Here's a brief quiz that serves to illuminate the harm inflicted by crackpot Christianity upon America. The test has two parts. First, fill in the blanks of the following paragraph. Second, give the name of the world-renowned Christian theologian who wrote it.
"_________________ belonged to a little junta which foisted the ______________ War upon the American people. The ambition and vanity which prompted him could be veiled and exalted because the will-to-power of an adolescent nation and the frustrated impulses of pugnacity and martial ardor of the pitiful little 'men in the street' could find in him symbolic _expression and vicarious satisfaction."
No, the author was not referring to the "vicarious satisfaction" -- recently experienced by so many "pitiful little men" -- of seeing their flight-suited American President co-pilot a fighter aircraft on to the deck of an aircraft carrier. Instead the author, Reinhold Niebuhr, was referring not only to Theodore Roosevelt and the Spanish American War, but also "the frustrations of the average man, who can never realize the power and glory which his imagination sets as an ideal, [which] makes him the more willing tool and victim of the imperial ambitions of his group." [Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, p. 18]
But these two questions raise a third: Where is our present-day Niebuhr? After all, the evil perpetrated by George W. Bush and his "little junta" equals, perhaps exceeds, the evil foisted upon Americans by Teddy Roosevelt and his war party. Moreover, Bush has Dick Cheney.
Word for preciously brief word, nothing can beat the parsimonious prosecution and conviction of Vice President Richard B. Cheney conducted by Joan Didion in the October 5, 2006 issue of The New York Review of Books. Her lawyerly layering of elegantly understated, but damning, fact leaves little room to doubt that our current Vice President is an evil and dangerous man. Like a thug, Mr. Cheney is obsessed with power. Yet, like a slug, he seems preternaturally incapable of wielding it with intelligence, competence, decency or honesty.
But the reason why America has not heard from an American Christian with the stature of a Reinhold Niebuhr is because America now appears incapable of producing such formidable Christian heavyweights. Instead, we get "theologians" like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson and D. James Kennedy, who appear incapable of judging the Bush administration's illegal, immoral invasion of Iraq as Niebuhr surely would -- in strict accordance with Christian ethics.
Fortunately, at least one thoughtful evangelical Christian, political scientist James Kurth, has done just that: "When George Bush has said that America is the light of the world, that clearly is a heretical paraphrase of the true statement that Jesus Christ is the light of the world. And to persist in that and act upon that belief can only bring about a debacle." ["Debunking 'American Theocracy,'" Interview of James Kurth by Alice Chansan, beliefnet.com]
Unfortunately, Professor Kurth's apology for those evangelicals who believe in biblical inerrancy, especially as it applies to the end times described in the Book of Revelation, constitutes its own form of crackpot Christianity. After all, as New Testament scholar, Burton Mack has observed: "Even after it [the Book of Revelation] was blessed for posterity by inclusion in Athanasius' list of apostolic writings, there were doctors of the church who questioned its authenticity and groused about its theology." [Burton L. Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament? p. 197]
More significantly, Professor Mack asserts that the "twelve disciples who became apostles" were "the fiction" that connected the emerging Christian church to Jesus and guaranteed that, "as a social, historical institution of religion, it started right and had its story straight." [Ibid, p. 225]
Moreover, Kurth failed to mention that Bush has succeeded in supplanting the Apostle's Creed with the American Creed, precisely because many evangelical Christians have succumbed to the widespread secularization of religion. As Kurth himself acknowledges, many supported Bush on Iraq, because they expected his support on the social issues they valued. [Kurth, beliefnet.com]
But, it was Bush, who unwittingly explained why the U.S. today gets Falwells and Robertsons rather that Niebuhrs. While speaking to conservative journalists recently, Bush suggested that the increasingly open expressions of faith that he encountered among Americans not only indicated that these faithful look at the world in terms of "good and evil," but also suggested that America is in the midst of a Third Great Awakening.
(Presumably, neither Bush nor his crackpot supporters ever encountered the warning given by Niebuhr: "Nations will always find it more difficult than individuals to behold the beam that is in their own eye while they observe the mote that is in their brother's eye." [Niebuhr, p 107] Their continued support for the evil invasion and occupation of Iraq is a case in point.)
You see, the first two Great Awakenings in U.S. history saw certain inspired ministers displace of sober Christian reason by "whipping up revivals and preaching emotionally to sell conversions." [Marty E. Martin, Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America, p. 112] But, they were extreme manifestations of a more general trend.
According to Rodney Stark and Roger Finke: "The religious history of the United States rests heavily on sectarian emotion and revival -- a process in which churches become establishmentarian, compromise their ‘errand into the wilderness’ and then lose their organizational vigor, eventually to be replaced by less worldly groups, whereupon the process is repeated." [Stark and Finke, quoted in Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy, p. 107.]
"Less worldly," of course, is a gentle euphemism for "dumbed down" in this ever increasingly interconnected and interdependent world. It's also a euphemism resulting from the skepticism that evangelical Christians famously hold about the possibility of reforming the world. And thus, if the U.S. is indeed experiencing a Third Great Awakening, you can virtually guarantee that a few well-timed and well-placed words of biblical "code" by our President will continue to influence the "less worldly" minds of our crackpot Christians in his evil direction - perhaps against Iran.
Thus, crackpot Christians seeking moral improvement might want to consider a few of the universal truths -- given man's fallen state -- found in Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society.
According to Niebuhr, "practically every moral theory insists on the goodness of benevolence, justice, kindness and unselfishness." Moreover, the better individuals will pursue intelligence to advance reason for the sake of such justice. The better individuals also will buttress their rational pursuits by embracing the religious ethic of love, especially love of one's neighbors. Both enable the better individuals to better resist their selfish impulses -- for the betterment of society.
But Niebuhr warns: "Men will never be wholly reasonable, and the proportion of reason to impulse becomes increasingly negative when we proceed from the life of the individual to that of social groups, among whom a common mind and purpose is always more or less inchoate and transitory, and who depend therefore upon a common impulse to bind them together." [p. 35]
"The larger the group the more difficult to achieve a common mind and purpose and the more inevitably will it be unified by momentary impulses and immediate and unreflective purpose. The increasing size of the group increases the difficulties of achieving a group self-consciousness, except as it comes in conflict with other groups and is unified by the perils and passions of war." [p. 48] "Momentary impulses and immediate and unreflective purpose?" Sounds like America going into Iraq!
Moreover, "Even a nation composed of individuals who possessed the highest degree of religious goodwill would be less than loving in its relation to other nations. It would fail, if for no other reason, because the individuals could not possibly think themselves into the positions of the individuals of another nation in a degree sufficient to assure pure benevolence. Furthermore such goodwill as they did possess would be sluiced into loyalty to their own nation and tend to increase that nation's selfishness." [p.75]
Finally, those American crackpot Christians who gave and continue to give their unquestioning loyalty to this objectively and inescapably evil Christian Commander-in chief might want to ponder two additional universal truths posited by Niebuhr.
(1) The paradox of patriotism: "The unqualified character of this devotion is the very basis of the nation's power and of the freedom to use that power without moral restraint. Thus the unselfishness of individuals makes for the selfishness of nations." [p. 91]
(2) "The man of power, though humane impulse may awaken in him, always remains something of a beast of prey." [p. 13]
Thus, rather than continue to wallow in idolatrous heresies that President Bush associates with the American Creed, America's crackpot Christians might want to step back to ponder one final universal truth proclaimed by Reinhold Niebuhr: "The selfishness of human communities must be regarded as an inevitability." [p. 272]
Other Articles by Walter C. Uhler
Quagmire: "Lions Led By Donkeys"