Towards a Socialistic Theology: Rethinking Paradigms

I rarely read David Brooks’ writing; a recent article of his published in The New York Times fortuitously brought to my attention the reasons for which I neglect his work. Namely, he used the phrase, “conservative intellectual,” without a shred of irony. All joking aside, however, it is in the very same article wherein one will find a surprising admission—coming from one such a “conservative intellectual,”

There is a structural flaw in modern capitalism. Tremendous income gains are going to those in the top 20 percent, but prospects are diminishing for those in the middle and working classes. This gigantic trend widens inequality, exacerbates social segmentation, fuels distrust and led to Donald Trump.

Capitalism has a flaw! Good heavens, how can this be?

Our political scientists will be discussing the proximate causes accounting for the Trump regime for some time. If one will excuse the hand-waving, the reader will find brief analyses composed in this vein here, and here (the latter is a flawed account, written in four parts, and was published by The National Review). [1]

Brooks’ article, along with a slew of others published by the Times and other noteworthy publications, in recent weeks, have underscored just how carnivalesque (perhaps nightmarish) our political climate is becoming. With the Senate’s catastrophic “replacement” bill to the Affordable Care Act in motion as I write, I considered it wise to begin thinking about the contemporary American political climate as a theologian-for-the-church for use by those interested in my thoughts on these matters. [2]

Perhaps more interesting to me than the daily outrages of the Trump regime are the socio-historical, cultural, and political-historical dimensions involved in understanding the discursive lacunae that exist between people on the polarized left and right.

For example, some of my peers have been amused, appropriately so, at the irony involved with liberals in the United States becoming so profoundly concerned with facticity and the truth since the election of President Trump. The New Yorkerpublished an article recently entitled, “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.” The traditional bourgeois tactic of resorting to popular psychology to explain political defeat is a trope at this stage in the decay of late capitalism. The Times’ recent and spectacularly entertaining list of lies President Trump has told since his inauguration is a beautifully edited example of the cognitive dissonance endemic to a divided bourgeoisie.

That the postmodern anti-Enlightenment yet paradoxically still modern but only-in-so-far-as-it-upholds-neoliberalism American liberal bourgeois political class believes anything at all at this point is purely artifice. The show is tantalizing; where the basis for the liberal class’s morality is, I still am looking.

The same goes for the right-wing bourgeois political class in the United States. The coal miner without a college education who is derisively mocked by the liberal press, who attends a church in which his or her pastor earnestly encouraged him or her to, at the very least, vote against Hillary Clinton for a number of reasons; the one who watches Fox News every evening and is informed by such profoundly hateful screeds based on calculated misinformation. What do we do for such a one?

In light of my work as a historian and theologian, I am led to interrogate the assumptions and presuppositions with which Christian men and women think about and engage the contemporary political climate.

The Project of a Socialistic Theology

The Times published an op-ed written by Moshik Temkin (26 June 2017) entitled, “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.” Temkin questions the utility of comparing Trump to Hitler and other historical figures, notably the early superficial connection between Trump and Huey Long. Temkin writes,

Watergate, after all, has a happy ending of sorts; Nixon was undone by the scandal. His story is thus meant to reassure us that our system works, that the president is not above the law and that we have a functioning democracy. Maybe Mr. Trump will face a similar disgrace, but maybe not. Almost everything about the context is different: In 1974 there was no Fox News and similar commercial propaganda outlets, and there were Republicans in Congress who cared more about democracy and the Constitution than about tax cuts for wealthy donors.

His idea, that “there was no Fox News and similar commercial propaganda outlets,” in 1974 during the Watergate crisis is an essential idea in the types of analyses I perform as a passionné of cognitive linguistics and political semiotics in the style of linguists such as George Lakoff.

A project could perhaps begin with the premise that language is a cognitive-functional utility that is inherently biased (as far as one measures facticity as a function of the socially real). It can be deployed in myriad ways, primarily through the use of signifiers to convey wildly discordant concepts signified.

