William Barr, Public Morality & Religious Freedom

After reading a Heather Cox Richardson comment about William Barr’s 2019 Notre Dame Law School speech, I finally read it. In one sense it was as advertised, a speech on the importance of religion as an essential part of a moral society.  By religion he made it clear he was talking about Christianity with a friendly wave of the hand to Judaism.  I doubt most Christians would find anything terribly amiss in the speech, if it was only about religion, but it wasn’t.

It was cover for a subtext that was the real point he wanted to make.  Barr asserted that religion (Christianity) is under attack by a well funded, disciplined secular movement aided by their progressive allies. Their aim is to eliminate religion (Christianity) from the public arena and suppress  individual rights to worship as one pleases.  It is, he said, the Judeo-Christian code that undergirds the moral health of society itself.  Secularists, and their progressive allies, have only hedonistic relativism to guide them in their march to socialism.

It’s an old, but effective, method to create a false enemy against which one’s own forces are said to be fighting for an all that is good survival.

Barr, I think, knows very well there is no well funded and disciplined secularist movement, and that progressives are as likely to be deeply religious people as not.  He knows but doesn’t care because asserting an enemy is all that is needed to create one in the minds of a good many people. And why not? There really are evil enemies of the good, so if a man of Barr’s stature says there are, it might be so to the uncritical eye.

Citing Adams, Madison, Franklin  and others, he claimed the United States was founded by Christians as a Christian nation in which the Constitution enshrined Christian values as moral guides for the country. It seems an odd claim to make in front of a law school audience that knows something about American history. The founding fathers were a mix of Christians of deep faith, social Christians, Deists and Enlightenment skeptics crafting a nation more neutral on religion with a heavy emphasis on protecting individual and property rights. If Christianity was the de facto national religion, in spite of revival movements, it was a mile wide and an inch deep.

That said, Christian voices have indeed been raised as guides to moral life in the public arena, most notably to oppose slavery, promote education, and advocate for civil rights. Barr argued for renewed moral guidance from the church in defense of traditional Christian values.  But his agenda of values had little to do with what Jesus taught, and much to do with the social teachings of the conservative side of the Roman Catholic Church.  There is nothing per se wrong with that; he was, after all, speaking as a Catholic to a Catholic audience at a Catholic University. What was wrong was his assertion that they were values universally accepted as both Christian and traditional, and that secularists and their progressive allies must be restrained from opposing them in the public arena.  He argued that social safety net programs weakened the integrity of nuclear families consisting of a husband, wife and children, while also undermining individual responsibility. 

He was not wrong about the importance of family, the difficulty of single parenthood, or the value of self reliance, but he was unwilling to consider a wider view of what family is; he was unable to recognize that government programs establishing more equitable conditions from which to succeed as self reliant persons are a help, not a hinderance. 

Most important, from my point of view, his slight wave of the hand to Jesus’ commandment to love God, one’s self and one another, avoided any consideration of Jesus’ principle teachings and deeds that show us what loving one another as Jesus loves us looks like.  That failure eroded the entire religious foundation of his remarks, replacing it with the mud bricks of right wing social evangelicalism.

Surprise! Paul Is Not Jesus! Who Knew?

Last fall I gave a lecture to an adult confirmation class on the structure of the Bible commonly used by Protestants. Toward the end I made a comment that surprised a few of them: Paul was not Jesus. For those raised to believe the Bible is the literal inerrant word of God, what Paul wrote is the equal of what Jesus is recorded to have said, and to suggest otherwise is troubling.

Jesus is the living word of God made flesh.  Paul, prior to becoming an apostle, was a persecutor of the faith. He had to learn by stages what it meant to help guide new congregations. Paul was learning as he grew in his faith; his letters show development, making corrections to his previously held assumptions.

What we have from Paul are copies of letters, or parts of letters, written over a span of thirty years that demonstrate two things.  First, how difficult it was to counsel new Christians far removed from Palestine and and Judaism.  Second, Paul’s teaching about the faith changed as he moved further into a deeper understanding of it.  Paul made mistakes, got things wrong, but if he was exactly wrong in some cases, he was roughly right in the whole, and spot on in many things.  He was a reliable guide who learned as he led others.  There’s no doubt that in his letters he illuminated God’s word for Christians of every generation, but he was not inerrant.

