Like a snake underwater: How the conservative alliance has led to flawed public policy

Conservative policies are often not what they seem

Snake Under Water

The goals of political conservatism are all noble ideals; keeping the powers of government in check, protecting citizens from excessive taxation, maintaining moral certitude as a principle of government, and encouraging free trade and commerce.  And at a values level, conservatism prides itself on support of tradition, liberty and love of God and country.

Despite its reputation as a staid element of society, conservatism has at times been quite progressive in pursuing its goals, especially as it set about using media outlets to communicate what it brands conservative ideals from the 1980s to the present. Conservatism’s doctrinal approach to seeking power, influencing culture and leading government has attracted many followers thanks to the aggressively proactive approach.

If you are looking for a single factor in the success of conservatism with the American public, convictions are the political capital of conservatism. Any discussion of politics, social policy or human welfare must contain a healthy dose of “convictions” to be taken seriously by the alliance of political, fiscal, social and religious conservatives.

People with strong convictions tend to love clarity. But the desire for absolute moral clarity among conservatives can lead to intolerance for other viewpoints and even cultural prejudice. Ironically, this may be one of the principle points on which conservatism runs afoul of the true message of the Bible. It is difficult for people to have compassion and tolerance for others if they are blinded by a discriminatory fixation on the competing interests of material, political and personal priorities. The apparently missing component of doctrinal conservatism as it relates to Christian beliefs is compassion.

There have been attempts by the conservative alliance to manufacture empathy for its political cause through invention of terms such as “compassionate conservatism.” But there is little room for compassion in a political movement bent on doctrinal dominance. The fact that the term “compassionate conservatism” even needed to be invented is evidence of the moral contradiction—one might even call it hypocrisy—at the heart of the conservative alliance of fiscal, social, political and religious conservatives.

By definition, hypocrisy means, “a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not.” and, more specifically; “the false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion.” Hypocrisy is a strong accusation to make toward any belief system, but the alliance of fiscal, social, political and religious conservatives fits the description in at least one critical sense. Conservatism as a social movement still struggles in its ability to reconcile the market-driven demands of its fiscally conservative constituents with the call to charity and compassion inherent to religious faith and the liberal agenda of Jesus Christ. Specious terms such as “trickle-down economics” celebrate the supposed beneficence of the free market. But truly they only show how cynical some elements of the conservative alliance can be toward those in need. If the most that conservatives can manage to share is the grudging spoils of the rich, then greed remains in control and the collective ideology of conservatism stands in opposition to the liberal agenda of Jesus Christ.

Real contradictions enter the picture when conservatism seeks to justify the doctrine of free market conservatism with the liberal agenda of Jesus Christ. In Mark 10:12, we find the story of a rich young man who wants to know what he can do to reach the kingdom of heaven:

“As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered.  “No one is good––except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

“Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

“At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Granted, this passage may be steeped in hyperbole. But this and a good number of other passages (John 2:12-17, Luke 12:22-34, Luke 12:16-23, Matthew 27:3) leave little doubt that pursuit of personal wealth and social advantage are not the top priorities of Jesus Christ.  As Mark 10 suggests, a ministry in the name of Jesus calls for a selfless disregard for wealth as opposed to the “winner-take-all” focus of unbridled capitalism.

If the Bible is to be trusted as a tool for social justice and democracy, then those who borrow its authority must keep in mind the liberal standard at its core. That predicates treating people as equal souls, avoiding discrimination and exploitation and promoting the virtue of charity through actions as well as words. Jesus emphatically calls us to reach out to others with resources that we might normally keep for ourselves. The liberal agenda of Jesus Christ always puts the needs of others first. Otherwise its message is captive to motives that have little to do with the ways of God.

Some Christians, frustrated by their inability to promulgate their version of faith in the free market of ideas have decided that politics may be the means to force society to accept their doctrine. The problem with this approach is that a contradictory theology never leads to good public policy,and that is at least one of the reasons by the United States Constitution guarantees freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion.

The conservative alliance has led to flawed public policy because of the contradictions and hypocrisies at the heart of its own doctrine.

A divided Republican Party tests the conservative faithful

American Bald Eagle

America's symbol seems to be looking for direction

It has become evident that the race for the Republican nominee for President of the United States is completely different from any campaign in history.

Some Republicans have been scratching their heads wondering how the race produced four such disparate candidates. Candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul appear to have very little in common with each other. And you would think that would not be the case with a political party where doctrinal lockstep has been the hallmark of the ruling class for so many years.

You can analyze the cause of the shakeup all you want. The Tea Party. The collapse of the Bush presidency. On and on goes the analysis as to why Republicans are fighting among themselves. But there’s really a simple reason why Republicans have four such strange candidates to choose from: Sooner or later, it had to be this way.

The Republican platform in the last 30 years has relied on four doctrinal pillars that have had to work together to deliver Republican candidates to power. And for a long time, it worked. But now those four doctrines are set apart in stark outline.

Fiscal conservatives are the branch of the party that focuses on monetary policy and prefers to let economic markets determine distribution of wealth. “Less regulation” is their call to action.

Political conservatives contend that the freedoms of democracy (especially as originally outlined in the Constitution) are sufficient to provide opportunity for every citizen to succeed. “Less government” is their mantra.

Social conservatives promote the value of traditional institutions and cultural laws as a foundation for government and society. “Less liberalism” is their war cry.

