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

Islamic Fundamentalism: Self-Reflection for Both Muslims and Christians?

Since nearly the entire world is parsing the strengths and weaknesses of Pres. Obama’s speech in Cairo, I’ll pass on that for now.  But Obama brought up some history that OUGHT to lead to (painful?) introspection on the part of both Muslims and Christians.  Many Americans are blissfully unaware of it (because our knowledge of history is notoriously TINY), but the European Dark Ages were marked by a Christian Church that discouraged learning.  The rebirth of learning in the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance was largely sparked by ISLAMIC philosophers, scientists and poets.

The 7th and 6th Centuries C.E. are known to historians as the Islamic Golden Age.  They made many advances in science, engineering (including the arch and the flying buttress), mathematics (we now use Arabic numerals, the zero was invented in Arabic civilization, and Muslim mathematicians invented algebra), medicine, and astronomy.  Christians in Europe adopted these discoveries (sometimes building on them) when Arabic troops invaded Europe and again when Europeans invaded the Middle East (Holy Land) during the Crusades.  The scientific revolution of the 17th C. would not have been possible without the advances of the Renaissance that paved the way–and those depended on very forward looking Muslim scholars.

Muslim-majority nations throughout the Middle East had universities, some offering graduate and postgraduate degrees, before European nations started them (usually under the influence of the Christian Church).  They had a higher rate of literacy and were educating women as equals or near equals long before the Christian West.

Many of the Western advances in philosophy and theology also owe their roots to Medieval Islam.  The great flowering of Catholic theology came from St. Thomas Aquinas’ interactions with Aristotelian philosophy. (Originally, this was considered controversial and some called Thomas a heretic. Plato was the approved philosopher and Aristotle was suspect.) But Aristotle’s writings had been lost in Europe.  They were saved in Arabic lands, both before and after the rise of Islam.  The Islamic philosopher Averroes (the Latin version of Ibn Rushd) was not the only Islamic Aristotelian, but because he wrote much of his material in Latin (not just in Arabic), Thomas could interact with it.  Thomas also used translations of Aristotle into Latin.  (Thomas was also influenced by Jewish philosophers, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The Islamic contributions to the arts (especially architecture and calligraphy), poetry, music, and drama were also many and dramatic.  Because of their ban on alcohol, and their kashrut food restrictions, they worked to create new culinary delights–including coffee, without which I would not be civilized.  Women as well as men contributed to the flourishing of Islamic societies.

But all this came crashing down about the 17th C.  Today, almost all Muslim-majority nations are poorer, less-educated, and extremely conservative.  The rise of rabid Islamic fundamentalism has increased this trend, with incredible oppression of women, minorities, and religious dissent.  Obama’s brief recitation of some of this history, along with his critique of the current state of many Muslim-majority nations, should be the cause of deep, even painful, reflection by Muslims–not by the extremists, but by the progressives, centrists, and non-extremist conservatives. 

But I think this should also serve as a cautionary tale for Christians.  I KNOW that ultra-right Christian fundamentalists hate being compared to Islamic fundamentalists, but there is much in common.  And the rise and threatened domination of fundamentalism among Christians has brought with it a terrible hatred for the equality of women, for religious liberty and diversity, and a fear of science and the arts.  Too much of Christianity today is not open and does not welcome debate, dissent, or education.  And, both Islamic and Christian fundamentalists foster violence and terrorism in pursuit of totalitarian theocracies. 

Now the “new angry athiests” would conclude that faith and religion are themselves toxic.  I do not.  But fundamentalist forms are and the problems that Islamic fundamentalism has brought to Muslim-majority nations should be troubling both for contemporary Muslims (who need to throw off fundamentalism and reclaim their progressive past) and Christians (who need to defeat the fundamentalist forces among us).

June 6, 2009 Posted by | Christianity, faith, fundamentalists, Islam, progressive faith, Reformation, Religious Social Criticism | 14 Comments

Frank Schaeffer on Anti-Abortionist Responsibility for Tiller’s Murder

I urge everyone to read this article by Frank Schaeffer.  I don’t support any claim that ALL pro-life groups support anti-abortion violence.  Just the opposite.  Nor do I want to infringe on the civil liberties of anti-abortionist groups.  I supported the Free Access to Clinic Entrance legislation, but I do not want to oppose silent (or even noisy) vigils outside clinics where abortions are performed.  Even if you are very pro-choice, far more than I am, please consider the consequences–we don’t want to lose the right to protest peacefully outside military bases or recruiting centers, right?  Free speech, even offensive or violent free speech, is to be protected.

But there is a far-right network of groups that supports anti-abortion terrorism that operates on the fringes of the pro-life movement.  Groups like Operation Save America, Operation Rescue, Missionaries to the Unborn, etc. celebrate people like the murderer of Dr. Tiller as HEROES–comparing them to those who tried to assassinate Hitler in order to stop the Holocaust or to John Brown who tried to incite a holy war against slavery.  They are NOT trying to persuade citizens to change the laws.  They are not trying to create the climate in which most abortions are rejected because babies are welcomed.  They are not trying to prevent unwanted pregnancies or make adoptions easier.  They are not, as Feminists for Life and others do, connecting abortion to the second class status of women, to male sexual predation (including date rape, incest, and much more).  They are not even trying to get <i>Roe v. Wade</i> overturned.  They are, instead, trying to create an atmosphere of fear in which women fear to seek abortions because of threatened violence, doctors and hospitals fear to provide abortions because of threatened violence, and even churches and other faith groups fear to welcome pro-choice members like Dr. Tiller because of threatened violence.  They are advancing their goals by means of terrorist violence–and it is working.

Frank Schaeffer shows that while most Religious Right leaders did not directly participate and usually condemn the murders, they contributed to the atmosphere that encourages this violence.  I remember reading Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto in 1980–it encouraged the overthrow of the American government by force if all else failed in saving “Christian civilization.”  It justified violence against abortion providers and pro-choice politicians if all legal and nonviolent means failed.  The Religious Right still has members and even leaders who promote this–and far more who give ambivalent voices.

Dr. James Dobson gave away 100,000 copies of Frank Schaeffer’s A Time for Anger which counseled anti-abortion violence as a last resort.  During the 1990s, I engaged via the email list of  the Society of Christian Philosophers, a young student at Jerry Falwell’s school, Liberty University.  I was a seamless garment, consistent-ethic-of-life person at the time and, in dialogue with me, this student became one, too–eventually going to Duke Divinity School to study with famed pacifist theologian Stanley Haerwas.  But the student also revealed to me that the “bomb the clinic/kill the abortion doctor” view was widely held among both faculty and students at Liberty University.  When Jerry Falwell himself retreated from this view after a series of bombings in the ’80s and ’90s and called on Christians to use ONLY LEGAL MEANS to end abortions, the student (before I became his friend) led a petition drive among students to reverse this policy, calling it a sell-out to the unborn.

There are websites where rightwing anti-abortion groups make heroes out of the assassins of doctors who perform abortions–getting others to write to these assassins in jail, and even to emulate their actions.

