Friday, December 16, 2011

Being a Christian means vaguely feeling some things are wrong

This ad by Rick Perry has been getting a lot of outraged attention and a lot of ridicule:

(For a great round-up of parodies, see here.)

Perry's homophobia--and the fact that he's directing it, specifically, at the men and women who are protecting and sometimes dying for our country--is the obvious and appropriate target for most of the outrage. But I'm equally as offended by his vision of Christianity. Let's take a closer look at what he says: "[Y]ou don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school."

In other words, you don't have to be making any effort to lead a Christian life (going to church, wrestling with what's in the Bible, performing works of mercy) to call yourself one. Proof of your Christianity comes from your vague belief in traditional, religious values--which, ideally, someone else should be responsible for teaching. After all, if the principal of your kids' school leads them in prayer and there's a big crèche in front of City Hall, then you don't have to do any religious instruction of your own, much less model a life of faith for your children; you can just rest secure in your own rightthink.

Also, if you're uncomfortable with gay people? That's okay, because it proves you're a Christian! In fact, if you're uncomfortable with anything, that's probably because it's wrong. And wrong in a cosmic, Bible-forbidden kind of way. (Which is why, as I've noted before, so many Christians don't actually read the Bible: they already know that everything they believe is in there.)

According to Rick Perry, being a Christian means being part of a very special and persecuted minority on whom no real demands are ever made.


Dr. Koshary said...

Preach it, sister.

Veralinda said...

I knew I loved you, Flavia.

Renaissance Girl said...

Amen, hallelujah.

Anonymous said...

Yay, Flavia for President! Such wisdom amid all the muckety-muck...

Ajnabieh said...

Ahem, not that I am not totally down with the content of this post--

But isn't this a Catholic vs Protestant problem? That is, you've exactly described the works vs grace notions of salvation. One doesn't *have* to do anything to be saved, one merely has to have accepted Christ. And that acceptance then becomes a way of battering others; you are saved without question, so fuck that guy. (Apologies if such language isn't normally used round these parts.)

I mean, I agree that this is wrong, but I agree with it as an ex-Catholic Quaker who is pretty sure some kind of crocodile or some such is gonna weigh my heart when I die. I don't know if this is sectarian theology speaking, or an actual problem in Christian morality.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Shorter Rick Perry: "The most important thing about Christianity is the part where you hate other people and judge them without forgiveness. Everything else is optional."

Which is exactly what Jesus himself says in the Gospel According to Drug-Addled Monkeys. Otherwise, no.

Doctor Cleveland said...


No, with all due respect, I don't think it's a Catholic/Protestant thing. There are lots of Catholics and lots of Protestants (and Orthodox, et cetera) who know better than this. Also, alas, lot of self-identified Catholics and Protestants (et cetera) who are simply using their "Christianity" as a tribal badge that allows them to castigate whatever out-group.

Withywindle said...

"[Y]ou don't need to be in the pew every Sunday" can mean "although you are a sinner," not "you don't need to really care at all about Christianity." He didn't say "you don't need to be in the pew any Sunday at all." The wording might be open to your interpretation, but it's probably aimed at a self-understanding--and reality--of soft-core evangelicals, intermittently church-attending, with mixed feelings about their harder-core brethren and mixed feelings about the application of the Bible to public issues as well. I would suspect a great deal of thought went into the particular Iowa demographics it's aimed at, and that the conversation is at a very different register from your commentary.

Veralinda said...

"Shorter Rick Perry: 'The most important thing about Christianity is the part where you hate other people and judge them without forgiveness. Everything else is optional.'"

I knew I loved you too, Doctor Cleveland.

(P.S. Pamphilia named me Veralinda; ask Flavia if you don't already know who this is).

Flavia said...

Ajnabieh: No, what I'm describing isn't a grace/works divide (though I suppose that a cynic could argue it's one possible endpoint that a doctrine of salvation through grace alone leads to). The Reformers most definitely envisioned Christians who were deeply engaged in their religion, read the Bible, did charitable works, and went to church. And of course, there are many, many Christians today who come from a Reformed tradition and who do all those things.

Withy: the ad could appeal to soft-core evangelicals who are more thoughtful and religiously committed than those I'm talking about. But thoughtful people don't, as a general rule, believe that Obama is engaged in a war on religion (I'm not saying that there aren't thoughtful people who oppose things that the Obama administration has done--but prayer in school and the "war on Christmas" are decidedly not new issues).

