Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Phil Zuckerman: Jesus wants you to vote Democratic

Pastor Phil is ready to
It is common for skeptics to argue that Christians betray the teachings of Jesus.  Our own pastors often tell us the same thing, and Jesus himself could be pretty hard on his disciples. I find some such sermons irritatingly self-righteous, though, especially from a preacher who forgets he's not Jesus.  Here I'll dissect one from the increasingly popular sociologist Philip Zuckerman, an atheist whose papers on how much better secular European societies are, compared to the more religious and supposedly backwards United States have spread like wildfire among the Gnu blogoscenti.  This article (co-authored by one Dan Cady, an historian in the California State system) was written last year, but seems especially relevant in the present campaign season -- as, I hope, will be the skeptical comments I append to it. -- DM

"Why Evangelicals Hate Jesus"
Posted: 03/ 3/11 10:06 AM ET

The results from a recent poll published by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reveal what social scientists have known for a long time: White Evangelical Christians are the group least likely to support politicians or policies that reflect the actual teachings of Jesus.

Well, glad we have that straight! 

But follow the link, and the poll actually does not even mention Jesus.  A professor of sociology would have every right to send a sophomore student into the corner with an inverted cone over her head for this sort of sleight-of-hand.

It is perhaps one of the strangest, most dumb-founding ironies in contemporary American culture. Evangelical Christians, who most fiercely proclaim to have a personal relationship with Christ, who most confidently declare their belief that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, who go to church on a regular basis, pray daily, listen to Christian music, and place God and His Only Begotten Son at the center of their lives, are simultaneously the very people most likely to reject his teachings and despise his radical message.

And that would be? 

Jesus unambiguously preached mercy and forgiveness. These are supposed to be cardinal virtues of the Christian faith. And yet Evangelicals are the most supportive of the death penalty, draconian sentencing, punitive punishment over rehabilitation, and the governmental use of torture.

What did Jesus say about the death penalty?  (Which he suffered.)  What are the specific guidelines Jesus or other biblical authorities laid out for sentencing of, say, child abusers? 

Zuckerman is playing a game, here.  He ignores the "whole council of God" as laid out in the Bible, with Jesus as its interpretive focus.  Rather (and Gandhi did this too), he picks and chooses a few pithy "sound bites."  Even these he doesn't take in the strict sense, but extracts general rules of behavior from concrete, specific commands. 

Strictly speaking (and professional academics ought to speak strictly, because they know how, and why accuracy and nuance are important), Jesus didn't teach "forgiveness" in a general sense.  Rather, he told his disciples to:

Forgive your enemies. 

He also taught them to pray:

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

And praying from the cross himself, he gave an example of doing just that:

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing. 

At first glance, this may seem to support Zuckerman's gloss on Jesus' teachings.  But actually, Jesus' teachings are much more profound, reasonable, and spiritually healing than are Zuckerman's gloss on them.  Consider two situations:

(a) Nazis have imprisoned you, your sister, and your father. like Corrie ten Boom.  They mistreated you, so that your father and sister both died.  After the war you meet one of those very Nazi guards who had abused you, and he asks for forgiveness.  You find you still loath the man.  You ask God for help, extend your hand in forgiveness, then feel the love of God course through you. 

(b) You are a judge at Nuremburg.  You are asked to decide the case of  Hermann Goring, number two man in the Nazi Party.  Should he die, or should he live?  In the latter case, should he live out his days in prison, or be set free? 

Which of these cases is more like the example Jesus gave of "forgiveness?"  Obviously, the first. In the first case, the "enemy" is one's own real enemy, someone who has wronged you individually.  You have been given no duty to the people to judge his crime.  And forgiveness consists of chosing to verbally and physically express acceptance, and then an emotional feeling follows. 

How about the following case? 

(c) Your daughter is found cheating on her chemistry test at school.  She apologizes. 

What does "forgiveness" mean in this case?  What would Jesus do?  I don't think the answer is that clear.  Jesus never told parents they should not punish children when they do wrong, nor is that implied by the citations above. 

So Zuckerman is being a clumsy, perhaps intentionally careless exegete.  Jesus taught "forgiveness," yes, but that does not mean everything that might conceivably be called forgiveness, must therefore be enacted by his faithful followers.