If terrorism is the use of violence and the threat of violence to intimidate others for political gain, then this is terrorism.  And if al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah are terrorist groups who promote terror tactics using warped forms of Islam, then many of these anti-abortion groups are terror networks who appeal to warped forms of Christianity for their justification.  They are Christian terrorists.

Suppose I am wrong in claiming that while all abortions are tragic, some are the lesser of evils.  Suppose the pro-lifers are right that all abortions are the moral equivalent of murder.  Then they are right to oppose this and to try to change this.  But they cannot do so by adopting violent means.  Violence just begets more violence in a downward spiral.

I have seen this before.  In the early 1960s, I saw the assassinations of the brothers Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many more martyrs in the struggle against segregation.  By the late ’60s and into the early ’70s, the Left in America (including factions of the peace movement and the student movement, along with the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement) had adopted the same kinds of violent terror tactics that the White Citizens Councils and KKK and John Birchers had done earlier.  The bombings of black churches led to the bombings of ROTC buildings and National Guards barracks–until by 1974 one had police in many cities as practically occupying armies.  The very fabric of our society threatened to unravel.

I don’t want to see this repeat–by either the right or the left.  Yet. the first reported arson on a clinic offering abortion goes all the way back to 1976.  Since that time there have been over 200 arsons or bombings of clinics and hospitals where abortions are provided.  Beginning with the assassination of Dr. David Gunn in 1993, there have been at least 10 assassinations and attempted assassinations in the U.S. and Canada of health personnel connected with providing abortions. (Dr. George Tiller himself was shot in both arms in 1993 and now has been killed in his Withita, KS church.)  Both clinic personnel and women seeking abortions have been attacked with acid in over 100 cases since 1993.  From 1998-2002 over 500 letters containing or threatening to contain the deadly virus Anthrax have been mailed to clinics and health care providers connected to abortion services.  Women seeking to enter clinics offering abortions have been punched, kicked, beaten (all the while people yell, “We love your baby!”), given abusive speech, and much else.

The result of this terrorism has not been to change the laws–but it has reduced greatly the number of places where women can seek legal abortions in this nation.  U.S. Marshals are having to provide protection to vulnerable doctors and other clinic personnel in the wake of Dr. Tiller’s murder.

If you and your church oppose abortion without making clear your opposition to all such violence, then you are part of the problem.  If you use terms like “Tiller the killer” and make comparisons to Nazis or talk about the the murder of abortion providers as “justifiable homicide,” then you are part of the problem.  You are contributing to an atmosphere of violence.

But you aren’t ending abortions, but merely driving them back underground.  You are not creating the kind of culture which can welcome life.  And, like the Left wing zealots that bombed ROTC buildings or the Rightist racists which bombed black churches, you are threatening the fabric of our democratic society.

Vigorous debate, yes.  Political organizing, yes.  Peaceful protests, yes.  Creating alternatives, yes.  In all issues of conscience this is our duty.  But violence, no.

Christians in this nation have been shocked by the recent Pew Report showing that all churches are declining and that “none of the above” is a growing religious category.  I’m not.  When the German churches backed Hitler, the next generation grew disillusioned with the churches–and they have never fully recovered.  When the American churches of the 50s and 60s supported segregation and the Vietnam war, they lost the next generation.  Now we have a generation which has seen huge church support for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, for torture, for the demonization of Muslims and gays, and for anti-abortion violence.  So, we look to lose another generation. 

U.S. Christians,  it is time we took a long look in the mirror.  In the words of the famous Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

 Operation Rescue is a group that constantly tries to have it both ways.  It always bemoans clinic violence, but spends more time saying that the doctors like Tiller had it coming (Randall Terry,”He reaped what he sowed.”).  They also tend to share membership overlaps with the crazies in the fringe groups.  For instance, it seems that people in Operation Rescue helped Dr. Tiller’s assassin track his victim’s movements.

Groups encouraging anti-abortion terrorism in the name of being “pro-life” include:

The Army of God; American Coalition of Life Activists; 34 signers of the “Justifiable Homicide” statement celebrating the murder of Dr. David Gunn in 1993.  Operation Save America; Missionaries to the Unborn (has deck of “black heart” cards with “death merchants”–doctors who perform abortions–on them; rebukes pro-life groups for denouncing Tiller’s murder or for offering to aid the police in capturing those who would commit clinic violence);

June 2, 2009 Posted by | abortion, assassination, atheism, Christianity, civil liberties, human rights., terrorism prevention, violence | 10 Comments

Afghanistan’s Law Allowing Marital Rape

As you may have heard, the Afghanistan legislature passed a law last week that requires married women to have sex with her husband up to four times per week unless she is ill or unless sex would aggravate an illness!  At European and American objections, President Karzai promised to review the law (which the United Nations is calling a legalization of marital rape) has promised a thorough review of the law, but so far “doesn’t find anything objectional.”  The law is causing problems for the U.S. and NATO as we send both more civilians to help nation-build and more troops to hunt al Qaeda, protext civilians, and train Afghan military and police–an escalation I object to and predict will backfire. (By the way, anyone notice that the supposedly successful Iraqi “surge” is coming undone?)

When asked, Pres. Obama called the law “abhorrent” and I agree.  I think we should pressure Afghanistan to reverse this horrid law.  But before we in the West start to act superior and call this an illustration of how backward Afghanistan is or how patriarchal and sexist Islam is, etc., let’s use this nasty legislation as a time for a good hard look in the mirror.  In MANY Western countries “marital rape” is still unknown AS A LEGAL CONCEPT.  And before we act shocked at this Afghan law, let us remember in how many cultural contexts it would be assumed that wives give up all right to say no to their husband’s sexual advances.  How many of your own relatives, especially of a certain age, would speak of constant sexual availability as among a wife’s “marital duties?”

Here in Kentucky, we passed a law outlawing marital rape for the first time in the late 1990s.  Speaking with attorney friends, I can tell you that the law has proved unenforceable.  A wife appealing to it sometimes incurs domestic abuse–the opposite of the law’s intention.  And getting a KY jury to convict a husband of raping his wife has so far proven impossible.  It’s been tried 12 times since the law was signed. Zero convictions.  And many other U.S. states (including many which have far more liberal reputations than my adopted home here in KY) do not yet even acknowledge marital rape as a legal concept.  And conservative Christians are among those who most often respond to polls by denying that wives can morally refuse their husbands.

Sure, legalizing the inability of wives  to  say no, as the Afghan law does, is even more horrible.  But maybe we better start by acknowledging just how patriarchal and sexist our own religion and culture is, how far from sexual equality are the heterosexual  marriages in OUR cultures, before we act as if the Afghanis (or their Islamic heritage) is uniquely anti-woman.  Protest this law? Yes. Stand up for women everywhere and against the kind of cultural relativism that would sweep this under the rug? Definitely.  But not out of false  feelings of moral superiority–only with humility and a renewed determination to stand up for women, including married women, in our own lands and cultures and faiths, too.  Anything less is just hypocrisy.

UPDATE:  Good News:  Karzai has scrapped the law, for now.  Bad News:  The law’s failure will probably be a recruiting tool for the Taliban. Sigh.

