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

Born Again American?

Born Again American is a new project by Norman Lear that has debuted just in time for the inauguration of Barack Obama as 44th President of the USA.  Yes, that Norman Lear: liberal TV mogul of the ’60s and ’70s (responsible for such socially conscious comedies as All in the Family; Maude; The Jeffersons; & Sanford and Son among others) who decided to fight the influence of the Religious Right by forming People for the American Way.

In this latest project, Lear has teamed up with singer/songwriter Keith Carradine and Director Mark Johnson to create a song, video, and website that promotes a “liberal patriotism” that encourages people to put the common good before narrow self intest, to become involved in community and national service, and to hold government officials responsible for working for the common good.  The song (see the lyrics here) espouses economic populism (chastising both big business and government for the destruction of the working class and middle class) and a spirit of unity across religious and racial lines.  The website connects people with opportunities to serve and to get involved in holding government officials accountable. 

The song and concept are patriotic in the best senses of that term:  not militaristic jingoism that puts down other nations or divides the country into “real” and “fake” America, but eliciting pride in the country’s ideals AT THEIR BEST.  UPDATE:  I want to make it clear that I am not against patriotism per se.  It is natural for people everywhere to want to love their country, celebrate its ideals, and push it to live up to those ideals, purging it of its faults and historical sins.  As this article shows, the Right is in for a surprise since Obama’s election has led to an increase of non-jingoistic patriotism, despite all their efforts to portray him as a friend of terrorists and those of us who voted for him as haters of America.  The right kind of patriotism can help us get through hard times as we tackle enormous difficulties–just as militaristic, world hating, America-0nly forms of patriotism divided and destroyed us for 7 years following 9/11/01.  So, I welcome the right kind of patriotic renewal and want to share in it.

But there is also much civil religion in “Born Again American,”  and this makes me nervous.  Civil religion easily devolves into national idolatry. It seems strange that Lear, who has been such a relentless critic of the  civil religion of the Right, should now espouse a liberal version of the same.

I am uncomfortable with lyrics that quickly link “my Bible and the Bill of Rights” (a lyric that seems at odds with the religious diversity shown in the video–a Muslim cleric singing next to a female Jewish cantor, several choirs, Christian clergy from different traditions)–even though I have long contended that the deeper roots of the human rights tradition are biblical rather than just springing up full-blown from the Enlightenment.  And, while  I am a major proponent of interfaith dialogue (necessary for any peacemaking in today’s world), I don’t want the basis of such dialogue to be a common loyalty to the nation-state that transcends individual faith loyalties. That would make the nation-state our real god (an idol by any other name).

But I may be jumping at shadows.  Most of the prophetic forms of social change in this nation had SOME civil religious dimensions to them, from the Abolitionists to the first wave (19th C) of feminists to the civil rights movement.  It IS possible to promote a rebirth of the right kind of patriotism, with spiritual dimensions, without losing the possibility of prophetic critique of the nation, right?  And that is the point of this project.

The song, video, and website are hopeful–in place of a national despair or cynicism.  Further, it specifically recognizes that the changes needed in this nation at this moment of crisis will not be made solely by the new presidennt, nor even soley by government. It is a ringing call to personal and communal responsibility–of the kind that most people expected after 9/11 when our government, instead, told us to fight terrorism simply by going along with whatever illegal and disastrous foreign military adventures it planned and, at home,  to “go shopping.” I signed up to do my part.

But this born-again liberal Christian remains uncomfortable with being a “born again American.”  Is this just Lee Greenwood’s horrid “God Bless the USA” in liberal form–or am I being too cynical?  Check out the website, etc. and then give me your feedback on these tricky questions.

January 19, 2009 Posted by | Christianity, church-state separation, citizenship | 38 Comments

Debts to Other Christian Traditions

I post much on this blog about matters relating especially to Baptists, which is not surprising since this blog is dedicated to the intersection of theology, culture,  and politics–engaging especially in “religious  social criticism,”  and I am a Baptist.  As a member of the small Alliance of Baptists (newest member of the National Council of Churches), I am considered part of the “liberal” theological  wing of Baptist life. I guess that’s true although I am orthodox enough to be able to affirm all of The Apostles’ Creed and The Nicene Creed without fudging (but with several mental footnotes). (Having a traditional Baptist aversion to creeds as “tests of orthodoxy,” and preferring only confessions of faith as personal testimonies and group “guides to biblical and theological interpretation,” I DON’T usually recite these or any other creeds, but not from disagreement with the content.) I think my theology is reasonably classed as belonging at the intersection of the left end of the evangelical spectrum and the right end of the liberal spectrum. (In politics, the middle is bland, but I think the center is the most exciting and dynamic place in theology.)

So, I post quite a bit about Baptists–especially since I try to erase the distorted picture many have of Baptists because of the fundamentalist Southern Baptist Convention, which is large and loud,  but NOT an accurate reflection of the best of historic Baptist views.  Baptists arrived in the early 17th C. out of the interaction of English Puritan-Separatism (which produced the Congregationalists) with two different streams of Dutch Anabaptism. (The Waterlander Mennonites influenced the beginning of “General” or Arminian Baptists in 1609-1611, whereas Collegiant Mennonites and Menno’s book, The Foundation of Christian Doctrine, influenced the beginning of “Particular” or Calvinistic Baptists in 1638-1641.) I admit to drawing more heavily on the Anabaptist stream of Baptist life than the more Puritan stream and to have mixed relations to the later Revivalistic stream. This makes me a minority within  Baptist life, I suppose.

