Friday, January 05, 2007

When Strawmen Misbehave

Dennis Prager still can't get over his abandonment by the Right and Center over his outrage at Keith Ellison, Congressman from Minnesota, and his now completed plan to take the oath of office on the Koran, and not the Bible. The last time we heard from Prager he was prophesying dire portents for an America that didn't toe the narrow line on Biblical values. In his next installment, Prager, in his trademark oversimplification of the world (he calls it "clarity") divides us into two clearly separate camps: the People of the Book, and the Secular Left:

If you want to predict on which side an American will line up in the Culture War wracking America, virtually all you have to do is get an answer to this question: Does the person believe in the divinity and authority of the Five Books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah? ("Divinity" does not necessarily mean "literalism.")

I do not ask this about "the Bible" as a whole because the one book that is regarded as having divine authority by believing Jews, Catholics, Protestants and Mormons, among others, is not the entire Bible, but the Torah. Religious Jews do not believe in the New Testament and generally confine divine revelation even within the Old Testament to the Torah and to verses where God is cited by the prophets, for example. But "Bible-believing" Christians and Jews do believe in the divinity of the Torah.
And they line up together on virtually every major social/moral issue.

Name the issue: same-sex marriage; the morality of medically unnecessary abortions; capital punishment for murder; the willingness to label certain actions, regimes, even people "evil"; skepticism regarding the United Nations and the World Court; strong support for Israel. While there are exceptions -- there are, for example, secular conservatives who share the Bible-believers' social views -- belief in a God-based authority of the Torah is as close to a predictable dividing line as exists.

That is why one speaks of Judeo-Christian values, but not of Judeo-Christian theology. Torah-believing Jews and Torah-believing Christians have very different theological beliefs, but they agree on almost all values issues -- largely because they share a belief in the divinity of the same text.

Many members of all these different religions have found it quite remarkable how similar their values are to those of members of these other religions. An evangelical Protestant who might regard Mormonism as nothing more than a heretical cult will find himself seated next to Mormons at a rally on behalf of the Boy Scouts. An Orthodox rabbi who might never set foot in a church will join a panel of Christians in opposing the redefining of marriage. And so on.

Very often the dividing line in America is portrayed as between those who believe in God and those who don't. But the vast majority of Americans believe in God, and belief in God alone rarely affects people's values. Many liberals believe in God; many conservatives do. What matters is not whether people believe in God but what text, if any, they believe to be divine. Those who believe that He has spoken through a given text will generally think differently from those who believe that no text is divine. Such people will usually get their values from other texts, or more likely from their conscience and heart.

That a belief or lack of belief in the divinity of a book dating back over 2,500 years is at the center of the Culture War in America and between religious America and secular Europe is almost unbelievable. But it not only explains these divisions; it also explains the hatred that much of the Left has for Jewish, Protestant, Catholic and Mormon Bible-believers.

For the Left, such beliefs are irrational, absurd and immoral.

Which is exactly how most conservatives regard most leftist beliefs, such as: there is nothing inherently superior in a child being raised by a mother and father rather than by two fathers or two mothers; men and women are not basically different, but only socially influenced to be different; Marxism was scientific; that the Soviet Union was not an evil empire; it was immoral for Israel to bomb Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor; morality is relative to the individual or society; there is no moral judgment to be made about a woman aborting a healthy human fetus solely because she doesn't want a baby at this time; material poverty, not moral poverty, causes violent crime, etc.

This divide explains why the wrath of the Left has fallen on those of us who lament the exclusion of the Bible at a ceremonial swearing-in of an American congressman. The Left wants to see that book dethroned. And that, in a nutshell, is what the present civil war is about.

It is clearly a lot of hogwash, starting with Prager himself. By reading this, you would assume that he is pro-life, yet he is in the pro-choice camp. If you read the wording of the Biblical stand on abortion above, it is carefully positioned to include people who are pro-choice but who consider abortion to be morally wrong. Sorry Dennis, but that is not where the dividing line on abortion is drawn in this culture war.

He also concocts this strawman of "Bible-believing" Christians to only encompass those Christians who share right wing social values, whether they truly believe in the Bible or not (and how can you be a Christan without believing in it?) Apparently Jimmy Carter is not a Bible believing Christian, and neither is the Pope, who is against capital punishment. For those who haven't listened or read Prager much, he is adamant that the Bible not only sanctions capital punishment, but obligates society to use it to punish heinous crimes like murder.

Prager's tirade against the dangers posed by Europe's secularism ignores the fact that socialism has very strong backing by Catholics in places like Poland as well as in the Vatican.

Prager also refuses to believe that "Judeo-Christian" values, or those values practiced by a majority of Americans whether they are religious or not, can survive without the authority of the Torah. So no matter how often he offers the disclaimer that irreligious people can act consistently with Biblical morality, his faith demands that any large scale movement of society away from Judeo-Christianity must result in societal collapse. He observes Europe with all the objectivity of a man with his life savings on one horse observes the horse race. If Europe doesn't collapse because of its secularism, then he would have to conclude that his faith is a sham. One should never base one's faith on the failure of other faiths.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Prager hardly seems worth the powder it would take to blow him away, but I'd point out that Buddhists in Hawaii (at least) share just about all the outlooks of other Americans, and they not only don't accept that the Torah is divine, they do not accept the concept of a divine scripture.