Jesus, the Son part of One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, spoke. Not on behalf of God but as God.  Everything in Paul’s letters is subordinate to Jesus.

The gospel records of Jesus’ life and teaching are a composite of eye witness accounts, oral teachings handed down from Jesus’ disciples, and sources unknown to us.  Some details and elaborations in them cannot be harmonized, but the essential of who Jesus is and what he did and said are consistent.  I am confident that the writers of the gospels accurately recorded  God’s truth, and generations of translations have not deviated from it. He was and is the living Word of God made flesh, there is no higher authority; everything elsewhere in scripture, and everything taught in the centuries since, must be measured by that.

If Paul’s understanding of what it meant to be Christian changed and developed over the thirty years of his ministry, it should not be surprising that Israel’s understanding who God is and how to talk about God changed dramatically over the two thousand years covered by Hebrew Scriptures. It’s a difficult concept to grasp if God’s progressive self revelation is denied.  

What is obvious to clergy and teachers reasonably grounded in biblical scholarship is not obvious to poorly taught but faithful Christians who want to know more.  Moving from baby’s milk to solid food can be uncomfortable, but it leads to a deeper more profound understanding and trust in God’s abounding and steadfast love.

Scott’s Eleven Points To Serfdom

The Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee is the umbrella PAC funding Republican senate candidates believed to be electable and likely to support the GOP Senate legislative agenda.  It’s chaired by Sen. Rick Scott of Florida who has published an Eleven Point Plan to Rescue America that establishes the goals the committee expects supported candidates to endorse..

One might wonder, rescue America from what?  Rescue connotes dire circumstances where failure to rescue probably means death.  Scott’s generalized answer is rescue  from the radical left socialism of the Biden administration’s agenda.  It’s a curious assertion since the Biden agenda is consistent with decades of liberal democracy emphasizing individual rights enjoyed under more just and equitable conditions.  It’s clear from the details in Scott’s plan that socialism is anything more than a federal government stripped of most of its authority.  His model is not a return to the 1920s, as some have suggested, but to the 1840-50 era, if not to the Articles of Confederation.

In eleven broad categories he lists detailed proposals to disestablish the government in the name of preserving libertarian individualism conforming to a nationalistic and evangelical ‘Christian’ world view constructed on a sanitized, romantic version of American history.

I encourage you to look it up for yourself.  It’s a slick, well done website that, for those so inclined, is quite convincing. It lists eleven categories, each containing more detailed agenda items: Education; Colorblind Equality; Safety and Crime; Immigration; Growth and the Economy; Government Reform and Debt; Fair-Fraud Free Elections; Family- Gender-Life-Science;

Religious Liberty and Big Tech; America First.

In each he boldly asserts failures that don’t exist then advocates fixes that won’t work, but they have strong emotional appeal for the GOP base, and perhaps for others.  He appeals to science for which he has little evidence, to the Bible from which he selects dubious proof texts, to economic solutions that have led to economic disaster, and the usual list of right wing talking points about election fraud.

School choice, taken to his extreme, would end with the most marginalized relegated to underfunded public schools while tax payers pay for parochial and privately run charter schools.  His colorblind standards mean no recognition of past oppression and suppression, and assumes everyone will adopt a more or less standard way of being American in the pattern of the white middle class. He wants safe streets without gun regulation.  The economy would operate with little supervision or regulation, leading to even greater monopolistic practices.  The government would be stripped of flexibility in monetary and fiscal policy.  It would be limited to defense, some transportation and limited authority over commerce, that’s it.  Elections would be rigged to assure that only the right sort of people vote for the right sort of candidates.  In one area only would the federal government have great authority – to dictate acceptable family structures, sexuality, gender identity, and moral behavior based on evangelical Christian beliefs.   His guarantee of religious freedom changes nothing in existing law, custom and practice, but it emphasizes the special place of Christianity and Judaism.   America First is plain old jingoistic (white) nationalism that assumes the U.S. can become a self sufficient island fortress standing apart from he rest of the world. 

