his fellow evangelists) preach, and the ‘wisdom’ of dissident beliefs in the Corinthian community. In spite of Elaine Pagels’s famous interpretation of the letters as addressing a particularly charismatic brand of gnosticism[8], Paul’s complaint is apparently not with style but with substantial differences between his preaching and that of rival “apostles of Christ”[9]. The problem was that their teachings differed from those taught by Paul:

 

“I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarrelling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, 'I belong to Paul,' or 'I belong to Apollos,' or 'I belong to Cephas,' or 'I belong to Christ.' Is Christ divided?” [1 Cor. 1:10 - 13]

 

Apparently this was not a rhetorical question amongst the Corinthians. So Paul simply argues that his wisdom is from God, and that anyone who disagrees is arrogant and full of hubris. He says in 1 Corinthians 1:20, “Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” And he continues in v. 22- 25, “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified… For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” Paul then goes on to identify the wisdom he and his party impart and God’s “secret and hidden wisdom” [1 Cor. 2: 7ff] He then explains that only through the Spirit of God is comprehension possible. [1 Cor. 2:10 - 16] Moreover, since God has revealed to Paul and his friends the thoughts of God, which are spiritually discerned, he is in a position to judge all things, but is himself immune to judgement. In effect, by asserting that “the unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God” he demonizes opposing views as godless. His stance is that human wisdom is “folly with God” and “the Lord knows the thoughts of the wise are futile.” [1 Cor. 3: 18 - 21] Accordingly, all human knowledge (other than Paul’s) is but hubris -- arrogant pride vastly inferior to God’s wisdom. Any reasoned questioning of Paul’s message is preemptively dismissed as either (1) having no “spiritual” source in God, or (2) a form of boasting and pride that is inappropriate for mere human beings. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. If any one imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if one loves God, one is known by Him.” [1 Cor. 8: 1- 2]

 

 

In contrast to the Pauline disregard for all human reason, the American case for freedom was linked to faith in universal human reason. America’s founders were not overly sanguine about human nature. They didn’t suppose human beings are infallible. But their belief in reason gave them a strong bias against paternalism. Human beings are capable of learning, of accumulating knowledge and expanding it, especially through science. The first Americans believed in progress, and saw education as a kind of emancipation from the grip of outdated superstition, customs and tradition. Government was instituted not to dictate the ends of human conduct, but to protect reason-governed behavior as the best means. The emphasis shifted from custom and tradition (based in non-rational habits) to principle (grounded in a reasoned explanation). People could improve themselves through the acquisition of knowledge and the abandonment of prejudice and superstition. Learning was seen as a good in itself. It promotes personal development and can contribute to historical and social advancement.

 

Moreover, America’s founders were realistic enough to recognize the power of self-interest and egoism. These tendencies in human nature often lead to conflict. Reason provides a basis upon which rival claims can be evaluated without resort to violence and aggression. War and violence mark the failure of humanity to fulfill its potential.

 

Immanuel Kant thought that service to God comes from acting morally towards other human beings according to the dictates of reason. He rejected moral duties based on divine command because of the problem associated with Plato’s Eutyrphro Dilemma. The dilemma asks us to ponder whether anything God might command is good just because God commanded it, or whether God commands things because they are good. If we affirm the former, then anything God commands, no matter how sadistic or outrageously inhumane, must be deemed ‘'good’. Most theists would recoil from a divine command requiring us to torture children, even if it were written in Scripture. In fact, they would probably point to the immorality of the command as evidence that this Scripture couldn’t possibly be authentic. When it comes down to it most believers think that the reason why God is good is because God does what is good, not that the good is good just because God says so. But this involves the acceptance that God’s goodness is a matter of God conforming to some independent standard of goodness. This means that He is no longer the paradigm of goodness. It seems we have an independent standard of ‘goodness’ and that God is superfluous to it.

 

We have already seen (above) that Immanuel Kant placed a high premium on human reason. He rejected David Hume's assertion in A Treatise of Human Nature that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.” Humans are capable of acting on rational moral principles that they themselves value. To act on a subjective principle is to have a determining ground for my actions, a normative judgement applied to me. To act on such a principle is to exercise my free will. Unlike other animals, human beings can choose not to act on instinct and inclination alone but according to the demands that reason makes on us. Reason allows us to do more than react to external stimuli. We can be the authors of our own lives, directing them purposefully towards goals that we value.

