Friday, December 3, 2010

Religious Liberals: as wishy-washy as the Democratic Party?

In a recent commentary for Religious Dispatches, Daniel Schultz is disappointed by what he sees as recent string of legislative failures in the Democratic Party. He wonders if “nice guys” really do finish last. He states: “Simply put, the religious left is far less effective than the religious right because it won't turn political questions into us-versus-them. It's too divisive for them” He suggests that religious liberals should get there hands dirty by responding to the religious right using equally uncivilized discourse. His proposal is for the religious left to come out and say something along the lines of “My God is the God of the poor. You can be for the poor or you can go to hell. Why? Because although “There's nothing nice about it”, that’s what it takes to win, to get results.

I too have felt the bitter disappointment that Schultz expresses in his commentary. I cringe every time abortion and gay marriage become the touchstones of religious political discourse over the poor and needy ones. I too have felt like saying, “God is on my side.” However, in my last blog I suggested that “Today, Christians must become again a model of civility and reconciliation. If we fail to rescue our prophetic voice then the Christian contribution to the political community will be regrettably linked to violence, ignorance, and intolerance. As Christians and Americans this would be a failure to live up to our religious principles as well as our democratic values”.

Schultz argues that we must balance civility with effective strategy. I agree that liberal Christians should take a strong stance on political issues, maintaining a powerful voice in the public sphere. However I am also aware of my own lamentable moments of political mud-slinging. In the end, all I gained from these tactics was a type of regrettable triumphalism a, ‘hooray for our side’ mentality, that seemed utterly disconnected from my Christian values. It also ceased to be persuasive, or compelling to my audience. If anything it made conversation more difficult between myself and those with whom I disagree.

The role of religious discourse in political life has both its dangers and its contributions. At times we must speak critically about the ways in which Christians have engaged in political discourse. At other times we can recognize the powerful impact religion has played in securing human rights, and speaking on behalf of the marginalized. Our finest moments, as Christians, and ultimately our most successful ones, have not been the result of political finger pointing, but the power of prophetic truth untainted by and with no need for intolerable language. If we lower the standards by which we engage, we will undermine our own cause, costing us the moral high ground, and turning us into the hypocrites we claim to despise. Our job as Christians is to be faithful witnesses in the world not to be politically successful. Of course success is desirable, but we shan’t base our definition of success on how many bills we pass or how many debates we win or even how many votes we secure, but on weather or not we have been faithful witnesses to the Christian faith.

So what do we do, how do we engage? A first step is admitting humbly that we all see through a glass darkly, meaning we should take a giant step off our moral high horse. Listening respectfully has a place, especially between conservative and liberal Christians who ultimately confess the same faith. That being said, Daniel Schultz has a point. Christian claims are important and compelling and we can and must state them assertively, while avoiding bad behavior. Instead of telling our opponents to go to hell we could say as Schultz also suggests “My God is the God of the poor. A vote against [unemployment benefits, child nutrition] or a vote for tax breaks for the obscenely wealthy is a vote against that God, and it's a vote against those who follow him.” This statement is confessional, but provocative; it’s strong, but not violent. What we should take away from Schultz’ commentary is that there is a place in between violent and pointless rhetoric and constructive but firm witnessing. The power of Christian claims doesn’t require intolerance, but sometimes it will require commanding and spirited speech.

The rules do not always apply sometimes morality does.

A common metaphor in American society is “separation of church and state”. This figurative point where the church is encouraged to stay out of the state's business and the state staying out of the church’s business. The idea of the “wall of separation between the church and the state was originally coined by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptists on January 1, 1802.[1] Jefferson desire in his letter was to communicate the idea that there is a wall in between the church and state to protect them . Moreover, the original use of the correlation was mainly to make sure that the state did not interfere with the church’s business, not to keep the church out of the state's business. The constitution states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof “. [2]The notion that prohibits Congress from making any law that hinders the free exercise of religion could be a line that needs to be cross at times when it comes to protecting the safety of the state and it’s citizens. The notion that prohibits Congress from making any law that hinders the free exercise of religion could be a line that needs to be cross at times when it comes to protecting the security of the state . The idea that the church should be governed by the national government on any matter is a tremendously dangerous proposition for the church. However, when exploitation and prostitution is happening within the boundaries of the United States region I think the government should intervene in some way. September 15, 2010 was a marvellous day for Americans, simply because Congress stood up to the power of the Internet and stopped exploitation and prostitution on In the beginning of September, Craigslist told Congress in September that it had permanently terminated its Adult Services section in response to criticism that it was facilitating exploitation and prostitution.[3] Clint Powell, Craigslist’s director of customer service and law enforcement initiatives, listed a number of actions the company had taken to weed out and prevent ads.[4] They required people who took out Adult Services ads to provide a working telephone number and valid credit card information, he said. The company also manually screened all ads in Adult Services and reported abuses. Clint Powell, Craigslist’s director of customer service and law enforcement initiatives, listed a number of actions the company had taken to weed out and prevent ads. They required people who took out Adult Services ads to provide a working telephone number and valid credit card information, he said.[5] The company also manually screened all ads in Adult Services and reported abuses. As for members of Congress, they made it clear they were satisfied that Craigslist shuttered its services, and wondered if there wasn’t a way to pass a law to criminalize running an online classifieds service, given that the present federal law protects online services from civil liability for what users posted online. [6]Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) who as chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security presided over the meeting said “If there is no law on the books, is there any law we could put on the books that would pass constitutional muster,”[7] Also,Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee claimed “as a progressive and a supporter of the First Amendment, she was in a philosophical confusion about sites like Craigslist that allow prostitution ads, adding, My opinion is, ‘Shut them down”.[8] The Craiglist shut down was a brilliant measure by Congress by relatively protecting the citizens and moral integrity of the nation. However, should Congress step in when active members of the Christian church are being financially exploited and mentally prostituted? The “prosperity movement” of the Twenty-First century Christian community can be consider, like the spiritual Craiglist. I am not saying that the “prosperity movement” is a web site where you can sell and acquire goods but rather it is a movement that has promoted or allowed exploitation and prostitution of U.S. citizens similar to Craiglist. Pentecostal-Charismatic historian, Dr. Vinson Synan, offers and explanation of the “prosperity movement”. Synan said, “this “prosperity movement” an amazing phenomenon among Pentecostals and Charismatic is spreading around the world with the force and velocity of a raging wildfire in a dry forest. [9]It is generally known as the prosperity gospel or the word of faith movement, and although many have not heard of it, the teaching is now an international force that is gaining millions of enthusiastic followers each year”.[10] Dr.Vinson also declared that this movement is “Led by such popular evangelists as Joyce Meyers, Kenneth Copeland, and Kenneth Hagin, Jr., the teaching is inspiring some of the largest churches and evangelistic crusades in the history of modern Christianity”. [11]The Charismatic evangelist spreads the massage of “If you will believe the Gospel, the Lord will immediately break the power of sin in your life and you could be filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit to speak in tongues, cast out devils and evangelize the world. You can be instantly set free from your addictions to alcohol, tobacco, sexual promiscuity, and drugs and Jesus will make you into a healthy and honest member of society. God is not against you. There is no virtue in being poor just for the sake of being poor. So God will also bless you materially as you work hard, live honestly, save your money and give a portion of your own income to others.” [12]Also the prosperity preachers in order to raise their own monetary gain often times conveys to the congregation that if you pay more than your tithes to the church then you would get more blessing. This is a clear exploitation of the people of the church in order to support the materialist wants of the pastor. The problem that I have is that there is nobody to hold these “prosperity movement” pastors accountable. This is where I feel that lawmakers should find some way to make sure that religion is being practiced freely but it is not harming the citizens of the United States of America. Congress should act similar to Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, who in 2007 held a Senatorial investigation of the prosperity televangelists, all Pentecostals or Charimatics. I am not suggest that Congress should be free to go on a “witch hunt” after preachers. I am suggesting that Congress should protect all of it’s citizens from the abuse of power by any individual, preacher or not. Moreover, I am convinced that the notion that prohibits Congress from making any law that hinders the free exercise of religion could be a line that needs to be cross at times when it comes to protecting the safety of the state and it’s citizens.

