Tuesday, February 21, 2012

I'll believe the Republicans want to return to a Christian nation...

when candidates tackle what I consider to be one of the most egregious lapses in faith, morals, and religious observance in contemporary America. If they are serious about re-establishing Christian parameters for conduct in this nation, they should insist that there be no professional sports -- or any other business, for that matter -- conducted on Sundays. It is the Sabbath, after all. The whole network of athletes and coaches, announcers and camera crew, stadium employees, bar owners, bookies, and more are, in fact, working on the day when we are not to toil but to give thanks to God.

When I was a child in the 1980s, many businesses were still closed on Sundays -- and not just Mom and Pop stores, either. As a Catholic schoolboy, I took the third commandment quite seriously: even when I did not attend Church, I knew that I was supposed to and felt appropriately guilty about it. The situation in 2011 could not be more different -- not just for me but across the nation. The NFL is its own Sunday ritual, one that requires almost no physical or moral effort but that does include continual solicitations. Call commercials the television version of passing the collection plate. The NFL-goer's duty, then, is not tithing to enable the work of the Church. Instead the imagined male viewer now has a moral duty to buy basic cable and the NFL channel--not to mention team paraphernalia and sponsors' products. What's most disturbing is that the collection plate is no mere analogy: Christianity has actually been hired to add its moral force to market culture.

The shift became clear to me when I was watching football on Christmas Day (Christmas Sunday, no less) and saw that the NFL telecast featured a black gospel choir, hired to sing hymns and carols in the studio. During the broadcast, the commercials featured another black gospel choir wordlessly praising the new Chrysler luxury car. As magnificent as they sounded, these choirs served as a very inadequate fig leaf. The whole incongruous spectacle disclosed that the American god is a market fueled by Viagra and Energizer batteries.

Unless it is being hitched to social conservatism and free-market orthodoxy, Christianity today has little force of its own. Certainly, it's hard to imagine any of the things Jesus actually talked about or did becoming national debates or content for commercials. An aura of Christianity can sell cars and decry sex outside of marriage but there is no national conversation about visiting the imprisoned, feeding the poor,† practicing meekness instead of violence, or (heavens!) aligning oneself with tax collectors and prostitutes. Market culture has cannibalized Christianity. Or, trying another metaphor, commerce uses a veneer of Christianity as a front to compel consumption as a moral imperative.

If the Republican candidates who are so concerned with the threats to Christian morality posed by President Obama and his shadow army want to show that they are sincerely invested in a full-scale return to Christian values, they'll need to go beyond those things that don't interfere with their fun: gay marriage (more on that in a moment), abortion, and contraception. In the biblical spirit of removing the plank from their own eyes before attending to the speck in others', they would do well to demonstrate they're willing to lose some things that matter to them: NFL Sunday -- and all the gambling, boozing, commerce, and pleasant conniptions that go with it.

They tout their bravery in standing up to sexual libertines and academic elites. Let's be generous and grant that on some occasions this does require some courage. But will they be true Christian witnesses and take that same spirit of fiery condemnation to "Joe Six-Pack" on NFL Sunday, NBA Thursday, NHL Tuesday, or any of the rest?

I'm sure the thought of giving up Sunday football never crossed the minds of Gingrich, Huckabee, Santorum, or Romney -- not to mention Limbaugh and O'Reilly. And, truly, it had not crossed mine, either -- which shows just how successfully they have limited the terms of the debate about secular versus Christian national culture. I doubt conservative women like Coulter, Palin, and Bachmann have given a ban on football any thought. Indeed, it would appear (based on their public statements) that Church leaders are only concerned with matters of sexual behavior. Perhaps they have forgotten that the Church has been concerned for centuries about market values trumping the God-given dignity of the individual. Perhaps they have actually become convinced that God is a free-market libertarian -- that God-given dignity is the right to participate, unfettered, in the market.

But is this new national consensus that "working on Sunday" is acceptable actually defensible in terms of Christian teaching? My Catholic-school education tells me no. The only possible defense some football-watching Christian conservative -- candidate or everyman -- could offer is that the Bible is flexible enough to allow him to have his pigskin in spite of what it actually says. But if the truth about morally acceptable behavior changes over time for the gander, then it must change for the goose as well. To say it directly, if our NASCAR, hockey, and football dads want to enjoy their Sunday licentiousness, they may just have to hush about the latitude in biblical reinterpretation taken by the women they sleep with and -- in many cases -- the men. Admittedly, I wouldn't vote for them even if they were to cease this brazen retro-fitting of the Bible (and the Constitution) to claim that it originally said whatever they want it to say now (an act made more shameful by their objection to the more principled idea that our awareness and knowledge change over time). I couldn't vote for them, because I don't agree with the direction in which they want to take the nation, but I would respect them as principled leaders rather than as desperate opportunists and manipulators. 

If I were (still) a churchgoing person, I would demand something more from Republicans than this mere pandering. I would demand a Christianity that speaks in its own moral voice rather than providing an indecipherable but inspiring background music for the continuation of business as usual.

† You will recall that candidate Romney thinks the poor have a more or less functional safety net and therefore warrant little concern.  Even if that were true within the US, the candidate seems to forget that poverty is a global and not just a national phenomenon. Jesus surely did not specify any national limit on the extension of charity.

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