Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for April, 2012|Monthly archive page

Render Unto Caesar

In Religion and Government, Religion and Money on April 29, 2012 at 11:31 pm

Augustus of Prima Porta, statue of the emperor...

Before we get too far down the secularist road together, I think I should take the time to clarify the BIG IDEA that I hope will drive this blog for some time. It comes from what is probably one of the better known stories of the New Testament gospels. It seems there were some folks in the religious establishment that didn’t like Jesus very much, and they were always trying to get him to say something that might cause him to lose followers – or maybe even his head. One day they decided it would be a pretty nifty ploy to ask him what he thought about the very unpopular Roman tax Judeans were required to pay.  If Jesus supported the tax, he’d have an angry mob to contend with, and would for sure lose most of his followers.  If, on the other hand, he replied that those of the Jewish faith shouldn’t be required to pay it – his enemies would certainly be able to bring a case against him with the Roman authorities.

Mark 12:13-17 American Standard Version of the Bible tells it this way:

And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, that they might catch him in talk. And when they were come, they say unto him, Teacher, we know that thou art true, and carest not for any one; for thou regardest not the person of men, but of a truth teachest the way of God: Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give? But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why make ye trial of me? bring me a denarius, that I may see it. And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s. And Jesus said unto them, Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled greatly at him

Now there have been a lot of attempts to make this say something it doesn’t, but I think it’s clear to even the casual reader that Jesus wasn’t interested in making any political statements. If your government requires you to do something, you should do it.  If your god requires you to do something, you should do that as well.  I suppose there might be times when these requirements might be at odds with one another – and I’ll be talking about those kind of situations at length – but it seems that Jesus doesn’t have a problem with paying taxes. (Funny that American conservatives – many of whom are fundamentalist believers – do.)

However, I think there’s more at work here than just a simple discourse about taxation – and this is where my BIG IDEA comes in.  Jesus himself seems to be saying here that religion and civic duty are two different realms, and in a sense require different kinds of commitments. It is possible to be a good Christian and a good citizen at the same time – even if your government is not God-centered. We separate church and state so that everyone can enjoy the rights and liberties in common that are given us by our democratic from of government, while continuing to enjoy the benefits of whatever religion we choose.

It is my hope that Americans would begin to see this separation not as simply institutional, but at the personal level as well, to embrace the dichotomy, as it were. Unlike many secularist organizations, I ask no one to abandon their faith for the sake of democracy. I simply ask that they use their faith to guide them in their quest for God – but use the powers of reason, observation, and intelligence when they make decisions about our government. I believe a person can be a Christian and still vote for candidates that do not share their religious beliefs – but they vote for those candidates because they are capable of making decisions that are good for all Americans.

Perhaps George Holyoake, the British lecturer who coined the term ‘secularism’, said it best:

“Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life.”

Global climate change. Terrorism. Inequality. Poverty. These are problems that can perhaps be better solved by scientists, economists, and diplomats than by searching two-thousand-year-old texts. If I may re-phrase the words of Jesus – Americans should begin to give to their country the very best of their intelligence, reason, and rational thought, and continue to love their God with all of their hearts.  If we can do this, the rest of the world will marvel greatly.

The Inspirational Rick Santorum

In Religion and Government on April 29, 2012 at 11:14 pm

You might find it hard to believe, but Rick Santorum is responsible for the existence of this blog. I could say that, like Sarah Palin, he inspires me; both have caused me to make positive choices in my life. In Sarah Palin’s case, I was inspired to vote in a presidential election for the first time in years. I had always been a big fan of John McCain – his straight-from-the-hip style, his willingness to vote on principle instead of by party line – and this new guy Barack Obama seemed to have quite a bit of charisma too. I was pretty sure that America would be taking a big step up from the George W. Bush years, no matter who won. Going to all the trouble to cast an absentee ballot from Beijing, where I lived at the time, didn’t seem really all that important, since I’d be happy enough with either outcome.

Enter Sarah Palin. I only had to see a couple of interviews to be terrified of the idea that this person might be a heart attack away from the Oval Office. Just when I thought President Dumb was leaving the White House, here was the specter that President Even Dumber might take his place. I made the necessary phone calls, got my ballot, and cast my vote. In that time-honored American tradition, I didn’t so much vote for one guy as I voted against the other.  (This is closely related to another tradition known as vote the bastards out – for which a Google search turns up over 27 million hits.)

Rick Santorum’s surge in the polls this past winter meant that more of what he had to say was turning up in the news – and the more I heard, the less I liked. I never really thought he had a chance to win the nomination, but his campaign musings revealed a poisonous strain of political thinking in America, one that could only be called the desire for a theocracy. Don’t get me wrong – I am not opposed to a person of faith voting according to his conscience. Everyone has the right in this country to vote for whomever they choose. What I am opposed to is the idea that a democracy should be run according to – and is grounded in – the ideas of the Bible. Preachers and pundits are busily proclaiming such nonsense – but never offer one shred of proof from either history or their own sacred texts.

