Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hucktown and Yourtown: Mike Huckabee Rewrites The City of God

Read some of the classical writers of the formative period of Christianity—say, Augustine of Hippo—and then read some of the folks who claim to represent those classical authorities today—say Mike Huckabee—and tell me you don’t come away from that exercise asking yourself what damn'-fool school ever credentialed those contemporary defenders of orthodoxy and tradition. Mike Huckabee has written a book. Yes, Mike Huckabee has written a book! It’s called Do the Right Thing (for a review, see www.arktimes.com/Articles/ArticleViewer.aspx?ArticleID=e39dc08a-ba73-403b-80e6-41675d686a41). And it ever so coyly walks in the footsteps of a distinguished ancestor, Augustine, with his famous City of God.

Augustine’s City of God employs an imaginative framework of two cities to analyze the challenge believers face as they pass through history. Building on biblical texts such as the book of Hebrews with its insistence that here we have no lasting city, Augustine argues that the journey of believers through history is a journey towards a never-realized city in which God’s ways prevail. Believers live in both a here-now and a not-yet moment: Christians announce a salvation that has already entered history in Christ, but which has not fully arrived in history and will not do so until the final coming of Christ at the end of history.

Augustine wisely advises Christians to live in the here and now, even as they journey towards the eschatological completion of the world: to live in the city of men while aspiring to the city of God. What is yet to be in history—the city of God—does not negate what is here and now—the city of man. The city of God is formed from the city of man through the diligence of believers who take the world as it is and seek to reshape it through their faith.

Augustine also argues that God alone knows who belongs to what city, and that this will become apparent only at the end of history. In Augustine’s theology, some of us who are quite certain we live exclusively in the city of God here and now will be shown to occupy a very different location at the end of history. And some of those we are intent on excluding from the city of God now will turn out to have been living there all along, when history is complete.

The job of believers is, in Augustine’s view, to live in the tension of history, in the ambivalent, murky circumstances of history, while moving towards the goals faith shows them. Believers are called to get their hands dirty, to work, to recognize the complexity of a world that is full of grace but not yet re-fashioned according to grace. Believers live in a fallen world and must spin strategies for living in and making the most of that fallen world, even as they aspire to the city of God, Augustine believes.

In his modern-day retelling of Augustine’s profound meditation on living the Christian faith in a fallen world, Rev. Mike Huckabee also tells a story of two cities—Hucktown and Yourtown. Hucktown is the World According to Huck. It is the world in which Christians rule. It is Rev. Huckabee’s world. It will be your world, if you let Rev. Huckabee rule.

Hucktown is full of righteous believers living righteously, eschewing liquor and drugs, attending church on Sundays, obeying traffic laws: think Mayberry with the 10 commandments on every wall. Think the grand city of God transformed into a cramped small-town Southern WASP paradise: think limited options for limited minds, defined as the only possible options for righteous believers. Think of that small world of limited options policed by limited minds, posturing as the world as it should be for everyone.

Yourtown is, well, the opposite. It is that old wicked city-trope so beloved of American ruralists; it is that venerable trope sporting new theocratic clothes. The city as imagined for generations by frightened American ruralists who seek to draw invidious comparisons between corrupt urban America and God-fearing rural America, between the coasts and the heartland . . . . Yourtown is American culture gone hog-wild with freedom from theocratic restraints: drinking, experimenting with sex, watching picture shows and painting up faces, doing the shim sham and sleeping in on Sunday with a feckless heathen never-no-mind.

Yourtown is, in short, what most folks call the real world, the world in which most people around the world live on a daily basis. It is most anyplace in the world, the fallen world that doesn’t dance to the rarefied tune of saviors from the small-town South like Rev. Huckabee who are oh so confident that they model salvation for the rest of us. Yourtown is the city of Man. Hucktown is the city of God. In Huck's dreams.

