Sunday, October 21, 2012

Responding to "Why I Am A Christian Democrat"

My liberal west-coast friend Jim (inappropriately on the right in the photo below) has, like me, long worked in the Christian publishing field. He recently directed me to the above-titled blog post by author Ellen Painter Dollar. Today's Electoral College map reminds me that in states like Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and California, all of which have a significant Christian publishing presence, my friends there live in a leftish pond. So I am rebutting Ms. Painter Dollar's article partly to counter what I consider erroneous theology, but mainly to refute her Statist politics, and help my Christian friends in Blue states go against the flow.
Wayne and Jim calmly discussing their political views.
Every screenwriting book says to establish the protagonist early by having them show kindness to an animal or a child. Conversely antagonists should either kick a dog or take candy from a baby in their opening scene. Ms. Painter Dollar is obviously educated: immediately establishing conservatives as her antagonists. They are shown as "pummeling," filled with "disgust" and judgmental "subtext" toward the "helpless and aggrieved" wife of a liberal philosophy professor at a conservative Christian university. Seems the prof published an essay on why he will not vote for Mitt Romney. 

Appearing as it does on the "Patheos Progressive Christian Channel," the post opens with an emotion-based, female-oriented re-telling of a woman beaten down by a horde of reactionary conservatives. I wonder what a professor at a conservative Christian university expects when he pokes a sharp stick in the eyes of young conservatives—flowers? He's not writing positively about Barack Obama, but negatively about Mitt Romney. If you diss somebody's candidate, prepare to be dissed back. Having established her side as victims (sound familiar?), Ms. Painter Dollar then lays out her six-point Desiderata:

1. I am a Democrat because, in many churches (including mine), being a Christian Democrat is not an oxymoron. Circular reasoning like this isn't terribly persuasive—if it were, then any church with two or more Republicans would validate Republicanism. Ditto for any heretical theology. Or is Ms. Painter Dollar simply a conformist? Seriously, we can't actually count this as a reason. It's like saying "that's just how I was raised." In this section she also confesses to not practicing "a pure faith," but then invokes moral-equivalence in saying nobody else does either. Yeesh, speak for yourself ma'am. Alas, her first point is, in the words of Harry Nilsson, no point at all.

2. I am a Democrat because I understand that theological conservatism and political conservatism are two different things. Sure, but by the same token Jesus' ministry and the enumerated powers of the U.S. central government aren't the same thing either. After saying Jesus was neither conservative nor liberal, Ms. Painter Dollar puts liberal words in Christ's mouth, such as his having rejected "individual success over the common good." She then skips straight to the liberal trope that "Jesus was a radical" (emphasis hers). If ever there was an extra-biblical, politically loaded term, it's "radical." The left is all about revolution: turning things upside down—"bold, persistent experimentation." Here are the leading radicals lionized by the left: Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Mao Tse-tung. Jesus may have been considered "radical," but he wasn't A Radical. His radicalism, if any, was incidental to the content of his message, the nature of who he was and the purpose of his mission. 

3. I am a Democrat because I daily appreciate the ways in which government improves individual lives and the common good. No conservative I know denies that government is necessary—our dispute with Liberal Democrats is one of scope and proportion. I see very little of the Federal government improving individual lives every day. Most of my encounters with government show sloth, arrogance, waste, abuse—and generate dependency, discontent and despair. But Ms. Painter Dollar sees ... roads and bridges. I kid you not. And food stamps. And unemployment insurance. These are a few of her favorite things. And vamping on Elizabeth Warren's meme, she adds "free public schools." The construction workers didn't get paid to build them? The teachers work for no pay? Of course they're not "free." They are very expensive, but rarely worth the money.

For the record: a- responsibility for public education falls to the states, many run by Republicans; b- conservatives recognize the U.S. constitution as mandating the central government to build and maintain "post roads" (one assumes such roads would have bridges, since America has rivers); c- regarding food stamps and UI, direct government payments to citizens are nowhere enumerated in the constitution. 

4. I am a Democrat because I see a difference between “fairness” and “justice.” I agree that "fairness" is a childish concept—based on envy. But envy is an emotion elected Democrats seek to stir up at every opportunity with their Class Warfare rhetoric. Demonizing successful and wealthy citizens who already pay a significantly higher percentage of their income in taxes is shameful and un-Christian. Besides, in this election no Republican is talking about reducing tax rates—the fight is to stop Democrats from raising them again. (This is not to mention that when God did give taxing instructions to the Jews, they were not progressive but flat.)

