Sunday, October 09, 2011

Steve's Jesus/God question

My friend Steve Honeywell of the most excellent 1001 Plus (and, lately, co-host of The Demented Podcast-- see his blog's sidebar) wrote this in a recent comment:

I think I've noticed something, and I'd like your input on this, since you tend to be more religiously aware than my own muddled confusion. In fact, this might make an interesting blog post for you.

I've noticed with the Christian Right lately--politically mainly, but not exclusively--that there is far more talk about God and almost no talk about Christ. It's a subtle thing, but I'm almost positive it's there.

I realize that technically, God and Christ are two parts of the same unity, but they are also different, and extremely distinct biblically speaking. And, I think this is being done, consciously or unconsciously, as a way to justify particular positions.

It would be difficult, for instance, to picture the biblical Christ hating homosexuality or demanding a bigger military. But it would very much be in keeping with the character of the Old Testament Jehovah. This ignoring of Christ and focusing on what "God" this being used as a subtle justification for these policies?

I'm of several minds about this question. Part of me wants to say that there's nothing new about politicians using religion as a tool; there's long been something of a pragmatic, or even perverse, symbiotic relationship between politics and religion. I also don't think it's anything new for the American Christian Right to prioritize God in their public rhetoric: God is, as concepts go, more generic than Jesus, and is thus more accessible to a wider range of religiously-minded folk. It also comes as no surprise that religious conservatives might stress a God of justice and virtue instead of focusing on a God of compassion and mercy.

Having said all that, I'll have to admit publicly what I recently admitted privately to my buddy Mike, namely, that I've been out of the religious loop for a while, now. At this point, I'm having trouble keeping up with the liturgical calendars I normally track: Christian, Buddhist, and Jewish. For that reason, I'm really not aware of what's been going on in terms of public religious discourse.

Although I consider myself fairly middle-of-the-road in my political views (hawkish on foreign policy, pro-free-market on the economy, but pro-gay-marriage and pro-free-speech/expression on social policy), I've been a flaming religious liberal since, oh, freshman year in college, when my views were challenged in a Problem of God course. The course was Georgetown University's version of a Philosophy of Religion course, and it was, for me, the first time that I'd felt my beliefs systematically questioned. I also came to realize just how little thought I had put into what I believed, and once I began doing my own thinking, I knew it was no longer possible for me to hold to traditional Christian views. As the years have gone by, my religious liberalism has been tempered by the critiques of liberal thinking I encountered during my graduate studies at Catholic University, so while I still skew very liberal in my personal beliefs, my attitude toward things like dialogue has moderated somewhat.

I say all this because I, too, have trouble with the often-Pharisaic mentality of scripture-quoting literalists. But at the same time, I've gone through enough religious studies courses to know that everyone has a hermeneutical approach, even nonbelievers: we all interpret, we all have agendas, we all "cite scripture for [our] purpose." This realization somewhat softens my stance toward religious conservatives. I can't relate to the ones who obviously lack compassion, but my moderate perspective allows me to see that religious conservatives come in all shapes and flavors, like religious liberals, which makes it necessary to parse the overall sociocultural situation very carefully before I try to make any bold observations or pronouncements about it. And because there is no such thing as a non-hermeneutical approach to scripture, I can't begrudge someone their use of scripture merely because they have a purpose in quoting it. To be clear, I'm not interpreting Steve's comment this narrowly: I understand that he's asking a larger question, but my point is that I'd rather avoid painting a diverse group with too broad a brush.

So to answer the question at the end of Steve's comment, "This ignoring of Christ and focusing on what 'God' this being used as a subtle justification for these policies?"-- my answer is that, if this is indeed the case, it doesn't surprise me, because it's the sort of thing that's bound to happen. At the same time, if this rhetorical trend is real, it's not the end of the story: there are, doubtless, religious conservatives who disagree with the mindset that sacrifices a compassionate Jesus for a God of justice.


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