Neither idiots nor useful: Our politically underachieving liberal churches

In suggesting that liberal churches are neither idiots nor useful, I’m purposely implying a stark contrast with churches whose members are useful idiots.

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Image Credit: Tom Talks

Some merited malice for religious useful idiots

Readers familiar with political put-downs will instantly recognize the pun on “useful idiots” in my title. In suggesting that liberal churches are neither idiots nor useful, I’m purposely implying a stark contrast with churches whose members are useful idiots. To wit, politically right-wing churches affiliated with the Republican Party, but especially the “rapture-ready” Christian Zionists among them eager to bring on Armageddon. Besides more left-leaning politics, a distinguishing characteristic of liberal churches, as I use the term here, is a strong sense of moral obligation to indefinitely postpone the civilization-ending catastrophe right-wing religionists so rapturously crave.

Now, if any proof is needed that rapture-ready folk are useful idiots, it’s that their current political allies undeniably regard them as such. In religious terms, it’s hard to see anything the potty-mouthed, lying, pussy-grabbing Trump has in common with them – except for belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, bullying, authoritarian deity – which in Trump’s case seems strangely identical with himself. That buffoonish deity aside, a friend of mine wittily characterized Trump as “too worldly even to be an atheist.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any question as weighty as God’s existence or nonexistence finding available neurons – unless they were rentable for a “yuge” fee – in Trump’s greedy, frivolous, flighty brain.

Nor do rapture mavens fare any better with their Jewish Zionist allies of convenience. Indeed, given the hell-fire they gleefully prognosticate for Jews who haven’t cozied up to Jesus, it’s really hard to see how they could. Trump’s puppet master Netanyahu (decidedly not Putin; see here and here) easily out-Trumps Trump for icy-blooded cynicism, and it’s almost delicious to imagine his offstage malice toward his current Christian Zionist “best buds.”

For liberal churches, usefulness means prophetic witness

Having marinated in leftist politics far longer than liberal religion, I clearly find it challenging to muster any Christian love – or, more relevantly, any Unitarian Universalist love – for Trump or his Christian Zionist useful idiots. The nagging reminder that I should try is a saving grace of liberal churches, and probably one of the prodding intuitions that caused me for several years to attend, and then finally to join, the Unitarian Universalist (UU) church last year.

The hope that living as a UU will somehow make me a better human being and perhaps paradoxically, a more effective leftist – sustains my not-always-comfortable choice to join the ranks of the “churched.” Since fellow leftists generally feel toward churches of any sort what vampires must feel toward garlic – or more to the point, holy water – I intend to defend here the immense leftist political potential (for now, mostly untapped) of liberal churches. For the sense that political leftists and liberal churches desperately need each other is my driving impetus in writing.

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Ironically, the latent feature of liberal churches most essential to furthering leftist aims is prophetic witness. Now, there’s a term so unapologetically religious as to make any secular leftist in good standing squirm (if not seize up epileptically) with intellectual discomfort. But I absolutely insist on the term. To cite the Laura Nyro song lyric that opened this piece, “I’ve got fury in my soul/And fury’s gonna take me to the glory goal.” That liberal religion can sustain in its adherents a fierce-flaming fury against injustice – without inciting a killing fury beyond all reconciliation – strikes me as today’s topmost selling point for liberal religion.

In 1932, America’s preeminent Protestant theologian and social critic, Reinhold Niebuhr, published his groundbreaking book Moral Man and Immoral Society. In Niebuhr’s own words, that book’s project (as timely now as ever) consists in “analyzing the moral resources and limitations of human nature’’ in order to “find political methods which will offer the most promise of achieving an ethical social goal for society.” When I stress Niebuhr’s timeliness, what I especially mean is how powerfully his insights – those of a purely amateur (if extremely well-read) social psychologist – complement the more research-based revelations of “hot” contemporary psychologists of religion and politics like Jonathan Haidt and Jordan Peterson.

Now, my interest in the controversial Haidt – and worse, the still more controversial Peterson – is hardly calculated to endear me to fellow leftists; in fact, it’s likelier to get me excommunicated from their ranks. But the point here is that I’m not calculating, but simply embracing insights the Left ignores at the exorbitant price of its effectiveness. The marginal roles both leftist and liberal churches play in current politics should warrant substantial openness to what I offer here: some fresh, promising insights involving considerable discomfort for both. But since when was prophetically castigating a society fatally wedded to catastrophe ever comfortable?

What moral resources are available to save civilization?

