Saturday, November 27, 2010

Rand Paul's New Gospel: No rich, no poor

Rand Paul seems to be an innovator in religion, as well as in economics, sociology, and anthropology. His perceptions transcend the parochial traditionalism of religious icons like Jesus, not to mention the commonplaces of moral philosophers and economic analysts like Adam Smith or the cliches of Marxist analyses of alleged "classes". And he does it all with just a few words, saving us from heavy reading and the uncomfortable process of deep thinking and reflection. All it took was a brief explanation to Wolf Blitzer in early November about why he opposes rolling back the Bush tax cuts for those making more than $200,000 a year, if single, or $250,000 a year, if married. (See

First there was the ringing statement of his new gospel's revolutionary insight: "Well, the thing is, we're all interconnected. There are no rich, there are no middle class, there are no poor; we all are interconnected in the economy."

(Commentary: with that, Senator-elect Paul neatly bypasses the largest single body of teaching contained in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Christian New Testament. There are no rich to be sent empty away, as per Mary and the Magnificat. The difficulty of getting a camel, or a Mercedes, through the eye of a needle is only a thought-experiment, not a warning to an imaginary class of monied people. Woe to the rich? A fantasy of the hyper-religious.)

Next came, not a mere flight-of-the-imagination parable, but a telling example that revealed the implications of the new Good News: "You remember a few years ago when they tried to tax the yachts. That didn't work. You know who lost their jobs? The people making the boats, the guys making $50,000 and $60,000 a year lost their jobs."

(Commentary: the main problem was that they taxed only new yachts. Those who have the money to buy a truly expensive boat found it easy to buy their expensive toys overseas and then bring them home to the USA tax-free, as used yachts. The fact that a poorly designed tax fell afoul of the Law of Unintended Consequences doesn't mean that taxing the wealthy is generally a bad idea. It's just that a luxury tax on a very expensive item is relatively easy to evade.)

Then, the truth behind the truth: "We all either work for rich people or we sell stuff to rich people, so just punishing rich people is as bad for the economy as punishing anyone."

(Oops, uh, I mean "Commentary": I thought there were no rich. Logical consistency doesn't seem to be the new gospeler's gift area. However, his clear meaning is that we're all dependent on rich people, even if they don't exist, so we'd better treat them very well. I'll leave it to you who are reading this to come up with Biblical passages that he has deftly obsoleted.)

Finally, the call to a new and higher moral standard: "Let's not punish anyone." This is accompanied by a vision of the coming reward. The new morality finds its highest expression in a tried and true commandment: "Let's keep taxes low and let's cut spending."

(Commentary: punishment is not banned so easily. Cutting spending always punishes someone. Keeping taxes low for the highest earners disproportionately rewards those who have already benefitted disproportionately from "the system" and its physical, institutional, legal, and intellectual infrastructure. A concomitant reduction in spending takes away disproportionately from those with less or with little. So it's natural that cutting spending and collaterally damaging the poor is popular with the many of the rich. It's viewed as just another "externality" -- if they forget about the possibility that cutting government spending at the wrong time may hurt the economy and their own interests. Regardless of that, if they can keep the PR working right, punishing the poor and the middle can even become popular with some of the poor, with more of the "working poor", and with lots of those in the middle. And so we have the mordantly amusing reality that many of the never-to-be-rich are ardent supporters, right now, of continuing the tax cuts for the highest brackets. That's not surprising. For a long time, people with low incomes and little, if any, wealth have been opposed to "Death Taxes" even though they've been levied only on the portions of estates that were above $3.5 million. In 2011, after a year of no estate taxes, the tax will be imposed on the amounts above $1 million or, if a pending bill is passed, $5 million. Either way, most people have no prospect of having estates large enough to be subject to the dreaded Death Tax. They'll still oppose it, though. As the NY State Lottery advertising slogan puts it: "Hey, you never know.")

Rand Paul and the NY State Lottery must be co-religionists.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

God, Gold, and Faith -- and Glenn Beck

Yesterday, gold futures hit $1300 per ounce for the first time ever. The investors and speculators known as "Gold Bugs" are thrilled, as are those who see this new record as an omen of impending economic and political disaster that will validate their criticisms of the vast Democrat-liberal-socialist-communist-fascist-Kenyan-Muslim-ObaMaoist America-hating conspiracy.

And many of the faithful are also thrilled. There are some Christians who see spiritual significance in the rise of gold against the dollar: it may be a sign of the approaching End Times. Regardless, investing in gold is something to be done prayerfully, after much thought.

Glenn Beck, for example, seems to have made it a part of his religious vision for a restored America. He has called it "the three G's God, Gold, and Guns." (Glenn Beck Program, Nov,. 23, 2009)

Here's what he says in a video for for one of his advertisers, Goldline, a seller of gold coins:

"Here's the deal. Call Goldline. Study it out. Pray on it. If it's the right thing for you, then do it. But please study it out. Find the people you trust -- the people that I trust [with his hand moving toward his heart] are the people at Goldline."

Glenn Beck has faith in Goldline. Goldline has faith in God. And Gold.

Recently, I heard these words coming from the Goldline commercial on Glenn's show:

"I want you to ask you do you have faith in man or in God? if you put your faith in man, God bless you, I can't wait to see the solution. But if you don't, I ask you to look at gold."

Wonderful. You don't even have to go to the trouble of making a calf out of it.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Glenn Beck: Did the Holy Spirit speak?

If the Holy Spirit spoke through Glenn Beck, or through any part of his "Restoring Honor" event, I didn't hear the words. Or the tune. Maybe others did.

They certainly heard something about America's "divine destiny". (The Friday night preliminary event to the Saturday main event originally went by the name of "Glenn Beck's Divine Destiny". Just in time to avoid more massive reporting of "messianic megalomania" they prudently changed it to "America's Divine Destiny" on the flyers that were distributed Friday morning.)

