Thursday, July 09, 2015

Bad Doctrine

CS Lewis noted that we do not have the option of having no doctrine or no dogma.  If we do not have good theology, we will not have none, we will have bad theology.

When I became a born-again evangelical Christian among the Jesus freaks in the late 70's, there was a dominant political idea that America had always been a Christian nation, however imperfectly, and chosen for some special task in the world. There was a wide variety of belief along these lines, but it was generally characterised by 1) noting the deep Christian faith of some of the colonists and founders, and their intentionality in applying Biblical principles to government, 2) application of God's promises to Israel as applicable to any modern nation which chose to embrace them, meaning basically America, and 3) the reflection of this, that God might cease to protect a nation which did not follow His laws.

Even without having studied this, I was suspicious, and grew to dislike it more as the years passed. I got pretty tired of hearing the verse "If my people, who are called according to my name..." Nonetheless, I learned a lot from it. Of the two competing America as Savior/America as Oppressor myths that continue to dominate our discussions, I had moved to the Oppressor Lite viewpoint as far back as 8th grade, which only intensified through highschool and college (though W&M was a fairly nonpolitical school then). Finding that American exceptionalism, even if some folks exaggerated it, had some powerful evidence behind it, and was not merely a lie told to elementary school students, was a wonderful counterweight to the tired cynicism of the humanities and college popular culture.* Compared to everyone else, America had indeed done some remarkable things, which the rest of the Anglosphere imitated shortly. 

Still, there was something deeply wrong general premise. I generally just let it slide with most folks, but among those I thought could hear it, I leaned in a bit.  It was a bit of a balancing act, because there was always plenty of clergy and reflexive liberals of the laity in the mainstream who had come under the Oppressor Lite spell and needed to be leaned against in the other direction.  Especially tough when you've got some of each in the audience. Yet in both cases, I always thought of it as an extra.  Politics was important in that it is the acting out of our faith on a societal level, but really, when you push it, Jesus didn't talk about it much, nor did Peter, Paul, John, Luke, or James. The expansion of Christian principles into ruling and governing principles came later - into towns and districts in the 3rd C, then nations and empires in the 4th.

It was not ever thus in America.  The idea of New Eden and special dispensation in the New World had been present since the beginning, but it was never universal, and it was quite uncommon among evangelicals and fundamentalists from 1900 until 1970 or so. America was considered a nice place with religious freedom, but ultimately just as much a part of the worldly world as the lands left behind. There are still denominations, especially heterodox ones, which teach that. Only recently - perhaps as a countermovement to the Protestant clergy deciding quietly in the 1920's and 30's, then noisily in the 1960's, that Jesus was really about socialism - did an evangelical American exceptionalist bloc develop.

I treated it as a small thing, but now it is bearing bitter fruit.  Good, decent people are insisting that God is calling them to take a stand to make America reflect Christian values, believing they must not take photographs or bake cakes for gay weddings, or refusing to issue marriage licenses for same. Their courage is greater than mine, and they believe they are protecting even those who vilify them by their actions.  I pray that their reward in heaven is great, even as God smiles and says "that was not where your energy should have gone." Even as I think them wrong, I see that I am not quite worthy to even mention it to them.

But the theology is wrong. There is not good scriptural evidence that God offers this Chosen People deal to any nation, perhaps not even Israel anymore.  The Church, the Christian community is the new tribe, and nations are merely a way that we organise things for ourselves.

*That album was actually a watershed event for me.  Just hearing the title caused me to suspect that I gotten to some ridiculous exaggerated point. The gradual rising of Tolkien, Lewis, and the Arthurian legends in my dual, non-integrated outlook seemed increasingly sensible.


james said...

Many early Christians refused to accept government offices or (sometimes) even testify in court for fear that they would be complicit in killing. (I have a few family members who have had almost that extensive a pacifism.) It seems a little extreme to me, but in the context of the calculated brutality of the Romans perhaps it was exactly the right stand to take.

Grim said...

Even evil nations in the Old Testament serve God's purpose. Sometimes they are sent to punish the chosen who fall away. Long after the Bible, Genghis Khan is supposed to have said that, had the sins of the people who fell beneath his sword not been great, no great a punishment as he would have been sent for them.

Lincoln did say:

"The purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail accurately to perceive them in advance. We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best, and has ruled otherwise...we must work earnestly in the best light He gives us, trusting that so working still conduces to the great ends He ordains. Surely He intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay."

