History Doesn’t Have Sides (take it from a professional)

Citizens of the U.S. have become used to presidents talking about “the right side of history”:

Most recently, during his December 6 Oval Office address on terrorism, Obama said: “My fellow Americans, I am confident we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history.” It’s a phrase Obama loves: He’s used it 15 times, in debates; at synagogues; in weekly radio addresses; at fundraisers. Obama is almost as fond of its converse, “the wrong side of history,” which he has used 13 times; staffers and press secretaries have invoked it a further 16. (These figures are all based on the archives of the American Presidency Project at the University of California Santa Barbara.)

But the expressions are hardly original to Obama. Bill Clinton referred to “the right side of history” 21 times over his time in office, while his staffers added another 15. Clinton also mentioned the “wrong side of history” several times. Ronald Reagan, for his part, wryly resurrected Leon Trotsky’s relegation of the Mensheviks to the “dustbin” or “ash heap of history.” Speaking to the British Parliament in 1982, the Gipper said, “The march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”

That kind of naivete from the smartest people in the country (minus Reagan, of course) makes you (okay mmmmeeeeEEEEE) wonder what it feels like to lose and be on the wrong side of history (now Democrats know how Jerry Falwell felt in 1993).

But this is not simply an American problem. Paul Helm (not licensed as a historian) points out that history is not so readily categorized as right or wrong. But it is the legacy of the Enlightenment and a departure from Augustinianism:

This idea of history having a ‘side’, which is liberal, enlightened and so on, harks back to the enlightenment of the 18th century, to the emergence of what David Hume called ‘these enlightened ages’, in sharp contrast to the side of the ‘dark ages’ of medievalism. The idea is that such a surge as the Enlightenment, having begun, is inevitable, tending unstoppably in one direction. This side of history is on the move to better times, and so if we wish these times for ourselves and others, we had better get on the right side. And that direction becomes ‘obvious’ to those with enlightened minds.

The forces of darkness, of barbarism and superstition, are history’s other side, its faltering side, the side of those intent on ‘turning the clock back’, impeding or interrupting and so delaying its progress. Sooner or later history’s other side is to be decisively supplanted by the enlightened. So that dark side is destined to fail. The light side of history will succeed. Who wants to be left behind? So do not get left behind, for the Light and its forces will ultimately triumph over Darkness, reason against unreason, liberty against slavery, and so on. This is somehow connected with what Herbert Butterfield and others referred to as the Whig interpretation of history. Though this seems to have been, insofar as it existed, a gentler version of the current ‘sides of history’ view, at least insofar as it is view of history that is the outcome of ongoing parliamentary debate. In fact it may be said that so long as freedom of speech and the working of government and opposition in Parliament continues, the enlightened ages continue.

One implication is a lesson for those who think progressively about Christianity making the world a better place (read transformationalism). Don’t mimic Enlightenment progressivism:

Also linked with the winning side of history view is the idea of Western leadership and hegemony, which causes the rising sun to shine on the Sunny Side until the entire world basks in it. These are the engines of light. Currently these are the forces of globalism, international corporatism, and the waging of the war against global warming. Its personal ‘values’ include unlimited tolerance, and the freedom from offendedness of various kinds, along with the renouncing of the vestiges of nationalism and popularism, two currently-favoured examples.. Though it is said that we are living in a post-Enlightenment period, the confidence of the Enlightenment persists. Whatever ‘post-modernism’ is, it is not pessimistic.

The solution? Thinking like aliens and strangers, not conquerors and transformers:

It is a feature of living ‘between the times’ that God’s activity in history, his macro activity we might call it – cannot be correlated with the ebb and flow of history. Why is this? Because there is now no fixity between the events in history and the saving purposes of God. The only possible exception is the history of the church. But that is also rather uncertain. During the eras if special revelation – in the call of Abraham, and the history of Israel, and of course in the coming into flesh of the eternal Son, there is redemptive history in something like the usual sense of history. There were times in which the purposes of God with those with eyes to see, could be discerned. Through the ebbing and flowing, a trajectory of the divine redemptive purpose is discernible. But no longer. There is no ‘open vision’. Attempts to make a connection between historical states as the centuries roll, and the redemptive purposes of God are doomed. . . .

