February 24, 2012
Separating Church and State

This year’s Republican primary has brought the return of the culture war: the  war between those who some allege to be godly against others presumed to be ungodly; the war between those who insist they are moral against those who are found to be immoral. Front and center in the culture war this year has been contraception, most notably things like the birth control pill, the morning after pill, and similar means by which women regulate and control their fertility. Recently it has seemed like the Republicans are more interested in the politics of women’s wombs than the politics of the United States.

This focus on morality in politics is deeply entangled with the question of religion in politics. For example, most of the Republicans advocating a culture war against contraception are Catholics, and have been using their Catholic values to frame their opposition to birth control, abortion and the like. Evangelical Protestants offer their own list of demands derived from their religious precepts (creationism, pro-life, etc.). Others make other claims.

The logic is clear: religion is our understanding of God’s dictates; linking state policy to God’s ensures that we will have a Godly nation.

But while the logic is clear, it is also profoundly, utterly and absolutely wrong.

First, as the Framers recognized, all claims that we should impose God’s law on the state rest on the assumption that it will be OUR version of God’s law that gets imposed on everyone else. We assume that we’ll get our laws passed into state policy—not that we will have to live by others’ values.

But there is no logical reason to make this assumption. One can win or lose any political struggle, and it may well be that your moral opinion is in the minority. At which point you might face state sanction if you practice your beliefs against state policy. Hence the Framers created a generally neutral Constitution: barring some extremes, the state is neutral as to whatever religion you practice. The notion is that the only way to really protect religious freedom is to ensure that no one gets to impose anything on anyone—again, barring some extremes (e.g., human sacrifice).

The Framers also recognized a second reason to oppose the linkage of state and religion—a reason that the advocates for tight relationships between church and state simply ignore. This is that while people fantasize that when church and state are closely linked the church will shape the morality of that state, in the real world what happens is that the state runs the church. Government has the guns and the thugs and the power; religious leaders mostly fall in line out of self-preservation or the desire for promotion.

Think I’m kidding? Then go read some stuff about the transition of Christianity from an obscure sect of radicals on the fringes of the world into the state religion of the Roman Empire. Re-examine the rise of Protestantism, particularly in Henry VIII’s creation of the Church of England.

Governments run churches when churches engage with states. Which is why any advocate of religious freedom ought to hold as their first principle: keep church and state separate, at least as much as possible. It’s the only way the church can survive with its morality intact.

So seriously, Republicans: if you love religion, stop trying to make the state comply with its laws. It’s the only way to save your faith.

August 12, 2011
Rick Perry’s Unanswered Prayers

The following editorial is from today’s New York Times. I have nothing to add. PP


Timothy Egan, The New York Times

A few months ago, with Texas aflame from more than 8,000 wildfires brought on by extreme drought, a man who hopes to be the next president took pen in hand and went to work:

“Now, therefore, I, Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.”

Then the governor prayed, publicly and often.  Alas, a rainless spring was followed by a rainless summer. July was the hottest month in recorded Texas history. Day after pitiless day, from Amarillo to Laredo, from Toadsuck to Twitty, folks  were greeted by a hot, white bowl overhead, triple-digit temperatures, and a slow death on the land.

In the four months since Perry’s request for divine intervention, his state has taken a dramatic turn for the worse.  Nearly all of Texas  is now in “extreme or exceptional” drought, as classified by federal meteorologists, the worst in Texas history.

Lakes have disappeared. Creeks are phantoms, the caked bottoms littered with rotting, dead fish.  Farmers cannot coax a kernel of grain from ground that looks like the skin of an aging elephant.

Is this Rick Perry’s fault, a slap to a man who doesn’t believe that humans can alter the earth’s climate — God messin’ with Texas? No, of course not.  God is too busy with the upcoming Cowboys football season and solving the problems that Tony Romo has reading a blitz.

But Perry’s tendency to use prayer as public policy demonstrates, in the midst of a truly painful, wide-ranging and potentially catastrophic crisis in the nation’s second most-populous state, how he would govern if he became president.

“I think it’s time for us to just hand it over to God, and say, ‘God: You’re going to have to fix this,’” he said in a speech in May, explaining how some of the nation’s most serious problems could be solved.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry spoke at a day long prayer and fast rally on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011, at Reliant Stadium in Houston.Pat Sullivan/Associated PressTexas Gov. Rick Perry spoke at a day long prayer and fast rally on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011, at Reliant Stadium in Houston.

