Our friends at the Beatitudes Society, who work to train and support progressive Christian seminarians and clergy, put out a “Weekly Circuit Reader” that provides educational and spiritual resources as well as action items around a specific issue.
This week’s issue is focused on Christian responses to bullying and I think it’s a great complement to the “Faith Gets Better” project we’ve been highlighting on our blog.
Via Adam Serwer, I just saw Bob Smietana’s groundbreaking investigation in the Tennessean about what I’ll call the Islamophobia Industrial Complex. Smietana describes in meticulous detail something that too often goes unmentioned. Many of the people behind high-profile anti-Muslim efforts — such as mounting legal challenges to the construction of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee; falsely tying Park51 leader Feisal Abdul Rauf to terrorism; and spreading fear about the (nonexistent) threat of Sharia law taking over American society — get paid handsomely for their work. In short, professional Islamophobes drive public debates about American Muslims. Read the whole thing.
As part of our “Faith Gets Better” project, collecting messages from people of faith to LGBTQ youth, we featured a video from Rev. Gene Robinson, an openly gay Episcopal bishop in a committed relationship.
Robinson directs his message at those who “are feeling in that dark place because religion and religious people are telling you that you are an abomination before God,” and specifically mentions the Catholic, Mormon or Southern Baptist churches.
Greg Kandra, a thoughtful Catholic blogger at Beliefnet’s Deacon’s Bench, objects. He writes
[Robinson] goes after Southern Baptists, Mormons and the Catholic Church — and more or less decides that not only are they all “flat out wrong,” but that he alone “as a religious person” knows the mind of God…As a friend pointed out: “Remember the stink when Benedict began the Anglican ordinariate, how he was ‘trolling’ for members? THIS is what trolling looks like.”
As a Catholic myself, I too am sensitive to overly general criticisms of the Church that reduce complex moral theology into news-ready sound bites. But Kandra’s characterization of Robinson’s video as a way of asserting his own religion’s superiority in a “troll” for converts doesn’t ring true for me. Robinson’s primary goal here seems to be exactly what he says: sending a message of hope and affirmation to young people in difficult situations. He doesn’t seem too concerned with where they go to church, or even if they’re religious at all.
Nor do I think Robinson intends to presume that “he alone knows the mind of God.” Robinson speaks from his faith tradition in the same way I imagine any other prelate would. It’s a fact that Christian denominations approach issues differently. Generally the resulting implication that other faiths are wrong is left politely unsaid, but in this case it’s essential to the affirming message Robinson wants to send.
And the painful truth is that for all of our nuanced theology, we Catholics have not done a good job defining our public image on this issue. This point is borne out in a recent survey by Public Religion Research Institute that finds among all religious groups, “Catholics were most likely to give their churches negative marks [on the handling of homosexuality], with nearly one-third giving their churches a “D” (15%) or an “F” (16%).”
But often the Catholic message to gay and lesbian Catholics starts off with the “Thou shall nots” instead of the “Thou Shalls.” We invariably start off with “Thou Shall Not Have Sex” instead of “Thou Are a Beloved Creation of God,” or “Thou Art a Full Member of the Community,” or “Thou Have Much to Bring to the Church.” To what other group is the “Thou Shall Not” our opening line? For example, have you ever been to a gathering of Catholic married couples where the opening line was “Thou Shall Not Commit Adultery”? Or a gathering of Catholic business leaders where the opening line was, “Thou Shall Not Steal”? We are all “loved sinners,” as Jesuits like to say, but people–especially young people, especially people on the margins, and especially young people on the margins–should be reminded of the “loved” part before the “sinner” part.
Bishop Robinson is attempting to do just that, and it would behoove us Catholics to spend more time doing the same instead of worrying about perceived ecumenical slights.
I hope that at least a few Catholic bishops and evangelical leaders take the time to read a new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Harvard professor Robert Putnam and Notre Dame political science professor David Campbell. The authors’ research, examining the intersection of religion and politics over the last half century, offers some especially critical findings about why a growing percentage of Americans – particularly twentysomethings – now identify their religious affiliation as “none.” Writing in an a recent Los Angles Times op-ed , Putnam and Campbell identify how many young people point to faith leaders embracing conservative politics as the source of their disillusionment:
So, why this sudden jump in youthful disaffection from organized religion? The surprising answer, according to a mounting body of evidence, is politics. Very few of these new “nones” actually call themselves atheists, and many have rather conventional beliefs about God and theology. But they have been alienated from organized religion by its increasingly conservative politics…Just as this generation moved to the left on most social issues — above all, homosexuality — many prominent religious leaders moved to the right, using the issue of same-sex marriage to mobilize electoral support for conservative Republicans. In the short run, this tactic worked to increase GOP turnout, but the subsequent backlash undermined sympathy for religion among many young moderates and progressives.
It doesn’t seem that church leaders got the memo. Just yesterday, for example, we learned that Archbishop Raymond Burke, a formidable player in the 2004 presidential election after he publicly said Sen. John Kerry should be denied communion because of his position on abortion, was one of only two Americans named a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI. As religion writer David Gibson notes over at Politics Daily, Burke has said that those who voted for Obama engaged in “a form of cooperation” with evil and declared that Sen. Ted Kennedy should not be given a Catholic funeral. It’s hard to see how the Catholic Church and other Christian leaders begin to stem the tide of young Americans turning away from organized religion without some serious soul searching about their style of engagement in the political process. In an important essay for Commonweal magazine, Peter Steinfels, a Catholic and widely respected former religion writer for the New York Times, invites Catholic bishops to grapple with tough questions about this issue at their national meeting next month.
Only a few Catholic bishops have publicly acknowledged the need for this kind of critical thinking. See Archbishop Emeritus of San Francisco John Quinn’s America magazine commentary warning bishops not to become Republican partisans, and a candid National Catholic Reporter interview with Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe that makes the case for “building bridges, not burning them.” We need more church leaders confronting difficult questions and thinking more prudently about their political engagement. Reading Putnam and Campbell’s book is a good place to start.