Monday, July 24, 2017

The Price for Their Pound of Flesh by Daina Ramey Berry

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This was another of those books on the New Books Shelf that called to me with its siren song as I walked by. Apparently, I am not the only one to hear its call, as both my older daughters want to read it when I am done. 



The Price for Their Pound of Flesh is an interesting and highly disturbing book. It combines the dry statistics of the economics of slavery with the voices of the enslaved themselves. The book examines the valuations of the enslaved from prebirth (in the form of the value of a fertile female), through the various stages of life, down to the value of corpses and body parts on the market after death.

The author has an interesting story herself. In her note at the beginning, she describes growing up in a California college town as the daughter of two college professors. She also experienced being black in a white world. She too would follow the path of academia, and decided to research and write this book to attempt to communicate the stark difference between the value that our society places on black bodies and the valuation that said human beings place on themselves. I strongly recommend reading the introductory materials for that reason. Her own experiences (like that of many of my non-white friends and colleagues) is of being devalued.

I also want to make a particular note of the way Berry uses language in this book. She makes a deliberate and highly effective choice in how she describes the players in the tragedy of American slavery. You will not see her use “master” or “owner.” And she will not use “slave” except when quoting others. (Particularly in advertisements of slave auctions.)

Instead, she uses words that more accurately reflect the reality of the “peculiar institution” and those participated in it.

Thus, she uses “enslaver” and “enslaved.” Both of these reflect the reality and the inherent worth of all humans. A person is not a “slave,” which implies some sort of status or lower value. It isn’t the person who is a particular way. And likewise, people are not owned. You cannot “own” a fellow human in any real sense.

Rather, all that you can do is use violence (legally sanctioned, but violence nonetheless) to enslave someone. These words thus bring into stark and unforgiving light what slavery really is. Enslavers (those who “own” those they enslave) have and continue to exercise violence against their fellow humans. Every single minute that they profit from this violence, they have intentionally, actively, chosen to do evil to their fellow man. It is analogous to rape. A person is a rapist during every single minute they are raping (and afterward too), and to enslave is a continual rape of another human’s dignity and inherent human worth.

Likewise, a person does not lose their inherent human worth and dignity because he or she has had violence perpetrated against them. That is why “enslaved” works so well. They were not any different in value, but they were the continual victims of violence by the enslavers.

Words matter, and I believe I am going to adopt this usage in the future, because it focuses attention not on status but on the perpetual, intentional evil of what was done.

One more observation that the author makes really struck me. This book is new, so it mentions the Black Lives Matter movement, and its relationship to history. The author notes that the name itself as well as the movement is an attempt to reject the devaluing of their lives and worth. But the author also insists that the historical record is that Black Bodies Matter. During American Slavery, in fact, the value of a black body was pretty easy to determine. After slavery was ended, however, black bodies ceased to be of economic value to whites, and thus, in our current day, they are devalued. I think there is a lot of truth in this. As I previously blogged, I believe that the most significant reason why we have not adopted universal health care like the rest of the civilized world is that we have a huge hangup about valuing non-whites as much as whites. Poverty, whether accurately or not, is racialized in our nation, and the rhetoric around everything from healthcare to education to wages is infected by the fear that we might actually do something to benefit blacks.

This book is extensively researched - just reading the bit at the end of all the primary sources she waded through, the archives of documents from insurance records to plantation records to auction notices spanning 100 years. Links to many of these sources can be found on the author’s website. She uses three categories of valuation: the appraisal value (which was typically listed on the auction notices), sale value, and insurance value.

The book is divided into chapters based on the stages of a person’s life. Thus, the first chapter deals with “Preconception,” the premium of value placed on fertile enslaved women. This is a profoundly uncomfortable chapter to read. Berry quotes extensively from primary sources as she describes how the enslaved were bred and mated and described using the same language as that of animal husbandry. This is contrasted with the way the enslaved themselves described their love, their dreams, and their bodies. I dare you to read this chapter and not walk away shaken. (Unless you are Doug Wilson, of course. Or a sociopath. But I repeat myself.)

