White House Coronavirus Commemorative Coins: or How Quickly ClickBait Becomes Factual

A Facebook friend shared this headline yesterday: “WHITE HOUSE GIFT SHOPCORONAVIRUS COLLECTOR’S ITEM …Commemorative Coins?!?

The headline was taken from an article by TMZ news. But the same general topic was covered by a number of sensationalist Left Wing news outlets. The strong implication and what elicited outrage for many, was that THE WHITE HOUSE was selling distasteful commemorative $100 coins. Well, yes The White House (non caps) WAS selling the coins…but they are a privately owned gift shop across the street from THE WHITE HOUSE! The post and other like it of course have quickly gone viral on social media and, yes, a lot of liberals immediately jumped on it.

It proves that it is human nature to practice bias confirmation when presented with unverified information. It is not only a conservative response, but also affects people regardless of political or religious affiliations. Thankfully, there are unbiased sources that can be turned to fact check. It took me less than a minute to find out that the actual Trump administration was not selling these coins, proving again that the average person would rather accept information that confirms their biases than take the time to check if it is factual or not.

The greatest danger to Americans being informed is not the proliferation of “fake news” but the acceptance of half truths as full truth.

Protesting Quarantine: When Being Christian is all About Me

As I stated in my last post, tough times bring out the best in people, but also the worst. Under financial strain and job loss some people’s faith causes them to reach out and help others, to show empathy and concern. But for others, fear and loss of control over their lives causes them to lash out, and show more concern for their own skin than concern for the well being of others. This is especially disheartening when I see those who claim to be followers of Jesus behave in ways that expose that when push comes to shove, their own needs come before those of others. 

The recent outbreak of small protests against stay at home restrictions would have been a more effective example of first amendment rights if the protestors had shown respect for the health of others. But they did not. In fact, the actions of most of those protestors showed that they really did not care about others at all. Many shouted “this is America,” as if their particular display of “patriotism” was some how more genuine than the millions of Americans following the health guidelines, trying to keep others safe, and suffering along with everyone else.

Especially troubling to me, was the blending of Christianity, guns, flag waving, and of course, Donald Trump, as though the blending of these things equated true Christianity and true American democracy. How is it that America has produced such a virulent, self absorbed, selfish, shallow brand of Christianity in some areas of the country? My fear is that as the quarantine drags on longer, more and more of these “me first” Christians will become increasingly more hostile and desperate. We are already seeing ugliness being directed towards Dr. Fauci and Dr. Berx and there are valid concerns for their safety. Bad actors have increasingly been identified and arrested and there are rising concerns that the pandemic will spark domestic terrorism in the coming months according to a memo put out by the Department of Homeland Security April 23. 

“The memo, dated April 23 and obtained by POLITICO, cites recent arrests of individuals who have threatened government facilities and elected officials over the health restrictions that have been imposed to stop the spread of Covid-19. The warning, marked unclassified/law enforcement sensitive, was disseminated as so-called Liberate protesters have begun demonstrating outside several states’ capitol buildings demanding an end to the lockdowns.” (1)

The usual conspiracy theories that fall along racial/political lines are being once again dredged up and scape goats created to vent one’s frustrations against. Typically it is the messengers, the scientists, the governors, i.e., those trying hardest to help and flatten the curve that receive the brunt of scorn. When did medicine and science become a liberal plot to discredit Trump? I am not particularly apocalyptic, but when scripture describes “the love of many waxing cold,” (Matthew 24:12) and “even the elect being deceived,” (Matthew 24:24), it is easy to see how selfishness combined with leaders who promise much, but deliver little, can sway those with shallow faith.

Portions of the New Testament, like that in Matthew, warn of the dangers of listening to “false prophets,” who feed our fears and shore up our echo chambers. If Christians could only show more discernment, and realize that they are being used. These protests are not spontaneous, but carefully orchestrated by “non-profit” organizations like the Heritage Foundation, that hide behind a lot of patriotic posturing, but who’s goals are fattening the pockets of the wealthiest Americans:

—“The protests playing out now have the same feel as the Tea Party protests aided by Koch-financed Americans for Prosperity and others a decade ago — and with good reason: Early evidence suggests they are not organic but a brush fire being stoked by some of the same people and money that built the Tea Party.”