I believe in the hand of God working in mortal affairs, for reasons of his own, which sometimes seems to be conflict. You mention the Arthurian mythos, which for me is a guiding light, as also is Tolkien. We don't know the purposes, but we have no reason to doubt the guiding hand. We might doubt that the good will be rewarded with prosperity and health, as David so often says in the Psalms. They might be rewarded with the opportunity to die in a noble but doomed cause. They might be rewarded with a testing, punishing ordeal. Lincoln himself was rewarded with the tragic death of his beloved son. But -- Lincoln said this too -- the judgments of God are true and righteous altogether.

Earl Wajenberg said...

"America is a nation with the soul of a church."
-- What I Saw in America, G. K. Chesterton

I more than half expected to see that quote in your initial post. I agree with Chesterton, and surely this has something to do with American Exceptionalism. The US was unique at the time in being founded on a body of doctrine and, since the fall of Communism, is just about unique again. The Declaration of Independence is its creed and the Constitution is its scripture, or that is the emotional weight they carry.

You passionately believe you are engaged in a great moral endeavor. You succeed despite great difficulties. All of you are theists, or almost all -- deists and Christians. Under those circumstances, it might be hard to not think you were on a Mission from God.

Brad said...

"Good, decent people are insisting that God is calling them to take a stand to make America reflect Christian values, believing they must not take photographs or bake cakes for gay weddings, or refusing to issue marriage licenses for same."
I disagree. Most of these people aren't acting to "make America reflect Christian values". They are acting on personal conscience. They become icons for a greater movement perhaps, but my take on all these cases is that they are just doing what they think God wnats THEM to do.

Texan99 said...

I haven't much sympathy with people who would refuse to bake a cake for someone because he was gay; that's far more likely to be priggishness than a principled moral stand. (I'm very skeptical of people who would refuse to do business with a homosexual but have no problem doing business with divorcees and adulterers and fornicators. )

But I think it's quite different to expect the baker to make a cake decorated with an emblem or slogan he considers to be morally reprehensible. Would we make him decorate a cake with a swastika? Do we get to decide whether his moral revulsion is reasonable in that case?

I'm still of two minds about the tension between freedom of association and the principle that businesses open to the public shouldn't ban people from specific groups, especially ethnic ones (but where does sexual preference fit in?). Nevertheless, I draw a clearer line when it comes to freedom of speech. No one should have to take on a business contract to publish speech with whose content they disagree.

Issuing licenses strikes me as something different. If someone can't bear to be associated with the political message approved by his employer, he probably has a duty to resign rather than to contradict the message at the cost of failing to perform his job duties.

Earl Wajenberg said...

"...and the little bride and groom figures for the top of the cake are sold separately. Knock yourselves out."

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Brad, I'm not seeing a distinction. Expand on this.

T99, I see degrees of involvement. Being a clerk at Walmart when the ordered cake gets scanned = not much involvement. Being the clergyman who officiates = significant involvement. Between that, it gets fuzzy. I originally thought that making a cake was a smallish thing, but was assured by several females that no, the cake is a big deal. It's not just buying a cake off the shelf (apparently). Being the wedding photographer, being a musician at the reception, and singing the bride's processional all have different levels of participation. I think some refusers are just wrong, because they are drawing a line at a remote level, not wanting to have ANYTHING to do with such ceremonies (see Jonathan Haidt's theory of "disgust" in morality). Yet I think that is a common response across the political spectrum, to get as complete a separation as possible from the act.

And scripture teaches that sometimes extreme separation is indeed required: not to touch the Ark of the Covenant, not to enter the Holy of Holies, and to take off one's sandals on holy ground, etc. My objection was not that Christians were taught that level of refusal, but that area of refusal.

I have the advantage that automatic comparisons to communist Romania occur to me. If you are a (secret) Christian and work for the county issuing licenses for this, that, and the other thing, you will know with sad certainty how many of these are below God's standard. But which are so much worse than the others? Where is the line? Is this really your job to enforce God's law?

Texan99 said...

I don't know. How indirect an involvement would you want to be forced to have in a KKK rally? Personally, I wouldn't at all mind baking a cake for a gay wedding, so I don't trust my instincts here. I have to imagine something I believed was deeply wrong.

The new thrust is to say, "The Supreme Court says gay marriage is fine. That means we don't have to pay any attention if you tell us it's morally repugnant; we'll second-guess you. It's no longer like a KKK rally. You're not going to be heard to say you disapprove on moral or religious grounds that are as serious as our own grounds, because ours are culturally approved and Supreme Court-sanctioned."

Assistant Village Idiot said...

