The United States is by no means an official theocracy, but for anyone still awake, the writing is on the wall. Democracy has become a razor thin veneer of theatre in a modern age of religious zealots playing politics. The 115th United States Congress is nearly 92% Christian with only two Republican members identifying as non-christian. Religious diversity among Democrats fares better with 19% of members identifying with a faith other than Christianity. Even if the brand of invisible being to which our leaders subscribe isn’t enough scare you, look no further than your own pocket for the inspiring words “In God We Trust” engraved on the currency of our nation.
So, okay—the majority of American leaders are white and Christian. So what? White Jesus is a pretty cool guy. Putting aside the hippie hair, sandals, and cultural appropriation, what’s wrong with government leadership that embraces the teachings of an (allegedly) benevolent being? Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with a little Jesus in our political lives, though, gaping discrepancies between the Christ’s views on charity and caring for the poor leave much to be desired in the ways of Republican policy. But hypocrisy aside—it’s a fine idea.
What’s completely uncool about the union of church and state are the horrific pitfalls discovered by those who left Europe centuries ago in search of liberation from that very paradigm. In the words of John Mayer, “Belief is a beautiful armor, it makes for the heaviest sword.” And therein lies the danger; belief does not require rational thought nor empirical evidence to justify its integrity or employment—the very fundamental prerequisites of just government rule. Self-reinforced sanctioning from a divine— and literally unknowable source—leaves little room for reality-based checks and balances to curb bias and force accountability. If repeating the horrid mistakes of a dark age past weren’t so terrifying, it might almost be funny; it’s curious to imagine that the founding father’s of our nation, having long sought freedom from the oppressive religious monarchs and oligarchs of Europe, might wake to find their descendants having established a similar system of rule.
Self-Loathing and the Death of Empathy.
It wasn’t until college that I realized Christianity wasn’t really working for me. I knew all the songs and special moves, and proved adept at successfully rationalizing centuries of bloody murder in the name of mother church. And yet, somehow, I still felt empty, apathetic, and powerless. Where was the light from within promised by weekly diatribes about the innate evils of humankind? And who knew that incessant chastisement could lead to a fashionable sense of self-loathing year over year? Shocking.
As it turns out, guilt, shame, and fear aren’t all that great for motivating a genuine sense of good will and empathy for others. And how could they be, really? How we interact with the outside world and others is a reflection of our relationship with and feelings about ourselves. In this way, having empathy and forgiveness for oneself is the natural prerequisite for empathizing with others. That’s the kind of common sense knowledge that has traversed time and expresses itself in cultural axioms like: “You’ve got to love yourself first before you can truly love someone else” and “Those who are hardest on themselves are hardest on others.”
Conjuring the demeanor necessary to forgive and embrace others while wallowing in loathsome self-repudiation is a near impossibility. Christianity achieves this psychic impasse by instilling within its followers a cleverly hidden and intense self-focus. Such religious doctrine is the original master of existential conflict, undermining its proposed goal of genuine selfless empathy and love toward others by not only failing to provide the basic constituents of their makeup, but by installing an experience which demands an unrelenting focus on the self and its preservation. I use the word “genuine” as a means to highlight the system by which religiosity generates good will and acts of kindness: by fear.
Fear is a primal trigger that can topple even the most advanced moral development. That’s because free will isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—easily high-jacked for the higher purpose of self-preservation. When faced with imminent and excruciating death, running and screaming are not best characterized as being acts of free will. And so, with enough pressure, free will folds to the demands of preserving the self. This is especially the case with the inner abstract self rather than the physical self, as the ego is the primary negotiator of consciousness, and therefore, cannot extract itself from reality.
Sadly, free will under the watchful eye of a vengeful and narcissistic creator feels a bit more like the marketing tool for a bait-and-switch parlor trick rather than genuine proof of liberation. For fear of fire and brimstone, the philosophical conundrum comes full circle as acts of contrition and good will become inextricable from the threat of punishment. The resulting paradoxical culture is the effect of a reward system which demands an ultimate focus on the self and its preservation from the wrath of its creator—the opposite of selflessness.
Let me make note here of exception. It’s true that we possess the power of choice, the power to be genuine and selfless. And to be clear, this critical deconstruction does not mean to imply that all Christians and the affiliated political right are devoid of empathetic action in the best interests of others—I’m merely trying to explain why the majority of self-identifying Christian leaders don’t practice what they preach.
Eden and Politics of Empathy.
