Sunday, December 8, 2013

When you say "Happy holidays" are you aborting Christ? Asking for a friend.

Drawings by Josh Lange, Credo Magazine.
 Update: Welcome BooManiacs! Nice to see youse.

Adams to Jefferson, 28 June 1813:
It is very true that the denunciations of the priesthood are fulminated against every advocate for a complete freedom of religion. Comminations, I believe, would be plenteously pronounced by even the most liberal of them, against atheism, deism,—against every man who disbelieved or doubted the resurrection of Jesus, or the miracles of the New Testament. Priestley himself would denounce the man who should deny the Apocalypse, or the prophecies of Daniel. Priestley and Lindsey have both denounced as idolaters and blasphemers all the Trinitarians and even the Arians. Poor weak man! when will thy perfection arrive?
Ex-governor Palin, as cited in Jezebel, on the War on Christmas:
“If you lose that foundation, John Adams was implicitly warning us, then we will not follow our constitution, there will be no reason to follow our constitution because it is a moral and religious people who understand that there is something greater than self, we are to live selflessly, and we are to be held accountable by our creator, so that is what our constitution is based on, so those revisionists, those in the lamestream media, especially, who would want to ignore what our founders actually thought, felt and wrote about in our charters of liberty – well, that’s why I call them the lamestream media,” Palin said....

“[Jefferson] would recognize those who would want to try to ignore that Jesus is the reason for the season, those who would want to try to abort Christ from Christmas,” she said. “He would recognize that, for the most part, these are angry atheists armed with an attorney. They are not the majority of Americans.”
"Abort Christ from Christmas"??? But before I get to that, a few words from John Adams, whose position on freedom from religion isn't often explained as clearly as Jefferson's.

The "foundation" she mentions at the beginning of the passage must be Adams's famous adjuration to the officers of the Massachusetts Militia in 1798 mobilizing for the imaginary war with France:
Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
He was talking much more about morality than doctrine here: he didn't say disbelief in the Virgin Birth, or greeting people with "Happy holidays", would break the cords of the Constitution. Fifteen years later, he attempted to clarify for Jefferson, in his letter of 28 June 1813, that he really hadn't meant any religion in particular (it seems Jefferson had really been kind of angry about this apparent cave to Christianism ever since it happened, and Adams is anxious to defend himself as the two old heroes work to renew their lost friendship):
Who composed that Army of fine young Fellows that was then before my Eyes? There were among them, Roman Catholicks, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anababtists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists; and "Protestans qui ne croyent rien ["Protestants who believe nothing"]." Very few however of several of these Species. Nevertheless all Educated in the GENERAL PRINCIPLES of Christianity: and the general Principles of English and American Liberty. [bold mine; caps from the original]

Could my Answer be understood, by any candid Reader or Hearer, to recommend, to all the others, the general Principles, Institutions or Systems of Education of the Roman Catholicks? Or those of the Quakers? Or those of the Presbyterians? Or those of the Menonists? Or those of the Methodists? or those of the Moravians? Or those of the Universalists? or those of the Philosophers? No. 
What he had meant, rather, and the reason he's so insistent on the GENERALITY of those PRINCIPLES, was a kind of shared vocabulary; the broad moral understanding, beyond dubious theology, that all of them, from the Horse Protestants to the Atheists, held in common:
The GENERAL PRINCIPLES, on which the Fathers Atchieved Independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite, and these Principles only could be intended by them in their Address, or by me in my Answer. And what were these GENERAL PRINCIPLES? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all those Sects were united: And the GENERAL PRINCIPLES of English and American Liberty, in which all those young Men United, and which had United all Parties in America, in Majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her Independence....
In favour of these GENERAL PRINCIPLES in Phylosophy, Religion and Government, I could fill Sheets of quotations from Frederick of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Reausseau and Voltaire, as well as Neuton and Locke: not to mention thousands of Divines and Philosophers of inferiour Fame.
And principles of Christianity general enough to include Hume, Gibbon, Voltaire, and Viscount Bolingbroke and King Frederick the Great—not to mention Mr. Jefferson—are so GENERAL as to not be Christianity in any sense that ex-governor Palin would be able to recognize.*