T99, that is exactly my worry. Why stop at KKK? How about NAMBLA? Do I cater that convention, or can I refuse? How about a rock festival where you know the bands are screwing underage girls? Because the reasoning is social and fashion-driven, people don't (or can't, or won't) make the connection that this is something people have an objection to, just as you might in another circumstance. The reasoning - even among people with graduate degrees who I know well - goes no farther than "Well, but you're not supposed to object to that, because it's okay."

jaed said...

Good, decent people are insisting that God is calling them to take a stand to make America reflect Christian values, believing they must not take photographs or bake cakes for gay weddings

I agree with Brad, and think you mistake their intention. They seem to me to be declining to participate in an event they personally consider immoral, not to be trying to "make America" do anything in particular. They generally accept gay customers as customers, but don't want to participate (even peripherally) in what they see as a parody of a sacred ceremony. I have heard none of them inveighing against other American cake designers or photographers for doing same-sex weddings; in fact, some have offered referrals to their would-be gay couple customers. It doesn't seem to me that their convictions and behavior would be any different no matter what country they live in or how they regard the relationship between that country and God.

I don't disagree with your theological conclusion, but I see no reason to believe they would disagree with it either.


There's another element here, which is revulsion at the bullying of people for having the temerity to disagree with Teh Zeitgeist. The ruinous fines, the gag orders, the public opprobium, the threats of imprisonment... I know that's affecting my own attitude toward a lot of this.

Non-discrimination law got its start as a reparative measure to counterbalance the decades of Jim Crow. Then it was taken further, to ban discrimination in respect of membership in identity groups. Now it's being taken to the point of banning refusal to participate in certain events, if those events are associated with an identity group.

"We can't countenance it, we know we can't put a stop to it, but you can't make us touch it."
Bullies: "Oh yes we can make you touch it. In fact, we can make you eat it."

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Ah, thank you jaed - now I get Brad's distinction. Yes, you could be right. It may be the noise of the supporters of the refuseniks who want to make this into a larger cultural issue, while they themselves are merely concerned with their own behavior and spiritual safety.

I keep forgetting to include conscientious objection to the draft in the discussion, likely because it is no longer a direct issue. But it went away only because the nation decided to go with a volunteer army. It was a big issue emotionally in its day.

Texan99 said...

And, you know, I'm probably not going to audit the personal lives of every customer who walks in the door, but if what he wants is a cake that says "NAMBLA Rules" with an explicit cartoon of . . . you can imagine, then I'd like to be able to draw the line. A cake can be very like a billboard. It's not quite like a t-shirt that I'm expected to wear in public, but it does have my name attached to it.

jaed said...

NAMBLA isn't a protected class, but... What if the Westboro Baptist Church is doing a celebratory dinner and wants it catered, complete with a cake with their trademark charming phrase on top. Or a quote from Leviticus. Should a cake baker be legally required to do this? (Recall that religion is a protected class, and it could be argued easily that your refusing is discriminatory against their religious beliefs.)

Now imagine that the WBs sought out a gay caterer to do this, just to stick the shiv in. And that they do it repeatedly until they find one who will refuse, then use the apparatus of the state to destroy said caterer. They don't have the weapon of social-media opprobium at their disposal, but the logic vis-a-vis anti-discrimination laws is the same. Should they be able to use those laws?

Texan99 said...

A side point: homosexuality isn't a protected class, either; it's just an area where the S. Ct. has recognized an extremely strong right of privacy. Protected classes trigger equal-protection scrutiny of state action on the high end of the scale (the low end being "some articulable reason for the law even if it doesn't make huge sense to you" and the high end being "an essential government need and a law narrowly tailored to its ends"). Those are 5th (fed action) and 14th (state action) amendment issues. Privacy is that penumbra thing, which can persuade the S. Ct. that the government cannot intrude in certain areas. Admittedly the recent S. Ct. decision threw around some equal-protection language that confused things, but it was primarily a privacy decision. At least, I think I'm remembering correctly that the S. Ct. did not explicitly rule that homosexuality was a protected class. If I were less lazy, I'd go look it up.

jaed said...

Hmm. I had thought the SC opinion made gay people a protected class... but you're right, I don't remember seeing that explicitly in the opinion. (On the other hand, if they're asked to rule on that issue specifically I think they'll say it is.) It's also confusing because some states have explicit anti-discrimination provisions that make them a protected class for state-law purposes.


Meant to say this before, but:

supporters of the refuseniks who want to make this into a larger cultural issue
It actually is a larger cultural issue, but I think a different one than you identify. One of the most fundamental parts of our tradition of Americans is freedom of conscience and freedom to act in accordance with our conscience. It is un-American to force someone to do that which their conscience forbids them. This is not about Christianity; it applies as much to a Muslim wedding photographer as to a Christian.

