A historical materialist looks at the “Jericho March”

There’s no doubt that today’s armed insurrection was driven by white supremacy. The well-publicized photo of a white man smiling as he carried a Confederate battle flag through the Capitol building makes that clear, if we hadn’t already figured it out.

There’s also no doubt that today’s treasonous actions were driven by the idolatrous heresy known as Christian nationalism. This New Religious Movement — maybe we should use the pejorative term, and call it a cult — followers of this cult of Christian nationalism believe that their god is somehow specially aligned with the United States.

The white supremacy, and the heretical idolatry, helped drive these white terrorists. But I think economic desperation is also driving the broader movement that thinks the election was stolen from their populist hero Donald Trump. There’s too much economic desperation, and that desperation is increasing as the pandemic drags on. There’s a growing number of people who can’t work from home, whose businesses have gone under, whose jobs have disappeared. The divide between the haves and the have-nots has been getting bigger for decades; the pandemic has accelerated this trend.

If we’re going to turn our country away from the treasonous armed terrorists, we absolutely have to address white supremacy. We absolutely have to address the idolatry of the cult known as Christian nationalism. And we also must deal with the economic desperation in the U.S.

Let’s hope today will be the end of Trump’s influence. But even if Trump goes away, the underlying problems will still be there. We have learned that white supremacy, idolatry, and economic desperation are a toxic mix, and we must address all three.

Downside to decline

The report by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Institutional Change puts it starkly: if Unitarian Universalists don’t figure out how to become less white, we will die out (because: demographics).

Fair enough. But we’re seeing rise of the “nones,” people who have no religious affiliation, and so maybe it’s time for organized religion to die. If it’s time for organized religion to die, why should we care?

In a recent article titled “White Christian America built a faith-based safety net. What happens when it’s gone?”, Religion News Service has an answer to this question.

“The growth of the so-called nones doesn’t mean that belief is disappearing, but ‘loosely organized spirituality’ among people who have few ties to each other lacks precisely the organization that can marshal thousands of key volunteers.

“‘They don’t congregate,’ [Brad] Fulton [associate professor of nonprofit management at Indiana University] said. ‘And that is the key thing.’

“Religious congregations, on the other hand, he said, ‘ask people to give once a week, week after week. They tell people about volunteer opportunities once a week, week after week. There is no other social institution like them.’

“In some ways, the infrastructure of religion matters more than the spiritual part. The so-called nones, at least for now, can’t replace that.

“‘There is some upside to organized religion that has very little to do with religion,’ he said. ‘They have a great mechanism to bring people together. It is really hard to identify an organized secular equivalent.'”

This is not far from what Unitarian theologian and sociologist James Luther Adams said in the mid-twentieth century: congregations function as voluntary associations. And congregations provide real and tangible benefits to society.

Another point worth noticing here: Fulton, a scholar of management, says that what congregations do — that no one else does — is to congregate, “week after week.” The loose networks created by social media (so far at least) don’t do this, so unfortunately we can’t expect social media networks like Black Lives Matter to fill this void.

“The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump”

A group of Christian evangelicals have published a book titled “The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump.” In an interview with Religion News Service, the editor, Ronald J. Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, answers the question, “So what is the spiritual danger of Donald Trump?”

“I would summarize it this way [Sider says]: Trump lies constantly. He has repeatedly demonstrated adulterous sexual behavior. He fails to make justice for the poor a concern in his policies. He constantly stokes white racism. His response to COVID-19 was dreadfully weak in the first couple of months. His position on climate change is simply disastrous. And his constant attacks on the fake media undermine democracy.”

Most Unitarian Universalists don’t like Donald Trump, but rarely do we speak about why he is a spiritual danger; mostly we focus on why he’s a political danger. I’m obviously not an evangelical Christian, and therefore not the target audience for Sider’s book or his remarks, but I think this summary of Trump as a spiritual danger is spot-on.

