Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Price of Progress

Charlie Chaplin’s last silent film, Modern Times (1936), included a scene that would be unintentionally prophetic. A red safety flag falls off of a passing truck and Charlie picks it up. Trying to get their attention, he follows after them waving the flag, not realizing that a labor protest has formed in the street behind him. The police attack the crowd and Charlie is arrested as a communist agitator. After he gets out of jail, he tries to get work again in several occupations, but at the end of the movie he still remains a poor tramp.

Charlie Chaplin in the Great Dictator (1940)

Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator

Several years later, he made his first sound film, The Great Dictator (1940).  Chaplin plays a Jewish barber who is mistaken for an anti-Jewish dictator who looks and sounds a lot like Adolph Hitler.   A decade later, however, he would find himself caught in the House Un-American Activities witchhunt.  Chaplin was, despite never having been associated with the party, suspected of being a communist for having endorsed progressive candidates, refusing to cross picket lines during a strike, and publicly praising then-ally the Soviet Union during World War II (as the government had encouraged producers and studio executives to do).  However, Chaplin had also publicly criticized Hitler before the United States was involved in the war, and in the twisted minds of the McCarthy overlords one would have only done that if they were a pro-Communist sympathizer.  Chaplin defied the HUAC by refusing to name names and he suggested he was being bullied because they also erroneously thought that he was Jewish.  As payback, the little Tramp was banished to England and could not return again until the 1970’s to receive an honorary Academy Award.

In the 1930’s, it was estimated there were over 800 fascist organizations operating in the United States.  While the movements and activities of the official Nazi party were monitored and restricted during the war, others like the Ku Klux Klan were never investigated by the HUAC because they believed the Klan’s activities were part of American heritage.  There was never a similar witchhunt of Klan members, even when the group’s terrorist activities were undeniable.  After the national KKK dissolved, its former members carried on with their jobs and their lives with impunity; the culprits behind the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing weren’t brought to justice until almost 40 years later.  Pro-segregation politicians like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace still won elections after desegregation.  A new American Nazi party formed in 1960 and its members could still be acquitted by all-white juries as late as the Greensboro Massacre in 1979.

In the same period, civil rights leaders faced very real lynchings and assassinations, while being slandered by their opponents as “socialists.”  Rightwing propaganda to this day still refers to the Southern Poverty Law Center as “a communist front.”  Conservative supporters of apartheid in South Africa, like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, justified this brutal white supremacy as a lesser evil to an imagined communist threat.  This has been a successful strategy, a false accusation of being a communist can potentially ruin somebody’s life, whereas members of actual un-American groups on the right are seldom held accountable.  Going back to the Civil War, the insurrectionists of the Confederacy were pardoned during Reconstruction.  Former slaveowners were not punished for their numerous crimes against humanity, but instead were permitted to continue abusing their former slaves and their descendants for generations as second-class citizens in the Jim Crow South.  Whereas the freedmen received no restitution for their lost wages, they were expected to move on as if the labor camps, the beatings and the rapes had never happened.  With the lone exception of South Carolina, Southern blacks never came close to electing a majority of black representatives in their state legislatures like D. W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic The Birth of a Nation depicted, but that gave a paranoid white South an imaginary justification to restrict black voting rights.  Even when black communities overcame the odds and achieved respectable success, they were viciously burned down like the 1921 Tulsa race riot; true to form, Oklahoma acquitted the guilty parties and denied the victims any compensation for their miscarriage of justice.