The next chapter tells of infancy and childhood. And it too is heart wrenching. Despite the lies of those who would minimize slavery, it was all too common for children and infants to be sold away from their parents, particularly around the age of the first signs of puberty, when the value of an enslaved person started a rapid climb. And parents and children knew they would usually never see each other again. This is the dehumanization of the enslaved that Harriet Beecher Stowe so poignantly portrayed in the book that Abraham Lincoln claimed started the Civil War.

After this comes the chapter on the prime of life. While whites had relatively short lifespans in the 1700s and 1800s, those of slaves were far shorter, for a number of reasons. First, infant and child mortality rates were high, largely because of poor nutrition and lack of medical care. Second, and there is no way to sugar coat this, the enslaved were worked to death on poor food. Their lives were valued for the brutal labor which could be extracted by violence. Interesting in this chapter was the parallel with modern professional sports: the ages of 18 through 35 were the prime years, and values declined sharply after that. Understandable for those who depend on microscopic advantages of strength and coordination in playing a game. But not so much for the value of a human life. I’m already an old man by those standards.

Old age and disability get a chapter too, and the various values placed on older enslaved persons. There is also a significant difference here between the economic values placed by enslavers versus the values the enslaved themselves put on elders.

One chapter that was filled with information that was completely new to me was the one on postmortem values. The era of American slavery coincided with the rise of modern medical knowledge. That knowledge was gained, then as now, through the dissection of cadavers. The problem was, where to get them? Well, around the world, criminals were often fair game, as were the extremely impoverished or those with no known relatives. So almshouses, hospitals and prisons were common sources. These rarely produced sufficient specimens, so grave robbing became a common practice. To a degree, the authorities looked the other way when this was done.

In America, though, there was another source. Enslavers could sell the corpses of the enslaved to medical schools, and they often did. In addition, robbing the graves of the enslaved was rarely punished, and thus less risky than looking for white victims. This chapter has more macabre information about the illicit cadaver trade than I had anticipated. It is both fascinating and horrifying.

Also particularly interesting was the existence of “resurrectionists,” persons who specialized in exhuming corpses. A couple of these were particularly well known, and were enslaved persons who worked for Southern medical schools. Chris Baker gets a number of pages, because his life was well documented. (He continued his job after emancipation, and appears in a number of pictures with (white) medical students.) Just how many bodies were dissected, then buried in mass graves is unknown, but many have been found on site at these schools. There is a move now to give them proper burial.

One of the interesting points raised by the author is one that a minister, T. Doughty Miller addressed in a sermon. How ironic is it that while claiming that blacks were subhuman, their bodies were in demand for learning human anatomy. Well, are they human or not? That’s a particularly uncomfortable question to ask about those you are violently enslaving, isn’t it?

Of course, medical dissection was hardly the only possible end for the enslaved. In the case of famous insurrectionist Nat Turner, after he was hanged, spectators cut off various body parts as souvenirs. It is believed that some of his skin was tanned and used as leather for purses and such like, and other parts put on display. In fact, right before the book was published, his skull was finally found, and confirmed by DNA evidence to be likely his. It will finally, nearly 200 years later, be laid to rest.

The point here isn’t that dissection is wrong, but that black bodies were bought and sold for this purpose, often in defiance of the wishes of either the deceased or their families.

Really, this is the point, more than anything else. Slavery is violence because it strips from human beings their volition and their ability to control their very bodies, that intimate part of themselves. This is why it infuriates me when people like Doug Wilson and other defenders of slavery rise to stand in judgment of that which they will never know. To minimize and dismiss the experiences of others like that is astoundingly arrogant, and devoid of empathy. Not a surprise from Wilson, whose sociopathic tendencies are on full display in more than just his dogged insistence that slavery wasn’t so bad and that the South had the moral high ground.

What is more disappointing to me is to see otherwise decent people insist that they can sit in judgment on police brutality, stand by as non-whites are demonized by right-wing media - and a certain prominent leader - and casually dismiss the experiences of those harmed.

This is why this book is so powerful. It makes an unforgettable juxtaposition of the clinical numbers of enslavement and the words of the enslaved. The financial meets the personal, and one can only shudder at the violence done to humans made in the image of God - and this violence was done in the name of filthy profit.