But in my desire to show a different face of Baptist identity than that seen by those who only know the fundamentalists and Southern Baptists, I wonder sometimes if this blog is seen as too parochial–or even anti-ecumenical.  I assure you, Gentle Readers, that I have great appreciation for the great strengths of many traditions in the Church Universal. I have learned from many non-Baptist Christians.  So, let me acknowledge many of those debts here.

  • My deep appreciation for the Eucharist (Communion, Lord’s Supper) has been heightened by Catholics–even though I don’t share the Catholic theological view of what happens in the eucharistic meal.  I also deeply appreciate the major outlines of Catholic Social Teaching.  Catholic peacemakers from St. Francis of Assissi to Dorothy Day to Dan Berrigan, S.J. and John Dear, S.J. are sisters and brothers who deeply enrich my spirit and challenge me greatly in my own  discipleship.  I also owe much to Catholic contemplatives and, on a more mundane level, several Catholic educational institutions have employed me to teach theology and philosophy when Baptists would not.
  • I did not encounter Orthodox Christianity until after seminary. The Orthodox sense of mysticism is greatly helpful to me and, although I do not see the Early Church Councils as infallible as they do, it has been the Orthodox who led me to discover the theological depths of the Patristic (and Matristic!) writers. I confess, however, that I still find the Orthodox theology of icons too similar to the statues of saints in Catholic and Anglican circles. Sorry, friends.
  • My debts to Mennonites are so huge that they could become a book.  I have often considered becoming a Mennonite, but think I  am called to keep representing the Anabaptist tradition within Baptist circles.  I greatly appreciate the biblical  scholarship (and high biblical  literacy among laity) of Mennonites as well as their strong sense of history. The emphases on costly discipleship (following Jesus,  not just worshipping Jesus), service, resistance to materialism while sharing goods, simplicity of living, nonviolence, peacemaking, and strong  church-state separation are all areas where I share the Mennonite view deeply. (I do think some Mennonites take church-state separation to mean an apolitical quietism instead of a prophetic challenge to political figures.)
  • I have a turbulent relationship with Pentecostals and Charismatic Christians. My early encounters with white Pentecostals were not pleasant, although Black Pentecostals and Black Baptists were human agents of God in my late teenaged conversion to Christ.  My later experiences with the Pentecostal and Charismatic pacifists have helped me reconsider. I still understand the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” to be a New Testament metaphor for salvation rather than a later experience that creates a higher class of Christians and I do not rank any spiritual gifts (much less tongues and healing) as higher than others. And if I am in Pentecostal/Charismatic worship services for too long, I experience emotional exhaustion (and deep headaches).  Nonetheless, there is a joy in the Spirit that other traditions too often need.  If I could find a way to marry contemplative spirituality and pentecostal/charismatic joy, I would. Each speaks to something real in me, though I cannot dwell in either as a permanent home.
  • I love Quaker pacifism,  mysticism, simplicity and service. I am afraid, however, that I believe too strongly in water baptism and the eucharist to ever become a Quaker.  And, while Quaker silence (listening prayer) deeply informs my private devotions, I want group singing and preaching for corporate worship (most of the time). People are bodies,  not just spirits, and need to worship God bodily, too–in baptism and communion and in hymn singing and preaching and Bible study.
  • I greatly appreciate the Reformed/Presbyterian focus on an educated ministry and in theological education within congregations, too.  Though I do not understand the sovereignty of God in a 5-point Calvinist, Synod of Dordt fashion, the great trust in God’s sovereignty, the theological appreciation of the great drama of salvation in both Testaments, and  much else is truly helpful.  The Reformed tradition is broad and while I count narrow forms of it to be harmful to living Christianity, I celebrate the broader Reformed tradition that includes Karl Barth, Johanna van-Wijk-Bos, Amy Plantinga Pauw, Allen Boesak, and many others.
  • I love Martin Luther’s passion, humility, and love of Christ.  I love the Lutheran Christocentrism and am a huge fan of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I do think that some forms of Lutheranism (and Luther himself) encouraged German anti-Semitism and I am no fan of Luther’s two kingdoms theory which turns the church into a blind servant of the state.  But Luther’s focus on a theology of the cross in opposition to a theology of glory and triumph was right on target–and needs to be recovered today.
  • Since I was raised in an evangelical United Methodist family (but was personally agnostic until my encounters with the Black Church), I have saved this until the last. I have departed from Wesley in many ways, but his  emphasis on free will (the voluntaristic response to  the offer of salvation) is still  with me–and is why I keep failing to become a universalist. (I’d really LIKE to believe all will be saved, but I can’t see how it can happen without God overriding the free will of human persons–a form of spiritual rape, imo.) It’s also why I agree with the writer of Hebrews that genuine apostasy is a real possibility. More positively,  I love Wesley’s emphasis on the heart and his placing of Biblical authority within  matrix that also includes reason, experience, and the wisdom of Christian tradition–though  none of these sources is infallible.  I don’t see sanctification as a “second work of grace” and am skeptical of “entire sanctification” or Christian moral perfection (even a “perfection in love”) prior to death and glorification. Nonetheless, the Methodist focus on sanctification,  rather than reducing salvation only to justification (as some versions of Lutheranism do) is probably one of the impulses which make me a social critic and would-be reformer. (It probably also led me to the Anabaptist emphasis on active discipleship.)

