Category Archives: Religion

Frye: “Laissez-faire is Anti-Christian”

Today we end the tease and roll out Frye himself on the issue for which we’ve been laying the ground work the last little while: the witch’s brew of Christianity, Amercian Exceptionalism, and laissez-faire.

Here is Frye painstakingly analyzing American ideology as part of a United Church commission to study modern culture and its points of conflict with Christianity. The aim is to determine “the role of the church in the redemption of culture” (CW 11, 237). The report appeared as The Church and the Secular World (Toronto: Board of Evangelism and Social Service, 1950). It was a collective project, but Frye wrote the Tenets of Modern Culture section, from which this excerpt is taken.

1. The oldest civilization in the modern world is the American one, which was established in its present form in 1776. Modern France dates from the French Revolution; Great Britain began to assume its modern form with the Reform Bill of 1832; Germany and Italy entered the modern world in 1870; China in 1912; Russia in 1917, and so on. The party now in power in America [Democratic] is the oldest political party in the world, and the Stars and Stripes is one of the world’s oldest flags.

2. The axioms of this culture are essentially those of eighteenth-century Deism. There is no real world except the physical world and the order of nature, and our senses alone afford direct contact with it. Religion can provide no revelation of another; nature is red in tooth and claw; we must look to God only in man, and in nature to the extent that it is subdued by man. The essence of religion is morality, dogma and ritual being parasites that settle on it in decay. The chief end of man is to improve his own lot in the natural world, and the essential meaning of human life is the progressive removal of the obstacles presented by nature, including atavistic impulses in man himself. This is done chiefly through the advance of science, by which is meant the increase in the comfort of the body, of which the mind is a function.

3. The problems of American civilization are connected with the facts: (a) that these absurd notions, however inadquate to the modern world, form part of an unofficial established church in American society, are taught in schools, and are impressed on American children at their most impressionable age; (b) that the real churches have been too deeply contanimated with such ideas themselves to make much effective resistance against them; (c) that they form part of the ideology, not of democracy, but of laissez-faire, and yet have kidnapped and secularized the democratic spirit in American life, so that many Americans regard democracy as inseparable from laissez-faire.

4. The axioms and postulates of laissez-faire as the above indicates, are anti-Christian, and lead in the direction, not of democracy, but of managerial dictatorship. Such a dictatorship may be established in either of two ways: (a) through the consolidation of the power of the oligarchy (Fascism); (b) through the seizure of power by a revolutionary leadership established within the trade unions (Communism). The preservation of democracy thus depends on a balance of power held by the state and its elected representatives against the threat of a coup d’etat coming from either end of the economic machine. But Fascism and Communism claim to be the logical forms of true democracy, and both claim to be fighting, not democracy, but one another, for each maintains that democracy merely the propaganda facade of its rival. (CW 11, 237-8)

(Graphic from the article “Is Jesus a Socialist?” in, which is worth reading)

“Why Evangelicals Hate Jesus”

We’ll be posting Frye on Christianity and laissez faire capitalism shortly, but we’re holding back a little because relevant material seems to be coming at us from all directions. Our friend Matthew, for example, has sent us a link to an article at, “Why Evanglicals Hate Jesus.”

A sample:

Jesus unambiguously preached mercy and forgiveness. These are supposed to be cardinal virtues of the Christian faith. And yet Evangelicals are the most supportive of the death penalty, draconian sentencing, punitive punishment over rehabilitation, and the governmental use of torture. Jesus exhorted humans to be loving, peaceful, and non-violent. And yet Evangelicals are the group of Americans most supportive of easy-access weaponry, little-to-no regulation of handgun and semi-automatic gun ownership, not to mention the violent military invasion of various countries around the world. Jesus was very clear that the pursuit of wealth was inimical to the Kingdom of God, that the rich are to be condemned, and that to be a follower of Him means to give one’s money to the poor. And yet Evangelicals are the most supportive of corporate greed and capitalistic excess, and they are the most opposed to institutional help for the nation’s poor — especially poor children. They hate anything that smacks of “socialism,” even though that is essentially what their Savior preached. They despise food stamp programs, subsidies for schools, hospitals, job training — anything that might dare to help out those in need. Even though helping out those in need was exactly what Jesus urged humans to do. In short, Evangelicals are that segment of America which is the most pro-militaristic, pro-gun, and pro-corporate, while simultaneously claiming to be most ardent lovers of the Prince of Peace.

Quote of the Day: Christianity and Fundamentalist Americanism

Coinciding with our own exploration of conservative Christianity and capitalism, here’s Andrew Sullivan today on Christianity and a noxious brand of American Exceptionalism:

The relationship between religion and politics is, to my mind, the central question of our time. As the false totalisms of the twentieth century – communism, fascism, Nazism – have been revealed as oppressive, murderous lies, insecure and inadequate human beings in need of totalist solutions to the human dilemma have returned to religion. But more accurately, they have returned to fundamentalism, because only fundamentalism, with its absolute certainty and literal precision and binding, unquestionable authority, can assuage the anxieties of a world dislocated from tradition, up-ended by capitalism, globalized to the point of cultural panic.

