May 5, 2005

Hitchens on the Christian right.

Christopher Hitchens digs up a kickass Barry Goldwater quote:
The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100%. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both. . . . Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me? And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some god-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of "conservatism.

And I use the term "kickass" with authority, as Hitchens also quotes Goldwater saying he wants to "kick Jerry Falwell in the ass."

Though I think Hitchens overstates how much of a grip the religious right had on American politics, I agree that they've overplayed their hand. He also aptly assesses the distance between the capitalism we rely on and the most fundamental statements in the New Testament, which "tells us to forget thrift and saving, to take no thought for the morrow, and to throw away our hard-earned wealth on the shiftless and the losers."

UPDATE: Well, "shiftless" and "losers" is not Jesus talk. You never get the impression, reading the New Testament, that Jesus thinks the poor are poor because they're lazy. There are some images of laziness in the New Testament, but they are about spiritual laziness. Still, as long as you repent in time, you will get the same reward as those who worked hard at their religion all their lives. And if those who did all the hard work complain, they are the ones who look bad:
"Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him." And he said to him, "Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found."

ANOTHER UPDATE: Here's an excellent article on the connection between Protestantism and capitalism. (Via A&L Daily.)

27 comments:

S.C. said...

Reminds me of a quote a Christian friend of mine appends to her emails:

"There are two basic reasons people don't know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
First, they have never met a Christian.
Second, they have met a Christian."

Dave said...

George F. Will makes note of the religious right's influence, relative to that of the non-religious, in his most recent column.

He writes, in part:

The president, whose political instincts, at least, are no longer so misunderestimated by his despisers, may have hoped his remarks about unbelievers would undo some of the damage done by the Schiavo case. During that Florida controversy, he made a late-night flight from his Texas ranch to Washington to dramatize his signing of imprudent legislation his party was primarily responsible for passing. He and his party seemed to have subcontracted governance to certain especially fervid religious supporters.

And last Sunday, Pat Robertson, who is fervid but also shrewd, seemed to understand that religious conservatives should be a bit more meek if they want to inherit the Earth. Robertson was asked on ABC's "This Week" whether religious conservatives would be seriously disaffected if in 2008 the Republicans' presidential nominee were to be someone like Rudy Giuliani.

Although Giuliani's eight years as New York's mayor, measured by such achievements as reduction of crime and welfare rolls, constitute perhaps America's most transformative conservative governance in the last half-century, he supports abortion rights, gay rights and gun control. Still, Robertson's relaxed reply to the question was, essentially: What's a little heresy among friends? "Rudy is a very good friend of mine and I think he did a super job running the city of New York and I think he'd make a good president."

Nick said...

The far left is screaming that we're becoming a theocracy... the far right is screaming that we're becoming a godless society.

Both sides are tugging pretty hard on the same rope... but I think we're somewhere in between personally... just with very loud and annoying spectators because neither side likes that we're in the middle.

vnjagvet said...

Great post AA. Barry Goldwater had a lot of great ideas, and was one of the most quotable and honest politicians in the 20th Century.

Really "misunderestimated" IMO. And feared by the media as well. In hindsight, I believe he would have made a much better wartime president than LBJ.

I do not believe 55,000 young men would have died on his watch without a victory.

Joan said...

Your quotation of the parable of the Prodigal Son gets it all wrong. The faithful son is not made to look bad, he is the instrument through which Christ gets his point across. Note that the father tells the faithful son, Everything I have is yours. His reward in Heaven is secure.

The problem is that we forget this is a parable and think of the father's estate as a zero-sum game: if the Prodigal gets anything at all on his return, the Faithful son gets less. That's not how spiritual rewards work.

I also take issue with the "as long as you repent in time, you'll get the same reward," when that is not at all clear. You can't be a reprobate all your life and make a death-bed conversion and get eternal happiness in heaven. Do you really think God would allow such "gaming the system"? God is not stupid.

It is not for us to judge who is saved, in any case. It is God who looks into our hearts and discerns what is true. We are judged on what we are, not what we would have liked to be. ("The road to hell is paved with good intentions.")

Ann Althouse said...

Joan: I realize the prodigal son's brother is being used to get a point across, but he's made to look bad in the process! Of course, if you're a Christian, you have to take it on faith that Jesus got it right, that the father had his values in order, and that the brother needed to learn a lesson. But I'm trying to show how Hitchens was right about the New Testament running counter to hard core capitalism values. I stand by that.

