07/28/13

Christians Make the Best Politicians

I watched a clip from Real Time with Bill Maher last night that featured the Reverend Jim Wallis. Maher tried to get Wallis to say that the Bible was ridiculously contradictory, and Wallis ignored the questions and emphasized how Jesus was the true hermeneutic for Christianity and that there are 2000 verses about the poor in the Bible. Maher looked like his tendentious self, and Wallis made it clear without words that he ignores much of the Christian tradition in order to further his aims.Screen Shot 2013-07-28 at 2.29.37 PM

There are some similarities between this dialogue and Cornel West’s critique of Obama last week. Yes, I understand that the President is a much more powerful person and is an elected official, but the similarities are based on—to use Bill Maher’s fairly crude analogy—how many turds you’re willing to allow in the pool and still swim in it. Maher’s take is that if there are any, you don’t swim. Yet that’s not a position most people take, unless they have absolutely no vested interest in the pool. Maher obviously doesn’t have any interest in Christianity, at least none that he knows of, whereas Wallis—and if you believe the polls, most of America—clearly does. So how dirty is the pool really?

Wallis suggested toward the end of the interview that all the significant recent social justice movements have involved people of faith. Maher reluctantly agreed, and then quipped, “So why can’t we have the good stuff without the bad stuff?” While I don’t think all significant social movements have been spearheaded by people of faith, it would be ignorant to claim that people of faith haven’t been crucially involved in many of them. That is obviously the part of faith that Wallis wants to hang on to, the part that  motivates him and others to do “good” in the world.

So the question is, can we afford not to have a candid conversation about the “bad stuff” too? Wallis knows the political climate is such that he cannot be forthright about Christianity’s many failings without alienating a good portion of his constituency from the social justice work he is trying to do. I would argue that whatever good Wallis comes from Christianity is actually coming from himself, and he is finding himself, his motivation, through the foil of Christianity. Of course he would disagree. But in any other enterprise, if a product were designed to bring about the results Wallis says it is and failed per capita at such a high rate, it would be abandoned, or at least drastically modified.

In other words, if Christianity is designed to bring social justice to the world—setting aside for a moment the vast range of meaning in that phrase—and the majority of Christians who have lived have done little to nothing to advance the cause of social justice, why maintain it? Of course, it is not so easy as to simply discard one of the most historically significant ideologies of human history. My point is that although Wallis is pushing social justice Christianity, that is not the only reason he is a Christian. If it were, then maintaining his position would make no sense. We should therefore, look past his single-issue promotion of the tradition.

Wallis would point, as many do, to the great people of the tradition who have done disproportionally great things. Is it more logical, then, to suggest that these few are the only ones who really understand what’s going on with Christianity, or that their uniqueness and impact must be understood in other terms apart from their religious devotion?

Reza Aslan—a UCSB alum like myself—was part of the panel on Real TIme as well, and he attempted to mediate Maher’s critique of the Bible by suggesting that all readers interpret the Biblical text in some way, so no one is actually a literalist when it comes to the Bible. This was in response to Maher’s comment that fundamentalists aren’t fringe religious participants; they just read the Bible literally. Aslan’s comment, while very scholarly, evidences his lack of stake in the issue by missing the point. He is correct that interpretation is key, but as I have noted before, that interpretation is socially circumscribed. What this means is that it begins to strain credibility to ignore or allegorize, for example, God’s approval of mass murder on multiple occasions in the Old Testament.

However, like Obama, Wallis is too invested to commit political suicide by being completely honest about the myriad contradictions in his position. He won’t outright deny them, but he won’t admit them either. Is that the most morally pure position? No. But it is likely a more fruitful one than the one his opponents, including myself, would like him to take. I guess I’m suggesting there’s more value for the rest of us in working to change that political climate than directing attacks at important leaders for not living up to our ideals.

I would be intrigued to see someone be as committed as Wallis, who seems to know how many questionable parts of the tradition there are, absolutely denounce those portions while still committing to the “good parts,” the Jesus-y parts that motivate many people. Could such a person gain any traction? I don’t know. Anyone who tries to change the world from a religious worldview is doing so for a couple possible reasons. First and foremost, they have had personal experience with it. Second, they recognize the power of religious symbols and institutions. Thus, few of those people see the benefit of nitpicking the traditions they are relying on to spread their message. That is left to those who don’t have any significant investment.

So who is going to move? Will those who see no value in religion acknowledge the good that has been done from religiously motivated people and work to maximize the effect of those? Will religious folk openly denounce the many dirty and embarrassing parts of the Christian tradition and reject those in the hope of getting buy-in from nonreligious folks? Or is the best approach the status quo, an all-or-nothing where things are emphasized or deemphasized, hidden or exposed, but the structure remains the same?

