A karmic approach says that, by a cosmic spiritual law, we are punished or rewarded according to our moral activities. If we do bad things, we will suffer, either in this life or a life to come. And if we do good things, we will be rewarded, again either here or in the hereafter. Karma might not be immediate, as is the law of gravity (remember John Lennon’s playful song “Instant Karma”), but in the long run, people are rewarded or punished according to merit. And this satisfies our sense of fairness and justice.
Now a religion of grace is different. It teaches that all people are sinners and hence deserving of punishment, but that God, out of sheer generosity, gives them what they don’tdeserve. Think of one of the most popular lines in Christian poetry: “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” In terms of a karmic religion, wretches deserve a wretched fate, and it would be unfair for wicked people to be given a great gift. But devotees of a religion of grace exult in this generosity. Think in this context of the parable of the workers hired at different times of the day or the story of the Prodigal Son. Those make sense only in a religion-of-grace context.
Now lest Christians become self-righteous about espousing a generous religion of grace, we must keep in mind that there is a serious objection indeed to such a construal of religion. If grace is a gift, and if there is no real warrant for the gift, then how come only some get it and others don’t? How could it possibly be fair that some people receive the gift of eternal life—through no merit of their own—and others don’t? This complaint becomes even more acute when we realize that the Bible—from beginning to end—presents a God who chooses. God selects Abel and not Cain, Abraham and not Lot, Jacob and not Esau, David and not Saul. In fact, one of the most basic truths of the Biblical revelation is that Israel itself is a chosen people, a holy nation, a people set apart. And God insists—just to make the point clearly—that Israel was not chosen because it was the greatest, most just, most accomplished of all the peoples of the world, just the contrary. So again, is any of this fair? In response to this charge, Christian thinkers have tended to say that no one deserves anything and therefore we should never complain about inequities in the distribution of free gifts. Still. Still.
In order to resolve this dilemma, it might be useful to look at a couple of Biblical texts, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. No one could ever accuse the prophet Isaiah of underplaying Israel’s importance or the fact that Israel is the specially chosen people of God. But listen to these words from the 56th chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah:
“The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, loving the name of the Lord, and becoming his servants—all who keep the Sabbath free from profanation and hold to my covenant, them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer…for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”
Israel was indeed chosen, singled out, uniquely graced—but precisely for the world and not for itself. What is grace? Gift! But when you cling to a gift, hoarding it for yourself, you undermine its nature as gift. The whole point of receiving the divine life is to give it away in turn. If you hoard it and make it your private prerogative, you undermine it; it turns to ashes. But when you give it away, it is renewed within you.
I think of that as I read Kevin Williamson, who is intensely critical of Trump’s fanboi. You’d think I’d agree with Williamson, and I do to a degree. He writes:
The manners of the white underclass are Trump’s — vulgar, aggressive, boastful, selfish, promiscuous, consumerist. The white working class has a very different ethic. Its members are, in the main, churchgoing, financially prudent, and married, and their manners are formal to the point of icy politeness. You’ll recognize the style if you’ve ever been around it: It’s “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am,” but it is the formality of soldiers and police officers — correct and polite, but not in the least bit deferential. It is a formality adopted not to acknowledge the superiority of social betters but to assert the equality of the speaker — equal to any person or situation, perfectly republican manners. It is the general social respect rooted in genuine self-respect.
Its opposite is the sneering, leveling, drag-’em-all-down-into-the-mud anti-“elitism” of contemporary right-wing populism. Self-respect says: “I’m an American citizen, and I can walk into any room, talk to any president, prince, or potentate, because I can rise to any occasion.” Populist anti-elitism says the opposite: “I can be rude enough and denigrating enough to drag anybody down to my level.” Trump’s rhetoric — ridiculous and demeaning schoolyard nicknames, boasting about money, etc. — has always been about reducing. Trump doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to duke it out with even the modest wits at the New York Times, hence it’s “the failing New York Times.” Never mind that the New York Times isn’t actually failing and that any number of Trump-related businesses have failed so thoroughly that they’ve gone into bankruptcy; the truth doesn’t matter to the argument any more than it matters whether the fifth-grade bully actually has an actionable claim on some poor kid’s lunch money. It would never even occur to the low-minded to identify with anybody other than the bully. That’s what all that ridiculous stuff about “winning” was all about in the campaign. It is might-makes-right, i.e., the politics of chimpanzee troupes, prison yards, kindergartens, and other primitive environments. That is where the underclass ethic thrives — and how “smart people” came to be a term of abuse.
This involves, inevitably, a good deal of fakery.
