After I discovered Ernest Partridge’s Crisis Papers website, I did a little exploring and discovered his book, Conscience of a Progressive, which is a book in progress. Dr. Partridge has decided to not post to the Crisis Papers website as frequently as he has in the past so that he has more time to devote to completing his book. He has generously posted a working draft of his book on his blog, The Online Gadfly, where it can be disseminated freely, as long as the posted conditions are met.
As my long-time readers know, one of the central themes of this blog has been my struggle to understand the religious right. There are numerous posts on this blog with that focus. I am posting Chapter 20 of Conscience of a Progressive because Religion: How Would Jesus Vote addresses my struggle. I found Dr. Partridge’s thoughts on this topic most interesting, for he draws together the themes of how the power elite (to use G. William Domhoff’s phrase) has co-opted the religious right to serve the interests of corporate America and he also delves into the myth of the supposed evils of Islam towards the end of the chapter, along with the dangers that breaching the church/state barrier poses to the United States.
Another theme that I have addressed in the past is my puzzlement with how those who would most benefit from progressive reforms consistently vote against their best interests. Dr. Partridge addresses this concern in Chapter 20 also.
This is a chapter in a book, so it is long. Please set aside some time for reading and pondering.
The work is copyrighted by Dr. Partridge and can be found at The Online Gadfly. It is posted with the permission of the author.
Religion: How Would Jesus Vote?
“You can’t be both a Christian and a liberal.”
Thus did the Baptist minister counsel young Shelby Knox in the PBS documentary, “The Education of Shelby Knox.”[1. Shelby Knox]
I disagree. If one takes the moral teachings of Jesus seriously, it seems that if one is a Christian, one must also be a liberal – at least in the sense that the ethics of Jesus is understood to be an integral part of Christianity. Of course, one need not be a professed and practicing Christian to accept the moral teachings of Jesus. Those teachings are universal and found in all the great world religions.
The perplexing relationship between political ideology and Christian faith can best be approached by separating Christian Ethics (concerning the conduct of one’s life) from Christian Theology (concerning the nature of God, the soul, immortality, heaven and hell, etc.). And, of course, there are many Christian theologies, just as there are many sects of Christianity.
The religious right would have us believe that there is only one authentic Christianity: theirs. And because moderate and liberal Christians have, by and large, declined to dispute this claim in the mass media, the dogmas of the religious right have captured the public attention by default.
Examine the recorded teachings of the Nazarene, as we will shortly, and it will be difficult to deny that Jesus was a liberal. The religious right avoids this embarrassment by focusing their attention on a particular theology and a very limited and constrained view of morality.
Regarding theology, the liberal/progressive is tolerant and inclusive. Progressivism is a moral and political ideology. On matters of theology, it is silent. Thus, with equal facility, the Christian, the Moslem, the Jew, the secular humanist and the agnostic can all be progressives. Which is why progressives, both religious and secular, steadfastly oppose the establishment of a state religion.
What would Jesus Do?
The disconnect between right-regressivism and Christian ethics might be clearly seen if we simply follow the admonition of the devout Christian and ask: “What would Jesus do?”
To find out, let’s go to the source: the four Gospels. This is what we will find.
Would Jesus launch a “pre-emptive” war?
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. (Matt. 5:9)
Our President is eager to take the “war on terrorism” to the “evil-doers.” What would Jesus do?
Ye have heard that it hath been said, thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you. (Matt. 5: 43-44)
While he was the Governor of Texas, George Bush signed 155 death warrants, and granted no pardons to condemned prisoners. What would Jesus do?
Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy. (Matt. 5:7)
Rev. Jerry Falwell, steadfast proponent of “the right to life,” also endorses capital punishment. What would Jesus do?
Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth; but I say unto thee, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turned him the other also. (Matt. 5:38-39)
What might Jesus say about school prayer?
And when thou prayest, thou shall not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which seeth in secret. (Matt. 6.27)
And the separation of church and state?
Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. (Matt. 22-21).
Did we remember to ask what Jesus had to say about war and peace?
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. (Matt. 5:9)
Our glorious free market economy is driven by the profit motive. What might Jesus say about the profit motive?
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal. … For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matt. 6: 19, 21)
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Matt. 6:24)
Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth. (Luke 12:15).
With the help of a few well-placed friends, George Bush parlayed a nominal investment in the Texas Rangers into a $20 million fortune. When Dick Cheney left Halliburton, he was given a $34 million “retirement package.” Under the present administration, the very wealthy have become more so, while the vast majority of the population “below” has become poorer.[2. Holly Sklar] What would Jesus do with these “winnings?”
If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. (Matt. 19:21)
Verily, I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. … It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Matt. 19-23).
George Bush has denied access to his gubernatorial papers and his father’s presidential papers (in both cases, public documents). Dick Cheney refuses to disclose the contents and the persons involved in consultations regarding energy policy. What might Jesus say about this?
There is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known.
Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops. (Luke 12:2-3)
What might Jesus do about poverty and welfare assistance?
I was hungred and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in. Naked and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me…. Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (Matt. 25:35-40).
Forty million American children live below the poverty level. What might Jesus say about this?
Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned int the depth of the sea. (Matt. 18:6)
Furthermore, it is estimated that as a result of the economic sanctions, a half a million Iraqi children have died.
Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones…. (Matt. 18:10).
Rev. Falwell, Rev. Robertson and numerous “televangelists” claim to speak for Jesus, as they successfully solicit millions in donations. George Bush believes that he was chosen by God. What might Jesus tell them?
Not everyone who sayeth unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 7:21).
For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; inasmuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. (Matt. 24:24).
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. (Matt. 7:15)
There appears to be something of a “disconnect” between the teachings of Jesus Christ (who, George Bush tells us, “changed my life”), and the behavior and policies of many self-confessed “Christians.” I believe that the word that describes such inconsistency might be “hypocrisy.” Jesus had a great deal to say about hypocrites.
Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites… This people honoureth me with their lips but their heart is far from me. (Mark 7:6)
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer; therefore ye shall receive thy greater damnation. (Matt. 23:14)
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith, these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess….
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites … ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. (Matt. 23: 23-28).
And one last time, just in case you forgot: Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. (Matt. 5:9)
Finally, the troubled Christian today might reply: “I do love Jesus, but really, ‘love my enemies?’ ‘Sell all that I have?’ Isn’t that asking too much?” To this, Jesus would reply:
If ye love me, keep my commandments. (John 14:15)
As I read the four gospels, front to back, these are some of the passages that seemed especially relevant to our times and responsive to the question “What would Jesus do?” Alas, try as I might, I could find no guidance therein regarding abortion, homosexuality, pornography, gun control or the capital gains tax.
When faced with such hypocrisy as we seem to find amongst prominent “Christians” today, what did Jesus do?
Jesus wept. (John 11:35).
Suckers for Jesus
The Republican party, once the home of liberals, conservationists, internationalists, and moderate Christians, is now dominated by an improbable alliance of libertarians, free market absolutists, greedy plutocrats, and Christian fundamentalists (as described in our first Chapter). The first three, “the secular right,” clearly gain a great deal from their alliance. But how have some fundamentalist Christians, “the religious right,” been persuaded to cast their lot with the Republican party?
How does one convince millions of devout Christians to accept a secular political-economic philosophy developed and articulated, in large part, by atheists? How does one, in addition, enable this same multitude of Christians to disregard how their political “allies” are taking cash out of their pockets and redistributing it “upward” from the middle class and the poor to the already wealthy, at the cost, in addition, of impoverishing essential social services, aid to the poor, and placing a crushing debt upon future generations? And finally, how are these Christians persuaded that the moral teachings of Jesus of Nazareth are somehow consistent with aggressive foreign wars, the increased enrichment of the wealthy, the denial of relief to the poor, comfort to the afflicted, education for the young, and employment for the jobless?
No small accomplishment. But the political geniuses of the Radical Right who have captured the Republican party, have brought it off. They had to. For without the inclusion of the Religious Right in their coalition, they would lack the “foot soldiers” – the votes – that are essential to their political power.
Together the “secular right” plus the religious right constitute a formidable political force. The plutocrats supply the money, the libertarians and free marketeers articulate the political dogma, and the fundamentalists provide the votes. (Kevin Phillips writes that “according to national polls in 2000, evangelicals and fundamentalists cast fully 40 percent of Bush’s vote, and his 84 percent support among committed evangelicals was higher than any previous Republican nominee).[3. Kevin Phillips] Without those votes, the political clout of the right-wing regressives would collapse, and the right would be appropriately relegated the fringes of the body politic.
This is a very agreeable arrangement for “the secular Right” — the libertarians, the free-marketeers, and the plutocrats, who have little to dispute amongst themselves. But the alliance of the secular right with the religious right is a marriage of convenience – convenient for the secular right, which prefers to keep its pious “partners” barefoot, ignorant and pregnant. “Barefoot” in the sense of impoverished, “ignorant” of how they are being exploited, and “pregnant” in the sense being productive of votes.
For close inspection reveals that the secular and religious right have little in common, and because this is so the secularists are anxious that the religious right refrain from such “close inspection.”
Consider the contrasts:
Many of the most prominent promoters of libertarianism during the past forty years have been avowed atheists; among them Ayn Rand, Nathaniel Brandon, John Hospers and Robert Nozick. Yet this appears not to bother the evangelicals.
In addition, libertarians share with many liberals a determined opposition to government interference in the private lives of individuals. Accordingly, the libertarians endorse the legalization of marijuana, pornography and prostitution, and they oppose anti-drug laws, restrictions on abortion and discrimination against homosexuals. Strange, isn’t it, that the fundamentalists appear not to notice this agenda of their libertarian “allies”?
