Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for the ‘Religion and Government’ Category

Theocrats: Forgotten But Not Gone

In American Society, Religion and Government, Secular Humanism on May 2, 2017 at 5:44 pm

This week marks five years since I first started this blog. I had lived abroad for over a decade, and returning home to the US, it seemed there were an alarming number of people on television or standing behind pulpits preaching that the cure for all of our ills as a country was more ‘God in government’. This blog was meant to be a way of refuting that argument, looking at religion, American Christianity in particular, from the secular point of view in which the American Constitution was written.

Furthermore, it seemed that many of the things the Religious Right were advocating didn’t necessarily line up with a close reading of the New Testament itself. So, my aim was two-fold: one, writing in defense of a secular government in which all religions have freedom and protection, and two, highlighting the many inconsistencies between this religious political agenda and the ideas put forward by the early Christian writers themselves.

It seemed at the time that turning the US into a ‘Christian Nation’ instead of a secular one (which is what our Constitution calls for) was one of the greatest threats to American democracy as we know it. As I continued to research and write, I decided that the abuses of our economic system, particularly the ascendancy of corporate control of government, poses an equal threat.

And then, along came Donald Trump. Placing such a uniquely unqualified person into the highest office in the land – maybe the  world – suddenly made the theocrats seem a lot less scary by comparison. Will he blunder us into WWIII? Give rise to a new American Fascism? Or simply continue the GOP trend of playing Reverse Robin Hood, taking from the poor to give to the rich?

But while we may have temporarily forgotten the theocrats, they are still out there, and their faux-theology still lies at the root of some of the worst ideas bandied about in American political discourse.

One recurring worst idea is the old ‘he who does not work shall not eat’ red herring. Whenever there’s a discussion of money spent on the poor, whether it be welfare, food stamps, healthcare, etc., GOP politicians suddenly become amateur theologians, justifying cuts to such programs by quoting 2 Thessalonians 3:10. Representative Jodey Arrington (R-Texas, of course) is the latest to drop that piece of ‘wisdom’ into the debate.

Jodey Arrington

Rep. Jodey Arrington

He’s not the first; back in 2013 GOP lawmakers voted to separate funding for the SNAP program from the Farm Bill (first time since 1973) so that 40 billion US dollars could be cut from giving food to the poor, without having to make proportionate cuts to farm subsidies. As you might expect, none of those lawmakers were receiving food stamps, but thirteen of them were personally receiving millions in farm subsidies. Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tennessee), on the receiving end of over 3 million dollars in subsidies over the years, quoted the Thessalonian axiom back then.

So, OK you might say, aside from the hypocrisy of some of the people saying it, isn’t it still a pretty good idea? Shouldn’t people contribute something to society instead of just taking government handouts? What makes it a ‘worst idea’?

Let me start with the red herring part. This ‘don’t work-don’t eat’ argument is meant to give you the impression that tens of thousands of con-artists are out there milking the system, and that handouts discourage people who can work from doing so. But that just simply isn’t true. Since 1996, able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) have a very limited time-frame in which they can receive any kind of government assistance – for most states, 90 days in any given 3-year period. Yes, states can extend that time by granting waivers for job training, homelessness, etc. – and many did during the darkest days of the last financial crisis. But truth is, 42 states already have a work requirement for government assistance, and more people receiving food stamps today are working than at any time in the program’s history. In fact, SNAP may be the only thing keeping the working poor from becoming the unable-to-work poor.

So, like Reagan’s Welfare Queen, abuse of the system – either minuscule in scale or mostly imaginary – is used to justify wholesale cuts to what little safety net the poor may still have access to. It’s the most vulnerable in society that really end up taking it on the chin – children, the homeless, veterans, the aged. What’s the real agenda? I would guess freeing up money for more corporate handouts – like the nearly 10 million Fincher’s company has received -and more tax cuts for the rich. Forcing mothers with children and old people to work at Wal-Mart and McDonald’s for the sub-subsistence wages they are willing to pay – I guess that’s just a bonus.

As for why it’s a bad idea – well there are a number of reasons, starting with government officials using any scripture from any religion to support the writing of any secular law. Would you be happy if a congressman referred to the Koran or sharia law when debating on the House floor? I’m thinking you would not. I’m thinking that person would face death threats – probably from the same kind of Christian who would support 2 Thessalonians being written into statute. The laws of our government should not emanate from any religious document – the Bible and the Constitution are not complementary writings.

