There’s an interesting piece from Adele Stan on the American Prospect’s website right now. With Beckett’s centenary upon us, the Godot reference is appreciated and most appropriate. She’s not particularly sanguine (to say the least) about the prospects of a cohesive ‘Religious Left’ emerging to vanquish the Religious Right on a religio-political field of battle. Thank goodness. The best part about her argument isn’t that she thinks it won’t happen, but that she thinks it shouldn’t. As she puts it:
In seeking to create a counterpart to the religious right, we tried to force our values through a narrow hole. In essence, we bought into the religious authoritarianism of the right, inferring that moral authority proceeds only from religion. In this, we have sold ourselves short.
It’s a tricky project that many of us are working on right now: asserting clearly and confidently the moral and ethical values that motivate our political positions for the common good, without slipping into the sanctimonious self-righteous sermonizing that characterizes so many leaders of the Religious Right. The fear of making such mistakes is no doubt why some progressives (both secular and religious) have been very nervous about things like Sen. Obama’s recent address.
The next step in the argument, which her piece only begins to tackle, is to talk about what that positive engagement between faith communities and the political process around common good values might look like. While no one wants to turn into the Religious Right, there may be room for more substantive contributions from progressive faith leaders than Stan realizes. If she really means that recent events “kill off the dream of a religious left in America,” I’d have to differ strongly. They only point more clearly to what that community ought to look like to embody its own dreams and aspirations.
Groups like Sojourners and the Network of Spiritual Progressives are reaching increasingly impressive numbers for their national conferences. Others like Faithful America and the Interfaith Alliance are using cutting edge technologies to increase the impact of their advocacy. Collaborative efforts between secular and sacred around the budget, immigration, and the Voting Rights Act are showing leaders that their impact is increased through cooperation.
Stan is right that these religious voices can only be a part of the broader ethical foundation in which progressives ground their dream of a diverse, just, and free America. Each of these examples demonstrates the potential for progressive faith leaders to strike the balance between strength and humility and do justice to our proud legacy of social action in this country.
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At the recent National Conference and Revival for Social Justice in the Black Church, longtime political activist Rev. Al Sharpton identified how sexually-based issues divide the black church and challenged black clergy members to follow in the footsteps of pioneers such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to embrace a religious agenda more in tune with social justice. Sharpton admonished clergy not to forget those who struggled to “break us out of the shackles of racism, rallied to end the heinous war in Vietnam and battled for blacks to be treated like others” under the banner of Christianity.
This seemed off pitch to Bishop T.D. Jakes, pastor of The Potter’s House in Dallas, TX, a church that boasts more than 28,000 members and sponsors MegaFest, a conference that attracts over 500,000 attendees annually through messages of self-empowerment through spiritual transformation and economic development. Responding to Rev. Sharpton, he stated, “I do not believe that African-American ministers should allow their political views to dictate the subjects and tone of their sermons.”
At least one comment agrees with Jakes, stating that “Sharpton has lost all touch with the greatest part of the Christian community he claims to represent,” and “his views on same sex marriage, black voting problems and lack of equality for blacks in America are not mainstream with black Americans.” It’s hard to deny that there is some divide between African-Americans of the Civil Rights generation and the current “megachurch” generation.
Despite the rift, some black ministers are reclaiming the tradition of focusing on social justices issues, while avoiding the pitfall of being partisan political pastors. The Rev. Dr. Frederick D. Haynes, pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, TX, advocates for the poor and focuses on social action from his megachurch pulpit. Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, GA under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Hale offers a ministry for social action, and Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, IL addresses political and social justice issues that adversely effect on the lives and rights of people of African descent in the U.S. and abroad.
The kinds of ministries taken up by Rev. Haynes, Rev. Hale, and Rev. Wright find a middle ground between Revs. Sharpton and Jakes. Advocating for social justice and the common good doesn’t have to mean playing pure partisan politics. Hopefully as these groups raise awareness about the relevance of social justice issues, not partisan politics, to the African-American church community, other clergy will soon follow.
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One more word (promises, promises) on Sen. Obama’s speech last week. Or, rather, a word on what has come since. The blogosphere has seen a number of spirited exchanges on the virtues or failings of the Senator’s remarks. There have been reasoned and intelligent statements both for and against the Senator’s general argument. There have also been a number of harsh, unfairminded attacks from blog commentors. There’s no doubt that passions run high around issues of faith in politics, but precisely because the stakes are so high it’s important that the tone of these disagreements be on pitch.
