Out of Africa

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Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps. Leaving their mothers and fathers and children behind, leaving their umbilical cords underneath the soil, leaving the bones of their ancestors in the earth, leaving everything that makes them who and what they are, leaving because it is no longer possible to stay. They will never be the same again because you just cannot be the same once you leave behind who and what you are, you just cannot be the same. (148)

NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names
New York:  Little, Brown and Company. 2013

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Whose Body, Whose Profit?

Is abortion a matter of economic justice?

Matthew Loftus notes Miles Smith’s recent article in Public Discourse, American Abortion, American Freedom, and the economic objectification in abortion.

Try it at home: take any argument for slavery, substitute the word “fetus” for “African-American”, and see what happens!

“Abortion’s growing comfort within the capitalist order is not surprising. […] As in the case of slavery, economics proves to be the biggest motivator for abortion’s disciples. Political and social considerations prove to be little more than smokescreens.

In particular the article builds off of a recent piece in the New York Times from Lindy West, citing (again) the notion that abortion is a matter of  “economic justice.”

Smith turns the West article into an examination of political ideology, akin to that of the Southern defense of slavery.

Like slavery, abortion has become in the leftist mind the central political issue, on which the economic and social liberties of the modern United States all hang.

Well, yes, but it misses the real point in West’s work, that economics should drive the decision. Here, Smith would’ve been better to actually pulled the neo-liberal trigger. The notion that abortion is necessary for economic reasons is not simply hearkening back to slavery, but is a participation in a globally oppressive economic order, one that reduces people and their values to commodities, so that a privileged few can have “experiences” (evidently, our new Veblen-esque word for wealth impacts).

In this world, the problematic employment is assumed — can’t do nothing about it — so abortion provides a ‘freedom’ a human right. West’s argument assumes the economic status quo with its emphasis on consumerism. The path of economic justice lies in another direction, that of better wages, better maternal care, better pre-schools etc. There’s a lot to be done for women, it’s just that we don’t want to.

So we get the argument for the status quo, where one body is sacrificed so another — the investor class — can enjoy its consumer privilege borne from cheap wages and a poor social contract. The Christian response at the least allies, if not adopts the neoliberal criticism: arguments of spurious economic rights mask the real actions that can be taken for justice. To do so reduces the woman to an economic producer, a widget (in classic Roman terms, a “tool that thinks”) — and here we are in fact not that far from Smith’s link to slavery.

Coming to America?

At Calvin in Common, Clayton Libolt is concerned with a variant of the Christian Right, the Dominion theology with its vision of a thoroughly Christian America, a state where biblical norms are explicitly enacted. The theology was developed by R. J. Rushdoony in the middle of the century and has taken root in some parts of conservative Protestantism. Well, and Texas. While the explicit teaching sounds whacky, there is also a softer side, with its appeals to “creation order” — could  this be the creeping future for America and more specifically for the Christian Reformed Church? Libolt captures the question in a quote from  from David Brockman in the Texas Observer:
To be clear, I’m not saying that religion has no place in the public square. Far from it: religious persons have just as much right as anyone else to advocate laws and policies that line up with their beliefs and values. Government officials, however, are in a different position. No, they don’t have to “walk away from what they believe,” as Patrick puts it. Their religious beliefs can inform their personal morality in office — don’t lie, don’t steal, and so on — and give them comfort and hope or motivate them to serve others. But they can’t make policy based on those beliefs. Government officials have a duty to uphold the Constitution, not to enact their personal religious convictions. They are obliged to serve all of the people, not just members of the officials’ own religious community.
I am a lot more blasé about this. The so-called “soft-dominionism” looks an awful lot like American religious nationalism, a perennial theme at least since the post-WWII era and its emergence in plain folk culture of Orange County. The SoCal origin (home of Rushdoony, too) explain the sort of fundamentalism Mark Noll identifies in Paul’s post, although Christian nationalism was, at least in origin, engaged in the great ideological war against Communism.
Thus, I am more inclined to ask Joe Stalin’s question, “so how many divisions have they got?” In terms of practical politics, the Religious Right does nothing without an alliance with Catholics, and here the dominionist political theology falters. Our “soft doiminionists” and their followers are simply useful idiots for the harsh, hard-right agenda of the economic rightists. Sure, they can have their prayer meeting with the President, even lay hands on him, but the real social agenda will advance and pretty much betray the believers. Oddly, though, such betrayal will likely only intensify their politically idiosyncratic views.
Even in Texas, I suspect the internal contradictions doom dominioinism, even of the soft variety. As dominionism shares the same sort of political architecture of conservative Islam, it is difficult to privilege Christian communities without also empowering Muslim ones. Thus the soft dominionist must either be revealed as a hard liner — a political dead end – or confront the Islamophobia of the supporting religious community.  The Muslim protests in Texas have already shown how far THAT would go. In the end, I rather think the religious communities will forgo the full Christian freedom schtick if it means granting power to their Muslim neighbors.
And can we so easily dismiss, the “gosh, I’d like to” demurral (I’d love to support you, but the Bible…)? At present, we need something like this appeal to conscience if we are to rid ourselves of this President; well-meaning Republicans will have to find that backbone and say in effect, “gosh I’d like to go along, but….” Think of how one starts moving folk like Sen Ben Sasse.

