Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Secularism’

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.

Enter the Shaman

In American Economy, American Society, Religion and Money on March 17, 2017 at 6:01 pm

Григорий_Распутин_(1914-1916)b
I’m spending a lot of time talking about economics in these recent posts – partly due to the fact that this is the topic of much of my current reading. But partly because it is one of the most pertinent questions we face in the US and around the world today – should economic policy be progressive, giving more to those who have the least (the liberal view), should it be based on Biblical or traditional principles (the conservative view), or should economic policy be set by closely examining hard economic data (the rational/secular view)? In short, how we gear our economy says a lot about us as a nation. And due to what I see as an undeniable influence of ‘theology’ over at least one party’s economic philosophy, it is certainly a topic within the scope of this blog.

Is hard work its own reward? From the very beginning of the Reformation through today, this is the economic message promoted by the Church – a message which is a key part of the economic agenda of today’s GOP conservatives, at least so far as it applies to those of us who work for a living. The ‘tough love’ doctrine we hear repeatedly from Republicans is that liberal policies de-incentivize work; if you don’t give someone a welfare check, they must go out and work at the local Wal-Mart or McDonald’s, no matter how lousy the work or pay. This eliminates slackers, and is not only good for them, but for society as a whole. Bible principles make it clear that people who don’t work shouldn’t eat (or have healthcare, education for their children, etc.)

Now let’s set aside my original question – what happens when technology eliminates even the low-level jobs like this (which, by the way, is already happening in Seoul. My last visit there, December 2016, McD’s have already replaced cashiers with computer terminals – just the beginning, I’m sure) – we’ll come back to it in a post or two. Notice again how scriptural interpretations of a ‘Biblical economy’ fit hand-in-glove with what benefits most the owners of the economy, which is employees working as hard as they can for as little pay and few benefits as possible. I agree with a comment on my earlier post, that it’s difficult to decide what’s the chicken and what’s the egg here – who influences whom the most, plutocrats or theocrats – but there’s little doubt that there is a mutual benefit to the relationship between the two, and the loser is you and me.

If I can digress a bit – I’m sure this relationship between those with economic authority and those with spiritual authority has been around for as long as we humans have organized ourselves into groups larger than extended families. It’s easy to imagine that the first leaders of human tribes were those individuals with physical prowess. Being able to run faster, throw a spear with greater accuracy and force, and fight off competing tribes would undeniably be rewarded with greater status – along with a bigger share of the hunt, a higher quality hut or tent, and access to more desirable mating partners. His power (and leaders in this sort were/are always men) might be limited in some ways – tribal traditions, filial concerns, etc., but it is safe to say that the earliest warrior-chiefs would have been the mightiest members of their tribes.

This ‘might makes right’ way of doing things explains 90% or more of our recorded history – most all of our political boundaries exist as they do today because someone was able (or not) to kick someone else’s butt off of a particular piece of property. Angles and Saxons ended up in the British Isles because Huns and Mongols mostly ran them out of their German homelands. The Swiss and their ancestors have inhabited the Alps for centuries because it has been a fairly easy territory to defend. And the manifest destiny of European Americans was largely fulfilled through ugly force – not because of any claims of ‘superior culture’. Bringing that up to our current times – no one runs a Microsoft operating system or buys a General Motors automobile because they make the best product – both companies put a lot of effort into stabbing competitors in the back or buying them out to get to where they are today.

Enter the ‘shaman’ – this is the beloved Joseph Campbell’s term for a person with religious power in a society. He (or she in this instance, although men have predominated here too) goes by a variety of names – mystic, guru, yogi, pastor, father, priest, nun, monk, to name a few, depending on the culture. While warriors and chiefs were also sometimes mystics, in most cases, the power of the shaman was a separate claim to power apart from physical prowess. One imagines that a spiritual leader is a personality type that could only come along as humans developed psychologically. This individual does not excel at the hunt or physical contests. Often, according to Campbell, there is a physical or psychological calamity in a person’s life that causes him to turn inward to his dreams and thoughts – he is horribly injured in a hunt but miraculously survives, is marked or disfigured in some way – or is not for some reason as terrified by omens such as comets or eclipses as others are. While he cannot throw a spear, he has dreams that seem to predict the future. These dreams put him in contact with the dead – Campbell and others postulate that the first primitive religions were based on the fact that people we love continue to exist in our dreams after they die – leading us to believe that they must still exist on some other plane.

There are entire college courses if not major areas of studies that go into these ideas in depth – well beyond my area of expertise. It’s not hard to see, however, that the warrior and the shaman would do better working together than in opposition. A chief who attacks an enemy and fails might lose his clout within the tribe, as well as his fine hut, wife – or even head. How convenient if a shaman can place the blame elsewhere. A shaman can be easily out-muscled by a warrior, so of course it’s in his self-interest to interpret dreams that reflect favorably on the chief – and well, you can put two and two together from this point. Over time, resources are increasingly taken from the tribe to provide more for the princes and priests. You, the modern day Christian, are comparatively lucky that your church wants only ten percent and your employer pays you wages that keep your head just slightly above water. In the first cities, the vast majority of people were serfs, while the elite built palaces and temples of such grandiosity that some remain to this day.