Even if we wanted to base laws on the New Testament, would we be looking to guys like Arrington, a career government employee, and Fincher, a cotton farmer, to explain to us exactly what the scripture is saying? Who appointed politicians to be the grand poobahs of deciding exactly how the Bible should be interpreted and then written into law? Even as reprehensible as some of the late Jerry Falwell’s religious and political views were, he at least had fake divinity degrees to back them up. From where do these amateur theologians derive their certainty?

But even now, as the GOP concocts a plan to ‘fix’ the Affordable Care Act, this kind of thinking is seeping into the argument about healthcare. Just a week or so ago, Arrington was doubling down on his ‘don’t work-don’t eat’ argument, and somehow using that as a justification for a work requirement for receiving health insurance as well! How can Thessalonians be used to justify a work requirement for healthcare? This is the problem with sloppy, hazy thinking – it leads to lots of conclusions for which there is no evidence whatsoever. This is also, incidentally, one of the main drawbacks of mixing religion and government.

As a nation, we really need to start relying on facts to guide us into the coming decades – not alternative facts, not worn out religious creeds. We need to be preparing for a time in the not so distant future when perhaps half of us won’t be able to have jobs. Moralizing about who ‘deserves’ to eat, who receives healthcare and who doesn’t – this is not the job of government.

I, for one, need no priest nor politician deciding what God thinks is best for my country.

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Pure Religious Hypocrisy

In American Society, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Government, Secular Humanism on April 17, 2017 at 6:00 pm

Paul Ryan shame

It has been a very long time since I’ve blogged the New Testament, which is a shame really as it was one of the primary reasons for starting this blog. I was very impressed with David Platz’ blogging of the Old Testament for Slate, and I wanted to attempt to do the same thing for the New, with a similar, rational, secular approach.

I could blame the Great Firewall of China or a variety of other hindrances, but that would only be partially true. The thing is, when I post a couple of photos on my travel blog, I get 500 ‘likes’ right away, but I can’t even get that many paid likes for a 1500-word essay on secularism. (Seems like you can easily generate 100k or more likes with cute butt photos, but I’m not sure how to tie that in to the topic). But I don’t feel bad – I notice on my twitter account that other secularists, agnostics, and atheists are unable to generate a dozen re-tweets a day, and they’ve got much greater name recognition.

Writing rationally about religion is thankless work – writing and speaking irrationally about it pays millions.

Furthermore, as Sam Harris mentioned in his podcast, with Donald Trump as POTUS, somehow, as scary as theocracy is, suddenly there are ideas – like nihilism, fascism or WWIII – that are just as scary or more so.

But, let’s suppose global thermonuclear war is not imminent, and pick up where we left off, with the Epistle of James. Take a few minutes to read about what we’ve learned so far about one of the earliest New Testament books written. We’ve learned that it’s unlikely that James, the brother of Jesus, wrote the letter – and that it doesn’t really matter if he did or not. We’ve learned that James is not a fan of the idea that the wealthy are job creators, and that Christians need to listen more and stop shouting angrily at pro-Trump rallies. We’ve also learned that, according to James, Christians should be working for a greater morality for themselves, not for the nation as a whole – more on that in a minute.

Perhaps the most astonishing idea I’ve written about, for me personally as an ex- Sunday school teacher, is that when James tells us to be doers of the word and not hearers only – one of the most well-known verses in the NT – he could not possibly be referring to the Bible. And we’ve only covered the first chapter. If a person unfamiliar with American politics read only the first chapter of James, he’d have a hard time reconciling it to most every conservative Christian/Republican policy over the last 20 years – why do Christians vote Republican again?

We’ll finish the first chapter today, in short measure, by examining part of James 1:27, the part about looking after orphans and widows.

If you’re a regular reader, you already know where I’m going with this. But let me go there more forcefully than I usually do – in part, because drastic Trump times require it, but in a greater part because this is an example of Christian hypocrisy that really gripes my ass.

There are no two areas that reveal the hypocrisy of the evangelical, politically involved Christian – out of the many hypocrisies – than the issue of war, and the issue of taking care of the unfortunate. Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’, yet Christians keep putting warmongers in office. Jesus said ‘as you’ve treated the least of these, brothers and sisters, this is how you’ve treated me’ – referring specifically to the poor, the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned. I don’t even need to give you chapter and verse, dear Believer, as you know it is exactly what Jesus said.

And yet – you vote overwhelmingly for the Paul Ryans and the other ‘fiscal conservatives’ who – with great joy – funnel more tax dollars into the war machine, and to the coffers of the rich (whom James disparages) and would strip the poor and sick of what little safety net they have. (Note the recent failure to pass healthcare reform because conservatives thought it didn’t punish the poor quite enough). Given that any pro-lifer logically should be anti-war and pro social safety net – how the hell do you sleep at night? (But logic is not a conservative forte – when Tomi Lahren stated the obvious logical consistency between being pro small government and pro-choice, she lost her job as a conservative commentator the very next day).