I probably owe far more, to far more Christian traditions,  than  I have here acknowledged–or even recognize. This is surely a drop in the bucket.  For example, I forgot to mention that I think the Disciples are right in celebrating communion with every church service and the foot washing and Love Feasts of the Church of the Brethren are deeply in line with my view of NT Christianity ( and very moving, too). Is my theology coherent or just a hodge-podge collection? I hope the former, but I am glad that I am not a systematic theologian! I do think that what I have learned from other traditions fits best within the overall  Baptist shape of my Christian faith.  But I did not want my frequent postings on Baptist matters seem anti-ecumenical. 

Nonetheless, let me conclude by dissenting  from those who, whether or not in the name of “emerging” Christianity (a  movement so vaguely defined that I am never sure whether or not I like it!),  want to get beyond all particular Christian traditions.  Denominations, of course, are human institutions, and fallible.  But theological traditions and families have usually preserved vital aspects of the  gospel that are missed or downplayed by other traditions.  Generic forms of Christianity, it seems to me, do not end up recovering the fullness of the Gospel (whatever their intent), but in  losing ALL those vital elements preserved in various Christian traditions.  The scandal of the divided Church is not that we come in different traditions, but that we have so often been willing to deny that the others ARE Christian–at many times in history even being willing to shed blood over which was the “real Church.”

I love being in ecumenical meetings with people from other parts of the Body of Christ.  But I want the Catholics I meet to be authentic Catholics, the Presbyterians genuinely Reformed, etc.  We should  sing in harmony, not simple unity.

January 18, 2009 Posted by | Baptists, Christianity, ecumenism | 9 Comments

Palestinian Doctor’s Daughters Killed by IDF While He is Interviewed by Israeli TV

Grief and pain over what is happening in Gaza has kept me from posting much on this, but I could not omit a link to this tragic story.  We must get a cease-fire, NOW, and re-start the peace process and invest heavily in getting a just peace (2 state solution) in the near future.  Too many decades of occupation and resistance (often using terror tactics) have perpetuated this and too many lives have been lost.  This needs to be front burner.

January 16, 2009 Posted by | Israel-Palestine | Comments Off on Palestinian Doctor’s Daughters Killed by IDF While He is Interviewed by Israeli TV

Baptist Historian Robert Handy Dies

Robert T. Handy (1918-2009) has died in his NJ retirement community at age 90.  An American Baptist historian, Handy taught at Union Theological Seminary in NY (an ecumenical seminary) from 1950 until retirement in 1986.  A prolific author, Handy was known for his writings on Baptist history and the history of Christianity in North America, as well defending church-state separation and debunking popular myths of a bygone era of “Christian America.”

Handy was a graduate of Brown University (B.A.), still a Baptist-related institution at the time, with a degree in European history.  He earned his Bachelor of Divinity (B.D.) degree from Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, was ordained and served Baptist churches in Illinois. After a stint as a chaplain in the U.S. army,  he earned a Ph.D. in Church History at the University of Chicago (also then still related to American Baptists, though already an ecumenical institution).

Handy was a primary example for how to be true to one’s own tradition while also being very ecumenical.  He was a firm champion of religious liberty, church-state separation, and liberty of conscience.  For these reasons, although his personal theology was fairly traditional, he was often a target of the theocrats and Christian nationalists. (Sometimes the best compliment is to have the right enemies.)

Rest in peace, servant of a Servant Lord.

January 15, 2009 Posted by | Baptists, church history, church-state separation, Obituaries, religious liberty | 1 Comment

Faith Leaders Call on Obama to Ban Torture on Inauguration

The National Religious Coalition Against Torture has called on the Obama administration to ban torture on Inauguration Day.  This is part of a “Countdown to End Torture: 10 Days of Prayer” campaign.  The Bush admin. has repeatedly said that the U.S. has not tortured under their watch (just outsourced torture to other countries), but they have done so by denying that practices like “waterboarding” (simulated drowning) constitute torture–although both U.S. and international law have always done so.  The Bush line took a major hit yesterday when the judge in charge of their “military commissions” (a lifelong Republican who worked for Dick Cheney back when he was Secretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration) said that  she stopped the prosecution of Qattani (the  “20th 9/11 hijacker”) because his confession had been obtained by processes “which met the legal definition of torture.” In recent interviews, both Bush and Cheney have admitted authorizing such techniques, though still denying they constitute torture.

In related news, Obama’s pick for Attorney General, Eric Holder,  told the Senate Judiciary Committee holding his confirmation hearing that “waterboarding is torture,” a straight answer that none of Bush’s attorneys general would give.  He also affirmed that no one is above the law.  Although Holder did not commit to prosecuting former Bush admin. people, neither did he rule it out–and progressives like me will keep pushing for an independent prosecutor to investigate and prosecute all who are guilty of torture or other war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Holder supported Obama’s pledge to quickly close the detention center at Guantanemo Bay and try detainees in regular courts of law, ending the failed “military commissions,” but he admitted that it will  be difficult to decide what to do with people who cannot be prosecuted but who have vowed harm against the U.S. (Democracy has risks–and the Gitmo decisions by the Bush admin. have increased those risks.  Cleaning up this mess will not be easy. But it is good to have commitments that it will be done.)

Meanwhile, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) of Rhode Island said today that he is going to push for Congressional hearings investigating past Bush abuses, regardless of what the Department of Justice or the Obama administration do.

All these are positive signs.  But I urge persons of faith to continue to be at the forefront of these issues.   Christian readers, we worship and follow a victim of torture and therefore cannot support any use of torture for whatever reason. Faith leaders can take risks that politicians may be reluctant to do–and we can make  it easier for them to follow their consciences when it is politically risky.  Regardless of any party or ideology,  we must work to abolish torture and all degrading punishment throughout the world–beginning here in the U.S.