Religious conservatives bring God, faith and moral values to the cultural and political table. Hewing most closely to fundamentalist approach to the scriptures, their political action plan is “Less God means a weaker country.”

So, do you know which candidates fall into which conservative category by now?

Romney is the most obvious. His background as a venture capitalist is how he became fabulously wealthy. And his statement on the campaign trail that “corporations are people, my friend,” illustrates his worldview. Definitely playing the role of the fiscal conservative.

Next up is political conservative Ron Paul, who would prefer that government be shrunk down to almost nothing. The man with the Libertarian bent occupies a political conservative space so far to the right no one dares to reach out and touch him, for fear of being sucked into an invisible vortex.

Newt Gingrich should be functioning as a political conservative. As the key proponent of the Contract For America in the 1990s he led the Republican charge to distill politics down to a laundry list. With its politically fundamentalist bent, that tactic appealed to political conservatives at the time. But as Gingrich succumbed to his own hubris and drew breach of ethics charges that seemed to have destroyed his reputation as a political conservative, he was forced to abandon that strategy for a political future and came back through a different channel, and he chose that of a social conservative. But first Gingrich had some baggage to unload, so he conveniently joined the Catholic Church, that portal of confessional virtue, and briefly surged as a frontrunner leading up to the Florida primary where social conservatism is so highly valued. But playing the social conservative has been a strange and difficult role for Gingrich, and he has ultimately failed, in part because he walks sideways and talks out of the corner of his mouth about everything, at least figuratively. In  other words, he ultimately wasn’t believable as a straight-talking social conservative. But it was the only card he had to play.

That’s because Rick Santorum had locked up the position of religious conservative well before the campaign even began. Santorum’s views on virtually every subject are so heavily tinged with a conservative brand of Catholicism that many Republican voters early in the race shied away from such a marginal candidate. His recent rise in popularity is a sign of conservative desperation. The label “authentic” is being applied with some pride to Santorum, but what they really mean is “suitably extreme,” and we’ll get to what that means in a minute.

Because you see the electoral process for Republicans worked like a centrifuge this time around. The tightly spinning centrifuge of debates, caucuses and media exposure have slung the substance of Republicanism hard against the walls of the conservatism. And this time around the ideology produced four completely separate candidates, each of them pushed to the extreme limits of the ideology as a means to look convincingly clear about their respective subjects. In fact it has been the extreme failure of Republican policies under Bush that put so much centrifugal force to play upon conservatives in general. Economic policy: Costly Fail. Political and foreign policy: Damaging fail. Social and education policy: F+. Religious policy: Just plain creepy and hypocritical. Republicans tried everything they believed would work in America and got four “F’s” for the effort. So the pressure was on, especially now that President Barack Obama’s policy’s have actually had time to correct some of the mistakes made by conservative legislators the last decade. Obama rescued the automotive industry. Slowly stimulated the economy and didn’t overheat it. Provided intelligent support in foreign policy and military action that led to the death of Osama bin Laden and the fall of several dictators. These actions have got Republican heads spinning. And now the economy is bouncing back as well.

All this centrifugal force has left the formerly unified party to wonder aloud, “What happened?”

The fact is, reality happened. Conservatism as a social movement is, after all, a deeply hypocritical and confused mess. In fact, if you look close enough, it is possible to argue that the ideal we know as conservatism does functionally exist at all.

We’ve seen the effects of literalistic capitalism in America. The less we regulate the more things blow up in our faces. Like a bad chemistry experiment gone awry, the economy definitely needs a set of processes and ground rules and regulation performs that function. So conservatism likes to talk ideologically about the power of the free market to govern itself, but that is an exceptionally Darwinist notion that is not at all acceptable for civil society.

The claim of political conservatives that “less government is always better” is hypocritical by definition. If you don’t believe in the power of government to do good, why run for office?

Social conservatives simply fail to account for the fact that the world is not only changing all the time, but it has to change. Even if something was good in the past, the environment in which it functions is altering daily through technology, science, social progress and globalization. But if social conservatives had their way we would still have slavery, women would not have the right to vote and Jim Crow laws would still exist. Prohibition would still be in force. The list goes on and on. Anachronism is not a force for social good.

The archest forms of religious conservatives want to impose theocracy on America, and the Constitution defies that. Plus the belief system of fundamentalist Christians ignores and distorts the true meaning of the bible in ways that are simply irreconcilable to the natural laws and science upon which modern society depends.

Jam all four of these dysfunctional worldviews together and you have a real mess on your hands. And that’s what we got under 8 years of the Bush II presidency. A near total collapse of our economy, the 9/11 tragedy, illegal wars, torture and flaunting of Constitutional laws like never before, and Bush claimed his actions were the will of God somehow.

The dysfunctions of conservatism as a conglomerate doctrine complicate matters by trying to reconcile ideologies that stand for different truths. These are meant to balance each other out, but instead conservatism tries to pretend the differences don’t exist.

For example, if one truly believes in the literalistic version of market capitalism, then sharing your wealth as Jesus recommends in the bible is a ridiculous and socialistic notion. But in fact the Bible shows Jesus frequently requiring the wealthy give away their riches if they hope to gain entrance into heaven. Recall the parable of the camel going through the eye of the needle?

So based on dichotomies such as these, it was inevitable that the conservative wad of ideology would someday blow apart. We should be surprised it didn’t happen sooner. But people desperate for political power will cling together under the most egregious of banners, and conservatism has served that purpose for many people too many years.

