Saturday, February 25, 2012

Render Unto Caesar (but that's the easy part)

It’s no longer news that organized religion has teamed up with right-wing politics in the United States.  Or that organized religion has split into what we call “mainstream” and “born-again” or “evangelical.” 

Also familiar to most of us paying attention to what’s going on in America is the fact that this sharp divide between left and right, or liberal and conservative,  is reflected in this divide between Mainstream Christians and Christians of the Born Again variety.  And that the Christians labeled Mainstream often have more in common with the non-religious than with their evangelical co-religionists. 

I remember some interesting discussions in my seminars, on the meaning of culture, back in my teaching days, over how to frame the concepts of religion and culture.  Is religion a subset of culture?  Or is it the other way around?  It’s been some years now since I had such discussions, but I would certainly want to bring in the example of what is going on in America today to make the case that religion is a subset of culture.

Putting aside, for the sake of this discussion, the fact that clumping all the varieties of cultural ways in America into one is problematic, I would propose that “American culture” still exhibits its origins in Protestantism, both Calvinism and Lutheranism, and that Catholics and Jews and others in America have been profoundly influenced by such Protestant ideas as the importance of the individual, the work ethic, a faith in ultimate justice, the certainty of punishment and reward, in this life or the next, and the importance of working toward the progress of mankind in this lifetime.

The reason I think there is a strong case for putting culture above religion is that Catholics seem to have split themselves into evangelicals and mainstreamers in a form virtually identical to the way Protestants have evolved in recent years.  With an interesting twist – the “evangelicals” are the upper level clergy, and it has become clear just how far apart they are from the “mainstream” majority in the pews. 

Which corner of the culture (values, attitudes, beliefs) we take refuge in determines whether we adhere to an ideology of enlightenment values, universal human rights and a focus on improving our lives in the here-and-now – or to an ideology of discipline and obedience to authority.  Religion these days seems to take its cue from that cultural choice.  If one is Protestant, and given to authoritarian ways, authority is adherence to “biblical” values as the only path to heaven.  If Catholic, it’s the magisterium, the hierarchy, the infallible Bishop of Rome, and a monopoly on the keys to Heaven.

If one is anti-authoritarian (or at least non-authoritarian by inclination), and Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or purely secular, one spends one’s time seeking personal goals, whether selfish or altruistic, working for better government, greater global equity, universal education, health and welfare.  Catholics want their churches to restructure themselves the way Mainstream Protestants tend to structure theirs, run on democratic principles without regard to sex, class or ethnicity.  Catholics of this stripe focus not on the hierarchy as the church but as the entire “body of Christ” – the entire collective of believers, including the clergy.

These conflicting cultural values are what lie behind the Culture Wars which the Republicans and Democrats are now fighting, and which loom larger for the right as they see themselves losing the economic and labor arguments, and have been front and center all through the selection process of a Republican presidential candidate. 

MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes’ had two separate programs, one February 18th and one February 19th, dealing with what he took to be Rick Santorum’s Catholic attack on Protestants, but his panelists pointed out were in fact an evangelical attack on non-evangelicals. 

The issue is Rick Santorum’s comment made in a speech to Ave Maria University in 2008, which goes:

We all know that this country was founded on a Judeo-Christian ethic but the Judeo-Christian ethic was a Protestant Judeo-Christian ethic, sure the Catholics had some influence, but this was a Protestant country and the Protestant ethic, mainstream, mainline Protestantism, and of course we look at the shape of mainline Protestantism in this country and it is a shambles, it is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it.

Chris Hayes himself, one of the more astute observers of the American sociopolitical scene, misses the division, and uses “evangelical”, as most people probably would, in contrast to Catholic.  He is corrected in this by Reihan Salam (Columnist for The Daily), one of his panelists, who also makes the point I am making from a different perspective.  Will the average American, he asks, understand Santorum’s attack in the evangelical way it was intended?  Or will they see it in the old (implication: no longer relevant) way, as Chris Hayes just did, as a Catholic attack on Protestant?

