"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The classic understanding of the relationship between social and economic conservatives is simple: Social conservatives are often understood as dupes who let their obsession with controlling other people’s sex lives convince them to vote Republican, often against their own economic interest. This was what President Obama was getting at when he said that working-class whites who vote Republican “cling to guns or religion.”
There’s some truth to that, but if you start to dig a little deeper, it turns out that the Christian right doesn’t just bait believers into voting against their economic interests. On the contrary, the Christian right works fairly hard at trying to create theological arguments to support economic policies Republicans champion, such as slashing the social safety net or allowing unfettered capitalism to rapidly expand income inequality and environmental damage.
Here are the various ways Christian right leaders glaze over the Jesus of the Bible and push their followers to worship one who looks a little more like a Nazarene Ayn Rand.
1) Arguing that Jesus was a capitalist. By and large, the “loaves and fishes” man portrayed in the New Testament can in no honest way be reconciled with the aggressively capitalist attitude of modern Republicans, which holds that profit should never be constrained by concerns such as human rights and basic dignity for all. So conservatives are usually just elusive on the subject. However , Pope Francis’s recent comments regarding the excesses of capitalism have created some pushback on the right.
The favorite argument is that the Pope just doesn’t understand Christianity, which is totally pro-capitalist, no matter how excessive it gets. Ramesh Ponnuru blithely suggested that the Pope’s remarks show that the Pope just doesn’t understand “markets could instead enable a creative form of community” and that more “evangelizing still needs to be done” to convince the Pope that real Christians should embrace capitalism. Never mind that Pope Francis is from Argentina, where the “creative form of community” brought on by an eagerly capitalist, anti-socialist government was expressed through the creative disappearance of people whose left-wing politics were a threat to the capitalist community.
Jonathan Moseley at WorldNetDaily joined in on the fun, claiming Jesus was a capitalist by redefining “capitalism” to basically mean some kind of imaginary tax-free governmental system. He also asserts that as long as Christians generally disapprove of “crony capitalism,” they’re free and clear of any moral responsibility for supporting the lack of laws and regulations that lead to income inequality, mass poverty, and abuses of human rights in the name of profit.
2) Labor unions are anti-Christian. While many liberal Christian churches support labor unions, on the Christian right there’s a number of leaders trying to use religion to bully believers out of standing up for worker’s rights. Many major Christian right leaders are leading the charge in the fight to destroy the right of workers to organize, including Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and James Dobson of Focus on the Family. The arguments against unions are illogical and strained—they’re often coupled with the “Jesus was a capitalist” claims, as if capitalism somehow obliterates the right of workers to demand better wages within the system—but sometimes there’s a little effort to claim theological underpinnings for an anti-union argument.
Ralph Reed argued that Christian calls for submission require workers to just take whatever their bosses dish out without pushing back. David Barton tries to stretch a Bible story about a vineyard owner hiring different employees to argue that God hates the idea of collective bargaining. Indeed, this parable comes up a lot, to the point where it’s even suggested that good Christians should never try to better their work situation after the initial hiring phase is over.
3) Jesus wanted poor people to starve. There’s a lot of stories in the Bible of Jesus being generous and prescribing that his followers give up their possessions to the poor, but the Christian right is good about ignoring those verses and digging around for one or two to argue that actually, Jesus was on their side about the importance of starving the poor out. When Republicans were trying to cut the food stamp program and Democrats pointed out how that runs against even the most basic reading of the Christianity they claim to hold so dear, Rep. Stephen Fincher petulantly quoted 2 Thessalonians: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”
Of course, there’s no reason whatsoever to believe that people on food stamps are unwilling to work. The growth in food stamp usage is a direct result of higher unemployment, which means people want jobs but can’t find them.Many people on food stamps actually have jobsthat pay so little they have to use food stamps. But despite the fact that the verse— which was taken out of context—doesn’t even apply to the people it’s being wielded against doesn’t mean it’s not a favorite of the religious right. In fact,the way that they use it, you’d think it was the only sentence in the Bible, besides the ones condemning gay sex.
4) Religion means your employer should be all up in your business. Hobby Lobby has a case before the Supreme Court in which it’s arguing that in order to preserve the company’s religious freedom, its female employees should not be allowed to use their own insurance plans to purchase contraception. Even though the plans belong to the employees—they are part of their compensation package, just like their paychecks—Hobby Lobby is arguing that in order for its “religious freedom” to be preserved, it needs to be able to exert this kind of control over its employees’ private healthcare choices.
This case is a perfect example of the Christian right using its victimization complex to advance the increasingly strong hold that capitalists have over lives and our democracy. If Hobby Lobby prevails in court, it’s established a scary precedent, allowing your employer to say he can control how you use the compensation that should rightfully belong to you. This ability to exert power over a worker’s home and private life is something capitalist power structures have been dying to establish for decades now, and thanks to the Christian right, they now have a legal path to try to make that happen.
5) God doesn’t want you to preserve the environment. As with relieving poverty and pushing for income equality, preserving the environment is one of those things Christian theology should cause believers to prioritize, but unfortunately, it runs directly against Republican priorities for maximizing profit regardless of the ill effects. Particularly on the issue of global warming, there is a real danger that some creeping sense of morality might actually cause conservative Christians to start thinking the planet might actually be more important than the oil companies’ quarterly profits—indeed, some of that leakage is actually happening.
Enter groups like the Cornwall Alliance, which boldly try to turn Christians to climate change denialists by arguing that if you believe climate change is real, you’re not showing enough trust in God. It’s a nasty way of manipulating people by preying on their insecurities in order to get them to set aside their moral considerations. Unfortunately, it’s working. Only 7 percent of Republican-voting Christian pastors agree that climate change is real and manmade.
Most politicians who identify with the Christian right are eager to pounce on the theological arguments against protecting the planet, trying to recast their selfish desire to protect corporate profits, even at the expense of the planet and the human race’s health, as nothing but God’s work.
What all these examples show is the inherent danger of mixing politics and religion, because religion can be whatever the believer wants it to be. It might seem like an aggressive misreading of the Bible to imagine, as the Christian right does, that Jesus was a laissez faire capitalist who wasn’t bothered by poverty or pollution, but since religion is a matter of asserting belief instead of making logical arguments, in the end it doesn’t really matter.
Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and journalist. She's published two books and blogs regularly at Pandagon, RH Reality Check and Slate's Double X.More Amanda Marcotte.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
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