That was a warm-up of sorts for his prayer-fest, 30,000 evangelicals in Houston’s Reliant Stadium on Saturday. From this gathering came a very specific prayer for economic recovery. On the following Monday, the first day God could do anything about it, Wall Street suffered its worst one-day collapse since the 2008 crisis. The Dow sunk by 635 points.

Prayer can be meditative, healing, and humbling.  It can also be magical thinking.  Given how Perry has said he would govern by outsourcing to the supernatural, it’s worth asking if God is ignoring him.

Though Perry will not officially announce his candidacy until Saturday, he loomed large over the Republican debate Thursday night.  With their denial of climate change, basic budget math,  and the indisputable fact that most of the nation’s gains have gone overwhelmingly to a wealthy few in the last decade, the candidates form a Crazy Eight caucus.  You could power a hay ride on their nutty ideas.

After the worst week of his presidency (and the weakest Oval Office speech since Gerald Ford unveiled buttons to whip inflation), the best thing Barack Obama has going for him is this Republican field.  He still beats all of them in most polling match-ups.

Perry is supposed to be the savior. When he joins the campaign in the next few days, expect him to show off his boots; they are emblazoned with the slogan dating to the 1835 Texas Revolution: “Come and Take It.”  He once explained the logo this way:  “Come and take it — that’s what it’s all about.” This is not a man one would expect to show humility in prayer.

Perry revels in a muscular brand of ignorance (Rush Limbaugh is a personal hero), one that extends to the ever-fascinating history of the Lone Star State.  Twice in the last two years he’s broached the subject of Texas seceding from the union.

“When we came into the nation in 1845 we were a republic, we were a stand-alone nation,” says Perry in a 2009 video that has just surfaced.  “And one of the deals was, we can leave any time we want. So we’re kind of thinking about that again.”

He can dream all he wants about the good old days when Texas left the nation to fight for the slave-holding states of the breakaway confederacy. But the law will not get him there. There is no such language in the Texas or United States’ constitutions allowing Texas to unilaterally “leave any time we want.”

But Texas is special.  By many measures, it is the nation’s most polluted state.  Dirty air and water do not seem to bother Perry.  He is, however,  extremely perturbed by the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement of laws designed to clean the world around him.  In a recent interview,  he wished for the president to pray away the E.P.A.

To Jews, Muslims, non-believers and even many Christians, the Biblical bully that is Rick Perry  must sound downright menacing, particularly when he gets into religious absolutism. “As a nation, we must call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles,” he said last week.

As a lone citizen, he’s free to advocate Jesus-driven public policy imperatives.  But coming from  someone who wants to govern this great mess of a country with all its beliefs, Perry’s language is an insult to the founding principles of the republic.  Substitute Allah or a Hindu God for Jesus and see how that polls.

Perry is from Paint Creek, an unincorporated hamlet in the infinity of the northwest Texas plains. I’ve been there. In wet years, it’s pretty, the birds clacking on Lake Stamford, the cotton high. This year, it’s another sad moonscape in the Lone Star State.

Over the last 15 years, taxpayers have shelled out $232 million in farm subsidies to Haskell County, which includes Paint Creek — a handout to more than 2,500 recipients, better than one out every three residents.  God may not always be reliable, but in Perry’s home county, the federal government certainly is.

May 18, 2011
Newt Gingrich’s Sin, part II

Since we all sin, or at least screw up, human beings have developed elaborate rituals for letting sinners back into “good” society. Sometimes these rituals work; sometimes they don’t; but in any case we have created systems through which we can signal our recognition of the error of our ways and our desire to be let back in to polite society.

In the west, at least two practices seem central to any effort to overcome sin: confession—acknowledging error; and atonement—the making of wrong things right. These things may be central to all cultures’ practices of sin and forgiveness, of course, but I don’t know enough about other practices to make such a universalist claim. It is certainly true in my culture, in any case.

As I pointed out in last night’s blog post, Newt Gingrich effectively sinned against tea party dogma over the weekend when he had the temerity to suggest that the Ryan Plan for Medicare was a too-radical, misbegotten effort at right wing social engineering. And, as happens to sinners who challenge dogma, Gingrich faced the wrath of the keepers of the faith: Rush Limbaugh, the Wall Street Journal, and FOX News, among others, all pounded Gingrich for his faith crime. The neoconservative editorialist Charles Krauthammer announced that Gingrich’s campaign is over, although it’s not at all clear that he gets to make that declaration.

