Featuring a few pithy religion experts and some revealing video of political faith-influenced language, SoulTV explores the question: should a politician be expected to keep his or her religious beliefs separate from public service?
By the Rev. Anne Howard, executive director of The Beatitudes Society.
My church is in the headlines again today. The headline is not “Episcopal Church Opposes Warâ€ or “Episcopal Church Supports SCHIPâ€ or “Episcopal Church Works to Fight Povertyâ€ or “Episcopal Church Lobbies for Katrina Aid.â€ No, my church doesn’t have time for such pressing social justice issues.
Today’s headline is “Episcopal Bishops Promise Restraintâ€, or in a slightly more active choice of verbs: “Episcopal Leaders Act to Avert a Schismâ€ or even more active yet “Episcopal Bishops Reject Anglican Church’s Orderâ€.
Forgive me, but I’m just so tired of it all. Don’t get me wrong, the issue is critical: the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church is indeed a social justice issue. But I’m not sure that’s the issue at hand. I’m afraid the competing issue is something called “unityâ€.
Our bishops are big on unity. We have been schism-shy since Henry VIII dumped the Pope for Anne Boleyn. We Episcopalians didn’t split over slavery, as many of our mainline colleagues did. (No doubt a few Episcopalians experienced “unityâ€ and even communion through the cotton of their southern plantations and northern mills).
I’m thinking that unity has become an idol. Our bishops have pledged to “exercise restraintâ€ in ordaining another gay bishop, and they are not authorizing rites for same-sex marriages. While the American bishops rightly did not cave in to pressure from the conservative bishops of the worldwide Anglican communion to stop ordaining gay bishops and reject same-sex marriage, they did assert their over-arching desire to remain part of the international body. Unity trumps integrity?
I hope not. I do love my church. I became an Episcopalian because I saw the Episcopal Church (in the local iteration of All Saints Pasadena) as the church that opposed the war in Vietnam, worked for Civil Rights, championed the ordination of women, fought the Reagan nuclear arms buildup, forged ahead with gay marriage and supported openly gay priests and bishops. And I have been proud to be part of a local church (Trinity in Santa Barbara) and a diocese (Los Angeles) that has been at the forefront of the struggle for our church to become open and welcoming to all.
I love my church, and so I want us to just get on with it. I want us to look like the church of Jesus, where all manner and condition of folks gather for the feast: everybody’s welcome at the banquet table. I want us to stand up for inclusion, and that might mean that unity takes a back seat.
It’s time for the Protestant Principle. Time to exercise not restraint, but protest.
Because, as Gene Robinson, our gay bishop from New Hampshire said about the New Orleans summit, “No one’s vision won.â€
And the people need a vision.
According to a relatively long article in Sunday’s WaPo, the abolition movement achieves highly levels of bi-partisan support in Congress.
Throughout the 1990s, evangelicals and other Christians grew increasingly concerned about international human rights, fueled by religious persecution in Sudan and other countries. They were also rediscovering a tradition of social reform dating to when Christians fought the slave trade of an earlier era.
And although the numbers are very difficult to get and confirm, experts report a sharp increase in trafficking activity in the 90s, due in part to globalization. The article notes that much of the money appropriated to combat modern slavery has been squandered on PR-firms and ineffective faith-based awareness raising — that said, the problem persists and provides a platform for diverse activists to make common cause. For example,
“feminist groups and other organizations also seized on trafficking, and a 1999 meeting at the Capitol, organized by former Nixon White House aide Charles W. Colson, helped seal a coalition. The session in the office of then-House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) brought together the Southern Baptist Convention, conservative William Bennett and Rabbi David Saperstein, a prominent Reform Jewish activist.”
Crossposted at The Beatitudes Blog.
“IRS DROPS THE CASEâ€ proclaims the homepage of All Saints Church, announcing that the Pasadena, California church is free of an IRS investigation into a 2004 election-eve sermon — but not exactly cleared of wrongdoing. In short, the IRS has said that the church’s tax-exempt status is no longer endangered, but that sermon was still an illegal intervention in the 2004 election.*
All Saints, continuing its courageous stand for freedom of the pulpit, is not content to let bygones be bygones. The church is demanding that the Treasury Department investigate several legal and procedural errors that might indicate intervention–politically-motivated intervention (imagine that!) — by the Department of Justice.
In a press release posted on the church’s website the Church’s rector, the Rev. J. Edwin Bacon, Jr. said:
“While we are pleased that the IRS examination is finally over, the IRS has failed to explain its conclusion regarding the single sermon at issue. Synagogues, mosques, and churches across America have no more guidance about the IRS rules now than when we started this process over two long years ago. The impact of this letter leaves a chilling effect cast over the freedom of America’s pulpits to preach core moral values.â€
It’s that chilling effect that worries me and should be worrying us all. Just last week, I used the word “Democratsâ€ in a blog, and a colleague advised that I take it out, lest my words be construed as intervention into the 2008 elections.
