Jun 8, 2017
“We won’t walk by on the other side.” Those were the words of British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in an allusion to the Parable of the Good Samaritan as he campaigned this week against the Conservatives on their Welfare policies.
While nods to the Bible or Christianity are nowhere near as prominent as they are in American politics, they continue to play an implicit authorizing role in English political discourse.
All mainstream British politicians claim to believe that the Bible and Christianity are at the heart of British (and particularly English) values, heritage, and democracy. Quite what “values, heritage, and democracy” mean depends on individual politicians, their respective parties, and their inherited interpretations.
To understand the role of Christianity in British politics in the context of the 2017 general election, we might go back to Margaret Thatcher. Out of the social and economic crises of the 1960s and 1970s, Thatcher foregrounded the Bible and her understanding of religion in her attacks on anything resembling socialism, Marxism, and the Soviet Union. For Thatcher, the Bible and religion were to be understood as promoting individualism, entrepreneurship, and wealth creation, which in turn would generate charitable giving and lessen the need for the welfare state. Probably her most famous use of the Bible was her claim that “no one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.” In other words, the Bible and religion became a (perhaps the) authoritative source for the shifts towards economic liberalism.
Tony Blair represents the next significant change in rethinking the Bible and Christian tradition in relation to politics, policy, and governance. Broadly embracing Thatcher’s neoliberal template, he added certain socially liberal qualifications (e.g., equality of gender and sexuality) that he believed were consistent with a full understanding of Christian teaching. By doing this Blair also represents a shift from socialist understandings of the Bible, which were a significant part of the history of the Labour Party. In his speeches to the Labour Party conference after 9/11 (part 1 and part 2) and his speech to Parliament on the eve of the Iraq war, he employed the traditional “apocalyptic” language associated with radical social change in the present, as used in the famous 1945 Labour Party manifesto in promoting the building of the National Health Service and the development of the welfare state. But now, for Blair, radical social transformation was to come to Afghanistan, the Middle East, and North Africa. The readers can judge for themselves how well that turned out, but Blair effectively marked the transformation, and end, of socialist understandings of the Bible, or so it seemed.
By the time of David Cameron’s premiership, the Bible and religion were firmly in the Thatcher-Blair tradition (and, if anything, intensified). Under Cameron, the Bible could be used to justify military intervention in the Middle East, the use of foodbanks over government intervention, and same-sex marriage. But something else was happening. The 2008 crash was beginning to open up new political understandings of the Bible and religion. The Occupy movement and Russell Brand were pushing more leftist understandings of the Bible and religion closer to mainstream political discourse. One of the enduring images of Occupy London Stock Exchange was Jesus’s actions in the Temple rethought in light of the activities against bankers and financiers, whether visually or in print. But perhaps the most surprising development was the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in 2015. With Corbyn, the Good Samaritan was now implied to be an example of someone in favor of the welfare state (e.g. here and here) and one of his close allies, Cat Smith, even claimed that “Jesus was a radical socialist.” Indeed, the Corbyn movement has regularly been described in language of the old radical nonconformist tradition associated with the beginnings of the Labor Party.
But shifts were also taking place on the Right, as seen by Brexit. Brexit itself cut across Right and Left much more than is popularly presented, but it has certainly been relentlessly packaged in terms of issues relating to immigration. This is not without support, of course. Part of Brexit (though certainly not all) was a reaction from those who have not benefitted from neoliberalism developed from Thatcher or been helped by the “gig economy.” Such citizens have felt abandoned by the direction of the Labour Party from Blair onwards, with immigration (often with particular reference to ‘Muslims’) indeed blamed. This seemed to open the way for UKIP, but Theresa May took advantage of this development when she replaced Cameron after the referendum result. Her reading of Christianity, the Bible, and religion now invokes the idea of Christmas and Easter as something faintly ethno-nationalist and to be distinguished from “minority communities” and “their traditions” and “people of other faiths or none.” And in their 2017 manifesto, the Conservatives have also offered somewhat vague promises to workers in precarious circumstances by rhetorically distancing the Conservative Party from its traditional image and using the language of deviance from religious/political truth by rejecting ‘untrammeled free markets’ and the ‘cult of selfish individualism’. American readers will be familiar with this shift on the Right.
