The Best and Worst in Biblical Religion: An Open Letter to Christine Flowers

Christine,

You have asked me to apologize to your friend, who called Islam evil, for calling her ignorant and bigoted. And you have threatened to block me on Facebook if I don’t do so.

I have no intention of apologizing and instead I’m going to explain why I think you need to apologize for betraying the best in the religious tradition of which you claim to be so proud. If you don’t like what I have to say and you block me, that’s fine. I frankly think I’ve learned all anyone can from reading you.

Let me take a moment to explain how I look at the political, moral, and religious traditions that animate our country.

I grew up in an orthodox Jewish synagogue, though I moved away from orthodoxy pretty soon after my Bar Mitzvah. I’ve spent most of the last forty years studying the history of political and moral philosophy and that, of course, includes religious philosophy. I’ve taught the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an over many years and have read and taught not only contemporary commentaries on them but the biblical interpretations and theology of the great Christian, Jewish, and Muslim philosophers from Augustine to Al-Farabi to Maimonides to Aquinas to Luther and Calvin. And I’ve studied the intellectual and political and social sources of Islamic radicalism.

Like many people brought up and knowledgeable about the history of biblical religion, which to my mind, includes Islam, but also aware of the evidence of critical history and the implications of modern natural science, I long ago stopped believing in the literal truth of any of the Holy Books. Unlike some people with this background, I remain inspired by the core of the teaching found in those books. However, I’ve come to recognize that in each of the biblical religions there are two competing understandings of the role and place of biblical religion in our lives.

One of those understandings, I believe, contains a set of important universal truths, truths that are found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam but are also available to those who study the non-biblical philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and Kant. The core of the teaching found in these works is the golden rule and the commandment to love one another. In their own way these works teach us that we are all made in the image of God: We are rational and self-conscious beings who, in virtue of our unique nature, deserve the respect of all. And, as the Enlightenment built on this tradition, we came to understand that respecting others not only means being tolerant of our differences and working peacefully to resolve our disagreements but also granting each of us certain fundamental civil and political rights. On that view, the role of government is limited to serving secular this-worldly ends.

The core of biblical thought also teaches us to respect ourselves and become the kind of people who care and are able to serve not just our personal goals or our families, but our people, our country, and ultimately all of mankind, giving each one of these larger communities their due as fits our unique talents and vocation.

Those of us who follow this teaching may remain attached, by sentiment and out of concern for our own people, to the religious tradition within which we grew up. But we know that each of the biblical traditions and secular philosophies combine universal truths with particular claims to a unique revelation or teaching that goes beyond reason. And each of those traditions gives us only a partial truth. So we remain determined not only to learn from all of these religious and secular traditions but to eschew any claim that one is superior to another.

This universal religion enjoins peace but it doesn’t tell us to avoid war at all costs, especially when going to war is necessary to serve the fundamental moral truths we uphold. But it does tell us only to fight when necessary and against those who seek to harm us, to make peace when we can, and, most importantly, to fight only for the universal ideals that all our traditions share. It teaches us not to respond to hatred and evil in a way that encourages them. And it warns us not to be partisan or self-seeking under the guise of serving universal goals. Indeed, we are taught that the evil that too often makes our world chaotic is not only done by people who abjure all of these traditions but also by those who act in their name while serving the interests of one people, one country, one group, and one party rather than all human kind.

Those are the religious ideals I deeply believe in, the ideals that represent the best that is found in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions and, also, in the secular political and moral philosophy of liberalism as well.

But there is another set of religious ideas that comes out of the three biblical traditions. This second approach to biblical religion sets one religion or one sect of one religion above others and claim that only it knows the absolute truth and the way of God. This second approach to biblical religion holds that government has authority not only to protect our bodies but to save our souls, which means giving priority to one set of teachings and, in some cases, to banning all others. And since those who work within this second tradition often teach that there is a fundamental conflict between the partisans of light—who accept the one true religion—and the partisans of darkness—that is, all others, those ideas can even justify the harshest and most violent actions to oppress those who practice religions other than the “true” one.

