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.

…very careful in the words…

We live in times when it is worth looking at the way old white guys in power cloak themselves with words. They also surround themselves with expensive ties, expensive watches, expensive haircuts — but their words are the primary tools they use in wielding power.

Rev. Robert Jeffress, evangelical Christian and senior pastor of First Baptist Church, a megachurch in Dallas, Texas, told Fox News in a televised interview: “If the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office (which they will never be), it will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.” Donald Trump quoted Jeffress in a series of Twitter posts, which Jeffress then retweeted. What did Jefress mean by talking about a civil war? When interviewed by CBN News, he said, “Well I was very careful in the words that I chose, I was not predicting and I was certainly not advocating an actual civil war.” And, he went on, if anyone thought he was in fact advocating for a civil war, they must be “too stupid to understand what we [he and Trump] are saying.”

When you are an old white guy, it’s so easy to surround yourself with the sound of your own words, so you don’t have to hear anything beyond your own words.

Political correctness and moral dogmatism

A new podcast from the University of Macau, featuring philosophy professor Hand-Georg Moeller and doctoral candidate Dan Sarafinas, focuses on “virtue speech,” which is Moeller’s philosophical term for political correctness.

Moeller connects virtue speech to civil religion; in the United States, civil religion begins with the fundamental dogma contained in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” According to Moeller, this dogma is written so you can’t argue with it; all you can do is interpret it. (Although as Moeller points out, there are all kinds of ways you can argue with this statement; for example, Europeans like Moeller are not likely to believe in a Creator, let alone a Creator who endows human beings with unalienable rights.)

Virtue speech — politically correct speech — starts with this fundamental dogma and interprets it by applying it to specific situations, such as the MeToo movement, or Black Lives Matter. While Moeller says he’s generally supportive of the MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter, to someone who believes in the Enlightenment ideal of the use of reason, virtue speech is going to be just as much of a problem as fundamentalist Christianity: both are founded on dogmas that require you to accept them without reasoning. Moeller points how virtue speech subverts well-reasoned argument:

“Most of these people who are attacking virtue speech, who are attacking political correctness: in the beginning they’re just appalled by this virtue signaling. They’re appalled by this self-aggrandizing moralism or the moralists. But then they start thinking, ‘OK, I’ll prove that their morality is wrong.’ And then they get drawn into a moralistic, dogmatic discourse, because they start talking about the issue. They come up with very indefensible positions, even.”

Moeller’s title for the podcast is “The Issue Is Not the Issue.” He doesn’t want to get involved in moralistic, dogmatic discourse himself. Instead, he wants to point out the problems with dogmatism:

“The point is not to deny the values of liberty and equality, but to understand and critique dogmatic speech, no matter what the issues are. That doesn’t mean that these things are wrong. It’s just to point out the problems of engaging in dogmatic speech.”

While I highly recommend this podcast, I think it will be very challenging for many religions liberals. In their religious life, religious liberals studiously avoid dogmatism, but in their political life too many religious liberals engage in dogmatic speech with little consciousness of what they’re doing; indeed, many Unitarian Universalist congregations, while eschewing religious dogmatism, are hothouses of political dogmatism.

You can listen to the first episode of “The Issue Is Not the Issue” here.

Generational viewpoints

Zoe Samudzi, doctoral candidate in sociology at UCSF, on class and race:

“I think it’s really telling about the kind of limitedness with which we understand wealth redistribution because of the ways we refuse to understand white supremacy as a necessary part of capitalism and race as the kind of anchoring structure through which resources are inequitably redistributed.” (interview in Geez magazine, winter, 2018, p. 42)

Adolph Reed, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, a Marxist who specializes in race an American politics:

“Anti-racism — along with anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, etc., as well as diversity as the affirmative statement of them all — is a species of a genus of social and economic justice that is utterly compatible with neoliberalism: parity in the distribution of costs and benefits among groups defined by essentialized ascriptive identities.” (interview in Platypus Review #75, April, 2015)

I feel that Samudzi represents a younger generation of thinkers and activists who have abandoned traditional Marxist critiques of capitalism in favor of critiques based on identity politics; Reed represents an older generation of thinkers who continue to extend Marxist critiques of capitalism and who criticize identity politics as neoliberalism, which is to say, another form of capitalism. As someone who had training in the Frankfurt School as an undergrad (under a black Marxist professor, interestingly enough), I’m aligned with Reed’s generational cohort. But the zeitgeist is now blowing in the direction of Samudzi’s generation.