In my opinion, it is the ideas of the Enlightenment alone that keep this from being true today.

I’ve said all that to say this: religion does not make for good economic policy, nor does a warrior-like survival of the fittest. Logic would dictate that if I work harder or longer hours, I should be compensated in greater measure. This is not happening in the US today. Many jobs that used to be hourly have been turned into ‘management’ jobs as to escape paying overtime. We are once again becoming serfs – powerful corporations and religious beliefs controlling how much work we do, what kind of work we do, how we are payed for it, and pretty much every other factor that makes up our working life. And our shamans, our clergy, twist their own scriptures around to oppress the lower classes for the benefit of the rich.

I do not prove myself as one of the ‘elect’ by working harder for less. Work is NOT its own reward – money, security, and personal fulfillment are just rewards for our labor. The sooner we get the plutocrats and theocrats out of economic policy, the better.

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Exploit the Protestants

In American Economy, American Society, Religion and Money on March 13, 2017 at 8:04 pm

In my last post I talked about the Protestant Work Ethic (PWE), and asked what would happen to this concept if technology rendered 95% of us unemployable. The reason I use such a drastic number is 1) I’m not alone in believing this is a real possibility in the coming decades, and 2) I’m pretty sure I know the answer to the question if that number were more like 35% – the unemployed third of humanity would be demonized by the two-thirds able to somehow hang on to a job. Low moral character, unwillingness to work, looking for handouts – these would all be named as ’causes’ for unemployment, even with clear economic evidence to the contrary.

Why do we feel that work somehow equals virtue? I’m only just re-acquainting myself with Max Weber’s collection of essays, but I’m sure you’re familiar with the basic idea of the PWE. It is an idea as old as the Reformation itself, and it permeates American thinking about work to this day.

“Protestants, beginning with Martin Luther, reconceptualized worldly work as a duty which benefits both the individual and society as a whole. Thus, the Catholic idea of good works was transformed into an obligation to consistently work diligently as a sign of grace….the notion developed that it might be possible to discern that a person was elect (predestined) by observing their way of life. Hard work and frugality were thought to be two important consequences of being one of the elect. Protestants were thus attracted to these qualities and supposed to strive for reaching them.” (Wikipedia)

Weber says this is why Europe and America have the dominant economic position in the world today – the superior belief system caused them to work harder. Therefore, they worked for it and they deserve it. That’s an oversimplification for sure, but one probably a majority of Americans and everyone who voted for Donald Trump would ascribe to.  A recent example here.

It’s no surprise that these ideas spring from the 1500s, at a time when great economic changes were occurring, stressing the medieval hierarchies of lords, priests, and peasants. A Catholic peasant farmer had only to give his earthly lord and heavenly one what was due – fruits of his labor in exchange for subsistence and tenancy to the former, performance of sacraments in exchange for eternal life to the latter. The Protestant believer had to be ever-working and vigilant to prove himself part of the elect.

IMG_1820

Notice how neatly this idea fits the demands of the workforce required by the Industrial Revolution. While farm work was done in seasons, with downtime in the heat of the day and during the long winters, cottage labor could be done year-round and by candlelight, and factories need never close. Is it accidental that a new religion would promote frugality and hard work as it’s own reward, at the exact same time factory owners needed laborers to work round-the-clock? Could it be – and I’m just postulating here – that the PWE was a way of maintaining the advantageous relationship (exploitation?) the aristocracy and clergy had enjoyed for centuries?

Now I know some of you are saying these beliefs are not constructs invented to keep the lower classes where they are, but instead are Biblical truths. My question to you would be – why wasn’t this the predominant Christian view for the first 1500 years? Isn’t it strange to you that a doctrine promoting the workaholic as ideal Christian comes around at precisely the time that the owners of the economy needed workaholics?

In America, the prevailing view is that hard work is its own reward. We tend to view our work as a contribution to the company we work for, and to society as a whole. Since we spend so much of our time focused on work, either doing it, preparing for it, or thinking about it – and because by nature we resist the idea that our lives are spent in exercises of futility – we see ourselves as key to our employer’s success. How could they ever make it without me? Look how much income I generate compared to what I’m paid! As Thoreau says in Walden, “We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do….”

We unquestionably believe that working for a living is virtuous. We don’t like to think luck has played any role in what success we have – we are ‘blessed’ to have what we have – a word that has, much to my annoyance, replaced ‘lucky’ only in my lifetime.

But corporations and capitalists seldom look at labor the same way. Employees are expenses. They require ever increasing pay to keep up with inflation. They want paid vacations and perks. They get sick and old, and over time become less efficient. They require expensive insurance and need sick leave. Employers are ALWAYS looking for a way to employ fewer people – often through using technology to get more work out of fewer people, finding a way to employ those who are willing to work for less money and fewer benefits, or investing in computers and machines that can do the work without using human labor at all.

Perhaps Americans are the most productive workers in the world because of the PWE – but is that a good thing? Our productivity increases almost every year, but our compensation has remained stagnant for three decades. Why should we work harder for ever-diminishing returns? Are our leaders using our religious beliefs against us to enrich themselves at our expense?