April 12, 2007
President Bush has called Christ his most important moral teacher. Following this lead, the current administration regards itself as deeply religious and many of its members are very open about their faith. Yet, in spite of the abundant professions of piety, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that something is wrong somewhere. The source of the unease is obvious: Christ taught humility, meekness, loving one’s enemies, turning the other cheek and sacrificing one’s life for others. The Bush administration talks about a unipolar world and American empire, fights wars, tortures prisoners, defends that torture, builds an all-powerful presidency under “unitary executive” and ferociously character-assassinates those who disagree with it. This article investigates the mystery of how President Bush and his team can keep calling themselves Christians in spite of the obvious conflict between their actions and Christ’s teachings.
The Bush administration’s “christianity” has its roots in the debates about religious morality that have been going on since the early 20th century. The debates originally centered on sexual morality, but in the last few decades abortion and stem cells have become important sidelines. These subjects seem obviously important to Christian morality, but a look at popular religious texts used by an earlier group of Christian empire-builders, 17th-century Englishmen, raises the possibility that the debates have missed a key point. The reason for this is that the old texts reveal a very different morality: the most important sin was not sex (i.e., lust of the flesh) but pride (i.e., lust for power). The 17th-century view grew directly out of the Bible, because the devil’s sin was pride, not lechery, and Christ taught humility, not chastity.
The central role of pride and humility in early modern England points to a drastic change in the meaning of Christianity, because humility has largely disappeared from modern morality. An example of this loss can be seen in the million-selling Book of Virtues produced by the neoconservative William Bennett: the word “humility” is not mentioned in the book. The loss of humility is not complete, because the term can still occasionally be heard. For example, in the spring of 2005 former House majority leader, Tom DeLay, gave a widely acclaimed speech about the need for greater humility in public servants. The attitudes and behaviors “humility” used to signify have, however, totally disappeared. (See “Meek Imperialists“ for humility’s traditional meaning. Note that, unlike the neocons, the humility-internalizing 17th-century British empire-builders were extremely successful. Humility’s effects are counterintuitive.)
As to pride, today’s discussions of religious morality generally pass over this sin in polite silence. Actually, the situation is worse than just neglect. Several behaviors that were parts of pride are today parts of self-esteem, and this “psychological virtue” has been eagerly embraced by conservative theologians such as Charles Dobson. Pride thus has partially turned from sin to virtue.
The few studies that have been made of pride, such as Michael Eric Dyson’s recent Pride (OUP, 2006), discuss in outstanding detail classical and modern sources. However, they overlook the well-developed psychology of pride in late medieval and early modern literature on sins. This oversight is unfortunate, because the sin manuals sold by the hundreds of thousands, which means the “theory” of pride they contained was a hugely influential folk psychology among educated Europeans.
The failure to pay attention to the massive “research” on pride published between 1450 and 1700 may be a very dangerous omission for two reasons. The first of these is early modern religious psychologists” discovery that pride operated unconsciously: people controlled by this sin did not know they were proud, because their minds always came up with rational-sounding, even virtuous, excuses for the behavior. The only way to detect pride was to learn its details and apply that knowledge to oneself by introspective self-investigation. The lack of nuanced descriptions in today’s religious literature thus makes it impossible for modern “christians” to discover and overcome pride.
The second reason why loss of the old knowledge of pride may be dangerous is that late medieval and early modern theologians investigated this sin in great detail, and they found it to be an attitude stemming from a deep-seated yearning for power, status and admiration. This attitude influenced feelings, desires, “rational” thinking and behavior. This influence produced a personality characterized by dominance, contempt of others, quarrelsomeness, arrogance, vanity, boastfulness, stupidity, inability to be self-critical and lack of empathy. These traits were obviously harmful, and 17th-century theologians supported the Bible’s ferocious condemnations of pride by abundant evidence showing that over the long term this sin led to disaster through an entirely “secular” causality.