Such an understanding of history and the place of the Christian church in it throws into sharp relief the New Testament teaching on Christians as pilgrims and strangers, whose citizenship lies exclusively in a future city whose maker and builder is God. Any ‘Christian’ activity which seeks to impact dimensions of this present age and its cities –through social policies, political agendas, or arts and crafts – as so many expressions of Christian faith, inevitably compromises the root importance of a pilgrimage of men and women who otherwise may agree on little else, but whose eyes and hopes are in the New Jerusalsem. Besides these, the questions of history, its various sides and significances, matter not.

Helm should add, this outlook is not inspiring. No conferences on “Embrace the Suck” or “Endure the Uncertainty.”

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Republicans are Always Evil Everywhere

I still remember my days at Harvard Divinity School when most if not all of my friends mocked Ronald Reagan as a boob and a divorcee who had snowed God’s faithful within the Moral Majority. In fact, every nominee of the GOP since Goldwater (in my memory) has been of dubious character and intellect. That makes evangelical support for Republicans the height of hypocrisy, not to mention a threat to the Republic.

I went to church with some of my friends on a number of occasions, mostly to see what they were teaching their followers. While I disagreed with much of it, I couldn’t help but like the people I met there and admire their sense of community and devotion to something bigger than themselves. I took part in discussion groups with church members too, and again, while I thought much of it was intellectually indefensible, the intent was genuine and their desire to do good in their communities laudable.

I could not for the life of me understand how these good people could vote for someone like George Bush and Dick Cheney — oil funded war hawks who spent their political careers wrecking social programs for the poor and doing everything in their power to trash the environment. The contradiction between their personal humility and willingness to vocally support and vote for greedy millionaires with a penchant for violence in the Middle East was completely alien to me.

So why be shocked if those same evangelical Protestants vote for Trump? Because he is so much more wicked?

White evangelical Christians came out in droves to support Donald Trump — a man who exemplifies literally everything Jesus Christ stood for. Trump is a rich braggart who has made a name for himself flaunting his wealth. He openly denigrates women, has a lurid history of sexual assault, insults minorities and holds petty grudges against anyone who speaks out against him. In no rational universe can these two completely contradictory beliefs be reconciled. If you believe that the gospels accurately depict the life of Christ, then supporting a man who calls women “pigs” and “dogs” and has spoken about grabbing them “by the pussy”, you cannot be called a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word.

Did this narrative of Republican depravity help either evangelicals or editors at the New York Times tell the difference between decent and vulgar GOP nominees? Not really, but one of the blessings of Trump is adding nuance to perceptions of the Republican Party (barely):

This uniquely American phenomenon of equating greed, misogyny and racism with moral righteousness appears to be getting more and more pronounced. In retrospect, George W. Bush was a shining example of moral virtue when compared with Donald Trump.

Hmm. What if the mainstream media had treated George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney — all persons who had served in public administration and were serious politicians (compared to Trump) — as real players in U.S. politics rather than benighted fools of questionable morals? Perhaps the electorate might have had the tools to discern the difference between Trump and John Kasich. Maybe some voters would not have sensed that they were damned no matter for which Republican they voted.

But from the perspective of the elite press rooms, spotting the difference among Republicans is as unusual as white Americans thinking Asian Americans look different.

I guess evangelicals are guilty of introducing self-righteousness into politics, but I blame the Puritans and all graduates of their universities, you know, the schools from which anyone worth a darn graduates (think Harvard and Yale).

The Dark Side of Civil Religion

Easy-target-alert!

Sarah Palin — can you believe it — has once again inserted the cosmic foot folly into her mouth by likening water boarding to baptism. I wonder if she had made similar remarks about the mode of baptism — say, by comparing Baptists’ immersion practices to torture as opposed to the humane treatment of Presbyterians sprinkling infants and adults — if she would have received as much flack. (You do know the old joke that at the exodus, God sprinkled the Israelites but dunked the Egyptians.) Or what if Palin had switched the object of water boarding from terrorists to Don Sterling? Might that have complicated the offended thoughts of many Americans?

