Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Is Kentucky Turning Purple?

The question, for those Gentle Readers outside the U.S., refers to U.S. electoral maps which color Democratically dominated states blue and Republican ones red. (There is irony in this because, before the end of the Cold War, the last thing a Republican wanted to be accused of was being “red” or even “pink,” because “reds” were Communists!)  Recent elections and polling suggests that KY is becoming neither “red,” nor “blue,” but purple–or balanced between the major parties. (Now, if only KY would escape the clutches of King Coal and become “Green.” See the results of the stranglehold of coal on KY here.) 

Background: KY was a border state during the Civil War. There had been some slavery, but it was not heavily dependent on slave labor like the Deep South.  So, it failed to choose sides until the South was already losing–then chose the losing side.  KY had been Jacksonian Democratic and then voted Democratic because of a hatred for “Yankee Republican carpetbaggers.”  In the era of Reconstruction, the only progressives in KY were Republicans–until the Populist and Progressive movements spawned their own short-lived political parties, of course.

During the Depression, KY turned thoroughly Democratic because of the New Deal, which especially benefitted the impoverished South.  It became a machine state and in many counties still is.  But, despite having a small African-American population, it was a major battle ground in the ’60s for the Civil Rights struggle.

After the Democratic Party kicked out the racist Dixiecrats and, in ’64 and ’65, embraced the cause of Civil Rights fully as a Party, Democrats began to lose the South (as President Lyndon Baines Johnson predicted). In KY, this was slower than in other parts of the South.  When I came here in ’86, Democrats still controlled both houses of the state legislature, the governor’s mansion, 4 of the 6 U.S. House seats and 1 of the 2 Senate seats.  As the culture wars heated up in the late ’80s and ’90s, this began to change.  Republicans now control the state senate.  Both U.S. Senate Seats are held by the GOP and, from ’94 until ’06, all but one House Seat was Republican. (Now there are two Democratic House districts.) However, KY voted for Jimmy Carter in ’76 and for Bill Clinton twice, so we have sometimes been a swing state in presidential politics.

Yet, from 2000 onward, the state got more conservative and more Republican.  But that seems to be changing, slowly. Not yet on the presidential level–KY is one of the 2 handfuls of states that is solidly for John McCain in every election scenario spun. This is NOT Obama country (except for Louisville)–but probably would not have voted for Hillary Clinton in November, either.   But consider these other recent moves:

In ’07, Democrats took back the State House, throwing out Ernie Fletcher (R ) and his numerous ethics violations and corruption charges, indictments, and pardons. (Unfortunately, Gov. Steve Beshear (D), who was elected because he was NOT FLETCHER, has been a huge disappointment for nearly everyone and, if he doesn’t show some leadership soon, will become a one-term governor, perhaps even losing a primary challenge–despite the fact that the Kentucky Democratic Party, which is an old-style machine, hates primary challenges to incumbent Democrats!)

Before that, and far more important for progressives, John Yarmuth (D) defeated 6 term Rep. Anne Northup (R ) for KY’s 3rd House District (Louisville). It was a very narrow victory (less than 5,000 votes) and all the pundits said that Yarmuth was too liberal for the 3rd District. (In fact, when Yarmuth won the primary, the pundits said that Northup had dodged a bullet because he couldn’t win.) In fact, Northup was too conservative for this most liberal district in the Commonwealth and won for years by simply funneling money illegally into black churches in the West End–where she never came except when campaigning.

This year, Northup is trying for a rematch for this seat, but Yarmuth has a 17 point lead. Yarmuth has NOT channeled any money through churches, but he set up an office in the West End and regularly meets with this neglected section of the City. He comes to all sections to hear the concerns of his constituents. He has won the construction of a new VA hospital here –one of Northup’s singular issues that she regularly failed to deliver, despite sitting on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.  Yarmuth became president of the Freshman Class of Congresspeople elected in ’06.  It looks very much like he will be reelected by a much higher % than he won in ’06.

Now, the 2nd district, much more conservative than the 3rd, is heating up this year.  Rep. Ron Lewis (R-02KY) surprised both friends and adversaries by deciding not to run for another term. So, the 2nd is an open seat.  SurveyUSA did a poll on 30 June that showed a statistical dead heat with the Democratic candidate in the lead!  David Boswell (D) is leading Brett Guthrie (R) 47% to 44%, within the margin of error! This has excited KY Dems, who are now donating online through the Netroots and challenging the national party to help out.  Stay tuned.