Another interesting point Sider makes in this interview is in response to the question of why white evangelicals supported Trump so strongly in 2016. A part of Sider’s response is particularly relevant to Unitarian Universalism:

“It’s partly because, let’s be honest, there’s a left wing fundamentalism as well as the right wing fundamentalism. And there’s a part of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which is really, I think, hostile to Christianity and certainly to evangelicalism. White evangelicals feel that, and don’t like it.”

This describes too many Unitarian Universalists: we can indeed come across as left wing fundamentalists who refuse to acknowledge that intelligent people can disagree with us on religious issues. For example, there are Unitarian Universalists who are convinced that global climate change is one of the top two or three most pressing issues facing humanity, who claim they’ll do everything they can to arrest global climate change, yet who are condescending and dismissive when they hear the term “creation care.”

There is no doubt that Donald Trump represents a pressing spiritual danger: he’s a liar, a racist, a misogynist, and he’s going to let the world go up in flames. It would be wise for us Unitarian Universalists to figure out how we can work effectively with all those who want to stop this clear and present spiritual danger.

And don’t forget…

As reported by Religion News Service: Breonna Taylor, a black woman, was killed by police on March 13, yet…

“‘Despite the number of unarmed Black women killed by police or who have died under police custody under suspicious circumstances, none of them, with the exception of maybe Sandra Bland, has brought a lot of widespread attention, whereas consistently we see that men get more attention,’ said Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, womanist theologian and associate professor of pastoral care and counseling in the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University.”

Why is this so?

“‘Black women are often romantically imagined. We are “warriors.” We are “mothers.” We are “queens” … People don’t consider us as human. And our institutions, including churches, schools, workplaces and even our movements are guilty of exploiting the labor of Black women. We are forever invisible and, yet, simultaneously, always to blame,’ said [Baptist minister Candace] Simpson.”

Back to Walker-Brown for a final quote:

“‘We believe when Black women are free and when Black women’s lives matter, everyone’s lives will matter.'”

A word to my fellow white guys

On Saturday, Clarissa-Jan Lim, a journalist with BuzzFeed News, reported on the violent protests against police violence and George Floyd’s murder:

“In a video that has been shared online widely, [Tay] Anderson [a Denver school board director and activist], who is black, is seen confronting a white man with a cloth covering on his face after the man spray-paints ‘ACAB’ — ‘all cops are bastards’ — on public property. Anderson said he was doing a news interview when he saw the man vandalizing, so he turned around and tried to stop him.

“‘I said, “We asked allies to step back so that we can make sure that you’re following what we’re asking you to do,”’ he recalled. ‘And he was like, ‘I’m not your ally, you guys want to protect the status quo….”’”

Well, actually — that white guy is doing his best to reproduce the status quo.

We white men are brought up to believe that we always know best, that we always have to be in charge. Just like that white guy that Tay Anderson confronted in Denver. I get very skeptical when I hear about white men talking about joining or helping organize protests against racism. Us white guys need to — to paraphrase Tay Anderson — step back and follow the lead of people who are not white guys. If we can’t do that, for all we may talk about being allies we’re actually just protecting the status quo.

How does this protect the status quo, you ask? Let’s go back to Tay Anderson:

“Anderson … said he knows that others ‘are going to blame black people for the violence and destruction, whether or not they started it. When we aren’t asking people to destroy things in our name and people do it anyway, we know that this is something that’s going to blow back on us,’ he said. ‘I’m pissed that this is going to blow back on us, because we don’t deserve this. We didn’t ask for this.’”

You see how this works, right?

White guys go to a non-violent protest march organized by black people. The white guys can’t stand not being the center of attention, so they start getting violent. This displaces the center of authority from the black organizers of the protest march to the white guys. Suddenly, it’s no longer a non-violent protest march organized by black people, it’s a violent protest organized by white guys. And as usual, if anything goes wrong, black people get blamed. The status quo of American racism is preserved yet again.

Here’s a word of advice to my fellow white guys:

If you really want to change the status quo, then when you go to one of the protests, make sure for once in your life that you’re not in charge of anything. In fact, if you go to a white allies protest, let white people of other genders run it. When you’re at a protest, don’t draw attention to yourself. Don’t do anything to cause others to photograph you. Don’t be a rugged individualist or a lone ranger. Don’t even go bragging all over social media about what a social justice warrior you are because you, a white guy, were brave enough to attend a protest. In short, for once in your life, you’re not going to be the center of attention. I’m a white guy myself, so I know how hard that will be; but that’s what we need to do.

