At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Christianity and its “New” Critics

posted by Jack Kerwick

The world’s largest religious tradition has had more than its share of critics over the centuries.  A not inconsiderable number of these have been men and women (but mostly men) of genius.  And the brightest and most constructive of critics have tended to be Christ’s own disciples.

That popular funny man and political leftist Bill Maher, along with his millions of fans, think that this low brow comedian deserves to be included among the ranks of Christianity’s ablest objectors is a tragic commentary on the condition of our culture’s collective intellect.

The saddest thing about all of this—and I see it regularly among my college students—is that most people who either explicitly reject Christianity or refuse to treat it with the utmost seriousness that it warrants do not have a clue as to what it is.

Christianity looks ridiculous only after it has been made to look ridiculous.  In other words, High priests of the popular culture, pseudo-intellectuals like Maher, cheat: they attack, not Christianity itself, but a one-dimensional, cartoonish caricature of it.  Socrates would have likened Maher and his ilk to shadow boxers who prefer to swing at the air rather than contend with a real opponent.

Considering that at no time or place has there ever existed an intellectual tradition as rich and complex as that of Christianity, we should expect nothing less—and nothing more—from lightweights like Maher.  If they didn’t have straw men they would have nothing.

But it isn’t just theological and philosophical illiterates like Maher who style themselves worthy adversaries of the Christian faith.  Such public intellectuals as the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins have also jockeyed for this distinction—but to no avail.

Despite the popular acclaim with which the intelligentsia greeted them, the critiques of Harris and Dawkins are indebted to a worldview that is as antiquated as Christianity appears to be to them.  Though both men are scientists, the problem lies not in their science, but in their scientism.  The latter is the doctrine that all claims to knowledge can and should be brought before the tribunal of “the scientific method.”  Those claims and only those claims that satisfy this absolute criterion constitute genuine knowledge. 

Scientism collapses the variety of human voices into one voice, the voice of science or pseudo-science. 

But scientism, in turn, is a species of Rationalism, an intellectual orientation that reached its zenith during the Enlightenment. 

In other words, the ideas of Harris and Dawkins, far from reflecting some ideal of objective (and timeless) truth, are in reality a function of the prejudices—indeed, the myths—of an age.

Hitchens is no better. 

Though neither a scientist nor a proponent of scientism, this arrogant Englishman was as ignorant as Harris and Dawkins of the fact that the assumptions on which his atheistic critique of Christianity rests bear the unmistakable impress of his generation.  Moreover, the content of his critique consists of the recycling of arguments that had been thrown up against Christianity for centuries—but by men whose minds were far more discriminate than that of his own.

There exist intelligent objections against Christianity.  But they come largely (if not exclusively) from its adherents.  This is a paradox but it is true.  As Saint Augustine famously said: “Believe in order to understand.”  Only those who are thoroughly immersed in a practice or tradition know all of its nuances.  It is only they who know it inside and out. 

Hence, it is only Christians, when they are intellectually curious and honest, who can at once identify the challenges that their religion faces and meet those challenges.

The “new” atheists mentioned here are as competent to adequately critique, much less undermine, Christianity—or any religion, for that matter—as is a person who has never been married eligible to do the same with respect to marriage.     

 

 

 

 

 

Religion and Politics

posted by Jack Kerwick

Mitt Romney is now the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee.  Mitt is also a Mormon.  There has already been much talk over whether this last fact should be of any relevance to his bid for the presidency.  A shocking number of people—it seems like most—think that Romney’s religious commitments should be off limits for discussion.

It shocks that so many Americans think this; it does not surprise. 

In fact, we should expect that the children of the Age of “Judeo-Christian values,” “American Exceptionalism,” and the like should speak as though all faiths were at once interchangeable as well as immaterial to politics.

The concept of “Judeo-Christian values” is a useful fiction that, in conflating Judaism with Christianity, essentially denies both.  “American Exceptionalism” is no less a fiction, but a particularly invidious one, for on its behalf, countless numbers of human beings around the world have lost their lives in America’s quest to promote Democracy and Human Rights.

Religion, if it is real, should make every difference vis-à-vis every aspect of a person’s life. 

This, of course, doesn’t mean that any given politician’s religious commitments will necessarily conflict with his commitment to the Constitution.  His faith may even require that, either as an American citizen or an office holder, he uphold it.

Or it may be silent on the question of politics.

In any case, a genuinely religious person can’t but be offended at the suggestion that his religiosity (or anyone’s, for that matter) can or should be bracketed off to one side when he enters the political (or any) arena. 

This brings us back to Mitt Romney.

If Romney takes his Mormon faith seriously, then it is only upon pain of lying that he could deny his faith a central role in making him the person—and the candidate—who he is. 

