Is Americanism a Superstition?

Why are some Roman Catholics so willing to look at the United States as the basement of human flourishing but then turn a blind eye to the variety of cults that surround local saints and their relics? A couple years ago, a battle was raging between two saints — St. Muerte vs. St. Jude Thaddeus — that had broad support among the people (think populism):

The Vatican takes a far less rosy view of the cult, which it sees as a deeply threatening presence in the country with the world’s second-largest Catholic population. In 2013, a senior church official said worshiping Santa Muerte was a “degeneration of religion.” Three Catholic bishops in the United States also denounced the folk saint in February.

Yet despite the church’s stance, Santa Muerte is currently the fastest-growing new religious movement in the Americas, according to Andrew Chesnut, chair in Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.

“The fact that Santa Muerte is the nonjudgmental folk saint who accepts everybody regardless of their station in life, regardless of their social class and regardless of their skin color is really appealing in a country like Mexico, where the gaps between rich and poor are some of the greatest in the world,” he said.

According to Chesnut, Mexico City’s St. Hippolytus Church responded to the explosive growth of the monthly Santa Muerte rosary service in the capital by organizing a special Mass in honor of St. Jude Thaddeus on the 28th of each month. These monthly celebrations drew impressive crowds and quickly expanded to other parts of the country.

“St. Jude Thaddeus is the only Catholic saint in the world who now basically has a monthly feast day,” Chesnut said.

Typically depicted in a green cloak with a flame above his head and a wooden club in his hand, St. Jude Thaddeus was one of Jesus Christ’s 12 apostles.

Much like Santa Muerte, the canonized saint’s popularity is tied to his reputation as a powerful miracle worker. For centuries, believers were wary of invoking him because of the similarity between his name and that of Judas Iscariot, Christ’s betrayer. Yet according to tradition, the forgotten saint became a powerful intermediary, eager to assist those in need.

“Word has spread that St. Jude can help you with your most pressing problems,” said Guadalajara-based priest Fr. Juan Carlos López. “Because of that, the devotion has grown.”

Yet some church officials have expressed concern about the saint’s popularity with criminals.

“There is a dark, negative side to all of this,” said Fr. José de Jesus Aguilar, director of the radio and television service for the Mexico City Archdiocese. “St. Jude Thaddeus has also become the patron of thieves, drug traffickers and those who are doing evil. This is a contradiction. Saints cannot support those who are doing wrong.”

Obviously, a Protestant isn’t going to help Romans sort this out — way above my pay grade, though I could advise that simply going with the sainthood of all believers would cut down on the hierarchy of Christians (not populist). Also, eliminating the cult of saints rids the church of that difficult decision of distinguishing — get this — good saints from bad ones.

What is curious, though, is how church officials and Roman Catholic intellectuals have no trouble seeing the wickedness of Lockean liberalism, free market capitalism, global warming, and nationalism (in almost all forms). Even more startling is how some of these same people are willing to condemn or question the bona fides of Roman Catholics who defend the benefits of modern political and economic arrangements.

Leo Ribuffo said it best way back in 2004:

In the 19th century James Cardinal Gibbons tried to comfort Protestant America with the notion that the doctrine of papal infallibility was no more mysterious than the Supreme Court serving as the final interpreter of the Constitution. Perhaps so, but the Catholic Supreme Court, so to speak, resides in Rome rather than Washington and thus is less responsive to American opinions. Probably papal misunderstanding of the United States has been no worse than that of most European heads of government. This is not a very high standard, however. On the contrary, the papacy has often seemed to reflect European clichés about American hyperpower, mindless materialism, and a confusion of freedom with license. Certainly the Vatican seems more likely to censure a characteristic American religious syncretism—of Catholicism and democracy—than Third World religious adaptations in which Catholicism merges with voodoo or animism.

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What I Loved about Leo Ribuffo

Bruce Kuklick captures it superbly:

As I grew close to Leo over the years, I saw more and more how much of him was shaped by hostility to social and economic status. He saidabout his own essays: Never underestimate spite as an engine of intellectual achievement. He was infuriated by “the cronyism” of leading figures in the history profession, their self-aggrandizement and careerism dressed up in the fake language of meritocracy. One of Leo’s mantras went: “My Uncle Tony” had a more “nuanced” view of race relations in the United States than all the liberal historians writing on the topic.He wrote a scathing attack on me at one point, claiming that my views about the profession reflected “an educational background and academic career spent entirely at elite universities.” In his last days he talked about organizing a session at the 2019 USIH conference that would get old-fart intellectual historians to talk about the field in the 1970s. He absolutely refused to consider several prominent historians whom he judged as well-to-do and orthodox net-workers. About Washington, D.C., he said many times words to this effect: “I associate with lawyers, assistant secretaries of some agency or other, national security talking-heads, Clinton partisans waiting for work. Many are my friends. But I don’t like the class.” While his kindness and self-knowledge allowed him to value the individual, he forever felt alien from an upper crust.

No nudity or foul words, but being with Leo was as invigorating as watching The Wire.

