Jesus Kitsch

by Ben G. Price

The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion. -- George Washington, Treaty of Tripoli 1796

Idolatry as a violation of the first commandment runs smack head-on against Intolerance as a violation of the first amendment. The incompatibility of piety and liberty is irrefutable on the premise of dogma. And the argument can be deconstructed to a mutually exclusive choice between faith and freedom.

By inference, democracy is immoral. By inference, freedom is Godless. By inference, obedience is virtue. And all of it is inferred by a belief in the fallen nature of humanity, the inherent unworthiness of people to make choices for themselves, and as a result the refutation of free will as a virtue.

All of this is good news for tyrants and for people willing to claim for themselves the special and exclusive voice of authority, because among the easily cowered the bullies of rhetoric (preachers and politicians) have an audience tailored to their needs. The florid greening of the conservative congregation, and the strategy of their aristocratic leadership to claim the high ground as political moralizers, has accomplished the vanquishing of the individual citizen from democratic participation at least among born-again and fundamentalist sects where the leaders have become spokesmen and unelected representatives of a collective point of view.

Beginning with the "Reagan Revolution," and the pie-eyed piety of the "Moral Majority," the question of public morality has been dominated by proponents of trickle-down grace, where the beatitudes were turned upside-down and where it was, indeed, blessed to be rich, and where the more hostile the take-over the more likely would one be to inherit the frikin' earth lock stock and barrel, preferably without paying capital gains taxes (the liberal moral equivalent of paying one's tithe to the generous society of fellow believers in democracy who made such opportunism possible).

Going on two decades later, liberal denominations still seem stunned, and social activism by churches, temples, and mosques on behalf of the least of our brethren a thing of the heady sixties, a confused and chaotic memory. It's as if street people are the only bleeding heart liberals left in the world, sweet broken-hearted Jesus!

There is a demographic element to this conundrum. Since the 1960's, according to David Klinghoffer (literary editor for National Review), until the beginning of the 1990's, "liberal" Christian congregations (Episcopalians, Unitarians, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists) lost membership through attrition and abandonment by younger members in numbers from one fifth to one third of the congregations' total. "Only 63 percent who grew up in a liberal church had remained there -- compared with 83 percent among conservative Protestants and 81 percent among Catholics," according to Klinghoffer. If there are fewer liberal voices speaking from a spiritual vantage, the disadvantage attributed to liberalism's version of morality may be more statistical than meaningful, although we will have to come to terms with so stark an abandonment of progressive morality even if only in numerical terms.

That morality can be "progressive" and responsive to changing social needs is at the heart of liberal spirituality. If morality is immutably rooted in infallible dogma, then the vagaries of sociology can have no persuasive claim on the verities of faith. And if congregations that promote orthodox conformity out-convert and out-retain membership, then the form of "morality" that is less responsive to changing social needs will be ascendant over a social morality that values individual lives and human needs. The conservative argument against the liberal social view of morality suggests that the more fundamentalist opinion more appropriately values the transcendent good of the God-head above and beyond the finite and temporary priorities of mortals, who should serve rather than make demands upon the universality of the spirit.

Which view of spirituality, the conservative or the liberal, is "right" may depend, again, on what degree of orthodox dogmatism is brought to bear on the argument's outcome. But there are certain measurable and testable psychological factors that seem to explain the predominance of conservative religious sects on the political scene. Roger Finke and Rodney Starke, sociologist authors of The Churching of America: 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (1992), argue that the membership growth of churches is directly attributable to the degree of imposed discipline regarding belief and behavior. Such research results seem to be borne-out in our current politico-religious interface. Without being too glib, it could also be pointed out that most "cults" that have attracted extremely loyal followers have been characterized by strict demands concerning religious tenets and members' individual behavior. And the typical disconnect between society and the cult seems to parallel the subjugation of social needs and the elevation of the deity as paramount to fundamentalist orthodox dogmatic sects of the "major mainstream" religious variety, if not to the exclusion then at least to the subclassification of human needs as impinging on the demands of faith and right religious conduct.

