…. well sort of…

I was recently sent an article, written by Katherine Stewart of the NYT (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/11/opinion/josh-hawley-religion-democracy.html) which I found provocative and challenging. It relates to the US Republican Senator from Michigan Josh Hawley, who has become famous (infamous?) for his fist-pump salute to the hoodlums invading the US State Capital on Wednesday (6 January).

I started to respond in an email to the person who sent the article, but my reply got a little unwieldy and way too long, so I have moved it to my blog.

Boy this is subtle and tricky territory. Like all heresies, Mr. Hawley starts out with grains of truth and then, when his audience is nodding happily along, suddenly takes a turn, in this case to the right, and goes seriously off the rails.

“Freedom” is a pretty complex issue.

I actually agree with Mr. Hawley that Justice Kennedy’s definition of freedom is problematic and, if it contains no other nuance, dangerously loose:

“At the heart of liberty,” Kennedy wrote, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” 

If the world is going to be a safe place for anyone I cannot be free to define my “own concept of existence” without reference to any authority or tradition or wider community beyond my personal predilections. Some worldviews are simply wrong and dangerous (cf antisemitism in the early twentieth century, or any other time). Part of the responsibility of governments is to decide which worldviews should be allowed and which should be ruled contrary to the well-being of the wider community and therefore necessarily proscribed. A worldview in which elected government officials feel at liberty to pump-fist violent insurrectionists storming a bastion of democracy is wrong by any standard.

However, I am equally unhappy with Mr. Hawley’s apparent idea of freedom, at least as described by Katherine Stewart:

In other words, Mr. Hawley’s idea of freedom is the freedom to conform to what he and his preferred religious authorities know to be right.

Although, with a slight tweak, this would line up with Mr. Page’s idea of freedom which holds that “freedom is the freedom to conform to what is right.” Life is designed to operate a certain way. Human community works better when we do not endorse violence, murder, greed, or insurrection against a democratically elected government. To be free is not freedom to do whatever I want, but to choose to live in tune with the way life is designed to operate. I not exercising freedom if I jump off the top of a tall building simply because I choose not to believe in gravity; I am practising stupidity. Freedom is the freedom to respect the reality of the way life works, even when this feels undesirable to me and contrary to my wishes or my sense of entitlement.

I also agree, although I would be unlikely to state it this baldly in public, Abraham Kuyper’s stand that Stewart says characterizes Hawley’s worldview that,

“There is not one square inch of all creation over which Jesus Christ is not Lord.”

What I would mean by saying this however is probably different from how Mr. Hawley might understand Kuyper’s assertion. I would be saying that, ultimately those qualities embodied in the person of Jesus –  love, kindness, compassion, gentleness, truthfulness, faithfulness, etc. – are universal goods. They are the realities that ultimately prevail in the world and will finally carry the day and lead to true human flourishing. Mr. Hawley I fear, when he affirms that Jesus Christ is Lord of all the earth, is saying that everyone must agree with his white, privileged, capitalist, American-centric, allegedly Christian worldview, which I do not.

According to Stewart, Hawley follows a “starkly binary and nihilistic” line of thought. His worldview allows for only one choice:

to be faithful to Jesus or to pagan secularism.

I agree that Jesus and “pagan secularism” are probably mutually exclusive. In any social construct, there are choices that need to be made. If “pagan secularism” means

the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,

then it is a nihilistic and dangerous line of thought. If by “faithful to Jesus”, the religious right means living in tune with those values and qualities Jesus demonstrated and taught, then such a life will naturally find itself in opposition to a line of thought which holds that there is no truth and no standard of human conduct applicable to all people universally.

I cannot state strongly enough, however, how much I disagree with the hypocritical double-standard Hawley apparently seeks to apply to religious traditions and practices in the US:

Mr. Hawley has built his political career among people who believe that Shariah is just around the corner even as they attempt to secure privileges for their preferred religious groups to discriminate against those of whom they disapprove.

I do not want to live under Shariah law any more than I want to live under Hr. Hawley’s version of how he believes “God’s law” should be used to govern society, especially if, as Stewart suggests, this leads to the terrifying vision in which

a right-minded elite of religiously pure individuals should aim to capture the levers of government, then use that power to rescue society from eternal darkness and reshape it in accord with a divinely-approved view of righteousness.

Like Mr. Hawley, I look to Jesus for a robust compelling vision of what it means to be truly human. However, I doubt that Mr. Hawley and I actually see the same person or hear the same teaching when we look at the first century preacher from Galilee. Strangely, I would probably find myself more aligned with Katherine Stewart’s vision of a truly human life than Mr. Hawley’s, although I doubt Stewart looks to Jesus for her vision of what it means to be deeply and truly human.