It also gives us reason to think twice before making profit our only goal in our economic policy. While working for substandard wages is better than slavery, it still is a devaluing of the lives of other human beings. Just as WalMart insured the lives of its workers without their consent (this is mentioned in the book), it is too easy to just dismiss the needs of those below us on the ladder. To conclude that it really isn’t that important that they have access to medical care, that they have sufficient housing and food, that their children have an education. To the enslaved themselves, their souls had intimate value, and we do well to remember that the lives and fortunes of our fellow humans have that value too. When we determine that a few more dollars of profit for ourselves or for (in the case of GOP policy) for those who already have the most are worth less than the lives of others, when we determine that subjective fear on the part of a person with a badge and a gun is worth more than the lives of others, we do violence to them that is a close kin to the enslavement of the past.

This is an outstanding book, and one I recommend everyone read. Along with Remembering Jim Crow, it proves the power of listening to the perspectives of those who have suffered injustice, lest we be too quick to dismiss their lives and cling to our own privilege.

***

Just for fun, let me give you my own philosophy on dissections and such. My wife is an ICU nurse, so she deals with both organ donation and disposal of remains. (She also has a limited role in pronouncing people dead.) As such, I probably have a gallows humor approach to such things. In any event, I am an organ donor, I have the dot on my driver’s license, and I would be happy to let my body parts be used by someone else when I am done with them.

I also have told my wife that it would be fine with me if science could use me. There is a certain fun in the thought of medical students making Yorick jokes with my skull for generations to come. Alas, it appears that plastic skeletons are cheaper and easier to maintain these days, so not so likely there. I could, I suppose, settle for the cadaver thing.

But ultimately, when they are done with whatever they can use, spread my ashes in my beloved forest.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

Source of book: I own this.

One of the first book reviews I did before I started my blog and was still using the notes on Facebook was of Sarah Orne Jewett’s short stories. I really enjoyed those, and had intended to read her longer works sooner. However, the copy I read was a library book, and I never did get back to borrowing it again.

Fortunately, my wife found a lovely hardback of The Country of the Pointed Firs at a library sale. (And, just last month, I scored a Jewett collection from the Library of America for a buck at a used bookstore in San Diego - that’s an interesting story in itself.) So, I had a perfect excuse to enjoy this book. 



The Country of the Pointed Firs is not so much a novel as a collection of stories spanning a summer spent in the fictional New England town of Dunnet Landing, Maine. The stories also involve the same characters and are further connected by the relationships between those characters.

The unnamed narrator is boarding with Mrs. Almira Todd, a widow who supports herself by selling herbal remedies and renting out a room. Mrs. Todd knows everyone, and has a pointed, yet not harsh, observation about all. Mrs. Todd’s elderly mother and brother, who live on an island just offshore, also figure prominently in the story. There are other memorable characters, from Captain Littlepage, the eccentric retired fisherman who has never gotten over the death of his beloved wife, to Mrs. Martin, the elderly woman born on the same day as Queen Victoria who feels a certain kinship with the queen. Nearly all of the characters are older, at least middle aged, whose children are grown and usually fled from the decaying fishing village to seek their fortunes, and who have at least one foot in the past. This is typical Jewett - these are her people, the ones her physician father used to care for, and the ones she knew throughout her life. She writes their lives with gentle affection, and a keen eye for human nature.

Jewett lived in New England in the latter half of the 19th Century, and her writing harkens back to that time and place. Her stories are regional, but yet universal. This particular story also has a connection to Jewett’s life. She never married, but cohabited with a widow after the husband’s death. (She had been friends with the couple before that.) This “Boston Marriage” was possible because the women were self-sufficient financially, of course, but they appear to have been close friends at the very least. In this book, the narrator (who strongly resembles the author) has a special connection with Mrs. Todd during their time together in Dunnet Landing, and their friendship is the central focus of the book. And it really is a touching friendship, two older women enjoying each other’s company and companionship while navigating each other’s needs and expectations.

