On Pledges, Acts of God and Huckabees

I’m no big fan of Mike Huckabee. As far as I’m concerned there are just two reasons for him to be vaguely relevant to life as I know it: he is one of the characters from the 2012 Republican primary in the US that make Mitt Romney look presidential by comparison, and he is one of the American politicians who has the most even mixes of directly political and directly church-related work on his resumé.  But since a number of people from the political right with whom I still have cordial relations liked his Sandy Hook statement on Fox News, I decided to have a look at it. And now as my last pre-Christmas blog for this year I’ll give a proper response on the matter. It does, after all, have quite a bit to do with the question of God coming into our human world, which is theoretically what the message of Christmas is all about.

huckabee

By way of background, it’s fair to say that those on all sides of the political spectrum have been tempted at least to use the press attention given to this sad event to their own advantage. I myself am prone to promote the role of teachers as more than just information providers and standardized testing implementers. Thus I wrote an article relative to the event showing how it reinforces these values that I wish to promote. Meanwhile those who believe that private gun ownership is the root of all social evil wrote articles showing how this event proves their point, and those who believe that a sufficiently well-armed general populace can solve all social problems wrote articles claiming that this event proves their point. And if that were not enough demonstration of how existing presuppositions color our reception of information, those who are prone to theological doubt predictably commented yet again on how this sort of senseless suffering raises the “theodicy problem” yet at again, and those prone to covenant-theological perspectives –– not only, but including the infamous Westboro Baptist gang –– claimed that this is a sign of God’s punishment on those who reject various aspects of fundamentalist morality.

From this perspective Huckabee was trying to come across as a moderate, and by Fox News standards he seems to have succeeded, finding something of a middle road half way between the Westboro and NRA positions on the crisis.

Barack Obama, Chris ChristieSniping aside, I have to give Huckabee credit for courage in one respect: he did go as far as saying that “God was present” in what President Obama had to say to comfort the American people that Friday afternoon. That may well have been the most significant acknowledgement of the President’s integrity and spirituality since Governor Chris Christie spoke in favor of his crisis management following Hurricane Sandy. I’m sure there are many on the Religious Right who are now ready to disown Huckabee over such a gaffe. We’ll see how that plays out.

The core of Huckabee’s message was surprisingly close to a “Liberal Gospel” message: God is most clearly revealed through human hearts, in their capacity for compassion and connection with each other. When we are open to sharing each other’s pains as well as joys, God works through us and the world becomes a much safer and more welcoming place.

From this perspective Huckabee would be justified in saying that God had been sidelined prior to the Sandy Hook tragedy: too many people were moving through the holiday hustle and bustle without stopping to care about those who are still in suffering this season. The sense of caring about those around us had fallen off considerably in the month between the election season and Sandy Hook. Once those who were suffering (because of “Obama’s mismanagement”) were no longer of strategic political value, those on the Religious Right who claim to speak for a God of compassion sort of lost interest in them. Twenty-eight senseless deaths later compassion and mutual support have risen to levels not seen since 9-11. Sadly, however, we can be quite sure that this sense of caring and compassion will soon fade away. Americans will soon return to their priorities of “keeping what’s mine as mine” and being ready to shoot anyone they feel threatened by.

This is the traditional message which most consistently informs Huckabee’s words:

“..we’ve escorted [God] right out of our culture and we’ve marched him off  the public square, and then we express our surprise that a culture without him actually reflects what it’s become.

As soon as the tragedy unfolded I think God did show up. He showed up in the lives of teachers who put their lives between a gunman and their students. He showed up in policemen who rushed into the school not knowing if they would be met with a barrage of bullets. He showed up in the form of hugs for children, parents and teachers who had lived through the slaughter. He showed up at the overflowed church services where people lit candles and prayed. And he showed up at the White House, where the President invoked his name and quoted from his book.

And in a few days or weeks we’ll probably ask God to excuse himself from view, and we will announce in our arrogant pride that…”

If the other ¾ of Huckabee’s sermon to the media had kept that same tone I think he would be my new political hero today. He wasn’t talking about the religious dogmas or sexual morality of those through whom “God showed up,” but their selfless compassion, their sense of duty to protect the helpless and their sense of community transcending previous divisions and animosities. I believe that there is a strong consensus among those of very divergent religious traditions for saying that such things can be referred to as “God moving” among the people. Even staunch agnostics would have to go along with acknowledging that society would be healthier if we could have more of such a spirit manifested in our communities. But alas, Huckabee sandwiched this meat of the matter between thick layers of the other prominent Christian tradition in American politics: hatemongering.