Now we have Romney, Paul, Gingrich and Santorum standing before us like they don’t even want to be in the same room together. They argue and claw at each other furiously, proving forever that the four pillars of conservatism really have little to do with each other. Not if you look closely enough, and we’re getting that chance now. Real Republicans, the kind that understand the art and benefit of political compromise, want to puke. But one of these candidates will either get the nomination or the Republicans will arrive at an ugly conclusion too late and throw the whole lot out in favor of a brokered nominee. We can only hope it is not Jeb Bush.

But it’s quite obvious the Republicans prefer a messy wad of a candidate to the clearly defined truths that divide their party. Republicans have been so busy dismissing the various faults of their highly flawed candidates… even the strident bellows of Limbaugh, Hannity, O’Reilly and Fox News are almost squeezed out with the effort. But like always, they’ll find a way to justify whatever they believe is good for the country, even if it’s not. Based on what we can learn from this year’s electoral race, it is still power that matters to Republicans and conservatives in the end, not principles.

It all seems like art imitating life. The Burt Reynolds character in the original football flick “The Longest Yard” once said, “I’ve had my shit together a long time. It just doesn’t fit in one bucket.”

Truer words could not be said of this year’s Republican nomination race.

What the bible really says about the nature of human knowledge

Nature can help us look beyond our earthly perspectivesNaturalism and Organic fundamentalism

Some high profile politicians like to profile faith issues as stark “either/or” propositions. One of the most divisive arguments is over what it means for humans to have “dominion” over the earth. A literal translation of this term leads to a theology that says the earth and every living thing were put there for human use. Lashed together with conservative fiscal doctrine that resists environmental legislation and government regulation on business, this literal translation can be used to make the argument that environmentalism and science undercut key foundations of moral values.

But is it really that simple? And does the Bible really contend–and does Jesus really teach us–that the earth is a vessel to be poured out at our discretion, and that science stands in opposition to God?

We can examine this issue by looking at some  basic principles of human knowledge, both naturalistic and scriptural.

In modern culture, naturalism and human reason drive the pursuits of science, mathematics, physics, chemistry, medicine and more. The worldview we conceive through naturalism has been developed through increase of human knowledge tied primarily to the sciences. This approach has simultaneously defined how we gather, employ and relate information.

Yet we need to recognize that naturalism is primarily an organized system of observation. As such, naturalism has always been part of human culture. It informs the workings of our lives just as knowledge about nature, planting, sowing and harvesting informed the lives of people during bible times. Granted, advances in technology and our corresponding ability to manipulate nature have been used to create tremendous change in the world. But the basic practice of observing the natural order of creation to form beliefs about our selves and the universe has changed little in the last 10,000 years. We remain a culture of human beings in which storytelling infused with natural images is a primary method of communicating universal truths.

Let us be specific: the knowledge conveyed in the Bible utilizes the same observational methods as naturalism to gather and pass on knowledge. The key difference between biblical and scientific knowledge is the manner in which naturalistic observations are used, and to what ends. For example, one of the ways in which naturalistic observations form the basis of literary truth in the bible is through metonymy, a literary device that describes “the use of a name for one thing for that of another, of which it is an attribute with which it is associated.” 

Metonymy is based on “organic metaphors,” natural symbols used to draw parallels between our worldly life and what we call the “kingdom of God.” For example, the “tree of life9” portrayed in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:8) serves as a symbol for the nature of knowledge, cultures and descendants. At a literal level, we can observe a tree and know that it is an example of the constancy of nature. But we can also view a tree as the symbol for intellectual concepts such as genealogy and wisdom. Other examples of biblical metonymy include the mountain of God in Isaiah 2, symbolizing the higher moral ground of faith. The river of life in Revelation 22:1 similarly symbolizes the flow of life’s generations through time. In each case the literary device of metonymy illustrates a spiritual concept using the natural dimension, size or structure of something we can readily see or observe here on earth. The Bible plainly uses these material examples to teach us about spiritual concepts.

Of course one could argue that the modern tradition of using naturalism to define knowledge denies the supernatural by definition. But the corresponding argument is that the Bible cannot be understood without some foundation of naturalism to help us appreciate the symbols and meaning conveyed through the literary device of metonymy and other metaphorical, literary devices. The methodologies of naturalism help us identify appropriate organic symbols for knowledge, truth, moral and spiritual concepts. We might call this the nature of revelation.

Put another way, the Bible is so reliant on metaphorical devices that we would have little affirmation of the concept of God if it were not for the naturalistic biblical metaphors describing how God appears, acts, feels or creates in this world. Metaphor is an indispensable tool for understanding the literature we call scripture. By contrast, treating metaphorical symbols literally divests them of nearly all meaning. So it is crucial to avoid unmerited literalism when reading the Bible, especially if it leads us away from the original and organic sources of knowledge that drive scripture. We should instead respect the important role played by naturalism, metonymy and symbolic language as tools chosen by God and Christ to make the Bible’s ultimate message relatable to the human race. Thus the organic fundamentalism of the Bible is defined as wisdom anchored in observations about the natural world delivered through literary devices such as metonymy.