It has, in other words, been a pretty rough 48 hours in Newt Gingrich’s political life.

Now, like a sinner who wants back in, Gingrich is confessing and atoning. As he confessed to FOX News’ Greta van Susteren, “When I make a mistake, and I’m going to on occasion, I’m going to share with the American people that was a mistake because that way we can have an honest conversation.” “I want to set a precedent for new kinds of presidential campaigns,” he continued: “I made a mistake and I called Paul Ryan today, who’s a very close personal friend, and I said that.”

I have sinned against you, he might as well have said. 

He is also engaged in atonement exercises, meeting with and calling tea party leaders. It’s not hard to imagine that Gingrich is saying something to the effect of: “don’t worry. I won’t do it again.” His loyalty to dogma will no doubt be reconfirmed shortly.

There is, however, at least one aspect of Gingrich’s performance of the sin, confess and atone ritual that may undermine others’ sense of his sincerity—which is a problem since it is the community’s acceptance that confession and atonement are sincere that is central to a sinner’s chances of reemerging into “good” society. This aspect derives from the fact that he is still running a presidential campaign. Thus, interestingly, as he has confessed his sins and sought forgiveness for them, Gingrich has also said that “Any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood, because I have said publicly those words were inaccurate and unfortunate.”

In other words, you can’t trust what I said then … so trust that I am being sincere when I apologize now and promise I won’t do it again.

Ah. Good luck with that.

December 9, 2010
Liberal v. Conservative Christianity

Some years ago, while I was flipping through TV channels looking for something to watch/kill time with, I stopped for a few minutes on C-SPAN. As it happens, C-SPAN runs a lot of thoughtful, serious programming—although none of it comes from its actual coverage of Congress, of course. In this case, I stopped because a former professor of mine, Jean Bethke Elshtain, who was on my dissertation committee, was giving a speech C-SPAN was broadcasting.

Her topic was on religious participation in politics—e.g., is/ought there be a “separation of church and state?” In the course of the brief bit of the speech I watched, she asked a question that has stuck with me for years: something to the effect of, “how come liberals don’t mind when religiously-motivated people like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi get involved in politics, but they do mind when conservatively-minded religious people get involved in politics?

I’ve thought a lot about this question over the years since I watched this broadcast, and as the Westboro Baptist Church (the “God Hates Fags” group that protests at soldiers’ funerals asserting that the soldiers are going to burn in hell for fighting on behalf of the sodomite and gay-friendly United States) gets ready to engage in a similar act at Elizabeth Edwards’ funeral, I want to take a moment to offer an answer Jean’s question:

It is precisely the difference in the political program that King and Gandhi draw from their religious values from the political plans that the WBC or Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson draw from their religious values that explains why King and Gandhi don’t bother me when they get into politics, while Falwell and Robertson do.

It seems to me that the core political impulse that King and Gandhi and countless other religiously-minded liberals have followed is advocacy for the weak and the poor against the interests of the strong and the established. They desire that oppressed persons be freed. That poor people be fed. That the shunned and the shamed be recognized in their humanity. That the state not be an agent of any particular worldview to the exclusion of all others. That disagreements about the content of faith are less important in the daily lives of human beings than is the fact of faith itself.

By contrast, it seems to me that the core political impulse of religiously-minded conservatives is to use of state power to exclude and delimit life, almost always to the benefit of the powerful. They desire that the power of the state be used to compel citizens to follow one, apparently true, path to salvation. They define freedom and dignity in religiously political terms, meaning that if you are “of the body” you will win the eternal life and freedom of heaven, but if you are “outside the body” you will not. Moreover, the state ought to use its power to compel your conversion because it is actually saving you from eternal damnation. And if you choose to remain outside, it is right that you be shunned and shamed and mocked.

These are, of course, broad assertions, and it will take little to no effort to find cases that challenge this summary. Rick Warren at the Saddleback Church offers a partial critique of this summary. But exceptions don’t invalidate broader patterns. Religious conservatism in the US is generally comfortable with and comforting of the established relationships of power in this country. Religious liberalism is usually in conflict with that same establishment.