Moreover, there are an awful lot of "cultural Christians" of the sort I've described, for whom the idea of Christianity is very important, but in a hazy, nostalgic, emotional way that's less about believing or doing anything very specific, and more about a sense of how things used to be and should be. This ad is not adopting the discourse of evangelical piety you're positing; it's adopting the discourse of tradition and inchoate emotion.

Given that this ad does not seem to demonstrate "a great deal of thought" in the target of its homophobia (gay servicemen? really?), I'm not willing to give it credit for a sophistication or nuance that it shows nowhere else.

moria said...

High-fives for you, smart, angry theology lady with the great cultural analysis. So many high-fives.

Susan said...

Amen. And as a Protestant and almost Calvinist, I don't think it represents the faith/works divide. Andrew Sullivan calls this Christianism, and I think that is probably a good term for it. This is using "faith" as a club against others.

Withywindle said...

Flavia: Of course having gays serve in the military constitutes a skirmish on the war on traditional religion. I care more about the Obamacare threat to pro-life positions, are the constant raids by the judges he appoints, but this is no less a part of the war. These are new enough; but even where he prosecutes old battles, they are no less a part of the war for not being original. As for "thoughtful," I think you are wrong in substance in your argument, so your use of the word does not persuade, even aside from its provenance in the vocabulary of ritual liberal self-congratulation.

I have no brief against tradition and inchoate emotion, but I'm not sure the two categories don't overlap. Or shall we say that tradition and inchoate emotion encompasses the entire political and religious spectrum, indeed all humanity, so that the descriptor is insufficiently precise.

If you cannot describe the position with a better word than homophobia, itself a particularly mindless blunt instrument, I don't think I'm going to take you as a perfect judge of relative nuance.

Not to be overwhelmingly unfriendly or anything; just a little irritated by the language in your post. Someone is wrong on the internet!, etc.

Flavia said...


It's late and I'm still grading and I suspect that, however elaborately I replied and however much more precise I made my terminology, we would never agree.

So I'll confine myself to saying this: it has never been clear to me that you know very many practicing Christians, especially practicing evangelical Christians, and especially practicing evangelical Christians in places like Iowa or the south. And I'm continually astonished by how frequently, and with what assurance, a certain kind of urban atheist/agnostic conservative presumes to speak for or about the values, beliefs, and politics of people that he or she seems to have precious little personal knowledge of.

We all paint with too broad a brush sometimes when attempting to characterize a particular group of people--including groups to which we belong. But as a person of faith, I am really tired of hearing nonreligious conservatives speak smugly and reductively about what matters to or motives "Christians."

Withywindle said...

I did spend eight happy years in Lynching View, Arkansas, at the Reverend Hydrocephalus' Academy for Christian Anglo-Saxons. Aside from that joyful period, my most certain knowledge is exclusively of the inside of my skull. Beyond that, I take as cogent and plausible John Derbyshire's comment that if liberals from ignorance romanticize dusky foreigners, conservatives from ignorance romanticize the pale and God-fearing heartland. Itemizing the Evangelicals I have Known and What I Learned from Them seems a tedious exercise. Aside from that, it is true I work from inference: the Urban Liberals I know regularly disparage evangelicals, conservatives, etc., as mindless slaves to passion, whose avowed beliefs they need never condescend to address; these Urban Liberals are themselves not the paragons they imagine themselves to be; therefore I tend to give their objects of their critique the benefit of the doubt. Occasionally Liberals From The Heartland tell me that the people they grew up with are just horrible. Usually they echo the critique of Urban Ignorance so completely that I wonder if vicinity does not necessarily provide greater knowledge--that if, say, I need not trust the argument "we Southern Whites know the nigra much better than you northerners," neither need I trust "we Heartland Liberals know the evangelical much better than you evangelical-lovin' urban conservative types."

I'll grant you that my "soft-core evangelicals" paragraph was an act of imagination. I could be wrong, and I'd be glad to hear a better argument. But I don't think saying laziness, hatred, ignorance is it.

Flavia said...


In this (and possibly only this) instance, I agree with Derbyshire. But the issue isn't whether liberals do the same thing--sentimentalizing, say, the black poor, or the small-town union man, or the hardworking immigrant when they've met exactly none of these people. Of course they do. And in both cases, there can be an ugly amount not only of ignorance but of condescension involved. (And of course, the assumptions of urban liberal atheists about heartland Christians drive me crazy, too--but they, also, are not the subject of this post.)

