Friday, December 19, 2008

Obama and the moderate (?) Christianists

Billy Sunday ready to do battle for the Lord

You can count me as one of those people not thrilled by Obama's invitation to Christian Right leader Rick Warren to give the invocation at his Inauguration next month. (For a lot more on the Inauguration issue, see Memeorandum.)

I really think Warren acted in bad faith around the now-legendary (to the media) joint appearance at Warren's Saddleback Church this past August. I actually think Obama got punked in that one. There may be have been some advantage to his having gone, if only to take some of the air out of that crusty Republican lie that Democrats are anti-religion. (How many bills are pending in Congress to eliminate the charitable contribution tax deduction for donations to churches?)

I want to call attention to a couple of points that I think are important to keep in focus on this issue. One is from Sarah Posner, who I think it's safe to say is one of the leading journalistic experts on the Christian Right. Looking at the election results, she writes, "Obama did not win over white evangelicals in any greater numbers than he won over any other demographic - in other words, ... Obama won across so many voter groups that one cannot argue that (a) the evangelicals swayed the election in his favor or (b) that evangelicals shifted any more significantly than any other group of voters did." (The FundamentaList The American Prospect Online 12/17/08). In other words, there is reason in the election results to believe that religious-type appeals had any effect in drawing additional conservative white evangelicals to Obama and the Democrats.

[Warning: This one is pretty long.]

In that post, she cites this article, Culture Wars, Evangelicals, and Political Power: Lessons from the 2008 Presidential Election by Chip Berlet and Frederick Clarkson, (n.d., circa 12/17/08) Sarah also addressed this issue the week of the election in Obama and Religious Voters The American Prospect Online 11/06/08.

I think it's long past time that the Democrats stop tippy-toeing around this rightwingers with their unremitting hostility to women's rights and their shameless hate-mongering against gays and lesbians. And for Democrats to quit pandering to this grotesque falsehood that the Christian Right has been pimping for decades that Democrats are "hostile to people of faith".

This is a recent interview from BeliefNet with Warren. (One reason I don't cite BeliefNet more than I do is their thoroughly aggravating habit of not dating their articles, though this one is from December 2008. Somehow I pulled a date on the one cited further below.)

Warren in this interview repeats some of the sleazier notions that are standard on the Christian Right: abortion is like the Holocaust (see below on that topic). Here's how this brave man of God addresses the torture issue:

Torture. You issued a statement a couple of years ago condemning torture.

I’m totally against torture.

Do you think this was a profound moral failing of the Bush administration?

Well I don’t know exactly how they defined torture….

John McCain thinks they did torture.

Well, and you know what – some of the stuff I saw looking at Guantanamo looks like clearly it was torture. To me, if you torture someone, you put yourself no better than the enemy. We must maintain the moral high ground. You have no right to condemn the immoral actions of others if we’re doing the same thing. And we should expect that others will torture our people if we’re torturing them.

Did you ever talk to President Bush to try to convince him to change his policy?

No. No.

Why not?

Never got the chance. I just didn’t. In fact, in the first place, I’m a pastor, and people might misunderstand – I don’t deal with policy issues with Barack Obama or President Clinton [sic] or John McCain. I just don’t. That’s not my role. My role is to pastor these guys. As a leader I understand stress. [my emphasis]
This just makes me want to puke. Any Christian who can't straight-forwardly condemn what the entire world knows is Bush's torture policy may still qualify as a Christian. But their moral judgment is worthless. In the same interview, Pastor Rick piously explains why a girl impregnated through rape or incest should be required to bear her rapist's child to term. And then he can't straightforwardly condemn the torture policy. How anyone can take this man seriously as a moral leader, I just don't understand.

Oh, he says, it's not his job to counsel Dear Leader Bush to stop torturing people!

I wish I could say this man is a rotten excuse for a Christian. But that a centuries-old bad habit, to pretend that Christian that practice this kind of faith aren't "true Christians". In fact, they are. And something about the real existing Christian religion in America makes a cowardly supporter of torture - and that's what his statement I quoted is, the mealy-mouthed "moderate" version of supporting torture - a credible candidate for "America's pastor". This reminds me I need to go to Mass more often to at least do my small part to see that torture supporters won't get a monopoly on Christianity in America.

The torture-supporting pastor goes on to compare gay couples to child molesters and practitioners of incest. This isn't just conservative. It's vile, hate-mongering fanaticism. Then he pulls out one of the favorite rightwinger victimology lines:

We should have freedom of speech, ok? And you should be able to have freedom of speech to make your position and I should be able to have freedom of speech to make my position, and can’t we do this in a civil way.
Nobody is trying to deny even hate-mongering rightwingers like Warren free speech. On the contrary, one of the great values of free speech is that we get to hear what bigots like this think directly from them.