Jesus the naturalist

Organic fundamentalism plays an important role in the ministry of Jesus Christ, who used a simple form of naturalism in so many of his parables. Jesus uses parables to describe spiritual and moral principles that would otherwise be difficult for people to understand without some way to make them tangible and relevant to his audience. In Matthew 13:31 we find Jesus playing the role of naturalist with this parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”

The significance of this parable is that it communicates an important concept of faith by drawing on the seemingly supernatural ability of a tiny seed to become a giant tree. People in Jesus’ day understood this parable because the illustration of faith was presented to them in terms with which they were familiar. The concept of faith in God is not so threatening when it starts in the image of a tiny mustard seed. So we see that Jesus was able to communicate revelatory concepts through organic principles. This is organic fundamentalism in action.

This concept of growing a faith through knowledge of nature is given another application in Matthew 13:33, only this time human beings are assigned an active role in the organic process: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” Here the act of adding yeast to dough symbolizes the ability of human beings to effect change in the world through faith and good works. This is organic fundamentalism with an added human dimension, demonstrating it is acceptable for human beings to be materially involved to the world. Naturalism is again no enemy of God in this context.

Matthew 13:34 outlines just how important organic fundamentalism really was to the ministry of Jesus Christ:  “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world (reference to Psalms 78).” This prophetic reference to “creation of the world” outlines the unifying role of parable, metonymy and organic fundamentalism present from beginning to end in the Bible. Now let us consider the importance of parables in the teaching ministry of Jesus Christ and what it says about how we should read the bible from Genesis to Revelation.

Parables: The link between matter and spirit

A parable is defined by Webster’s Dictionary this way; “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or principle.” To ascertain the meaning of a parable, the listener (or reader) must make connections between the subject of the story and what it illustrates in terms of good and evil, but also the difference between matter and spirit. This process requires thought and rationality on the part of the listener. Matthew 13:34 is an ideal illustration of the spiritual truths of the bible communicated through rationality (parables) spirituality (things hidden) and organic traditions (creation of the world) that form the foundation of biblical tradition. It makes perfect sense that for Jesus Christ “things hidden since the creation of the world” should be discerned from organic or naturalistic sources.

The bible recognizes that Jesus was a man in the material sense, but with a spiritual essence that challenged all notions of human limitation. In this respect both his existence and his parables are an essential link between life on earth and whatever we think of as heaven. By constructing this vertical link between earthly examples and spiritual purposes, parables anchored in organic fundamentalism make it possible for us to imagine concepts of faith that would otherwise be foreign or inconceivable. Language is a key link between the apparent objectivity of natural theology and the emotional experience we call revelation.

Some people get so wrapped up in the revelatory experience of faith they may choose to ignore its organic foundations altogether. But Jesus perfectly demonstrates the value of a faith in balance with organic fundamentalism and revelatory experience. What can we learn from this example?

We should ask ourselves how well we are following the example of Jesus in the modern age. If through literal interpretation of the Bible we ignore, dismiss or fail to appreciate the organic tradition upon which biblical knowledge is dependent, we deceive ourselves into thinking an anthropic or revelatory interpretation of the Bible is the only way to establish and sustain a relationship with God and creation. Instead we should be skeptical of any teaching that imposes a prideful dichotomy between our material and spiritual lives. That approach is not in keeping with the ministry and message of Jesus Christ, whose use of naturalism to convey truth demonstrated an attitude of sanctity toward creation. Worldly knowledge is a compliment to faith. Organic fundamentalism affirms the idea that gaining wisdom through the metaphorical significance of nature as a creative act of God is the wellspring for biblical truth. All that is required for us to bring the bible into the modern context is a corresponding openness to metaphor and the pursuant will to draw parallels between the organic fundamentalism of scripture and the naturalism driving modern culture. The Bible is more alive, accessible and materially pertinent if we celebrate its organic fundamentalism rather than forcing our interpretation of scripture into a literal doctrine that effectively separates us from the heart of naturalism at its core.

True simplicity of faith comes in having the liberty and latitude to discover what scripture means to say rather than accepting a merely literal interpretation of a religious text. We might call this metaphorical tangibility; that is, approaching life and wisdom with an eye toward its unifying symbolism. This is the common denominator in biblical knowledge. And take note: Organic fundamentalism isn’t just a “here or there” phenomenon in the bible based on selected texts to make a case in favor of naturalism as a foundation for truth.

The useful knowledge we gain from sciences such as geology, biology and physics is therefore not the enemy when it comes to understanding and appreciating God. The natural conclusion of this analysis is that we can sustainably engage a reading of the Bible while maintaining a fluid worldview. That is, a worldview that accepts science, naturalism and the notion that the world is part of an infinite and changing universe. And a fluid worldview is a more consistent way to make God and the Bible relevant in the modern age than a worldview of biblical literalism and its typically rigid, purposefully limited and fearful perspective.

The lesson is that politicians like to make use of the rigid, limited and fearful perspective to draw stark lines among the voting electorate. But do not confuse their worlds with good theology, or perceive them as some kind of gifted message from God. The very human motivation of worldly power often negates the very real connections between our earthly lives and our truly spiritual goals of understanding and respecting God’s creation.


The roots of faith in farming and politics

Seeing a high school friend after 30+ years apart can be awkward sometimes. But usually the years melt away and you find common ground somehow through talk about family and friends.

Such was the case in joining up with a friend whose profile cropped up on LinkedIn. It was a little odd in his mind that he was on the business social network at all. He’s been a successful hog and crop farmer all his life, working land that his family purchased in the 1850s and still works today. But a politically minded mutual friend of ours decided one evening over drinks to create a LinkedIn profile for my farmer friend, and that’s how we connected.