Dodging the Trump bullet

Neil Carlson cites this NYT article to observe

party identification and religious identification can both reflect pro- or anti-Trump selection bias. People who used to be “independent” and “no particular religion” may now say they’re Republican evangelicals, because that brand is associated with Trump’s iconoclastic populist nativism. And vice versa. The more we repeat the “81% of evangelicals voted Trump” figure, the more we reinforce the brand and create further self-fulfilling prophecies about support and opposition.

Speaking practically, this shifting of brands means that an institution like the CRC must be especially on its toes. How does it position itself within its communities as a non-Trump entity? (Not anti-Trump, but as a counter). The Trump party is going to end soon enough and will definitely be giving Evangelicals a morning-after headache of the worst sort. The trickiness is of course, that by conviction the US wing of the church sides broadly with the Evangelicals and has a record of voting that inclines that way. But separate we must if we are to have any morning-after credibility, particularly with our vision of reaching a broader set of communities.

Public Wealth

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Even with the lowest unemployment since John Engler, Michigan is grumpy, notes John Gallagher. University of Michigan economist, Donald Grimes has a suggestion, maybe it’s a function of shift in consumer prices. The TV is cheaper so we buy a bigger one. Or gas is cheaper, meantime other prices rise, and so our stress.
“If there continues to be this wide divergence in price inflation for different goods and services, I don’t think people are ever going to feel that their real incomes are going up very much,” (Grimes) said. “They are going to continue to feel financially stressed to pay for the things that are going up in price relatively quickly, because they aren’t going to have money freed up by spending less on the things that are going down in price.”
Another answer may be the decline of public goods. If the public goods don’t keep up, then all we are left with is ourselves, our condition — so the economist may be right. Over this time frame what has happened in the public sector? It has been deliberately under-funded through a thicket of tax shifts. Citizens of Michigan pay more and get less, and their legislators piosly proclaim they can do nothing about it.
 
So perhaps the solution is to increase taxes a bit more and in turn make sure we have good roads, better schools, parks that are well kept and the like. We may have to forego the TV, but when we step outside, when we travel through our great state, we can feel a little better (or at least not be so continually jostled).

Abortion and the Rise of the Religious Right

Allison Vander Broek picks at one of the puzzles of the Christian Right, viz. it’s relation to the anti-abortion movement. Did the Christian Right really arise as a reaction to Roe v. Wade, as the common internal narrative would have it? Or should we follow along after Randall Balmer, and think of the Christian Right as emerging out of the reaction to the civil rights movement, and particularly the emergence of the white Christian schools? Vander Broek notes the absence of evangelical engagement on the question of abortion (something Balmer does as well) and proceeds to ask a couple of questions,

Why did evangelical leaders create and perpetuate the narrative that abortion is what spurred them to political activism? … Why might American evangelicals craft an origin story that’s so off base from reality?… Could it be that it’s a much more heroic tale that evangelicals got into politics to defend babies rather than to oppose desegregation?

