Among the Intellectualoids

A Real “Economic” Recovery

A member of President Obama's religious left explains.

By 2.13.09

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Do you remember how President George W. Bush was sustained in power by mindless Religious Right evangelicals, who zealously supported Bush's wars because they knew he shared their not so secret theocratic dreams? Supposedly Bush would signal his solidarity and ignite these purported bumpkins by lacing his speeches with code words from Scripture or hymns.

President Obama's own Religious Left constituency is now flaking for their man. Of course, advocating their religious agenda (Global Warming, larger welfare state, disarmament and subordination to the United Nations, multiculturalism) is not theocratic, but timeless and universal pleas for justice and global harmony.

"Emerging" church maestro Brian McLaren, who is a columnist for Jim Wallis's Sojourners, has been a leading cheerleader for Obama among liberal evangelicals. ("Emergent" evangelicals emphasize post-modernity and stress community over doctrine.) McLaren and other Evangelical Left organizers celebrate that strong majority evangelical support for John McCain last year fell somewhat from the historic tide for Bush, back down to more traditional Bob Dole levels. Supposedly evangelicals will increasingly abandon their concerns about marriage and sanctity of life in favor of climate activism and harnessing CIA interrogators. The Evangelical Left perspective is not populist, like the Religious Right. It primarily represents the elite voice of disenchanted evangelical academics and their student followers, plus some religious urban hipsters and their suburban wannabes, all desperately anxious to shed "Inherit the Wind" stereotypes.

McLaren's own brand of post-modern emergent Christianity is therapeutic and post-theological, hoping to end the culture wars though a series of dialogues in coffee houses and meditation rooms. In his latest column, McLaren excoriates hopes for a traditional economic recovery, based on materialistic expectations. Specifically, he was irked by an MSNBC Pat Buchanan comment about Obama's recent Indiana town hall, with Buchanan sardonically noting that Elkhart, Indiana produces RV's, and Obama didn't explain how to revive the RV market.

Naturally McLaren was horrified at the prospect of a resurgent America gunning gas gulping RV's across the nation's interstates, accelerating glacier melt, panicking the polar bears, and doubtless drowning many South Pacific islanders. That's not the kind of recovery we want! "For many people, economic recovery means 'getting back to where we were a few months or years ago,'" McLaren sermonized. "That means recovering our consumptive, greedy, unrestrained, undisciplined, irresponsible, and ecologically and socially unsustainable way of life."

McLaren may hope for a new world, or really just a re-creation of the old, pre-industrial world, where humanity abandons modernity and returns to the forest hut and the tundra igloo, subsisting on berries and ferns, living shorter life spans less destructive to The Planet. He suggested a different kind of "recovery" that would not include RV's roaring out of Elkhart, but a "wiser way of life" that recalls the "experience of addiction." Capitalism's beneficiaries, like drug addicts, first must address the root cause of their avaricious consumerism: "unresolved pain or anger, the need to anesthetize painful emotions, lack of creativity in finding ways to feel happy and alive, unaddressed relational and spiritual deficits, [and] lack of self-awareness."

A true "recovery" would rescue and not restore consumerist addicts to their destructive habits, McLaren insisted. Firstly, of course, that means kicking our "addiction to carbon," whose fossil fuels, like a "cultural amphetamine," give us "speed" and "quick energy" while they "toxify" the environment and unbalance the ecosystem. But carbon is not modernity's only addiction.

There is "addiction to weapons," which are among the "most addictive substances possible." Like barbiturates, weapons generate a false sense of "well-being and security, removing our feeling of fear and anxiety," while also making us "lazy and slow in the much more important work of relationship-building, justice, and peace-making, lazy in seeking the common good." And barbiturate-like weapons fuel an "addictive cycle' around the world, as increasing numbers seek the same drug induced reassurance.

Another addiction, according to McLaren's pharmaceutical analysis, is the "hallucinogenic stimulant of fear," which [conservative] religious and political leaders foment for dollars and votes. The targets are predictable: "By making straights afraid of gays, conservatives afraid of progressives, Christians and Jews afraid of Muslims, citizens afraid of immigrants, and vice versa, these leaders get a quick organizational high -- crack for their unity and morale." McLaren lamented that fear-crazed conservatives often slip from stimulation, to paranoia, to paralysis. Evidently the Religious Left, during the Bush years, never resorted to fear or paranoia, so far as McLaren recalled.

McLaren is also concerned about addictions to "stuff." After all, "an economy that measures growth by the number of durable goods (resources) extracted from the environment and turned into non-durable goods that are bought, used, and then thrown away into a landfill," is constantly "turning goods into trash" and pretending this destructive cycle is "success." McLaren wants to move beyond "an extractive, consumptive economy" to a "sustainable" and "regenerative" economy, not dependent on "destroying the planet and exploiting people addictively."

It is true that Christians traditionally warn against inordinate attachment to "stuff," since their ultimate loyalty is to Heaven. But in their pursuit of Heaven, Christians are also called to provide "stuff" to the needy. Several billion people will never escape chronic poverty, illness, and early death until they too can "extract" durable goods from the planet, much of whose refuse will end in a landfill. According to the teaching of Christians, the earth is not itself an object of veneration, but was created to serve the needs of humanity. Living "sustainably" for McLaren's suburban followers may in their minds just mean recycling and driving a Prius. But for much of the impoverished world, it threatens a permanent absence of hope for them and all future generations.

McLaren is hoping to "sabotage" these addictions to "stuff" by redefining "recovery" to mean waking up from a drug-induced "comfortable, dreamy, half-awareness" into a new world of solar panels and Fair Trade coffee. But this post-industrial fantasy is itself hallucinatory, portraying the Religious Left as even loopier and more archaic than the worst stereotypes about the Religious Right.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.