Christianity is not inherently right-wing

To those of us of a more moderate or liberal disposition, the tendency of conservative Christians to identify right-wing politics with Christianity per se is a source of no small irritation. Today at Salon, Elizabeth Stoker and Matt Bruenig point out that the American Christian Right’s approach to wealth and poverty is an outlier when compared with Christian attitudes in other parts of the world:

The notable exclusion of poverty from the Christian agenda would doubtlessly puzzle European Christians, whose support of Christian ethical approaches to family life have always been paired with a deep and vigorous concern for the poor. And, unlike their American counterparts, European Christians haven’t been willing to leave poverty up to individual charity or the market to handle. Quite the contrary: Just as public morality is an arena fit for intervention by a Christian-informed government, so too is welfare.

The case is only bolstered if you take Catholic social teaching, Latin American liberation theology, or other non-American traditions into account. The identification of Christianity with laissez-faire economics appears to be a peculiarly American phenomenon.

In a similar vein, in an interview with (somewhat ironically) the American Conservative, novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson stands up for the much-derided tradition of liberal Christianity:

Well, what is a Christian, after all? Can we say that most of us are defined by the belief that Jesus Christ made the most gracious gift of his life and death for our redemption? Then what does he deserve from us? He said we are to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek. Granted, these are difficult teachings. But does our most gracious Lord deserve to have his name associated with concealed weapons and stand-your-ground laws, things that fly in the face of his teaching and example? Does he say anywhere that we exist primarily to drive an economy and flourish in it? He says precisely the opposite. Surely we all know this. I suspect that the association of Christianity with positions that would not survive a glance at the Gospels or the Epistles is opportunistic, and that if the actual Christians raised these questions those whose real commitments are to money and hostility and potential violence would drop the pretense and walk away.

Liberal Christianity undoubtedly has its problems. But even some of the theological critics of liberalism–like the Niebuhr brothers and Paul Tillich–were not “conservatives” in contemporary political terms. They were decidedly men of the Left, even while they critiqued liberal theology’s tendency toward sentimentality and moralism. To Tillich, for example, love and justice were inseparable, and the political expression of the Kingdom of God would be some form of democratic socialism. In fact, I have a hard time thinking of a major modern or contemporary theologian who is a full-blown right-winger.

Romney, the “God vote,” and American henotheism

The Washington Post‘s Sally Quinn must have a low opinion of religious people. That’s the only way I can explain her assertion that, because he dropped a platitudinous reference to “the Creator” during last night’s debate, Mitt Romney has captured the “God vote.” Weirdly, Quinn admits that President Obama often talks about his own Christian faith but says that he hasn’t done it in a debate. (There’s only been one!) Quinn says, without offering anything by way of evidence, that Obama needs to “wear God” like a lapel pin if he wants to woo the 85 percent of voters who say they believe in God.

Surely she knows that there must be substantial overlap between this “85 percent” and the roughly half of voters who went for Obama in 2008 and that say they’re going to again? And that many of these people might not need Obama to constantly drop references to the Almighty in order for him to show that he shares their values?

What I think was going on in Romney’s “we are endowed by our Creator with our rights” line was that he was echoing a bizarre (and demonstrably false) meme on the Right that the president intentionally omits the reference to “the Creator” whenever he quotes or paraphrases the opening lines of the Declaration. There’s a strain of conservative Christianity that maintains that the U.S. is a “Christian nation” and that secular liberals are always trying to efface this fact.

Ironically, the “God” of Americanist Christianity looks a lot more like a primitive tribal deity than the God of biblical theism. It’s a step backwards toward what H. Richard Niebuhr (and others) have called “henotheism”: a form of faith that “regards the limited group as the center of value, and it values people and things according to how they serve the group’s ends” (as theologian Douglas Ottati summarizes it). In its American variant, God exists to underwrite the American project.

By contrast, what Niebuhr called “radical monotheism” insists on “equality because all people are equally related to the one universal center of value.” Abraham Lincoln captured the spirit of radical monotheism when he reflected that “the Almighty has His own purposes,” which couldn’t be straightforwardly identified with the cause of the Union or the Confederacy. In the Bible, God’s preferential love for his people (Israel or the church) is tempered by a “prophetic” call to extend that love beyond the bounds of the group.

