Levellers

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

American Democratic Socialist Heroes

Yes, I’ve learned from Karl Marx.  Though never considering myself any kind of doctrinaire Marxist, I find Marx’s critique of Capital unanswerable, especially the alienation of workers from the fruits of their labor.  I’ve learned from heterodox, creative Marxists like Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse, the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School (escpecially Habermas), British Fabians and others.  But when I call myself a democratic socialist and think of myself as standing in the democratic socialist tradition of struggle for economic democracy to complement political democracy and for a free, non-racist, non-sexist, non-classist, ecologically sound, non-heterosexist society, it is primarily the home-grown American socialist heroes and heroines of whom I think.  Below are a few that have been especially influential and inspiring to me.  There is no order in the listing except who I think of first, etc.

  • Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926).  A prominent labor leader in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in his youth, Debs founded the American Railway Union (1894), the Socialist Party of America (1901), and the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) (1905).  He ran for president five times on the Socialist Party ticket, winning millions of votes, though never a single electoral vote. (The Electoral College and the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, are the two most anti-democratic features of our republic’s structure and both need abolishing.) A pacifist, Debs openly opposed U.S. entry into World War I which, because Congress had passed an Espionage Act which made any opposition to the war effort the equivalent of treason (a law which was clearly unconstitutional), landed Debs in prison for 10 years. He ran for president from prison and won over 2 million votes!  He was not pardoned and released until 1923, when Pres. Harding pardoned him as an old man.  His particular Socialist Party had since died, torn itself apart while he was imprisoned over support or opposition to the new Bolshevik regime in the USSR.  But Debs’ ideals of economic empowerment, organized working people demanding justice for their labor, and international movement of workers, opposition to war as a tool of capitalist oppression, and the dignity of common people live on.  Favorite Debs quotes include “While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a “criminal element,” I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” 
  • W. E. B. DuBois (1868-1963). First African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, DuBois was a historian, sociologist (including sociologist of religion), criminologist, civil rights activist, pan-Africanist, who flirted with Communism, but returned to democratic socialism.  He once ran for NY Senator on the American Labor Party ticket. 
  • Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (1830-1930). Labor leader and organizer famous for her slogan, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”  Considered the “Miner’s Angel” because of her strong advocacy for miners against exploitive bosses, dangerous working conditions, child labor, bad wages, poor benefits, etc.  Yes, she is the inspiration for the magazine, Mother Jones.
  • Jane Addams (1860-1935), Nobel Prize Laureate, who founded Hull House in Chicago and with it, social work in the United States.  An early feminist, she worked to end poverty in the United States and to advance the cause of women worldwide.  Also a pacifist, she was the founding head of the Women’s Peace Party and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
  • Norman Thomas (1884-1968).  Son of an Ohio Presbyterian minister, Thomas graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University, before following in his father’s footsteps, graduating from Union Theological Seminary of NY and becoming a Presbyterian minister.  A pacifist, Thomas preached against the U.S. entering into WWI and became an early member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  He soon became a major leader of the Socialist Party of America and ran for president 6 times. 
  • Dorothy Day (1897-1980).  She flirted with Communism in her youth as a radical, anarchist, journalist, but after a conversion near the time of the birth of her only child, Tamar, she became a baptized Catholic.  Then, she co-founded the Catholic Worker movement with Peter Maurin, combining democratic socialism, pacifism,  with teachings of the Gospels and the Catholic social encyclicals.
  • Michael Harrington (1928-1989) , trained at Yale as a lawyer, this founder and chair of the Democratic Socialists of America (not a political party, but a movement), he was an early participant in the Catholic Worker movement, but lost his faith in God.  A writer, political activist, professor of political science, radio commentator, Harrington’s The Other America:  Poverty in the United States, inspired the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty.
  • A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979) was the head of the powerful Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a major labor and civil rights leader.
  • Pauli Murray (1910-1985) first African-American woman to earn a Juris Doctor from Yale Law School.  A civil rights activist, writer, poet, feminist, and one of the earliest women ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church.  Murray was always a democratic socialist.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), although never the Communist that J. Edgar Hoover and others charged him with being, was attracted to socialism and, after his visit to India in 1960, and  Sweden and Norway in 1964, became a democratic socialist in thought, though never part of any Socialist party or organization.
  • Cornel West (1954-), Professor of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Princeton University, and one of the great public intellectuals of our day.  Has been a co-Chair of the Democratic Socialists of America.
  • Gary J.  Dorrien (1952-) is an Episcopal priest, theologian, and Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.  He is a strong advocate of economic democracy and historian of the Social Gospel and of socialism in the United States.
  • UPDATE:   I forgot to include:
  • Ella Baker (1903-1986), civil and human rights activist. Never part of any socialist party, she worked for labor and economic justice causes and shared socialist ideals and convictions.
  • A. J. Muste (1885-1967) began as a candidate for ministry in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) who went to Union Theological Seminary of New York. As a student he became involved in labor and social gospel causes and joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  Later pastored a Congregationalist church while working on labor issues–led to loss of his church. Temporarily, he lost his faith and adopted the Trotskyite form of Marxism.  On a visit to the USSR and then a meeting with Trotsky in the latter’s exile, Muste was dramatically reconverted to pacifist Christianity.  He became a Quaker and the Executive Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He joined the Socialist Party of America and campaigned for Norman Thomas. In retirement from the F.O.R., Muste went to work for the War Resisters’ League.
  • Bayard Rustin (1910-1987), gay African-American Quaker who was imprisoned for resisting the draft during WWII.  Former communist who broke with the Communist Party over Stalin and joined the Socialist Party of America.  Rustin was prominent in peace and human rights issues–and was the behind the scenes planner of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. 