Furthermore, the secularists are, of course, generally well-educated and scientifically sophisticated, and thus they accept evolution and reject biblical literalism. They may, however, occasionally pretend otherwise in order to mollify the fundamentalists.
Next, there is the issue of economic justice. It is a safe bet that the socio-economic-educational status of the average fundamentalist is markedly below that of average American citizens. This means that many fundamentalist families are one paycheck or one serious family illness away from financial disaster. Can they not appreciate that their wealthy “allies” on the Right are not “their brothers’ keepers”? Under the right-wing economic policies, the rich get richer while the middle class and the poor hold their ground if they are lucky, and lose ground if they are not. And there is the ever-growing threat of unemployment. For the vast majority of our fellow citizens, the pittance of Bush’s federal tax refunds are more than offset by the necessary increases in state and local taxes and in the loss of government services – fire and police protection, health care, public schooling, financial aid for higher education.
We all know the sorry economic conditions brought on by right-wing policies. Why then do the victims, who happen to adhere to “the old-time religion,” meekly support their oppressors? And why does Jesus’ admonition to the rich man – “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.” (Matt. 19:21) – not apply to their political leaders, or, for that matter, their “spiritual leaders”?
The most jarring disconnect, however, is between the morality of secular-right policies and behavior on the one hand, and the clear message of the ethics of Jesus on the other hand. For those who need reminding, read once more The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount: (Matt. 5)
Fundamentalists like to ask: “What would Jesus do?” Good question! So let’s ask them:
Would Jesus launch a “war of choice” against a non-threatening country?
Would Jesus cut back on school lunches for poor children?
Would Jesus decline to comfort “those who mourn” as the soldiers’ caskets arrive at Dover Air Force Base?
Would Jesus sign 155 death warrants, giving the clemency appeals only a cursory glance?
George Bush wants to tell the world that he’s been “born again.” But “born again” to what? To pacifism, humility, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, frugality? The Bible teaches that “By their fruits shall ye know them.” (Matt: 7:20) It seems that Mr. Bush has not learned very much from his “favorite philosopher.”
Why, then, do religious fundamentalists follow, and vote for, wealthy and powerful individuals who openly violate the basic moral teachings of their “Lord and Savior”? True, there are bloody and brutal chapters in the Bible, and the millennial (“rapture”) fundamentalists often preach as if the Book of Revelation were the only book in the Bible. But the fundamentalists also believe that the recorded words of Jesus in the Gospels are the words of God Himself. And the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount that contains it, are the central foundation of Christian ethics. What fundamentalist Christian would deny that Jesus said, and meant, “Blessed are the Peacemakers?” If they believe this, then if they would “do what Jesus would do,” they must come to terms with its full implications.
Given these clear and unyielding foundations of Christian morality, how has the secular right managed to seduce the fundamentalists so completely? Surely this must stand as one of the most amazing accomplishments in the history of marketing!
The tacticians of the Right began, as all good salesmen begin, by identifying the “hot buttons” of “the mark” (customer), and proceeding to push those buttons.
Fundamentalists crave strong and charismatic leadership. So such leaders were sought out, and then lavishly funded, enabling them to establish colleges, publishing houses and broadcasting networks. Hence the spectacular growth of such subsidiaries of “Jesus, Inc.” as Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, Pat Robertson’s Regent University, and, before they were busted, Jim and Tammy Bakker’s “PTL Club” (“Pass the Loot”).
Fundamentalists are most comfortable with a Manichean world view – a concept of the world as a battleground between unalloyed good (us) and evil (them). (“You are either with us or against us.” GWB). For several decades, Communism fit the bill supremely well. But with the fall of communism, new evils had to be identified, and so they were: Islam abroad, and Liberalism at home.
The demonization of Liberalism is a text-book example of “branding” – piling emotions and attitudes onto a label. Until recently, “liberalism” was a honorific term, as indicated by its dictionary definition: “favoring reform or progress … specifically favoring political reform tending toward democracy and personal freedom for the individual.” (Websters Unabridged, 2nd ed.) And, in fact, when a cross-section of the American public is asked about such liberal advancements as the minimum wage, social security, Medicare, racial integration, environmental protection, etc., a large majority approves. But the word “liberal” itself has been so besmirched by the Right that in self-identification polls, “liberal” generally comes in a poor third to “conservative” and “moderate.”
The Right has, in effect, established a separate and distinct definition of “liberal,” so that it is effectively equated with “libertinism” – sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. In addition, the Right’s use of “liberal” connotes the stifling of religion, welfare cheating, profligate government spending (as in “tax-and-spend-liberals”) and even, in the hands of such unprincipled ranters as Ann Coulter, treason.
In short, this redefined “liberalism” serves well as an embodiment of “evil” to the religious right. And when this sense of “liberalism” is associated, through constant repetitions, with the Democratic Party – well, you know the rest.