Unfortunately, current US politics abounds with examples of behaviors that early modern theologians regarded as pride’s dangers: the inability to be self-critical made a person incapable of noticing his flaws and correcting them (Christ is my favorite moral teacher. Stay the course.); the loss of self-criticism also produced a wildly overblown view of one’s capabilities, which resulted in megalomanical projects that could not possibly succeed (the “cakewalk” in Iraq, the Project for the New American Century); the overbearing dominance and arrogance infuriated everyone (the American empire and the unipolar world); a disparaging contempt of others” capabilities increased the hatred (“useless” UN and “old and weak” Europe); a habit of regarding everything as an insult requiring a ferocious response, which entangled the proud in endless cycles of revenge (“Bring them on”); and a lack of empathy that produced massive misjudgments on how others perceived one’s actions and reacted to them (“They”ll throw flowers on our tanks”). Inadvertently, the Bush administration’s actions and their effects make it easy to understand why pride is so central and so emphatically condemned in the Judeo-Christian moral tradition, and why 17th-century theologians wholeheartedly agreed with Biblical observations such as: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18); “The Lord will destroy the house of the proud” (Prov. 15:25); “Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord: though hand join in hand, he shall not be unpunished” (Prov. 16:5).
The answer to our original question of how the Bush administration can present itself as Christian while acting in ways totally contrary to Christ’s teaching is thus very simple: modern Christianity has lost the virtue of humility and a sense of the sin of pride. Humility is almost totally missing from today’s religious literature, and the few popular religious writers who have discussed pride, such as C.S. Lewis in his Mere Christianity, have massively “watered down” this sin by leaving out all details of its “worldly” dangers. The resulting gap in modern writings on religious morality prevents Americans from noticing that their leaders talk Christianity but practice pride. The lack of detailed descriptions also prevents Americans from realizing that the recent disasters in US foreign policy are just the formerly well-known effects of overweening pride.
The discovery that traditional pride and humility have largely disappeared is useful in debates with the warlike, neoconservative “christians” because it shows that these debates should focus on the meaning of Christian morality. Just ask simple questions: Where in your personality and behavior are the meekness, forgiveness, ability to turn the other cheek and love of enemies that Christ taught by His words and by the role-model of His actions? Where in your religious literature are the details of pride that were absolutely necessary for discovering this sin in oneself and in others? When asking these questions, emphasize the point that the opposition between Christ and the devil makes the pride/humility sin/virtue pair the most important fundament of Christian morality.
The debate can be continued by noting that in the Bible the Prince of Darkness often camouflaged himself as an angel of light. Fortunately, this camouflage could always be discovered, because pride was an attitude, and over the long term the devil could not hide its influence on his behavior. This point can be pressed home by describing the abundant signs of pride that seventeenth-century tests for detecting this sin revealed in the Bush administration (see above).
When debating a hard-line dispensationalist, who eagerly looks forward to the second coming of Christ and the all-encompassing final combat between good and evil, it might be worthwhile to point out that the leader of the wrong side in the battle of Armageddon is characterized—and can be recognized—by his pride. Follow this by summarizing the signs of pride in the Bush administration, and by asking the dispensationalist to read carefully “Left Behind” series’ detailed descriptions of the gruesome end of those who reject Christ’s teachings and allow themselves to be fooled into joining the hordes of the pride-motivated prince of darkness. Conclude by noting that the anti-Christ may not be a Moslem, but rather come from among those Americans who call themselves “Christian” even though they are totally consumed with pride.
A more detailed version of this argument can be found in “Piety and Politics: Have We Forgotten Christ’s Message?” For an in-depth discussion of humility in early modern England, see Kari Konkola “Meek Imperialists: Humility in 17th Century England.” A detailed discussion of the disappearance of humility from modern thinking about morality can be found in Kari Konkola, “Have We Lost Humility?” Humanitas, Vol. XVIII, Nos. 1 and 2, 2005, 187-205.