Too Many Jims said...

Joan said...
"The problem is that we forget this is a parable and think of the father's estate as a zero-sum game"

Wouldn't "Game Theory in Biblical Parables" be an interesting course?

Dirty Harry said...
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Dirty Harry said...

How can The New Testament's teaching's about the poor run counter to hard core capitalism when it's that system that's afforded us the best standard of living in history? When our poor own microwaves, cars, DVD players, and enjoy life expectancy's and a standard of living unheard of even 50 years ago? When our combined private and government giving to the world embarrasses whoever's in second place? That hard core capitalist system has also afforded us the means (and blood) to free the world and it's regions from tyranny too many times to count. That system has allowed us to free our enemies, rebuild them, and call them allies.

Certainly there are INDIVIDUALS who abuse our hard core capitalist system, but Hitchen's use of the term "Conservative Entrpreneurs" is a phony and simplistic generalization. Those conservative entrepreneurs create the jobs that feed the families, they give to charity, and create a majority of the tax revenue needed for the massive entitlement programs for the poor and needy. And that means something. To me, at least.

Some believe the rich could give away more to the needy. But some, with the best of intentions, believe we've already passed a point also mentioned in the New Testament: That warning about the difference between handing a man a fish and teaching him to catch his own.

Thank God for the rich. Thank God for the risk takers. Thank God for the entrepreneurs. Where would the poor be without them? Where would the needy be if we were all needy?

No, the well-to-do don't throw their money away unworried about the 'morrow in a that literal sense that might buy them some slack -- and some do all they can to not throw any away at all -- but most pay at least half to taxes and still give to charity. Most are stock rich -- because they've invested (risked) their wealth in the corporations that create the jobs and tax revenues that benefit the lesser of us. And the world.

I guess the problem with our hard core capitalist system is that it's not showy enough when it comes to the "giving to the needy part." Because a hard core capitalist system's giving is done in private. It's done in the taxes paid with a purchase, and in accountant's offices, and through the mail, and in a million small ways no one mentions, or really wants to, when bashing the system in a superior-istic snit is so much easier.

Maybe we'd all feel better if the well-to-do didn't do give so privately. Maybe a reality show where they cut a check for the percentage of the earnings they would've normally paid to the government and charity that year. Then we'd be impressed, I'll bet. If we saw it all in one fat check -- you bet we'd be impressed. It would shut a lot of people up too. But then the giving wouldn't be of the humble private sort. And the humility is more important than suffering the un-Christian judgement of others. It says that in the New Testament too.

And I'm not defending me. I'm far far from rich.

leeontheroad said...

Harry said:

"How can The New Testament's teaching's about the poor run counter to hard core capitalism when it's that system that's afforded us the best standard of living in history?"

What is it? Hardcore capitalism? We don't have such a system. If the US system was "hard-core capitalist," there would be no income redistribution, which is, as you've mentioned, what is involved in the US tax system (in a number of ways). There would be no social services. National Parks or other public space (that the landowner didn't endow).

It's a hyrbid economic system that has produced both a standrd of living for all Americans that exceeds the standard in most of the world *and* the greatest disparities between the rich and the poor outside the oil-rich Middle East.

Dirty Harry said...

"...*and* the greatest disparities between the rich and the poor outside the oil-rich Middle East."

We did not create the poverty in the rest of the world. So, to say we created a "disparity," -- if you are in fact criticizing us for that disparity -- is a canard.

I cut my grass. My neighbor did not. Did I create a disparity between how our yards look that I should feel guilty about? It's absurd.

Equally poor is no virtue. That the world's wealthiest superpower is as generous with blood and treasure as we are is what matters. Those countries should be thrilled with the disparity, because without it, who would help them?

Dirty Harry said...

...Also, "Hard Core Capitalism," is Ann's term, not mine. She used it in her defense of Hitchens. I disgaree with her defense of Hitchens -- whom I'm of fan of -- when he's not engaged in the "superior-istic snits" I'm quite often guilty of myself.

Hitchens disagrees with your assertion that "We don't have such a system." But I'm happy to defend the system using any term used to define it.

Writing checks to the world in some unrealisitic goal of leveling the globe's standard of living will never work and it's not how we attained what we have, It took us 200+ years to get here.

The most altruistic thing we can do is spend blood and treasure planting the same seed elsewhere that blossomed our democracy. That will level the playing field. And it's working. Look at Germany and Japan after only 60 years. Look at Afghanistan after 3. Look at Iraq in 5.

