Put your money where your faith is

In 1972, the first year I could vote, I proudly wore my McGovern for President T-shirt every where, even to the Well in Austin and the Morningstar Coffeehouse in San Marcos, two coffee houses where the Christian kids would hang out and evangelize to the generation of love.

The elders who ran the Well had no problems with the shirt, or at least they never expressed their concerns to me. On the other hand they also dealt with an international community of students at the University of Texas, an international community that included Israeli and Palestinian students, students from the liberal east and west (or so the mythology went) coasts, hippies, homeless veterans, hard core drug dealers and bikers.

The elders at Morningstar coffeehouse constantly suggested I leave the shirt at home because Christians don’t engage in politics. The college community they dealt with, I might add, consisted of primarily central and west Texas kids who grew up in farm communities and hippies rebelling against the farm communities they grew up in. In those days San Marcos was as much a farm community as a college community.

I would ask these elders if they intended to vote for Nixon. Not surprisingly, they were. I reminded them that voting was getting involved in politics too. They would laugh and tell me that voting wasn’t politics.

During the next forty years conservative Christians (and many of the charismatic students they embraced) evolved into the Moral Majority and then the Christian right. They no longer believed Christians didn’t get involved in politics. They now believe Christians have a responsibility to promote Christian values in the pursuit of governance.

Strangely, however, this agenda includes a number of platforms I find absent in the Gospels and New Testament. They want to eliminate taxation, even though Jesus clearly commanded us render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (i.e., pay taxes). They want mandatory public prayer in schools, even though Jesus said the faithful shouldn’t pray in public make a display of piety. They want statues of the Ten Commandments in public places, even though Jesus spoke out against idolitry.

They want to teach creationism as a legitimate science even though Jesus showed no concern whatever for public education. They want to ban abortion even though the Bible explicitly forbids the sacrifice of living children but never mentions the rights of the unborn. They want to stop medical research and deny health insurance and health care to the poor even though Jesus made it clear that one of the missions of Christians is to heal the sick.1

They do, however, make the case that it isn’t government’s responsibility to provide for the poor. The responsibility falls to private citizens and the faithful. And I accept that principle. It isn’t government’s responsibility as a matter of pure principle. But when the government represents the people, and twenty percent of the people live in poverty (and many more close to it), that government has a responsibility to everyone’s welfare.

If we accept the belief that private citizens are responsible to the poor, needy and sick, we must also recognize that Jesus taught his followers they were the private citizens responsible for the poor, needy and sick. We can rightly expect the religious right to step up to the plate and provide those services out of their own pockets. If, in fact, they want to do as Jesus did.

So we should also expect that, instead of pouring millions into political campaigns to unseat the Democrats, members of the religious right would be inviting the homeless into their homes, feeding them and paying their medical bills. If not that, they should be spending those millions on homeless shelters, food lines and free health clinics.

For some reason that isn’t happening. Where are the Palin sponsored homeless shelters? Where are the Salvation Army centers funded by Rick Perry’s wealth? Where is Michelle Bachman’s campaign to raise funds for medical care or to build free clinics? Why is it that the only Republican to show any desire to provide for health care for the poor is Mormon?2

When I was still a member of the church that founded the Morningstar coffeehouse, they sponsored a revival a few weeks after a flood that ruined the homes of several of the poorer members. During the revival they asked for clothes and food for those displaced by the flood. But they also collected thousands to help the visiting evangelist buy a private jet.

Several of the elders made sure to let members know how much they raised for that jet, but never mentioned the clothes and food. I even asked why they couldn’t have taken ten percent of the money raised for the jet and given it to the displaced families. I was assured that God would take care of the needy; the evangelist couldn’t spread the gospel without that jet.

Jesus walked on foot to spread the gospel, and collected money and food for the poor and starving. In 1972 (and now) I think he would have at least settled for driving to make sure those in need were clothed, housed and fed. And whether or not he would have voted for Rick Perry, Jesus would have told Perry and Palin and Bachman and Romney to sell everything they have and give it to the poor.


1Yes, I know I’m playing verbal sleight of hand here, since Jesus didn’t use doctors to heal the sick. But we could assume that it is not in the spirit of Christianity to deny treatment to those in need in order to make a political statement.back

2Sure, the Religious Right turns down the anti-Mormon rhetoric now that they’re all political bedfellows. But, trust me, deep down inside they believe Mormons are more like that weird spin-off program adopted by the SyFy channel than the official broadcast network variety of the faith.back


Innocence of children, not ignorance of dolts

When I visited my grandparents, my grandfather would always share with us how important is was to possess the wisdom of Solomon. He usually told these stories to explain how he had caught my uncle and me in yet another fool proof scheme to commit mischief and mayhem.