April 6, 2009 Posted by | Afghanistan, Christianity, family, feminism, Islam, sexism | 11 Comments

Palm Sunday: Anti-Imperial Street Theatre

In their popular work, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem, Jesus scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan talk about the contrast between Jesus’ entry into the East Gate of Jerusalem with Pilate’s military/imperialist entry into the West Gate of Jerusalem on the same day.  They state the simultaneous nature of these events with a little more certainty than is historically warranted, but we do know that Pilate did not normally reside in Jerusalem, but arrived with extra troops every year to keep the crowds from revolting Rome’s rule during Passover.  After all, Passover celebrates the Exodus, God’s liberating of His people from another oppressive empire long ago.  Discontent in the Jewish crowds would be strongest during Passover.

So, Pilate comes from the West with extra troops on war horses in a military display to cow the masses.  By contrast, Jesus arrives from the East in a carefully staged (getting the colt/foal of a donkey) counter-demonstration.  Drawing from Zechariah (not lost on the crowds), he presents a salvation from imperial rule that is not based on greater firepower, but on peace and meekness.

When we celebrate Palm Sunday, we don’t just remember the fickle crowds (so soon to desert Jesus, along with the 12) and their brief recognition/celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry. We also remember that Jesus presents us with a deliberate choice:  Following His Way of meekness, humility, and peace or the Way of Empire and military might.  There is no Way to follow Jesus that does NOT break from the military option.

April 5, 2009 Posted by | Bible, Christian calendar, Christianity | 10 Comments

Progressive Christianity Today

Progressive Christianity is a movement within Christianity that is willing to question tradition (both traditional practices  and traditional beliefs). If progressive Christians reaffirm a particular traditional belief or practice, it is after having wrestled with it; it’s affirmations are post-critical, not pre-critical and never with unquestioning acceptance.  Progressive Christian faith embraces doubt and ambiguity.  It accepts human diversity:  intentionally building racial/ethnic and economic diversity into its congregations. It also embraces diversity of sexual orientation.  Progressive Christians firmly defend religious liberty and church-state separation and they are committed to social acceptance and partnership with persons of other faiths. (Progressive Christians differ among themselves as to evangelism, the possibility of salvation in other faiths, and related questions, but they are united in working for social equality and tolerance among differing religions.  In other words, whatever the make-up of any heavenly city, the peace of the earthly cities demands respect for alien belief systems–or,  at least, for the persons who hold those belief systems.)

Progressive Christians have a strong emphasis on social and economic justice and care for the poor and oppressed and marginalized.  They also have a strong ecological emphasis:  a focus on care for the Creation.  For Progressive Christians, the life of Jesus as a model for discipleship, and the teachings of Jesus (especially the Sermon on the Mount) are at least as central salvifically as his death and resurrection. This leads them to an ethic that emphasizes love, compassion, promoting justice and mercy and to social action to end poverty, discrimination, and heal the earth of human-caused environmental degradation.  It also leads to work for peace in the world and many progressive Christians are complete pacifists.

The majority of Progressive Christians today fully accept biological evolution as completely compatible with their faith.  Many are deeply influenced by process philosophies and theologies.

Progressive Christianity is largely a movement within Protestantism, but it also embraces a significant minority of Catholics who have been shaped by the emphases of the Second Vatican Council.  (As such, progressive Catholics have found themselves on the defensive  as first Pope John  Paul II and now, even more, Pope Benedict XIII, have rolled back the progressive changes that sprang from Vatican II and are reaffirming a traditional, authoritarian Catholicism.) It is a diverse movement:  Many of its most prominent leaders come from the liberal strands of mainline (now oldline) Protestantism, but it also has roots in 19th C. evangelicalism (which led the movements to abolish slavery and child labor, the first modern feminist movement, peace and anti-imperialism).  Other roots for contemporary Progressive Christianity include the Social Gospel (late 19th/early 20th C.), mid-20th C. Neo-Orthodoxy, various liberation theologies.  It includes the rediscovery of the vibrant dimensions of 16th C. Anabaptists and overlaps the “emergent church” movement within contemporary evangelicalism.

Regular readers of this blog will quickly realize that I consider myself a progressive Christian.  I am a Baptist who draws more from the Anabaptist side of my tradition than from the Puritan side or the later Revivalist strain.  I come from within American evangelicalism and still embrace the best of evangelical Christianity:  deep biblical literacy (increasingly absent in Christians of all stripes, sadly) and a reverence for the Bible’s position as Scripture  and Canon–though rejecting “inerrancy” theories. I also celebrate the traditional evangelical emphasis on conversion (personal, communal, societal) and the need for new birth, but reject the common idea that this makes discipleship optional.  My own doctrinal convictions are more traditional than many other  progressive Christians: I can affirm the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed without crossing my fingers and my mental footnotes are few. (However, I  share the traditional Baptist aversions to creeds as tests of orthodoxy, much less as infallible statements.  All statements of faith, or confessions of faith, are human and limited and flawed and must be open to revision.) I have been far more influenced by Neo-Orthodox  and Liberation theologies than by theological  liberalism–though I have dialogue partners among the liberals.  More than most white Christians in the Anglo-American world, I have been deeply influenced by the Black Church and African-American and Latin American liberation theologies. (African and Asian liberation theologies have played a much smaller role, though I continue to try to broaden my exposure to them, as well as Afro-Caribbean liberation theologies.) I was raised by a feminist mother and married a woman Baptist minister and one of my favorite  theology teachers is a feminist theologian–and all this has had an impact on me, too.

Progressive Christians are not all liberal or progressive in politics, but most are.  I am a democratic socialist in political philosophy–and find the idea that Barack Obama is a socialist to be laughable.  (In fact, I think that Obama’s economics are not much more progressive than Bill Clinton’s–except on financial regulation and certainly not as progressive as FDR, LBJ, Bobby or Ted Kennedy.  His foreign policy is also very Clintonian, not even as progressive as Jimmy Carter’s– a LONG way from anything a democratic socialist would embrace.  As with FDR and LBJ, contextual matters and people movements may push Obama into a more progressive stance than his cautious self would otherwise embrace–on a range of issues.  And the rightwing fearmongers who use “socialism” as a swear word may push him and the country into a more progressive stance  than if they had cooperated with his initial modest reforms.  But no one who has any notion of what socialism, even in democratic form, is could ever label Obama as a “socialist.” It’s laughable.)

For those who would like to explore Progressive Christianity further, here are some links:


For the most part, these days debates between conservative, traditionalist forms of Christianity and progressive ones go on WITHIN denominations  rather than between them.  Most denominations have conservative and progressive wings.  There are exceptions: The Southern Baptist Convention managed to expel  its progressives and most of its centrists or “moderates” during its internal feud in the 1980s and early ’90s.  The Missouri Synod Lutherans did the same in the 1970s.  Other examples could be multiplied.  The  following U.S. denominations are ones where at least 70% of leadership and membership is progressive.

