Friday, November 12, 2010
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.
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) http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/sexandgender /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.
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.
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.
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.
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 religionsdispatches.com 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.
Sexual responsibility ( Preach and Politicians )
Eddie Dowdy II
"Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I undertake to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long- term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct” -THICH NHAT HANH
Sexual responsibility is a cultivated way of life that protects the safety and integrity of society. Sexual responsibility should be considered as a universal ethical virtue that governs humanity. Leaders in the human community should be aware that sexual irresponsibility could cause major interior fractions in society. Moreover, leaders should never engage in sexually irresponsible acts, due to the potential harm it could bring to the human community. The reality in American society is that social and spiritual leaders cannot seem to grasp the concept of being sexually responsible. In the last three decades many individuals, children, couples, and families have been destroyed by the sexual misconduct of preachers and politicians. The lack of sexual integrity is an embarrassing ground of commonality to find leaders such as preachers and politicians.
American Christian Preachers tragically have not been sexually responsible over the past three decades. Strangely sexual irresponsibility is becoming a cultivated norm within mega pastors circles especially in the Metro Atlanta area . In 2006 archbishop Earl Paulk, former pastor of mega church Cathedral of the Holy Spirit at Chapel Hill Harvester Church in Decatur, GA, was sued by former church employee Mona Brewer. In the lawsuit Mrs. Brewer claimed Earl Paulk manipulated her into an affair from 1989 to 2003 by telling her it was her only path to salvation.In a 2006 deposition stemming from the lawsuit, the archbishop said under oath that the only woman he had ever had sex with outside of his marriage was Brewer. However, a 2007 court-ordered paternity test revealed Archbishop Earl Paulk slept with his brother's wife and fathered a child by her.
Similarly, Bishop Eddie L. Long ,who is the pastor of an mega church in suburban Atlanta found himself in the center of a sex scandal of. In October of 2010, four Georgia men filed a lawsuit claiming that the prominent Atlanta, GA, pastor coerced them into sex. The suit, allege that Long used his position as a spiritual authority and bishop to coerce young male members and employees of his New Birth Missionary Baptist Church into sex. Bishop Paulk and Bishop Long are just two samples of the tragic reality of sexual irresponsibility being practiced by American preachers. American preachers, or any preacher for that matter, should be fully committed to protecting the structure and integrity of community and individuals, but this has not been the case .
Why Politicians ?
American politicians have also tragically been sexually irresponsible over the past three decades. In January of 2010, former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards admitted that he had fathered a child outside of his marriage with a former campaign videographer, confirming tragic rumors and reports. Edwards publicly admitted to the affair with Mrs. Hunter, after the National Enquirer reported that he was the child's father.  Similarly, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was caught practicing sexual misconduct. In March 2008,then Governor Spitzer who gained national prominence by relentlessly pursuing Wall Street wrongdoing, was caught on a federal wiretap arranging to meet with a high-priced prostitute at a Washington hotel . Mr. Spitzer, apologized for his behavior, and described it as a “private matter.” Spitzer also declared, “I have acted in a way that violates my obligation to my family”. John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer are two more examples of the tragic reality of sexual irresponsibility being practiced by American politicians. As public leaders, politicians should protect the public with their actions, but this has not been the case.
It is clear that sexual misconduct is an embarrassing ground of commonality for American preachers and politicians. However, the pressing question is, “Who is responsible for this lack of sexually integrity amongst preachers and politicians?”. I think that every preacher or politician is personally responsible for their own individual actions. However, American society as a whole is partly responsible for the actions of our spiritual and social leaders. We treat our preachers and politicians as if they are demi-gods and goddess. This type of treatment towards our spiritual and social leaders has in some way harnessed an untouchable attitude amongst our leaders. As an African American preacher, I am almost embarrassed by the unnecessary royal treatment given to me when I visit churches as a guest speaker. I can only imagine how communities treat powerful politicians. Spiritual and social leaders should try not to take advantage of the power given. Likewise communities should shift from treating our preachers and politicians like celebrities. Sexual responsibility is a cultivated way of life that protects the safety and integrity of society. We should all try to remember it is our duty to practice sexual responsibility.
