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Monday, December 30

God and Caesar and Americans

"Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's."
-- Jesus Christ

Last year around this time I watched the final two episodes of a groundbreaking six-part series made for PBS (U.S. public broadcast television) titled God in America, first aired in October 2010. A co-production of FRONTLINE -- famous for its investigative reports -- and the PBS American history show, "American Experience," the production combines "documentary footage, historical dramatization, and interviews with religious historians" to trace the impact of religion on American public life over a period of four centuries -- from the days of the Puritans to the 2008 presidential campaign.

Even though the episodes I saw ("Soul of a Nation" and "Of God and Caesar") deal with events in my lifetime, I was surprised by how much I learned from them. What rose to the top for me was that for a segment of American Christians it was their interpretation of Jesus' teachings, not socialism or an antiwar political agenda, which informed their backlash against socially conservative American Christians who'd been drawn into politics during the Reagan era. Yet the theological basis for their argument with these newly politicized Christian conservatives wasn't evident from the daily news and policy debates in Congress. Instead, the debate was cast by the media as Liberal Democrats vs. right-wing Christians.

After seeing the two episodes of God in America I realized there was a simple explanation for this: modern America's obsessively secular public life suppressed disputes among Americans that are based in theology. While a political Liberal could cite his faith for support of say, civil rights legislation and a political Conservative could cite the same for his opposition to abortion, it was off limits in the public forum to dispute or even question the theological assumptions informing the political stances.

One result is that much of what is actually in the province of religion was loaded onto politics. This greatly overburdened and distorted the American political system with issues that are best hashed out in theological debates. Yet these debates can't take place in American public forums so as not to offend any American's religious sensibilities!

Another result is that the White House has been put in an ungainly position, in the manner of Caesars sermonizing on the fine points of Christian doctrine to explain a tax. (This might help explain why the last U.S. President who wasn't called a hypocrite by a great many Americans was Truman.)

The story of the Roman emperor Constantine, who probably persecuted more Christians than all his pagan predecessors combined while imposing on Roman subjects his idea of proper Christianity, is ample evidence that the state should stay out of religious matters. I venture this was one of Jesus' points when he said to render unto God that which is God's.

Can the situation get any more ironic? On the one hand Americans won't debate religion with each other in the public forum; on the other hand they never tire of saying that there must be a division between church and state. But once religious matters are placed on the shoulders of the state, there is no way to maintain a separation of church and state -- much less a separation of church and taxation.

And so the rationale for suppressing theological disagreements in American public forums -- to ward against intolerance -- has in practice imbued American politics with such intolerance that today, as pollsters and media pundits never tire of telling us, the United States is a bitterly divided nation!

What is the solution to this problem? A part of the solution is education -- a point made by Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn’t, and chief editorial consultant for the God in America series:
Americans are awash in a sea of faith, but their knowledge about religious faiths and religious history often runs as shallow as their commitment to religion runs deep. A series like God in America can help correct that imbalance and provide the basis for a common understanding of the role religion has played in American public life.
Of course Americans are not the only peoples whose knowledge of their nation's religious history is sparse. We could all do with a great deal more education in that regard. However, learning about a religion is not the same as debating about it. Even for the experts, debating theological matters is sort of like bouncing around at the end of a slender branch above a pit of quicksand. And so historically Americans have intelligently left this perilous exercise mostly to scholars and religious leaders.

Yet in this era of hyperlinked online encyclopedias, a reasonably intelligent and literate layperson can with determination cram in a matter of hours on a subject that earlier would have taken divinity students months if not years of mucking around with the Dewey Decimal System to learn well enough to debate. So it's now within reach of many to have their cake and eat it too: stay within the bounds of religious tolerance while questioning interpretations of religious doctrine.

This said, how much religious literacy does it require to spot a lopsided argument and debate it on that level? Take, for instance, the criticism leveled by an evangelical Christian who reviewed a PBS series on the early Christians. "Beware," cautioned the reviewer, of the "seductive but dangerously inaccurate" film series
... The series was developed by a producer who appears to enjoy using his position to promote left-wing, liberal beliefs. ... It is worthy of note that no evangelical scholars were used in the series. Rather, the emphasis was on people from such liberal institutions as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Duke, Brown, Union, etc. ...
Let me see if I understand this correctly: is the reviewer implying that Christian evangelical scholarship equates with politics?