Finally, the tacticians of the Right have learned that fundamentalists are typically much more sensitive to personal immorality (“sin”) than they are to social immorality (injustice). Thus when, for example, George Bush speaks to the religious right, his themes are “right to life” (anti-abortion), opposition to gay marriage, but rarely economic injustice, ethnic discrimination or civil liberties. Recall that on the contrary, secular libertarians are very tolerant about private personal conduct, provided that it is “victimless.” But the libertarians also take care not to make a point of this in the company of their allies of the religious right.
It follows from the preceding account that if the Democrats are looking for a “wedge” that might disable the political clout of the regressives, then here it is. The Fundamentalist Christians have been “had” – suckered – by the libertarians and oligarchs. Thus the fundamentalists have worked diligently and faithfully toward their own disadvantage and undoing.
If the rank and file of fundamentalist Christians in the “religious right” can somehow be shown that they are being used to further the interests not of themselves but of their oppressors, and that by so doing they are violating the central moral precepts of their “Lord and Savior,” then the political power of the radical right will collapse. (Assuming that our public offices continue to be founded on the consent of the governed, through free and open elections. If not, then all bets are off).
Accordingly, Christian conservatives should be prime recruitment targets of progressive political movements.
How might the fundamentalists, the “foot soldiers of the radical right,” be persuaded to abandon their service in behalf of their exploiters on the Right?
First of all, moderate and liberal religious leaders must shed their reluctance to involve themselves in politics. Normally, such reluctance is justified, for it is responsive to our tradition of the separation of church and state. But these are not normal times, for there is no such reluctance on the part of the religious right to throw themselves into the midst of our politics. Thus, when the field of political contention and debate is abandoned by one side, the other side prevails, and much of the public comes to believe that the fundamentalists must be right because no religious leaders see fit to disagree.
And so, it is past time for liberal and progressive religious leaders to speak out – and to act out, by participation in peace protests, by personal involvement with and assistance to the poor, and with active support of progressive candidates and participation in the political process. In particular, liberal evangelicals should, like Jimmy Carter, take the lead in “preaching” and demonstrating by example, the Christian virtues of compassion, charity, humility and passivism.
The hypocrisy and venality of prominent leaders of the religious right must be exposed. The fall of Jimmy Swaggert and the Bakkers threw cold water on the over-heated fanaticism of their followers. It is past time to expose Pat Robertson’s investments in African diamond mines and his dealings with African despots like Liberia’s Charles Taylor.[4. Chuck Fager]
Finally, constant attention and exposure must be given to the unchristian behavior of the plutocrats, and the unchristian implications of their policies. Cruelty, callousness, greed and aggressive warfare are not Christian virtues.
What a Friend we Have in Jesus
Face it: progressive Americans are in a desperate struggle with religious-right fundamentalists. Moderate Christians and Republicans should join this struggle, for the survival of our democracy is at stake.
Certain of their possession of “eternal truths,” these fundamentalists have no use for compromise or accommodation with non-believing (ergo, eternally damned) fellow citizens. They can not be persuaded by science or reason. What they believe to be The Word of God trumps the will of the American majority, established law, and the Constitution of the United States. In short, they have no use for democracy.
There is only one voice that might speak to the fundamentalists and persuade them to re-evaluate their ethical norms, their moral behavior, and their political agenda. That is the voice of Jesus of Nazareth.
Read the presumed words of Jesus in the Gospels, and you will find that the Jesus depicted there was a liberal, in the original sense of that now-abused word.
If we quote his words and cite his teachings (with special attention to the Sermon on the Mount — Matthew Ch. 5-7), over and over, we just might get through to some of our fundamentalist compatriots. Not their leaders, Falwell, Robertson, Dobson, et al, for they are beyond redemption. But without their supporters (“disciples” ) they are nothing. Many, perhaps most, of these supporters are good, decent, people who have been seduced by the modern-day “scribes and Pharisees.” Reintroduce these good Christians to the ethical teachings of their Lord and Savior, and enough may come to their senses to disarm the threat of the religious right to our republic.
Yes, yes, I can hear the secular progressive’s rebuttal, even as I put forth this proposal: “That’s all we need — still more Bible-thumping, playing in the fundies’ ball park according to their ground rules. This is a tactic that is bound to fail.”
Not so. I am not proposing a “battle of the Bibles,” for which only competing factions within Christianity are qualified to engage. The contest is open to all — Christians, Jews, Moslems, and adherents of no organized religion. I identify myself in that final category — as a secularist who is nonetheless fully entitled to confront the fundamentalists with the moral teachings of Jesus.
While most Americans, including, I daresay, most professed Christians, believe that the Bible contains myths, errors, and morally unacceptable rules of conduct, the essential point is that the fundamentalists believe the Bible, from start to finish, to be the inerrant Word of God. And that conviction is the gentle trap that their Bible has set for them. They can, and no doubt will, emphatically reject any scientific, empirical, rational and historical arguments. But they can’t ignore or dismiss what they proclaim to be the authentic words of their Lord and Savior.