January 15, 2009 Posted by | human rights., torture | 2 Comments

Republicans I Have Admired

I am a registered Democrat.  Moreover, I am left of the U.S. Center in my politics (which may make me right of center in Europe!).  Yes, members of the Religious Rights, I am that dreaded Boogie Man, a Christian who is also a Liberal Democrat (although I prefer the term “progressive”)!  And it is no secret to anyone who reads this blog regularly that I not only consider the Bush administration a bunch of war criminals who should be prosecuted, but that I have little love lost for  most of the current leadership of the Republican Party (for the last few decades!). 

But our new President-Elect will be inaugurated one week from today and he is a true bi-partisan who truly wants to forge a new governing consensus.  I admit to being skeptical that such can be done in the current political climate .(I think Republicans believe “bi-partisan” means that Democrats are to do all the compromising and they give up nothing–even when the Democrats win decisively!)  But I do not think God is a Democrat and I do not think all Republicans are evil.  In fact, during that period of history when Democrats were coddling racists I would have been a Republican (there were liberal Republicans in those days) –or maybe a third party member.  And I want the GOP to reclaim its better self–instead of thinking that it needs to keep channeling Ronald Reagan. (Newsflash GOP: Ronnie did make the biggest tax cuts of all time, but also the biggest tax increases to pay for the resulting debt.  More hostages were taken under Reagan than under Carter and he did nothing to release them.  He didn’t cause the downfall of Communism in Eastern Europe, brave Eastern European democratic activists (e.g., Lech Walesa), Pope John Paul II, and the ineptitude of the Soviet Union all did that. Ronnie repeatedly brought us to the brink of nuclear war. He also granted 2 huge amnesties for illegal aliens all you GOP anti-immigration folks.  And his second term was controlled by others while he hid his Alzheimer’s Disease–and gave us Iran-Contra, Abscam, arms sales to Saddam Hussein, and the defense of dictators all over the planet (South Africa, the Philippines, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti–just for starters.  And there were TWO recessions during Reagan’s 8 years.  Quit calling this second-rater the greatest U.S. president that ever lived! Sheesh!)

So, if the GOP is REALLY interested in becoming a vital force in American politics, again, and not just a destructive one, here is some help from a Democrat. These are GOP stalwarts you would do well to study and emulate–concentrating only on elected officials and not the many virtuous Republicans in private life.

  • Abraham Lincoln.  He had huge faults, including being willing to continue slavery if it would save the Union, but he DID save the Union and he DID begin the ending of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation–even though it initially only applied to Confederate-held territory. 
  • Theodore Roosevelt. Our first environmental president (he wanted wildlife around so that he could continue to hunt it, but at least he wanted it around!), Teddy is a hero for taking on the monopolies.  And, though he was a far cry from a pacifist, he was the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize because of his work in negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War.
  • Jeannette Rankin. First woman elected to Congress–from Montana in 1914 (6 years before women could even vote in most of America).  Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against American entry to both World Wars, saying, “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.” A consistent voice for the forgotten and marginalized.
  • Jacob Javits, first Congressman and later Senator from New York.  Originally the only Jewish member of the Senate, he was a champion of civil rights for all. (For this reason he refused to support Barry Goldwater as the GOP nominee for president in ’64 because Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act.)  He predicted an African-American president by the year 2000 and wasn’t far off.  Sponsored the first black pages in the Senate. A champion of the poor, immigration reform, and public schools. Championed unions.
  • Former Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who opposed some of the New Deal as unconstitutional (and  on some of this, he was right), but who  was a champion of the rights of conscience, especially religious liberty and church-state separation.
  • Dwight David Eisenhower, a former war hero who rightly warned against the corruption of U.S. politics by the military industrial complex.  Gave us our interstate highway system and helped create the post-WWII middle class via the GI Bill and the Federal Housing Administration.  Could have done more for Civil Rights, but did more than later GOP presidents.  Rightly believed in keeping such New Deal programs as Social Security.
  • Harold E. Stassen, youngest governor of Minnesota and later special  envoy for peace for Eisenhower.  Main author of the United Nations Charter.  Sacrificed  his later political career (he had once been presidential material) to try to stop the rise of the lawless, dictatorial, Nixon.
  • Senator Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, one of only 2 votes in the Senate against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in ’64 that really began the American chapter of the Vietnam War.  Later stood up to Nixon on the War face to face at a “Presidential Prayer Breakfast” sponsored by Billy Graham (to the latter’s embarrassment).
  • Ralph Bunche, Undersecretary of the UN and first African-American to win the Nobel  Peace Prize (for stopping a Middle East war).
  • Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, for his absolute opposition to the Iraq war from the beginning.  Now retired, I wish Obama had chosen him, instead of Gates, as the Republican to head the Defense Department.
  • Ditto former Congressman Bob Barr of GA–who quit the GOP and became libertarian because of his opposition to the erosion of civil liberties under the Bush Admin.
  • Former Sen. Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island for many of the same reasons.
  • Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, the last truly moderate Republican in the Senate.

If the Republican Party is truly seeking a different path forward,  it should  look for inspiration to these stalwarts from its past.  If not, then it should prepare for a continued legacy of obstruction and destruction on America’s path to a just future that is economically and ecologically sustainable and which works for a more peaceful world.