Jesus also recognize the legitimacy of government punishing wrong-doing.  He never spoke against punishment in general, or against capital punishment, still less against (or for) spanking.  For me to forgive my enemies does not mean that a Christian can never rightly kill the enemy of his nation in war.  (See C. S. Lewis' "Why I am not a Pacifist.")  Nor does it mean a mother cannot ground her daughter for cheating in a test at school.  It no doubt means more than just, "Suppress angry feelings against your enemy."  It means choosing to love him or her.  But for those in authority, love must include lawful and measured punishment of wrong-doers, and even fighting against enemy soldiers in time of war. 

The root difficulty, for Zuckerman and Cady, seems to lie in their a priori expectation that Christian ethical teaching must be simple.  They don't even address the knotty questions that the Biblical tradition subtly deals with, implicitly as well as explicitly, in interpretting Jesus' words. This comes, perhaps, of a fundamental lack of respect for a tradition of which they are not a part, or perhaps a failture to think these issues through seriously.

Did the government of Norway "forgive" Anders Breivik?  Does that mean letting him go?  Not yet.  Apparently not even Scandinavian countries are that "progressive." 

Jesus exhorted humans to be loving, peaceful, and non-violent.

Here again, abstract nouns replace Jesus' more concrete teachings, and the complexity of life and duties becomes a superficial gloss.  Jesus warned those who live by the sword, that they would die by the sword, true, but he also told his disciples to arm themselves in self-defense.  (Admittedly, he seemed to feel Peter took this advice too literally.)  In a violent world, in other words, even if we turn the other cheek over personal offenses, there is no use pretending that all choices are obvious and disarmament is always the moral choice. 

And yet Evangelicals are the group of Americans most supportive of easy-access weaponry, little-to-no regulation of handgun and semi-automatic gun ownership, not to mention the violent military invasion of various countries around the world.

Personally, I don't care much about the "right to bare arms" debate.  As an American, I recognize this as part of our Constitution, though no doubt reasonable regulations are not inconsistent with the freedom the authors of the Constitution envisioned.  Having looked briefly, and with little interest, at the raw data, it seems ambiguous to me: I honestly don't know whether legal gun ownership saves or kills more innocent lives.  As a Christian, if someone threatened a member of my family with death, I expect I might protect them with lethal force, and have little trouble justifying that act biblically.  I respect Gandhi: but given the Nazis, thank God for General Paton. 

Both the German attack on Poland in 1939, and the allied landing at Normandy five years later, can be called "violent."  Which goes to show how vacuous Zuckerman's "moral stance" really is: as adults, we still need to ask tough questions. 

Not all gate-crashing is
equal; Nazi troops crossing the
frontier into Poland.
Was the invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq justified?  This is a complex matter, to which simply calling it a "violent military invasion" hardly does justice.  One thing any honest person ought to admit: it was certainly quite unlike the German invasion of Poland. Christians and other serious people have been weighing such difficult moral dilemnas for millennia: it does no good for eminent academics to inform us now that they are all really very simple, and divide up white and black hats accordingly. 

Jesus was very clear that the pursuit of wealth was inimical to the Kingdom of God, that the rich are to be condemned, and that to be a follower of Him means to give one's money to the poor.

Again, Zuckerman simply chooses by fiat to take a few passages out of context, and ignore the complexity of Scripture and of life. 

Jesus met many rich people whom he did not condemn.  Some he even praised.  Nor did he tell them all to give all their money to the poor. 

And yet Evangelicals are the most supportive of corporate greed and capitalistic excess, and they are the most opposed to institutional help for the nation's poor -- especially poor children.

Actually, Arthur Brooks shows that serious Christians left and right are far more generous with their wealth -- such as it is -- than are Zuckerman's fellow atheists.  Committed believers tend to give five times as much in charity than do those who never attend worship services.  Furthermore, they are also more generous with their time and even blood.  This applies to both the Right and Left, but since more Christians are conservative, it turns out that conservatives are far more generous than are liberals, overall. 

But of course the "institution" Zuckerman refers to, here, is government.  Whether out of charity, or a concern to accurately represent opposing opinions -- also supposed to be a virtue in academia -- Zuckerman ought to try to understand the position he is criticizing. 

We conservatives think government largesse tends to HARM the poor, by encouraging a mindset of dependency.  We also think extravagent spending, such as the federal government has been increasingly engaged in for some time, now, harms the nation as a whole, and also the world, which benefits from a fiscally-sound, prosperous, and powerful America. 

