Saturday, January 21, 2017

American Righteousness: Reinventing History

"He won't vote for my bill, so I'm thinking of blackmailing him," said my friend. "I have concrete evidence he's an active gay."
"He's a family values Republican, isn't he?" I guessed.
"Yes, of course."

So went a discussion with a friend and career lobbyist who travels the country to get bills for his causes through various state and federal channels. This exchange would have been archived in my mind if not for a related exchange at the office yesterday while my coworkers and I watched Donald Trump's presidential inauguration on YouTube during lunch.

You see, readers abroad, Evangelical Christians (hereafter 'Vangies) became a force in American politics in the 1980s when a chap named Falwell endorsed Ronald Reagan and drove Southern religionists to the polls en masse on the basis of their Bible faith. They wanted America to be Reagan and Winthrop's "city on a hill", a moral example for the rest of the world. After their influence in culture brought about a new age of prudishness in the '90s to counteract the Wall Street excesses and cocaine vibe of the '80s, they got their own president in George W. Bush in 2000. After the 2004 re-election of the personable and likable, but indecisive and occasionally inept, Bush, their power waned as the Republican party put forth two dullish candidates. But last year they became relevant again, as billionaire playboy Donald Trump staged a hostile takeover of the Republican party with the support of celebrity pastors and preachers throughout the Bible Belt. The 'Vangies voted for the thrice married playboy over the ostentatiously religious Ben Carson and Lyin' Ted Cruz for a host of reasons that can be covered by other writers. The 'Vangies voted in numbers like it was 1984 again. And yet a significant number of the 'Vangies refused to vote for Trump, who claims to want to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which disempowered religious groups from making political endorsements while keeping their tax exempt status. The reason why some 'Vangies, at least the ones I call coworkers, refused to vote for the man "with synthetic hair" (cf. Jeremy Clarkson) has to do with the recent re-invention of American history by the Religious Right and its projection of its own values into other people's past.

Frederick Jackson Turner called the "frontier" the essence of the American story, the constant search for the new by rugged individuals shunning accepted society and means. As far as geography and ingenuity go, Turner was right. The essence of early American politics is different, though. America's first president was a Deist who frequented Anglican services; the second was a Unitarian, hence not a Christian by any post-Reformation standard; the third was something between a Deist and an atheist who detested the Catholic Church; the sixth was agnostic and swore his oath of office on a stack of legal papers, hardly the makings of a righteous governor. Early American leaders were children of the Enlightenment without the brutal rearing of the French Revolution. They took Christianity for granted as the religion of the masses and occasionally partook of it themselves in moments of need, but it was something of a foible to them, a security blanket for Turner's frontiersmen. Two centuries later came the idea that America was founded as a fundamentally Christian country, when in fact the Puritans who settled Massachusetts were expelled by Anglicans because they were stark raving mad spiritual terrorists. 

How does this figure into the copious number of 'Vangies who went #NeverTrump and who derided the bombastic billionaire as he took power? Our favorite sociologist, Robert Nisbet, made two startling observations about the role of protestant theology in religious culture. First, that "Three principle elements of Christianity were left in Protestant theology: the lone individual, an omnipotent, distant God, and divine grace." Second, that "In Protestantism there has been a persistent belief that to externalize religion is to degrade it. Only in the privacy of the individual soul can religion remain pure. There has been little sympathy for the communal, sacramental, and disciplinary aspects of religion." Attending services and living a Christian life is not enough to be a good Christian by this scheme of things. If one is really saved, a la Calvin, one should behave like one who is saved. While this sounds like it should elicit behavior in the protestant akin to a Catholic who attends Mass and Confession, it is not. While the admonition not to judge another's soul still holds, external displays of belief (the Sacraments, pilgrimage, penance, liturgy) are unavailable in a privatized religion, so what is private must be displayed in public for all to see.

For four decades now the Religious Right has sought leaders who will both advance their agenda and display their own virtues as a form of cultural evangelism. As a businessman, many 'Vangies were able to embrace Trump for the first reason, yet many refused him because he fails miserably on the latter. 