Every biblical religion—Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Shiite, and Sunni, has clerics and teachers who defend this second kind of biblical thought. And there are secular variants of this kind of thought, Marxism-Leninism and Fascism, that make the same claim to absolute truth and then justify oppression and violence in its name.

I’ve spend most of my life trying to understand, defend philosophically, and teach the first tradition that comes from biblical religion, Greek philosophy and the Enlightenment. And even when I’ve been engaged in political activism, I’ve worked within that tradition, while trying as best I can—and no doubt sometimes failing—not to see my political opponents as children of darkness.

So when I see people, like your friend, make claims about the evil of Islam and the innocence of any Christian tradition or practice, my instinct is to explain, as best I can, given my knowledge of history, philosophy, and religion, why she is mistaken. Even though we have much to fear from Islamic radicalism, I believe we should try to understand where that form of thought and practice comes from and that we can best do that by understanding how similar, radically intolerant, and violent forms of thought and practice have grown up in Christianity and Judaism and in the secular Western cultures they helped create. As I pointed out more than once, understanding the sources of Islamic radicalism does not mean excusing or failing to combat the evil done in its name. But it might mean combatting that evil in a way that is both more effective and in keeping with the best in our own tradition.

When you friend responds to me by saying I’m mistaken and an apologist for Islamic radicalism then I think I’m entirely within my rights to tell her she is both ignorant and a bigot, because that is what she is. That she then responds with thinly veiled anti-Semitism only proves my point.

So I’m not going to apologize to her, or to your claim that I am anti-Catholic. (And considering how much of my philosophical work draws on Catholic political and social thought, that is a bizarre criticism.) Instead, I’m going to make clear, again, that I was not criticizing Catholicism two weeks ago when I called you out for preaching a fundamentalism that draws on the second, intolerant tradition of biblical thought. I was criticizing you.

For you Christine are, no less than the Islamic fundamentalists, a sectarian teacher of hate. Every column I’ve read of yours in the last three months has one purposes and one purpose only, to teach some Americans to hate other Americans. When Bill Cosby is accused of abusing women, your response is to tell us how often women lie about being raped and to encourage those who love Cosby to hate the liberals who put these women up to lying. When two black men are killed by police officers under questionable circumstances, your response is to encourage those who defend the police to hate liberals for raising questions about those deaths. When two police officers are brutally murdered, you call on Americans to hate the liberals who you, insanely, blame for their deaths. When Charlie Hebdo is attacked by terrorists in Paris, your response to is call on Americans to hate not only Islam but the Americans who call that hate into question.

My problem with you is not that you disagree with liberals. Sometimes I do as well. It’s that you don’t really make arguments and present evidence that are aimed to convince those with whom you disagree. You aren’t really interested in changing minds.  Instead, your whole approach as a columnist is to poke and prod readers who agree with you, stoking their anger, and then directing it at liberals. You goal is to paint those who disagree with you and those readers as fundamentally different, and as agents of evil. You don’t offer arguments but excommunications. You dehumanize whose views you oppose. Is it any wonder that the readers who like you most are those whose bigotry you support and encourage and sometime even create?

And you do this in a moment when we should stand united. Think of it: at a time when we need our wits about us to figure out how to respond more effectively to the terrible threat of Islamic radicalism, when Americans need to come together and think clearly and talk honestly about the dangers we face and how to meet them, your most important concern is to try to divide us ever more deeply.

The sectarian, partisan, fundamentalist version of Christianity you espouse is based, like all sectarian, partisan, fundamentalist versions of biblical religion, on fear and hatred for others. The fundamentalists win by ratcheting up the hatred and directing it at their enemies. American traditions may make you cautious about claiming absolute knowledge and the superiority of your own sect. But your constant effort to teach us to hate one another and to damn all thought but your own—and your sly attacks on the present Pope who is the most effective contemporary spokesperson for the best in the tradition of biblical religion—makes your alliance with fundamentalism crystal clear.

