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American. Christian. One of these is not like the other.

19 May

Last week I finally started reading a slim volume that’s been waiting on my bookshelf since last fall. Not a moment too soon.

A Public Faith by Miroslav Volf (Brazos Press, 2011) tackles a chronic, nettlesome question: What kind of relationship should Christians (and perhaps by extension, other people of faith) have with their culture?

Writing “as a Christian theologian to followers of Christ,” Volf offers an alternative approach to the extreme positions that can define the boundaries of faith in the public square: “totalitarian saturation of public life with a single religion” or “secular exclusion of all religions from public life.” (He might have added an older reflex among many Christians, to vacate and try to ignore the public square altogether.)

The timing was good because, along with the rest of the universe, I was trying to digest President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, which came on the heels of the North Carolina amendment that banned such unions in the state.

But that was only the biggest headline among several in recent weeks that reminded me how hard it is to navigate a believer’s “dual citizenship.” Michelle Bachmann’s recent Swissues are nothing compared to the complications of being a Christian and an American.

For starters, there was military college course, now suspended, that advocated total war on Islam, using the World War II firebombing at Dresden and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as models for how to deal with Muslim sites.

There was a budget proposal in the U.S. House that would have reduced the deficit by drawing down education, welfare and other social-aid programs, while increasing defense spending and not touching tax rates. (The Senate voted down this budget on May 16.)

Closer to home, several readers didn’t like a piece I wrote in a Christian magazine, which reported on a survey that found that Fox News viewers were not as well informed about the Occupy Movement as consumers of other news outlets and that Fox viewers have a significantly more negative view of the Occupy protesters.

I’m not surprised by criticism. But one reader baffled me when he said he didn’t want to believe that “a professor of communications from the restoration side could believe that swill.” (He was referring to my church heritage and that of the college where I teach, which has its roots in the Stone-Campbell, or “Restoration,” Movement.) His remark left me wondering: When did uncritically accepting Fox News—or any media outlet—become an essential of the faith?

Miroslav Volf

I can spot a thread running through these events: some American values and ideas—including good ones—are not necessarily Christian ones.

What I mean is that as an American, I cherish free speech, equal rights under law, freedom of religion and a long list of other civic virtues. But as a Christian, I have other principles besides, expressed most obviously in Sermon on the Mount and modeled most powerfully by Jesus himself.

No doubt that American and Christian values peacefully co-exist much of the time; sometimes they even agree.

But not always. As the last few weeks show, there’s often tension if not contradiction or outright conflict. For instance, I can’t see how to honestly interpret Jesus’ words or life as condoning “total war” against people of other faiths.

And maybe I’m missing something, but the thrust of that proposed budget seemed to turn upside down those Scriptures that warn against God’s people relying on chariots for their security, as well as dozens of texts that call for generosity and justice for poor people (Isaiah 1:17, 10:1-2; 25:4; 47:6; 58:7; Proverbs 14:21, 31; 19:17; 21:13; 22:9; 28:27; 31:8-9—just for starters).

Then there’s same-sex marriage. As an American, I believe in equal rights under law for all people, including gays and lesbians.

On the other hand, same-sex marriage is not biblical. We can debate whether all those Jewish and Christian Scriptures that govern sexual conduct are relevant or binding or even rightly interpreted, but four millennia of teaching and tradition places the burden of proof on those who say same-sex unions should be consecrated by the church.

To put it another way: While same-sex marriage may be American, a matter of equal rights and social order, I can’t say it’s Christian.

I find Volf helpful when thinking through these kinds of tensions, in large part because he starts by recognizing there’s no single way in which Christian faith ought to relate to culture as a whole. “The relation between faith and culture is too complex for that,” he writes. “Faith stands in opposition to some elements of culture and is detached from others. In some aspects faith is identical with elements of culture, and it seeks to transform in diverse ways yet many more.”