The toll of being a progressive has always been a high cost, some escaped with only the loss of their careers, others lost everything including their lives.  It has always been comparatively safer and easier to be a conservative, yet ironically it is conservatives who more frequently exhibit a persecution complex.  They still toss around baseless accusations of communism to try to preemptively shut down any discussion of reform, and if they don’t get their way they manufacture cases of hardship and oppression.  The Confederate-invented narrative of the Civil War focuses solely on the so-called “tyranny” of the federal government and the loss of so-called “states’ rights”, while ignoring or mitigating the extent and brutality of slavery.  Their distress at the loss of privilege outweighs an opponents’ actual loss of individual rights.  For instance, they irrationally act as if monogamous gays getting legally married is somehow an inexplicable threat to their freedom, while ignoring the very real harm caused to gay families by being denied recognition before the law.  Suddenly, baking a cake or arranging flowers for a gay couple has become a violation of conservatives’ “religious freedom.”  Of course, these same bakers and florists never made an issue of gay anniversaries, gay birthdays, gay Valentine’s Day, gay Easter, gay Christmas, or gay Hanukkah, etc.; gay couples had been having commitment ceremonies for decades, but that never became an issue either, not until after conservatives lost their marriage battle.  This is obviously nothing but the same political payback and hissy fitting that followed after the Civil War, and they should have already learned from losing the Civil Rights war that a business owner doesn’t get to decide who can buy a product or what they can use it for.  If they can’t understand this, then they shouldn’t be in business.  It’s time for conservatives to give up their delusions of being persecuted, they have been the oppressors far more often than they have been the oppressed, if ever.

Disgracefully, conservative bigotry persists because every generation weighs themselves against their forebears and seems relatively better by comparison: the segregationists were not as bad as the klansmen, and the klansmen were not as bad as the slaveowners.  Like liquid following the path of least resistance, bigotry lazily finds refuge wherever it can still be seen as acceptable.  On the positive side, however, today’s liberals become tomorrow’s conservatives.  They never had to fight for progress themselves, but they can comfortably adopt positions that the previous generation would have condemned as too liberal.  Because of that, most people are not truly liberal simply because they were born into a world where slavery and segregation were illegal.  To truly consider ourselves liberal, we have to identify the safe zones where bigotry has presently slithered and stamp it out into a new corner.

This appears to be on the verge of happening in the latest gay rights battle.  A decade ago, a Christian could come into serious conflict with many churches just for saying that the government had no authority to ban gays from marriage, even if they didn’t personally approve of same-sex marriage themselves.  If the Supreme Court rules against the bans this summer, as they have indicated they will, that same position will then naturally become the prevalent view among anti-gay churches.  Liberals will welcome this forward progress even though those conservatives may have literally demonized them like the segregations formerly did to their liberal opponents.  To the conservatives who continue to resist and resent any comparison between the civil rights movement and gay rights, I beg you: now that Alabama justice Roy Moore has invited the comparisons to George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door, please do not consummate the likeness to those racists by resorting to violence.   You can either actively support progress, or passively become tomorrow’s conservative, but if you try to remain a conservative of the moment, then you will inevitably be compared to the ones before you.  And really, you have nothing to lose, the progressives have already paid the price for progress.

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Undoctrination

 “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
  This bumper sticker slogan popularized by some conservative Christians  encapsulates a fundamental flaw in the way many Christians see their faith.  Aside from the fact that this statement does not include any distinctly Christian descriptor and could just as easily be said by any theist–Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Baha’i, etc.–this mindset is a nonstarter in any religious conversation with a non-Christian even if it were referring specifically to the Bible.  If these Christians were really honest with themselves, then the Bible ought to say something to the effect of this statement, but it doesn’t.  It becomes apparent that the intent of this motto is not the advancement of Christianity, but instead the promulgation of a philosophy to make the religion doctrinaire:
doc·tri·naire /däktrəˈner/ adjective:  seeking to impose a doctrine in all circumstances without regard to practical considerations.
  Now in the broadest sense, any belief system can be said to be doctrinaire compared to a belief system without any distinctive doctrines (such as New Thought or Unitarian Universalism), but for the sake of clarity I will focus the meaning here to a specific methodology of doctrine formation.  Doctrines themselves are not necessarily problematic, the problem is when the doctrine itself is the starting point for a belief, rather than basing belief on reason, fact, or evidence.  A real doctrine should be the conclusion of an argument, not the origin.  The logic in the above example works just the same with the more straightforward re-phrasing: “I believe it, that settles it.”

  Doctrinaire thinking is not unique to Christianity.  Communism is an obvious example of a doctrine system that’s tried often despite all evidence demonstrating it simply doesn’t work (as is trickle-down economics).  Other religions, like Islam and Mormonism, are even more doctrinaire, demanding belief in their sacred texts first for their books’ claims to be believable.  Even the total rejection of doctrine can ironically become a doctrinaire position.  The difference with Christianity, however, is that doctrinaire thought is not essential to believing Christianity, and I would argue the religion is better without it.

