Monday, August 8, 2011

Reflections on Rick Perry's Response Rally: Attack on the Love Ethic and Corporatist Puppet-Masters

I didn't watch Rick Perry's Response rally this weekend.  I took last week as a kind of retreat-discernment week, and as I did so, I deliberately weaned myself of all but the most essential news coverage.  

And then there was (and this also dimmed my appetite for any news at all) the depressing and anger-provoking spectacle in D.C. over the budget, which affects the entire world, since the shenanigans of our rich and powerful (who are the ones driving these spectacles in our cultural and political life) create indecision and fear in worldwide markets.  Affecting, above all, the least among us, everywhere in the world . . . . 

And, in my part of the country, there has been protracted heat so intense and debilitating (heat due to climate change produced by those very same rich and powerful men driving the D.C. shenanigans) that I hardly felt I needed to tune in to yet another shoddy spectacle on the weekend, only to see very similar puppets on a slightly different stage, their strings being pulled by the same rich and powerful men who hunger for these religious spectacles to keep us all in check, as they arrange a social and economic future that will be dismal for everyone but themselves.

Have I mentioned rich and powerful men?  Pulling political and religious strings?  And making the future bleak for all of us, but above all, the least among us?  If I somehow forgot to make that point in the preceding paragraphs, please forgive me and permit me to make it again.

Though I didn't watch the Perry et al. show, I have followed news coverage of it in the past several days with interest.  I had already been struck on Saturday by Kyle Mantyla's report at Right Wing Watch about Mike Bickle's assault on the term "love," and his claim that there's a crisis of truth in the pulpits of our land today. 

And I'm also struck by Sarah Posner's coverage of Bickle's comments at Religion Dispatches yesterday.  Posner suggests that, in key respects, Bickle summarized the call to action of this particular conference, which hit hard on terms like "obedience," "command," and "truth," and attacked the love ethic around which world religions revolve--the concept that English religious thinker Karen Armstrong calls "practical compassion," and which she sees as the very core of world religions.

And so what's this all about--the attack on the love ethic as the driving force of authentic religious and spiritual life, along with attempts to redefine the core of religion, and, in particular, of American Christianity, around concepts like "obedience" and "truth"?   At one level, it indicates intent fear on the part of those determined to transform American religious life into a utilitarian tool to keep the dispossessed and downtrodden in place, and to keep a wealthy, powerful elite on top.

This attack on the love ethic as the core message of Christianity, and on the central place that mainline churches give to the love ethic, has been going on for some years now in the American religious and political right.  The attack rises out of a sharp fear of those on the right (and, above all, the corporatist taskmasters to whom they report) that American religion was about to get out of hand in the latter half of the 20th century, as a renewed emphasis on the love ethic and the role of faith communities in fostering progressive social change affected American cultural life through movements like the Civil Rights struggle and the gender and sexual revolutions of the sixties and seventies.

As I've noted in numerous articles discussing the history and motives of the group called the Institute on Religion and Democracy, the IRD and other beltway religion think-tanks of its ilk were set up in the period of neo-conservative dominance of American political life precisely to keep the mainline churches in check.  To assure that they mute their teaching about what love requires, practically and concretely, in the political and economic sphere.  To assure that they blunt their focus on love as the central virtue of religious and spiritual life.

To assure, in short, that Christian churches not proclaim the gospel, that Jewish temples and synagogues ignore the prophets, etc. . . .

And these think tanks have been, for the most part, extraordinarily successful.  They have succeeded in dividing all mainline Protestant churches in the U.S., even as they have had exceptionally strong influence in the Catholic church in the U.S.  (Though the primary intent of the founders of IRD was to mute the prophetic social witness of mainline Protestant churches, most of these founders were themselves Catholic.  The success enjoyed by the powerful neo-conservative Catholic beltway elite represented by the founders of IRD is consolidated to an amazing degree now in the cadre of right-wing Catholic justices who dominate the U.S. Supreme Court.)  

Those driving the attack on the love ethic in American faith communities have succeeded in politicizing the churches they've subjected to relentless attack since the 1980s, and have developed in them a powerful cadre of politically motivated, right-trending adherents who do everything they can to assure that the love ethic not be proclaimed with any constancy or prophetic intent by their religious communities, and that, above all, it not be applied to political and economic life in a way that illuminates our ethical obligations to the least among us.   To assure that it not be applied in such a way that the love ethic--concretely expressed in our political choices and our economic decision-making--becomes the litmus test of what it means to be a follower of Christ in the world today.  To assure that the love ethic, with its overarching call to make everything we do contingent on putting the least among us first, not constitute a clear and unambiguous organizing principle around which religious life in the U.S. at this point in history might coalesce.  

