A reading of an op-ed column by Catholic Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, of Denver, that appeared in the October 22 New York Times entitled (sic) “Faith and Patriotism,” as well as two previous columns and a speech of his from which it was generated, provokes this rebuttal:
After writing some things I agree with (1), Chaput dropped this bomb: “Exiling religion from civic debate separates government from morality and citizens from their consciences. That road leads to politics without character, now a national epidemic.”
I agree that we’re experiencing a contagion of political depravity, but why do so many people link decency to religious faith, failing to observe the sophisticated efficacy of principled skepticism or the life-enhancing possibilities of iconoclasm, apostasy and dissent?
Without religion morality still exists. But lacking morality, religion is invalid. The survival instinct generates morality to deal with the necessities of self-defense, for the reasonable payback (vice blowback) of freethinking self-respect, and the finer existential yield from being good for goodness’ sake. (2)
DEFINITION OF TERMS
Let me be clear: By morality I mean that reason which emerges from innate human conscience; by religion I mean the bureaucratic institutionalization (i.e.: rationalization) of faith and worship. Religion is merely a socialized, static rationalization of goodness; it is not goodness itself. It creates a symbolic hierarchy of an imagined or theoretical divine order based on revelation and faith that are ritualistically performed. If what its dogma claims to be God was real (i.e.: independently existing beyond its theology, rather than being virtual), it might be said that religion tends to confuse God’s image (e.g.: “man,” “word”), or the idea of God (e.g.: law, prophecy and the cross), with God itself. However, religion doesn’t deal with the nature of reality. Instead, it tries to administer human nature via authoritative language. By doing this, religion hopes to quantify God, justifying nature’s unsentimental ways by doling out rose-colored glasses to the justice-starved, rationale-feeding minds of its human flock, or its captive mass audience [pun intended], whichever you prefer.
NOW, WHY REALITY DOESN’T REALLY MATTER
The good bishop then drops another shell, grunting: “Patriotism, which is a virtue [my emphasis] for people of all faiths, requires that we fight, ethically and nonviolently, for what we believe…People should act on what they claim [my emphasis] to believe. Otherwise they are violating their own conscience, and lying to themselves and the rest of us.”
Now the irrational, even dishonest statements, which Chaput begins his column with, and I could manage to politely hold my tongue about—that those who say religious folks shouldn’t “impose their beliefs on society,” and cite the Constitutionally mandated separation of church and state, are “frequently dishonest” purveyors of “ultimately dangerous sound bytes;” that “pluralism” works by one “group imposing its beliefs on the rest of us,” and that such behavior is “not inherently dangerous;” and that by not participating in the public debate religious people “weaken it intellectually”—begin making sense.
Chaput’s philosophy is faith-based, not reason-based, and therefore kaput. He nonetheless asks “why should the rules of engagement be different for citizens who oppose” legal abortion, stem cell research or any other activity his religion deems evil? The rules, to the best of my knowledge, aren’t any different for them. Reason’s dialectical conventions seem slanted—from the perspective of pious fanatics—because the zealots have lost nearly every public debate over the fundamental nature of reality for the last 500 years. Their record speaks for itself; they’re losers, philosophically speaking. Reason eludes them because they won’t allow facts or the reality of others to pierce the armored coating of their faith. Until recently, the Church didn’t accept Galileo’s discoveries (though it had no problem with Columbus’s). It’s still grappling over the unique mode of its own wicked record of pedophilia, homophobia and Zionist realpolitik. (3) Yes, the Church is retarded when it comes to perceiving reality.
Furthermore, as Henry David Thoreau tersely writes about his Concord neighbors during the Mexican-American War, “Patriotism is a maggot in their heads.” (4) Patriotism is not a “virtue,” as Chaput would have it, because it makes people betray their private conscience, which is more valid to them than faithfully adhering to a dogma they know is false just to be viewed as a good citizen. When propriety replaces reason as a fundamental motivation, faith is needed to maintain one’s disastrous, chosen course. In a way, faith is a form of hubris, or overweening pride, if this is indeed the case.
SINS OF THE FALLEN
Consider, again, Chaput’s closing remark: “People should act on what they claim [my emphasis] to believe. Otherwise they are violating their own conscience, and lying to themselves and the rest of us.”
Is the good bishop casting stones from inside a glass house?