[1] [1] "Separation Of Church And State." Insert Name of Site in Italics. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2010 .

[2] ibi

[3] Adult Services' Shutdown Is Permanent, Craigslist Tells ..." Insert Name of Site in Italics. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2010

[4] ibi

[5] ibi


[7] Adult Services' Shutdown Is Permanent, Craigslist Tells ..." Insert Name of Site in Italics. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2010

[8] ibi

[9] "Word of Faith - Oral Roberts University - Believers Stand ..." Insert Name of Site in Italics. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2010 .

[10] ibi

[11] "Word of Faith - Oral Roberts University - Believers Stand ..." Insert Name of Site in Italics. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2010 .

[12] ibi

You Are What You Eat

You are what you eat. It is a phrase I have heard for as long as I can remember, but what does it really mean? Does food have anything to do with faith? How do we re-evaluate our eating habits in light of food recalls, genetic alterations, exploitation of farm land and the livelihood of those connected to it, and our biblical mandate to rule over creation.

There seems to be an ever-increasing amount of things to consider when shopping for food. Is it: organic, local, genetically altered, added hormones, animal treatment, grass-fed, corn fed, free range? The list seems to go on and on. But, as I explore all these different things I would like to add one more to the mix: biblically mandated.

First things first, what is the current state of our national food system and secondly, how is it influencing our economy, our environment, our health, and our faith?

In her article entitled “Most Americans Worry About Safety of Food Supply,” April Fulton states “government officials have said for years that the U.S. has the safest food supply in the world.” In the same article, Fulton cites a survey conducted by NPR, which seems to put forth the idea that people don’t necessarily agree with that statement. 61% of Americans are actually concerned about contamination of the food supply. This is not shocking considering the amount of food recalls experienced in the last six months. Recalls are so common has even “created an app for that,” alerting consumers to the ever-changing FDA recalls. If you were one of the unlucky ones to get sick due to food later recalled, you would nonetheless be in good company with 78 million other Americans who, Fulton reports, also get sick each year. According to Fulton in another article entitled “FDA Faulted for Gaps in Food Safety,” the American populous spends $150 billion a year to cover the cost of unsafe food.

Why is so much of our food making us sick? There are many explanations to this, and way too many to put in this blog. So, let’s talk about meat. According to NPR, 51% of Americans are concerned about meat contamination, and rightly so. According to Ellen Davis in her book Scripture, Culture and Agriculture, meat-processing plants are more of a jungle now than in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book. Disease epidemics such as BSE (mad cow disease) and foot-and-mouth disease are directly related to the new system of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) that almost entirely dominate the industry. Davis describes CAFO as a system that raises pigs “from birth to bacon” which means that these animals “never feel soil or sunshine, and rarely the touch of a human hand.” And if that isn’t enough to make you rethink your bacon, Davis describes the life of a sow: “a 500-pound sow spends an adult lifetime – measured in terms of litters and terminated after the eighth, if she survives that long – in a metal crate seven feet long and twenty-two inches wide, covered with sores, her swollen legs planted in urine and excrement.”

Let me bring all these facts together. Our food is costing us $150 billion extra a year because it is making us sick. It is making us sick because of the way we process the meat. The meat is becoming infected because of the way we treat the animals before they are slaughtered, among other reasons. Not only is this process making us sick, it negatively impacts the environment. According to Davis, “the meat industry is responsible for dangerous inputs, including massive direct pollution of soil, water, and air from intensive ‘livestock units.’”

So what? Why should we as a faith community care about this? Lets look at a few images beginning with the creation stories. In the second creation story God creates man and animal from the same ground, the same material. Genesis 2:7 states, “then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground…” Later in Genesis 2:19, “Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky.” In the first creation story, Genesis 1:28 gives a biblical mandate for the treatment of creation. God tells Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and conquer it and exercise mastery among the fish of the sea and among the birds of the sky and among every animal that creeps on the earth.” This mandate means that we, God’s creation, are to “exercise mastery” over the rest of God’s creation. Throughout the Old Testament, we are given examples of what this mastery entails. In the retelling of the 10 Commandments found in Deuteronomy 5:6-21, the command to rest on the seventh day reminds us that not only are humans to rest, but animals are to rest as well. The ancient idea of shechita, which states is the “humane method of animal slaughter for food”, is also derived from the food laws found in Deuteronomy. This calls for the swift and compassionate killing of animals. Finally, the importance of a meal is seen during the last supper, where Jesus offers wine and bread as the ultimate symbol of his love for us.

Everything about our food is connected to creation and to God. Humans and animals are made from the same divine elements. While humans are to be masters over the rest of creation, we are to treat it with compassion. When raising animals, we too are to give them rest, just as we are granted rest. And, when we slaughter animals for food we are to do so swiftly and compassionately. Finally, when our food is ready to be eaten, we are to be reminded of the meal in which Jesus broke himself for us so that we might have life.

You are what you eat. It is good to remember this statement as we begin to adjust the way we view our food. Will we continue to act as we do now, costing us our money, health, and our relationship with creation and with God? Or, will we begin to see the interconnectedness of creation, readjust our practices of mastering creation as biblically mandated, and finally begin to heal the brokenness that has crept into our food? Remember: You are what you eat.

What you can do:

Educate Yourself! Check out Ellen Davis’ book entitled Scripture, Culture and Agriculture and Michael Pollan’s book entitled The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Read the label on your food (in some cases, food labeling offers information on the treatment of animals in the creation of the product).

Visit your local farmers’ market.

Check out local farms in your area. If you are from Georgia, Nature’s Harmony Farms is great for supplying meat and cheese from free-range, organically raised animals.