We shared lunch at a restaurant near his place that happened to be on the south side of a small Illinois town to which our family moved from Pennsylvania in 1970. I was headed into 8th grade, knew very little about the world and was simply happy to find friends through sports at the middle school we attended in the middle of windswept cornfields.

In recent years I’d taken up cycling and often pedaled past my friend’s farm 15 miles west of the Chicago suburbs. Once in a while I’d thought about stopping in to say hello.

So it was gratifying in some way to close that loop, share a meal and catch up on his life and mine.

Rumor has it there is now a lot of money in their family, having sold off some of their prime property in a real estate boom a few years ago. But my friend showed no pretentiousness and in fact apologized for smelling like hogs when we sat down for lunch.

I come from farming stock myself with a mother and father who both lived and worked on dairy and crop farms in upstate New York. Our family visited both those farms frequently and as a kid I loved shoveling cow manure into troughs so it could be whisked away by the conveyor belt that took it to the fertilzer spreader.

Later when our family moved to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania there were Amish kids who showed up for class smelling like manure and walking around in bare feet. So farming was no particular mystery to us.

But my uncle who took over my mother’s family farm sold it in the 1960s and took a position as a land assessor. His advice to me at one point was, “Go to work for the government. You make good money and the benefits last you for life.” That uncle was a fabulously fun-loving man, known for driving his cars too fast and carrying on with ribald humor. He often showed off his tanned, muscular body while working around the farm, treating a ride on the tractor as if it were a surfing expedition as we flew down the two-track toward the Susquehanna River.

Trouble was, my uncle rather disliked farm animals. He named his cows after old girls friends so he could smack their asses when sending them into the stalls. Eventually he also developed a pretty bad back from the rigors of farm labor, and not because he was out of shape. In his early years he’d been a good runner and set a course record at his community college cross country course that lasted 25 years. His distance running skills were honed trotting after dairy cattle up the side of the Catskill mountain that formed the dairy pasture.

Nichols Family Farm circa 1958

My grandfather who worked the farm before him was a reportedly liberal thinker who sent most of his children off to college. My mother studied music and became a teacher. Several of the other children also went into scholarly professions. Farming was valued in the family, but not as the sole occupation of the generations.

And so it was that my uncle alsogot out of the farm business. Perhaps a spirit that can grow to love the liberal enterprise of a non-productive activity like distance running cannot adapt to the soul-wrenching difficulty of farming.  At any rate, he left that world and moved to Florida after years of employment as a land assessor and finally died in a car crash at the age of 94. Rumor has it he was driving a little too fast for conditions. In other words, he remained true to his nature, loving speed and excitement over the mundane. The land where our family once farmed is now overgrown. Only memories remain.

My father’s farm also was sold off when no one in the family wanted to continue paying taxes on it in the 1970s. Several families lived on the farm until it was sold to the power company that had always wanted the property. The family barn and house were finally leveled. All that’s left of that legacy is a pile of stone rubble.

With these farm roots nestled firmly in my past, I have always remained curious how “real” farmers think and live. And that was part of my curiosity about my friend.

It turns out that farming is just like any other occupation. There are wins and losses. Ups and downs. Family matters come and go. Some you resolve. Some you retain. Most of all you try to keep an even keel and maintain the family pride through thick and thin. Money doesn’t seem to change things all that much. People still have problems. People still find faith where they can, and when they need it most.

Our conversation turned to faith and my friend shared an interesting observation about his small little church. “We say this thing where we all confess our sins and say how bad we are as people. But I go to church to feel joy. I feel joy seeing people that have known me all my life. Sometimes I wish our church would find ways to do more of that. Find joy as well as speak of sin.”

As discussions of faith are often wont to do, our conversation soon turned to politics. My friend acknowledged that many of his fellow farmers were frustrated with President Barack Obama. “They don’t hate the man,” he shared. “They just hate his policies.”

Not wanting to turn the renewal of a friendship into a political battle, we both steered clear of digging too deeply into the issues of partisan politics. But it is a ready-known fact that many farmers declare themselves Republicans. Credit that to the Republican platform of economic self-reliance, firmly conventional social structures and a strong proclamation of faith-based values. Yet it seemed to disturb my friend that the people who were his friends had become so adamantly opposed to any sort of consideration toward the President. Something about that form of rigidity bothered him.

Perhaps there is no joy in service to such rigid doctrine, which has a confessional effect upon the masses. But there is little room for joy when criticism of the perceived enemy becomes the primary basis for your politics. Because what happens when (not if…) your own party fails you somehow? Then your confessional values, your whole world even, can get turned inside out.

It is not likely that farm politics will shift anytime soon from conservative to liberal. The perceived relationship that Republicans are the primary supporters for farm subsidies may be one facet of that loyalty. But the deeper claim to conservative values is another anchor to the farmer’s penchant to vote Republican.

These instincts can hardly be criticized without tugging at the fabric of American culture itself. Our original and continuing role as an agricultural nation is such a firmly established tradition that our national identity is at stake when one questions the role farmers play in our economy and culture. Even many of the Founding Fathers were farmers.

