During our first 29 episodes, we’ve often discussed why the proposals of the Religious Right represent bad public policy. But could it be that they’re also bad religion?
The Last Chance Democracy Café
Episode 30: Holy War You Say? Bring it on!
by Steven C. Day
Religion entered my life in much the same way agriculture enters the life of a farm child; I was born into it. My father was a minister with the United Church of Christ, a denomination that’s been in the news lately as a result of the refusal of NBC and CBS to run one of its ads. The commercial in question features two burly bouncers outside a church, refusing admission to various people, including a gay couple. The text then states: “Jesus didn’t turn people away, neither do we.” According to the brain trusters at the two networks (and some others), this constituted impermissible “advocacy advertising.” UCC has a complaint pending against NBC and CBS before the FCC.
Back in the 1960s, when I put in my stint as a PK (dad later became a college professor), the United Church of Christ was already known as a liberal denomination. Liberal in the theological sense: We rooted for the Clarence Darrow and not the William Jennings Bryan character when watching Inherit the Wind. And liberal in the political sense: The church was wholeheartedly behind the civil rights movement and most of the clergy opposed the Vietnam War.
Thus, my first breath of religion came by way of a liberal breeze. I thought that was what religion was supposed to be – advocacy and support for human beings as service to God.
It wasn’t that I was opposed to it. More like Dick Cheney and the Vietnam War: I just had other priorities.
* * *
As Molly dropped off the evening’s first round of drinks at the large round table, I noticed Zach seemed a little nervous. At first, I thought it might be due to the weather. It was one of those deceptive February evenings – not bad in reality, with at most two inches of snow on the ground, but a brisk southerly wind puffing it up to look like a blizzard.
But it wasn’t the weather that was unnerving Zach. It was Ned. Ned (mentioned very briefly in episode 10) has been a pal of mine for over 25 years; he’s also my minister, to the extent I have one. He drops by the café every two or three weeks for lunch; this was his first evening visit. It had taken months of egging, but I had finally convinced him to come by to see the wise men in action. I thought he’d find it a hoot.
Zach was nervous, I realized, over the fact Ned was a minister.
“Ned,” I said, “please tell young Zach here that you’re not going to rat him out to God over drinking in a bar.”
Ned smiled. “Well, if I were to do that I’d have to explain what I’m doing here myself, wouldn’t I?” Ned flicked his glass of chardonnay with his finger.
“So you don’t consider drinking a sin?” Zach smiled weakly.
“No. Although, if you drink too much, it can cause liver damage.”
“And that’s a sin . . . right? Damaging the body God gave you?”
“Well, I don’t know if I’d go that far. It’s a stupid and destructive thing to do, for certain, and, obviously, alcoholics need help, but I’m not sure I’d call it a sin . . .”
“Of course, if you damage your liver badly enough, eventually you’ll turn yellow, which means that you’ll look like SpongeBob. Now, there’s a sin!”
Everyone at the table laughed, but Zach still seemed ill at ease.
Horace asked him, “Zach, do I remember correctly that your family didn’t go to church much while you were growing up?”
“Well . . . no, but we do believe in God, and all that.” Zach’s voice was a little defensive.
Horace grinned encouragingly. “Whether you do or you don’t go to church is entirely your own business. I just wanted to see if my guess is correct that most of your contact with religion has . . . well, let me just ask it out right: Would you say that most of your exposure to preachers has come from watching the ones on television?”
“Yeah, I suppose that’s true.”
“The thing you need to understand then . . . and it’s something an awful lot of folks don’t know, is that TV preachers don’t represent the entire Christian religion in the United States. In fact, there are a lot of denominations out there filled with people who hold guys like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell in just as much contempt as do the people at this table. Christianity isn’t fungible: One religious organization isn’t just like another. For example, you’ve got Religious Right heartthrob James Dobson, the head dude at the so-called Focus on the Family, accusing the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon character of trying to secretly advance some sort of homosexual agenda . . .”
Ned jumped in. ” . . . while at the same time, the United Church of Christ, the denomination I minister for, has ridiculed Dobson’s position. In fact, you should check out the UCC’s homepage some time. There’s a hilarious photo diary posted there of SpongeBob’s visit to UCC headquarters.”