Yet consistency calls on Romney’s critics to acknowledge that if Romney’s faith is fair game, then so is that of Barack Obama. 

The linchpin to discovering what makes Obama tick is Jeremiah Wright, his pastor and “spiritual adviser” and “mentor” of over twenty years. 

Obama had donated thousands and thousands of dollars to Wright’s church.  He arranged for Wright to officiate at his wedding service and to baptize his children. Such was Wright’s influence over Obama’s thought that our President entitled his second memoir after one of Wright’s sermons, a sermon within which the pixilated parson waxed indignant over his belief that “white folks’ greed runs a world in need.” 

There are only two kinds of people who think that Obama’s worldview is not essentially that of Wrights: those who won’t think or those who can’t think. 

To elaborate, either those who know nothing of either religion or politics or those who know nothing of religion could sincerely believe that twenty-plus years under Wright’s tutelage didn’t exert a tremendous influence over Obama. 

So, yes, the faiths of Romney and Obama should be placed under a microscope this election season. 

If Americans can transcend their racial fears and irrationalities, they will discover in no time that for all of its problems, it isn’t Romney’s Mormonism that threatens our secular government, but the Black Liberation Theology (BLT) that Obama imbibed from Wright.  Recall, according to BLT, “the greed” of “white folks” rules over “a world in need.” The God of BLT is a deity who allies itself with blacks—or Blacks—over whites.

This is the theology on which America’s 44th president was reared. 

Let’s look at Romney’s Mormonism.  But let us also inspect, for the first time, really, Obama’s Black Liberation Theology. 

Rest assured, while neither presidential candidate will much look forward to having his religious history examined, the President will be far more averse to such an inquiry than will be his rival. 

 

 

Rethinking “Patriotism”

posted by Jack Kerwick

This weekend is Memorial Day weekend.

This morning, on Bill Bennett’s nationally syndicated radio program, his substitute host exchanged reflections upon the significance of patriotism with a fellow from the Claremont Review of Books.  I didn’t catch the latter’s name. In any event, though, it’s not relevant, for his view, as well as that of the host’s, is the prevailing view of patriotism.

We are all familiar with it: the American patriot loves his country because of the principles, the ideals, on which it was founded and for which it stands.  The American soldier—the most heroic and admirable figure, from this perspective—fights first and foremost to protect and preserve the liberty of people everywhere. 

To put it simply, American patriotism is primarily about defending, not the rights of Americans, but human rights. The American patriot, you see, is “a citizen of the world.” And the American soldier, as Ron Paul once said, is “the Universal Soldier.”

This account, however fashionable, faces insurmountable problems.  It produces particularly acute problems for the self-avowed conservative.

First, since the American patriot’s is a devotion to principle, he may find himself obligated to side with other countries against his own!  This will most certainly be the case if, at any given time, there are non-Americans throughout the world whose commitment to his ideals waxes as that of Americans appears to wane.

It is the universal principle that matters morally.  That any country—including America—happens to affirm these principles is incidental. 

Second, the popular view of patriotism is of a piece with a view of morality generally that, however common, fails spectacularly to resonate with us on a personal level. 

If patriotism requires commitment to universal principles, this is because morality demands commitment to universal principles.  Make no mistakes about it: this is exactly the understanding of morality underwriting the dominant position on patriotism.  But if morality consists in the observance of universal principles like “human rights,” then one of two things follow.

Either the partiality that we have toward our spouses, our friends, and our families is beyond the moral realm altogether, or it is actually immoral.  There is no way to avoid this conclusion.  Any morality affirming universal principles requires impartiality.  In glaring contrast, the intimate relationships from which we derive our identities—“the little platoons,” as Burke described them—require partiality.   

Thus, either patriotism is a moral fiction or our “little platoons” are. 

Finally, the most outspoken and impassioned defenders of the current view of patriotism are self-declared “conservatives.”  As such, they talk tirelessly about “limited government,” “constitutionalism,” and liberty.  But their understanding of American patriotism undercuts this talk.

The United States military is an organ of the federal government.  Soldiers, then, are as much agents of the government as are tax collectors and politicians.  However, as radio talk show host Dennis Prager—an unabashed proponent of the view of patriotism under discussion—has said often, “the larger the government, the smaller the citizen.” 

A government—and military—that is expected to oversee the interests of 300-plus million American citizens must already be larger than any that the Founders could have envisioned.  A government with a military that is expected to defend “the rights” of the globe’s six billion or so inhabitants is a monstrosity from which they would have recoiled in horror.

This Memorial Day weekend, let us rethink the prevailing orthodoxy regarding patriotism.

