The far-right echo-chamber blogosphere has produced some interesting material in the aftermath of President Obama's speech at the National Prayer Breakfast.
Pundit Erick Erickson responded with an article titled "The Perversion of the Words of Our Lord Jesus Christ by the Sinner ...." It is, as you probably picked up from the title, maybe just a little bit self-righteous.
Do I have an even more ridiculous example to share with you? Thanks for asking. Fox contributor Steven Crowder appeared on Fox and Friends Sunday to tell us that President Obama "should go back to burning the tax-payer funded incense to whatever pagan, foreign deity he's worshiping." Crowder also says some stuff about tithing, "rendering unto Caesar," and abortion. As you may have picked up from watching even just a few seconds of his rant, Crowder's rhetorical strategy is to smugly attack extraordinarily flammable straw-men. It was also, maybe, just a little bit self-righteous.
I don't have time for a point by point refutation of all the arguments that Erickson and Crowder managed to produce. That would be a pretty lengthy process, and occasionally I like to actually attend to my more formal responsibilities as a seminarian.
A few things should be said, though, as it relates to the line of theological reasoning that the likes of Erickson and Crowder tend to employ. Although their accusations are a little bit extreme, their core beliefs and basic methodology are shared by many of those who find the President's religious understanding problematic.
I'll be upfront in saying that I'm arguing against a generalization. If you find my generalization to be extremely inaccurate or not at all useful please let me know, as I don't mean to present a point of view simply for the convenience of my own argument.
That being said, I think it's fairly noncontroversial to point out that there is a brand of American Christianity that views its theological beliefs as being inextricably tied into conservative economic and social policies. The preferred social philosophers of those who share this particular religious understanding are the likes of Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman, and they view laissez faire capitalism as being not only socially desirable but morally necessary (some would even say it's God-ordained). Socially, they tend to harp on the usual conservative laundry list of demands--outlawing abortion, protecting the "sanctity of marriage," keeping sex-ed within the realms of abstinence-only programs, and requiring public school teachers to present creationism along side of the science of evolution.
Probably Erickson and Crowder fall in this camp, along with many other American Christians. I disagree with most of their positions, but it's not really my aim to take them to task over their political philosophy or preferred set of social mores. Let me focus instead on what appears to be their method of scriptural interpretation and theological argumentation.
Even a cursory glance at the history of religion and society reveals that the Bible can be used to defend just about anything at all. And far too often, we must admit, religious sentiment has been paired with violence and various fashionable prejudices. Blaise Pascal wrote that "men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction." He was right.
My point isn't that religious conservatives are a uniform bunch of blood-thirsty bigots. I simply wish to point out that God sometimes stands on the far-side of history. In the past, people associated their deeply-felt religious convictions with social attitudes and institutions that are now almost universally considered to be wrong. This ought to dissuade us from clinging to the notion that our current understanding of Christianity has been plucked out of the mind of God.
But that's typically not the case with those who make arguments similar to those of Erickson and Crowder. The Bible, in their view, is the infallible Word of God, and only their interpretation is correct. Any alternate or dissenting opinions on the nature of Christian faith are the pagan ramblings of sinners.
Let me point out briefly that there are 40,000 denominations of Christianity in the world. (No, that's not a typo.) That one strand of Christian thinking would be perfectly correct and all the others wrong is, at the very least, statistically unlikely.
A more plausible explanation of what's going on with all of the different sects of Christianity, I think, is that an incredible number of factors contribute to one person or group's religious understanding. I would think that if the Bible were an unambiguously straight-forward document, then there would not be such a proliferation of theological views in the world.
Put another way, the Bible is not like a legal contract, which is meant to be read in one way only, and it is certainly not like a set of scientific data or a mathematical equation. Like everything else that humans have made--historical accounts, paintings, novels, music--it is open to interpretation. And the way in which one interprets the Bible depends largely upon the sort assumptions they make before reading it.
As such, someone prone to holding conservative social, political, or economic views will likely read those views into their religious understanding. They are not wrong; they are interpreting. There is, remember, no view from nowhere.
It seems to me that most liberally-minded, mainline Protestants are willing to concede this point, at least on some level. The problem, as I see it, with conservative interpreters is that they are not willing to admit that they are bringing a particular set of assumptions and methodologies to the text. Their preferred method of religious formulation is "God says such-and-such," which is merely a heightened, more dogmatic form of "because I said so." The result is that their set of religious views cannot be questioned because they are, as a matter of definition, unfalsifiable.
Those sorts of attitudes clearly present a stumbling block to rational discourse, but they are also, in my view, theologically problematic. For Christians, God is supposed to be the final source of moral meaning. To make an overly rigid judgment, especially on matters of social policy or politics, is essentially to claim that role for yourself. One of my classmates, Gretch Steubbel, put it better than I can: "I am always so humbled by those self-made hermeneutical giants who have chosen themselves to interpret scripture.... [It is] so much responsibility for a mere mortal to take upon himself the mind and judgment of God." Indeed.
Or, if you prefer, we can get a bit more scriptural. Do you remember the story of Moses and the burning bush? It is at this point that the proper name of the Biblical God is said to have been revealed. Moses has been told that he is speaking to "the LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob," but he presses on in saying, "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
Moses wasn't just pressing for clarification. In the ancient world, if someone knew the name of a god, then they could wield that god's power according to their own interests. This makes God's response pretty cool. The name that God gives to Moses--YHWH--can't be translated precisely and no one is totally sure how it was supposed to be pronounced. It means something along the lines of "I am that I am" or "I will be who I will be." God is telling Moses that the power and purposes of God are not the property of mortals. God will be who God will be.
God is not, then, a Republican or a Democrat. God is not a capitalist or a socialist. God does not give exclusive sanction to one set of social mores or any particular system of social organization.
God will be who God will be.