Wednesday, December 14, 2016

When Toxic Religion and Toxic Politics Meet to Create a Death Cult of Historic Proportions: Where Do Christians Go From Here?

Here are some things I've read in the past week or so that I'd like to share. I will use them as the basis for a subsequent posting asking where we go from here — "we," as in any of us interested in the question of what Christian churches or religion in general can contribute to the American public square, now that white American churches and their leaders have placed the country in extreme moral crisis and have displayed the complete vacuity of their "Christian" message through their support of Donald Trump.

I'll also be asking quite specifically about where we go from here, given the collusion of the U.S. Catholic bishops with the Republican party's project of dismantling American democracy and its social safety network, removing wealth from working- and middle-class citizens, and attacking members of vulnerable minority communities — in the name of a "pro-life" ethic. I'll be asking, in particular, about where we go from here, given the collusion of "pro-life" and "religious-liberty"-defending lay Catholic intellectual leaders in the American Catholic church, who are not recognized as people colluding with Trump, but who are nonetheless actively colluding in this project of dismantling American democracy and its social safety network, removing wealth from working- and middle-class citizens, and attacking members of vulnerable minority communities, while they trumpet their commitment to the very same "pro-life" and "religious-liberty" ethic that has put this anti-life political project into motion. 

The boldfacing of comments below is not in the original. It's my own doing.

Donald Trump understood at least one thing better than almost everybody watching the 2016 election: The breakdown of a shared public reality built upon widely accepted facts represented not a hazard, but an opportunity. 
The institutions that once generated and reaffirmed that shared reality — including the church, the government, the news media, the universities and labor unions — are in various stages of turmoil or even collapse.

The Trump phenomenon fits into the picture of a new religious movement (or cult—the lines are not tightly drawn) in that it gives purpose and meaning to its adherents, it promises a period of peace and prosperity after a time of confrontation, and it portrays itself as an oppressed minority under the dominion of sinister outside forces. Evangelicalism, in particular, thrives upon the sense that its followers are victims of a godless society bent upon persecuting believers (see Christian Smith’s now classic Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving). Trump has been able to dispense with some of the pieties of evangelicalism while capitalizing on its victim stance. Trump followers are often aggressive and belligerent, and yet they still seem to be able to see themselves as victims of the biased media, corrupt politicians, and liberal elites. The fact that they won the election has not changed this dynamic, since it is a core part of their identity as persecuted true believers. 
The disturbing part about the religious narrative now interacting with American politics is that the next logical phase in the evangelical story is one of an end-times cosmic battle. The Dear Leader/Savior Figure must now battle the Forces of Darkness, which, in this case, means that Trump must defeat liberal democracy or die trying. . . . 
When toxic religion and toxic politics meet, the results cannot be pretty. A plurality of Americans have now joined a death cult of historic proportions, and the rest of us are being advised to "give Trump a chance" and "wait and see what happens."

To identify what's wrong with conservatism and Republicanism — and now with so much of America as we are about to enter the Trump era — you don't need high-blown theories or deep sociological analysis or surveys. The answer is as simple as it is sad: There is no kindness in them. . . . 
America is in moral crisis. Many Americans seem far more interested in making sure that those they consider undeserving — basically, the poor — get nothing than in making sure that they themselves get something.

Peter Steinfels by way of John Fea (I no longer read Commonweal, but I do read John Fea's blog, and am citing his excerpt of a Commonweal essay):    

And that raises the much-bruited issue of identity politics. Clearly, the Democrats' fixation on sheer diversity, a demographic checklist of age groups, income groups, and racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities, has proved a failure. But what is the problem—simply the emphasis on identities or the failure to connect with some identities (e.g., traditionalist, rural, working-class) in a convincing way? Perhaps the problem, to a disturbing degree, is the loss of identities, of identities, that is, with any genuine life-shaping character, any authentic culture, rather than identities based on skin color or admiration for a reality TV star and winner at casino economics?  
I would have thought that religion might provide that kind of identity, until I looked at the 81 percent white evangelical vote for Trump and the 60 percent white Catholic vote. My guess is that these churches and, by association, religion generally, will find themselves badly discredited by a Trump administration bearing gifts. The prolife and religious freedom movements, which I consider of major importance, may win a round or two in the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, with the mark of Trump stamped on their foreheads, they have virtually doomed themselves in the cultural contests essential to their goals. 
I have not said anything about "whitelash." I never believed for an instant, as I am sure Barack Obama never believed, that we had entered a "post-racial" era. I also don't believe that we are returning to Jim Crow or that black bodies exist in constant danger of being mowed down by white authorities on the streets. But I have neither space nor ability to address with due gravity and precision what 2016 reveals about where the nation stands in regard to this, its deepest and most threatening wound. My only observation, practical but superficial, is that you don't win over people by calling them racists. 

