THE IMAGES of abject suffering, neglect and destruction beamed out of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina transfixed a horrified world. They turned the American political scene upside down, and in a single stroke called into question many of the orthodoxies that reign in today’s American political establishment. Despite its tragic nature, Katrina presented America a precious opportunity to reexamine its priorities and rededicate itself to the religious values upon which the Republic was founded.
The mayhem wrought by Katrina was so awesome, sudden and anachronistic that it is difficult not to see parallels with the many accounts of Divine punishment visited upon wicked peoples of the past in scripture. Comparisons to Noah’s flood-a terrible punishment meted out to idolatrous people who stubbornly ignored warnings from God’s messenger-are inevitable at the sight of a modern metropolis and international icon suddenly submerged under an angry sea. In these strife ridden times, it comes as little surprise that some Muslims (including Al-Qaida operatives, who promptly issued a propaganda video on the occasion) ascribed this natural calamity to America’s support for Israel and its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Comparable jeremiads were also heard from non-Muslim leaders. An Alabama Senator caused a furor by explaining Katrina as punishment for New Orleans’ wild night life and the general prevalence of abortion in America. Not to be outdone, the Evangelical leader Franklin Graham-who famously declared Islam “a very evil and wicked religion”-linked Katrina to the abolition of prayer in public schools. The most original contribution to this discussion was undoubtedly that of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef of Israel, who caused outrage by chalking this up to American support for Israel’s partial withdrawal from the Occupied Territories and the fact that New Orleans’ mostly African-American and Gentile residents don’t study the Torah.
While I have no doubt that much of what one sees around us today is displeasing to God, I find such interpretations of these tragic events problematic on many levels. Unlike in the examples cited, here many of the guilty escaped punishment whereas the weak and innocent bore the brunt of the trial. The notion that the poorest, most disenfranchised Americans would be held accountable for foreign policies made with little if any of their input does not sit well. Nor does the idea that God would smite the residents of New Orleans for the excesses of Mardi Gras while leaving unscathed millions from around the country who eagerly flock to its festivities every year. The idea that God would manifest His displeasure over lax Torah study in the overwhelmingly Christian and African American city of New Orleans seems counterintuitive, to put it mildly.
That is not to say that God isn’t sending America and the world a message. I just suspect it’s not about sex, war, or real estate. This is about community, compassion, and responsible stewardship, qualities that I think are in increasingly short supply in American life and government. Today, Noah would have to contend with different, far subtler idols, but unmistakable idols nonetheless. Perhaps Katrina was an old fashioned warning from on high, after all.
It is commonplace to contrast “Religious America” with “Secular Europe,” but I find these categories increasingly inadequate. Although I have no doubt that there is truth to this dichotomy, I do not think there is much cause for complacency among believers on this side of the Atlantic. For all of its emphasis on religious values, I would argue that contemporary America is in the grips of a grave new heresy, namely religiously sanctioned Social Darwinism.
The theory of biological evolution through natural selection that arose in Europe in the mid-19th century was fiercely resisted by American religious leaders and remained controversial in many quarters of American life for yet another century (e.g. the “Scopes Monkey Trial” that riveted the nation in the 1920s). Recently the old debate was revived by the “Intelligent Design” controversy, currently the source of lively debate at a number of American schools and communities.
Nonetheless, 19th-century American intelligentsia eagerly embraced the odious socio-political corollaries of the Darwinian worldview. (It is no coincidence that the sub-caption of Darwin’s seminal classic 1859 work The Origin of Species was “or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggles for Life”.) The sweeping new historical narrative of economic progress instantly justified all forms of economic exploitation and inequality, including even the institution of slavery itself. In short order, an ideology of no less heretical provenance became the reigning orthodoxy of American social and political thought, even if it was frequently camouflaged with idealistic-sounding invocations of Utilitarianism or Malthusian economics. The enormously influential British philosopher Oswald Spengler captured the Social Darwinian ethos most succinctly in his 1862 observation that “We have unmistakable proof that throughout all past time, there has been a ceaseless devouring of the weak by the strong.”