In the 01st District, Rep. Ed Whitefield (R-O1KY), beholden to the Oil and Coal lobbies, is being challenged by Heather A. Ryan (D ). Ryan is a woman whose son was a Democratic poster child for expanding the S-CHIP (State Child Health Insurance Plan) program in ’07. The Republican response, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), smeared Ryan and her son with lies.  Ryan is battling to change things in Washington and is a real netroots progressive.  I don’t know her chances, but I like her fight.

That would make 4 Democratic House Seats in KY and 2 Republican ones. Quite a change in a year, if it happens.

Then there’s our Senate race.  Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has less than 50% approval ratings and 47% disapproval ratings.  In his role as Senate Minority Leader, he has blocked much popular legislation that KY favors, including S-CHIP expansion, better body armor and more leave time for troops, ending oil and gas speculation, the Climate Defense Act, and Medicare renewal.  In addition, he voted against the new G.I. Bill that was passed anyway, against the raising of the minimum wage (passed anyway), for Social Security privatization, etc.  KY has noticed this, which is why businessman Bruce Lunsford (D), not the greatest nominee for a replacement, is only 4-7% behind McConnell, depending on the poll.  Lunsford would be a centrist to conservative Democrat in the Senate, but he’d be a huge improvement over McConnell.

And, in 2010, KY’s Junior Senator, Jim Bunning (R-KY) is looking extremely vulnerable. (I hope Democrats recruit State Auditor Crit Luallen (D), breast cancer survivor (so, she’s a proven fighter) who won reelection by 70%!) He barely won re-election in 2004 by accusing his opponent (now our Lt. Gov.) of “looking like Saddam Hussein’s sons!” Somehow I doubt that would work with Luallen.

KY’s moves to a more progressive political climate are not as fast as in the nation as a whole, but we are moving. 

Again, now if we break our coal addiction and turn Green, I’ll really be happy.

Update:  Kentucky is just one of several Southern and Southwestern states, formerly GOP strongholds, that are turning Democratic at different rates: Virginia (which, barring a major disaster, will wake up on 05 Nov. with TWO Democratic Senators–former Gov. Mark Warner(D) is now nearly 30 points ahead of former Gov. Jim Gilmore (R )–and where Obama and McCain are virtually tied 51/49 in current polling); North Carolina; New Mexico; Colorado; Nevada; Georgia (although I think Obama’s chances here are a longshot–but maybe in 2012), and even Texas!  That’s right, TEXAS is going through a Democratic revival–the very state where Bush, Karl Rove, and Tom DeLay tried to create a “permanent Republican majority” and came close to succeeding just a few years ago.  Texas is an even bigger longshot for Obama than Georgia this year (it would take too much money that could better be spent in New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia, etc.), but Democrats are poised to take back the state legislature and therefore effect the redistricting in 2010 out of the DeLay’s legally questionable gerrymandering. That and other changes detailed in the article linked above could help Obama win this in 2012.  If the current Texas Democratic revival continues, by 2020 Texas could become, behind California, the second largest reliably Democratic state with 32 electoral votes (projected to be 40 by 2030).  That would make presidential electoral math very difficult for Republicans. (Maybe then we’d get GOP help in getting rid of the outdated electoral college and elect presidents by popular vote like every other democracy!)

My big fear in all this Democratic revival is that Democrats will become as arrogant and corrupt with power as the GOP has done since the Gingrich revolution of ’94.  Democrats had to change or die. That may soon be the case for Republicans, too.  Could we see the first death of a major political party since the end of the Federalists in 1812? Could the Libertarians replace the Republicans? Or would the Democrats then become the “conservative” or corporate-centrist party and the Greens arise on the left?

July 3, 2008 Posted by | U.S. politics | 2 Comments

Baptist Peace Churches #2

Continuing my series of profiles on Baptist congregations working strong for peace with justice. (This is NOT a post on some other topic, like policing or my politics, etc. Commenters are urged to stay on topic. If you want to discuss something else, invite me to be a part of that conversation on YOUR blog or make such comments whenever I do post on your topic. Continued attempts to hijack threads for personal agendas will result in certain commenters being banned from this site and all their comments removed.)