January 05, 2007 6:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As we've discussed before, Prager is off his nut about Ellison and the koran. On the other hand, there's no bet to be made on Europe. It's already collapsed.

January 05, 2007 8:46 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Prager is off his nut regarding J-C values, as well.

Communism is (well, was, and in theory) far closer to those values than individualistic, laissez faire, capitalism.

Of which you will find scarcely any mention in any divine text.

Having been to Europe recently, I think there is still a bet to be made (not that I would necessarily make it, though).

It is well within the realm of possibility for Europe to make the kind of changes, none particularly, if at all, onerous, to turn things right around.

Whether Europe will, as opposed to can, is the question.

January 06, 2007 5:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, Jeff, Christians are always yattering on about the Serman on the Mount, but they rarely mention Jesus' invocations that:

Blessed are the Commissars, for they shall brutally repress the people.

Blessed are the apparatchiks, for they for they shall shutter the Churches and force atheism on the people.

Blessed are the planners, for they shall impoverish the nation.

Blessed are the security services, for they shall surely slaughter the Kulaks.

January 06, 2007 7:01 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

No, it was more like:

Blessed are the Inquisitors, for they shall purify the faith

Blessed are the Priests, for they shal l instruct the young in the ways of love

Blessed are the theologians, for they shall multiply the ways to understand God

January 06, 2007 7:51 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

One should never base one's faith on the failure of other faiths.

Very wise that, Duck. Pithy too. Some day you must tell me what it means.

January 06, 2007 8:39 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


Europe is collapses compared to what? The Thirty Years war? The French Revolution? The Middle Ages? World War I? Is Europe really in such a bad state compared to its past?

January 06, 2007 8:58 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Back at Judd's place, I used to say that this is Europe's golden age. It is, too.

I forget the title, but there was a book about the evolution of the English house which was mostly about how it evolved from a fortress to an undefended place.

This condition in now universal in Europe and in No. America above the Rio Grande. Not so much in most of the rest of the world.

January 06, 2007 11:21 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Europe isn't collapsed, but it is collapsing.

As Skipper says, there is the potential for them to turn things around, but will they ?

Judging by last year's riots in France over the issue of unfirability of employees, the answer is that they're going to have to endure a lot more pain before they're willing to change course, that they have to "hit bottom".
And that pain is coming, as inevitably as death and taxes. (And related to both, as well).

So comparisons to the aftermath of the Thirty Years' War or WWI are not as far-fetched as they might appear at first glance, although thankfully the loss of life will be much lower this time.

Basically, my sense is that Europe's resurgence will be under the leadership of the Millennial generation.

January 06, 2007 12:37 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Don't sell atavism short. I'm reading Schorske's 'Fin de Siecle Vienna.' What I'm taking away from it is that the European worm is very light on his feet.

January 06, 2007 3:51 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Have you ever read Das Kapital, or The Communist Manifesto?

"From each according to their capability, to each according to their need" is completely consistent with Jesus.

Individualistic capitalism is not.

January 07, 2007 5:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've read both Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto. I don't see anything Christian about them. Jesus said some pretty dippy things, but he never said anything as silly as "From each according to their capability, to each according to their need."

Jesus is almost completely unconcerned with people's material life on this Earth, other than how it effects their chance for salvation. This is the source for both Marx's statement that religion the opiate of the masses and Hitchin's great problem with Mother Teresa: Christianity teaches the poor and miserable that their lot in life is to be poor and miserable and they should just accept it.

January 07, 2007 9:09 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

"From each according to their capability, to each according to their need."

Matthew 25:31-45 (New International Version)

31"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.
32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.
35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,
36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

37"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?
38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?
39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

40"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

41"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,
43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

44"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

45"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

January 07, 2007 6:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, charity is good. I've not yet met a capitalist who denied it. But if one of the goats had objected that he didn't need to feed the hungry or help the homeless because the state took money from him, using the threat of jail, and gave it to the poor, Jesus would just laugh and laugh.

January 08, 2007 8:40 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

I think Jesus might also have been more than a litle upset about the casual use of the Sea of Galilee as a garbage dump, thus proving his strong commitment to Kyoto and a planned economy based upon sustainable development. And who could doubt what His turning the money-changers out of the Temple said about His thoughts on globalization?

January 08, 2007 4:59 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Jesus was neither a Communist nor a Capitalist. Both of these philosophies are attempts to maximize earthly material gain, which Jesus saw as a distraction from his and everyone else's true calling, which is to die and go to Heaven. The first two C's are worldly philosophies, the last C is a *not of this world philosopy. You can't compare them.

* Of course that never stopped practicitoners of the last C from turning a nifty profit on their prophet.

January 08, 2007 5:08 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

And who could doubt what His turning the money-changers out of the Temple said about His thoughts on globalization?

Given that globalization has raised hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty and given them the leisure time to contemplate spirituality, my guess is that he's a fan. But that's just a guess, he hasn't said anything about it to me.

January 08, 2007 7:48 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Maybe, but don't forget that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

January 09, 2007 6:35 AM  

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