  • The Alliance of BaptistsThis is a small network of progressive Baptist Christians (individuals and congregations) seeking to respond to the call of God in a rapidly changing world.  It began in 1984 as “The Southern Baptist Alliance,” the first organized resistance movement to takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention by fundamentalists. (I was a charter member of the student branch of the SBA at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1986.) Originally, it was dominated by centrists, but as the SBC purge began in earnest most self-described “moderates” ( a term which always struck me as a synonym for “lukewarm”) formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in 1994.  Many Alliance congregations are also CBF churches, and other Alliance churches are also aligned with the American Baptist Churches, USA (contemporary form of the old Nothern Baptist Convention).  The Alliance of Baptists is the newest member body of the National Council of Churches of Christ, USA, the mainline ecumenical body.  We were sponsored by two other progressive denominations, the United Church of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) with whom we often partner in mission work.
  • Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  In the 19th C., the American frontier experience gave birth to a renewal movement led by Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone that hoped to Restore New Testament Christianity in pristine condition. It also hoped to heal denominational divisions by rejecting creeds and holding only to the final authority of the New Testament (never realizing that it was reading the NT through a particular lense shaped by Scottish Common Sense philosophy and the American frontier experience).  These Restorationists broke into  several groups and the Disciples became the progressive denomination of the Restoration or Stone-Campbell movement.
  • Church of the Brethren.  Originating in 18th C. Germany and originally called the “Dunkers,” the Church of the Brethren was formed by the creative merging of Anabaptist (German Mennonite) and Pietist theologies.  Despite the name, the CoB have long ordained women.  They retain the pacifism of their Anabaptist roots and an orientation toward service.
  • Episcopal Church, U.S.AThis is the U.S. branch of the global Anglican communion and, of course,  it has its traditionalist side.  But in recent years, the progressives have led the Episcopal Church. It was the first Anglican communion to ordain  women and has become the first one to consecrate an openly gay priest as bishop. (Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, Bishop of New Hampshire.)
  • Friends United MeetingThis is the largest of Quaker denominations in the U.S. and includes both progressives and traditionalists, but even most traditional Quakers are progressive Christians.
  • Metropolitan Community ChurchesThis denomination was founded by Rev. Troy Perry in the 1970s as the first denomination to be fully inclusive of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender persons.  The MCC’s members are mostly GLBT folk, but also friends and families that do not feel accepted in other denominations.
  • Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of FriendsThis is the most progressive branch of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
  • United Church of Christ.  The UCC comes from the liberal end of the Reformed tradition. It is a 1957 merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church with the Congregationalist Christian Churches.  Both those were the result of earlier mergers:  The Evangelical and Reformed Church was the combination of two immigrant (ethnic German) denominations which had used the Heidelberg Catechism as a mediating stance between Lutherans and Calvinists:  The German Evangelical  Synod and the Reformed Church in the United States.  The Congregational Christian Churches was a merger of Congregationalists (descendants of the Puritans and Pilgrims) with a minority of independent Christian (Stone-Campbell) congregations. 

Denominations with Strong Progressive Wings:  These denominations are not as fully progressive as are the ones listed above. But in each of these denominations, the progressive wing at least approaches 50% of the denomination. 

  • African Methodist Episcopal (AME) ChurchAfrican Methodist Episcopal Church-ZionBoth these Methodist/Wesleyan denominations were formed by African-Americans during the days when slavery was legal in the United States because they refused to be treated as second class Christians in the white Methodist congregations.  Both the AME and AME Zion denominations have always been strong social progressives and rich sources of Black liberation theology.
  • American Baptist Churches in the USAThe contemporary form of the old Northern Baptist Convention, the American Baptists have always had strong leaders in progressive theology, but have always also had a strong traditional, evangelical wing.  The mix has often been unstable and various conservative groups have split off of the ABC through the years while others have remained within the ABC and formed their own seminaries. 
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA)Formed in 1988 by a merger of three Lutheran denominations  which had previously been divided mostly by immigrant/ethnic history: The American Lutheran Church, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, and the Lutheran Church in America.   The ELCA has strong traditionalist features, but also many progressive leaders and congregations.
  • International Council of Community Churches (ICCC)The Community Church movement has always represented Christians who are ecumenical and freedom-minded. In 1950, two networks of such community churches, one predominantly white and the other African-American, united to form the ICCC.  The ICCC stresses racial reconciliation, equality of the sexes in all aspects of church life, ecumenical Christian witness, and unity within diversity in the Body of Christ.  Publishes the Inclusive Pulpit. The ICCC is a member communion of the National Council  of Churches, the World Council  of Churches, and Churches Uniting in Christ.
  • Presbyterian Church (USA).  This is the mainline branch of Presbyterianism in the U.S. (There are more conservative branches.) Rooted in the 16th C. Reformed tradition (Zwingli, Calvin, etc.) as mediated through the Scottish Reformation of John Knox, and the English Westminster divines, Presbyterianism in the U.S. has played a major part in the nation’s history.  The PCUSA is about evenly divided between progressives and traditionalists.
  • The Reformed Church in America. Originating as an immigrant denomination of mostly Dutch and Swiss Calvinists, the RCA is increasingly multi-racial and multi-ethnic and represents the more progressive of the non-Presbyterian Reformed denominations in the U.S.  (The Christian Reformed Church has a similar Dutch Calvinist background, but is much more conservative.) The RCA is more progressive on social and political matters than on theological  ones in which it is fairly traditional, bound by the historic ecumenical creeds of early Christendom (Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian) and by several 16th C. Reformed Confessions of Faith.
  • The United Methodist Church was formed by the reuniting of the Methodist Church with the United Evangelical Brethren.  This followed a previous (1939) merger of Methodist Episcopal Church  and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, which had been severed by the U.S. Civil War.  Today, the UMC is a global denomination in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition.  Since the early 20th C., it has rotated between periods when its progressive wing was strongest and others when its conservative evangelical wing was strongest.  Today these seem balanced, but also in very uneasy tension.  As my friend, UMC minister Jonathan Marlowe, points out, today’s UMC also contains severe criticisms of progressive Christianity by “postliberals,” something that is also true  in other denominations.

In future posts, I will link to some major organizations and representative individuals in the Progressive Christian movement in the U.S.  However, this is not just a U.S. or North American phenomenon. I invite readers from other nations to email me with their impressions of the shape of progressive Christianity in their respective nations. I think that is better than an American (me) outlining my perspective on progressive Christianity elsewhere, don’t you?

It is worth repeating at the conclusion:  Many Christians who are quite traditional or conservative in matters of doctrine or church practice are liberal or progressive (or socialist or revolutionary, etc.) in matters of politics.  Likewise, many Christians who are theologically progressive or liberal are centrist or conservative in politics or economics, etc.  The idea that these line up in a neatly predictable fashion is wrong.  I am centrist in doctrinal matters, but progressive in social and political matters. (In my progressive congregation, among those with theological training, I am considered “square” doctrinally, but few are to the left of me politically–as just one example.)

