22. On decaffeinated Christianity

The slow decay in Christian values is both evident and painful to see, even from the outside. In this essay I argue that the practice of Catholicism in particular became increasingly hollowed out in order to stay in line with the broader ideology and economic power relations of society.

The famous phrase ‘god is dead’ is one many useless phrases Nietzsche is known for. Not only is the vast majority of the world still religious; as I noted before many of those who would claim to have lost touch with their church still hold equally far-reaching metaphysical beliefs such as karma or ghosts. In the case of Christianity in Mexico it is not the case that religion is dead, but that it became decaffeinated: stripped of its active element in order to suit certain sensitivities. Christian values such as compassion, redistribution, humbleness and duty had to be moved to the background or forgotten to fit in with the broader ideology and lifestyle of many of those who we refer to as ‘conservatives’ today. The decay of the content of Christianity and the social teaching of the Church is an under discussed problem, even for those – like myself – outside of it.

    Before I explain this further, due to the nature of this topic I need to make two clarifications. First, this essay is not an attack on Catholicism. My claim is that culture is (regrettably) moving away from relating religion to the ethical obligations of the social teaching of Christ. Second, I am writing about a trend I claim to witness, rather than a generalized state of affairs. Not only are there large exceptions to my argument, my claims are exclusively about the middle and upper classes. I will for the content of this essay remain agnostic (get it? hehe) to the idea of religion being opium for the people.  

Let us start with an anecdote. In order to get my son baptized, we needed to take lessons in a nearby Church. Since we live in San Pedro, it was unsurprising I was surrounded by characters that walked straight out of a PAN campaign commercial: expensive watch, hair back, checkered shirt, body warmer – you know the type. To my astonishment, nobody in this audience had even a rudimentary knowledge of their own theology (who baptized Christ?), forcing a distressed Priest to repeatedly turn to me – the atheist foreigner! – to answer his questions. Even greater was their difficulty in formulating what meaning or values their faith represented for them, most not coming further than that Christ was about ‘peace’ or something. The chapel was filled with what the sociologist Max Weber would call traditional acting: you do things because you are supposed to do them, but you don’t know why.

    There are more public symptoms of the decay of the content of Christianity that go beyond indifference; and move towards open contempt for statements or acts that remind of the social teaching of the Church. The most visible example of this is the almost comical hysteria that happens whenever the (protestant) president of this Catholic country acts upon (or mentions) Christian values or beliefs. Helping the families of dead fuel thieves with funerals? Outrage! Helping immigrants near Christmas? Despicable! Giving preference to the poor in times of crisis? Communism! Stating that criminals have human rights? Unforgivable! Quoting the pope himself on the idea that helping the poor is good? Heresy! He is an idiot in the true sense of the word.

An idiot is somebody who doesn’t understand the symbolic context of things. In this case, he doesn’t get that while you have to agree in form with certainty principles, you are not supposed to actually do these things or say them out loud – silly old man. Because that would endanger the compatibility with capitalist ideology. There is no place and especially no time for consistency, moral duties, compassion and stories about poor people in this brave new world. In what follows, I will explain a classic case of Marx’s structure-superstructure theory: the idea that cultural and social institutions change to fit the economic power relations (structure) of society. Unfortunately, Christianity had to become decaffeinated of its own active element to be useful. We shall first examine what is being extracted before looking at what is left in the cup.

By caffeine I’m referring to the social teaching of both Christ and the church. To understate things, it is hard to do a literal reading of the New Testament and not conclude that Jesus Christ argued in favor of more equality and distribution towards the poor. Consider the following scene (one of many) of Christ answering a man’s question of how to get into heaven:

“21 Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” 22 When the young man heard this, he went away in sorrow, because he had great wealth. 23 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew, 19: 21-24).

Notice the triple repetition, as if Christ foresaw the Olympic level mental gymnastics that have taken place to get out of this statement. Even if you would – for no good reason – ignore this and other radical statements, a soft reading of the scriptures still leaves one with the impression that ‘social’ values and norms such as forgiveness, the condemnation of greed, and a preference for the poor are prominent topics. This, as well of the endorsement of democracy, can also be found in the social teaching of the church and the declarations of the current if-you-hate-him-something-is-wrong-with-you pope Franciscus.