“Look no further than the first protest organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the Michigan Freedom Fund — whose chairman manages the vast financial investments of Dick and Betsy DeVos, the Education Secretary — to see that the campaign to “open” America flows from the superrich and their front groups.” (2)

So, middle class, largely white, Americans who have lost jobs and healthcare coverage, and have reasons to be fearful, are being manipulated by groups that are fronts for Big Business and America’s top 1%, who play upon those fears to get support for maintaining the wealth inequality status quo. By clever use of religious and patriotic jingoism and appealing to our baser self interests disguised as “constitutional rights,” the Uber-rich manage to continue to deceive a large swath of people into believing that they have their best interests in mind; that somehow by protesting they are being more patriotic, more religious and are suffering unjustly. The bottom line is that the superrich are more than willing to sacrifice the lives of the poor and middle class if it increases their bottom line.

The Koch Brothers are beginning to realize, however, that there are negative side affects when right-wing radicalism is unleashed. With the vast majority of Americans supporting social distancing and their governors’ responses to “flattening the curve,” the increasingly unsafe and “in-your-face” posturing of gun toting radicalism displayed by the recent mobs of quarantine dissidents is not playing well on social media and the news. 

“Americans for Prosperity — the main political arm of the Koch family — decided not to join some of its former collaborators from the tea party movement, such as FreedomWorks, in embracing the protests or helping organize them online.”

“The move reflects a dramatic shift in tactics within the network, which in the past has spent hundreds of millions of dollars a year on political action. It also demonstrates how the grassroots activist wing of the Republican Party — which was once funded and largely molded by the Kochs — has veered away from the small-government priorities of an earlier era. Now, much of the take-to-the-streets anger channels President Donald Trump’s skepticism of the kind of expertise that lies behind the coronavirus shutdowns.” (3)

In particular, the Koch Brothers have realized a diminishing return from the Tea Party movement, and have begun a balancing act of running the risk of losing wealthy conservative donors by not directly supporting the protests, yet realizing that the protests may be counter productive to their goals of deregulation. —In essence, the Libertarian goals of the Uber-rich can be likened to a parasite that lives off the health of the host, yet realizes the host must be kept alive or they themselves will perish. It is a rather macabre dance. —And yet, somehow these superrich groups have managed to convince a large portion of the conservative middle class that they have their best interests in mind: that they feel their pain and that they represent true populism. One of the greatest farces foisted on an unsuspecting middle class is that Donald Trump is a populist president. Nothing could be further from the truth.

And yet, conservative Christians in increasing numbers, turn to Libertarianism rather than the Sermon on the Mount as their touchstone for guidance in social activism. The social Darwinism of Ayn Rand seems more palatable than “blessed are the meek.” I tend to think that both the rugged individualism of “born again” conservative Christianity and the American two-party system may have outlived their usefulness. When Christianity and patriotism combine the end result seems to be neither. Wake up America! You are being played the fool.

1 https://www.politico.com/news/2020/04/23/dhs-increase-in-coronavirus-inspired-violence-205221

2 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/22/opinion/coronavirus-protests-astroturf.html

3 https://www.politico.com/news/2020/04/22/koch-coronavirus-shutdown-protests-202320

Churches, the First Amendment and Pandemics

The Covid-19 pandemic that has crippled economies and taken many lives has brought out the best in most of us. Despite some panic and hoarding, it has been heartening to see people around the globe uniting in spite of sometimes horrific circumstances. For the most part, the vast majority of churches have taken the virus very seriously, cancelling meetings and holding services online. But there have been mixed messages coming from our government, especially early on, and unfortunately, a downplaying and politicizing of the pandemic.

This mixed messaging has unfortunately encouraged some congregations to not act responsibly. The constant message from the White House that the news media is fake and not to be trusted, combined with the war on science from the Trump administration has bolstered some conservative Christians to discount the severity of the pandemic as reported by medical experts and the media.