March 22, 2009 Posted by | Christianity, progressive faith, theology, tradition | 9 Comments

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

The Barack Obama-Rick Warren Fiasco

In case you are one of the few people (at least in the U.S.) who hasn’t heard, mega-church pastor Rick Warren will deliver the invocation at the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama.  It’s hard to tell who is angrier at the news:  For weeks a bored U.S. media has tried to claim that liberals and progressives (especially “the liberal blogosphere”) are angry over Obama’s cabinet choices.  The truth is that, while some of those choices have not made progressives happy (Gates as Sec. of Defense, Geithner as Treasury Secretary), the mood among liberals has not been one of anger, but of anxiety.  Progressives are nervous that Obama’s movements for change could be far less progressive than he seemed to claim in his campaign and far less than we would like to see.  But most of us are taking a wait and see attitude: He hasn’t even officially become president, yet.  If his policies are even reasonably progressive and successful, we’ll be happy. And none of us expects to get everything we want–and we know that the Bush years cannot be cleaned up overnight.  So, the media story of “angry liberals” is mostly fiction–until now.

Rick Warren, pastor of the huge mega-church, Saddleback Church, in Orange County, CA (and, nominally, at least, a Southern Baptist) has been a rising star of the Religious Right.  In ’04, he campaigned vigorously against Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), saying that Christians should not care about the Iraq war (!). The only “values” for Christian voters should be opposition to legal abortion, opposition to gay rights, especially same-sex marriage, civil unions, domestic partnerships and other “marriage like arrangements,” (which Warren compared to incest, bestiality, and child molestation), support for low taxes (??), and support for home schooling.  After the ’04 election, under his wife’s influence, Warren seemed to broaden his moral concerns to include preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS (Obama came to his church and spoke on this–with Warren receiving criticism for inviting a pro-choice politician to speak), the environment, racism, and stopping genocide in places like the Congo and, especially, Darfur (Warren wanted U.S. military intervention–though where we were to get the troops while stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq, he never said!).

Because of his broadening agenda, people like my friend, ethicist Dave Gushee, began to list Warren as an “evangelical centrist,” rather than part of the evangelical right or left.  But Warren continued to prioritize making abortion illegal (even in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother) and opposition to equal rights for LGBT persons.  He used his “Saddleback Forum” this past summer, asking both presidential candidates identical questions on live TV,  in a way that–temporarily, at least–helped John McCain by biased phrasing designed to restart the culture wars and shore up the Religious Right’s support for McCain.   (He also showed almost as little sensitivity as McCain to the plight of poor and working class people, suggesting that $250,000 annually did not make one rich!) That failed, but Saddleback and Warren were also major contributors to the successful campaign to pass California’s “Proposition 8” which rolled back the recent right to same-sex marriage in CA.  GLBT folks lost everywhere on November 4, the night that Obama won, and have been struggling to not feel excluded ever since–especially when Obama, who in other ways is the most gay-friendly president, yet, publicly shares Warren’s opposition to same-sex marriage (though not to civil unions or domestic partnerships).

So, the GLBT community (and allies like myself) are among those who are furious with Obama for inviting Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration–despite the fact that the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, an African-American United Methodist minister who was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement, is a progressive icon, and long a champion of gay rights in both society and church, is giving the benediction.  The aging Lowery is not as well known in recent years as Warren and many people tune out by the time of the benediction.  If the two prayers were reversed, many pro-gay folk might be willing to applaud Obama’s inclusivism rather than feel slapped in the face by the prominence of Warren in the program.

Progressive faith leaders are also hacked off.  Many of them risked much to help Obama get elected (I disapprove of campaigning by clergy for anyone!) or, at least, risked much in countering the many spurious smears of the Right toward Obama during the campaign.  They see Warren as a “friendlier James Dobson” and feel very slighted.

But not all the criticism of this move comes from the Left.  Pro-life groups are furious with Warren for ACCEPTING Obama’s invitation.  They believe Warren, in broadening his moral agenda, has been too lukewarm in his pro-life work recently.  “Pallin’ around with pro-abortionists” (as the governor of Alaska might phrase it) makes them furious.  Many in the Religious Right see Obama’s election as a moral disaster and for one of their own to pray at the inauguration is infuriating–a reaction similar to the one Billy Graham received in January of ’93 for participating in the inauguration of Pres. Bill Clinton.

What to make of all this?  Count me among those on the left who are angry at this choice–with some reservations.  On the one hand, I love the way Obama reaches out to his adversaries.  It is part of following Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies.  Throughout his public life, Obama has sought to engage those with whom he disagrees–and has pushed for progressives and Democrats to engage even conservative evangelicals, not glossing over differences, but seeking common ground. Bravo, Barack.

On the other hand, I understand those who say that Obama does better in reaching out to adversaries than to longtime friends and allies.  In the wake of the Proposition 8 (and similar measures in other states) triumph of anti-gay forces, Obama needed a strong symbolic move that told GLBT folk and allies that he had not forgotten them and still planned on advancing much of their agenda (if not pushing for marriage equality).  He has appointed one openly-gay cabinet member and it is widely believed that  another, William White (a retired officer who is currently head of the Intrepid Museum), leads consideration for Secretary of the Navy. (Never believe these things until they are official, however. Like many environmentalists, I was thrilled in finding that Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) was the leading pick for Secretary of the Interior–and, then, yesterday it went to Sen. Salazar (D-CO), who HAS been an environmental lawyer and has done some strong green moves, but whose record is far more mixed than Grijalva’s!)

There were lots of ways to reach out to Rick Warren without inviting him to give the invocation.  And Obama could have even selected another white evangelical equally opposed to same-sex marriage (but, like Obama himself, more liberal on other gay rights) who does not send the same “slap in the face” signal to GLBT folks that Warren does: e.g. Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, Richard Mouw, or recently-fired NAE publicly policy chief, Richard Cizik, who now supports civil unions and is reconsidering same sex marriage.  Obama could have chosen David P. Gushee, who is very traditional on gay rights (but for whom this is not a major issue), but, who is the head of Evangelicals for Human Rights, a major part of the National Religious Coalition to Abolish Torture–which would send a very different signal than having Rick Warren deliver the invocation.

Like most progressives, I’ll get over this. Obama can hardly take back the invitation, now.  If he quickly reverses “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on gays serving openly in the military ( a move now supported by most military leaders), sends Congress legislation to abolish the federal “Defense of Marriage Act,” etc., he’ll have the warm support of most GLBT folks and their allies like me.  But just as the victories for anti-gay legislation on November 4th introduced a sour note into the celebratory triumph of election night, the prominence of Rick Warren in the inauguration ceremonies dims the luster of a day that was supposed to usher in a new era of change.

I hope Obama learns how to continue to reach out to his adversaries, opponent, even enemies while, at the same time, doing better at not alienating friends and allies.  Yes, I am glad that Obama wants to get beyond the petty politics of revenge–the Bush years held far too much of that!  And, yes, I am glad that he has no plans to pander to the Left base of the Democratic Party the way that Bush (and the recent version of McCain) pandered to the Right base of the GOP.  But I just wish that it didn’t feel like progressives taken for granted by the incoming administration.  Say it isn’t so, Barack.