We are looking over our shoulders because of the All Saints case. We are unclear about what constitutes illegal politicking, and it’s my experience that most folks in the pews (or the pulpits) think that any mention of politics in church constitutes “a violation of church and state.â€
Whether or not the IRS gets clear in its explanation of the All Saints investigation, and the difference between issue advocacy and partisan electioneering, we who speak for justice and peace need to be loud and clear: it’s OK, and more than that, morally imperative, for Christian preachers to speak out for peace, and against war, to speak up for justice, and against the powers of domination. If we need to find the right (and yes, legal) words to back us up, all we need do is quote Mary and her radical Magnificat, or Jesus and his revolutionary Beatitudes, and let those who have ears hear.
The IRS might want to keep the waters murky enough to chill us to the bone, but we need to be crystal clear about our responsibility to the truth and our right to proclaim it.
As one of our colleagues (Maher Hathout of the Islamic Center of Southern California) said, in a quote picked up by today’s Los Angeles Times: “We need to work together to prevent intimidation.â€
*If you don’t remember this whole saga, this sorry business started with a letter from the IRS that arrived at the church in June 2005, stating that the church’s tax-exempt status was in jeopardy because of a guest sermon preached shortly before election day 2004 by retired All Saints Rector George F. Regas. (BTW, as an “alumâ€ of All Saints I am proud to say that Dr. Regas is one of my heroes and one of our nation’s greatest social justice preachers! In that sermon, Dr Regas imagined Jesus in a debate with both Bush and Kerry. He of course did not endorse either candidate, saying that “good people of profound faith will be for either George Bush or John Kerry for reasons deeply rooted in their faith.â€ But he criticized the war in Iraq. The IRS declared that this sermon was political intervention into the election.
Fifty years ago Sunday, nine black teenagers integrated Little Rock’s Central High School under the armed guard an elite U.S. military unit. Little Rock Nine member Jefferson Thomas’ spare recollection is a reminder that movements are made of countless acts of individual courage and grace:
Half a century later, sluggish desegregation and rapid resegregation have diluted the legacy of the Little Rock Nine, and the injustice of separate and unequal education persists. Segregation and education are every bit as urgent moral issues now as they were 50 years ago, but the clearly justice-centered approach and energy have dwindled in the “post-Civil Rights era.”
The Miami Herald’s Leonard Pitts, for my money America’s most underrated columnist, puts it all in context of faith and values:
From the vantage point of half a century, it seems an absurd drama. You shake your head at the fatuity of the adults in the old news footage, their mouths twisted, fists clenched, eyes alight, and you marvel that they were driven to such a fury, such a madness, by so innocuous an event. You wonder what in the world they could have been thinking.
But of course, that’s an easy one. They were thinking they were right.
We always expect evil to look different, obvious. We are always anticipating the pointed ears and the pitchfork, the black stovepipe hat and the Snidely Whiplash mustache. The truth, however, is that evil is rather banal. You might pass it five times a day and never recognize it for what it is.
The pale men and women who took to the streets of Little Rock, Ark., in 1957 would have been, in the overwhelming majority, Christian people. They paid their taxes. They helped the poor. They visited the sick. They held hands over hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance. They were decent folks, except they had this evil belief that people with dark skin were of a savage, yet simultaneously child-like, lower order and that if anyone sought to mix pale and dark, pale must resist by any means necessary.
If you had suggested to them that this was wrong, they would looked at you askance, maybe even laughed, and wondered what was wrong with you. Because they knew they were right, knew it in their bones, knew it in their Bibles, knew it with certitude, knew it beyond all question.
Five decades later, there is a starkness, a black and white purity, to the issues argued those tense days in Little Rock streets: inclusion versus exclusion. It is enough to make one nostalgic. After all, after affirmative action, after busing, after O.J., after Cosby, after Imus, there is little starkness, much less purity, to the conflict between pale and dark. All is complexity, all is gray.
Or maybe that’s just the self-deluding conceit of a generation that is pleased to think of itself as enlightened beyond history, pleased to look back on past events and tsk tsk the behavior of the poor, benighted souls who lived through them.
Yet in Jena, La., six American children with dark skin were charged with attempted murder after jumping a pale child whose injuries amounted to a black eye and a concussion.
In Tulia, Tex., 38 mostly dark-skinned people were convicted of drug dealing on the perjured testimony of a pale cop known to describe dark people with a racial slur.
In Paris, Tex., a dark-skinned girl who shoved a teacher’s aide was given seven years by a judge who had earlier given probation to a pale-skinned arsonist.
All this not in 1957, but now.
Yet, it has become common for some pale Americans to deny that these and other inequities have anything to do with skin tone. That’s an absurdity we left in the ’50s, they say. We are beyond that. There are no pale Americans and dark Americans. There are only Americans. They wish dark Americans would understand this and get over it already.
And it’s the darnedest thing. If you suggest that they are wrong, they will look at you askance, maybe even laugh, and wonder what is wrong with you. Because they know they’re right, know it in their bones, know it in their Bibles, know it with a certitude.
Know it beyond all question.