Because if us white guys could actually stop trying to be in charge all the time, that would go a long way towards changing the status quo.

“An absolute chaotic disaster”

Former president Barack Obama has called the current presidential administration’s response to the coronavirus situation “an absolute chaotic disaster.” (Full quote here.)

Even accounting for some measure of political calculation, hoping to help his own party’s chances in the November election, there’s a lot of truth in what Obama said. For example, look at this bar graph showing the number of cases per country:

And to quote the BBC: “More than 77,000 people have now died and the US has 1.2m confirmed cases — both by far the highest in the world.”

Who’s responsible for supporting the poor?

Ralph Drollinger, former professional basketball player and now the leader of Capitol Ministries in Washington, D.C., leads Bible studies for old white guys in power. He can boast that 11 of the 15 members of Trump’s cabinet attend his Bible study. According to the journalist Katherine Stewart, Drollinger should be identified more with politics than religion; specifically, with a political movement Stewart calls “Christian nationalism.” In a recent interview, Stewart quoted Drollinger on the subject of responsibility to the poor:

“The responsibility to meet the needs of the poor lies first with the husband in marriage, secondly with the family, and thirdly with the church. Nowhere does God command government or commerce to support those with genuine needs.”

This sounds to me as though Drollinger is telling rich men that if they will only support their wives and family and maybe give something to their church — beyond that, Drollinger is giving them permission to ignore the poor. Which reminds me of a story in the book of Mark about someone very like Ralph Drollinger who went to Jesus to ask a question:

“As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.”‘ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

If Ralph Drollinger will go and sell everything he owns, and give the money to the poor, then I’ll be willing to listen to his thoughts about supporting poor people. Until then, I’m going to ignore his cold-blooded and heartless words, and I’m going to continue in the tradition of my New England forebears who believed that one of the key roles of government was, in fact, to support those in need.

It’s not the evangelicals, it’s the Christian nationalists

In an interview on the Religious Studies Podcast, journalist Katherine Stewart points out that it’s wrong to identify all Christian evangelicals with the Trump White House. Stewart’s research shows that the Trump White House uses religion to mobilize voters to support them — specifically, mobilizing voters around abortion and opposition to same sex marriage and LGBTQ+ rights. She calls this a political movement, which she names “Christian nationalism.”

When pressed by the interviewer, David McConeghy, Stewart elaborates on why Christian nationalism is fundamentally about politics, not about religion. Speaking of one of the leaders of the movement, Ralph Drollinger, Stewart says:

“The policies he’s promoting are: deregulation; sort of a compliant workforce; a lack of basic workers’ rights; I think he’s called the flat tax something like ‘God’s form of taxation.’ And you know, this is all music to the ears of the funders of the movement. Many of the funders are these members of plutocratic families … the DeVos and Prince families, the Green family. And these very hyper-wealthy families rely on minimal workers’ rights, and economic and environmental deregulation to maintain and increase their profits. So the movement is promoted to the rank-and-file as being about these culture war issues. But when movement leaders are talking amongst themselves, or to political leaders, the message is much more expansive.”

Stewart also believes, based on her research, that Christian nationalism as a political philosophy is basically opposed to representative democracy; yet the Christian nationalists are also very sophisticated at manipulating the electorate to get their supporters into positions of leadership and power.

For these and other reasons, Stewart asserts that this is a political movement, one that uses religion for its own ends. I think this is a helpful way of looking at electoral politics in this election year: rather than being distracted by the red herring of Christian evangelicals getting involved in politics, we would do better to pay attention to the manipulation of the electorate by the political force of Christian nationalism.

The Golden Rule and political discourse

I just signed on to the “Golden Rule 2020 Pledge”:

“We all have an important role to play to help heal our nation, increase understanding of each other, and bridge our divisions. I stand with other Americans by joining Golden Rule 2020: A Call for Dignity and Respect in Politics. I commit to treat others with respect and dignity as I engage in political discourse and behavior throughout the 2020 campaign season.”