Good, decent people are insisting that God is calling them to take a stand to make America reflect Christian values

I normally don't put things this way, but I would not disagree with a statement that God is calling us to take a stand to make America reflect American values.

JMSmith said...

I'm the geography professor who wrote to you awhile back. I have done some research on the historical geography of American religion, and am inflicting this rather long comment on you in the hope that it will be of interest.

Christians and anti-Christians both exaggerate the degree to which the U.S. was, until fairly recently, a Christian country. The Christians do it to sanctify their nationalism, which isn’t altogether bad or uncommon. Russians, Spaniards, Frenchmen and Germans have, at one time or another, seen their nation as specially commissioned to do God’s work. The problem is that this myth causes many American Christians to imagine that they have lost a country that was never truly theirs. The anti-Christians are happy to go along with this because all the villains of the past can be identified as Christians, and all the villainy of the past can be laid at the doorstep of the Church.

There is data that suggests our ancestors were not particularly religious. New York State conducted censuses in the nineteenth century, and these included questions about religion. In 1855 it reports average attendance at Sunday worship by township, with rates ranging from 25 to 60 percent. The lowest rates were in the southern tier and Adirondacks, where population density was low and choice limited; the highest rates were in medium-sized cities, where there were lots of choices and the walk was short. But in 1855, at the end of the Second Great Awakening, it appears that at least half of New Yorkers spent Sunday morning at home.

Some of them were, no doubt, gathering in home churches or practicing private devotions, but some of the men and women in the pews were also there strictly for the music. In 1855 there wasn’t anything else to do on a Sunday morning. Obviously, church attendance is a proxy measure, but it is reasonable to suppose that it correlates with religious commitment.

John Godley was an Englishman who published his Letters from America in 1844. While stopped at a tavern to change horses, he was surprised when the driver of his stage coach entered the bar room, lifted a Bible from the mantelpiece, “and very deliberately read a chapter in a loud voice,” all others in the room “remaining perfectly silent and attentive,” and none apparently considering “what he had done as at all out of place.” Yet despite such scenes, Godley wrote: “I have no hesitation in saying that I do not think the New-Englanders (or, indeed, Americans generally, as far as I can judge) a religious people.”

It might appear “paradoxical” to say that a people among whom such a scene could occur were “not religious,” but Godley explained himself this way. Americans had no “strong and earnest belief” in particular religious dogmas. What most Americans (Godley says “nine-tenths”) believed, was that particular “creeds . . . are matters of no moment; that, so long as a man acts sincerely up to what he believes, he has as good a chance of salvation, for he is as likely to be right, as his neighbor.” To this Americans added a belief “that morality (so called) is perfectly independent of, and infinitely more important than, religious belief.”

Godley allowed that this arrangement produced a tolerant and moral society, but nevertheless insisted that Americans had “no religion” because “no man can be said to believe in a religious system if he believes at the same time that another religious system has an equal chance of being true.” Americans respected religion because “their consciences tell them that they ought to have a religion.” Their morality was simply rational self-interest—the way “any prudent, sensible, long-sighted person would act, if there were no world beyond the grave, and no law revealed from heaven.”

And then he speaks directly to the question you raise here. Americans do not, he wrote, “live . . . and feel as a stranger and a pilgrim upon earth,” but value religion for the utility it brings in this world.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thank you JMSmith. I concur with your assessment of the current thinking on America as a Christian nation.

I learned some terribly long time ago that coastal Virginia was Episcopalian and New England Calvinist, and this made viewing colonial America as some religious unity as inaccurate from the start. David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed made that even clearer, detailing also the later Quaker and Scots-Irish strains. Yet DHF stresses the continuity of much culture through our present day, and thus de-emphasises how 1644 differs from 1744 differs from 1844 and 1944.

I think Godley has it right. Unitarianism, which is quite a different approach was already strong in New England by the time of his writing. I wrote a few years ago in my series of Fate and Wyrd that the Puritans attended to both the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature as their guide. New York was always more secular, the mid-Atlantic had both pietism and Germans to keep doctrine more community based, and Appalachia was more deeply individual.

Yet Catholics, Orthodox, and Jews all experienced America as dominantly Protestant, even aggressively so. Flexibility in doctrine only went so far, it seems. Or to fall back on my usual explanation, the tribalism of Northern Europe pretended it was doctrinal when this was only partly true.