If I ever meet Mr. Ryan, aka Ebenezer Scrooge / Simon Legree – that’s the only question I’d want to ask – how, as a Christian, Mr. Ryan, do you sleep at night, knowing that you have purposely disobeyed many of the commands of your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and are personally responsible for the suffering and perhaps even death of thousands – so that the Koch brothers can stack up a few more mil? I mean, forget about those whom you must consider to be the dregs of society – what about your personal salvation? (Although, being Catholic, I suppose you can just go to confession after each major legislative push – as can much of the Supreme Court). On another hypocritical note, it’s amazing that Evangelicals consider Catholics and Mormons to be anathema when it comes to worshipping together – but a-ok when voting. How can you let a man make decisions for millions of Americans, when you wouldn’t let him teach a Sunday school class or serve as a deacon in your church of a hundred souls?

James reinforces Jesus’ message – pure religion has a personal and public aspect. Personally, maintain the high bar on morality. Publicly, take care of widows and orphans. But American Christians skew their politics completely vice-versa, where morality becomes something that should be legislated and charity is an individual virtue, not a public one.

I’m familiar with your hypocritical dodge of this scriptural imperative, dear Christian (in fact, as an agnostic, I’m probably familiar with much more of the scripture, your worldview, and your theology than you, my hazy-thinking friend, are yourself. Yes, I know, even the Devil can cite scripture to his own advantage – thank Shakespeare for that one, not Jesus). Your excuse is that being a peacemaker and taking care of the poor are personal commands, not national ones. I see this argument everywhere online, and certainly in the comments section of my Facebook page.

Really? Please show me in the Bible where it’s explained how your actions and your voting are different – chapter and verse, if you don’t mind. Voting doesn’t count as an action? How, specifically, is voting for someone you know will punish the poor different from you making extra-sure that the poor are indeed punished? How is voting for a profane, immoral, warmonger not an act of profanity, immorality, and warmongering? How do you explain to your own children that you vote for people who exhibit behavior that you would not condone in – your own children? Even taking for granted the Herculean feats of circular logic it takes to maintain your system of belief against the everyday onslaught of increasing evidence – isn’t this a bridge too far?

And furthermore, what I consider to be the epitome of hypocrisy, Christians have spent decades insisting that the dictates of the Bible should be the the guiding light of government. God isn’t only telling me not to engage in homosexual activity – he’s judging us as a nation. Not only is God telling me not to have an abortion, he wants us to appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v Wade. The Lord’s Prayer should be on public display in courthouses and schools, and every public square should have a little baby Jesus come Christmas.

Oh but, feed the poor, well that’s personal, that shouldn’t be what government does. Peacemaking? That’s me making amends with the woman down the street that criticized my apple pie at the last church social. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bomb the shit out of ISIS or the North Koreans.

Listen to yourself – your hypocrisy is worse than pathetic. It’s foul, poisonous equivocation – and left unchecked it will destroy our nation.

James, whom you believe to be Jesus’ own brother, tells you to take care of widows and orphans. He tells you this is the purest form of Christianity. And yet you vote for politicians who will punish the poor for the dire straits they find themselves in, while rewarding the rich – whom James says are exploiting you and blaspheming God. (But I’m ahead of myself – that’s James 2).

Shame – by your own Biblical standard – shame on you. When I see such odious, unrepentant hypocrisy, I think that Dante’s Eighth Circle of Hell – were it really to exist – is too good for you.

Christians Should Shut Up, Calm Down, and Listen

In American Society, Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Government on March 2, 2014 at 12:49 am

Before you get too wound up, you should probably have a look at James 1:1-21, paying particular attention to verse 19. While my headline addresses Christians in general, I’m thinking mostly about that vitriolic group of Americans known as the Tea Party. Of course the groups are not one and the same, but I don’t think anyone can argue that the vast majority of Tea Partiers would self-identify as Christians. So if you’re not the angry, White, American Republican variety of Christian, please forgive my generalization; headlines can only be so long, you know.

James’ letter was probably written around 46-48 AD, a couple of years before the Council of Jerusalem put Gentile believers on equal footing with their Jewish Christian brothers. Hence, it is addressed to “the twelve tribes scattered across the nations”, referring to the Jewish communities that existed in almost every city across the ancient world. These communities often practiced a form of Hellenistic Judaism, meaning that they combined their Jewish religious traditions with elements of Greek culture. As they were open to new ideas and philosophies, they were among the earliest adherents to the new faith of Christianity. Because most of the New Testament was originally written in koine Greek, instead of Aramaic, some historians think the early Christian church may have been composed almost exclusively of Hellenistic Jews; the fact that many Old Testament quotations in the letters of the disciples appear to come from the Septuagint strengthens this argument.

