Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Further Reflections on the Neoconservative Narrative about the African Churches

A gloss on my two previous statements (here and here) about John Allens take on Catholic silence re: legislation in Uganda that may make being gay a capital crime: I want to clarify what I mean when I conclude that Allen’s reporting on the African church reinforces and replicates the neocon narrative of groups like IRD about African Christianity.

Out of fairness to John Allen, it’s important that I note that his reporting on the African church consistently argues that the model emerging in African Catholicism cuts against some presuppositions of both Western progressives and conservatives. As my summary of Allen’s articles about the 2009 African synod indicate, while Allen maintains that the African model challenges Western progressives in its determination to defend “traditional family values,” he also notes that the African church critiques the unbridled capitalism promoted by Western conservatives, discriminatory treatment of immigrants, unjust trade conditions, the arms trade, environmental destruction, and abuse of women.

Allen argues that the African church represents a new way of being Catholic because it corrects some of the ideological presuppositions of both left and right in the West. As he puts the point in the conclusion of his recent article about the silence of Catholics re: the Ugandan situation,

Africa’s Catholic leaders have an opportunity to carve out a distinctive approach to what the West knows as the “culture wars,” one that blends traditional positions on sexual ethics with a holistic embrace of the church’s broader social justice concerns. That may indeed require bucking conventional wisdom in the West – but it may also require challenging some social conventions at home, too.

Why do I conclude, then, that John Allen’s take on the African church replicates the neoconservative narrative of groups like IRD, whose avowed mission is to “reform” (i.e., block) the social witness of mainline churches of the West? I do so for two reasons.

First, what Allen writes about the “traditional family values” of the church in Africa is almost an exact replica of what groups like the IRD wish to say about the African church. Both narratives have the same ideological effect: to undercut movements to critique the patriarchal assumptions and behavior of churches, and to keep women and gay folks in their places.

Both narratives are actively promoted by the mainstream media in the U.S., which is also heavily invested in the strategy of groups like IRD to block the social witness of Christian churches vis-à-vis unbridled capitalism. When Allen writes about the African church, purportedly “describing” what he sees happening in this church (but, astonishingly, without ever a single reference to the pernicious activities of Western religious right and neoconservative movements in that church), the mainstream media listen.

They pick up the narrative with alacrity, just as they have always done when groups like IRD, with its thick ties to influential Bush-era Catholic neoconservatives like Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel, “describe” the African church. John Allen’s “descriptive” reporting on the conservative aspects of the African church is set within a set of powerful neoconservative interests and commitments, and those interests and commitments are attached to the “description” of the African church when this narrative enters the mainstream media--when it enters media that are anything but interested in promoting the social witness of the churches and their critique of unbridled capitalism.

In other words, it is impossible to detach the “description” of African Christianity as a bolster for “traditional family values” in the West from the neoconservative strategy of IRD and other groups whose primary goal is to undermine the social critique of the churches, and to plant their narrative about African Christianity in the mainstream media in order to promote their primary objective, which is blocking the socio-economic critique of the churches. And this is my second reason for maintaining that John Allen’s presentation of African Catholicism is essentially neoconservative.

What I want to note by arguing that Allen’s presentation of African Christianity is essentially neoconservative is that the neoconservative political commitments that lie inside the Western reinforcement of “traditional family values” in African churches rob critiques of unbridled capitalism and its effects in developing nations of power. They put the lie to these critiques, when the groups promoting the narrative of traditional family values are precisely those groups trying to block the social witness of the churches of the West.

In my view, this is why little attention has been paid and will be paid to Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in veritate. It’s why I myself haven’t yet fulfilled my promise to readers to write more about the encyclical, though I welcome the encyclical’s critique of heartless capitalism and its attempt to retrieve the socio-economic witness of Catholicism.

When (along with influential members of the American hierarchy) Benedict is, in his opposition to gay rights (and the women’s movement), so closely allied to powerful interest groups seeking to undercut the social witness of the churches in the West, it is almost impossible to take seriously his critique of the kind of unbridled capitalism promoted by those same interest groups. What the church does, particularly to women and LGBT persons, speaks far louder than what it says, when it claims to defend human rights and oppose the economic domination of the poor by the rich.

It’s impossible to separate the neoconservative political aims of those Western groups with which Benedict has cast his lot in promoting “traditional family values” from the underlying neocon strategy of blocking the social witness of the churches. No matter what the African bishops say about capitalism, the environment, the arms trade, etc. . . .

As I’ve noted repeatedly on this blog, the ethic of life promoted by the American bishops in our current political context is entirely unconvincing, because it’s not consistent. As Eugene McCarraher has argued, the ethic of life promoted by some American Christians, which is entirely focused on fetal life as it blindly excludes almost any other concerns about the value of life, is fetishized and sentimentalized.*

The exclusive focus on the fetus turns the fetus into a fetish in a way that completely ignores the glaring assault on the value of life by unbridled capitalism. The rhetoric about abortion, about how the right to life is the most fundamental right of all that overrides all other concerns about life, is altogether too easy. It is lazy. It leads to a moral absolutism that allows those promoting the rhetoric, while they refuse to think about moral ambiguity or about other challenges to life, an unearned self-righteousness that is, at its heart, imperialistic. Those promoting this rhetoric are intent on coercing others to do what they assume is right in a way that undercuts their claim to respect life or to be credible moral agents.

And so it is no accident that a large proportion of American Christians who fiercely oppose abortion are also morally blind to the anti-life effects of heartless capitalism. To see and to make those connections would require giving up the easy, lazy sentimental fetishism of the fetus. As McCarraher notes,

Many of the same people who oppose abortion are champions of laissez-faire capitalism, and they either don’t see or don’t care to see the linguistic and cultural affinities between themselves and the pro-choice advocates they fight.

The easy sentimentality, the fetishism, of the exclusive focus on the fetus (or on women as the enemy, or gay people as social infection) permits those who claim to be all about building a culture of life to ignore the most destructive and all-pervasive threats to the value of life in the culture they’re critiquing. If the leaders of the church expect to be taken seriously when they talk about human rights and social justice, they will have to consider how their alliance with neoconservative movements promoting “traditional family values” and opposition to abortion in the latter half of the 20th century and first part of the 21st century radically undercuts all that they want to say about these topics and about a culture of life.

* H/t to David Nickol for posting a link to McCarraher’s discussion of these issues at Cathleen Caveney’s recent Commonweal thread about the movement of John Paul II and Pius XII towards sainthood.