Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Robinson on the Puritans and Economic Justice

Marilynne Robinson is a fairly solid cultural ally for consistently Christian conservatives as far as criticisms of modern cultural and 'scientific' excess. She's not a big fan of the overarching cultural narratives that seem to have developed in modern times. While I was reading her books of essays, The Death of Adam, I found a great resemblance between much of her mission, and the mission of the more conservative Catholics I have known, in terms of being truly faithful to one's faith tradition on all matters, including matters of economics.

Speaking first of the so-called Christian right and then of the supposedly hypercapitalist "Protestant work Ethic", Robinson says in the chapter on "Family:"
"My own sense of [the Scripture], based on more than cursory reading, is that the sin most insistently called abhorrent to God is the failure of generosity, the neglect of widow and orphan [...] I have heard pious people say, Well, you can't live by Jesus' teachings in this complex modern world. Fine, but then they might as well call themselves the Manichean Right or the Zoroastrian Right and not live by those teachings. If an economic imperative trumps a commandment of Jesus, they should just say so and drop these pretensions toward particular holiness [...] I know those who have taken a course in American history will think this merger of Christian pretensions and bullyboy economics has its origins in Calvinism and in Puritanism. [...] Go find a place where they are guilty of this vulgarization. Or [...] find a hundred or a thousand places where they denounce it, taking inspiration, always, from the Bible."
Elsewhere in this same chapter she bemoans the loss of the Sabbath to commerce and labor, and the inability of the lower classes to refuse an employer, among other things. There are definitely places where she differs from the Catholics, but she is very much an ally in terms of bringing back the Sacred. And one thing I think Catholics can and should get behind her on is people actually reading historical things they want to condemn, or at least, not thinking they know too much about them to read them--Robinson pretty rightly lists the entire Old Testament among these so-known-nobody-reads-it works. The way that this theme comes through here is in Robinson's exasperation that this sort of Capitalism gets assigned to the Puritans when, really, it is so not what they meant. Though her book focuses mostly on correcting our distortions of what Calvinistic strains of Christianity actually taught in their historical forms, she seems quite obviously an ally of the more truly conservative Catholics who would also very much like to recall traditions of economic justice and fair limits on enterprise--as opposed to just legislating on abortion and gay marriage.

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