Rather than pointing to our lack of compassion as our means of escorting God out of our culture, he lights into those who don’t share Christian convictions for suing to have signs of it removed from the public spaces they share with the rest of us. Granted, these non-believers frequently do reflect a confrontational tendency in American culture which is part of the problem at times. Some of the law suits brought over expressions of religious sentiment in public are blatantly childish, and not at all conducive to tolerant coexistence between those who share these convictions and those who don’t. If Christians were credibly representing themselves as a force promoting compassion and solidarity it might be reasonable to point fingers at secularists for trying to break down this sense of harmony by complaining about religious symbols. Sadly that is not the case.

The things that Huckabee’s brand of Christianity stands for in the public square these days are the “moral issues” that he tossed into his spiel after his reaction against reactionary atheists. Huckabee and his constituents see it as their duty to oppose “tax funded abortion pills,” a public refusal to call things “sinful” and the general abandonment of “bedrock moral truths.” Those are each sort of worth unpacking.

The first point goes back to the fact that under President Obama’s leadership the United States has at last joined the rest of the developed world in recognizing access to medical treatment as a basic human right, on par with elementary education. The means of getting it there was a bit of a messy political compromise, but the important thing is that it finally got there. People without private fortunes who have “pre-existing conditions” are no longer left without treatment. A lack of health insurance will no longer cause tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of bankruptcies in the United States each year. But since this law has been passed, the strategic priority for the Republican party has been to find an excuse for getting rid of it. If they can make a moral excuse for their attempts to derail “Obamacare,” so much the better.

Enter the argument over basic estrogen pills. These were discovered as a cheap and effective means of birth control about 50 years ago and they’ve posed a moral crisis for the Catholic Church ever since. Any technology which enables people to have sex without “being fruitful and multiplying” is taken to be a means of enabling sin, and these technologies are to be dogmatically rejected in all their forms. The problem is, everyone outside the Catholic Church (excluding a few small groups like the Amish and the Laestadians), and most of those within the “mother church” as well, think that limiting the number of children that sexually active people end up having is probably a good thing –– socially, economically, environmentally, psychologically and in most other ways as well.

So the moral compromise is that Catholics have accepted Protestants and non-believers rights to use various forms of birth control, and no one has forced birth control onto Catholic couples. It’s sort of like Jehovah’s witnesses and blood transfusions: they aren’t forced to have them, but they aren’t allowed to prevent others from having them. But in a desperate attempt to make the Affordable Health Care Act look immoral, Republicans have seized on Catholics’ objection to the provision in the law which says that all basic forms of health care which an employee could need are to be covered by the insurance provided by the employer, including prescriptions for estrogen pills. According to the new law, just like non-Jehovah’s Witnesses working for JW owned companies must have coverage that includes access to blood transfusions if they happen to get into a major car accident, non-Catholics working for Catholic owned companies need to have estrogen pills covered as part of their health insurance, even if such treatment goes against the moral convictions of the employer.

In some ways it’s a trivial matter, but it’s enough to give Obama-haters an excuse for claiming that he is violating Catholics’ freedom of religion. Anyone who would buy that sort of argument, in my honest opinion, cannot be very well educated in fundamental principles of logic and ethics. People who would be prone to accept such reasoning would also, I suspect, be inclined to believe that Obama is the Anti-Christ, that the UN is a Satanic conspiracy to take away American’s freedoms, that many mental health problems are best explained in terms of demon possession and that the best way to solve environmental problems is to pray for Jesus to come back again soon. But there are plenty of those sorts of believers out there. Mike Huckabee is probably one of them. If not, he’s at least working hard to appeal to the baser aspects of such a belief system.

To boost the rhetorical kick of his dubious assertion in this regard, Huckabee further twisted the truth to force the words “tax-funded” and “abortion” into the same sentence. The pills in question here are not “morning after pills” a.k.a. “abortion pills” but pills which prevent conception to begin with. They don’t stop a fertilized egg from growing into a full blown baby; they prevent the sperm from finding any egg to fertilize to begin with. Whether Huckabee’s inference here was based on total unawareness of how human reproduction works or whether it was based on a clumsy attempt to score political points even though he knew better is not my call to make. In fact I’m not sure which I would have less respect for. It’s sort of like asking whether it was dog s**t or pig s**t that he stepped in.