 

Justice

 

According to Paul’s doctrine of vicarious salvation, “by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” [Romans 5: 19] According to this worldview, ‘sin’ is not an individual’s failure to do something that is humanly possible; it is humanity’s hereditary lack of potential to lead morally virtuous lives. Because the moral life is not humanly possible, Jesus -- a divine being -- had to come down to earth to do it for us (i.e. instead of us). Our only hope of becoming virtuous is to give our assent to this proposition. We also have to obey strict rules that separate the good folks from the bad. These rules proscribe certain kinds of actions without any reference to the intentions of the agent in performing those actions. In other words, we have to obey conventional social rules even if our inner disposition is rotten to the core. We have to clean the outside of the cup, never mind that the interior may be full of distortion and wickedness.

 

In addition to being told that it is not possible to live a life like Jesus’, we are also told that the very suggestion that the gospels contain any such demand is blasphemous -- a most vile display of hubris, the ‘mere humanism’ of pagan society! In the 5th century, the British monk Pelagius was one of many who learned this lesson the hard way when he argued that you work your salvation through your own efforts and the exercise of free will. Pelagius taught that grace was a natural capacity, given to us by our Creator, to reject evil and seek God. St. Augustine met this suggestion with contempt, insisting that it was only by the grace of God that anyone could live a just and moral life. He made reference to St. Paul, who tells his Roman congregation “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So [justice] depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy.” [Rom. 9:16] In other words ‘grace’ is not a human capacity but a divine gift, and the way to salvation is passively to accept it. Augustine remains a pillar of the Church and today his writings are taught in Christian academic institutions worldwide. Pelagianism was declared a heresy at the Council of Ephesus in 431 c.e..

 

Paul defines ‘justice’ as punishment for disobedience to God. But he gets himself into a mess when it is pointed out to him that he has also claimed that God elects to disclose his wisdom to whomever he wills and hardens the heart of whomever he wills. [Rom. 9:18] The problem with this is that it makes no sense for God to blame the very people whose hearts he Himself has hardened. Paul’s somewhat convenient response to this is “But who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is moulded say to its moulder, ‘Why have you made me thus?’ has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and one for menial use?” [Rom. 9: 19 - 21] By simply proclaiming that whatever God commands is right because God is God, Paul dismisses his critics and sidesteps the difficulties posed by his self-contradiction.

 

Those who swallow the doctrine of vicarious salvation have already been convinced of their vicarious guilt, which is equally absurd. Just as Jesus is punished for us (instead of us) Adam sins for us (instead of us). It’s only because Adam sinned for us that Jesus had to repent for us. Whatever happens in the moral universe happens in a realm where our actions don’t matter. We are mere spectators in the cosmic struggle between good and evil -- only the villain’s and hero’s actions have consequences for us. Given this universe of cosmic moral effects in which human moral agents do not cause anything, it is perplexing why any Christian would suddenly demand that we actively do something to improve our moral status.

 

Moreover, it confounds any sense of ‘justice’ to demand an individual’s punishment for another person’s crime(s). Either we are responsible for our moral status or we aren’t. If we aren’t then perhaps God and Adam are. But if we are, then God and Adam certainly are not. That is known as human logic, and it is precisely what fundamentalists require you to give up.

 

Adam and Eve may have sinned, but if God is just then we ought not to be blamed for it. Justice demands that the guilty, and not the innocent, be punished. Likewise if Jesus achieved moral perfection through his life choices then he alone is morally praiseworthy. We can take inspiration from his actions. But we cannot take credit for his goodness by mere ‘belief’, nor incorporate it by eating his flesh. There is work to be done to better ourselves and alleviate the suffering of others and the responsibility lies with each of us. This is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples “pick up your cross and follow me”.

 

To America’s founding fathers, justice referred to a kind of moral judgement about the distribution of rewards and punishment. As we saw previously, human beings were born ‘equal’ according to a theory of ‘natural rights.’ This meant that each individual is of moral worth. Accordingly, individuals enjoy formal equality before the law. As citizens, they are entitled to the same rights and protections as others. It is just to reward merit because individuals are treated according to the ‘content of their character’ rather than gender, ethnicity or religious affiliation. The concept of merit is based on the intuition that people ought to get what they deserve. Rewards and punishment, praise and blame, go to the individuals responsible for them, not to whole groups of people who have done nothing to deserve them.