Read the Gospels carefully and critically, and you will discover that the religious-right fundamentalists are not, strictly speaking, “Christians” — at least not in the moral sense. Contrary to the teachings of Jesus as presented in the Gospels, they endorse warfare, they condone and seek the acquisition of great wealth, they are merciless, they are unforgiving, they are not compassionate.
To be sure, fundamentalist preachers are skilled in “verse-picking” in support of some of their outrageous doctrines. Even so, they would be hard-pressed to find in the gospels, any condoning of warfare and personal wealth, or any excuse for hypocrisy. For example, while Jerry Falwell’s article, “God is Pro-War”[5. Jerry Falwell]cites the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation, there is not a word in that piece attributed to Jesus in the Gospels in support of this blasphemy.
Their doctrine of “The Rapture,” popularized by the “Left Behind” novels and the religious-right broadcasters of the “Teleban” is found nowhere in their “inerrant” Bible, but is instead an invention of mid-nineteenth-century American preachers.[6. Bill Moyers George Monbiot Gene Lyons] While they post a “rapture index” on the internet, predicting the time of Christ’s second coming, they conveniently forget that Jesus said, “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” (Mark 13:32)
Most importantly, right-wing fundamentalism is not “Christianity,” it is one of many versions of Christianity — and a minority faction at that. To put it bluntly, it is more a cult than a religion.
And many of the precepts of this cult appear to reflective individuals, including most Christians, to be morally repugnant. For example, the theocrats would have us believe that the scoundrel, who in his deathbed confesses that Jesus is his personal Lord and Savior, has earned himself a ticket to paradise, while a courageous, just and virtuous unbeliever must burn in Hell for eternity — that even at this very moment, the souls of Socrates, Gautama Buddha, Muhammad, Thomas Jefferson, Mohandas Gandhi, and Andrei Sakharov are roasting in Hell. In short, the fundamentalists expect us to believe that “God so loved the World” and the billions of souls that have dwelt and will dwell within, that He has chosen to damn to eternal torment the 99-plus percent of humanity who do not agree with Jerry Falwell.
Anyone who can believe that this is to be the fate of virtually all of humanity is likely to feel that the lives of non-believers — e.g., the Iraqi Moslems — are of little value. Accordingly, the fundamentalists have little compunction about promoting and supporting warfare against the unbelievers, including their women and children. And, certain in their possession of “eternal truths,” the theocrats have no use for compromise or accommodation with non-believing (ergo damned) fellow citizens.
These were not the teachings of the Nazarene “Prince of Peace.” Instead, he told us to “love one another.” He repeated The Golden Rule (in fact, taught by all the great world religions), “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” He instructed the rich young man to sell all he had and give to the poor. He told the parable of The Good Samaritan. And he summarized his moral message in a few, simple rules:
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God.
Nowhere in the Sermon on the Mount, or in the Gospels for that matter, do we find these precepts followed by the words: “Except when…”
Finally, Jesus directed his greatest condemnation to the hypocrites:
Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites… This people honoureth me with their lips but their heart is far from me. (Mark 7:6)
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer; therefore ye shall receive thy greater damnation. (Matt. 23:14)
The fundamentalists ask: “What would Jesus Do?” The plain and simple answers are provided in the Gospels, and most notably in the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5-7). Nonetheless, having been supplied their answers, they then choose to disregard these teachings of their “Master” as they proceed to wage war, seek to acquire enormous wealth, exploit the poor and ignore the misery that they cause. All the while they proclaim that they are the only authentic Christians, and that they are in exclusive possession of God’s eternal truths.
Herein lies the potential downfall of the theocrats and an opportunity for their adversaries — moderate republicans, secular libertarians, progressives and, to be sure, the majority of Christians — together a solid majority of American citizens. In your confrontation with the fundamentalists, forget about science, reason and empirical evidence, for they will count for nothing. Don’t bother sharing your innermost moral feelings and convictions; the fundamentalists are not interested, for they are convinced that you preach “false doctrine” and are damned in the eyes of the Lord.
Instead, confront them with the received teachings of Jesus. Regardless of whether you are a liberal Christian, a Jew, a Moslem, an agnostic or an atheist, these words are your strongest weapon. Like myself, you may not believe that these are actual words of Jesus contained in inerrant Holy Scripture. But the fundamentalists do believe that these are the authentic commandments of the Lord God Almighty. So they are “stuck” with them.
Persistently confront the fundamentalists with the teachings of Jesus. Josef Goebbels famously spoke of “the big lie” which, when repeated endlessly, eventually is believed to be true. Even more powerful is “the big truth” which likewise must be repeated over and over until it finally begins to sink in.
So when you are approached by fundamentalists, eager to save your immortal soul and to “sell” you their political agenda, stand your ground and cite what they believe to be the authentic words of their Savior. At the very least, they will shut up, walk away, and leave you at peace. And who knows, they just might, at long last, pause, reflect, and begin to take those words seriously.