I believe the problem is not unique to Trump, but has a history of development over the last century. The distrust of science goes clear back to the “Monkey Trials” in the early twentieth century, when “Bible believing” Christians riled against evolution. The resistance to literary and historical criticism goes back even further, to the mid to late 19th century. More modern resistance to science among conservative Christians can be found the response to global warming and to the LGBTQ community and gender identity, and unconvincing attempts to discount expert witness.

In the circumstances where church Pastors have ignored or blatantly disregarded the State quarantine orders, such as the Tampa Bay mega church pastor last Sunday (1), there are a number of sociological, political and religious ideas that converge into a perfect storm of virus infection. This particular pastor was warned but decided his “first amendment rights” were of greater importance than that of the health of others. Several hundred people packed his church on Sunday. He has since been arrested and released on bail.

We have seen a number of MidWest and Southern States, including Florida, that have resisted social distancing and quarantine as well. Their conservative governors listening to, again, the mixed messaging coming from White House leadership, and Fox News. Their weeks too late attempts to mitigate the virus may have tragic results.

There seems to be a reoccurring theme that accompanies the rugged individualism of sawdust trail Christianity. It tends rather naturally, to be concerned with self. When coupled with right wing conservative politics it leads to a rather self centered Libertarianism and a “I have MY rights” type of attitude. It can be seen in the Tampa Bay pastor and in the love affair between white evangelicals and the Second Amendment.

This is a sad turn of events that I fear will have lasting consequences. Let’s hope I am wrong.

1 https://relevantmagazine.com/god/church/a-tampa-bay-pastor-has-been-arrested-for-holding-services-during-covid-19-lockdown/

The War on Evangelicalism, in Conclusion

The period of time between the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the creation of the Moral Majority organization in 1979 was a period of great upheaval in American society. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Watt’s riots, hippies in Haight Ashbury San Francisco, the Black Panthers, the Freedom Marches, the rise of feminism and the ERA, there was a great deal of things upsetting for conservative Christians.

In the midst of this social upheaval, increasing public displeasure with Southern segregationism and the political pressure to segregate private Christian schools further agitated fundamentalist Christian leadership. But these leaders continually failed to appeal to a broad enough group to slow or thwart progressive legislation. It is at this point that the temptation to over-simplify and evaluate the evangelical development in the 80s and 90s in terms of a binary cause becomes apparent. I confess, I had, before making a more thorough study, leaned towards understanding modern evangelicalism primarily in terms of White Nationalism. This is an easy assumption to make if one thinks solely in terms of Southern fundamentalism. And, yes, fundamentalism thinking had a huge impact on direction and priorities of the evangelical movement from 1980 onward. However, the seeds of ultra conservatism were already within evangelicalism long before Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.  

Rather than see fundamentalism as a minority subset of evangelicalism, as some historians do, I tend to think of modern evangelicalism, as opposed to classic evangelicalism of the 18th-19th centuries, as an outgrowth of early 20th century, fundamentalism, dispensationalism and an apocalyptic world view. Matthew Avery Sutton’s “American Apocalypse, A History of Modern Evangelicalism,” is a wonderful resource for tracing this development. (1) So, as the segregationist, fundamentalist preacher, Jerry Falwell readied his Moral Majority movement in 1979, the wedge issues he planned to use: abortion, the ERA, homosexuality, civil rights, liberalism, were already a part of the more moderate evangelical “worry-list.” Yes, his concerns were more racially motivated, but the wedge issues already concerned most evangelicals to one degree or another.

So what new impetus did Falwell bring to the evangelical table that had not already been there before? The most obvious is a new emphasis on rigidity in response to the wedge issues. Take abortion for example. Catholics had an absolute stance: abortion was wrong under all circumstances. Evangelicals were more conflicted and divided on the issue.

“If Republicans were reluctant to restrict abortion in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, so were most evangelicals. They greeted the first state abortion legislation laws with silence and apathy.” (2) Overall, the majority response to abortion was that “therapeutic abortion” was morally permissible, but not “abortion on demand.” Fundamentalists generally were more adamant on the subject and laid the sole burden for sexual responsibility squarely on the woman. For example Billy Sunday, John Rice and Henry Stough. (3)

When Falwell courted Catholics, not only was he breaking with the long-standing mistrust fundamentalists had of Catholics, but he was speaking language Catholics could understand concerning abortion. Hence, the Moral Majority borrowed from the Catholic playbook and effectively moved the needle decisively to the right for evangelicals. This is where I believe the long term effect on evangelicalism lay: fundamentalism moved evangelicals to the right, making them more conservative than they were prior to the Moral Majority.

