The Stoic Traveler

"Wherever I go, it will be well with me."

03 March 2007

On Peril, Promise, and Pity

L.A.S. s.d. C.L.

You have observed, dear friend, that despite my Stoic practice, I tend to rail when talking politics. Often I direct this ranting at conservative Evangelical Christians, whom I have seen as subverting the American political experiment. Indeed, it is one of the sublime ironies of the last few decades that Evangelical Christians, who for a long time stayed out of politics for fear of corruption, were corrupted by it and corrupted it in turn.
I had a conversion experience last night, inspired by two films that I saw recently. The first was Jesuscamp, one of the Best Documentary nominees. The second was Amazing Grace, which opened last weekend. These two films, along with a hymn that's been running through my head, conspired to turn my scorn and hatred into pity.
Jesuscamp is about an Evangelical summer camp for kids and families in one of the Dakotas. Run by preacher Becky Fischer, the camp trains children to "lay down their lives for Jesus;" to be warriors for Christianity, not, it is implied, in the Biblical or historically Christian sense, but in the Islamic jihadi sense. The film shows ten year-olds witnessing with Jack Chick cartoon tracts, talking about how they were saved and born again at six, and an example of "homeschooling." Most of the film, though, is a tent revival for ten year olds. The filmmakers show the replacement of authentic Christianity, of the long scholastic and theological history, and even of the Gospel with shaking, and "speaking in tongues." It flatly denies the intellect, which has long been considered one of the two things essential to Christianity, in favor of strange displays, hot weeping, and unfounded emotional excess.
More interesting, and more to my eventual point, is a sequence towards the end of the film featuring the former head of the National Association of Evangelicals, Ted Haggard. Jesuscamp sees him as very charismatic at first. He jokes with the cameraman and delivers a mediocre sermon to his congregation. After that he sits down with the camera and talks about the Evangelical movement. When he mentions the movement's pure political power ("If the Evangelicals vote, they decide the election."), a smile spreads across his face like an oil slick. He resembles a patent medicine salesman, a crocodile, and the proverbial cat all at the same time.
Amazing Grace's William Wilberforce (played by Ioan Gruffudd) is, by contrast, a clear and committed Christian of the old style. During the early parts of the story, we see him wrestling with a choice between a poltical career and a "life of solitiude" i.e., a monastic or otherwise religious life. His drive to abolish the British slave trade and slavery in the Empire stems from one source: his faith, as emphasized twice by Gruffudd's rendition of the titular hymn. This Christianity inspires in man a sense of justice, of the tremendous wrong in the world, of man's inhumanity to man, and, more importantly, inspires him to correct it. It does not inspire him to become a Holy Warrior, but rather a warrior for the improvement of man's lot; blessed, as it were, to be a blessing. This is a work of substance, compassion, and immanent humanity that seems to be altogether lacking in most modern film.
One day I came back from lunch to find a pamphlet on my desk; a slim booklet on coercion and persuasion. The author concludes a wonderful discussion with a Mormon hymn:
"He'll call, persuade, direct aright
And bless with wisdom, love, and light,
In nameless ways be good and kind,
never force the human mind."
When I was working in Colorado a few years ago, I visited Focus on the Family's visitors center. Walking around, though, one exhibit in particular struck me as alien to the warm, inviting organization I expected. In the center of the main floor was a statement, described as one of Focus's guiding principles, that the State as an institution is ordained by God and thereby commands the obedience of its citizens.
Command and force seem to be the guiding principles of this generation of political Christian leaders. Unlike Wilberforce, who inspired and persuaded men of the evils of the slave trade, the Haggards, Dobsons, and Fischers of this world seek to force the minds of men to assent. At the very least, they seek to force the bodies of men to obey. This, again, runs counter to the general history of Christianity. Note that I say general; the Inquisition and its related ilk seem to have been exceptions, rather than the rule. Christ Himself, after all, wielded no sword and blessed the Peacemakers. Augustine and Aquinas, in much of their writings, advocated the importance of free conscience and right reason as the way to God and salvation.
I mentioned earlier that scorn and hatred changed to pity. It is, I think, an accurate word. When I compare what was and what has been of the Christian involvement in politics to what is now, I have little choice. Modern Christian "leaders" have traded in a great and shining past for a sordid, and fleetingly powerful, political present. They seem to have exchanged root principles for trite "hot-button" issues. A history of true dedication to human rights, dignity, and equality traded for political prestige and the ability to command men.
CUV, Amice

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