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

Brief Reflections on Patriotism and Christian Faith

As I write this, it is already 04 July 2009. It’s Independence Day, the anniversary of the day (04 July 1776) when American colonists declared their independence from the U.K. It’s the birthday of this republic, the United States of America, although our current form of government did not set until 1790.  Throughout this land on Sunday, churches will be filled with pastors giving sermons on freedom or on “God and country,” etc. Most of them will be pretty bad. Some of them will be positively idolatrous–reducing the God of all creation to a tribal deity that somehow cares more for this nation than others–a truly blasphemous idea.

Some preachers will do better. My brother-in-law, Rev. Bill Westmoreland, a Presbyterian minister in Cincinnatti, OH, will be preaching on the differences between freedom in Christ (e.g., Gal. 5) and the individualistic, consumerist versions of “freedom” that most of the nation will celebrate this weekend.

But let’s skip the idolatrous perversions.  What of patriotism itself? Can Christians be patriots?  Some would be highly skeptical of the idea.  The great Pascal said that patriotism as love of country is a great idea but why should my love stop at an artificial border? Good question, Blaise.  Others have noted that patriotism is the last refuge (or excuse) of the scoundrel. (I am reminded of the scene from the hilarious  play and film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas where a TX Sen. was caught at the brothel–and immediately claimed that he had been drugged and kidnapped and taken there against his will by his enemies–all because they KNEW he was the fiercest anti-Communist in the Senate. Yeah, right.) Huge evil has been done in the name of patriotism–by the patriots of many nations.  Can a Christian, who believes that the saints are called out from among all nations, really be a patriot?

I think so if we define “patriotism” differently than “nationalism” or “militarism.”  Love of one’s native land is natural,  like love of one’s family.  It doesn’t have to mean hatred or contempt for others’ nations anymore than quiet pride in one’s family means the hatred of other families.  The Apostle Paul, with dual citizenship,  both bragged on his heritage as a “Hebrew of Hebrews” and on his Roman citizenship–though he knew the shortcomings of both.  The Sanhedrin would eventually arrest Paul and turn him over to Rome–where tradition says he was martyred.  So, Paul had to have a critical love of country.  It could not be the kind of blind patriotism which ignores the faults of one’s nation. It had to  point out those faults and seek to correct them.

The Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was involved in a plot to overthrow Hitler–which led to his arrest by the Gestapo and eventual execution by the Nazis.  Bonhoeffer was partially motivated by his ecumenical commitments to the church universal.  But I would contend that Bonhoeffer was a greater patriot than those “German Christians” who lavished praise on Hitler, flew Swastikas in their sanctuaries,  and supported the Third Reich’s agenda.

I would similarly claim that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–who once called the U.S. government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” to be a better patriot than the “God and country” Jerry Falwell types.  I would say that Rev. William Sloan Coffin, or Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., who were leading resisters to the Vietnam War were also patriotic Americans–genuinely so.

A Christian patriotism must be an “eyes wide open” critical patriotism that is always calling for repentence and reform. Because Christians can never forget that no nation, no government, is anywhere close to the standards of the Rule of God. Our first loyalty is to that other “kingdom” (forgive the patriarchal language,  the political meaning comes through better) which is not from this world–but which will overthrow the Powers and Authorities  of this world.  We are loyal first to the “God Revolution,” and second to the global church (the scattered People of God) and third to the whole world, in and out of the church, as God’s beloved creation. Only after that, as a lesser loyalty, can we be lovers of our own nation and government.

Nationalists and jingoists, therefore, will always find Christians to be suspect. We will not appear patriotic enough for them.  Too bad.

On a more secular note, I link to this great forum on patriotism by the online version of The Nation.

July 4, 2009 Posted by | church-state separation, citizenship, ecumenism, politics, theology | Comments Off on Brief Reflections on Patriotism and Christian Faith

Obama Nominates Judge Sonia Sotomayor to SCOTUS

SotommayorWell, I was wrong.  The conventional wisdom said that Obama would pick a Latina, adding another woman and the first Hispanic to the Supreme Court of the U.S. in one fell swoop–and the only person fitting such a description that also had the legal qualifications and experience was Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the 2nd Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals.  So, she was widely rumored as a frontrunner and the right actually began a whisper campaign against her the moment that Justice David Souter announced his retirement at the end of this term of the Supreme Court–before anyone was nominated.


But I was convinced that Judge Sotomayor was too obvious a choice.  Obama has picked surprising people to fill his cabinet posts (people are STILL surprised that he picked his arch-rival Hillary Clinton to become Secretary of State!) and, althought he has sought major diversity, has never picked just to have an affirmative action choice.  I thought he certainly wanted someone who was NOT an appellate judge, but a working politician.  So, I thought Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D-MI) of Michigan had  the inside track.  Also, despite the screams of the right, Judge Sotomayor is fairly centrist–not much more liberal  than Justice Souter whom she’d be replacing, and so I thought Obama would save her for replacing a conservative–that he would pick a strong liberal to replace Souter.

