Dan and Nick have ably dissected the numbers in a new poll about the Tea Party movement from Public Religion Research Institute. I attended the release at the Brookings Institution earlier this week and was struck by comments from panelist Michael Gerson – a WaPo columnist, former speechwriter for George W. Bush and influential voice of moderate Christian evangelism.
I appreciate Gerson’s consistent lament that the extreme tail wagging the Republican dog these days has negative long-term consequences for a party unlikely to find lasting electoral success alienating Latinos, embracing Tea Party extremism and generally making it harder to create a big-tent conservatism. His elegant writing and often lonely call for Republicans to recognize the generational and ideological shifts shaping the broadening evangelical agenda make me one of those annoying liberals who stand up for him at parties with progressive friends.
But at Tuesday’s panel, Gerson set aside his nuanced pen and put on his partisan hat. He continued an argument from his WaPo column that morning, which criticized President Obama for abandoning his creative engagement with religious voters that characterized his faith-based outreach on the campaign trail and blamed his administration for sparking a new “culture war over the role of government.” Instead of Fox News misinformation, blatant examples of Tea Party racism and endless Republic obstructionism, he pointed to the Obama administration for the extreme ideological polarization dividing Americans. Here’s Gerson writing in his column:
But Obama has mainly employed his faith-based office to defend federal initiatives, particularly health-care reform. “Get out there and spread the word,” he recently told faith leaders.. “I think all of you can be really important validators and trusted resources for friends and neighbors, to help explain what’s now available to them.” Such obvious political manipulation only feeds skepticism. Instead of creatively reaching out to religious conservatives, Obama has driven them toward an ideological decision. America is accustomed to culture war arguments on abortion and family issues. The president has provoked a culture war debate on the size and role of government. If the choice is between bureaucratic centralization and Tea Party revolt, most evangelicals will choose the latter.
So let me get this straight. George W. Bush, Gerson’s old boss, promoted perhaps the most aggressive, politicized Christianity ever seen in the White House –including a Christian triumphalism that undergirded his quasi-messianic view of interventionist foreign policy — but it’s this president who is engaging in “political manipulation” by encouraging faith leaders to spread the word about health care reform many of them worked tirelessly to achieve as an urgent moral priority for decades?
This is an empty argument from an intellectual heavyweight who usually gives us more to chew on.
As David Gibson at Politics Daily noted recently, some conservative Catholics are trying to use Catholic teaching to endorse the Tea Party.
“The pope and the tea party – these are not unrelated things. They shouldn’t be, anyway,” writes Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor-at-large of National Review Online. Lopez develops her position at HeadlineBistro.com, a Catholic site sponsored by the Knights of Columbus:
The tea party movement . . . isn’t an explicitly religious movement, by any strength. But if you talk to people who show up to the rallies, if you listen to some of the candidates who have showed up to run for office this year — to serve — it’s hard to escape this is a cultural movement of people who feel called to something greater than themselves. They dare to hope, to believe that we can be better than we have been. Of course, they dare to hope that we can be better when it comes to government spending, better when it comes to seriousness about homeland security, better when it comes to making people freer to make choices that are best for their families, and so on.
Lopez specifically touts Florida Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio and House GOP Rep. Paul Ryan, both Catholics and Tea Party heroes, as “among those who give a most compelling voice to people’s fears about the future of the American idea, the experiment that Pope Benedict spoke with respect and admiration of when he came here to visit” in April 2008.
Making a connection between Tea Party principles and the words of Pope Benedict XVI is a stunning distortion of Catholic teaching about government. Catholic teaching is unequivocal about the essential role government has in serving the common good and warns about the dangers of markets that fail to protect human dignity. In fact, the pope’s latest encyclical calls for a fundamental rethinking of economic systems that solely benefit multinational corporations at the expense of citizens, especially the poor and vulnerable. Lopez also might want to dust off her Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, released by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace:
The responsibility for attaining the common good, besides falling to individual persons, belongs also to the State, since the common good is the reason the political authority exists. The state, in fact, must guarantee the coherency, unity and organization of the civil society of which it is an expression…The individual person, the family or intermediate groups are not able to achieve their full development by themselves for living a truly human life…To ensure the common good, the government of each country has the specific duty to harmonize the different sectoral interests with the requirements of justice.
Sure doesn’t sound like a bold endorsement of Tea Party ideology or the warmed-over talking points about small government found in the Pledge to America.
The fierce debate over whether to extend Bush-era tax cuts has become front-page news and provoked a steady stream of punditry as the midterm elections approach. It seems that faith leaders have an important voice to raise on this issue. While some might think this is an unlikely topic for pastors and faith-based advocates, diverse religious traditions have a proud history of advocating for a just economy, and Catholic social teaching in particular has some pretty specific things to say about how taxes relate to the common good. In fact, the Catholic Church calls for “a reasonable and fair application of taxes” in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, a long and daunting title for the encyclopedic volume of the church’s centuries-old social justice teachings:
Tax revenues and public spending take on crucial economic importance for every civil and political community…Public spending is directed to the common good when certain fundamental principles are observed: the payment of taxes as part of the duty of solidarity; a reasonable and fair application of taxes; precision and integrity in administering and distributing public resources. In the redistribution of resources, public spending must observe the principles of solidarity, equality and making use of talents. It must also pay greater attention to families, designating an adequate amount of resources for this purpose.