The man at the center of all this atavistic redneck revanchism is a pampered billionaire real-estate heir from New York City, and it has been something to watch the multi-millionaire populist pundits in Manhattan doing their best impersonations of beer-drinkin’ regular guys from the sticks. I assume Sean Hannity picked up his purported love for country music in the sawdust-floored honky-tonks of . . . Long Island.
As a purely aesthetic enterprise, none of this clears my poor-white-trash cultural radar. I’m reminded of those so-called dive bars in Manhattan that spend $150,000 to make a pricey spot in Midtown look like a Brooklyn kid’s idea of a low-rent roadside bar in Texas. (There’s one that even has Lubbock license plates on the wall. I wonder where they got them — is there some kind of mail-order dive-bar starter kit that comes with taxidermy, Texas license plates, and a few cases of Lone Star? Maybe via Amazon Prime?) The same crap is there — because the same crap is everywhere — but the arrangement isn’t quite right.
The populist Right’s abandonment of principle has been accompanied by a repudiation of good taste, achievement, education, refinement, and manners — all of which are abominated as signs of effete ‘elitism.’ The populist Right’s abandonment of principle has been accompanied by a repudiation of good taste, achievement, education, refinement, and manners — all of which are abominated as signs of effete “elitism.” During the Clinton years, Virtue Inc. was the top-performing share in the Republican political stock exchange. Fortunes were made, books were sold by the ton, and homilies were delivered. The same people today are celebrating Donald Trump — not in spite of his being a dishonest, crude serial adulterer but because of it. His dishonesty, the quondam cardinals of Virtue Inc. assure us, is simply the mark of a savvy businessman, his vulgarity the badge of his genuineness and lack of “political correctness,” and his pitiless abuse of his several wives and children the mark of a genuine “alpha male.” No less a virtue entrepreneur than Bill Bennett dismissed those who pointed out Trump’s endless lies and habitual betrayals as suffering from “moral superiority,” from people on “high horses,” and said that Trump simply is “a guy who says some things awkwardly, indecorously, infelicitously.”
Thus did the author of The Book of Virtues embrace the author of “Grab ’Em By the P***y.”
We need a Moynihan Report for conservative broadcasters.
The problem, in Bennett’s telling (and that of many other conservatives), isn’t that Trump is a morally defective reprobate but that he is aesthetically displeasing to overly refined “elitists.” That is a pretty common line of argument — and an intellectual cop-out — but set that aside for the moment. Let’s pretend that Bennett et al. are correct and this is simply a matter of manners. Are we now to celebrate vulgarity as a virtue? Are we to embrace crassness? Are we supposed to pretend that a casino-cum-strip-joint is a civilizational contribution up there with Notre-Dame, that the Trump Taj Mahal trumps the Taj Mahal? Are we supposed to snigger at people who ask that question? Are we supposed to abandon our traditional defense of standards to mimic Trump’s bucket-of-KFC-and-gold-plated-toilet routine?
Now I enjoyed this takedown of the moronification of Right Wing Virtuecrats as much as the next Trump-loathing, heartbroken person who once saw himself as a member of the Christian Right. You cannot land enough punches on this disgusting gaggle of whores as long as they refuse to repent and go on posturing as America’s Moral Arbiters while they worship and adore this lying dumbell of a sex predator as the New Constantine. These are people so low and vile as to make up defaming lies against brave soldiers who sacrificed their lives for their racist skins, just to defend this vile Commander-in-Chief in his war on that soldier’s grieving family. Fight them each and every day, say I. Shout from the rooftops what disgusting liars and cowards they are. They have it coming till they repent.
But here’s the thing: I really do believe in grace. And that’s where Williamson and I part ways. In Scripture, the punishments and rebukes of God are ordered toward redemption and the fiercest words God offers are always tinged with hope. Williamson believes in something that looks a lot more like Survival of the Fittest with the weak being killed without mercy.
This is manifest in several ways. Most infamously, in his call for post-abortive women to be hanged. Yes, that’s right. Hanged.
Not for Williamson is all that wussy stuff about abortion having two victims: one dead and one wounded. Rachel’s Vineyard is right out. Nope. Post-abortive women should be killed, according to Williamson. Pity for the weak and victimized is not part of his vocabulary. Women terrified and under pressure to abort deserve the noose.
Williamson’s Social Darwinism goes for all the weak. In another take on the white underclass who adore Trump, he dishes more ruthless, graceless karma:
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.
If you want to live, get out of Garbutt.
And if they can’t? Then the hell with them.