Meanwhile, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron – who is a committed Christian – has been trying to attract disgruntled Remain voters with pro-immigration rhetoric (as has Corbyn) but has been struggling with questions about his attitude to homosexuality and the Bible. After refusing to answer the question on becoming leader, he has now admitted to thinking it is not a sin. Such social liberalism, along with May’s protectionism and her flirtation with ethno-nationalism, and Corbyn’s socialism, represent the main competing understandings of politics in relation to the Bible and religion in English political discourse. It is not yet clear what will become the dominant template to replace the Thatcher-Blair settlement, and given the fluctuations in polling running up to the General Election it may take some time before the ideological dust settles.
James Crossley is Professor of Bible, Society and Politics at St Mary’s University, London.
Here is the story that is told about religion and racial justice today: The US civil rights movement was led by black male ministers harnessing the socially transformative power of the Christian tradition. The movement for black lives today is led by black youths, particularly female, particularly queer, who are largely detached from Christianity. This story is false.
As many have recognized, there is a good deal of religiosity circulating in US racial justice movements today. It is not institutionalized religion but the more amorphous spirituality characteristic of our age. There is a concern for the self, the soul, and the community expressed in terms of religious provenance and resonance, there are religiously inspired rituals, and there is a mix of New Age and Afrocentric sensibilities. Most of all, there is an affirmation of black love.
In the Facebook post credited with coining the phrase Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza responded to the acquittal of George Zimmerman with a “love letter to black people”, saying “I love you. I love us. Our lives matter, Black Lives Matter.” Until recently, Garza used the Twitter handle Love God Herself.
The Black Lives Matter website includes as guiding principles a commitment to “intentionally build and nurture a beloved community” and to “loving engagement.” Assata Shakur’s words are frequently repeated at movement events: “We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” One participant in the first major gathering of organizers, in July 2015, describes the meeting as “grounding the movement in black-on-black love.”
How did love become so central to black politics? Martin Luther King, Jr.’s embrace of race-transcending neighbor-love is, of course, part of the reason, but there are other explanations. Stokely Carmichael called for blacks to “have an undying love for our people” and Huey P. Newton wrote of “revolutionary love.” In the 1990s, bell hooks wrote in praise of black love, which she understood as a synthesis of civil rights era love-of-neighbor with black power era black self-assertion. Rather than focusing love outward, she argued, blacks must learn to love themselves individually and collectively.
While hooks brought black love talk to a wider audience, through the 1970s and 1980s black feminists were invoking love as a political tool. The Combahee River Collective asserted, in 1977, “Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle.” Six years later, Alice Walker’s definition of “Womanist” culminates with a staccato invocation of love and the assertion that black feminists are defined by loving love.
This is the view of black love that circulates among movement organizers today. It is a language that would find itself at home in a New Age retreat center: love yourself, love your people, love your world, with “All You Need Is Love” playing softly in the background. God is love – and that is all that can be said about God, an aphorism supposedly distilling the wisdom of every religious tradition, the mountain peak to which every path leads. Even the corporate world today embraces this vaguely spiritual ethos as they offer workers yoga mats and meditation breaks.
It is certainly true that we black Americans, having been stigmatized and exposed to violence, need affirmation. Without it, any political action will suffer from the individual pathologies and distorted judgment that result from life lived precariously. But vague love talk is not the answer. To reduce rich and complex affective bonds to the anodyne language of love is misleading at best. At worst, it leads away from racial justice, aligning activists with the status quo.
Additionally, those using the language of love, and black love especially, often forget just how Christian this language is. James Baldwin can write about the universal acceptance and difficult work associated with love without invoking Jesus, but of course he began as a Christian preacher. At a recent talk, Michelle Alexander, newly appointed to the faculty of Union Theological Seminary, opined about the importance of “revolutionary love,” prompting a cry of exclusion and alienation from frustrated non-Christian audience members.
Rather than dismiss talk about love as Christian triumphalism, why not recognize just how much a part of secular American culture Christian love language has become – and how secular American culture persists in its commitment to (repressed) Christianity? Love language distills the American liberal mythology of universal acceptance, or acceptance of all those who are willing to love back. As the Clinton campaign slogan aptly put it, “Love Trumps Hate,” reflecting the same sentiment as the gay marriage meme, “Love Wins.” This is not just mythology, but romance: It is a means of projecting onto the national project the feelings elicited by a Hollywood love story.