What we are seeing on the Republican right at the moment, it seems to me, is an extension of this response to anxiety. The new orthodoxy is fundamentalist Americanism. This is not regular American exceptionalism of the kind that the president adheres to: a belief that this miraculous new world has opened up vistas of democratic opportunity to the rest of the planet, that its inspired constitution has enabled stability and freedom in equal measure, that it played an indispensable role in keeping freedom alive during some dark, dark times, and that its core idea – government by, for and of the people – is universalist in nature. No, the Americanism now heard on the right is that America was uniquely founded on Christianity, that America is therefore a chosen instrument of divine Providence, and that this moral superiority is so profound that indicting America on any prudential, moral or political grounds is un-American or, if it comes from abroad, evil.


All of this is routine for authoritarian nationalist movements. What distinguishes this one is a co-optation of Christianity. But, of course, Christianity cannot be co-opted by nationalism. It is opposed to all such distinctions:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Yes, the Messiah came from a Chosen People, but in Christianity, Jesus’s death and resurrection made the whole world that chosen people. At the Feast of the Ascension yesterday, we Catholics heard at Mass the words of Jesus from Matthew:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

And so the notion of America as a unique nation in the eyes of God is a Christian heresy. And the rest of the current Republican agenda is also, extremely hard to square with Christian orthodoxy.

(Graphic from The Button Pushing Monkey)

Capitalism and Christian Values

Over the last week we’ve been citing Frye on religious fundamentalism and false literalism. This week we’re turning our attention to the affinity of the Christian right and laissez faire capitalism.

That affinity is confirmed by a Religious News Service poll published in April. According to the poll, 36 percent of Christians say capitalism and the free market are consistent with Christian values; 44 percent say the two are at odds.

However, party affiliation significantly influences this view. Among Democrats, only 26 percent say Christian values and capitalism are compatible, while a majority, 53 percent, say they are at odds. Among Republicans, on the other hand, a full 46 percent say the two are compatible, while only 37 percent say they are at odds. (Not surprisingly, among Tea Partiers a solid majority, 56 percent, say they are compatible.) Finally, 44 percent of white evangelicals say that fully unregulated businesses would act ethically.

Add to all of this massive tax-exempt funding of conservative megachurches, as well as the deeply entrenched influence of conservative think tanks, corporate sponsorship, talk radio, the increasingly rightward slant of the mainstream news media, as well as the nonstop agitprop of Fox News, and that’s a heavy thumb on the scales in favor of Christian/conservative/laissez faire values.

We’ll see what Frye has to say about this shortly.

Ruholla Khomeini and False Literalism


News report on the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini

Our thread on fundamentalism continues. Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini died on this date in 1989 (born 1900).

From The Double Vision:

I am, of course, isolating only one element in Christianity, but cruelty, terror, intolerance, and hatred within any religion always means that God has been replaced by the devil, and such things are always accompanied by a false kind of liberalism. At present some other religions, notably Islam, are even less reassuring than our own. As Marxist and American imperialisms decline, the Moslem world is emerging as the chief threat to world peace, and the spark-plug of its intransigence, so to speak, is its fundamentalism or false literalism of belief. The same principle of demonic perversion applies here: when Khomeini gave order to have Salman Rushdie murdered, he was turning the whole of the Koran into Satanic verses. In our own culture, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a future New England in which a reactionary religious movement has brought back the hysteria, bigotry, and sexual sadism of seventeenth century Puritanism. Such a development may seem unlikely just now, but the potential is still there. (CW 4, 177-78)

Thomas Hardy and God


A beautiful clip from the 1996 film adaptation of Jude the Obscure

More synchronicity: today is Thomas Hardy‘s birthday (1840-1928), and he adds nicely to our ongoing consideration of religion, compassion for the poor, and the pseudo-literal conception of God. Here’s Frye in “The Times of the Signs”:

A later poet, Thomas Hardy, is never tired of showing what an imbecile God turns out to be if we create him in the image of the starry order. Hardy has a poem called God’s Education, in which God is represented as learning from the misery of man, in the manner of middle-class people reluctantly coming to realize that some people are not only poor but poorer than they should be. He has another called By the Earth’s Corpse, where God remarks, at the end of time, that he wishes he had never started on this creation business, for which he clearly has so little talent. (CW 27, 349)

Rameses the Great and “Literal” Meaning in the Bible


“New evidence linking Rameses and Moses”

A little synchronicity: Rameses II the Great became pharaoh of Egypt on this date in 1279 BCE; Frye makes reference to him in “Symbolism in the Bible” to correct misapprehension about the “literal” meaning of the Bible. The Bible records not history, but a typological manifestation of concern:

[W]hen John the Baptist is asked if he is Elijah, he says that he is not. Now, there is no difficulty there, unless you want to foul yourselves up over a totally impossible conception of literal meaning: reincarnation in its literal there’s-that-man-again form is not a functional doctrine in the Bible. At the same time, metaphorically, which is one of the meanings of “spiritually” in the New Testament, John the Baptist is a reborn Elijah just as Nero is a reborn Nebuchadnezzar or Rameses II. So, it is not surprising that the great scene of the Transfiguration in the Gospels should show Jesus as flanked by Moses on one side and Elijah on the other — that is, the Word of God with the law and the prophets supporting him. Again, that has its demonic parody in the figure of the crucified Christ with the two theives flanking him on either side. (CW 13, 499-50)

Frye on False Literalism: “The Bible is explicitly antireferential in structure”


Picking up again on our examination of the relation of Christian fundamentalism to right wing politics, here’s Frye in “The Double Mirror” on the false literalism of fundamentalists. (It’s a long excerpt, but it leads up to the last paragraph that makes it worth the effort.)

The traditional view of the Bible, as we all know, has been that it must be regarded as “literally” true. This view of “literal” meaning assumes that the Bible is a transparent medium of words conveying a “true” picture of historical events and conceptual doctrines. It is a vehicle of “revelation,” and revelation means that something objective, behind the words, is being conveyed directly to the reader. It is also an “inspired” book, and inspiration means that its authors were, so to speak, holy tape-recorders, writing at the dictation of an external spiritual power.

This view is based on an assumption about verbal truth that needs examining. One direction is centripetal, where we establish a context out of the words read; the other is centrifugal, where we try to remember what the words mean in the world outside. Sometimes the external meanings take on a structure descriptive or nonliterary. Here the question of “truth” arises: the structure is “true” if it is a satisfactory counterpart to the external  structure to it is parallel. If there is no external counterpart, the structure is said to be literary or imaginative, existing for its own sake, and hence often considered a form of permissible lying. If the Bible is “true,” tradition says, it must be a nonliterary counterpart of something outside it. It is, as Derrida would say, an absence invoking a presence, the “word of God” as a book pointing to “the word of God” as speaking presence in history. It is curious that although this view of Biblical meaning was intended to exalt the Bible as a uniquely sacrosanct book, it in fact turned it into a servomechanism, its words conveying truths or events that by definition were more important than the words were. The written Bible, this view is really saying, is a concession to time: as Socrates says of writing in the Phaedrus, it is intended only to call to mind something that has passed away from presence. The real basis of the Bible, for all theologians down to Karl Barth at least, is the presence represented by the phrase “God speaks.”

We have next to try to understand how this view arose. In a primitive society (whatever we mean by primitive), there is a largely undifferentiated body of verbal material, held together by the sense of its importance to that society. This material tells the society what the society needs to know about its history, religion, class structure, and law. As society becomes more complex, these elements become more distinct and autonomous. Legend and saga develop into history; stories, sacred or secular, develop into literature; a mixture of practical knowledge and magic develops into science. Society struggles to contain these elements within its overriding concerns, and tries to impose on them a structure of authority that will keep them unified, as Christianity did in medieval times. About two generations ago there was a fashion for crying up the Middle Ages as a golden age in which all aspects of culture were unified by common sentiments and beliefs. Similar developments, with a similar appeal, are taking place today in Marxist countries.

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William Blake: “It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity”

Further to Michael’s previous posts, “What Would Jesus Defund?”, here’s William Blake, the man Frye says taught him everything he knows, on the everyday indifference to the poor in The Four Zoas, “Night the Seventh,” ll. 111-29:

It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer’s sun
And in the vintage and to sing on the waggon loaded with corn.
It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted,
To speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer,
To listen to the hungry raven’s cry in wintry season
When the red blood is fill’d with wine and with the marrow of lambs.

It is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements,
To hear the dog howl at the wintry door, the ox in the slaughter house moan;
To see a god on every wind and a blessing on every blast;
To hear sounds of love in the thunder storm that destroys our enemies’ house;
To rejoice in the blight that covers his field, and the sickness that cuts off his children,
While our olive and vine sing and laugh round our door, and our children bring fruits and flowers.

Then the groan and the dolor are quite forgotten, and the slave grinding at the mill,
And the captive in chains, and the poor in the prison, and the soldier in the field
When the shatter’d bone hath laid him groaning among the happier dead.

It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity:
Thus could I sing and thus rejoice: ‘but it is not so with me.’

‘Compel the poor to live upon a crust of bread, by soft mild arts.
Smile when they frown, frown when they smile; and when a man looks pale
With labour and abstinence, say he looks healthy and happy;
And when his children sicken, let them die; there are enough
Born, even too many, and our earth will be overrun
Without these arts. If you would make the poor live with temper,
With pomp give every crust of bread you give; with gracious cunning
Magnify small gifts; reduce the man to want a gift, and then give with pomp.
Say he smiles if you hear him sigh. If pale, say he is ruddy.
Preach temperance: say he is overgorg’d and drowns his wit
In strong drink, though you know that bread and water are all
He can afford. Flatter his wife, pity his children, till we can
Reduce all to our will, as spaniels are taught with art.’