Jesus Loves You; Caesar and Mammon, Not So Much

Here are some recent scenes from American Christianity waiting on the rich and powerful in the hope of catching some table scraps. You got your Christian representatives of the Thing that Used to Be Liberalism in bed with millionaires bent on “tailoring the message” to the needs of pro-abortion zealots:

Correcting his initial comments denying the charge, Rev. Jim Wallis of the left-leaning Christian group Sojourners has acknowledged that his organization received grants from the Open Society Institute (OSI). Funded by the financial speculator George Soros, the OSI is a backer of many political causes including legal abortion and homosexual activism.

 

Marvin Olasky, a writer with the evangelical publication WORLD Magazine, had reported that Sojourners, an inter-denominational Christian organization which backs left-leaning political issues, received several hundred thousand dollars from Soros’ OSI.

In an interview with Timothy Dalrymple of the Patheos website, Wallis denied that claim. He compared Olasky to radio and television show host Glenn Beck who in Wallis’ view “lies for a living.”

“No, we don’t receive our money from Soros. . . . Our books are totally open, always have been. Our money comes from Christians who support us and who read Sojourners. That’s where it comes from.”

Tax documents show that Sojourners received a $200,000 OSI grant in October, 2004.

D’oh! Caught with your pants down, Rev. Wallis? That’s okay. Nobody was too surprised that Soros would bankroll you. The standard message of the Left since 1973 has been, “Pay no attention to those dead babies. What about the minimum wage?”

Speaking of the Soros payroll, you got your Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good disappearing without a trace, now that their only real mission — snookering suckers into thinking that supporting a guy who favors sticking scissors in a baby’s brain is some glorious expression of Catholic social teaching — is accomplished. Being a wholly owned subsidiary of Soros, they were, in fact, as real a Catholic social teaching apostolate as a Potemkin Village is a real city. Prattling on about how a guy who has no qualms with leaving a baby who survives an abortion to gasp out her last breaths, neglected and ignored on an operating table, while her murderer collects a fat fee from Planned Parenthood is just the sort of thing that truly true Catholics should be all about! But now that the job of fooling suckers is finished, the money has dried up, and our heroes at CACG, once as dedicated to social justice as Mother Teresa (according to them), are now presumably busy trawling inside the Beltway for new opportunities to doll up Christianity in a low-cut red number, spiked high heels, and fishnet stockings for the next Democrat candidate cruising for a good time.

 

But wait! That’s not all! You also got your baffling spectacle of Christians jumping in feet first to a rally on behalf of American Civil Religion and praying to whatever or whoever or whichever deity or deities might be out there, led by an apostate Catholic talk-show host gone Mormon — who believes the Constitution is divinely inspired, that any church that preaches social justice is secretly a Marxist or Communist front, that a planet called Kolob is the one closest to the throne of God, and that God the Father used to be a man.

Quite a number of Christian commentators are trying to figure out what on earth the purpose of the Restoring Honor Rally was supposed to be. But I think this is sort of like asking what the reasoning behind a mood swing is supposed to be. Reason was not on display to a great degree. What was on display was a great gush of politicized worship of a patriotic American god or gods (To Whom It May Concern? The Force? Insert Name Here?) who loves this country above all others and needs us to help him/her/them/it to make America work again.

This/These god(s) appear(s) very malleable, and it’s hard to say what he/she/them/it look(s) like for sure; but from what I can tell from Beck’s strange amalgam of divinized political theology, here he/she/them/it is, portrayed by a Mormon painter who very much shares Beck’s views. In this particular incarnation, the American god resembles Jesus (absent the other two gods, the Father and the Spirit, and without the (visible) helping hand of his kid brother Satan) and is surrounded by the Holy Company of Founding Fathers, saints, martyrs, special ops forces, astronauts, and congressmen as he separates the sheep and goats according to whether they obeyed the Word of the Sacred and Inspired Constitution. What could be more Catholic? What more biblical?