The wisdom of Solomon helped him ferret out where we stashed the cigarettes (in the tool shed with the deck of cards), who kidnapped my sister’s and cousin’s Barbie dolls and who dressed them in my GI Joe combat outfits (after they had dressed them up in finest princess style so they could give a Barbie fashion show for the entire family).1

He figured out who used the oven door for a pea shooter target (more about this in a later post),who hid the switch that he kept above the coat closet door as a warning to children who planning pranks and misdeeds, who ate the pumpkin pie the night before thanksgiving and who told my sister and cousin that the home made grape juice they just drank had fermented into wine.2

When I started teaching kids for the Texas corrections system, they were just as astonished at how I knew they had been smoking dope in the alley, gone to the convenience store for beer when they swore they were going to the library, and every time they came to class hungover. I could attribute this to the wisdom of Solomon (and he does deserve his due) but the honest truth is that I had long ago figured out how my grandfather became so wise.

Not only did he have his own childhood misdeeds to draw upon, but those of his children and grandchildren as well. And truthfully, I knew how what those kids were up to because I had figured out ways to do the same things. Without getting caught. And, I must confess, the few times I was caught, I figured out how to be such a smart ass they almost wished they hadn’t caught me.

But Solomon wasn’t just a wise ruler, he was a learned ruler as well—his “wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore.” (1 Kings 4:29) He was an incredible biologist and an accomplished writer and poet. (32) These don’t come with “common sense,” but were gifts of learning and discernment.

I mention this because of Sarah Palin’s recent blunder over Paul Revere. I’m not bothered by the fact that she could only place him at the time of the American Revolution, but didn’t know exactly what he did. Many students couldn’t do that much.3 I’m bothered by the fact that, according to the news reports, she had just finished viewing a presentation on Paul Revere.

Sarah, it seems, holds learning in such disregard that she couldn’t even be bothered to pay attention to the presentation she attended to promote her non-Presidential campaign. (Do I need to italicize this? No, I’ll just repeat it. Sarah Palin holds learning in such disregard that she couldn’t even pay attention to a presentation she attended to promote her campaign.)

Now I’m saying it a third time, only in the caption. Forgetting who Paul Revere was isn’t a crime, half of Americans probably have, including some Democrats and Episcopalians like me. But Sarah Palin holds learning in such disregard that she couldn’t even pay attention to a presentation (a presentation explaining who Paul Revere was) that she attended to promote her campaign.

Source: public domain

I’m hardly surprised, since I grew up in a culture that holds secular learning in contempt. It’s part of being raised as a Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK). Just about every Christian I knew assured me that they didn’t need “book learning.” They only needed their Bibles and common sense.

In this model, Solomon’s wisdom could not have been the work of study and effort (and exposing himself to the wisdom of other cultures). God just shoved that wisdom in his head by the power of the Holy Spirit. The fact that his knowledge included the physical sciences of the time doesn’t seem to enter the picture. But, if we are to believe the book of Kings, he was as learned as Aristotle and by today’s standards we would want to say, “even Einstein marveled at his grasp of the laws of the universe.”

Solomon wouldn’t have ignored Darwin and the theory of relativity, or even quantum mechanics. In spite of his faith, he would have been conversant.

Instead, many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians want to shield children from such knowledge (and without knowledge, there can be little wisdom). They pull them from public schools and home school them or send them to private schools. And, thanks to laws like “No Child Left Behind,” home schooled students and students of small Christian schools don’t have to take the standardized tests to graduate.

Our kids have to suffer through training for tests at the expense of real learning, while fundamentalists can shield their kids from any such learning and graduate without taking the tests. (And then politicians like Sarah Palin can complain about how unfairly Christians are treated.)

For some reason, many Christians equate ignorance with faith. I know it’s an old joke but I have, in reality, heard evangelists say (with all seriousness) that the King James is the Bible the Apostle Paul carried with him on his missionary journeys. Southern Baptist ministers are expected to attend seminary, but I have met many ministers in small, independent churches who were proud they never made it past high school (if that far).

I would never say education is a cornerstone of faith. Many of Jesus’ disciples were uneducated. But not all of them were. Luke, the author of a Gospel and the book of Acts, was a physician. Paul, who wrote most of the original letters contained in the New Testament, was educated as a Pharisee and quite literate. The authors of John’s Gospel, and the books of Revelation and Hebrews, were aware of Greek and Roman literary traditions.

Nor does scripture ever frown on literacy and knowledge. We owe the origins of American public education to Christian evangelists such as John Wesley and Robert May. Christians needed to be educated to read the Bible, and Shakespeare was as much a part of their vocabulary as scripture. Many even read Whitman, who proudly wrote of his homosexuality.

The sad truth for Christians is, the more we read the more we can detect bull shit, and we get so much of it from liberals, conservatives and Christians that we need our bull shit detectors finely honed. Christians can get upset when I accuse them of bull shit, but that’s exactly how they feel about the teachings of Christians who disagree with them.