It is within the context of that strong and exceptionally successful neo-conservative movement of recent years that, I maintain, we need to hear what Mike Bickle said at Rick Perry's rally this weekend.  Bickle is signaling on Perry's behalf that the American political right--and, above all, the powerful, wealthy taskmasters to whom it answers--intends to continue to keep doing everything in its power to attack the concept of practical compassion as the leitmotiv of religious and political life.  And that, in the name of attacking those who ostensibly "redefine" love to serve their own ends, the right and its corporatist taskmasters intend to do everything they possibly can do to assure that faith communities lift up terms like "obedience" and "truth" instead of the term "love."

This is not by any means a new trend.  I've been noting it for some time now here at Bilgrimage.  As I've noted, read any Catholic blog today, from those leaning left to those leaning right and those firmly in the center, and you'll hear, over and over, voices informing their fellow Catholics that the central virtue of Catholic life is obedience.  And conformity to the truth.  Read commentary on the Vatican's investigation of U.S. nuns in the past several years, or on the U.S. bishops' condemnation of the theology of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, and you'll find one Catholic after another logging in to comment on these articles and beat the obedience drum.

Women out of control, disobedient women, are a huge bugbear for the truth-obedience crowd, because once the men who rule us let women get out of their places, the world as we know it will surely crumble.  Won't it?

As I noted almost exactly two years ago, no less than the then-president of the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Francis George, a man constantly praised by right-leaning and centrist Catholics as the thinker in chief of the U.S.C.C.B., informed the Knights of Columbus at their 2009 national meeting that 

[a] Catholic way of life is based on assent to revealed truth and obedience to appointed pastors, both of which create the unity Christ wishes us to enjoy.

A Catholic way of life is based on assent to revealed truth and obedience to appointed pastors: you couldn't have a sharper, clearer formulation of the mantra by which those who want to blunt the love ethic in the churches today, and substitute obedience and truth for love as the core of our religious-ethical obligation, intend to get us to to do their bidding.  Obey.  Listen to the truth.

Obey me.  Listen to me hand you the revealed truth.  

Love is not what it's about.  I'm what it's about.  I as the (dominant male) pastor or political leader who stands in the place of (a dominant male) God for you: I am what it's all about.

If obedience is the corollary of truth, one leg of a stool whose other leg is truth--since truth by its very nature commands us to obey it--then the authority figure who receives, formulates, guards, and transmits the truth to all the rest of us is the third leg on which the tripod stool of truth and obedience stands.  What Cardinal George and Mike Bickle and Rick Perry are essentially saying to the rest of us these days is precisely this: I and my type own the truth.

And because we have been gracious enough to offer it to you, we insist that you accept it and mold your lives around the truth we have preserved for and dispensed to you.  Truth demands obedience demands papa.  Truth demands obedience demands a father figure who stands before you in the place of the Father God who is the ultimate warrant of truth commanding our obedience to the truth.

The religious worldview of those offering us this three-legged stool is profoundly patriarchal and profoundly heterosexist.  But it is patriarchal and heterosexist by design and not by accident.  George, Perry, and Bickle--and the huge numbers of believers around the world today who willingly conform their religious lives to the dictates of George, Perry, and Bickle--haven't ended up with the truth-obedience-papa tripod by happenstance.

This is, in the final analysis, a tripod designed to assure that the rich and powerful men who rule us remain in place as our rulers.  It is a tripod designed to assure that faith communities ask no inconvenient or pesky questions about our obligations to the least among us, as the rich and powerful divvy up the spoils of a waning postmodern civilization and dole out the lion's shares of those spoils to those who already have in gross excess.  

As they dole out the lion's share, that is to say, to themselves.  To the very men whose greed has effected the virtual destruction of our planet.  Who want us to believe that they stand in the place of God for us, doling out truth and commanding obedience.

And you readers who happen to be Catholic and who may not be convinced by my citation of Cardinal George's formula of what being Catholic is all about: if you're not yet convinced that the most powerful and prominent leaders of the American Catholic church today, men like Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, don't intend to lead us right down the obediential evangelical path of Bickle and Perry,  I suggest you read Jamie Manson's latest essay about evangelical Catholicism in National Catholic Reporter.

It's no accident--it's not an accident at all--that Chaput and George sound precisely like Bickle and Perry with their truth-and-obedience-to-me formula of Catholic truth.  It's no accident at all that this formulation of what religion is all about, with its attack on the love ethic as the central norm of religious life, is being pushed on us so insistently at this point in our history.

Not accidental, since the same rich and powerful corporate leaders pulling the Bickle and Perry strings are also pulling the George and Chaput strings . . . .

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