Roy Moore’s Gospel for Perverts

Are Roy Moore’s apparent moral failings one more example that Christianity has been tried and found wanting? Or is it as G.K. Chesterton would have it, that Christianity has been found difficult and not tried?  Is there perhaps a third option, a form of Christianity has been tried which produced Roy Moore and many like him? As a Judge he insisted on displaying the Ten Commandments, yet his accusers depict a predator, one of whom describes an attempted seduction under the auspices of his babysitting her when she was 14. His former West Point classmates remember a farm boy determined to succeed at the pommel-horse, who they admit, may have pursued virginal teenagers. Classmates Richard Jarman and Barry Robella describe a very serious and devout young man, “almost naïve about women.” If you’re from small town Alabama, Robella explains, it may be normal to ask out 14 or 15-year old girls. “His piety might have led him to younger ladies.”[1]

His piety led him to the notion that Christianity should order public policy and may explain his ties to neo-Confederate and white nationalist groups. He is a strict moralist, insensitive to basic moral issues regarding sex and race. His is a morality that seems to morally desensitize. His former law school professor, Clint McGee, considered him so confused that he dubbed him “Fruit Salad.” Another teacher, Guy Martin, describes Moore as a pupil immune to logic and reason.[2] A good Baptist, he apparently began dating his wife prior to her divorce. To say the least, his devout faith has not led to clarity of thought in the realm of morals. Could it be that his faith has confounded his apparent confusion? Isn’t it on the basis of this same shared confusion that he has been able to garner support, much like that of Trump, among a particular sort of evangelical?

The moral confusion, so evident among evangelicals, may stem from a religion in which evil is incorporated into the core of the faith. The core of this misconstrued Christianity, described by N.T. Wright, works in the following manner: a. All humans sinned, causing God to be angry and to want to kill them, to burn them forever in “hell.”  b. Jesus somehow got in the way and took the punishment instead (it helped, that he was innocent, and that he was God’s son too).  c. We are in the clear, heading for “heaven” and saved from hell (provided, of course, we believe it).[3]  God, in this picture, has an anger problem so extreme that He does not note the basic unfairness, to say nothing of the irrelevance, of venting his anger on an innocent victim.

Sin, in this understanding does not really have anything to do with political or social evil (think here of racism, sexism, etc.). Rather, sin is mostly a private moral failing – but even here sin is allowed for (in heavy and regular doses) as Christ makes up for what is lacking. The worlds evil is left to run its course as part of God’s plan, as continued evil is not really pertinent to souls going to heaven when they die. Rather than picturing the cross as a confrontation with evil, this understanding reduces the work of Christ to a price paid to God so as to ward off his anger and to save souls for heaven.

Morality of a particular kind is front and center in this understanding but it is a confused and twisted morality. In Wright’s description of what he takes to be a mistaken understanding, God told humans to keep a moral code which has proven, and is presumed to be, impossible to keep. Continuing life in the Garden of Eden depended on keeping that code perfectly. Failure incurred the punishment of death. This was then repeated in the case of Israel with a sharpened-up moral code. The result was the same. Humans were therefore all heading for hell rather than heaven. Finally, however, Jesus obeyed this moral law perfectly and in his death paid the penalty on behalf of the rest of the human race. Those who avail themselves of this achievement by believing in him go to heaven; those who don’t, go to hell to be tortured for eternity. The “works contract” remains intact throughout in that it is an exchange which presumes the law is absolute – explaining the necessity of the death of Christ.[4]

The law plays an ambiguous role in this understanding – it is punishing, the marker of punishment, while at the same time it is made absolute. The law functions in place of God – and as with an impossibly demanding father, frustration is the inevitable result.  A close personal relationship with a father who is oppressive and punishing requires suffering for father to be pleased.

In his description of the working of sin and the law, Paul describes how encounter with the law and a certain “morality,” aggravates the sin problem.  The weight of the problem may be signaled by the 5,280-pound granite block containing the 10 Commandments which Moore had installed outside the Alabama state Judicial Building. Try to warm up to a father who insists on this burden. It might send one to looking for love in all the wrong places.