Since last time, I profiled a 200 year old congregation in U.S. North, this time I am shifting geographically and culturally to a much younger congregation, Covenant Church in HOUSTON, TEXAS. 

Describing itself as “an ecumenical, liberal Baptist congregation,” Covenant Church was founded in 1965, growing out of the ferment of two then-current movements: the civil rights movement and the movement for church renewal (the latter led to such phenomena across North America as the coffee house movement, emphasis on small groups in discipleship formation, team ministries, liturgical renewal–including the discovery of traditional liturgies of the church by “low church” traditions and newer forms of worship, more lay leadership, the house church phenomenon, etc.  Many of these emphases are finding renewed emphasis again in the “emergent church” movement, although descriptions and definitions of “emerging” remain too vague for me to tell whether or not I support or identify with this phenomenon.)

Covenant Church began as a Southern Baptist congregation, although it no longer has any ties to the SBC.  When a progressive Southern Baptist congregation in the Houston area retreated from its commitment to progressive theology and social action in 1965 by hiring a very conservative minister, 60 members withdrew and formed Covenant Church from an informal Bible study group.  Soon the Bible study group decided to form a congregation based on certain principles:

  • Individual freedom and responsibility to read and interpret scripture (priesthood of the believer)
  • Congregational autonomy
  • Integrity of church membership (a spiritual commitment, not a social obligation)
  • Intentionality in the modes of worship, education and mission
  • An appreciation of the rituals and liturgy of many traditions
  • An understanding that the Word can come from our sacred stories as well as literature and art and personal experience
  • A reunion of the sacred and the secular
  • A separation of church and state
  • A respect for all people, without regard for labels and categories used to divide

As the Southern Baptist Convention became ever more fundamentalist in theology, renounced historic commitments to core Baptist principles in the 1980s and ’90s (during “the Controversy” in the SBC), became every more patriarchal and sexist, Covenant Church first added an affiliation with the Alliance of Baptists and then dropped all ties with the SBC.  Today, they remain affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists and also with the American Baptist Churches, USA

Worship at Covenant Church is formal and the “work of the people.” Laity are involved in every aspect of planning, leading, and participation in the worship of the church and every other aspect of church life.

For 35 years, out of a desire to use space and resources responsibly, Covenant Church had no buildings or “campus” of its own, but shared the facilities of others: St. John the Divine, Bethany Christian, St. Stephen Episcopal, and Bellaire Christian.  In 2000, after considerable debate, Covenant’s members decided that their mission could best be served with a permanent address and a worship and meeting space designed to their needs, with an emphasis on the arts and available for others to share.  So, now Covenant Church is located at 4949 Caroline, Houston, TX 77004.  They are on a summer schedule of worship at 10:30 a.m.

Covenant further describes itself in this way:

“Covenant Church affirms the sanctity, dignity, and equality of human beings and the value of all life in the universe. We welcome persons of all racial and ethnic heritages, all sexual orientations, and all faith perspectives to our Christian community. We stand for each individual’s right to worship God and to respond to God’s call to ministry in his or her own understanding of God’s all-encompassing love.

We value a holistic approach to faith and seek to worship in ways that are intellectually credible, emotionally stimulating, spiritually engaging and contemporarily relevant.

We value music, art, and ritual to express what we cannot ever fully say.

We value participation so that we might hear many approaches to our shared faith. ”

Since it is fully inclusive of GLBT Christians, Covenant is a member congregation of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB), the network that strives for equality in Baptist life for those persons with same-sex sexual orientation or whose gender identity does not conform with their biological makeup (transgendered persons feel “trapped in the wrong body” unless they have had sex reassignment surgery).  Consistent with this commitment, PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) has a chapter that meets at Covenant Church and Covenant Church regularly participates in the Houston area Gay Pride parade, as it did most recently on 28 June 2008.

Among the hands on missions that Covenant Church participates in locally in Houston are:

  • Building houses with and for the poor with Habitat for Humanity.
  • A prisoner correspondence program.
  • Omega House (A ministry to AIDS victims)
  • The back-to-school effort of the Christian Community Service Center to equip poor children with the school materials they will need (since government budgets for education no longer include such).
  • CCSC Jingle Bell Express to help the poor celebrate Christmas
  • Hospitality Apartments for the homeless
  • Thomas Street Health Center (meal assistance program)

Covenant’s broader mission budget is designed not just to meet the immediate needs of poor people, but to transform the social structures designed to keep them poor. To quote the people of Covenant Church again:

In one of the richest states in the richest country on earth, we believe that having hundreds of thousands of people who are hungry, poorly educated and unable to get adequate medical care is, not to put too fine a point on it, sinful.