And so Republicans seem willing to prop up their image of support for farmers at almost any cost. A June, 2011 USA Today story carried this news item; “Republicans have quietly maneuvered to prevent a House spending bill from chipping away at federal farm subsidies, instead forging ahead with much larger cuts to domestic and international food aid. The GOP move will probably prevent up to $167 million in cuts in direct payments to farmers, including some of the nation’s wealthiest. The maneuver, along with the Senate’s refusal to end a $5 Billion annual tax subsidy for ethanol-gasoline blends, illustrates just how difficult it will be for Congress to come up with even a fraction of the trillions in budget savings over the next decade the Republicans have promised. Meanwhile, the annual bill to pay for food and farm programs next year would cut food aid for low-income mothers and children by $685 million, about 10% below this year’s budget.”

It is quite fascinating to realize that the supposed conservative, faith-based values that align farmer with support of Republican politics somehow prefers to subsidize some of the nation’s wealthiest farmers while denying food aid for low-income mothers and children. It absolutely begs the question as to what Jesus would do if he controlled the purse strings in America. Would he engage in the liberal enterprise that government proposes to care for the needy and poor? Or would he vote to continue subsidies to an agricultural economy that has become increasingly commodified, corporatized and wealth-concentrated. And how many of our nation’s farm policies actually do encourage family farmers to make a living? The organic farming industry, often driven by entrepreneurial farmers dedicated to serving smaller markets and local economies is growing in America. But ironically that is a liberal enterprise by definition and by nature. Do Republicans also by nature support organic farming or consider it a cross-market aberration driven by phony liberal instincts? Let’s ask Rush Limbaugh that question sometime soon. Or for that matter, Monsanto?

Perhaps these are questions about the morality of farmers that only God can answer. But let us at least confess that on the surface at least, that the traditional patterns of political support for the political right by the nation’s farmers seems to flow as much from love of mammon as from love of fellow man. In some cases our farming practices may indeed even run counter-productive to the welfare of our society and environment. Again, it is difficult to distinguish fact from dearly held fiction on so many issues. Like the construction of the Noble Savage assuaged guilt over America’s genocide of native peoples, the image of the Noble Farmer may be obscuring the ugly truth in some ways.

And yet my farmer friend seems both a compassionate and faithful man. We can be assured there are many like him among the ranks of American farmers. But if America is to succeed and the nation’s resources are to be sustained, it might be farmers who most need liberal instincts to survive and thrive. Whether conservative Republicans like to admit it or not, free will and the free market do go together, and the Christian notion of self-discipline must be balanced by the liberal notion of charitable acts and goodness. That is the yin and yang of the bible, and the economy.

Both free will and the free market do require some degree of self-discipline and self-governance to be sustainable. God knows America needs a liberal dose of both.

Is Newt Gingrich a latter-day King David in our midst? Maybe so. But not how you think.

Whether Christian believers like to admit it or not, the Judeo-Christian tradition is both a religious and political story. Jesus Christ was willing to challenge both the religious and political leaders of his day, calling them to guide their actions with truth, justice and morality. In the process he stood up to some politically powerful people, and we know the earthly results of those efforts. But if the moral of the story stopped there, Christianity would not be much of a religion. Instead the courage of Christ in standing up to the forces of earthly power and poor religious judgment is the ultimate model for Christians to hold leaders accountable for their words, deeds and actions.

Truly, as Christians we need to draw on the example of Jesus to guide us in not sacrificing the spiritual purpose of faith in pursuit of power. Jesus set a clear example for us all. It is not okay to rationalize our faith to try to win favor with the rich and powerful. We are supposed to hold ourselves to a higher standard than that.

But many Christians find that a tough example to follow.

You would expect that Christian leaders would demand basic patterns of moral behavior from political candidates who come to them for support. These include of course reasonable respect for marital fidelity, embracing financial ethics and legislating on behalf of the the poor and needy, whose welfare Jesus most consciously favored.

Yet a certain breed of politically motivated evangelical Christian leaders seems willing and even eager to ignore basic moral principles whenever political power comes within their reach. Thus we find evangelical Christian leaders dispensing forgiveness like Pez candy to front-running political candidates who have nasty personal and professional records.

We all know forgiveness is a powerful and wonderful thing. Some would argue it is the heart of faith itself. But let us be honest: it is not true forgiveness if our primary motive is power-brokering. That is nothing more than an ugly rationalization. Christian evangelicals who claim to have their finger on the pulse of faith yet lend their support through rubber-stamped forgiveness for corrupt leaders should be called to account for giving away the authority of faith for cheap political promises.

By example we have the 2012 election cycle, in which we find Christian evangelicals bending over backwards to support none other than Newt Gingrich, the serial wife-dumper and man of apparently confused moral character who recently blamed his propensity for dalliances and faithlessness on an overabiding love of country. Talk about a cynical argument for patriotism and a poor damn excuse for a husband! Why would any Christian evangelical support such a lout?

The answer is that Christian evangelicals are still achingly desperate for political power. Frankly it may be that because their attempts to convert society to a theocracy through religious means have failed, they hope to leverage political influence to impose a virtual theocracy that would fulfill the motives of an often warped, anachronistic interpretation of scripture. In fact the consistent policy failures of conservatives in general, all who seem set on turning back the clock through an agenda of regressive, repressive doctrines is driving the movement to new extremes. They really have nowhere else to go. So they push back even harder. And that is why social and religious conservatives are willing to dismiss all sorts of sins in political candidates. It is rather like the Old Testament stories where people in the desert beseeched God to deliver them from exile. But this time round they are not justified. Quite far from.