Freedom of speech means you don't get put in jail for saying whatever damn fool things comes into your head. It doesn't mean that when you spew gutter nonsense than any decent person is required to respect you or what you said.

Punked at Saddleback

Getting back to Warren's Saddleback stab-in-the-back, Joan Walsh got it right in in Sandbagged at Saddleback, which says an awful lot to me about what Rick Warren's posturing as new breed of conservative evangelical leader is really about:

Now Rick Warren tells BeliefNet that Barack Obama is going to have to do more than "talk faith" to win evangelical votes, and compares an evangelical Christian voting for a pro-choice politician to a Jew voting for a Holocaust denier. I understand why many people say it was good for Obama to go to Warren's church nonetheless; I didn't feel that way, and I feel even less that way today. I loved Mike Madden's fair and informative stories on Saddleback Church this weekend ... but I thought it was telling he didn't find a single church member who said he or she would vote for Obama.

I was also shocked by how disrespectfully Warren dismissed Obama supporters' complaints about John McCain not being in a "cone of silence" where he couldn't hear the questions as "sour grapes" - which kind of implies Obama lost the contest. The fact is, Warren knew that McCain hadn't arrived yet when he started the event, but he nonetheless told the audience the GOP contender was in a "cone of silence" that sounded very much like a green room without television or radio. That sounds like a lie, Rick, and lying is wrong. It breaks one of the Ten Commandments. [my emphasis]
Anytime conservative Christians in a political context start using words like "Jews" or "Holocaust", it pays to listen carefully to what they.

Rick Warren's anti-abortion, anti-choice theology

Aimee Semple MacPherson wrestles with the giant gorilla Evolution

The BeliefNet interview to which Walsh refers is here, Rick Warren on His Saddleback Summit with McCain and Obama 08/18/08:

For many evangelicals, of course, if they believe that life begins at conception, that's a deal breaker for a lot of people. If they think that life begins at conception, then that means that there are 40 million Americans who are not here [because they were aborted] that could have voted. They would call that a holocaust and for them it would like if I'm Jewish and a Holocaust denier is running for office. I don't care how right he is on everything else, it's a deal breaker for me. I'm not going to vote for a Holocaust denier... (my emphasis)
He's putting this comment in the mouths of "many evangelicals", but he's making an obvious point of injecting the Holocaust/Holocaust-denier theme, which he surely knows is a staple of hardline Christian Right rhetoric. Warren also talks about the Democratic Party's latest statement of the pro-choice position, using a kind of mealy-mouthed, you're-one-what-am-I approach:

It is a step, there's no doubt about that. I've been getting a lot of feedback on it. I was out of the country and people starting writing me about it. The general perception was 'Too little too late--window dressing". I'm not saying I would say this, because I haven't even read it, but what I was hearing form people was that [Democrats] were saying 'It's OK to be pro-life and be a Democrat now. In other words, 'You can join us. We're not changing our firm commitment to Roe v. Wade, but you can now join us.' Well, for a person who thinks that abortion is taking a life, I'm sure that's not going to be very satisfactory to most of those people. And to put it in right at the last minute at the end of a campaign, there was some question about that: Why are they doing this?
And I don't know how to read his following comment in any other way than that his intention with the "moderate" evangelical talk is primarily to push the Democrats to an anti-choice position on abortion - or maybe only as a slightly different angle to accuse the Dems of being baby-killers, just like the hardline Christian Right types do:

That's why to say that evangelicals are a monolith is a myth, but the other thing is that you've been hearing a lot of the press talk about 'Well, evangelicals are changing, they're now interested in poverty and disease and illiteracy, and all the stuff I've been talking about for five years now. And I have been seeding that into the evangelical movement and it's getting picked up and a lot of people are talking about doing humanitarian efforts. But I really think it's wishful thinking on a lot of people who think they're going to drop the other issues. They're not leaving pro-life, I'm just trying to expand the agenda....

If an evangelical really believes that the Bible is literal--in other word in Psalm 139 God says 'I formed you in your mother's womb and before you were born I planned every day of your life,' if they believe that's literally true, then they can't just walk away from that. They can add other issues, but they can't walk away from the belief that at conception God planned that child and to abort it would be to short circuit the purpose. (my emphasis)
I'm not a "literalist" in reading the Christian Bible. But neither is Warren's reading there a "literal" one. That verse says that for at least the person God is addressing there, God has a mission of some kind for that person to fulfill, a "calling", in Christian terms. In fact, if we want to do a close reading of the English translation he uses there, the Psalm actually makes a distinction between being formed in the mother's womb and "before you were born". That could be read to imply a distinction in time: the fetus is formed in the mother's womb; God makes a plan for the person's future; then the person is born. If the Psalmist meant to say that "human life begins at conception", why not just say "before I formed you in you mother's womb I planned every day of your life". Or maybe just say, "human life begins at conception".