The law was never meant to serve as its own foundation – this is the argument of Paul in both Romans and Galatians.  The law was a marker of a covenant relation begun on the basis of the faith of Abraham. The relation with God is not mediated, rather it is marked, by the law. The law would make no sense (e.g., “thou shalt have no other God’s before me” – would this be Molech speaking?) apart from this prior promise and relation. The Ten Commandments are not an adequate foundation for a society and they are certainly not an adequate foundation for relationship to a father. Paul’s point is that the law served other purposes but when taken as an end in itself it becomes evil. The law made absolute is no longer God’s law; rather it is man’s law.  The Jews, like the first couple, attempted to establish their own righteousness through the law and failed to combine it with faith (Ro. 10.3ff).  Paul’s argument throughout Romans is that the law is not an end in itself; at its origin is the faith and example of Abraham and at its end is the fulfilment of Christ. Law alone, apart from this faith, is void and nullifies the promise (4.14).

Certainly, the law is holy, just and good (7.12), so what is the problem? Sin is the problem, as it would distort the meaning and purpose of the law by imagining the law is an end in itself providing access to God. A theology which absolutizes the law confounds the problem of sin, and in Paul’s description this produces perverts – sinning that grace may abound or imagining that cutting the male organ is necessary for salvation. This “zeal” for the law is misdirected in that it actually only succeeds in creating a transgressive desire. The desire is for an ethic/righteousness that is “one’s own.”

Far from drawing one closer to life and to God this law, put into place subsequent to sin (Ro. 7.23), displaces God.  Apart from God man can now know good and evil (as the identity of each is in its difference from the other). The good can be known through the evil and the evil through the good, but the problem is that the contrasting pairs depend upon one another. The good cannot stand alone as it needs the evil as its point of reference (the law becomes the source, not God). There cannot be an absolute incomparable difference or there would be no point of comparison. So, the evil must inhere in the good and the good in the evil so that the binary pair is interdependent and bound together.

To enact this law is not only to have rejected the prohibition from God but it is to put into play a law which is transgressive (death dealing) in the keeping. The good and evil are necessary to one another, so that one side of the pair is in the service of the other. Doing evil is a means of establishing the good, and doing the good is realized only in its identity with evil – “evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good” (7.21). Where the law is sin (7.7), sin will establish the law – “the law of sin” (7.23). One who embodies this law is split in an agonizing struggle of law keeping and transgression: “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (7.19).

In Giorgio Agamben’s account, Paul’s struggle in Romans 7.15-19 “is a perfectly clear reading of the agonizing condition of a man faced with a law that has become entirely unobservable, and, as such, only functions as a universal principle of imputation.”[5] The Law, combined with the deception of sin, generates the desire to violate it. The law according to Žižek “generates/solicits its own transgression.”[6] “Thou shalt not commit adultery” becomes truncated to, “Thou shalt not.” And “Commit adultery,” becomes set off from the prohibition, to become – “pursue school girls in the mall.” It is transformed into what Paul describes as an exponential desire. “I did not know desire until I encountered it in the prohibition” (Ro. 7:7). Paul’s description clarifies, in his defense of the law, how sin has been mediated by the law and demonstrates that this is a failure of its intent.

Roy Moore may be the prime, or at present the most public, example of an entire movement which would propagate this failed intent. The law made absolute or made an end in itself, which even explains the work of Christ, generates perversity. Paul makes it clear, this is not Christianity, it is a pervert’s gospel known by the fruit it produces (Gal. 1:4).

 

 

[1] Charles Bethea, “Pulling a Moore,” The New Yorker, December 11, 2017.

[2] Charles Bethea, “Why Roy Moore’s Law-School Professor Nicknamed Him Fruit Salad” The New Yorker, October 26, 2017.

[3] N. T., Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (p. 38). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

 

[4] Wright, p. 75.

[5] Agamben, The Time That Remains, 108.

[6] Ibid 113.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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