In Appreciation of Islam – A Plea for Tolerance
“In my mind there is absolutely no justification and no way of rationalizing what happened on September 11. I am convinced that Islam does not shape the perpetrators’ values and their beliefs. Islam is a religion of peace and I pray that good Muslims will rescue Islam from the clutches of those who use it for their political purposes. Until Americans revisit their foreign policy practices and good Muslims challenge distorted interpretations of Islam consistently, we may not come out of the circle of terror and counter-terror.” — Prof. Muqtedar Khan
George Bush tells us and the world that Islam is a peaceful religion. Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden disagree, as they call upon all Moslems to join them in a “Jihad” – a holy war against the infidel Americans.
Is Islam a religion of peace, or of war? It is both.
Consider the following passages from the Holy Quran:
Kill the disbelievers wherever we find them (2:191)
Fight and slay the pagans, seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem. (9:5)
Slay or crucify or cut the hands and feet of the unbelievers, that they be expelled from the land with disgrace and that they shall have a great punishment in the world hereafter. (5:34)
And the Lord our God delivered him before us… and we took all his cities at that time and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain.
Of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God give the for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.
OK, I lied: the last two verses are from the Holy Bible (Deuteronomy 2:33-4 and 20:16). I’ll return to that point shortly.
However, elsewhere in the Quran, there is a contrasting message. “Even if you stretch out your hand against me to kill me, I shall not stretch out my hand against you to kill you,” and “if anyone murders an innocent person, it will be as if he has murdered the whole of humanity.”
There are comparable contrasts in the Bible (which, after all, is not really a “book” – it is a library of books written over several hundreds of years). In addition to the genocidal slaughters of Deuteronomy listed above, there is the destruction of Jericho and this little encounter with the Midianites:
Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with them, keep alive for yourselves. (Numbers, 31:17-18)
Compare this with the gentle ethics of Micah, the Sermon on the Mount (“blessed are the peacemakers…”) and the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Several years ago, I participated on a panel on WNBC in New York. When I read that passage from Numbers, a fundamentalist Christian preacher responded, “you have to understand that the Midianites were a very wicked tribe, deserving annihilation. (“Including all those children?” I asked). The Reform Rabbi at the table had a very different take on it: “when we consider the context of the entire scripture, we ‘interpret out’ such passages as these.” (“Interpret out” – what an elegant euphemism!)
Scriptural literalism can be a heavy moral burden to bear!
Secularists such as myself have an entirely different interpretation of “holy books” such as the Quran and the Bible. We regard these scriptures, not as the immutable Word of God Almighty, but rather as evidence of the historical evolution of tribal mores. As such, these chronicles convey an inspiring message of moral advancement. Early on in these books, we read of the murder and mayhem committed by conquering nomadic tribes – atrocities justified by the impious claim that the Lord sanctioned such behavior. Then, through time, an ethic of toleration, peace and love emerges as the circle of interdependence extends beyond “our tribe,” and as a common humanity and nobility is recognized and acknowledged in “the other” – even in the person of the despised Samaritan. (We encounter very few “Samaritans” nowadays. But who can doubt that if Jesus were to preach today to the Israelis, he would relate the parable of “the Good Arab,” and to the Palestinians he would speak of “the Good Jew”).
The orthodox believe that their scriptures provide moral instruction. But is it not even more likely that these cryptic and ambiguous ancient texts offer justification for moral sentiments acquired independently? Torquemada, Jerry Fallwell and Martin Luther King all read the same Bible, but take note of different portions thereof. Today, anyone who took it upon himself to follow the Biblical instructions to kill witches and to stone to death disobedient children, would quite correctly be tried and convicted of murder. So instead, we have come to “interpret out” the ethnocentric savagery and archaic folkways of the scriptures, and to focus instead on the civic and moral virtues of justice, toleration, respect and love.
So we return to our original question: Is Islam a religion of peace or of war? The question assumes a significant misconception; namely, that Islam is a unified and singular religion. On the contrary, like Christianity, Islam is a family of religions united by a common historical focus and origin. Among this family of contending sects are, on the one hand, peaceful, tolerant and universalistic creeds , and on the other hand, and militant, fanatical and exclusionist sects. It is this latter branch which bears the poisonous fruit of Osama Bin Laden and his Jihad.
To assess the dominant moral legacy of Islam, or of any other great religion, we are best advised to look, not to the scriptures, but to history. And by this measure, Islam comes off somewhat better than Christianity. In the first place, Islam is inclusive: to the Moslems, Moses and Jesus are revered as prophets. Christians and Jews do not accord the same honor to Mohammed. Because Islam recognizes and accepts Judaism and Christianity as “religions of the book,” Christians and Jews have, for the most part, been accepted in Islamic countries. For example, when the Moslems came to Egypt, they encountered the Coptic Christians, a sect as ancient as Roman Catholicism. The Copts have survived and flourished there ever since, amidst the Moslem majority. And when Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain, they found refuge among the Moslems.
