Friday, January 26, 2007

A Soundtrack for American History?

Jeff Sharlet’s most recent essay in Harper’s focuses on yet another front in the Religious Right’s strategy for the culture wars (in addition to the courts, the marriage altar, and science classrooms): U.S. history. At stake here is just how we narrate the story of the American experiment. The Right clearly sees the power of story, and Jon Meacham’s protests in American Gospel to the contrary, they remain committed to a story of biblical proportions—a tale of exiles and promised lands, exoduses and deliverance, cities on hills and New Jerusalems. I’m grateful for another one of Jeffrey Sharlet’s entertaining dispatches from the exotic world of Protestant fundamentalism, giving us a glimpse into the curricula of Christian madrasas located in homes throughout the nation.

I do have some minor reservations about Sharlet’s account—in particular, his suggestion that the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper is something of a progenitor of R.J. Rushdoony’s “dominionist” theocratic project. This is mistaken and over-reaching on at least two counts:

First, while Kuyper did articulate a critique of the sacred/secular distinction, particularly as inherited from the Enlightenment, as well as the liberal notion of “neutrality” in a supposedly secular public square, his critique did not entail any pretension to theocracy. This is because of a central theme in his thought: the notion of “sphere sovereignty” which carefully and rigorously distinguished between the proper realms of authority for the state, the church, commerce, and other spheres. One might suggest this is a kind of Dutch rendition of the “wall of separation.”

Second, we can look at Kuyper’s own practice. As prime minister of the Netherlands, Kuyper’s vision translated into a robust pluralism that has never really been entertained in the United States, not even by the left (taken as they are with the benighted notion of a “neutral” public discourse).

But this is perhaps a bit of a marginal skirmish. More importantly, Sharlet’s piece pushed me to a musical meditation: for the past week I’ve been ruminating on Buddy Miller’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s “With God on our Side,” on Miller’s Universal United House of Prayer album. (You can listen to Miller’s version here.) Tracking the rhetoric of divine sanction of American conflicts—from Puritan violence against Native Americans up to the nuclear age—Dylan interrogates just the claim made by the Religious Right’s version of history: the persistent refrain of “God on our side.” Stand-alone lyrics don’t do justice to the mournful lament, but the song opens:

Oh the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh the country was young
With God on its side.

The refrain continues through the Revolution, Spanish-American war, up through 20th-century conflicts. But just when this starts to sound like an anthem for manifest destiny, the lyrics take a turn, and conclude thus:

In a many dark hour
I've been thinkin' about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can't think for you
You'll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.

So now as I'm leavin'
I'm weary as Hell
The confusion I'm feelin'
Ain't no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God's on our side
He'll stop the next war.

I think the song should be required listening in 7th grade history classes across the country (one could hope it might be listened to by some home schoolers, too!). Dylan’s and Miller’s is a very different story about God’s role in U.S. history—one with a prophetic heritage.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Where's Hitchens on Carter?

Christopher Hitchens has, notoriously, come to a kind of tepid "defense" of the work of David Irving, who is in turn notoriously charged as a Holocaust denier, or at least revisionist. (See "The Strange Case of David Irving," in Hitchens, Love, Poverty, and War.) Hitchens' willingness to even have his name appear in a sentence containing Irving's stems, I think, from Hitch's long-standing advocacy for the Palestinians and thus his willingness to thus toy with something very few American intellectuals will touch: a critique of Israel.

So I find myself waiting for Hitchens to say something about "the Carter affair"--the controversy generated by Carter's new book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. (The NY Times reports today on a number of advisors to the Carter Center resigning over the book.) Granted, Carter is not one of Hitchens' favorites, but neither is he any kind of admirer of Irving. I think Hitchens owes us an intervention on the issues here.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Carbon Credits: Cheap Grace?

The Martin Marty Center's Sightings post for today is a brilliant piece by Elizabeth Musselman on carbon offsets as the new "indulgences"--a mode of cheap grace that assuages guilt without requiring any change of lifestyle (sort of like the Bush plan to find new drugs for the American addiction to oil, rather than curtail the addiction). The piece is not yet archived on the website, so I'll paste it here:

Carbon Offsets: The New Indulgence? -- Elizabeth Musselman

"Feeling guilty about all those greenhouse gases you generate?" Morning Edition host John Ydstie asked listeners of Martin Kaste's recent National Public Radio story on the thriving carbon offset businesses in the United States. "There may be a way to get out of that eco-guilt, if you're willing to pay." Here's how it works: With the computational help of a website sponsored by the nonprofit organization The Climate Trust, American energy consumers can now compute exactly how much carbon dioxide we emit into the atmosphere every year and then invest proportionally into a company that provides programs to reduce carbon emissions elsewhere in the world. The calculating mechanism enables the energy consumer to donate just enough money to help the company offset the exact amount of pollution generated by that consumer's lifestyle -- no more, no less. Thus, we can continue to drive our SUVs and turn up the heat in the winter without guilt, because by engaging in this financial transaction that Kaste calls "atmospheric penance" we can be reckoned as "carbon neutral."

