There is more than enough talk regarding the Republic National Convention this week floating around the internet (thank you, Mr. Eastwood). However, there was one thing in particular that stuck out to me. In one of my seminars, we read the closing of Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s speech from Wednesday. While numerous outlets have commented on inaccuracies and misrepresentations in the speech, the concluding paragraphs were some of the most intriguing rhetorical moves from my perspective.
“Mitt and I go to different churches,” the Roman Catholic said of the Mormon Presidential candidate. “But in any church, the best kind of preaching is done by example.” Ryan’s approach to religious difference here is common. “Our faiths come together in the same moral creed.” Numerous scholars, pundits, laypeople, and religious leaders alike highlight the similarities in moral systems across religious lines. For example, there is not a major religion, for instance, that tells you to hate your neighbor and kill them (some characterizations of Muslims by Christians in the past year might beg to differ, unfortunately). This notion is not revolutionary and merely curious to me coming from a political party usually identified with a brand of Christianity hostile to this idea.
The truly interesting move Ryan makes concerns the nature of the god he describes. He alleges that he and Romney believe in the same god despite the radically different theologies in Roman Catholicism and Mormonism. In one, there is an understanding of God in Three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Second Person, Jesus, is both fully God and fully Human, a Person of the Trinity Incarnate in the world. In the other, the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct persons with different bodies of different types. Ryan’s description of god is unconcerned with these details, however. Here’s what we know about Ryan’s deity:
(1) This god values human life. The most explicit name Ryan uses to refer to god is the “Lord of Life.” He claims that god made each one of us “for a reason, bearing the image and likeness” of god. This likeness is a goodness imbued in each person by the creator. Consequently, this god desires us to protect the sanctity of that life (though, from the way Ryan phrases it, this principle principally concerns abortion — it is unclear to what other scenarios it extends).
(2) This god bestows rights. After referring the “moral creed of our country” (which he identifies as the responsibility of “the strong to protect the weak,” despite his Randian affinities), he says that the rights that flow from such a claim “come from nature and God, not from government.” Ryan claims, then, that there is no such secular basis for rights in the Constitution or human rights in general — they come from god and creation.
(3) This god has strong ties with the origins of the United States. In the same breath when he says that rights come from “nature and God,” he alludes to the Declaration of Independence, claiming that the rights are “self-evident.” The rights are “as powerful in our time, as on the day of America’s founding.” After all it was “The founding generation [who] secured those rights for us.”
While Ryan’s god bears some similarities to the character of the Christian (specifically Roman Catholic) God and undoubtedly the Mormon understanding of God, this god appears to be uniquely American in its conception. This American God transcends religious boundaries and fits well within the Republican milieu. This God makes for a good political speech for the purposes of religious appeal, but whose God is it? It’s not necessarily the God of Roman Catholicism or Mormonism but seems closest to what Justices William Brennan and Sandra Day O’Connor refer to as “ceremonial deism.”
On its best day, this oddly interreligious god at best perplexes me and at worst scares me. On one hand, the idea promotes the cooperation and unity of varying religious perspectives. It chooses commonality over conflict and promotes interreligious dialog and work. Surely that kind of peaceableness is valuable! However, on the other hand, it ignores the realities of religious pluralism and can be unashamedly manipulative.
By appealing to some vague notion of divinity, politicians on both sides of the aisle attempt to construct a big tent religion that simply doesn’t exist. They use language to sway religious people in their favor while not actually acknowledging the concerns and perspectives of different religions. The fact of the matter is, as Stephen Prothero likes to put it, God is not one. The God of all religions is no more the same than the religions themselves are the same. To pretend otherwise is, in Prothero’s words, “dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue.”
I think we would all be better for not pretending to be more or less religious than we are or reimaging the world’s religions as more similar than they are. Besides all that, eliminating the Providential ties to the origins of the United States would also be nice, but that’s another story.
Memorial Day Weekend has always been a difficult few days for me. Certainly, my life is nowhere near as rough as it is for those families and friends of men and women who have served in the American armed forces. However, Sunday is a particularly odd day for me. Why? Well, there are two ideas that currently reside in that central fold of convictions that comprise my Christianity. They are obviously not the only two ideas, but they (equally) obviously make this Sunday difficult.
The first idea is that I am a committed pacifist. I believe that when the Law says, “Do not kill,” when the prophets tell us to “beat [our] swords into plowshares, and [our] spears into pruning hooks,” when St. Paul says, “Beloved never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God,” and when Jesus says, “blessed are the peacemakers,” “do not resist the evildoer,” and “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” that they all meant it. Naturally, that makes Memorial Day Sunday in most southern Baptist Churches somewhat uncomfortable.
The second idea is that God and country are not the same thing. I grew up hearing from certain parts of my church that the United States was somehow a special nation, that God blessed it extra special. I grew up hearing “God Bless America” more times than I can count. Somewhere along the way, though, I saw a small un-presumptive little sign that said, “God Bless Afghanistan, too.” If I can be frank, the idea that some group of men founded the United States as a Christian Nation is a myth. To bind our own Christian ambitions to a nation is folly. The Church messed that one up big time not too long into its history. I would rather not keep repeating that error. Again, naturally, that makes Memorial Day Sunday in most southern Baptist Churches somewhat uncomfortable.
