Smug religiosity in Republican presidential race

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The Christianity on display in the race for Republican presidential nominee is, you should forgive the expression, a godsend to nouveau atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and, posthumously, Christopher Hitchens. They're the kind of pious, pompous targets those guys would pray for, if they did.

Their Christianity is arrogant and judgmental: Rick Santorum says Barack Obama saw his church as an "avenue for power" and has a "phoney theology." In other words, he's not a real Christian like me. They're wilfully stupid in claiming Obama wages war on religion -- in a nation that places In God We Trust on its money while schoolchildren pledge allegiance to God along with country. And they're drunk with secular, imperial power: "If you were Satan," says Santorum, "who would you attack in this day and age? There is no one else to go after other than the United States." Hey, we're Number 1.

Their evangelical din drowns out Christian alternatives. Not just the long-standing social justice campaigns by mainstream churches but the most stirring case of all: African-American churches of the civil rights era, which set a vastly different example. Black theologian James Cone writes about their version of faith in his new book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

He says the point of the death of Christ is that the poor and weak are the most morally admirable among us since, lacking power, they aren't corrupted by it. Christ joined them in their worldly defeat by suffering and dying too. But the point was also to rise up and transcend weakness and injustice -- without betraying your basic decency by becoming like those who lorded it over you. For that reason, non-violence and "meekness" are necessary even as you act to overcome your status. So non-violence is the natural stance for those who take the crucifixion seriously, as Martin Luther King did. The core of this faith is that "God snatches victory out of defeat, life out of death and hope out of despair."

Make of it what you will but this is a powerful version of religion. I write as a non-believer and non-Christian capable of admiring the faith of others and I keep wondering: Where has this alternate model gone, leaving no trace among the current batch of presidential aspirants? Contrast it to the haughty, self-satisfied religiosity of Rick Santorum's ilk.

They have no doubts, just smugness. But real faith involves doubt, writes Cone. It started with Jesus's cry on the cross -- My God, My God, why have you abandoned me? -- which black music critic Stanley Crouch called, "perhaps the greatest blues line of all time." Christian thinkers like Kierkegaard dealt in doubt. Even Karl Marx, the ultimate materialist, called religion "the expression of real distress and the protest" against it; "a sigh from the oppressed, the heart of a heartless world."

Faith and doubt are inextricable, says Cone: "Doubt preventing faith from being too sure of itself and faith keeping doubt from going down into the pit of despair." There's no such humility among the candidates. Santorum's wife says, "I did always feel in my heart that God had big plans for Rick." Preacher Franklin Graham, essentially a Republican shill, says he can't "verify" that Obama is Christian but he knows Santorum is because "his values are so clear on moral issues. No question about it." That's the problem, faithwise.

Speaking also as a (nonbelieving) Jew, I was struck by Cone's exploration of a chilling 1930s protest song, Strange Fruit. The strange fruit was black bodies hung from lynching trees -- after being beaten, burned or castrated to death. Bizarrely, southern whites sometimes declared that lynching was part of their religion. Cone says it's because they didn't connect it to its obvious analogue: the cross Jesus died on. Yet although Billie Holiday made it her own, Strange Fruit was written by a white New York Jew, Abel Meeropol. Through the experience of his own people he got it, even anticipating, says Cone, how lynching "prefigured the burning bodies of Jews at Auschwitz." It's a fine example of the way religious imagery can reverberate deep beneath rational levels, a quality entirely absent in the tinny pieties of the Republican contest.

This article was first posted in the Toronto Star.

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