Writing checks isn't compassion. Teaching to fish is. And that's what we're doing at a sometimes horrible price all over the world.

Hard core... whatever you want to call it -- I'm for it. It's generous. And yes, it's maddeningly slow. I await a better idea.

leeontheroad said...

Harry, I think the US system is a good idea, or, at least, I don't know of a necessarily better one. It's just that the US economic system isn't pure capitalism. (And I didn't suggest the US was responsible for disparities in wealth eslewhere, just the ones we've got here. I think the US overall could do better addressing the ones we do have and did create-- with the system we've got in place. That may be where we most disagree, but so be it.)

Charlie Quidnunc said...

Today seems to be religious right day, with Taranto, Hitchens, and George Will all on the same topic. Media Matters for America has a clip of Pat Robertson on ABC's Sunday talk show, and he sounds rather reasonable to me.

It's all good conversation. I have the Robertson clip, and Ann's response in my podcast today. Give it a listen if you get a minute.

The Editors said...

Saying "religious people are trying to impose their values on society" is a meaningless statement. A meaningful statement would be "people are trying to impose their values on society." In no sense do religious people have any sort of monopoly there.

Religious people are participating in the political process, as is their right. I'd argue the left is trying much harder to impose it's values on everyone than the right is.

The real problem is how the left is trying to impose it's values - imposing gay marriage via judicial fiat for example.

Paul said...

In a system where it is easy to make a product from innate abilities such as hard work and ability, and where such innate abilities are not distributed evenly, there will be individuals that will have more of the product than others.

It will be possible for parents to give to their children the product.

It will even be possible to use the product to hire others to perform actions to make more of the product for other guarantees such as a set amount of product, and/or access to resources that make producing the product easier.

In the end it will be possible for who have most of the product, or the scacest of the abilities, to determine how much hard work and what types of abilities are to be rewarded with the product.

Paul said...
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Sean said...

I don't understand Barry Goldwater's complaint. Why shouldn't citizens try to influence his vote--all day, every day, if they want? Nobody forced him to become a senator.

Marcus Aurelius said...

A couple of points to be addressed. The parable of the talents does say something about laziness. The fellow who did not have the get up and go to make something out of his talents was condemned.

The comment about deathbed conversions is also addressed by Jesus. The parable of the grape pickers. The master offers some laborers X at 6:00am to pick the grapes. Another group comes along at noon and they get X for the day as well. The last group comes at 5:00 pm and they get X also. The group that came at 6:00 then griped to the master the guys that came an hour before quitting time received the same as the guys who worked for 12 hours. The master rebuked them, telling them they agreed to it and it was his money to give away.

The parable seems clear. Deathbed conversions and repentance is acceptable, but there are plenty of parables warning that no one knows their time and as we all know quite a few of us will not get a chance to repent at the end.

Bob said...

I attend a church where, until called to Washington,
Condolezza Rice attended. Although it carrys the name of a mainstream denomination, the church behaves very much like hated evangelicals. In the last year the church has dispatched 1000 people in one weekend to assist a school in a neighboring low income community, sent teams of people to assess the needs of Ethiopia, and help those in Mexico, Russia, Nicaragua, Rwanda and half a dozen others. Last weekend 30 of our church friends spent all day Saturday painting, building a fence, and cleaning the yard of a complete stranger. None of this activity comes with a religious message. It is what is expected of those professing to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. I hope Christopher Hitchens realizes how right he is when he declares how Christians hope to have significant influence in this country while turning the cheek to such disrespect.

Chip said...

"How can The New Testament's teaching's about the poor run counter to hard core capitalism when it's that system that's afforded us the best standard of living in history?"

Because the New Testament says nothing about striving for a high standard of living. The Bible's teaching about the poor is to discourage us from acting in our own self-interest, but instead to serve the poor.

I think capitalism works better than any other economic system because it better acknowledges the sinfulness of humans. But the Bible does not teach us to celebrate or encourage that sinfulness, quite the opposite.

"But some, with the best of intentions, believe we've already passed a point also mentioned in the New Testament: That warning about the difference between handing a man a fish and teaching him to catch his own."

Where in the New Testament do you find anything like this?

Ann Althouse said...