To the degree that there is a choice between using religion to advance the interests of the poor and the oppressed or using religion to advance the interests of the powerful and the established, I choose the first. Which, Jean, is why I am much less troubled by the actions of religiously-minded liberals than I am by the actions of religiously-minded conservatives. Thanks for asking—and I mean that.

September 15, 2010
Is America Christian? Part 3

I conclude this three part series with the issue of: is, or should, the US government founded on/expressing Christian principles?

Let me note up front that I will not be quoting any of the framers in making my case. I would be happy if we would call a moratorium on taking quotes out of context from the framers and then using them to “prove” our case. The plain fact is that the people who wrote the United States’ Constitution were politicians. They were skilled at saying things that would win them public praise even as they might hold quite differing views in private. Hence one can quote Jefferson praising the value of Christianity in public life AND quote Jefferson mocking that very notion in a private letter. It’s fruitless. Besides, the last time I checked, the framers had all died. We’re in charge now.

Instead, what is more productive is to look at the logic of the system they built. The framers were worried about two things when it came to the relationship between religion and the state: what would happen if one sect came to dominate political life, and what would happen if the state came to dominate the church.

It is helpful to remember that the United States was already a religiously diverse place when the Constitution was written. Calvinists, Deists, Quakers and Catholics lived in the US and had political power in different regions of the country. John Adams was familiar with the Koran, and actually owned a copy of the first Koran printed in America. Jefferson acquired one too.

Moreover, the framers knew their religious history. The slaughters of the European Wars of Religion and the English Civil War were current in their thinking. Indeed, much of the early US settlement came as English people (including my first relative in the US) were escaping England’s civil, religious-embedded war. The framers were, as a consequence, profoundly worried about religious sectarianism destroying the fragile unity of the new nation. They worried that some religious group would try to use the power of the state to imprint their religious doctrine into civil law. They actually didn’t care whether the sect in question was “Christian” because inter-Christian sectarianism was much more intense than it is today. Thus, for the framers ANY Christian group winning would likely cause society to collapse. It needed to be avoided.

This is the insight that conservative Christian activists miss today. They think, “ah, the framers were Christians, therefore the nation is Christian,” but do not recognize the diversity of “Christian” experience that worried the framers. Moreover, contemporary Christian activists always imagine their ideas on top—they always imagine winning, and of course imagine that their contemporary ideas express the framers’ “original” intent. The framers asked a different question. They asked: what if your faith loses? Will you remain loyal to the US then? It is a question activists might re-ask today as they think about imposing their Christian precepts on the nation: what if they lose? Suddenly, state neutrality might look a whole lot better,

Additionally, the framers were concerned about something Americans today seem never to consider. They worried as much about the state taking over the church as they did about the church taking over the state. After all, in Europe the churches were significantly creatures of the state. They taught the lessons the state wanted taught, not necessarily the lessons one’s private conscience led one to. It is the Church of England, after all, and the monarch of the UK is “Defender of the Faith,” the head of the church. No church in such a situation is going to promote ideals opposed to the interests of the state, no matter what the Bible actually says.

Americans tend not to worry about the power of the state to dominate the church. The US state is comparatively weak, and tea party rhetoric aside, most Americans do not worry about the state dominating every aspect of our lives. But the fairly universal experience of nations that have state religions is that the religion works for the state, not the other way around. The framers knew this, and perceived of the notion of the separation of church and state as a means to protect religious freedom from state interference, not just as a means to protect people of one set of religious values from being dominated by others holding different religious values.

Which is why the answer to the question, is the US government Christian, or should it be? is: no. The government of the United States is not and cannot be Christian. Were it to be Christian, the enforcement of one sect’s religious precepts against all others would likely rip the nation to shreds. In addition, the religious order that emerged from this chaos would be dominated by the state, not by religious principles.

Which is why anyone who loves religion should love the framers’ insight and love the separation of church and state. It is also why anyone who hates religion should love the framers’ insight and love the separation of church and state. If you want to keep both America and Christian, keep church and state apart.

September 14, 2010
Is America Christian? Part 2

Having established that the United States is at least culturally Christian, I want to turn to the question: whose Christianity? Which version of “Christian” is it?

This is no small question, and is pretty straight-forwardly intended to set up the next post, which will look at the question of American government and Christianity. But in order to get there we need to do a major foray into the nature of Christianity and assess what “Christian” means.