One might consider the philosophical inadequacies, nay the hypocrisy, resonating from Chaput's message, but first let’s consider the formative elements of any coherent, self-justifying system of human thought, belief or faith:
§ The existence of material reality must be represented the way people experience it, which requires great empathy and tremendous labor on the part of priest, shaman, philosopher, artist or whatnot. In other words, experience must jibe with what one’s being told about one’s psychic identity and material function, or purpose.
§ An overall sensibility and a particular, intellectually rigorous philosophy that exercises the most cognitively gifted and trusted human minds, validating it for those with other valued qualities within the group, must not only be allowed to evolve, but also nurtured into self-sustainable existence.
§ Truth and philosophy (or theology, art, fiction and even literary criticism for that matter) are recognized as oppositional realities. It’s best when adherents to truth have a lasting and profound ignorance of secular wisdom (i.e.: street smarts), though such qualities might be personally vital to them. Likewise, hipsters [sic] don’t worry about the truth because they know the truth takes care of itself. Philosophy is a seed of faith.
§ It answers, or shows how to answer, the questions life generates—persistent logic is consistently and reasonably addressed by its canon.
§ Faith must derive from a possible and philosophically coherent world; its usefulness need not correspond with the actuality of its assumptions so long as those assumptions do not provoke injustice. It is acknowledged that the implied metaphysics of any thought system is likely false, or at least not infallible, if mistaken for Nature’s (i.e.: God’s) own. (5)
Now let’s consider a few more of Chaput’s published remarks:
§ “In a knowledge economy, religion looks stupid. In an aristocracy of brains, faith is for suckers. We can see traces of this attitude toward organized religion as early as Jefferson and Franklin. But as America has become a world power in science and technology, mass media, wealth and economic influence, the confidence of her knowledge classes has grown…In their self-reliance and overconfidence, our thinking classes have seceded not just from the common world around them but from reality itself.” (6)
If one were cynical, one might think the Bishop replaced the subgroup “Americans of white European descent” with that of Christians.
§ “In rejecting its Christian identity, Europe has basically erased its own memory. In a hundred years Europe will be a radically different continent—and quite possibly Muslim, because Muslims continue to bear children, and in having children they claim the future.” (7)
§ “…The teacher should never lose sight of the fact that real freedom, Gospel freedom, is a very different creature from secular ideas of liberty, and choice for choice’s sake…Real freedom emerges from self-sacrifice, not self-assertion.” (8)
§ “Persons who reject God [are]…without beauty, without form, and without real freedom…That’s why we help God shape those whom we love…`Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations.’” (9)
§ “…trust in the authority of Scripture and the teachings of the Catholic faith; zeal to spread the Good News of the cross; and humility to put aside our own agendas and submit our wills to the guidance of the Church.” (10)
§ “…Western societies—many of them constituting the Christian world as we once knew it—are removing themselves from the future.” (11)
These statements reveal a worldview that is devoutly racist, irrational, imperialistic, dehumanizing and alienating to those perceived as unsaved and unclean, sadomasochistic in its self-hatred and hatred of others, and intentionally deceitful.
Consider this evidence of Chaput’s tenuous relationship with the truth for political expediency’s sake:
§ “The ethics of cloning, embryonic stem cell research and related technologies is simple. It’s the science that’s complex…Claims of impending miracle cures based on embryonic stem cell research are simply false. In fact, no such hope exists anywhere in the foreseeable future. The science involved doesn’t support the marketing campaign…As an example, [syndicated columnist Charles] Krauthammer cites Ronald McKay, a stem cell researcher at the National Institutes for Health, who has publicly acknowledged that stem cells as a cure for Alzheimer’s disease are a fiction, but that `people need a fairy tale.’” (12)
During an August 10 appearance, however, on PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer, McKay said:
“You can make beautiful neurons that work incredibly…There will be an absolutely overwhelming moral case for developing new policies as the technology demands different types of cells, different types of manipulation of the cell.”
Newshour correspondent Susan Dentzer reported that McKay’s research team mainly wanted to help those suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, where brain cells essential to the creation of neurotransmitters die off.
“McKay and his research team recently took stem cells from mouse embryos, then turned them into dopamine-producing [neurotransmitter] cells. You then put them back into the rats that had been engineered to have a form of Parkinson’s. What happened then?” Dentzer asked.
