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Alan Lenzi

A liberal's civil religious prayer: "May Sarah Palin's god bless her and keep her . . . far from the Oval Office." Alaska will do.

steph

She is one freaky thing. Her war is a 'task from God'? A vote for her is a vote for Armageddon. I like Alan's prayer.

JohnFH

Steph,

It seems as if you deliberately misunderstand Sarah Palin, even after her clarification. I'm not surprised, really, but I think your comment says a lot about you and little at all about Sarah Palin.

Alan Lenzi

I don't think there's any question that America has invoked a deity to support many of its ideas, plans, and actions (military or otherwise), historically as well as in the present. It's problematic, as far as I am concerned, for any leader to do it EVER. And many--many of them--do it in various degrees.

Leaving aside the fact that they are praying to thin air, the rhetorical effect is to arrogate a divine power to the side of a human and very fallible authority. That mobilizes (some) people to get behind a policy as if one's religious commitment were at stake. It also can bolster leader's ideas that they are acting as a divine agent. When guns and bombs are involved, that's dangerous.

On a different level of analysis, invoking god on one's political side is akin to praying for god to let / cause (?) your sport's team to beat the opposing one. When I was a little Christian kid, we were told that wasn't appropriate. If the Christian god is universal (and multi-national), it is theologically problematic for a nation to believe itself especially chosen to lead the cause of god on earth. It's not playing fair.

On a totally different tact, why are we fighting the Middle Eastern powers? Isn't the anti-Christ supposed to arise from there, attack Israel, and lead to Armageddon and the consummation of all things?

Sorry, couldn't resist. . . .

Seriously: I think the reason Palin is getting heat on this issue is context.

First, there's the prayer's context. People focus in on that one prominent phrase at Wasilla, "a task that is from god" and the rest of her talking is overshadowed by that. A task from god is a very strong statement. It sounds like the kind of thinking that motivated the destruction of the twin towers.

There is also the political and social context. As the youtube clip shows, others have said similar things as Palin. But the present political and cultural climate has changed the game. So Palin's kind of statement sets off alarms.

What climate? First, Palin is a conservative who obviously takes her religious commitments very seriously. In the wake of a previous religiously conservative and very unpopular presidential administration, people are concerned. Second, America has been bombarded recently by a very vocal group of atheists who have sensitized the media (those liberals who actually listen to atheists on occasion) to issues of religion and politics. So the media is going to question theological statements. And third, Palin's comments concern a war that has become extremely costly in terms of lives and finances and quite unpopular. If someone thinks it's a mission from god, they may not be able to reason about it properly. They should be questioned.

So whatever the history of the USA, in the present situation it is quite understandable and even important to question Palin about this issue. Even if the reporter misunderstands the issue or is trying to trap the interviewee, raising questions and seeking clarifications and answers is what we expect from them--and we criticize them when they don't.

JohnFH

Alan,

Thank you as always for your thoughtful comments. I was expecting you to take the discussion back to neo-Assyrian propaganda and their civil religion, and the parody and response to it in, for example, Isaiah 37. I wrote a dissertation on the topic for which Mario Liverani was the correlatore. As you know, Liverani has written insightfully on the topic of political propaganda in the ANE. It helps that Liverani is an atheist. He has a clear take on the question, whereas theists muddle it up way too easily.

You say:

"In the wake of a previous religiously conservative and very unpopular presidential administration, people are concerned."

We'll see how concerned very soon. Concerned enough to vote for someone who has one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate? That's not a problem for you, who may very well self-identify as a political liberal. But it may be for others.

Concerned enough to clamor for a reduction of the amount of civil religion in American political discourse? Excluding a few ex-Christians like you, apparently not. Putting God into politics, not "god," but "God" - there is a difference - seems to be on the rise.

As a believer, I am flattered on the one hand and concerned on the other.

If I were a Democrat (I'm not, nor am I a Republican), I wouldn't have chosen a candidate for President that far to the left. But the sociology of polarization does that to the parties faithful.

steph

sorry I shouldn't have commented. I couldn't listen to more that the very beginning because I haven't got broadband and that first couple of sentences took more than five minutes to hear in two word segments. I didn't hear her clarification. But as I oppose war on moral grounds, and especially the American led invasion of Iraq, appeals to God for its justification make me shiver. Everything else said by her that I have read terrifies me.