For example, many of today’s Republican evangelical leaders are attempting to forgive the politically front-running Newt Gingrich his many sins. Gingrich recently converted to Catholicism and that would seem to give evangelicals grounds to forgive. As if he were a changed man. Despite his very long track record of questionable ethics and a calculatingly harsh demeanor toward his enemies. In fact he does not even seem to have all that much patience or compassion for his supposed friends. Or anyone. Given his strange act of endorsing child labor to teach them the value of work, one wonders if Gingrich’s next act will be protecting child-abusing priests because it will teach children the merits of obedience.

Gingrich is a living, breathing hypocrite as well as misanthrope. We can all recall how Gingrich and the entire GOP castigated Bill Clinton for his extramarital affairs. Yet we now know that Gingrich was engaged in behavior as bad or worse than Clinton’s while the whole political takedown took place. That makes Gingrich a hypocrite and a liar.

Jesus really did not like hypocrites most of all, especially in political and religious quarters. He saved a particularly harsh brand of invective for anyone leveraging religious influence to gain power, calling the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” for turning scripture into literal law. So why does anyone think Jesus would favor a hypocrite like Newt Gingrich for president? It’s frankly ludicrous. And yet so-called Christian evangelicals seem to be lining up to endorse him.

In a November 2011 Newsweek article, writer Michelle Goldberg documented just how far Christian evangelicals will go to partner up with politicians approaching the nation’s key seat of power. When asked why evangelicals were suddenly willing to embrace Gingrich as a candidate when his serial affairs indicate a man of poor moral character, prominent evangelical Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Center, brushed away concerns about Gingrich by saying, “Under normal circumstance, Gingrich would have some real problems with the social conservative community. But these aren’t normal circumstances.”

That is moral relativism, plain and simple.

Consider also the moral gyrations of influential conservative radio host Steve Deace, a conservative talk show host who outlined the evangelical moral quandary over Gingrich this way; “Maybe the guy in the race that would make the best president is on this third marriage. How do we reconcile that?”

Deace goes on to answer his own question by drawing on examples from the Bible: (Deace says) “I see a lot of parallels between King David and Newt Gingrich, two extraordinary men gifted by God, whose lives include very high highs and very low lows.”

But let’s follow that comparison of Newt Gingrich to King David to its true conclusion.

The supposed parallel is that both King David and Newt Gingrich lived less than exemplary lives. Both committed adultery, and in David’s case he conspired to have the husband of his desired mistress sent to a war front, so that he would essentially be killed so that David could then claim the man’s wife.

The Bible also tells us that David committed multiple counts of genocide, including crimes against his own people.  So bad was David’s behavior in life that when he asked God if he could be allowed to build a temple to his Name, God responded: “You are not to build a house for my Name, because you are a warrior and have shed blood.” You see, even God has his limits when it comes to accepting rationalizations of bad behavior.

The Christian evangelical community conveniently forgets to mention this sordid little episode toward the end of the life of King David. That is because it does not seem to fit the conservative narrative of the triumphant leader who wins the permanent favor of God, and who is rewarded for everything he has done.

Instead the honor of building a house for God must be passed to David’s son Solomon, who asked God not for wealth, nor riches or honor, nor the death of his enemies, not even for a long life. Solomon instead asked for wisdom and knowledge, a decidedly liberal engagement of the Almighty, you see. And God granted Solomon that request. And Solomon built a great temple to God.

Solomon went on to educate himself on matters of the natural world and became known for his great capacity for equity in judgment and justice for all. But even Solomon had his failures of character, proving that it’s altogether dangerous to use religion to justify placing our hopes on our political leaders, both flawed and virtuous, because they are virtually guaranteed to place their own priorities and motives over those of the people they are elected or appointed to serve.

Our vestigial past embodied in theology

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming revision of my book, The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age.

Our Vestigial Past

The basics of biology tell us that whales are mammals that live in the ocean. Though shaped like fish with fins instead of legs, we know from physical evidence inside the bodies of whales that their evolutionary ancestors once walked on land. Hidden inside the body of every modern whale species are vestiges of legs and pelvic bones. These remnant leg and pelvic bones clearly do not help a whale walk on land anymore––so we call them vestigial body parts.

Ironically human beings can provide a wonderful illustration of why whales now use fins instead of legs to swim in the water. When humans swim, we are forced to use arms, hands and feet ill-suited to the process. We rely instead on propulsive motions of arms and legs to move through the water. But if we place rubber flippers on our feet we can swim much faster, dive and turn more quickly. Essentially by using our intellect and adding the instrument of flippers to our feet, we can shortcut the evolutionary process and become better adapted to life in the water. Of course, the feet we use to walk on land are still embedded inside those rubber flippers, but for the moments they are encased inside flippers their original design as instruments for walking are vestigial. Just watch anyone try to walk in swim fins. It truly is like reverse evolution.

Humans can take an evolutionary shortcut however and dispense with flippers to instantly walk on land again. Whales are not so lucky. Their leg and pelvic bones have receded into the body where they no longer interfere with the swimming motion.

There are people who object to the idea that body parts of living things can be vestigial. They call the theory of evolution a false belief, maintaining it is too big a stretch to say that ancestors of whales once walked on land, or that the origins of living things can be explained through the apparently random process we call evolution.

