Friday, June 04, 2010

Benne's "Sad Career"

Ow, that hurts.

Pardon the hopping up and down as we hold a bruised shin. We have just stumbled across this essay, from 2006, by Pr. Ed Knudson. It is called Against His Church: the Sad Career of Robert Benne, and it is linked above for your reading pleasure.

The essay has a few problems. It is far too long, and marred by many punctuation errors. Although he engages Benne's writings and public statements since the 1960s, Knudson would have been well-served by the use of frequent quotations and, ideally, footnotes, all to assure us that he is fairly representing his subject. Worse is that underneath it all lies that classic and desperately tedious Boomer agon, the mutual resentment of those who retained their liberal idealism and those who found it transformed into modern neoconservatism.

Despite this, Knudson does a remarkable job of documenting Benne's transformation, and the degree to which Benne has opposed his own church from its very foundation in the late 1980s. Even more usefully, he puts a finger upon the problems with Benne's theological method, which will surely be apparent to anybody familiar with other "theocons" of the same generation. It boils down to a preference for economics to Scripture, and for ideology to compassion. (Incidentally, this is precisely the same critique which conventional theology makes of South American-style liberationism, and with equal justice).

In essence, Knudson cites Benne's own description of a conference in Dublin, years ago, in which he was the lone American theologian, and found his nation maligned by people who found it a convenient scapegoat for all the world's ills. We have been in the same situation many times, and recognize the twin temptations, either to spinelessly cave or to rise up in a righteous dudgeon shouting "My country, love it or leave it." Both responses are categorical errors, and in Knudson's description, Benne made the latter, and then proceeded to make a defense of "America" -- meaning capitalism in its least restrained form -- the center of his ethical system.

The heart of Knudson's matter, as we see it, is the accusation that Benne long ago began to worship in another church -- one distant not only from Lutheranism, but from Christianity:
Benne really does advocate capitalism so strongly that one cannot help but get the impression that it has become more important for him than anything else. Benne says “I began eating from the tree of economic knowledge…” in the most radical form of market-based economic theory, that of the so-called Chicago school which believes the free market explains all human behavior. “I had gotten acquainted with faculty members of the University of Chicago Business School and Economics Department…..” (p. 3) Now, to read Benne’s glowing account of these teachings leads one to have the feeling he has discovered a new and better church. This feeling is increased when he begins to talk about his affinity with neoconservatism.
And again, but more directly, Knudson cites a 2005 essay in which
... Benne was asked by the Journal of Lutheran Ethics to write an article on civil religion in the United States. In the article he calls for the “appropriation” of a civil religion by Lutherans. This has been a major goal of the religious right which indicates Benne has now explicitly joined in the campaign for religious nationalism.
Five other Lutheran scholars were asked to comment on Benne’s article. None of them agreed with it, saying it was not in the tradition of Lutheran social ethics which questions natural theology, any revelation of God other than that revealed in Jesus Christ.
In his article Benne had referred to this Lutheran tradition and expressly rejected it, referring to Lutherans who taught it as an “elite” who were not in touch with the American people.
Hmm. While it is true that the precise of nature in theological reflection is debated within Lutheranism, the more important point is that no serious theologian, least of all a Lutheran, can take "being in touch with the American people" as a criterion for theological competence. Substitute "German" in the sentence and you'll see why. And no, we're not obliquely accusing Benne of Fascism; we are accusing him of precisely the same captivity to culture that he claims to find, everywhere he looks, in Lutherans who disagree with him.

The frequent use of word "elite" to describe peers who disagree with him, a trope for which we have criticized Benne before, is also a window into his distorted world-view. Knudson links it directly to the rhetoric of the religious right, although he might have done better to trace it further back, to the Populist movement. Either way, though, it is the language of class resentment, and specifically of building a sense of outrage among those who feel that their interests are being ignored by the powerful. This is a tool beloved of demagogues, despite the obvious irony when it is used by those who support the interests of the wealthy against the poor.
Neoconservatives believe a “New Class” of elites dominates public consciousness of the country, liberal government workers, liberal media, liberal church leaders. They say these liberals hate the country, they hate capitalism, they hate common people, they are atheists and relativists and secular humanists. This is an absurd notion, but it has been repeated again and again so much now that this language has itself become dominate in public consciousness. Liberals are immoral atheists! ....
There are some other tidbits worth mentioning. The one that hit us hardest was this. In 1979, when he spoke to a workshop for pastors serving in the south side of Chicago,
... Benne actually made the comment that the church has to learn the facts about the way the economic system works. He gave an example. He said that he is paid by congregations to speak to adult forums. Money incentives are important in this economy. So it is just natural that he will speak to congregations when he is paid, but may not do so if he is not paid.

... Benne was saying basically that a person, even though serving the church, is always going to be motivated by money. This meant for me that Benne would lend his talents and abilities to suburban congregations who had the money, but not to the mostly black and poor congregations in inner city Chicago. Benne was taking his conceptual commitments very seriously indeed.
"Conceptual commitments" -- nice little euphemism for "idolatrous worship of Caesar and Mammon," don't you think?

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