No one wants to hurt poor children.  The question is how best to help them.  We contend that Nanny-State policies not only don't work, but are counter-productive. 

What is the evidence for that? 

In a word, Detroit. 

Or in two words, New Orleans.

Or in three words, Washington, D. C.

We do believe in "institutional help for poor children."  We just think an intact family unit should be the primary institution providing that help, and that government policies often undermine families.  And I think that the Church ought to be the second institution to come alongside and help out -- both with proper government supervision, to weed out abusers.  I am not at all opposed to "institutional help," but I do think the balance of institutions that provide help tends to be a little top-heavy, right now. 

Sometimes the government may need to provide the poor with basic services, when other institutions fail.  But government is at least as liable to failure on this front, and probably less likely to do a really bang-up job. 

They hate anything that smacks of "socialism," even though that is essentially what their Savior preached.

Again, a highly simplistic read.  It is also anachronistic: what we mean by socialism today, was unknown in the 1st Century.  One might as well say when Jesus said, "Where the body lies, the vultures gather," he was rebuking the Eskimo practice of wrapping the dead in a cariboo hide to keep it from carnivores, instead favoring Tibetan "sky burial."  Jesus never taught "socialism," or anything that resembles what we mean by the word.  He taught generosity, charity, kindness, and self-sacrificial giving to those in need.  The Good Samaritan didn't call 911 or lobby for more police: he helped the mugging victim personally, out of his own pocket. 

Again, of course that's no argument against government first-responders, specialists who have proven their value in modern society.  But Jesus never advocated "socialism." 

And why, a few decades after such horrors at the National Socialist Party and Marxist "socialist" parties inflicted on the world, should anyone with historical sense object if our skin crawls at the sound of the word? 

They despise food stamp programs, subsidies for schools, hospitals, job training -- anything that might dare to help out those in need.

This is a bizarre allegation.  Most evangelicals I know went to school somewhere, some (including myself) for many years. 

We're supposed to "despite" subsidies for schools?  What does that mean, when most schools in the country are public schools, and most of us go to them? 

And as Zuckerman ought to know, a large percentage of the world's hospitals were started by zealous Christians.  In Taiwan, in which only some 2% of the people are Christian, large Christian hospitals served as important landmarks by which (when I lived there) people oriented themselves.  My wife, growing up Buddhist in Japan, went to Christian schools, as do millions of other non-Christian kids.  Many great American universities, too, were started by Christians, and Christians remain zealously committed to education.  One is tempted to ask, what is Zuckerman smoking? 

What he probably means is, some conservatives think local governmet should run local schools, rather than large federal agencies.  Also, some conservatives look amiss at liberal or (I have seen it) anti-Christian indoctrination in some schools. 

But as with the words of Jesus, he seems to be badly misrepresenting their views.  If anyone actually does oppose these things, then like most politically conservative Christians, of course I would find that troubling, too. 

Even though helping out those in need was exactly what Jesus urged humans to do.

And his followers have changed the world in remarkable ways by following his example, to some extent. 

What's the deal?

Indeed.  What is the deal with Dr. Philip Zuckerman? 

Before attempting an answer, allow a quick clarification. Evangelicals don't exactly hate Jesus -- as we've provocatively asserted in the title of this piece. They do love him dearly. But not because of what he tried to teach humanity. Rather, Evangelicals love Jesus for what he does for them. Through his magical grace, and by shedding his precious blood, Jesus saves Evangelicals from everlasting torture in hell, and guarantees them a premium, luxury villa in heaven. For this, and this only, they love him. They can't stop thanking him. And yet, as for Jesus himself -- his core values of peace, his core teachings of social justice, his core commandments of goodwill -- most Evangelicals seem to have nothing but disdain.

Now I'm tempted to respond with a measure of sarcasm, myself.  You mean, Jesus' core value of "Pork to the labor unions, throw billions at anything that claims to be green, abort it till the moment of birth, then tax the baby in perpetuity to pay for massive government debt?"  Those core teachings of Jesus?  They're in the Bible, somewhere, just like conception-to-cradle abortion rights are in the Constitution, somewhere.    

But that might not be fair to my liberal Christian friends, who do give generously, like their conservative brothers and sisters -- some of them very generously. 

