Are Churches Essential Businesses/Services?

This week’s blog entry comes from the news that Joel Osteen’s Houston megachurch received $4.4 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Contrast that news with the bitter fight by Bernie Sanders and others to secure, among other protectionary measures, a second round of direct payments to the American people to assist families struggling to pay rent, mortgages, and other expenses.

Photo by Harry Smith on Pexels.com

The federal government’s response to the ongoing social and economic stagnation caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, while passing with bipartisan approval, has been straight out of the Republican playbook: a form of inequality-expanding trickle-down economics propping up institutions that would otherwise have failed under free market conditions, under the guise of allowing businesses to keep their workers employed. 

What seems odious to many is that churches, while increasingly involving themselves in right-wing politics and not being forced to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, have lined up in droves to receive PPP loans to the tune of $7.3 billion as of July 2020. Yes, churches may have janitors, organists, and ministers on their payrolls, and these individuals and their families would certainly experience hardships if their wages were disrupted, but there is no clear justification for such federal aid to be disbursed via their employers when direct payments to the American people has so clearly been an option from the start. The Small Business Administration even bent its rules that would typically have disallowed non-profits from receiving this special funding, according to ABC13 in Houston

Federal documents reveal the PPP program ‘declined to enforce’ provisions of federal law for PPP typically barring religious groups from accepting federal loans.

Ted Oberg and Sarah Rafique, ABC13

It is clear that the government’s approach to the Covid pandemic has taken a page out of the 2008 bank bailouts, deeming institutions and corporations of all sizes “too big to fail” and therefore essential services to society. Whether churches are so essential to our social fabric, in an era of ever-increasing religious “nones” and others identifying merely as spiritual apart from religious institutions, does not seem to have been considered. And yet, somehow, most of the population has survived 2020 without regularly stepping foot inside their local churches.

While news about Osteen’s megachurch receiving PPP funding has certainly caused a stir in recent days and prompted a PR response from the church’s spokesman, it remains to be seen whether the fact that churches in general have queued up for their bailout will scandalize either the faithful or Americans broadly who have treasured the separation of church and state, the First Amendment’s establishment clause, and a long tradition of standoffishness about government intervention in ecclesiastical affairs. As congregants and tithers continue to decrease, these PPP loans for churches may simply be delaying the inevitable collapse of America’s religious bubble.

Though designed as a loan system and expected to be repaid to the federal government, the Payroll Protection Program loans can be forgiven if the funds were used for eligible payroll and mortgage expenses. Osteen and other megachurch purveyors of the prosperity gospel tend to portray their donations received as “seeds” that, when planted, can grow into a mighty tree. We will perhaps have to wait and see if Osteen and other churches taking PPP loans symbolically bury their talents (Mt 25:24-28) or manage to sow their seeds into a hundredfold (Mt 13:8) for the benefit of American society. But given the kind of rhetoric coming out of churches lately, I’m not holding my breath.

Mike Pence is Terrible, but in a Totally Acceptable Way: A Lament

Preface: Mike, if you happen to read this, I’m sorry that you became Example 1-A for my lament. You are a public servant, however, and I just happened to see your ad one too many times. Good luck in the race, and I hope you’ll give some thought to that He-who-made-a-way guy, if elected.

How does a particular amalgamation of mainstream politicians become so appallingly atrocious that I will likely vote in the upcoming gubernatorial election for a scruffy-bearded ex-contestant on Survivor, CBS’ never-ending reality show that must nowadays refer to its few remaining viewers? Well, unfortunately, I can’t say much about the systemic causes of the ever-deepening rot of America’s political ruling classes/parties, but I can gawk at and lament about the trainwreck produced incessantly by the election cycle’s inescapable death march toward November.

Meet Mike Pence, Indiana’s very own Flat Stanley, a shockingly boring and vanilla Republican candidate for governor, and the current Congressman from the state’s sixth district in the U.S. House of Representatives. Go ahead, clickthrough to his website; my post will still be around when you wake up from your nap.

Recognizing that some numbers sound like English words, Pence’s campaign, ever-so-cleverly named “Pence4Indiana” on YouTube, is responsible for this excruciatingly generic drivel of a “campaign ad.” It airs on just about every commercial break during the Olympics, but I’ll only ask you to waste 30 seconds of your time watching it.

Great, eh? Indiana has somewhat of a significant National Guard, and some people choose to serve in it. Good for them. Nevermind that the National Guard is not the active-duty Army, even though our military adventurism of the last decade turned them into that on a de facto basis.

But this post is not about the people who choose to join the National Guard or any other branch of the armed forces, their multitude of reasons for doing so, or the like. It is about the jarringly annoying way politicians use rhetoric for perceived gains, especially when weighed against banal statist obeisance to the supposed religious principles of the majority.

(Please, read that previous paragraph again if you have to. This is not an attack against people who join the armed forces. It is a much, much broader lament about a society that both desires and permits injustice and rewards politicians who fail to question the reign of death posed by our foreign policy on the encouragement of the military-industrial complex and the fear machine. Deep breath.)

