Thursday, September 30, 2010

Fundamentalists in our Midst

By Maria Caron

Last week when a pastor in Florida decided to burn the Koran, Christians, politicians, and government officials, rightly condemned what was universally agreed to be a hateful act. The right to free speech aside, most Americans seemed to view such an act as bad for the country and a poor representation of American religion in the public square. Despite the attention this pastor received in the media he is little more than an extremist operating on the periphery of society with only a congregation of 50 parishioners.

However, there are forms of fundamentalism at work in our political structure. More dangerous, and more worthy of our attention than the would-be Koran-burner, are Christian political organizations that hide behind slogans like “family values” but whose true agenda’s might reveal darker ambitions. One of these groups is the Fellowship, also know as the Family. What is alarming about this group is their intentional lack of transparency. By operating just beneath the surface, the Fellowship exudes huge amounts of political and social pressure without drawing the negative attention that would be sure to condemn them.

Originally started in the midst of the great depression, Fellowship founder Abraham Veriede resisted the new deal and insisted in the value of free markets which he equated with his Christian beliefs. The group which ministers primarily to the rich and powerful operates a home that receives tax exemption as a church. The home’s primary purpose, however, is to house congressman, providing spiritual guidance while lobbying for what it understands as Christian values. Underlying The Fellowship’s occupation with politicians is a belief that the powerful are the special few chosen by God for action. By becoming spiritual teachers to these men in power the family believes it can bring about God’s will in what Jeff Sharlet describes as “trickle down fundamentalism.” Every year this group hosts the National Prayer Breakfast, a tradition kept since the Eisenhower Administration. It is attended by Christian organizations, members of congress, other powerful politicians and the President. While the Family’s presence and power in Washington are undeniable little else is known about the group because it operates under a veil of secrecy. Today a man named Doug Coe leads it but its other members, which undoubtedly include elected officials, are protected. None the less some of its known members and associates include Senator John Ensign, Governor Mark Sanford, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Rick Warren who gave the prayer at President Obama’s inaugural address.

Jeff Sharlet, who wrote a book about the Family back in 2009, exposed in a recent Harper’s article the family’s connections to an anti-gay bill in Uganda that would make homosexuality a crime punishable by death. The Fellowship has its own branch in the Ugandan Parliament. It has been a presence there since President Museveni “a dictator hailed by the west for his democratic rhetoric and by Christian conservatives for the evangelical zeal of his regime” ( 37) came into power. The family has provided millions in leadership development and been involved in anti-AIDS programs that have nearly eliminated condom distribution. Through the Family’s urging Uganda and other countries have received U.S. foreign aide to promote programs run by fundamentalists. These programs seem on the surface to be helpful, like AIDS education, but are inherently ideological and are used for the sole purposes of manipulating Ugandans to embrace fundamentalist positions. But more powerful than their money are their ideas, particularly against homosexuality that have united the diverse tribes of Uganda around a common enemy. Sharlet states that the Family “like most American fundamentalists came out in muted opposition to Uganda’s gay death penalty, but they didn’t dispute the motive behind it: the eradication of homosexuality…for years American fundamentalists have looked on Uganda as a laboratory for theocracy…they send not just money and missionaries but ideas.” (37)As Sharlet pressed members of Ugandan parliament to release the names of American politicians they had claimed were supporting the bill, one responded “We must protect each others secrets, eh? That is what the Fellowship is, men we can trust, take our sins to.” (45)

Why should we pay attention to this group of fundamentalists? Although I find the family’s views and actions, especially in connection with Uganda’s Gay death penalty law, repugnant and anti-Christian, an alternative look in to the minds behind The Family appears in a recent article in The New Yorker suggests that Sharlet may have overstated the Fellowships involvement in some of its dealings abroad. None the less the article acknowledges that he group “has made itself vulnerable to unfriendly assessments, because its insistent secrecy and Coe’s indiscriminate outreach to leaders of all kinds raise legitimate questions of accountability.” (Boyer, New Yorker) The Family’s secretive membership and lobbying in Washington are fundamentally undemocratic. We really don’t have a clear idea about who are these people and what are their motives and goals. Although their representatives have claimed that their motive is to live a Jesus centered life, the strands of their influence that can be felt in and beyond Washington suggest more. How does a Jesus-centered group focused on small prayer meetings end up in Uganda at all? And what exactly does personal piety have to do with holding a big National Prayer Breakfast? If the family’s intentions are pure as they argue, why not at least dissociate themselves from those in such places as Uganda that takes their message to extreme and violent measures. If the group wishes to continue its activism in the public square it ought to come out and tell us exactly what is trying to do. This should be required for a group that exerts powerful influence in Washington under the guise of operating a church. In this country the fellowship may tone down its ideological rhetoric and keep quiet about its extremist positions, but that has not kept them from going oversees where their influence, intended or not, has incited mass violence and persecution of gay people.

