Reading about religion can be incredibly inspiring and can also break your heart. The longing for a better world and self-sacrifice that people feel for the sake of goals beyond personal self-interest move me deeply, and yet historical accident, lust for power, or misunderstanding can equally lead to tragedy. I lost two grandparents in the last few months, my mother’s father and my father’s mother. My grandfather was a gentle man, an observant Baptist who had studied Baha’i and other religions, who had trained fighter pilots in the Army Air Corps in World War II, and wrote in a letter to his best friend while enlisted about his view of the faults “of our wider “culture”: too great a stress on the “scientific attitude”; too little appreciation of the individual; too much doubt of the unproved realms of faith; and too little common friendliness and kindness.” My grandmother was born Irish Catholic but converted to Judaism. She was one of six women in her class at Yale Law School, but took time off from her legal practice to raise her five children, and eventually returned to work as an attorney again. Nana was equally opposed to abortion and execution.
Andrew D. Walsh’s Religion, Economics, and Public Policy tracks the shift in evangelical Christianity from resistance to Social Darwinism in the William Jennings Bryan era to the selective right-wing embrace of it that we see today. This is one of several paradoxes of divisions in contemporary politics that baffle me. I cannot read the Psalms or Isaiah or the Gospels and believe that the God who inspired those words wants us to ask less of the wealthy and more of the poor. I had not heard of John Ryan before, but his philosophy resonated with me; his study of economics and focus on ethics seem to embrace a stakeholder vision of economics that may be more sustainable and kinder than the shareholder view. Some people would doubtless argue that a shift away from profit-maximization as the sole goal of firms would slow growth. They may be right, but I, for one, would be willing to tolerate with a standard of living that increases more slowly if it were accompanied by the certainty that labor would be compensated fairly. As I work with students who (mostly) pursue high-paying jobs and evaluate competing offers on salary and bonuses more overtly and readily than on the quality of the culture or the positive impact they hope to have, I fear that even among people who have the means to ascend Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we limit ourselves too often to food and shelter (albeit ever more expensive forms of both). For Walsh, the ostensible “logic” of anti-religion is equally contradictory; Nietzsche criticized the church for criticizing strength, while Marx disliked its hierarchy as a palliative to the poor. I’m not sure that either critique is fair; my reading of Biblical texts rail against oppression, not wealth or power themselves, which asks of the ruling classes that they evaluate a) the sources of their power and wealth to ensure that they are ethically derived, and b) that they use those resources for good rather than for self-interest/hedonism. Similarly, I don’t think even the promise of redemption is the primary motive behind passive acceptance of oppression, but rather the fear of further punishment or danger. I would like to read more of Reinhold Niebuhr’s work; his position seems to be that inaction is not preferable to action- even flawed actions (such as military involvement) in pursuit of worthy ends may be preferable to hiding from real problems. I’m not sure where I stand on this issue. I can readily see the appeal of absolutism, to say that since we cannot foresee all unintended consequences, we are better off doing no harm. But I am not satisfied with that answer. I do believe that World War II was a just war, and that bystanders who do not take action can be complicit in the face of evil. The challenges I see are to continuously evaluate the necessary level of force (as in self-defense contexts), to admit and atone for when we do wrong even in the pursuit of a valid aim (e.g., civilian deaths) and to fact-find and make peace wherever possible.
We lived in France for two sabbaticals when I was a child, and I remember reading about the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre with horrified fascination. The violence, chaos and intranational violence was so far removed from my (simple) understanding of war between two sides that typically were at least initially geographically separated. Perhaps due to this interest (and a middle school fondness for Alexandre Dumas’ “La Reine Margot”) I selected Luc Racaut’s Hatred in Print as my next book. Racaut focuses on the impact of printed propaganda in France during the French Wars of Religion. He argues that one cause of France’s remaining Catholic was the French Catholics’ production of anti-Protestant polemic with the backing of the Sorbonne. In this case, the propaganda was intended not so much to debate Protestants on their own theological issues, but rather to more deeply set Catholics in their own beliefs and discredit Protestantism in their eyes. Allegations of orgies/blood libels against Protestants predominated, just as they had against Jews, and Protestants were accused of being descended from previous heretics, such as the 13th-century Cathars who formed the pretext for the Albigensian Crusade. Ironically, associating Protestants with previous heretics allowed them to claim such earlier sects as ideological progenitors and cast the Catholic Church as the continued persecutor of correct thought. In order to claim the title of “true church” it was important for Protestants to have evidence for a lineage tracing back to the time of the Gospels, and Catholic accusations of continuity with earlier heresies provided that context. Racaut’s descriptions of Catholic propaganda are particularly sobering in light of contemporary digital misinformation and ideological entrenchment. I find myself torn between wanting to permit publication even of odious statements and a concern that deepening divisions till the soil for the seeds of violence to take root. I can only hope and pray that we choose life, both for ourselves and our neighbors, and recognize that there are more important things than our “side” profiting: among them our integrity and self-respect.