Or worse, if it isn’t bull shit, it comes directly from the devil. And if that’s the case, we need to hone those detectors even more. And it can’t just be reading the Bible, because the same verse in the Bible is often used to justify three entirely different beliefs about faith (e.g., “This is my blood.” Real blood, spiritually infused blood, or merely symbolic?4).

If you read only one book that claims to be true, you have no way of knowing if it is, in fact, true. And if all the books you read are by writers who read and cite the same writers, you have no way of knowing whether or not they actually know what they’re talking about.

And if you’re ignorant of history, you might never know how many Christians contributed to modern scientific knowledge (and continue to do so) and who continue to be Christians, even if they don’t believe in either creation or intelligent design. You might never know that the Catholic Church embraced the Big Bang theory (only to back away when some scientists objected).

If I hadn’t read many of the original fundamentalist documents, I wouldn’t know that many fundamentalist writers had no problems with evolution even in the first couple of decades of the 20th century.

Evangelical Mark Noll made a similar case in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians devalue learning, to their detriment. This didn’t seem to deter his evangelical leanings or his faith. Evangelicals like Jim Wallace embrace the writings of educated writers, and even much of modern science, without experiencing any crisis of faith.

I think Christians equate education with learning about Santa Claus. Many Baptists believe it’s wrong to teach children about Santa Claus because once they learn Santa isn’t real, they might doubt Jesus too. They also believed swimming, dancing and cards were of the devil. And when swimming became acceptable, mixed swimming (boys and girls in the same pool at the same time) took its place on the list.

Similarly, they think learning something in school (like evolution) will lead children to throwing out Jesus. They act as though faith is built on a fragile chain, and losing one link will break it all. Faith is more like a web, or woven cloth. Breaking a thread doesn’t bring down the structure. It allows it to be repaired and even made more sturdy in the process.

Do people reject God and Jesus because they discover evolution is credible? Yes, but much of that is because Christians insist (with many scientists and atheists) that evolution is the link that breaks the chain. They believe that if every word in Genesis isn’t literally true, then the entire Bible is a lie. So naturally, if you believe the chain is broken, you abandon it.

Faith is built on personal experience. It is the ultimate form of empirical knowledge. We believe in the power of Jesus because we’ve experienced the power of Jesus. Just as empiricism is the basis of science, it’s also the foundation of faith.

Does that mean all experiences of faith are authentic, and that all accounts are reliable? No, only the test of time and experience will prove that. The proof of faith is like the proof of an experiment. It must be repeated over time.

Will others’ results differ? Absolutely, just as scientists discover new conditions which call older experiments and theories into question. But that doesn’t make either faith or science invalid. Or the pursuit of philosophy in examining questions of faith (e.g., the book of Hebrews, and many of Paul’s reflections). Or the pursuit of history in discovering how faith has led people astray and also renewed the kindling of the spirit into revival.

I studied Catholicism because my first wife wanted our marriage annulled so that my son Bryan could be embraced by the church. Catholics believe (or at least the ones who taught me believed) God speaks to Christians not just through the Bible, but through people, through nature, through history and many other media as well.

I have no reason to doubt them. This is exactly how God spoke to his followers in the stories of scripture.

Sometimes, he speaks to us directly. Sometimes, we fail to get the message or get it wrong entirely. That’s why we judge each message with all of the tools at our disposal. In short, we need as many bull shit detectors as we can because we can easily confuse the voice of God with our own (or someone else’s) crap.

The problem with politicians like Sarah Palin isn’t that she’s ignorant of facts but that, as a public figure (and, even more disturbingly, an apparent role model for Christians), she shows so much disdain for learning. She isn’t wrapping herself in faith, but a cocoon to protect her from realizing she might be wrong. And when you can’t possibly be wrong, you can’t hear God telling you just how wrong you might be.


1There is a pretty obvious clue here in case you’re wondering exactly how he did it. It wasn’t so obvious to me, however, and I remained in awe of that one at least until I was in high school.back

2By the end of the evening, after drinking a couple of glasses, both Beth and Debbie went to grandmother and confessed how drunk they were. According to Debbie, “I can really feel it.”back

3Primarily because the standardized tests are now so complex and the state mandated curriculum requirements so incredibly micro-detailed that high-school aged students can’t possibly be expected to master them. I know this because I was a consultant on both the Texas standardized texts, and helped to catalogue the curriculum requirements for a dozen states for textbook publishers. In my own field, English, several of the requirements were at a level my professors didn’t cover until graduate school.back

2Another small irony. Have you noticed that fundamentalists, who insist every word of the Bible is literally true, insist that “This is my blood” is merely symbolic? I suspect that’s because the Catholics, who believe much of the Bible is symbolic or allegorical, already claimed that verse as “literal.” Except for this bizarre historical accident, Baptists would have come up with the doctrine of transubstantiation.back