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I want my faith back 

Getting personal about the political hijacking of religion.

click to enlarge STEVE COPLEY
  • STEVE COPLEY
There’s only one thing on my Christmas list this year: I want my faith back. I didn’t come by it easily. I’m a card-carrying liberal, skeptical by nature, with an almost knee-jerk eye-roll reaction to anyone who’s completely comfortable discussing their religious convictions in mixed company. I spent pretty much the entire decade of my 20s in an uncomfortable agnosticism because I just couldn’t make up my damn mind. So now that I have — now that words like “sinful” spring to mind when I hear about the $40 million budget for George W. Bush’s inaugural soirees, instead of just “disgusting” — I’m starting to take the right wing’s hijacking of my religion very, very personally. “These people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. And in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine rules made by men.” — Matthew 15:8-9 Shortly before the election an acquaintance who, like me, is a liberal Christian and a Methodist (a denomination we share, at least officially, with President Bush), sent me an op-ed piece written by a retired Methodist bishop. It critiqued Bush’s record in light of the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline, the denomination’s central collection of beliefs and rules. Not surprisingly, the bishop found him lacking. I forwarded the piece to a relative in another state who’s a part-time Methodist pastor, thinking he’d at least find it interesting. His response? Harsher than anything I’d expected. He defended Bush as the “man of faith” in the election. Kerry — a lifelong practicing Catholic — apparently didn’t fit the bill, although my relative didn’t give details to support that view. Furthermore, if Kerry were elected, he would “undermine the role of religion in public life” and appoint Supreme Court justices who eventually would restrict religious expression to the point that my relative wouldn’t be able to publicly denounce homosexuality as a sin. I tried to be as non-snarky as possible in my reply, but I haven’t heard from him since. If we’d continued our conversation, I would have wanted to ask him this: Why are all the fights over posting religious language in government buildings — and, most recently, having it embroidered down the front of your judge’s robes — about the Ten Commandments? How come no one’s ever gone to court over posting the Beatitudes? If the U.S. should be a “Christian” nation as reflected in our government’s official actions, why don’t we start with legislating “Love your neighbor as yourself”? And this: With all the millions of children in our country who don’t have enough food, clothing, or love, how can right-wing Christians possibly still cling to the delusion that God thinks gay people are the biggest threat to Christian values? Times Jesus mentions the poor in the gospels: I lost count halfway through Matthew. Times he mentions homosexuality: Zero. Throughout the entire 2004 election cycle, the debate on “moral values” was hamstrung by the religious right — limited to abortion and gay marriage, with no mention at all of any traditional religious social justice concerns. “The Bible speaks a huge amount about the poor and poverty and how you treat the least of these in your midst,” said Steve Copley, pastor of North Little Rock First United Methodist Church. “That doesn’t even seem to be on the table at all. … Right now, we talk about life, but if folks don’t have enough to live on … and I’m not even talking about people on welfare, I’m talking about the working poor.” The same attitude showed up in Central Arkansas’s local congressional races this year, said Rabbi Eugene Levy of Little Rock’s B’nai Israel synagogue. “What they had in common was the dialogue had to be done on Republicans’ turf,” Levy said of the campaigns of Rep. Vic Snyder and Sen. Blanche Lincoln, both Democrats and professed Christians. “Who’s more in favor of troops, who’s more in favor of sending money to the war in Iraq. What happened to the moderate agenda? It’s gone. It was all about can the moderates out-security the Republicans.” Snyder, who’s married to the Rev. Betsy Singleton, pastor of Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Church, said it’s bothered his wife that “a lot of things that are values don’t get discussed that way” — education, hunger, peacemaking. “I get really worked up about the children,” Singleton said. “Why aren’t they a religious issue?” The hypocrisy hasn’t gone unnoticed outside our borders. The Rev. Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, spent three months in Europe earlier this year. He said Europeans are suspicious of Americans “because we talk so much about religious values but don’t live them.” And he dismisses the right-wing, pseudo-patriotic mantra that the opinion of the rest of the world doesn’t matter. “People say ‘We don’t care what they think about us,’ but we ought to care what people think about us because that’s a part of our witness.” Of all the progressive and moderate people of faith I talked to as part of this story, Howard “Flash” Gordon, pastor of First Presbyterian Church and a social justice activist, told me the story I’ve repeated the most often: When Ronald Reagan died earlier this year, someone from Fox News called Gordon, looking for a sound bite for a story on Reagan’s religious faith because Gordon had known Reagan’s pastor. “I said, ‘He didn’t take care of poor people,’ ” Gordon said. The guy from Fox said, “I don’t want to hear about poor people, I want to hear about Reagan’s Christianity.” Gordon replied, “That IS Reagan’s Christianity,” and the Fox guy hung up on him. That story captures for me how low we’ve sunk in our perceptions and expectations of what “faith” looks like. “I don’t want to hear about poor people, I want to hear about Reagan’s Christianity.” It’s altogether depressing, really, at least on the surface. There was that infamous exit poll, offered up as proof in the mainstream media that conservative Christian voters were now in charge, and the rest of us were just hopelessly out of touch. But all the right wing’s posturing, before and after the election, may well be the best thing that ever happened to progressive and moderate people of faith. Outrage has taken me in a good direction. If I’m in any way representative, we are finally starting to clue in to the need to act politically specifically as an expression of faith — and realizing just how many others like us are out there. In the past I’ve been reluctant to out myself as a Christian among my liberal friends, and as a liberal among my religious friends. It’s not that I’m embarrassed to believe what I believe; but the word “Christian” has come to be so strongly associated with beliefs that are the polar opposite of mine. It’s frankly embarrassing to share a label with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. I know I’m not the only one, either. Cole Wakefield, a liberal, devout friend who works at the Cokesbury Christian bookstore, puts it this way: “The problem is, nobody knows it’s out there. There are a lot of progressive Christians, a lot of churches who might feel they’re the only ones.” Look at cable TV, he points out. No shortage of channels devoted solely to religious programming, but virtually all of it is right-leaning. A few months ago I was sure progressive Christians were a dying breed, or at least an increasingly underground one. What I’ve found in the wake of the election and doing research on this story, though, is that Wakefield is right: There is a large, viable, and, most importantly, energized movement of broad-minded faithful out there. The Granddaddy of progressive Christian media is Sojourner magazine, which has an extensive web site and a weekly email update and claims a readership of 100,000. The magazine and its parent organization have been around for 30 years, and executive editor Jim Wallis has been the go-to guy this year for progressive religious commentary on any number of TV news shows and newspaper articles. Given that, it’s a testimony to how much more effectively right-wing religious groups have used the media to promote their message that I’d never even heard of Sojourner or Wallis until a month or two before the election, when someone emailed me a Sojourner-sponsored petition/full-page newspaper ad that began with the headline, “God is not a Republican. Or a Democrat.” A Zogby poll commissioned by three liberal groups after the election found that despite registering 400,000 new voters and spending almost $2 million, the religious left was only about half as effective as the religious right in getting its message out: 71 percent of voters said they’d heard from Christian conservatives, while 38 percent said they’d heard from religious progressives. But we are out there. Not just at Sojourner, but at many smaller web sites too, having online conversations about where we are, how we got here and what we should do differently next time. One discussion thread I stumbled onto asked simply, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” “No!” wrote someone who signed himself matthew0724. “As an evangelical Christian, I feel the most important job I have been given is to be a witness to non-believers. Much of this witnessing is simply trying to live a Christ-like life so others will see the character of Jesus through me. My ability to be any kind of a witness, active or passive, has been drastically harmed by the religious right — specifically the Bush administration. By acting as if they own the franchise on Christianity, and then acting as un-Christlike as possible, many more people are inclined to dismiss my beliefs out of hand. Duh-bya is also giving Christians the image of being morons. ‘It’s the stupid, stupid.’ ” Rabbi Levy traces the conservative religious take-over back to the campaign against Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. The religious right attacked McGovern in several key states, and in a post-election interview, he blamed them for his loss and explained how they’d accomplished what they did: They co-opted emotionally charged words like “family” and “life,” stuck “pro” on the front and claimed the linguistic high ground for their ultra-conservative agenda. This time around, of course, it was “moral values.” Conservative Christians remade the phrase into code for being anti-abortion rights and anti-gay rights, and they got away with it. Again. “Traditional Democratic values are Christian values,” Wakefield said. “But somehow ‘help the poor’ doesn’t matter, war doesn’t matter, because there are gay people around.” Part of the problem is that progressive people of faith have allowed conservatives to have a stronger voice because we often don’t feel as confident debating Scripture, said the Rev. Karen Akins, an associate pastor at Second Presbyterian Church. “People who do not literally approach Scripture…perhaps feel somewhat handicapped, because they can’t point to a specific place because we’re not about proof-texting” — using specific Bible verses to make a point, without considering their context. “We talk more about the story of God, the places where we feel God’s voice is strong about righteousness and justice. “When someone is standing before you very adamantly pointing to a specific place [in Scripture], sometimes it’s hard to come back — you want to open the whole Bible rather than pointing to a place in Leviticus or a place in Deuteronomy or a place in Romans.” Rep. Snyder, a churchgoing Methodist who still had to defend his religious bona fides against a Republican “moral values” candidate in November, puts the blame not on conservative Christians, but on Republican campaign operatives. “What was different in this election was the Republican politicals did a much better job of milking those religious issues in ways I thought at times were sinful,” he said — like the brochure distributed in Arkansas and West Virginia claiming Democrats would ban the Bible if they were elected. “By saying Democrats are going to ban the Bible — what they’re saying is, they’re the party that’s going to protect the Bible, but they’re doing that with this flagrant dishonesty.” Gordon, however, blames Democrats for selling out — abandoning their historic positions on social programs and economic justice to cater to centrist voters. That’s allowed Republicans to push religious differences to the fore of what distinguishes the two parties, he said. “What issues are left then?” Gordon asked. “ ‘They’re complicated heathens, we’re simple Christians.’ ” Akins added that progressive people of faith seem to have underestimated the power of the religious right lobby in government, and haven’t responded as strongly. “We’ve not stepped up to the plate to match that as people of faith,” she said. “I certainly think it’s a wake-up call for us to be better at articulating what our faith is calling us to do and to be.” And the right-wing Christian message has enormous appeal to people because it offers a black-and-white take on complicated issues. “Certainty is the narcotic of the right wing,” Gordon said — and they are marvelously adept at pushing it. They have been much more willing to stand up in pulpits and on TV news shows and proclaim what is right and wrong, selling a brand of Christianity that doesn’t allow room for complexity. “It is far, far easier to be on the right than in the middle or on the left, because everything is already determined for you,” Pulaski Heights Baptist’s Hyde said. But I wonder why progressive Christians can’t do the same thing. Yes, we almost define ourselves by our inclusiveness, by our emphasis on Jesus as a loving savior, not a judgmental one. But we also have black-and-white beliefs, just like conservatives do: Greed is wrong. Poverty is unjust. Compassion is commanded. If it’s certainty people want, we can give it to them in spades. Writing in The Nation a few weeks after the election, author Barbara Ehrenreich had this advice for the losing side: “In the aftermath of Election ’04, centrist Democrats should not be flirting with faith but re-examining their affinity for candidates too mumble-mouthed and compromised to articulate poverty and war as the urgent moral issues they are. Jesus is on our side here, and secular liberals should not be afraid to invoke him. Policies of pre-emptive war and the upward redistribution of wealth are inversions of the Judeo-Christian ethic, which is for the most part silent, or mysteriously cryptic, on gays and abortion.” The job may not be as hard as right-wing Christians would have us believe. Sure, NBC (home of the exceedingly popular “Will and Grace,” half of whose main characters are very out gay men) and CBS refused to air a United Church of Christ commercial promoting that