The late-capitalist entertainment-as-media edifice created Fox News, if my reader has continued thus far, he or she will not need a deconstruction of this network. I do recommend, for those who have not yet found the time, a thorough review of Herman & Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, (cf. it’s own Wikipedia page).

Where does a broadly ecumenical critique of Donald Trump and the Trump regime by extension begin? Or, perhaps, what sorts of questions must a theological critique of the contemporary American political dynamic be asking to perform true dogmatic work?

I propose that such an ecumenical critique must appropriate, perhaps in its entirety, the warp and woof of Roman Catholic social theology to deconstruct and delegitimize the more or less nominally Protestant right-wing extremism endemic to most areas of Protestant and some areas of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox thought. A Socialistic theology that is not simply in favor of the flourishing of the commonwealth, but actively protests the cooptation of the Christian namesake by scandalous right-wing causes is essential. The Geist of the church is its embodied collectivization of healing and restoration to the world in spite of New Atheists and in spite of lugubrious Protestants, such as those in the Westminster Escondido school. A natural-law theory such as that advocated by David Van Drunen, along with a two-kingdoms theology advocated by the same author, or perhaps even a view along the lines of Hart and his Secular Faith hypothesis, are unacceptable.

The church must face the world in the vision of Bonhoeffer, in the vision of Catholic social teaching, too—anti-revolutionary as it is. In short, the church must be for the world, against the world, in the manner of Jesus Christ. It must reject nihilism on the one hand, and foolish optimism on the other. It must abandon persuasion and rhetoric and it must embrace the embodiment of faith and the radical call to discipleship and obedience, as opposed to the Lutheran tendency towards easy-believeism.

Controversially, perhaps, the church must become “Socialistic.” What a non-revolutionary, non-liberal, yet Socialistic church looks like is to be found in the overwhelming weight of Pope Francis’ public and published teachings on the role of the church and the role of the individual in the church to be a force for good: capitalism and Christianity are antithetical and no apologetic should be made for the maintenance of the capitalist system as such by those who identify with the legacy of social justice inaugurated by the God of Israel and fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ, i.e., Christians.

In this way, the church must become, once again, defensively offensive. We need ministers to be held accountable by their denominations who do not preach against racism, classism, and ethnocentrism. We need large scale structural transformation to re-educate through doctrinal learning programs teachings that the Protestant church has lost. The theological irrelevance of the modern state of Israel, the largely symbolic character of John’s Apocalypse, and the necessity of the church to legitimate any discussion of χαρίσματα, among other examples. I would even venture to say that there is not, nor can there be, any theology of the Holy Spirit (pneumatology) – especially not χαρίσματα – without an equally robust and central theology of the Church (ecclesiology) as the mediating instrument of God’s grace.

The disarray of the contemporary Church in the United States calls for a manifesto to be written, one that is rooted in the goodness, love, and mercy of God for the flourishing of the world.

In later posts, I hope to define my use of the word “socialistic,” rather than socialist. I do not by any means endorse être socialisant, for example. Verisimilitude gives way to, in effect, an attempt to co-opt the church and make it socialist. My thoughts, rather, are to reclaim the legacy of Christianity in America from the anemic and toxic pools of the religious right yet within the bounds of ecumenical Christian orthodoxy. And to be fully transparent, this project is essentially one that seeks to merge the lessons of Catholic social theology with the insights of recent Pauline literature and research, especially that of N. T. Wright.

1. J. D. Vance’s “memoir of a family and culture in crisis,” Hillbilly Elegy, on the other hand, offers something of a cultural critique of the sickness endemic to poor, rural white America—the people who largely placed Trump in office.

2. For whatever it is worth, one should remember that I am neither a political scientist nor an aspiring politician. Contrary to the advice of my friends and associates, at this point I feel comfortable stating that I identify fairly strongly with the left (as opposed to liberalism, in the American or European costumes), and in particular the Christian left. I’m reluctant to say more than this.

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