Accordingly, their mission budget includes support for the Alliance of Baptists Bridges of Hope mission offering, American Baptists’ International Ministries and the ABCUSA Refugee Program.  It includes support for Africorps–helping students at the University of Texas travel to Ghana for hands on work in Public Health, support for the Americare program in Sudan, Health Volunteers Overseas’ project in Vietnam, Heifer Project International (a project in subsistence farming which began after World War II by the Church of the Brethren, a historic peace denomination), the visual clinic project in Tampico, Mexico, and support for Oxfam International.

Other missions priorities for Covenant Church include the Houston Area Women’s Shelter, the peer-to-peer education project of the National Association on Mental Illness (NAMI), Developments in Literacy in Pakistan, and a project for the education of indigenous (“Indian”) children in Belize.  To support human rights around the world and here at home, Covenant Church gives money and time to the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, the American Friends Service Committee, Americans United for Separation of Church and State,   the Houston Public Defender’s Office, the Center for Healing Racism, and the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Covenant Church is a partner congregation of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and I sometimes meet Covenant Church members at the BPFNA’s annual summer “peace camp.”

As befits a congregation dedicated to lay leadership and every member ministry, I have stressed the history and work of the whole congregation before mentioning its ministerial leadership.

Since 2002, Covenant Church has been led by their pastor, Rev. Jeremy Rutledge. And, since I promote non-fundamentalist Baptist bloggers (no one needs to promote the fundamentalist Baptist bloggers–when I began blogging in 2005, they dominated Baptist presence on the web), I will link to Jeremy’s blog, here. Called “Houston Kahu,” it represents his liberal religious outlook, his location in Houston, and his roots in Hawai’i. He is a graduate of Baylor University (the largest Baptist university in the world, though far from the oldest) in Waco, TX and earned his Master of Divinity from the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Richmond, VA. (This seminary was founded by the Alliance of Baptists in 1986 as an alternative to the increasing fundamentalist-dominated Southern Baptist seminaries. Today, BTSR is primarily funded and related to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.) He has Clinical Pastoral Education certification from Houston and has done additional study at Wadham College (Oxford University), the Vancouver School of Theology, with the community of engaged Buddhists in France led by the exiled Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh (whom Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967). Jeremy is a Doctorate of Ministry (D.Min.) student at Meadville-Lombard Theological School in Chicago, IL. 

In 2006, Covenant Church welcomed its first Associate Minister, Laura Mayo. Laura is a graduate of Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, TN (a historic Baptist liberal arts college with a liberal tradition) and earned her M.Div. at Wake Forest University Divinity School, an ecumenical, university-based, divinity school in the historic Baptist tradition. She completed her Clinical Pastoral Education at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, has done additional study at Regent’s Park College (Oxford University–this is a Permanent Private Hall at Oxford that both offers a liberal arts education and is a theological seminary for the Baptist Union of Great Britain) and has been awarded an Advanced Bereavement Facilitator Certification from the American Academy of Bereavement.

Fran Avera has been Minister of Music at Covenant Church since October 1969. She served as Minister of Music at University Baptist Church, Austin for 10 years.  She is a graduate of Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ (now part of Rider University), with Bachelor of Music and Master of Music degrees.  Covenant Church ordained her to the gospel ministry in 1980. 

Covenant Church has a labyrinth on the grounds that can be used for contemplation and prayer.  Those who consider membership are called Inquirers (but a spirit of inquiry pervades all) and asked to complete a 6-8 week orientation class. Membership is open to all persons who affirm the loving presence of God, the life and teachings of Jesus, and the revealed Spirit through the ages.  Covenant is part of that Baptist tradition (a minority in North America, but larger in Britain and dating at least to John Bunyan) which, while Baptizing only believers (adults and those old enough to profess informed faith personally and make personal commitments to be disciples of Jesus), not infants, does not insist on “rebaptism” for those who come from pedobaptist traditions and find their infant christenings sufficient.  The Table of the Lord at Covenant is open to all.

July 3, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, church, liberal theology, peacemaking | 11 Comments