Saturday, December 21, 2013

And Here's To You, Mr. Robertson

"I predict, this 19th day of December of the year 2013, that Mike Brooks will soon compose a blog post on the difference between our 1st amendment rights to the free exercise of speech and our need to be accountable for the consequences that flow from our free exercise of speech, complete with Phil Robertson references ..." - Jeff Weldon
 It was early Thursday morning when I read about what, judging by the number of people weighing in via Facebook, must be the most important news story since the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists: some old, conservative, Southern, Christian dude believes - correctly - that the Bible condemns homosexuality. This is not an uncommon position (and can even be held by some young, moderate, Yankee, Muslim woman), so I was a little surprised at the outrage. After reading up on what was actually said (oh my.....), I started to wonder if anyone posting their support had actually done the same, or if they simply wanted to state a position in the imaginary "war on free speech".

I should begin with a disclaimer as well as an admission of my own personal bias in this situation. I have never watched a single clip from "Duck Dynasty". I had seen these bearded guys pop up in the Facebook news feed in the past year or two with a similar frequency to Candy Crush invites, but largely ignored them both - just as I scrolled past more than a few statements about Jesus and sisters and moms being the best without a "like" or "share" (Sorry, Mom). It appears the draw for many evangelicals is that it portrays a family outspoken about their faith, without inappropriate language or situations; this of course stands in contrast to the commentary about human anatomy in the interview which I would not want my kids to read.

I also fully admit, right here and now, that I really have a strong dislike for "reality television" in general. I sadly witnessed the birth of this genre when tuning in to MTV one day (the M stood for "music") hoping to see that zany "Once in a Lifetime" video - but instead being rudely introduced to a "Real World". Video may have killed the radio star, but "reality" was killing the video, and I was not a fan. Why can it never just be the same as it ever was?

Fortunately, it would be many years later before the virus would spread to claim much of television. For much of my youth, I could still watch scripted sitcoms like Family Ties or The Cosby Show on the main networks, thank God. To this day, seeing another commercial for the 56th reincarnation of The Bachelor or America's Got Cooties or for the newest group of B-list celebrities dancing or diving or writing haiku drives me to my knees, begging the Almighty for even an ALF rerun. So, even if the Robertsons are better role models than the Kardashians, I would still tend to root for the cancellation of "Duck Dynasty", simply on principle.

And now, to fulfill the prophecy.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances..." - First Amendment
The first amendment is often referenced by its individual protections by phrases like "freedom of religion" or "freedom of speech". The purpose of the Bill of Rights, if not the entire US Constitution, is to restrain the power of government to ensure a measure of personal liberty, and it is no coincidence that religion and speech are mentioned first in the amendment that is the first of the American Magna Carta. To the best of my knowledge, however, Congress has made no law as a result of Phil Robertson's recent comments, so any reference to the first amendment in his defense is misplaced. People may debate whether the television network reacted appropriately or inappropriately to the comments, but it is not a constitutional matter.

Perhaps the greatest irony in this (or any) discussion of "free speech" is that often, the phrase is used in an attempt to silence or dismiss the speech of someone with an opposing viewpoint. I fully support Mr. Robertson's right to answer a question in any fashion he sees fit, and to hold any religious belief (or none), but I do not see those voicing opposition to his comments as enemies of free speech - they are merely exercising it for themselves. I've seen a lot of threats back and forth over the last couple of days, starting with GLAAD and the NAACP (the last organization in the country allowed by society to use the word "colored", but I digress) threatening the network, but expanding to people threatening advertisers (if they support the show, or if they drop the show), the network threatening Mr. Robertson, and fans of the show threatening the network. It's Chick-Fil-A on steroids. It's messy, and much of it regrettable, but it's all "free speech".

 It's also all economics. Yes, Mr. Robertson used some unnecessary, harsh, and completely illogical comments about homosexuality. I certainly can't support his comments personally, but even if he had been respectful and to the point - if he had simply said, "As a Christian I consider homosexuality to be sinful" and left off the bits about vaginas, anuses, and terrorists - I am pretty sure that A&E would have still released the usual disclaimer that the views of Mr. Robertson are his own and do not reflect the ideals of the network. But Mr. Robertson pushed a little harder than that, and then GLAAD pushed back on A&E, and they in turn completed the triangle by pushing back on him. Mr. Robertson's comments very likely come from his own personal convictions, but the network's reaction is more likely out of economic consideration. The stronger the wording, the more likely there may be an economic cost to someone involved, whether the loss of a contact, contract, or position. Often the real enemy of free speech isn't another's free speech, it's capitalism.