These are but a few of the many key thinkers and activists in the American tradition of Democratic Socialism.  I place myself with the experimental, non-dogmatic, pragmatist and pacifist strand of this heritage.

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November 13, 2009 Posted by | biography, economic justice, heroes, labor, poverty, Religious Social Criticism, social history, U.S. politics | | 7 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

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

20th C. Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics: Walter Rauschenbusch

rauschenbuschAfter a brief introductory chapter by editors Larry L. McSwain and Wm. Loyd Allen, Shapers begins with a 3-chapter section on “Foundations: A Legacy of Social Concern,” which profiles Walter Rauschenbusch (most famous theologian of the Social Gospel), Muriel Lester  (1855-1968)(British Baptist pastor, social worker, influential writer on contemplative spirituality, & globetrotting peacemaker), and Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961) (African American Baptist pioneer in education and social uplift in the Booker T. Washington tradition).  Each of these pioneering 20th C. shapers of Baptist social ethics was born in the late 19th C., in the wake of the U.S. Civil War (and the Crimean and Anglo-Boer wars), the Industrial Revolution and its resulting social dislocations, the beginnings of global resistance to Euro-American colonial imperialism, the mechanization of wars, the first international peace movement since pre-Constantinian Christianity, the birth of socialist politics (in both Marxist and non-Marxist forms), the rise of global movements of organized labor, and the international movement for women’s suffrage.  This is the matrix which gave rise to the Social Gospel and each of our 3 profiled pioneers can be seen as representing different facets of the Social Gospel. (A more complete picture of this foundation-era would have included chapters on John Clifford (1836-1923), Shailer Matthews (1863-1941), and J. B. Weatherspoon (1886-1964), pioneers all).

The chapter on Rauschenbusch is written by Paul A. Lewis, a friend of mine–and a closer friend of my fellow Baptist peace blogger, Mikeal Broadway who blogs at Earth as it is in Heaven, a blog my Gentle Readers should frequent.  Lewis is part of that generation (mine) of Southern Baptists who found themselves in the midst of seminary (in his case, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary near San Francisco) during the Fundamentalist Takeover of the SBC (1979-1994) and who sought a different way of being Baptist–which included pursuing advanced theological education in ecumenical, non-Southern Baptist, circles. Paul earned a Th.M. at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, which is related to the Presbyterian Church, USA, studying with Douglass Otatti whose “Reforming Protestantism” flows more or less directly from Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel tradition. Then Paul completed a Ph.D. at the United Methodist related Duke University, studying with Stanley Hauerwas–a profound critic of that tradition. (Paul used to say that he was a “misplaced liberal among the Hauerwasian communitarians.”) Today, he is Associate Professor of  Christian Ethics in the Roberts Department of Christianity, College of Liberal Arts, Mercer University, Macon, GA–a “moderate” Baptist institution related to the Georgia Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship–the more centrist of the two breakaway groups from the SBC. (I belong to the smaller, more liberal, breakaway group, the Alliance of Baptists.)

The chapter  begins with a biographical sketch of Rauschenbusch, the son of German immigrants whose father, August Rauschenbusch was a pietistic Lutheran missionary pastor who converted to Baptist views and helped to found the ethnic German Baptist Convention (today the North American Baptist Conference in the U.S. and Canada). Walter was born in Rochester, NY at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War and would die in the midst of World War I. His life spanned the post-bellum “Gilded Age” of U.S. Industrial Revolution extremes of wealth and poverty–which largely paralleled the contemporary Victorian era of the U.K. with it Dickensonian extremes.  His father was a professor in the German Dept. of the (then-new) Rochester Theological Seminary (now part of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School). 

Young Walter imbibed his parents warm pietistic faith, but was also disturbed by the bad state of their marriage–which others found “shocking.” (Victorian-era accounts are so veiled that it is difficult to tell, but might this marriage have even been abusive?) He desired to become a minister, even a missionary.  He was partially educated in Germany at a conservative Gymnasium (equivalent in the U.S. to a very rigorous high school, plus the first year or so of university) before earning an A.B. at the University of Rochester and his seminary degree at Rochester Theological Seminary.  But Walter’s dream of being a Baptist foreign missionary was denied by the Northern Baptist Foreign Missionary Society (today, the Board of International Ministries of the American Baptist Churches, USA). The officers of the Foreign Missionary Society found problems with Rauschenbusch’s views on the atonement–presumably that it deviated from the then-standard doctrine of “penal substitution” which evolved from Anselm to Calvin to the rigid and bloody forms of Reformed Orthodoxy.

Dismayed, Rauschenbusch became a pastor. He had been a student pastor at a German-language Baptist congregation in Louisville, KY during his seminary days, but now became pastor of Second Baptist Church at the edge of “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Tenderloin” slums in New York City.  The poverty and related problems of his congregation convinced Rauschenbusch that simply preaching about personal salvation was insufficient.  He became involved in works for social justice, calling himself a socialist (though never joining any socialist party) and joining with other socially active ministers in the “Brotherhood of the Kingdom.” He found himself part of the Victorian-era “Social Gospel” movement which paralleled the Progressive Era in U.S. politics.