The American Dream and the Marriage's Nightmare

We’ve all been there, a bajillion frequent flyer miles to cash in and no way to get really anything of use. I found myself in a similar situation a few weeks back, so what did I do? I took up Delta’s offer and cashed in about 5000 sky miles for a subscription to Time Magazine. The cover of the November 29th’s Time Magazine asks us very poignantly—Who Needs Marriage?[1] Recent polls and surveys have shown that the number of people marrying or wanting to get married has been dwindling because marriage is no longer seen as a necessity for happiness and success. But here’s the rub in my opinion—marriage is not an institution by which we should or even want to derive our happiness or understanding of success.

In drafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson noted that humans, by being humans, have inalienable rights. What were those? The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When any of those are being upended we are, at our essence, being tyrannized.

From the outset I think I ought to make it clear that I think Jefferson is mistaken. There is no such thing as an inalienable right. And when we start bestowing upon ourselves the notion that there are liberties that are intrinsic to our humanity we slowly slip from the notion of liberty and fall into libertinism. Any time any outside force impinges upon our “freedoms” we must desperately strive against that influence. The problem is this though—pretending we are in some ways not influenced by outside forces, social constraints, peer evaluation etc. is a fallacy. There is no way for us to escape that which influences our decisions and behaviors.

This is where the problem with marriage comes in. Marriage as an institution is distinct because there is an acknowledged relinquishment of our “inalienable” liberties. America can’t understand marriage because America doesn’t have the discipline to create a decent and moral people willing to part with their “inalienable rights.” America creates people who are told they have an inalienable right to pursue happiness—and this poses a problem for marriage. Don’t get me wrong, happiness is an integral part of marriage and in some ways there must be some modicum of happiness for marriage to even be feasible. But thinking that the pillars of marriage are happiness and success ultimately lead to the staggering number of divorces and separations we see.

Marriage (Christian marriage to be exact) is an event witnessed and upheld by the church and family because the witnesses know that there is no way in hell the bride and groom standing at the altar know what they’re getting into. Christians make vows to one another in marriage, not because vows express our deepest sentiments, but because vows require witnesses willing to take the married couple to task when these vows are being broken. Consider it a covenant or a sacrament, but in either case marriage is not something that can be held to the whimsy of the American dream, because America and its “inalienable rights” simply cannot understand covenant or sacrament. Both are theologically imbued terms that rail against the American libertinism that covenants the self only to the self.

Marriage is an act of forgiveness. Marriage is an act of discipline. And marriage is a sign of grace. Marriage is an institution that must be upheld by a community steeped in virtue with an understanding that the practicing of these virtues will inevitably derail American individualism.

So in some ways marriage in America is doomed to fail as long as our understanding of happiness and liberty are inextricably tied to the American ethos. Because American’s have been born and bred with the notion that we have a “right to happiness,” it ultimately follows that anything intruding what we perceive to be happiness is a destructive power and in its tyranny is absolves us of any commitment. As a result, for more ways than just one we need to drop the “right to happiness” ethos that we have in America.

C.S. Lewis has important thoughts about this “right to happiness” that Americans perceive to be integral to their being. He notes that “A right to happiness doesn’t, for me, make much more sense than a right to be six feet tall, or to have a millionaire for your father, or to get good weather whenever you want to have a picnic.”[2] This being the case, our perceptions that we have a right to be happy do not coincide with the real facts that happiness is elusive at all times. In reality, “When two people achieve lasting happiness, this is not solely because they are great lovers but because they are also—I must put it crudely—good people; controlled, loyal, fair-minded, mutually adaptable people.”[3]

What it ultimately boils down to is this—a synthetic understanding of happiness granted to us by the founders of this nation has wrecked the possibility of anyone ever being happy. Happiness is not a transcendent gift, but a neuro-chemical reaction to stimuli. This will eventually fade. However when we train ourselves in the virtues and when we be the best possible humans we can be ala. Aristotle, we find pure and unfiltered happiness. Therefore, happiness is not about feeling good or pleased all of the time, but about living life as a human in all of its complexities. The best marriages are often those that understand happiness in terms of discipline and human development, not action and reaction.[4]

[1] Belinda Luscombe, “Marriage: What’s it Good For?,” Time Magazine, November 29, 2010, 48-56.

[2] C.S. Lewis, “We Have No ‘Right to Happiness,’” The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis. God in the Dock, (New York: Inspiration Press, 1970) 516.

[3] Ibid. 518.

[4] Thoughts and ideas for this blog also came from:

Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007).

Considering Zeitgeist

In her November 12th article on this site, Marion Caron raised concerns for maintaining the prophetic voice of the Christian church. One of the main problems in modern civil discourse, she argues, is the ubiquitous use of irresponsible, pointedly divisive language in politics that serves to create far more problems than it solves. As she and a commenter on my previous article point out, holding tight to the central Christian tenet of unconditional, neighborly, Christ-like love should steer Christian participation away from such divisive speech. “Today Christians must become again a model of civility and reconciliation,” writes Caron, citing the example of President Jimmy Carter as an active and outspoken Christian who, in his book Our Endangered Values, stresses the need to find “as much common ground as possible” to solve the contentious issues of our time.

I could not agree more. It is absolutely imperative that public discourse focus on positive association rather than strict opposition and begin find common ground to solve problems instead of continuing to treat the political arena as a battleground. Along these same lines, Peter Baker and Carl Huse reported in the New York Times on Tuesday that the new Senate Majority Leader John Boehner, upon leaving the bipartisan meeting between President Obama and the Republican Congressional leaders, commented, “We had a very nice meeting today. Of course, we’ve had a lot of very nice meetings. The question is, Can we find common ground?”

Good question. Surely Christian love can aid us in this endeavor, providing an example in the public discourse that strives to find this common ground upon which the country could build progress.

This notion is all well and good – but is it realistic? To answer this question, let’s first examine a general model for effective religious engagement in the political arena. According to Fowler, Hertzke et. al. in their book Religion and Politics in America: Faith, Culture, and Strategic Choices, there are five factors that may contribute to success: “amenable traditions and theological beliefs; internal strength and unity; strategic location; constraints and opposition from other groups; and favorable ‘spirit of the times,’ that is, whether the political culture is open to a group’s political advocacy,” or what they later call zeitgeist (129).

Looking at the case of the American Christian Church, I’m not totally sure that any of these factors are presently at work; however, I am mainly concerned with the last one: zeitgeist. Is the current political scene receptive to what the Christians have to say?

Before I answer that question, let’s try to paint a picture of the political mood. Running on his reputation for bipartisanship and promising a departure from Washington politics as usual, President Obama gained immense support from voters across the political spectrum. Two years later, after losing millions of jobs and just a few key seats in the Senate, with the Senate most likely to have a record number of filibusters in a year, and the Republican shellacking in the Democrats in the midterm election, politics isn’t about finding the common ground any more. It’s about one side versus the other. It’s about finding a battleground.