Beck, like a lot of Mormons, has a genius for spinning out secular messianic American narratives that rely on Christian patterns of creation, fall, and redemption and which tap into great reserves of Christian piety still fermenting American culture. Yet these largely emotional relics of a post-Christian civilization feed not on Christianity, but on moralistic therapeutic (and patriotic) deism. Such a desiccated religiosity bears about as much resemblance to actual Christianity as a smiley face does to the Mona Lisa, but it’s still enough to generate a charge that both baffled and stymied the MSM, which expected the rally to be political in a conventional way.

Indeed, one of the funniest and most delightful parts of the rally was watching old frauds like Al Sharpton flipping out about how it was an attempt to “hijack the Dream” of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — just as though Sharpton, along with shakedown artist Jesse Jackson, was not the great hijacker of the Dream in these United States. These two guys, along with a now well-organized establishment of federal teat-suckers and grafters, have done all in their power to take a movement that was originally rooted in a Christian vision of the dignity of the human person and turn it into yet another machine for harvesting personal wealth for themselves. Their transparent envy is betokened by nothing so much as the fact that, instead of celebrating that a largely white crowd was filled with nothing but admiration and enthusiasm for King, Sharpton instead staged a petty counter-rally in an attempt to keep dibs on his turf. Sharpton’s stab at making everything (yet again) a political quarrel about racism only showed how much it was, for him, about money and power. It was only fitting that Alveda King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece, should tell the old grifter, along with the usual suspects from the pro-abortion and gay zealotry arm of Lefty agitprop, to buzz off. She represents all that is good about the basic motivations of most Tea Partiers.

The problem is that Beck represents much of what is worst about the corporate interests trying to exploit the Tea Partiers. Whatever Alveda King’s rally was about, Beck’s rally was about a sort of politicized deism with a vaguely Evangelical candy coating, bought and paid for by a large corporation in bed with political masters who very much want to harness this energy for their own purposes. Oh sure, FOX wasn’t an official sponsor. But would anybody be going to Beck’s rally if he were still just working in a fifty-thousand-watt TV station in Minneapolis earning $60 a week and fired by a crazy dream? No, they went because he’s the current mouthpiece of a lot of money — rather like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.

 

And that’s the real problem. Mass media run by a few rich and powerful people — like a state controlled by a few rich and powerful people — gives us the illusion of a shared belief, even as they bend that passion to their own ends, like altering the course of a river with dikes. And so Christians could get enthused about the illusion of “unity” and the religious atmosphere of revival, as the crowd was urged to pray to Whom/Whatever in service of a vague American Greatness that has something or other to do with wars abroad, money at home, and feeling good about that. It’s why a rally that was supposedly about repentance and restoration wound up being a rally about nationalistic pride and feeling good about ourselves and our once and future power.

This odd mixture of revivalism and nationalism bleeds into another problem: namely, that so many people who start off looking for messianic hope from the actual Messiah wind up being steered into looking for secular messianic hope, just as Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good steered Catholics who think they obey Jesus into believing you can stick scissors in a baby’s brain and toddle off to Mass afterward, so long as you support a rich and powerful Obama.

So, for instance, Beck has famously hyperventilated over Woodrow Wilson as the proto-fascist president and made much of the fasces on the Mercury Dime as the very signature of the moment Things Went Wrong in America and the monstrous federal behemoth was born, bent on crushing state and local government in the service of a centralizing juggernaut of raw power. In response, the Tea Parties cheer and pray for the little guy (for whom I am all in favor of cheering and praying) and are all about protest against the growth of Leviathan inside the Beltway and the assertion of local rights outside it. As a Chestertonian, so am I.

So what does a decidedly un-little millionaire at the (ahem) beck and call of a giant media corporation propose as the solution to this centralizing tendency toward concentrating massive wealth and power in the hands of a state in bed with gigantic corporate interests?