Jewett was an excellent writer, and I never fail to enjoy her use of language or her complex and memorable characters. A few lines are worth mentioning. In one, Mrs. Fosdick remembers the old days, when the town was a bustling seaport, and most of the residents had traveled abroad, Mrs. Todd included.

“I used to return feelin’ very slack an’ behind the times, ‘tis true,” explained Mrs. Fosdick, “but ‘twas excitin’, an’ we always done extra well, and felt rich when we did get ashore. I liked the variety. There, how times have changed; how few seafarin’ families there are left! What a lot o’ queer folks there used to be about here, anyway, when we as young, Almiry. Everybody’s just like everybody else, now; nobody to laugh about, and nobody to cry about.”
It seemed to me that there were peculiarities of character in the region of Dunnet Landing yet, but I did not like to interrupt.

Say what? The old folks thought the younguns were all the same and not as interesting as they were back in the day? Who knew this happened way back then?

On the other hand, Jewett herself kind of sympathised with this idea, because it was true that it was harder to be provincial and insular when you travelled abroad. Those experiences of difference broadened views.

More than this one cannot give to a young State for its enlightenment; the sea captains and the captains’ wives of Maine knew something of the wide world, and never mistook their native parishes for the whole instead of a part thereof…

In our day, we see this too. There is a strong connection between experience and knowledge of the rest of the world, and empathy toward outsiders - and also a preference for diplomacy rather than warfare. (See for example this bit on the difference between those who can find North Korea on a map, and those who cannot…)

Whether or not you have the funds to travel, all of us can at least travel in the sense of experiencing unfamiliar places and people through reading. By exploring outside our bubble, whether that is geographical, chronological, religious, ethnic, or financial, we can develop commonality with others around the work, throughout time, and despite whatever differences we may have. In fact, I would say that one of the best predictors of whether I can find common ground to discuss the things that really matter is whether a person reads and experiences outside their own bubble. I have found lately that this is nearly impossible with someone whose knowledge base is Fox News and Breitbart and a few pop-theology tomes. There is no empathy to grasp in common. Whereas readers - we always can find commonality somewhere, and there is a language that can take us outside of our own boxes to understanding each other and the world we live in.

For one exercise of that gift, Sarah Orne Jewett can transport you to the New England of 150 years ago, to the lives of ordinary people whose experiences are rather different than ours, but whose humanity is instantly recognizable. They too love and hurt, and experience loneliness and joy, and have dreams and hopes and fears. This is what good literature does, and why it is so necessary.

***

This particular edition was illustrated by Douglas Alvord. I have a soft spot for monochrome drawings, and these are really lovely, full of as much nuance of character as Jewett’s writing. 


Friday, July 21, 2017

Christianity and Culture Part 1: Asking the Right Questions

Part 1: Culture Versus Culture: Asking the Right Questions

I have been contemplating writing this post for some time, but was sparked by a mention by my former pastor of Christ and Culture by H. Richard Nieibuhr, a book written back in the 1950s that discussed potential ways of viewing Christianity and culture. I did a bit of reading to have an idea of what Niebuhr said, and appreciated that he discussed the basic approaches. (Also, his brother Reinhold had a lot of interesting things to say about Christianity and ethics.) Having grown up in subcultures (homeschooling and Gothardism) which had elements of both the isolationist and dominionist views, I think an understanding of how these two particular views of culture have come to politically dominate both Evangelicalism and the GOP is helpful.

But I think that talking about our approach to culture - really, our approach to the highly political Culture Wars™ - is premature, because we haven’t really thought through the threshold question:

When we talk about Christianity and Culture, how do we even tell when they are truly opposed?

I believe this is a great a problem as our approach to cultural clashes - probably greater - because how we pick our battles is every bit as important as how we fight them.