What does it mean to be cisgender?

In article on Feminist Current, a Canadian Web site, Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at the Univ. of Texas Austin, questions his assignment into the category of cisgender:

“…Sex is a question of biologically determined male and female, gender of socially determined masculinity and femininity. The dominant conception of masculinity in U.S. culture asserts that men are naturally competitive and aggressive, and that being a ‘real man’ means struggling for control, conquest, and domination. A man looks at the world, sees what he wants, and takes it. This is sometimes labeled ‘toxic masculinity,’ which implies it is an aberration from some ‘normal’ masculinity. But this understanding of masculinity-as-seeking-dominance is the default setting for most males growing up in patriarchy, especially through the glorification of aggression in the military, sports, and business.

“All that definitional work [Jensen continues] is necessary to explain why I am not cisgender. As a male human, this patriarchal conception of masculinity is not my ‘chosen’ identity, nor do I believe it is my fate. As a short, skinny, effeminate child … I never felt very masculine. As an adult with feminist politics, I reject and struggle to overcome the masculinity norms in patriarchy. If we were someday to transcend patriarchy, would I feel more ‘like a man’? That would depend on how the term was defined, but in the world in which I live, I refuse to embrace the patriarchal gender identity handed to me….

“So [Jensen concludes], I’m not cisgender and I’m not transgender. I am not gender fluid, non-binary, or multi-gender. I self-identify as an adult biological XY male who rejects patriarchal gender norms and works from a radical feminist perspective to eliminate patriarchy….”

While it has some problematic moments, I think Jensen’s essay offers a small but useful addition to the ongoing debate about the term “cisgender.” If you haven’t been following that debate, some have argued that “cisgender” is analogous to the introduction of “heterosexual” as the opposite of “homosexual”; similarly, “cisgender” can help non-trans people realize the extent to which they have the privilege of not having to articulate their gender; therefore it is a necessary term. Arguments against the term include the possibility that setting up such a strong distinction between transgender and cisgender may actually work against a widespread acceptance of transgender as normal; others claim that transgender and cisgender are Western cultural concepts that don’t apply cross-culturally (e.g., Native Americans who reject the identification of the Two-Spirit tradition with transgender).

What Jensen offers to this debate is his personal experience of gender. He does not see himself as typically masculine; therefore, he does not see that his biological sex matches society’s expectations about the gender role he should take on. Yet he does not consider himself transgender, either. There’s an argument to be made that Jensen has cisgender privilege because he’s non-trans, and thus the term is useful; however, I’m not convinced that biological men and boys who are not masculine, but also non-trans, get the same level of privilege as a stereotypically masculine biological male since (depending on how effeminate you are) a straight non-trans non-masculine man will tend to experience some level of bullying and teasing.

The word “cisgender” is not going to go away, and I feel it remains useful in some settings. What Jensen makes me realize is that we should be careful in how we use the term: we shouldn’t use the term “cisgender” in such a way that it reinforces gender stereotypes. For example, we wouldn’t want to reinforce gender stereotypes of masculinity by grouping Robert Jensen together with Donald Trump under the rubric “cisgender men”; Trump is constantly enacting stereotypes of a hyper-masculine gender role (marrying a woman much younger than he, asserting his virility in various ways, putting success above everything else, etc.); Jensen is taking on a significantly different gender role.

So I’ll continue to use “cisgender” as a term for larger groups of people. But I’m going to be disinclined to apply it to a individuals, aware of its cultural assumptions, and careful not to turn it into yet another binary division.