To be sure history, like scripture, is equivocal. Following the death of Mohammed, Islam spread rapidly, by preaching, by commerce, and by the sword. And its advancement into Western Europe was halted by force of arms in France at the battle of Tours in 732. On the other hand, much of Islamic militancy has been defensive, most notably when the Christians invaded their lands and slaughtered their people during the Crusades, and again when they were thrown off their ancestral lands following the establishment of the State of Israel.
Is Islam “a peaceful religion”? It can be, if the Moslems so choose – as most of them have. And our behavior in “The West” is, of course, a crucial ingredient of their choice. There are abundant scriptural, cultural and historical resources in all the “Abrahamic religions” (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) to support a peaceful, tolerant, and mutually respectful accommodation. But there are also darker strains and precedents which, along with contemporary injustices, feed the rage, cruelty and fanaticism of Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. These fanatics are dangerous. But so too are the orthodox Jewish settlers on Palestinian land, the “end-of-times” evangelical Christians, and bigots who refer to the faith of over one billion of our fellow humans as a “gutter religion.”
Consider the legacy of this so-called “gutter religion.”
When my European ancestors were groveling in the ignorance and superstition of the Dark Ages, the Arabic scholars of Baghdad, Damascus and Cordoba were translating and preserving the philosophy and literature of the ancient Greeks and Romans. They developed the number system and invented algebra, which were to become the foundation of our mathematics and physical sciences. Their universities advanced the sciences of medicine and biology, and they built architectural masterpieces that stand today: the Alhambra palace in Granada, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the shrine of the Kaaba at Mecca.
As a philosophical secularist, I am equally outside of Judaism, traditional Christianity and Islam, yet I find much to admire in each of these great world religions. There are resources in each for accommodation and mutual respect — as the Moslems have shown us in the past. There is also a potential for a “clash of civilizations.” The choice is ours.
There is much to admire in the culture and history of Islamic civilization, and in the teachings of the Islamic faith. In our midst and throughout the world there are millions of intelligent, virtuous and admirable Moslems. I am convinced that a majority of Moslems today abhor and reject the fanaticism of Al Qaeda, and furthermore are eager to strive with us to achieve a just and peaceful world order.
But that desirable result can only come about through our combined and mutually respectful cooperation. We are united with our enlightened Islamic brethren in a struggle against common adversaries: injustice, and the blind hatred and terror that issue from fanaticism. And the scourge of fanaticism neither defines, nor is it confined to, any of the great world religions.
The urgent question before is now, is whether we can emulate the tolerance and accommodation of Saladin toward “the religions of the book,” following his triumph over the Crusaders.
One Nation Under God, Divisible.
“Who are you to disagree with God Almighty, the Creator of the universe?”
That daunting rebuke was thrown at me some thirty-five years ago by an evangelical minister, as we argued on the “Long John Nebel” radio talk show, in New York City. It was neither the first nor the last time that I was so challenged. No doubt, most of us have heard such a rebuke, and more than a few of us have spoken it.
I believe that the point at issue was the doctrine of salvation through acceptance of Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior. It could just as well have been the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy or creationism.
My reply, as I recall, was “it would never occur to me to disagree with God Almighty, were I assured that I was hearing the voice of God Himself. But all that I am hearing at this table, Reverend, is your voice. And as we both know, there is no shortage of individuals who totally disagree with you, and claim that they, not you, are preaching God’s eternal truths.”
History provides an unending chronicle of ruthless suppression of “your error” in behalf of “God’s truth” (the latter in exclusive possession of “me and my faction”). “My way” (i.e. God’s way) “or no way!” We see this today in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan under the Taliban, and Saudi Arabia..
And now we see it in the United States.
The harbingers are abundant and clear. For example, in the abortion controversy, the “pro-choice” position (which has never advocated mandatory abortions) is opposed by “pro-life” advocates (who insists upon forcing women to continue pregnancies they wish to terminate). Conservative Christians have repeatedly attempted to prevent the teaching of evolution in the public schools, while it never occurs to the scientist to forbid the teaching of creationism in the churches. (Scientists have, however, successfully resisted the attempt to introduce creationism into the public schools as a “science,” which virtually all scientists and the Courts agree it is not). Finally, the Lord’s wrath, we are told, will be loosed upon our country if we do not restore prayer in the public schools, thus requiring, once again, that some children hear or even utter prayers to a Deity that they and their parents do not recognize.
About sports, musical and artistic tastes, and even politics, individuals can amicably “agree to disagree.” After all, the other fellow is a human being like ourselves, and equal before the law, and who’s to say, he may just know something that we don’t.
But when it comes to matters of religion, the other fellow, we are told, is not simply disagreeing with “us,” he is at odds with the Lord God Almighty Himself, and his soul is in danger of hellfire. And that sort of “error” has no rights.