In the name of preserving freedom and rights, he would impose strict limits on speech, women’s health care, and most forms of assistance to the poor and needy..  America would become a nation of peasants ruled by plutocrats and oligarchs. That’s not the future he promises, but it’s the future his plan would produce.  America would become more like Putin’s Russia than anything else.  

Scott’s plan can be sold to many Americans who believe, feeling more than knowing, that they have been left behind and it’s the fault of liberal socialists.  Another Trump like president with a Scott and McCarthy legislature could make it happen. 

God Will Not Give You More Than You Can Bear – but life will

“God will not give you more than you can bear.”  How many times have you heard that, or maybe said it yourself during a time of troubles that did indeed seem too much to bear?  It’s well meant and intended to offer encouraging comfort, but often puts God in the hard place of having heaped on burdens under which we cannot stand.

Where did the saying come from?  Not from the Bible, that’s for sure.   What will be heard in many congregations this Sunday is a passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in which he wrote: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested  (tempted in the KJV) beyond your strength…” (1 Cor.10).

The context is about remaining strong in the faith as Paul proclaimed it, to trust in God, and not fall back into pagan ways, or be seduced by strange teachings pretending to be Christian. That should be clear enough, but it isn’t.

Oddly enough, the old saw is true; God will not give us unbearable burdens. But the changes and chances of life can and do. Coping with the unbearable by toughing it out with a stiff upper lip works poorly.  Sinking into the mire of sentimental platitudes is equally unhelpful.  Real, restorative help is needed, and real, restorative help comes from trust in God’s love as made known to us in Christ Jesus, who invited us to exchange our heavy yokes for his more easily borne. To trust Jesus is to accept his power of healing and restoration, even in the face of unbearable burdens.

Where does the unbearable come from?  From the evil wickedness of others, our own clumsy mistakes and poor judgment, and chance events in a chancy world.  

Now and then someone will assert the grievous events of life are a part of God’s inscrutable plan for a greater, if unknown, goodness.  However well meant, it is always a stab in the heart to hear such words.

God’s plan is plain for all who choose to see it.  Worship God only – nothing and nobody else.  Live lives of honest integrity.  Love yourself and others in word and deed as Jesus loves us.  There isn’t any other plan, don’t waste time looking for something that doesn’t exist. God has  made ‘his’ plan clear and given humans freedom to live into it or not, according to each one’s ability to do so. Love as Christ has loved you and get on with life as you encounter it. Perfection is not required: amendment of life is, even if taken in little, uncertain steps.  If God chooses to call you t o a particular ministry, secular or ecclesiastical, it will be made known to you.  

Most of us will encounter tragedies and burdens too heavy for us to bear.  They won’t come from God, but God will be there to help us along the way. 

Lurching From Hope to Hope

We hope, reminds Paul in his letter to the Romans, with patience for what we cannot yet see.  In spite of all evidence to the contrary, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, he wrote.  It’s a profound theological truth requiring a great leap of faith (trust) that leaves us still wanting hope now for what we can see.  Consider the several psalmists who confess God’s greatness, wondrous deeds in the long ago past, and intentions for the good of ‘his’ people in the future, but we are in trouble now and need help now, amen.

Whether voiced by people of faith, or the secular world alone, hope is an eternal quest.  It’s a quest that  often originates out of fear that unwanted changes are being forced on unwilling people who believe they are under attack. Sometimes their cause is just, and sometimes it isn’t.  We have had much of both in our history.

For over a decade the nation has been whipsawed by angry voices demanding to be heard.  Mostly white, appearing to be mostly working class, they have risen up against coastal elites and liberals whom they have charged with ignoring the needs, rights and freedoms of real Americans.  They were not without some cause.