I'm sorry to have offended you but I didn't deliberately misunderstand her.

JohnFH

Steph,

I am not so easily offended. If you are opposed to war on moral grounds, you are in a tight spot in these elections.

Obama has certainly not run on a pacifist platform. Instead, he has deliberately given a series of mixed signals. If the advisors he has chosen are any guide (including people like Holbrooke), the chances of an Obama administration representing a clean break with the past are nil.

I don't see that as a bad thing myself, but I would if I were a pacifist.

Putting God into politics, not "god," but "God" - there is a difference - seems to be on the rise.

In American civil religion "God"--big G--is a blank screen on which we can each project our image of the deity. The founders were very clever to leave the term undefined. If there's a difference between Big G-god and little g-god it's in the mind of the folks running the projectors. I don't see a difference because my god-screen is blank.

As a believer, I am flattered on the one hand and concerned on the other.

If you understand the NA imperial and Second Isaian religious propaganda, I'd expect you to be more concerned than flattered. We're living in a modern NA empire (USA) and "Second Isaiah" (American "Judeo-Christian-based" civil religion) is reveling in the fact that Yahweh has taken (or should take) the place of Ashur.

Atheist and religious groups should be very, very concerned: atheists for obvious reasons; religious groups because they're in danger of losing their prophetic stance in relation to the general culture--always a danger but especially so presently, it seems to me.

Alan Lenzi

That last one was me.

JohnFH

Alan,

Interesting comparisons. Do you really think the USA is a modern-day NA empire? Wow. Are you a fan of Chomsky's political views? Nothing wrong with that: I just wasn't expecting it.

If instead you are willing to admit that the US is an empire sui generis, that it is not in the cards for the US to be anything other than the dominant superpower for the forseeable future, and that the only reasonable debate revolves around how and to what end the US will exercise the hard and soft hegemonies it has inherited, as the historian Niall Ferguson argues, then we might have an interesting discussion.

As it is, our positions may be too far apart to make rapprochement and compromise possible.

BTW, I would consider Isa 37, the poetry at least, to go back to First Isaiah (see Machinist, Cohen, etc.).

In any case, there is no nation supposedly under our thumb whose soldiers and civilians we impale on stakes that derides us as Zion derides Assyria in that chapter. Unless you count countries run by tinpot dictators like Zimbabwe, Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea. The only people "disappearing" in these countries do so at the hands of their government, not ours.

In short, I don't see a firm analogy. But if you really think there is, you can always write in Dennis Kucinich. Obama is not your man.

I enjoy making comparisons as much as the next person.

What happened in Iraq reminds me more of Second Isaiah. In Iraq there were millions of Shia who were oppressed under a cruel Pharoah and who prayed constantly for coming of the Mahdi (Messiah). Instead, along comes G. W. Bush (he had his own agenda, but that is how these things go). You have to admit, it's a bit of a letdown. The guy doesn't do a good Cyrus imitation.

But that's who the Iraqi Shia owe their enfranchisement to. To him and to the neocons. It is a historical event of the first order, when you think about it. It even is beginning to look permanent. History is very funny sometimes.

steph

No I know Obama is not a pacifist and the peacemakers in America have a hard task ahead. I am from down under so I am merely a non voting observer. Sadly I think Robert Fisk is right - it makes no difference to the Middle East whether McCain or Obama get in. The problem is that the west are in the middle east and Obama doesn't look likely to change that. Still, I think for the rest of us, Obama is slightly better than the alternative.

JohnFH

Steph,

My goodness, I thought Robert Fisk was thoroughly discredited. But in this case, he's certainly right.

There are very cool heads that argue, however, that McCain is less likely to be trigger-happy than Obama, since Obama not McCain has to prove his bona fides in a situation that might require the use of lethal force.

Alan Lenzi

Let's be clear. No candidate is going to win me over on every issue. I'm a weird mix--maybe inconsistent in my views since they are still forming. Quite frankly, my political views have been in flux in the last couple of years as my religious views have changed (and I became more politically engaged). I actually voted libertarian in the last presidential election because I thought both (R) and (D) guys were clowns. And now, although I liked Obama in the primary, I'm beginning to shake my head at everyone's antics, including his. I don't know how to make sense of this all, but I don't assume either candidate is going to usher in a golden age.