On its surface, the question “are you a Christian or not” has a fairly simple answer: if you believe that God sent his son to earth to redeem our sins, and you believe that Jesus Christ is your savior and that faith in him will bring you eternal salvation, then yes: you are a Christian. If you don’t believe that, you’re not.

But of course it’s not that simple in the real world. Whatever Christians claim about the common foundations of their faith, they have in fact developed a remarkable array of ways to practice their beliefs. Catholicism formed in the centuries after Jesus’ death to try to create and enforce a common doctrine in a context of small, isolated Christian communities spread across the Mediterranean, each practicing remarkably divergent versions of Christianity. (This is what the Epistles are about, for example.) Various “heretic” sects emerged over the ensuing century, and an entirely separate branch of Catholicism developed in the form of Orthodoxy.

Then, once Protestantism took root, Christian sectarianism blossomed. A key principle of Protestantism, after all, is that one’s relationship with God is private, not mediated through some central church that seeks to link all believers in common practice. Accordingly, your faith is yours, and no one can say it is “heretic.” A profusion of religions and religious practices was inevitable in such a world. Thus we have Protestant faiths in which men and women can’t sit in the same part of the church, and we have Protestant churches, like Robert Schiller’s mega-church Chrystal Cathedral, in which families can sit together in their cars inside the church for services. We have churches whose members speak in tongues and churches whose members seem to pride themselves on their moderateness. And, of course, there’s Mormonism, which is certainly of the Protestant tradition, but with an extra book of the Bible.

Of course, there is potentially no doctrinal problem here: so long as everyone believes in Jesus as lord and savior, it is possible that all these traditions can recognize each other was Christian. It doesn’t always happen, of course—Joseph Smith got lynched in Illinois before the locals drove the remnants of his early Mormon church out of the state, for example. (Brigham Young would, of course, lead them to Utah.) Europe slaughtered a third of its population during the Wars of Religion on the question of being Catholic or Protestant. Still, if co-traditionalists can recognize the Jesus-based theology at the heart of all these religions, it is possible for them to recognize each other as Christians.

The social and political problem of all this religious diversity, of course, lies in the divergent political and social agendas that these alleged coreligionists derive from their faiths. Is polygamy okay? Does the Sermon on the Mount compel us to give to the poor, or are we responsible for our own lives? If we are given dominion of all the beasts and land, does this mean we can use them as we will, or does it require we be conservationists, treading lightly? Should we take Jesus seriously when he says that to follow him we should shun our families and our possessions, or does he mean that traditional families should be central to our lives? Does “turn the other cheek” mean passive resistance, or it is okay to turn the cheek because we’re turning to pull out our nuclear weapons?

There are Christians who offer different answers to all these questions, and many more. One version, Christian conservatism, has been ascendant in the US for the last 30 years, but it is not the only Christian tradition in America. Much less the only religious tradition in America. Which makes linking the “Christian” nature of the United States with particular political proposals a very difficult thing to do.

As we shall discuss tomorrow!

September 13, 2010
Is America Christian? Part 1

As we have mosque protests, and concerns about an impending Islamization of American society echo across cyberspace, a more fundamental question is at play: is America Christian? And should it be?

Like any serious question, the answer to this conundrum is: yes, no, and it depends. So I am off into a multi-part foray into this contentious ground. Don’t be upset if I haven’t seemed to have gotten to everything in this post: I assure you, I haven’t. But hopefully you’ll see where I am going a few posts from now.

First, for the “yes.” America is undoubtedly culturally Christian. As a matter of description, it is quite clear that some version of what some people took to be “Christianity” has been central to the life of Americans and America since its earliest European settling. (NOTE: I believe that while one can have endless debates about whether what various people believe is truly “Christian,” I find such discussions unproductive. The people at the time believed it to be Christian, and to the degree they dominated the politics of their era, their version of Christian principles shaped the foundation of the United States.)

For example, the nation was founded by Christian sectarians who had managed to get themselves thrown out of every country in Europe, including exceptionally tolerant Holland. They sought to create a land not of religious tolerance in the sense you and I were taught to understand—e.g., everyone getting along—but rather of religious dogma in which their ideology ruled. And while they were fairly rapidly pushed aside by the commercial interests that dominated colonial life from 1650 to 1760 or so, they left us a legacy of religious uniqueness, of a sense of American exceptionalism, that resurfaces every time a contemporary politician uses Jonathan Winthrop’s notion that America would be a model to others, a shining city set upon a hill.