In the infancy of Christianity, spread throughout the Roman Empire, the early church found itself without “voice” and without “power.” The Roman Empire persecuted the early Christians for a number of reasons, one being the thought that Christians were atheists. Sure they believed in a God, but they didn’t believe in a god approved by the Roman Empire. The Jews were fine because they had been practicing their Judaism for some time now and the Romans saw them as relatively harmless, the Greeks were fine because by and large they didn’t have a god, and the romans were ok because, well they had Caesar. The Christians, however, were a weird anomaly, an insidious cult trying to subvert the Roman way of religion and life. We know that Christians weren’t atheists, but to the Romans they were because they didn’t believe in gods that were known to be “safe” to the empire, gods that weren’t going to stir things up, gods that were docile and domesticated. For all intents and purposes it was a new deity brought into the Empire that threatened the pantheon of the Romans and the normal way of doing things. Not to mention these new Christians refused to participate in the standard religious fare of the time, which only further heightened suspicions of their atheism because of their refusal to pay homage to the god of the empire. All of these things compounded not because the Christians didn’t have a God, but because their God wasn’t inextricably tied up with the Empire. Essentially, they were considered atheists because they wouldn’t “do as the romans did”
This ultimately leads me to my point—When in America it is meet and right to do as the Americans do. In 2008 76% of Americans self-identified with having Christian convictions, while 15% claimed no religious convictions and a meager 3.5% associated with the “fringe” religions such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and New Age religions. Even more specific in the state I’m writing (Georgia) 68% said that religion is “very important in their lives,” and in my home state Indiana 60% said the same thing. The point being, that overwhelmingly, Americans identify themselves as religious and predominately Christian. That’s all good and fine, but as most of us have read, the Pew research poll taken recently effectively says that Americans know diddly about religion, more so, they know less than didly about Christianity—the supposed espoused religion of the masses. It’s important to keep in mind keep that the questions asked were on a Sunday-school felt-board learning level—like the four gospel writers, or the first book in the Bible. And Christians in America couldn’t answer the questions (correctly at least). Americans know very little about what they claim to be so important to them. And what’s more shocking, those who don’t even believe in a god, let alone the Christian God, know more about the tenets of the Christian faith than Christians. So what am I saying—the atheists have a more comprehensive and well thought out world view than the bumper sticker touting, bible-thumping, Merry Christmas wishing Americans do? Yep.
Ok, so no more statistics, no more demographics, no more numbers. What does this all mean? What is the take-away from the less-than-shocking discovery that the Pew Research Forum has dug up? Here’s what it means: Americans are good at looking like Americans (any other nation in the world could probably attest to that). Here’s what it also means: Americans are, by and large, bad Christians. We can have “god bless America” after every speech but it seems that Americans don’t even know what they mean when they invoke “god.” But I understand, saying things like “Jesus have mercy on us” after every speech would be kind of a downer, and its just…so…churchy right? I mean serious religious convictions, with real names and disciplines might not fit so neatly with the American ethos, so I get it. And finally here is what it also might mean: if Christians in America aren’t willing to take their Christianity seriously, more seriously than their being American, maybe they should stop calling themselves Christians. Cheap grace anyone?
What’s the take-away? Well I’ll start by suggesting that any serious politician, political pundit, news anchor, writer, journalist or for that matter anyone in America who seriously considers themselves a Christian to drop the “god-talk.” America is no more a Christian Nation than Wisconsin is made out of beer and cheese. So don’t assume that when you hint at something religious that it makes any sense or holds the least bit of theological value. Lets start working things like the cross, or resurrection into the conversation. Lets embody that which we say is so defining about our character. Or maybe like Kurt Vonnegut (an atheist himself and true American patriot) said: “For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings…I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. ‘Blessed are the merciful’ in a courtroom? ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ in the Pentagon? Give me a break!” Lovely, another atheist showing us up.
So much like the Christians in the early church I find myself being a modern day “atheist” who believes in a God that challenges the empire not a god who is held hostage by it. And I believe in a God that deserves to be named and wrestled with not mentioned and shooed away. Therefore, let us consider for a moment and entertain the thought that maybe God doesn’t have the fetish for America like America has a fetish for god. Let us consider for a moment that when most people talk about god in America, that they are statistically speaking: full of Sh*t. Let us consider for a moment that all of this god-talk in America really isn’t about God at all, but about Americans trying to look American at all costs. And finally, let us consider that the god Americans invoke and “worship” is like the god the Romans worshipped—no god at all.
 Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country, (New York: Random House, 2005), 98.
Change has come to America. Again. With the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, the hope of many is that the dynamic in Washington is about to change. Some have called this election a referendum on the policies of President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and the liberal Democratic regime that has passed sweeping reforms in Healthcare, attempted to bail out the automotive industry and banking interests and scaled back the war in Iraq while increasing U.S. troop involvement in Afghanistan. It may very well be, although a cursory knowledge of electoral history in American would show that midterm elections rarely go the way of the presiding party. I voted for President Obama in one of the most heavily Republican counties in the state of Georgia. My support for him has not changed.
With the midterm elections comes the possibility of sweeping reform in Washington. It won’t happen, but the potential is there. Even though I continue to support the President, I cannot say that I am particularly displeased with the outcome of the election. Frankly, the Democrats had an opportunity to do great things and, as usual, they blew it. Politically, I am center-right in my views. While I believe that those who supported Tea Party candidates are going to be in for a rude awakening when they realize their people have no political acumen and even less of a sense of political reality, I am glad to see one change they have already brought to the political process. Very few Republicans campaigned on the back of the preposterously vague idea of “family values.” And while they certainly stoked the flames of the xenophobic among us, doing little if anything to quell those who falsely accused the President of everything from Islamic sympathies to being an al-Qaeda Manchurian Candidate, most candidates did little more to appeal to Christian voters than to mention their own Christian beliefs as part of their biography. This is a welcomed shift from the races in 2004 and 2006 in which the crux of the Republican campaign strategy was an absurd advocacy of a Constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman, while preaching a message of Christian values more commensurate with Hitler’s Nuremburg address in 1932 than the Sermon on the Mount.
That is not to say that this year’s election did not bear witness to such ridiculous evocations of our nation’s “Christian” heritage. Georgia’s new Governor Nathan Deal opened his victory speech with “to God be the glory, great things He has done,” as if God Himself stumped for a man accused of a veritable checklist of ethics violations. In a race in which choosing a candidate seemed more like picking which form of execution you prefer for yourself than which man was better fit to lead a state, my guess is that The Almighty didn’t have much to do with it. Glenn Beck, grand dragon of ignorance and hysteria, had the audacity to claim the torch of Dr. Martin Luther King as the leader of the new struggle for civil rights, while simultaneously accusing hosts of individuals of things he knew to be spurious and defamatory. No need to come back to Mr. Beck. I doubt that God will.
Granting that these instances were not exactly aberrations, the theme of Republican candidates in this election had far more to do with fiscal responsibility and opposition to “socialism” than their God complex of previous elections. It was the debate surrounding those elections the led me to divinity school. I quickly tired of people with zero knowledge of history, theology or the Constitution claiming that we were a founded as a theocratic Christian nation, the Founding Fathers were all devout and practicing Christians and the Constitution was some political facsimile of a Second Covenant with the Creator. So I majored in history, am now in seminary, and will go on to law school to focus on Constitutional law.
It is clear that neither side of the aisle actually grasps what it means to be both a Christian and statesman. It’s not much of a stretch to say that neither side meets either qualification very well. While the Democrats claim the message of caring for the poor, the infirmed, the downtrodden and the suffering, many of their policy initiatives actually exacerbate these conditions. As for the Republicans, it’s difficult to maintain integrity when many prominent representatives and supporters are getting caught with male prostitutes or are off on dalliances in Latin America with their mistresses after extolling Christian values and the sanctity of marriage. Perhaps even more disturbing is their outright vitriol at the possibility of allowing for a 3% rise on the income tax of people who by definition make at least twelve times the stated minimum standard of living. They can couch this policy in language of job creation and fairness all they want, but in reality it is nothing more than greed. Not much in the way of Christian virtue there.
So here’s the deal. Neither party has any right to claim authority as the party of Christ. The Republicans were, at one time, the party of Crist, but they abandoned him as well. The Constitution is not a religious document, nor were the Founders all devout Christians. They were extremely intelligent and forward thinking men who realized the positive aspects of Christian faith for a new republic and created a government charter that allowed religion to thrive by formally separating its role from that of the government. Christian values could be of great benefit in policy making, but politicians must first learn what Christian values actually are. They do not favor the wealthy nor condone bigotry. Neither do they legitimize abortion or advocate gay marriage. They are not the weapons of political strategists. So Congress, do your job. Fund education, build new roads and bridges, protect our nation and ensure our progress. And for goodness sake, please leave God out of it. He has enough to do without having to answer for your sanctimony in His name.