Let’s hope Catholic leaders in states like Ohio, home to House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner – now an influential evangelist in the Church of Trickle-Down Economics – can weigh in with some timely values messaging about the role of taxes. Faith leaders nervous about entering this critical debate that strikes at the very core of what ends our economy should ultimately serve have a good example in Pope Benedict XVI, who last summer called for a dramatic rethinking of the global economy in ways that recognize the moral and practical perils of free-market fundamentalism. Religious leaders, it’s time to lift up your economic justice positions, sharpen your talking points for the media cycle, and go make some news!
It’s been easy to lose hope and feel pretty dispirited about the ugly nativism and rising anti-Muslim sentiment casting a dark cloud over the nation leading into a weekend when we pause to remember the horrific attacks of Sept. 11. But as we’ve pointed out, the disproportionate media coverage given to a small group of Christians who betray the core values of all faiths, is just part of the story. Dan posted a CNN interview yesterday with Pastor Larry Reimer, a Gainesville minister helping to unite the local Christian, Jewish and Muslim community.
Those of us who recognize that violent extremism will never be defeated with hate and ignorance that demonize entire religious communities will also find inspiration in the moving story of two women who lost their husbands in the World Trade Center. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tells their moving story in this op-ed, The Healers of 9/11.
This weekend, a Jewish woman who lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks is planning to speak at a mosque in Boston. She will be trying to recruit members of the mosque to join her battle against poverty and illiteracy in Afghanistan. The woman, Susan Retik, has pursued perhaps the most unexpected and inspiring American response to the 9/11 attacks… In the shattering aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Ms. Retik bonded with another woman, Patti Quigley, whose husband had also died in the attack. They lived near each other, and both were pregnant with babies who would never see their fathers. Devastated themselves, they realized that there were more than half a million widows in Afghanistan — and then, with war, there would be even more. Ms. Retik and Ms. Quigley also saw that Afghan widows could be a stabilizing force in that country. So at a time when the American government reacted to the horror of 9/11 mostly with missiles and bombs, detentions and waterboardings, Ms. Retik and Ms. Quigley turned to education and poverty-alleviation projects — in the very country that had incubated a plot that had pulverized their lives. The organization they started, Beyond the 11th, has now assisted more than 1,000 Afghan widows in starting tiny businesses. It’s an effort both to help some of the world’s neediest people and to fight back at the distrust, hatred and unemployment that sustain the Taliban.
It’s heroic women like these who embody the best of American values. Their courage to weave the raw strands of anger and grief into a stunning tapestry of hope offers a stark rebuke to those sad examples dominating the news cycle these days. Next time you read another story about fanatics planning to burn Korans or the growing backlash against mosques in communities across the country remember these women and disciples of the Good News like Pastor Larry Reimer.
A church in Florida will burn Korans on September 11th. Angry protestors opposing the building of an Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero wave signs warning of Sharia law taking over America. Communities across the country are embroiled in fierce debates over proposed mosques. More stories are popping up every day about mosques being vandalized and Muslims facing threats. A young man consumed by anti-Islam fury brutally stabbed a Muslim taxi driver in New York City.
While it may be convenient to dismiss these incidents as aberrations, there is clearly a disturbing trend emerging that can’t be easily dismissed. Anti-Muslim fervor is even creeping into mainstream commentary and political races. Listen to syndicated political columnist Cal Thomas writing for the Washington Post “On Faith” blog:
Our enemies are using our Constitution and religious pluralism against us. They have a plan to infiltrate us, build mosques and ultimately impose Sharia Law. They say so. They mean so. People who are in denial about this are dupes and self-deluded. ..Go ahead and call me names. That won’t change the reality that the Muslims are coming. In fact, they are already here.
This kind of toxic rhetoric creates a climate that can easily lead to violence. Edina Lekovic, the communications director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, has it right in an interview with Talking Points Memo: “The hateful rhetoric that is being spewed by people like Newt Gingrich and then being amplified by mainstream media outlets poses a grave danger to the safety and well-being of everyday Muslim Americans like this cab driver, an innocent person,” she said.
Conservative activists and politicians have also been quick to wield the verbal weapons of demagoguery, and many liberals have failed to stand up to them. A new political ad from the American Future Fund goes after Rep. Bruce Braley, an Iowa Democrat, for supporting the Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero. The ad ominously warns that, “for centuries, Muslims built mosques where they won military victories. Now, they want to build a mosque at Ground Zero…It’s like the Japanese building at Pearl Harbor.” Watch it:
Considered in historical context, this recent wave of xenophobia, ignorance and simmering violence is deeply disturbing but hardly new. The “other” in American culture has always been demonized and faced accusations of disloyalty. As Catholic News Service recently pointed out:
“No Irish Need Apply” signs common in Massachusetts early in the 19th century were rooted in fears over how American society might be changed by immigrants, but particularly by their Catholic faith and culture…The Catholic Encyclopedia describes mobs descending upon a cathedral in Cincinnati in 1853, on churches in New Jersey, New York, Maine and New Hampshire the following year. It tells of a Maine priest who was dragged from his church, robbed, tarred and feathered; of Ohio churches being blown up and convents burned in Massachusetts and Texas.
As in years past, the public mood is swirling in sinister directions as economic anxiety, rising xenophobia and a new generation of demagogues create a combustible mix. We need to be vigilant to ensure that the ugly torrent of fear and scapegoating is overcome by a spirited defense of our nation’s core values and highest ideals. The bloody and shameful alternative is already written in our history books.