In my first article, I explored the notion that Americans, including American Christians, have come to define themselves not by what they believe, but who is opposed to them. It’s true: the other is the new identity.

Here’s an example: as James C. McKinley Jr. reported in the New York Times on November 14th, last month, the Oklahoma legislature voted to pass a constitutional amendment that made it illegal for judges to consider Islamic law in deciding cases. Feeling that the First Amendment would obviously forbid such an action anyways, Democrat Cory Williams voted against the amendment. In the ensuing election, his Republican opponent sent out fliers with Williams next to a “shadowy figure in an arab headdress,” claiming, according to McKinley, “that Williams wanted to allow ‘Islamic “Shariah” law to be used by Oklahoma courts’ and suggested that he was part of ‘an international movement, supported by militant Muslims and liberals,’ to establish Islamic law throughout the world.” Williams won the election, but the amendment passed and several of his fellow Democrats lost their seats, giving Republicans an absolute majority in the legislature, along with the governor’s office, for the first time in the state’s history.

Along with the rest of the country, Oklahoma voted Republican because they are decidedly not Democrats, who are supposedly responsible for the economic mess, and also apparently not Muslim, liberal, and probably not rich or poor, but middle class, and not native or immigrant, but American.

Right now, Maria is probably asking what this has to do with the Christian prophetic voice. Here’s the point: the zeitgeist, the modern political mood, is not conducive to an outspoken, politically active Church trying to find common ground with non-divisive language that encourages neighborly love and understanding. There is a reason why there are raging debates in Washington and on the news about homosexuality and abortion, but none about poverty rights. Everyone knows that poverty is a problem (although not everyone knows the extent of the problem) but without an opponent, without a battlefield, the political conversation doesn’t lead to heated debate or to any kind of action. In order to maintain the Christian prophetic voice, then, I propose that the Church focus more on itself than on contributing to political battlefield.

I tend to side with renown Duke University professor Stanley Hauerwas on this issue. In his piece The Servant Community, Hauerwas challenges the notion that “the primary goal of Christian social ethics should be an attempt to make the world more peaceable and just. Rather, the first social ethical task of the church is to be the church – the servant community… As such, the church does not have a social ethic; the church is a social ethic” (374). Hauerwas suggests that the Church do this first by caring for the widow, the poor, and the orphan, about which, if you browse the television and online news networks, you will hear and read nothing. The reason isn’t because no one cares about them, it’s because no one wants to argue about them.

I am not suggesting that American Christians extract themselves from society. Rather, in a time where many Christians know shockingly little about their religion, I am exhorting Christians to regain their identity not based on who they oppose, but who they are as a Church – defined by what they read in the Bible and the common experiences they share with their fellow worshippers in the pews and the homeless, hungry, and uneducated on the streets. Rather than organize rallies in Washington, churches should organize more outreach efforts that are truly based on love of God and neighbor, rather than love of winning a political battle.

Hopefully, there will be a time soon when the zeitgeist is right for religious political action. When that time comes, if the Church can find itself again, its prophetic voice will ring true.

Facebook: Defending the Online Debate

With over 500 million fans, Facebook is steadily becoming its own global empire. Its influence stretches every day, with more and more people adding the social network to their daily – or hourly – routine the world over. With so many joining the Facebook community to keep close to friends, post pictures, update their profiles, etc., it is little wonder why the media is so enthralled with finding out just how much influence Facebook really has on the political and religious mindsets of its members.

In her article, “The Politics of Facebook,” Liz Funk of The Huffington Post affirms that the authority of the social network, while significant, fails to truly inhibit the political decisions of its online members. Despite the growing number of individuals joining activist groups every hour, Funk asserts that entering such organizations usually has little to do with the individual’s beliefs, and more to do with his or her desire to appear politically informed to the world.

Such activist groups, ranging from the “Tea Party Patriots” (526,443 members) to the “Liberal Socialists” (1,456 members), have, according to Fink, distracted people from what Facebook was always meant to be, which is a social network for college students to enjoy discussing the goings on of their daily lives.

“Facebook is not a place of politicking or a hotbed of Internet activism the way that Myspace might have construed, or utilized by grassroots activists” says Fink. “It's a place of fun and play and college student recklessness in a very online era.”

After viewing the activist groups more closely, I was initially compelled to agree with Funk’s argument. I myself have joined an abundance of political organizations (more so than I can count) that have had very little effect on my daily routine, let alone my political mindset.

Then again, when dealing with a social network that is quickly becoming Google’s biggest threat, it is useful to recognize that “politics” itself has always been in a state of flux. Even if Facebook’s activist organizations do not seem to meet the general definition of political involvement to people like Liz Funk – involvement that requires its members to meet face-to-face to discuss the issues – it is wrong to assume that such online groups do not manifest many of the qualities that traditional political activist communities have.

On Facebook, members are encouraged to express their opinions, start conversations, post polls, debate controversial issues, and ask for answers. In light of these facts, my question to Liz Funk is this: If such activity doesn’t warrant “political engagement,” then what does?

Facebook is garnering more and more discussions about controversial issues every day. “Positively Republican!” – a group over 303,376 members strong – offers a surplus of discussion threads for individuals to post their opinions on; these threads range from health care (26 posts) to the definition of American patriotism (a whopping 444 posts). Although a healthy number of these posts dwell on the sillier side of the issue (and some are just plain ridiculous), many of the posts exhibit a well-informed, educational perspective of the topic being discussed.

The problem with Liz Funk’s opinion of Facebook is that it only considers one feature of the social network – the feature that allows people to stay connected via wall posts, pictures, etc. While this is the primary component of the website, it is plain to see that Facebook is no longer just for college students wanting to have fun. “Positively Republican!” remains politically involved by inviting government leaders to address an issue on the group’s page every few weeks, then asking them to respond to any questions members might have. Without Facebook, this conversation between the elite political sphere and the normal, everyday individual might not be possible.

This online discussion of political issues is rivaled only by the social network’s outlet for religious issues. No other topic on Facebook garners the popularity that politics and religion have, perhaps because neither of them can be discussed as openly in any other forum. Religion – a controversial topic in itself – may be debated without fear of face-to-face confrontation, which is a plus when expressing an opinion that contradicts a religious doctrine. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Baptist, Anabaptist, Orthodox, Catholic, Mormon… the list goes on. If you can think it, you can join it, and if you can join it, then you can discuss it – all within the safety of your own home.

Just like the political activism groups, Facebook’s religious organizations comprise of both stimulating debate and impractical drivel. Facebook’s power, however, lies in its ability to convert whatever political/religious decision a person makes into a universal commodity, meaning that whatever information one puts into its database instantly becomes public knowledge to the Facebook community. Want to join a Jewish organization? Go ahead. Just be prepared for every person in Facebook’s empire (that’s 500 million and counting) to know about it within a few seconds.

