Timothy Egan posted a pointless rant in the New York Times today. I don’t think it will do any damage because the only people who will get past the first several paragraphs are people who want to see a really talented demagogue blistering the hides of religious hypocrites.
And “religious people” are all hypocrites, It is “people of faith” who are worthy of praise. And that’s why hating religion is not going to help anything.
How did “faith” get to be such a good thing when “religion” is such a bad thing? That seems to me a question worth asking. Or, with Egan’s rant in mind, let me put it another way: what is the rhetorical advantage of valorizing “faith” and demonizing “religion?”
First, “faith” has no content at all. “Faith” doesn’t believe anything; it doesn’t feel any way in particular. It does intend outcomes—good ones—and it acts on behalf of those intentions. Therefore, “faith” is not hypocritical. It is not institutional. It is not doctrinal. Faith is completely coated with teflon.
Second “faith” is being active on behalf of good causes. You would think that a faith with no content would be problematic. Theodore Kaczynski had a faith. Osama bin Laden had a faith. Hitler had a faith. Once you jettison the commitments to which “faith” is attached, you have dealt yourself a very mixed hand and there is no way to play such a hand with integrity. You just “proof-villain.” Here is the “faithful” Ted Kaczynski in a really scary prison portrait.
Religion, on the other hand, is a sitting duck. Because it actually is doctrinal and institutional, you can show that its institutions do not always do what its doctrines require. Any reader of the New York Times would take that for granted, you would think.
Still, there are ways of making it look worse, and Egan is all about making “it”—the Roman Catholic church, in this instance—look worse. Egan’s premise is that the Catholic church should feel the same way about divorce that it feels about homosexual marriages. How can you say that without, you know, actually saying it?
You can use a verb like “frown on” to encompass them both. That way, you can argue that when the church reacts one way to one issue (gay marriage) and another way to another issue (divorce) that it is engaging in “selective moral policing.” That’s Egan’s phrase. I have already characterized Egan’s column as a “rant” so I don’t want to be too demanding, but Egan is the one who dumped divorce and gay marriage into the same box (the Catholics don’t) so he really isn’t the one to point the finger at “selective moral policing.”
The Roman Catholic church is not Egan’s only target, of course. There are the white Evangelicals, who are, everyone agrees, the core of Trump’s support. (Egan calls them “the rotting core,” which does no favors to the orchardists in my neck of the woods.)
Egan’s problem is that when he unleashes a rant like this, he needs to stay away from quoting other ranters and he doesn’t do that.
“There has never been anyone who has defended us and who has fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump,” said Ralph Reed at a meeting of professed Christian activists earlier this summer.
And Egan explains this be remarking
Older white Christians rouse to Trump’s toxicity because he’s taking their side. It’s tribal, primal and vindictive.
The similarity between the kind of appeal Egan is using—tribal, primal, vindictive—and the kind he is condemning is very clear to me. It is a different tribe, of course, but if Egan wants to be spared the tarbrush he is wielding so effectively against people with “religion,” he is going to need a way to distinguish the good kind of faith (his kind) from Ralph Reed’s kind and you can’t do that without talking about the content of the faith and Egan doesn’t want to do that. So he is left with one tribe against another. Here is Vice President Pence digesting the refusal of the Prime Minister of Iceland to meet with him.
No good person in Egan’s column believes anything in particular. That seems a loss to the public discussion and a particular loss to Egan.
Then there is the question of “what the Bible says.” Let’s just say that the Bible “says” things that are of comfort to social liberals and also to social conservatives. It is a commonplace among apologists for whom the Bible is a relevant part of the debate, to cite the comfortable ones and to ignore the uncomfortable ones. But if you aren’t careful, you make yourself look stupid and that can’t be a good thing.
Egan ridicules Archbishop Charles C. Thompson (Indiana) for saying that he tries to be “Christ-centered” in his decisions. Egan says that if Thompson is going to accept a standard like that, then he should cite any words Christ may have said that bear on homosexuality. Egan is equating here “words Jesus said”—as if that is the only applicable standard—and “Christ-centered.” The whole Christian tradition has, by this device, been shrunk into words that are recorded and attributed to Jesus.
And, of course, we don’t need to use all the words that are attributed to Jesus, when some of them point the wrong way and others are so very useful.
Egan cites the well-known and widely abused passage where the king, in a final judgment, says that believers will be judged by the sole criterion of how well they treated the poor and vulnerable (Matthew 25). It isn’t much of a criticism of Egan, frankly, to say that he proof-texts, except that he is so mean spirited to his fellow proof-texters, like Vice President Pence and Archbishop Thompson.
In this piece, Egan contributes to the degradation of dialogue about crucial public issues. If people are looking to Egan’s writing to help them understand the role of “religion” in the public secular debates of our time or even the role of “faith” in those debates, they will look to this column in vain.
Egan reminds me very much of Jack, the Irish writer in Emelio Estevez’s film, The Way. That’s the writer with the orange pack. “Where I come from,” he says, “the church has a lot to answer for.”