American politics can’t keep its hands off of Jesus. The touchstone of Christian uprightness — which, in recent times, sat at the strategic center of a territory ceded virtually in toto to the political right by its competitors on the left — has now, once again, and for less than a full year now become the object of a free-for-all tug of war. Just this month Norman Mailer, in the Nation, devotes an entire article to left-intellectual-darling Jean-Paul Sartre’s “God Problem.” And Howard Dean, on Meet the Press (dispensing with the Wal-Mart translation of Scripture), tells Tim Russert the one about removing the mote from your own eye first. It’s a “truth claim,” as professors of religion are wont to call it, that Dean’s been using at least since he spoke to the Interfaith Alliance before Thanksgiving 2003.
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)
Hillary Clinton herself moves, with trademark subtlety, toward the center on abortion. The Democratic Party is still frozen in that barely-controlled institutional panic set off by the county-level electoral map of 2004. And all of the major contemporary public issues implicate the religion of Christ. As Dean put it in ’03, “If you take out issues like abortion and gay rights from the debate, then the Evangelical Christians, the Catholic Church, and the Democrats have an enormous amount in common.” Democrats are attempting to connect the dots on this point. Christianity has become a political football. This time, the game is on.
It should come, really, as little surprise. One interested in coming up with an intellectual movement that succeeded in (not by) stamping out the human desire for holiness will be searching rather a long time. Just as there is no ideological reason for conservatives to edit sound environmental policy out of their worldview, nor is there anything inherently un-Christian about leftism. The caveat, of course, is that “un-Christian” is a term which has, over the course of two millennia, been thoroughgoingly negotiable. But a considered look at precisely what Norman Mailer and Howard Dean are getting at, in their laying claim to God in the first case and Jesus in the second, can shed light on the contours of conflict to come.
NORMAN MAILER WANTS to be proud of Jean-Paul Sartre, and has a list of reasons to be so. “He was ready to survive in mid-air,” Mailer notes. “‘We are French,’ he was ready to say. We have minds, we can live with the absurd and ask for no reward. That is because we are noble enough to live with emptiness, and strong enough to choose a course which we are even ready to die for. And we will do this in whole defiance of the fact that, indeed, we have no footing. We do not look to a Hereafter.” Nothing has marked a post-’60s liberal more than the categorical rejection of male authority as a value, and the existentialism of Sartre, in its protean, root-level rejection of divine authority — even to the point of suicide or martyrdom — prefigures the modern rush toward what some call liberty and others call libertinism.
But one kind of scales or another has fallen from Mailer’s eyes. An existentialist like Sartre (and here Mailer could also have counted an all-star team of late-twentieth-century intellectuals, the heroes of modern academe), without faith “in some kind of Other,” “is equal to an engineer who designs an automobile that requires no driver and accepts no passengers.” Mailer declares that even existentialism “needs a God.”
This whole-cloth confession to Deism, however, is a long way off from self-baptism in print. Mailer’s God, as it turns out, has its own problems — just like us. Taking a page from Joan Osbourne, the God who Mailer in his wisdom prescribes “is no more confident of the end than we are”; He is “an artist, not a law-giver; a God who suffers the uncertainties of existence; a God who lives without any of the pre-arranged guarantees that sit like an incubus upon formal theology with its flatulent, self-serving assumption of a Being who is All-Good and All-Powerful.” In one sentence Mailer succeeds in scatologizing his way right out of the good graces of any recognizably Christian God, and in fact Mailer’s God looks suspiciously like — Sartre. But be patient.
“What a gargantuan oxymoron,” Mailer goes on, working himself up into a portrait of righteous wrath, “All-Good and All-Powerful. It is certain to maroon any and all formal theologians who would like to explain an earthquake. Before the wrath of a tsunami, they can only break wind.” It is telling that Mailer is obsessed with farts — essential to any good proto-existentialist work like Catch-22 or All Quiet on the Western Front or American Psycho is a fixation on the inescapable, profane physicality of the human condition, and here he fits the bill. True enough, even and especially those who reach for holiness must come to terms with all the human absurdities.
But Mailer finally drops the facade when he declaims: “The notion of an existential God, a Creator who may have been doing His or Her artistic best, but could still have been remiss in designing the tectonic plates, is not within [the] scope” of those simple enough to believe in a God both invincible and morally infallible.
