Monday, April 23, 2012

Marilynne Robinson, American Christianity, and the Command to Be Liberal

David Sirota had an important piece at Salon last Friday (and elsewhere--it's been making the rounds online) about the striking difference in political outlook between committed Christians in Britain and the U.S.  Sirota is commenting on a recent article in London's Daily Mail, which finds that active and committed Christians in Britain 

1) are more active citizens (who) volunteer more, donate more to charity and are more likely to campaign on political issues,  
2) religious people are more likely to be politically progressive (people who) put a greater value on equality than the non-religious, are more likely to be welcoming of immigrants as neighbors (and) more likely to put themselves on the left of the political spectrum.

Whereas in the U.S.  . . .  Here's Sirota's run-down: 

Here in the United States, those who self-identify as religious tend to be exactly the opposite of their British counterparts when it comes to politics. As the Pew Research Center recently discovered, "Most people who agree with the religious right also support the Tea Party" and its ultra-conservative economic agenda. Summing up the situation, scholar Gregory Paul wrote in the Washington Post that many religious Christians in America simply ignore the Word and "proudly proclaim that the creator of the universe favors free wheeling, deregulated union busting, minimal taxes, especially for wealthy investors, and plutocrat-boosting capitalism as the ideal earthly scheme for his human creations." 
The good news is that this may be starting to change. In recent years, for instance, Pew has found that younger evangelicals are less devoutly committed to the Republican Party and its Tea Party-inspired agenda than older evangelicals. Additionally, surveys show a near majority of evangelicals agree with liberals that the tax system is unfair and that the wealthy aren’t paying their fair share. Meanwhile, the organization Faith in Public LIfe has highlighted new academic research showing that even in America there is growing "correlation between increased Bible reading and support for progressive views, including abolishing the death penalty, seeking economic justice, and reducing material consumption."

What this discussion, and, in particular, Sirota's analysis of the views of the religious right (to which the bishops of the Catholic church and their vocal supporters now proudly belong) calls to mind for me is Marilynne Robinson's recent set of essays entitled When I Was a Child I Read Books (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).  As I've noted in several previous postings, I've been making my way through this book slowly, with great pleasure, because Robinson's dense prose demands careful attention--and because I relish and savor her beautiful dense prose: one does not consume the very best chocolate bar all in a single wolfish bite.

One of Robinson's projects in this book is to retrieve American Christianity from what Andrew Sullivan calls the Christianists--those who use ill-considered, snatched-from-context biblical quotes or papal blurbs to justify what is impossible to justify from the vantage point of the Christian gospels: cruelty towards the poor, racism, anti-semitism, misogyny, homophobia, attacks on immigrants, hostility towards world religions other than Christianity, blatantly unjust and immoral tax schemes that benefit the filthy rich and impose burdens on the least among us.

As a member of one of those mainline Christian churches that once strongly supported programs like the New Deal with its attempt to create a safety net for the least among us and which advocated strongly for Civil Rights for people of color in the 1960s: as a member of a Congregational United Church of Christ who grew up in the American heartland where Christians are now more or less routinely expected to be Christianists, Robinson is critically aware of an alternative history of American Christianity that receives far too little attention today either in the media or among many American Christians themselves.

This is a tradition of liberalism, of liberality, of opening one's hands to the poor, as Robinson powerfully observes in her essay entitled "Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origin of American Liberalism."  As Robinson notes in this piece, American Protestantism has long had a strong Calvinist stamp, and Calvinism (and Puritanism) have not fared well in our cultural interpretations of these movements--or in contemporary assessments of our heritage.  These movements have been misunderstood and distorted in many cultural interpretations of them.

Robinson's contention: Calvinism, and the strands of American Christianity that draw on it, have a strong liberal bent from their inception, and in losing sight of that American bent, American Christianity has lost sight of its historical roots.  I won't try readers' patience with a tedious summary of the (strong and compelling) evidence Robinson advances to support this thesis.  I can't do justice to that evidence in a brief blog posting.  I highly recommend the essay, the entire book, to readers.

What I want to zero in on here is a fascinating point Robinson makes about how the Geneva bible (the translation that most significantly influenced the Puritan forebears of many American Christians at the time of the founding of the colonies) renders Deuteronomy 15:11.  I alluded to this scripture verse in a recent posting to note the supreme irony of how many American Christianists use Jesus's observation that the poor will be always with us (Mark 14:7, Matthew 26:11).

In making that observation, Jesus is echoing the Deuteronomy verse, which says (I'm citing the NRSV translation here), "Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, 'Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.'"  Jesus's observation is not, as many American Christianists choose to think, a counsel to be callous or indifferent towards the poor; it is, in line with the Deuteronomy verse to which it's pointing, a command to open our hands to the poor.

As Robinson notes, this is how Calvin understood the verse, and what he expressly taught about it.  And as she also notes (p. 62), here's how the Geneva translation renders Deuteronomy 15:11:

Because there shall be ever some poore in the land, therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thy hand unto thy brother, to thy nedie, and to  thy poor in thy land.

And as Robinson further points out, this rendition is accompanied in the Geneva translation with the following gloss: "Thou shalt be liberal."

Imagine quoting this command--imagine quoting the bible, with its command to us to be liberal--to any American Christianist at this point in history.  Robinson's conclusion (p. 82):

There is clearly a feeling abroad that God smiled on our beginnings and that we should return to them as we can.  If we really did attempt to return to them, we would find Moses as well as Christ, Calvin and his legions of intellectual heirs.  And we would find a recurrent, passionate insistence on bounty or liberality, mercy and liberality, on being kind and liberal, liberal and bountiful, and enjoying the great blessings God has promised to liberality to the poor.  These phrases are all [Jonathan] Edwards's and there are many more like them.

Something tells me that when most contemporary American Christianists dream of going back to the good old days of our pristine Christian foundations, this is decidedly not what they're dreaming about.

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