Volf uses his book to answer three “simple questions”:

  1.  In what ways does the Christian faith malfunction in the contemporary world, and how should we counter these malfunctions?
  2.  What should be the main concern of Christ’s followers when it comes to living well in the world today?
  3.  How should Christ’s followers go about realizing their vision of living well in today’s world in relation to other faiths and together with diverse people with whom they live under the roof of a single state?

I’m not sure they’re actually that simple, but if you’re interested in thoughtful answers to these questions, pick up this book. Volf is accessible—a fine, formal and clear writer who keeps the theological jargon tamped down. He’s helping me think about the tension I’ve been feeling, as keenly as ever, of living as a Christian in America.

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Breaking news: Political conservatives are not stupid!

9 Apr

Count to 10. Easy, right? Almost automatic.

Now, count to 10 again—but in alphabetical order. That’s different.

Now mentally trace a route you often drive or walk—to your job or the grocery store or school. Again, simple.

Now, imagine that your normal path and even the next most obvious route to the same place are blocked. What’s your third- or fourth-choice route?

That little exercise illustrates the difference between what psychologists call “low-effort,” or “automatic,” thinking and “controlled” thinking. Most researchers believe we manage most of our days with automatic thinking, which frees our brains to focus on more complex, unfamiliar or difficult tasks. That’s how I can make a tuna sandwich or pump gas or drive to work while I think about details for my daughter’s wedding or how to revise a class schedule or deal with the insurance company.

That’s the kind of difference Scott Eidelman, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas, and his colleagues discuss in a recent research journal article. The title might explain why it’s generated a lot of friction.

Low-Effort Thought Promotes Political Conservatism,” published online in March in the Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin, states a simple thesis, summarized in a news release: “People endorse conservative ideology more when they have to give a first or fast response. This low-effort thinking seems to favor political conservatism, suggesting that it may be our default ideology.” (The paper identified “political conservatism” with three common traits: “an emphasis on personal responsibility, acceptance of hierarchy, and a preference for the status quo.”)

To be clear, the researchers added, “We are not saying that conservatives think lightly.”

Or that they’re stupid. But you wouldn’t know it from the reaction of several conservative bloggers.

Study: Conservatism ‘linked to low brainpower’” according to the aggrieved TeaParty.org. “Study ‘Proves’ Conservatism Linked To Stupidity” The Ulsterman Report sarcastically proclaimed. The Conservative Review harrumphed: Conservatism Comes From “Low Brainpower?” Not So Fast, Eggheads At University Of Arkansas. And you have to love the headline from the Washington Examiner: “Study: Dumb drunk people are more conservative.”

During a phone conversation on Friday I asked Eidelman if any of these headlines were accurate interpretations. In a word: “No.”

Scott Eidelman, Ph.D.

While he’s happy people are talking about the research, Eidelman confessed he was “a little disappointed” in how the study has splashed onto the blogosphere.

He compared the reaction to a game of telephone: When social scientists use a term like “low-effort thinking,” they’re using specific jargon to describe the normal, automatic thinking we all do—counting to 10, driving to work—in contrast to the “second-phase” thinking we do when we have time to ponder a subject.

But apparently some knee-jerk commentators saw “low effort” and “translated” it to mean “no-effort” or “lazy” or even “stupid.” Those mistakes got picked up and amplified by others. The “quotations” in the headlines are actually from other commentators, not from the scientists. For the record, the following words don’t appear anywhere in the original research: stupid, stupidity, stupidly, brainpower (low or otherwise), dumb. Not even prove or proves. And not, um, egghead.

Eidelman did not point out the irony of how such shoddy treatment only reinforces the kind of “stupid” stereotype that the commentators are complaining about. You can leave that to me.

“It’s not that political conservatism promotes low-effort thought,” he told me. “What we found is that low-effort thought promotes political conservatism. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s not the same.”

Eidelman drew an analogy: He might carry an umbrella because it’s raining, but that’s completely different from saying that it’s raining because he carries an umbrella. In other words, while low-effort (or “first-response”) thinking tends to promote political conservatism, being conservative doesn’t tend to promote low-effort thinking.