The Social Gospel (which Rauschenbusch did not found), similar to movements of “Social Christianity” in the UK and Europe, connected Christian faith to Progressive or even democratic socialist politics. It firmly opposed the ideologies of “Social Darwinism” by which the Robber Baron industrial millionaires of the Gilded Age justified the peonage, child labor, dangerous working conditions, union-busting, and extremes of wealth and poverty.  Social Gospel ministers and theologians claimed that society, not just individuals, needed to be redeemed–and took on the prevailing view that saved individuals would automatically save societies. 

Rauschenbusch grew too deaf to continue serving his congregation adequately, so, after a European sabbatical in which he studied liberal theologies and biblical studies and the new sciences of sociology, took a position at his alma mater, Rochester Theological Seminary.  First, he taught a variety of courses in the German Department and, then, became Professor of Church History for the seminary as a whole.  From this position, Rauschenbusch became the major theologian of the Social Gospel. His work, Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) was the best selling religious book in the English language for 5 years. Sadly, re-reading it today, far too much of it seems horribly contemporary.

Rauschenbusch wrote many other works, including Prayers for the Social Awakening (many of which wound up in the hymnals and liturgies of mainstream Protestantism),  Christianizing the Social Order (his most Constantinian-sounding title, but Rauschenbusch was not proposing any theocracy–but a “salt and light” penetration of institutions that would remake them away from greed, corruption, and oppression to mutual sharing and the common good), and his masterpiece, A Theology for the Social Gospel.

Lewis analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of Rauschenbusch for Baptist social ethics well.  He notes that MANY of the criticisms launched at Rauschenbusch are simply wrong–however rightly they may characterize others in the Social Gospel movement. Far from “minimizing sin,” Rauschenbusch had several chapters on sin in A Theology, noting the many personal and social dimensions.  He described the super-personal dimensions of institutional evil in ways that anticipated the later biblical studies of the “Principalities and Powers,” such as in the work of Jacques Ellul, John Howard Yoder, or Walter Wink.

Nor is it true that Rauschenbusch downplayed the atonement, although he did try to rethink it in ways that went beyond the objective/subjective fight that traces back to Anselm vs. Abelard.

Also, Lewis shows that the frequent criticism that the Social Gospel diluted the Christian message of personal salvation, to whatever degree it may be true of others, is certainly false when applied to Rauschenbusch.  His deep personal faith was well known and found literary expression.  He composed hymns and prayers.  He viewed his work as a kind of evangelism. And he knew that any social movement for justice would lack roots without a deep spiritual grounding–which he continued to find in the gospel, especially in the person and work of Jesus.

Rauschenbusch was a strong Baptist believer in liberty of conscience, religious liberty, and church-state separation, but NOT in apolitical, socially inactive church. His churches worked to address social evil and to influence policies–to stem alcoholism, prevent child labor, reform industry, work for economic justice, end poverty.  Toward the end of his life, in the wake of WWI, Rauschenbusch, who previously had given little thought to the gospel’s implications for war and peace, became a pacifist.  (The Social Gospel split at this point:  Parts of it were involved in the beginnings of a Christian pacifism that went beyond the traditional peace churches, and joined with the international peace movement.  Other parts of the Social Gospel movement justified WWI in terms of a “crusade for democracy” and would have sounded strangely like the U.S. evangelical cheerleaders of George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism.” Rauschenbusch went with the peacemaking stream.)

Lewis does a nice job also of showing some of Rauschenbusch’s blind spots and weaknesses. Like much of the rest of the Social Gospel leaders, Rauschenbusch shared the Victorian-era view of women and the family.  Indeed, his writings never mention the rising feminist/suffragist movement that was prominent in his lifetime–and he died 3 years before the passage of the 19th Amendment (1920) enfranchised women throughout the U.S. (But he would have seen Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, which shared much of the values of the Social Gospel, become the first national political party in the U.S. to adopt a women’s suffrage plank in their national platform in 1916). In fact, one giant motivator in Rauschenbusch’s determination that working men receive adequate pay and benefits was to make it unnecessary for wives and children to work. And he held to traditional views of male leadership in the family–though rebelling against the strict authoritarianism of his father’s example.  In this, he was simply a man of his time.

Similarly, Rauschenbusch held very negative views of Roman Catholics–as did most pre-Vatican II Protestants.  He assumed that Catholicism was the enemy of democracy and a heresy and threat to progress.  No matter how conservative or liberal, one would have been hard pressed to find Protestants with more charitable (or even accurate) views of Catholicism before the 1960s. To Protestants prior to the breakthrough with Pope John XXIII, Catholicism was a global superstition that was anti-science, anti-democracy, and firmly on the side of the wealthy against the poor.

Much of the Social Gospel was incredibly racist.  Here, also, Rauschenbusch was not guiltless. But Lewis fails to show how much better Rauschenbusch did here than many Social Gospel contemporaries. He held far too many sterotypes of African-Americans and other racial/ethnic minorities, but he did NOT share the enthusiasm for eugenics or the Social Darwinistic assumptions that “the white race” would spread while other races would shrivel and die out.  Rauschenbusch sometimes spoke out against this and opposed segregation. However, like most of the Northern Social Gospel advocates, racial issues were not on his “front burner” for good or ill. Those of his students who took the Social Gospel South (where it survived WWI and the Niebuhrian and Neo-Orthodox reaction), by contrast, made racial justice and reconciliation the number one moral issue of their lives.