Ok, about the analogy: I'm slightly embarrassed that I ran rough shod over your very clear reference to Isa 37, in first Isaiah, and then paired Second Isaiah with Neo-Assyrian times. I guess my desire to make an analogy over rode my historical knowledge there. So my analogy is sort of a mixed historical one. But I'm standing by it, as I explain it below.

First, the analogy was broad, only intended to make a general point. Of course there are differences between us and the NAs. One of the biggest is our ability to criticize openly and (hopefully) oust leaders who take us in the wrong direction. So the analogy is limited. (And no, I'm not a big fan of Chomsky.)

What I meant to say is that the USA is the greatest military and for a while still the greatest economic power in the world. We are the only super power; and we are certainly an empire. In this respect, we are very much like the NA empire. They gobbled up a huge swath of real estate and amassed an unparalleled amount of power in their time. We don't have the territory (though we have bases throughout the entire world so we can keep our eyes on other people's territory), but we certainly have the same level of power, though magnified through technology, that the NAs wielded.

The Assyrians reveled in their military; do we not do the same? You bet. No we don't impale people on poles like the Assyrians, but we bomb the infrastucture out from under people from time to time--Baghdad in the 90s and more recent events. We don't flay leaders alive or hang their heads in the rose garden, but we authorize covert operations and use extreme interrogation techniques (of course, this is not torture) on enemy combatants. I'm worried about our militarism. It's morally questionable at times (why invade Iraq only? why not other countries who need liberated?). And I think our commitments overseas are over-extending us financially (just as the NA empire aspirations stretched them thin).

I'm also convinced that we have a huge propaganda machine spinning some necessary things like the military to an unhealthy level in order to assimilate everyone into the imperial ideal.

But it's not just power and military that are similar. With your extreme example from the NA empire (impaling), I think you are only focusing on the military image of the NA empire (e.g., on the military themed reliefs and annals). But they also made efforts at diplomacy, just as we do, even if theirs was more strong armed than we typically see the US use. They brokered political deals with covenants that would advance their imperial interests. They had a vast network of ambassadors, representatives, etc. who carried out diplomatic relations where ever the NAs had an interest. We do the same. (Yes, we give a good amount of money away for humanitarian reasons. I'd like to think of that as an important difference from the NAs.)

The NAs maintained a huge intelligence / espionage network to keep tabs on everyone. Just as we do.

Also, the NA empire tended toward economic centripetalism, that is, they were big on draining the periphery and bringing prosperity to the capital. Do we not do the same, to some extent? We import cheaply made products from other countries privileged to trade with us and look to other places to fuel our energy needs. I'm not saying this is all bad. I'd like to hope that that this could help raise the standard of living in some places. But I'm not sure it's working (look at Saudi and ask yourself if the oil trade with that nation is helping the average joe). Moreover, when we can't get what we want, we can always turn to the military to protect our interests as we have in Central America in the early 20th century and presently in the Middle East.

So we may be different in many ways, but the similarities are just as striking. That's what I was trying to point out on the one side of the analogy.

The other side of the analogy is Second Isaiah, who poked fun at the later Mesopotamian power, the Neo-Babylonian empire, and their magnified self-importance and ridiculous--from Israel's perspective--religious practices. Second Isaiah was a voice of dissent against the dominant power and their trappings. He knew a different, higher power that would call the Babylonians to account. Today, however, I think we have too closely identified our best religious resource for dissent with the powers that be. Yahweh has become Ashur (or Marduk) in the here and now. In other words, instead of speaking out against the dominant power and trying to keep the government in check, Christians have taken the "civil religion" idea too far and identified their faith with the fate of America. This happens from time to time in America. I know. But I'm concerned about the present manifestation of the tendency. And I know that not everyone is doing this, but I see a tendency. Even Pentecostals, like Sarah Palin and John Ashcroft, have gotten political! That's remarkable. Suddenly god and country take on a whole new meaning as more and more people begin confusing their piety with their nationalism. They vote Republican because they're Christian.

I'm much more comfortable hearing religious people condemn and challenge predominant practices and policies. It's the biblical tradition! I used to hear about that in church as a kid. But things changed in the 80s.