Anyway, from there he went on to the importance of calling sin “sin,” rather than labeling it as “disorders” or, God forbid, thinking of such things as normal. OK, what sinful practices might he be worried about having excused as disorders these days? Alcoholism perhaps? Nymphomania? Uncontrolled behavior occurring within manic phases for those with bipolar disorder when they get off their meds? Perhaps Huckabee does want to go back to the prohibition of the 30s, and perhaps he does see lithium treatment for the bipolar as a substitute for instilling moral character. It’s hard to say what sinister implications of “disorder” he has in mind here.

But when it comes to a biblically defined “sinful” practice being accepted as “normal” the reference becomes crystal clear: homosexuality.  I mean there are plenty of other counter-biblical practices that are accepted as normal these days –– long-haired men, short-haired women, rebellious children, women speaking in public, no-fault divorces… –– but none of those are currently hot button issues for political conservatives. Nor for that matter is homosexuality, per se, something that conservatives feel they have a viable chance of outlawing, or even getting it back on the DSM list of mental “disorders”.  What they are worried about is having this sinful lifestyle dignified with the title of marriage. For any church, or even the state, to “sanctify” the union between two men or two women who are using each other’s bodies in “unnatural” and “sinful” ways is more than religious traditionalists can swallow.

But from there the question becomes, what does this have to do with school shootings?

If we step back and look at the secular, scientific, psychological causes in such matters, school shooters are far more often than not young men who are deeply disturbed and depressed, and both aggressive and suicidal at the same time. Most often, though not always, this relates to having been bullied in school. And again most often, though not always, school bullying among boys contains an element of accusing the victim of being homosexual, and making it clear that such an orientation is unacceptable in their social circles. Thus it can be seen that a culture of homophobia –– stigmatizing young men who are labeled as gay –– is among the leading causes of school shootings. But that would imply the polar opposite of Huckabee’s implication that recognizing homosexuality as “sinful” rather than as “normal” would “bring God back” in a way that might save lives.

The only “reasoning” by which it could be inferred that condemning homosexuality would save lives, by allowing God to be more active in our schools, would be that which assumes that school shootings are a form of divine discipline meted out on those who refuse to follow the law given in the Bible. In other words according to Huckabee and company homosexuality causes school shootings in the same way that, according to certain Iranian mullahs, women in revealing clothing cause earthquakes. And this is a fellow who aspires to be a national leader in the United States.

What he meant in terms of “bedrock moral truths” beyond the issues already discussed above is something I’m not really ready to speculate about. So let’s  jump to the end of this little sermon:

“…and we will announce in our arrogant pride that we are now enlightened and educated, and we have evolved beyond needing Him.”

So in other words the things that we need to get rid of so as to keep us on the straight and narrow path, according to Huckabee, are enlightenment, education and evolution. That would imply that godliness is best served by medieval-mindedness, ignorance and a lack of adaptation in general. I have strong personal reasons for not wanting God to be associated with such traits, but I recognize that Huckabee is far from alone among American Christians in rejecting these three Es. This just further reinforces what I said a few weeks ago about having faith in God but lacking faith in faith in God.  Anyway…

“And somebody’s going to suggest that we pass a law to stop all this kind of thing. I might want to point out that we don’t have to pass a new law. There’s one that’s been around a while that works if we’d teach it and observe it: ¨Thou shalt not kill.’ Well there are about nine others, but to tell you about them would require bringing God back, and we know how unacceptable that might be.”

So many little problems with this line of “thinking”!  For starters it implies that as long as we have the 10 Commandments we don’t need to pass laws to protect human rights beyond that, or to regulate technologies which have been invented in the past 3000 years or so. As long as we follow the laws that God gave by way of Moses we don’t have to pass new laws to prevent slavery or drunk driving, or to limit access to hallucinogenic drugs or to fully automatic handguns and assault rifles. I’m sure that makes sense to some people.

Then there’s the implication that all of the 10 Commandments need to be instilled in our cultures to keep children safe. In other words we need to have effective sanctions against not only killing other people (unless our authorities tell us those people deserve it), but also against worshiping any god outside of the Abrahamic tradition, against any business being open on Saturdays, against children disrespecting their parents, against adultery and against any sort of coveting.  According to Huckabee, to get God back on our side we’d really need to teach and observe all of these, right? I mean if respecting the 3000-year-old standard is the proper solution to our problems… how far should we be ready to take this?

