Friday, December 3, 2010

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.

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