August 1, 2010

What happens when your professed beliefs are opposite of how you act?

Greg's great posts continue with this one and this great sentence:
"Schaefferites use the vocabulary of Christianity with the grammar of Straussian politics."

I am reading Jackson Lears Rebirth of a Nation and the two first chapters have spurred thought in this direction. His first is about the American embrace of the redemptive nature of violence, which is a troubling historical theme in American history. I was stunned to read of a historian from the late 1880s, writing about the Pequot war, who noted--as Lears put it--that "when fighting savages, one had to fight savagely." Of course, I could not read that line and not think about the conservative defense of torture.

His second chapter, though, gets into that very American theme of greed and opportunity, and Lears points to the central contradiction between the core American Protestant beliefs and the engine of capitalism. After all, frugality, hard work, and self-sufficiency were not inherently compatible with speculative capitalism, or the magic of making money out of simply money--not out of some hard physical labor. Here, it seems was the quintessential conflict between the supposed Christian beliefs (if the blood soaked Civil War had not already raised that, btw) and the engine of the future. Rockefeller himself claimed that God had given him his money, but his entire economic fortune was built on deceit and manipulation. His partner's motto? "Do unto others as they would do unto you--and do it first."

Not Christian.

And there is the contradiction I continue to struggle with. Whereas many of my blog friends have simply walked away from Christianity--and I respect that, btw--I am unable to do so. I still believe in some deep idea of morality and principle--the phrase "WWJD" annoyed me because of the obvious market manipulation, but the idea was a valid and poignant one. (One, that clearly, the WWJD bracelet wearers who voted for Bush's torture didn't even see.)

Reading this book reminds me of so many current issues. Christians cheering war while waving the Bible. Or the unbelievable manipulation and moral vacuousness of the recent market scams that nearly brought our economy down. Nothing moral about it, but we are a long way from where our conservative Christian community could criticize in strong terms such immorality. Christianity and capitalism have become so intertwined that I dare say they can't see where one ends and the other begins. This, of course, is also not new, as the "Man Nobody Knows" of the 1920s detailed the Christ as capitalist lion tamer.

But the fact that it isn't new doesn't help. It seems to have so filtered into society that modern Christians somehow could confuse basic capitalist beliefs with the teachings of Christ.

Hell, I don't know what to believe any longer. But I know that this level of contradiction is hard to sustain.



Smitty said...

In my own struggles with faith, I have created two categories. This post touches on the one my brain calls "It's not so much God that I have a problem with as it is modern Christianity."

What sickens me the most is guys like Joel Osteen and the hoax that is the "Word Faith Church." These are the guys who preach that to be rich financially means you are blessed by God, and that to be poor or sick is not only in an of itself a sin but is also brought by sin. I just can't abide by any of that sentiment.

This WaPo article sums up what I really believe is harmful about the so-called "prosperity gospel," and I honestly can't do any better than this excerpt:

"Nowhere has the prosperity gospel flourished more than among the poor and the working class. Told that wealth is a sign of God's grace and favor, followers strive for trappings of luxury they can little afford in an effort to prove that they are blessed spiritually."

I blew a gasket when my mother-in-law, whom I love and respect and have a great relationship with, had an Osteen book on her coffee table. m She was in a weird place at the time, so by "blew a gasket" I certainly didn't rip her ears off. But we had a long discussion about the nature of self-help books.

Granted, I have never once been to Mass and heard a priest preach the "prosperity gospel." But the Word Faith church and this sort of evangelical bent is no minority within the Christian community. Those big-box megachurches aren't catholic or presbyterian...

If a millenium or two of catholic complacency in Europe has lead to religion-tending-towards-agnosticism, I'll take that any day over the materialistic money-making business that the American church has become.

Monk-in-Training said...

I live in the epicenter of the Word/Faith movement here in Tulsa, OK. I can tell you that these beliefs have permeated most Churches here that are not sealed off from the general culture.

That being said, I also know LOTS of younger people who are rejecting this mishmash of capitalism/gnosticism/Christianity, and seeking the Christ of the Gospels and letting go of the signs of prosperity that have bankrupted their parents.