While I believe, judging from Falwell’s views on “separation of the races,” that segregation was more on his mind than abortion, legal protection for Christian schools that discriminated against blacks ultimately failed, even though Carter was denied a second term by evangelicals. Where Falwell succeeded, and I believe decidedly succeeded, was galvanizing evangelicals and Catholics under the common cause of overturning Roe v Wade. Between the academic assault on moderates within the evangelical system of higher education, and labeling of abortion as “murder,” a noble cause was born that enabled evangelicals to politically resist “liberal causes” that they felt supported abortion. To put it another way, evangelicals could broadly condemn governmental efforts at progressive social programs because they, at least, did not support the “mass murder of infants.” The Moral Majority was wildly successful in hiding their morally questionable views of racism under the rubric of defending the unborn. To be fair, I suspect a fairly large group evangelicals still believe there are morally excusable reasons for abortion under some circumstances, but fundamentalism combined with Catholicism has affected the legal aspirations concerning abortion towards completely overturning Roe v Wade.

Not that abortion is the only residual concern of evangelicals: a concerted effort was attempted to curtail Gay rights as well as the Equal Right Amendment for women. While the attempts to halt Gay marriage ultimately failed and the ERA quietly went away, the desire to overturn Roe v Wade has remained a pressing concern for evangelicals. It is still the cause de celebre among many evangelicals.

Which brings us to the current evangelical agenda: to stack the court system from the SCOTUS on down, to reflect conservative social causes. While the initial rise of the Religious Right was arguably fueled by fundamentalist racism, that was too narrow a cause and too unpopular to remain a central focus of the Religious Right. As Falwell skillfully used wedge issues to his advantage I believe the political landscape and emphasis for evangelicals changed as a result when the next century arrived. Although white evangelicals and evangelicals of color may vote differently, evangelicals of every stripe have found a common cause in its efforts to forge a “Christian Nation.” In other words, no longer content to vote on single issue items, there is an all out push towards Christian Nationalism, a blend of Christ and Caesar.

 This will be the subject I tackle in the future. Ultimately the dangers inherent to Christian Nationalism are far more dangerous to democracy than the racism of 20th century fundamentalism as it appeals to a much larger audience and has managed to infiltrate much of the Republican Party platform. But more on that at a later time.

1 “American Apocalypse, A History of Modern Evangelicalism,” Matthew Avery Sutton, Harvard College, 2014.

2 “God’s Own Party, The Making of the Religious Right,” Daniel K. Williams, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 111, 115.

3 Ibid., pp. 145-146.

4 https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133

Gun Packing Parishioners and The Sermon on the Mount

The recent church shooting in Texas where 2 were killed before armed parishioners shot and killed the gunman has been quite the topic of discussion on social media for the past week. As usual discussion breaks down to those on the Left saying this is not something Jesus would approve of, and those on the Right saying “turning the other cheek” would have meant many more lives lost. What Christian gun advocates fail, of course, to realize, is that voting for politicians that “owe their positions” to the NRA and the gun lobby, means that they are responsible for the continuation of an environment that breeds more gun violence. It is a circular trap. 

But, in my discussion with members of the Religious Right recently I ran into numerous comments that basically amounted to admitting the Sermon on the Mount was simply not practical in “real world” scenarios. It should not have caught me off guard, but it did.

One of the advantages of disengaging from a tribal “bubble” and deconstructing, is that you can see things from a different angle than that of the “tribe.” Things I had always been taught in my past dispensational/rapture/end-times evangelicalism suddenly began to fall in place. A “big picture” started to form.