This conservative tendency is roughly reflected in clichés about “comfort zones” and “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” As Eidelman noted, certain “conservative” characteristics are built into humans for our benefit, such as the tendency to save our energy or avoid unnecessary risks.

“If you want to look at evolutionary history, people were more likely to survive if they assumed a person approaching was a threat,” he explained. “It was smarter to assume that unknown plant was poisonous rather than edible. Or the sooner you know your place in a society, the better your chances to thrive.”

Sometimes those “first responses” were correct: the stranger was indeed hostile or the plant was really poisonous. But sometimes the stranger would turn out to be an ally or the plant a healing herb. In those cases, the “first response” would be … well, wrong. Finding out if the first (“low-effort”) thinking was correct could be discovered only with “second-step” thinking.

“When people don’t have the opportunity to engage in political thinking, when you strip away the effortful thinking, they tend to be conservatives,” Eidelman said. “But that’s only concerning the first-step thinking. We don’t have much on what the second step is. It’s an open question if that first response is correct. We haven’t measured outcomes. We think the scales are tipped toward conservatism. But whether it’s good or right to challenge that depends on people’s values and goals.”

Eidelman wondered if this “low-effort” tendency might help explain at least one aspect of current American politics.

“Liberals might understand conservatives more than other way around, because liberals, in a way, started at the same place,” he suggested. So here’s a thought: could empathy explain why congressional Democrats are often perceived, rightly or wrongly, to compromise more often on legislation than their Republican colleagues?

As we finished talking, it occurred to me that America’s Founding Fathers were literally invested in the status quo of the British colonies. They valued hierarchy, as their later writing of the Constitution proved. They preached personal responsibility. They sound a lot like political conservatives. But Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and the others did anything but stop at “low-effort” thinking. If they had, we might never have seen the American Revolution.

Maybe it’s not just the economy

19 Mar

Tennessee does not have a state income tax. In fact, it’s the figurative third rail of state politics, the surest route to electoral oblivion for any politician. For example: a once-popular Republican governor, Don Sundquist, left the governor’s mansion all but ostracized from the party for even mentioning it.

I’ve puzzled over that attitude for a long time because it’s been established that a state income tax would have a net benefit to the state (which near the nation’s bottom rung for education spending), it would be almost a wash on middle class tax burdens, and it would actually ease the tax burden on poor people. (I’ve lived in four states, two with and two without state income tax. Being severely middle class, our total tax bill in each place was roughly the same.)

Yet voters reject it time and again. The state legislature is even on the brink of passing a “no income tax, ever” amendment in the state constitution.

Why do Tennesseans vote against their own best interests, I’ve wondered.

One hunch I’ve had — no proof, no hard evidence, no studies to back me up, just a hunch from talking to people and listening to the no-income-tax rhetoric — is that Tennessee’s political history is steeped a screw-you attitude when it comes to governments.

Exhibit A: The Watauga Association, possibly the first attempt at an independent (read: rogue) government on American soil, illegal under British law at the time, was formed in what is now Elizabethton, Tenn., in 1772.

Exhibit B: What is now northeast Tennessee was almost the nation’s 14th state, the state of Franklin, an attempted breakaway from North Carolina, which in the 1700s stretched–in theory, anyway–over the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. A bunch of settlers didn’t like an attempted “land grab” by North Carolina legislators, not to mention the idea of their hard-earned dollars going back east over the mountains to Raleigh. So they petitioned and even shed blood to form a new state.

Underneath these stories is an idea: We don’t want anyone telling us what to do, even if it costs us. We’re independent. (Never mind that Tennesseans receive $1.27 in federal benefits for every $1.00 of federal taxes they pay.)

But Jonathan Haidt puts all this much more neatly and convincingly in an essay last week in the New York Times, “Forget the Money, Follow the Sacredness” (March 17). He wasn’t talking about Tennessee and taxes; he has in mind a larger stage. But if the shoe fits, as the saying goes. The author’s name might ring a bell from a previous post.

