See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Tag Archives: PEG

The Heretical Gospel of Trump

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has a column out in the Week tracing Donald Trump’s evangelical support to two factors: Christian nationalism, and the prosperity gospel. As is often the case, I almost agree with Gobry about the prosperity gospel. Gobry:

In its most crude forms, the prosperity gospel says that God rewards financially those who pray. If you don’t have the car you want or the house you want, if you pray hard enough, God will give it to you.[F]orgetting […] that sometimes the righteous have to suffer […] and that a man’s worth is never, ever judged by his possessions.

The prosperity gospel is one of the most vibrant heresies in America today, […and…] one of America’s most powerful religious leaders is undoubtedly Joel Osteen, who is a prosperity preacher. It’s obvious why someone taken in by the prosperity gospel would see no glaring contradiction between Trump’s assertion that he’s a “very strong Christian” and his gaudy lifestyle and ostentatious wealth.

So far so plausible. Prosperity gospel breaks orthodox Christianity’s view of wealth and creates the idea that being a good Christian is positively correlated with wealth, Trump is wealthy, so prosperity gospel believers think he’s a good Christian, so prosperity gospel is at fault. But if you look at how prosperity gospel churches actually work, and how Trump supporters behave, it doesn’t quite match up with their optimism and their activism.

The prosperity gospel is a very optimistic approach to religious life. The kind of twisted optimism that casts cruelty as a shadow. As I’ve discussed before, the inevitable consequence of believing that if you just pray hard enough you’ll be wealthy and healthy is that if you are not wealthy and healthy, you believe that it is all your own fault. Trump supporters do not believe it is their fault. They are not optimistic and about their personal ability to do things, they believe they need some savior billionaire to wreck/beat all the other countries. Hell, there is a lot of evidence that they don’t even believe that. Instead, they believe that Trump can’t change things, but he can help them give a big middle finger to everyone who has looked down on them or otherwise messed with their lives. And their anger seems to come from the standard issue places: socioeconomic class resentments, personal prosperity, Jacksonian ideas of national dignity and so on. No reason to reach for some sort of psychological inversion of the self-blame the prosperity gospel engenders. Trump’s Evangelical followers aren’t going to this church enough to shape their thinking in this way. Hell, they’re just not going to church much at all. Which brings us to the activism gap.

Prosperity gospel churches trend heavily towards a highly active church life with big asks. Now, most other Christians sneer at this, because the theology of the prosperity gospel asks pretty much none of the hard things, like embracing your enemies, faith while in fear and trembling, and charitable conduct and thought. But prosperity gospel churches ask a lot in simpler ways: cold hard cash. Tithing, going to church activities, evangelizing for the church, buying the preacher’s latest book, buying a book from the church store for this month’s sermon, providing free labor for the church’s commercial bookstore – there are plenty of big asks, especially for the poor who don’t have much to give. Trump has done none of these. Except that one time he screwed up giving money during communion. He can’t even rely the subtle linguistic cues of someone culturally Christian to signal that he is “one of us” to the Evangelicals who support him. He is not one of them. So who are these supporters anyway?

Evangelical supporters of Trump may not actually be Evangelicals the way we tend to think of them. They’re probably more like Mr. Young from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet’s Good Omens:

He quite liked nuns. Not that he was a, you know, left‑footer or anything like that. No, when it came to avoiding going to church, the church he stolidly avoided going to was St. Cecil and All Angels, no­ nonsense C. of E., and he wouldn’t have dreamed of avoiding going to any other. All the others had the wrong smell‑floor polish for the Low, some­what suspicious incense for the High. Deep in the leather armchair of his soul, Mr. Young knew that God got embarrassed at that sort of thing.

Gaiman and the late Pratchett were writing Mr. Young in an English context, but change the set dressing a little, and you get that everywhere religion has just enough hold on a people to give them a tribal affiliation but not enough to give them religiosity. They probably know a lot of churchgoers, they’re related with churchgoers, probably even married to churchgoers. But you don’t need to believe Christian ideas to identify as Christian on a poll. You don’t need to believe to get upset about people saying “Happy Holidays” or telling you to stop saying “God bless you”. You don’t even have to disdain the outsiders doing it, you just have to perceive their disdain for you. That’s tidy, isn’t it?

But, but, but, what if there are, actual religious evangelical Christians in the Trump coalition and it can’t be explained away by personal idiosyncrasies? Well, certainly it’s going to be a further step in the Faustian bargain with secular power Christians have made since suborning Constantine into the flock. Christianity is deeply suspicious of secular power, but if a Christian takes the idea we live in a fallen world seriously grasping at power is inevitable. But why Trump and why were they doing it while other candidates still seemed viable? And this is where we get into a twisted up understanding of evil. Which is to say, too many people think that evil works better than good.