Chip: "That warning about the difference between handing a man a fish and teaching him to catch his own."" Thanks for the catch. (No pun intended!) I'd missed that one. Seems to me, the fish-related Jesus story involved exactly handing out fish -- and there was miraculously enough. There is another fish-related miracle, and it's about catching fish, but it's also about the fish just being available. Both are lessons about faith.

Bruce Hayden said...

I think that Taranto is right. What I see is that those who profess to more traditional values are feeling ever more under attack these days from those who appear to distain such values.

The result has been an alliance that would have greatly surprised us a generation or two ago - evangelical Protestants, observant Catholics, Orthodox Jews, and, surprisingly, some Muslims. Soon, I expect to see some of the African-American and Hispanic communities joining.

What these disparate groups have in common is their fear that their children are being indoctrinated by an ever more secular society with values that they, themselves, do not subscribe to.

And, in the end, it is not surprising that as they feel ever more beleagered, they have buried age old hatchets and find common cause here.

To me, the idea of using Falwell, et al. as a common face on this alliance is political opertunism, and not the least bit honest. He, and those other bogeymen, represent a mere fraction of the majority of Americans who reelected President Bush and a Republican Congress and oppose partial birth abortion and gay marriage.

Dirty Harry said...

Chip:

"Because the New Testament says nothing about striving for a high standard of living."

I wasn't quoting the New Testamant. I was talking about what our system has done to "lift up" the poor far beyond clothing, food, and shelter.

"The Bible's teaching about the poor is to discourage us from acting in our own self-interest, but instead to serve the poor."

I agree. And our system does that. Just not in some grand way to satisfy the Hitchens' of the world. Our system creates the wealth that serves the poor. Some look only after themselves. Most are generous in more ways than the confiscatory taxes they pay -- which are generous enough if you include everything.


"I think capitalism works better than any other economic system because it better acknowledges the sinfulness of humans."

And feeds and clothes and liberates and medicates and houses them.

"But the Bible does not teach us to celebrate or encourage that sinfulness, quite the opposite."

Spreading a democratic or capitalist system is far from spreading sinfulness. That system has done more to help the poor and needy than any in history. Not to mention liberate them. Not spreading that system. Not encouraging that system would be sinful.

ANN: The fish quote is again not my attempt to quote scripture. It's a Chinese proverb I used to make a quick point. Here's a less confusing quote from St. George's News:

"The Gospel leads Christians to a commitment to a just and equitable society in which every human being has God-given significance and dignity. No one should be oppressed or marginalised."

There's no dignity in living on welfare or charity unless you're incapable of living otherwise. People living in poverty is un-Christian. "Equitable" doesn't mean equally poor. The Christian goal is to end poverty. Not spread it. And you do that by teaching one to fish.

We are all charged to help the poor. And only fisherman can do so. It's our Christian duty to teach that trade as Jesus taught his disciples.

Fascinating debate.

Nathan Hall said...

Senator Goldwater seems to be whining that, in a rare oversight, the Founding Fathers neglected make provisions insulating political leaders from the electoral consequences of their actions. In fact, a document was suspiciously attached to the Constitution outlining specifically how these leaders are to be responsible to the people. This “Article I” was presumably inserted by a very young Jerry Fallwell.

This business of behaving like informed citizens in a democracy must be put to a stop. After all, when Christian conservatives start withholding their votes from politicians they disagree with, our pluralistic political system is clearly in jeapordy. What fanatical theocratic stunt will they try next? An up-or-down vote for Constitutionally nominated judicial nominees? A ban on helping childen break state abortion laws? Letting religious charities compete for government grants that are already available to everyone else?

Who do these people think they are, trying to influence the politics of the country they live in? Have they no shame?

Chip said...

dirty harry:

"I wasn't quoting the New Testamant. I was talking about what our system has done to "lift up" the poor far beyond clothing, food, and shelter."

Yes it has done that for many (as you say it has done this better than any other system), but it has also oppressed others. Too many of my fellow evangelicals treat the market like it is divine, instead of being composed of decisions made by sinnful people. The Hitchens article struck a chord with me because of that kind of idolatry.

Btw, I don't think the system encourages us to act in a Christ-like manner to the poor, but it does give us the freedom to do that.

As far as the fish quote is concerned, I agree that it is consistent with the teaching of scripture, but wanted to clarify that the saying is not actually in the Bible.

Dirty Harry said...

Chip: I don't completely disagree with you.

Also there's another quote not in the Bible often quoted as scripture; "God helps those who help themselves."

Nowhere to be found.