I encourage you to read Haidt’s entire essay. Here’s an excerpt:

Despite what you might have learned in Economics 101, people aren’t always selfish. In politics, they’re more often groupish. When people feel that a group they value — be it racial, religious, regional or ideological — is under attack, they rally to its defense, even at some cost to themselves. We evolved to be tribal, and politics is a competition among coalitions of tribes.

The key to understanding tribal behavior is not money, it’s sacredness. The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.

This analysis may also explain why GOP voters generally aren’t thrilled with Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate, especially when compared with the followers of Rick Santorum—as well as Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann before him. Romney’s rivals have stirred up more enthusiasm, if not more votes, because they seem to tap into big themes (even at the risk of getting their facts wrong), while Romney tends to sound more like the very capable office executive he has been: steady but not exciting. (Remember the old cliche about “the one you date and the one you marry”?)

Just this week, Santorum said the election isn’t really about the economy, which seems like a crazy statement at first glance. But he’s trying to tap into a deeper well—something more “fundamental,” to use his word. Or maybe something “sacred,” to use Haidt’s.

Top photo: Jaime Dowell (Manifestation Nation)

Notes from England: A Christian socialist on faith, politics and Thatcher’s legacy

8 Mar

Terry Wynn, MEP

In the last post, I introduced Terry Wynn, a long-time friend from England: Wigan native, rugby league fan, Methodist lay preacher, veteran of the shipping industry, Labour Party leader, former member of the European Parliament, author of two books that outline his beliefs about the relationship of faith and politics, Onward Christian Socialist (1995) and Where are the Prophets? (2006).

I emailed him a few questions last week, asking him to reflect on the Thatcher years, when my family and I lived in England, and to find out what he thinks now. What follows, slightly edited, are my questions and his answers. (I’ve kept the British spelling.)

Dahlman: What do you think Margaret Thatcher got right for the long term? (She served as prime minister from 1979 to 1990.) What did she get wrong? What did the UK gain as a result of her premiership, and what did it lose? What might Europe learn from those years?

Wynn: My industry was shipbuilding, and it was wiped out because it was being subsidised. New yards were closed and ships were then built in Korea or Japan. She did the same with the mining industry and there have been lasting legacies. … So I could have lingering anger at what she did.

However on reflection (and I speak from a centre-left perspective, having moved further right as I have got older), she was ahead of many in Europe who saw subsidising traditional industries as the norm. Over the years I have come to realise that most industries have to work in the market.

Having said that, I’m not too sure that profitable industries, like the energy sector, needed privatising. The privatisation of gas, water and electricity just gave massive resources to a small group who bought them. When water was sold off, huge tracts of land, the water catchment areas, went with it. … This really was giving away the family silver and it applied to other sectors.

Taking power from the trade unions was inevitable; they had gone too far under Labour. (Thatcher’s) trouble was that she was ruthless, and once she knew that she could get away with whatever she wanted, with no-one advising against, she just went gung-ho in what turned out to be a suicidal course.

Tony Blair (prime minister, 1997-2007) had a lot of respect for some of the things she did, and I suppose his attitude remains mine. Not many Brownie points in the Labour Party for saying that.

Terry and Doris Wynn, at home in 2003

The long terms pluses were a slim-line economy ready to face the challenges of new technology.

The downside was that she created a me-too society, where caring for one’s neighbour was less important. Looking after number one was what mattered most. The UK became a selfish society, and she did say, “There is no such thing as community.” It was the time when materialism took centre stage.

I think Meryl Streep’s portrayal (in The Iron Lady) was pretty good, but I know Labour colleagues who didn’t like it. I thought it a great movie.

As for Europe: The single market demanded a free-market economy and many countries had to come to terms with competition. (Thatcher) had put the UK at the forefront and it was a benefit.

How have your politics changed over the years? I thought of your book, Onward Christian Socialists. If you were to revise it, what would you change, if anything?