In addition, ever since its religious founding, the United States has been swept by great periods of Christian revivalism. Religious passions have emerged as national phenomena at least four times in American history—in the early middle 1700s, in the Great Awakening of the 1830s and 40s, in the late 1800s and again with the rise of the Christian conservative movement in the late 1970s through today. No other religion has such a prominent cultural position, and so at least some version of Christian thinking has been central to American life across its history. (I should note for historical accuracy that the movements of the 1800s were significantly anti-Catholic, which movement leaders saw as a heretic religion in a way contemporary Christians (usually) do not.)

Many political and social movements have drawn life from Christian principles and have had profound effects in both our public and our private lives. Abolition, temperance (anti-drinking) and the civil rights movement were all led by religious leaders seeking to infuse their understanding of Christian principles into the nation’s life, for example. The American labor and anti-war movements were likewise shaped by some leaders’ understanding of Christian values. They had and have the shape and flavor they had because the people who led them integrated their understanding of Christianity into their political and social work.

But there are more casual effects. We get Christmas off, not Halloween (despite the fact that both began life as pagan rituals). Movies and books often come in trilogies; when coming up with descriptive phrases for nouns we default to three adjectives: it was a warm, hot and soggy day … ;-).  We appeal for support and indicate our sense of victimhood by standing with our feet together and our arms held wide, all while looking up to the heavens. And political and social leaders regularly make their appeals for support claiming a Biblical foundation for their preferred policy path. These are all deeply Christian images, and are deeply embedded in the nation’s culture.

So is America Christian? Culturally, the empirical fact is, yes, at least in the sense that particular Christian-derived ideas and practices advocated by particular social and political groups have become embedded in American society. But as we shall see in subsequent posts, culture is not everything. And cultures change. Indeed, American “Christian” culture today would be largely unrecognizable to Jonathan Winthrop … or even, perhaps, Martln Luther King, Jr.

September 7, 2010
What to do about the Koran burning church?

So it turns out that something called the Dove Outreach Center, an evangelical church in Gainesville, FL, has decided to hold a Koran burning this Saturday—September 11, the nine year anniversary of the terror attacks of 2001.

It is actually hard to account for the multiple levels of stupidity of this. The people who attacked the US were from a peculiar sect of Islamic extremists, not all Muslims. (Just like the people who attacked Oklahoma City in 1995 were from a peculiar sect of Christian extremists, not all Christians.) One can only imagine how quickly al Qaeda and Taliban propagandists will have the pictures of Christians burning Korans up on their recruiting sites to “prove” that this is how America treats Muslims. (Which is the reason General Petraeus has asked that the event be canceled.) And one doesn’t have to be a Constitutional scholar to realize that religious freedom suggests the right to practice one’s religion as one wishes (subject to requirements like taking one’s children to the doctor when they’re sick even if you as a Christian Scientist don’t believe in getting medical care for yourself). There are no doubt many more.

There has, of course, been much “outrage” about this. Commentators from across the spectrum have bemoaned this planned burning, and the local authorities in Gainesville have invoked fire ordinances to try to stop it as a fire hazard. (Should the authorities actually try to enforce these ordinances, it might set up a fascinating “religious freedom” versus “social order” constitutional struggle, at least eventually.)

While I happen to think the Koran burning is ridiculous, stupid and offensive (as I pretty much feel about any book burning), let me suggest an alternate path for those opposed to the burning: read it. Read the Koran. I realize that it won’t be in Arabic for most people, which apparently means it is not a true reading, but I don’t think one ought to have to learn Arabic before taking action to counter this ridiculous church.

Heck: read it out loud. Read it out loud on the street next to the church where the book is being burned. Put up a platform, get a bullhorn and let people sign up to read passages from it.

Ideally, the place would be teeming with Muslims AND Christians AND Jews AND Atheists AND Buddhists AND Hindus AND Animists AND Wiccans AND whoever else understands that the genius of the American way of free speech (which is what both the act of Koran burning and of Koran reading is) is that the only good answer to offensive speech is more, better speech.

But even if you can’t go to Gainesville and be part of a counter protest, read it for yourself. There is nothing—and I mean nothing—more harmful to the politics of hate than turning hate against itself, promoting tolerance in turn.

And who knows? You might even learn something. Which is pretty cool, too.

April 20, 2010
"Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."