We need to tell more complex stories about the relationship between Christianity and US racial justice struggles. The secularist story, that Christianity has been used only instrumentally, and the secularization story, that Christianity was once catalytic and now has vanished, ignore the ongoing importance of Christian ideas. Rather than ignore those ideas, why not seriously engage with them and harness them to advance racial justice?
The post-racial, spiritual-but-not-religious Martin Luther King who is remembered today is not the Christian organic intellectual who catalyzed a social movement sixty years ago. Leftist attempts to recover the radical King persist in his secularization and de-racialization by arguing that it was late in his life, after he has lost his youthful Christian and black provincialism, that King realized the importance of economic justice and anti-colonial struggles and acknowledged the links between both and the racial justice struggle in the United States. In fact, it was the early King, speaking in a thickly black Christian idiom, who made these linkages as part of a broad challenge to the ideas of the wealthy and powerful.
What is striking about King’s early writings, sermons, and speeches is how the language of social sin, and particularly violation of God’s law, is just as if not more prevalent than the language of love. He is not moralizing: he argues that specific social practices and laws conflict with a deeper vision of justice. He also argues that pragmatism distracts us by focusing our attention on tweaking the system to fix the most immediate wrongs rather than considering injustice on a systemic level. In other words, King does not advocate a Christian political order; he uses the Christian idea of world-transcending law to motivate sober critical analysis.
Dignity was another crucial part of the civil rights movement’s religious-ethical vocabulary. It was part of the black vernacular, but it was also part of Christian faith. The image of God in each human being requires that we all must be treated with dignity. This applied to black Americans, but it also applied to workers – as King made clear in his final speech in Memphis, supporting a strike by city sanitation workers.
In contrast to hollow invocations of love, the Christian tradition emphasizes the need for love to be rightly ordered. This means that some objects are worthy of love and others are not. King spoke of the wrong objects of love as things we treat as “little gods.” Love is always connected with justice – not because loving indiscriminately leads to justice, but because there are right ways and wrong ways to love. We learn how our loves can be rightly ordered in community, through tradition, and subject to authority. These are prerequisites to political engagement.
When elites embrace an empty language of love, new ideas are necessary for those who desire to shake up the status quo. We live not in a secular age but a spiritual age. We cannot return to a world where religious commitments were felt and lived differently. But religion, and especially Christianity, still matters in the United States today. It holds untapped resources for those struggling to advance racial justice.
Vincent Lloyd is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University.
Why are so many American Christians seemingly unbothered by the gutting of the institutions and policies dedicated to protecting our environment? Does the blame lie in Christianity itself?
There have been those who thought so. Indeed, in the 1960s a certain line of cultural criticism began to hold western Christianity culpable for industrial society’s chronic ecological ills. Usually indexed to a 1967 article by the historian Lynn White, the critique holds that, long before the industrial revolution, European Christianity opened cultural space for systematic ecological plunder by developing a worldview in which earth was made for humans to use in pursuit of their own otherworldly destiny. Christianity’s salvation story taught European cultures the anthropocentric instrumentalism that came to shape global capitalism’s basic beliefs about humanity and nature. By cultivating spiritual disdain for this world, the faith’s contemptus mundi became the industrial economy’s contempt for earth.
There are many reasons to doubt the critique: historically dubious, causally simplistic, and based on a religious caricature, it doesn’t even represent White’s own view. Yet the basic suspicion has shaped U.S. environmental politics. Since the 1960s, Christian leaders in the United States have had to defend themselves against the suspicion that their tradition is inherently anti-ecological. Many have therefore endeavored to demonstrate how their tradition in fact supports care for God’s creation, or eco-justice, or some other formulation. Hardly ever have Christian leaders defended contempt for creation as a credible Christian belief.
When Richard Nixon established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the action attracted bipartisan support. A basic argument for constraining pollution had moral approval from U.S. evangelicals. In a time of smog-choked cities, flammable rivers, pervasive lead exposure, dying Great Lakes, when even the Bald Eagle was disappearing, environmental protection appeared as commonsense politics. If not their most important issue, Christian churches still largely supported stewardship values. So when Newt Gingrich’s congress threatened to repeal the Endangered Species Act in the mid-1990s, evangelicals were outspoken in protest, calling it “the Noah’s Ark of our day.”