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Let’s start with the absolute basics. I was elected as a delegate earlier this year to the Indiana State Republican Convention, and if you know anything about me at all, you know that I went solely in support of Ron Paul. The state party did everything in its power to ensure that our voice was silenced, using its night-before-the-convention emendations to parliamentary process to silence the strong minority of us who were attending not to schmooze with powerful people in button-down shirts, but to challenge the legality of a clause preventing any debate about party-appointed nominees. Instead, we could only vote yea or nay to their slate of party-line-towers hoping for political careers. This, America, is how you get your politicians.

Anyway, on the second day of the convention, we had the distinct privilege of listening to people speak for 3 hours. These people included one Mike Pence, the party’s uncontested candidate to replace Mitch Daniels as governor. Here’s part of Pence’s riveting speech that day, just after he spoke about “faith,” “morals,” and how to “renew our land”:

Two centuries ago, as our pioneer forebearers labored to carve a home in the woods that was Indiana, they did not labor alone. And I believe with all my heart that He who made a way through that dense and dangerous forest, through harsh elements, toils and snares is with us still today.

I start with this not because those comments sounded particularly stupid to me at the time, but because his snoozer of a speech as a whole, and these excerpts, reveal enough about the candidate’s perspective to illustrate a basic theology: God is with Us, Jesus is on Our Party’s side, He will help us navigate this stormy political climate, and it’s a Good Thing for my candidacy if I sound this way when I speak to Hoosiers.

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Now, back to the advertisement.

I’m not sure it’s fair to label it as an advertisement, actually. The information it contains is not especially relevant to Pence’s gubernatorial campaign. If I was in high school again and asked to judge the few statements that Pence makes for their communicator’s purpose, I would have to say “to inform.” Of course, Pence did not sit down and film an ad, involve creative firms to produce an ad, and pay immense sums to NBC Universal to air an ad every waking hour of the day just to inform Hoosiers that their National Guard is the fourth largest in the country. There are deep, persuasive elements at play in the ad, and Pence wants you and I to know that he thinks about the American military exactly as we common people do.

As if we had any question about that.

But beyond the feel-good background music and the silhouetted imagery of glorious assault rifle barrels, what do we learn about Pence as a candidate here, other than the fact that he doesn’t mind taking regular Congressional junkets (on the American taxpayer’s dime) as photo ops to shake hands with our troops?

Considering the placement of the ad–during Olympic commercial breaks when our pro-USA excitement is generally pretty high–can we accept the its intentional nationalism (at best) or blatant jingoism (at worst)? Isn’t the Olympics supposed to be apolitical, to foster a sense of respect and togetherness for humanity, and aren’t we supposed to be affected by seeing the faces of The Other who, though he or she happened to be born in some other region of the world, wishes to live a fruitful life, just like us?

How do we square the dichotomy of military bravado with the command to love one’s neighbor, and especially the example of nonviolent resistance to oppression and corruption given by one Jesus of Nazareth?

How is signing on to destroy human life, or worshipping those who do, a “blessing”?

What do “service” and “sacrifice” actually mean?

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I’ve often thought that we, as American Christians, should be far more forgiving to Pontius Pilate. After all, he was just a lad born into the undisputed, uncontested, unchallenged and unmistakeable ruling empire of his day; the world had never before seen such a thing as Rome. Personally, he had aspirations of power and political greatness, and was doing his best to work his way up the chain of command, even if that meant toiling as Prefect of Judaea. Now, I don’t have any insider access to his personal thoughts, but I think it’s fair to say that he probably went about his life without ever questioning the morality of the use of force against oppressed peoples, which meant he had no problem using brutal force against those who his empire dominated violently, even for the most benign of reasons. He, like Rome in general, was not especially critical about who made their way onto his kill list from these inconsequential lands.

Through the armed-forces-worship, this is exactly what I hear from Pence’s advertisement. Only, it’s not in an explicitly abhorrent sort of way, whereby he cheerleads the deaths of people who happen to be on the wrong side of our armed drones, or superimposes the number of dead Middle Easterners all over the screen.

It’s in an I-know-the-American-people-are-totally-cool-with-this sort of way.

And that, to me, is far worse.

On This Summer, Financial Meltdowns, Ron Paul and the Future

The bushes in front of my apartment have been overridden with cobwebs this summer because until just recently, central Indiana hadn’t received much in the way of rain.

As it turns out, the cobwebs are even thicker on my blog. Wow, no posts since March 14? If we’re counting by the accumulation of U.S. government debt since that time, that’s over 400 billion dollars ago!