I re-read (the book) some years ago and decided the only thing I would change were the two or three typos that I found.

I’d like you to finish this sentence, in your own voice: “Jim, if there’s one thing I want you to learn from your time over here, particularly about putting faith and politics together, it’s …”

“… it’s that if you live by the teachings of Jesus, you can’t help but to be political. Whether that be as politicians or being involved in everyday local politics, even church politics. Jesus demands that we act, we are our brother’s keeper, we have to love our neighbour. But above all we have to stop being judgemental of others and learn to empathise and understand their plight.”

 “Socialist” has become an even more loaded word in the U.S. than it used to be and can be easily misinterpreted. (I think some readers’ heads might explode when they see “Christian” and “socialist” together.) So how do you define the word “socialist” or “socialism” in this context?

Can Americans accept that Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela would describe themselves as such? … Don’t forget the old Labour Party Clause 4, which Tony Blair had to ditch for electoral reasons, is straight out of (the book of) Acts: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” That’s my kind of Christian socialism.

Onward, Christian socialists! (Really?)

7 Mar

St. Tesco's: Yes, this was a church building. The former Westbourne Methodist Church in Bournemouth is now a supermarket.

The English church scene differed greatly from the U.S. in the 1980s, when my family and I lived there and worked with a small congregation near Wigan. (See my previous post.) It still does, starting with the fact of the state-supported Church of England. Entire books have been written describing the British religious situation, far too much to summarize here. But a few constants remain from the 1980s, including:

  • About 5 to 10 percent of adults attended church each week, most of them over 50 years old. That’s still the general situation, both in Britain and in Western Europe, although we can see some pockets of growth among younger adults.
  • While the cultural remnant of Christianity is very visible in everything from place names to historic buildings to the role and public pageantry of the Anglican Church, its day-to-day impact is minimal. By 1980, the UK and Western Europe were deemed “post-Christian.”
  • The Pentecostal-charismatic groups and congregations have made a strong impact, partly due to the lively worship, partly due to the sense of renewal, partly due to immigration. House churches mushroomed, and the charismatic movement was felt in virtually every church group, including Anglican and Catholic.
  • Immigration also changed the country’s general religious makeup. By 1985 more Muslims than Methodists lived in England.
  • No Christian group could be pegged to a particular political philosophy or party, at least not accurately. Even the institutional Church of England had already turned from being “the Tory Party at prayer” to being a frequent critic of political Conservativism.

Terry Wynn

Terry Wynn and I met in 1983, thanks to a mutual friend, and we’ve been friends ever since. He worked in the shipbuilding industry, but by the time we got acquainted he was a leader in the Labour Party and could reckon national party leaders among his friends. (He caught me off guard one day when he casually referred to Neil–as in Neill Kinnock, the Labour Party leader.) He was later elected as the Member of the European Parliament for our region, serving there for 17 years until he retired in 2006.

He and his wife, Doris, are also dedicated Christians, members of the Methodist Church. Terry, who came to faith as a young man, is a licensed lay preacher. So of course we talked a lot about religion and politics. (We talked about rugby league too, since like any self-respecting Wiganer, Terry loves that game.)

So last week, as I thought about our time in England, I sent him an email, asking him to reflect on politics and faith, looking back to when we lived there, back when Margaret Thatcher was in office. Had his views had changed with the times?

I already knew that Terry’s starting assumption is that people of faith can’t check their beliefs at the door when they enter the public square. No matter where they work or what they do, Christians can’t–and shouldn’t–stop thinking like Christians, including the political arena. He uses the word “integrity” a lot, which he knows is a rare thing in the political scrum.

With Terry, it’s not a matter of forming Christian political parties or assuming Christianity should somehow be favored in a diverse society, much less forcing nominally “Christian” policies on an unwilling or uninformed electorate. Instead, it’s a matter of individuals aiming to live out their faith–from examining their own motivations for being involved, to supporting particular policies, to treating other people as they would be treated, including their political opponents.