    Worst yet for capitalism is that this religion inherently condemns hypocrisy and asks for concrete action instead of ritualism: “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). It is evident this makes for a dangerous ideology in the eyes of economic elites (hence they killed Christ). It also explains why attempts to take these values to their logical political consequence were violently repressed, such as was the case with Liberation Theology. Just like the most important decisions were taken before people were allowed democracy, by the time the more progressive corners of the church (Jesuits, Franciscans, etc.) made it to the seats of power, the moral authority of this seat was eroded by centuries of corruption.

   What then, is left in the coffee cup? Off course I cannot read into people’s soul, especially not of the 99% I have never met, but without generalizing two things seem to stand out. The first is that the consistent system of values and moral obligations seems to have increasingly been replaced by the idea of a personalized god. God – and Christ who gets reduced to this role, rather than the figure that appears in the gospels – as the invisible friend and therapist, to whom you ask for (material) things and consolation. This relation to god resembles the use of Netflix or Youtube: it is switched on and off at convenience, you don’t follow any programmed structure but you believe when you want. Certainly skipping on those annoying advertisements moral obligations and readings! With consistent ethics out of the window, being a good person becomes reduced to being friendly: a Niña Bien. Freed of consistency or the need to accept any moral duty that doesn’t already fit your ideology and lifestyle; this post-modern Christianity is now compatible with a classist culture of greed and consumerism.

    The second thing that religion was allowed to keep is the defense of conservative power relations. While politization of the faith by the Left is stigmatized and repressed, in most countries ‘Christian values’ get politically translated into support for the Right. Being extremely selective and sometimes even going against church doctrine, conservatives will use religion to defend old conceptions of man-woman, gender and class relations. And in doing so, off course ally themselves with strongly pro-capitalist parties.

While functional to the dominant class, this state of religious decay is lamentable for many other groups. One of those are exactly those pious true conservatives who try to convince people of certain ethical positions regarding family (planning), sexuality, etc. The glaring inconsistency of their ‘camp’ makes it truly hard to convince young people to give their arguments a look – no matter how ethically solid they might be. As long as these positions are associated with hypocrisy, corruption, narco-candidates and classism they are dead.

    But the wider society also suffers, in particular the more vulnerable groups. It is undeniable that religiously orientated groups played and play a major role in keeping some areas of society afloat. Here I am not referring to Instagram stunts like going ‘on a mission’ once, but those Christians who help those that nobody wants to help since their savior’s philosophy places them squarely outside common prejudices and judgement. For example, despite considerable improvements in official migration policy, church related shelters still carry the bulk of the work in assuring the survival of transnational migrants.

   Lastly, the political (socio-economic) left risks to slowly lose a powerful ally if the content of Catholicism keeps decaying and everybody turns into closeted Protestants. The only reason I am even interested in post-modern religion is the utter failure of post-modern atheism to formulate a meaningful alternative. Since Sartre’s existentialism in the West and the fall of communism in the East, contemporary atheism (in particular the Americans!) struggled to move beyond nihilism and wasting time by hating on others people’s beliefs. My ‘side’ adds nothing of use for the suffering masses of this world that can’t already be grounded in socialist values. In the hypothetical world cup of ideologies, as captain of team socialism I’ll happily trade these nihilist busters for a good Christian like Cornel West. Or, Insha’Allah, my man Francis.

While I like to end my essays on a constructive note, turning the tide of this trend is not an easy task. As wise progressives know, religion is a battlefield like any other. Conservatives understood this centuries ago, and have sub sequentially molded faith into its openly inconsistent, consumer friendly and inequality-supporting form. The left seems to have missed the memo. It can either try to form new alliances and hope for a rekindling of the social philosophy of the scripture, or start the heavy work of developing a non-nihilist political humanism that can substitute it.