I can't help but think how little I heard the phrase "freedom of speech" ten years ago, when in March of 2003, lead singer Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks told an audience in London: "Just so you know, we're on the good side with y'all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas." The backlash was strong and swift; radio stations dropped the Chicks from rotation (their cover of Landslide dropped from #10 to #43 in a single week), and groups organized public destruction of their CDs. A lot of the same people who are today suggesting that actions taken against Mr. Robertson are un-American and/or violations of the freedom of speech were also highly supportive of such retribution against the country trio.

As the saying goes, freedom isn't free. There are costs to taking a stand for anything, which is why many politicians (and sadly, many religious leaders) don't really say anything that means anything. One should speak his or her mind with conviction, based on the power we have through our liberty.  But, as Spidey will tell you, with (great) power comes (great) responsibility. Simply having the right to say what you wish does not imply that either the content of your message or the manner in which it is delivered is right. Part of communication is at least giving some thought to how the message will be heard by one's intended audience. This isn't "political correctness", it is prudent forethought.

For those who may equate the backlash against Mr. Robertson to an attack on religious belief, consider for a moment that 45% of Americans believe homosexuality to be a sin, and I have never heard anyone suggest that almost half of the population are bigots. Pope Francis has affirmed the teachings of the Catholic church on the matter, and the "liberal media" has named him Person of the Year. If the media is simply opposed to the idea that homosexuality is a sin, or opposed in general to the gospel of Christ, then how could this be? It's very easy to dismiss offense with religion, to suggest that the problem is that someone merely doesn't want to acknowledge "truth" as defined by someone else, but is the goal of religious conversation to offend, or to mend? Most often, the conflict is not one with God - it is with the self-appointed messenger.

I have no doubt that Phil Robertson did not intend offense at his comment. I'm sure he did not mean to present Christianity in a negative (and strange) way. I take him at his word when he says that he does not hate anyone and wants to see people accept his faith, but if this is the goal, perhaps the methods of the Pope are more effective? Mr. Robertson is on a show with a huge viewership, and I don't know what he does on it, but I also see Pope Francis in the headlines about every week: he's feeding people, ministering to the homeless, washing the feet of young prisoners, embracing the physically deformed. Granted, no one expected a GQ article to change the world, but it is very odd that most Christians I know have little to say about the Pope (except for a few who criticize his comments about economics) and yet so many have posted a zealous defense of Mr. Robertson.

Yes, it is true that you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, but going in to the grocery store, picking up a dozen eggs, and dashing them to the ground is not making an omelet, it's just making a mess. What are you cooking today?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

American Culture Under Attack by Religious Extremists!

Every religion seems to have some level of division - there are differing schools of Buddhist thought, Sunni and Shiite camps in Islam, a few major sects in Judaism, and far too many different denominations to even name in Christianity. As such, there will always be some measure of conflict, but lately I've seen a number of reports that have convinced me that America may soon be at war with a small but growing religious minority. One of the major figures in this war is a radical cleric who recently expressed his support of Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the top imam of the University of Al-Azhar, and has been known to visit imprisoned Muslims. Last year, he moved his base of operations to southern Europe and took a new identity, but that didn't stop him from publishing an 84-page manifesto just two weeks ago that railed against the "tyranny" of American capitalism. Oddly enough, he titled the work "Evangelii Gaudium", or "Joy of the Gospel".

The next week, I saw another attack, this one on well-known financial guru Dave Ramsey, when a religious feminist criticized a post explaining the apparent path to wealth that is the American dream; she attacked the very foundations of America by calling it a land of "slavery, ethnic cleansing, gender inequality, and Jim Crow". Lastly, at the recent death of a religiously motivated, convicted African terrorist who was on the American terror watch list until 2008 (and known for several high-profile criticisms of the USA), President Obama suggested that Americans lower their flags to half staff out of respect (and calling him a "courageous and profoundly good human being"). There he goes again, palling around with terrorists.

In all political correctness fairness, one should note that the majority of Christians worldwide are peaceful, and are not out to destroy America. Yes, there are violent-sounding passages in the Bible, and plenty that condemn "the rich", but more moderate Christians are highly supportive of wealth and the USA. Vocal opponents include Methodist Rush Limbaugh, who condemned Pope Francis' teachings as "pure Marxism", but sadly, the average Christian refuses to condemn the more extreme rhetoric of these radicals and terrorists. As a result, the stage is set for an ineluctable conflict that could become the next stage of warfare between religious and cultural ideals, one that the virtually disbanded "Moral Majority" would never touch with a 39 1/2-foot pole.