*Right wingers love to present a 15-word abridgment of the letter,
The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence... were the general principles of Christianity.
But this exactly inverts the point Adams is trying to make, like the ad copywriter who turns a movie review ("there is no compelling reason to watch this movie") into a buzz ("Compelling!").
Image by WashintonsWig.
As a good Unitarian, Adams himself held views on Christian doctrine that were exceedingly broad, and certainly did not allow him to think of the Constitution as Christian:
(...the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion)
He regarded the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus as an old-fashioned and comical superstition:
Major Greene this evening fell into some conversation with me about the Divinity and satisfaction of Jesus Christ. All the argument he advanced was, "that a mere creature or finite being could not make satisfaction to infinite justice for any crimes," and that "these things are very mysterious."
Thus mystery is made a convenient cover for absurdity. (Diary entry, 13 February 1756)
But when he thought it through more carefully the idea of the Incarnation of the Logos struck him as being not merely un-Enlightened but un-American, and filled him with an undisguised disgust:
The Europeans are all deeply tainted with prejudices, both ecclesiastical and temporal, which they can never get rid of. They are all infected with episcopal and presbyterian creeds, and confessions of faith. They all believe that great Principle which has produced this boundless universe, Newton’s universe and Herschell’s universe, came down to this little ball [i.e., Earth], to be spit upon by Jews [referring to the blood-libel antisemitism of the European Christians, which he did not share]. And until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world. (Letter to Jefferson, 22 January 1825)
As far as Christmas, evidence or the lack thereof suggest he did not, at least not normally, celebrate it. The only description of the holiday in his diaries or letters to Abigail is this (typically lovable Adams) passage from 1765:
At Home. Thinking, reading, searching, concerning Taxation without Consent.... Went not to Christmas [i.e., to the holiday church service]. Dined at Home. Drank Tea at Grandfather Quincys. The old Gentleman, inquisitive about the Hearing before the Governor and Council, about the Governors and secretaries Looks and Behaviour, and about the final Determination of the Board. The old Lady as merry and chatty as ever, with her Stories out of the News Papers, of a Woman longing to throw beef Stakes in a Mans Face and giving him a Pipe of Madeira for humouring of her, and of the Doctor who could tell by a Persons Face all the Disorders he or she had suffered and would suffer.
Spent the Evening at Home, with my Partner and no other Company. (Diary entry, 25 December 1765)
A Christmas party is said to have been held at the White House at the very end of Adams's single term as president, in 1800, in honor of the president's granddaughter, four-year-old Susanna Adams, the first child to live in the White House, who had moved in on her father's death (from complications of alcoholism) that November. I can't find anything like a source for the story earlier than an unreferenced account in the 1975 World Book Encyclopedia coffee table book Christmas in Colonial and Early America, but if it's true the celebration was truly American, involving far less theology (represented by caroling) than childhood joy and greed:
A small orchestra played festive music in a grand ballroom adorned with seasonal flora. After dinner, cakes and punch were served while the staff and guests caroled and played games. The most amusing incident of the evening occurred when one of the young guests accidentally broke one of the First Granddaughter’s new doll dishes. Enraged, the young guest of honor promptly bit the nose off of one of the offending friend’s dolls. (via The44Diaries)
Antique papier-mâché doll from Ruby Lane.
Incidentally some of those Founding Fathers—Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and Thomas Jefferson—were apparently not very concerned about abortion, at least up through the first trimester, as we learn from the wonderful Rev. Gary Kowalski.
in 1729 when [Franklin's] former employer, newspaper editor Samuel Keimer of Philadelphia, published an encyclopedia whose very first volume included a detailed article on abortion, including directions for ending an unwanted pregnancy (“immoderate Evacuations, violent Motions, sudden Passions, Frights … violent Purgatives and in the general anything that tends to promote the Menses.”) ... Franklin responded in print through the satiric voices of two fictional characters, “Celia Shortface” and “Martha Careful” who expressed mock outrage at Keimer for exposing “the secrets of our sex” which ought to be reserved “for the repository of the learned.”  One of the aggrieved ladies threatened to grab Keimer’s beard and pull it if she spotted him at the tavern!... 
Rush asked the question, “what is an abortion but a haemoptysis (if I may be allowed the expression) from the uterus?”  A hemoptysis is the clinical term for the expectoration of blood or bloody sputum from the lungs or larynx.  In Rush’s mind, apparently, what we would now call the three-month-old embryo was equivalent medically to what one might cough up when ill with the flu.
And Jefferson admired Native American women for their courage and resourcefulness when they were away from home, joining in war or the hunt:
“childbearing becomes extremely inconvenient to them.  It is said, therefore, that they have learnt the practice of procuring abortion by the use of some vegetable, and that it even extends to prevent conception for some time after.”
Palin's grotesque image of "aborting Christ from Christmas" is based, I think, on the old trope of crucifying Christ anew, as in Hebrews 6:4-6:
For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost,
And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come,
If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.
Only the Crucifixion is a reality, historical and liturgical, whereas the Divine Abortion is something that specifically does not happen. Palin seems to be identifying the calendar with the body of the Virgin, gradually birthing Jesus through the Advent period; if we fail to say "Merry Christmas" we cause the Advent to miscarry, we deprive the world of Jesus for the year. Huh?

I'm very fond of Yule, as readers know, and glad the Christians found a pretext for keeping it going, by inventing the myth of Jesus's birthday on December 25, but as far as its Christian aspects go I sort of think the Puritans had a point in objecting to it. Christmas infantilizes Jesus, makes him vulnerable and unrevolutionary, a helpless little pal who passively appropriates the gifts that the rich should be giving to the poor. Goodbye warrior for social justice kicking down the money changers' tables, hello holy infant so tender and mild.
Image by WashingtonsWig.
Palin takes this process a big step further by fetalizing Christ, making her Lord an embryo who might not even get born without the power of prayer, a tiny blind creature in a state of total dependence on the carrying woman, who I imagine Palin identifies as herself, the sacred Mom, in control of what the Logos says until it is born and thus essentially finished (this Christianity of the Unborn Christ ignores the Crucified Christ of Easter, as it subordinates all the born to the unborn, calling itself the "Culture of Life", and the unborn to the Mom as crazed, babbling, hate-filled Grisly Mama Goddess, perpetually pregnant with the same monstrous Child). In calling on the spirit of Thomas Jefferson to ratify this bizarre spiritual trick she is going way beyond weird; I hope this isn't the start of something.
This could be the start of Dinah Shore. You don't have to like the music of this remarkable number (I certainly do) but the camera work, what looks like a single four-minute take panning along an infinite loop, has to be one of the most amazing technical feats in the history of television.

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