James tells believers to be happy when they are facing trials, as these will serve to perfect their faith. In an earlier post dealing with Paul’s discussion of persecutions in Thessaloniki, it wasn’t clear what he might have been referring too. However, there would have been lots of friction between Aramaic-speaking, traditional Jewish believers and Greek-speaking, Hellenistic Jews at the time of James’ writing. The recipients of his letter would have been subject to the disdain of their own Jewish brethren, perhaps ostracized from the synagogue for their belief in this person called Jesus. It is probably this religious persecution that he refers to.

According to James, God will give wisdom to anyone who asks for it, as long as they really, really believe when they ask. If you doubt – forget about it. God will give you nothing. Over the years, I have seen so many Christians beat themselves up over this verse. What they ask God for seems reasonable enough – the wisdom needed to sort out their marriage or their children, or direction in a financial decision – but they receive nothing. When their marriage or finances fall apart, they tell themselves (or are helpfully reminded by more successful Christians) that they just simply don’t have enough faith in God. Many of the largest evangelical churches across the US preach this kind of doctrine. The church leadership, enriched by the tithes of the faithful, tell the less fortunate among the flock that they need only the tiniest bit of faith, and they too can be rich and successful. If you are struggling in life, it’s your own fault for not being able to muster up enough faith. It has nothing to do with the fact that the economic system is rigged against you or that you were never able to complete college. No, your life is a mess because Jesus thinks you don’t believe in him enough.

It’s ironic that most of the TV preachers are telling us that we should all be rich; James doesn’t have many nice things to say about the wealthy. This is one of the major inconsistencies evident between a literal reading of the Bible and modern American Christianity. Americans all want to be rich – who doesn’t? – while Jesus, James, Peter, and other New Testament writers see wealth as a detriment to the Christian life. In fact, the wealthy are viewed as oppressors, not ‘job creators’, not as men of great faith. A great deal of rhetorical acrobatics is required to twist these teachings into something that supports our acquisitive, materialistic American lifestyle.

In fact, James thinks it is the poor who should be proud, as their lives are not focused on the material. At God’s table, the rich won’t get the best seat – if they are invited at all. In most American churches, the wealthiest members hold the coveted positions of leadership. In God’s kingdom, Tom Perkins certainly wouldn’t get a million more votes than you or I.

Phidippides

Two metaphors in verses 12 and 18 show how skillfully the writer weaves together ideas from both Jewish and Hellenistic worldviews. He compares the Christian life to an endurance race, something that can be won with perseverance. Marathons, the glory of victory, laurel crowns – these are Greek ideas that are not found in Old Testament writings. Christians today talk about “running the race”, “fighting the good fight”, and “wearing the whole armor of God”, little realizing that these ideas are all drawn from Greek legends, not Jewish or Christian ones. James was likely reminding his readers of Pheidippides, using that story as a source of inspiration for living the Christian life. Note that in Merson’s rendering above, the hero has truly laid aside every weight to run the race.

When he refers to his fellow believers as “a kind of firstfruits”, James is alluding to a type of agricultural offering that had existed in both Greek and Jewish cultures for centuries. He appears to be changing the significance of the offering – instead of humans giving the first part of their harvest to a temple, James seems to be saying that the first group of believers are offered to God as the first of many more believers to come. Modern churches, however, prefer the ancient meaning – every religion in every culture has rituals that are meant to sustain – and often enrich – the priesthood.

While partisans from all parts of the political spectrum are guilty of lowering the quality of the debate in our country, I offer this next verse as Biblical instruction to the Tea Party in particular. James says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” If a godless, reprobate secularist won’t listen and spouts off all the time, at least he isn’t breaking his own moral code – you, Mr. Tea Partier, are. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the anger of the Tea Party that is driving the greater part of the rancor and real ugliness in our politics today. I didn’t think George Bush was very bright, but I didn’t call him a subhuman mongrel. I wish evangelicals didn’t always vote Republican, but I certainly don’t hope they burn in hell when they do.

We can’t solve any of the many serious problems our nation faces as long as we think and act this way. We have to respect each other – talk to one another – to get things done. So, Mr. Tea Partier, it’s not just me who thinks you need to shut up, calm down, and listen every once and a while. No, your friend James – Jesus’ brother – thinks so too.

The road to getting our country back in shape is likely to be a long one – we need to put our energy into running that race.

If it’s ok with you, I’ll be keeping my clothes on.

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