[S]ince Obama's election, a sustained movement to racialize and marginalize the president—to paint him as siding with African-American cop killers, illegal Mexican immigrants, Muslim terrorists, slutty women who want free birth control, and uppity gay people who demand that Christians bake them wedding cakes—stoked white grievance, especially but not exclusively on the right. Trump’s victory thus represents the culmination of the GOP’s 50-year project to fully racialize electoral politics—to scare an aging, declining white majority into voting as white people in a self-conscious way. . . . 
The speed with which so many progressives—most of them white and male—have seized on "identity politics" as the problem with Clinton’s campaign is puzzling. The fact that we're seeing a battle between "identity politics" and "class politics" seems a little overwrought—especially based on an insanely close election in which we can easily name a dozen things that would have made the difference—and it suggests that the forces against racial and gender diversity, equality, and inclusion are seeing their opportunity.

Issues of social justice and equality have receded along with conceptions of society or community – to be replaced by the freely choosing individual in the marketplace. According to the prevailing view today, the injustices entrenched by history or social circumstances cease to matter: the slumdog, too, can be a millionaire, and the individual’s failure to escape the underclass is self-evident proof of his poor choices. 
But this abstract conception has no room for the emotional situation of real, flesh-and-blood people – and how they might act within concrete social and historical settings.

Colby Martin, Unclobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016):

In his book Unclean, Richard Beck talks about "infrahumanization,"* which is the phenomenon of seeing people as less than human. It happens when a group of people (usually those in power or in the majority) come to believe another group of people does not possess some vital quality or characteristic that defines what it means to be human. In particular, this can be done through denying secondary emotions to these out-group members. Secondary emotions (such as love, hope, admiration, pride, conceit, nostalgia, and remorse) are quintessential human emotions, in contrast with the primary emotions (pain, pleasure, fear, joy, surprise, and anger) we share with the animal world. To suggest, then, that a person or a group of people does not or cannot exhibit a particular secondary emotion —whether suggested implicitly or explicitly — is, in short, to see them as less than human. 
Tragically, I see this process of infrahumanization occur within the in-group of heterosexuals and toward those in the LGBTQ community, not least of all in the church. If you have ever heard a statement such as, "Gay people cannot control themselves sexually or stay in a monogamous relationship," or "The gay community is pushing their gay agenda down our throats," then you can understand what I'm talking about. These sorts of statements attack the gay community's capacity for secondary emotions (e.g., love, fidelity, sincerity). By way of example, consider how slaveholders in the American South denied that African Americans could feel and experience emotions in the same way that white folks could, allowing for the disastrous dehumanization of black people. 
*Richard Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (Cambridge, England: Lutterworth, 2012), p. 102.

So Trump is a foul-mouthed serial abuser of women, divorcé, and gambling magnate. Fair enough. But he's also a psychotic racist, xenophobe, bigot, and anti-Semite. I mean, why else do you think James Dobson, Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. supported him? It's not because they give a shit about his supposed defense of "Christian moral values." It's because he promised to Make America Great Again, meaning, put straight white patriarchs back in charge. 
This is the whole problem with the Evangelical movement in a nutshell. Nobody has figured out how to deal with the core reality that for many people, to be an Evangelical is a metonym for a defender of white male privilege. Like "real American," it's a racially-constructed ideological identity, not a theological position. . . . . 

Talking Points Memo reader TC by way of Josh Marshall: 

This [i.e., dismantling the Affordable Care Act] doesn't just mean that "millions will lose their health insurance." 
It means someone's mother coughing blood. Or a father groaning in pain and yelling behind a closed door. It means parents or other family members arguing because after one of them missed a promotion at work -- because of all the time spent taking care of a loved one. It means slammed doors. It means missed dinners. Most of all, it means a child somewhere, in some inconsequential town, crying, heaving sobs into his pillow, because his parent is going to die. Another child sitting in stunned silence in class, not listening to a word the teacher says. 
I want TPM's readers to visualize this as concretely as possible whenever they consider millions losing their health insurance. Of course I would like members of the GOP leadership and the Trump transition team to visualize this too. Repealing a health insurance program that has been working for millions of people is worse than proposing something ineffective. It demonstrates outright a willingness to be cruel. To hurt people unnecessarily. There is no other word for it. It is heartless.