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

“Where do you think this concept of equality comes from?” said Santorum, according to ABC News. “It doesn’t come from Islam. It doesn’t come from the East and Eastern religions, where does it come from? It comes from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that’s where it comes from. Don’t claim his rights, don’t claim equality as that gift from God and then go around and say, ‘Well, we don’t have to pay attention to what God wants us to do,’” Santorum continued to the enthusiastic crowd. “‘We don’t have to pay attention to God’s moral laws.’ If your rights come from God, then you have an obligation to live responsibly in conforming with God’s laws, and our founders said so, right?”

ABC News link . Quotes from Rick Santorum at a town hall in South Carolina, January 2012.

Wrong, Rick. Exactly what part of the Bible served as the inspiration for Thomas Jefferson to write “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence? And where might I find examples of God’s moral laws or his establishment of our American rights? I see many examples in the Old Testament of Jehovah encouraging genocide for those who were not of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I can read Paul’s letters where he tells slaves to be obedient to their masters.  I can even read how Jesus called a Canaanite woman a dog, and informed her that all the wonderful things he promised were for Israel alone. In fact, there are hundreds of examples in the Bible that would seem to refute the idea that concept of equality is part of our Judeo-Christian heritage. How can Christians be so ill-informed about the very book upon which they claim to base their beliefs – indeed, the future of their eternal souls? If you’re going to run around telling everyone that they need to do what the Bible says if they know what’s good for them – shouldn’t you take the time to read it first?

Mr. Santorum and others like him have inspired me to do something positive – write this blog. Christians aren’t reading their Bibles – they are content to let patriarchs and pedagogues do their thinking for them.  In the process, what Jesus, Paul and others had to say is being grossly misrepresented.  Perhaps more importantly, too many Americans are completely ignorant of Enlightenment writings – which is where ideas of equality and democracy truly come from. I’m convinced that we desperately need a greater awareness of these ideas if our country is to continue to prosper.

Did Christianity Cause the Crash?

In Religion and Money on April 23, 2012 at 11:56 pm

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

A Reflection on Hanna Rosin’s article for The Atlantic

Read the entire article at The Atlantic – Did Christianity Cause the Crash?

When I was 19 years old and still a fervent fundamentalist believer, I found myself in dire need of a car.  The old clunker I had driven in high school had suddenly given up the ghost, just as I was planning to go off to Bible school, several states away.  I hadn’t yet received any scholarship offers from the school, and I didn’t want to borrow any money, so I was trusting that God was going to give me the means to have an education. I knew that I would have to work part-time to support myself while in school, and I began to worry how I would be able to make the whole college thing work without any transportation. In fact, I didn’t even know how I was going to get myself back and forth to my part-time job at a local shoe store.  So I began to pray.  I asked God to provide me with a car and a job so that I could go to school and learn to do his work.

What happened next seemed like an answered prayer – a miracle, if you will.  My boss at the shoe store asked me if I would postpone college for a year or two and help him open a new store about an hour away. He knew I had just lost my car, so he offered me a signing bonus that could serve as a down payment on a new one – a new car!  I had asked God for any old car and a part-time job; he was giving me a brand new car and a retail management job – wasn’t God amazing?  Still, I was unsure if this was the direction that God wanted me to go in – hadn’t I prayed for hours and felt that I should go to Bible school?  So, I put out a fleece before God.  I reminded God in prayer that I didn’t have any credit whatsoever, and that I was pretty sure I couldn’t qualify for a car loan.  However, if I was indeed approved for the loan, I would take that as a sign that this was what he wanted for me at this time in my life – new car, decent job, college later.

I was reminded of this story as I read Ms Rosin’s article about how the prosperity theology espoused by many Charismatic/Pentecostal churches may have contributed to the biggest housing crisis in the last 100 years or so.  Her story focuses especially on Black and Latino churches, and how some of the poorest members of American society were and still are being told that God wants them to be rich – but they’ve got to have the faith to get started themselves.  Over the past decade of easy money, this often meant going out and buying a house that seemed out of reach, trusting that God would bring in the extra dollars needed to make the mortgage payments.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that – at least in the Christian circles I’m familiar with – this is the only way to make financial decisions.  Pray, seek a sign from God, act on that sign.

Wouldn’t it be better if a Christian trusted his afterlife to his faith, but made his financial decisions based on evidence?  Even if we believe that God wants us to be rich, wants us to have that new house or new car, how can we be so sure in our belief – in our interpretation of God’s sign –  that we are able to act against all sound financial advice? It would be interesting to know – but impossible to find out – how many people bought houses this way, signing a loan with payments they knew they’d never be able to pay without divine intervention.

In my case, no financial crash ensued.  I got the loan, bought the car, and the job I started allowed me to earn enough money to make the payments.  But I didn’t go to school that year, or the next.  In fact, it would be nearly a decade before I would be able to start my education.  When I think of the lost income potential that long delay may have cost me – well, that’s the topic of a future post.