Facebook, then, is doing much to convert both religion and politics into community-based goods. The mere act of joining a Facebook organization has the power to alter the public opinion of any given topic, regardless of how active one is at replying to discussion threads on the group’s homepage. Once a member joins an organization on Facebook, that decision is made public to the entire Facebook community, thereby transforming the individual’s personal choice into a topic of discussion and debate across the network.

Although I contend that Facebook may not yet be the global leader in political and religious activism, I find fault with those who ignore the value of a website that is at present generating more discussion than actual top news sites. As a member of the first generation to experience the birth of such a network, I am inclined to believe that websites like Facebook will only grow more influential as the years progress. With the number of online members increasing every minute, we must either acknowledge Facebook’s activist potential, or be left in the MySpace dust.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

My God Says Vote Republicrat

Turn a television to Fox News or MSNBC and you will see pundits, commentators and “experts” pontificating on a range of topics from national defense to healthcare. Most Americans agree that the way in which the media handles such issues is frustrating and polarizing, but the fact of the matter is that they would not be able to sustain such an approach if people did not watch. As painful as it may be for each side to admit, both sides are guilty of using the same tactics and practices, albeit usually in support or denunciation of different political agendas. The right-wing nutjobs who call President Obama a socialist and terrorist are using the same approach as the left-wingers who called President Bush a Nazi and war criminal. Having voted for both men, I shudder to think what that makes me. Pol Pot reincarnate, perhaps? Joseph Stalin redux, maybe? God forbid someone find virtue in certain parts of two policies put forth by different political parties.

Unfortunately, the same behavior is now applied within the Christian community of the nation with people self-segregating themselves into like-minded enclaves impenetrable to countervailing notions and hostile toward differing viewpoints. To an extent, this has long been the case, particularly in America, which has never had an official national religion. American Christians have always aligned themselves with various denominational ideologies, be they Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian or otherwise.

For most of the nation’s history, it is safe to say that such denominational alliances shaped and informed their congregants’ religious and political views. Some placed greater emphasis on personal salvation and accountability, others on collective responsibility and social action. Still, without trying to gloss over the many accounts of intra-faith squabbling and subject legitimate accounts of unrest to the lovely patina of nostalgia, there was a separation of political belief and spiritual belief within individuals that allowed for someone to be both a Baptist and a Democrat, or a Republican and a Methodist.

What’s alarming about the state of both political and religious discourse today is that there is very little effort made to understand or accommodate the other side. And why should we? Forty years ago, an elected representative likely had to appease the interests of a very diverse constituency. There were very few homogeneous congressional districts throughout most of the country. A legislator could not risk alienating minorities because while they may not hold a majority of the votes in his district, they may have enough to swing it to his opponent in the next election.

Now, thanks to the short sighted belief that the only way to ensure adequate representation is to elect someone who looks just like you and thinks just like you and the subsequent redistricting, legislators are far more likely to represent a constituency that is so uniform in composition that he need not worry about offending a lesser yet still significant portion of his district. While this allows for largely black areas to elect a black man to Congress, they now only have one person looking out for their interests as opposed to several who could not neglect a vital portion of their electorate. In the democratic process of the legislature, this means that minority voices may be more apparent, but less effective.

The same is true of America’s churches as Americans have increasingly sought religious sanctuary among the like-minded. Don’t like the preacher telling you to be nice to the poor? No problem. There’s probably another church preaching a message that poverty is a course from God right around the corner. While this allows Christians to take comfort in knowing their own beliefs will be reassured for an hour each Sunday, it is wretchedly detrimental to the quality and content of religious discourse among the citizenry.

Another facet of this trend is the increasingly partisan character of these ever more political religious congregations. Sunday morning preaching is more and more taking on the character of the Gospel according to Reagan or to Roosevelt than to Christ. People seem to be shaping their spiritual beliefs to fit their political leanings rather than vice versa. So if you are politically liberal, you can find a church that condones homosexuality and defends abortion as a woman’s right to choose, while conservatives can attend one that teaches AIDS to be the righteous scourge on the wicked and that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. This is not a healthy atmosphere for fostering open and honest discussion.

Both sides are to blame for this stalemate. Conservatives can be blamed for putting too great an emphasis on homosexuality as the great damning offense and denouncing pro-life advocates as wicked while ignoring their responsibility to the poor and disenfranchised set forth throughout Scripture. Liberal advocacy for gay rights often takes on such an air of condescension that it neglects Scriptural precepts against homosexuality, as their defense of a woman’s “right” to choose rejects even the possibility that abortion is the ending of a potential life.

This results in a form of pendulum politics with the two sides alternating two-year policy binges while pitting Christian against Christian and church against church. It is true that MSNBC and Fox News over-emphasize the divisions between us, but as we increasingly divide ourselves along “fundamental” lines, the hyperbole of the punditry is gradually becoming more of a reality, with the American church at the vortex of the Zeitgeist.

The Christian moral imperative is to do good in the world, but not to the extent that it ignores sin. Social Justice is a derivative of Scripture but not the Gospel in totality. Ironically, the Christian church could learn a lesson from a French Atheist, Albert Camus. “What I feel like telling you today is that the world needs real dialogue, that falsehood is just as much the opposite of dialogue as silence, and that the only possible dialogue is the kind between two people who remain what they are and speak their minds.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Gay Suicide and the Evangelical Ethic of Love: A Response to Eric Reitan’s Article

Eric Reitan’s article in Religion Dispatches, “Gay Suicide and the Ethic of Love: A Progressive Christian Response” addresses the recent string of tragic suicides of young gay men. He asserts that the evangelical response should be one of love rather than a fixation on a “conservative interpretation” of scripture that focuses on judgment. “Any theory of the Bible,” Reitman states, “that requires me to ignore my neighbors in favor of teasing out the correct meaning of Romans 1:24-27 seems to do an injustice to the Bible’s heart.”

Reitan’s framing of this issue is on point—he suggests that many evangelicals focus on fragmented passages of scripture rather than the Bible’s overarching message. However, I take issue with the way Reitan structures possible responses in either/or terms: either one wholly celebrates or wholly condemns homosexuals and homosexuality. This is a shallow and unhelpful treatment of a complex matter. In an attempt to flesh out a fuller understanding of this issue, I will make two claims in what follows: first, that there is an alternative response to the problem at hand for evangelicals. Secondly, this response—given the fact that the conversion of many conservative evangelicals to what they see as a “gay agenda” is not to likely to occur quickly—is the most pragmatically fruitful.

Reitan says that: “If you accept the conservative view about the Bible’s content and its relation to God, either you’ll need to stifle the lessons of compassion and empathy, or you’ll need to refuse to listen with compassion and empathy in the first place.” Here Reitan asserts that there can be no loving response to homosexuals outside of total acceptance of all facets of homosexuality. He seems to assume that a full conversion of the deep-rooted beliefs of evangelicals is necessary in order for them to address gay suicide in any kind of meaningful way. It is undeniable that many of the evangelicals in question have paid little to no attention to this problem and have, in many ways, even condoned it. However, I question how constructive Reitan’s proposition is when it essentially calls for evangelicals to change much of their foundational moral authority overnight, but I will say more to that later.