Those Skittles [i.e., the package of candy that was Trayvon Martin's alleged weapon] ought to have become a cipher for the moment when America paused to consider our common ground and the tragedy of dividing it into turf claimed as "yours" but not mine. We might have listened to President Obama, who observed quietly that if he had a son, that son might look like Trayvon. We might have seen it as an invitation to look for the mother's son in each of us, an opportunity to disaggregate our blinding fears of the black man and to consider the life of just this one young man: as someone who was beloved, as someone with his whole future ahead of him, and even as first son—a quintessentially all-American boy whose tragic death deserved investigation and respect. 
But that never happened, and so the moment passed: Trayvon Martin became Eric Garner became Michael Brown became Walter Scott became Philando Castile became the groundswell of #BlackLives- Matter, and they all became "thugs." This is the conflationary logic exploited by Rudolph Giuliani and by the Trump campaign’s assessment of Black Lives Matter as a "threat." That packet of Skittles should have become a potent symbol for the terrible cost of vigilantism, a callous disregard for others, and distorted racial fear. It should have evoked forever afterward the duty of care and due process owed to any citizen—the instantiated civil and human right to be.

Much ink has been spilled in an attempt to understand the Tea Party protests, and the 2016 presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, which ultimately emerged out of them. One theory popular among (primarily) white intellectuals of varying political persuasions held that this response was largely the discontented rumblings of a white working class threatened by the menace of globalization and crony capitalism. Dismissing these rumblings as racism was said to condescend to this proletariat, which had long suffered the slings and arrows of coastal elites, heartless technocrats, and reformist snobs. Racism was not something to be coolly and empirically assessed but a slander upon the working man. Deindustrialization, globalization, and broad income inequality are real. And they have landed with at least as great a force upon black and Latino people in our country as upon white people. And yet these groups were strangely unrepresented in this new populism. 
Christopher S. Parker and Matt A. Barreto, political scientists at the University of Washington and UCLA, respectively, have found a relatively strong relationship between racism and Tea Party membership. "Whites are less likely to be drawn to the Tea Party for material reasons, suggesting that, relative to other groups, it's really more about social prestige," they say. The notion that the Tea Party represented the righteous, if unfocused, anger of an aggrieved class allowed everyone from leftists to neoliberals to white nationalists to avoid a horrifying and simple reality: A significant swath of this country did not like the fact that their president was black, and that swath was not composed of those most damaged by an unquestioned faith in the markets. Far better to imagine the grievance put upon the president as the ghost of shambling factories and defunct union halls, as opposed to what it really was—a movement inaugurated by ardent and frightened white capitalists, raging from the commodities-trading floor of one of the great financial centers of the world.

Racist mobs murdered African Americans with bullets, nooses, and knives. Innocent people were mutilated, strung up, and roasted alive. In the late 1800s, when these killings reached their peak, more than a thousand African Americans were killed in just five years. In one year, 1892, "there were twice as many lynchings of blacks as there were legal executions of all races throughout the United States."
And yet, as media scholar David Mindich details in his book, Just the Facts: How "Objectivity" Came to Define American Journalism, elite press coverage of these murders typically presented them as morally ambiguous affairs that pitted a crowd's desire for immediate justice against the horrific — and, very often, fabricated — crimes of the black victim. 
The same ethic, in other words, that leads modern day reporters to claim Hillary Clinton’s denunciation of racists is the moral equivalent of Donald Trump’s racism also led journalists from another century to be extra careful to include the murderers' perspective when writing about lynching.

Cornell Belcher by way of Jenée Desmond-Harris: 

The point I make at the end of the book [Cornell Belcher, A Black Man in the White House], which I think is important, is this idea that America has never had to really repent for the horrors and terrors of our racial past, and from a spiritual standpoint there can be no forgiveness or no atonement in moving on without repentance. But unlike Germany, where they've been repentant about their Nazi past and it's illegal to even have a Nazi flag, here in this country, not only are they not repentant, they celebrate the Confederate flag. … That's part of what we have to move past if we’re in fact going to be one country united as one people all on the same team.

From the perspective of many LGBTQ people, Francis' much-lauded new "tone" on LGBTQ issues — well intentioned or otherwise — is shaping up to be at best a series of empty gestures, at worst an outright farce.

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