UPDATE:  Well, now the United Nations has just created a global treaty decriminalizing homosexuality, BUT THE U. S. HAS REFUSED TO SIGN! This, despite the fact that our very conservative Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that all “sodomy laws” (mostly outlawing same-sex acts, though some of those laws applied to heterosexuals–and even married couples) were unconstitutional.  So, Obama should act quickly to sign this in the new year.  It will be his actions rather than his symbols that define his presidency–but I still think inviting Warren was a mistake.

December 18, 2008 Posted by | abortion, Christianity, civil liberties, evangelicals, GLBT issues, homosexuality, politics | 26 Comments

20th C. Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics: Chapter by Chapter

Longtime readers may remember my book review of  Twentieth-Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics, ed. Larry L. McSwain and Wm. Loyd Allen (Mercer University Press, 2008).  If not, read it here.   Because of my intense desire to give a different picture of the Baptist tradition (which turns 400 in 2009) than that promoted by fundamentalists and the Religious Right, I have decided to review each chapter of this edited work, separately. This will give mini-profiles of some very important Baptist thinkers and activists of recent history while also assessing the adequacy of the analyses offered in these pages, following the order of the McSwain/Allen volume.

I have already expressed disappointment at some of those left out, so I will follow this series with a series of profiles on figures I would like to see in any kind of sequel to this volume.    I hope readers will not see this as overly provincial.  I have great respect for many Christian traditions outside my own (Baptist) one:  I have taught briefly at 3 different Catholic institutions, one Presbyterian institution, and have been a Visiting Professor at a multi-denominational Evangelical seminary.  I have also been on staff of one ecumenical and one interfaith peace group.  My influences include Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim thinkers, as well as some who profess no religious faith.  My global prayer partners include a Palestinian Jesuit and a Palestinian Baptist, a Pentecostal theologian trying to revive the pacifist roots of his denomination, several Mennonites, 2 Quakers, lots of Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists, a Moravian couple, many non-denominational Christians, several Anglican/Episcopalian folk, people in various branches of the Stone-Campbell movement (especially, but not only, liberal Disciples), and a Greek Orthodox priest.

But I deeply value the historic strengths of my particular (Baptist) branch of the Body of Christ and I hate the distortions in the popular mind caused by right-wing, fundamentalist pseudo-Baptists.  So, blogging on this is one way that I can help correct these distortions (and keeps me from worrying that I will wake up to find that the auto industry in the U.S. has either been destroyed or that it’s “salvation” has been purchased at the cost of destroying organized Labor).  I’ll begin with the first chapter, tomorrow.

December 17, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, Christianity, church history, ethics, tradition | 3 Comments

Attending Church in Washington, D.C.: Choices for the Obamas

Ever since then-Senator (now President-Elect) Barack Obama was forced painfully to quit Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago  the “where now?” question has blossomed.   Trinity Ucc was the congregation where he found Christ’s salvation and was baptized, where he and Michelle were wed and the girls baptized.   He was forced to quit his membership because of the controversy surrounding remarks by his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.  Since then, there has been much speculation about where the Obamas will attend church when the move to Washington, D.C. (I still think that Wright’s remarks, while inflammatory and unwise, were taken out of context. I have heard him preach and this was a manufactured controversy designed to make Obama seem “radical” and unpatriotic. Any of us who have preached on an even irregular basis can think of ways that snippets of sermons could be used against us.  Rightwing white preachers have said things at least as harsh as “God damn America!,” and the Republican politicians who follow them have paid very little price. The late Francis A. Schaeffer, for instance, one of the architects of the Religious Right, wrote books saying that if America continued to keep abortion legal and other policies with which he disapproved, it might be time for a second American revolution!  Jerry Falwell initially seemed to give his blessings to those who bombed abortion clinics, though later he revoked that blessing, and defended apartheid era South Africa, calling Archbishop Desmond Tutu a Communist. Hundreds of Republican politicians attended Falwell’s funeral services.  There is a double-standard because whites do not usually understand the Black Church.)

Several print publications and the PBS show, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, have given virtual tours of D.C. churches for the Obamas.  I’ll play the same game because I need something upbeat to discuss, not just the gloomy economy (including the class warfare) or corrupt politicians.  And I find myself with little in the way of new Advent meditations this year, and I don’t just want to repeat last year’s.  What would be the criteria for the Obama family in finding a D.C. church home?  I don’t know, but here are some of my guesses:

1) I think they will want a congregation that is at least multi-racial/multi-cultural if not predominantly African-American.  A mostly white congregation would probably be alien to them.

2) They may want to stick with the United Church of Christ denomination, although denominational loyalty is waning, especially among those who are adult converts to Christianity, like the President-Elect.  There are 18 UCC congregations in the area.  Like the denomination at large, most of these are predominantly white, but I will highlight some which are not.  I expect that the Obamas will remain Protestants, even if they sometimes visit a Catholic or Orthodox parish.

3) They will want a pastor who is less controversial than Rev. Wright. I fear this will turn into a search for a pastor who “tames” the gospel from its prophetic dimensions, especially when these intersect politics. This is unfortunate since no one in this country needs the prophetic confrontation of an Amos or a Micah, etc. more than the U.S. president.  Yet, because of the controversy around Rev. Wright, it is inevitable that the press and the U.S. rightwing will heavily scrutinize the sermons and activities of whatever congregation the Obamas visit.   I would pick a church without televised services, but this would not stop people with cell-phone cameras.4) Like all parents, the Obamas will want to choose a congregation with strong programs for their children–and not just in Sunday School.  The Obamas have also shown a marked preference for lively church music that might not be found in some “high liturgical” traditions.

5) They have expressed a desire to be involved in a congregation that is making an active difference in its surrounding neighborhood as well as beyond. So, they will look at outreach, social ministry, and mission programs.

6) Security is a concern. Whatever church is chosen must prepare to deal with Secret Service, possible searches,  and the President may have to leave abruptly if an emergency arises.

With these criteria in mind, here is my unscientific survey of available options, with pros and cons–not that they are likely to need my advice.