But in fact there are a lot more than 9 commandments beyond the thou shalt not kill. A. J. Jacobs claims to have counted over 700 of them. And in fact when asked which one was most important Jesus actually picked two from the Mosaic law, both from outside of the big 10. These have since become known as the Twin Commandment of Love:  Thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, soul, mind and strength; and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

Now in principle if you are totally committed to God and you treat your neighbor (in the broadest sense of the word) the same as you would want to be treated, that would cover the spirit of all the other rules given in the Bible. You would not do things that might cause a break down in social order because those would presumably grieve God, and you would not do things to hurt people around you in ways you wouldn’t want them to hurt you.  The Twin Commandment of Love would certainly prevent you from killing other people… unless you were suicidal to begin with, and you had become convinced that any God there might be out there is a raging psychopath.  But surprise! Most school shooters have developed just that sort of mentality by the time the set out hunting students.

So invoking biblical standards is not going to be the answer. Providing psychological counseling to help young men in particular (and some young women as well) deal with trauma from bullying, psychotic breaks and other forms of maladjustment that could set them on the war path would be far more effective. Limiting access to assault weapons could be yet another useful measure in this regard.

Another fellow my age, who also went through elementary school in America in the 60s, was recently bemoaning how kids no longer recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school each morning like we did. Would schools be safer and the country better off these days if kids still had to recite an official recognition of the US being “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”? Would getting even that much of God back into schools help matters? In my honest opinion, probably not.

To start with, the pledge itself was hardly a divinely inspired text to begin with. It was written for the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of “the New World”, as part of a program designed to glorify all of the atrocities which that discovery entailed.  And in fact the “liberty and justice” bit was from the start a bit utopian on the one hand, and setting the bar rather low on the other. The other values of the French Revolution –– equality and fraternity –– were left out on purpose because there were many politicians who refused to see women and blacks as their equals or their brothers in any sense of either word.  Under those circumstances the liberty and justice available to all was inevitably rather limited as well.

But it wasn’t until 1942, when the US needed to boost a sense of militant patriotism to fuel the war effort, that this pledge came to be required as part of school opening routines.  And it wasn’t until 1954 that school children were instructed to recite the words “under God” as part of this pledge.  So the first generation which had this form of the pledge as part of their school routines were those just younger than my parents and just older than me: the ones now affectionately known as the hippie generation. So we can’t really say that such routine recognition of the divine had a particularly strong moralizing effect on the youth of the United States.

Within the past 10 years then the same people who have been militating against manger scenes and war memorial crosses have been suing schools for making kids say that the country is “under God”. Opposition to this reflects a rather short historical memory. With the last of those who never had to say that bit of the pledge in school having just reached retirement age, idealists of my generation and younger seem to assume that the pledge is something sacred, going back to the founding fathers in the form we now know it. If we recognize this pledge being as young and temporary and morally questionable as it actually is, and if we acknowledge that it is causing needless strife for some otherwise good citizens, is it really that big a deal if we drop it? Not to me.

The kind of faith in God I’d like to see built up in American, and in all other parts of the world for that matter, is the sort which enables the sort of actions which Huckabee referred to in his little speech as signs of God’s presence: heroism, solidarity, compassion and warm appreciation for those we love. This is rather the opposite of hatred for those who do not live up to your moral standards, or for those who institute forms of protection for the disadvantaged beyond what your religious tradition requires you to provide. In fact I personally am more worried about the damage that people might do to each other using their religious convictions as an excuse than I am about what a vengeful God might do to people who fail to honor the Sabbath, or to those who get heavily into coveting, or to those who break other laws attributed to him. The essence of my faith is gratitude that God can mercifully accept a moral failure like myself, with that (ideally) translating into doing all I can to help others in spite of their moral failures. Those who see it fundamentally differently –– with a primary emphasis on legislating particular confessional formulas and moral codes, and fighting over symbolic displays –– are not my problem. I hope they are decreasingly America’s problem.

So may the spirit of love and forgiveness that is at the heart of the Christmas message be with you all this week; or as Tiny Tim is quoted as saying, “and God bless us, every one!”

rockwell christmas carol

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Filed under Empathy, Insanity, Politics, Religion, Spirituality, Tolerance

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