When we use God as a political prop or a tribal marker, we’re committing what the Bible calls idolatry–putting a creature, whether it be the self or the group, above the Creator.

In the midst of a great revolution

One of the interesting things about H.R. Niebuhr is that he is often trying to walk the middle ground between a liberal or “natural” theology based on reason or experience and a Barthian “revelational positivism” that limits our knowledge of God to what is revealed.

For Niebuhr, philosophical reasoning, religious experience, psychology, and history all have a role in the formation of our idea of deity. After all, how could we recognize or respond to revelation if we had no prior idea of God whatsoever? What revelation does, on Niebuhr’s view, is transform this idea without necessarily replacing or negating it.

It is true that revelation is not the communication of new truths and the supplanting of our natural religion by a supernatural one. But it is the fulfillment and the radical reconstruction of our natural knowledge about deity through the revelation of one whom Jesus Christ called “Father.” All thought about deity now undergoes a metamorphosis. Revelation is not a development of our religious ideas but their continuous conversion. God’s self-disclosure is that permanent revolution in our religious life by which all religious truths are painfully transformed and all religious behavior transfigured by repentance and new faith. It is revolutionary since it makes a new beginning and puts an end to the old development; it is permanent revolution since it can never come to an end in time in such a way that an irrefragable knowledge about God becomes the possession of an individual or a group. Life in the presence of revelation in this respect as in all others is not lived before or after but in the midst of a great revolution. (The Meaning of Revelation, p. 95)

Niebuhr identifies three particular aspects of our idea of God that undergo revolutionary transformation in light of the revelation we receive through Jesus:

Divine unity: God’s unity is not the unity of a hierarchy with a “supreme being” at the top; rather, it is the unity of one “meeting us in every event and requiring us to think his thoughts after him in every moment” (p. 96). I think what Niebuhr is getting at here is a more “immanent” idea of God–the pulsating life at the center of every being.

Divine power: We want a God who is the ultimate force in the universe, who’s on our side and will make sure that nothing bad happens to us or those we love, and will ensure the success of our projects and values. But in Jesus the power of God is “made manifest in … weakness” (p. 97); God conquers evil not by overpowering it, but through the death of an innocent man on a cross. “We cannot come to the end of the road of our rethinking the ideas of power and omnipotence” (p. 98).

Divine goodness: Our “natural” tendency is to worship God (or the gods) both for what he is and for what he can do for us. And religious life is often organized accordingly: acts of devotion partly undertaken to ensure divine favor. In Christian revelation, however, “[w]e sought a good to love and were found by a good that loved us” (p. 99). God is active in love, seeking us out. A “transactional” understanding of religion, which puts ourselves and our projects at its center, is replaced by the demand that we learn to receive God’s love for us and for those whom we would rather not love.

It follows from this understanding of revelation that we never possess a final definition or understanding of God. We are always “on the way,” with the revelation we receive in Jesus prodding us beyond the comforts of our inherited opinions and orthodoxies. “This conversion and permanent revolution of our human religion through Jesus Christ is what we mean by revelation” (p. 99).

H.R. Niebuhr on revelation, ethics, and nature

For Niebuhr, revelation is not a revelation of divinely inspired propositions–as some theories of biblical inerrancy would have it. Instead, it is a fundamentally personal encounter–a revelation of God’s self. In this encounter, we don’t apprehend an object; it is more accurate to say that we are apprehended by–in judgment and love–the ultimate Subject.

But this irreducibly personal revelation has implications for, or casts a particular light on, our understanding of truths about the world. Two important examples Niebuhr offers are ethics and science.

With regard to ethics, revelation doesn’t mean that God gives us new ethical rules of which we were previously unaware. The Bible, Niebuhr points out, presupposes that people know the difference between right and wrong prior to revelation. However, revelation transforms our ethics in three important respects:

–First, it intensifies the moral demand. What may before have been thought of as a transgression against my personal code of conduct or society’s norms is now experienced as a transgression against God’s holy will, which is inexorable and inescapable. This gives ethics a heightened seriousness.