 

Diversity and Toleration

 

The Christian attitude to dissent and disagreement is exactly what we would expect from a theocracy. When the authority to govern comes from above, the consent of the governed is not necessary and there is no check on executive power. The purpose of human life --- redemption from our own sinful nature -- is the same for everyone. To fulfill your purpose means to obey God’s vice-regents (Paul calls them “ambassadors”) on earth, to whom he has given absolute authority.

 

Naturally then, Paul’s attitude to dissent and quarrelling is intolerance. He constantly admonishes his readers to be of “one mind”. Christian scholars and theologians defend Paul from the charge of intolerance by selectively prioritizing Galatians 3: 23 - 29, where he says “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul is not attempting to embrace the distinctions he mentions, however, but to erase them. The very purpose of this letter, as can be discerned from the wider context, is to rebuke the Judaizers, (Jewish disciples of Jesus) who were insisting, contrary to Paul, that adult male converts to the faith be circumcised according to Jewish law and custom. This unsavory and doubtless painful procedure was a barrier to Paul’s Gentile recruitment campaign. This fact explains why the allegedly tolerant Paul says of his rival Jews, “I wish that they would mutilate themselves.” [Gal. 5:12]. This comes after Paul asks, “who has hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine; and he who is troubling you will bear his judgment, whoever he is.” [Gal. 5: 7 - 10]

 

Paul has the same preoccupation with suppressing dissent in writing to the Corinthian community. In his opening of 1 Cor. Paul makes an explicit appeal “that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” [1 Cor. 1:10 - 11] This intolerance of diversity continues throughout his letter, as when he says in 1 Cor 5:9 - 13,

 

“I wrote to you in my last letter not to associate with immoral men, not at all meaning the immoral men of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of this world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard or robber -- not even to eat with such a one. Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. 'Drive out the wicked person from among you.'”

 

As elsewhere, Paul appears to be responding to accusations here. He is referring back to an instruction that he wrote in his last letter that appears to need further explanation now. Paul is trying to backtrack or equivocate on his previous statement to make it sit more easily with criticisms. The most likely criticism is that Paul’s injunction to his congregation to disassociate themselves from immoral men conflicts with the teaching of Jesus and the other, ‘rival’ apostles such as Cephas/Peter, who was a disciple of Jesus during his ministry and as such would have had superior authority to Paul, who was not). We know that Jesus regularly ate with immoral men and that this scandalized self-righteous Pharisees and legalists such as Paul. In this letter we find Paul trying to reconcile his own teaching with what was widely known to be Jesus’ view of the matter. In essence he says that his judgement on immorality is reserved for those who confess the faith, and does not apply to outsiders. He demands that anyone inside his church follow its rules, which seems like a reasonable request. But the context is a community split between followers of Jesus’ disciples (e.g. Cephas) and followers of the self-proclaimed apostle Paul. There was doubtless sharp disagreement amongst these various followers of Jesus, although rival groups probably still referred to one another as ‘brethren’ in an attempt to stress their common beliefs. If this was the context, as 1 Cor. 1:11[10] strongly suggests, Paul’s intolerance of ‘immorality’ amongst ‘anyone who bears the name of brother’ justifies expelling anyone who disagreed about the content and requirements of ‘morality’', i.e. anyone who disagreed with Paul’s own teaching. In the next chapter of 2 Corinthians Paul reiterates his command that his ‘righteous’ followers segregate themselves from the other brethren, whom he seems intent to demonize: “Do not be mismated with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?” [2 Cor. 6: 14 - 15] It is clear in most of Paul’s letters that his primary purpose in writing them is to prevent or respond to dissent from his teachings. Paul claims authority as an “ambassador for Christ,” God making his appeal through him and his fellow evangelists [2 Cor. 5: 20 ].