Few pause to consider that “the other fellow” just might have a mirror-image view of things, whereby he is confident that he holds that ticket to Paradise, while the rest of us are unwitting minions of Satan.
And it is just this kind of bifurcation of humanity into two groups – the “enlightened elect” (“our” group, of course), and all those others – that sanctions wars and ethnic conflicts and which, if we are not all duly cautious, might turn this blessed nation into an Ulster, a Kosovo, or a West Bank.
A belief that the Lord God favors our religious community above all others, can lead to some truly bizarre, and, I suggest, morally outrageous, beliefs and behavior. Examples are abundant in history, literature, and even the current news reports. However, I prefer to state a case from my own experience.
I was raised in an authoritarian-exclusive Christian religion (never mind which). One of the practices of this group was a regular recitation of “faith-promoting stories” of God’s personal blessings upon the “True Believers.” One day, when I was in my early teens, a very intelligent, well-educated corporate attorney, a man of absolute and uncompromising faith, told us of the time that he was scheduled to present a report to his company. On the night before the presentation, as he was hard at work on the report, and with about a half-hour of work remaining he ran into a “wall” of fatigue. Desperate, he fell to his knees and prayed the Lord God to help him. He reported that a great peace fell over him, and that he was led to understand that if he retired immediately, he would awake refreshed in the morning with the energy and presence of mind to complete the assignment. So great was his faith, along with his wish not to disturb his wife, that he didn’t set the alarm clock, and sure enough, he awoke early and completed the report “as promised.”
Everyone in the congregation was duly impressed and their faith validated by this story.
And then, I began to reflect on it. By back-dating to the approximate time of this divine intervention, I figured that it was contemporaneous with the time that millions of European Jews were being led into the Nazi gas chambers – a time when mothers and fathers were praying to the Lord of Israel to spare, if not themselves, then their children.
Tragically, as we all know, these prayers were unanswered. Even so, I was asked to believe that at that same time the Almighty Creator of the Universe saw fit to deliver, like a night clerk at a motel, a wake-up call to our worthy friend, for the greater good of his employer.
This was not the message that the Lord gave to Job “out of the whirlwind.”
Due, in part, to such “faith-promoting stories” as this, my childhood faith soon began to unravel, and I eventually went off to college to become a philosopher.
I submit that such tales are not atypical of “true believers” of exclusive religious organizations. For example, Pat Robertson claims that the power of prayer altered the path of a hurricane that was headed toward his home and college. He did not explain why the individuals victimized by this holy diversion deserved their suffering and losses. Similarly, Jerry Falwell proposed and Pat Robertson agreed that the 9-11 attacks were manifestations of God’s displeasure at the United States for its tolerance of the abominable gays, abortionists and the ACLU. And yet, most of those in the twin towers that fateful morning were not gay, were not patrons of abortionists, and were not card-carrying members of the ACLU. Neither were their bereaved families. Falwell has not told us why these individuals were deserving objects of the Wrath of God.
The mind-sets of a Falwell or a Robertson are not dissimilar from those who are capable of flying an airplane and all its innocent passengers into building filled with equally innocent people.
Finding no lesson from the history of religious conflict nor guidance in Constitutional law and precedence, the Bush II administration now proposes that federal funds be directed to “faith-based” (read religious) agencies (read churches). No state “establishment of religion” involved, they tell us. We are dubious. No doubt, more applications for government largesse will be received than can be granted. How will the Nation of Islam and the Church of Scientology fare in competition with the Southern Baptists? The moment a choice is made (by a government agency, of course) religious “recognition” and preference will be manifest. And so, under this “Big Government” system, the needy faithful will be cared for, provided they associate with an “approved” “faith-based agency” (i.e., church). Those in need who are atheists, agnostics, “cultists,” or simply believers who choose to march to the sound of their own drummer, must move to the back of the queue. Whereupon protests will result, and the nation will be religiously divided.
Far better that we follow the good advice of those who wrote and ratified the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The way out of civil and international strife is as simple as it is unlikely. It consists of the acceptance by a “critical mass” of the public and its leaders of just two elements:
1. Acknowledge that someone, somewhere, has a contrary religious or philosophical belief, which he or she embraces with a fervor and certainty equal to, or possibly even greater than, your own. (In fact, such individuals number in the billions, and they are everywhere).
2. And then entertain a possibility, however remote to your credulity, that this other individual just might be right and you wrong – or even that all of us frail mortals are mistaken in at least some small degree about our fundamental religious convictions.
That much accomplished, then we can proceed with our lives, firm in our convictions, but tolerant of others and willing in principle to alter our beliefs in the face of superior evidence and argument.
An enduring facet of Judeo-Christian morality calls this “humility,” and regards it a virtue.
Philosophers of science call this falliblism.[7. See Chapter 15] It is a firm foundation both for scientific investigation and for civil peace. And it should suffice for enlightened religious faith.
After all, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
NOTES AND REFERENCES