–Second, it universalizes the scope of moral concern. Revelation “shatters” our various idols of self, tribe, nation, class, etc. All too often we rationalize these idolatries–elevating the penultimate to ultimate status–with our various ethical codes. But the God of Christian revelation is the God who has an unrestricted concern not only for those we consider strangers or enemies, but for non-human life and non-human creation. God’s cause is the cause of being.

–Third, it makes it possible to experience morality in the indicative rather than the imperative mood. This means that we need not be experience the moral life as an external duty imposed on or restraining us. The possibility has arisen of a spontaneous love of the good, “a free love of God and man” (p. 89). This is something we only experience a foretaste of in this life, but it foreshadows our destiny of freedom from sin.

Regarding science, Niebuhr says that revelation transforms how we should perceive the natural world. So much of our view of the non-human creation is bound up with a need to assert and justify a sense of human superiority. But, he points out, for Christian revelation, the ground of our value is not our alleged superiority over animals or the rest of nature, but in being loved and valued by God. This frees us from the need to look at nature through an anthropocentric lens:

Faith in the person who creates the self, with all its world, relieves the mind of the pagan necessity of maintaining human worth by means of imaginations which magnify the glory of man. When the creator is revealed it is no longer necessary to defend man’s place by a reading of history which establishes his superiority to all other creatures. To be a man does not now mean to be a lord of the beasts but a child of God. To know the person is to lose all sense of shame because of kinship with the clod and the ape. The mind is freed to pursue its knowledge of the external world disinterestedly not by the conviction that nothing matters, that everything is impersonal and valueless, but by the faith that nothing God has made is mean or unclean. (p. 90)

These are themes that Niebuhr reaffirms in Radical Monotheism and Western Culture. I posted a bit on that here. In both places Niebuhr emphasizes that the revelation of God’s universal love radically undermines our inevitable tendency to put ourselves at the center of the universe and to invest finite or partial goods with ultimate significance.

H.R. Niebuhr’s principles

In the preface to his The Meaning of Revelation, H. Richard Niebuhr outlines three convictions that he says underlie his argument:

–self-defense is the most prevalent source of error in all thinking and perhaps especially in theology and ethics;

–the greatest source of evil in life is the absolutizing of the relative, which in Christianity takes the form of substituting religion, revelation, church, or Christian morality for God; and

–Christianity is “permanent revolution” or metanoia which does not come to an end in this world, this life, or this time.

“Positively stated,” he adds, “these three convictions are that man is justified by grace, that God is sovereign, and that there is an eternal life” (p. xxiv).

The first point means that Christians shouldn’t try to “prove” their faith from some allegedly neutral, ahistorical premises. Niebuhr embraces the “historicity” of all truth-claims–that they are situated in a particular context and that we always view the world from a particular perspective. This doesn’t mean that our beliefs don’t bring us into contact with an independently existing reality, but that our convictions don’t necessarily rest on the kind of public evidence upheld as the ideal by the sciences. Rather, Christians should be “confessional”–telling the story of their lives and how they have been changed by their encounter with God in Jesus Christ.

The second conviction summarizes what Niebuhr elsewhere calls “radical monotheism.” Following Paul Tillich, Niebuhr identifies sin as humanity’s tendency to elevate finite goods (self, family, nation, even moral values) to the status of “ultimate concern.” Authentic biblical faith, however, insists that only God is ultimate; rather than enlisting God in our cause–as the one who meets our needs or guarantees the success of our projects–we should enlist in God’s cause, which is the cause of being itself.

Finally, the third point is that the Christian community should be “reformed and always reforming,” to use a favorite Protestant slogan. If “confessionalism” can under some circumstances lead to a hardening of identity, this principle calls for constant self-criticism–and for receiving criticism from outside the community. Some recent theology seems at times to interpret confessionalism to mean that the church should think of itself as a hermetically-sealed “language game” or set of cultural practices immune to outside critique or influence. But Niebuhr insists that its boundaries must remain permeable to some extent if the church is not to become an idol that takes the place of God.