Readers should understand the previous section as kitchen prep work for social analysis; the increasingly substantial courses of my analytic meal lie in this essay’s remaining sections, both here and in Part 2.

So, I identified liberal churches’ potential usefulness to our society as offering prophetic witness; and I described that prophetic witness as “a fierce-flaming fury against injustice—without inciting a killing fury beyond all reconciliation.” Indeed, that particular description is crucial to my case; and I named Niebuhr, Haidt, and Peterson because I intend to explain our current, crying need for liberal-church prophetic witness (as so described) by drawing on their thought.

On a reduced scale, the remainder of this essay updates the aims of Niebuhr’s classic Moral Man and Immoral Society for our own troubled times. It attempts to “analyze[e] the moral resources and limitations of human nature,” and then marshal those resources to address the political crisis of an era even more perilous than Niebuhr’s. For as Paul Jay reminds us (in the video linked to previously), the threats we humans now face are truly “existential.”

Indeed, the word existential provides an excellent launch pad for discussing the social psychology that so strongly valorizes prophetic witness in our times. Now, the title of Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life initially suggested to me the usual pop psychology self-help garbage; however, some browsing of his YouTube video titles revealed his interest in Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, neither exactly a staple of lightweight pop psychology, and both widely considered precursors of existentialist philosophy. Intrigued, I watched a few videos and realized Peterson was wrestling with a problem, common to Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, with which I too had long wrestled: how to find moral meaning in a world that had largely lost its faith in the religious sources that had traditionally taught and grounded such meaning. Peterson immediately earned credit with me by emphasizing that Nietzsche’s notorious “God is dead” passage is no triumphant declaration of juvenile atheism, but a profound intuition into a major, dawning crisis of social psychology. An existential problem that, in Peterson’s view and mine, still haunts us to this day.

Now, what gives our current existential crisis of moral meaning extra urgency and poignancy is precisely our facing the existential threats of nuclear and climate Armageddon. With humanity facing potential extinction – or, at minimum, the destruction of human civilization as we know itthe future may depend entirely on how much value we attach to the whole human enterprise. Pretty clearly, neither the de facto moral nihilism of Trump and his fellow “live for today” capitalist oligarchs, nor the science denial and “bring it on” attitude toward Armageddon of their Christian Zionist useful idiots, offers any bulwark against onrushing apocalypse. Quite the contrary.

So we must seek among moral resources that are neither indifferent moral nihilism nor gung-ho “Armageddonism” if we wish to maintain any realistic hope of saving human civilization. But at the same time, the need moral resources must allow for the full embrace of science while overcoming the “God is dead” problem of moral meaning as sketched by Nietzsche. The two chief contending moral resources I find left are secular humanism and prophetic liberal religion, and I’ve already expressed my strategic preference for prophetic liberal religion. I’ll devote the rest of Part 1, and a substantial portion of Part 2, to explaining in detail why.

Overview: Why liberal prophetic witness trumps secular humanism

To be clear, the crisis humanity faces is that the U.S. government, along with a significant portion of powerful Western governments, is under the iron control of capitalist oligarchs whose selfish agendas are at odds with the very survival of human civilization. As summary evidence, I’d offer the previously linked video by the Real News Network’s Paul Jay; from a more purely economic perspective, I’ll add a superb talk by Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis. So, saving human civilization (if it’s still possible) involves uniting large masses of people and mustering their moral energy to fight and topple from power those deeply entrenched oligarchs.

And let’s add that the required mass uprising almost certainly needs to be peaceful, for the oligarchs in question possess the world’s most powerful spies, armies, police, and arsenals – including biological, chemical, and even nuclear weapons. Beyond this sheer repressive force, the oligarchs possess powerful, consolidated news media: media capable of morally discrediting any mass movement imprudent enough to prod oligarch’s lethal state killing force into action by its own violence.

So the moral resource supporting the needed mass revolt must be 1) a potent source of moral energy, 2) capable of commanding widespread allegiance, and 3) resolutely peaceful. To which we should add: 4) prone to arrive at precisely the diagnosis of our political ills cited by Jay and Varoufakis. While a peaceful revolt uniting secular humanists and prophetic religious liberals is certainly conceivable and desirable, prophetic liberal religion seems demonstrably superior to secular humanism as a moral resource for organizing needed revolt in terms of all four tests just listed.

Applying those four tests, Part 2 of this essay will demonstrate in detail the superiority of prophetic liberal religion to secular humanism as a potentially civilization-saving moral resource. It will then explain why liberal churches have failed to live up to their vast prophetic potential, and will end with some recommendations for how they might do so.

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