Their conservative hero, Reagan, ushered in policies that favored corporations and cheap labor over workers and living wages, promising it would be good for the nation.  It was for some, but not for wages and salaries of working people.  And, truth be told, too many liberal voices advocated for the poor and working class without asking them what they thought, wanted or needed.  As well meaning as it was intended, it came off as do-gooder elitism.

In a world of relative stability with regions of violence far away, in a booming economy that left working people behind, in a nation deeply committed to redressing centuries of oppression and suppression of non-white Americans, the most strident voices of  mostly white discontent grabbed enough attention to elect Trump and energize far right-wingers favoring autocracy over democracy to take over the Republican Party, hoping to reverse trends and save a mythical vision of an America that never was.

Despite political victories, they continue to complain that no one is listening to them.  Never mind that they bellow over the radio, on television, and from one end of social media to the other. 

The far right’s mantra of complaints has morphed over the last several years to settle on vaccines and masks as symbols of oppression that deny them essential rights and freedoms.  It’s been enough to inspire a few disgruntled truckers and friends to mount convoys of disruption coagulating urban arteries.  It’s been a pitiful if annoying effort as mask mandates have been lifted and most sensible people have been vaccinated, made all the more humiliating by the example of real, violent Russian assaults of the freedoms and rights of Ukrainians, who are showing true patriotism and courage as they defend their homeland.   

It’s too early to tell, but I am hopeful that the Ukrainian invasion has demonstrated to the American public what a real assault on democracy and freedom looks like, and how similar in intent, if not scale, was the January 6th insurrection.  I am hopeful that workers of every class now recognize their well being does not lie with right wing extremism.  I am hopeful that liberals of every stripe will have learned how to listen to the voices of others.  I am hopeful that more whites will have discovered they need not be threatened by the new found confidence of non-white voices.  I am hopeful that the bellowing voices of hate filled discontent, so long tolerated on social media, will find themselves increasingly on an ignored fringe of little consequence.

It’s a lot to be hopeful for.  America has a history of lurching toward greater justice and opportunity for all.  I am hopeful that we are in one of those lurches.

Jesus Was Tempted As We Are Tempted: What does that mean?

The well known story about the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism is heard in many churches on the first Sunday in Lent.

In it, Jesus was tempted by Satan to turn rocks into bread, assume the kingship of the earth, and boldly declare his divinity in human form.

I don’t think that’s the way it happened.  Jesus’ humanity is without doubt, and there had to be a time when he had to wrestle with the realization that he was, in fact, the long awaited messiah, and that his relationship with God was far more than that of a devoted prophet.  The temptations he faced were not from Satan but from himself.  If he really was the Son of God then why not pull out all the stops and use his power to restore righteousness to humanity, displace corrupt human kings and queens with his own rule of divine justice, and publicly declare his divinity in human form, showing similar claims by pharaohs and emperors to be the frauds they always were.

However long he was in the wilderness wrestling with these and other thoughts, his obedience to the God of which he was a member prevailed against normal human temptations.

In His failure to act as any normal human messiah would is what made it so hard for the rank and file to believe in him, no matter what he said or did.  It’s still a problem, and many end-of-time evangelicals are convinced he will return soon to get it right this time.  Their conversations are peppered with citations from the books of Revelation and Daniel as proof texts.  They could be onto something.  Who knows?  In the meantime the rest of us are called to follow where Jesus has led, doing what we can to make this world a better place.  What new and better life lies ahead on the other side of the grave is unknown, but we trust with absolute conviction in God’s promise of it.

There is yet more to consider about the temptations Jesus faced, and it has to do with the temptations we face.  The writer of the book of Hebrews observed that Jesus was tempted just as we are, which is why we can come to him “just as we are without one plea.”

It is easy for us to hoard resources for our exclusive use while many others are hungry, even starving, for the same.  Miserly hoarders can give some of their stuff to the hungry, and feel good about their philanthropy, but it’s better not to hoard at all so that others can work to get what they need from the abundance of the earth.