What I heard on C-Span on Saturday was a smooth blend of praising God, praising the military, and praising the greatness of America, along with some appropriately sober recognition of the scars from the things that America has done wrong in the past, along with a determination to focus on what we've done that's good and what new good things we must do in order to Restore Honor and save our country -- and save the world, too. A modest agenda.

The seeming balance between America's good and bad points sounded good -- but it was limited, if I remember correctly, to our past racial wrongs. There was no mention of unjust wars, for instance, or of economic exploitation. Anything like MLK Jr.'s attack on the Vietnam War in 1967, with its criticism of his government's role as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today", or the emphasis on poverty in his speech 47 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial would have been totally out of place.

Instead, Saturday's event struck me as a remarkable expression of Civil Religion at its worst. The accepted battle cry of ordinary civil religion is "God and Country", even though the most enthusiastic of patriots might get carried away and, in effect, put Country first. Operation Restoring Honor, however, while talking much of God, unabashedly idolized an idealized, even though slightly scarred, America.

After the other speakers were finished, and right before Beck started to speak, a video played on large screens. The script deserves careful reading -- I think it's a clear statement of the themes that Beck hopes will sustain his attempt to establish himself as a religious as well as a political leader of a combined Religious Right and Tea Party movement.

I think I've transcribed this accurately from my TiVo. Read it and analyze. A piano plays a soft and ruminative piece throughout. Appropriate pictures are shown. The male speaker has a well-modulated and inspirational tone.

"Every great achievement in human history has started with one person, one crazy idea, motivated by one clear message -- [a pause while the words "Invent", "Create", "March", and "Dream" successively appear on the screen] -- people unafraid to march boldly into the unknown, the unthinkable.

"Man has always searched for a better way -- grander expression, lasting peace, unlimited prosperity. When confronted by the oppression of fear [video of young black man and white cop] and conventional wisdom [video of Rosa Parks on the bus], the bravest always chart a new course [video of Columbus] to a new world, a new world founded on faith by a people who believed not only in themselves but knew without a shadow of a doubt there was a power greater than man [video of a manuscript with the word "God"] guiding them, providing for them.

"From these brave men and women grew a generation unlike any the word had ever seen. Some stood for faith, some for liberty, others for justice, honor, and family -- the American Experiment -- many guided by their own reason, standing tall against seemingly insurmountable odds, pledging their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor [video of the signatures on the Declaration of Independence] so others, generations, would have a chance for life, liberty, and happiness.

"Throughout history, Americans have changed the world through a steadfast belief that in this great country anything can happen [video of astronauts on the moon], anything is possible, through failures and success, sacrifice and courage. We have stood on the edge [video of Washington crossing the Delaware] and dared to dream, to move forward into the unknown.

"Millions have come from all over the world to join us, risking all to become part of that uniquely American experience. They believe America is mankind's last great hope, something many of us have forgotten.

"When the world has lost its faith, when hope is gone, when it pleads for charity, America answers the call. We always have.

"Remember who we are. Remember who you are. Remember the spirit of those who came before.

"It's time to restore America, restore the World. It's time to believe again."

What strikes me through all the religiosity is that America is the object of worship, the saving force. God is merely an instrument, guiding the brave and providing for them. In this kind of rhetoric, it is America, not God or Jesus, who is mankind's last great hope. Not what one expects, or should expect, from a Christian.

That phrase "last great hope" comes from Lincoln. He said to the Congress in 1862 that "We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth". But it wasn't American Exceptionalism he was talking about -- it was freedom and the institutional form, the Union, which establishes and preserves freedom.

There's much more to say about the themes of this video and how they play out during Beck's speech and the whole rally. But for a while, just think about it: what is it that Glenn Beck is asking you to believe in again?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Waiting for the Holy Spirit with Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck is certainly aiming high. Tonight, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, he will "help heal your soul" at his "America's Divine Destiny" event. Then tomorrow, at his "Restoring Honor" event at the Lincoln Memorial, he expects the Spirit to speak.

Unfortunately, unless you're a paid subscriber to his "Insider Extreme" service, you won't be able to hear or see tonight's event as it unfolds. But you can follow "Restoring Honor" on Facebook or on C-Span at 10 a.m., EDT.

Several anti-Beck commentators are expecting a hate-fest on Saturday. Beck, however, reproves them for that, probably rightly, and says that that will not happen. He's banned all political signs and political speeches. He's said of his own speech that he's prepared only a few bullet points, as he wants to give the Holy Spirit an opportunity to speak. That would presumably involve speaking through him. He says that the Spirit often roars (or shouts - I forget his exact words) in his ears without him hearing it. So, evidently, he's seeking that still quiet place within himself to allow for words that will, as he promises, change America.

Glenn Beck also promises this: "You're going to see the Spirit of God unleashed". And adds: "unlike you have probably ever seen it before." Then, modestly qualifying his claim, he said "At least at a public function."

So be prepared.

Brother Glenn's promise calls to mind a passage from Jeremiah that I was given to read as a lector at church two Sundays ago. It's chapter 23, beginning at the 23rd verse. The most pertinent lines are verses 25-29:

"I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, "I have dreamed, I have dreamed!" How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back — those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart. They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says the Lord. Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?"

Martin Luther King, Jr., had a dream. A hope, not a prophecy. What does Glenn Beck have? A vision of the Divine Destiny of our nation-state. (It's good that he despises the concept of Manifest Destiny, but Divine Destiny strikes me as much more presumptuous.)

"Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully." What will we hear from Glenn? Should his promises -- or boasts -- lead us to think it will be another example of "the deceit of their own hearts"?

Stay tuned.