Philosophical resistance to evolution theory is largely founded on religious beliefs, especially the belief system known as creationism that says God created living things in original forms unchanged since the dawn of time. In recent years creationism morphed into a pseudo-science known as Intelligent Design. But really it is better labeled an anti-science because its arguments do little to explain the origins of living things but do provide complicated objections to why evolution could never occur. Proponents of intelligent design have invented scientific-sounding terms such as “irreducible complexity” to explain why some organs and processes in living things are too complex to have evolved on their own. But if we follow the thinking behind intelligent design theory to its conclusion, we find it dead-ends at the point where true human science begins––trying to discover how things works, and why. So intelligent design theory does not work as a science, but it does serve a useful purpose in illustrating how anachronistic worldviews tend to create more confusion than clarity.

Let us consider how intelligent design theory chooses to explain the presence of essentially useless leg and pelvic bones in the body of a whale. The answer given by Intelligent Design is scientifically inconclusive––but also, it turns out–– theologically unsound. Intelligent Design says God put them there by design. It is not for us to know why. But is that really how God designed the world, or more specifically, the human mind?

This rather cynical response wears a disguise of human humility towards God when in fact it is a tremendous arrogance. And here is how we know that to be a fact. If we trace intelligent design theory back through its roots of creationism to the source of religious literalism at its foundation, we encounter a worldview that depends on an aggressive fiction––belief that the scripture is to be followed literally in every respect, including the history of our origins. But literalism as a tradition of faith was rejected by Jesus Christ who chastised the Pharisees as hypocrites (and worse, a brood of vipers!) for turning scripture into religious practices diverting spiritual devotion from God into law. Through literalism, that process is still happens today. We never seem to learn our lesson.

There is of course a reason why people persist in taking scripture literally. It appears to deliver answers in neat little packages. To say that God put useless leg and pelvic bones in a whale seems like a shortcut to truth. Such a belief does not require much thought or analysis to comprehend. There is its principal appeal. But let us turn the paradigm of literalism around for a moment. Aim it straight back at the bible to examine scripture with scripture, as theologians advise us to do. Then we shall see if the strict methodology of literal truth is applied with consistency in our practice of religious faith.

It is readily determined that we do not follow the strict letter of the law or scripture as it is presented in the bible. In fact we ignore as archaic and anachronistic all kinds of religious laws and practices laid out in the bible. Entire books could be written just about the differences between life as an ancient Israelite and life today. So let us choose just one example––the acceptance and practice of slavery––that is the most glaring difference between life in bible times and our culture today.

References and acceptance of slavery occurs with almost casual frequency in the bible. Yet we reject its existence for outright moral reasons today. Yet Leviticus 25: 44 says: “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.” On the issue of slavery Leviticus is far from alone in the bible. Both Old and New Testament texts bear evidence that slavery was not only tolerated but in some cases  advocated as preferable to upsetting the social order.

This is madness, of course. Yet literal belief in the value of slavery persisted well into the last century. Only 60 years ago, noted theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer could not shake his own fixation with biblical dramatics related to slavery when he wrote “The Cost of Discipleship,” an instruction manual on how to live the Christian live. But instead of conceding that society had long since rejected slavery as an acceptable tool for moral instruction, Bonhoeffer went to great lengths justifying the warped perspectives of St. Paul, whom Bonhoeffer quoted liberally on the Christian role of a slave, “No, his real meaning is that to renounce rebellion and revolution is the most appropriate way of expressing our conviction that the Christian hope is not set on this world, but on Christ and his kingdom. And so––let the slave be a slave! It is not reform the world needs, for it is already ripe for destruction. And so––let the slave be a slave!”

Bonhoeffer was later forced to admit that this worldview was dangerously in error when slavery and other forms of social bondage came to evil fruition in his own country through Hitler and Nazi Germany. Bonhoeffer ultimately chose to resist Hitler, thereby rejecting his own advice that one should “let the slave be a slave!” Eventually Bonhoeffer even participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler. That action essentially relegated his advice to “let the slave remain a slave” to the theological dump heap. It became vestigial, in a sense, to a faith focused instead on achieving social justice. That was the faith Bonhoeffer conceived as he was persecuted and imprisoned by the Nazis. His vestigial analysis of scripture was forced to evolve. He no longer adhered to this advice from St. Paul in Romans 13:  “Therefore let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers. The Christian must not be drawn to the bearers of high office: his calling is to stay below.”

There is no question that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man of convictions. His faith cost him his life. He was hanged by Nazi Germany for resisting another literalistic brand of faith leveraging the supposed racial and cultural superiority of white Christians seeking world domination. Bonhoeffer rightly recognized that the brand of faith espoused by Hitler and the Third Reich was corrupted by lust for power. Some argue that true Christian faith could never produce such an evil, but there is no doubt Nazi Germany used the language and authority of Christianity to recruit people to its cause. Its anti-Semitism led to the execution of millions of Jews. It was a perverse form of biblical literalism that informed this anti-Semitism.

Abolishing slavery is only one of the more dramatic differences in how we manage our affairs today in comparison to people in bible times. Let us state the truth plainly: The bible is full of laws and practices we no longer use. They are now vestigial. Present but harmless. Real but relegated to a function that no longer drives our faith. Most of all, such texts should never be taken literally or used to dictate our actions and lives today. This realization should open our eyes to places in society where religion and especially literalistic forms of Christianity continue their persecutions today.