Both the gravity and veracity of Christian bias in U.S. politics had taken on a new dimension for me while reading a brilliant article in the New York Times. The author, Robert Leonard, recounts the elucidating rhetoric of Baptist minister J.C. Watts:
“The difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good.”
While Mr. Leonard goes on to aptly characterize the nature of rural American voters, what he doesn’t seek to answer is the origin of this fundamental belief and by what specific means it’s conveyed and preserved.
Much can be understood about the beliefs and subsequent actions of a people through the stories of their religious doctrine. These are the narratives upon which cornerstone ideological guidance is disseminated. And for Christians, no story is as indispensable as that of Adam and Eve and the scandalous act of “original sin” which took place in a setting of utter perfection. Here, the perfection of Eden holds significant power for understanding the context of modern empathy as we see it expressed by government leadership and policy.
Having empathy for others is an experience inextricably bound to our perceptions of personal responsibility and environmental circumstance. When bad things happen, a portion of responsibility is allotted to both the person and their environment. In the event that significantly more fault is found with the person, empathy is forbidden; if the environment is found to have created circumstances which adversely affected the behavioral response of the person, empathy is permitted. Yet more important than the assignment of responsibility are the ideals and beliefs which guide that process. In the case of many Christians, the narrative of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden provides a continuity of very specific values which guide their expression of modern empathy.
In representing a perfect environment both in the abstract and literal interpretations for Christians, Eden sets the stage for the ultimate case of personal responsibility. In the scientific community, this is known as a controlled variable. Wanting for nothing—all needs being met at all times—Adam and Eve cannot draw empathy for the repercussions of their misdeeds because they alone are the source of the outcome, and thus, the inherent evil of humankind is established without question.
These are the guiding principals behind modern right-wing policies seemingly void of empathy for the poor and disadvantaged: all environments are perfect because they are created by God and God is perfect; any and all unfavorable circumstances are part of God’s plan, and because God is perfect, no circumstances are subject to blame for any adverse outcomes; thus, any and all adverse outcomes rest solely on the responsibility of the person.
Think about it. What if God was fallible, had fallen asleep at the wheel and forgot to bring in the harvest? What if all the trees, bushes, and fruits of the garden had spoiled or failed so that the only edible thing was fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. We might then be more empathetic toward Adam and Eve’s disobedience when faced with the reality of their hardship and starvation.
But when you subscribe to a doctrine in which all human beings are innately evil, the result is a narrow view of where human behavior comes from, one in which the incalculable precariousness of one’s environment plays no part. There’s a reason why the Garden of Eden represents the epitome to perfection, void of all deficiency: to be anything less would invite the possibility that, perhaps, the origin of human deeds don’t always come from within. This is in great contrast to the story of evolution, where one’s choices are expected to depend upon the surrounding environment, and to survive is no sin. The inescapable conclusion would then be that both Adam and Eve are worthy of empathy. Yet, a hard-line assignment of 100% personal responsibility only works if the Garden of Eden is perfect and God is perfect.
The evil of humankind is a story deliberately fashioned to corner personal responsibility as the only possible keystone of all things bad. Humanity’s vulnerability becomes a mockery by extension of this philosophical investment, where external contributors are ridiculed, ignored, and quickly condemned under the banner of “excuses”.
The reflection of such Christian values can be seen in the ideals of free market capitalism and the facade of meritocracy. We see this most adamantly expressed in the political ideology of conservative Christians on the right and alt-right: poor people aren’t poor because of crumbling infrastructure, corporate greed, and the prison industrial complex; poor people are poor because of themselves, because of the choices they’ve made. And so like Adam and Eve, there’s no empathy for people in bad situations, because in the continuity of Christian values, people deserve what they get and what they get is what they deserve.
Perhaps the most interesting effect of this philosophical paradigm is that the craziness works both ways and produces a conveniently justifiable upside for those of privilege. If poor people aren’t allowed to blame their circumstances or environment for their misfortune, the rich and privileged don’t have to give credit to chance or the wealth of their fathers for any and all accomplishments and good fortune gleaned by association. This is why the ruling class cannot imagine their success to be anything but the inevitable result of themselves; it’s also why they have zero empathy for anyone less fortunate. It’s a self-reinforcing system of aggrandizing delusion. The same creed which reserves the right to charge bad people with the responsibilities of failure, gives sole credit to the privileged individual for any successes that may or may not be a result of their own integrity.
Also published on Medium.