Still, the point Mollie Hemingway makes about civil religion is worth mentioning (thanks to Rod Dreher):

I’ve long defended Palin against the offensive treatment she’s received at the hands of a blatantly biased media, a media that collectively lost its mind the moment she entered the national stage. But that hardly means she must be defended at all times. … This is a perfect example not just of civil religion but also how civil religion harms the church. Civil religion is that folk religion that serves to further advance the cause of the state.

That still doesn’t mean that commenting on Palin’s faux pas one shows great discernment. So to complicate Palin’s comparison of torture to baptism, consider the substance of John Danforth’s homily at the funeral for Ronald Reagan:

Reagan’s most challenging test came on the day he was shot. He wrote in his diary of struggling for breath and of praying.

“I realized that I couldn’t ask for God’s help while at the same time I felt hatred for the mixed-up young man who shot me,” he wrote.

“Isn’t that the meaning of the lost sheep? We are all God’s children, and therefore equally loved by Him. So I began to pray for his soul and that he would find his way back to the fold.”

He was a child of light.

Now consider the faith we profess in this church. Light shining in darkness is an ancient biblical theme. Genesis tells us that in the beginning, darkness was upon the face of the deep. Some equate this darkness with chaos.

And God said, “Let there be light, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.”

Creating light in darkness is God’s work.

You and I know the meaning of darkness. We see it on the evening news: terror, chaos, war. An enduring image of 9/11 is that on a brilliantly clear day a cloud of darkness covered Lower Manhattan.

Darkness is real, and it can be terrifying. Sometimes it seems to be everywhere. So the question for us is what do we do when darkness surrounds us?

St. Paul answered that question. He said we must walk as children of light. President Reagan taught us that this is our mission, both as individuals and as a nation.

The faith proclaimed in this church is that when we walk as children of light, darkness cannot prevail. As St. John’s gospel tells us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

That’s true even of death. For people of faith, death is no less awful than for anyone else, but the Resurrection means that death is not the end.

The Bible describes the most terrible moment in these words: “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until in the afternoon.”

That was the darkness of Good Friday. It did not prevail. Very early on the first day of the week when the sun had risen, that’s the beginning of the Easter story.

The light shines; the Lord is risen.

If only Danforth would have received the same amount of outrage that Palin justifiably is receiving.

The deity of civil religion is a demanding god. It gives life and inspiration to millions when it generates a comforting fusion of the life of Jesus Christ with the life of a not-so religious president. This god takes away when it encourages people like Palin to confuse the sweetness and light of generic faith with the sour and dark of torturing persons suspected of terrorism.

Perhaps the application of this little encounter with the god of civil religion is to just say no (sorry for the split infinitive). Deny this god’s existence in good first-commandment fashion. Then we can avoid elevating our presidents to canonized saints and leave our dear sister Sarah some other means to derail American conservatism.

This Guy Needs His Own Blog – Part 1

As astute as these two critiques of Reagan’s civil theology are, they fail to consider one widely neglected but critical question: whether Reagan, or any American leader for that matter, should ever have called the United States the ‘city on a hill’ in the first place. Americans need not choose from among an anti-religious secularism that is deaf and blind to theology, or a low-voltage populist civil religion, or even a more chastened Puritan or Edwardsian sense of national election that keeps a place for divine judgment. The Christians among them can instead reserve divine election and the ‘city on a hill’ for the Christian church alone. Christians in the United States can think of themselves from an Augustinian perspective as, first and foremost, citizens of the City of God, living in tension with the world, and sojourning as pilgrims for a time within the current manifestation of the City of Man called ‘America’. Keeping their eternal citizenship in mind, they can object when either Democrats or Republicans co-opt any part of the church’s identity for their own use, no matter how good their intentions. They can live much of day-to-day life in common with their neighbours, but in the matter of worship, as Augustine wrote in the City of God, they must dissent. Part of that dissent means guarding the church’s unique identity and calling. (Richard M. Gamble, In Search of the City on a Hill, 161)

If presidents shouldn’t use the Bible to speak about the identity of the United States, how much more should ministers — specialists in the Bible — avoid identifying a nation with the city on a hill? And this is why the all-of-life Christianity that w-wists promote inevitably leads to identifying the nation in which 24-7 Christians live with the City of God. If my everyday activities are simply an extension of my spiritual duties, then everyday life in the United States must be an extension of God’s kingdom.

Augustinians are a rare breed.