Chris Hayes repeats the charge the next day with a different panel that Santorum has “excommunicated” the majority of Protestants, this time to have somebody else “correct” his way of looking at the situation once again.  This time it’s Chrystia Freeland of who suggests Santorum is not so much maligning folks as making the objective (and accurate) observation that, as a group, mainline Protestants have lost the clout they once had in the culture.  Even they would admit they have fallen on hard times, in other words.  Sam Seder ( then makes the point that “the same thing is true for the Catholics.”  They too believe the folks at the other end of the divide – he doesn’t use the word authoritarian, but he doesn’t have to – are “theologically” wrongheaded.

What’s going on here is that, thanks in large part to Santorum, we are now openly using “religion” as a stand-in for “politics.”   Note that  “conservative religion” is a category largely synonymous with “conservative politics,” whether it’s Catholic or Protestant, and all those theological issues (sola scriptura vs. papal authority which Luther tore the medieval church apart over) seem quite secondary at the moment.  That begs the question, is this change only temporary?

Hayes points out how things have evolved in America.  When JFK was about to be president he stressed that he would be a secular president and would not take his orders from his pope.  Romney now is at pains to stress that he is theological, and not secular, and a member of the same political right – non-secular, Mormon, evangelical, Catholic – folk who take their orders from God first and foremost.

But this is telling only half the story, that with Kennedy the contrast was between the secular (bad) and mainstream religion.  Today it's between secular/mainstream religion (bad) and evangelical religion.  And whereas, to win, Kennedy was putting secular values over religious ones, today the Republican candidates, at least, are putting evangelical values over all the others.   What’s missing when the media talk about "religion" is that when we say theological, or religious, we are referencing authoritarian, power-centered, judgmental religion, not “Sermon on the Mount,” pastoral, compassionate religion.  Our battle over church and state is not over whether the secular (read: atheistic) unfeeling state rides roughshod over the rights of our citizens for their love-of-God religion.  It’s over which power group gets to call the shots and whether religiously conservative folk can impose their ways – their opposition to women’s rights, abortion, gay dignity and rights, denial of evolution, global warming – all in the name of freedom of today's kind of religion.

Mainstream Protestants (Jeff Greenberg identifies them as members of the National Council of Churches) have gone left.  Evangelicals, once apolitical, have gone politically right.  And Greenberg makes the important point that since the divide is no longer Catholic/Protestant but liberal non-evangelical/conservative evangelical, Santorum can be an extreme right wing Catholic and still get support from Protestant evangelicals.

Religion in America ain’t what it used to be.  Some would say it isn’t even religion, but politics masking as religion.  The change shows up sometimes when you least expect it.  Recently, when the Supreme Court decided unanimously to support a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church’s right to fire one of its employees on the grounds she was a minister, and therefore in the religious category and not subject to labor protections, a secular issue, I found myself agreeing with the Court, because I believed the greater principle of separation of church and state was at stake here.   Catholic theologian Bill Lindsey disagreed with me.  He saw the legal rights aspect as trumping religious freedom.  I found it interesting that I should be on the side of the power of the religious institution in this instance, and a practicing Catholic should be on my left, so to speak.  But this is surprising only when you make the mistake I did, and most people do, of allowing the bishops and cardinals to speak for the entire church.  Once you realize that even self-identified Catholic theologians (and there are many of them) can be articulate voices in opposition to their bishops and cardinals, and when you look at statistical evidence that Catholics as a whole are more liberal even than the average American, you get some decent perspective on what is right and what is left.

The point is, in the Church v. State arguments, church isn’t what it once was.

In some ways, you might wonder if we haven’t grown a whole new American religion.

Santorum’s popularity is commonly attributed to his “authenticity”.  Unlike his Mormon chief competitor and many of his evangelical ones as well, he is seen as somehow more genuine.

But let’s not for a minute confuse his sincerity and devotion to conservative Catholicism with Catholicism – or even American Catholicism – itself.

Santorum and his co-religionists would have you think the church is under attack, and if given the power to do so, he would put God back into American life.

But he represents a narrow band of authoritarians.  Not Christianity.  Not even Catholicism.  

For that matter, when you hear him lecture young rape victims on the necessity of welcoming the rapist’s baby they’re carrying and bearing it with joy, you might ask yourself how much he even represents American conservatives.


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