Monday, November 1, 2010

God or Liberty? A Fair Society, Please!

Not Freedom from Taxation, Nor Mystical Faith, but a Fair Distribution of Wealth and a Functioning Society

US religious and social history has been characterized by a periodical pulsation of religious fervor. Since the 1980s, the pulsation has been upbeat, evangelical movements and their leaders grabbing a lot of publicity and political power. These periods of religious fervency rarely last over half a century, so the latest one is probably on the wane, and the religious enthusiasts are riding the Tea Parties as if it were a religious revival. But Pulitzer Prize winner, Jon Meacham, a journalist and a historian, sees the Tea Party as “nationalistic, not moralistic”.

Tea Partyers are less concerned about the moral issues and more concerned about economic ones. It is conservative Christians who still say, “We need government to protect our morality, to protect us from ourselves”.

The myth stems from the original event in 1773, the Boston Tea Party, which was an act of rebellion against taxation without representation. The colonies were ruled by the King Georges of England and had no say in their own affairs. Three years later, the American colonies rebelled, and won independence. For Meacham:

It is liberty, less than religion, that holds us together.

S Augustine, in City of God, defined a people as “the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement on the objects of their love.” The “City of God” he meant was the Christian Church, in those days, the Catholic Church, and the objects of their love were their fellow human beings, and, of course, God, in the form of Jesus Christ, who had identified himself with the meek and the downtrodden in the world. When the new Christian religion began to spread from the original Jews to gentiles in the Roman empire, it was indeed the poor and the downtrodden who responded, and a much smaller number of mainly rich women, glad to give up their legacies for salvation.

For modern American Christians none of that applies. According to Meacham, “the attack culture has subsumed everything else”. American conservative Christians, like those who supported Bush, and who are now supporting “Tea Parties” to get rid of Obama think, and like to say, that the United States is a “Christian nation”. Even many liberal Americans agree. They think the country’s founding principles are based on Christianity, through the settlement of New England by the Pilgrim fathers in 1620.

It was not the Christian ideas of the Pilgrim Fathers who initially settled in America, but the Enlightenment values of the Founding Fathers of the new republic who set out the documents that proclaimed the nature of the new political entity, and set out its founding principles, principles that still apply. Since the country’s founding, Americans have confused its defining features.

Mark McGarvie, a history professor at the University of Richmond, points out that the stress on man’s duties and responsibilities towards his fellow man, according to the teaching of Christ, was an element in the motivation of the founding of some of the early US colonies, but Christianity had nothing to say about anyone’s individual freedom. Christ had nothing to say specifically about slavery. Plainly, though, slaves fell into the category of the poor, the meek and the downtrodden, people whom Christ said were blessed, would enter the kingdom of heaven and ought to be treated like God. The man Christians treat as their God, Paul, the one they prefer to cite rather than God—Christ whom they largely ignore—told slaves to settle for their lot. Paul marginalized Christ’s emphasis on being loving and kind to each other—on works, as the New Testament calls it—by substituting for Christ’s practical teaching his own mystification, faith in God and the body of Christ!

The Declaration of Independence was based on the ideas of the Enlightenment, the teachings of Locke and Rousseau, as expressed by Jefferson and Madison. These men were also concerned with the poor and downtrodden, with the centuries of oppression people had suffered while Europe was ruled by the Church, and its hereditary nobility, who wanted the people to believe that kings were divinely appointed and had to be obeyed, even when they were wicked. It is what S—Paul taught, but not Christ.

With the rise of the merchant class of capitalists, the Feudal System of government by the nobility and royalty was doomed, but struggles were needed to put it firmly in its grave, and the American Declaration of Independence was one of the acts that established that kings were not divinely right! Instead of the divine right of kings, the Enlightenment idea was that God had nothing to do with individual rights, except that free will meant everyone was personally free in God’s own view! The Enlightenment was about protecting individual rights, in contradiction of divine rights.

Now the point of individual rights is not that everyone should do as they like, for that would be intolerable, and indeed would be quite alien to anything that Christ taught or any Christian should believe. The Founding Fathers thought that humans were primarily good to each other, and that society should allow them to prosper according to their good nature. They inscribed on the country’s Great Seal the motto “Out of many, one”. Americans were to pursue their own interests and desires with the ultimate aim of doing good not just for themselves but for a whole united society.

The other side of the US Great Seal has two mottoes, one of which announces that the birth of the USA begins a “New Order of the Centuries”, while the other is simply “It Has Favored Our Efforts”, “It” meaning Fortune or Providence, according to your religious inclination. So, although Christians will read this as being God’s Providence, and therefore God, the deists who drew up the documents could be more neutral and read it as Fortune. Even here, then, a Christian interpretation is not the only one. Deists believed in a God, but not one that twiddled with the world he made.

The conflict between the mystified Christianity of Paul and Luther, and the practical Christianity of Christ himself, filtered through the Enlightenment, existed from the outset of the USA, and there seems little to be gained in denying it. Christians nevertheless do, or they do not recognize it at all.

In modern practical terms, freedom is the freedom of the hyper rich one or two percent of the people to take the enormity of the country’s wealth that leaves the poor and even the middle classes struggling, either to stay alive or to maintain their standards. It is not social schemes like health and education, schemes that no civilized country can do without but which are being starved of sufficient cash to offer a proper service, both in the US and abroad. Christ went about curing people gratis and blessing the poor like Lazarus, the beggar, while approving the damnation of the rich, like Dives, the rich man. The greed of the minority is the real moral problem of all societies. That is what Christ taught.

It is all very simply set out in the Christian gospels but none of the evangelical crowd, who think Tea Parties are sent by God, have read or comprehend the teachings of Christ. They believe what their Republican pastors and politicians tell them, and, as Limbaugh and Beck prove, being idiotic is what the conservative Christian loves—“That’s just how I feel. Boy aren’t these guys just great!” They are too easily conned to see they are being conned! These guys are not idiots. They are! They are being taken for a ride, and the only benefactors are the Republican grandees, the mega rich, whom they think will help them by reducing taxation when all it does is leave those with the income worth taxing, better off.

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