Lewis also judges the Social Gospel for its supposed failure to reproduce itself, noting that while all of Rauschenbusch’s children shared his politics, none of them shared his faith.  This seems to me to be overly harsh. I have known many a fundamentalist evangelist whose children rebelled against the faith of their upbringing. Rebellion, deciding to be one’s own person, is part of the movement of one generation to another.  Most persons of faith worry that their children might not share their convictions and most parents struggle to understand the choices of their adult offspring, no matter the outcome or how close they remain.  The failure of Rauschenbusch’s children to become Christians could have much to do with WWI, which was preached as a “crusade.” Post-war periods usually show a decline in faith–as even the U.S. is experiencing now. Exposure of corruption in church and state leads to periods of disillusionment–it would have been strange if Rauschenbusch’s family had escaped the skepticism which set in everywhere after WWI.

And Lewis fails to note that Paul Rauschenbusch, Walter’s great grandson, is himself an American Baptist minister who is helping a new generation recover the strengths of the Social Gospel. See his updated edition of his great-father’s classic, Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke Up the ChurchPaul Rauschenbusch is Associate Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel at Princeton University and a contributing editor to Beliefnet.com .  What one generation rejects is often rediscovered by another–and that is as true of the Social Gospel as of any other tradition. 

Lewis quotes H. Richard Niebuhr about F.D.R. Schleiermacher and applies this to later generations’ dismissive views of Rauschenbusch–and since I so wholeheartedly agree, I will let this quote close my post as it does Lewis’ chapter. 

Today, an ungrateful generation of theologians, which owes far more to its predecessors than it acknowledges, delights in pointing out the evil which lives after [Rauschenbusch], while it inters the good with his bones.

December 21, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, church history, ethics, heroes, liberal theology, peace, politics, Religious Social Criticism, salvation | 5 Comments

Bush Admin. Restricts Religious Aid to Cuba

At the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America’s summer conference (peace camp), Stan Hastey, Executive Director of the Alliance of Baptists (http://www.allianceofbaptists.org/ ), brought greetings, but also shared concerns about the Bush administration’s further restrictions of contact with Cuba, including religious aid in apparent disregard of the free exercise clause of the 1st Amendment. The following Associated Baptist Press story (http://www.abpnews.com/1252.article ) gives many details. The State Department now has a department of “Cuban transition,” that is, in defiance of self-determination, our government is actively pursuing “regime change” in Cuba and apparently plotting to determine ahead of time what the shape of a post-Castro Cuba will be. The arrogance is breathtaking. Suppose other governments, determining that after two stolen presidential elections (and there is no way that the elections of 2000 or 2004 would meet international standards for free and fair elections that the U.S. often insists others meet), decide that the U.S. is no longer a democracy and set up departments planning for a “U.S. transition” in a “post-Bush America.” We would consider such moves to be acts of war–or, at the very least, declarations that these governments are plotting the overthrow of ours. And we would be right! I have no love for Castro, but it is the Cuban people and ONLY the Cuban people who have any right to decide their own future.

As part of this Bush planning for Castro regime change, they are making it harder and harder for Cuban nationals to come to the U.S. for any reason. Rev. Antonio (“Tony”) Santana, Cuban Baptist pastor from La Fraternidad Iglesias de Bautistas de Cuba (“The Fraternity of Cuban Baptist Churches”) was the only Cuban national of 50 who applied who was granted a visitor’s visa and allowed to come to BPFNA peace camp–and the new rules may mean that this is the last time in the future this can happen (except when we hold peace camp in Canada or Mexico). Relatives of Cuban nationals can no longer visit–a move that has so angered Miami’s little Havana neighborhood that Republicans could lose Cuban-American votes this year for the first time in 20 years!

Further, the Bush admin. has determined that the Cuban National Council of Churches is a propaganda arm of the Cuban government and therefore will no longer allow churches in the U.S. to give aid, relief, or development money through the Cuban NCC! It is this feature of the new law that I claim is a violation of the 1st Amendment’s free exercise clause and I am pushing civil liberties groups to challenge all the way to the Supreme Court! The Bush admin. has made this same “propaganda” claim about the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Justice in Havana, an NGO that has long enjoyed (30+ years) collegial relationships with similar peace and justice centers in the U.S. The Bush admin. is blocking all visas for the Alliance of Baptists to visit their mission partners in the La Fraternidad Iglesias Bautistas de Cuba and is fining them for such visits made BEFORE the rules change (a violation of constitutional protections for due process, and against double jeopardy). The Alliance is a very small denomination (unlike some other Baptist groups) and these fines could cripple their missions abilities–they would doubtless welcome increased donations to help offset these fines if they end up paying them and, of course, would welcome legal aid in fighting them.

All freedom-loving persons should contact the State Department, Congress, and the White House and denounce this restriction on the free exercise of religion–as well as this arrogant “Commission for a Free Cuba.” Freedom-loving persons OUTSIDE the U.S. should contact your governments and urge your embassies to put diplomatic pressure on the U.S. to stop this violation of international law. No secular government has any right to determine who is and who is not a legitimate council of churches (or any other faith body)–that is for other faith bodies to determine. And no government has any right to plan “transitions” for other sovereign nations who have not threatened them with war. I’m all for spreading democracy–this is not how you do it. The U.S. MUST stop trying to dictate to other countries–that is an imperial move that spits on the graves of all who have striven in various ways to make this land a democratic republic!!