— John Adams, President of the United States, in the Treaty of Tripoli, 1796

March 15, 2010
How Jesus Became Conservative

Let me start this post with the statement that I do not believe that anyone knows what God, or Jesus, or Allah, or Yahweh, or Shiva, or Buddha, or any other higher power thinks about contemporary political disputes—much less disputes about particular US policy issues like health care. The Unitarian in me refuses to believe that we human beings get to define any god quite so tightly.  We can believe, but that is not the same thing as knowing. Belief requires humility; knowledge induces certainty. I prefer Lincoln, who noted that both sides in the Civil War claimed to be fighting on God’s side.  Lincoln pointed out that both sides could be wrong, but both sides could not be right. Humility in the face of the unknown.

That said, it is nonetheless clear that many people seem to think they know which side their god is on in contemporary political fights.  There’s nothing new or contemporary about this, of course.  As Shakespeare has Henry V say after the Battle of Agincourt, it’s fine to celebrate the victory, but the celebrants must also note “That God fought for us.” 

One dimension of this sense that God fights for us has been the rise of the Christian Right over the last 40 years.  Conservative ideas favoring capitalism, the death penalty, pro life, self-reliance, limited or reduced welfare, the use of state power to enforce social and moral codes, opposition to gay rights and the like have been directly linked to the Christian message of redemption through Jesus Christ.  For all intents and purposes, many conservatives seem to believe that Jesus is on their side.

What strikes me about this conservative notion is that the source material for this belief is mixed, at best.  Blessed are the peacemakers, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, throwing the money changers out of the temple, noting that in failing to care for the poor and the homeless and the sick around them his fellows had failed to care for Jesus himself, and so were condemned to hell (Matthew 25), is hardly the stuff of modern American conservatism.  There is, of course, material opposing homosexuality and espousing so-called traditional moral standards, including the traditional family, but people, even alleged literalists, have turned out to be remarkably facile at ignoring passages that do not square with contemporary values.  Thus while many conservatives cite Leviticus for its passages condemning homosexuality they elide Exodus’ passages allowing you to sell your daughter into slavery, or Leviticus’ statements about punishment in cases of adultery, cursing one’s parents, or even sexual intercourse with a woman who is menstruating.  (I know there are passages in the New Testament condemning homosexuality; my point here is that many conservatives use Old Testament language selectively.)

Given the mixed material, one might expect more vigorous push back from liberals.  You’d expect liberals to claim that Jesus was a liberal in modern political terms.  But while there certainly are Christian liberals, including evangelicals, the terms “Christian” and “conservative” have become tightly meshed in our politics over the last 40 years.

I think this is liberals’ fault.  As secular liberals took charge of liberalism starting in the 1960s, they became trapped by the conceit that religiosity is a sign of moral, personal, economic and emotional backwardness, and that as American society became more educated, religiosity would decline.  Religious people, who disproportionately lived in the South and were thus doubly stereotyped as hicks and rubes, would simply go away once they learned better.  Progress became commingled with secularity, and progressives were on the side of progress.  It was just a matter of time.

While I am about the least religious person I know, this attitude was, and is, stupid.  Religious feelings and attachments are far more thoroughly embedded in American culture than they are in, say Europe.  (Europe, after all, destroyed a third of its population in its wars of religion in the 15-1600s, leading most European nations to fear state-church ties.  The US has only gotten stronger as it has been religious, eliminating or reducing such fears here.)  Rejecting the linkages between faith and progressive political action meant ignoring the fact that the early Civil Rights Movement was church-centered, not idea-centered. Acting like religion was backward meant, in the end, that liberal political advocacy would happen without reference to religion, especially a liberal understanding of the Christian message. 

To their credit, conservatives made no such mistake. They grounded their resurgence and appeal in religion, which after all is one of our deepest sources of meaning and motivation.  Starting in the 1970s, conservative activists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson made Christianity political and conservative in a way it had not been for a long time.  In time they and many other entrepreneurial political leaders established the notion that to be Christian meant one had to be a political conservative. 

Imagine the health care debate in a world in which liberals had not ceded the Christian message to conservatives.  Imagine how we might reconsider the question of welfare and education and support for social goods and services if Americans believed Jesus was liberal, not conservative.  While I don’t know exactly how things would go, I am pretty sure the nature of the conversation would be quite different. 

In the end, Obama’s struggles on health care (and Clinton’s too, for that matter) have many sources.  One lies in the fact liberals let Jesus become a conservative.