I’m tired of hearing Americans badmouth each other, just because we have differing political beliefs. That kind of behavior is not good for our country. It trashes the commons of our public discourse. More than that, I’m tired of hearing myself badmouth others just because I don’t happen to share their political beliefs. I don’t want to be that kind of person. If others want to engage in trash-talking, that is their choice — I don’t have to make the same choice.

Yes, it’s a bunch of Christians who started the Golden Rule Pledge. But, according to the Internet Encylcopedia of Philosophy (a peer-reviewed Web site), the Golden Rule predates Christianity, and transcends the particularities of Christian doctrine:

“The golden rule is closely associated with Christian ethics though its origins go further back and graces Asian culture as well. Normally we interpret the golden rule as telling us how to act. But in practice its greater role may be psychological, alerting us to everyday self-absorption, and the failure to consider our impacts on others. The rule reminds us also that we are peers to others who deserve comparable consideration. It suggests a general orientation toward others, an outlook for seeing our relations with them….This is a strongly egalitarian message.”

Note that the Golden Rule does not require us to follow such Christian precepts as loving others as you love yourself, or turning the other cheek. All that is required is recalling how we would like to be treated, then trying to treat others that way. If even a few of us do that some of the time, public discourse will become more civil. Equally importantly, from my point of view, trying to follow the Golden Rule is a way to try to be more like the person I aspire to be. Check it out, and see if you want to sign on, too.

#GoldenRule2020

Religious freedom and colonialism

The latest Religious Studies Podcast is a very interesting interview with Tisa Wenger, author of a new book, “Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal.” (If you’re like me and prefer reading to listening, there’s also a full transcript to read.) In the interview, Wenger explains how Native American people redefined what they did as religion in order to use U.S. guarantees of religious freedom to protect indigenous traditions:

“[In the United States] you see U.S. government officials with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) delegitimizing indigenous traditions by categorizing them as superstitious, heathenish, pagan. And indigenous people, who in their own languages and ways of structuring — they had their own ways of structuring their societies — but those ways of structuring their societies didn’t really include anything equivalent to the category of religion as Americans understood it at the time. But they [Native Americans] start to conceive of those traditions as religion in order to argue back against the categorization of themselves as heathen, savage, pagan, etc. So this is why I title my first book ‘We Have a Religion’: this was a quote from a Pueblo Indian petition to the superintendent of Indian Affairs, saying, ‘We also have a religion … And you can’t ban it, because of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.'”

Wenger also touches briefly on how something similar happened in British India, as Hinduism came to be defined as a religion:

“The construction of Hinduism as a ‘world religion’ is happening in conjunction with [British] colonial history. Both by Indian intellectuals and by British, for somewhat different ends. But it serves both of their interests to construct Hinduism as a world religion.”

I’ve been thinking recently about the interaction between the concept of religious freedom on the one hand, and religion on the other hand. I’m one of those who doesn’t see religion as a thing that can be easily defined; instead, I’m one of those who sees religion as a social construction with definitions that vary over time. Wenger’s research helps me better understand how a colonial power like the United States used religion in varying ways to help dominate Native American peoples; and, conversely, how Native Americans in turn used religion to maintain their own cultural autonomy.

Clearly, Wenger’s work also looks at the interactions between race and religion. In a response to the interview with Wenger, “The Politics of Religious Freedom and the Criminalization of Blackness,” Alexander Rocklin examines the way Afro-Caribbean religions have been stigmatized, and defined as not being religions so that religious freedom does not apply to them (in much the same way that certain Native American religions have been defined as not being religions so that they can be outlawed). Rocklin writes:

“The denial of the status of religion became a dehumanizing justification for the enslavement, colonization, and repression of peoples of African descent around the globe, a denial that still haunts the category of religion.”

The link between the category of religion and colonialism is well known, but what’s new here is the detail these two scholars offer about specific religious traditions and their battle for religious freedom with colonial powers. Fascinating reading.