 

The United States is not a theocracy, much to the chagrin of Christian revisionists. It is a democracy, in which the authority to govern comes from below, from the consent of the governed. The rulers are elected or appointed by the people, for the people, and represent their will and their interests. On this model, government serves the ‘common good’ of the people, who give their consent because of the good sense of the arrangements that the law directs. This means that the people have found the arrangements to be reasonable and beneficial.

 

America’s courts have traditionally been very tolerant of diversity, limiting liberty only in keeping with the harm principle: individual liberty cannot be curtailed for actions that only affect oneself. It is only for actions that are harmful to others that the individual may be held accountable. What exactly constitutes ‘harm’ is, of course, debatable. American courts have traditionally interpreted harm very conservatively to mean only actual physical or fiscal harm that can be measured in concrete ways, such as physical assault, or employment discrimination, or other similar kinds of institutional abuses that create an unreasonable disadvantage for one group. Mere offense or insult has rarely been interpreted as ‘harm’. Americans have a long history of toleration for very lively (even offensive) public debate, sharp satire, and a critical media. This is in keeping with the high premium placed on freedom of speech, expression and assembly, as well as freedom of religion. The true test of that principle comes when we are asked to permit freedom of expression for views we find repugnant. And most Americans have tended to agree with Voltaire, who famously said “although I may detest what you say, I defend to the death your right to say it.” Americans have generally been suspicious of attempts to enforce the values status quo. This is because our current notions of “correctness” are not infallible. History has shown that it is a mistake to place too much trust in the values of a given age, time or place, because parochial human viewpoints are so often improved upon later, with the wisdom of hindsight, or alternative perspectives. While our politically correct view may indeed be morally infallible, this has not always been the case and we give up our right to dissent at our peril. A society that is confident in its values and convictions is one that can tolerate dissenting views, and countenance the possible fallibility of its own. Over-zealous defensiveness is a sign of the fragility, not the strength, of one’s position. Once we relinquish the right to express unpopular viewpoints there will be no possibility of correcting popular and persuasive, but morally bankrupt, ideas. For all of these reasons, Americans do not give government the power to exclude and censor voices it dislikes.

 

Some have argued that speech is more than ‘mere words’ and must be censored when it is likely to ‘incite’ dangerous actions. The American courts have agreed with this in cases where there is reasonable and compelling evidence that the speech in question was the direct cause of the dangerous behavior. The quintessential example is when someone yells “Fire” in a crowded theatre. But the idea that any repugnant ideology, or even unpopular viewpoint, can ‘incite’ hatred or violence is a distortion and abuse of the original legal usage of the concept. ‘Incitement’ in its legal context originally referred to actions, not emotions (such as hatred). Firstly, hatred against any group is not a crime, so inciting it shouldn’t be either. Only when an emotion such as hatred is expressed in actual harm does it become a crime. The state has no more business legislating against hatred than they do compelling love for their policies or politicians. No external authority can dictate to the citizens of a free country what they must value, love or hate, and any society that condones such coercion is not worthy of being called “free”.

 

What originally made ‘incitement’ a kind of ‘criminal’ speech was that it was perceived to lead to direct harm. But to incite someone to bad behaviour? This implies that someone can make you act against your will. To claim that someone can incite you to do anything in this context is to abdicate personal responsibility. Jean-Paul Sartre, writing after the horrors of the holocaust, aptly called this attempt to escape personal responsibility “bad faith” (by which he meant a kind of self-deception). If we cease to hold individuals accountable for their own behavior, we can criminalize anyone we claim has ‘influenced’ the criminal -- teachers, parents, musical artists he has listened to, directors of movies he has watched, authors of books he has read -- all are fair game. But this, of course, turns the perpetrator himself into a victim. It presupposes a deterministic model of human nature in which human individuals are not responsible, free moral agents, but are more like automatons who hear words and obey them like a dog obeys its master.

 

A further reason why Americans value toleration and diversity is that to deny others the opportunity of access to alternative viewpoints is to assume infallibility about one’s own. Government suppression cannot be justified even in the case of dangerous opinion, because it may be a ‘danger’ to immoral or irrational beliefs rather than to the truth. Liberty of discussion is the very condition that allows us to suppose we have truth for the purposes of action. Moreover, mistaken views can contain elements of truth, so they too should be discussed. Subjecting the accepted wisdom to questioning maintains its validity.