The Trump administration now seeks debilitating cuts to the EPA and the department of Agriculture, and it wants to repeal climate programs. It does so without offering even a fig leaf of moralization, without bothering to spin the moves as somehow better for environmental stewardship. The proposals, and the men chosen to lead them, are openly contemptuous of the idea that ecological issues matter. How did contempt for environmental protection become populist?
It is not because protection over the last half century was ineffective: the nation’s air and water are much cleaner, lead exposure much lower, the Great Lakes returning to health, and the Bald Eagle is no longer critically endangered. Think it is because they prefer market-based approaches to environmental problems? The populists have pilloried a recent conservative proposal for a carbon dividend. Think it is because of conservative skepticism toward over-reaching federal power? Among the programs targeted are regional restoration programs for the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay, agricultural incentives for private landowner conservation, and even the publication of information that individuals and local communities would need to make decisions on their own.
There are serious conservative reasons to think that stewardship should happen at different scales and by different means. Those reasons clearly do not explain what is happening here.
Somehow contempt for environmental concern became part of the identity of Trump’s electorate. Why? In her book Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Hochschild describes the views of a number of white Christian conservatives in Louisiana. Many have deep attachments to the bayou and lament cherished places lost to chemical pollution – yet they despise the idea of regulations. Hochschild tries to explain that contradiction by rolling it into her “deep story” about working class white people who are frustrated because it seems to them that “others” are cutting in line in front of them, delaying their pursuit of the American dream. Perception of line-cutting might well explain a spike in white ethnonationalism, but it doesn’t seem to explain how they can mutely endure the sickening of beloved waters and, for some, the sickening of their own bodies. Rationalization of suffering, of the sort that helps one endure pain and swallow loss, works at the level of theodicy. It needs a religious story about good and evil.
Over the last decade, Christians who care about environmental issues have been targeted by a (well-oiled?) campaign that has sought particularly to sow a rift among evangelicals. It has largely succeeded. Whereas in 2006 more than three hundred senior evangelical leaders signed a statement affirming that faith in Jesus Christ requires action on climate change, they are now silent as the Trump administration guts climate programs. Why the change? The campaign has mythologized environmentalism as an evil rival to Christianity, thereby casting suspicion of apostasy on those who support even basic forms of action. The accompanying Green Dragon video series instills spiritual fear of any show of care for earth, making the point clear: maintaining evangelical identity now requires contempt for earth.
So a stunning transformation has happened: a certain strand of U.S. evangelicalism now identifies itself with a 1960s caricature of Christianity. Contempt for earth has become a mark of faith.
I should be clear that it is white U.S. evangelicals about whom we are talking. When the American Academy of Religion commissioned a survey about US religion and climate change, it found that black Protestants were much more concerned about climate change than their white counterparts. And Evangelical Protestants in other countries do not seem to share the same antipathy toward environmental concern nor the same affection for fossil fuel energy.
Why would white Christian Protestants in North America be especially tempted to identify with environmental contempt? The answer may partly lie in their affiliation with the rise of an American variety of ethnonationalism, which includes valorization of extractive mastery over nature. This seems different from far-right populisms in Europe, in which ethnicity seems more connected to a particular homeland. Perhaps it expresses the “New World” rootlessness of a settler culture. The first sentence of Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America: “One of the peculiarities of the white race’s presence in America is how little intention has been applied to it.” So opens his blistering account of American agricultural practices as colonialist plunder. The homeland of American ethnonationalism is neither “home” nor “land” for these people; it is real estate from which to extract wealth.
The future of white nationalist politics in the United States remains uncertain. It is clear, however, that the future of white evangelicalism in the United States is already being transformed by its alliance with fossil fuel culture. Scott Pruitt, the climate-science denier picked to dismantle the EPA, is on the board of trustees of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. And they are apparently proud of him. One evangelical organization invited Christians to support him by praying “for streamlined EPA regulations and a more business-friendly agency.” Such piety is difficult to place in Christian liturgical history.
Whatever this strange spiritual alliance of white nationalism and fossil fuel energy becomes, scholars of religion may need to acknowledge its innovation by calling it something other than “Christianity.” We might have to begin teaching it under some other rubric. Anthropocene folk religion? Petro-Manichaeism?