Vander Broek decides that the racism narrative is the dominant one, the secret sin of evangelicals. This may be a case of reading our history through lens of the present: the Christian Right drew from several streams.

What Balmer omits is the role of Orange County, where the children of the Okies took on Northern California elites, waging war over several cultural issues, while holding to a virulent anti-communist ethos. This was a movement grounded in the sociology of the sunbelt suburbia, whose issues were not schools but the cultivation of American values. In their emergent mega churches they shaped a politicized faith that elected Ronald Reagan to the governors mansion. Their rise and impact is nicely document in Darren Dochuk’s From the Bible Belt to the Sun Belt (Norton: 2010); the flavor of the movement can be caught in None Dare Call It Treason.

A second stream that plays an important role in the evangelical church and in national politics are those immigrant churches of the Upper Midwest. These were organically Republican communities that also incorporated a high degree of religious motivation to their politics. Social issues were important, but often with a slightly more communitarian shape; and while there was a caution about racial issues particularly in urban areas, nonetheless the community maintained an openness to civil rights. These were the churches that self-defined as evangelical and not fundamentalist, a community that maintained numerous academic institutions: Bethel, Calvin, Trinity Evangelical, Wheaton, and others.

And then there are is the southern revivalist stream that Vander Broek and Balmer identify, whose life was shaped by the reaction to the civil rights movement. Even this has a deep root. The southern revivalistic church was a populist phenomena, with the weight of that racial narrative; it shared the rejection of the post Civil War centralized state. This is the seedbed of Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones, and the nascent Moral Majority.

The genius of the Paul Weyrich was to find the issue that took these three regional movements and organized them to a common political purpose. As Balmer relates

“The new political philosophy must be defined by us [conservatives] in moral terms, packaged in non-religious language, and propagated throughout the country by our new coalition,” Weyrich wrote in the mid-1970s. “When political power is achieved, the moral majority will have the opportunity to re-create this great nation.” Weyrich believed that the political possibilities of such a coalition were unlimited. “The leadership, moral philosophy, and workable vehicle are at hand just waiting to be blended and activated,” he wrote. “If the moral majority acts, results could well exceed our wildest dreams.”

This new movement would indeed become powerful, but not all at once. It’s politics grew not only from political strategy but for a host of cultural reasons. It was the long march of a generation, a topic for the next time.

 

On the pursuit of social justice

The folks at Returning Church highlight Jacob Brunton for his attack on The Gospel Coalition as Marxist. Once one wipes up the coffee off the desk. Social Justice is rejected in preference for “charity” which is seen as an emblem of grace.

 if charity is a picture of the grace of God in the gospel, then what message are we sending about the grace of God, and about the gospel, when we preach that charity is deserved? Answer: We are teaching that God’s grace is, likewise, deserved.

What Brunton gets right is that the questions of poverty, and of response to social need are not defined by the person. The act of beneficence is important, but there’s more. Social need can and often is created by relationships, it is invariably political, in fact a matter of justice. This is the reality of power. 

The widow, the poor look to the king to remedy their situation; they are institutionally at the short end, taken advantage of. So the consideration of social justice is less about mercy than about the ruler exercising proper (and righteous) power. The righteous king exercises authority (justice, mispat) on behalf of the poor, the weak, the vulnerable to protect their claims and their standing.

To be trinitarian, the royal office is enabled by the Spirit, made possible by the Son’s sacrifice. The Cross and Resurrection have turned authority into something more ‘provisional’, into something like servanthood. Provisional authority does two important things: it allows us to fail, we can make mistakes; and it removes the absolute or polarized ideas, left and right — this royal authority listens.

The challenge of social justice is too often that we have not thought deeply enough about it, but settled only for the ethical scorecard, a zero-sum of winners and losers. Social justice as a trinitarian action gives a social dimension, of covenant keeping, extending the covenant blessings to others, acting to establish a better model of God’s covenant with us.