Pelagius and Senator Hawley The Peripatetic Preacher

Pelagius and Senator Hawley The Peripatetic Preacher January 11, 2021

Well you may ask what in the world may be the relationship between a 5th century CE theologian, none of whose writing has survived, and the very young Republican (41) senator from Missouri? This connection was suggested to me by an article in the 1/11/2021 edition of the New York Times by Katherine Stewart, the author of a recent book on the new religious right, “Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.” Senator Hawley, she says, is a classic example of this dangerous rise. For Stewart, religious nationalism is that poisonous mixture of hard-core religious conservatism and the belief that nations should be guided by strict and narrow religious claims. “America is a Christian nation,” they say, and because that is true, we must use all means at our disposal to ensure that the nation return to its founding Christian base. Senator Hawley fancies himself to be in the vanguard of this needed return to the tenets of a narrow Christianity; his recent objections to the lawful, free, and fair election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, are in reality one of those means to ensure a “proud Christian nation.”

Not only does Senator Hawley imagine himself as a modern day crusader for Christ against the evil forces of socialism and secularism, long two monsters conjured by Christian conservatives as roadblocks that must be despised, rejected, and torn down if US America is ever to become the Christian place that the Hawleys of the nation think it must and will be. He also fancies himself the heir of Donald Trump, his favorite president, who in part made his election of 2018 to the senate possible, and whom he has followed sycophantically ever since. Hawley has never hidden his brash desire to rise to higher office in the land, and he has, perhaps up until Jan.6, thought that the Trump coattails were just the thing to carry him up the political ladder. After the monstrous assault on the Capitol building five days ago, fueled largely by the president himself, and who now faces a second impeachment proceeding by the House of Representatives barely 10 days before the end of his term, those coattails appear to be far shorter if not burned away altogether. The fact that Hawley had just risen to object to the Electoral College results from Arizona a few moments prior to the mob’s attack, and the fact that after the assault had been put down, and the capitol cleared, Hawley rose again to continue his electoral objections, has won him few supporters among his colleagues, even among the Republican faithful. One more fact stands as a problem for him; during the attack itself he sent out at least two fund-raising letters, touting his willingness to stand against those who had “stolen” Trump’s second term. Little wonder that today, Jan.11, several hundred angry protesters marched in Kansas City, having painted on the street in bright yellow letters, “Resign Hawley.”

But what has all this to do with Pelagius, that obscure 5th century theologian? What we do know of the man can only be surmised from his many and furious enemies, since his own work has not survived. If their portrayal of his work is at all accurate, what Pelagius suggested was that the idea of original sin was not correct. His argument boiled down to the simple claim that God would not command humanity to do what they were finally unable to do. In other words, if God created human beings already tainted with sin, a sin transmitted from the first human, Adam, to all subsequent human creatures, then how could they possibly be genuinely free to choose either good acts or evil ones? That apparently seemed to Pelagius to be the height of theological craziness. The will, he said, must be free to do real good or real evil. Free will must exist. The far more prominent theologian, Augustine of Hippo, a probable contemporary, completely rejected this notion, and argued vigorously that if Pelagius was correct, then the implication was that humanity could save themselves and were thus in no need of divine grace. That was anathema to Augustine, and the church soon ruled the Pelagian viewpoint blasphemous. Henceforth, the word “heresy” was forever attached to the name Pelagius, and Augustine’s notion became the preferred and necessary doctrine of the vast majority of Christians.

Of course, for those who know anything about the history of Christian doctrine, Augustine’s early triumph over Pelagius was at best a Pyrrhic one. The arguments over free will and divine determination have raged throughout the centuries, and among progressive Christians there may be very few that would still cling to any sort of deterministic model where God is in full control of all things and people. Yet, among many Christian nationalists, Senator Hawley included, God is for them in full control of everything. Because that is true for them, Donald Trump can be the standard-bearer of their aspirations, despite Trump’s overt immorality (three marriages, abuse of women, foul language, cruelties against those he hates, and on and on). Trump, you see, is just like the biblical David, a murderer and adulterous liar, yet who was said to be “a man after God’s own heart.” Or he is just like Cyrus, pagan king of Persia, who knew next to nothing about the God of Israel, yet made it possible for the Babylonian exiles to return to the land of Judah. God can use anyone for God’s purpose, because God controls all things. US America may have its weaknesses (though the wicked liberals overemphasize them in light of the true greatness of the nation, they say), but God has chosen US America for a special work on earth, an exceptionalism that God had planned from the foundation of the world.

Josh Hawley belongs among the Christian Nationalists. Trump is God’s man, he has said, to keep the horrors of socialism and secularism at bay, and to pursue, however unknowingly the great cause of God and God’s plans for America. Thus, Trump could not have lost the election to Joe Biden, a faithful Roman Catholic, because that is clearly not part of the plan of God. When Hawley was in law school at Yale, he was president of the Federalist Society, a conservative national movement of lawyers who often lean toward these hard-right religious views. Indeed, Hawley has argued before the Supreme Court a significant so-called “religious liberty” case, the Hobby Lobby case that allowed that corporation to employ its conservative religious viewpoints against employees who do not follow such ideas. In addition, Hawley joined other conservatives in the attempt to destroy the Affordable Care Act as unconstitutional. The senator has earlier been a faculty member of the Blackstone Legal Fellowship, which is funded by Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian organization.

There is little doubt that Christian Nationalism is no longer a hidden movement but has become mainstream in US America. Josh Hawley, and probably Senator Ted Cruz, among others, would claim affiliation with those who desire a Christian America. We should not be surprised that the insurrection fomented by Trump’s mob on Jan.6 included banners in the colors of Trump/Pence proclaiming “Jesus 2020,” as well as crosses affixed to the top of any number of the poles carrying American and Trump/Pence flags. The theological underpinning of this drive toward a “Christian America” may be summarized by Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch Reform pastor and theologian (1837-1920), and a favorite of the religious right, who once said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” With a triumphal cry like that, Christian Nationalists, like Josh Hawley, lay claim to the whole of God’s earth for Christ. There can be no room in such a nation for those of us who are progressive in our religious practices and attitudes. For us, Donald Trump was not and is not God’s choice for president; that choice was made by human beings, in my judgment by many who were seriously mislead in that choice.

Count me in the Pelagian camp. We humans are free to make choices for good or ill. Josh Hawley has made some poor choices in his quest for political power, but those choices were not God’s but his alone. He has no one to blame but himself, however his future political career unfolds.

(Images from Wikimedia Commons)

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