I do not mean to suggest that all white evangelical christians necessarily believe this way. On the contrary, many serious evangelical theologians recognize how profound a danger to Christian doctrine is contempt for creation, not to mention ethnonationalism. Yet serious evangelical theology no longer represents the formations of belief now swirling through the most powerful white evangelical networks.
The point here is not simply that some segment of white evangelicalism has begun mutating into another religious form. It is that, for all of us searching for ways to confront these new formations of contemptuous power, our mumbling dissent at the gutting of environmental protection reveals to us how thin is our public lexicon for affirming the alternative: that our humanity depends on care for our common home.
Willis Jenkins is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia
Photo credit:Nevit Dilmen – Own Photograph, CC BY-SA 3.0
Mar 31, 2017
In his essay for The Baffler, George Scialabba does a fine job summarizing Ivan Illich’s most famous period of writing, from 1971 to 1982. He foregrounds the Roman Catholic priest and philosopher’s peculiarity as a leftist intellectual who was resolutely opposed to most “progressive” political solutions, on the grounds that they amounted simply to adjustments in the distribution of goods and services, lacking a deeper analysis of the social construction of needs. Illich has always been difficult to categorize, and therefore easy to miscategorize, and Scialabba deftly evades the most common miscategorizations. This response ought to be read as an addendum to his essay rather than anything more severe.
That said, it is unfortunate that Scialabba cuts his analysis off at Illich’s 1982 work Gender. Illich lived for an another twenty years after Gender and produced several more (less famous) books, alongside other essays, lectures, and interviews. Most important, in this later period Illich was openly ambivalent about the 1970s works that are the focus of Scialabba’s essay. They were, he argued, written for a very specific historical moment and their constructive proposals (and the ‘revolution in perception’ necessary to bring them about) had soon become unachievable.
Illich’s criticism evolved in the 1980s and 90s to incorporate what he saw as a fundamental shift in the “root metaphor” of the age, from the “age of tools” to the “age of systems.” Instrumental reason – the image of humans standing over against their institutions manipulating them – was out, and systems-thinking was in, with the computer and its calculating power at its heart. Individuals were now conceived as sub-systems within more complex social systems, programmed to respond to signals they receive (a targeted “nudge”, perhaps). Self and society had come to be represented via complex algorithms, with the political consequence that seem to require expert management in order to generate optimal outcomes. There are both continuities and discontinuities here.
If Illich’s work retains relevance today, however, it must be principally on the basis of this later critique, which chimes with contemporary analyses of managerial neoliberalism. The ‘algorithmization’ of the self, for example, has been explored recently in William Davies’ excellent The Happiness Industry. In a way that echoes Illich, Davies uncovers the reductive, utilitarian economic ideology that underlies attempts to quantify, measure, and optimize “happiness”.
Discontinuities aside, the later Illich retained some basic concerns, which, thanks to posthumously published work, we can now see were more theological than he let on. In the end, for all its sharp edges, Illich’s work is about love, understood in the traditional Catholic sense as social bond. His problem with modernity is that its institutions, oriented toward increased production, tend to rip up the social fabric in order to construct societies that are ever more impersonal and managerial. For Illich, modernization threatens the spark of gratuity that lies at the heart of ordinary existence, understood as created gift. The latter is encountered pre-eminently in the richness of shared experience, and is linked to an existential attitude defined by openness to surprise – the opposite of managed life.
Scialabba’s essay raises the question of the usefulness of Illich’s radical criticism, and indeed a common complaint is that his work is not useful or constructive enough. In later writings, Illich openly refused to offer political ‘answers’, preferring simply to leave the future open, and promote the practice of friendship. Is this an unfortunate quietism? I would argue not. Rather, Illich’s refusal to be “useful” in this way was itself a kind of politics, his way of resisting the dominant utilitarian ethic (for ‘what is the use of use?’, as Lessing and Arendt both asked) in order to create space for that all-important spark of gratuity. Interestingly, this coheres with some of his earliest published remarks from the 1960s, in which he called us to “the joyful acceptance of our uselessness”, and defended “the autonomy of the ludicrous in the face of the useful, of the gratuitous as opposed to the purposeful, of the spontaneous as opposed to the rationalized and planned”.