Klinghoffer is no expert in any of this, but his notions about the difference between orthodox and liberal religion are noteworthy because they may reflect some general sense of the differences as viewed by spiritual seekers with a predilection that would impose "certainty" and a fixed constellation of beliefs, and thus explain the rejection of the beatitudes by fundamentalist Christians, and their more hearty embrace of what Christians have traditionally referred to as the "old law," the Ten Commandments, and the God of Wrath over the God of Love in modern times.

"Roughly speaking," says Klinghoffer, "liberal religion is synthetic religion, kitsch religion. In a religious system centered on an orthodoxy, the system asks the believer to subscribe to a set of faith principles, deriving from what it asserts as the Truth about God and the universe, from which also follow definite standards of conduct. After the believer has accepted these principles and sought to order his life by them, he gets the payoff: the experience of God and his transcendence."

Herein is the Big Lie that every cult shines in the eyes of the stunned flock as they cross the road from the forest of nature and reality to the after world of the City of God. Truly, there is a psychological dimension to spirituality that mainstream religions avoid discussing in terms of the impact on the individual, perhaps because to promote the proprietary nature of a church's ministry, the "ownership" of the lines of communication with God, the individual experience of contact with the transcendent must be interpreted and explained to the rare subject of such an experience in terms of adherence to prescribed thoughts and beliefs, and in terms of faithful obedience to proscribed behaviors and taboo. So it is the promise of such an encounter with some ultimate good that is larger than the individual that elicits faith; but it is also the exercise of faith that makes it unlikely that such an epiphany will ever occur in reality for the individual so ensorcelled by belief.

Jesus, in Klinghoffer's estimation, would have to be called "Kitsch" in his approach to religion and spirituality. As Klinghoffer puts it: "Where you do find it, though, kitsch religion seeks to do an end run around Truth, providing a feeling of ‘spirituality' without the requirement of orthodox belief and action." Jesus, of course, used just such an end-run ploy around the "Truth" (always capitalized by dogmatists) when he compared the ministers of established religious belief and action, the Pharisees and Sadducees, to "whited sepulchers full of dead men's bones." It isn't too hard to understand his metaphor: external splendor; internal decay. Or perhaps more to the point: religion posited on the testimony of the dead has little relevance for the living. Now that's kitsch!

Klinghoffer concludes his mismanaged tour d' force with this hiatal hernia of a conclusion: "The liberal project in religion has been tried before. In the Book of Numbers, the modern reader meets a curiously familiar character. While the Jews wandered in the Wilderness, a Levite named Korah concluded that the authority to interpret God's will should not rest exclusively with Moses and Aaron. Let the people decide! And so, with a group of followers, he rebelled. ‘All the congregation are holy,' he reminded Moses and Aaron, ‘everyone of them, and the Lord is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?' For their trouble, without even a moment to fret about declining membership, Korah and his followers were swallowed up by a crack in the earth."

Liberal spirituality, for its part, is being swallowed up by right-wing wise cracks. "Very slowly," writes Klinghoffer, "kitsch religion is killing itself." But as I listen to the music from "The Death of Klinghoffer (perhaps no relation?), I wonder if any religion still in existence can claim to have a license to violate the tenets of morality shared by its members when it comes to dealing with society at-large. "The Death of Klinghoffer" is a paean to a cruise ship hostage who died a victim of Middle East terrorism, a death cultivated in the garden of hatred nurtured by religious absolutism and intolerance fueled by the "sacred" demands on dogmatically separated congregations regarding belief and behavior. Isn't there something called self-contradiction? Does faith eradicate or excuse hypocrisy? Is American "Culture" worth saving when preserving it in the guise of Puritanical absolutism ends in modern witch hunts, censorship, gay bashing, and the elevation of jingoism to the sacramental level?

As the new century opens and religions confront each other across the globe on the level of dogma, should we allow them to insist they not be judged by their treatment of our fellowmen and women? Should their nominal and symbolic acceptance of the Golden Rule absolve them of their more enthusiastic embrace of self righteous intolerance? What, if not a liberal spirituality, will save us from another bloodbath in the name of many Gods? If it is "kitsch" to love your neighbor, and your enemy, then so be it. Perhaps the kitsch shall inherit the earth!

Finally, we have to ask ourselves as a society if Spirituality belongs only to officially recognized and sanctioned denominations. There are many frightening precedents, such as the authoritarian test of the legitimacy of a conscientious war objector's exemption from military service based on an absolute pacifism espoused by a religious sect to which he can demonstrate long-standing active membership. The responsibility for moral behavior is thus given over to the authoritarian institution, and taken away from the individual citizen.