denomination’s open-door policy. And yes, CBS actually cited the Bush administration’s position on gay marriage as the reason tolerance was too hot a topic for them to allow on their airwaves. But there is hope to be had in a post-election poll that found that 33 percent of voters cited “greed and materialism” as the country’s greatest moral problem. Another 31 percent said “poverty and economic justice.” Only 16 percent rated abortion the most urgent, and 12 percent chose same-sex marriage. The poll also asked voters what was the most important “moral issue” that affected their vote. Almost twice as many said the war in Iraq as chose abortion and same-sex marriage combined. In Arkansas, exit polls showed that 16 percent of voters said the one quality that most influenced their choice of candidate was strong religious faith; they voted overwhelmingly for Bush. But that was the third most popular choice, behind “He will bring about needed change” (23 percent, of whom almost all voted for Kerry) and “He is a strong leader” (17 percent, most of whom voted for Bush). But the result that’s most telling to me: 10 percent chose “He cares about people like me.” More than two-thirds of those voters cast ballots for Kerry. That seems to show the disconnect between what people value personally and what they perceive as “religious.” The job of progressive people of faith seems to be to bridge that gap — to reclaim the “values” turf for a broader spectrum of social justice issues. “We have to bring these topics up in religious settings,” Wakefield said. “Bring up poverty, bring up war. We have to get people to see these things as the religious issues they are. …We have to force the debate into the true territory of what values are.” Exactly how to accomplish that, the clergy I talked to were less sure. There’s an inherent conflict in trying to wed progressive religious values to the political system, they said, especially when conservatives have already defined the terms of debate. Politics is about getting and keeping power, and that’s anathema to the progressive view of what Christianity is about. “Part of the struggle of that for us is so many of our examples are of Christ working through weakness,” Second Presbyterian’s Karen Akins said. “I’m not sure how to infuse that power base without becoming what I don’t feel like I’m called to become.” Copley said progressive people of faith have two options. The first is to get into the existing debate on values, where the religious right has already set the ground rules and progressives would be forever on the defensive. The other way, he said, is to “go out there and say we’re going after this.” That’s Copley’s choice. “For me, the way forward is to create our own agenda — raise the issues of people who are hungry and poor” within individual congregations. “It will bubble up from the grassroots level.” Copley said some in the progressive religious community did try to bring poverty to the fore of the presidential campaign this year. “That’s going to have to continue,” he said. “Forty-five million people in America don’t have health insurance.” So I ended the process of writing this story less outraged and more hopeful. There are so many thoughtful and eloquent progressives out there — and who’ve been out there for years — talking about how to reclaim the public and political face of faith. I mentioned Jim Wallis, the head of Sojourner magazine, before. I’ll let him close. From an op-ed piece called “Recovering a hijacked faith,” published in the Boston Globe last July: “When we take back our faith, we will discover that faith challenges the powers that be to do justice for the poor instead of preaching a ‘prosperity gospel’ and supporting politicians who further enrich the wealthy. We will remember that faith hates violence and tries to reduce it, and exerts a fundamental presumption against war instead of justifying it in God’s name. “We will see that faith creates community from racial, class and gender divisions, prefers international community over nationalist religion, and that ‘God bless America’ is found nowhere in the Bible. And we will be reminded that faith regards matters such as the sacredness of life and family bonds as so important that they should never be used as ideological symbols or mere political pawns in partisan warfare. “…When the poor are defended on moral or religious grounds, it is not ‘class warfare,’ as the rich will always charge, but rather a direct response to the overwhelming focus in the Scriptures, which claims they are regularly neglected, exploited, and oppressed by wealthy elites, political rulers, and indifferent affluent populations. Those Scriptures don’t simply endorse the social programs of liberals or conservatives, but make clear that poverty is indeed a religious issue, and the failure of political leaders to help uplift those in poverty will be judged a moral failing.” Amen.
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