Olivier Clément has written that the first task of any renewal in the West would be to promouvoir le gratuit, l’inassimilable, ce qui ne sert à rien mais éclaire tout – “to bring to prominence the gratuitous, the unassimilable, that which serves no use but illuminates all.” For all that Illich seems to have been ‘against everything’, it was for the sake of just this kind of joyful, illuminating uselessness.
Simon Ravenscroft is Murphy Research Fellow at the Von Hügel Institute for Critical Catholic Inquiry, St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge.
March 24, 2017
When your democratic republic and unchecked global, political, and ecological trends feel as though they’re hurtling in chaos toward the sun, it’s nice to receive good news.
A recent study by the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public life puts that good news right up in the title, “Americans Express Increasingly Warm Feelings Toward Religious Groups.” Even the subtitle is mild: “Jews, Catholics, continue to receive warmest ratings, atheists and Muslims move from cool to neutral.” The study frankly reads to me as though pant-suited normality sat in the Oval Office or in the Situation Room, and November ninth hadn’t run America off the norms of civil discourse and of reciprocal toleration.
“Asked to rate a variety of groups on a ‘feeling thermometer’ ranging from 0 to 100, U.S. adults give nearly all groups warmer ratings than they did in a June 2014 Pew Research survey,” says the February 2017 report. I’d like to live in that America.
In my America, the headline news is grim: “US Islamophobia: Threats and acts of vandalism against mosques double so far in 2017.” Some state house offices are downright refrigerator-chilly to Muslims. The office of Representative John Bennett (R., Oklahoma) handed an Islamophobic questionnaire to three students that tried to meet with him.
Similarly, Jewish Americans may be up on the “feeling thermometer,” topping out all rivals at 67 degrees. But the desecration of cemeteries in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Rochester made national news, while there has been a spate of bomb threats made against Jewish centers. The Anti-Defamation League is keeping a running tally.
This Pew report presents some perplexities for “Religion and its publics.” Among them, how can we hold together these competing truths?
Like many scholars of religion trained in the humanities, I’m dubious about social science surveys as a method of knowledge production. American’s cultural appetite hungers for insights that are quickly consumed. This shapes a preference for the data of social scientific methods.
Then again, I’ve learned of late to check my “confirmation bias” around data: to be alert to that trip-wire. I don’t want to be a cynic. But the Pew report prompts my skepticism. Here’s why.
A conspicuous factor of this survey is its “thermometer scale.” Why did Pew select a temperature gauge as its preferred metric? As a scholar of religion with feminist convictions, I am gratified to see Pew acknowledge the power of affect. But I am also alert to gaps between expressed affective warmth and action. Do expressions of relative warmth or coolness track with values of liberal democracy, such as public demonstrations of respect and mutual accountability?
For instance, it strikes me that Christians at least are primed to understand that affirming love is a virtue that speaks well of the practitioner. Indeed, the test of Christian love is not whether the object of love is worthy of mutual respect. Love to the stranger, the prostitute, the taxpayer. “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” For members of this religious community, at least, expressed warmth toward another religious or non-religious group may say more about the respondent.
In theory this bias toward affective affirmation would be controlled by the comparative/longitudinal nature of this survey. This publication, for instance, emphasizes change over time.
Nevertheless, we must consider the power of performance among those surveyed. After all, respondents are explicitly primed in the interview to be alert to themselves explicitly as religious practitioners/non-practitioners. In their responses, they are making a certain kind of public appearance. That is to say, even if the data are aggregated, even if they are coded and anonymous, individual respondents are nevertheless declaring their values to themselves. Survey respondents may well be performing aspirations of their community of formation. These aspirations may be civic, “More perfect union,” or may be religious/non-religious, “Do unto others….”
From that position of curiosity, we could then consider further how these reports, gathered at a particularly tense national moment, might be conditioned by felt anxieties of crisis and division? The dates on which this survey data were collected, Jan 9-23, 2017, are conspicuously close to the inauguration of America’s 45th President. The trend of affirmation of other religious groups is conspicuously elevated from the prior survey date (June 2014), and leads me to wonder whether they are aspirational?
As noted in the survey analysis, the survey was carried out “On the heels of a contentious election year in which partisan politics increasingly divided Americans.” To get inter-textual on social science, perhaps it’s not incidental that in January 2017, Pew found that, “Fully 86% describe the country as more politically divided today than in the past.” 71 percent expected the political divisions to persist or to worsen.
