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One of the problems I have discussing religion on the Net is that I seem to be out of place and out of time for the present discussion.  When I think of  “Christianity,” I think not just of the high intellectual end of Roman Catholicism, but of the high intellectual end of Roman Catholicism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  Christianity is Augustine for me, and Aquinas, and Teresa of Avila, and, for that matter, Hildegarde.

When people these days say “Christianity,” however–especially in America, but not only here–what they tend to mean is American folk Protestantism, that vast web of vaguely independent churches that call themselves “Christian” without any other designation, that may or may not be affiliated with any traditional denomination, and that help make up what is called here politically “the religious right.”

What’s more, these churches also tend to be associated with a particular set of stands on a particular set of social issues–against government recognition of gay marriages;  against the theory of evolution and legal abortion; and more or less in favor of “small government” but against “the separation of church and state.”

I’ve put scare quotes around all of that because the definitions of those things are in contention, sometimes even in the “religious right” itself. 

And the entire situation is made ever more complicated by the fact that most of the people who reject religion in the US seem to be solidly on the other side of those issues, making it seem as if the issues themselves are about “religion” even if they are not.

Right at the moment, though, I want to take up one thing, and that is something that has bothered me for years. 

The non-specific “Christian Churches” are almost all self-declared as conservative, and by that they almost always mean conservative on economics as well as on social issues. 

In the present-day US, conservative on economics means lower taxes, smaller government (in the sense of a government that does fewer things, not necessarily one that is cheaper), and fewer regulations.  That is, conservative in the US today is what liberal is in the rest of the West:  in favor of capitalism.

But here’s the thing: one of the other things these churches are known for is their adherence to the idea of Biblical literalism, meaning reading the Bible as if everything in it were literally true.

Let’s skip the part about how they don’t actually do that.  American folk Protestantism is perfectly happy to declare that the Bible is using a metaphor when it suits its purpose, such as not being too Catholic in its beliefs.  It therefore assumes that “Take, eat, for this is my body” is a metaphor, and that Christ didn’t mean the bread was being turned into his actual body.  It also assumes that the keys given to Peter didn’t actually mean that Peter and his successors could forgive sins in Christ’s name and make it stick.

And let’s also skip the part about how this is what I think of as the great fault line in Protestant Christianity.  A lot of Protestant denominations have claimed to admire Augustine, but in fact Augustine was not a literalist, and his idea of how the world actually came to be created sounds in some respects a lot like Darwin.  And sola scriptura can get you into a lot of trouble, because the scriptures were not the original expression of Christianity as a religion and are not now exhaustive of the traditions of that religion. 

But what I want to get to now is a lot simpler:  how did we get from the Acts of the Apostles to Christian conservative championship of capitalism?

I’m still reading Augustine, in case you can’t tell.  And at one point in Book VI, Augustine makes a point of the fact that the apostles lived, in the years immediately after the death of Christ, communally, and without personal property, “holding every thing in common.”

For Augustine, the point of bringing this up is to counter Roman pagan arguments about the power of the Roman gods to bring good fortune, riches, power, privelege to their worshippers. 

Augustine did not think that the Roman gods did not exist.  He just thought they were demons, fallen angels under control of Satan, who showed up in various societies and established themselves as “deities” in an attempt to keep men and women from knowing the True God.

This was necessary because God gave to every man and woman the ability to find the truth about God’s existence and His Law “by reason alone”–meaning without the grace of revelation.

That was why some people who called themselves Christians would go to Hell, even though they knew that Christ was their Savior, while some pagans would be rewarded after death even though they didn’t.  Belief was not enough for Augustine, nor was lack of it.  Which puts quite a spin on the sola fideii business.

My point here, however, is that one of the ways Augustine counters the Roman pagan arguments in favor of Roman pagan gods is exactly because those gods are supposed to provide their worshippers with the good things of this world.  The one true God would never do that, he says, because the one true God deals in the things of true and lasting value, such as eternal life.  The ephemerally good things of this world can actually be bad for us, because they can alienate our affections from God, lead to sin on a lot of different levels, and end with sending us to hell.

Maybe in a handbasket.

Never mind.

But Augustine proved the truth of these assertions by pointing out that the early Christians lived without personal property of any kind, and by the fact that holy men and women lived that way still.

My question is:  how did we get from there to modern day Christian right capitalism?

Or even to eighteenth century Puritanism?

When I’ve asked this question of people in the past, I’ve been told that the reason is that the doctrine of original sin means that Christians think of men and women as fallen and inevitably imperfect, so they look for a political and economic system that takes into account that fallenness.

Socialists expect men and women to be like angels, because they think men and women can learn to control themselves and live well by the use of their own reason without the help of God.  Christians know that men and women are not perfectable, and therefore do not try to erect social systems that require their perfection.

There’s a level on which this makes perfect sense, and Edmund Burke said it better than I can.  But the fact remains that the early Christians are reported, in Acts, as living in common without personal property, and life in holiness was considered to be life without property for centuries after the apostolic era.

How did we get from there to here? 

And what does it mean–assuming you’re relying on sola scriptura–to take no care for the things of this world?  Where and when did the “common sense” interpretation of these admonitions–take care of your responsibilities in this world, just don’t get overattached to them–come in?  

If we are really meant to take the scriptures literally, why not take these scriptures literally? 

St. Paul said that not everyone would have the grace to try to live perfectly, but it seems to me a long way from that to megachurches, Christian publishing and Christ-centered retirement villages, never mind ending the income tax.

Written by janeh

January 31st, 2011 at 11:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Fundamentalisms'

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  1. If you find out how you get from poverty and humility to the prosperity doctine, do let me know. It’s puzzled me for some time. Even when I disagree with something, I can often figure out how the other person got from A to B, but not in that case. Perhaps I haven’t spent enought time in the right churches.

    The ‘take care of your responsibilities in this world, just don’t get overattached to them’ thing goes back at least as far as Jeremy Taylor (1600s).


    31 Jan 11 at 6:18 pm

  2. Lots and LOTS of ends to grab hold of.Let’s start with Christianity in general first. Notice that “holding everything in common” (a) never extended beyond Jerusalem, so nearly as I can tell, (b) was voluntary, even among Christians–not a feature of the income tax, last time I looked–and (c) died off very rapidly. Luke, who sailed with Paul, mentions it as something previously done, which means maybe 20 years, tops–maybe a lot less. Once the early Christians stop seeing the Second Coming as an immediate thing, they go back to work and keep their own savings. A respect for, as you say, the “voluntary poor” remained, but monasticism had left a pretty deep dent in it by the 16th Century–and we’re discussing “folk Protestantism” after all. Luther and Calvin call for good stewardship, not communalism. [No, I am not “doing” the Protestant Reformation for free in my time off.]

    American politics next. Start with remembering that no one came here to be poor. You could be plenty poor in the Old Country. Then remember that New England and Virginia both tried communalism, with disastrous results. We may be suspicious of ostentation, but not of prosperity, and our communal experiments were departures from mainstream Christianity. Ayn Rand was right: we have a tradition of “making money” as opposed to demanding a share of someone else’s.

    But I think what your mostly looking at is the playing out of the 1960’s–which for these purposes runs from maybe Kennedy’s death to Nixon’s resignation. The mainline Protestant denminations, at the ministerial level, often became more liberal than Christian. Those non-denominational Christian churches are, by and large, filled with people whose parents were Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians, and they left precisely because of leftist ideologues in the pulpits. If they were amenable to the “social gospel” they’d be in different churches.

    That said, there is a leftward movement within the American left in this period, which also makes a difference. When FDR instituted it, only the very richest paid the Federal income tax, and it financed, by and large, public works and the national defense. By the time of Johnson and Nixon, plumbers were paying more of their salaries than millionaires had–and they were supporting poverty as a “lifestyle choice” every variety of “social activist” under the sun and the National Welfare Rights League. (Remember “It’s our job to have babies, and your job to support us?”) Every church I know remains committed to helping out the poor, but that’s not the same as being taxed to promote immorality. Nor, in the era of Kennedy(s) Gore and Kerry, do so many people think of liberalism as the cause of the poor.

    And, finally, remember that effectively there are only two sides. Anyone who is anti racial quotas and in favor of legalizing drugs, or anti-abortion and anti-death penalty, is still going to go into a voting booth and have to choose. We have, increasingly, two hostile camps, and the fact of one choosing a particular cause is reason enough for the other to oppose it.

    I’m a little at a loss to see “megachurches” on the list, but that would seem to explain Christian publishing houses and retirement centers.

    Perhaps next time we could explain how we got from St Augustine on military service to conscientious objectors?


    31 Jan 11 at 7:17 pm

  3. michaelwfisher@cox.net

    1 Feb 11 at 9:10 am

  4. I don’t see how that article explains how someone gets from early Christian teachings to the prosperity doctrine.

    I suppose you have to excuse headline writers for apparently confusing a ‘religiosity gene’ with a construct representing inherited characteristics hypothesized to be connected to religious belief and used as part of a model to explore these hypotheses, but they can be excused given their space limitations when writing headlines.

    Atheists who believe in biological determinism must be quaking in their boots at this latter-day version of ‘la revanche des berceaux’!


    1 Feb 11 at 9:38 am

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