That is why, in the middle of his tirade against Trump voters, Williamson cannot resist dragging in a contemptuous reference to Elizabeth Bruenig, a serious, committed Catholic (prolife and everything, but committing the *real* mortal sin for conservative Catholics of being a self-described socialist.
Well-heeled children of privilege such as Elizabeth Bruenig condescend to speak on behalf of people and communities about whom they know practically nothing — people who have not, let’s remember, asked the well-scrubbed sons and daughters of the ruling class to speak on their behalf. When they were asked, they chose Donald Trump by a very large margin, but then the poor make poor choices all the time — that’s part of why they’re poor.
In Wilhelmine Germany, too, Catholic groups felt closer to democratic socialism than to the rigidly Prussian and Protestant conservative forces. In many respects, democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of a social consciousness.
Bruenig’s crime is that her wussy Christian compassion is fouling the gene pool with losers who should die. As Mencken once complained of certain liberal or ex-liberal thinkers, “They have come to realize that the morons whom they sweated to save do not want to be saved, and are not worth saving.”
The Catholic theology has nothing to do with democracy, for or against, in the sense of a machinery of voting or a criticism of particular political privileges. It is not committed to support what Whitman said for democracy, or even what Jefferson or Lincoln said for democracy. But it is absolutely committed to contradict what Mr. Mencken says against democracy. There will be Diocletian persecutions, there will be Dominican crusades, there will be rending of all religious peace and compromise, or even the end of civilization and the world, before the Catholic Church will admit that one single moron, or one single man, “is not worth saving.”
In Mr. Williamson’s reading, Trumpism is just the new opiate of the masses, along with actual opiates. People who indulge in such opiates, he deems, deserve to die. He despises Bruenig for the crime of wanting to save people he deems unworthy of salvation. His Social Darwinist conservatism, having spent decades talking about the ability of the Ordinary Man to Make it in America, now declares them worthy of death for failing to stop themselves from being fleeced by social Darwinist conservatives and the great Con Man himself, Donald Trump. And so he declares, “If the poor be like to die, they had better do it and help decrease the surplus population.” They are too stupid to see Trump for the fraud he is, so screw ’em.
Call me crazy, but I’ll take Bruenig’s redemptive Christian will to save over Williamson’s nihilist vision any day. Especially since she writes in response to Williamson’s contempt for her:
Williamson is right that my immediate family has done well financially — especially my father, who is a private person whose privacy I want to respect, but I would be remiss in not mentioning his hard work and generosity. I am grateful for the fortune of being his daughter. But that is luck — only luck, and no virtue. Studies of social mobility in the United States suggest there are millions like me, comfortable by fortune, not merit. Williamson knows poverty because he grew up poor, so let me let him in on something about the well-to-do:
Their decisions are no better, even if they are more lucrative. Their vices may be different than those of the poor, but they’re no less vicious. Their morals are just as weak, their perversions just as abhorrent, their waste appalling, their greed all-consuming, their covetousness and anxiety and decadence just as crippling. I did not “get to where I am” because I am a special person full of merit; nor have I often met someone accorded much wealth and prestige by society of whom I think, now this person did it all on their own. I got to where I am through a sequence of lucky breaks, any of which could’ve broken another way. Anybody could do it. But few are given the opportunity. That is part of what makes me feel so strongly about programs that reduce poverty and inequality.
The “basic human failure” Williamson attributes to poor people is rife in rich people, as well. Society does not, and never has, rewarded saintliness with vast estates and untold treasures. For every low-rent sleaze, there is a Harvey Weinstein; for every meth-head, a coke-head; for every petty con-man, a banker selling bundles of rotten mortgages. We’ve come to a sorry state in society where we equate the decisions that land one money and prestige with virtuous decisions, but the fact is that the two are not the same. There are morally unacceptable ways to get poor, and morally unacceptable ways to stay rich.
Williamson may counter that he knows for a fact the habits of the well-to-do are better and finer than those of the poor. But I would have to ask him not to opine on things he doesn’t, by his own account, know much about.
That is grace in more than one sense of the word. It is grace to Williamson, who attacks her for the crime of not abandoning the weak and unfortunate to his Darwinian doom. But is also grace in the proper theological and Christian sense of not simply letting brutal karma play out. She is obedient to her Lord Jesus Christ in seeking for some way for human beings to not merely “get what’s coming to them” since she knows that if you use each man according to his desserts, who shall ‘scape whipping. Jesus Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved. I will take Bruenig’s desire to save even her enemies over Williamson’s eagerness to destroy the victims of his enemies. In this mad hour, when it is so hard to find sanity among Christians, I will hold on to faith, hope, and love in Jesus Christ by his grace and not accept this nihilist contempt for the weak.