America is always in a constant state of tension between our lofty ideals about equality and the seedier side effects of our love affair with capitalism–between our need to be better than someone and our responsibility to love them.
Conservative Christians, it seems, have always been at the fault line for these socio-tectonic forces.
In the formative years of our nation, the process of the U.S. becoming an economic powerhouse was driven by slavery. Conservative Christians of the 19th Century were forced to justify slavery by deemphasizing the humanness of their slaves. While it is true that slavery was always a worldwide phenomenon, that strange dichotomy at play within the dynamic of the United States changed the very nature of slavery. Slavery metamorphosized from an economic side effect of one people conquering another to the brand best recognized by its racist qualities. In order to continue to justify slavery in a country that wanted to appear morally pious, slaveholders had to sell the message that they were naturally superior to their slaves. This opened the door for those slaveholders to claim that they were acting out of a sense of moral benevolence. Since they were taking “godless savages” out of the Dark Continent and converting them to Christianity, it made precious little difference how those former savages were treated on this side of heaven. Somehow, skillfully omitted from this narrative was the biblical mandate to love the least of these. Money was being made and, in order to assure the unimpeded cash flow, the propaganda that “we are better than them” was stitched into fabric of our society. That stitching has yet to unravel.
Despite the obvious warnings in the Bible about the love of money and the fact that it calls on us to love one another, even as God loves us, we are still consumed by the need to have someone below us on the ladder of society. That is among the uglier results of capitalism. Our chosen economic system is touted for its opportunities. We are told that it affords us all with a chance at the American Dream. It is true, the American Dream is out there and some find it in a big way. Most of us spend our lives chasing it to varying levels of success. Some of us achieve it to its fullest and many never even get a sniff of it. The dirty little secret of the whole system is this: By its very nature, capitalism requires some to have much, some to have less, some to have much less, and some to have next to nothing. There, I said it. Those at the top of the heap allow those in the middle to have just enough that they feel good about being in the middle. As long as we have someone to feel superior to, we can be manipulated to keep playing the game.
Lyndon Johnson famously nailed this concept as it applies to politics.
“If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice that you are picking his pocket. Hell, give him someone to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
-Lyndon B. Johnson
There is an awful lot of truth in that statement. While race is certainly still a part of the equation, you could take the black and white out of it and it still would apply.
When push comes to shove, at some level, we all have a need to feel better than someone else. This fact is at play at the very core of most of the issues of our time. Sometimes, it becomes exposed and makes us uncomfortable. This happens whenever a group of people become so frustrated at their station in life that they see no other recourse but to riot. I wrote at length about this topic here. All a riot is, in essence, is the visual manifestation of a group of people who feel like they have nobody below them anymore. When we have nobody to look down upon, we become desperate and lash out…perhaps you’ve felt this way at work from time to time. When this happens, people are often driven to act in ways that are not in their best interests. Outsiders see them and react in judgement which results in further marginalization. Things go from bad to worse. All the while, love is eclipsed.
Most recently, we saw this phenomenon played out in the election of Donald Trump. Conservative Christians, struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing social landscape, began to feel like they were being marginalized. They heard a lot of talk about people they once felt were clearly below them potentially being raised up to a status of equal rights and they lashed out with their vote. They heard someone ranting and raving about making America great again and the message was not lost on them. They knew what that really meant. They heard that message for the dog whistle that it was. So they justified voting for a man who had a track record as far from that of a Christian as one could possibly imagine and propped him up as an instrument of God. They justified it by demonizing and vilifying the opposition, hijacking a message of inclusion and love and bastardizing it into some unholy sinful concoction. They were thrown a small bone in the form of a tax cut here, a bonus check there, or a temporarily inflated 401k portfolio and they were made to feel superior once again and willfully turned a blind eye to all manner of scandalous behaviors coming from the White House.
Hate and greed overwhelmed love and generosity.
The need to be better than someone became stronger than the responsibility to love them.
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