January 13, 2009 Posted by | U.S. politics | 1 Comment

Gene Robinson, Gay Episcopal Priest, Will Give an Inaugural Prayer

The presidential inauguration will be a 4 day event that includes a day of community service on Monday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  The kick-off is this Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial: a “We are One” ceremony.  And the invocation for that event will be given by Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson, who is married legally to his partner under NH law, is the first openly gay Episcopal bishop (and, therefore, a lightning rod of controversy for the global Anglican communion of which the Episcopal Church, USA is a part).  Robinson will also attend the inauguration itself on Tues.  I hope God’s providence, if not any human agents, seat him next to Rev. Rick Warren, the anti-gay mega-church pastor who will stiill be giving the inauguration ceremony’s invocation.  I do know that a gay couple will be seated on the dais near Warren, so maybe Obama’s attempt to be inclusive is NOT just pandering to the Religious Right.

Other clergy involved include:  Reverend Dr. Sharon Watkins, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) will preach the sermon on the National Day of Prayer service held at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday 21 January, the day after the inauguration.  This service is unofficial,  but traditional since the days of George Washington.

The benediction at the end of Tuesday’s swearing -in ceremony will be delivered by Rev.  Dr.  Joseph E. Lowry, a black United Methodist minister and a giant of the Civil Rights movement (who is also a champion of gay rights in both church and society).

Also an atheist group has sued to keep all religious references out of the oath/affirmation of office itself.  The Constitution prescribes an oath or affirmation (for those with religious objections to swearing oaths) with certain words–and no reference to God is included. But, at the first inauguration, Pres. George Washington spontaneously added, “So help me God.” The tradition of concluding these words has stuck–so much so that many Americans believe they are part of the oath of  office itself.  The Supreme Cout A U.S. District Court ruled that it was up to Obama whether or not to include these words. Nothing in the Constitution either demands or prohibits them. Well, Obama has asked Chief Justice Roberts to include them, so that’s that.

(My objection is to Christians taking oaths at all, in direct opposition to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. I think just substituting the word “affirm,” is semantics: It’s still an oath, still more than simply “yes” or “no.” But that’s just one reason why I will never be president! One of many!)

I still would not have given Rick Warren so prominent a role in the inauguration.  But I like the fact that Obama is trying to get past the culture wars.  A less divided country while we face so many problems would surely be helpful.

But why only Christian clergy?  Ours is a very diverse and pluralistic culture.  The whole world will be watching this event (far more than with most U.S. political events!) and showcasing rabbis (e.g. Rabbi Michael Lerner, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, or Rabbi Lynne Gottlieb–all active in promoting Middle East peace), imams or other Islamic clerics (e.g., Rabia Terri Harris; Chaplain Bilal Ansai of the Muslim Chaplains Association); Buddhist clerics, etc.  Even within the Christian faith, the clergy represented are all Protestant.  I would think showcasing Catholic and/or Orthodox priests or heirarchs would be very desirable.

More diverse a portrait than the world has seen for the last 8 years? Definitely.  Enough diversity represented for the world context we face? Definitely not.

January 12, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 10 Comments

20th-Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics: T. B. Maston

This continues my chapter by chapter book blogging on Twentieth-Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics, ed. Larry L. McSwain & Wm. Loyd Allen (Mercer University Press, 2008).  I reviewed the book as a whole last October.  I began the chapter-by-chapter series in December.  Since then, I have reviewed the 3 opening chapters on “Foundations: A Legacy of Social Concern,” covering the pioneers Walter Rauschenbusch, Muriel Lester, and Nannie Helen Burroughs.

The next section of the book is “Thinkers and Teachers” while the last section is on social activists, though these should not be taken as exclusive categories. Most of the teachers were also active in work for social justice and many of the activists were tenured academics and/or writing theologians.  I find that heartening, really.  I wouldn’t want “shapers” of any tradition of Christian social ethics to be merely ivory tower academics (or ivory pulpit, big church preachers, either)–nor activists who are not also “thinkers and teachers” whether or not they are employed as such.  It speaks to the strength of this tradition that there is so much overlap.

The first chapter in this section concerns Thomas Buford [T.B.] Maston (1897-1988), the biggest influence on Southern Baptist social ethics in the Southwest and one of the 2 or 3 most influential “shapers” on white Baptists in the South overall.  Maston is the only “shaper” covered in this section whom I never met personally.  Since I came to Baptist life as a teen (and was introduced first to African-American Baptists and other Baptist traditions) and never attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Fort Worth, TX) where Maston taught generations of students, I come from outside the Texas/Southwest Baptist tradition that was shaped so decisively by Maston.  I have read and appreciated several of Maston’s books, but I have to say that he has been the least influential shaper in this section on my own approach to Christian/Baptist ethics.  I know that for many whites in Baptist life in the U.S. South (whether or not they remain in the Southern Baptist Convention), this will make me an “odd duck.” So, to this chapter, I bring more of an outsider’s perspective than with many of the other chapters. (Not as much an “outsider” perspective as if I were a British or Canadian or German Baptist or an African-American Baptist or lifelong member of the American Baptist Churches, USA–much less as much as if I were an Episcopalian or Presbyterian or Lutheran or Catholic–but still more of an outsider perspective than many white Baptists in the South.) I recognize Maston as a significant voice in my broad Baptist stream, but not as dominant a voice as others in this book.  (Significantly, I have never met the author of this chapter, either.)

The chapter was written by William M. Tillman, Jr., one of Maston’s many proteges–a Ph.D. student of Maston’s at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) who served on the staff of the SBC Christian Life Commission from 1977-1981 (Maston’s doctoral students often ended up in ethics-related parts of the SBC bureacracy), then taught at SWBTS from ’81-’98 (taking over for Maston) until the fundamentalist takeover at SWBTS forced anyone with integrity from the school. Tillman was on the staff of the Baptist General Convention of Texas from 1998 to 2000 and then became the first T. B. Maston Professor of Christian Ethics at Logsdon School of Theology, Hardin-Simmons University (Abilene, TX), one of the “diaspora Baptist” schools of former Southern Baptists. So, if I come to this chapter as more of an outsider, Tillman definitely approaches Maston as an insider for whom Maston is the major influence in his approach to Christian ethics.  This affects the tone of the chapter. Tillman’s praise of Maston is so effusive as to approach hero-worship.