Most of us desire to maintain as much sovereignty over our own lives as we are able defend.  Especially true of American way rugged individualism, which isn’t all bad, it becomes bad when we move to extend our powers of sovereignty over others by denying them the same freedoms and privileges we grant ourselves.   Racism and nationalism are the hot topics of the day, but there’s more.  Desire for and position of power over others is abused when it demeans, oppresses, and does injury to others.

Especially for religious folk harboring confidence, complacency and self righteousness about their own essential goodness is akin to taking a dive onto the the rocks thinking nothing will happen. It’s a curious thing because it exists side by side with anxieties and uncertainties about who we are, what our status is, and what the future will hold.  Nevertheless, there it is.  Jesus would have us give up self righteous hubris.  We’re not very good at it anyway and a more honest self identify as a sinner of his own redeeming and sheep of his own pasture is much healthier.  It’s a form of humility that becomes the strongest kind of self confidence.

And so it is that Jesus faced temptations very much like our own, but with greater intensity and danger.  Since he already knows from personal experience what we go through, why not trust him to lovingly understand?

Creeping Socialism & Tim Scott

Sen. Tim Scott believes that unless the Republican Party can be unified behind Trump, the nation is fated to sink into socialism.  I wonder what he thinks socialism is?  Scott’s assertions are consistent with decades of GOP fear mongering about creeping socialism.

On the one hand, they trot out old the bugaboo of Leninist/Maoist Communism that exists nowhere on earth today: it was an utter failure in Russia and China.  Even holdouts like Cuba can do little more than hang on to its ragged coattails out of sheer stubbornness.  Nevertheless, the scary old demon of communism retains its ability to frighten some voters the way campfire ghost stories frighten kids. As a political tool, it has its uses.

Laying fear of communism aside, the right wing GOP’s other hand reaches for as much laissez faire as they can get, and that means stopping governments from regulating commerce wherever they can, however they can.  I suspect they are convinced that what is good for maximizing profits is good for the nation, no matter how much damage it may do to economic, environmental, and social justice.

Maximizing profits becomes a form of class politics favoring a permanent underclass of compliant workers kept on the edge of poverty, and a nervous middle class anxious about staying middle class.  They would never express their intentions out loud, but it underlies everything they do.

Obviously that kind of class politics is repugnant to the ideals of the American Dream.  Nevertheless, it’s easily sold by claiming anything government does means less freedom for freedom loving Americans.

History illustrates how easy it is to arouse interclass and racial prejudice to set one group against another, with authoritarian leaders promising they, and only they, can establish a new equilibrium of fairness – for the chosen ones. 

The autocratic wing of the GOP believes it can motivate a large portion of the voting public to believe their only hope for preserving their unique freedoms and rights is to surrender the same to the autocratic leadership of qualified oligarchs.

These would be oligarchs gave it a try with the previous administration, but lost control of the effort to radical rightwing white nationalists and neo fascists.  It does’t mean they won’t try again.

The way out of this quagmire is unclear.  The far rightwing crowd is small compared with the 200 million voters who disagree with them, but the 200 million are averse to loud confrontation.  The far left has its own fanatics who can make it appear they speak for all liberals.  They speak only for themselves and no one else, but that’s hard to make clear in the public arena. 

The nation has faced moments like this before.  It led from the brutality of the Civil War to the institution of Jim Crow laws all over the nation, and then to the Gilded Age of unheard of wealth for a few and economic hardship for everyone else.  Finally it led to the disastrous policies that brought on the Great Depression.  Each time, progressives guided the nation back to a healthier democracy and renewed opportunity for a greater part of the population.

Everyone wants as much freedom to lead their lives as they choose, and to earn their living as they think best.  That’s fair enough.  Everyone wants a social equilibrium that gives a sense of predictability to life. Neither can be had without constraints on ways of living and doing business that inflict harm and injustice on others.  No one’s freedom is safe unless everyone’s freedom is safe.

The balance of freedom within constraints is hard to manage.  It’s always in flux as conditions change.  Today’s conditions call for  a national health care system, guaranteed high quality public education for everyone, and better equalization of opportunity for success in life.  It isn’t creeping socialism.  It’s robust American democracy as we have always said it should be.