Virtue and Virtus on the Ides of March

Joel Osteen has come under fire for speaking highly of Donald Trump, saying “He’s been a friend of our ministry. He’s a good man.”  Whether or not these remarks constitute an endorsement, it certainly feels revealing of how both religion and politics have shifted in recent years. Once again, our Election HQ color commentator Bertrand Russell:

A modern democracy, unlike those of antiquity, confers great power upon certain chosen individuals, Presidents or Prime Ministers, and must expect of them kinds of merit which are not expected of the ordinary citizen. When people are not thinking in terms of religion or political controversy, they are likely to hold that a good President is more to be honoured than a good bricklayer. In a democracy, a President is not expected to be quite like Aristotle’s magnanimous man, but still he is expected to be rather different from the average citizen, and to have certain merits connected with his station. These peculiar merits would perhaps not be considered “ethical,” but that is because we use this adjective in a narrower sense than that in which it is used by Aristotle.

As a result of Christian dogma, the distinction between moral and other merits has become much sharper than it was in Greek times. It is a merit in a man to be a great poet or composer or painter, but not a moral merit; we do not consider him the more virtuous for possessing such aptitudes, or the more likely to go to heaven. Moral merit is concerned solely with acts of will, i.e. with choosing rightly among possible courses of action.  I am not to blame for not composing an opera, because I don’t know how to do it. The orthodox view is that, wherever two courses of action are possible, conscience tells me which is right, and to choose the other is sin. Virtue consists mainly in the avoidance of sin, rather than in anything positive.

While Osteen is of course a Christian minister, his sermons and books often put theology of any kind, let alone the fire-and-brimstone kind, on the back burner. The one Osteen sermon I listened to straight through was literally about losing a file on Microsoft Word because he didn’t save it properly. It was a little masterpiece of KISS (Keep-It-Simple-Stupid) composition and appealing delivery, the kind of thing you’d study closely if you wanted to get better at giving toasts at weddings, but it was hard to know what if anything it had to with Christianity.

Ross Douthat has written a lot on the changes in American Christianity and the emergence of theology-free ministry. As he said in one interview about his book, Bad Religion:

Q: Is that what divides a Billy Graham from a prosperity gospel proponent like Joel Osteen?

A: Graham was able to combine a spirit of inclusion with a spirit of judgment, which obviously is a very tricky thing to do. The genius of Graham was he could stand up and preach a very stark simple Christian message, emphasizing his audience’s sinfulness and the need for repentance and the need to turn to Christ. Osteen’s genius is purely inclusive. Osteen’s message can be very inspiring and sometimes you need to hear that God loves you. But for Osteen that’s the entirety of his message. And there’s no room in that message for the possibility of real human sinfulness and real repentance. There’s no room in that message for the existence of suffering. Osteen’s message is that all people have to do is pray a little harder or have more faith in God and he will take their suffering away — and then also bless them with a big car and big house. That’s the point of having a cross hanging over a church: to offer a reminder that Jesus himself suffered and there are ways to live with suffering that don’t involve waiting for God to take it away.

One of the points Douthat has made repeatedly (which is right in line with Bertrand Russell’s remarks above) is that, in some ways, the abandonment of Christian theology and the emergence of moralistic therapeutic deism (or whatever you want to call most Americans’ sorta-kinda religion these days) isn’t just about the Brave New World of personal, technologically-enabled freedom we are entering; in some ways it is a return to the more free-wheeling sexuality and religious tradition of pre-Christian antiquity.

Trump’s supporters are distinguished from other Republicans in large part by being less likely to attend church regularly. Trump himself might not claim to have much “virtue” in the Christian sense, but he would sure claim to have a lot of virtus, in the Latin sense (with the same root at “virility.”) Trump’s appeal is, in a way, less about returning the United States to an earlier age, as than it is about making the American imperium for Americans, in a very “Make Rome Roman Again” way. Build the wall and make Mexico pay for it, go to Iraq and take the oil. As Marullus doesn’t quite say in the beginning of Julius Caesar,  to fellow Romans who don’t understand what makes a leader great:

Wherefore rejoice? What conquest brings he home? What tributaries follow him to Rome, To grace in captive bonds his chariot-wheels? You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things! O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome, Knew you not Trumpey?

 

 

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