20 January 2017

Gospel American-Style: A Brief Retrospective of the Past Generation

Whew. Another contentious Inauguration Day come and gone (though we all know the testiness will continue).

Also, dare I add, most likely an historic, turning-point inauguration. And hopefully in ways more good than bad. As always, only God will tell (provided we listen, of course).

And so I'd like to begin my own nod to the event, in my perverse fashion, with a brief counter-intuition concerning our new president's two predecessors, plus their almost-successor. And in particular what all three of them had in common.

Counter-intuitive enough, right? If not downright stupid. First off because, whatever one might say - for, against, or even neutrally - about our outgoing president and his predecessor, the one most common surface impression might be that, God knows, the two fellows had little enough in common. I mean, seriously, Bush and Obama: Depending on your bias, what's not to trust, in the case of the one? or not to loathe, in the case of the other? Almost an open-and-shut case of political light and darkness, no?

Consider the typical media-driven scenarios:
A) One president rather disastrously overplaying an already decent American hand in the World's Great Poker Game, followed by the other's very sensible retreat and retrenchment. Or, conversely,
B) one president's far-from-illegitimate attempt, in the face of arduous difficulties and setbacks, to uphold US prestige in the world, and even his success at restoring a modicum of that prestige before leaving office - all wasted, practically thrown away in fact, by the timidity and PCness of his successor.

What neither of these assessments tells us, though, is how our two most recent presidents saw themselves, and what they were trying to do. And in particular how they may have taken themselves seriously, in a way that did not necessarily puff them up, but rather drove home to them the gravity of their presidential responsibilities, and how those ought to be executed. Least of all do the indictments tell us how these two presidents understood themselves to be living their respective religions.

And yes, I know how laughable this is sure to sound to folks on either side of the fence. But I also know something else, that I'm all but certain of. Because I have little doubt that Bush and Obama both considered themselves to be (albeit in very different, if not opposite ways) serious Christians of one kind or another. No doubt, too, they were regarded as such by many of those who knew them most closely and sympathetically. The same might even be argued, however loosely, of the losing candidate in this past election: that, however many corners had to be cut, or characters compromised - or even lives lost?- along the Dirty Road of Politics, Mrs Clinton was in the main trying to follow what she understood to be her evolving (some might say a little too wildly evolving) Christian conscience, in the political arena.

Anyhow, now they're all out, presidentially speaking. And if there's One Current Public Figure who has somehow managed to triangulate - to stand in equally bold contradistinction to - all three of these quite distinct political personalities, it's the guy who's just come in. Mr Trump has been accused, and no doubt will go on being accused, of a good many serious things over as many years. But, so far anyways, tripping over himself in the effort to follow an overly severe (or even an over-sanctimonious) Christian conscience has not been one of them.

Whether that will somehow prove a point in his favor remains to be seen. Big History is seldom less than strange. Indeed, if Mr Trump's recent campaign - and even more his inaugural speech - is any augury, at least the appearance of an active Christian conscience is something he may be in process of acquiring. But before we rush to judge it all pretense or rhetoric, keep in mind two points no less true for being clichés: Sometimes a man or woman can rise to an occasion - and even do a good job of it; at other times the occasion can (re)make the man. Either way we can at least hope and pray.

Meanwhile, again, here we are with one more first-term inauguration under our belts. So naturally I thought this as good a time as any to look back, maybe even try and take stock of where we've been for roughly these past 25 years.

Or at any rate where I've been. Because, for at least a generation now, I've been getting the message that the United States is, like, easily, hands-down, no-contest, dude! - the most Christian nation on earth. Or rather we were, somewhat loosely in spirit if you will (if not in precise letter of orthodoxy) - ("Everything was going JUST FINE!") until a certain Donald Trump came along. Or Barack Obama. Or George W Bush. Or Bill Clinton. Or ___________ (fill in your presidential villain of choice).

But there's a further message I've been getting. And it's one I find even more curious. It is that, in particular, the things about us that are most, if you will, contentiously - or even cantankerously - American, are also the things that make us most distinctively Christian. And even that may be true, I suppose, depending on one's definition of Christian (=Scots-Irish Presbyterian?). Indeed, I wonder if the whole question wouldn't prove a richly rewarding field of study: - i.e., to explore how far a certain deeply cultural strain of American Calvinism may have fueled and radicalized, say, both sides of our Civil War. How, for instance, certain elements on both fronts may have been equally (violently) convinced that the Bible, on the one side, unequivocally condemned and denounced chattel slavery, and on the other, just as unequivocally sanctioned and defended it. And that either way, the right way to go was to get fighting mad about whatever God was defending or denouncing.*

* I don't doubt that one side was right to get fighting-mad in its attack upon slavery. But what if the other side had been less fighting, less Biblically sure in its defense?

Nor does every real moral difference - or even moral ordeal (abortion, to name just one) - always justify dragging a country to the brink of civil war. In our case, historians might do well to ask whether a certain strain of righteous combativeness in our makeup hasn't played its considerable part, not only in unifying our impact on the world stage, but in dividing and, at times, even savagely polarizing us domestically. As for whether, if true, this colorful heritage has made us more Christian - that, again, depends on one's definition of the word. Some may argue, correctly enough, that our Lord most definitely knew how to "raise hell" with the Pharisees, and even to tell 'em where to get off, on more than one occasion. I hardly know that that justifies you or me, as good red-blooded Yanks, treating every other person we meet as a potential or prospective Pharisee - or other spiritual bully. If that's our crusade, we might want to start, as the saying goes, by looking first in the mirror. These days I seem to notice, more and more, how the measure of a serious Christianity - Right or Left - is taken to consist of: (1) a heaven-sent sureness of one's own position; (2)  an equally sure knack for demonizing one's opponent. All of which gets me to feeling just the least bit queasy.

Indeed, about all I can say with any conviction is: If rock-ribbed, granite-jawed, feisty, ornery, defiant, cantankerous, take-no-crap-from-nobody Americans (and really, aren't we all - in one degree or other - Scots-Irish in spirit nowadays?) are the quintessence of what it means to be Christian, then Scarlett O'Hara was hands-down the greatest Christian fictional character of modern times. And Heaven and Hell must be something like first cousins.

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