That Mailer longs for any God at all is endearing, and sure enough the existentialist God he sketches is endearingly human. But the whole point of a deity has quite often seemed to be that He, She, or It is not human. The King of Tyre brought the promise of destruction from Ezekiel’s God because the former confused this point. “[T]hou hast said, I am a God, I sit in the seat of God, in the midst of the seas; yet thou art a man, and not God, though thou set thine heart as the heart of God.” Critical to Christianity has been the basic understanding that when we are full of judgment or full of compassion, we are being like God — not the other way around. Judging God by human standards of “good” stands religion on its head. Mailer gets it backward.
But he’s not alone. The “My Pal Jesus” version of Christianity that has junked the King James Bible and replaced Take up thy mat and walk with Get yourself up and go acts on the same wish to make God human, human-ish, friendly, jocular, accessible, just like you and me. (The Old Testament God, by contrast, was first and foremost a God of sublime fear.)
COMPLICATING THINGS is that the authoritative God to be feared by his people was completely replaced by the teachings of Jesus himself. Pronouncements like “the Father is in me, and I in him” have come to be taken by Church theologians as proof that Jesus was touched by God in a way not possible for any other human being. “The Father is only in me” is what most subscribers to the Nicene Creed think of when they think of Jesus as savior, Jesus as single conduit to redemption, Jesus as Trinitarian. But the restrictive reading of Christ’s teachings that banned certain gospels and resulted in the Council of Nicea in the first place leaves out important spiritual possibilities. The Arians, in the early days of Christianity, believed that Jesus was a divine blueprint for a human race that could not just become Christlike but could achieve the same holy elevation of spirit and person as the teacher who told them how to do it. The Arian message was stamped vigorously (yes, violently) out of the Church, but, many hundreds of years later, the real meaning of Christianity — its application to real life — is still negotiable.
THE DEAN VERSION of Christianity picks up where Mailer’s humble God leaves off. It wasn’t Mailer who finished up his piece by writing that “the gods could all benefit from instruction by us human beings. We humans are — more humane.” It was Nietzsche. But Dean’s approach to the humanization of the holy centers upon Jesus as social democrat — the man who stands with the weak, loves those in need, helps those on the margins, and tells all those with ears to hear that he who is without sin should feel free to cast the first stone. Of course, liberals have a violent allergy to the concept of sin and where it leads. But their detestation of hypocrisy raises it to the level of sin, and there is nowhere else where the disapproval of hypocritically pious sinners comes into greater relief than in Dean’s favorite parable of the mote.
The fact is, Christian Socialism is a cognizable, coherent philosophy — and one that Dean isn’t afraid to sell. (This label is okay; Dean explained on Meet the Press that avowed socialist Bernie Sanders is “basically a liberal Democrat.”) It’s hard to find a better term for what held the New Deal coalition together, and it’s difficult to deny that the more socialism was pried away from the Christian virtues, the more oppressive and inhumane it became.
When Dean suggests that we need to lower the number of abortions in the United States, that people have a moral duty to help their fellow citizens, and that the toughest moral decisions are irreducibly individual ones, he becomes more appealing because he illustrates the connection between the policies he advocates and social philosophies that reach back thousands of years and recognize the dilemma of a fallible humankind. On Meet the Press, Dean demonstrated his own capacity for political double-talk and soft hypocrisy. But everyone likes a hypocrite more than an out-and-out villain, and the Democratic push toward spiritual credibility on social issues probably can’t help but become increasingly genuine. Dean professes himself to be a Christian, and this author will not be the one to call him a liar; and even those who celebrate abortion on demand as a precious right will come to believe that we need to reduce the number of abortions in America if they repeat that claim often enough before crowds that return them to office.
BUT DEAN AND HIS ILK should be sure to keep reading down the page after they get to Matthew 7:5. Several verses on, when the talk turns to narrow ways and corrupt trees, the conditions placed on Christian moral forgiveness make themselves clear. “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). And the point of the instruction to judge not, lest ye be judged, is not for us to collectively excuse each others’ sins. I can forgive you for wronging me, and I can repent of my own wrongs; what I can’t do is absolve you for wronging yourself, and it is upon that social dynamic which the success or failure of the Democratic claim to Christian virtue will finally turn.