From experience, I know that the most deeply held convictions can change, but what is beyond is unknown until experienced. Our identities are fragile, and our self-understanding about what parts are important is fairly inaccurate, I suspect. Nobody likes a politician, but we’re all politicians.

06/24/13

Anti-Christian Bias in Academia is Responsible for Religious Bigotry. Part One…

Rebecca Hamilton, a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives who also blogs at Patheos, recently posted that anti-Christian bias in academia is “one of the major reasons for the sudden increase in religious bigotry and Christian bashing in America today.” For evidence, she points to a talk given in March by Dr. George Yancey promoting his forthcoming book, Too Many Christians, Not Enough Lions.

It’s clear that Hamilton is drawing conclusions from the data that support her prior conclusions about the status of Christianity in America. I’ve talked elsewhere about the Christian construction of adversity as persecution. With that said, I was not surprised at the claim that there is anti-Christian bias in higher academia. For that reason, I had to watch the video to see how accurately Hamilton represented Yancey’s study.

There are gaps in her interpretation (although to her credit, these were put there by Yancey). First, the seemingly most damning surveys he completed were not of those working in higher education, but those with an advanced degree. This suggests that the survey says more about the correlation between levels of education and anti-religious bias, a much broader spectrum than just those in academia. Many other studies have suggested a correlation between wealth/education and a corresponding lack of religiosity (except in the United States). However, it also questions Hamilton’s viral conception of anti-Christianity being inculcated into the young by anti-Christians and spread throughout society. It means something different if religious deconversion is the result of education in general rather than simply the bias of educators.

At the end of her article, Hamilton laments that Yancey doesn’t say that “to try to make assumptions about the intelligence of a group of people based on something like religious preference is illogical in the first place.” As I watched the video, though, sociologist Yancey does suggest that religious background is a factor among others that shouldn’t matter in the hiring of a candidate. Both seem to share the belief that religious affiliation should not be relevant to faculty employment in higher education. I want to suggest, not that religious affiliation should be relevant, but that it is relevant for employment in higher education (as well as elsewhere, but perhaps less so in other areas).

There are at least two ways to examine the relevance of religious affiliation for employment in higher education. The first may just be a clarification. There is a difference between the legality of a distinction and its significance. It is fairly well-known, and Yancey makes clear, that one cannot ask questions about religious affiliation in the hiring process. Yancey’s survey question asked only whether it would make a difference if one did find out about a candidate’s religious affiliation. The affirmative responses he received seem to justify the law’s existence. However, as with any law, its creation of a blanket prohibition does not entail that all discrimination—in the morally neutral sense of the word—based on religion is irrelevant. The law is in existence precisely because there are cases in which religion carries undue weight, becoming a nearly exclusive determinant of the appropriateness of a candidate for a position. Unfortunately, to prevent unwarranted and inappropriate discrimination, the law hinders all distinctions.

The position that religion is irrelevant for hiring purposes is also interesting because it contradicts the importance of religion to the candidate. Right now the cards are stacked in favor of the potential employee. But the extent to which religion is a defining portion of the individual’s identity is also the extent of its relevance to the hiring committee. In other words, part of the reason Yancey’s survey showed that individuals were more likely to count religious affiliation against fundamentalists and evangelicals but not Catholics was because the former groups are perceived to be more likely to “bring religion to work,” so to speak. The extent to which these systems come into conflict is significant to all parties.

I was disappointed in the open-ended responses in Yancey’s second survey of “cultural progressives.” Many respondents suggested that Christians should be thrown to the lions, a riff on the ancient Christian apologist Tertullian’s protest against Christian treatment by the Roman majority. The apparent ferocity of the statements might be tempered by the protection of anonymity the survey offered, and thus any correlations between the sentiments of these respondents and corresponding actions are dubious. Insofar as I understood the statements, though—without a clear understanding of the question asked by Yancey or the context—they erode any sort of ethical or moral high ground the “culturally progressive” respondents might have over whatever construction of Christianity they have in mind.

I’m glad, then, that these respondents can no more or less represent “academics” as a whole than fundamentalists or extremists can represent Christians as a whole. However, their existence cannot be denied. There is bigotry in Christianity as well as academia, and the key is not to generalize—”Academics are anti-religious,” or “Christians are ignorant”—but to examine the specific cases and their relation to the institutions as whole. To what extent or in what ways does Christianity promote uncritical thinking? To what extent or in what ways does higher education inculcate a devaluation of religious traditions? These are questions worth exploring to exemplify both the significance of social and institutional construction and the heterogeneity of interpretation, the diversity of behavior within categories we would prefer to think of as homogeneous.

None of this is to say I think that laws attempting to prevent employers from religious discrimination should be removed. I think they serve to prevent unwarranted discrimination. It is also hypocritical to hold that, while folks like Hamilton show through their writing that Christianity is their primary identity factor, others must pretend as if that identity is nonetheless irrelevant concerning their employment. When I was a Christian in the higher education system, my religious affiliation certainly made a difference in my research, even though I tried to pretend—like others—that it did not.