“Well, the rats, as it were, get better…our data show that the injured side recovers.”
Newshour also reported that McKay had proven human embryonic cells can also be transformed into neurotransmitters and that the “rapidly evolving science will drive policy change.”
Sounds to me like Krauthammer and the good Bishop are mistaken with regards to McKay. I’m sure it’s a simple misunderstanding. Oh yeah, they were talking about Alzheimer’s Disease, not Parkinson’s. Excuse me for twisting the facts. If I were cynical, I might surmise that Dr. McKay was dissing Alzheimer’s to enhance Parkinson’s in the eyes of the money dudes. But I’m not.
§ Writing in June 1999, about a New York Times article—“The Far Right Sees the Dawn of the Moral Minority,” published that February—focusing on how upset Christian conservatives were about President Clinton’s impeachment acquittal, Chaput states: “…I certainly don’t believe that separating ourselves from current American culture would solve anything. On the contrary: It would make matters worse. We cannot be leaven in society if we remove ourselves from the recipe…The Times article is still useful, though, in one important way: It reminds us that traditional Christian faith–the kind of faith you and I were raised on—may be less and less of a force in our society in the decades ahead. Christians may in fact be the `moral minority’ in the not so distant future. And that has very big implications for how we preach Jesus Christ and teach the Catholic faith. Fifty years ago, we could count on our culture reinforcing, or at least reflecting, our religious beliefs. We no longer have that luxury. And 50 years from now, the world will be even more drastically different.” (13)
Then, five years later, he writes: “Consider a few facts. Ninety-six percent of Americans believe in God; 90 percent pray; 93 percent of American homes have a Bible; roughly 80 percent of Americans describe themselves as Christian; and more than 40 percent of Americans attend church weekly—which, at least on the surface, makes the United States one of the most religiously devout countries in the world… Somewhere between 50 million and 80 million American Christians claim they’ve been `born again.’ Americans spend $4 billion dollars a year on CDs, books and bumper stickers honoring Jesus Christ. The Passion of the Christ made more than $600 million in the first six months of its release [will it be nominated for 60 Academy Awards?], most of it in the United States. Americans in 2004—and not only Christian Americans—remain a deeply religious people, not just in words, but also in practice. That doesn’t stop us from also being sinners and hypocrites. But it does mean that most of us draw the moral roadmap for our lives from our religious faith.” (14)
Boy, that’s a big shift in five years. Either Chaput had a dramatic turnaround, or the nation did. The interesting thing is, Chaput’s still a Republican and the country’s still on the same holy roller kick it’s always been on (though it’s certainly on an upswing lately). If one were cynical, one might think the Bishop replaced the subgroup Americans of white European descent with that of Christians. In 50 years, America’s not going to be lily white any more, though it will probably remain very Christian, and increasingly Catholic. As Catholicism spreads through the developing world, and those people come here and have lots of babies…well, you see the point. If one were cynical, one might think Chaput’s a closet racist, or just plain stupid.
But who’s cynical? Not me. I’m shocked an archbishop in the Catholic church would practice the categorical relativism evidenced above, allowing for the shifting of fundamental truths about a nation’s character dependent on what Christian white man is temporarily playing Caesar. Facts cannot dissuade the faithful, thank God. It fits the Ineffable’s purpose to see such malignant pests laid waste to reality. It’s called natural selection (no wonder they hate it).
About 4,500 years ago an Egyptian pharaoh was the first to dream up monotheism. Homo sapiens sapiens has existed about ten times that long. Earth has existed a million times that, and the universe, according to the latest guess, roughly 2.5 million times longer.
The fact is true morality will outlast human faith. It’s a natural, sacred law.
SIMPLE ANSWERS IN CONFUSING TIMES
Back to the original question: Why do so many people link decency to religious faith, failing to observe the sophisticated efficacy of principled skepticism or the life-enhancing possibilities of iconoclasm, apostasy and dissent?