Political Reflections — Pious or Otherwise

The debate last night has many Americans thinking about politics, not to mention the presidential campaign more generally. What these moments bring out are a host of observations on the nature of politics by believers. Some, like the Alliance Defending Freedom, have declared this coming Lord’s Day to be “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” Pastors are supposed to use sermons to evaluate the presidential candidates according to “biblical truths and church doctrine.” Brian Lee, a URC pastor in Washington, D.C., doesn’t think much of this effort:

But most pastors are reluctant to exchange their spiritual freedom from politics to demonstrate their political freedoms for politics. A survey of 1,000 mainline and evangelical protestant pastors released this week suggests that only 1 in 10 believe they should endorse a candidate from the pulpit, despite the fact that almost half plan to personally endorse outside of their church role.

Furthermore, previous studies have shown that this reluctance isn’t based on belief that the government has a say on the content of their speech. Clearly, many pastors are constrained by the sanctity of their office, and in particular, the pulpit. They recognize the very real tradeoff that in our polarized age political speech may offend and drive off many members of the flock they are called to shepherd.

Furthermore, the New Testament offers no encouragement for direct political action. When Jesus was asked a trick question about the propriety of paying taxes — is there any other kind? — he asked whose name was on the coin, and told his followers to “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Later, when on trial for his life, he did not deny his royal authority, but instead claimed “My kingdom is not of this world.”

Then there are those instances where Christians try to strike a balance — avoid extremes at all cost. Justin Taylor offers an example of this:

It is true that “this world is not our home,” but it’s not true that “I’m just passing through” like a leisurely amusement park ride.

We are dual citizens, responsible and active members of both God’s spiritual kingdom and earthly kingdom. And if we seek to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and strength—and to love our neighbor as ourselves—then we should care to some degree about politics and elections and the role of government in our land. . . .

Some argue that we should be invested in evangelism or preaching or social justice instead of politics. But most of us can care about both. Let me offer two reasons why we, as Bible-believing, gospel-centered evangelicals, should care about politics at varying levels and degrees.

First, we care about politics because we care about God’s glory and God’s good gift. Everything is designed to be from God and through God and to God (Rom. 11:36)—including our government. Everything we do—from drinking our coffee in the morning to having a sandwich for lunch to voting at the booth to serving as an elected official—is to be done for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). . . .

Second, we care about politics because we care about the good of our neighbors and the good of our country. If you have to choose between evangelism and politics, choose evangelism. Saving an eternal soul is more important than fixing a temporal need. But most of the time, we don’t have to choose.

In point of fact, we do need to choose based on how we reflect on this stuff. If evangelism is more important than transforming the city or electing the right candidate, it will mean that we treat cities and candidates as less important. People who aren’t invested in Major League Baseball don’t care about the playoffs, even if they care in some way about the players who are citizens or their neighbors who are fans. Our powers of assessment affect the time we devote to certain activities. Priorities matter. And that is why some members of the Gospel Coalition are trying to find ways to elevate the importance of the arts, cities, and Christian cultural (and political) engagement. One of the easiest Christian strategies is to follow Abraham Kuyper and call such activity “holy.” Then the temporal and earthly gains the significance of the eternal and the heavenly. I wish the folks at Gospel Coalition would mind the priority of their organization’s name.

This leaves the best reflection of all on politics — the one uncluttered by religious outlook. Here I cut and paste from a post earlier today at Front Porch Republic.

The blogosphere is filled with opinions on last night’s debate between the president and the challenger. The chattering classes has gotten a whole lot larger. Unless you are a historian and follow the posts at the History News Network, you probably didn’t see Leo Ribuffo’s reflections. A good friend who teaches history at George Washington University, is writing a biography of Jimmy Carter, and calls himself a McGovern Democrat, Leo is also wittily acerbic. Here is a good example (the rest is here):

Romney obviously won. The question is why. Quite possibly he won because he was channeling his inner Governor George Romney, a moderate Republican in the context of his era. In other words, having secured the Republican nomination, Mitt looked confident and relaxed because he was no longer confined to saying only things he didn’t believe. Perhaps if Romney is elected this inner George would prompt him to restrain the cultural conservatives and limited government zealots who dominate his party. I wouldn’t bet on it, but who knows? Lack of principle made Richard Nixon a better president for the welfare state than anyone expected.

Perhaps Obama lost the debate because he was having an off night. Or because he was over-confident. Or conversely, sensing the precariousness of his situation given the high level or unemployment, he channeled his inner Tom Dewey and decided to sit on his lead in the polls. Or perhaps, channeling his inner Michael Dukakis, he actually thinks a presidential election is about competence, not ideology. But I would speculate further that Obama had trouble mounting an effective and spirited defense of the welfare state because at heart he is a “new kind of Democrat” skeptical of government programs.

Whatever the reasons, Obama was lousy. Some pundits instantly attributed his abysmal performance to his “professorial” demeanor. This dopey short-hand has now become standard, akin to Jimmy Carter the engineer (wrong) and George W. Bush the “faith-based” president (even more wrong). Let’s abandon this cliché. Actual professors by definition hold jobs, which means that we had at least one successful job interview in which we looked people in the eye, explained our merits, and showed enthusiasm about our past work and future plans. Then, after being hired, we figured out how to adapt our complex and sometimes esoteric ideas to reach the audience at hand. As my old friend Warren Goldstein of the University of Hartford emailed me in mid-debate, “Most of us have to be 10 times better than that to keep 20 year olds awake in class.”