In dispensational teaching, there are a couple of different approaches to the Sermon on the Mount. A. It was the millennial kingdom being offered to the Jews, which they rejected. That marked the end of the Age of the Jews and ushered in the Church Age. It was only meant for the Jews, hence has no bearing on present day Christianity. And, B. that it is a call to the church as well, but a sort of interim ethical code until the Kingdom of God is fully implemented. 

The average Christian in the pew is not particularly interested in Ryrie or Scofield so I won’t get into classical dispensationalism (although I remember some of my Sunday School teachers teaching straight out of the Scofield Study Bible). But I think it is generally accurate to say that most evangelical readers will see the Sermon on the Mount as having “personal” rather than general application. 

As we have seen with Pastor John MacArthur, and the many evangelicals who signed his letter condemning “social justice” as a “distraction” from the gospel, the Sermon on the Mount has no practical application for society in general. (1) Some of this comes from the modern struggle between capitalism and communism, as evangelicals are capitalists and as MacArthur points out in his blog, “social justice” has been employed as political shorthand by radical leftists as a way of calling for equal distribution of wealth, advantages, privileges, and benefits—up to and including pure Marxist socialism.” (2)

Not terribly surprising I suppose, as the specter of communism was a huge part of the preaching of evangelicals such as Billy Graham during the Cold War in the 50s and 60s. This also explains why you will never hear evangelicals clamoring for the Sermon on the Mount to be posted in American courtrooms. American evangelicals much more readily identify with Mosaic law than the Law of Love outlined in the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus’ radical redefinition of the Law of Moses, “turn the other cheek,” “love your enemies,” “don’t judge others,” seems to have never set well with Christians, and the church has been terribly inept at following the teachings of Jesus, so this is not just an evangelical problem, but one that has dogged the church for centuries.

However, the bifurcation of Jesus’ teaching into something only Christians can strive for because the “world does not know him,” has the undesirable effect of producing a less just society. Because evangelicals have released government from attempting to achieve a more just society (for example the evangelical response to the 60s civil rights movement), they have actually been contributing to social injustice.

Which brings me back again to the parishioners packing pistols in the Texas church. When fear motivates the way Christians vote, and those fears largely revolve around “protecting oneself,” the stage is set for violence. Yes, killing the gunman prevented more victims, but the mantra, “only good guys with guns can stop bad guys with guns,” is circular. Evangelicals with their blind support of the NRA and gun proliferation, actually help create a scenario where it becomes necessary to arm parishioners. In the end, the Sermon on the Mount not only becomes impractical for secular government, but for Christians themselves.

1 https://statementonsocialjustice.com

2 https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B180907/the-injustice-of-social-justice

Deconstruction and the Culture Wars

My spirit is disquieted. I have a hard time falling asleep. I cannot turn my mind off. I have mixed feelings of anger, anguish, dread. At times deep sorrow washes over me. Other times a feeling of loss. But at times I feel a fleeting sense of peace…of feeling I am heading in the right direction. I tend to be a rather introspective person, always have been, so this is not some pathology, I have known depression enough to know that this is not simply depression. Most of my life I have been actually rather optimistic. No, this is no doubt a byproduct of spiritual deconstruction coupled with the sense of loss of my childhood beliefs.

In some ways I envy the British and Europeans, for whom Christendom died a century or more ago. The merger of religion and state was a failure, so the whole misguided experiment was simply abandoned. Here in the States, we doggedly refuse to abandon the effort to force the Kingdom of God down everyone’s throats. I am watching helplessly as fundamentalism reasserts its hold on American politics and presents society with an ugly Jesus.

As I have mentioned in the past, my wife and I grew up in the Assemblies of God denomination. We still attend one such church, largely because it was the church my wife has attended all her life, and because my 95 year old mom needs a ride to church, and that’s her church. I am not a member, I have grown apart from that denomination theologically, and have gradually come to the realization that I no longer identify as “evangelical.”

As can be expected, attending a meeting every Sunday where you no longer fit in is not very satisfying. It is not that I expect everyone to applaud my journey or my theological views, but I have found in the last half dozen years, that fundamentalism does not encourage the exchange of differing theological or spiritual understandings. I miss seminary where we were encouraged to wrestle with scripture, to debate ideas, bounce things off each other…in other words, it was a “safe” place to deconstruct and reconstruct unhindered by ecclesiastical censure.