To start with, I think we need a couple of definitions:

  1. What is “Culture”?

While culture can be a bit slippery to define, I tend to like anthropologist E. B. Tylor’s definition: “[T]hat complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”



This seems to be fairly comprehensive, yet helpful. The reason that I think we need to define culture more carefully is that it is all too easy to think of culture in terms of “us versus them,” or “people like us are good while people like them are bad,” which is not just unhelpful, it gets tribalist and racist really quickly. It also in practice tends to lead to the idea that people who share certain specific cultural beliefs with us are “Christian,” while those who do not are “hostile culture,” whether or not those cultural differences have any real nexus to religious beliefs. Here in the United States (and throughout the West to a degree), this means that specifically American cultural beliefs and preferences can take on the weight of religious dogma.

Instead, I think focusing on the specific things which make up culture, we can better analyze whether a particular cultural belief, art, moral, law, custom, or knowledge we are talking about, and better analyze whether our perceived conflict with Christianity is really a conflict, or if we are really dealing with a conflict between cultural preferences.

  1. What is “Christianity”?

This one is equally vital, because how we define the essence of our faith will often determine how we view conflicts with it. As a great example of this, the religious establishment in the Gospels viewed Christ himself as an existential threat to their religion. As I will discuss later in this post and series, this is because Christ was a threat to their culture, and threatened to - and did - divorce true religion from their cherished cultural preferences.

I would start with this: Christianity, whatever it has been in practice, should be, in theory, following Christ. Following His teachings, his commands, his values.

Taking these premises to the logical conclusion, we should only have a true “Christianity versus Culture” conflict when the teachings, commands, and values of Christ conflict with the beliefs, morals, laws, customs, habits, and so on, of the culture.

I bring this up in significant part because of my own upbringing. My parents were both Missionary Kids, born and raised overseas. My dad grew up in the Philippines, while my mom grew up in Mexico. Their experiences were different than most other Americans their age. My dad in particular impressed on me from an early age that Christianity often looks very different in different cultures, and that American culture was not synonymous with Christianity. Americanism and Colonialism in particular were problematic because they elevated cultural preferences and the exercise of power over others to the level of religious faith, and were thus idolatry.

In light of this, I believe that a significant portion of the Culture Wars™ are not really about the opposition of the teachings of Christ to the culture, but about warring cultural preferences which have been elevated to the level of idolatry. When Evangelicals in particular talk about the Culture War, more often than not, they are not really defending the teachings of Christ - and often are doing the opposite.

The sad thing is that there are two poisonous results from this failure to carefully think through this issue: first, we tend to pick battles that are about culture versus culture rather than Christ versus culture. Second, we very often fail to identify those cases where the teachings of Christ truly do conflict with culture, and thus cling to and embrace the culture instead of Christ.

Here is how I see these play out:

  1. Culture versus Culture

There are three major conflicts which represent the real clash of the Culture Wars™ - and they are related. Different, but intimately connected.

Let me start by mentioning this fact: The United States is 80 percent Christian. We ARE the culture. So the idea of the dominant culture of the United States being opposed to Christianity as it exists in America is self-contradictory. The conflict must therefore be in significant part between Christians and between different Christian cultures. While there are exceptions, the Cultural Warriors - and particularly their organizations - are overwhelmingly white, middle class, and Republican. This is only one slice of Christianity in America, obviously. (For Evangelicals - particularly white middle class Evangelicals - they and they alone have theological and cultural truth, so that colors this conflict.) Thus, the Culture Wars™ owe a great deal to demographically driven cultural preferences far more than doctrine. A good proof of this can be seen that among American Christians who share most of the same core doctrines, beliefs about culture and politics break down largely on racial and class lines. Which means, if you think about it, that these beliefs must be primarily cultural rather than doctrinal.

Here are the three cultural conflicts I see that are really Culture versus Culture, rather than Christ versus Culture.

  1. Culture of the Past versus Culture of the Present

This is, of course, merely a modern manifestation of a profoundly human tendency well in evidence by the time of Aristotle nearly 2500 years ago. The “good old days” were better, society is going to hell, the young people are horrible, and so on. It has been well documented throughout human history. Perhaps it would be just an irritating facet of human existence but for one thing: The past is worshiped as if it were divine.

I have far too much experience with this because of my involvement in the Dominionist/Separatist movements of fundamentalism. (A good place to start is in my post on Cultural Fundamentalism.)