And no wonder you are so insistent that the hands of Christians are clean because you yourself operate in the authoritarian, anti-liberal, anti-humanist, intolerant tradition of de Maistre, Franco, Father Coughlin, Joe McCarthy, and Pat Buchanan. It’s no surprise you don’t want to talk about that tradition. And, of course, the other Catholic tradition, that of Dorothy Day and Pope Francis and so many others who embraced progressive social ideals, is one that you have nothing to do with.

So, no Christine, I’m not going to apologize to you or your friends. I’m going to condemn both of you for being exemplars of the worst in every biblical religion including your own.

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43 Comments

  1. Thank you Marc Stier. Thank you. 😍

  2. I stand 100% with Marc when it comes to living the core values of Western Civilization. True conservatives support those values; false conservatives reject them.

  3. Marc Stier Marc, Marc. There is no need for such a long winded response. Just say, “You ain’t no Catholic bruv!” And keep it moving. 😂👍🏽

    Seriously, it cracks me up how many Catholics make claims in the name of Catholicism as the ultimate truth that are in direct contravention to Christ and the Magisterium.

  4. Marc Stier despite having gone to Bryn Mawr. That’s the hardest part for me to understand. How can someone go to Bryn Mawr and come out both homophobic and anti-feminist?

  5. She’s an immigration attorney.

  6. I had actually had some pleasant interactions with her on-line until she wrote something horrible and I criticized it.

    I have heard that she does good work as a lawyer. Is the writing penance for the work or is it the other way around. 😉

  7. It occurred to me that she paid a lot more attention to her priests than nuns. She’s strikes me as very much male-identified and rarely has a good word to say about women.

  8. Nikki, I know her, too, and the gap between what she does with her life and her writing is bewildering.

  9. Marc Stier I don’t now. But I was trained by Saint Joe Nuns and Immaculate Heart nuns but it was really the Jesuits who rounded out my education, I do know that overall, sisters are more progressive than priests. But, as I’m sure you know, there are many different orders of priests such as the Vincentians in Germantown who are just as special as the Jesuits.

  10. Wish we could send her back for reeducation by a better class of priests and nuns. ;). I wonder what Catholic order her teachers came from?

  11. Yes, she’s not big on the progressive Catholic social thought that influenced some of my teachers and thus me.

  12. Josie Byzek Yes, certainly with regard to the scientific and technological achievements of the Enlightenment which were built on those of the Arabic / Islamic world.

    It’s more controversial to point to the influence of Islamic / Jewish political thought on the Enlightenment. I have some possibly heterodox / unusual ideas about that subject which someday I hope to explore further (and hinted at in the attached essay.) It seems to me that the Enlightenment adopts the view of the primacy of law held by Jewish and Islamic thinkers. Islam, and even more so Rabbinic Judaism, plays down the importance of faith or belief in salvation and emphasizes the importance of following God’s law. And much of the Jewish tradition before Rabbinic Judaism put the salvation that comes from following the law in this world, not the next one.

    In holding that the role of government is limited to governing conduct not belief and that it’s focus is on the goods of this world not the next world, liberalism is far closer to the Jewish / Islamic tradition than it is to Christian thought about the role of government. Of course liberalism goes further in holding that ritual conduct is excluded from the purview of government.

    All of this is pretty obvious but I don’t know that many historians of political thought have said much about it. The question I wonder about is whether folks like John Locke were aware that they were drawing on Jewish and Islamic ideas about law and faith when they invented a form of political thought radically different from that of Christianity. I’ve seen one or two hints in his writing that indicated that Locke may have been aware of that connection but I’m going to have to do a lot more reading in his letters and minor works to see whether there is more evidence that he was influenced by those traditions. It’s not going to be obvious. Locke was a very careful writer and he always professed to be a Christian even in his works, like The Reasonableness of Christianity and Letter on Toleration that, read closely, are pretty radical attacks on Christian tradition.

    http://www.stier.net/writing/other/Christianity_in_The_Western_Tradition.pdf

  13. Marc Stier I really respect this position. I know and like Christine as a person so I don’t agree with your assessment of her but I appreciate your standing by Liberal principals and not wanting to censure someone that you so obviously disagree with.