As this brief sketch of how Augustine and Huckabee propose that the believer is called to live in history suggests, in their transmission to contemporary saviors of orthodoxy, something has happened to the grand ideas of the formative period of Christian history. That something is akin to what might happen if, say, the classic French recipe for boeuf bourgignon appeared on a can of Campbell’s soup, with the suggestion that one can recreate the classic recipe niftily with the help of a can of Campbell’s onion soup and a package of dried gravy mix. Something—flavor, perhaps? subtlety? authenticity? the real thing, for godsake!—has gotten a wee bit lost in the transmission.

The gap between what Augustine thought and what Huckabee proposes is nowhere so apparent as in their views on the place of government in this fallen world. Huckabee glibly repeats the mindless mantra of neoconservatism, the mindless self-serving mantra of a neoconservatism that does not wish to be encumbered with moral obligations in the economic sphere: “When self-government works, it's about the only government one needs.”

Augustine, by contrast, could not have been clearer about the need for government—for strong and effective government—in the fallen world we inhabit as we pass through history. City of God suggests that the world in which we find ourselves often functions as a latrocinium, a den of thieves. It is in the nature of a fallen world filled with fallen people to degenerate into a den of thieves in which the powerful prey on the weak—unless some higher authority checks the predictable tendency of the powerful to lord it over the weak.

In Augustine’s view, fallen people need government—good government, strong government—precisely because they are fallen. Government exists to check the sad human tendency of the powerful to oppress the powerless. Government is there to assure that the powerless have an advocate, structures to shield them from the oppression of the powerful. Government is necessary in a fallen world to mitigate the effects of sin.

No one can pursue the city of God in a world in which the powerful have unchecked power to do what they will. Such a world—Huckabee’s world, the world of neoconservative ideologues and their “Christian” apologists—will always degenerate into a den of thieves in which those who have will prey ruthlessly on those who do not have. Government—good government, strong government—builds toward the city of God by permitting the have nots to fulfill their destinies, claim their personhood, offer their talents.

Brother Huckabee’s theology betrays core values of classic Christianity. It glibly discards core values, even as it claims to be the only possible representation of orthodoxy today. It does so by cozying up shamelessly to political ideologies centered on economic ruthlessness, ideologies that are all about the exploitation of the poor by the rich. Huckabee and his bedfellows of the religious right want to give those ideologies a free pass, and to call that free pass divine sanction.

This is why, in the final analysis, those unschooled but powerful spokespersons of the religious right, who betray the tradition they vociferously claim to represent in an exclusive way, have the ear of the mainstream media in the United States (on this, see yesterday's posting at http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2009/01/questions-that-wont-die-vatican-and.html). They do so because that media is owned, lock, stock, and barrel by those economic overlords the Bro. Gov. and his bedfellows serve so faithfully. As long as they provide religious rationales for the ruthless exploitation of the poor—well, of almost everyone in our economically lopsided society—by the rich, they will continue to pop up on every talk show imaginable, spewing their unorthodox nonsense in the name of saving orthodoxy.

As long as the media continue to permit their consciences to be lobotomized by those who have overweening economic clout in this nation, Rev. Huckabee and Rick Warren and countless other grinning theocratic chimps in the employ of the mighty will continue to look downright cute to the mainstream media. Lovable. Harmless (they only target the gays, after all). As Huckabee does to A.J. Jacobs of Esquire: “He’s the most likable politician I’ve ever met . . . . [H]e's so damn folksy and kind and self-deprecating that the liberal media (i.e., me) just want to hug him” (www.arktimes.com/blogs/arkansasblog/2009/01/the_mighty_huck_1.aspx#comments).

Aw pshaw. Well, at least in Huckstertown, we’ll be blessedly free of sodomy: http://thinkprogress.org/2009/01/12/huckabee-not-pro-gay. Well, of the kind of sodomy that involves actual anal sex, that is—if not of the kind that involves figurative (and forcible) anal rape of most of us by those who have in abundance. Huckabee and Huckstertown are concerned, you understand, about the really important moral challenges facing people of faith today . . . .