July 16, 2006 Posted by | foreign policy, religious liberty, Religious Social Criticism | Comments Off on Bush Admin. Restricts Religious Aid to Cuba

Religious Liberty Dimensions of the Abortion Debate

I am not intending to discuss the morality of abortion per se. Frankly, I have long believed that both “pro-choice” and “pro-life” advocates have way oversimplified the moral complexities involved in order to rally troops. You know the drill: extreme pro-choicers talking as if the civil liberties of pregnant women were the ONLY consideration and of medical abortions having no more moral significance than wart removal and extreme pro-lifers (having the louder megaphone for some time now) equating all abortions with murder and demonizing the motives of anyone who brings up hard cases or complexities. Deciding in the mid’80s that one side yelling “woman hater” and the other yelling “baby killer” did not count as moral discourse, I joined Common Ground which seeks its namesake between pro-choicers and pro-lifers. I spent 10 years with the organization and the experience would make good training for negotiating Middle East peace! At any rate, if someone is interested in getting past simplistic slogans to hard moral reasoning, I recommend Abortion: A Reader, ed. Lloyd Steffan, The Pilgrim Library of Ethics (Pilgrim Press, 1996) which gathers some of the best arguments, religious and secular, on all sides of the debate.

What concerns me here is the religious liberty aspects of the debate–which, sadly, were not even addressed in Roe v. Wade (1973). A brief side-note: Contrary to the constant rhetoric of the right, this decision was NOT immediately controversial. Catholic officials opposed it from the beginning, but usually in language tied in with their opposition to artificial birth control. Many later figures of the religious right either ignored the decision or made statements in the affirmative. The latter category included the notorious fundamentalist Baptist W.A. Criswell, author of Why I Preach the Bible as Literally True. Criswell noted that biblically, life begins with breath, and said that he always believed abortion should be left up to moral decision of the mother. Another similar voice was that of the right-wing theologian Norman Geisler. In the earlier editions of his book, Christian Ethics, he laid down the principle that “born life has priority over unborn life” and spelled out a limited number of cases in which he would believe that abortion is a moral option. Later, after the pro-life movement dominated the religious right, Geisler’s book came out in a new edition in which this section was removed and he argued that all Christians MUST be pro-life. Changing one’s mind is perfectly okay, but it is dishonest not to admit that you HAVE changed your mind and not to admit that an issue is complex enough for people to come to different conclusions.

When the Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, THAT was controversial. White preachers accused the SC OTUS of communism, billboards went up throughout the South threatening the lives of justices, and there were widespread calls for the impeachment of Chief Justice Warren (although the decision was unanimous). NOTHING like that happened when Roe was handed down and abortion was not a hot political topic until the 1980 campaign of Ronald Reagan, aided by a book published in the late ’70s by Francis Schaeffer and a then-obscure doctor named C. Everett Koop (later Reagan’s Surgeon General) called Whatever Happened to the Human Race? which first made abortion and euthanasia widespread evils among the Right and the battle cries for a new “right to life” movement.

This, in itself, is not damning. Sometimes it takes awhile for something to be perceived as an evil that must be opposed. I have nothing against people changing their minds. I do protest the dishonesty which claims that the new position is the one you’ve ALWAYS held, that ALL right-thinking people (all Christians, or all Bible-believing Christians, etc.) hold and have always held, and portraying your opponents as, at best, morally obtuse, and, at worst, in league with the powers of darkness. This is wrong, but it has characterized the Religious Right’s tone in the abortion debate from 1980 onward.

To a lesser extent, this kind of dishonesty has also occurred among some pro-choicers: acting as if all feminists always were pro-choice when the historical record indicates otherwise. (Abortion opposition wasn’t even a plank in the original platform of the National Organization for Women, nor in the first edition of Betty Friedan’s manifesto, The Feminine Mystique.) And groups like Feminists for Life are right to note the opposition to abortion by such feminist foremothers as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton–although they often act as if these women had all the scientific knowledge of contemporary gynecologists. Historical context is ignored by too many on all sides of this debate.

This leads me to my first liberty of conscience principle in this debate: Respect for the consciences of all requires portraying both your views and theirs as honestly as possible, refusing distortions for partisan political gain. One has to have a respect for “information integrity” in public moral discourse, one that refuses to twist facts, statistics, etc. to favor one’s own perspective. One has to be willing to admit to data that count against one’s own position and has to admit when one has changed one’s mind, and to the complexities which allow different people to come to different conclusions. This is not because “anything goes,” but because respect for liberty of conscience is tied in with respect for truth and for the morality of HONEST debate of important moral and public policy issues.

A negative example of what I have in mind happened a couple of years ago (2004) when my former teacher, Dr. Glen Stassen, now of Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, wrote a widely reprinted op-ed which argued for keeping abortion legal, but reducing the numbers of abortions by examining the causes why women seek abortions. One major reason given is the unwillingness to raise a child on one’s own, but men do not usually marry unless they can find good employment–so when unemployment is down, abortion rates drop as well. After this was published, many on the right accused Glen of “economic determinism,” of being in the pay of the Democratic Party, of not being a “real Christian,” etc. and INSISTED that Glen’s data was wrong that abortions had declined under G.W. Bush, not under Clinton. (3 independent statisticians checked Glen’s data, corrected for some data he didn’t have, but basically supported his contention that abortions declined under Clinton and grew again under G.W. Bush and correlated with unemployment and lowpaying jobs.) That is dishonest and a failure to respect information integrity, as well as engaging in unfair ad hominem attacks.