I suggest instead a third, seemingly obvious, but more pragmatic ethic to propose to opposing evangelicals: Christ’s command to love one’s enemy. An ethic of love founded in the gospel teaches us that we are intended to love not just our neighbor, but also our enemies. The implicit suggestion of this proposition may seem harsh—that homosexuals are the enemies of evangelicals, but it is a starting point for dialogue. It works to seat these parties at the table, in spite of their enormous differences. It reminds evangelicals that, regardless of their convictions about the (in)validity of homosexuality, they are morally obligated by the gospel to reconcile with this group. The discussion then is no longer about whether or not homosexuality has a biblical foundation—it can assumed for the sake of argument that it does not—but rather about how one can be most obedient to the gospel command. Evangelicals, if they heed Christ’s command, must sit down and address the safety of LGBTQ populations directly, instead of engaging in debates on its “naturalness” or biblical validity; tabling this issue is the beginning of an evangelical response.

Reitan’s starting point, conversely, seems to be that evangelicals should be persuaded by the progressive perspective to wholly change their views and accept the validity of homosexuality. In this sense, Reitan is not supporting an ethic of love, which obligates Christians to address the problem by working toward reconciliation, but rather he seeks to solve the problem by removing it altogether. He suggests an assimilation of progressive values by evangelicals which does injustice to the inherent complexity of this issue. An ethic of love which seeks assimilation instead of reconciliation is neither an ethic nor is it loving, but rather it is a patent annexation of one ideology by the other. Interestingly, this morally thick rhetoric is similar to that used by many of the said evangelicals who turn a blind eye to the issue of gay bullying and violence. Thus Reitan’s ethic of love may differ in content, but in terms of structure and style it is essentially the same argument as that of his opponents. Genuine transformation and reconciliation does not occur through polemical debates such as these but rather through mutual respect and dialogue.

The reason why Reitan’s approach fails prima facie is because, as mentioned above, he frames the issue in a polemical manner that has a divisive function. Reitan’s approach ultimately fails because he takes for granted just how dissimilar conservative evangelicals and progressives are. Implicit in his article is the idea that these two groups share enough foundational values to challenge one another’s interpretations. However, they are two very different ideologies with distinct moral vocabularies. “At the center of each are two distinct conceptions of moral authority,” James Hunter explains, “two different ways of apprehending reality, of ordering experience, of making moral judgments. […] Each side represents the tendencies of a separate and competing moral galaxy.” Thus for Reitan to assert that conservative evangelicals can or will assume progressive views such as the affirmation of homosexuality is largely naive of the fact that the difference is essentially a categorical one. The conservative evangelical view of homosexuality then is not what stymies engagement between these groups. Rather, it is the evangelical understanding of the nature and authority of scripture, Christian doctrine, and traditional mores—which are the hermeneutical framework through which all other experience is adjudicated. All ideologies are necessarily mediated through experience. If homosexuality were simply a matter of the interpretation of scripture, then the views of these two groups regarding the discussion at hand (and many others) would be much easier to reach consensus on.

Considering the fact that these two groups are fundamentally different, restructuring our understanding of how they should interact is pertinent. Dialogue between them should focus less on ideology and more on shared goals, since, as mentioned, change in ideology is not likely to happen quickly, if at all; such a change is not a pragmatic solution for an imminent crisis. A goal oriented approach which respects differences between groups while looking for ways to collaborate resembles healthy interreligious dialogue more than inter-Christian dialogue. In the former, religious groups do not challenge the premises of each other’s religion; they look for places of “shared righteous action,” as Christoph Schwobel conceives of the matter. They focus on common goals such as justice, compassion and safety for all people, despite the fact that they approach these issues from different premises. Many Christians may find my suggestion that these two groups are so radically different troubling. I find it troubling also. However I believe this is an important distinction to make in order to address the issue at hand. It is my hope that evangelicals and progressives can recognize this difference so that, rather than arguing over the premises in which their claims are founded, they can approach the crisis of gay suicide with a focus on ending it.

Works Cited
Hunter, James. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. New York: Basic Books Press, 1991.

Reitan, Eric, “Gay Suicide and the Ethic of Love: a Progressive Christian Response.” Religion Dispatches (October 2010) /3531/gay_suicide_and_the_ethic_of_love%3A_a_progressive_christian_response (retrieved October 31, 2010) [The article which the author is responding to]

Schwobel, Christoph. “Particularity, Universality, and the Religions.” In Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered: The Myth of a Pluralistic Theology of Religions. Edited by Gavin D’Costa, 30-46. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books,1992.

Correctional Dilemma

During the last few months I have been given the opportunity to work in a local women’s prison as well as take a class learning about the justice system in the United States. My understanding of this system has been challenged during my time there. Until recently, I found myself apathetic to the topic of the prison system. People commit crimes, they must pay for their crimes, and prison is where they go to serve out these sentences. And while I do have strong opinions about the death penalty, I had forgotten the presence of a whole other population serving time as well.

This experience has shown me first-hand the dilemma the United States correctional system faces. Incarceration rates are skyrocketing, the economic cost of housing inmates strains state governments, and the recidivism rate continually rises. At the same time, funding for rehabilitation programs is almost non-existent, and what is in place has not come easily. Many times, in my own experiences and in the material I have read, it is as if we have forgotten that we all have a humanity, even those that have broken our laws. How do we fix this problem? How do we remind a nation—which is determined to have a system of punitive justice—that our punitive response hurts society as a whole?

To help put these statements in perspective, here are a few facts and statistics about the correctional system. According to Senator Jim Webb’s Fact Sheet, “the United States currently incarcerates 750 inmates per 100,000 persons; the world average is 166 per 100,000.” This means more than one in one hundred citizens are imprisoned in American jails or prisons. Both male and female incarcerations rates have increased dramatically over the past three decades. Each year, 3.2 million women are arrested, and while many of these women are later released without being charged, 156,000 of those women will be held prior to trial or as prisoners after sentencing. And, according to Beth E. Richie, author of “The Social Impact of Mass Incarceration on Women,” these numbers represent a tripling of the female inmate population since 1985. For men, the numbers are ever more staggering: the incarceration rate rose 573% from 1980 to 1997 and has continued to rise today. According to The Pew Center on the States, 1 in 13 adults is under correctional control in Georgia.

While incarceration rates have gone through the roof without a proportionate increase in crime. According to Senator Webb, the rise in incarceration rates results from changes in the penal code. Decreasing crime rate has less to do with increased incarceration as a deterrent to crime than with changing policy dealing with sentencing “in terms of time served and the range of offenses meriting incarceration.”