  14. Ellen Berkowitz Thanks for the kind words Ellen. It’s been so long since I’ve seen you. I hope all is well.

  15. Yet at the same time, doesn’t the Arabic world get some credit for our enlightenment?

  16. I think that’s right. Thanks for publishing this. May I share it?

  17. The difference is mostly one of time. Read up on Cromwell’s use of terror and you will never think that Christians are superior to anyone. And Jews may have invented political terror in the Maccabean revolt. (I’m being a little facetious….but there is little doubt that the victory we celebrate at Chanukah was one that rested on the use of forms of violence we mostly condemn today.)

    I’ve got enough faith in the appeal of the Enlightenment to think that the Islamic world, which is new to Enlightenment ideals and is going through the difficult transition to modernity that led to hundreds of years of religious warfare in the West, will eventually get to where we are. And one reason I think that is that Islam has a very strong, indigenous tradition of tolerance for those who practice other biblical religions, far stronger than anything found in Christendom prior to the 17th century.

    While we are waiting for that to happen–and it may take a few more decades–we, of course, must keep our defense against Islamic radicalism strong.

  18. I actually turned away from the Lions- Maori match to read this, and it was well worth it. Raised in a Christian tradition, the one bone I have always choked on was that everyone else was going to hell. This claim to exclusivity seems to be the greatest curse of the monotheistic religions. We were all taught the story of Daniel in the lion’s den in Sunday School. What they didn’t teach us is that the polytheistic Romans killed fewer Christians in the three centuries following the birth of Christ to the conversion of Constatine than Christians killed other Christians in the one night of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

    I would point out one important difference between Ms. Flowers and the Islamic fundamentalists. She isn’t blowing up stuff. And I think Sam Harris is on to something when he talks about the concentric circles of Islam. Australia and the Saudis played a soccer match shortly after the last terror attack in London. The pregame ceremonies included a moment of silence for the victims of that attack. The Saudi team did not participate, but continued with their pregame warmups. None of these players will ever participate in a terrorist attack, but this highly visible example of their indifference to/tacit approval of the London attack was a perfect display of what Harris is talking about.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4584294/Saudi-soccer-team-refuse-stand-London-victims.html

  19. While Muslims are not Christian, they follow Jesus’ teachings and consider him the head profit. No matter what faith people follow, we must remember that we are a melting pot country where religion is intentionally separate from government.

  20. Marc Stier, thank you for this. Not all Catholics think that way. And as a Jesuit trained philosophy major lawyer, I’ve had exposure to many of the texts you mention. She is an embarrassment to progressive Catholics. Thank you for calling her out and for not painting us all with one brush. I always appreciate your thoughtful writing.

  21. Amy Z. Quinn It’s not any easy choice for me to defend PMN publishing her. I’m totally serious in saying she is a teacher of hate, only better than some Islamic radical in that she doesn’t directly encourage violence against those with whom she disagrees. (She certainly encourages violence indirectly.) If she had any depth of thought she could be the Qutb of the Christian right. And it’s certainly not a public service for a newspaper to publish someone who teaches hate.

    On the other hand, she’s not devoid of thought and expresses a tradition of thought (the Coughlin tradition) in American Christian thought. People ought to understand that tradition, if only to better reject it. That is, lots of people buy into part of it and they ought to know the depravity of the whole tradition they echo.

    I think the bottom line for me, though, in defending Sandy Shea’s position is that she’s there and I don’t want to see any writer, of any political point of view get fired for expressing their views or any newspaper responding to demands to do so, even from my own side.

    A really good writer and progressive talk show host, Steve Corbett, was by WILK in NEPA a few months ago for his vigorous opposition to Trump and the outrage among folks in the area. It’s a huge loss to progressives in the region and thus the state.

    I don’t want to legitimate that kind of editorial decision by having our side do it.