 

Black and Conservative: George S. Schuyler, Apostle of Liberty

posted by Jack Kerwick

George S. Schuyler, a black cultural critic, was among the greatest popular writers that twentieth centuryAmerica had produced.  A particularly astute observer of political circumstances generally and race relations in particular, a staggering array of the nation’s most well known publications from across the ideological and racial spectrums eagerly sought his services for over five decades.

Yet today, Schuyler is scarcely mentioned at all.  Those who either weren’t around from the 1920’s through the 1970’s (when he died) or whose memory span is short wouldn’t even know his name.

While this is a tragedy, it is no mystery.

Schuyler pitted himself against those of his contemporaries, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, who have since achieved iconic status.  This, in large measure, is what accounts for the painful fact that the self-appointed guardians of our Politically Correct orthodoxy have sought to erase them from their official histories.

But while Schuyler’s relentless criticism of such famed “racially correct” heroes as King and Malcolm X accounts for the treatment that he has been accorded, it is crucial to grasp that his critiques were informed by his conservatism.

In fact, so unabashed was Schuyler regarding his politics that he entitled his autobiography Black and Conservative.

Schuyler opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The previous year, he penned his case against it.  “A proliferation of largely unenforceable legislation has everywhere been characteristic of political immaturity,” Schuyler wrote.  Being a relatively “young nation,”America particularly has been disposed toward “enacting laws regulating social conduct,” legislation that is more a function of “politics” than “statesmanship.”  Politicians pass laws “without too much attention to consideration of how and at what cost they are to be enforced [.]”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 would prove to be but the latest attempt to “make people better by force” (emphasis original).  This enterprise, however, “has been the cause of much misery and injustice throughout the ages.”

Schuyler is quick to condemn the attitude of the white majority toward “the so-called Negro” as “morally wrong, nonsensical, unfair, un-Christian and cruelly unjust”; still, he is just as quick to note, the fact of the matter is that this position “remains the majority attitude” (emphasis original). 

Schuyler’s condemnation of whites’ view of blacks is not unqualified, though.  “Anybody who has observed race relations during the past quarter of a century,” he remarks, “knows” that the white majority’s view of blacks “has been progressively modified [.]”  And while “changes have been very slow since 1865,” there can be no denying that they have been “marked [.]”  Moreover, “civil rights laws, state or federal, have had little to do with it,” for legislation has “been enforced and accepted only when the dominant majority acquiesced….”  Otherwise, it has “generally lain dormant in the law books.” 

In short, it is “custom,” most decidedly not law, that “has dictated the pace” of improving race relations.

Unlike his leftist rivals, the Kings and the Malcolms, Schuyler resolutely eschews the ideology of Blackism, an ideology according to which racial “reality” begins and ends with a severely truncated—and politicized—version of American history.   Central to Blackism is a meta-narrative of perpetual White Oppression and Black Suffering.  Schuyler, recognizing this “history” for the useful political fiction that it is, rejects it in favor of a genuinely historical—and global—perspective.

American whites should not be judged along the lines of some perfectionist—and, thus, wholly unattainable—standard.  They should, rather, be judged against the backdrop of other flesh and blood beings.  And when they are judged by this standard, they look pretty damn commendable.

“It might be said here parenthetically that nowhere else on earth has the progress of a dissimilar racial minority been so marked in education, housing, health, voting and economic well-being” as that of blacks in whiteAmerica. “Not one of the foreign countries whose spokesmen criticize and excoriate the United States can equal its record in dealing with a minority group,” Schuyler declares.

All of this notwithstanding, in the concluding paragraph of his brief against the Civil Rights bill, Schuyler clarifies that his “principal case against” it is an argument from liberty.  The law would be but “another encroachment by the central government on the federalized structure of our society.”  He asserts: “Armed with this law enacted to improve the lot of a tenth of the population, the way will be opened to enslave the rest of the populace.” 

This is no stretch.

“Under such a law the individual everywhere” will be “told what he must do and what he cannot do, regardless of the laws and ordinances of his state or community” (emphasis added).  Yet “this is a blow at the very basis of American society,” a society “founded on state sovereignty and individual liberty and preference.” 

Schuyler concludes: “We are fifty separate countries, as it were, joined together for mutual advantage, security, advancement, and protection.  It was never intended that we should be bossed by a monarch, elected or born.  When this happens, the United States as a free land will cease to exist.” 

The rhetoric of other “civil rights ‘leaders’” aside, the honest person, black or white—but especially white—can’t help but suspect that in far too many instances, such activists want to advance the interests of blacks—particularly themselves—at the expense of racial good will. 

With Schuyler, such suspicions could never arise.  He was not only a great black American, but a great American, a real apostle of liberty.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 

 

 

 

 

 

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