Close reading of the Scriptures doesn't always support the fundamentalist so-called "literalist" reading.

Democrats try to sidestep the question of the morality of abortion itself by emphasizing that it's a matter of a woman's choice. Which in itself is a perfectly legitimate position. But abortion laws should to be based on some kind of accurate empirical understanding. The Supreme Court in the Roe v. Wade decision relied on the fact that until the end of the second trimester, the fetus cannot survive separately from the woman's body. Medically, the fetus has to be understood as part of the woman's body up until that point. And that medical reality hasn't changed since 1973, despite all the advances in prenatal care and treatment of premature births. And despite all the phony claims, anecdotal and otherwise, that the anti-abortionists make.

I don't know if any form of abortion was practiced in the time the Psalmist wrote that passage. But there was a type of abortion practiced by the Romans at the time Jesus and St. Paul lived. And no mention of that practice appears in the New Testament (unless you make very imaginative literalist interpretations like Warren did in the example cited). For an honest attempt at a literalist reading, shouldn't the silences in the Christian Scriptures about contemporary practices mean something significant?

Christians and Jews in medieval times both had a concept of "ensoulment", i.e., when a fetus receives a soul, which was a religious version of talking about when a fetus becomes human. As I recall from hearing a presentation on stem cell research at my Catholic parish, medieval Christians regarded something like the 14th week of pregnancy as the time of "ensoulment". So Christians who were many centuries closer to the time of Jesus and Paul didn't consider a fetus to be fully human at the instant of conception, as today's anti-abortion zealots do.

Even as recently as a century or so ago, when laws against abortion were first enacted in the US, it wasn't because abortion was considered murder. It was because the operation was considered unsafe for the pregnant women. For that matter, almost no anti-abortion groups want to treat the pregnant woman who decides for an abortion as a murderer, although the more they get their way, the more they are likely to embrace such a position.

But until we formally become a theocracy, medical realities should dictate public policy. As long as a fetus is incapable of surviving outside the mother's body, it should be the woman's choice whether to terminate the pregnancy. And the anti-abortion Christianists should have the decency not to trash them for it, although the latter is probably too much to hope for.

Jews, the Holocaust and abortion

Christianity in general has plenty of difficulty fitting Jews and Judaism into the Christian worldview.

Conservative Protestants (and Mel Gibson-style Catholics) can get pretty weird about Jews.

What does it mean when Warren and other Christianists compare abortion to the Holocaust? Essentially, that removing a fetus that has no possibility to survive outside the mother's womb is just like killing living, breathing Jews. Which doesn't just vaguely imply but assumes the converse: killing living, breathing Jews is of no more consequence than taking a morning-after pill that prevents a zygote from being implanted in the uterus. There's a definite assumption that Jews aren't fully human in that comparison. (There are other common formulations of the abortion-and-Holocaust argument that argue that abortion is much worse than killing living, breathing Jews.)

Part of it, of course, is the obvious surface meaning. Warren would like to associate the killing of the Holocaust, which has become a paradigm of evil, to abortion and freedom-of-choice laws.

Warren needs to give a little more attention to the sin of Jew-hating, which is rampant among the Christian Right. Jesus himself was a Jew, religiously and by his family heritage, not a Christian.

I was also struck by Warren's statement in that context, "I'm not going to vote for a Holocaust denier". This the kind of double-reverse argument of which the hard right is so fond. Holocaust deniers are almost exclusively rightwingers, certainly in America and Europe. Warren puts liberal Democrat Barack Obama in that role.

Holocaust deniers are also characterized by their shameless disregard for basic empirical facts. So are anti-abortionists and creationists. Warren puts liberal, pro-science Democrat Barack Obama in that role instead.

And Warren says he's Obama's friend?

Warren's anti-abortion politics

Warren has been criticized by liberals for his hardline antigay and antiabortion politics. But his position in the Beliefnet interview is not that these conservative evangelicals who are supposedly concerned about poverty and "creation care" should weigh a variety of factors in deciding for whom to vote. It is that voting for Obama or any other pro-choice politicians (most of whom are Democrats) is like voting for the Holocaust.

This gives strong credence to the suspicions of those who worry that Warren's brand of supposedly moderate Christianism is mainly aimed at getting the Democrats to adopt anti-choice policies on abortion. After this Saddleback appearance and the immediate fallout, I'm going to be very skeptical that Rick Warren is anything more than a standard-issue Christianist who likes to flirt with "post-partisan" rhetoric.

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