Horace began again, “That’s the problem with the current media fascination with trying to divide Americans into two neat little groups — religious and secular. You can’t do that. You can’t just look at whether someone’s, quote, a believer, close quote. You also have to look at what it is they believe.”
* * *
My first real contact with Christian fundamentalists, at least where religion was discussed, came in college. They were known as Jesus Freaks — although their pitch never seemed to me to have much to do with the Jesus of Nazareth I’d studied in Sunday school. Like all fundamentalists, the Jesus Freaks took every word in the Bible to be literally true — the big fish really did eat Jonah and all that.
There was a familiar dance to their approach: It always began with these words: “I’d like to share with you something that’s been very important in my life.” This was quickly followed by the ever dependable story of personal depravity: “I used to be into drugs and sex and pornography . . . but then I found Jesus.” Finally, if you stuck around long enough, out would come the hell talk. Jesus Freaks loved to talk about hell. And they especially liked talking about how, if you weren’t careful, you were going to end up in hell.
I sometimes tried to draw them into a theological debate. But the resulting discussions proved consistently disappointing, at least in terms of any meaningful exchange of ideas. They usually went pretty much like this example from the actual transcript of the Scopes trial:
(Clarence Darrow questioning William Jennings Bryan)
Q–The Bible says Joshua commanded the sun to stand still for the purpose of lengthening the day, doesn’t it, and you believe it?
* * *
Q– Now, Mr. Bryan, have you ever pondered what would have happened to the earth if it had stood still?
Q–You have not?
A– No; the God I believe in could have taken care of that, Mr. Darrow.
Q– I see. Have you ever pondered what would naturally happen to the earth if it stood still suddenly?
Q–Don’t you know it would have been converted into molten mass of matter?
A–You testify to that when you get on the stand, I will give you a chance.
Q–Don’t you believe it?
A–I would want to hear expert testimony on that.
Q–You have never investigated that subject?
A–I don’t think I have ever had the question asked.
Q–Or ever thought of it?
A–I have been too busy on things that I thought were of more importance than that.
While, thanks in part to a sympathetic playwright, history records that Darrow creamed Bryan during his cross-examination, it would actually be more accurate to say the two men simply talked past each other. Darrow argued logic and science, while Bryan professed faith; and there’s no way for logic or science to trump faith in the eyes of the fundamentalist, because fundamentalism, by its nature, holds itself accountable to neither. If a doctrine of religious faith is contrary to the laws of science, the fundamentalist response is: So what? God always has the prerogative to bend those laws. Indeed, it’s the very act of the bending that creates the miracle.
The problem, of course, is that not all faith is true or, for that matter, even wise. And when people try to transform their religious faith into proposed governmental policies, there’s no way to put that faith to the test, or even to rationally debate it. And rational debate is the lifeblood of democracy.
* * *
Zach was fidgeting with his hands. I think the whole subject of religion made him nervous. “So how’d we get started talking about religion, anyway?” he smiled uneasily.
Horace replied, “Well, at first we were just trying to put you at ease over Ned being a minister. Let you know he isn’t Pat Robertson . . . that he’s just one of the guys. But now that we’re on the subject . . .”
“Now that we’re on the subject,” interjected Tom, “the truth is that it’s kind of hard to talk about politics today without also talking about religion.”
“Actually,” agreed Horace, “religion, and in particular conservative fundamentalist religion, is probably playing a larger role in our political process today than at any other time in the nation’s history.”
Zach asked, “And that’s bad, right? I mean, because of the Separation of Church and State?”
Horace breathed in slowly, methodically, almost like he was puffing on an expensive cigar. Then he said, “Yes, I think what’s going on today in terms of the degree to which the Religious Right is interjecting religion into politics is a bad thing, but you really can’t say that as an absolute. Religion can have a proper place in politics.”
“Really?” Zach sounded surprised.
“You have to remember, I grew up in the civil rights movement . . .”
” . . . and religion was a big part of that movement. Martin Luther King was a preacher and he wasn’t afraid to quote scripture in support of the cause. His famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech referred, after all, to ‘all God’s children.’ In fact, churches formed the backbone of the civil rights movement and many people, both black and white, were driven to the movement by their faith.”