The Stassens’ youngest son was born with several birth defects because Dot Stassen contracted rubella while pregnant–and they chose to carry to term and raise David despite the hardships. Moreover, Dot, a registered nurse, went to work for a school for unwed mothers seeking to provide alternatives to abortion AND unwanted pregnancies. The personal demonization of this wonderful Christian family because their approach to the abortion debate differs is intimidation and false witness–and stems from failure to respect liberty of conscience and debate issues fairly.

A second religious liberty dimension is this: Differing religions hold different views on the morality of abortion. Respect for liberty of conscience means that one cannot simply legislate one religious position (e.g. ,the official Catholic view) as the law of the land. Most religions appear to find abortion generally morally problematic, but there are widespread disagreements: Most Buddhists are pro-life, but Japanese Buddhists are mostly pro-choice and have developed rituals for abortions; Traditional Judaism allowed for abortion if the mother’s life was threatened and some rabbis extended this to a threat to the emotional health of the mother; the early church mostly opposed abortion, but it appears that this was strongly connected with its opposition to infanticide and it is impossible to tell from the sources  (e.g., the Didache) whether or not early abortions with modern methods would be allowed under some circumstances; abortion is not addressed directly in either the Old or New Testaments, despite its widespread practice in the ancient world; in the decades preceding Roe there was a growing number of Protestants who argued for the legitimacy of abortion in limited circumstances (the SBC was on record twice to this effect prior to 1973).

Does this mean that any attempt to restrict or outlaw abortion is automatically out of bounds on religious liberty grounds? No. In an analogy widely used by the Right, Southern slaveholders defended slavery on biblical grounds, but no one today argues that the outlawing of slavery is violation of religious liberty. And, if my religion allows for human sacrifice, the law will not support me in my desire cut out my neighbor’s heart and offer it to Kali. But, in these cases, the restrictions on some liberty are justified by the common good and by appeal to moral principles established by REASON that could be understood apart from a particular religious viewpoint.

For the most part (there are exceptions), the Right has been willing to engage in this kind of reasoned debate less and less as its political influence has grown. Now its attitude has been, “WE SPEAK FOR GOD, SO OUTLAW ABORTION NOW NO MATTER WHO DISAGREES!” That is clearly wrong. I especially object to the Right’s tactic of trying to stack the Supreme Court because the justices they want on the court in order to overtun Roe also hold to many views clearly at odds with the health of the common good (e.g., Renquist’s opinion that Plessy v. Ferguson should have been upheld; Scalia and Thomas’ opposition to the Miranda decision, etc.). A far more honest approach, respectful of liberty of conscience, would be to seek a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion, but this effort was early abandoned by the Right when it realized that it would have an easier time stacking the court than to get 3/4 of state legislatures to ratify the amendment–when polls consistently show that a strong majority of Americans favor keeping abortion legally available.

The ends don’t justify the means. This route may have been the harder road, but it would have respected liberty of conscience more since, to be successful, it would have had to persuade a large majority of the public that abortion is wrong under most, if not all, circumstances.

The right demonizes those who want to keep abortion as a legal option, but who recognize widespread abortions as being, at best, morally tragic, and working to reduce the number of abortions sought. I fail to understand this except as a theocratic exertion of power. After all, several European countries, especially Belgium and the Netherlands, have very liberal abortion laws, but very low abortion rates, due to strong social safety nets and widespread sex education and easy availability of artificial contraception. This approach is defended even by someone like Jim Forest, head of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, who lives in Holland and who notes the strong opposition to abortion by Eastern Orthodoxy for centuries. Why is such an approach wrong in the U.S.? Especially since even the Right agrees that if Roe is overturned a vast underground network for illegal abortions will erupt? Wouldn’t working on the causes for which abortions are sought be a better approach–one that can potentially unite rather than divide the nation?

I’ll end this post with a personal narrative. I will admit to having changed my view on the morality of abortion at least 3 times in my adult life–on THIS, I have been a flip-flopper. From the moment I became a pacifist as a young man, I instinctively opposed abortion as a form of violence. Upon closer examination, I became convinced that the fetus is NOT a human person (it is human life) at conception, but only a potential person. As such, it has a presumptive right to life (which grows during gestation), but this can be overridden by the rights of the mother, who is already a person–but the later in the pregnancy, the more it should take to override the presumptive right to life of the person-to-be.

This became less abstract when my wife was pregnant with our second daughter. Even though Kate was in her late ’30s, we decided against an amniocentesis–the risk of this invasive procedure causing miscarriage outweighed what it was likely to tell us about birth defects–and we would have raised a Down’s Syndrome child. But we did use another technique, less invasive, whose name I forget–and we got an emergency call from the Ob-Gyn saying that our child-to-be may have Spina Bifida. In extreme cases, no real spine develops and the child is stillborn or dies right after birth. We could see no reason to carry to term in such a case, especially since fetal death could happen BEFORE birth and be a threat to my wife’s life. So, we rushed for a level 2 ultrasound and, thankfully, found that it was a false alarm–Miriam had/has a very healthy spine. Kentucky forbids abortions even in the late 2nd trimester, so we would have had very little time to make a horrible choice if the worst had proven true.