Maston was born in East Tennessee to a poor family in hard scrabble circumstances.  (Of course, MOST of the South was poor in 1897!  Thirty years earlier the Civil War had devastated the economy and while the Reconstruction era meant progress for at least some African Americans, it was a time when Northern “carpet baggers” continued to plunder and exploit the white South. It is quite possible that “Jim Crow” segregation would have happened after Reconstruction anyway–but the exploitation by the carpetbaggers didn’t help. It fueled Southern white resentment toward blacks and Northerners for nearly a century to come.) In high school he had a personal conversion and call to ministry, initially understood as a call to preach and pastor.  He graduated as a religion major from Carson-Newman College (B.A., 1920) where he met Essie Mae MacDonald, equally committed to ministry, especially missions. They married in 1921, a year after both enrolled at SWBTS in Fort Worth, TX.  (No explanation is ever given for why Maston went to SWBTS rather than the closer Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY as most ministerial graduates from Carson-Newman did. Nevertheless, it proved a fateful decision, beginning a lifelong relationship with the school and Fort Worth, Texas. ) By this time, Maston realized that his ministerial calling was not a pastoral one so he made the decision not to be ordained and, instead of enrolling in the divinity program, enrolled with Essie Mae in SWBTS’ School of Religious Education. Both earned Master of Religious Education degrees and began teaching at the school while looking for opportunities in foreign missions.  Maston went on to earn a Doctor of Religious Education (DRE) from SWBTS in 1925. 

The Mastons’ firstborn, Tom McDonald (Tom Mc), was also born in 1925. An injury at birth made Tom Mc a victim of cerebral palsy his entire life.  The Mastons’ other son, Harold Eugene (Gene) fought clinical depression his entire life.  Their children had a profound effect on the family.  They could not become foreign missionaries without institutionalizing Tom Mc, so those plans were dropped. Essie Mae dropped her own career to give almost total care to her sons, although T. B. Maston’s own deep involvement, including physical involvement with this care went well beyond that expected of fathers in that era.  They took their sons with them on extended overseas trips that were mission or education related.  Tillman claims that Tom Mc’s physical problems and Gene’s emotional struggles (if clinical depression is so little understood in our culture, today, how much more so then?) had a profound effect on Maston’s theology and worldview and this is easily believed.  It gave him a sensitivity to suffering that, perhaps, goes a long way to explaining why his views on race, economic justice, and world peace, were so VERY far ahead of most of his cultural context–including that of his religious culture.

With his path committed to a life of teaching and writing on Christian education in church settings, missiology, and, increasingly, on discipleship and ethics, Maston continued to equip himself with further education. He earned an M.A. in sociology from Texas Christian University (1927) and, later, a Ph.D. in Christian Ethics (under H. Richard Niebuhr) at Yale University (1939). He also took summer courses at the University of North Carolina (1928) and the University of Chicago (1929). At UNC, Chapel Hill, he was influenced by the renowned Southern sociologist, Howard W. Odum.  His courses in Christian ethics took him from SWBTS’ School of Religious Education to its main School of Theology.  Maston basically founded the Christian ethics department at SWBTS–it was not a part of the original curriculum.

His developing social ethic was a Southern and post-WWI adaptation of the Social Gospel, but with several significant differences.  1) Whereas most of the Northern Social Gospel was tied to liberal theology, Maston combined a firm commitment to conservative Protestant orthodoxy (a mildly Calvinist form of Baptist thought) with social ethics that were fairly liberal/progressive on most issues.  No doubt the conservative theology was a genuine reflection of Maston’s convictions, but it also fit his environment well. If you are going to challenge a church culture that is profoundly racist with a call for racial justice and reconciliation and a church culture of “rugged individualism” with a call for economic empowerment and social solidarity, it helps if none of your critics can challenge one iota of your doctrinal orthodoxy! 2) Like other Southerners who adapted forms of the Social Gospel, Maston put far more emphasis on racial justice and reconciliation than did Northern counterparts.

Maston’s biggest influence on Southern Baptists was on the issue of racism.  He wrote three books on the subject: Of One (1946); The Bible and Race (1959), and Segregation and Desegregation (1959).  Additionally, he joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP–name chosen when “colored” was considered the less offensive term than “black,”) and the Fort Worth chapter of the Urban League.  He wrote hundreds of op-ed pieces for Baptist state papers and for secular newspapers on the topic, along with numerous pamphlets and chapters in many more books.  As early as the 1940s, he was calling on Baptist churches and agencies to voluntarily desegregate. 

Some could question how influential Maston really was on race.  The Southern Baptist Convention did not issue an apology for its role perpetuating slavery until the year 2000.  During the Civil Rights struggle, the vast majority of Southern Baptists were openly supportive of segregation.  (Many of these repeatedly tried to get Maston fired and his books banned from Baptist publishers and he received numerous pieces of hate mail.) Even today, the Southern Baptist Convention is one of the whitest denominations and African Americans who are associated with it play no significant role in its leadership or in shaping its views.  However, Maston, through his books and students did much to create an influential minority of white Baptists who were progressive on race–and I have heard numerous African American ministers of the right age express appreciation for Maston’s work in this area.