So far, so good. But consider this: When Terry wrote and self-published his first book about the relationship between faith and politics, he called it Onward Christian Socialist (1995). He wrote a follow-up book 11 years later, Where Are the Prophets?

Terry knows that many Christians on both sides of the Atlantic–especially in the U.S.–will choke on the S-word: socialist. Can “Christian” and “socialist” co-exist? He thinks so. Strongly.

He’s not alone. When the British Labour movement took root in the early 20th century, it grew fast and strong among working-class Christians in “nonconformist” churches, Baptists and Methodists and others. They were concerned about poor people who were stranded in a rigid economic and class system (often represented by the Church of England), about human dignity and human rights–and they found support in the Bible. Even as atheists and agnostics swelled the party’s ranks (many of them disenchanted with Communism) and sometimes dominated it, Labour retained its strong Christian base.

Yes, this is a church building: Hindley Green Methodist Church, near Wigan.

Terry knows the history, but he’s more concerned with the theology. Democratic socialism is a political outworking of a Christian point of view, he believes. The words “Christian” and “socialist” are inextricably linked for Terry. (He might say they’re joined at the hip.)

“My political beliefs are firmly rooted in the concepts of equality, fraternity and liberty and I could never agree to support the policies of a Thatcherite Government that has wreaked havoc on the weakest of our society,” he wrote in Onward Christian Socialist. “My politics and faith are inseparable: for me socialism and Christianity go hand in hand, from Christ’s teachings to the Apostles’ distribution of wealth where they gave ‘to each one according to his need’ (Acts 4:35).”

Food for thought. Something to chew on. Maybe even fodder for discussion.

More to come in Terry’s own words. Next post.

England, religion and Thatcherism, 30 years later

6 Mar

Trencherfield Mill in Wigan, a former cotton mill, now a museum.

I observed an anniversary last week: March 1 marked 30 years since my wife, Melissa, and I arrived in England to work with a small church in Platt Bridge, just outside Wigan. This was the industrial North, an old town known for coal mines, cotton mills, rugby league, an ironic joke about piers, and as George Orwell’s icon for depressed, working-class England in the 1930s.

Melissa and I were in our 20s and lived there only five years, but it was pivotal time for us. Our daughters were born there. We gained several lifelong friends. And we came away, as does anyone who lives in a different culture, with a changed view of the world.

We arrived only three years after Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. The British economy she inherited was a mess—bloated, inefficient, stagnant, over committed to labor unions—and she intended to deliver a “short, sharp shock” (I’ll never forget her memorable phrase) to put things right.

The Wigan area was especially blighted then. The district, wedged between Manchester and Liverpool, hummed with scores of cotton mills and hundreds of coal mines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but by 1982 all the mills and all but one of the collieries were shut. Platt Bridge, three miles from town centre, was dominated by two massive “housing estates,” government housing projects, with an official unemployment rate hovering around 25 percent, about twice the national average at the time.

Wigan politics leaned left in those days, a stronghold for the Labour Party. When we arrived, Thatcherism was starting to take hold, particularly with its austere budgets and push toward privatization of major industries and transportation systems. The changes, of course, caused strife throughout the nation: rallies and demonstrations, even riots in a few places. She issued her “shocks,” and people reacted.

TIME magazine featured Thatcher's 1979 election as prime minister. She held the office until 1990.

“Thatcherism” changed the country, eventually forcing Labour rightward before it could win the 1997 general election that made Tony Blair prime minister. There’s little doubt that Thatcher’s policies resuscitated the economy by the 1990s and ushered in new prosperity that would have been unthinkable 20 years earlier. Even Wigan flourished.

We still hear echoes of Thatcherism. In the U.S. we call it Reaganomics and it’s a reliable touchstone for GOP politicos, but Maggie started it. (Pop culture has awakened some fresh interest in Thatcher, thanks to Meryl Streep’s portrayal of her in The Iron Lady.)