I confess that branding conservatives as whining about “fairness” caught me off-guard. Evidently the online Republican Pummelers said it wasn't "fair" that an ever-increasing percentage of private wealth is taxed for Redistributive Justice. Ms. Painter Dollar noted these folks "appeared to mean that those who obtain much wealth are not asked to give a good chunk of it up to help those who have little." Asked? Churches ask for offerings; governments demand taxes under threat of imprisonment. Where's the moral virtue in that kind of "giving?" But this fourth section is full of muddled theology, most notably a profound misunderstanding of the phrase "the economy of God." Or she may be re-coining the phrase to mean what she means—"it may be unfair for the very wealthy to be taxed at a higher rate than the middle class, but in God’s economy, it is just." So while Jesus was not, his Father God most assuredly is a Democrat. Who knew?

5. I am a Democrat because “Biblical” values are far from clear cut, so I focus on what Jesus chose to focus on in his earthly ministry. Excuse me? It sounds like you're tossing out the entire Old Testament and the Apostles. Ms. Painter Dollar clarifies: "Jesus understood, I think, that our holy scriptures are not always consistent when it comes to ... such important details as the character of God (Did the same God who called the little children to him really mastermind the murder of the innocents?)." Yes, there are tough and seemingly contradictory passages in scripture, but there are answers to those tough questions—we don't just rip out those pages. 

Reading this fifth reason made me go back and check Ms. Painter Dollar's previous explanation of being theologically conservative: "... meaning I believe all that stuff in the Nicene Creed about the virgin birth and the resurrection." Someone tossing out the OT and the Apostles can't credibly claim to be "theologically conservative."  Yes, the Nicene Creed is orthodox, but it's not scripture. There is one upside, I guess: a bible with just the Gospels and the Nicene Creed would fit easily into a small clutch purse.

So when Jesus does nice things like feeding 5,000 people Ms. Painter Dollar is there. But what about his parable of the talents ("Take from him who has one and give it to him who has ten")? I guess when St. Paul condemns homosexual behavior, we can disregard it and go to Starbucks for loaves and fishes. This is a form of Bible striptease—peel off all the hard parts 'til you're free of all that misogyny and unenlightened cant.

But by far the most stunning thing about Ms. Painter Dollar's fifth symphony is her impassioned middle paragraph about Jesus' commands to "me" and "us." A ringing recitation of what "I" and "we" are instructed to do according to Jesus. The Lord is talking to individual believers and the church. But in closing her sale in the final paragraph she switches to "our societal obligation"... which means she'll vote for Obama to pick her neighbor's pocket to fulfill Christ's commands. But what if her neighbor isn't a Christian? Isn't government-enforced religion the definition of a Theocracy? I thought Democrats were against "imposing their beliefs on others." Wasn't Jesus addressing Ms. Painter Dollar's personal Christian duty—and the church's corporate responsibility as the Body of Christ? 

6. I am a Democrat because adequately caring for the least of these requires some government support. Leaving aside the question of "adequately", let's consider "some." Under the Democrats in power today, a TRILLION dollars a year are being spent on welfare—not Social Security or Unemployment Insurance, just welfare. Conservatives believe it is wrong for a government $16 trillion in debt to continue spending over a trillion more than it takes in year after year.

But if Ms. Painter Dollar is comfortable with "some," conservatives would stand up and applaud. Much more Christian virtue would be unleashed if the Feds scaled waay back on their eighty-three means-tested transfer payment programs. Americans would not stand by and watch bodies pile up in the streets when government cuts spending. Americans—whether Christian or not—are a generous people, and they would rise up to deal with social ills through their churches and other volunteer organizations. All the money to fund those government programs comes from the people anyway—but the central government is far less efficient and effective at this sort of thing. Consider private schools: where teachers are paid less, but their students do much better. 

This sixth reason is the pinnacle of Ms. Painter Dollar's case; and a modest hillock it is. In acknowledging that Jesus' commands were not addressed to governments but to his own followers, she admits believers and churches "could do much more for the poor and marginalized than we are doing..." Great. But "...we are also limited to providing help within our cultural, societal, and governmental structures." Huh? What on earth does that mean? Perhaps that we're already taxed so much to pay for misguided Social Justice Spending that we can't afford to engage in serious Christian charity? If so, she's right. Then cut the taxes, cut the eighty-three programs and watch what happens. America was built upon the notion of minimum government and maximum freedom ... and had thrived with that foundation for two centuries. 

Ms. Painter Dollar sums up her argument thusly: "... the Democratic Party is doing more than the Republican Party to care for the 'least of these,' however imperfectly. And Jesus made it absolutely clear that caring for the least of these is central to our identity as his followers." Yes, the party of abortion-on-demand and same-sex marriage does spend more than Republicans, but I reject the author's assertion that only government can successfully deal with social problems. How is Jesus pleased if I vote that my neighbor must pay to fulfill my Christian duty? I find Ms. Painter Dollar's political views to be based on weak theology and a dim understanding of the ethos which has animated America since her founding.