The Faithfully Concerned
Thursday, November 11, 2010
A couple’s decision to use contraception to prevent pregnancy can no longer be isolated from the increasing rate of marital problems (i.e. skyrocketing divorce rates) in the United States. Indeed, the divorce rate for those using contraception in marriage (regardless of religious affiliation) currently peaks at around 50%. By stark contrast, couples using Natural Family Planning have a divorce rate of only 4% (“Physicians for Life”). Natural Family Planning, or NFP, involves the husband and wife keeping track of the woman’s fertility rates by charting her temperature and other physical signs on a daily basis; this a testament to the Catholic Church’s traditions of keeping marriage a holy sacrament. Although I still contend that the methods of family planning (be they contraception, NFP, or other) should remain a private decision between husband and wife, I also argue for a more thorough exploration of how the use of contraception within marriage damages the foundation of marital unity, and, by extension, the social and political welfare of the people at large.
Contraceptive drugs are often claimed to be 99% effective in preventing pregnancy. In fact, statistics show closer to a 7% "failure" rate for contraceptive drugs, with the condom itself having a 15% "failure" rate. In contrast, couples using NFP in marriage have a success rate of 98%, meaning that only 2% of those using Natural Family Planning became pregnant without meaning to. With these startling statistics, one wonders how contraception would gain such a footing in our society. The truth of the matter, however, is that the accessibility of contraception has now made the thought of not using it passé. After all, if so many couples are using contraception to prevent pregnancy with reasonably positive results, why is it so wrong in the eyes of the Church?
There are a number of reasons why the Church challenges the use of contraception in marriage, including the high risk of harmful physical effects, and, on a more economic level, the burgeoning cost of supply. The primary reason that the Church favors Natural Family Planning over contraception, however, is that a contraceptive marriage cannot achieve the “oneness” that a husband and wife are meant to achieve. With contraception, the husband and wife are separated before they even get the chance of being united as one in sexual union. Contraception divides the pair – the woman to her pill, the husband to his condom. Why discuss the possibility of having a baby through intercourse when using a contraceptive is so easy to do?
The barriers set in place by contraception negate the intimacy of sexual intercourse in marriage by promoting the idea that pregnancy is an issue that need not be discussed if both parties have taken the correct steps to prevent it on their own. Although I am not suggesting that this is the case for all couples using contraception in marriage – indeed, many couples may keep the walls of communication open by discussing family planning on a regular basis, thereby achieving their own “oneness” in marriage – but I do contend that the surplus of contraception is making it too easy for couples to simply have sex with their partner whenever they want instead of taking the time to discuss the consequences. That is what NFP does – it makes you yield your own sexual urges for the benefit of open communication. It is about listening to your partner first, then your body.
Through the NFP process, the husband and wife are able to give of their whole selves every time they have intercourse, with the knowledge that the steps they have taken to get there have not been as two separate individuals, but rather as one unit. A person’s “whole self” means not just one’s body, then, but also one’s gift of fertility; seen in this way, a person using contraception during sex is withholding a component of their whole selves. Natural Family Planning, on the other hand, maintains that each partner’s reproductive gift will be present during every sexual act they share. By offering their fertility and their body, couples using NFP recognize that we, as humans, cannot control our fertility by “blocking” it with contraception, but rather that we should elevate our fertility by offering it to our partner as a gift during sexual union. Indeed, if fertility can be misrepresented as an infection to be attacked (as it with contraception), then it is no wonder that pregnancy is so often linked with abortion.
Natural Family Planning is just that – natural. Those who use NFP are not working against the way God has created them, but are simply observing a cycle that God Himself created in the woman by limiting their intercourse to the wife’s natural periods of infertility during a month. Although many view the option of having sex whenever one wants as a key “bonus” to being married, Natural Family Planning recognizes that being made “in the image of God” constitutes an awareness of respect both to our partner and to ourselves. As divorce rates continue to climb in America, we must ask ourselves if we are willing to yield our physical urges in order to achieve a more contented family structure, and whether or not we can do that with contraception.