THE BLOG
03/01/2012 02:56 pm ET Updated May 01, 2012

The New Pharisees

Strenuous loathing of Barack Obama is now standard fare for GOP pundits and presidential candidates, so it comes as no surprise to hear their attacks on the president's religion and religious views. From Rick Santorum's "phony theology" characterization, to Cal Thomas' dismissal of his "social gospel," to Mike Huckabee's claim that the president is "robbing God" (because, according to the governor-turned-pundit, he tithed less than 10%), their collective assault on his religious authenticity is steeped in righteous indignation. There's also been a healthy dose of falsehood.

The Obamas, it turns out, gave 14% of their income to religious and other charities, not the 1% Mr. Huckabee claimed. Lots of anger, judgment and misinformation, shouted from the rooftops. Same old, same old.

But the latest barrage from these men of God illuminates what has become the defining characteristic of the Right's leadership: extreme and unrepentant arrogance. Well beyond matters of faith, this is how they approach the economy, climate change and countless other matters. Not only is this bad for public discourse and public policy, it is totally antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.

Genuine humility is at the heart of Christianity -- and most major religions -- because, as scripture says, we cannot know the mind of God. My own friends include people of exceptional faith and conviction, who treasure the teachings of Christ, while believing the scriptures to be the words of men, inspired but imperfect. I know others of great faith and character who believe the Bible to be the unerring word of God. And my friends include agnostics and atheists who are wonderfully virtuous and consistently righteous people. Different folks with very different views of God, scripture and the world.

How might Jesus counsel us to deal with moral disagreement or theological uncertainty? To the crowd ready to stone the woman caught in adultery, he admonished, "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone." Self-scrutiny, not righteous retribution. The same lesson emerges from the parable in Matthew, chapter 7, when Jesus tells his followers to stop judging. "Why do you see the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"

Throughout his teachings and the example of his life, Jesus consistently identifies with the powerless and the outcasts, as for example in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In the Judgment of the nations, Jesus is asked, "When, Lord, did we see you hungry or thirsty or sick or in prison and not help you?", to which he replies, "I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me."

And finally, there are the Pharisees, those learned men of high standing, who Jesus rebuked for their false piety and love of "the place of honor" all while they "tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders." He tells them, "You have neglected the more important matters of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness."

Humility, we must conclude is neither false modesty nor moral ambiguity. Rather, it is the very difficult act of removing the plank from our own eyes before focusing on the speck of dust in the eye of others; of letting the truth shine upon ourselves at least as much as we attempt to shine it on others. Like the truth that the Obamas tithed 14% of their income to charity in 2010, while Newt Gingrich gave 2.6%, Rick Santorum 1.8%, and wealthy Americans generally, 3.4%. Seems to me that this kind of humility wouldn't just make for better Christians, but better neighbors and citizens as well.

The great irony of our time is that the rise of conspicuous religiosity, especially among the pundits and leaders of the Republican Party, has led not to more humility, but to extreme arrogance; not to more love of the least among us, but to contempt for those who are different or less fortunate. At first glance, one might think this to be unique to our times. That's until you remember Jesus among the poor, while the Pharisees stood, defiantly, self-righteously with the rich and the powerful. Same old, same old.

Anthony Flaccavento lives near Abingdon, where he farms full time and runs a consulting firm. He has recently announced his candidacy for the Virginia 9th Congressional District Democratic nomination.

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