Perhaps given the opportunity to assess their fellow citizens on a metric other than party, Americans chose to affirm. On this analysis, is it conspicuous that evangelical Christians, the group that tracked most closely with support for President Trump, was the only religious group whose “likability” did not rise substantially?
Similarly, it would be interesting to consider with Pew whether and how perceptions of religious “others” track with the reported experience of those co-citizens. At stake in this question is whether it matters to members of religious groups (as majorities or minorities) how they are perceived by a statistical sample. Or do we learn more about America and religion when we take the “temperatures” of how we are perceived by others?
Does statistical expression of how one’s in-group is perceived (not, as the survey asks, how one perceives one’s in-group) cohere or contrast with these data on how one’s group perceives an out-group? Then we can better ask such questions as: what is the power of exceptionally “frigid” acts or actors, such as desecration of a gravesite? Or similarly, do reports of affective “warmth” by silent majorities toward an out-group track with actions, such as advocacy and intervention? What metric of relative religious co-existence does or should the American media report? The affective silent majority? Or the statistical outliers, perhaps more likely to commit acts of aggression and discrimination? Finally, if Americans of a particular community report anxieties that track with the actions of bad actors – actors who may be statistically a disproportionate minority – to what end is the Pew data informative or misleading?
Do scholars of “Religion and its publics” in the humanities need to learn more about, and perhaps be more involved in, the metrics and design of these studies? More importantly, are academics doomed to be masters of suspicion? Or will I one day know when good news crosses my desk?
Mara Willard is assistant professor in the department of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma.
March 15, 2017
To say that 2016 was a politically tumultuous year is, at this point, to state the blindingly obvious. Sooner or later, my home country (the United Kingdom) will abandon the European Union, a multistate organization that helped maintain peace in a continent that has made a habit of war. Meanwhile, the country in which I live (the United States) awaits a president who has scorned the scientific consensus on climate change, stoked hostility towards immigrant communities, and promises – with seemingly little awareness of the history of the phrase – to put “America First.” The broader international situation also disquiets. The promise of the Arab Spring recedes, along with hopes for a mitigation of the Israel-Palestine conflict; Russian and China look to expand their “spheres of influence”; continued turmoil throughout South America seems likely. More could be said, but the point is obvious. If you think 2016 was bad, hold tight; 2017 could be much worse.
What should an academic Christian theologian do in this context? How might his or her work encourage the enhancement of life in unsettled times? Karl Barth, a guiding voice in my research, offered an intriguing answer to such questions in Theological Existence Today!, which was written soon after the Nazis seized power in 1933:
I endeavor to carry on theology, and only theology, now as previously, and as if nothing had happened. Perhaps there is a slightly increased tone, but without direct allusions: something like the chanting of the hours by the Benedictines nearby in the Maria Laach, which goes on undoubtedly without break or interruption, pursuing the even tenor of its way even in the Third Reich.
A recipe for political quietism? Certainly not. For Barth, a principal task of Christian theology was the toppling of idols, of which demagogic strongmen are an exemplary instance. This does not mean, however, that theologians ought necessarily to busy themselves with literal or figurative hammers. Barth favored a different approach: a style of theological writing that, in refusing to esteem that which is ethically and politically inexcusable, in declining to “normalize” the new status quo, focuses attention on the future that God promises,and provides a thick description of what it means for human beings to turn their backs on sin and commit themselves to realizing the “two commandments” on which “hang all the law and the prophets”: love of God and love of neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40). Theological reflection and political resistance, at this point, form two sides of the same coin; they motivate a style of writing that traces the shape of a spiritual counter-world, in order that those who encounter it might – should God so will – play their part in transforming the quotidian in which they exist. To be sure, none of this helps citizens decide how they should vote, or how they should comply (or not comply) with discrete laws, policies, and programs. Yet a theology that can’t be easily “operationalized” is a theology that stands some chance of resisting cooptation, and – at least in principle – urges individuals and communities to act differently in the here and now.