Nothing New

While it may seem a new direction, the progressive economic idealism of Pope Francis (formerly known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio) is not without precedent. The Didache 4:6 states: "share all things with your brother, and do not say that they are your own. For if you are sharers in what is imperishable, how much more in things which perish!"  Individual wealth was attacked by many of the early doctors: St. Basil the Great echoed the sentiment in the fourth century: "That bread which you keep belongs to the hungry; that coat in your closet, to the naked." St. Augustine went so far as to say that "business is in itself an evil"; Jerome claimed that "a man who is a merchant can seldom if ever please God." St. John Chrysostom railed, "So destructive a passion is avarice that to grow rich without injustice is impossible." 

Jesus does not use the word "impossible", but it's possible one could assume that from his statement that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!" (Matt. 19:24, ESV)  James linked wealth with oppression: "Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?" (James 2:6,7) There are numerous other verses that paint the wealthy in a negative light as well, but it will suffice to say that Pope Francis is not pulling his negative view of personal wealth from a source outside of Christianity.  Both biblically and historically, there is a wealth of Christian criticism of wealth.

Again, not all Christians would agree with the statements above.  Sarah Palin was slow to criticize the Pope, suggesting instead that his words were being twisted by "the liberal media", but such assignment of blame (and thus evasion of the conflict proper) is becoming harder to maintain as Francis continues to speak and pen his sentiments in his own hand. If the Vatican itself posts an official treatise critical of wealth disparity, the media is largely taken out of the equation, unless of course one considers the Vatican to be a part of the liberal media.  Fortunately, the Pope's character is so admired (by persons of any religion, or none) that the typical political ad hominem attacks will only backfire, indicating the inevitability of conflict among American Christians, in particular.

What's Wrong With Wealth?

Dave Ramsey has some experience with wealth. He has helped thousands of people (primarily churchgoers) manage and increase their wealth, and he has increased his own wealth in doing so. Like any rising star within evangelical circles (ie Rick Warren, Rob Bell), he has attracted a fair amount of criticism in the process. The most recent controversy concerned a post on Dave's website that was actually written by Tim Corley, entitled 20 Things The Rich Do Every Day.  In a rebuttal posted on CNN, What Dave Ramsey gets wrong about poverty, blogger Rachel Held Evans questioned the implied causality of the list as well as the theological implications - and battle lines were drawn.

After reading Corley's list, I can't say that I disagree with any of the points (although many are slight variations of others, as if there was a quota to meet twenty). Most seem like common sense; it is highly advisable for anyone to read more, take education seriously, eat healthy and exercise, and so forth.  However, I also see the point of those that question this list.  While many of these points are simply good advice not unlike after school public service announcements, the latter are simply presented as helpful advice.  Corley's list advises people to so these things because these are what "rich people do", making the assumption that we all are envious enough of them to want to mimic them, so that we too may become rich people.  Of course, as Mr. Ramsey claims to teach from a biblical perspective, he should be aware that the Bible's mentions of the wealthy are far more often the direct opposite, contrasting a moral good with the actions and attitudes of the wealthy (Interestingly enough, a recent study came to this same biblical conclusion).

As many others have pointed out, the list is also not scientific, in that there is no control.  There was no definition given as to what income level was considered "rich" or "poor", and it also failed to account for other factors.  For example, if we are talking about millionaires, the majority of them are over 60 years of age. Especially if no inheritance was involved, it simply takes time to pay off a mortgage (and then for that property to appreciate in value), to compound enough interest in one's 401k, et cetera. People may be wealthy and retired: if a large number of millionaires work far less than 40 hours, does that mean that we all should do so, to emulate success?  Statistics also indicate that the wealthy are more likely than the poor to be non-religious/atheistic, is that also advisable? If numbers indicate that 90% of rich people have only one or two children, and the poor average four, does this make one morally better? Or, to use a real example, if most of the mega-rich agree that taxes should be higher on the wealthy, should we not make their superior opinion our practice?

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect to this whole exchange was Mr. Ramsey's ungracious comeback to those who questioned the post. Calling his critics "ignorant", "spiritually immature", "doctrinally shallow", he instructs them to "grow up", while at the same time perpetuating the idea that, at least in America, wealth is the reward of those good enough to earn it.  It should come as no surprise that those with little feel they deserve better, while those with much feel they have earned their wealth by being better than those without.