  22. LOL she’s a horrible person too but I sort of think she doesn’t believe most of what she says

  23. I’m still pretty sure that Ann Coulter is Andy Kaufman in drag.

  24. She was in my class in college. She wrote a spiteful column around Thanksgiving mocking people who were afraid of Trump. I responded with a letter that the Daily News edited to take out our shared education, which was part of the point. She saw the unedited version and responded with the most deliberately obtuse piece of nonsense one could imagine.

  25. Nikki– this is excellent.

  26. Nikki Johnson-Huston That is a wonderful blog post.

  27. Amy Z. Quinn Fair point Amy but because we don’t agree doesn’t make it hateful. I have been accused of hating whites by people on the other side anytime I write about race. My white husband finds that criticism funny but one person’s hate speech is another person’s truth. Who gets to decide? Does that mean I can’t publish because someone disagrees with me and thinks I’m trolling or hating? It’s a slippery slope. You are a thoughtful person and I think it’s an important conversation to keep having.

  28. Nikki Johnson-Huston again, my point is not that she isn’t allowed to write what she wants. My point is PMN does not have to make the choice to amplify voices of hate. She can write what she wants but being published is a choice made by someone else. I think it’s a bad choice.

  29. I know Christine Flowers in real life and really like her but I disagree with many of her positions. I think she was dead wrong on her position about Bill Cosby and have expressed that to her. The problem isn’t that Christine wrote the piece but the truth is writers get rewarded for writing more and more outrageous pieces to get views. They get to be invited on CNN and MSNBC. We all feed into this and get more outraged which is more views. Christine is allowed to write whatever she wants but if you disagree the best way to show it is to ignore it. As someone who writes periodically, I am ignored for having thoughtful pieces but rewarded for edgy and controversial pieces that get more views. The message gets sent to be controversial and outlandish.

  30. Nikki Johnson-Huston thank you!!

  31. Amy Z. Quinn I agree with Marc that Christine should have been posted but I as a woman of color did write a piece on my own personal experience with Bill Cosby for HuffPo. Here is the link if you want to read it. http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/us_59357f7be4b06c4693fb7712

  32. Devastating Excerpt: “For you Christine are, no less than the Islamic fundamentalists, a sectarian teacher of hate. Every column I’ve read of yours in the last three months has one purposes and one purpose only, to teach some Americans to hate other Americans. When Bill Cosby is accused of abusing women, your response is to tell us how often women lie about being raped and to encourage those who love Cosby to hate the liberals who put these women up to lying. When two black men are killed by police officers under questionable circumstances, your response is to encourage those who defend the police to hate liberals for raising questions about those deaths. When two police officers are brutally murdered, you call on Americans to hate the liberals who you, insanely, blame for their deaths. ….

    My problem with you is not that you disagree with liberals. Sometimes I do as well. It’s that you don’t really make arguments and present evidence for us to consider. Instead, your whole approach as a columnist is to poke and prod your readers, stoking their anger, and then directing it at liberals. Is it any wonder that the readers who like you most are those whose bigotry you support and encourage and sometime even create?”

  33. Ugh she’s just so awful. At least Ann Coulter has some humor and wit.

  34. If the Inquirer insists on publishing the musings of that moral midget, they should rename her column “Flowers for Algenon”. At least the reader. will be forewarned as to the intellectual depth of her ramblings.

  35. I think having a printed column in a major newspaper in 2017 is a great privilege and should not be wasted on troll fodder. And I’m sure there’s someone who “should” publish her but other than “welp, everyone has an opinion!” I haven’t seen one good argument for why her column is worthy of publication. I’d much rather read a young woman of color’s take on Cosby than another old white woman like me. There are better uses for that ink, and to continue to give her space is a deliberate choice that reflects poorly on the whole paper. My opinion.

  36. BTW I agree with Sandy Shea that she should be published. Sometimes it is very useful to read an articulation of appalling and despicable views, just to know how appalling and despicable they are and where they come from.

  37. I’m just going to keep posting this with every outbreak. She’s not worth reading or responding.

  38. You are in big trouble now

  39. Didn’t she block you already? A year ago or more?

  40. Wait, another one since the Cosby unpleasantness?

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