Why, holding a giant rally — not in Poughkeepsie, Snohomish, or Bugtussle, but in Washington, D.C.! His message? Concentrate wealth, power, and trust in the hands of the GOP and FOX News, all while standing in front of the immense fasces decorating the Great Republican’s throne at the Lincoln Memorial and identifying himself and his followers with the one man who did more than anybody in American history to kill large numbers of Americans in order to ensure that the federal government would never again be troubled by uppity local governments talking about state’s rights.

Now to be clear, I side with Lincoln in the Civil War. I think the Union had to be preserved, and I think the slave economy the South fought for was morally indefensible. But let’s not kid ourselves that Woodrow Wilson is somehow the lone root of federalism’s centralizing tendency in American history, or that the glorification of robber-baron corporate interests somehow began with him. There’s a reason the GOP-dominated years after the Civil War were called the Gilded Age and that Leo XIII was compelled to write Rerum Novarum in response to the depredations of unfettered capitalist trusts of the late 19th century (and their radical leftist enemies).

In short, there’s a reason that the Church had to begin formulating a doctrine of social justice long before Wilson, and it was not, contra Beck, because social justice and economic justice are simply code words for Marxism and Communism (concepts Leo was not too keen on). It’s because the tendency of fallen man to want to concentrate wealth and power in his own hands in order to dominate others is not something that started with Wilson’s Democrats, or even with Lincoln’s Republicans, nor does it respect party lines today. Lincoln, Wilson, Barack Obama, and the Democrat-controlled Congress are on the same page when it comes to the conviction that Washington, D.C., is the great center around which all America must orbit. If it comes to that, so were George W. Bush and his Republican-controlled Congress that, in addition to keeping us at sub-Carthaginian levels of respect for human life, sank us deep into debt, created the foundations of a permanent security state at permanent war, and labored to expand the power of the executive branch so that President Obama would have a nice shiny tool for chipping away at more of the Constitution than Bush could destroy during his limited tenure.

That Beck either does not see or does not care about any of this as he cheers for our reckless Great Society project abroad while giving crank history lessons at home about America’s all-but-divine origins convinces me more than ever that trusting him as our messianic guide to the renewed Church of Latter Day Americanism is as sub-optimal a course for Catholics as trusting CACG or Al Sharpton’s scam.

Beck is not — any more than Sharpton, Wallis, or Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good — interested in a sensible implementation of Catholic social teaching or an evaluation of American history in light of sober Christian (that is, Catholic) teaching. Indeed, in his most famous public pronouncement on this subject, he declared, “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can.” So much for Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, Mater et Magistra, Centissimus Annus, and Caritas in Veritate. Beck locuta est; causa finita est.

 

Ah, but I can’t deny he’s got a point. As I just pointed out, outfits like Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good hide behind “social justice” bafflegab to gull suckers into voting for Obama.

Of course he has a point. All demagogues and false teachers rely on a piece of the truth to bait the hook. That’s the devil’s standard operating procedure. Even CACG had a point that the Iraq War was a stupid idea. And so it was: Condemned by not one but two popes and resisted by virtually all the bishops of the United States, the Iraq War was arguably the stupidest war of choice ever undertaken by these United States. We have yet to see the full catastrophic bill we and countless others will pay for it. CACG was perfectly right to be against it.

But that doesn’t mean it was a smart idea to take CACG’s word for it and vote for the guy who a) just lied about the end of combat in Iraq; b) has voted himself the unilateral power to murder anybody he pleases (including American citizens) without arrest, evidence, trial, or appeal; c) has increased troop levels in our fruitless nation-building Great Society Project in Afghanistan; and d) mysteriously owns a Nobel Peace Prize for being in charge of all this bloodshed.

In the same way, just because Beck is right that “social justice” can be a phony code word for Lefty enthusiasms does not in the slightest mean that there is no such thing as valid Catholic social teaching, nor that it is sound for Catholic conservatives to anoint Beck as more competent to talk about how to live out our faith in the public square than the Church is. That Beck has such a sizable Catholic following is an indictment of how poorly we Catholics have attempted to educate ourselves in the Church’s teaching and of the radical failure of imagination in catechizing American Catholics to think outside standardized media templates. It is from him, Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, and assorted talking heads with no actual interest in Catholic teaching (except what can be cannibalized as spare parts for Agenda Promotion) that your average Catholic media consumer (which is to say, your average Catholic) forms his or her conscience, not from the Church’s teaching.