At the same time, however, I do not sit as a mumbling cynical critic in the back row of church looking down on people for wanting to honor the men and women who die for their country. The families and friends of those people who have died have gone through a lot of pain. Veterans deal with more suffering and trauma than I could ever imagine. To neglect or shun either of those groups is contrary to the teaching of Jesus and is just wrong. They need support and love more than most of us sometimes, especially on Memorial Day. We ought to be there for them and love them as God would love them.
However, I refuse to condone violence and celebrate war. I do not dismiss the sacrifice of men and women. I do not disdain their efforts. I do not despise the pain they have endured. However, I think it must be possible to honor the sacrifice without celebrating the war. After all, the Christian response to threats, to violence, to wars, and to enemies is not more threats, violence, and war. The Christian’s response is prayer and love, as Jesus taught us. That is not what our federal holiday celebrates and endorses (honestly, it would strike me as odd if it did). Nevertheless, these ethics are supposed to be central to the mission and vision of the Church. What are we to do with that?
I think the answer lies with the special ecclesial day with which this Memorial Day weekend happened to coincide. On the Western Calendar, today is the Church’s birthday! (Cue music.) It’s Pentecost! You know, that day when the fiery tongues came down in the middle of a hurricane and made people speak in different languages. Many evangelical congregations do not talk about that one much unless it is to debate about the precise meaning of glossolalia. So, I think it would be interesting to see in how many of our churches this Sunday Pentecost got less screen time than Memorial Day. The fact that we let a federal holiday overshadow our holy day might be part of our problem.
You see, Pentecost provides a very different picture of the world than Memorial Day.
The American holiday typically enshrines values like safety, security, and freedom. They find those values and preserve them by sending American men and women around the world as part of the armed forces. The narrative goes somewhat like this: the world is safe and secure for you and me because he have armies all over the place and we would live in a very different world without the freedoms we enjoy if this were not the case. There would be little hope for us.
Now, consider the story of the Acts of the Apostles: Jesus ascends to heaven, promising to send the Holy Spirit. His followers received said Spirit while gathered in an upper room wondering what Jesus was talking about. These people get up and start preaching and people from different nations all around the world can understand them. Peter stands up and begins to preach and thousands join this new movement. Then, the apostles go around Jerusalem healing people and performing miracles. The municipal authorities tell them to stop and even threaten them. How do they respond? More preaching! Then, the burgeoning religious movement begins taking care of each other sharing their possessions when there were needs and insecurities.
So, for the apostles and the first Christians: They found safety before God alone. They found security in each other. They found freedom proclaiming what they had seen and heard. Their response to violence was preaching. Their response to insecurity was giving. Their response to oppression was healing.
That is an entirely different paradigm than the American mindset. I do not mean to cast aspersions, ridicule, shame, or demean soldiers, veterans, or their family and friends. However, I think that our Scriptures present a different way of dealing with things than the United States. How different do you think the world would be if the Church responded like the first apostles to violence and insecurity? How different would our communities be if our individual congregations and parishes started acting this way? Would we live in a different world if we actually celebrated Pentecost? I would like to think so.
This Pentecost, then, let us try to remember where we come from and see if it helps us where we’re going.
Almighty God, kindle, we pray, in every heart the true love of peace and guide your Church in being a peaceable people. Please give us the Spirit of the apostles that we might give to each other not counting the cost. Please give us special direction today to care for those men, women, and children affected by war and violence. Please help us to give them all the love that we can, loving them like you do. Grant us security not with swords and shields but that safety that comes under the shadow of your wings; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
This week is a pivotal one on the United States’s calendar. In 1776, this so-called ‘great experiment’ was begun. A group of determined individuals sat down and one of them penned a statement that made revolutionary claims about the human condition and, consequently, human governance. ”We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” reads the Declaration of Independence, “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” What kind of statement is this one? I spent a week in June at Samford University working at the Great Ideas Summer Institute talking about these ideas. There are several problematic questions raised by just this sentence, we discovered.
Who is “we”? Nowadays, Americans like to romanticize it and think that it refers to every person in the United States, all Americans, but that is simply not the historical case. There were dissenters and royalists, first of all, but there were also legions of women, slaves, and minorities who could not be included in this seemingly all-inclusive “we.”
What does it mean for something to be “self-evident”? Who declares what is and sis not self-evident? If there are such self-evident truths, why do they need to be declared again and again … and again? The self-evidence of the truths purported in the Declaration remain the American ideal (at least, that is the hope), but it is one of which Americans must continuously remind themselves. Why? Because, at least from looking at American history, they do not appear to be so obvious.
What does it mean to be “created equal”? Such a claim runs contrary to significant streams of Western thought. Plato himself would have scoffed at such an idea, and his influence upon Western thought looms undeniably large. When certain people possess different degrees of ability in many different areas (the most disturbing of which is the intellect), how are we supposed to call them created equal? Equality does not seem to be self-evident. From where does its grounding and support come? Where is the basis for such governance?
Is it in these “certain unalienable rights”? Where does such a claim originate? It is easy to appeal to some holy text or divinity to support such a claim (as Jefferson to his deist “Creator”), but our current condition does not seem to allow for that. The rejection of the metanarrative leaves us in a tight spot, so to speak. What does this document (or a later descendant, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) mean if we have no authority to back it up? When authority lies in the “consent of the governed, where do rights reside? Hannah Arendt aptly points out that if these rights are devised from the hands of human beings, what is to stop their creators from taking them away?
Those kind of rights are far from “unalienable.” Read the rest of this entry