Local, state, and federal governments face an economic crisis of prison cost. Senator Webb says “in 2006, states spent an estimated $2 billion on prison construction, three times the amount they were spending fifteen years earlier.” This amount, combined with the total cost of law enforcement and the daily expenditure associated with corrections, totals over $200 billion annually. To break that down, Christine Rathbone, in her book A World Apart: Women, Prison, and Life Behind Bards, says housing one inmate for a year costs $38,000 on average. According to The Pew Center on the States, Georgia spent $1.1 billion on corrections in 2007.

And while these costs could be somewhat understandable if they had a positive impact on society, the rising recidivism rate suggests otherwise . According to Senator Webb, “the number of ex-offenders reentering their communities has increased fourfold in the past two decades. On average, however, two out of every three released prisoners will be rearrested and one in two will return to prison within three years of release.” This is due much in part to the way our correctional system currently functions.

During the 1970s, the correctional system went through a transformation. According to Bruce Western, in his book Punishment and Inequality in America, “the official philosophy of rehabilitation was replaced with a punitive approach.” Western describes this approach as characterized by policy analyst James Q. Wilson—characterized by policy analyst James Q. Wilson—as the view “that criminals were not made in the poor and broken homes that dotted traditional criminology; they were born into the world wicked and covetous. Rehabilitation was a sentimental delusion for this tough-minded analysis. Incarceration could reduce crime only by locking away the hard cases and by deterring the opportunists. To deter, punishment had to be certain and not left to the vagaries of the sentencing judge and the parole hearing.”

Because of this change during the 1970s and opinions akin to those of Wilson, we now face a dilemma. How should we approach rising rates of incarceration and recidivism along with the increased economic costs of the correctional system? We are unable simply to “lock offenders up” as a solution, we must again look closely at communities, they way households and neighborhoods foster crime, and these as ways of understanding how to prevent the formation of criminal behavior leading up to and after prison. Though not a new concept for the United States, perhaps a return to greater sentencing flexibility and supportive services would reduce recidivism in a manner less costly than housing inmates. Western says the main objective of such a system was to correct (not merely to punish). It gave judges freedom to determine whether an offender should be incarcerated, or be sentenced to community service under the direction of a parole officer. Further, Western argues that while most convictions did not lead to incarceration, those that did faced an institution focused on rehabilitating the offender to help them become a productive member of society. Western quotes David Garland as describing this system as a “combination of indeterminate sentencing, corrections, and community supervision as ‘penal welfarism.’” For the vast majority of convicted offenders, the criminal justice system was an extension of the welfare state—a government-sponsored effort to provide opportunity and lift society’s failures back into the mainstream.” This sort of approach would help decrease economic cost by reducing the rate of incarceration while promoting a type of rehabilitation proactively working to reduce the recidivism rate by educating and preparing offenders for society once more. Funding previously spent on prison facilities could be used to increase educational and job programs along with counseling and other types of rehabilitative curricula.

Something we seem to have forgotten when dealing with criminal offenders is that they too are human beings. They too are created in the image of God. They too deserve to be treated as such. While it is not okay to violate laws of our society, we cannot just lock individuals up and hope they learn from their mistakes. We must actively pursue an avenue that helps returns them to society with the resources for fulsome, appropriate participation in public life. Christine Rathbone quotes Jeanne Woodford, “I don’t want to forget that this is about people, about humanity.” As the United States faces this dilemma of rising rates of incarceration, recidivism, and economic cost in a system dominated by a punitive idea of justice, we must remember that this is about people, about humanity.

Reclaiming our Christian Voice

This past weekend at his satirical rally "to Restore Sanity”, Jon Stewart presented awards to individuals whose words and actions exemplify reasonableness.

Jon Stewart isn't the first to point out what seems to be an escalating lack of civility, respect, and common courtesy, in public conversation. Although there is much debate concerning the appropriate place of the Christian voice in public life, it is my opinion that the key area of influence for Christians is the arena of respectful public engagement. Too often the Christian voice is an active participant in angry public rhetoric. At the very least the Christian population is not speaking up in a significant way against such demonizing behavior, thus condoning it and helping to perpetuate its existence.

This is not just a matter of manners. Key democratic virtues such as equal opportunity, justice, fairness etc, are at stake in how we approach strong disagreement. Respect and tolerance for one another must be evidenced by use of language that reflects these core democratic virtues

Irresponsible language is language that, encourages fear, supports intolerance, and promotes suspicion of individuals or groups, demonizing them for the sake of scoring political points, manipulating public opinion, and turning opponents into enemies. It is an example of irresponsible use of language to go on national T.V. and say that Muslims killed US citizens on 9/11. Although it is an indisputable fact that the perpetrators of this crime were Muslim, it was irresponsible to infer that being Muslim was the cause of the crime. Juan Williams, and Bill O’Rielly have both used language this way to encourage hate and fear of the Muslim people.

Irresponsible use of language is in play also when either a direct or indirect assertion is made that President Obama is Muslim. Currently Muslims and political party candidates are among the many targets of defamation from the inflammatory unsubstantiated language used in our public discourse. The intentionality of rhetoric is recognized in the use of the term swift boating which was coined to mean slandering someone to the point of destroying their chances of winning and also in the verbiage of harassment and bullying.

Defamation also leads to physical harm. It is irresponsible to run ads on T.V that suggest that gay marriage will lead to the teaching of a homosexual agenda in public schools. This type of public language is dangerous because apart from being a gross manipulation of the truth, rhetoric of this variety can and has led to acts of violence. Examples of this abound. It is not a stretch to see the recent string of suicides and other acts of violence against young gay men as connected to a general environment of intolerance perpetuated by anti gay T.V. ads.

Timothy McVeigh committed his unspeakable crimes during the height of anti-government rhetoric and militia movements that closely resembles statements and campaign advertisements produced by the Tea Party movement today. It is also easy to make a connection between anti-Muslim rhetoric in the media and the Florida pastor's intention to hold a public burning of the Koran. In short our language itself can be violent. Even when our language carefully treads on the border of inference and suggestion, it has actively contributed to a hostile political environment.

In a recent commentary for Religion Dispatches Gary Laderman argues that one can “Pick any decade from American history and find political leaders encouraging hate—both to protect American values and interests and to strengthen the civil religious ties that are supposed to bind us all together… hate Indians, hate blacks, hate Jews, hate anarchists, hate war protestors, hate government, hate the North, hate the South, hate the gays…” Laderman points out that political discourse, including an appeal to shared religious values, (often white Christian and protestant) is frequently used for the tactical purpose of demonizing any group with which we find ourselves in disagreement.

Although Christians are guilty of participating in this type of destructive rhetoric, religion is not solely responsible for the negative direction of public conversation, and people of faith are not solely responsible for its existence. Despite the despicable ways religion and has participated in these political tactics, an appeal back to Christian virtues can contribute positively as a corrective to hateful discourse.