"I was reading a blog about what happens when you don't elect righteous leaders."
"He never said he was sorry for all the things he did, how mean he is."
"He has no repentance."
"He isn't really Christian."
"No way, no how."

As I rolled my eyes I was asked why the Catholic Church does not have special services for the Fourth of July and other American holidays. I attempted to explain that there will often be Masses said for the welfare of the country on that day, but that services geared specifically towards gratitude for the nation, as if it were of Divine Right, would be inappropriate. "You know," one lectured, "most patriotic songs are about what? They are about God!" There was no point in telling her that the Church does not worship countries, much less countries that never officially held the faith in the first place.

"No one is a better Christian than I am,
folks, no one."
This issue may well become a moot point in the rapidly secularizing American society. President Trump himself seems to lack any religious scruples, which is fitting since the first president lacked them, too. The real thing to be grasped is a lesson rather than a problem. A large, possibly deteriorating force in American politics is still grasping for the outwardly pious family values Republicans of the '90s and in doing so ensure their own irrelevance.

A devout Catholic with any knowledge of history can still be patriotic, serve in the armed forces in good conscience, and be an upstanding member of the community. What he cannot do is pretend that America was created to be God's paradise on earth or Winthrop's City on a Hill. I would be more sympathetic if people simply expressed a desire for a leader worthy of admiration, which is unlikely, but more possible in our age than a "righteous" one.

In the words of Geoffrey Hull, "In the American philosophy man's highest purpose is to assert his 'inalienable right' to 'Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness' on earth. Eternal life is an optional extra for those who choose to believe in it" (238). 


  1. I've already been hearing complaints from Evangelicals that the Scripture read at the inauguration ceremony was from "the Apocrypha." #NotMyBible?

    1. That old chestnut, again?!

    2. I entirely missed the humor in that as it happened, but I did catch the reference to psalm 132 from Vespers.

  2. +5 points for referencing Mr. Hull at the end.

  3. Kudos Prots!!!

    It was they who invoked the Holy Name, Jesus, at the installation of the God Emperor of the Cherry Blossom Throne, not Cardinal Dolan (the Religious Liberty Indifferentist). The prots were clearly not embarrassed to express their love for Jesus and to call upon Him to Bless America.

    Religious Liberty as it is now understood results in the atheism that was a natural result of religious liberty as Pope Leo XIII taught.

  4. I meant that one could in good conscience serve the country and put one's life on the line for the sake of one's countrymen without scruples, although the points you make do reflect that doing so is becoming harder and harder as the military becomes a laboratory for social experimentation.

  5. "A devout Catholic with any knowledge of history can still be patriotic, serve in the armed forces in good conscience, and be an upstanding member of the community."

    Indeed, and Charles Couloumbe has spent much invaluable effort smashing the old Americanist disease that infected the American Church of the past (if only more would listen...). He has used Japan as an example comparable to ours; how a Japanese Catholic (for instance, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto) can be loyal to the emperor, serve in the army, pay his taxes, etc. but CANNOT revere the emperor as a living god (as the old Shinto pagan faith required). The false religion of Americanism must be rejected wholesale per Blessed Pope Leo XIII.

    For some of the clingers-on it might be necessary to burn the red-white-and-blue rag in front of them as a form of therapy. When a piece of colored cloth is treated with more reverence than the Eucharist or the vessels that contain It, you know there are some messed up priorities at play.

    1. I've tried to find proof that Yamamoto was Catholic, but I haven't seemed to find any source other than, a hotbed of anti-Catholic feeling. Others say he never became a believer.

    2. My apologies. It seems you are right. The Catholic Admiral Yamamoto was Rear Admiral Shinjiro Yamamoto (who fought the Russians in the 1903-1905 war). The misconception (one that has made rounds in some Catholic circles) seems to have originated to a reference of a "Admiral Yamamoto" in stuff Karl Keating researched for 'The Poet and the Admiral', and Keating mistook it as a reference to the more famous Imperial admiral.

      The things you learn! :)