17 October 2019

On loving our critics

Mike Pence, U.S. vice president, gave the 2019 commencement address at Liberty University. His speech gives me a convenient peg to hang the following suggestion: let's learn how to love our critics.

By "our critics" I mean those for whom (in Pence's warning) "it’s become acceptable and even fashionable to ridicule and even discriminate against people of faith." Why should we in fact love those people?

First of all, is Pence's initial premise correct? Is it acceptable and fashionable in some circles to ridicule religious people? Serious skeptics and atheists may not think much of us, but they don't require ridicule to make their points. Generally, the weight of their message is either the intellectual weakness of belief in God, or the harm that such beliefs cause in the real world.

When this anti-religion message becomes enmeshed in a political system, then it becomes dangerous, as the Soviet Union and other communist nations have very adequately demonstrated. Other parts of the world specialize in a different distortion -- preferring one expression of religion over others. This happens in the USA's supposed allies and enemies alike (Saudi Arabia and Russia, for example). This distortion sadly reinforces one of religion's critics' main points: religion causes social harm.

Ridiculing and marginalizing faith can happen when popular culture goes in a different direction -- neither prohibiting religion nor practicing favoritism, but making faith a strictly private matter, and (in many cases in today's world) contrasting faith with science.  The implication: empirical evidence always clashes with faith, and faith always loses. Therefore, people with intelligence should prefer science to religion -- and for the lazy and incurious skeptic, religion is nothing more than superstition.

Communities of faith, confronted by this secular drift, often choose between two very different paths forward. (Of course, all explanations involving "two very different paths" are oversimplifications!) One path: a defensive isolation, within which correct answers are emphasized, and secularism is demonized and shunned. The other: adjusting the faith message so that it is as inoffensive to secular people as possible. Among the Christians I know best -- Quakers -- both options have been chosen, mostly depending on what seems most acceptable in their own local cultures.

As always, the pictures is made more complicated when politics enters in. For example, in the USA, there is no official preference of religion, but politicians play on religious sensibilities for votes. In particular parts of the country, it can be very important to emphasize one's ties to Protestant Christianity despite the Constitutional guarantee of no preference.

Given the culture of Liberty University and its immersion in the more defensive brand of Christianity, it's not surprising to read Pence's emphasis on the separation of faith communities from the surrounding culture of ridicule and discrimination. But does all such opposition always mean that the critics are determined to make you join Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the furnace? Here's my core question: shouldn't we actually engage those critics and appreciate them because sometimes they are saving us from ourselves?

Some examples from Pence's speech:
  • We need faith and forgiveness as modeled by pastor Gerald Toussaint -- "faith that unites on a foundation of grace." However, Pence doesn't have enough grace to grant that his health care opponents or the "bevy of Hollywood liberals" might have a point of view worth examining, even if disagreement remains at the end. Instead, complicated controversies are glibly dismissed, providing critics yet another example of Christianity's moral and intellectual inadequacy.
  • Next: the controversy around Mike Pence's wife's school. I wouldn't have blamed him for favoring one side over the other in that controversy, but at least describe what was at stake! Instead, I'm sure that he felt that mentioning "media and the secular Left" would stir all the right emotions, and no other work needed to be done.
  • He then ridicules the whole "Expose Christian Schools" theme in social media. This is another example where the critics who raised that banner should be thanked, not smeared, to the exact extent that real horror stories (without derisive "quotation marks") have emerged, and, as a result, healing has become more possible for many. The rhetoric of that paragraph is fascinating -- as if it were totally absurd that Christian institutions could ever hurt anyone!
  • Pence warns the graduates:
    Some of the loudest voices for tolerance today have little tolerance for traditional Christian beliefs. So as you go about your daily life, just be ready. Because you’re going to be asked not just to tolerate things that violate your faith; you’re going to be asked to endorse them. You’re going to be asked to bow down to the idols of the popular culture.
    He's not necessarily wrong here, but it's the perfect place for him to have said what "be ready" means -- or, for that matter, what the "idols of the popular culture" are. Evangelical Christianity correctly identifies some idols of the popular culture, but its conservative white versions worship other idols far too often -- particularly wealth, status, power, white supremacy, and the myth of redemptive violence. Can't we ask Liberty's graduates to look more carefully at what seduces white USA evangelicals away from rejecting all idols? Wouldn't a respectful engagement with critics, even a bevy or two of "Hollywood liberals" and "secular Leftists," help reveal those betrayals?
  • Finally, what do we do with the numerous truth claims in the speech that are certainly political applause lines but have little actual truth? Did the recovery and growth of the U.S. economy begin with the Trump/Pence administration, or did it begin earlier? Pence says, "Prosperity didn't just happen" and then solely credits the Trump administration's policies for that undefined prosperity. And won't those policies actually result in an ever-less-sustainable level of national debt?

    More fact gaps: Internationally, have we actually stood with our allies and stood up to our enemies? (I'm leaving aside the deeper questions of who those allies and enemies actually are. And, to be fair, Pence gave this speech before the current ghastly spectacle in Syria and the Ukraine scandal.) And what exactly is the purpose of the claim that "America stands with Israel" -- what unspoken assumptions are behind this assertion of Israel's apparently unique status in the world?
Thank God for critics! As the white celebrity stranglehold on evangelical conversations grows ever weaker, we'll find that some of those critics are already in the Church. Others are possibly not far away, if we can work honestly at eliminating all those stupid spiritual and intellectual scandals, until we have just the one essential Scandal of grace and love uniquely at the heart of the Gospel.

As one atheist friend of mine says, "Even I know that Jesus is the Dude."

Ira Rifkin suggests an important path ahead for religious journalism.

Hundreds of educators refuse to be intimidated by Trump administration's threats to censor Middle East studies.

Roger E. Olson on the rhetoric of tyranny. (Warning: another mention of Trump.)

Why Mary Pezzulo is not calling Mike Pence a fake Christian.

Goodbye to Alexei Leonov, a cosmonaut for the whole planet.

Samantha Fish ...

1 comment:

Derek "Longshot" Lamson said...

If these wings fail me, Jesus bring me another pair. Thanks boss. This morning I'm sending (dispatching, seconding) angels your way. A sus ordenes... Derek