After an overwrought and largely imaginary (though not entirely: some of his complaints echo the sins Philip Yancey chronicles so well) history of the American evangelical church, Zuckerman then concludes with the following two paragraphs:

In addition to such historical developments, there may very well simply be an underlying, all-too-human social-psychological process at root . . .  religion is one big Rorschach test. People . . . see in their faith what they want to see as they live their daily lives, and simultaneously ignore the rest. And as is the case for most White Evangelical Christians, what they are ignoring is actually the very heart and soul of Jesus's message -- a message that emphasizes sharing, not greed. Peace-making, not war-mongering. Love, not violence.

Of course, conservative Americans have every right to support corporate greed, militarism, gun possession, and the death penalty, and to oppose welfare, food stamps, health care for those in need, etc. -- it is just strange and contradictory when they claim these positions as somehow "Christian." They aren't.

Like other Gnus, Zuckerman sometimes does hit on the truth, in his eagerness to criticize American Christians.  Perhaps, for some Christians, and for some conservatives, such criticisms are valid.  Certainly, while in general I support the freedoms granted in the Constitution, I do feel uneasy when I see a Christian bumper sticker and an enthusiastic endorsement of gun rights on the same bumper sticker.  Surely the "right to bare arms" would not be high on Jesus' list of priorities.   

But it seems strange when secular humanists like Phil Zuckerman purportsto tell us what Christians ought to believe.  It seems even stranger that he uncritically, and with little attempt to locate any legitimate values on the other side, conflates Democratic rhetoric pure and simply with the teachings of Jesus.

Love?  Yes, that is the core of the Christian life, whatever else we claim to live by.  Is the misrepresentation of those who disagree really what one can call love, though?  "Love hopes all things, love believes all things."  Isn't it possible that Christian conservatives really do see a genuine problem with $16 trillion in federal debt, or in millions of abortions, or in the fact that tens of millions of children no longer know what the word "Daddy" means?  Is it not even possible that the military check on tyrants that Pax Americana has provided over the past 70 years, has done the world some genuine good, in fact saved lives and preserved freedoms? 

No one denies that the poor need health care.  Some of us, in fact, are concerned by the possibility that Obamacare will make it much harder for the poor to obtain good health care.  Zuckerman makes it easy to exorcise his moral outrage, by simply ignoring such difficult questions, contrary arguments, and troubling data. 

Postscript: Dr. Zuckerman has just kindly agreed to publicly debate the role of the Bible in society with me.  The tone of his responses give me hope that the debate will be substantive, civil, and reasonable, and therefore worth listening to.  I'll keep readers updated. -- DM


C. Andiron said...

Uh, *ANDERS* Breivik, not Hans.

Crude said...

This is great news, David. I look forward to seeing your efforts here.

And great article as ever.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks, Andiron. Yes, of course -- I wrote a long blog on the man, and still forgot.

Crude said...

A few quick responses of my own to a few of Zuckerman's claims.

Jesus exhorted humans to be loving, peaceful, and non-violent. And yet Evangelicals are the group of Americans most supportive of easy-access weaponry, little-to-no regulation of handgun and semi-automatic gun ownership, not to mention the violent military invasion of various countries around the world.

The belief that people should have access to weapons for self-defense (whether on a personal or civil scale) does not at all contradict being loving, peaceful and non-violent, anymore than learning a martial art in and of itself makes a person violent.

And yet Evangelicals are the most supportive of corporate greed and capitalistic excess, and they are the most opposed to institutional help for the nation's poor -- especially poor children.

What Evangelicals are supportive of 'greed and capitalistic excess'? Again, Zuckerman seems to think that a person being wealthy in and of itself means they must be greedy and excessive. Does a wealthy government mean that the government is greedy? I have a suspicion Zuckerman would insist no, because it depends on the government's policies. Well, then it depends on the personal actions of the wealthy.

They hate anything that smacks of "socialism," even though that is essentially what their Savior preached.

You've already been over this, but really, this is an insane extrapolation. 'Give to the poor' does not cash out to 'take up arms and take money from people who have it - if they resist, jail them'. Christ appealed first and foremost to individuals, not governments.

It's as if the very idea of individuals acting rather than governments is invisible to Zuckerman.

religion is one big Rorschach test

It is. What Zuckerman doesn't realize is that he too is taking the test. The results aren't encouraging.