Many conservative Christians have embrace government as a tool for achieving their moral vision for society, a mindset that dates back to at least the 1970s. Many people are now questioning the wisdom of this alliance. Stephen Prothero recently wrote recently, "Americans have historically opted to split the difference between living in a nation in which church and state are married and one in which they are not allowed to date." The church has role in the public discourse. But when church becomes too closely allied with a political objective, a political party, or a politician, it becomes captive to a mindset of power and domination. That is today’s context. It isn't the first time we have been here and it won't be the last. As Prothero rightly notes, we seem to go through cycles of balance and imbalance on how church and state should relate.
The Christian Left (or progressives) hold themselves up as the antidote to this unholy alliance between the church and state. They are prophetic. Unlike conservatives who were in the tank for Bush and the Republican Party, they stand unflinchingly for justice. Addressing the issue of torture is a good example.
The Bush administration used "enhanced interrogation techniques" like waterboarding. This was torture and torture is never justified, we were told. No amount of oversight, no amount of justification can EVER justify torture. Not only is torture not Christian but it violates commonly agreed upon ethics in the community of nations. There are no exceptions. Add to this Guantanamo Bay and holding prisoners without due process. Bush is not a Christian because no Christian would engage in torture. Bush and his administration are war criminals. Bush should have been impeached but even today he should be brought up on charges of war crimes. The church must take a prophetic stand against injustice. Five and six years ago I can remember a relentless stream of social media posts and conversations by my progressive sisters and brothers in the faith along these lines.
Now fast forward a few years and see where we are now. President Obama's team has not been using "enhanced interrogation techniques" (as far as we know). They simply send in drones to, not torture, but kill anyone they suspect might be a threat, apparently while occasionally killing innocent bystanders. We are learning now that apparently these clandestine acts could be targeting Americans abroad who are suspected of terrorist activity. And, oh yes, last I checked, we are now in Obama’s second administration and Guantanamo Bay is still open with no foreseeable end. Where are the prophetic voices today? Cue the soundtrack with crickets chirping.
Oh sure, there are few voices here and there showing outrage, just as there were conservative voices here and there expressing outrage during the Bush Administration. There are expressions of disappointment at the Obama's "failings" just as there were by conservatives about Bush. Obama has strayed over the line a little and we need to bring him back. After all, it’s complicated. But where is the relentless prophetic vitriol about a war criminal president who is a faux Christian?
Joan Walsh just wrote a piece in Salon yesterday, titled, When liberals ignore injustice.
“Last year Brown University’s Michael Tesler released a fascinating study showing that Americans inclined to racially blinkered views wound up opposing policies they would otherwise support, once they learned those policies were endorsed by President Obama. Their prejudice extended to the breed of the president’s dog, Bo: They were much more likely to say they liked Portuguese water dogs when told Ted Kennedy owned one than when they learned Obama did.
But Tesler found that the Obama effect worked the opposite way, too: African-Americans and white liberals who supported Obama became more likely to support policies once they learned the president did.
More than once I’ve worried that might carry over to bad policies that Obama has flirted with embracing, that liberals have traditionally opposed: raising the age for Medicare and Social Security or cutting those programs’ benefits. Or hawkish national security policies that liberals shrieked about when carried out by President Bush, from rendition to warrantless spying. Or even worse, policies that Bush stopped short of, like targeted assassination of U.S. citizens loyal to al-Qaida (or “affiliates”) who were (broadly) deemed (likely) to threaten the U.S. with (possible) violence (some day). ...”
I invite you to read the whole thing. She is looking at this from a political perspective. But there are powerful lessons here for those of us who are disciples of Jesus. Our affinity for the person or people in power clouds our ability to be truly prophetic. And the more we cordon ourselves off into echo chambers the more prone we are to compromise. But I think there is something else at work here. Look at another controversial issue.
Illegal immigration is ongoing hot-button issue. Many who advocate for the rights of undocumented aliens say that opposition to incorporating undocumented aliens into our society is grounded in racism. Now I can’t recall ever hearing a tight border advocate say, “I hate Mexicans. Don’t let them in.” So why the accusation of racism? Because they perceive symbolic hostility.
It is often culturally inappropriate to express open dislike for a particular class of people. Nevertheless, that dislike seeks an outlet. Symbolic hostility is what happens when those with dislike for a community latch on to initiatives that disadvantage that community but can be supported on a rationale that has nothing to do with the underlying hostility. It is hostility with plausible deniability, if you will. Symbolic hostility may be a calculated decision for some but I suspect for most there is at least a measure of denial. Furthermore, for many, support of a controversial measure may genuinely be uninfluenced by animus. It is often difficult to objectively say exactly what it is that motivates us, much less motivates others. This murkiness is precisely what gives cover to the hostility.