I was wrong.  Judge Sotomayor is the nominee. Obama wants her confirmed before the August recess of Congress, so that she will be ready to go when the SCOTUS begins its fall term on the first Monday in October.  I think the GOP will try to drag it out to September, but I don’t think they have the votes to block her confirmation.  She was nominated first for the federal bench by Pres. George H. W. Bush and then elevated to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals by Pres. Bill Clinton. So, Judge Sotomayor has twice been confirmed by the senate already.  Seven (7) Republican senators voted for her confirmation in ’97.  So, it will be hard to keep her off the Supreme Court.  But the Right is already trying.  The confirmation hearings will be nasty.

My one real concern is that with Sotomayor, 6 of the 9 SCOTUS justices will be Catholic.  The remaining 3 will be two Jews and one Protestant (John Paul Stevens, the oldest Justice serving).  In a country where Protestants are still a plurality, if no longer a strict majority, this is a very Catholic-dominated court.  There are 11 Catholics who have been on the SCOTUS in U.S. history–and 5 of those 11 are still serving.  This worries me some on church-state issues where Catholics have tended to support positions that I would consider violations of the 1st Amendment’s ban on all laws “respecting an establishment of religion.”  I haven’t seen an analysis of Judge Sotomayor’s church–state decisions but would like to do so. 

Obama is likely to have 1-2 more Supreme Court picks this term and, if he is reelected, at least 1 more pick in his 2nd term.  I hope the others are more liberal and are not Catholic.

Bio:  Judge Sonia  Sotomayor is 54.  Her parents came from Puerto Rico during WWII and both were working class people.  She grew up in the Bronx, NY and first became interested in the law as a girl reading “Nancy Drew” mysteries.  When she was diagnosed with childhood onset diabetes at age 8, she was told that diabetics did not have the physical stamina to become police officers or private investigators (not true). So, she became a judge.  She graduated from Princeton University in 1976 summa cum laude.  (So much for those who claim she is not intelligent!) She then graduated from Yale University Law School in 1979 after serving as editor of the Yale Law Review.  She has been a NYC prosecutor and a civil litigator for international corporations operating in the U.S.  She has been a trial judge and, when replacing Souter, will be the only member of SCOTUS who has served as a trial judge.  She has been a state appellate judge (appointed in 1991 by Pres. George H.W. Bush) and a Circuit Court appellate judge (appointed in 1997 by Pres. Bill Clinton).  Her name was previously floated as a replacement for Justice Sandra Day O’Conner when she retired from SCOTUS in ‘ 05.

This article shows convincingly that, although the rightwing noise machine will complain loudly about her nomination, they don’t have the votes to prevent her from being confirmed (or even to filibuster her nomination) –unless a major scandal would be uncovered (highly unlikely).  And Republican Senators like Mitch McConnell are on record as opposing the filibustering of judicial nominees–calling it obstructionist.  This won’t prevent them from reversing themselves now, but we can show them to be absolute hypocrites when they do reverse themselves.

Update:  The Senate Judiciary Committee  has just released its questionaire for Judge Sotomayor.  After she has filled it out, they will release her answers.  I indicated my questions for any replacement for Souter here.

May 26, 2009 Posted by | church-state separation, courts, judges, judicial philosophy, law | 24 Comments

NH Gov Seeks Way Forward on Marriage Equality/Religious Liberty

New Hampshire’s legislature has become the latest to enact legislation permitting same-sex civil marriages, after language changes that would protect the religious liberty of churches, synagogues, etc. which believe that participation would violate their deepest convictions.  Gov. John Lynch (D-NH) is set to veto this legislation because he believes the religious liberty protections are not enough.  But in a surprise move that should elate both GLBT rights advocates and champions of religious liberty, Gov. Lynch today decided not to veto the bill outright.  Rather, meeting with leaders of the legislature, he sent the bill back with  proposed amendment that, if adopted, he will sign into law.

This could be the way forward in the struggle for marriage equality.  I have been confident that the religious liberty concerns could be worked out, but doing so in advance avoids needless court cases in our already litigious society.  If it works,  NH’s law could be a model for other states where support for marriage equality is strong, but so are religious liberty concerns:  New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and even California.  When this inevitably reaches the federal level,  through the legislative repeal of the “Defense of Marriage Act” or through the courts or both, the NH “Lynch solution” may provide wisdom there, too. 

Below is the full text of Gov. Lynch’s speech, today, and the language he wants the NH law to include:

“The gay marriage debate in New Hampshire has been filled with passion and emotion on all sides.

“My personal views on the subject of marriage have been shaped by my own experience, tradition and upbringing. But as Governor of New Hampshire, I recognize that I have a responsibility to consider this issue through a broader lens.

“In the past weeks and months, I have spoken with lawmakers, religious leaders and citizens. My office has received thousands of phone calls, letters and emails. I have studied our current marriage and civil union laws, the laws of other states, the bills recently passed by the legislature and our history and traditions.

“Two years ago, we passed civil unions legislation here in New Hampshire. That law gave same-sex couples in civil unions the same rights and protections as marriage. And in typical New Hampshire fashion, the people of this state embraced civil unions and agreed we needed to continue our tradition of opposing discrimination.

“At its core, HB 436 simply changes the term ‘civil union’ to ‘civil marriage.’ Given the cultural, historical and religious significance of the word marriage, this is a meaningful change.

“I have heard, and I understand, the very real feelings of same-sex couples that a separate system is not an equal system. That a civil law that differentiates between their committed relationships and those of heterosexual couples undermines both their dignity and the legitimacy of their families.

“I have also heard, and I understand, the concerns of our citizens who have equally deep feelings and genuine religious beliefs about marriage. They fear that this legislation would interfere with the ability of religious groups to freely practice their faiths.

“Throughout history, our society’s views of civil rights have constantly evolved and expanded. New Hampshire’s great tradition has always been to come down on the side of individual liberties and protections.

“That is what I believe we must do today.

“But following that tradition means we must act to protect both the liberty of same-sex couples and religious liberty. In their current form, I do not believe these bills accomplish those goals.

“The Legislature took an important step by clearly differentiating between civil and religious marriage, and protecting religious groups from having to participate in marriage ceremonies that violate their fundamental religious beliefs.

“But the role of marriage in many faiths extends beyond the actual marriage ceremony.

“I have examined the laws of other states, including Vermont and Connecticut, which have recently passed same-sex marriage laws. Both go further in protecting religious institutions than the current New Hampshire legislation.

“This morning, I met with House and Senate leaders, and the sponsors of this legislation, and gave them language that will provide additional protections to religious institutions.

“This new language will provide the strongest and clearest protections for religious institutions and associations, and for the individuals working with such institutions.
It will make clear that they cannot be forced to act in ways that violate their deeply held religious principles.

“If the legislature passes this language, I will sign the same-sex marriage bill into law. If the legislature doesn’t pass these provisions, I will veto it.

“We can and must treat both same-sex couples and people of certain religious traditions with respect and dignity.

“I believe this proposed language will accomplish both of these goals and I urge the legislature to pass it.”

Attached is the language Gov. Lynch has proposed for the same Sex legislation.

# # #

I. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a religious organization, association, or society, or any individual who is managed, directed, or supervised by or in conjunction with a religious organization, association or society, or any nonprofit institution or organization operated, supervised or controlled by or in conjunction with a religious organization, association or society, shall not be required to provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods or privileges to an individual if such request for such services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods or privileges is related to the solemnization of a marriage, the celebration of a marriage, or the promotion of marriage through religious counseling, programs, courses, retreats, or housing designated for married individuals, and such solemnization, celebration, or promotion of marriage is in violation of their religious beliefs and faith. Any refusal to provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods or privileges in accordance with this section shall not create any civil claim or cause of action or result in any state action to penalize or withhold benefits from such religious organization, association or society, or any individual who is managed, directed, or supervised by or in conjunction with a religious organization, association or society, or any nonprofit institution or organization operated, supervised or controlled by or in conjunction with a religious organization, association or society.

II. The marriage laws of this state shall not be construed to affect the ability of a fraternal benefit society to determine the admission of members pursuant to RSA 418:5, and shall not require a fraternal benefit society that has been established and is operating for charitable and educational purposes and which is operated, supervised or controlled by or in connection with a religious organization to provide insurance benefits to any person if to do so would violate the fraternal benefit society’s free exercise of religion as guaranteed by the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States and part 1, article 5 of the Constitution of New Hampshire

III. Nothing in this chapter shall be deemed or construed to limit the protections and exemptions provided to religious organizations under RSA § 354-A:18.

IV. Repeal. RSA 457-A, relative to civil unions, is repealed effective January 1, 2011, except that no new civil unions shall be established after January 1, 2010.

May 14, 2009 Posted by | church-state separation, civil liberties, GLBT issues, human rights., religious liberty | 2 Comments

Maine Becomes 5th U.S. State to Permit Same-Sex Marriages

Gov.  John E. Balducci (D-ME) signed legislation today that puts Maine on the train of marriage equality.  With the signing of LD 1020, An Act to End Discrimination in Civil Marriage and Affirm Religious Freedom, Maine becomes the 5th U.S. State (not counting CA) to allow same-sex civil marriages and the 2nd (after Vermont) to do so by legislation rather than by decision of a state supreme court.  The ME law contained specific provisions that would protect religious groups who object to same-sex marriage from having their right to discriminate infringed, including protecting the right to refuse to use church (synagogue, etc.) property for a same-sex wedding ceremony even if the church (synagogue, etc.) was in the practice of renting out church property to non-church members for weddings.  With these provisions, the ME law takes notice of the religious liberty concerns that some people who are otherwise supportive of marriage equality had.  (I, myself, believe that these kinds of religious liberty conflicts could well have been handled by the courts in the same way that they were for interracial marriages after Loving v. Virginia in 1967, but if a law spells this out beforehand, it certainly saves time and trouble. 🙂 )

States with civil marriage equality now include Massachussetts, Connecticut,  Iowa, Vermont, and Maine.  Last year, California’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality and same-sex marriages were legal for several months, but a ballot initiative known as Proposition 8 amended the state constitution to once more restrict civil marriages to heterosexual couples.  The legality of Proposition 8 itself (opponents claim that it is  not a simple amendment, but a major revision of the California constitution and thus cannot be made by simple ballot initiative) is itself being challenged in the state supreme court, but it is widely believed that Prop. 8 will stand.  (This will not end the struggle for marriage equality in CA, but will delay it.)

Next up is probably New Hampshire.  The NH legislature has passed marriage equality legislation,but the different versions between House and Senate (one chamber includes religious liberty provisions similiar to Me) have to be reconciled  [update] and today reconciled the two versions and this afternoon sent the final version (with religious protections similar to ME)  to the governor.  Gov.  David Lynch (D-NH) is an odd duck who hasn’t said whether or not he’ll sign the law and has said that his constituents SHOULD NOT call him with their opinions!!  Legislation supporting marriage equality has also been introduced in New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, but has yet to clear committee for floor votes in any of these states. 

It looks as if New England will be the first entire region of the nation where marriage equality will be the law of the land. Iowa is the lone state outside of New England where marriage equality is legal. Iowa is deep in the heartland of the nation and if the law stands there, then it will be a bellwhether for the rest of the nation.  What is happening in New England is amazing, but marriage equality supporters need to watch continued developments in Iowa to see how fast this victory will spread outside of New England–which is the most socially liberal region of the  nation.

Cf.: By contrast, the Louisiana legislature is moving to enact legislation that would prevent same-sex couples from both having their names on the birth certificates of children.  This would apply whether or not the children were by one partner from a previous heterosexual relationship, adopted by the couple, or conceived through in vitro fertilization.  In my view, this law seems particularly cruel:  A child learns to call both parents “mommy,” or “daddy,” but only one is legally entitled to that honorific?  And the practical implications are devastating; as one example, it would all but force hospitals to discriminate against the parent that was not legally “family” in cases where all but family are isolated from the patient.  Or, if the legal parent died, this law would make it hard for the other parent to have custody–she or he would have to adopt and there would be custody battles.  This anti-family law , if passed, will hurt the children most of all.

So, one sees that the struggle for equal treatment under the law continues–and not everywhere at the same speed or even in the same direction.

May 6, 2009 Posted by | church-state separation, civil liberties, GLBT issues, religious liberty | Comments Off on Maine Becomes 5th U.S. State to Permit Same-Sex Marriages

Replacing Souter: Criteria for a Supreme Court Justice

The Constitution of the United States does not give any binding criteria of eligibility for Justices of the Supreme Court.  This contrasts strongly with the President and members of Congress in which age and citizenship requirements are spelled out (the President and VP may not be naturalized citizens).  Theoretically, anyone could be appointed to the Supreme Court–provided the Senate approves for the Constitution requires the “advice and consent” of the Senate. Usually, this has meant a simple majority unless an attempt at filibuster means that 60 senators must agree to “invoke cloture” and end debate and go to a vote.

In practice, however, Justices have always been appointed who were familiar with the law of the land.  They were expected to be lawyers who had passed the bar exam and were licensed to practice law in one or more of the respective states of the union.  After law schools became common (19th C.), all Justices were expected to have law degrees.  Sitting judges from lower courts, especially appellate courts, have formed the bulk of the Justices.  (All of the current members of the Supreme Court were appellate judges, for instance, though both Souter and Clarence Thomas had only served briefly before being nominated to the Supreme Court of the United States [SCOTUS].) But that has not always been the case.  Beginning with the first Chief Justice, John Jay (1745-1829), there have been numerous justices who spent part of their careers as working politicians.  (Jay had been President under the Articles of Confederation, prior  to the adoption of the current Constitution, as well as minister (ambassador) to France and Spain and later Secretary of Foreign Affairs (i.e., Secretary of State).  A signer of the Constitution, he was also a co-author of The Federalist Papers.   Later he was Governor of New York.) In the 20th C., such working politicians who became Supreme Court justices included William Howard Taft (previously U.S. President), Charles Evans Hughes (former governor of NY and Republican candidate for U.S. president), Earl Warren (former governor of California), and Hugo L. Black (Democratic Senator from Alabama).  There have also been numerous legal scholars at law schools and high-ranking members of the Department of Justice–especially Attorneys General and Solicitors General.  (The great Thurgood Marshall, first African-American justice, had been Pres. Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Solicitor General. The Solicitor General pleads the government’s cases before the SCOTUS.)

So, Pres. Obama has a wide array of choices before him.  The Senate favors confirming appellate judges, but Obama has said he is looking for someone with real world experience, not just academic brilliance.  So, he might incline to reviving the tradition of appointing a working politician, or someone working as legal counsel for a human rights organization or for labor or for children.  We also know he favors brilliance and he favors legal appointments whose legal degrees come from the Ivy League schools (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, ) or sometimes Chicago or Stanford.  In my view, this is a welcome change from the Bush administration’s habit of appointing legal people with degrees from fundamentalist diploma mills like Pat Robertson’s Regent University, but that Obama should work to diversify.  There are plenty of excellent legal minds which went to good law schools attached to state universities (e.g., University of Michigan) and from a much broader range of the country.  The Ivy League is excellent, but is not everything.

If I were a gambler (which I am not), I would wager a large sum that his appointment will be a woman.  We only have one woman on the Supreme Court and this is far inferior to other nations.  Further, we know from studying appellate courts that the presence of more than one female judge influences the judgments of the male judges.  Since women are 51% of this country, this imbalance is long overdue correcting. And women are nearly 60% of the Democratic Party,  so Obama will feel major pressure to appoint a woman–to say nothing of the fact that Michelle Obama, his wife, is also a Harvard-trained lawyer. 

There will also be pressure from African-Americans to appoint another African-American and from Hispanics to appoint the first Hispanic justice. (Asians and Native Americans are too small a fraction of the population to put real pressure on Obama in this way, but they will doubtless lobby for a member of one of their ethnic groups, too.)  Yet, Obama has never been the “quota” type of Affirmative-Action believer.  He has a diverse cabinet, but looked to qualifications first and foremost. (Those on the right who predicted he would fill his cabinet with African-Americans have been shown wrong. If anything, they are slightly under-represented.)

I would love to see greater diversity on the court, but my priorities are excellence, defense of civil liberties, and a tilt toward seeing the law on the side of the poor, marginalized, and weak, rather than on the side of corporations.

If I were advising the president (yeah, right), I would want someone who:

  • Believes strongly in religious liberty and church-state separation.  Membership in Americans United for Separation of Church and State or a similar group would be a huge plus.  If the nominee is a judge, I would look for opinions that represent the previous high separation standards, prior to the erosion of the wall late in the BurgerCourt and all through the Rhenquist Court and continuing so far in the Roberts Court. 
  • Believes strongly in civil liberties more broadly, especially free speech, assembly, privacy, the press.  I would want a justice that defends the civil liberties of suspects,  too, and keeps high standards for police and government agencies in the collection of evidence.
  • Is suspicious of the very idea of corporations as persons (Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, 1886) and generally favors the rights of individuals over corporations and the common good, including the ecological common good, over corporations.
  • Believes in equal justice for all regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or physical or mental disability.
  • Believes strongly in the separation of powers and checks and balances and rejects the “unitary executive” idea of Yoo and co. which makes the president an elected dictator, at least in time of war.  Strongly reserves the right to declare war to Congress as Article 1 prescribes.
  • Is more inclined to see democracy threatened by state secrets than by too much information in the hands of the people.
  • I would love a true opponent of the death penalty, no hedging, on SCOTUS, since we have not had one since Marshall’s retirement. (We never had a majority of those believing the death penalty was wrong.)  However, if this was well known, I am not sure such a person could get confirmed by the Senate.  Fortunately, abortion comes up at senate hearings far more often than the death penalty.
  • I would love someone who believes  that Article 1 of the Constitution means what it says–that ratified treaties share with the Constitution the status of “highest law of the land.”  Thus, no executive can decide that the “Geneva Conventions are outmoded and quaint”  as some of the Bush administration did.

Would such a nominee be able to be confirmed?  Hard to say. Much would depend on the person’s ability to articulately defend her or his views before the Senate.  It’s not the Republicans so much that Obama’s nominee would need to watch (now that they have only 40 seats in the Senate!), but the centrist and conservative Democratic senators who meet with Evan Bayh of Indiana.  If Obama’s nominee seems to them to be too far from mainstream legal opinion, s/he would be in trouble.  So, for instance, I think we could get a strong torture opponent, but not someone who was as outspoken against torture during the Bush years as Dawn Johsen, Obama’s yet-to-be-confirmed nominee for Deputy Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel.  Obama wouldn’t want to see such a long hold up. 

What criteria would you suggest for such a nominee?

May 4, 2009 Posted by | church-state separation, civil liberties, courts, death penalty, human rights., judges, judicial philosophy, law, torture, U.S. politics | 5 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

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

Passing of Richard John Neuhaus

Former conservative Lutheran minister turned conservative Catholic priest, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, has died.  Neuhaus’ book, The Naked Public Square, was the major ammunition of the Religious Right’s claim that church-state separation amounts to the marginalization (or even “persecution”) of Christians.  Not surprisingly, Bruce Prescott, champion of religious liberty and church-state separation, has a different reaction to this news than the conservative Catholic journal First Things

I am somewhere in the middle. While I share Bruce’s opinions about both the Theocons (theocratic conservatives) and Christian Nationalists (Neuhaus was more in this group) and the way they used Neuhaus’ book to claim that all attempts to defend religious pluralism and to prevent creeping religious establishmentarianism (de jure or de facto) were, instead, attempts to silence religious voices in public affairs, I did appreciate the tone and nuance of Neuhaus. You could debate him and dialogue with him. He was of a different character than the shrill voices of intolerance who used his book to advance their extremism–and he actually became more reasonable after his conversion to Catholicism.  Nonetheless, I hope that Fr. Neuhaus’ passing is also the passing of an era–and one I won’t miss.

I hope that even in U.S. Catholicism we see a return to defense of religious liberty for all and church-state separation–Catholic voices like that of the late Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J.

January 8, 2009 Posted by | church-state separation, Obituaries, progressive faith, religious liberty | 4 Comments

Recovering Neglected Theologians #4: James M. Dunn

A guest-post by Aaron Weaver, Ph.D. student in Religion, Politics, and Society at Baylor University’s J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies.  This post is adapted from his Baylor M.A. Thesis, “ James Dunn and Soul Freedom: A Baptist Paradigm for Political Engagement in the Public Arena.”   The son, grandson, and nephew of Baptist ministers, Aaron was a Congressional intern for the legendary civil rights leader, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and previously worked for the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty.  He also has the great personal blog, Big Daddy Weave.

 “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”[1]  This famous phrase characterizes the ministry of Baptists such as Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, John Leland and others.  In the last half of the twentieth century, James Dunn has been the loudest and most aggressive Baptist proponent for religious liberty in the United States.  Dunn is best known for his leadership as Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, an organization comprised of multiple Baptist bodies that deals solely with religious liberty issues on Capitol Hill.  Dunn’s defense of religious liberty and the separation of church and state became one of the pivotal issues in the Southern Baptist Controversy during the 1980s.  He was one of the primary targets of the “Conservative Resurgence” or “Fundamentalist Takeover” that ultimately gained control of the Southern Baptist Convention and subsequently defunded the participation of Southern Baptists in the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. 

                        James Dunn embodies and articulates a paradigm for Baptist political engagement in the public arena which is based upon the concept of soul freedom:  voluntary uncoerced faith and an unfettered individual conscience before God.  His vision of religious liberty and separation of church and state is especially rooted in the doctrine of soul freedom.  Dunn argues that soul freedom is the cornerstone that precedes and demands religious liberty and separation of church and state for all persons in the political arena.  With uncompromising intensity, Dunn defends soul freedom as the historic Baptist basis for religious liberty.  Dunn attempts to so identify with the radical component of the Baptist witness to religious liberty that Baptist historian Walter Shurden has called him a modern day “John Leland,” the eighteenth and early nineteenth century’s strongest proponent of a thoroughgoing separation of church and state.[2]

         James Dunn: A Biographical Overview

 A self-described “Texas-bred, Spirit-led, Bible-teaching, revival-preaching, recovering Southern Baptist,”[3] James Milton Dunn was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on June 17, 1932 to William Thomas Dunn and Edith Campbell Dunn.  Dunn began his educational journey in the Forth Worth public school system where he played in his high school’s eighty member symphony orchestra.  After a stint at Texas Christian University, Dunn transferred to Texas Wesleyan University where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history in 1953.  As a nineteen-year-old junior at Texas Wesleyan, Dunn accepted a “call” to vocational ministry.  Consequently, Dunn pursued graduate theological training.  His educational experience at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary began in 1953.  Dunn received his Bachelor of Divinity in 1957 and his Doctor of Theology in 1966.  While a seminary student, Dunn served Texas Baptist Churches in several ministerial roles from 1954-1961 including one four-year pastorate.[4]  Dunn finished his long educational journey in 1978 as a post-doctoral research scholar at the prestigious London School of Economics and Political Science.[5]

Dunn’s work in the arena of public policy began to flourish when he served as director of the Texas Christian Life Commission (1966-1980).  He attempted to “stir the consciences” of Texas Baptists regarding “applied Christianity.”[6]  Anchored upon the influence of T. B. Maston and J. M. Dawson, Dunn was involved in developing Baptist viewpoints on issues such as gambling, race relations, Christian citizenship, hunger, and religious liberty.  Regarding his approach, Dunn commented, “In some areas-gambling, liquor, pornography-this agency has been hardline conservative.  In others-concerns for victims of a rotten welfare system and for bilingual education-we have been wild-eyed liberals.”  Dunn was a battler:  “You could be wrong but you can’t be quiet.  You can’t just shut up and let the other forces that would hurt people have their way.”[7]

 James Dunn and Soul Freedom

 Ideas such as soul liberty and soul competency that had been trumpeted frequently in Baptist history found a home in the thought and rhetoric of James Dunn.  Dunn became the heir of Edgar Young Mullins[8] and those before him who insisted that freedom of the individual conscience and the emphasis upon direct personal experience of God without reliance upon ecclesiastical leaders were at the heart of the best of the Baptist tradition.  In fact, Dunn’s work for an unfettered conscience, religious liberty for all, and the separation of church and state was especially rooted in his understanding of soul freedom.  While prominent early twentieth century Southern Baptists E. Y. Mullins and G. W. Truett referred to “soul competency,” James Dunn again used the earlier Baptist language of “soul freedom.”  Dunn believed, like Mullins did, that soul freedom, the key distinctive of Baptists and their greatest contribution to understanding the Christian faith, was simply the freedom, ability, and responsibility of each person to respond to God for herself or himself.  This freedom implied the ability to have a personal relationship to Jesus Christ and the capacity to deal directly with God without a human mediator such as a priest or bishop.  This is a gift from God.[9]  Throughout his career, Dunn has often described soul freedom as “the fire that burns in the innards of every true Baptist.”  According to Dunn, since Thomas Helwys’ bold proclamation that “the king is not Lord of the conscience,” the hallmark of the people called Baptist is that “dogged determination to be free – free and faithful.”[10]

            For religious faith to be authentic, Dunn believes, it must be free and cannot be coerced.[11]  Citing E. Y. Mullins, Dunn declares that to deny a person direct access to God “is nothing less than tyranny.”  The influence of Mullins and The Axioms of Religion on Dunn’s thought is undeniable.  Dunn has credited Mullins with investing energy and meaning into the phrase “soul competency” and placing it at the center of a “coherent cluster of beliefs that define Baptists.”[12]  Like Mullins, Dunn also affirmed that the biblical revelation clearly pointed to the principle of soul freedom.  He also agreed with Mullins that “the voluntary principle is at the heart of Christianity” and consequently “the right of private judgment in religion is a right that lies at the core of Christian truth.”[13]  Building on Mullins’ cornerstone that religious experience was the beginning point of understanding divine revelation, Dunn asserted that soul freedom is axiomatic, a self-evident truth “that when seen needs no proof of its reality.”[14]

            Dunn believes that soul freedom is based on a biblical view of persons.  In the creation account  found in Genesis 1:26-27, God called the first humans imago Dei which presupposes freedom.[15]  Regardless of how one reads the biblical description of creation, in Dunn’s view, it clearly suggests that all humans are moral beings, capable of responding to God.[16]  According to Dunn, whatever else the classical doctrine of imago Dei means, it reveals that persons, made by God, can respond to their Creator.  “The roots of freedom are deep within the intimate personhood of God.  All true freedom is in a real sense religious freedom.  It is that which replicates the Divine in all of us that makes us response-able, responsible and free.”[17] 

Dunn’s view of soul freedom is far reaching and extends beyond personal morality and personal faith.  As the ultimate source of all modern notions of human rights, it is the cornerstone that precedes and demands religious liberty and the separation of church and state for all persons in the political arena.  It is the biblical and theological starting point from which religious liberty naturally follows.  According to Dunn, “if we all, in some serious way, replicate God, religious liberty is a moral and social inevitability.”[18]

Not surprisingly, James Dunn’s understanding of soul freedom has not been spared from criticism.  Like E. Y. Mullins, Dunn too has been accused of promoting a radical form of unbounded individualism, a faith without authority.  Nearly fifty years ago, Winthrop Hudson, an American Baptist historian, stated that “the practical effect of the stress upon ‘soul competency’ as the cardinal doctrine of Baptists was to make everyone’s hat their own church.”[19]  Other scholars have followed Hudson’s lead.  Curtis Freeman has argued that James Dunn has abused individualism even further by turning “soul competency” into “sole competency.”  Freeman claims that Dunn’s popular quip, “Ain’t nobody but Jesus goin’ to tell me what to believe,” quickly devolves into “Ain’t nobody goin’ to tell me what to believe” as the “me” becomes the exclusive arbiter of what Jesus is saying.[20]  Other scholars have made sweeping claims against the excessive individualism they find in Mullins and/or Dunn in attempts to chastise Baptists for a poor social ethic or a poor doctrine of ecclesiology.[21]

However, Dunn has repeatedly refuted the criticism of his opponents that soul freedom leads to a hyper individualistic lone-ranger Christianity.  He believes that the dichotomy of individual and community is a false one.  The choice was not one over the other, but both together.  Dunn contends that the desire for Christian community presupposes voluntary faith.  According to Dunn, “The competence of the individual before God does not demand and in fact precludes Lone Ranger religion…no matter what critics left and right may say, autonomous individualism…does not mean that everyone’s church is one’s own hat.  The longing for community and social Christianity presupposes voluntarism.  Without individual autonomy, there can be no authentic community.”[22]

One must remember that Dunn is not a systematic theologian.  He is an activist for religious liberty.  He has not written about community at length, but he has practiced it.  Dunn is no “lone ranger” Christian.  His audience is not simply Baptist individuals, but Baptist bodies (local churches and larger Baptist groups).  His writings do reveal that he believes genuine voluntary individual faith leads a believer into the life of the church.  He expects Baptists to use freedom responsibly and practice local church community.  On one occasion, Dunn applauded the early writings of Jim Wallis which advocated an intentional community of communal discipleship.  Dunn wrote, “No where have I seen a Baptist church that measures up to the vision of community held up by Wallis.  Nor have I known a Baptist church that wouldn’t be a bit frightened by his idealism, nor one that couldn’t use a good dose of it.”

            After serving as Executive-Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for 19 years, James Dunn “retired” in 1999 to his home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina where he serves as Resident Professor of Christianity and Public Policy at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, still pushing for soul freedom, religious liberty, and the separation of church and state. 



[1] Wendell Phillips, in The Home Book of Quotations, ed. Burton Egbert Stevenson (New York: Dodd & Mead, 1964), 1106.

[2] Walter B. Shurden, “James (Dunn) and John (Leland), Baptist Sons of Zebedee,” in James Dunn: Champion for Religious Liberty, ed. J. Brent Walker (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 1999), 109-122. 

[3]James M. Dunn, “Being Baptist,” in Baptists in the Balance, ed. Everett C. Goodwin (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1997), 219.


[4]John Newport, “A Texas-Bred, Spirit-Led Baptist,” in James Dunn: Champion for Religious Liberty, ed. J. Brent Walker (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 1999), 18-26. See also James Dunn, e-mail message to author, January 21, 2008.  Dunn began his professional ministerial service in 1954, serving as associate pastor at a Baptist church in Celina, Texas for a year and at First Baptist Church in Weatherford, Texas, from 1955 to 1958, and then as pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Weatherford, Texas from 1958 to 1961.  In an interview with Dunn, he noted that he was the first pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church which began with just fifty-eight members and grew to two hundred members in just three years.  The growth at Emmanuel included twenty-one baptisms. 

[5]James Dunn, telephone conversation with author,  January 21, 2008.  In 1978, Dunn was a research scholar at the London School of Economics and Political Science.  He studied economics under Ian Roxborough and the sociology of religion under Eileen Barker. 

[6]James M. Dunn, “Christian Life Commission Report,” Annual of the Baptist General Convention of Texas (Dallas, TX: BGCT Press, 1971), 93-95.

[7]Toby Druin, “Dunn – Off to Washington,” December 31, 1980, 5.

[8] Known as “Mr. Baptist,” E.Y. Mullins was a well-known Southern Baptist theologian.  Princeton Seminary’s J. Gresham Machen described Mullins as the “spokesman not merely for the Southern Baptist Church [sic] or for the Baptist churches of America, but also to a considerable extent for the Baptist churches throughout the world.” 

[9]James M. Dunn, Soul Freedom: Baptist Battle Cry (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2000), 63-65.

[10]Ibid., 67-68.

[11]James M. Dunn, “Separating church, state, good for both,” Report from the Capital 50, no. 11 (November 14, 1995): 2.

[12]James M. Dunn, “Church, State, and Soul Competency,” Review and Expositor 96, no. 1 (Winter 1999): 62.

[13]Dunn, Soul Freedom: Baptist Battle Cry, 64.


[15]Genesis 1:26-27 NRSV. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind* in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind* in his image, in the image of God created them; male and female he created them.’ ” 

[16]James M. Dunn, “The Baptist Vision of Religious Liberty,” in Proclaiming the Baptist Vision: Religious Liberty, ed. Walter B. Shurden (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 1993), 32.


[17]Dunn, Soul Freedom: Baptist Battle Cry, 7.


[18]Dunn, “The Baptist Vision of Religious Liberty,” 33. See also Dunn, Soul Freedom: Baptist Battle Cry, 65.

[19]Winthrop S. Hudson, “Shifting Patterns of Church Order in the Twentieth Century,” in Baptist Concepts of the Church, ed. Winthrop Still Hudson (Philadelphia: The Judson Press, 1959), 215.

[20]Curtis W. Freeman, “E.Y. Mullins and the Siren Songs of Modernity,” Review and Expositor 96, no. 1 (Winter 1999): 41.

[21]Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 82-115. See also John Hammett, “From Church Competence to Soul Competence: The Devolution of Baptist Ecclesiology,” Journal for Baptist Theology an Ministry 3, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 145-163. Charles Marsh cited Douglas Hudgins’ as a minister who hid behind soul freedom to avoid addressing the issue of race during the 1950s and 1960s.

[22]James M. Dunn, “Yes, I am a Baptist,” in Why I Am A Baptist: Reflections on Being Baptist in the 21st Century, ed. Cecil P. Staton Jr. (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 1999), 46-47.

August 22, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, church-state separation, human rights., religious liberty, theology | 7 Comments

Dying for One’s Country?

With the U.S. celebration of Independence Day (4 July 1776) just around the corner, I note that Australian Ben Myers has posted the following quote by Alasdair MacIntyre:

“The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf. As I have remarked elsewhere, it is like being asked to die for the telephone company.”

Alasdair MacIntyre, “A Partial Response to My Critics,” in After MacIntyre (University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), p. 303.

I have some sypathy for this view, but I find KILLING for one’s country far more problematic for Christians. And, usually, in America, when we urge someone to be willing to die for his or her country, we actually mean “be willing to KILL and/or BE KILLED for your country” (as long as that country is the U.S.A. or an “ally of the moment.”).

I said this in the comments on Ben’s site:

For Christians, “dying for one’s country” is, indeed, problematic–though my reasons for saying so are far more anabaptist than MacIntyre’s. However, FAR more problematic is the ideology of being willing to KILL for one’s country.

People who die for their country in nonviolent revolution or nonviolent defense against invasion or nonviolent defense of a nation-state’s stated values (e.g., democracy, human rights, the rule of law, etc.) against erosions and usurpations of the same are all morally admirable. Depending on the context, there may even be good, gospel-based, reasons for Christians to be willing to die in these kind of contexts–in some senses to die for their country.

However, there is zero justification for Christians to be willing to kill other human beings (persons made in God’s image; persons for whom Christ died) “in defense of their country” or anything else. To kill is to betray the gospel.


June 22, 2008 Posted by | Christianity, church-state separation, discipleship, nonviolence, pacifism, theology | 28 Comments