The pastor in Florida, who made the news by threatening to burn the Koran, is certainly an example of extremist Christianity in the public sphere. However his influence pales in comparison to the sway the Family and other fundamentalist groups have in U.S government. We should ask ourselves if this is the best model for Christian engagement in political life.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Everyone is Wrong About Abortion but Me!!

by Jesse Milby

Rachel Maddow, titular host of a left leaning talk show on MSNBC, opened her September 16 broadcast with a segment on Christine O’Donnell. Maddow was hardly the first pundit to weigh in on the former —wait, has Christine O’Donnell ever had a real job? — in the wake of her Tea Party supported triumph over longtime Delaware congressman Mike Castle in the Republican senatorial primary. However, Maddow’s furor that night was aimed not at O’Donnell’s utter lack of qualifications or admissions she dabbled in witchcraft, but at what she referred to as “the great, unacknowledged, big honking political issue of this year’s election nationwide.” No, it wasn’t Bristol Palin (hopefully brief) staring turn on Dancing with the Stars. Her beef? That O’Donnell’s nomination meant there were now five congressional nominees who were in favor of complete prohibition of abortion, regardless of circumstance.

Maddow’s hyperbolic intonation aside (or perhaps contributory), this little instance presents both sides of the debate over abortion in allegorical terms with Maddow playing the neo-feminist liberal vehemently defending the sanctity of freedom of choice and O’Donnell as the paragon for the idealistic but painfully uninformed and self-defeatingly na├»ve pro-lifer. The debate over abortion is nothing new. Neither are the opportunists who prey open the whimsy of an enthralled public for votes, book sales and feigned legitimacy. Meanwhile, back in reality, two million abortions will be performed this year, just as they were last year and almost every year since a woman from Texas lied about being raped to challenge a state law proscribing abortion nearly forty years ago. The women who have them will be lauded by some, chastised by others, and ignored by all.

Let me be upfront about my personal beliefs on the subject. I am adamantly pro-life. I believe abortion is murder, that more often than not it is an act of desperation, and that the very term “pro-choice” is an assault on the sanctity and legitimacy of liberty and life itself. That being said, I look at abortion as much more than a hot button issue, capable of generating heated debate, arousing staunch opinions on both sides of the issue, and raising vast sums of cash for political combatants. It is an issue which hits at the heart of nearly every socio-economic concern today, with serious implications for civil liberties, race, gender, poverty and bioethics. It is not the kind of issue which should be dismissed outright once one has formulated an opinion.

That being said, Ms. O’Donnell’s complete unwillingness to address the issue in depth is characteristic of those who are adamantly pro-life. For all their talk about the sanctity of life, their polemics rarely touch on the environments which breed nihilism antithetical to such language. Very few woman obtaining abortions do so out of callousness. For most, it is a very difficult decision influenced by the world in which they inhabit. To a 17 year old girl facing the possibility of single teenage motherhood in a world offering little hope, the $400 procedure is not only a practical solution, but may even be viewed as an act of saving grace to spare the child a life of suffering

Conversely, Maddow and her cadre of neo-feminist libertines often soil their own water in defending the practice. The apologetics of abortion usually centers on the idea that a woman’s decision to abort is a sacrosanct and undeniable. It is not. Unlike the “self-evident” rights of life, liberty, etc, this one was “discovered” in the course of Roe v. Wade. Mere decriminalization of an act does not raise it to the sacred status of a right. Couching the debate in terms of a woman’s right to choose may actually be counterintuitive. Furthermore, this appeal is largely ineffective, as it further offends the opposition without presenting a reasoned and sustainable position to those apathetic of the issue.

My point is this: the battle over abortion as it is waged today has no victors, but millions of casualties. Those who justify abortion as a woman’s right often seem to lose themselves in their own self-righteousness. Since Roe’s inception in 1973, the number of black children aborted in America is more than 1/3 of the current black population. I find it difficult to reconcile that figure with anything resembling liberty. Conversely, those who seek its proscription typically take an oversimplified view of the issue, its true ramifications and its root causes. At its heart the debate is not one of women’s rights or sanctity of life, but over the very definition of what constitutes life itself. Unfortunately, this debate rarely sees the light of day, buried as it is beneath scientific corruption and political agendas. Abortion has been legalized in America for almost four decades. It has survived five Republican presidencies and almost its entire tenure under a conservative Supreme Court. It is even supported for certain circumstances by 78% of the population. It isn’t going anywhere. The Left won. It might behoove its supporters to simply shut the hell up and remember that. Even before Roe, estimates on the number of illegal abortions are in the range of a million per year. It is not some novel entity manifesting from an un-Godly sect of secularists and a liberal activist judiciary. It is largely a symptom of poverty, with more than 2/3 of abortion performed on women within one strata of the poverty line. I want to see the eradication of abortion, but that requires an assault on poverty itself. Those holier than thou Christians so bent on criminalizing abortion would do well to go back and read the Sermon on the Mount. A wise man once posed a question to me that continues to engage my views of the subject to this day: “How many abortions are performed every year because the good, loving, God-fearing people of the Church turned their backs on the pregnant, unwed, teenage mother?