The link between moral goodness and wealth is drilled into Americans at the earliest of ages.  Before any of us learn the truth behind the ruse, most of us are taught that Santa Claus rewards good behavior with material goods, and thus the child with one poor parent, who receives little if anything on Christmas, must have misbehaved.  The child with two wealthy parents, who receives anything he requests, must be very, very good.  Sadly, many of the comments I've read in the defense of wealth are not far removed from this false correlation: the poor (at least in America) are so out of choice, and if they were not so lazy, or foolish, or without faith, they wouldn't have to endure poverty, which is merely the consequence for their lack of vision.

To clarify, I don't believe Mrs. Evans was criticizing wealth, but rather the importance assigned to it in our culture. I certainly don't oppose wealth, and could easily accept having more of it myself, but I also acknowledge that in theological and moral terms, wealth is no better than poverty. The irony is that some of the same media sources that complain about envy of the rich also feed the public a steady stream of coverage of (and praise for) them; if "class warfare" exists, surely they are the aggressors.

Why Praise Communist Rebels?

If there's one communist out there more widely praised than Pope Francis, it has to be Nelson Mandela. But where the Pope has preached non-violence, Mandela was convicted for plotting against the government of South Africa, including acts of terrorism. A lifelong Methodist and a member of the communist-aligned ANC, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela did more than just speak out against the dangers of capitalism, he took up arms against his oppressor.

Of course, in this respect he was no different than the Episcopalian George Washington (not that the Stamp Act was in any way equal to Apartheid), leading fellow colonial subjects in a fight for representation. In fact, it would be hard to criticize Mandela's actions and statements at all if they were not so regularly aligned with our Cold War enemies.  Mandela most closely related with Fidel Castro, with whom he had a strong friendship.  On a visit to Cuba in 1991, he proclaimed:
“...the Cuban Revolution has also been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people. We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of the vicious imperialist-orchestrated campaign.... Long live comrade Fidel Castro.”
In the same speech, he also praised Che Guevara, calling him "an inspiration to all human beings who cherish freedom." A decade later, expressing his disapproval of the Iraq invasion, Mandela went so far as to say, "If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America."

He also worked tirelessly to promote an anti-capitalist agenda, considering nationalization of some industries and maintaining ties with the Communist Party. Stopping short of calling wealth an evil, Mandela said in a CNN interview on his 90th birthday that the rich do have an obligation to share their wealth with those in poverty. He helped author a government initiative in 1996 known as the GEAR (Growth, Employment, And Redistribution) policy, and yet was celebrated (and now mourned) by a number of American conservatives.

While there are certainly differences between a humble Catholic who happens to be the Pope, a liberal-leaning American blogger, and a communist South African freedom fighter, the common thread is that the new "enemies" of the American way of life are not faceless Soviet atheists, nor are they stereotypical fundamentalist jihadists - they are principled Christians seen in a positive light by most Americans.

Flooding the Engine

Even the late Nelson Mandela was not opposed to capitalism per se. South Africa, to this day, still operates primarily as a free market economy, as does the United States. While many classify them as "socialist", most European nations also operate by free market principles, even with a greater measure of taxation or government regulation. With this in mind, one must be careful to suggest that a critic of concentrated wealth is opposed to capitalism - more often than not, the issue is with the distribution of wealth and the priorities of the society, which are different matters than the mechanics of an economic theory.

In its purest form, free market capitalism is equivalent to economic Darwinism; that is to say, that the craftiest among us deserve to have all they can get, and the less successful only to starve. No one truly desires such a system, regardless of political leanings. The truth is that we all believe, to some degree, in a redistribution of wealth from those who are able to those who are in need. We merely disagree on the definitions of "able" and "need", as well as the amounts to be involved and the degree to which the transfers are voluntary.

My personal issue with the current state of American capitalism is that I believe we have abandoned the principle of merit.  Where once we rewarded hard work with wealth, we now praise wealth itself, and celebrate those who have it and yet do as little as possible. I acknowledge that (as my friend Tom has said more than once) self-interest is not the same as greed, and that it is the necessary fuel for capitalism to prosper. However, even the most conservative auto mechanic will not argue that more fuel will always make the car run more smoothly, or that it is unfair for the brakes to hinder the ability of the fuel pump. Elaborate systems of regulation are required to maximize the performance of the car and to ensure the safety of those who rely on it.

Certainly, it is not an oxymoron to be a religious capitalist, nor to be a religious socialist. There will continue to be debate on the ethics and responsibilities of wealth. The new wrinkle is that through an expanded marketplace of ideas made possible by the internet and other technological advances, Christianity is being slowly pulled away from American (conservative) idealism. Perhaps history will repeat itself. Unfortunately, those that have expressed an interest in returning to the faith of our fathers likely did not have St. John Chrysostom in mind.