Coping with Christianity

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I suspect Ann Coulter is a completely cynical careerist with a shtick. The regularity of her madness is too consistent to be the result of genuine personality defects. A person might angrily call, say, 9/11 widows ‘harpies’ once. But surely there’s no genuine frustration so perfectly timed as to result in predictably spaced controversies that usually correspond to book releases or slumps in popularity. You can set your watch by Ann Coulter saying nutty things, so I don’t much bother with her: we’ve all got deadlines to meet, and for her that means periodically ejaculating some bile into public discourse. Puts bread on her table, I’m sure. So I wasn’t much going to bother with her weird Ebola column, reading in part that:

“If Dr. Brantly had practiced at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles and turned one single Hollywood power-broker to Christ, he would have done more good for the entire world than anything he could accomplish in a century spent in Liberia. Ebola kills only the body; the virus of spiritual bankruptcy and moral decadence spread by so many Hollywood movies infects the world.”

The rest is more of the uninspired same: the doctor who decided to try to help with the Ebola outbreak overseas should have stayed home and tried to help Americans. If you’re familiar with the word ‘martyr’, you know it comes from the Greek ‘martus’, meaning ‘witness.’ In this sense our martyrs, those who die in the service of the faith, both die for their testimonies and make witnesses of us all. With luck their examples help us grow in virtue. Dr. Brantly has done a good and honorable thing not only in rendering aid to the sick (which we absolutely know is important to Christ, cf. Matthew 25:36), but also in serving as an excellent example for those of us who wonder at his courage and self-sacrifice. And let’s be clear: all of the harms Coulter cites — that is, devoting time to healing bodies instead of souls, risking one’s life by dealing with dangerous illness, and accepting funding from charities — would also obtain if Brantly were combating Ebola right here in the USA. So her argument is non-unique: though she claims her point is that we should focus on America as Americans, it turns out that what she really seems to desire is that we never devote charitable work to the treatment of physical illness…despite that pesky Matthew 25 scripture, and Christ’s own healing miracles.

Coulter’s bizarro tirade against international humanitarian aid comes at an especially strange moment, considering that Christians are being murdered abroad. Shall we focus solely on tooth decay in Appalachia while Christian children are reportedly being beheaded in Iraq? By Coulter’s lights, absolutely. By mine, we can do both. Universal healthcare here, aid and asylum for endangered populations abroad. I doubt Coulter would object to this like I doubt she even thought of it; I’m sure she completely phoned this in like she’s phoned in everything she’s done for the past ten years.

Coulter is, in other words, the Christian ethical equivalent of those Statler and Waldorf muppets. Lots of criticism, zero engagement. And heavily beholden to the work of the puppet masters who fund her career. But I digress.

The interesting part of this yawntastic non-argument is how other right wingers, like Red State’s Erick Erickson, responded to it. Coulter is something between a cheerleader and a mascot on the right (she certainly never generates her own positions or policies, just rallies around others’) and so it’s difficult for her cohort to ignore her when she goes a little too far. Usually they just defend her, but Erickson had trouble doing that, because he just couldn’t parse her argument with his Christianity. Writing at RedState, Erickson disagrees with Coulter:

“I think Christians should take up the cross in inner cities where too many liberal Christians preach a body nourishing social gospel that never feeds their soul…

Liberals treat prosperity in America as a zero sum game — if there are winners, there must be losers. They are wrong. Christians should not do the same with Christianity — surely a Christian may lose his life, but even then he is a winner. There are no losers except the Devil himself when a Christian goes therefore unto all the nations…

I have no reservations or caveats in liking Ann Coulter. She is a warm, kind, and generous person. I know this from my own experience. I must, however, disagree with her in this.”

What’s going on here is coping. Erickson is trying to somehow maintain an affinity with Coulter as a member of his political tribe while jamming the Christianity back in where she pretty blatantly zapped it out. This is what’s going on with all the bizarre swipes at unnamed ‘liberals.’ What exactly is wrong with feeding the hungry, something Jesus did and commanded we do? Erickson mucks around, supposing that feeding the hungry is wrong if it doesn’t also nourish the soul of the feeder. What a curious notion, the idea that preaching the Gospel and committing oneself to charity is not a virtue-building exercise. How on earth are we to make sense of that, what strictures does Erickson have in mind? I am not surprised he provides no detail.

Next we see a conflation between finite material resources and salvation, the end of which is to claim superiority-by-analogy for right wing economic policy. Yet the notion that, at least to some degree, that which is claimed as private is denied to others and must therefore be carefully examined is a cornerstone of the earliest Christian teaching, one that still echoes loudly today in the ministry of, say, Pope Francis. Isn’t the misstep to draw an analogy between the handling of finite material resources and Christian salvation? Surely to do so is either to enter into delusion on one side or heresy on the other. But Erickson perseveres.

At the end of the article he tells us why he has engaged in this weird game of public cognitive dissonance. It is because he has to somehow work Christian ethics into a political tribe that has notorious problems with hyper-nationalism, racism, apathy to poverty verging on antipathy to the poor, and commitments to economic policy that does not serve the vulnerable. But this is merely coping with Christianity, it’s trying to make Christianity comport with competing ethics that are neither derived from it nor amenable to it. The reason Coulter’s propositions don’t really follow from her purportedly Christian reasoning is the same reason Erickson has to struggle to force his Christian impulses into conjoint with conflicting principles. There’s a habit afoot here of coping with Christianity rather than reasoning directly from it, and I suspect it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.