I strongly believe that Christians can and must speak prophetically about the need for an environment of tolerance and even charity toward one another. The center of Christian ethics being neighborly love can make a powerful and positive contribution in the framing of public conversation. As Christians in community we should hold one another accountable when we fall short of anything less than civil, respectful public discourse. This can occur in our daily lives among friends, family and colleagues, but it also has broader implications for shaping and discerning everyday media content. Individually, but also collectively we must form standards for civil conversation and then demand that standard be met in public discourse. We must use the Christian language of goodwill as the measure against which we judge our public discourse. To not participate in intolerant, demonizing speech is not enough; we must speak out against violent and hate-filled language both as responsible Christians and good citizens.

Although Laderman is correct in his assessment that religious language has been used to demonize people and institutions, it is also within the American tradition to use religious language to call back and correct our moral failings. I find powerful Lincoln’s second inaugural address as a powerful witness in his use of deeply religious language to explain the just cause of the civil war. Despite the horrific nature of the war, Lincoln spoke prophetically about bringing an end to slavery, using Christian language not for rallying hate toward the confederate states but “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” as Robert Bellah points out “he closes on a note of reconciliation” (Robert, Bellah “Civil Religion in America”, 177)

President Jimmy Carter is a more recent example of a Christian politician who has used his Christian values to positively shape public discourse. In his book “Our Endangered Values” Carter states that “many members of the general public, legislators, federal judges, Christians and other believers are still searching for harmonious answers to most of the controversial religious and political questions. It is in America’s best interest to understand one another and to find as much common ground as possible.” (Carter, Our Endangered Values, 5) Carter speaks candidly and civilly as a born again Christian, employing that language of goodwill for charitable conversations even with his strongest opponents.

Today Christians must become again a model of civility and reconciliation. If we fail to rescue our prophetic voice then the Christian contribution to the political community will be regrettably linked to violence, ignorance, and intolerance. As Christians and Americans this would be a failure to live up to our religious principles as well as our democratic values.

Does Religious Speech Belong in Public Discourse?

The sudden spurt of suicides related to anti-gay bullying has shocked our country. What is more shocking to me, however, is the vast difference between the responses of the secular communities and those within the Christian community. There are Christian voices that have spoken out in defense of the marginalized, bullied, mentally and physically tortured, gay children. But it is impossible to ignore the often louder voices on the Christian right backed up by their own interpretation of Christian

What we have in the wake of these tragedies, then, is an example of two dangerous trends in modern American society: the inability for the Christian religious right to engage in productive conversation with the left and the impossibility to create public discourse between the religious and non-religious due to a lack of common language.

For example, in response to the outcry against anti-gay bullying, Tony Perkins, the president of the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council, wrote an article in The Washington Post entitled, “Christian compassion requires the truth about harms of homosexuality.” Perkins, who was a member of the Louisiana legislature for eight years before becoming president of the FRC (whose slogan is, according to their website, is “Advocating Faith, Family, and Freedom), argued a shift of blame from the teachings of Christian conservatives against homosexuals to the conduct of the bullies themselves. The root of the problem, according to Perkins, is not the fact that society is still violently resisting homosexuality, but that homosexuals innately experience higher rates of mental health problems in general, unrelated to “society’s general disapproval.”

So far, any right-wing anti-gay politician, regardless of religious conviction, could have written this public response. There is no religious language; it is intelligible to the entire American public. But the problem for productive public discourse arises in the undergirding religious language in his argument. After citing scientific evidence for his position, he continues to write, “The most important thing that Christians can offer to homosexuals is hope-- hope that their sins, just like the sins of anyone else, can be forgiven and their lives transformed by the power of Jesus Christ.” This sentiment only communicates to Christians, leaving all non-Christians and those unfamiliar with Christian theology oblivious to its meaning.

With respect to open, inclusive public discourse, however, the religious left is not a better alternative. For example, in his article “Why Anti-Gay Bullying is a Theological Issue,” Cody Sanders offered these comments by Boston College professor Dr. M. Shawn Copeland to the anti-gay bullying conversation:

“If my sister or brother is not at the table, we are not the flesh of Christ. If my sister’s mark of sexuality must be obscured, if my brother’s mark of race must be disguised, if my sister’s mark of culture must be repressed, then we are not the flesh of Christ. For, it is through and in Christ’s own flesh that the ‘other’ is my sister, is my brother; indeed, the ‘other’ is me…”

The point is clear – even the language from the religious left can hope only to converse with the opposing language of the religious right, and vice versa. They are not engaging with the wider American public, and if they are, the majority of that public is most likely not receiving the intended message. Certainly, when, on a national quiz of basic Christian and Biblical knowledge given by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the highest scoring denomination gets 60% of the questions correct, one can hardly expect any type of theological argument to be understood by more than small percentage of religious Americans.

However, on the basis of free speech, it is impossible for me – and, ideally, for any other American – to claim that these voices should be silenced. Nevertheless, when the language of these personal ethical convictions becomes unintelligible to the secular community, it can be destructive. My concern here is not the destruction of public morals or discourse. Rather, the involvement of religion – specifically, Christianity – in political discourse threatens its sacred integrity.

My concerns are rooted in the admonitions by two monumental political philosophers: James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville. In a remonstrance against a bill proposed by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia entitled, “A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion,” Madison argued for the separation of church and state not only to protect the personal religious convictions of the people from the meddling of the state, but also to protect the state from religion, condemning employing religion “as an engine of Civil policy,” claiming that such an act is “an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.” Likewise, in his book Democracy in America, de Tocqueville examined the roll of religion in American culture, warning:

“when a religion chooses to rely on the interests of this world, it becomes almost as fragile as all earthly powers… Hence any alliance with any political power whatsoever is bound to be burdensome for religion. It does not need their support in order to live, and in serving them it may die” (298).

Such profound admonitions, therefore, should encourage one to condemn the use of religious language in public, and specifically political, conversation.

Still, as the predominant Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas points out in his essay “A Christian Critique of Christian America,” “our religious convictions cannot be relegated to one sphere of our lives and our social and political activities to another” (462). Nevertheless, he maintains the same fear that excessive participation in the secular community threatens to degrade the prophetic and salvific power of Christianity. One partial remedy to this problem, according to Hauerwas, is that Christianity shed its Constantinian status and permanently relegate itself to a position as a “diaspora religion,” where it can speak prophetically about social and political problems without corrupting its traditions as a means to personal salvation.

It seems, therefore, that American Christians have a choice. The first is to continue religious discourse in the public conversation. The second is to restrict it to the private sphere. The first solution risks continued association due to common opposition, as in when matters of social morality become national topics of heated contention simply because of their inherent nature to be argued (i.e. gay marriage and abortion, as opposed to poverty rights and widespread hunger that rarely experience the level of heated national conversation), and the secularization and corruption of religion. The second risks complete exclusion of religion from the public sphere where it may be needed to provide both an opportunity for common association and a tool for moral action, such as in advocating for the rights of the poor or alleviating neighborhood violence.

I cannot hope to offer a cure-all. I can only hope that the religious left and right can find a way to speak to the greater American society without risking their own unique positions as prophetic Christian voices.