It wasn’t an accident that Sen. Obama ended his address with a call for ‘fair-minded words.’ Surely he knew that his words would spark controversy on both the left and right. It may be a potential weakness of the blogosphere that the relative anonymity of the space allows for ad hominem attacks without the practical risks of doing so in person or the mainstream media (ie personal retribution, or a good ole’ fashioned knuckle sandwich). Because the task of honest, fair engagement is so difficult, and because part of our mission at Faith in Public Life is to broker those sorts of discussions both in the blogosphere and in the more concrete world, it seems appropriate to give hat tips to those who have done well with their criticism.
So in the spirit of encouraging those who know how to strongly disagree with each other, but in the right way, check out a few of these exchanges. Mik Moore over at Jspot, Pastor Dan at Street Prophets, Chuck Currie, and the Talk2Action crowd all have different takes on the matter at hand. But things don’t get personal, and you know that all involved (and I think Sen. Obama is included in this group) are seeking, to borrow Dan’s words, ‘the line from doubt to the need to humility to the need to come together.’ Bruce Wilson also left a strong but fair comment over on Alex’s last post. Those who fail to meet these standards of discourse get no particular calling out, because they don’t deserve any more attention.
I honestly believe that there’s something very out of touch with how the American people view religion in the divisive rhetoric of the Religious Right. A robust internal debate about the place of religion in progressive politics can be a great sign of strength rather than division, if that debate takes place within a context of shared common good goals, fairminded words, and the American democracy that we all treasure. I’d love to see some of these voices that know how to argue the right way model that for the blogosphere. What fertile ground to be tilling the week before so many of us are getting together for the Blog Con.
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Some bloggers criticize Sen. Barack Obama for saying that a few folks in the secular world need to tolerate religion in public life. The prolific Frederick Clarkson, over at Talk2Action, objects to this Right lingo from Obama, Wallis, and even Lerner, saying that they lose the frame game by using the secular label, a term that functions as a straw man in political rhetoric.
He is right to point out that the Right has abused liberals as secularists for far too long. But changing the topic, reframing, or saying: “hey, stop, no one here really hates religion” is not the only way. As Mother Jones recently published, the school of framing has its limits. Good frames are hard to come by, and until someone comes up with something better than Lakoff’s “freedom judges,” there are some religious moderates ready to convert progressive ideas into political action.
And the Political Animal blog shows that on this issue, some good progressives fear the frame more than the reality. Kevin Drum writes:
“But the plain fact is that he [Obama] was careful in his speech and also plainly correct: “some” liberals are uncomfortable with any mention of religion in the public square, and he thinks this is too bad. He also recognizes that just saying so isn’t enough.”
“It’s a funny thing. When I post about religion, I usually get two kinds of comments. The first is people telling me that I’m falling into a conservative trap by even entertaining the idea that some liberals are contemptuous toward religion. The second is snarky liberal secularists telling everyone else to take their stupid myths and shove ‘em where the sun don’t shine.”
Attacking our team for using words like “secular” actually undercuts the good side. We need good frames; but we also must have good framers, and the people doing to the talking have to establish their creditability. This sometimes means that we will hear some familiar language.
In fact, what astute folks like Wallis and Obama do is give the growing number of moderate believers room to get progressive without losing their religious bona fides. Now the faithful say, with increasing confidence: If Wallis, Campolo, et al still see room for improvement for the Left, then maybe I can care about the environment, poverty, etc.
Merely fighting the “secular” shibboleth” often works to reinforce its presence in the minds of our opponents. When moving moderate minds, it helps to take control of a familiar term and then wield it for a higher purpose. Perhaps we can reframe not just words but the whole debate, and thereby acclimatize moderates to the heady ideals of progressivism.
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Talk2Action notes evangelical Christians are being offered two free tickets to see Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth.
On the site, Carlos writes:
“The tickets are available at the Inconvenient Christians website. The evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, is also encouraging its readers to go see the movie. It is good to see evangelicals broadening their list of social concerns and this should have political consequences for the Christian Right-Republican alliance.”
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