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

Campaign ’08 Lessons on Religion and Politics

Melissa Rogers summarizes what the U.S. presidential campaign has taught us so far about religion and politics in the U.S. today.  She lists 6 major lessons, some of them very painfully learned. Click to her site and discuss.

Myself, I hope that one major lesson that pastors learn is refuse to endorse political candidates. I hope the media learns that membership in a church does NOT equal agreement with all a pastor’s views and that attempts to cull through sermons for “gotcha” material on a candidate (unless that candidate has actively sought an endorsement) hurts the church and other members. I hope candidates learn that, although seeking the support of people of faith because one shares many of their moral views and wants to try to forge public policies that reflect those moral concerns (while also respecting church-state separation and our pluralistic society) is perfectly legitimate, one should not actively seek out personal endorsements of particular faith leaders.

Here are some other things Melissa didn’t mention that we have learned if we didn’t already know them:

One can smear a candidate by spreading the false rumor that he is a “secret Muslim.” To the detriment of U.S. citizens of Islamic faith, and to the detriment of our foreign relations with Muslim-majority nations, it has become painfully obvious that the public widely equates “Muslim” with “terrorist,” and that at least one political party (and a campaign in another?) is prepared to exploit that fear and ignorance rather than work to correct it.

The (white) media have zero grasp of liberation theologies, especially Black Liberation Theology, and most have little or no grasp of the dynamics of a black church.

Although members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) share many moral values in common with conservative evangelicals and conservative Catholics, the majority of those evangelicals and Catholics who vote Republican still think of Mormonism as a cult and will not vote for a Mormon for president.

Despite the fact that both major Democratic Party candidates showed up at Messiah College in PA for a Faith and Compassion forum hosted by CNN (which was very intelligent and informative, much so than the Democratic “debate” a few days later), and the GOP candidate boycotted it, a plurality of white evangelicals still seem poised to vote for GOP candidate as “more Christian.” (I don’t understand this, but I didn’t understand the evangelical abandonment in 1980 of a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher who tried to let his faith influence public policy on many issues for a divorced Hollywood actor who drank like a fish, almost never attended church, and whose knowledge of Christianity seemed limited to reading Hal Lindsey!)


June 2, 2008 Posted by | church-state separation, U.S. politics | 5 Comments

Book Review: Thy Kingdom Come

Continuing my reviews of “big picture” books I read during my blogging hiatus, I come to Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America by Randall Balmer. I had wanted to read this since it was published in early 2006 and I heard Balmer interviewed on Bruce Prescott’s Oklahoma-based radio show, “Religious Talk.”  Subtitled, “An Evangelical’s Lament,” Thy Kingdom Come is just that, a lament by a lifelong U.S. evangelical Christian of the way that the white evangelical subculture has become captive to the political rightwing.

Balmer is now an ordained Episcopal priest, but he was raised in the Evangelical Free Church, a denomination begun by Scandinavian immigrants in the 19th C. that was formed around Pietist impulses and with a low-church, congregational polity similar to my own Baptist background.  He is a graduate of Trinity College (Now Trinity International University), which, along with Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL, is a major influential institution among U.S. white evangelicals.  Balmer, who has a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University, has for many years taught American religious history at Barnard College (Columbia University) in New York, where he has concentrated on changes in white evangelicals and on the intersection of faith and politics. (His latest book, which I have yet to read, is God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the U.S. Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. He is planning a book on Jimmy Carter.)

Thy Kingdom Come shows the dangers of the Religious Right in great detail. The chapter, “Where Have All the Baptists Gone?” made me very sad since it accurately described the role of my tradition, the Baptists, in creating and defending the U.S. tradition of religious liberty and church-state separation–a proud tradition. But, as Balmer shows, that tradition has been abandoned by most Southern Baptists, who now work to overturn it and at least turn the U.S. govt. into an institution that favors (evangelical) Christianity and gives it all kinds of legal privileges (while making those of other faiths or no faith into 2nd class citizens) and, in some cases, actually tries to promote a theocracy. 

Balmer holds out some hope at the end as he notes that fissures have begun among white evangelicals over environmentalism or “creation care.”  The Right thinks the very notion of care for the environment is a New Age plot, but more white evangelicals disagree.  This book was written in 2005. Since then, those fissures have grown into real cracks. After years of siding with those who call global warming a hoax, recently even the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution repenting of this stance and urging action to slow and reverse catastrophic climate change.  Most recently, the Baptist Center for Ethics (which is associated more with centrist and progressive Baptists than with the Right) composed a document urging the U.S. Senate to pass the strongest possible bill on climate change. The document was signed by 140 Baptist leaders from around the nation and from several different Baptist denominations.  Other parts of the evangelical community are taking similar actions, despite continued opposition from leaders of the Religious Right.

I disagree with those who claim that the Religious Right’s power was broken in 2006 with the deaths of Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy and the 2006 mid-term elections. As Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Baptists repeatedly says, the death of the Religious Right has been announced repeatedly since it first arose in the late 1970s and, like in a zombie movie, it just keeps rising from the grave.  But it is true that there have been far more cracks and fissures in the Religious Right coalition since Balmer wrote Thy Kingdom Come.  We have a seen a resurgence in the Religious Left and the Religious Center (including the Evangelical Left and Center), along with continued increase in American religious pluralism. Plus, largely in reaction to the Right, we have seen a slew of bestselling books by “angry atheists” and a reassertion of the values of secularism. (I believe that govt. should be secular. Whether or not society is secular is up to the free choice of the people. If persons of any particular faith cannot persuade members of society to faith, they have no right to ask for government aid in the matter.)

So, I think the immediate threat is less grave than when Balmer wrote this book. But that could change at any minute and the dimensions of the threat, to both vibrant Christianity and the American experiment, are real. This is a very important book well worth reading.  Go to your bookstore or library today.

May 1, 2008 Posted by | church-state separation, evangelicals, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Mercer Ethicist Dave Gushee on U.S. Evangelicals in Politics

David P. Gushee is a friend of mine who is somewhat more conservative than I am theologically and politically–but not in any extreme sense. We are almost the same age (I’m slightly younger) and Dave is, like me, a former student of Glen Stassen.  Dave then did a Ph.D. at Union Theological Seminary under Larry Rasmussen, a Lutheran expert on Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer–as well as ecological ethics and the role of Scripture in Ethics.  Dave tried to work with the fundamentalist Mohler administration at post-takeover SBTS before needing to leave for several years at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.  Now, he has recently joined the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University– a context in which I am sure he’ll thrive.

Dave shares my commitment to gender equality, but does not share my views on GLBT inclusion. (I’ll keep working on him.) He shares my strong commitment to Jewish-Christian dialogue and is beginning to add Christian-Muslim dialogue to that. He is deeply committed to a 2-state solution in Palestine-Israel for Middle East peace although I sometimes think he is too trusting of the Israeli government’s view of things. But Dave is definitely NOT one of those knee-jerk evangelicals who think the gov. of Israel can do no wrong and who support wiping out Palestinians or permanent occupation of the territories.

Dave is a Just War Theorist, unfortunately, but he is an honest and strict JWTer who opposed the Iraq war and opposes the Bush doctrine of preemption.

Dave is deeply committed to human rights, and started Evangelicals for Human Rights to work on abolitioning torture, beginning with the U.S. 

Dave and I mostly agree on church-state matters, although I think I am slightly more of a separationist than he is.  But in a very important article in USA Today, Dave takes most U.S. evangelicals to task for the way they have turned the majority of U.S. evangelicalism into a religious wing of the Republican Party–something that should not be done with ANY Party or ideology.  Read Dave and show this to other U.S. evangelicals.  It’s that important. The integrity of the church in these United States is at stake.

January 14, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, church-state separation, citizenship, evangelicals, U.S. politics | 5 Comments

Religion and the 2008 U.S. Presidential Race

Article 6, clause 3 of the U. S. Constitution says, “The Senators and Represenatives before mentioned, and the members of the several State legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”  That sounds clear enough.  Whether one is an evangelical Christian, an Orthodox Jew, an atheist, an agnostic, a Muslim, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, a Roman Catholic, a liberal Protestant, a Reform Jew, a member of the Church of Christ, Scientist, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a believer in one of the Native American traditional religions, a Rastafarian, a Bahai’i, a Unitarian, etc., there can be no hindrance to serving in any public office including the U.S. Presidency.  So, why are we talking so much about the faith of presidential candidates in 2008?

Several reasons:  1) Article 6 forbids any official, government administered religious test for public office.  Unlike many of the European governments (and the governments of the colonies/states) that the Framers knew at the time the U.S. Constitution was ratified, public office cannot be restricted to members of any official church, etc. Nor can candidates be made to sign statements claiming to believe in the Trinity or any other doctrinal matters.  Nothing in the official process forces any candidate for office even to discuss his or her personal faith (or lack thereof) and, in various periods of our nation’s history, many candidates have simply kept such matters to themselves.  Thomas Jefferson was a Deist; John Adams and John Quincy Adams were Unitarians; Abraham Lincoln, though raised in a Baptist home, was never baptized and never joined any church.  Richard Nixon was raised as a Quaker and never officially severed connections with his home Meeting, but he did very un-Quaker things such as join the army as a lawyer and later enlarge and expand wars–and his religious practice seemed to consist of hanging around with Billy Graham, reading Late Great Planet Earth, and, toward the end of his presidency, while blind drunk and paranoid about his enemies, forcing Sec. of State Henry Kissinger, a very secularized, non-practicing Jew, to pray with him on his knees.  2) But nothing in the Constitution forbids the U.S. voting public from adopting unofficial religious tests for office or from making a candidate’s religion into a campaign issue.  That was done at least as far back as the presidency of Thomas Jefferson–whose reelection campaign was plagued by challenges from some conservative Christians because of Jefferson’s reputation as “an unbeliever.”  Further, although this nation is not “Christian” in any official sense, the majority of its citizens claim some form of Christian faith and, through much of U.S. history, what might be called the “public culture” of the nation included an assumed “pan-Protestantism.” Thus, the religious convictions of non-Protestants have usually been given the most public scrutinty.

Now, while this is legal (what could possibly force voters to abandon any kind of religious litmus test they want to administer in the privacy of a voting booth?), I have never considered it wise.  On this issue, I stand with Martin Luther who said, “I would rather be ruled by a wise Turk [i. e., a Muslim] than a foolish Christian.” I agree with John Wesley (at least, the quote is attributed to Wesley) when he said, “If I am drowning, I would rather be noticed by a burglar who can swim than a bishop afraid of water!”  Christian faith does not automatically confer special governing wisdom on all Christian politicians.  Should one’s faith influence one’s politics? Of course! But not in the sense of refusing to offer reasons for public policies that are accessible to others who do not share one’s faith. (I.e., My faith convinces me that the death penalty is wrong and if I were president, I might introduce an Amendment to the Constitution that outlaws the death penalty. But if I wanted that Amendment to pass Congress and be ratified by enough state legislatures, I could not simply cite my faith as the reason. I would have to come up with arguments that others–both non-Christians and Christians who do not share my conclusions about the death penalty–could accept.) Nor in any sense that one’s faith makes one citizen a better American than another.

Americans have not always lived by this wisdom. When Al Smith (1873-1944), the hugely popular 4 term governor of New York, became the Democratic nominee for president in 1928, he was the nation’s first Irish-American and Catholic presidential nominee.  Fears of Catholicism (then a minority religion in the U.S.–unlike now), and of the pope ruling the U.S. from the Vatican, were used shamefully to defeat Smith–instead of honest debate about the issues.  In 1960, Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) defused similar fears by means of a famous speech before a meeting of Protestant ministers in Houston, TX in which Kennedy strongly affirmed the absolute separation of church and state.  In 1976, Jimmy Carter, an evangelical Baptist with a sister who was a famous Pentecostal evangelist, and who was not shy about his faith, went before an audience of Catholics, Jews, and others and said the same thing–reminding folks that the Baptist tradition has traditionally been deeply supportive of church-state separation. (Later, evangelicals who wanted Carter to act theocratically abandoned him when he was true to his word.)

Then, beginning in 1980, the Religious Right (fundamentalist Christians and a small number of far-right Jews) became a major force in U.S. politics and began the bad practice of declaring one candidate or another (always a conservative Republican) as “God’s candidate.”  That culminated in the presidency of George W. Bush who, although he has apparently not paid much attention to the social teachings of his own United Methodist Church, has invoked his faith and God more than any other president in our history–even claiming that God told him to invade Iraq!!

Some things have changed for the better:  No Catholic candidate today has to worry about giving a JFK speech.  Among the GOP presidential candidates, New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani is Roman Catholic.  In the Democratic field, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE), Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), and Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM) are all Roman Catholics. It has been a non-issue in the campaign.  Even when then-Democratic Sen. Joe Liebermann (CT), a devout, practicing Jew, was the VP nominee in 2000, very little was said about his religion–it certainly wasn’t seen as a major hurdle in the campaign.

On the other hand, the faith of presidential candidates has become a major focus in 3 cases: 2 Republican and 1 Democratic.  The Democrat is Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), an adult convert to Christianity and a longtime member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.  His faith has become an issue because of a major smear campaign by the far right–trying to paint Obama as a “secret Muslim” “trained in a madrassah” (an Islamic religious school) during his childhood in Indonesia.  These rumors have been repeatedly shown to be false, but have continued to be repeated on Fox News (“Fixed Noise”) and far right blogs like the infamous Drudge Report.  For the record, Obama’s father was a secularized Muslim from Kenya who, by adulthood was agnostic. Obama’s mother, a white woman from Kansas, came from a secular home and religion was given little priority. Her second husband, Obama’s stepfather, was a lukewarm Muslim who was semi-practicing.  The school Obama attended in Indonesia was not a Madrassah, but a state-run school with a secular curriculum.  Nor should anything be made of Obama’s middle name, “Hussein,” which is common in countries with large Muslim populations since Hussein was the name of a famous Shi’ia holy figure.  Obama is Christian–but if he were Muslim that should not be any obstacle to his being president of the U.S. Read article 6 again. 

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee(R)’s religion is an issue because of two things: He is an ordained Baptist minister who, unlike Pat Robertson, has not resigned his ordination before running for public office; and he makes his conservative evangelical faith a major part of his outreach–raising theocratic fears among some.  For instance, Huckabee’s Iowa TV commercials call him a “Christian leader,” which is questionable (he is not a major theologian, nor any kind of influential minister, etc.), but also sounds divisibly sectarian to some. (Imagine what the reaction would be if a Jewish candidate ran an ad saying to vote for him because he was a “Jewish leader.”)  Huckabee sounds in many ways like the compassionate conservative that G. W. Bush falsely claimed to be. There is much about him to admire (I reserve to a different post saying what I DON’T like), but he seems to many, including myself, to play fast and loose with church-state separation.

Finally, religion is most central in the campaign of former Mass. Gov. Willard “Mitt” Romney (R), because Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints–a Mormon. Morman’s depart in many ways from historic, mainstream Christianity and many conservative Christians consider them a cult. But those conservative Christians are part of the crowd Romney needs to secure his nomination and even the White House.  So, today he tried to give a Mormon version of the JFK speech of 1960. To Romney’s credit, he did not try to discuss theology (even though that’s the problem many evangelicals have with him)–something that is not a matter of public concern. He is running for the U.S. presidency, not chief theologian.  He also said many things that seemed to reinforce the U.S. tradition of church-state separation. Unfortunately, he then switched to claiming that “faith is essential for freedom” and that Americans without belief in God are second class citizens who cannot be trusted with public office.  When combined with his previous statements that he would refuse to have Muslims in high ranking cabinet posts, this seems to want to shoe-horn Mormonism into “Mainstream American Civil Religion” and then claim that it is “us vs. them,”–the evil Muslims and atheists and agnostics. Mitt, you’re no JFK.

December 6, 2007 Posted by | church-state separation | 5 Comments

McCain: Constitution Establishes America as “Christian Nation!”

In an interview for Belief.net, Sen. John McCain (R-NV), a candidate for U.S. president, claims that the Constitution of the United States establishes the country as a “Christian nation!”  Needless to say, most Constitutional scholars would disagree with this and church-state separationists should worry about a McCain presidency.  In the same interview, McCain says that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is a “non-issue” (though most mainline and evangelical Christians consider Mormanism to be a cult), but that he would object to a Muslim president (not that any Muslims are currently running).  That seems to violate Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution which forbids any religious tests for public office!

It’s hard to tell how serious McCain is about this.  The man who castigated Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in 2000 as “agents of intolerance” has tried to reinvent himself for this campaign as someone more acceptable to the Religious Right.  Whereas previously, he had emphasized lifelong membership in the Episcopal Church (the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion), he has recently been claiming membership in a Baptist church–though never baptized as an adult, which is usually a prerequisite for church membership for Baptists.  This Belief.net interview seems to be more of the same re-packaging.

But constituencies such as the Religious Right do not merely have to be wooed in campaigning, once in office, they must see evidence that their trust in you was justified.  So those of us who believe for theological reasons that the very idea of a “Christian nation” is unbiblical have reason to be worried.  So do those who are members of other faiths (e.g., Jews, Muslims, Buddhists) or no faith (agnostics, atheists).  What violations of the First Amendment’s ban on laws “respecting an establishment of religion” could we expect in a McCain presidency?  Continuation of Bush’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives wherein tax dollars are used for religious purposes? Probably.  But what else?  And would non-Christian believers find McCain violating the First Amendment by restricting their “free exercise” of religious faith and practice?

In the Belief.net interview, McCain’s views on Islam seem to reinforce the view that the so-called “war on terror” is actually a religious war on Islam–a view that makes it harder for us to get cooperation with Muslims in tackling terrorist groups.

A McCain presidency seems risky, to say the least, to this Leveller–for whom church-state separation is a religious imperative.

September 30, 2007 Posted by | church-state separation, U.S. politics | 2 Comments

Decline of the Religious Right?

It is plain that the Religious Right (that group of ultra-Conservative Christians who push for rightwing politics, usually in a “Christian Nation” ideology and sometimes with theocratic-leaning impulses) has lost ground since 2004. (The decline is noticeable in the inability of even RR leaders to unite around any one GOP presidential candidate.)  I am NOT claiming that it is dying or dead.  The death of the Religious Right has often been predicted since 1980 and each time the funeral was premature.  But, at the very least, it has lost momentum and this might herald a decline if trends continue.

What factors have led to this apparent decline?  Without claiming scientific or exhaustive precision, I think the following factors have brought this loss of momentum and, if they continue, will end the influence of the Religious Right for some time.

  • Increasing pluralism in the U.S. population.  This demographic trend started long ago and shows no signs of letting up, which may be why so many in the Right are anti-immigration.  The U.S. is now home to numerous religions, more every day.  I live not in New York City, Chicago, L.A. or Orlando, but in Louisville, KY–a medium sized city at the intersection between the Old South and the Mid-west.  Louisville was never completely the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant enclave that such a geography would suggest.  Catholics helped to settle Kentucky in the 18th C. when they were still a small minority in the nation at large. And Louisville has had a strong Jewish community since the mid-19th C.  But today we have enough Muslims for 2 mosques.  We have a Buddhist temple.  There are Wiccans, Hindus, and others:  3 Unitarian churches; a Friends Meeting, a Women-Church gathering, and more.  All this in a city that has a large (and, since 1994, fundamentalist) Southern Baptist seminary, a Presbyterian seminary, 2 Catholic universities, and is the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church, USA.  The largest mosque in the nation is in IOWA.  Think how diverse the major metropolitan areas of the country are! And that diversity is growing and penetrating even to the rural communities of the South and the Mid-West.  If trends continue, Christians of all denominations may soon be a plurality rather than a true majority in the U.S.A.–which makes theocracy harder to impose, to say the least.
  • Aging and passing of Religious Right leaders.  Jerry Falwell is dead and the Moral Majority disbanded.  D. James Kennedy had died quite recently.  The Televangelism scandals of the ’80s dethroned Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggert from positions of leadership.  Pat Robertson’s syndicated TV show still reaches millions, but his influence has been in sharp decline since his failed run for the U.S. presidency in 1996.  No one mentions Donald Wildmon, Phyllis Schafly, or Gary Bauer anymore.  The only one of the first generation of Religious Right leaders to still be in full swing is James Dobson, once simply a Nazarene psychologist with conservative parenting tips and he is aging and seems to be losing influence.  There are, of course, newer leaders such as Richard Land (of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) and R. Albert Mohler, Jr. (who is my age and has destroyed my alma mater with his presidency of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary),but they don’t seem to have the clout that the previous bigwigs did.
  • The following generations of conservative evangelical pastors do not seem as interested in following in the Falwell & Co. shoes. Even conservative mega-church pastors like Rick Warren are not using that influence in the same way.
  • This goes hand-in-hand with the broadening of moral concern among Evangelicals and Catholics in the U.S.  Abortion and “homosexuality” are still concerns for the majority of both groups, but attempts to maintain these issues as the only valid moral concerns in political elections seem to have failed.  Evangelicals and Catholics are now the biggest swing groups in the country–neither Party can automatically count on their votes. They are concerned with environment (few are still calling Global Warming a hoax), with universal health care, especially for children, with war and peacemaking, with torture, with the growth of private prisons, etc.
  • Probably aided by the spector of violent religious fanaticism among some Islamic groups, American citizens have begun noticing similarities in spirit (and sometimes, as in abortion clinic bombings, in action) among Christian fanatics.  This is producing an aversion to religious extremism and an appreciation for secular, religiously-neutral, democratic government.  The secular parts of the U.S. heritage are being celebrated by many. (Susan Jacoby got in on the ground floor with her book, Freethinkers, highlighting the heritage of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, H. L. Mencken, and others.)  The exteme edge of this is the U.S. part of the “angry atheists” publishing boom as a series of famous atheists and skeptics in the U.K., Australia, and North America blame religion for everything.  I am not a fan of the angry atheists and I think if their noisy anger continues they could trigger a backlash of sympathy for the Religious Right–which thrives on a false sense of persecution. But all these angry atheistic books becoming bestsellers does show a broader disenchantment with religious fanaticism.
  • At the same time, there has been revival among what might be called the Religious Center and Religious Left.  The re-emergence, particularly, of an Evangelical Left (eclipsed since 1980) contributes to the decline of the Religious Right–at the very least by giving the public more spiritual options than skepticism or fanaticism.
  • Prominent Democrats have been more vocal about their personal faith (and some Republicans like Fred Thompson have admitted being lukewarm churchgoers and uninterested in speaking about religion) which has, at least, lessened the Right’s propaganda line that the GOP is “God’s Only Party.”

  There may be other factors, too. Tell me if you think of any.

Now, please remember that any of these things could change (although the first one is unlikely to change). The Religious Right still is trying to accomplish things I don’t consider helpful for either the church, the nation, or the world:  Such as Al Mohler’s campaign to have a mass Christian exodus from the public schools–or even the dismantling of public education altogether.  Such campaigns must be opposed. We cannot simply ignore the Religious Right.  Every time centrists and liberals have tried the “ignore them and they’ll fade away” strategy in the last 30 years, the Religious Right has come roaring back and done great harm.

But these trends have given a space for other, more helpful, forces such as the reinvigoration of the Religious Center and the Religious Left.  If we take advantage of this breathing space, it is possible that a rich and plural civic life will flourish.  I think that is the kind of opportunity offered by groups like The Interfaith Alliance (with its Walter Cronkite Faith and Freedom Awards) and by resources like the Baptist Center for Ethics’ Golden Rule Politics DVD.  I hope many more such campaigns flourish.

September 14, 2007 Posted by | church-state separation, progressive faith | 20 Comments

“Golden Rule” Politics

The Baptist Center for Ethics, an independent think-tank and resource center for churches which is most famous for it’s web-related publications at EthicsDaily.com, has produced a new DVD and downloadable discussion guide called “Golden Rule Politics: Reclaiming the Rightful Role of Faith in Politics.”  If you double-click on the embedded video clip, you will see an introductory trailer for this DVD, hosted by BCE’s Executive Director, Robert Parham (provided that your internet service provider connection is broadband or DSL; dialup connections are too slow for such links).    You can read more about the DVD and order it, here.  The price is only $20 which includes the rights for public showings.  I plan on purchasing the DVD and showing it at my church. (I go to a progressive, engaged, church which doesn’t need to be reminded to bring faith to politics, but might need reminding, from time to time, not to become a mirror on the Left of the Religious Right.)

This DVD assumes a U.S. framework. It might be adaptable for other contexts, especially other democratic contexts, but it would probably be better if similar groups to the BCE outside the U.S. looked at a resource like this and then created a new one for Canada or the U.K., France, Mexico, Australia, etc.

September 4, 2007 Posted by | church-state separation, citizenship, human rights., politics, progressive faith | 1 Comment

Christian Leaders Should Not Endorse Political Candidates

Bruce Prescott has an excellent article on this here. He clearly shows that the refusal of ministers and other Christian leaders to endorse particular candidates does NOT prevent them as individuals from “engaging in the political process” as some have contended.  This appears to be about the debate between Chuck Curry and Welton Gaddy, but others Prescott names (e.g., Gene Robinson), and some he does not name (e.g., Bob Cornwall) are just as guilty as Curry in crossing this line. 

I will raise the issues–even from the pulpit if given the opportunity.  I will compare and contrast candidate positions on this blog and indicate which ones I believe closer to biblical views (on those issues), while insisting that no single issue is “God’s issue.” I will praise politicians (even ones I generally dislike overall) when I think they are doing something good. I will publicly dissent or even rebuke politicians when I think they are doing something wrong or unwise (even if I generally like them or think privately that they are a better choice than their rivals).  Since neither my wife or myself are currently on a church staff or the staff of a Christian organization, once I figure out which presidential candidate I am voting for, I will put said person’s sign in my yard (which I would not do if either or us were employed by a church or Christian organization).  As Bruce says, I may staff a phone bank, or pass out literature–without relating anything about my faith or my vocation.  But because this is a theology blog, I will not endorse any particular candidate or party–because the Christian faith is not to be identified with any party, ideology, or candidate.  Also, the church is not to become a special interest lobby or a cheerleader for the state or any party.

For ministers or bishops or church leaders of any kind to endorse candidates is to cross the line.  Don’t do it.

August 3, 2007 Posted by | church-state separation | 4 Comments

Gushee on Christian Leaders and Politics

My friend David P. Gushee, finishing his tenure as Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University in Jackson, TN is about to begin a new venture as Professor of Christian Ethics, McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University, Atlanta, GA. (Hat Tip to Aaron Weaver and Melissa Rogers for this news.)  Dave has just written a provocative article for the Jackson Sun listing 17 “rules” for “Christian Leaders” regarding political involvement. (Hat Tip to Bruce Prescott.)  He defines “Christian Leaders” broadly to include pastors, youth ministers, missionaries, evangelists, leaders of parachurch organizations that are not registered lobbies, theologians and professors of Christian ethics, among others.

 (One question to ask in the following reflections is whether Dave has defined “Christian leaders” too broadly. What about the town councilwoman who is also an Elder in her local Presbyterian church? Does this mean that a Baptist deacon body cannot include any registered lobbyists? When Jimmy Carter was U.S. president, should he have quit teaching Sunday School?)

Dave has the U.S. scene in mind and has proposed these “rules” (some are actual legal requirements if churches expect to stay within the IRS tax codes as non-profits, but others are non-legal suggestions) as a way to counter the toxic partisan politicization of the gospel in the U.S.  I leave it to those in different contexts to judge how much or how little applies in their own context–I think quite a bit would apply in any constitutional democracy–and some even wider.  I list Dave’s rules as he wrote them, but then I will ask questions about a few that may need modification, even though I agree with his overall perspective.

1. Christian leaders must not officially or unofficially endorse political candidates or a political party.

I completely agree with this one.  I also think the pattern, common in Europe, of naming certain political parties with the word “Christian” in them is a bad idea.  It gives the impression that Christians should only join party X–even if party Y or Z has a platform more in keeping with biblical principles as one understands them.  In the U.S. far too many conservative Christian leaders have tried to make it sound as if Christians must be registered Republicans.  A few (very few) Christian leaders have tried to do the same with the Democratic or Green or (rarely) Socialist parties.  As I have said before, political parties are all flawed and while one or more may, at a given time and place, be more in line with gospel values than another, this is likely to be transient and Christians should be of independent spirit even if registered as a member of one party or another.  No candidate or party should ever think they have a “lock on the Christian vote,” as if we were just one more special interest group.

2. Christian leaders must not distribute essentially partisan or single-issue voter guides that purport to be apolitical or nonpartisan.

I’m on board here.

3. Christian leaders must not publicly handicap or comment upon the political horse race.

I’m not as certain here, at least not as broadly as Dave has defined “Christian Leader.”  Of course, my hesitation may have to do with the fact that I did handicap the upcoming presidential race a few months back.  None of us likes to think we have screwed up, and I certainly wouldn’t have done this if were (currently) on a church staff or employed as religion faculty, or still employed by Every Church a Peace Church, etc.  Does having a religion and politics blog make one a “Christian leader?”  What do you think? I understand Dave’s concern, here. Such public “handicapping” can influence support for a candidate based on whether so and so thinks s/he can win, rather than on the issues.  Also, under the guise of handicapping chances, a minister or other religious leader could actually be endorsing a particular candidate.  Hmm.  Should I refrain from further handicapping to be on the safe side??

4. Christian leaders must not provide private or public advice to particular politicians, parties or campaigns concerning how they can strategize in order to win evangelical or Christian votes.

I am definitely on board here. I have privately rebuked a few fellow theo-bloggers for this and am not happy with UCC minister Chuck Currie for playing this kind of role with a particular candidate–even though I largely agree with Currie and like much about the candidate he is advising.  Giving politicians, parties, or candidates moral advice on e.g., items of social justice and/or making them aware of the concerns of a certain faith-group about issue X is one thing.  Teaching said pol how to “woo” those voters is another–it is a form of nationalist seduction with the “Christian leader” in the role of pimping out his or her segment of the church!

5. Christian leaders must not calibrate their public teachings or writings in order to affect the outcome of political elections or to gain and hold the support of politicians.

This is a strong temptation that REALLY needs to be resisted.  Suppose candidate X is “pro-choice” on abortion and minister Y is pro-life.  Minister Y may believe that, overall, candidate X is the best candidate on the full range of issues and want said candidate to win over candidate Z who is vocally “pro-life,” but seems to stop caring about human life once it has left the womb.  Nevertheless, Minister Y should not cease his or her preaching a pro-life position in order to help candidate X win.  Same with many other issues.  Once in office, too, politician X should be confronted with the full range of moral concerns–including the ones s/he doesn’t share.

6. Christian leaders must not attend political rallies or campaign events of one candidate or party unless they are prepared to attend rallies and events of all candidates and parties.

This seems overly broad, given Dave’s very broad definition of “leaders.”  I can see this rule for pastors and for famous Christian leaders, but for the more obscure, I would make a distinction between attending the rally as just part of the crowd and attending as a platform speaker–clearly an endorsement.  Last year, I went to a rally for then-candidate John Yarmuth (now the freshman U.S. Rep. from KY’s 3rd district) with my daughter (12) who is very interested in a future in politics.  Barack Obama, not a presidential candidate at the time, was the keynote speaker and I thought the experience would be both exciting and educational. No one knew we were there, nor was our presence any kind of “Christian endorsement,” so I felt no compulsion to go to a similar rally for then-incumbent Rep. Anne Northup–the only elected official I have ever had who NEVER, not even once, voted the way I asked her too.  But this rule does make sense for those on church or para-church staffs.

7. Christian leaders must not invite political candidates to speak in church pulpits or on church grounds unless they are prepared to invite all political candidates of all parties to do so.

Agreed.  In fact, without such a “come one, come all” rule, the church in question is in danger of losing its tax-exempt status. But I would go further and say that it is a bad idea to allow a sitting politician or candidate to speak in pulpits or on church grounds. I don’t like it when the Religious Right does it, and I don’t like it when Democrats use (mostly African-American) pulpits to show how concerned for racial justice they are. There are other venues.

8. Christian leaders must not identify the potential or actual victory of any politician as a victory for God or God’s kingdom.


9. Christian leaders must limit their direct contact with politicians or staff in order to avoid even the appearance of undue loyalty or involvement.

This rule would seem less necessary in other contexts, but given the extreme politicization of the U.S. churches since c. 1980, this is good.  Of course, Christian leaders still have the right to petition leaders like any other citizen and they might want to voice concerns, but if they are regularly seen in circles of power that will give the appearance of being part of a “kitchen cabinet,” or of being a lobby, etc.

10. Christian leaders must not engage in voter registration campaigns or get-out-the-vote efforts aimed at mobilizing the voters of one political party rather than another.

The last clause in this sentence is key.  Voter registration per se is a good thing.  Partisan mobilization, as if the churches were part of the grassroots efforts of party x or politician y, threatens the integrity of the gospel.

11. Christian leaders must not direct the funds of their churches or organizations toward direct or indirect support for a particular political candidate or party.

In fact, this is illegal in the U.S. context, although it happens more often than one would believe. 

12. Christian leaders may not sidestep these rules by drawing a distinction between their activities as a “private individual” over their service in their public role.

This one I think may depend on how broadly one defines “Christian leader.” But definitely pastors, para-church officials, and the like are far too identified with the church to be able to make a public/private distinction credible.  When I was a pastor, I would not even tell my congregation to which party I belonged–although I had no problem discussing ISSUES from the pulpit.

13. Christian leaders must offer Christian proclamation related to that large number of public issues that are clearly addressed by biblical principles or direct biblical teaching.

Dave’s point here is a warning against reducing our moral teachings that have political implications to one or two “hot button” issues.  Abortion is a moral issue–but so are nuclear weapons.  Justice for the poor is talked about more from Genesis to Revelation than probably any other moral issue–but it doesn’t get the “air time” in many Christian circles than others with much less biblical support.

14. Christian leaders must encourage Christian people toward active citizenship, including studying the issues and the candidates and testing policy stances and candidates according to biblical criteria.

Just because Christian leaders don’t endorse parties or candidates doesn’t mean we should encourage apathy or quietist withdrawal. We want to equip folks so that they will be able to discern the leading of the Spirit themselves.

15. Christian leaders must model and encourage respectful and civil discourse related to significant public issues as well as political candidates.

The erosion of civil discourse has long been noted and is now at a half-century low.

16. Christian leaders must model and encourage prayer for God-ordained government, its leaders and their policies.

One can, as my friend Thom, following John Howard Yoder, does, question whether God “ordains” government or simply “orders” it, uses it pragmatically.  That is a valid exegetical and theological debate. But there should be no debate over the many biblical commands to pray for leaders (whether we like them or not).  Failure to do so is simple disobedience to God.

17. Christian leaders must teach and model respect for the constitutional relationship between religion and the state as these are spelled out in the First Amendment.

In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., the church is not to be the master of the state, nor the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state.  The early champions of church-state separation, such as Roger Williams, did not believe such foolishness as “religion and government have nothing to do with each other.” Rather, they held (rightly, in my view) that only if the institutions of government and religion were separated, would the churches (synagogues, etc.) be free to give a prophetic word to the state.  The U.S. pattern is controlled by the opening 2 clauses of the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor abridging the free exercise thereof;” and by the final clause of Article VI of the Constitution, “no religious test shall ever be required as qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

July 12, 2007 Posted by | Christianity, church-state separation, citizenship, human rights., politics | 10 Comments

Blog Against Theocracy!

july-theo.jpgThis weekend, 1-4 July, is a “blogswarm” known as “Blog Against Theocracy.”  While I differ from some in not believing that most of the major figures in the U.S. Religious Right want a classic theocracy , an actual rule by a clerical elite, I do think there is a concerted effort to erode the historic separation of church and state in the U.S.  The goal is to privilege Christian churches, especially fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, and make others second-class citizens.  One of the places where this is seen is in the Bush administration’s “Office of Faith-Based Initiatives” (expanding the Clintonian bad idea of “charitable choice”) in which the tax dollars of all U.S. citizens, Christian and non-Christian, religious and non-religious, are used to support certain religious programs (e.g., faith-based programs of prison reform, ministries to the poor and homeless, parochial schools, etc.).  This allows the government to have bad social policies and spend a small amoung of money getting religious groups to clean up its messes instead of filling the social contract to forge a just and compassionate society itself.  It also turns healthy, independent faith-based programs into unhealthy leeches with their hand out for Caesar’s coin, competing with each other for the crumbs from Caesar’s table instead of persuading their believers in the strength of the cause.  And, of course, it throttles the prophetic voice of the churches since they won’t want to jeopardize their government funds!

Groups that promote religious liberty (and it’s legal safeguard, church-state separation), such as the Americans United for Separation of Church and State,  the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, Friends Committee on National Legislation,  the American Civil Liberties Union, and others believe such government promotion of faith-based groups is unconstitutional. I agree.  The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . ”  Those two religion clauses, known as the (NO) Establishment Clause, and the Free Exercise Clause, respectfully, mean that the government can neither promote to retard religious faith and practice.  The No Establishment Clause is sometimes interpreted narrowly as ruling out any official state religion (e.g., the way that the Church of England is the established church in the U.K. or the Lutheran Church established in Norway, etc.), but the clause actually forbids any law which even “respects” an establishment of religion–which promotes a particular faith or faith in general over unbelief.  Government is not to be in the religion business. The Office of Faith-Based Initiatives seems to be a clear violation of the Constitution.

But the U.S. Supreme Court, under the new rightwing majority led by Bush-appointee Chief Justice Roberts, dealt a blow to the struggle for church-state separation this past week.  In Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation, the Court threw out a challenge to this Office of Faith-Based Initiatives by a group of atheists, agnostics, etc. by saying that they had no legal standing to sue in this case because they were not directly enough involved!  Now, why any group of taxpayers lacks “standing” to challenge the inappropriate use of tax revenues is beyond me.  Who would have standing to challenge this clearly unconstitutional law? Does this decision also make it harder for ordinary citizens and taxpayers to challenge corporate or government malfeasance on other matters (no more Erin Brockovich?)?

Americans United believes the ruling, while disappointing, will not affect most challenges to the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives.  The Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty agrees. In its amicus brief (a “friend of the court” legal opinion offered by an outside party) on Hein, the BJC said, “When taxes levied and appropriated by Congress are spent in violation of the Establishment Clause, a taxpayer may constitutionally challenge such expenditures because he suffers a direct and concrete injury that is caused by the illegal expenditure and that would be redressed by enjoining it.” And when the dissapointing ruling came down, the BJC said, “It will be more difficult to challenge discretionary executive branch spending under the Establishment Clause. Nothing has changed when it comes to challenging the exercise of Congress’s taxing and spending powers to promote religion.”

But this ruling shows that, with the Bush appointments of Roberts and Alito to the high court, the theocrats (or theocrat lite-types) have strong allies.  The strict separationists may now be in the minority on the Supreme Court.  But the final bulwark for religious liberty is not Congress or the courts, but the people. We must be on guard for religious liberty–including liberty from religion for unbelievers (because faith must be free and uncoerced)–and this is best achieved when government is forbidden not only to hinder, but also to “aid” religious organizations through tax revenues.

True theocrats (e.g., the “dominionists” of the Christian Reconstruction movement) and their much more numerous allies in various “Christian nationalist” organizations are, in principle, no different from their Islamist counterparts who would undermine democracy in Muslim majority nations and seek to impose fundamentalist versions of Islamic religious law.   We may be many steps away from Christian versions in the U.S. of Saudi Arabia’s “religious police,” but our history shows that we have been there before. I have no desire to return to the days when Quakers were hanged on Boston Commons, “witches” were burned at the stake in Salem, MA, and Baptists jailed throughout New England and Virginia for “preaching without a state license.” I don’t want to return to the days in the 19th C. when the U.S. government, in a strong “faith based initiative” paid Protestant missionaries to establish schools for Native Americans on the conditions that they be forbidden to use their native languages and forced to pray Christian prayers and be forcibly converted.   I don’t want parochial schools funded with taxpayer money or evangelistic programs for prisoners promoted by the government.  And I certainly don’t want the government copping out on its responsibilities (wasting billions in illegal wars, for instance) knowing that it can then count of religious groups to clean up its messes (somewhat) for much less revenue than it would take to keep the messes from happening!  I don’t want the prophetic voices of faith-based communities bought off, either.

The Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, and its state counterparts, needs to be abolished.

I can express the compelling need for strict separation no clearer than in the words of the late George W. Truett, founding pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas and one time president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Truett also served at one point as president of the Baptist World Alliance (from which the SBC has now withdrawn) and Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary is named in his honor.  On 16 May 1920, on the steps of the U.S.  Capitol, to a crowd of 15,000, Truett gave a stirring speech on religious liberty (reenacted this past Friday by a number of Baptists from different denominations supporting the work of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty) which included these words:

“It is not the prerogative of any power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, to compel men[sic] to conform to any religious creed or form of worship, or to pay taxes for the support of a religious organization to which they do not believe,” he said. “God wants free worshippers and no other kind.”

July 1, 2007 Posted by | blogs, church-state separation, religious liberty | 2 Comments