Beck is — like Sharpton, Wallis, CACG, and the rest of our corporate media or state-sponsored talking heads — a wholly owned subsidiary of wealthy and powerful interests who have very definite things they would like you to think and do. These people are about ginning up a crowd in the service of the people who pay them a lot of money to gin up crowds (and maybe, while they’re at it, earning a few more million stampeding people into buying some gold from his sponsors at Goldline or shaking people down by panicking them into being sufficiently PC.)

Beck may or may not, like Network‘s Howard Beale, take himself seriously as a prophet (his erratic behavior makes it hard to tell). But the people who are paying the bills don’t care about that either way, and the people who are following him will be in for a rude awakening when he flames out or his ratings drop and his corporate sponsors do the full Conan O’Brien to him. When this happens, all Beck’s disappointed followers will be able to take a number in the “But we believed in him!” line, right behind the confused and disappointed people like George Packer, who were bewildered by Obama’s cynically dishonest “Mission Accomplished! Again!” speech:

What President Obama called the end of the combat mission in Iraq is a meaningless milestone, constructed almost entirely out of thin air, and his second Oval Office speech marks a rare moment of dishonesty and disingenuousness on the part of a politician who usually resorts to rare candor at important moments.

Translation: But, but . . . we trusted you! How can you say “combat is over” when we still have 50,000 troops and tens of thousands of contractors still getting shot at and blown up in Iraq? It’s like you are just another self-serving rich and powerful man and not our Savior!

Yes. Very like.

 

Here’s the deal, George (and sundry other believers in the trustworthiness of the immensely rich and powerful): Like everything else that happens with our Manufacturers of Culture in D.C., NY, and LA, the point is not serving the human person, but about amassing titanic amounts of money and power. As the Prophet Chesterton pointed out long ago:

I know that the most modern manufacture has been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle. I know that the most recent biologists have been chiefly anxious to discover a very small camel. But if we diminish the camel to his smallest, or open the eye of the needle to its largest — if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this — that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy. Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world. For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for a Christian) is not tenable. You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man. The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor.

The two engines in the strange prize fight/ballet between Corporate America and Statist America are the servants of Mammon and Caesar — sometimes working together, sometimes quarrelling, but always with a wary sense that the other is ultimately a rival and an enemy who needs to be enslaved, unless some final fusion can be found where the two shall become one flesh. And while these two elephants fight or dance together, it is always the grass that suffers.

The great tragedy of our time is not that the world presents us the servants of Mammon and the servants of Leviathan and says, “Choose one or both.” That’s what the world does. The great tragedy of our time is that we Catholics, who are supposed to trust in a God who is infinitely greater than both, go along with such a system and zealously defend it; receive its TV/radio/music/movies as the True, Good, and Beautiful; die for it; and kill for it. We once created a whole Christian civilization out of a pagan empire that wanted to destroy us. We founded universities and hospitals, established the sciences, renewed philosophy, built an artistic heritage unequaled in the world, and laid the basis for the self governance of free people. Now we crawl around the dinner table of post-Christian, neo-pagan Dives and hope to catch the table scraps of the likes of George Soros, Rupert Murdoch, and a few other rich men and women as we poleaxe one another for being insufficiently devoted to our Fave Rave pagan (or Mormon) leader of Team Mammon or Team Caesar. We trust these people more than we trust Christ and His Holy Church.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We remain free moral agents, and, as baptized Christians, we have the power of Christ to change ourselves and our world. It’s time Catholics began to try thinking outside the box again — as, for instance, Chesterton used to do. Jesus died for us. Caesar and Mammon generally prefer that everybody die for them. If we are to have a Master (and we seem bent on it), I prefer the former to the latter two.

Mark P. Shea

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Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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