Today’s Sunday Sermon from Pastor Warren: “Why can’t we all get along?”

May 15, 2022 • 1:20 pm

There’s nothing wrong with Tish Harrison Warren’s latest Sunday sermon, but nothing new either. It’s the same old “We keep hating each other. Why can’t we all get along?” palaver. Click to read:

The problem is political polarization, which boils down to Democrats vs. Republicans and all that those affiliations entail. How many times have you heard this already?:

A 2019 study by Pew said, “55 percent of Republicans say Democrats are ‘more immoral’ when compared with other Americans; 47 percent of Democrats say the same about Republicans.”

We find one another repugnant — not just wrong, but bad. Our rhetoric casts the arguments of others as profound moral failings.

Those who are sympathetic to the Florida legislation dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill don’t just want to leave lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity — with all the inevitable values-laden presuppositions they entail — to parents until kids are around 9 years old; they are “homophobic” and “transphobic.” Those who oppose the bill don’t simply think it wise to acknowledge the reality of multiple sexual orientations and gender identities in a pluralistic society or worry the bill may force gay teachers into the closet; they are “groomers.”

. . . .Our tendency to adopt polarizing and moralistic patterns of speech is turbo-boosted by a social media architecture that encourages animosity toward outgroups.

But this hatred toward our opponents and the accompanying habit of moralism is destroying us as people. To be clear, I am not saying that I find all the brief arguments I’ve listed above equally valid or true. And I’m certainly not saying that they don’t really matter or have enormous cultural ramifications. I’m saying that we cannot flourish as individuals or as a society if we cast all those who differ from us as moral monsters.

Well, okay. But we can surely differ in matters of morality without calling our opponents “monsters” (Trump gets a pass on this one!). But the solution? The Bible, of course!

So before we disagree with others, we have to make a decision about who our ideological opponents are. Are they like us or wholly other? How should we think of people, especially people with whom we have deep differences?

For me, the answer to this question is rooted in two ideas. One is that every single one of us is, as described in the book of Genesis, made in the image of God. With this core identity comes indelible dignity and worth. In practice, this means that I must assume that people I interact with, even those with whom I disagree, often have things they love that are worth defending and perspectives that I can learn from.

The other idea that informs how I see people is that they are fallen. The idea of human depravity or sinfulness means that every person — including me — is myopic and limited, their thinking faulty and subject to deception and confusion. This should humble us all.

One way to repair our social discourse is to begin with the assumption that we are not wildly better or worse than anyone else. Each person who disagrees with me (and each who doesn’t) is, like me, a complex blend of insight, neurosis and sin, pure and impure motives, right on some things, wrong on others.

Of course we’ve heard this all before, and how some have overcome it (viz., the friendship between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia).  And I work with plenty of people whose politics I’m not down with. There are few people whom I see as “moral monsters,” but there are some. I have a hard time, for instance, seeing Vladimir Putin as just an imperfect human made in the image of God.

But most important, we don’t need the Bible for any of this. We are NOT made in the image of God; our “dignity and worth,” for what they are, come from the fact that we are primates living in a global community that works best when we treat each other as moral equals.  The only reason why Warren says we’re made in the image of God is because the Bible tells her so, but of course if she’s being truthful, and we’re really all imperfect and sinners, then God Himself must be an imperfect sinner.

Likewise, the idea of “sin” (beginning of course with Adam and Eve, who were “fallen”) adds nothing—indeed, detracts from—the simple idea that nobody is perfect. In her view, our sinfulness is inborn because it comes from Adam and Eve. But of course some people are more “sinful” than others. I wouldn’t put the Taliban, for instance, on a par with Peter Singer.

And the semon endeth thus:

Thinking the best of the other will inevitably mean we sometimes think more highly of others than we should. We will assume their motives are purer than they actually are. But if we must err, this is the right way to err. It’s easy to think that when we consider the strongest argument and most charitable motivations of others we are doing them a favor. But we are actually doing ourselves a favor as well. Not only does dealing with steel men, as opposed to straw men, help our own arguments grow sharper, it also helps us continue to have a posture of learning, of growth, of curiosity, of compassion and of joy.

There’s a lot more to be said here, but Pastor Warren doesn’t. She gets her handsome check by purveying these kinds of platitudes—views that come straight out of secular humanism—as if they derive from Christianity. I can’t criticize her for saying the equivalent of “brush your teeth every day and don’t hurt people”, but this is all anodyne. When is the NYT going to replace her slot with somebody who a). doesn’t tout Jesus and b). says something substantive?

So go hug a white supremacist or Mitch McConnell. Amen.

21 thoughts on “Today’s Sunday Sermon from Pastor Warren: “Why can’t we all get along?”

  1. A lot of Christians wouldn’t agree with her. There are the chosen and those doomed to eternal damnation. That’s what they find appealing, that they get a free pass to Heaven while those they dislike are punished for eternity.

    And that thinking is reflected in the historic intolerance and cruelty of the religion, which is reasserting itself in the US.

    1. And these Christians can point to the Bible just as easily to ‘justify’ their attitude. There’s a heck of a lot of smiting and vengeful killing of people who just happen to not be ‘God’s chosen’ or who transgress some arbitrary rule or other. Harrison might say ‘yes but that’s the old testament’ but that doesn’t wash as she is basing her case on Genesis which is also OT.

  2. The Left (broadbrush generalisation warning) are convinced that all humans can be perfected, that Utopia can be achieved, and this has become a sacred secular goal and belief. They Believe. From which it follows that anyone who obstructs the way to Utopia must be a profane Non-Believer and therefore Evil. This is an overwhelming emotional motivation and almost impossible to challenge by reason alone. It also explains why people who are not quite as fervent in their support are also backsliders and evil too. This has been driven harder by political activists and resisted more vigorously by those not sharing the same beliefs.

    This is not limited to the Left, it is perhaps a cognitive bias in groups of humans. The Right and various Religions have in the past been swept up in visions of a glorious future too. The best inoculation against the absolutist beliefs is repeating over and over again “The end does not justify the means”.

    1. When I find a person on the right to be immoral, it is because they are trying to steal elections, not because they obstruct the way to Utopia, whatever that means. It is not utopian to want elections to be fair.

    2. I don’t agree. Progressive politics is much more based on empirical data than conservative evangelicanism. I’ve never heard anyone on the Left claim the goal is perfection, but rather to implement policies that help people instead of ones derived from religious doctrine that often are cover for white nationalism and xenophobia.

      To be clear, progressive politics usually involves government interventions to solve societal problems, so there is plenty of disagreement on the limits of that. But as much as the Right screams about freedom, they also want government to impose their religious values on the public. Between the two, I much more fear the latter.

      1. I much more fear the former. The latter is limited by the recalcitrant stubbornness of people against being indoctrinated. There is an infinite appetite for the former. Even when the money runs out, you can still borrow as long as you can convince your creditors that you can get your populace to pay taxes.

        I suspect you and I differ more in how much we want to see the results of scientific data-driven socialism than in the intrinsic dangers of Left and Right. You would like to see more of it than I do, so you fear it less.

        1. Yes, I want to live in a civilized society, which can only function through government regulation of most aspects of our lives. Now as scary as that sounds, the alternative is to let private interests control the things on which we are dependent, which, as is happening in the US, results in significant corruption and inequality, and an inability of government to respond to crises such as the pandemic.

          Not a great choice perhaps, but society is filled with conflicts of interests ranging from banking and industry regulation to neighbors complaining about barking dogs. These things simply don’t resolve themselves, so we write endless regulations for everything, but if we don’t then society gets frayed and torn.

          So the real issue is who gets to write the rules. I would prefer it to be progressives than religious conservatives. And the progressives have a solid track record in the US and in large parts of Europe and in some parts of Asia and Africa. In the US, government regulations affecting labor law, racial equality and access to education, as well as income redistribution in tax law and social security, for example, have had positive effects on society. Conservatives want to undo all those things and dismantle and privatize many government functions. I think that would be a disaster.

  3. Before the NYT replaces Warren’s slot with somebody who says something substantive, my self that rejoices in Schadenfreude wants to see an imam touting the supreme value of the Koran in her stead.

  4. I’ve mentioned before how I think a large degree of this is due to the nature of two-party systems, where the ‘other’ becomes the ‘enemy’. A large portion also seems to relate to the geographic insularity of the United States (and most English-speaking countries in general). I strongly suspect that if the US bordered three or more countries, especially with a tri-point, there would be wider-spread recognition of shades of gray. I remember heading a statistic ~25 years ago that 10% of Americans had a passport and 25% of Congressmen did. People are just not looking outward. I see far too many humans who keep whittling away their in-group, from all ~8B humans to all ~300M US Americans to all ~50M people who voted for their preferred candidate.

    > She gets her handsome check by purveying these kinds of platitudes—views that come straight out of secular humanism—as if they derive from Christianity.

    I’ve seen convincing commentary that pluralistic pro-tolerance sentiment is much more common in polytheistic and henotheistic systems (than in monotheistic ones), where people acknowledge that other gods are just as worthy. That is why many religions were syncretic and adopted foreign gods. Many monotheistic religions are intolerant of syncretism and refuse to add other deities; that intolerance seems to be part of a successful memeplex (the fact that a meme is successful does not mean that it is desirable or true). Try telling that to a monotheist.

  5. The Bible is irrelevant to the point she is making. She brings up the Bible simply because it’s her shtick. In my view, there are in fact some people who do deserve to be demonized, but we should only demonize as much as is absolutely necessary. 🙂

    1. It’s an old truism, but by and large most of the people who quote the Bible in support of their position have never read it properly.

  6. “The other idea that informs how I see people is that they are fallen.”

    Oh yeah, we’re fallen because rib-incarnated Eve was deceived by a talking snake into eating a piece of forbidden fruit.

    When someone is “informed” by a silly, 2,000 year-old myth, they tend to lose all credibility.

  7. Still, there are currents and/or sub-communities within religion that one has to take seriously. When I was involved in anti-war activities (during what the Vietnamese correctly term the American War), I was struck by the way our fractious factions often had to go to the Society of Friends for help with actually getting anything done. [I guess this has some relation to the history of Philadelphia, which reflects the Quakers’ combination of tolerance, empathy, and shrewd business ability.] Then, in Islam we have the Sufi tradition. In Judaism, we have the age-old veneration of learning, and of lox and bagels. And would J.S. Bach have written quite the same kind of music without his Christianity? [I’m not just referring to the obvious cases of the Passions and Cantatas. Could the stupendous, world-filling Chaconne from the 2nd violin partita have flowed from a naturalistic outlook? I wonder. ]

    1. So you cite “edge” religions, and the production of religiously-themed music, as a reason why we should continue to believe in myths? I suspect that if we didn’t have religion, Bach would have written good music about other things, in the same way that the Dutch painters of the Golden Age did wonderful depictions of secular subjects.

    2. Another annoying trend among some Christians is to attempt to claim credit for every historical scientific and cultural advancement simply because innovators such as Bach were de facto Christian (not much choice in that, at the time). He didn’t write brilliant music because he was Christian, he did so because he was a musical genius.

      1. I suppose non theistic cultures — even if religious — have songs that don’t praise god. A favourite song of mine is one about the folly of praying to an imaginary being that we call god.

  8. At some point we atheists have to accept that we have won and that the U.S. is not going to turn into a theocracy.

  9. I tend to believe that everyone is doing the best that they can with the tools they have. No one is being deliberately evil but some are very wrong headed about how to be good. I think this helps to be less polarised. While I do not need ideas like “humans are fallen” have this position I’m happy enough if a theistically raised person has the same attitude. It’s a good idea to recognise that we are all imperfect and biased and wrong most of the time but we’re all just muddling through as best we can.

  10. “Americans may finally get safer drinking water after years of GOP stonewalling”
    “Another Texas GOP lawmaker is attempting to make abortion punishable by the death penalty”
    “Republicans Remain Opposed to Any Policies That Would Reduce Fossil-Fuel Use”
    “Top 20 Republicans Owned by Big Oil, Big Pharma, tobacco and gun companies”
    “Tobacco Companies Pump Cash Into Republican Party’s Coffers”
    “The forgotten history of Republican book banning”
    “How Republicans came to embrace anti-environmentalism”
    “Death Penalty for Abortions Becomes Pivotal Issue in GOP Runoff in Texas”

    These are just some headlines I found easily with the usual, “on brand”, Republican views. Add the usual racism, ultra-nationalism, and theofascism. At some point, people aren’t merely wrongheaded anymore, but evil. You don’t get evil status for solid, and consistent principles that start where they promote well-being. For example, you are truly pro-life, and that leads to anti-abortion. That would be halfway plausible. Republicans aren’t like that.

    Republicans, and conservatives elsewhere are of a different breed altogether. This isn’t about wellbeing at all. It’s the rule “if you are on top of the pyramid, you may rule and impose yourself over others (including to make them suffer), if you are below, you have to follow and serve” which leads to the usual excessive hypocrisy as they can’t admit that to themselves, or it might not fly well. Thus, you get the get “the right to pour lead into drinking water” because those who do it are deemed rich, and worthy. You get being paranoid about a “tyrannical government” because they see themselves on top of the food chain, but the same people can’t have enough stop-and-frisking for other, poor people, those perceived at the bottom.

    The trouble is, the Democrats are too dumb or too complicit. They could easily adopt Republican talking points, word for word, and discuss “tough love” for the Republican states in the south that receive money from blue states, for instance. “Fiscal responsibility” and all. Kill the subsudies. Have the “free market” take care of it and so on.

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