The institutions, power structures, and indeed the very injustices of the past are believed to be True Christianity™ and thus all ways that the present differs from the past are to be considered departures from true religion, and cultural war is necessary to return us to the halcyon days of utopia.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the war that organizations from Focus on the Family to Bill Gothard’s cult have waged on women who work outside the home. (My wife works outside the home, and has experienced much needless disdain from people in our life as a result.)

But it isn’t just that. The music of the past versus the present. Clothing styles of the past versus the present. Smart phones versus newspapers. Archaic slang versus modern slang. The never ending barrage of articles dissing Millennials. And so on.

Keeping in mind the above definition of “culture,” it becomes evident that most of this is a clash of cultures. Past culture versus present culture.

I hope to discuss what I believe is the theological source of this clash in a future post.

  1. White Evangelical Churchianity versus other Cultures

Again, this is connected. It is a white Evangelical culture of the past (such as the 1950s or 1850s depending on your preference) versus modern non-white, non-Evangelical cultures. You can see this both in the hostility toward “ghetto culture” or Latino cultures, but also in the specifically “churchy” parts of the culture.

Just one little example is the use of vulgarity. After all, Saint Paul and Isaiah both engaged in some pretty “earthy” language to make a point. They were not above using the Hebrew or Greek for piss and shit when it heightened the idea they were presenting. But particularly for my grandparents’ generation, this was horrible of horribles. In contrast, my grandparents’ generation sure seemed to throw around racial epithets without embarrassment. The taboo words have changed, and the change is viewed by many as culture triumphing over Christianity. But is it really more “Christian” to refer disdainfully to n-----rs than it is to drop an “Oh shit!”? Perhaps this was just a cultural difference.

I have found that when pressed, most Evangelicals will list, alongside the usual sexual bogeymen, a litany of supposed “evil” in the culture, which are really, if you look at Tylor’s definition, cultural differences. Cultural preferences. And if you press as to which of Christ’s commands are being violated, you usually don’t get anything of substance back.

It’s Churchianity, not Christ, that conflicts with culture. And it is, more than anything else, in those ways in which white culture conflicts with non-white cultures, and where middle class culture conflicts with lower class culture that there is the most conflict.

As before, this conflict is revealed in the fact that white middle-class evangelical culture and politics tend to resemble non-religious white middle class culture and politics than it does the culture of non-white, lower class culture and politics.

  1. Republicanity versus Culture

I can’t remember exactly where I ran across this word, but it is so useful. Republicanity is the religion that many Evangelicals truly exercise, not Christianity in the sense of Christ and his commandments. That is why, as the GOP has shifted dramatically to the right, and embraced Social Darwinism, you see more and more Evangelicals giving preference to the teachings of the atheist Ayn Rand over the teachings of Jesus Christ. When the two conflict, Rand wins every time.

You can also see it in the fact that multiple leaders switched completely on whether adultery and sexual assault were a deal breaker - and the difference was whether there was an (R) or a (D) after the name.

This is why a local church in my city held a mourning service after President Obama was elected. And why so many Evangelicals celebrated a GOP victory this November despite (or perhaps because of) the damage that is likely to occur to many vulnerable people as a result.

This is why the main thrust of the culture wars is political.

As I said earlier, these three are all related, and they stem from the same basic belief: “Christianity” is synonymous with a certain white, middle class, Evangelical culture of the past and its political beliefs and affiliations, and its cultural preferences and signifiers.

  1. Where Christ truly does conflict with culture

This is the truly tragic part of the equation. At its root, Christianity has to be about a certain idea which Christ himself summed up all of the law and the prophets: “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself.”

Christ, in his teachings and ministry exemplified this precept, and it is what brought him into conflict with the religious establishment.

All of the cultural trappings - including the Mosaic Code - were swept away. Cultural and racial identity, gender and social hierarchies - all were upended in the Upside Down Kingdom. Christ himself said that our future judgment would depend, not on our cultural affiliation, our rituals and taboos, or even the specifics of our beliefs, but on what we did for the least of these - because that was how we treated Christ.

This is a hard teaching, and it highlights the real areas where Christ conflicts with our modern culture.

A full treatment of this is beyond the scope of this post, but let me hit a few highlights. Our American culture worships celebrity. And yet, Evangelicals worship celebrity every bit as much, as every mega-church pastor and his latest best seller demonstrates. (To say nothing of this last election, the perfect example of substance-free celebrity attracting worship.)

Our culture worships money and power. And so do we. Look at any Evangelical church board, and you won’t see much of any representation from those in the congregation in the bottom 20 percent of income. This has been true of EVERY church board at EVERY church I have ever attended. It occurs to me that this reveals a fundamental view of the church as a business rather than a ministry.

Our culture - particularly the dominant race - is hostile to immigrants, unwilling to grant to others what our own ancestors got. This is contrary not just to the teaching of Christ, but to the commands in the Mosaic Code and the teachings of the prophets. 

Our culture equates wealth with virtue and poverty with vice. And so do we, even those of us who do not officially believe the Prosperity Gospel or Social Darwinism. Christ taught the opposite.

Our American culture has had a longstanding problem with racism and white supremacy. We have considered non-whites - and blacks in particular - to be subhuman, inherently violent, less intelligent, and undeserving of full access to society. And so does American white Evangelicalism. One thing this election did was reveal just how many people I know are deeply racist. It isn’t from my atheist friends that I hear dehumanizing of minorities. It isn’t from them that I find re-posts from hate groups and openly white supremacist individuals (like Milo Yiannopoulos). It isn’t from my atheist friends that I find dismissal of Black Lives Matter as a phony media creation. No, it comes from my Evangelical friends and family. Every. Single. Time. And those of us who do push back against this problem in our culture are told to tone it down so we don’t offend fellow (white, middle class) Christians.

Again, this is just a small sample, and I haven’t fleshed it out. But suffice it to say that the attitudes and actions of our American culture very often conflict with the teachings of Christ in these ways, and yet the Culture Wars™, where they take a position, tend to side with culture against Christ.

***

Note: I use the (™) intentionally. The Culture Wars™ are a tremendous money machine, supporting numerous multi-million dollar organizations whose purpose is to wield political power in favor of one political party. The religious right was founded for the express purpose of perpetuating segregation  and guaranteeing the votes of white evangelicals to the GOP. A tactical decision was made a few years later to pivot to legislating sexual behavior as the focus. Make no mistake, however, this is all about the money and all about the political power.

***

Just one great example of where the white middle-to-upper class past culture is assumed to be synonymous with Christianity, check out this interesting article from The Federalist. When one is talking about withdrawing from modern society for religious reasons, then shift to a vision of reading old books by white males as part of that, well, you may not be distinguishing between the two very well…

***

One more bit on the definition of culture itself. Psychologist Abraham Maslow, best known for his “hierarchy of needs,” made the following observation:

It is too often not realized that culture itself is an adaptive tool, one of whose main functions is to make the physiological emergencies come less and less often.

This is a major reason why cultures change and differ. The circumstances change. The culture of the past is often a poor fit for modern circumstances. That’s why maintenance of Patriarchy requires the women be denied education - it might become obvious that they aren’t less intelligent than men. Likewise, tribalist thinking tends to lead to big wars - globalism is necessary in a world where we are no longer separated from the rest of humanity. Science, technology, better understandings of ethics and ourselves, all of these things change our circumstances, and culture changes along with them. The answer to how to live as a Christian in the actual world we inhabit isn’t “return to the past” but the application of ethical and genuinely Christian thought to a different world. As Mark Noll points out, that is the one thing Evangelicals have grown unable to do. It’s much more satisfying to either withdraw to a bubble, or to seek political power to force others to return to the past. (That’s pretty much the definition of the Culture Wars™.)

***

Also relevant in this discussion is my series on Dominionism. The Culture Wars(TM) exist because Evangelicalism has embraced Dominionism as its preferred approach to outsiders. 

Dominionism and Evangelicalism PART 1: It's All About The Power
Dominionism and Evangelicalism PART 2: The American Version of Dominionism
Dominionism and Evangelicalism PART 3: Presuppositionalism Has Poisoned Everything