  Doctrinaire faith leads people to seek support for pre-determined beliefs, as opposed to the proper method of arriving at conclusions based on supporting facts.  A doctrinaire believer is characterized by having their own set of “facts” in harmony with their faith but in conflict with reality.  These doctrinaire assumptions can eventually distract from their original intent altogether and take on a life of their own.  For example, racist doctrines devised to discourage race mixing, such as black skin being the mark of Cain or rock music coming from darkest Africa were still perpetuated by people removed from segregation who no longer saw themselves as racists.  The insistence of a literal reading of Genesis started as an attempt to defend the Bible against equally-literalist critics in light of scientific discovery, but has now become an association of so-called “ministries” that focus entirely on their interpretation of Genesis as if that were the essence of Christianity.  Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter comes to mind as a literal embodiment of doctrinaire ideology, going so far as to try to make it a physical reality in theme park form.  In this way, doctrinaire doctrines tend towards redundancy, because the end goal is just to support the original premise.

  But does Christianity actually need to be so doctrinaire?  Its basic assumptions about life are well grounded in observable reality:  men are imperfect, prone to do wrong, and die once.  In contrast, the doctrines of reincarnation or inherent divinity found in eastern religions, or pre-existence in Mormonism, require unprovable doctrinal assumptions.  The cardinal belief of Christianity in life after death is demonstrated by a man rising from the dead and supported by witnesses.  One does not have to believe in a book first to believe this is true.

  Not only does it unnecessarily affect theology, but doctrinaire beliefs can pollute the overall practice of Christianity in the most basic ways Christians treat other people.  Much of the criticism the church has earned in the last centuries have been due to indefensible policies that people would only accept if they already believed a certain version of Christianity.  Church leaders jump to the conclusion that every natural disaster, every epidemic, or every act of terror is God punishing innocent people for some unrelated sin because faith.  At a loss to explain why things are right and wrong outside of a deontological “because we say so”, they try to control people with empty threats of hell and damnation which they never have to prove.  Christians perpetuated the inequality of women, blacks, and gays based on nothing more than a prejudiced scripture reading.  I expect some of my readers might cringe at my inclusion of gays in the list of the oppressed, but when institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention have cried wolf about slavery, lynching, segregation, women’s suffrage, abortion (whichever side you’re on, they’ve been on the other side at some point) and interracial marriage, it’s hard to convince me that banning same-sex marriage is the one thing they’ve been right about.  Strangely, when I grew up in a fundamental baptist church, I was taught that Southern Baptist churches were wrong, but never for the obvious reason that they only exist because of a split over slavery.  Looking back at historical sermons from the South, it’s a marvel that the church today has so easily forgiven its past racists when those same preachers effectively condemned virtually every Christian living today as Satanic heretics.

  Some might argue that churches arrived at those horrible conclusions because of a misreading of Scripture.  That may be true, but that certainly hasn’t stopped the same churches from being repeat offenders.  The convenience of doctrinaire thinking is that you always find what you were looking for in the Biblical text, therefore the solution should not just be a commitment to better Bible reading, but a complete overhaul in how we formulate doctrines.  I don’t demand or expect that every Christian on earth could instantly convert to my way of thinking, but I will attempt to lay out some guidelines that I think everyone could consider whether they come from a literary or literalist approach to the Bible.  First, Christians should take inventory of their essential beliefs and determine, like the ones I listed above, those that are grounded in reality.  These principles, rooted in love, life, and liberty, should be the driving force of the faith that we communicate to the world.  Next, we should calculate the risk of positions that have the potential to cause more harm than good; a position that can’t stand up to objective scrutiny probably isn’t suitable for public policy, and we should avoid looking like we just want to control the behavior of unbelievers. Christians should be especially cautious when judging others, focusing less on subjective sins and more on universal, objective morality.  Note that as critical as I am of certain churches for documented moral lapses, I have still never judged them as strongly as they have judged me for imaginary reasons.  Some have accused me of trying to create a “Christianity for atheists”, but that’s not really my intent.  I’m not trying to strip Christianity of doctrines or the supernatural, I just want to promote and strengthen its best doctrines which all too often take a back seat to shameful ideologies.  Perhaps in that way it is a Christianity for atheists, I always want to present a Christianity that’s for everybody.

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