I. Starting with the United Church of Christ options:

  • First Congregational United Church of Christ, 309 E Street NW, Washington, D.C.  Founded in 1865 by abolitionists just as the Civil War drew near, this is an interracial, multicultural congregation.  It was a stop on the Underground Railroad.  It is a very progressive church that has declared itself to be part of the Just Peace congregation program of the UCC and an Open and Affirming congregation (i.e., it fully welcomes GLBT persons).  One “minus” is that the congregation is currently building a new multi-purpose facility in place of its old, run-down facility and, until that is finished in 2010, meets at First Trinity Lutheran Church (corner of 4th and E streets), which may be awkward–2 congregations under one roof may be crowded enough without a presidential entourage, too.  On the plus side, the congregation has a long history with Howard University and its Divinity School.  More of the congregation is white than any other ethnic group, but the Rev. Doug Clark, pastor, professes the kind of progressive faith that Obama has articulated (he may even be more theologically liberal than Obama) but preaches in a much less confrontational or inflammatory style than Rev. Wright.
  • Lincoln Congregational Temple United Church of Christ , 1701 11th Street NW, is the oldest African-American church in the Congregational tradition in the District of Columbia, founded by freedmen and freedwomen after the Civil War.  It is theologically progressive and socially active for justice. It is a Just Peace congregation, Open and Affirming, and part of the “God is Still Speaking” movement in the UCC.   The pastor, Rev. Nathan A. Harris, has a much different style of preaching than Rev. Wright–but Wright did preach his installation service and some would try to use that against the congregation or the Obamas.  The congregation is smaller than the Obamas are used to, but it is growing under Rev. Harris’  leadership. It wants to celebrate African-American heritage, but reach out in multicultural directions.  The pew Bibles have been changed from the old KJV to NRSV (which uses inclusive language for human beings) and they now use the African American Heritage Hymnal. On the plus side, Rev. Harris would have much to discuss with the Obamas–his undergraduate work was in business and public administration and, in addition to a Master of Divinity from Duke University Divinity School, Harris has a law degree, the Doctor of Jurisprudence, from Howard University School of Law.  Both the Obamas are lawyers and Michelle has been heavily involved with administrative work at the University of Chicago. I think having a spiritual leader who has background and experience in more than just theology would prove very helpful to them.  I cannot find anything especially about its children or youth programs.
  • The United Church, 1920 G Street NW (the “Foggy Bottom” area of the State Department) is dually affiliated with the UCC and the United Methodist Church, a merger of 2 congregations that, in one form or another, have ministered in this area for 170 years.  The UCC part of the tradition is from the German Reformed heritage rather than the Congregational heritage. (The UCC is a merger of many Protestant traditions.) Once this area was the center of ethnic Germans, but nothing remains much of that earlier period of this neighborhood.  Still, there remains a German-language ministry in the congregation.  The educational activities of the church include a “science and religion forum” that the Obamas would probably appreciate.  It’s State Department location makes it easy to meet security concerns.  The major drawback is that this is a mostly white congregation with a very “high church” worship pattern. I know the “German Reformed” type of UCC congregation since my wife, a Baptist minister with ministerial recognition by the UCC, was once an interim pastor in one. The worship style is EXTREMELY formal and cerebral and the Obama children would probably be especially bored and restless.  On the other hand, the pastor, Rev. Peter DeGroote, also has a varied educational background (an M.Div. from Wesley Theological Seminary in D.C., an M.A. in government from American University and a certificate in advanced study in social studies from Syracuse) and experience in business, the U.S. Army, public school teaching, and lecturing at American University.  Again, I think the Obamas would appreciate a pastor who has a wide range of educational and work/life experiences, rather than only theological training.
  • Cleveland Park Congregational United Church of Christ, 3400 Lowell Street NW, is mostly white. However, it has 2 pastors, Rev. Ken Fuller and Rev. Laura Jean Thompson, and the progressive Obamas may want strongly for their daughters to see an ordained woman often.  This is an Open and Affirming congregation and part of the God is Still Speaking movement, but not a Just Peace congregation.  The Sunday School program for children and for high school students is strong and the confirmation program, too.  The music is more lively than what one would likely encounter at The United Church (above), but would lack the rich gospel music of the African-American heritage.  The social programs are good for a church of this small size.
  • People’s Congregational United Church of Christ, 4704 13th Street NW, is a multi-cultural church of predominantly (but far from exclusively) African-American membership.  It is Open and Affirming.  The programs for children and youth are very strong, including Brownies and Girl Scouts.  The music is very good.  Rev. Rubin Tendai is a certified Intentional Interim Minister–which means that the Obamas cannot know if the tone will change significantly when a new pastor is called.  It would be hard on them to “settle in” and then find a new pastor draws the kind of controversy of a Rev. Wright and be faced with either weathering that storm or uprooting the family to a new spiritual home, again. (Many of Obama’s critics for his sticking with Trinity UCC–the sincere ones and not just those manufacturing trouble–seem to think it easy to change church homes. It is not–especially if one has children. It’s not like joining a social club!) Rev. Leslie Dowdell-Cannon, the Senior Associate Minister, is another ordained woman–and one with ties to Chicago.  The community outreach programs include operating a Federal Credit Union for Neighborhood development through micro-credit.
  • Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, 5301 North Capitol Street, NW, is a mostly African-American congregation. I know this church and its Pastor, Rev. Graylan Haglar, some from my days as Outreach Coordinator of Every Church a Peace Church.  Rev. Haglar has been heavily involved in church-based work for racial and economic justice and was one of the strongest voices against the Iraq War.  With his long, grey beard and fiery sermons, however, it would be easy for Obama enemies to paint him with the same brush as they did Rev. Wright. Plymouth is a small congregation in a very poor neighborhood.  There is a female Associate Minister (Rev. Rebecca West, herself a powerful voice for Christ-based justice and peace work). I do not have any information about the programs for youth and children.  Security could be a problem as I can easily visualize a presidential vehicle in the parking lot attracting trouble. On the other hand, seeing the U.S. President (who looks like them) attend church in their neighborhood, could be a very important influence on neighborhood children and youth!

The other United Church of Christ congregations in the D.C. area are in Arlington and Bethesda and are mostly upscale and white.

II.  Other Possibilities Among Protestant Churches in the D.C. area:

  • Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1518 M Street NW.  The African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) is a branch of Methodism–and the first denomination founded by African Americans in America.  It was founded by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones in 1787 because of unequal treatment by the (white) Methodists of that day.  The AME has been a strong force for racial justice throughout the history of the United States:  Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Bishop Henry McNeil Turner were all 19th C. stalwarts of the AME Church.  In the 20th C., the AME’s members have included Rosa Parks, the Black Liberation theologians James Cone and Cecil Cone and the Womanist theologian, Jacqueline Grant.  Theologically and structurally, one can see that the AME is a branch of Methodism–and may even be more traditionally Wesleyan than some parts of the current United Methodist Church.  Metropolitan is considered the “national cathedral” of the AME.  I have met there many times when my social activism has brought me to D.C. because it often lends its facilities to groups promoting peace and justice–especially those that are faith based.  Metropolitan was a stop on the Underground Railroad and the great African American Frederick Douglass (featured in a stained glass window) would sometimes preach from its pulpit.  It’s current pastor is Rev. Ronald E. Braxton, about whom I know little.  Though Metropolitan is still a center of progressive causes, it would be harder for the Right to criticize it than they did Trinity–simply because all of Black America would likely react the way Catholics would at criticism of the Vatican!  There are 10 other AME congregations in the D.C. area, but they don’t have websites that I could find and I don’t know enough about any of them to comment further, except to say that a few of them have female senior pastors.
  • It’s possible that the Obamas would want to go in a completely different direction than what they knew at Trinity.  They could opt for something “established” (read “safe”), no matter how alien to African-American Christian traditions.  I hope not and I am afraid that I would probably interpret this as an unfortunate political trumping of faith, but there are many options if they go this route.  The most obvious is St. John’s Church (Episcopal), 1528 H Street, NW:  founded in 1815 specifically to give presidents a place to worship. Every president since James Madison (4th U.S. President) has worshipped here at least once.  However, St. John’s Church today is considerably more multicultural than historically and the current Rector, Rev. Luis Leon is Latino and offers a 2nd service in Spanish. (The Obamas have expressed a hope that their daughters become bilingual, fluent in Spanish as well as English. Nothing helps fluency like trying to follow a service in the second language, trust me.)   Positives: It is located just across Lafayette Park–walking distance from the White House. It has strong programs for children and youth.  It has a long history of dealing with the special needs (e.g., abrupt leaving, Secret Service details, etc.) of presidential parishioners.  People from all walks of D.C. life, from the powerful to the homeless, attend St. John’s Church, which keeps from the “out of touch bubble” that is a problem for presidents.
  • Another establishment congregation is National Presbyterian Church, 4101 Nebraska Ave., NW, regularly attended by Congressfolk, cabinet members (current Secretary of State, Condaleeza Rice, a cradle Presbyterian, worships here regularly) and Supreme Court justices.  The children’s program has over 400 kids.  However, let’s face it, National Pres. is pretty upscale and white (with a few exceptions like Condi Rice).
  • National City Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 5 Thomas Circle, NW, was the congregational home of President Lyndon Baines Johnson (D), and even has a stained glass window dedicated to Johnson highlighting the creation of Medicare and the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law. It was also the congregational home of Pres. James A. Garfield (R), a DoC minister and the only ordained minister ever to be elected to the U.S. presidency.  The Disciples of Christ are a partner denomination to the United Church of Christ.  The Obamas would probably find much in a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation that was familiar, with the exceptions of weekly communion (eucharist, Lord’s Supper) and the practice of believers’  baptism. But the congregational structure, focus on covenantal discipleship rather than creeds, and generally liberal theology (varying from congregation to congregation) would all be conducive.  National City Christian Church (DoC), is the oldest DoC congregation in the District, dating to 1843.  It has a Spanish language congregation and is multi-racial and multi-cultural. It is also very close to the White House.  The current Senior Pastor is Rev. Dr. Stephen Gentle, once a faculty member at a multi-denominational seminary in South Florida.  The Minister to the Hispanic Community (Rev. Neomi Mena) and the Assistant Minister (Rev. Beverly Goines) are both women and Rev. Goines is African-American.  The congregation has numerous outreach ministries that work with progressive causes (and more of a budget for such than some smaller churches–pluses and minuses), but the style is not so confrontational as to attract the kind of “heat” that Obama faced with Rev. Wright (one hopes–I believe the Rightwing will stop at nothing to smear Obama and try to make him ineffective).
  • Another Disciples of Christ possibility for the Obamas would be Michigan Park Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 1600 Taylor Street, NE.  This is a predominantly African-American congregation near Howard University (a historic black university, founded when segregation ruled U.S. higher education) and the pastor, Rev. Dr. Delores C. Carpenter, teaches at Howard’s Divinity School as Professor of Religious Education.  More conservative theologically than many Disciples’ congregations, it is still very progressive in its social justice work and works of compassion.  There is also a strong note at Michigan Park about developing deep habits of spiritual discipline–something any president could use, faced with the trials and tribulations that are sure to beset him and his family.
  • One commenter asks about D. C.’s famous Church of the Savior, a non-denominational church founded by former-Baptist Gordon Cosby.  C of the S is famous for it’s small group formation, it’s intense discipleship programs (one has to be deeply involved and committed before one is accepted, over time, for membership), and for keeping the connections between spirituality and social action strong.  I have ties to many C of the S folk from my days with Every Church a Peace Church, but it presents numerous difficulties for a presidential family:  Foremost is that the C of the S is organized into several small covenantal congregations scattered in storefronts across the District.  None of these congregations could easily accomodate a presidential motorcade, Secret Service, etc.  The informal nature of worship at most of these congregations, which makes them inviting to the poor, would be disrupted by a presidential presence.  I think many of the Gordon Cosby approaches of C of the S would be good for the Obamas–but I am not sure they would be good for the Church of the Savior–not while in office, at any rate.
  • Despite a primary campaign in which he repeatedly said that returning to the Clinton ’90s wasn’t good enough for the challenges of our day, Obama has incorporated not only Hillary Clinton, but numerous Clintonistas in his new cabinet and advisors.  Michelle followed her advice about schools and the girls have enrolled in Sidwell Friends School (a Quaker institution), like Chelsea Clinton before them.  So, maybe the Obamas would consider worshipping where the Clintons worshipped when in the White House–Foundry United Methodist Church, 1500 16th Street NW.  This is one of the most famous of  UMC churches from the progressive wing of the UMC.  The Clintons’ former pastor (and one of my friends from the Society of Christian Ethics), Rev. Dr. Philip J. Wogaman, is no longer there. The current pastor, Rev. Dr. Dean Snyder, is a bridgebuilder between liberal and evangelical Christians–something Obama himself has attempted.  It’s a mile north of the White House, has large childrens and youth programs and lots of social outreach–and the music incorporates both “Euro-American” Latino, and African-American styles.  The congregation is very diverse and it was one of the first UMC congregations to become a “Reconciling Congregation” (the United Methodist term for full inclusion of LGBT persons, similar to the UCC or Disciples’ “Open and Affirming” or the Baptist “Welcoming and Affirming”).
  • Jimmy Carter taught Sunday School weekly at First Baptist Church of Washington, D.C.  Baptists are notoriously divided into numerous denominations (as I should know). FBC, Washington has attempted, among other things, to bridge these divides. It is affiliated with the American Baptist Churches, USA, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc. (the smallest of the historically Black Baptist groups), and the Alliance of Baptists.  The Interim Senior Pastor is Rev. Deborah Cochran, who has been a Southern Baptist missionary.  FBC also houses the Spanish-speaking, Church of the Good News of Salvation.
  • The Obamas are not unfamiliar with Baptists (he correctly has noted that Baptists used to be the champions of church/state separation while his own tradition, the Congregationalist, supported state-supported denominations. Now those traditions have largely reversed themselves.), but have most experience with African-American Baptists.  If they consider a Baptist experience, they might do best with Calvary Baptist Church, 755 8th Street, NW.  Calvary is affiliated with the American Baptists, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and the Alliance of Baptists.  It is an ecumenical, multi-racial, multicultural Christian body.  Its pastor, Rev. Amy Butler, has written to the Obamas and invited them to attend and see if they would be a good spiritual home.  The congregation has a Hispanic and a Burmese ministry.  They are a Welcoming and Affirming congregation (indeed, have specifically advertised in the D.C. area Washington Blade, a publication of the LGBTQ community) and a partner congregation of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America (Rev. Edgar Palacios and his late spouse Amara have been especially strong peacemakers–not only with BPFNA, but with the Fellowship of Reconciliation and with Every Church a Peace Church–as I have reason to know).  Since Obama is the most tech-savvy president we’ve ever had, he’d probably appreciate Rev. Amy Butler’s blog.

Those are just a few of the many church opportunities in the Metro D.C. area.  I hope the Obamas find a good church home (and that the press leaves them alone there) during their 8 or possibly 4 years in the District of Columbia.

December 15, 2008 Posted by | Christianity, church | 7 Comments