It may be and probably is true that in American society most people who have a formalized concept of spirituality, however personalized and secular, were first exposed to the idea of a transcendental reality through denominational ritual. Whether Southern Baptist testifying, Buddhist chanting and prayer wheels, Catholic confessions, mass and rosaries, Islamic bowing and scheduled daily prayer, Judaic Sabbath and holy days and dietary laws, Shamanic initiations and seasonal festivities....the effect of all denominational religious ritual and practiced repetitive behavior is to create a sacred space in the communal psychology.

Ritual survives in isolation, not in the open. Even the European-spanning hegemony of the Roman Church during the Dark Ages was isolated from most viable challenges (and it overcame many challenges in secret "cleansing" such as the Holy Inquisition). The need for orthodoxy to define heretics and adopt aggressive responses to their independent forms of spirituality is not simply a common-place in authoritarian religions. It is a defining characteristic.

But in the dawning age, isolation is less and less a viable protection against challenges to the legitimacy of absolutist claims. Before globalization, and before mass communication, isolation permitted local hegemonic rule with regard to spiritual orthodoxy and membership behavior, induction rituals and induced loyalty techniques. Such isolation has been vanquished by practical reality. Some dogmatists say the delegitimizing of their traditional control has been accomplished insidiously. They are right for reasons they do not admit. The clash and argument among spiritual traditions has had two main effects in the broadening and proliferating "crisis of faith" that so many orthodox authoritarians denounce and bemoan.

First, in the minds of the "secularized" who have been exposed to a vast array of cultural insights that seem to contradict home-grown traditional certainties, an abandonment of spirituality based on orthodox absolutism occurs, and a de-legitimization and jettisoning of "mythical baggage" occurs.

Second, there is a backlash, or regrouping coordinated by cultural authorities who sense that their legitimacy as social interpreters and spokesmen for the magical, spiritual aspect of community is being eroded. That backlash or regrouping may come in a call for "jihad," for a "cleansing" and vanquishing of the unholy, the infidels, the faithless, and the "bad" among us. Iran's fundamentalist revolution and the political insurgency of America's "Moral Majority," followed by the "Christian Coalition" are examples of this impulse to react against challenges to established institutional spiritual legitimacy. In the Roman occupation of Judea, certain crucifixions were carried out on a similar impulse to preserve the religious status quo.

Traditional hierarchies that attempt to shore-up an eroding base of cultural authority by coercive or influence-muscling means are often remembered for their inhumanity, and it is no real wonder that the primacy of "faith" over "acts" (or vice versa) has been an enduring debate among conflicting Christian sects. And even when one argument seems to ascend historically over the other based on such philosophical disagreements, it is mere lip service that is preserved; ritual and not reality or transcendence is funded, propagandized, and preserved.

And so those truly interested in spiritual transcendence, beyond the claims and certainties of authorities, must find soul in the interstices and internecine silences.

Does Spirit belong to the many denominations claiming to have found the formulae, the incantations, the Words of magic, and the script by which human life must be guided? And if not, then in this age of spiritual crisis, when doubt about the religious specifics is great, yet strife abounds over which religious tradition will dictate the agenda for vast populations in the informationally-linked though far-flung regions of the world, what can a person come to know, independent of bickering authorities, about the deeper meaning of life, about transcendence, about the soulfulness of becoming a human being?

It is problematic that humans are behaviorally territorial. They guard physical and psychological turf jealously against threats of change, against contests of "ownership." Nationalism and tribalism can often be defined simply in terms of controlled geography and resources. Ideology and dogmatism are defined in terms of controlled thought and loyalties, which is to say human resources easily accessed to advance and defend a social agenda dictated by those defining the dogma. The establishment of individual affinities for particular spiritual formulae and ritual is a paramount agenda of cultural education as defined by traditional, tribal, and national elites and authorities. It is in their interest to preserve such affinities against the most reasonable of counter-arguments, and they habitually fund and support any coercive or propagandistic measures necessary to ensure the preservation of isolationist and "traditionally moral" public sentiment. So, it is difficult for any individual to claim a personal spiritual agenda or quest with the expectation that society (any society) will recognize the legitimacy and validity of the pursuit, since in its individual nature it poses a threat to the relevancy of the cultural hierarchy.

