Friday, December 19, 2008

Compromising with Christianists

Rick Warren: aspires to be America's pastor - says gays and lesbians are like child-molesters and practitioners of incest - thinks Jews are going to Hail

Glenn Greenwald puts the Warren invocation flap in the larger context of continuing Democratic efforts to placate the "culture warriors", efforts that continue to fail: How new is Obama's New Politics? Salon 12/19/08. He scratches his head over the notion that Democratic efforts to conciliate hardline rightwing Republicans are hardly something new under the sun. "When have Democrats not been eager to accommodate the Right, to sacrifice their ideological beliefs and partisan goals in pursuit of post-partisan harmony, to jettison the 'Left' in order to attract the Mythical, Glorious Center?" he asks.

And he highly recommends two posts, Obama's Divisive Choice of Rick Warren by Michelle Goldberg Religion Dispatches 12/18/08 and This Will Be My Last Post On This, So Help Me Flying Spaghetti Monster by John Cole, Balloon Juice blog 12/18/08.

Michelle's article covers some of the same ground I did in my previous post, raising the question of just how it is that people make Warren out to be a "moderate" when his stated positions and his nasty rhetoric on abortion and LGBT issues make him sound like standard-issue Christian Right. If someone thinks you're working for the Devil, they're probably not eager to compromise with you or even soft pedal their attacks on you.

John's post is focused on pointing out that, whatever the problems of spotlighting Rick Warren, it has to be judged against Obama's record of support for LGBT rights. (I'm not much a language vanguardist, so "LGBT" still seems like an awkward construction to me. Especially since when it's articulated verbally as "lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender", it sounds like something out of a legal brief. But "LGBT" is becoming common, so I guess I'll adapt. "Christianists" wasn't part of my vocabulary either until a couple of years ago.)

One of Warren's weirder comments recently was saying that adherents of the Christian "social gospel" are pretty much just dirty Commies: Rick Warren: Social Gospel & "Marxism in Christian Clothing" by Steve Waldman, BeliefNet 12/15/98 (a date attached to a BeliefNet article - it's a miracle!)

This is nothing new, at least not among Fundis. Today's Christian Right can trace much of their ideology back to characters like Billy James Hargis and the John Birch Society that were notable presences on the far right in the 1950s and early 1960s. But then adherents of such notions were generally understood to be far right, not mainstream Republican Party ideology. Add in segregationist outlooks - the "hate crimes" legislation Warren so much opposes along with the rest of his bretheren and sisteren was known as "anti-lynching" legislator in the 1940s and 1950s when their spiritual ancestors also opposed it. Mix with Christian Zionism, a British import from the 19th century, and you've got today's Christian Right. And Rick Warren.

It's also nothing new for Fundis to demand that even their nastiest political stances and their kookiest theological beliefs be taken seriously when they are articulated by someone who can string two or three sentences together without obvious grammatical mistakes.

But at some basic level, respect also involves looking at how a leader like Warren describes his own beliefs and goals and not just declare him a respectable "moderate" just because he looks okay when he smiles for the camera.

Given the, uh, very generous way in which the Republicans these days use labels like "socialist", "Marxist", "pals around with terrorists", etc., it's worth asking just who rightwingers are talking about when they use one of those labels. Tom DeLay during the campaign on cable news told us that Obama was a "Marxist-Leninist".

Steve Waldman in the article linked above talks about some specific advocates of Social Gospel Christianity, which he apparently understands as including "liberation theology", which itself is quite a stretch. The Social Gospel by that name was a religiously-inspired, Protestant movement of social reform around the start of the 20th century. It was epitomized popularly by the novel What Would Jesus Do?

The Web site for Bill Moyers' NOW talks about three of the early leaders of this variety of the American Social Gospel movement:

The READER'S COMPANION TO AMERICAN HISTORY mentions three leaders of the Social Gospel movement: Washington Gladden, who "sympathized with workers and urged them to seek unity in Christianity," William Dwight Porter Bliss, who worked with the Knights of Labor and Socialist party, and Walter Rauschenbusch, a New York City Baptist minister who "called for a democratic cooperative society to be achieved by nonviolent means."
The Socialist Party? Surely that makes Bliss a Marxist, right? Not necessarily. Bliss was an adherent of "Christian socialism", which describes as follows:

This doctrine—which grows out of the adherents' Christianity, so that the term is more specific than merely indicating those socialists who also happen to be Christian — attempts to relate the teachings of Christ (as for instance given in the Sermon on the Mount) with the political practice of socialism. In Britain Christian socialism was a mainly nineteenth-century movement, associated both with the High Church revival and its attempts to spread Christianity into the working classes and also with the growth of Nonconformism, especially Methodism, which placed importance on its social ministry. Many Labour politicians in Britain argued that their party owed more to Methodism than to Marx. Christian socialist thinking favoured alternatives to capitalism in such ideas as co-operatives, and stressed the importance of industrial reconciliation and justice between workers and owners, the moral responsibilities of the better-off towards the poor, and the importance of public education. The Christian socialist strand in the leadership of the Labour Party was boosted on Tony Blair's accession to the leadership.

Post-war Christian Democratic parties in Europe are not a variant of Christian socialism but represent a version of conservatism which accommodates (mainly Catholic) social doctrine. The Christian Social Union in Bavaria [Germany] is Christian Democrat, not Christian Socialist. [my emphasis]
In other words, if you're using "Marxist" as something other than a pejorative, we would have to say that if there were any Marxists among the Social Gospel movement in America or England, they were the exception rather than the rule.

For anyone who actually cares about history, Marxism was associated with atheism and/or hostility to church authority, including in Marx's native Germany. The Catholic Church in the 19th century was generally hostile toward the workers movement and their parties. And generally speaking, pro-democracy movements in Europe and Latin America adhered with various degrees of enthusiasm to the classical liberal goal of the separation of church and state. This meant that there was and to some extent still is in those areas an "anticlerical" strain of political thought that has really not been that significant in American politics or political ideologies. I saw someone say that it's difficult for anyone who hasn't experienced an established state church to understand "anticlercialism".

In the 20th century, Communist regimes have been officially atheist, practicing various degrees of tolerance (or lack thereof) toward Christian churches, depending on the place and time.

But for all that, Karl Marx's political, social and economic theories don't require the embrace of atheism. I don't think there have ever been a lot of people describing themselves as Christian Marxists, and certainly most adherents of the Social Gospel in the US were not among them. But Marx's own atheism came from his grounding in philosophical materialism. Ironically, one of the stock Cold War accusations that Westerners made against the Soviet Communists was that the Soviets were materialists. That was meant in the sense of "Godless Communism".

In the colloquial sense of "materialism", as in excessive consumption and greed for money and stuff, of course, the material abundance of the West was used as an argument for the virtues of democracy and capitalism. And, outside the "prosperity gospel" variant, it's a general value in American Christianity that materialism in the greed-for-stuff sense is a failing of our society, even a great problem.

Also, one problem of Warren's vague slam at the "social gospel" as "Marxist" is that in the controversy between conservative Vatican officials and the liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez, Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino, their alleged taint from Marxist philosophical materialism was one of the Vatican's accusations against them.

But I'm guessing from his other comments in the same interview with Waldman that Warren wasn't thinking much about philosophical or theological issues. He was just tossing out a typical Fundi/Bircher type insult.

Waldman should have pressed Warren himself more on who he meant to be calling "closet Marxists". Did he have some real point? Or was he just tossing out a sleazy insult?

If our news media are going to annoint Rick Warren as "America's pastor", then people interviewing him should pin him down more specifically on Bircher-sounding comments like that.
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