Sunday, July 30, 2017

Of Little Consequence

"Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned?" [Senator] Sanders asked. "What about Jews? Do they stand condemned, too?"

"I'm a Christian," [Russel] Vought repeatedly responded.

"I understand you are a Christian," Sanders said, raising his voice. The senator is Jewish and has said he's not particularly religious. "But there are other people who have different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?"
Is It Hateful To Believe In Hell? Bernie Sanders' Questions Prompt Backlash
I've written about this previously, but The Atlantic raised the exchange again in the second episode of their "Radio Atlantic(" podcast. In case you'd managed to ignore the whole thing until now (in which case, my apologies), Russel Vought was defending Wheaton College (which is an evangelical Christian school in Wheaton, Illinois) commencing termination proceedings against Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a political science professor. Dr. Hawkins drew the college's ire after noting that Jews, Christians and Moslems are all "People of the Book," among other statements designed to show solidarity with Islam. They were then dissatisfied with the professor's reaffirmations of the college's Statement of Faith. For a lot of evangelicals, as I understand it, the idea that Islam should be considered an offshoot of Judaism, in the same way that Christianity is, and thus understood as worshiping the same deity is anathema.

The context was the question "How much religious diversity do Americans really support?" And most of the segment was a repeated criticism of "the Left" (defined as "Democrats and Liberals") for engaging in "intolerant pluralism" and not respecting religions as they are, rather than as they want them to be. Mr. Vought's grilling by Senator Sanders is often held up as proof that "the Left" talks the talk of religious tolerance and pluralism, but doesn't walk the walk. Emma Green defined "intolerant pluralism" as "diversity [...] acceptable only so long as those who are diverse are checking certain boxes or staying within the boundaries of certain acceptable viewpoints, by which everything is okay." She contrasts this with "tough pluralism," which she says "challenges us to take viewpoints like [those of certain conservative Christians], and ask the question, 'Is it okay? Can we live with, and tolerate people who have views that say "Mine is the right true way, and I'll live in a neighborly way with you, I'll live in a society with you, but I believe I'm right, and you're wrong".'"

Now, it's worth pointing out that this isn't a new criticism.
Liberals' desire for religion purely in service to social justice is as wrongheaded as conservatives' conception of religion as social control, and "relevance" is not the only test to apply.
Mark Oppenheimer "Haggadah Better Idea" Slate Magazine, 2 April 2007
But it misses something important. When Ms. Green attributes "tough pluralism" to the evangelical community, and other Christian conservatives, the "I'll live in a neighborly way with you, I'll live in a society with you," is taken as a given. But when one does this, it makes the idea that certain people are condemned in the eyes of God something that only matters within the four walls of a church or a bible-study session, with no real-world implications outside of that. I think that part of this is that Christian communities are often very adept at casting out those people who behave "badly," but bad behavior is commonly considered to begin and end with violence or acts that otherwise cause extreme embarrassment (see: Westboro Baptist Church). And because, as far as the panelists were concerned, the issue started with Senator Sanders' grilling of Russel Vought, they didn't feel the need to answer if "I'll live in a neighborly way with you, I'll live in a society with you, but I believe I'm right, and you're wrong, and if anyone says anything that even slightly contradicts that, they can't work with or for me" should be counted as a form of pluralism.

The statement that got Mr. Vought into trouble is as follows:
[Dr. John] Stackhouse implies that someone could really “know God” without a focus on Jesus. He explains, “Having a deficient (e.g., nontrinitarian) theology of God…does not mean you are not in actual prayerful and faithful relationship with God. (Having wrong ideas about a person…doesn’t mean that you do not have a relationship with that person.)” This is the fundamental problem. Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.
And it's important to point out that Jews also reject the idea that Jesus was the Christ. In fact, if one is going to say that anyone has rejected Jesus, that likely applies to Judaism even more than Islam. In Islam, Essa ibn Maryam was a prophet of God - the last prophet prior to Mohammed - and is often mentioned in the Qur'an. In Judaism, by contrast, Yeshua is, by definition, a false messiah. In this way, it can be understood that Jesus has a far greater standing in Islam than he has in Judaism. And even if most of the public does not understand that, it seems strange to presume that Senator Sanders wouldn't realize that Jews are firmly in the condemnation crosshairs.

And so the question is, in the eyes of people like Russel Vought, does this idea that people who "do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and [...] stand condemned" have any greater than implication than the theological. He applauds the firing of the Dr. Hawkins (although she may have resigned before the process completed) not for actively contradicting the idea that Moslems are theologically wrong, but because statements like "When pious Muslims pray, they are addressing the One True God, and that God is, simply God," can lead to "theological confusion," because it could give people the idea that viewing Jesus as a prophet, rather than the son of God, didn't automatically cut one off from a relationship with said god. In other words, because her statement didn't make it abundantly clear just how wrong Moslems were, she deserved to lose her livelihood.

And this is the issue. For many people, the tacit assumption that someone who is adamant about how theologically wrong you are will take no actions against you based on that idea is suspect. And so "I'll live in a neighborly way with you, I'll live in a society with you," cannot simply be assumed. And I think that despite the remarkably clumsy and hamfisted way in which he went about it, this is what Senator Sanders was driving at, and Mr. Vought aided and abetted him in that by refusing to simply say "yes," so that the discussion could then turn to what that means in practice. While American Christians seem to have no issue telling one another that everyone else is damned, they're often oddly reluctant to say as much to the damned themselves.

Despite the idea that American Christians (and here, I am speaking of a broader community than simply evangelicals) are considered deeply religious, perhaps to a fault, they are often also considered to have completely bought in to the idea that the modern United States should be completely and utterly secular, and thus gladly willing to separate their theological understanding of the world from their civic understanding of it. But this is in part, it seems, because many Americans can't seem to imagine anything less than Christians running around setting off bombs while shouting "God Wills It!" as a blurring between those worlds. And while it's true that sectarian violence is vanishingly rare in the United States of today, almost to the point of non-existence, that's not the only way in which conflict can make itself known.
Somebody who overtly professes not to have religion can't get elected dog catcher in this country. That's a problem, because it creates a political discourse full of sanctimony. Hypocrisy sanctified by religion.
Salman Rushdie (Reason Magazine, August/September 2005)
Yet we're intended to believe that of all the people in the world, Christians are unique in being able to hold in their heads the idea that other people are wrong and their ideas lead to condemnation by the universe itself; and while such people may be unfit for elected office, that's punishment enough. While that isn't an unreasonable position to take, casting the refusal to trust in that as a form of intolerance seems a bit sketchy to me.

And in the end, that becomes part of the problem with the discourse we have today. The idea that intolerance lies simply in not seeing someone as they prefer to see themselves was dubious from the outset. But now it's been adopted broadly enough that it's often the starting point of any discussion. But it leads people to be very selective about where the appropriate starting points for conversations lie, and to see deliberate bad faith in choices other than their own. And when the broader community buys into this, it miscasts concern into hatred. And as the labels of "bigot" and "intolerant" tend to drive people into their echo chambers, a debate that was intended to break down barriers simply builds them higher.

No comments: