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

Escaping Fundamentalism: One Theologian’s Story

In a series of short essays for EthicsDaily.com, Dr. Bruce Prescott, of the Mainstream Baptists Network, who hosts the radio show “Religious Talk” in Oklahoma, shares the events that became steps leading him away from the shackles of fundamentalism. 

  1. A Baptist Youth Camp
  2. Slowly Realizing the Flaw with Inerrancy
  3. Breaking the “Chain-of-Command” Family Myth
  4. An Education in Fundamentalist Scholarship
  5. Not Confining God to Human Expectations.

September 13, 2009 Posted by | fundamentalists, progressive faith, theology | 5 Comments

C. Melissa Snarr: A New Voice in baptist Theology

SnarrMelissaUnlike the last entry in this series, I do not know Dr. Snarr personally: We’ve missed each other at meetings of the Society of Christian Ethics and the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion.  We’ve never met, though we have mutual friends.  But my encounter with her work leads me to believe she will soon be a very important voice in baptist life and thought.

Dr. Snarr’s areas of scholarship and teaching include:  Christian political thought; Christian theological ethics; Feminist theological ethics; Contemporary Islamic political thought; Ethics pedagogy; Sociology of Morality; Social Movement Theory; and Sociology of Religion.  She is an activist-scholar in the contemporary U.S. Living Wage struggle and in struggles for gender justice and equal  justice for all sexual orientations.

A 1992 graduate (B.A., Religious Studies and Philosophy, magna cum laude) of Furman University (a historic, very selective, private university in Greenville,  SC, rooted in the non-creedal, Free Church/Baptist tradition), Snarr was a scholar-athlete who won numerous awards and honors.  She earned her Master of Divinity degree at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (magna cum laude) in 1995.  After spending time working in church-related social work and social movement struggles, Snarr finished her Ph.D. from Emory University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Graduate Program in Religion (Ethics and Society) in 2004.  After working for Emory’s Servant Leadership School and Emory’s Center for Ethics, Dr. Snarr became Assistant Professor of Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, TN. She also serves as core faculty in Vanderbilt’s Graduate Department of Religion and is affiliate faculty in the undergraduate School of Arts and Sciences where she teaches Women and Gender Studies and Community Research and Action.

Dr. Snarr is an active member of Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville–a progressive congregation affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship , and American Baptist Churches, USA and is a partner congregation with the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and a member of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.  It’s a great congregation, co-pastored by Dr. Amy Mears and Rev. April Baker.

Snarr’s doctoral work focused on differing Christian views of moral formation how that effects their political participation.  This has been recently published as Social Reforms and Political Selves:  Five Visions in Contemporary Christian Ethics.  London: T & T Clark/Continuum International, 2007.  Focusing on the differing views of social selves held by Christian social ethicists Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, Stanley Hauerwas, Beverly Harrison, and Emily Townes, she identifies strengths and risks in their views and considers their adequacy for producing social reforms.  She concludes the book by arguing for six core convictions about the social self that might form a Christian social ethic capable of responding to our current crises.

Snarr’s sec0nd book(forthcoming), like the majority of her social activism, focuses on the role(s) religion and gender play in the U.S. movement for a living wage.  I look forward to All You Who Labor:  Religion and Ethics in the U.S. Living Wage Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2010).  She is teaching courses on religion and war in an age of terror (comparing Christian and Islamic views) that I hope will issue in another book.

It’s easy to see that Melissa Snarr is a figure to watch in baptist life and thought.

September 3, 2009 Posted by | Baptists, feminism, progressive faith, theology | 3 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progressive Christianity Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Framing Moral Debates: The Work of George Lakoff for Progressives

Who is George Lakoff?  He is a Professor of Cognitive Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley–a field of brain studies that concentrates on language development and how the brain processes language and ideas.  He has particularly pushed the centrality of metaphor for all human culture and the embodied nature of logic, even of mathematics.   Beginning in the 1990s, Lakoff began to apply his findings to the field of politics in the U.S. context. (I would be fascinated to see Lakoff’s views tested cross-culturally.  Would they hold up or need significant modification? What would  a Lakoff model–even modified–mean for other political cultures?  Considering how much of U.S. culture,  including our politics, bad and good, is exported [far more than our material goods are exported, sadly], these are not questions of idle curiosity.)

In his 1996 book, Moral Politics:  What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t, Lakoff argued that differences between self-identified political liberals and political conservatives are rooted in metaphors deriving from different family models.  Conservatives process  things through a “strict father” form of authoritarianism and heirarchical leadership.  Liberals process things through a “nurturing parent” view that is more egalitarian and empowering and trusts group processes.  Both of these lead to rival moral visions–and both moral visions have deep roots in the American story. Liberals began to lose badly to conservatives, Lakoff argued, when they concentrated all their energy, including their communication to the public, on particular policy nuts and bolts while conservatives concentrated on the large moral vision.  “Without a vision, the people perish” and Lakoff believes that the American people were choosing conservatives because they articulated a moral vision, even if a flawed one, because liberals/progressives were not articulating any alternative.  In 2001, this book was revised as Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.

To this initial work, Lakoff added the idea of “framing.”  Far too often, he claims, liberals and progressives trained in logic and traditional rhetoric (say, philosophers or lawyers?) believe they win politically by having stronger arguments.  Lakoff says that’s not how our brains work.  Using metaphors, we “frame” arguments in such a way as to bring up dominant images–images rooted in Strong Father or Nurturing Parent dynamics.  In Don’t Think of an Elephant:  Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (2004), Lakoff argues that far too often conservatives win because they successfully “frame” the debate in their terms and liberals and progressives end up playing on their turf.  Example: Re-labelling the estate tax as “the death tax” makes it seem as if a cruel, government bureacracy is taxing even someone’s death. Then, conservatives claim that such “death taxes” steal family farms and prevent people from being able to leave small businesses to their children. No amount of liberal logic or correction as to the facts wins, then. Progressives can point all they want to the fact that the estate tax only affects the upper 1% of the population–they’ve lost because of the framing.  People forget the particulars and remember the metaphors.  Lakoff suggests reframing this as the “anti-aristocracy tax” reminding people of the deep American belief in EARNED reward over inherited privilege–in a level playing field. 

Progressives did not learn enough from Lakoff to win in 2004.  Karl Rove helped George W. Bush frame the terms of the debate and John Kerry played and lost on those terms–however narrowly.  (Bill Clinton was successful in getting half-measures through on conservative terrain, but not in changing the terms of the debate that existed since Reagan.) But they began reading Lakoff in ’04 and learning from him.  Howard Dean, former VT Governor and (all too briefly) Democratic candidate for the presidency in 2004, became the Chair of the Democratic National Convention.  Much attention has rightly been placed on Dean’s “Fifty State Strategy” to think beyond single election cycles and rebuild the Democratic Party in all 50 states by organizing, recruiting candidates, etc–even in the deepest Republican territory knowing that one could win something–school boards, city council seats, etc. which could later pay off in Congressional seats, Senate seats, governorships and even presidential votes. (The 50 state strategy began to show success as early as 2006 and Barack Obama built on it in his own successful presidential run in 2008.) But less attention has been paid to the lessons that Dean learned from Lakoff.  Along with the DNC organizers, Dean traveled all 50 states doing door to door voter registation.  In doing so, he talked about the VALUES of the Democratic Party and framed them in ways that connected with ordinary people.  He also urged candidates to read Lakoff, talk about their values and frame their arguments for particular policies in value/vision terms–especially terms that did not play into conservative hands.

Lakoff’s latest work is The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st C. American Politics with an 18th C.  Brain.  Here he continues to argue that most liberals and progressives don’t know enough about brain theory and linguistics.  We argue as if we think that people process information in straight cognitive terms, people were thought to do in the 18th C. Enlightenment era.  But brain studies show differently that we are metaphor driven.  Further,  modern media communications (first radio and television, but now 24 hr. cable, the internet, youtube, cellphones, social networking systems like Facebook and MySpace, Twitter, etc.) reinforces this–taking us further from the 18th C. in terms of how we process information. And this is true even if we teach logic at a university, or are a NASA scientist, a Wall Street trader, etc., just as much as if we wait tables, drive 18-wheel trucks, or run a cash register. (There is a tendency of “knowledge elites”–a class I fall into, to think that they really do process everything according to formal logic and that only less educated people are more metaphor driven, and thus,  more susceptible to propaganda, etc.  Well, I have taught logic and critical thinking courses and believe that such skills are very important–but Lakoff is still right.)

What I, as a Christian trained in theology find fascinating about Lakoff’s work is that it meshes with much work in recent decades in hermeneutics, the study of interpreting texts (especially, but not solely, religious texts such as Scripture).  Here also the dominance of metaphor has been recognized increasingly.  And Lakoff’s work on “Strict Father” vs. “Nurturing Parent” deep metaphors, though rooted  in modern psychology, bears much in common with structuralist and post-structualist hermeneutical theory.  He gets people not only to pay attention to the “texts” of political speech/arguments but to “sub-texts” and “deep structures.”  And his work on framing/re-framing bears much in common with Ricoeur’s work on “clashes of narratives” between and within religious texts.  Even his advice on “reframing” debates has a familiar ring to anyone who has studied the Gospel stories of Jesus’ verbal clashes with rival groups (the Pharisees, the Scribes, the Herodians, the Temple heirarchs, etc.) or seen the Apostle Paul’s clashes with rivals (as described by Paul!) in his correspondence (Epistles) to early church communities.  Both Jesus and Paul are masters at turning the tables on their adversaries by reframing the debate(s)–in terms that appeal to shared beliefs and values of their audiences–in order to stretch, reshape, enlarge those beliefs and values.

Lakoff says (rightly in my view) that President Obama is a master of reframing debates in a progressive direction.  Since there has been a political shift of terrain, he doesn’t have to “triangulate” like Bill Clinton and win half measures on conservative ground.  (Remember in the ’90s how conservative Republicans constantly screamed that Clinton stole their ideas? He did–usually as a form of damage control, but sometimes to push progressive items as far as he could under conservative rubrics.  Bill Clinton is the ONLY president in modern times who actually shrank government, for instance.)  By contrast, Obama reframes progressive values as quintessentially AMERICAN values, usually using examples drawn from Republican presidents (Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, even Ronald Reagan) to advance a very progressive agenda.

Lakoff argues in a recent article, “Obama’s Code” that Obama is reframing debate in a way that disarms and defangs his conservative opposition.  In a post-speech article that is less theory-laden than Lakoff, a Daily Kos diarist (significantly calling himself/herself  “monkeybrainpolitics”!) gives a blow-by-blow account of why Obama’s speech was a conservative nightmare.  This doesn’t mean there is no room to criticize Obama from a progressive standpoint.  Paul Rosenberg argues for a partial-correction to Lakoff’s model at Open Left.  It is an argument that recognizes the varieties of progressivism. I tend to agree with the progressive pushback on Obama on keeping parts of Bush’s tools against terrorism that undermined civil liberties–he’s broken with the worst abuses, but not a clean break with all of them. (I know,  he’s only been in office a little over a month, but some of his continuities worry me. And politicians need movement activists to keep them honest.  Likewise, as I wrote yesterday, I want to see more done and more quickly on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and promoting peace and human rights globally.  I think we will see more, but I don’t believe in leader worship and I do believe in organized people power pushing for progressive policies–and Obama himself began as a community organizer doing just that.)

But this shouldn’t obscure the importance of either Lakoff’s work or Obama’s powerful rhetorical mastery as tools for advancing progressive moral visions.  Religious/spiritual progressives should pay just as much attention as political ones.  We are still shouted down on TV religious programs and radio programs. (There need to be more local radio programs like the one by Bruce Prescott in Oklahoma, “Religious Talkr,” a live-talk religious program hosted by a “mainstream Baptist” that is a clear alternative to the talkshows of the Religious Right.  You can get Bruce’s podcasts if you don’t live in the range of his radio signal!  Likewise, more local cable TV networks need to have programs like Every Church a Peace Church TV on the Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasting network. Podcasts available here.)  But we can compete and give a compelling alternative moral/spiritual vision.  That ability to give an alternative vision out where people can see and hear it is important for the health of the church as well as for the future of progressive politics.

The work of George Lakoff can be important in the kinds of conversations religious/spiritual progressives need to have about how to “frame” our vision and values in ways that win wider acceptance.

March 1, 2009 Posted by | convictions, liberal theology, progressive faith, Religious Social Criticism, U.S. politics | 5 Comments

A Progressive Reading List

This list is focused on the U.S. context, but I invite global readers to suggest works from their part of the world, especially if there is an English-language edition.  I will probably review some of these works in depth in the coming year.  The list is suggestive and by no means is comprehensive. It reflects my biases and idiosyncrasies–after all, this is my blog. 🙂

Lon Fendell, Stand Alone or Come Home:  Mark Hatfield as an Evangelical and Progressive.  (Barclay Press, 2008).  Hatfield, a member of the Conservative Baptist Association, was one of the last liberal Republican politicians.  He served in WWII before becoming Governor of Oregon and, later, U.S. Senator from Oregon. Hatfield retired in 1996 after 46 years in public service, having won every election campaign he entered.  Hatfield was against both abortion and the death penalty, a prominent opponent of the Vietnam War and supporter of amnesty for war resisters.  Although  not a pacifist, Hatfield was a consistent defender of the rights of conscience for pacifists and conscientious objectors, co-sponsoring every year legislation that would allow COs to pay all of their federal taxes with the assurance that none of their tax money would be used for military purposes.  His strong evangelical Christian faith was combined with a traditional Baptist defense of church-state separation. Thus, Hatfield consistently opposed efforts to mandate prayer in public schools or the use of tax money to support private, parochial schools–and would have been horrified by an “Office of Faith Based Initiatives” in the White House.  He co-sponsored Nuclear Freeze legislation in the ’80s and was a constant critic of excessive military spending.  If Hatfield had ever run for U.S. president, he is the only Republican I could have imagined voting for–and I often wished he would run.

Wellstone Action.  Politics the Wellstone Way:  How to Elect Progressive Candidates and Win on the Issues. (University of Minnesota Press, 2008). The late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) was tragically killed in a plane crash in 2002. (N.B.: This is how Norm Coleman (R-MN), who is now trying to keep  his lost senate seat by lawsuit, came to the U.S. Senate–by beating a dead man. Minnesota Democrats scrambled to get former VP Walter Mondale to run in Wellstone’s place, but there was no time for a major campaign. ) He often said he represented “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” meaning that he was a true progressive who rejected the “New Democrat” centrist strategy of Bill Clinton. (Obama seems to have 1 foot in Clintonian circles and 1 foot in progressive circles.)  This is a “how to” book from grassroots progressives.

Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power: The Indispensible Chomsky. (New Press, 2002).  The radical Chomsky is essential reading.

Mark Green & Michelle Jolin, eds., Change for America:  A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President. (Basic Books, 2009).  This is a “how to” book for progressive activists–and for Obama.

Rabbi Michael Lerner.  The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. (HarperOne, 2006).  This is Lerner’s “manifesto” for the Network of Spiritual Progressives, his interfaith coalition of the religious progressives.  One should also read Lerner’s Healing Israel/Healing Palestine:  A Path to Peace and Reconciliation.

Rebecca Todd Peters and Elizabeth  Hinson-Hasty, eds., To Do Justice:  Engaging Progressive Christians(Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008).

Paul Krugman, The Return of Depression-Era Economics and the Crisis of 2008. (Norton, 2008).  I have this on order. Krugman is Professor of Economics at Princeton University who won the Nobel Prize for Economics. He has been warning of the current economic crisis since 2003.  He is also a columnist for the New York Times and a prominent critic of the Bush administration and he pushes the Obama administration to be more progressive–especially urging the adoption of universal, not-for-profit, single-payer healthcare.  See also Krugman’s previous book, The Conscience of a Liberal.

Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World. (Norton, 2008).  This is not an anti-American rant,  but the description of the “rise of the rest.”  At the end of WWII, the U.S. and USSR dominated the world in a nuclear balance of terror.  The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a brief period in which there was a unipolar world. The Bush administration and the Neo-Cons assumed this was permanent and based their policies of preemptive intervention on permanent U.S. dominance of  the globe in both military and economic terms.  They failed to understand (among the many other things they failed to grasp) that the unipower era was already ending when they took power–and that we now live in a world of multiple, powerful actors.

Thomas Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded:  Why We Need a Green Revolution–and How it Can Renew America. (Farrer, Straus,  and Giroux, 2008).  I consider Friedman a centrist rather than a true progressive or liberal, but he is reality-based and the global realities have pushed him to write this very progressive blueprint. 

 Van Jones, The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems(HarperOne, 2008).  Similar in theme to Friedman, but written in a more pragmatic vein.

Paul Loeb, The Impossible Will Take a Little While.(Basic Books, 2004).  This amazing book was one of those works that kept me from despair during the darkest days of the Bush administration. 

Muhammed Yunus.  Creating a World Without Poverty:  Social Business and the Future of Capitalism.  Written by the winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, economist Muhammed Yunus, who pioneered “micro-financing” as a way to create small businesses in the Two-Thirds Bank. His Grameen Bank, which has loaned out millions (in tiny amounts) to poor people without collateral and without interest, has a repayment rate of over 95%!  He argues that, in addition to traditional for-profit businesses and traditional non-profit charities, entrepeneurs should create not-for-profit “social businesses” whose “bottom line” is a better world. 

David Bornstein, How to Change the World:  Social Entrepeneurs and the Power of New IdeasUpdated Edition. (Oxford University Press, 2007).  The author had written the history of the Grameen Bank.

Jimmy Carter.  We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land:  A Plan That Will Work. (Simon and Schuster, 2009).  One of the many things I love about Jimmy Carter is that he never gives up.  He was only a B- president at best. He had great intentions, but was not very effective.  But I was still proud to vote for him over the horrible Ronald Reagan and he has been the best ex-president ever.  Here he shows that the outline for a lasting peace in the Middle East is the same as it was in 1978.  However, several things have made peace harder: Illegal Israeli settlements eating up land in Palestine; the Wall; the years of neglect by Bush; the election of Hamas by the Palestinians. But we have a window of opportunity and Carter pushes us to take it.

February 1, 2009 Posted by | human rights., Jimmy Carter, just peacemaking, labor, progressive faith, Religious Social Criticism, U.S. politics | 3 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National Summit on Torture

Religious Faith, Torture, and Our National Soul:

A National Summit on Torture

Dear Friends,


On September 11-12, 2008, Evangelicals for Human Rights, with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and Mercer University, will host a national summit on torture in Atlanta, GA, on the campus of Mercer University.  Featuring some of the nation’s top thinkers and leaders in the anti-torture community, this conference is co-sponsored by an unprecedented group of organizations.
We invite you to be a part of this two day conference. We will examine the journey of the United States, since September 11, 2001, from a nation that championed human rights, albeit imperfectly, to a nation that publicly acknowledges and supports the use of torture.

Obviously, for people of faith, the journey does not end here. Speakers and participants will also explore the path of return to once again becoming a nation that leads the world in the protection of human rights.

Religious Faith, Torture, and Our National Soul is organized and co-sponsored by individuals and groups who have sought to mobilize Americans and people of faith to oppose human rights violations in the struggle against terrorism. There will be moments of prayer and biblical reflection that embody the convictions of the sponsoring organizations, and the entire event will be infused with moral conviction drawn from religious tradition.

Conference speakers will reflect a variety of faith perspectives. The conference is open to all who will come. Our vision is that the conference will be a template for the kind of discourse, both faith-based and otherwise, that opens wide the doors for dialogue rather than closing them.

We invite you to be a part of this important conference. Register before June 1 for an early registration discount. Early registration fee is $99. Beginning June 1, registration fee will increase to $150.


Deadline for registration is August 1, 2008. Seating is limited.
Students’ Discount: Register before June 1 for an early student registration discount. Early student registration fee is $50. Beginning June 1, student registration will increase to $65.
For more Registration details click here: http://www.evangelicalsforhumanrights.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=72&Itemid=106

For more information, contact the Conference Coordinator:
Mary Head, Evangelicals for Human Rights
3001 Mercer University Drive, Day Hall 103
Atlanta, GA 30341
Questions that will be considered during the Conference:

  • What policy decisions led to torture?
  • How did the US military respond?
  • What does torture do to human beings?
  • What has the torture debate revealed about American Christianity?
  • What is really going on at Guantanamo Bay? How do we heal the (American) Christian relationship with the Muslim world?
  • What legislative efforts are being made to address torture?
  • How do Christians break free from cultural captivity?
  • What are younger thinkers noticing about this cultural moment that others are missing?
  • How do we restore America’s leadership in protecting human rights?


Current Co-Sponsors include:
Mercer University, Evangelicals for Human Rights, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the Center for Victims of Torture, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Evangelicals for Social Action, Faith and the City, Faith in Public Life, Morehouse College, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, No 2 Torture, and Sojourners.

Key Speakers include:
Katie Barge,  Elizabeth Bounds, Lawrence Carter, John Chandler, Richard Cizik, Mark P. Denbeaux, Pete Dross, Karen J. Greenberg, David P. Gushee, Linda Gustitus, Gita Gutierrez, Jeanne Herrick-Stare, Scott Horton, George Hunsinger, Rear Admiral D. John Hutson (Ret. USN), Cheryl Bridges Johns, Doug Johnson, Cathleen Kaveny, Richard Killmer, Rick Love, Denise Massey, Elissa Massimino, Matt Norman, Michael Peppard, Kathryn Reklis, Stephen Rickard, Samuel Rodriguez, Andy Saperstein, Ronald J. Sider, Glen H. Stassen, Natalie Wigg-Stevenson, Tyler Wigg Stevenson, Asante Todd, Brian Walt, and Thomas Wilner.

Envision 08

Another exciting event that is happening this summer is Envision, a conference which will be held at Princeton University, June 8-10. Sixty leading scholars, artists, activists, and pastors will represent a broad array of theological perspectives, all focused on one thing: Christian Engagement in the Public Square. EHR is co-sponsoring this event, and as part of EHR’s network, you can attend this conference for a discounted fee of $149 by entering “EHR” or “David Gushee.” The regular registration $249. For more information on Envision 08 and to register, go to www.ev08.org.

We hope you can join us.

David P. Gushee

President, EHR

June 1, 2008 Posted by | evangelicals, human rights., just peacemaking, progressive faith, torture, U.S. politics | 1 Comment

Context Makes All the Difference

Because of my mental health break from blogging, I have yet to comment on the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright, retired pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.  Marty on the Homefront has the full context of the snippets played out of context of his sermons here.  I have been furious about this. I would never have said, “God damn America,” (or any place else), but the prophet Jeremiah (Wright’s namesake) said much the same thing about Israel/Judah. As Frank Schaeffer pointed out, his father, Francis A. Schaeffer, who helped to launch the Religious Right in the late ’70s, repeatedly called for armed revolution against the U.S. by Christians if the government refused to outlaw abortion–but no conservative Republican politician was ever demonized for friendship with Schaeffer. In fact, at his funeral, Ronald Reagan and other prominent conservatives were in attendance. John McCain’s endorsements by Hagee, who has called for Palestinian genocide and demonized both Jews and Catholics (but is uncritically supportive of the Israeli govt.), or by the late Jerry Falwell (who blamed 9/11 on feminists and gays and liberals–everyone but the terrorists), or Pat Robertson (who regularly urges the assassination of foreign leaders with whom he disagrees) have not been much questioned. (In fact, the press have long sugar coated the real John McCain, but that’s a subject for another time).

The demonizing of Rev. Wright, and Obama by extension, strikes me as racist. I DON’T mean that black ministers are not subject to criticism, nor that Wright’s remarks weren’t rightly repudiated by Obama.  As I said above, I would never ask God to damn anyone or any place. But I have heard Wright preach at the 2003 meeting of the Alliance of Baptists, which celebrated our ecumenical ties with the Disciples of Christ and with the United Church of Christ (Wright’s denomination and Obama’s). I know the good his church does. I know that a man who was once a U.S. Marine has more patriotism than any of these chickenhawks who demonize him.  I also know that, while I have preached far fewer sermons and written far less than Rev. Wright, one could easily take minute snippets out of my stuff and make me sound like an idiot or worse.  (Someone once overheard me quoting someone with whom I disagreed and claimed I was making physical threats on the president!) I could do the same with almost any public speaker–but it wouldn’t be either right or honest and it wouldn’t help in any public discussion of major issues.

What strikes me as racist about this is that no one even inquires who the pastors are of white candidates, no matter what they say.  Ronald Reagan seldom even went to church.  The only time we knew who Bob Dole’s pastor was came when the press leaked that both the Clintons and Doles went to Foundry United Methodist Church in D.C. (during the time that Rev. Dr. Philip J. Wogaman, whom I know slightly, was pastor). Shortly after that the Doles moved their membership, but no one asked where. We knew nothing about Bill Clinton’s Baptist congregation in Arkansas until they refused to kick him out during the Lewinsky scandal.  Do we know Hillary Clinton’s current pastor? McCain we know can’t decide whether he is Episcopalian or Southern Baptist.  So, the extreme focus on Obama’s pastor by mostly white reporters and politicians, most of whom have never been in a black church and don’t know anything about African-American Christianity, strikes me as having, at least, racist overtones.

I have been twice a member of a black Baptist congregation and I know that members expect the pastor to be bold and confrontational–but don’t expect to follow his every word.  I remember when visiting a black church in which the pastor described the “war on young black boys” in the ’90s that the members came up to me afterword to make CERTAIN that I knew their pastor was not demonizing all whites–but I knew that already. (In fact, nothing was said that day with which I particularly disagreed.)  I also know that Black sermons take you to the depths of pain and anger before giving you the hope and joy of the Good News. But the ignorant media never showed that these snippets from Wright were NOT the conclusion of his sermons.

Nothing approaching real journalism was attempted. When confronted with the free ride given to McCain despite his endorsements by controversial rightwing preachers, reporters said they might cover that if those sermons were playing on Youtube! So, today’s reporters are too lazy to investigate, but have have YouTube users do it for them. No wonder we are in such sad shape!

(Hey, if we can’t smear Obama as a closet Muslim, let’s smear his pastor and make them both sound anti-white and anti-American.)

Obama may or may not become the next U.S. president. Either way, he will recover.  I grieve because Rev. Wright, a brother in Christ, may not recover his reputation as a sincere servant of God.  The false witness borne against him is a great and lasting sin.  Conservatives would be outraged if “the liberal media” quoted race-baiting statements from Rev. Jerry Falwell in the days when he still supported segregation, without ever mentioning his later repentance on this issue. But I have heard ZERO conservatives standing up for Rev. Wright. (Even Mike Huckabee, who DID say that Obama should not be held accountable for Wright’s statements unless he agreed with them, did not make any attempt to stand up for Wright. And, as a former preacher, Huckabee knows that no preacher wants to have his or her whole preaching career judged by fragments of one or two sermons. We all have sermons we regret. ) What context can be given for that omission, I wonder?

P.S. Frank Schaeffer also rightly notes that Clinton is wrong about Obama being “out of touch” with religious America. As Schaeffer notes, candidate responses to controversies can be dismissed, so we learn more by what they say BEFORE it was an issue. Schaeffer quotes from Obama’s remarks in 2006 at a Sojourners event, an evangelical event.  The full speech is on the Obama campaign website and has been since it went up. But the speech itself was given nearly a year before Obama began campaigning for president. His accounts of his conversion all pre-date this, too.

I am not sure Schaeffer is right to dismiss Clinton’s own faith as genuine, and I don’t know about McCain’s faith (he seems to hold the nation itself as his god, but I could be wrong), but I agree that Obama is certainly most “in touch” with Christian America. I never thought I would agree as much with one of the founders of the Religious Right, a self-declared 55 year old father of a Marine, who is gun owning, flag waving, military loving lifelong conservative.  But as Schaeffer says, if Obama can reach him, he can reach anyone in America.

April 19, 2008 Posted by | politics, progressive faith, race, scandal | 7 Comments