So: should Christian theology today follow Barth’s lead? Ought theologians committed to the project of enhancing life to proceed “as if nothing has happened”? Bracketing the vexed issue of whether the political situation today is analogous to the 1930s, there is here a deep and difficult question about whether theological discourse and rhetoric, which proceeds “without direct allusions” and does not dwell on particulars, is the right way to encourage political engagement and activity. And this isn’t a question that theologians may dodge. If we are committed to the enhancement of life, we have to reckon with the possibility that certain forms of intellectual activity amount to academicism of the worst kind – a mere spinning of the wheels, a self-indulgent instance of cerebral escapism. Indeed, the last fifty years have been marked by a glorious array of liberationist theologies, which forcefully insist on direct allusions, given longstanding patterns of discrimination, and which fulfil the prophetic mandate ingredient to Christian theology by speaking truth to power in very concrete, targeted ways.
However, I remain convinced that Barth recognized something of abiding importance. A theology without “direct allusions” needn’t be a theology divorced from context; it can still address that context, and it can play some part in trying to transform it, operating in tandem with liberationist projects. Marx’s admonition notwithstanding, interpretations of the world can have the purpose of changing it – especially when that world that is described is a counter-world, linked to a spirituality that stands apart from the quotidian in which we live. (The Nazi regime, incidentally, had some sense of this: Theological Existence Today! was banned in July 1934, and Barth was later expelled from Germany.)
This brings me back to my current research on patience. Rather than being a “merely academic” concern, the last few months have led me to believe, more than ever before, that this motif can help us address the present political moment. It affords us an opportunity to think about the counter-world that God holds forth, while alsobringing diverse ethical and political obligations into focus.
First, I believe that patience as endurance is a virtue that is important to cultivate. If the scriptures present endurance as a matter of holding on to one’s faith and one’s character, some theologians – Augustine of Hippo, in particular – have also suggested that endurance entails suffering a political context that one would likely not choose. One endures in light of the belief that this political context comprises, in somemysteriousway, an episode in the still-unfolding historical drama that God oversees. Does this bespeak a fatalist attitude, wherein all events are treated as an expression of God’s sovereign will? Absolutely not. Belief in providence oughtn’t be complemented with the belief that God approveseverything that happens, nor need it be accompanied with a diminished sense of human beings’ responsibility to challenge injustice. My point is different. Patience as endurance means reckoning with the world as it is. It means avoiding the delights of a constant state of indignation, granting that the arc of history bends in ways that we cannot anticipate or understand, and recommitting oneself to the counter-world that God reveals.
This brings me to a second point. In an unsettled context, patience as perseverance ensures that endurance of the world doesn’t become acquiescence to the world. In Hebrews, perseverance is described in terms of a quiet grittiness, born of a community’s focus on Jesus, which enables us to “run the race…set before us” and helps us to “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees.” In the months and years to come, something of this grittiness may well be needed, especially among those who identify with the religious left. While the ascendance of a range of reactionary voices can serve as a goad to action, disappointments, setbacks, and some degree of failure is likely forthcoming. The challenge, then, will be to hold fast to the counter-world that Jesus launched, and to persist in believing thiscounter-world will prevail. Indeed, we need to understand that the bleaker chapters of human history are rarely closed in a hurry. Their ending depends on something different: the quiet toil of committed individuals and communities, whose basic modus operandi is to keep going, and whose constancy and industry is an analogue of God’s own.
Third and finally, I would commend impatience as a virtue. That word sits a bit uneasily alongside talk of endurance and perseverance, but valuably so. It names the way in which God’s counter-world is provocative of action that refuses to accept injustice, and which makes good on God’s patience – the patience that gives human beings the time and space to work out how we are – by hurrying, sometimes intemperately, towards the future that God promises to us. The last few years have seen salutary instances of such impatience. Think of the Black Lives Matter movement; think of the protestors gathered at Standing Rock; think also of those, from a variety of political backgrounds, who are readying for the Women’s March on Washington. The impatience exhibited here is of a kind that Christians can surely appreciate: it bears obvious resemblance to our wait for the Kingdom, a time and space in which the sick are cured, the marginalized are embraced, and, at long last, the “poor have good news” (Luke 7:22). Absent impatience, endurance and perseverance cannot flourish—they lack for purpose and passion. But with impatience flanking them, we have a trio of virtues that might help us prepare for the journey ahead, with an end-destination being the enhancement of life for all.
Paul Dafydd Jones is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, and Co-Director for Religion and its Publics.
Originally published by the Enhancing Life Project