But it is not the inability to “be myself” that I am bemoaning, but, rather the inability to “reach” lost evangelicals. It is not a pleasant experience to watch the church dying in real time, to see family members and friends succumb to self-delusion and harmful confirmation biases. Being “saved” in scripture, the concept of salvation, is not a “point” in one’s life that one can look back on and say, “that’s it, that’s when I was saved and said the sinner’s prayer.” Nor is it a destination when you die. Again and again, Jesus showed us that salvation was a continuous, lived experience.

A century and a half of individualistic, “sawdust trail” conversion experiences has numbed the conservative church to the central call of the Gospel message: love your neighbor. Conservatism has replaced the gospel in too many American churches. The gospel of unbridled capitalism and libertarianism has replaced the open generosity of Jesus’ message. The culture war that is being fiercely waged by the Religious Right is not political but spiritual. It is not, as conservatives opine, about gay marriage, feminism and transgender bathrooms. No, the struggle has always been about defining “who is my neighbor?”

So, once again, yesterday, I had the jarring experience of sitting through another service that started with everyone holding up their Bibles and in lock-step repeating the mantra…”I believe the WHOLE Bible, what it says about me, what it says about you…” as I glanced around the room and saw the frozen smiles of a couple hundred people waving their Bibles in complete obedience to their leader a chilling realization came over me, “it’s a cult.” Even though the pastor’s message was helpful for those facing hard times, the picture of everyone holding their Bibles up was so jarring, and the revelation that evangelicalism is a cult so disturbing, I was distracted for the rest of the service. It didn’t help that as we pulled out of the parking lot, the car ahead proudly displayed a Trump/Pence 2020 sticker.

The Billy Graham Rule: Sexual Segregation

A number of lawsuits have been cropping up where Baptist men claim they are victims of religious discrimination because they have refused to work closely with women. Like Billy Graham and recently, Mike Pence, there is this reticence about men being alone with women, other than their wives, that permeates the patriarchal culture of some evangelical communities.

It is very unlikely, given the history of misogyny among S Baptists, and their reluctance to allow women into leadership positions, that this is entirely about avoiding sexually charged situations. S Baptists have fought hard the last 6 or 7 decades, against the woman’s movement, against women’s rights, and against women “taking men’s jobs. Entering the 20th century was hard enough for them, let alone the 21st! So, I believe a large part of this backlash against women in the workforce has to to with animus towards women for being there in the first place.

But that is not all. There is a general tendency among evangelicals towards legalism. For example, I grew up in a culture where attending movies or dances, was considered “sinful.” I saw my first theater movie at age 20, when I attended college out of town. The tendency, therefore, is to create extra-biblical rules to avoid even the remote possibility of a “real sin,” like fornication. It is as if, they are saying humans are of such weak moral fiber that they must be baby-sat with rules in order to keep from sexual transgressions.

No doubt, a lot of this comes from our Puritan heritage, total depravity and Calvinism, but it reflects neither adult behavior or reliance on the work of the Holy Spirit to lead us rightly. I can speak from my own personal experience on the matter as I was a victim of harassment in the workplace myself. I worked alone with a woman for 6 years in a large manufacturing facility. It did not end well, unfortunately, and became increasingly uncomfortable towards the end. But I did not decline to work with a coworker because she was a woman, I made the situation work as long as I could, only raising concerns when she became abusive and possessive. I went through the proper channels, gave her chances, until, the company had no other recourse than firing her. This is the adult way to deal with situations as they arise.

I cannot help but feel the recent rash of evangelicals wishing to have odd and discriminatory exemptions in the workplace reflect their general animus towards gays, minorities and women. There is no practical way to create a “separate but equal,” workforce, where women and men are kept segregated, or where business are allowed to discriminate against others based on gender, gender preference or sexual orientations. Yet this is exactly what the Religious Right would have society embrace. Are there any adults in the room?

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/north-carolina-police-officer-fired-following-billy-graham-rule-lawsuit-n1045706

People Are Getting Sued Over the Billy Graham Rule Now