However, this harsh outlook has been challenged. The massive social upheavals in America during the Great Depression of the 1920s (and the stoic reaction by much of the political elite to the plight of the burgeoning ranks of America’s poor) sparked a sea change in American society. In response, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ambitious New Deal initiatives established a long overdue (and eminently Islamic) social safety net for society’s weakest. Later, during the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s, popular attitudes toward the poor and disadvantaged softened further.
Starting with Ronald Reagan’s election to the White House in 1980, the pendulum began to swing back and continues to do so. For more than two decades, a cutthroat worldview of laissez faire-ism, hostility towards government involvement in society, and philosophical materialism that can verge on atheism increasingly dominates the debate in Washington. It is an open secret that many policymakers under Reagan and his Republican successors were profoundly influenced by the atheist philosopher Ayn Rand.
For noted theologian Harvey Cox, the Reagan era’s beatification of the free market as the infallible arbiter of all social, political and ethical questions has a familiar ring. Cox observes:
Soon I began to marvel at just how comprehensive the business theology is. There were even sacraments to convey salvific power to the lost, a calendar of entrepreneurial saints, and what theologians call an “eschatology” – a teaching about the “end of history.” My curiosity was piqued. I began cataloguing these strangely familiar doctrines, and I saw that in fact there lies embedded in the business pages an entire theology, which is comparable in scope if not in profundity to that of Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth. It needed only to be systematized for a whole new Summa to take shape.
At the apex of any theological system, of course, is its doctrine of God. In the new theology this celestial pinnacle is occupied by The Market, which I capitalize to signify both the mystery that enshrouds it and the reverence it inspires in business folk. (Harvey Cox, “The Market as God.” The Atlantic Monthly, March 1999, 283:3, pp. 18-23)
The most ubiquitous and harmful consequence of the new dispensation foisted on America by the “theo-economists,” to use Cox’s memorable term, was the relentless demonization of government and the systematic dismantling of social programs that America’s poor and working class rely on in times of crisis. Guided by the theo-economists’ mystical faith in the “Invisible Hand” of The Market, the American government all but openly repudiated a pillar of its compact to the people, the provision of reasonable measure of security and equality to all.
In New Orleans, America saw the concrete consequences of abdicating responsibilities toward its poor and working class in full color, as it were. The poverty and desperation of New Orleans’ black population in these circumstances, the striking absence of members of other races among the reeling throngs, the scandalous and longstanding refusal by government authorities to dedicate funding to disaster planning, and environmentally irresponsible development policies delivered a stunning indictment of the Utopian solutions long peddled by The Market’s wide-eyed devotees.
Equally repugnant to a spiritual person is the way traditional religious values were co-opted in the name of The Market. Timeless values of self-reliance and responsibility became a cover for the cynical valorization of the most venal and base of human instincts. The example of Jesus Christ in the Gospels constantly highlights the believer’s moral duty to actively alleviate suffering. After all, the example of many of Christ’s earliest disciples in The Acts of the Apostles was not to coldly diagnose the failures and miscalculations of those around them but to donate all their worldly possessions to help their poorer neighbors. In contrast it seems that some American religious leaders have rehabilitated the philosophy of Cain and sanctified the pursuit of wealth.
Under the influence of this outlook, too many Americans cease to consider themselves their brethren’s keepers. They increasingly mistake the pursuit of narrow special interests for responsible public policy, but perhaps this catastrophe will help turn the tide. It is my hope that Katrina’s tragic human toll and the stark inequalities that it exposed will lead to the emergence of a more balanced and humane debate about poverty and social exclusion in American society. As the gulf between America’s haves and have-nots continues to rise, its religious and political leaders would do well to ponder Chapter 107 (Al-Ma’un) of the Qur’an (as translated by Kabir Helminski):
Do you see the one who denies the reckoning?
Who shuns the orphan
and forgets the hungry?
Who worships mindlessly
and only to be seen,
and fails in neighborly kindness?
It is hard to imagine a more topical message for our day of waning community solidarity than these haunting yet beautiful verses.