Yet another holy book

Rodney Kennedy, in an opinion piece on Baptist News Global, says:

“I’m attempting to wrap my mind around the idea of a former Army general telling me I should preach from the U.S. Constitution. I mention this only because Michael Flynn has been occupying American pulpits, recommending the Constitution as a second holy book for preachers. ‘What (preachers) need to be doing is they need to be talking about the Constitution from the pulpit as much as the Bible. They have to do that,’ Flynn has said.”

Kennedy calls Flynn’s remark idolatrous. From his Christian point of view, the Bible stands alone and does not need to be propped up by any other texts.

I don’t know if Flynn actually believes what he said, or if he just said it to draw audiences. (Time reported that Flynn made $150,000 in 2016 for speaking engagements, a strong motivation to say what his audiences want to hear.) But I do know Flynn is giving voice to an opinion genuinely held by many people in the United States. These folks genuinely believe that the U.S. Constitution is divinely inspired, just like the Bible, and thus should be treated as a sacred text. These folks use short passages from the U.S. Constitution as proof texts, just as short passages from the Bible are used as proof texts, to prove the truth of a certain theological opinion or doctrine.

What a fascinating historical moment. We seem to be watching a sort of new Great Awakening, a movement which curiously adds the U.S. Constitution as a sacred text co-equal to the Bible. Like previous Great Awakenings, these folk are vibrant and adventurous and enthusiastic. My Puritan forebears would have said that enthusiasm results from excessive religious emotions that come from a deluded conceit that one is specially favored by God, and I’m still enough of a Puritan to agree. Nevertheless, what a fascinating historical moment.

What Franklin Graham says

We have a post box for our mail, so sometimes we receive mail sent to previous holders of that box number. Today we received the October issue of “Decision” magazine, published by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association.

The editor-in-chief, Franklin Graham, wrote the lead article in this issue, titled “We Can Still Turn Back.” Franklin Graham says, in part:

“On Nov. 8, tens of millions of voters will head to polls across America in the most crucial midterm elections in recent history. To say that much is at stake is a gross understatement. It isn’t just control of Congress; it may be our last chance to stop the immoral and ungodly policies that have brought our national to the moral brink of disaster.”

What are the “immoral and ungodly policies” to which he refers? About what you’d expect: same sex marriage, abortion rights, and “transgenderism.”

In his article, Franklin Graham concludes, “That’s why it is so critical that you go to the polls on Nov. 8 and vote from the candidates who best align with godly, Biblical principles.”

But which Biblical principles? Franklin Graham’s net worth is estimated to be on the order of $10 million, and he has an annual income on the order of $600,000. Yet in Matthew 19:16-21, we hear this story:

“Then someone came to [Jesus] and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’…” [NRSV; emphasis added]

Franklin Graham contributes to good in the world through the global charity he heads, Samaritan’s Purse. But I do not see Franklin Graham actually following this teaching of Jesus in Matthew 19:16-21, to go and sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. Sadly, this makes it look like he picks Bible passages that confirm his biases while passing over Bible passages that cause him discomfort.

Which makes him appear hypocritical.

No wonder young people are leaving organized religion in droves.

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.

…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.

Identifying postmodern approaches to truth

“Truth isn’t truth,” said Rudy Guiliani on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He later tried to clarify that his “statement was not meant as a pontification on moral theology.”

Actually, I would argue that Guiliani’s statement has more to do with philosophical epistemology than with moral theology; that is, with the philosophical study of how we know the world. I would further argue that Guiliani’s statement reveals his indebtedness to the philosophical stance of postmodernism. To see what I mean, the first paragraph of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on postmodernism may prove helpful:

“That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.”

The relevant point here, I think, is that post-modernist statements such as “truth isn’t truth” and “alternative facts” can be considered attempts to destabilize the concept of epistemic certainty and univocity of meaning — that is, these are attempts to upset my sense that I can know something to be true, and to upset my sense that truth is the same for all reasoning beings. Statements such as these are trying to make us feel that we do not know the world adequately, and that we cannot know the world adequately through use of reason.

Guiliani’s statement is notable for its lack of nuance. I also think we’re seeing an uptick in fascist politics in the United States, a politics which increasingly seems to rely on postmodern destabilization of epistemic certainty. I see this as a troubling trend: a link between fascism and the denial of epistemic certainty.

At the same time, I’m also thinking that some discourse by political liberals may also prove destabilizing to epistemic certainty, though with different intention and probably different ultimate effects. Some varieties of identity politics may involve assertions that person within one identity group cannot fully understand persons in another identity group, which assertions, if nuanced, may be useful and reasonable. For example, a woman could say to me, with great reasonableness, that because I’m a man I cannot understand many aspects of what it’s like to be a woman. Usually, there are several levels of understanding implicit in such a statement, e.g.: that while a man can’t understand fully what it is like to be a woman nevertheless a man can reason out something of what women experience (as exemplified by male novelists who write reasonably convincing female characters); that a transgender person who transitions from male to female can experience something of both male and female directly; and so on.

In a similar vein, scholar of religion Stephen Prothero asserts in his book God Is Not One that religions have different goals and different end points — and he also makes it clear that it’s possible to engender understanding between different religions, and between practitioners of different religions. In sum, then, one can assert that certain kinds of understanding between different persons may never be fully possible, while at the same time leaving room for the possibility that significant understanding may happen with effort. As a man I’m never going to experience what it’s like to bear a child, but there are conditions under which I can reason out or empathize with that experience. As a Unitarian Universalist, I’m never going to experience the submission to Allah characteristic of Islam, but there are conditions under which I can reason out or empathize with that experience.

But here’s where it gets tricky. I think political liberals have to be careful of how they use identity politics. Identity politics has been rightly critical of those who assert truths that are self-serving, as, for example, male scientists who assert that it is a “truth” that fewer women are capable of being scientists. This kind of argument is effective when it it appeals to reason, e.g., by pointing out how one’s bias can affect how one interprets data, i.e., how bias blinds one to reason. On the other hand, identity politics can move into the realm of postmodern destabilization of epistemic certainty, for example with assertions that different identity groups have different truths that can not be mutually understood. If one is going to assert “Your truth isn’t my truth,” one must be careful to explicate how that statement is different from “Truth isn’t truth.”

Postmodernism and postmodern ideas are widespread in our society, and in our public discourse. We are all affected by them. The point I’m trying to make is that we have to be critical of our own discourse, and be aware of how we’re being affected by postmodern efforts to destabilize epistemic certainty. Because no one wants to wind up like Rudy Guiliani, saying in a public, “Truth isn’t truth.”