Way back when America was grappling with whether or not to torture – sorry “use enhanced interrogation techniques on” – captured suspected terrorists in order to get information. And according to the Republican Presidential candidates, we should relitigate that debate. So here it is: torture is not a superior, always works like for Jack Bauer on TV, method of interrogation. Torture doesn’t give you information. Torture gives you compliance, a compliance that is agnostic to truthfulness. We know this because of the several thousand year known history of regimes torturing people into confessing crimes they didn’t commit. So, while we can construct scenarios where torture is both effective and forgivable, they are not the general case. The general case is torturing someone until they break.  And yet there are clearly people who think it is universally effective, purely because the bad guys do it and we won’t (anymore). But sometimes evil is evil agnostic of its effectiveness. And sometimes evil is evil because it is so ineffective.

Trump is more than America’s pro-even-worse-torture candidate. He’s America’s pro-evil candidate. He’s selling the idea that he’s evil, he’ll be evil for America, and that will make America win again. And even before we embrace evil because it is effective, we have to remember that evil is not effective. Trump represents a number of challenges, and one of them is religious. A number of Evangelicals have failed that test, God help them. And more are to come unless we can convince them otherwise.

Education is Worse Now Because it’s Harder Now

Last week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry went a little crazy after a bunch of well educated professional political reporters flipped out over the creepiness of David Brat’s use of the phrase “monopoly on the use of force” in reference to government. For those of you who were not paying attention during any of your studies that involve the modern state:

the concept of the state having “a monopoly on the [legitimate] use of force” is a quotation from the highly reputed and important German sociologist Max Weber, and is a concept that is absolutely basic to our modern understanding of the State. Anyone who has taken polisci 101 or sociology 101 or political philosophy 101 or history of ideas 101 ought to have encountered the phrase. It is about as offensive as saying that donuts have holes.

What followed was a fine rant from Gobry about not only how American schools have obviously failed to teach our students the basics, but we’ve failed to do the basics for all of the wrong reasons:

Nobody stops to ask what education is for, because the answer is implicitly accepted by all: an education is for getting a job. It is, in other words, for being a cog in the giant machine of post-industrial capitalism. It is, in other words, for the opposite thing that our forefathers wanted for us. I do not use these words lightly, but it is against–in the sense that a headwind is against a ship–the very foundations of our liberty and our civilization.

Gobry followed up today by prescribing a course of small group tutoring sessions, as many deep full book dives into Great Books as possible, and no exams. I’m not sure if he’s offering this as a marginal improvement in the pedagogy of the humanities, or a model for the remaking of all secondary schooling across multiple subjects as “liberal arts education” can mean either of those things in context. Maybe it doesn’t matter, since everything is tied together, and I don’t just mean the zero-sum game of pie division when it comes to education budgets and instructional time. Let me introduce two interlocking concepts to explain the why and the how of education: self-efficacy and cultural literacy. Read more of this post

Marriage in the Shadows

Leah Libresco and Pascal Emmaneul Gobry have been wrestling with exactly how awesome marriage is.

Gobry:

The orthodox Christian view of indissoluble marriage in many ways can seem “exalted” in comparison to secular society. And secular society certainly makes lots of noises about valorizing marriage. Thus, “You agree marriage is awesome, we agree marriage is awesome. Ain’t marriage awesome???”
But the problem is that this is an inversion of the Biblical theology of marriage. […] If marriage is a vale of milk and honey, then when the milk and honey runs out, the marriage loses its reason for being. If marriage is a vale of milk and honey, then not offering it to everyone is tantamount to sadism. Marriage is [really] a Cross. Marriage is a vocation to creation in total self-giving. To say that marriage is a Cross is to say that it is part of God’s design and that many graces flow from it and even that it is joyous. But it is also to say that it sucks sometimes and that it demands a total gift of self.  If we see vocation as a call to creative self-giving, we see that marriage and celibacy are two sides of the same coin.

Libresco:

Treating marriage as a relationship set apart prevents us from easily translating the same lessons we learn in love of friend or family into the partnership we’ve learned to treat as sui generis. [] It would be bizarre to say, “I’m not ready for friendship — I’m not prepared to make that kind of commitment to someone” but it seems perfectly natural to prorogue marriage[. W]e still view marriage as self-gift, but that we expect the self that we give to be well-polished and complete[.]  We don’t see a way that any gift worthy of the name could also be a constraint or a burden.

These are all excellent points, though they both neglected some vital context. Marriage really is harder these days, in some ways good (domestic violence is a no-no) and in other ways bad (you must be perfect partners in every sphere of your life). Simultaneous with ever-increasing standards of what a “good” marriage should be, the traditional support structures within the churches, communities, and social networks of married couples have weakened terribly.

Gobry clarified in the comments section:

And to the point about support networks–absolutely, and this is critical. To say that our cultural “script” about marriage is flawed is not to say that there aren’t understandable reasons for that and that we can’t sympathize with those who are victims of it. Our society makes it a lot harder to sustain marriages–and the Church has a role to play in that, Laws are one thing, but it’s also incumbent upon the Church to sustain and create the cultural institutions that make a healthy marriage culture possible.

I’ve been thinking about this response, and I think that while it is obviously correct it is also a terribly incomplete solution. But for getting involved with my wife, who is also my fiancée,1 I would never have noticed how badly incomplete that solution is. More, infra