The immigration example highlights symbolic hostility that is usually linked with conservative values. But liberals and progressives claim to be the community of tolerance. Do they engage in symbolic hostility?
Sociologist George Yancey had an interesting post last December where he reviews his research into symbolic hostility. Using data from the American National Election Study, he identified seven religious groupings and measured the affection survey respondents had for each group. Atheists were the most disliked group among respondents, more than twice the degree of dislike over the second highest group. Christian conservatives were in second, followed closely behind by Muslims. Yancey then looked at characteristics of people who had the lowest affection for each group. Not surprisingly, the least tolerance for atheists was found among political conservatives, the highly religious, and the least educated. Political conservatives were the least likely to have tolerance for Muslims. But when it came to tolerance for Christian conservatives, political progressives, the highly educated, and the irreligious had the least tolerance. This lack of tolerance was detected at a statistically significant level. To the degree that there is “Islamophobia” there is at least as that much animosity by progressives toward Christian conservatives.
Yancey goes on to make some distinctions about how animosity is expressed by the different groups. He notes:
“While clearly political conservatives are not all violent, they may have a political philosophy that makes more allowances for violent reactions. [He is not entirely persuaded of a violence differential.] But those with animosity towards fundamentalists are well educated, irreligious and political progressives. Those individuals are more likely to have educational status and a political philosophy that would reject violence.”
He says it is naïve to believe that groups experiencing the progressives’ level of animosity do not act upon it. He offers this insight.
“Given the propensity of the highly educated and political progressives to avoid being labeled as intolerant, symbolic racism is a good way to understand how animosity towards Christian conservatives may be expressed. Individuals with this animosity are likely hesitant to openly express it but that animosity can come out on issues where a different reason can hide a hostile expression.”
And, in this case, being highly educated and in powerful positions, they have the institutional wherewithal to act.
My politics and economics is somewhere to the right of center. I have no doubt that some advocates for some of the positions I embrace are practicing symbolic hostility. Sometimes it is excruciating to have to listen to someone like this make the case for a position I actually support. Furthermore, I am human. I can frequently feel the animosity welling within me toward people who consistently mock and disparage ideals I value. I don’t come to this discussion as innocent objective observer. None of us do and progressive Christians are no different.
Many people have deep moral concerns about violence and torture as practiced by the previous presidential administration. I don’t doubt that. But I also don't doubt that a significant amount of the vitriol of “prophetic” denunciation toward the previous administration was more rooted in the spirit of animus than in the Spirit of God. The relative treatment of the issue with two different presidents is telling. And this is a repeated pattern on the left with many issues, mistaking symbolic hostility for prophetic witness.
Conservative Christians aren’t the only ones who hate. And when being “prophetic” is dependent upon which party has power or my affinity for a politician, it is not prophetic. It is symbolic hostility. It is every bit as damaging to the witness of Jesus Christ as is the alliance of the Christian Right with the state. Are we not called to something higher?
While writing this post, I came across the news that two of Fred Phelps’s daughters have left the Westboro Baptist Church. (See Westboro Baptist Heiress Pens Online Goodbye to Church) Now this is a group that sees no need for symbolic hostility. They wear their hostility proudly on their sleeves. Surely if there was ever a group that most of would agree should be worthy of our hostility, symbolic or otherwise, it is this community. What was the catalyst for change in Megan Phelps-Roper’s life? An online encounter with an Israeli web-designer who patiently and respectfully pushed her to reflect on who God is and God’s mission. That reflection led to repentance. That Israeli web-designer seemed to be employing a tactic used by an Israeli carpenter living 2,000 years ago.
Three lessons I take from these observations:
First, what am I refraining from saying or doing because my team has the upper hand right now? Humans tend to bend their moral standards to comply with positions of people they find admirable. I am human. Do I really wrestle with this?
Second, when the opportunity arises for me to support an action that is hurtful or disadvantageous to people who annoy me, why am I really supporting that measure? And after I’ve engaged in some self-examination and justified an answer to that question, maybe I then need to reflect on why I am really supporting that measure.
Third, we will never be fully free of the Christian Right or the Christian Left. Each camp will continually invite us into their competing games of symbolic hostility. And they may gain power for a fleeting moment in history. It is deeply seductive. But I can’t shake the notion that lasting transformation of the world happens when web-designers, welders, businesspeople, nurses, check-out clerks, scientists, and the whole host of God’s servants in the world, enter into relationships with those they dislike and do what that Israeli web-designer did: Imitate that Israeli carpenter from 2,000 years ago.