Basically, I see no reason to accept that most Christians (of any stripe, including conservative evangelicals) see allowing gays to serve openly in the military as part of a "war on religion." I think that's a real miscalculation on Perry's part, and I'm not persuaded by your defense that, because Perry makes the claim, it must therefore reflect what a majority of conservative evangelicals think. There's something circular about that: none of us can criticize what someone who belongs to a group implies about that group! He must be right, and have a more sophisticated argument than he appears to have!

Even if we grant that most conservative evangelicals see homosexuality as "wrong"--and I'm willing to grant that--the nature of how that wrongness is understood varies. Some people think homosexuality doesn't exist as an orientation, and is a pure perversion. Some people think that the orientation is natural, but acting on it is sinful. Others see homosexuality as wrong (either perversion or sin), and may oppose gay marriage, but are against workplace discrimination.

So it is, first of all, not a given that even people who think homosexuality is wrong oppose the repeal of DADT. And it is even less of a given that religious people who oppose the repeal oppose it for specifically religious reasons--AND that they see the repeal as an attack on their religion. That's a whole lot of assumptions.

Therefore, I think Perry has made a strange and flawed appeal. Had he brought up gay marriage, I would absolutely have understood where he was coming from; he would be making a coherent argument given his audience. But allowing a Marine who happens to be gay to continue protecting his country and killing terrorists? That just doesn't strike me as a winning issue, even among conservative Christian heartland voters. I think such voters are a more complex (and, yes, thoughtful!) group than I understand Perry to be painting them as.

scr said...

Allowing homosexuals to serve in the military would be "a skirmish [in] the war on traditional religion" if the military was a religious organization. Which it is not. Nor is it clear which specific traditional religion admonishes adherents from allowing gays to operate firearms.

Anonymous said...

"Allowing homosexuals to serve in the military would be "a skirmish [in] the war on traditional religion" if the military was a religious organization. Which it is not."

Unless your religion is 'Merika. Which is Flavia's point, I think, because this brand of American civil religion may have a veneer of Christianity but it lacks any real theological content or ethical/moral/intellectual demands. Hence, you don't have to be in the pew to be a practitioner. Grilling out on July 4th and getting misty eyed when you hear the star spangled banner is enough. And of course all the various sorts of outrage that go along with it.

Withywindle said...

SCR: It matters whether the state, however avowedly secular, aligns itself with or against the dictates of traditional religion. I presume you do understand that the issue of tolerance of sinfulness is somewhat broader than gun use.

Anastasia: I am frustrated by the shallowness of religion, and civic religion, among most Americans; but not sure that this is more than human nature. Complaints by the devout about popular indifference and shallowness are very old, and probably true enough. Which, therefore, is a reason not to measure everything by the yardstick of the devout.

Flavia: Interestingly, Perry never said that he'd repeal the repeal of DADT. One interpretation is "he wants the audience to think he'll do something about that, even if he didn't actually say so." Another: "his audience knows he doesn't intend to do anything about that issue, it's just a statement of character to say he's finds it a wrong priority to put repeal of DADT ahead of expression of religion in schools, and he'll generally pursue that preference in his administration, without reference to the particulars." Maybe he wants to attract both audiences. As to the tactics of what gets you 25% or so of Iowa Republican caucus voters--I like to think he's not wasting that much money on television advertisements with no sense of his audience, but he could just be flailing. I suppose I would find it a more boring world if he was just throwing stuff at the wall and hoping something would work.

scr said...

Because freedom is a larger issue than gun use by homosexuals, persons of whatever arbitrary faiths/religions/cults/clubs/professions/interest groups are welcome to attempt to persuade the American people as to why their liberties should be restricted. If they are successful in doing so, it must of course still pass Constitutional muster.

If I choose to be offended by marginal tax rates that end in odd numbers, that is my prerogative. I have no expectation, however, that I should be consulted beforehand, nor I should construe any such tax rates as a direct affront to my sensibilities.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Wait, now we need to circumscribe citizens' civic rights in order to appease the biases of the NOT ESPECIALLY DEVOUT? Do you listen to yourself?

And gays in the military are part of an actual war. In Afghanistan. Pay attention.

Let's recap: Withywindle comes on to the thread to correct Flavia for her insufficient knowledge. Withywindle has little or no knowledge on the subject himself. (His claim that Perry's ad appeals to evangelicals' sense of one's sinfulness is only possible because ww doesn't know how evangelicals actually talk about being sinners, and is counting on no one else knowing, either.) Knowing less than the OP does about the topic, he attempts to brazen it out by taking umbrage over cultural insensitivity and attacking the OP for her lack of personal, experiential knowledge. But ww has no such knowledge himself. When called upon this, his reply is that various "liberals" have done similar things, so he should be allowed to do the same. (Not a compelling argument.)