Maston helped create the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission (with a name chosen that would not sound like the Social Gospel–often perceived in the South as “communist!”) and its success led to the change in name of the Southern Baptist Social Service Commission (formed by Southern Seminary’s J. B. Weatherspoon, a shaper not mentioned in this volume) to the SBC Christian Life Commission. (After the fundamentalist takeover in the 1990s, the name was again changed to that of the “Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission,” but this is misleading since it no longer works for religious liberty in the classic Baptist sense. Its “ethics” now reflect that of the Religious Right). Maston’s doctoral students often became heads of these agencies and others such as the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (now the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty–an agency now free of SBC monetary support). Through his students, Maston slowly influenced Southern Baptists to be more concerned for economic justice and racial justice. He also published work on peacemaking, though he was not a pacifist.

Maston was also influential in shaping several generations of Southern Baptist thinking on the relation of the church to the world of politics.  From their beginnings Baptists (like the Anabaptists before them) believed that because God alone is Lord of the conscience, the state should not be able to regulate religion. Church and state should be institutionally separate and everyone should have equal religious liberty–including atheists.  Persuasion alone should be used in gaining religious converts–with no help from secular governments.  This emphasis on liberty of conscience combined in America, especially in the Southwest, with the value of “rugged individualism” to promote a profound distrust of governmental institutions and a firm desire for government not to meddle in religious affairs.  It also led to a kind of apolitical apathy on the part of many Baptists.

Maston and his students shifted this.  Recovering a biblical understanding of the prophets, he maintained the strong desire for institutional church-state separation, but pushed for the church to influence state and society in a moral direction.  Sometimes this influence would be “conservative,” such as opposing legalized gambling and restrictions on alcoholic beverages and on pornography, but sometimes it would be “liberal,” such as pushing for increased funding for public education, ending segregation, anti-poverty programs, a limited military budget combined with strong peacemaking efforts.  Maston and his students were fierce defenders of church-state separation. (He would have been horrified by today’s atmosphere with government handouts for “faith-based” social programs, official representation to the Vatican, and the constant clamour by conservative church groups for tax-based “vouchers” for private, parochial schools!) But this did not translate into apolitical quietism.  They expected churches to be influential on moral issues to have a voice in public policy–but not to dominate it or have its programs enacted into law because they were Christian ones.  Tillman doesn’t raise the question about whether or not Maston’s influence inadvertantly led to the rise of the religious right. I often wonder, however, if much of the Right misunderstood the message of social responsibility which Maston and others promoted: They left their apolitical apathy and took to heart the message of influencing public policy–and missed the respect for pluralism and church-state separation along the way.

The influence of Maston on Southern Baptist thinking about family life was also profound–and here, he was mostly traditional.  His marriage showed a partnership and Maston pushed Southern Baptist husbands to care deeply for their wives and be actively involved in child rearing–but he stopped short of embracing any form of Christian feminism that I can see. (Some of his students went beyond him on this.) His view of family life is still (mildly) patriarchal–and Tillman misses this.  It is not surprising that Maston shared the near-universal condemnation of all same-sex sexual expression of his era, but Tillman doesn’t question this conclusion and I do.

Another major influence of Maston’s was to get Southern Baptists to read the Bible not just for doctrinal views, but to see the strong social and ethical themes.  His book Biblical Ethics, first published in 1967, has continuously been reprinted, though by different publishers.  It is a survey of the Bible (Protestant canon) from Genesis to Revelation with a focus on the ethical themes.  It remains an excellent survey, especially for laity.  When combined with his other books, God’s Will and Your Life (1964), The Conscience of a Christian(1971–title chosen in contrast, perhaps, to Sen. Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative, which launched the post-WWII conservative movement among Republicans?), Real Life in Christ (1974), Why Live the Christian Life? (1974), and To Walk as He Walked (1985), it shows a Christocentric and prophetic reading of Scripture that puts less emphasis on the legal materials.

Maston wrote, as do most of the ‘shapers’ profiled, for church audiences rather than academic ones.  This is a good communication strategy if you are trying not to impress other academics, but to truly have an impact on the ethics of churchmembers.  In Maston’s case, however, it led him to completely neglect historical-critical matters in his biblical work (though maybe not behind the scenes in his own study?)–and that, I think, may have reinforced a “flat Bible” hermeneutic among Baptist laity and even ministers.

There is no doubt that T. B. Maston was a powerfully beneficial influence on Baptist life, especially that of white Baptists in the South (Southern Baptists and, today, much of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship)–and ESPECIALLY from the Southwest.  Coming from outside the direct line of influence of the Maston circle, I appreciate his work greatly–if not in the hagiographic and hero-worshipping tones of Bill Tillman.

January 11, 2009 Posted by | Baptists, ethics, progressive faith, race, religious liberty, Religious Social Criticism | 6 Comments

Why We Should Support the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA)

I am returning to posting on religious social criticism and other matters, but I want to ask my U.S. readers to call and email their Representatives and Senators and urge them to support the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) which is scheduled for a vote early in the 111th Congress.  Opponents call this “card check” and it will be a major issue.