Yet this kind of lopsided argument is reaching troubling proportions in the United States. I'm not going to dig up links but one doesn't have to look far on a search engine to find discussions that either approvingly or disapprovingly tag Pope Francis as a socialist or anti-capitalist. Yet what does this have to do with Catholic theology?

I haven't studied any of Pope Francis' statements but if he's lost the thread of Jesus' teachings, it would be necessary for Catholic religious scholars and the order of the religious preceptors he leads to point this out to him; if not, he should be prepared to defend his interpretations of the teachings. What a Pope shouldn't have to do is answer lopsided arguments in kind.

There is another term for lopsided argument; it's called pseudo logic. But that's why God invented the syllogism. Pseudo logic depends on getting the hearer to accept contradictory or specious statements. It is child's play for anyone with a reasonable mastery of syllogistic reasoning to point out the contradictions or their inappropriateness to the discussion at hand. Oh but wait I forgot! American public education doesn't teach children syllogistic reasoning.

That, I submit, is the larger part of the problem, and the solution, of Caesar playing God in America.

For those who would say that religion has always been politicized: there is no way to read politics into the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama -- the Buddha -- or Jesus. Both men established paths to liberation from existential suffering: in the case of Siddhartha, a path of pure technique; in the case of Jesus a devotional path based on faith in the compassionate aspect of God.

While they were working from different metaphysics and thus had different concepts of hell, both teachers saw existential suffering as impossible to avoid by trying to make the furniture in hell more comfy. Because of this, neither teacher saw an improved social order or better government as the means to liberation from a situation they considered hellish.

Jesus, to make sure there was no misunderstanding on this point, told Pontius Pilate, the Governor of Judea, "My kingdom is not of this world."

That the paths created by Siddhartha and Jesus did become politicized after many people adopted those paths, that the body of doctrines that sprouted along the paths became state-backed religions, is not saying that the paths are political. It's saying only that human nature and the governments it evolves are political. So to argue that religion has always been politicized -- it depends on what is meant by religion.

Finally, last December I also watched the entire PBS series that the Christian reviewer criticized. The reviewer didn't mention that the work of the scholars to reconstruct the history of the early Christians was admittedly speculative in parts. The speculation takes nothing away from their historic collaboration for public television and its importance. As with God in America, the series is an important contribution to an understanding of Christianity's impact on history, although it's no more free of controversy than the New Testament itself.

The four-hour series, produced by FRONTLINE, first aired in April 1998 and is titled From Jesus to Christ: The Early Christians.

The series was created in the attempt to explain how a small, renegade Jewish sect in the far reaches of the Roman Empire came to rule the empire in what was the most unlikely triumph of ideas in history. The four hours fly by as historians, archeologists, and Biblical scholars -- 12 in all -- and FRONTLINE's investigative reporting-oriented production team working with video of the lands of Judaism and models and paintings of ancient Rome, barrel into the journey of Jesus' teachings from Judea to Rome. After a very short teaching mission Jesus left his disciples to stumble forward with his teachings. What one learns from Jesus to Christ is that they stumbled well.

The series can be viewed for free in its entirety on the PBS website, as can the God in America series. No matter what your religious faith or lack thereof, I think you owe it to yourself to watch both productions if you want a basic understanding of how Christianity arose from the teachings of Jesus, and how the religion influenced the United States of America. Of course both series should be considered a starting point, not the final word on either topic.

Some would argue that the Hand of God was at work.
Thanks, Pundita, for a fascinating post.

It would be instructive to compare your comments on how the secular viewpoint affects our perception of theological & political differences in the US with how the same viewpoint affects our understanding of the motivations behind jihad.
To add to what Charles Cameron said, are we handicapping ourselves when confronting takfiri killers, who never cut a throat or kill a child without shouting Allah U Akbar, by refusing to openly recognize their religious motivations?
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