But what horrified me most was that pro-lifers lined up to condemn us for even considering an abortion, even in the extreme case. We should have been willing, we were told, to risk even Kate’s life to carry to term, even if the fetus had no chance at all, so it could leave the world surronded by love, instead of in a cold hospital procedure. The utter lack of regard for Kate’s life expressed here showed me why so many pro-choice folk think that all pro-lifers are really anti-woman and simply pro-birth. Missing from this was any conception of moral heroism going beyond moral requirements: A pregnant woman may choose to risk her life on a lost cause, such as a developing fetus with no spine, but no one can morally REQUIRE her to do so. (Considering that such a risk of life could have left me a single parent and my older daughter motherless, it is also not clear that moral heroism is only exercised in one direction.)

There are many such examples which is why abortion is a morally complex issue. Liberty of conscience requires not only seeking laws which respect different religious conceptions about life and personhood, etc., but requires that law and morality and public discourse recognize the difference between moral duty and moral heroism.

July 3, 2006 Posted by | abortion, religious liberty, Religious Social Criticism | 21 Comments

Why Faith Leaders Must Lead in Abolishing Torture.

This morning I was, as usual, listening to NPR’s “Morning Edition.” They were beginning a series of conversations on torture. To my horror, the first guest, Alan Dershowitz, the noted Harvard Law Professor and usually a strong defender of civil liberties, argued that, while torture is always morally wrong, it is sometimes effective in interrogation and so WILL be used if officials believe they need to save hundreds of lives from terrorist attack. Dershowitz’ proposed solution is to force the president to sign a warrant for torture in such circumstances and to have a public debate over what interrogation techniques count as torture and what torture can be used and under what circumstances. This, Dershowitz believes, will end our hypocrisy about torture (claiming we never do it while obviously doing so) and reduce the amount of torture in which we engage. Read or hear the full interview here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5512634 . What was most horrifying about this was that this barbarism wasn’t being proposed by “the usual suspects” (Cheney, Bush, Atty. Gen. Gonzalez, Ann Coulter, etc.) , but by someone who can usually be counted on to defend human rights and civil liberties. Yet, Dershowitz’ reasoning was entirely pragmatic and utilitarian.

With such muddled thinking about torture, it is all the more vital for faith leaders and faith communities to take the lead in campaigning to abolish torture. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture http://www.nrcat.org/ has over 5,000 signatures so far, but it should be 500,000 by now. I urge you to sign today.

I was encouraged to find that the New York Times ad against torture included Muslim, Jewish, liberal Christian, centrist Christian, and even some conservative evangelical signatures. One signer is David P. Gushee, a Southern Baptist who is Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University in Jackson, TN, a very conservative school. Anticipating criticism from his fellow conservatives, he wrote the following article for Religion News Service. I include it here because it does such a good job of explaining why torture is a major moral issue and why faith leaders need to step up and lead.

Saying No to Torture
David P. Gushee

This week the National Religious Campaign Against Torture released a brief statement unequivocally condemning any resort to torture (http://www.nrcat.org/). It was signed by 27 religious leaders, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant (evangelical, mainline, historic black church). Among the notable names attached to the statement are Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, former president Jimmy Carter, the Catholic Archbishop of Washington Theodore McCarrick, and evangelical leaders such as Rick Warren, Ted Haggard, and Brian McLaren. I feel honored to have been one of these 27 signatories.

I know that this nice feeling of honor will soon give way to weariness at the mud that will be slung my way by those who are unhappy with this statement and my signature. I am familiar with such criticisms:

Some say that this kind of statement is unnecessary, because our government does not torture.

Response: In violation of constitutional principle and American values, there are an unknown number of prisoners being held incommunicado in an unknown number of locations by an unknown assortment of government agencies all over the world. We really have no idea what is currently being done in the name of national security to these prisoners. This is itself is worthy of loud protest.

We do know that torture has occurred in multiple locations, not just Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, over the last several years. We know that the president had to be dragged into signing the McCain bill explicitly banning cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees, that he offered a signing statement freeing him to interpret the bill essentially as he wished, and that those revising the Army Field Manual have been considering including a secret set of interrogation techniques for “unlawful combatants.”

In sum, there is plenty of reason not to be confident that our government has given up torture or torture-like practices. As long as we do not know, we must remain vigilant.

Some say that this kind of statement says nothing about torture undertaken by other governments.

Response: The National Religious Campaign Against Torture opposes torture anywhere, by anyone, for any reason. But concerned American citizens can do little about what the government of, say, Uzbekistan, does with its prisoners. Moral concern begins at home, but it does not end there. Torture should be abolished everywhere. It is never right. Let the citizens of all nations work to end torture in every land.

Some say this kind of statement fails to support the troops.

Response: This is the ultimate cop-out argument. In fact, it’s no argument at all. Just play the “support the troops” card and everyone concerned about a particular government policy is supposed to cower in fear. Actually, what fails to support the troops is to be equivocal about torture, because it is our troops who eventually end up being forced or enticed to do moral evil when they move in the vicinity of torture. Either we morally destroy soldiers and intelligence officers by turning them into torturers or we begin recruiting sadists because we need them to do our dirty work for us. What really supports the troops is to free them from any temptation or responsibility to treat other human beings in a cruel, inhuman, degrading, or tortuous way.