Ironically, the answer may be in the Bishop’s own words:
“In an age of confusion, the Church is our only reliable guide. If today’s political environment shows us anything, it’s that public character and private virtue are disappearing from the vocabulary of civic life…We are entering an age which will have its own unique challenges…we need to form disciples in the decades ahead who are prepared for a world drastically different from anything in American memory…Western societies—many of them constituting the Christian [i.e.: white] world as we once knew it—are removing themselves from the future [by failing to multiply—too much contraception and abortion]…the assumptions which we’ve made, for most of our lives, about the shape of the future…well, they’re going to be wrong. Drastically wrong. The human story will remain the same, but the organizational terrain of human societies and institutions will not. And we can’t avoid much of what’s coming, both the good and the bad. If the entire developed world woke up from its death wish tomorrow…it would take decades to have any effect. More importantly though, if a society has freely chosen against life, does it make any sense to mourn it? Beyond a certain critical threshold, the human family might be better without such a society.” (15)
Chilling words indeed. Somewhere in the Bible, or at least Bob Dylan, there’s a line or two about what happens to those who pray for bad things to happen to others. Usually, the beseecher is unconscious of the fact she’s damning her own devil, and she’s gonna get what she’s been wishing on someone else.
Of course, much of what Chaput’s saying here is true, but the devil’s in the details. Chaput is limiting his framework not just to humankind (a common fault among secular humanists) or even Christians, but to Caucasian American Christians [or CACs] in particular. That’s pretty unambiguous, perhaps too specific for my taste.
Let’s replace CACs (pronounced cox?) with earthlings. I know that’s quite an expansion, but I prefer a big umbrella party. Human-centered philosophy gets pretty boring and dogmatic fairly quickly. Chaput’s remarks, thus translated and edited, might read:
In an age of confusion, Nature is our only reliable guide. If today’s political environment shows us anything, it’s that public character and private virtue are disappearing from the essence of civic life…We are entering an age that will have its own unique challenges…we need to inform individuals in preparation for the decades ahead, which will be drastically different from anything we were raised to expect from life…Residents of economically developed societies—many of them constituting white civilization as we once knew it—no longer wish to dominate the planet’s future and are, therefore, behaving according to their own private conscience, and reasonably lowering their fertility rates…the assumptions we’ve made about the shape of the future, based on an outmoded belief system, were drastically wrong. The human story, if it continues, will be severely altered, and new organizing principles will be needed to form new institutions that will adequately reflect, and relate, to the new reality. This is unavoidable; we will not be delivered from this evil. If the entire developed world woke up from its death wish tomorrow…it would take decades to have any effect. More importantly though, if a society freely chooses to kill off the global ecosystem—does it make any sense to mourn its passing? Beyond a certain critical threshold, the global family of Earthlings might be better off without the white man’s civilization, as it is now constituted.
Which analysis of the future—Chaput’s or mine—is closer to what you really think? Which one is truly Christian? What good is your knowledge under Chaput’s system? His answer, like Mel Gibson and our President’s, is that suffering is good because it puts us in touch with his vision of God.
So who’s really being ugly? If most of us were really honest with ourselves, we’d admit that life’s pretty complicated and it pays, if one’s responsible, to at least be a little skeptical regarding the things we’re being told by people with power.
The dirtiest secret of skepticism—everyone knows it leads to good intelligence—is that it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Once one is wise to the fact that honesty and power tend to be inversely proportional, that disconnect proves itself a mother lode of laughs.
Of course, nothing scares the old man more than being laughed at by his employees. Deep down he knows the insecurity of his position and has therefore learned how to secure it. That’s his secret. Your secret—and mine, of course—is our own radical dissent. C’est la vie. That’s the ghost running our machine.
But don’t listen to me, I’m not religious. What looms large from a distance, close up ain’t never that big. So trust yourself. (16) Fairly moral advice, don’t ya think?
And you didn’t even have to pay me for it; I just feel better now that I’ve given it to you.
Chuck Richardson is a freelance writer whose work is archived at www.bastardpolitics.com. His first book, Memos from Apartment 5, is now available in most online bookstores. © 2004 Copyright Chuck Richardson.
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1. I agree with Chaput
that, “Catholics have an obligation to work for the common good and the
dignity of every person,” but would extend dignity to every earthling. Life
isn’t merely human. I also agree with his statement that, “If religious
believers do not advance their convictions about public morality in public
debate, they are demonstrating not tolerance but cowardice.” I would extend
religious believers to everyone, whether they believe or not. Chaput is also
correct when he says “civil authorities are never exempt from moral
engagement and criticism, either from the church or its members.” Again, I
would extend that to everybody.