 

Most Americans accept that they will have to withstand a little bit of offense, displeasure, bad taste, etc. as the price of liberty. The paradox at the heart of the American system is that it is precisely in our diversity and individual difference that we can find a common ground. We all have an equal right to make a truly human life -- in which we are free to pursue our own projects, interests and values, within the limits of the harm principle.

 

Paul would not even tolerate men wearing long hair, never mind equal rights for women, freedom for slaves, homosexuality, adultery or divorce.

 

For all of the above reasons, there is indeed a ‘crisis of values’ in America today, and the solution is not to be found in tearing down America’s founding values. Erecting a Christian theocracy that bears no resemblance to America’s founding values (except in name) diverts attention from the more urgent issue of grappling with ambiguities latent in the term ‘Christianity.’ Thomas Jefferson himself grappled with the issues in composing his ‘Jefferson Bible’. This little volume was his attempt to wrest the best of Christianity (which he identified as the synoptic gospels) away from the supernatural outlook and misanthropic teachings of St. Paul. America’s predominant religion arguably has internal contradictions that, unless they are addressed, will continue to divide its adherents. I hope that this essay might provide a starting point for so doing.

 


9,860 words

© 2007 by Terri Murray. All rights reserved. No portion of this manuscript may be reproduced in any form without the author's written consent.


Notes to the Essay:

[1] See for example, Susan Jacoby, 'Original Intent' in Mother Jones, Dec. 2005, p. 29ff. & J. Brent Walker, 'Answering the Top 10 Lies About Church and State' Sept. 7, 2005, lecture at McAfee School of Theology (available online at http://www.bjconline.org/resources/articles/2005/050907_walker_top10.htm) & Frederick Clarkson, 'Why the Christian Right Distorts History and Why it Matters', The Public Eye Magazine, Spring 2007, Vol. 21, No. 2. Another very good link is Chris Rodda’s Liars for Jesus at http://www.liarsforjesus.com/

 

[2] I prefer the latter terms to “pro-life” as they more accurately reflect the Christian social conservative position.

 

[3] Ziesler, John, Pauline Christianity (Oxford Univeristy Press), 1990.

 

[4] Midrash is a Hebrew word for Biblical exegesis, and involves critical interpretation in the form of legal commentary.

 

[5] In his A History of Christianity (New York, Macmillan), 1976.

 

[6] Feminisms observe that patriarchal societies have represented the body as the locus of sin, equating embodiment with femininity and reason with masculinity. Consequently, they reject the privileging of reason, and emphasize embodiment as the vehicle through which knowing takes place. In my opinion this feminist approach concedes too much to patriarchy. In accepting patriarchy’s masculinizing of reason, and then demonizing it or demoting it vis-à-vis embodiment, feminists ally themselves with political and social conservatives, who tend to be suspicious of reason, favoring tradition and forms of social Darwinism.

 

[7] Hick, John, Evil and the God of Love, Palgrave macMillan, New Ed. 1985.

 

[8] To which she contrasts Paul's desire for level-headedness.

 

[9] Whom he sarcastically labels "superlative apostles" to point out their hubris, before warning his readers against being led astray (2 Cor. 11: 2- 5; Gal. 1: 6 - 9; Gal. 2: 4; 2 Thess. 2: 2- 5; 1 Timothy 1: 6 all indicate that Paul was struggling against a rival group making similar claims to his, but fundamentally in disagreement)

 

[10] "For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarelling among you, brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, 'I belong to Apollos,' or 'I belong to Cephas,' or 'I belong to Christ'. (Paul goes on to insist that he is the one who baptized them not in HIS name but in Christ's, thus identifying his own doctrine as the authentic 'Christian' one. [my emphasis]

 

 


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Directory on the Rise of Christian Dominionism



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How the Culture War Has Spread
to the Fine Arts:

An Answer to H. R. Rookmaaker and
Francis Schaeffer

By Katherine Yurica

Should art be Christian? Should Georges Rouault
replace Picasso? In fact, the issue is one of
dominance rather than taste. The question is:
“Whose art shall reign supreme in our world?”
Christian art or secular art? But my question is,
“Should art be judged by the belief system of the
artist or his religious mentors or should it be
judged on the basis of the vision the work itself
presents to the viewer? 


  

 

 

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