And now, we've gotten down to the need to appease the religious values of the non-devout (which was exactly what Flavia's OP was about). And with no evidence irony, ww stands up for the need to limit some people's rights in the name of others' lukewarm beliefs.

In Dante's Hell, Withywindle would be forced to listen to his own arguments for eternity. But perhaps he should start listening to himself sooner than that.

Withywindle said...

Oh, dear, more things to disagree with and thereby clog up Flavia's comment box; which is a terrible thing to do in winter, when the gutters are filled with leaves and ice.

Disagree! Disagree! Disagree!

Hell, I thought, was other people; surely Withywindle on Wepeat is only my purgatory?

Contingent Cassandra said...

Another amen, from an admittedly somewhat eccentric Reformed/Calvinist perspective, on two grounds:

1) Human beings don't decide who is saved or what is right; God does. If God is all-powerful, God has the power to save or damn whomever God chooses. "Accepting" God, or Christ, might or might not be a sign that one is on the way to salvation; we really, given our limited human understanding, don't know (or, to put it another way, the correct answer to a now-obsolete ordination question, "would you be willing to be damned for the greater glory of God?" is "yes." God doesn't have to conform to a human conception of fairness; I'm more fond of a vision in which God saves everybody, whether or not they "deserve" it, but I know God doesn't have to conform to that conception either). Similarly, it's very hard for us to tell what developments in the human world do or don't advance God's purposes/serve as microcosms of the coming kingdom. My own strong feeling is that equal treatment of GLBT people (including ordination, marriage, and the repeal of DADT), like other increases in civil rights/respecting people as God made them, as reflections of God's image, is a step in the right direction, and I suppose my feeling is about as good as Perry's, or his hypothetical Christian's. Then again, I *do* go to church pretty much every week, and sometimes more than once. Maybe that's where I'm going wrong?

2)The Bible actually has very little to say about homosexuality, and every passage that does explicitly condemn same-sex sexual acts appears, once you take the historical context into account (one of those pesky Reformed/Calvinist habits, though certainly not limited to Biblical interpreters from this tradition), to be forbidding rape, or at least same-sex sexual acts as a means of coercion, exploitation, and/or humiliation (or perhaps worship of other gods). There's nothing in the Bible that resembles today's more egalitarian same-sex pairings (unless you count some pretty intense same-sex friendships, which are depicted positively). Jesus has absolutely nothing to say about homosexuality (unless you count his healing a centurion's servant who may also have been his sexual partner -- in the kind of power-disparate relationship that makes us, at the very least, a bit queasy today). He did, however, hang out with those the religious leaders of his day considered unquestionable outcasts and sinners, and didn't seem to get especially riled up about sexual sin in general. On the other hand, he, like the rest of the Hebrew prophets, had a lot of extremely emphatic things to say about the abuse of power in general and wealth disparities in particular, which suggests that, if Perry wants to take a truly Biblical/WWJD view of things, he ought to be hanging out with the Occupy protesters rather than worrying about gays in the military or prayer in the schools (especially, as you point out, since he seems perfectly happy to let parents off the hook for nurturing their own and their children's faith).

Obviously, I, too, feel like I spend at least as much time defending Christianity from self-professed Christians as from anybody else. Of course, I may be wrong about any or all of the above, but if I lead anyone astray in the process of defending what I see as their God-given right to be who God made them, on my head be it as much as theirs.

Bardiac said...

Is someone really preventing anyone in the US from celebrating Christmas? It's a day off at the state I work for (and has been in every US place I've ever lived or worked), so in a way, the state is supporting Christianity (we don't take Yom Kippur off).

Similarly, does anyone prevent students from praying? (Praying is not the same as leading a prayer and forcing everyone else to pray with you, or course.)

I'm deathly tired of trite Christians who've never bothered to think hard about their religion but are deeply invested in forcing it on other people.

cattyinqueens said...

Every time that I see that commercial online or on some news show (the ad itself does not air on regular tv in NYC, for obvious reasons), my partner and I watch the bad lip reading video for Rick Perry. It is my favorite.

Perry was my governor a while back, so I know how generous he is--especially with his Kwanzaa CDs. He'll let you borrow them.

And save a pretzel for the gas jets.