I haven’t discussed the conflicts particularly between religious identity and the higher education system, which are the most significant factors Hamilton (and Yancey) are reacting to. I’ll save that for later.

What do you think? Should/does religious affiliation matter for employment? Why and from what perspective?

02/20/13

Djesus Uncrossed

59921933Last weekend, I actually watched Saturday Night Live as it aired for the first time in years. I don’t watch a lot ofTV—what’s with these things called commercials? I’ll watch Netflix—but I happened to turn it on at the right time, so I caught the latest in Christian controversy. Because Cristoph Waltz, the Quentin Tarantino darling, was hosting the show, they made a mock movie clip based on Tarantino’s films called “DJesus Uncrossed.

Jesus comes back from the dead, and now he’s mad. He tried the nice guy approach and now he’s ready to mow people down. I thought the clip was, not ROTFL funny, but at least chuckling funny. (My favorite part was the mock Peter Travers blurb that read: “I never knew how much Jesus used the N— word.”

In any case, what has played out in the days since has been a carefully scripted exchange where the people who were supposed to get offended got offended, and the people who were supposed to pretend like they didn’t understand how people could get offended pretended, and the majority of us watched it, laughed, and then either felt a bit guilty or just forgot about it. There is so much that could be analyzed about the interconnections of religion and culture around this example that it can’t be covered in a book, let alone a post. I use examples like this in my Introduction to Religion class to show how complicated the connections are between religion and “life” that most take for granted are and should remain exclusive.

Religion Dispatches reports that the American Family Association issued a statement regarding the preview. It began with this:

This past weekend, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” aired an extremely violent and gory segment mocking Jesus Christ…just for laughs. And, it’s available now online thanks to Kmart, Sears and J.C.Penney.

Okay, so the clip made light of violence, as movies usually do, and the statement ignores the fact that the majority of Christians watch cinematic or television violence on a fairly regular basis. What was most interesting to me, though, is the fact that by the second sentence, the AFA has criticized, not the people who watched it, not the actors who participated in it, not even NBC, but the companies who facilitate its distribution. (They have taken “Corporations are People” to heart.) The AFA then calls on readers to criticize the companies, not to do anything specific, necessarily, but to let them know Christians are offended. I don’t know if the AFA typically takes this approach, but it seems half-hearted, like they are just following a script. I have no doubt that some actually are offended by this, but the organization seems to be reacting instinctively. Other groups have jumped in, including Muslim organizations.

Religious Dispatches put up a post expressing incredulity that the AFA would actually be offended by something that was so clearly not about Jesus, but about Quentin Tarantino. The author calls the AFA’s response “Jesus Outrage That Totally Missed The Boat.” It seems to me that the two sides represented by these two commentaries could not misunderstand each other more.

Religious Dispatches, at least in this article, doesn’t acknowledge that a spoof where the main character is the founder of a religious tradition is guaranteed to anger some folks, and the fact that it does is not proof of the backwardness of religion, but that people still care about it enough to take the mockery as an attack. The title of the article implies either that religious people are ignorant (they don’t “get it”) or that they’re getting excited for nothing. I’ll admit that it doesn’t bother me at all, and when I was a Christian, it probably would have made me slightly uncomfortable, but there are obviously those whom this does offend. Should they not be offended? Trying to control the discourse by saying it’s not really about Jesus is a pretty weak response, since it would not have been funny without Jesus, the man widely known in American culture as a man of peace, machine gunning down his enemies. Certainly Tarantino’s style was critical too, but not the sole aim of the humor.

On their side, the AFA doesn’t seem to understand that the only reason this clip can succeed is that Christianity has infiltrated culture to such an extent that the symbols that represent it have taken on more significant and vibrant roles than they can control. In other words, Jesus, and a multitude of other Christian symbols, are not just for Christians anymore. Some Christians might take that as a mark of success, taking the “all press is good press” approach. Others will not because they want to control both the message and the medium. If the AFA is taking the stance that American and Christian culture is in moral and spiritual decline, like many conservative and fundamentalist religious groups, they want a tighter reign on representations of the tradition. At this point, that will not be possible without coercion. Consequently, their response is merely a political one, posturing the AFA must do to reaffirm their identity.

So, which approach has a more effective communicative function? Is it better to offend and then justify the offense by suggesting one shouldn’t be offended in the first place? Without the controversial portrait, the humor of the clip is lost. Or would the better approach be to offend and then be unapologetic about it? You’re offended? Too bad. Jesus doesn’t belong to you anymore. What do you think? In any case, what we’ve seen is that the battle takes place more than ever on an economic battlefield, rather than a moral or political one.