Saturday, December 12, 2015

The racial apologetics of Marco Rubio's faith



This clip of Marco Rubio speaking about Christianity is making the rounds lately, and two things stand out to me:

First, despite the outpouring of praise about how "inspirational" this is, Rubio isn't actually saying anything particularly out of the ordinary. For the Christian right - and particularly for the devout - Rubio offers no new insights or perspectives on the Gospel. He's not even articulating the usual message in an especially unique or eloquent way. If the people praising this heard it on the radio, and didn't know who was speaking, they'd readily dismiss it as the generic sermon that it is.

What Rubio's admirers actually appreciate here is his mastery of Christian-right knowledge and discourse. This is not simply a matter of signalling his religious / political alliance with them; Rubio is proving that he is one of them by rehearsing talking points and turns of phrase that they are intimately familiar with. For instance: even though the technical details are not in and of themselves inspiring, American Protestants in particular are culturally fascinated with the theanthropic details of Christ's dual nature as both God and man. Did Christ actually get the cold or the flu? This is just a matter of historical trivia, depending on what illnesses he was exposed to and the quirks of his immune system as much as anything, with zero theological implications - but it's still a point of immense curiosity. "Probably," Rubio concludes.

The spectacle of a politician laying out his religious cultural bona fides isn't at all unusual in our politics - but one should not understate how uniquely important this is for Rubio, a Cuban American trying to rally the support of an increasingly white Republican base. Certainly the devout will find plenty to appreciate in this video, but there is also an unmistakable subtext of celebration that this Hispanic gentleman is, indeed, one of us.


Around 9:50, Rubio touches on a point that his audience undoubtedly finds particularly meaningful, and that plays a crucial role in modern Christian-right discourse, even though its theological roots are relatively dubious. "Any time you face adversity," he insists, "God is going to shield you from the adversity - He's going to protect you from it."

This, as Johns Hopkins associate professor of political science Lester Spence observes, is a central premise of so-called "prosperity gospel" - an enormously popular genre of teaching that warps Christianity around capitalist ideology. Adherents, he writes, believe that 
those who choose god will be saved from the worst of the economic crisis while those who don't, won't...Note the logic here. People are materially poor because they don't think right. 
This, Bret McCabe writes, functions as "a way to make questions about who lives comfortably and who lives in poverty a matter of which one spiritually deserves to do so." It's easy to understand why Rubio's audience would want him to affirm this understanding: it legitimizes their prosperity as justified, invests them with a sense of control over their fortunes, and defers ultimate responsibility for economic justice from the state to God. And there are, again, obvious reasons why this message especially resonates when it comes from a man who isn't white.