Here’s the problem:  Since the 1930s, U.S. law protects the rights of workers to organize and form unions in order to collectively bargain with management and have a say in better pay & benefits, safer working conditions, etc.  But when labor organizers manage to collect enough signatures to call for a vote on forming a union, employers often threaten, fire, discipline and otherwise harass employees into voting it down–something that is especially easy to do during times of high unemployment like now.  There is an entire lucrative consulting business which teaches employers how to union-bust.  Operatives from these consulting firms (Wal-Mart employs them all the time) help your company sit down with employees and “gently persuade” them into voting “no,” including by firing anyone who is openly pro-union.  All of this is VERY illegal, but companies do it anyway because (1) the fines are so low that it is cheaper to pay them than to have to treat employees well by facing a union; (2) the U.S. Labor department has seen its budget shrink under GOP presidents and does not have the employees or resources to catch most violators; (3) if fired employees sue and win big settlements, judges appointed by GOP presidents have been very business-friendly and union-hating, so they often decrease the penalties a jury sets as “overly punitive.” Union-busters count on this.

So, EFCA allows employees to get together (with or without union organizers) and decide they want a union; if a majority sign cards saying they want to form a union, it’s a done deal. The opportunity for employers to intimidate them out of their earlier commitment is gone.  The anti-union propaganda (repeated by many “news” organizations) is that “card check” eliminates the right to secret ballot elections and allows union organizers to intimidate employees, instead. (Project much?) This is false. EFCA allows employees to hold an election for the union or to skip that step–their choice.  And employers have FAR more opportunities for intimidation (and power to intimidate–like firing you!) than do organizers or fellow employees. But, if needed for some GOP votes, I would support an amendment to EFCA saying that a supermajority was needed to skip the election stage, say 60% of employees signing the cards with 50% plus 1 still being the threshold for an election at all.

If EFCA passes, we will see far more unions, especially in the South and Southwest where union-busting is strongest.  Why should this matter? Because strong unions are key to a strong middle class.  Unions brought about the weekend (now very eroded) and the 40 hour week (also eroded). They helped eliminate child labor and brought about safer working conditions for everyone. When unions were strongest (1950s and 1960s), we had fewer hyper-rich in this country, but a far larger middle class–when one income could support a family of four, with health benefits and a pension fund. Families with breadwinners that had only a high school education were able to buy homes and save to send their kids to college.

Not all Republicans have always been anti-organized labor.  Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller had good labor records and Nixon’s was not terrible.  Sen. Arlen Spector (R-PA) has a good record on labor and may be a key vote for us to keep EFCA from being filibustered in the U.S. Senate.  But, since the Goldwater/Reagan crew began to dominate the Republican Party, unions have been considered “the enemy” by the GOP as a whole and union-busting is a major thrust of GOP politics. (One of Reagan’s very first acts as U.S. president was to break the air-traffic controllers’ union–thereby making all of us who fly in the U.S. much less safe.)

Strong unions are also important for other dimensions of social justice:  Unions like the United Auto Workers (UAW) were very strong in the Civil Rights Movement (as was the mostly Black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters).  The experience of working and struggling together has been a major force in breaking down racial prejudice among those with less education (where racism is strongest, at least on the level of personal attitudes).  Likewise, many labor unions have been strong supporters of peace movements–with members often having family members in the military who are likely to be put in harm’s way for no good reason.  Organized labor has not been as strong, to date, in working for equality of the sexes or against homophobia–but there are signs this is changing.

So, strong unions are important for their primary purpose of economic justice, but also have important “side effects.”

Therefore, I urge you to support stronger unions in this country by contacting your Congressional Representatives and Senators and urging them to pass EFCA. You can also write letters to your local newspapers and make call-ins to radio shows in support of EFCA, too.

January 10, 2009 Posted by | economic justice | 1 Comment

Fox News Smears Muslim Congressman w/ Fake “Terrorism Expert”

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), who, in 2006 was elected as America’s first Muslim member of Congress, completed his  first hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca during Ramadan.  The hajj is one the pillars of Islamic faith and Ellison’s trip was paid for by the Muslim Society of America which has had good relations with the Minnesota Council of Churches and the St. Paul Police Department, according to this report in the Minnesota Independent.  The article at the link says that Fox News (“Fixed Noise”) used a discredited “terrorism expert” named Steven Emerson to use Ellison’s association with the Muslim Society of America to question Ellison’s loyalty/patriotism and the sincerity of the purpose for his trip to Mecca. 

Who is Steven Emerson?  This is the same self-declared “terrorism expert” who attacked Ellison when first elected for choosing to take the oath of office using a copy of the Qu’ran rather than the Bible.  (The actual congressional oath-taking ceremony involves no holy books, but most freshmen Congressfolk use a Bible in a private reenactment for family members.) Ellison sought to defuse the criticism by using a copy of the Qu’ran that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson.  (This late ’06/early ’07 dust-up was also the origin of the false accusations that Pres.-elect Obama plans to be sworn in using a Qu’ran! Part of the “secret Muslim” falsehood.)

Emerson has previously been accused of plagiarism in writing about downed Pan-Am flight 103.  After the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in the ’90s, he said that it definitely showed “Middle Eastern” tendencies because it was calculated to take maximum number of lives.  Of course, it turned out the terrorists were home-grown whites.  The article showed a number of other claims that Emerson has gotten dead wrong.

Now Emerson claims that the Muslim Society of America is the Islamic equivalent of “the Neo-Nazi Party.”  Let’s be clear: unsavory and extremist groups often hide in legitimate religious charities as a way to mask more nefarious activities.  During the decades of fighting in Northern Ireland, Irish Republican Army terrorists were often funded by U.S. based Catholic charities.  Balkan terrorists have used Orthodox Christian charities for cover. 

So, it’s possible that there are legitimate criticisms to be leveled at the Muslim Society of America and Rep. Ellision. But, if so, Fox News should have found a credible source and not a discredited hack like Emerson.  But, then, if they did responsible journalism, they wouln’ be Fox News.

January 10, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment