Monday, November 15, 2004

Empire Christianity

It is time for prophetic Christianity to speak again. As Cornel West describes it in Democracy Matters, Christianity is currently in its Constantinian phase, being co-opted by the Empire of George W. Bush and his ideology (free-market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and escalating authoritarianism). The latter ideological element is perhaps the most insidious and potentially devastating as it involves a War on Facts. If pediatricians find that lead levels are dangerously high in paint and are causing brain damage in children, replace them with “scientists” from the Sherwin-Williams paint company. Eventually, the establishment of fact becomes the epistemological equivalent of divine decree (or, at least, the call of a square dance caller). As for the cooptation of Christianity in this Constantinian era, it has become more excessive than Kierkegaard’s worst fears of Christendom. It is time for a resurgence of prophetic Christianity to “let justice roll down like waters.” Bruce Lincoln captures the problem of the rhetoric of Bush Christendom and its attendant hypocrisy in his article “Analyzing the president’s theology: Bush’s God talk” in The Christian Century, the conclusion of which is as follows:

One is forced to conclude that Bush’s theology and his deployment of it is less systematic than pragmatic. Although he fosters the impression that his policies are grounded in deep religious conviction, the reality is often the reverse. Vague notions and attractive terms such as “compassion,” “history” and “freedom” are given rhetorical, sometimes even intellectual, coherence by his staff. Bush may resonate to some of the ideas and some of the language they prepare for him, but for the most part he uses these to justify policies that have already been decided on quite other grounds. Preemptive wars, abridgments of civil liberty, cuts in social service, subsidies to churches, and other like initiatives are not just wrapped in the flag; together with the flag, they are swathed in the holy.

Many of those responsible for shaping these policies are tough-minded neoconservatives who share with political philosopher Leo Strauss a cynical view of religion as unfit for elites, but useful in swaying the masses. To Bush falls the task of securing broad support for this team’s agenda from his fervently evangelical base. It is not an easy business, and it requires all the linguistic skill, theological ingenuity and tactical acumen his staff can muster. The apparent sincerity with which Bush displays his convictions while delivering their lines is a significant piece of his own very real genius. It is also the condition of his success. We will see if it gets him through the elections.

Alas, in the era of Empire Christianity, it does exactly what he intended to do all along: squeak by without any more support than absolutely necessary so as to minimize the quid pro quo in the aftermath. See Mark Schmitt for this point.

UPDATE: In case the reference to lead paint was not clear, I am referring generally to the Data Quality Act, which was inserted quietly into an appropriations bill by a Republican lawmaker near the end of the Clinton administration. It requires that government funded studies should be peer reviewed only by independent scientists. The problem is that "independent" means scientists who are not also funded by the government. As Kevin Drum notes (quoting Anthony Robbins' article in the Boston Globe),

To grasp the implications of this radical departure, one must recognize that in the United States there are effectively two pots of money that support science: one from government and one from industry. (A much smaller contribution comes from charitable foundations.) If one excludes scientists supported by the government, including most scientists based at universities, the remaining pool of reviewers will be largely from industry -- corporate political supporters of George W. Bush.

The net result of the DQA is to reduce the influence of academic scientists and increase the influence of industry-backed scientists under the Alice in Wonderland notion that academic scientists are somehow less trustworthy. In plain English, scientists who work for tobacco companies ought to be the ones to review cigarette research and scientists who work for chemical companies ought to be the ones to pass judgment on environmental research.


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