Guardian commentator George Monbiot compares carbon offset programs to sales of indulgences in medieval Europe. Citing the worst abuses of indulgences (such as the sale of pardons for incest and murder), Monbiot identifies three problems with carbon offset programs. They encourage people to continue to emit carbons now in exchange for the possibility of reduced carbon emissions in the future (and any scientist will admit that an ounce of carbon saved next year isn't as ecologically valuable as an ounce of carbon saved today). Further, they eliminate the sense of guilt that might drive energy consumers toward earth-saving lifestyle and policy changes. Finally, they are simply too little too late. "You can now buy complacency, political apathy, and self-satisfaction. But you cannot buy the survival of the planet." Is Monbiot a modern-day Martin Luther figure, heroically railing against the sale of false ecological salvation to save us from the eschatological terror of environmental collapse? Or should we all purchase carbon offsets after reading this article? Perhaps the answer to both questions is "yes."

Monbiot's easy identification of carbon offsets with indulgences is too simple. As Luther pointed out, indulgences targeted the poor, often keeping salvation-hungry peasants from feeding their families (see the 46th of Luther's 95 Theses). Today, those who feel the most immediate effects of our environmental crisis are the poorest citizens of the world. So in our case, the poor are better off if we do everything we can to slow the impending environmental doom -- which includes financially supporting carbon offset programs. And remember Luther's claim (see thesis 82) that if the Pope really had the power to spring souls from purgatory he should automatically save everyone rather than only those who pay? Similarly, if our financial contributions can really reduce global climate change, shouldn't we automatically contribute everything we can, regardless of how much CO2 we personally emit? But it would still not be enough. Carbon offsets alone won't save our earth from burning any more than indulgences could have saved souls from burning. It is clear that Luther and Monbiot agree on one thing: The reality of sin (read: greed and complacency) makes any simple human effort toward salvation (read: environmental restoration) a mere drop in the bucket. It would take ten billion dollars a year to return the United States to its 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Even if that could be accomplished, we would still need to change radically the way we live and consume in order to prevent the disaster that many scientists say is now inevitable. Should we donate money to help fund the capture of methane gases on Mexican pig farms and the creation of windmills in India? Yes. Should we stop driving so much? Yes. Should we buy locally? Yes. Should we lobby for policy changes? Yes. The list goes on and on.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that it was near the end of a 2,000-mile solo driving trip that I first heard the NPR story about carbon offsets. Feeling guilty, this theologian and future pastor drove the rest of the way home, donated money to a company that reduces carbon emissions, took the train to school the next day instead of driving -- and then promptly returned to her normal lifestyle. Apparently, it will take more than a temporary feeling of eco-guilt to change my driving habits. And it will take more than carbon offsets for us to save ourselves from the sins of complacency and consumerism that threaten the future of our planet.

Martin Kaste's National Public Radio story "'Carbon Offset' Business Takes Root" (November 28, 2006) can be listened to online at:
The Climate Trust's carbon offset website can be found at
George Monbiot's Guardian article "Selling Indulgences" (October 18, 2006 ) can be accessed at:
Luther's "95 Theses" can be found in Luther's Works: American Edition, vol. 31, ed. Harold Grimm.

Elizabeth Musselman is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a candidate for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

"No Iraqi Left Behind?"

It seems to me that the President's woefully inadequate proposal for "winning" in Iraq is like a band-aid on a severed jugular. And the logic of the "benchmarks" for Iraqis sounds remarkably similar to the vaunted moralisms of the "No Child Left Behind" Act translated into a foreign policy.

The Council on Foreign Relations provides a helpful panel reaction to last night's speech (though Michael Gerson's contribution is almost laughable in its deference to the administration). Other contributions, however, are insightful yet balanced. To pick just one snippet, Max Boot notes the following:

Based on classic counterinsurgency calculations (1 soldier or policeman per 40 or 50 civilians), pacifying Baghdad, a city of 6 million people, requires a force of some 150,000. The beefed-up U.S. force in Baghdad still will be less than 40,000 strong.

Gerson, on the other hand, praises a "realistic plan," and lauds the President for being "unimpressed by the conventional foreign policy wisdom" (!). In this way Gerson extends the fundamental anti-intellectualism of this President, who glories in rejecting the "conventional wisdom" of science as well.