The analogy is limited and, yes, the US is in a unique situation in world history. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't all be looking back in our collective past to help us think about how to navigate the uncharted waters. Presently, I think we're off course.

I don't know that answer. And I don't think either candidate is going to change the world over night.

JohnFH

Thanks, Alan. As usual, I am impressed by your candor and sharp insights.

steph

No Fisk isn't discredited. What on earth makes you say that? He is highly regarded. I shouldn't think Americans think much of him though seeing he has nothing good to say about America. I don't see how McCain could be better than Obama, nor what makes you think Obama would be "trigger happy". The only hope for the Middle East situation is for America to get out of it completely but that will never happen with either man as president.

steph

I should have said "not all Americans would think much of him" as he does have an appreciative audience among some.

steph

Of course I do understand that he is seen to be "thoroughly discredited" by those who favour American led intervention in the M.E.

JohnFH

Steph,

Your last clarification is important.

Most Americans are big supporters of Israel, and would never leave that country to the tender mercies of its neighbors, something that Fisk would not only allow, but actively wishes for.

Most Americans would rather have the the Arabs gargle with their oil than have us buy it from them.

Unfortunately, neither political party here has put forward a serious energy policy for decades. We should have followed the example of the French, and switched to nuclear power as much as possible.

In short, the US will continue to have two feet firmly planted in the Middle East ofr the forseeable future. To your dismay and that of Fisk. It can't be helped, at least not for the moment, as you yourself seem to realize.

steph

Oh - Fisk is not a lonely voice screaming in a sea of opposition. There are many other academics, journalists and ordinary people, equally vocal, who echo his sentiments, as you must well know. I was listening to a visiting Harvard academic promoting his new book, talking about America the bully, less than an hour ago. I only selected Fisk because I read and hear alot more of him and his credentials are particularly pertinent.

JohnFH

Yep, you can find quite a few people who think like Fisk on university campuses and among journalists. I quite agree.

steph

oh more than that - there are politicians and ordinary people on the street. Just take a trip to the Commonwealth countries.

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  • Singing in the Reign
    NT blog by Michael Barber (JP University) and Brad Pitre (Our Lady Holy Cross)
  • Stay Curious
    excellent comment on Hebrew Bible and Hebrew language topics, by Karyn Traphagen, graduate, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia PA (archive)
  • Sufficiency
    A personal take on the faith delivered to the saints, by Bob MacDonald, whose parallel blog on the Psalms in Hebrew is a colorful and innovative experiment
  • The Sundry Times
    Gary Zimmerli's place, with comment on Bible translations and church renewal
  • Sunestauromai: living the crucified life
    by a scholar-pastor based in the Grand Canyon National Park
  • ta biblia
    blog dedicated to the New Testament and the history of Christian origins, by Giovanni Bazzana
  • Targuman
    by Christian Brady, targum specialist extraordinaire, and dean of Schreyer Honors College, Penn State University
  • Targuman
    on biblical and rabbinic literature, Christian theology, gadgetry, photography, and the odd comic, by Christian Brady, associate professor of ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature and dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State
  • The Biblia Hebraica Blog
    a blog about Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the history of the Ancient Near East and the classical world, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, early Judaism, early Christianity, New Testament interpretation, English Bible translations, biblical theology, religion and culture, philosophy, science fiction, and anything else relevant to the study of the Bible, by Douglas Magnum, PhD candidate, University of the Free State, South Africa
  • The Forbidden Gospels Blog
    by April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies, Rice University
  • The Naked Bible
    by Mike Heiser, academic editor at Logos Bible Software
  • The Reformed Reader
    by Andrew Compton, Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (focus on Hebrew and Semitic Languages) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • The Sacred Page
    a blog written by three Catholic Ph.D.s who are professors of Scripture and Theology: Michael Barber, Brant Pitre and John Bergsma
  • The Talmud Blog
    a group blog on Talmud News, Reviews, Culture, Currents, and Criticism
  • Theological German
    a site for reading and discussing theological German, by Mark Alter
  • theoutwardquest
    seeking spirituality as an outward, not an inward quest, by David Corder
  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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    Copyright © 2005 by John F Hobbins.