Bible studies in the church basement of the neighborhood Lutheran or Presbyterian or Catholic or Baptist church on Sunday are unlikely to hear discussion about the ferment and unrest among the Jewish community at the time when Jesus of Nazareth wandered the region giving lectures that belittled the Roman occupation army and suggested defiance of unjust laws and the re-legitimizing of life by ignoring the go-along to get-along strategy of the establishment and instead adopting a self-legitimizing strategy of community building through genuineness, mutual respect, generosity, forgiveness of propagandized community grievances that lead to mutual intolerance, and the assertive get-involved attitude that made community again a possibility despite official resistance. There is an uncoverable, an exposable, an understandable but not forgivable reason for this: as they use to say in the sixties, "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." The denominational churches are part of the problem, because they acquiesce in the dehumanization and despiritualization of humanity by insisting on their dogmatic legitimacy rather than leading with their spiritual birthright: the original impetus that made them seek a separate path from the mainstream orthodoxy they once rejected.

Prophets who cry out in the desert sponsor few fundraisers. Usually, they have no bake sales. Seldom do they sell raffle tickets. Youth camps with swimming pools, catered lunches, chorus rehearsals during which miffed biddies dispute the talents of their Directorship usurpers, and Ritalin-drugged over-active adolescents garbed as acolytes collect pre-printed envelopes full of weekend leftover spare change seem somewhat to de-spiritualize the Christian experience, if there can be said to be such a thing. The individual seeker of transcendence is automatically an outcast and a pariah in virtually any well-established spiritual context. The actually saintly among us are gladly relegated by mainstream society to the desert, be it of sand and sun or of ostracism, public criticism, self-righteous comparisonism, shunning, or censorship. Wandering in the desert of public opinion is no less an exile than actual banishment to sand dunes. Isolation and sackcloth are the hermit's heritage. Such privations may not be the self-chosen mode of spiritual realization sought by most seekers in the modern wasteland of spirituality.

The need to keep the truly spiritual at a distance is society's problem, and a big problem indeed, since even the biggest hypocrites seem to easily vomit criticisms about the need for God to be brought in closer, and for goodness to be personalized and spirituality involved in every-day-life. Yet the notion that the truly spiritual who take-to-task the powerful among us are extreme in their public stance is supported by established sects and denominations, since they have so much at risk, so much to lose by challenging their immoral benefactors.

The projection of a needed or rather a posited distance between a more genuine spirituality and the individual who is preferred to be an obedient participant in the established order, rather than a conscious participant in creation, and the creation of order: this is society's original sin.

Given our unique times and given the fact that so many of our billions are either abandoning "faith" and communion with a tradition of belief in the tenets of a traditional religion, or alternately joining in Stoic and stubborn absolutism as mindless cannon fodder against "infidels," it should be recognized that we are also living in an unprecedented time of spiritual opportunity. This is a time in which the molecules of religious faith around the world are being atomized and individuals across the globe can, if they choose, ascend into the heady plasma, taste the ferment, and act as individuated spiritual agents for the common good -- a commonness and a good much broader and inclusive than most religions are accustomed to embracing.

In pursuing the spiritual path, one may serve law and high masters. Most religious traditions admit that to serve the highest good is the essence of morality. The long succession of interpreters of this morality often follow animal rather than spiritual instincts when they defend the right to insist on an immutable dogmatic territory beyond which minds and hearts may not roam. But the spiritual being knows no such cages. Every defined and bordered universe, for the truly spiritual, must be transcended. And so spirituality and liberty are not just interrelated; they are interdependent. One must be a bit "kitsch" in the eyes of established hierarchies just to be genuine. To be truly spiritual requires a more forthright rejection of hierarchical self-righteousness, and the embrace of dangerous and revolutionary ideas like love, forgiveness, non-dogmatism, universalism over patriotism, and other untenable political positions. There is a higher power than power itself.

Quotes from David Klinghoffer are from his "Kitsch Religion" in Dumbing Down: Essays on the Strip-Mining of American Culture, W.W. Norton Co., 1996, Katherine Washburn & John Thornton, Editors