But at what cost to the society? That’s a question debated for the last 30 years. Not surprisingly, Maggie Thatcher and her policies turned into an issue for Christians, including a good friend of mine who was not only a Methodist lay preacher but also a leader in the Labour Party. I checked in with him last week as part of my personal anniversary celebration.

But more about that in my next post.

Rick Santorum, the environment and the lessons of Noah’s flood

27 Feb

"Noah's Ark," by Edward Hicks, 1846

I hope all Christians paid close attention to Sunday’s Scripture readings in church, but especially GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum. The Old Testament lectionary reading came from Genesis, describing the scene after the big flood (Genesis 9:8-17). You know: Noah, the ark, the animals, etc. According to the story, God unilaterally promised never again to destroy the entire world with a flood, and he was careful to include not just human beings but “every animal of the earth.”

I don’t usually mention Sunday school classes here, but ours had a lively conversation and one person’s remark referred to an earlier passage, one that explained why God sent the flood in the first place:

“The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them’” (Genesis 6:5-7, New Revised Standard Version).

So why did God target all the creatures—dogs and cats and cows and spiders—as well as people? It doesn’t make sense for God to entirely scrub down creation. Only the humans sinned, right?

But then there’s an even earlier and more familiar verse:

 “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’” (1:26).

Rick Santorum

That’s what made me think of Rick Santorum. He likes to quote this verse, especially when talking about “radical environmentalists.” Santorum, a Roman Catholic,  believes they get in the way of creating jobs and progress and a good economy, and he said they engage in “some phony theology” (lumping the president in with them last week). As he explained to CBS newsman Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation last week, he was talking about

“the idea that man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And I think that is a phony ideal. I don’t believe that that’s what we’re here to do—that man is here to use the resources and use them wisely, to care for the Earth, to be a steward of the Earth, but we’re not here to serve the Earth.”

That, by itself, sounds fine to me. As a Christian, I’m all for stewardship and not at all for earth worship.

But a quick reading of his energy policies makes it clear what Santorum means. He proposes, for example, to “remove bans on drilling—both onshore and offshore” and “repeal bureaucratic regulations such as EPA’s greenhouse gas regulations, Utility MACT, Boiler MACT, Cement MACT, the reclassification of coal ash, and any regulation of farm dust,” among other policies.

I couldn’t help noticing the lack of any qualifiers. Does he mean to remove all bans and all regulations?

His energy policies, on the other hand, don’t include one word about environmental impact—not to consider it, not to study it, not even to give it a polite nod in passing. It just doesn’t exist in the Santorum universe.

But since he appeals to theology, then to theology we must go—and that means we can’t ignore the rest of the message in Genesis.

The story of Noah is clear: we dominant humans are responsible for the fate of all creation. Think of Spider-man, only at a cosmic level: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

"The Peaceable Kingdom," by Edward Hicks, about 1845

“Dominion” isn’t a license to recklessly “kill, baby, kill” or “drill, baby, drill.” Yes, according to the Bible, humans are empowered to draw on the world’s resources. But every good “steward” (to use Santorum’s word) knows the wisdom of thoughtful restraint and moderation. Every good farmer and hunter knows the difference between reaping the land and raping it, of working with nature rather than exploiting it. Or as one commentator put it more eloquently,

“Creation, including humanity, is one. What affects part affects all. The deep purpose of nature is diversity in unity under God’s ownership. Yet humanity consistently fails to accept its given limits and attempts to take possession of life into its own hands, contaminating the cosmos with violence and fear.” (William Loyd Allen, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.)

And then, of course, is the teaching of Santorum’s own church. As far back as 1990, Pope John Paul II wrote:

Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment, people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past. The public in general as well as political leaders are concerned about this problem, and experts from a wide range of disciplines are studying its causes. Moreover, a new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge which, rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programmes and initiatives. (Emphasis added.)

Rick Santorum has the right to get theological if he wants, even as he runs for president. But I’m not sure he really wants to do that.

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