Some say this kind of statement is naïve about the need for torture for national security.

Response: There is little if any evidence that torture actually enhances national security. It appears to be a near-consensus on the part of those who actually know anything about it that torture produces little if any valuable intelligence. People will say anything to stop being tortured. And if they survive torture, they (and their families, and friends, and countrymen) will hate us with an incandescent hatred, deeper than almost any other hatred in the world, because they have been physically violated. Producing more people who hate us that much does not enhance our national security.

Some say this kind of statement is a partisan attack on President Bush.

Response: My guess is that a mix of Republicans, independents, and Democrats are among the 27 signers of this statement. But the whole criticism is, again, a ruse. The campaign against torture is rooted in religious faith and the moral values that faith generates. It is also rooted in a deep commitment to American constitutional principles. If it becomes impossible to offer critique of a government policy from a moral point of view, then we will have lost the prophetic dimension of public life. And a country that loses that prophetic dimension can never reform itself, thus dooming it to moral deterioration and eventual moral collapse.

June 27, 2006 Posted by | human rights., progressive faith, Religious Social Criticism, torture, U.S. politics | Comments Off on Why Faith Leaders Must Lead in Abolishing Torture.

Who were the Levellers?

Since I am re-launching this blog, I might as well explain its title. During the English Civil War of the 1640s, a number of movements arose that were more radical than the debate over the supremacy of Parliament or the Monarch. One of those was a religiously-inspired movement for democracy and human rights called “the Levellers.” The majority of the Levellers were Baptists and Quakers and Congregationalists, with a few Presbyterians. They produced several good leaders like John Lilburne (Congregationalist).

Their best writer, however, was a General Baptist named Richard Overton, who maintained a long correspondence with Roger Williams that may have influenced some of Williams’ writings and the shape of the Rhode Island Charter. There are gaps in what we know of Overton’s life. We do not know when he was born, but he lived in Germany during part of the Forty Year’s War. This experience gave (or reinforced) Overton a strong antipathy toward violence and war, especially religiously inspired violence and war. In 1615, Overton came to Amsterdam and joined John Smyth’s congregation of proto-Baptists just after they merged with Amsterdam’s Waterlander Mennonites. Since he was just learning Dutch (Overton was a polyglot), he wrote out his personal confession of faith in Latin–arguing for liberty of conscience, believer’s baptism, and nonviolence. Then we lose track of Overton until 1638 when we find that he is back in England and a member of a General Baptist congregation. (Even though Helwys and 10 others split from Smyth to return to England and form the first General Baptist congregation, the General Baptists kept in touch with the Dutch Mennonites for 50 years, exchanging members without further baptism–meaning that they considered each other to be “of like faith and order.”) Overton remained a General Baptist the rest of his life.

He became a pamphleteer for the Leveller cause. He wrote The Arraignment of Mr. Persecution in 1640 to put religious persecution on trial. It was in this pamphlet that Overton coined the term “human rights” half a century before John Locke or the Enlightenment. Overton was arrested for publishing without checking with the censor and went limp in classic nonviolent resistance, clutching his copy of the Magna Carta all the way to jail. Next the police arrested his wife (name unknown now) for continuing to publish his writings. She had a newborn child and the police refused to arrest her. So, the guard captain came back with new guards and they too would not touch an unarmed woman. Finally, a third set dragged her and her babe through the streets. Overton later wrote about this in terms that derided the manhood of the guard captain.

In jail, food had to be smuggled in for the Overtons and they shared with other prisoners. They discovered many thrown in prison for debt, so Overton began to argue for economic rights along with civil liberties, and the right to political participation. He argued for universal adult suffrage, for “free trade” (not as a slogan for international companies repressing unions and local peasants, but as an alternative to the inherited monopolies of the aristocracy), for a free press, for complete freedom of religion. Overton hated religious wars and one of the reasons he believed in religious liberty and liberty of conscience was as a peacemaking initiative. He argued against the death penalty, for laws to be written in the language of the people (vs. the practice of writing laws in French or Latin so that only the nobility would understand the laws), against torture.

The Leveller movement as a whole was not pacifist. They envisioned a small militia, but were against heavy arms buildups and the military adventurism of kings. Overton may have been a pacifist (he had been a member of a merged Baptist/Mennonite congregation in Holland) as all of the writings in which he is SOLE author indicate. He never argues that Christians should join the militia. Pacifism as a government policy was beyond what he could envision. But he wanted the rights of conscientious objectors protected–no more press gangs, or drafts, etc.

At any rate, I try to stand for the kind of radical democracy, defense of the poor, nonviolence and human rights in a contemporary context as Richard Overton did in the 1640s. Hence the title of this blog. This is an ongoing Leveller manifesto in the midst of an American empire. A call to return to a democratic republic and to live out justice for the poor and powerless. It is a call for radical baptistic faith in an era when most Baptists in the U.S. South have become willing pawns and mouthpieces for the voices of empire–and theocrats who must make their radical ancestors’ blood boil. Radical Leveller faith lives on–here on this blog if nowhere else.

June 24, 2006 Posted by | Baptists, church history, heroes, human rights., progressive faith, Religious Social Criticism, social history | Comments Off on Who were the Levellers?