Also since that time, the spring semester came to a close (complete with 2.5 weeks of absolute frantic chaos), followed promptly by a summer course and thesis proposal that, when combined, felt like a death march. I’ve enjoyed my recent freedom from coursework, though in that time I’ve dedicated several hours a day to learning French. (Oui, je parle le français maintenant! Vive le France!) The language is necessary for my future pursuit of doctoral studies, but it may come in extra handy if Lauren and I decide to pursue the Peace Corps before that time. Now, there’s less than a month until the fall semester commences, so it’s time to savor every remaining day.

But the major benefit to the summer has been the ability to clear required reading off my bookshelf and make some room for “pleasure” reading. My pleasure reading this summer has consisted of three major categories: theology (of course), politics, and the complexity of the human brain (yes, it’s way out in left field, I admit). My summer reading list:

  • Love Wins, Rob Bell
  • Jesus Before Christianity, Albert Nolan
  • The Evolution of Faith, Philip Gulley
  • Christianity Without Absolutes, Reinhold Bernhardt
  • The Revolution: A Manifesto, Ron Paul
  • Liberty Defined: 50 Essential Issues That Affect Our Freedon, Ron Paul
  • Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, David Eagleman
  • The Believing Brain: From Ghosts to Gods to Politics and Conspiracies–How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them As Truths, Michael Shermer

That last one–by Shermer–has been entirely fascinating, and probably will require a serious discussion on the part of this “believer” whenever I happen to finish it. It’s long, challenging and intellectually stimulating, but in the end will be worthwhile.

But as the title of this post suggests, I’ve kept myself abreast of the financial Armageddon that the United States is quickly approaching next Tuesday. Actually, as we spend much more than we take in–to the tune of 40 percent of every dollar spent being borrowed from some other country like China–we’ve been approaching it for a while. It’s just been quickly accelerated since 2000 or so. And the things that Ron Paul wrote in his 2008 “campaign book” (of sorts), The Revolution: A Manifesto, make him seem like a prophet. I quote Dr. Paul at length:

Right now our government is borrowing $2.2 billion every day, mainly from China and Japan, to pay for our overseas empire. As our dollar continues to decline, thanks to Federal Reserve inflation, the American debt instruments that these countries are holding lose their value. We cannot expect these and other countries to hold on to them forever. And when they decide that they no longer wish to, our fantasy world comes crashing down on us. No more empire, no more pledging ever more trillions in new entitlements. Reality will set in, and it will be severe.

Our present course, in short, is not sustainable. Recall the statistics: in order to meet our long-term entitlement obligations we would need double-digit growth rates for 75 consecutive years. When was the last time we had double-digit growth for even one year? Our spendthrift ways are going to come to an end one way or another. Politicians won’t even mention the issue, much less face up to it, since the collapse is likely to occur sometime beyond their typical two-to-four-year time horizon. They hope and believe that the American people are too foolish, uninformed, and shortsighted to be concerned, and that they can be soothed with pleasant slogans and empty promises of more and more loot.

To the contrary, more and more intelligent Americans are waking up to the reality of our situation every day. Now we can face the problem like adults and transition our way out of a financially impossible situation gradually and with foresight, with due care for those who have been taught to rely on government assistance. In the short run, this approach would continue the major federal programs on which Americans have been taught to be dependent, but in accordance with our Constitution it would eventually leave states, localities, and extended families to devise workable solutions for themselves. Or we can wait for the inevitable collapse and try to sort things out in the midst of unprecedented economic chaos. I know which option I prefer.

Now that’s the truth, truth.

I’ve come to the realization that the only thing really great about our government these days is the size of the growing monstrosity of a deficit. Ron Paul preaches a foreign policy of non-interventionism and a domestic policy of weaning ourselves off entitlement programs, abolishing the Federal Reserve and allowing free market economies to prosper without unnecessary intermingling. I’m convinced that his Constitutionalist ideas, whether they are adopted under a possible administration of his or by a like-minded individual, are the last shot we’ve got at regaining the greatness that once was the United States and curtailing our empire before it crumbles before us.

So really, read his book. Go to the library today and borrow it. Educate yourself and challenge yourself. You don’t have to agree with me, or Dr. Paul, but at least give him a shot. Because if there’s anything we know for certain, it’s that the establishment-fattening ideas of the last two administrations have not produced anything worthwhile. For a quick introduction to him, you may even like to give this recent interview he gave to PBS Newshour a listen:

I know people are fond of saying that he’s crazy (or maybe some other, more explicit manifestation of this idea). He seems crazy because what he’s saying is so different from everyone else in Washington. I’m probably crazy for believing that he can become president of such a mess. I do know that I’m willing to give the man a shot. He’ll get my vote in the primary and, I’m certain, a plethora of other support along the way.

But, I digress. In the days to come, this blog will once again light up with activity, as I have a number of papers long and short from the last 1.5 months of the spring semester that are certainly worth sharing. I’ll try to keep it light on the politics, I promise. The easiest way to receive these is to click the “Sign me up!” button on the right-hand border, just below the recent post list and the category cloud. Or you could subscribe to my RSS feed, or just look for my shares on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for visiting, and au revoir!