“So are you saying that what the religious right is doing today is no different?”
Horace smiled softly, then patted Zach on the back. “Do I look like a moron?”
“Of course not . . .”
“Good. Glad to hear it. Because only a moron would say that. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and the rest of their bunch have no more in common with Martin Luther King than a mosquito has with a phlebotomist working for the Red Cross. True, they both deal with the same general subject matter, but there the similarity most assuredly ends.”
Ned spoke up. “Zach, what Horace is saying . . . or at least what I think he’s saying is that the issue of Separation of Church and State isn’t as clean cut as saying that religious faith must be completely removed from the political process. It’s perfectly proper for people to pursue political change because their religious faith tells them to, whether that means fighting poverty and injustice . . . or for that matter, while I personally don’t agree with it, fighting to end all abortions.”
“But . . . and it’s one very big but,” added Horace, “when people advocate faith motivated policies in the political process, they have an obligation to do so based upon secular arguments . . . arguments that apply equally to believers and nonbelievers. To simply argue, in effect, this is what my religious faith tells me, so take it or leave it is . . . well, it’s un-American, plain and simple.”
“Amen!” said Ned loudly. “And when we talk about secular arguments, we mean ones that are made in good faith, not make believe nonsense like the so-called Intelligent Design theory offered by the Religious Right as an alternative to Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection . . . Or take abstinence only sex education . . .”
“Please!” shouted Winston.
“Perfect,” said Ned.
* * *
Now that I find myself well into the crotchetiness of middle age (why wait to enjoy the best part of old age?), my attitude toward fundamentalists has become more nuanced. I now realize that like cholesterol, insects and Golden Retrievers there are both “good” and “bad” fundamentalists. Well, okay, there are no bad Golden Retrievers, but the point’s still valid: Fundamentalist Christians come in all shapes and sizes. As corny as it sounds, some of my best friends really are active members of fundamentalist churches. And, to the best of my knowledge, not a one of them has ever sacrificed a single toad, frog or Toll House Cookie.
We disagree on religion, of course, and, if the truth be told, my fundamentalist friends probably believe that some day I may end up in hell. But at least they don’t seem as pleased about it as those Jesus Freaks of my youth.
But if I’m now somewhat more tolerant of religious fundamentalism than I once was, tolerance ends at the government’s door. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which created the Separation of Church and State (and don’t be mislead by the Religious Right’s propaganda — separation is precisely what the Founders intended), may well have been the single most important contribution they made to the long term success of democracy in America. It must be defended. It’s important to remember, however, nothing in the Establishment Clause prohibits people from discussing religious values as part of the political process. We may not like it — we may even rightfully denounce it as hypocritical — but the fact is that if George W. Bush wants to invoke God’s name in every other sentence he speaks, there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it.
But George W. Bush and the Religious Right don’t own God. And they don’t own the subject of values.
* * *
“Zach, have you ever heard of Jim Wallis?” asked Horace.
Zach said he hadn’t.
“He’s an evangelical Christian who’s starting to get a lot of attention as a representative of the Religious Left. While lots of people have attacked Religious Right nutcases like Robertson and Falwell from a secular standpoint, Wallis attacks their theology. He believes they’ve badly distorted the teaching of the Bible by trying to reduce Christianity to just two issues, abortion and gay marriage. He asks, for example, where’s the commitment to fighting poverty, which is, after all, a subject that’s discussed much more extensively in the Bible, and especially the New Testament, than either of the religious right’s two pet issues.”
“I’ve wondered about that myself,” said Zach. “A lot of what guys like Falwell say, seems . . . I guess it seems kind of unchristian.”
I nodded at Ned. “See, I told you he’s a smart kid.”
Horace pushed ahead. “Wallis thinks the Democratic Party . . . and liberals in general have made a big mistake by largely surrendering the discussion of values to the far right. But note, he’s not saying, as Joe Lieberman often seems to argue, liberals need to adopt the same values as conservatives. He’s saying, instead, that liberals should fight to recapture the values debate by reframing it in ways highlighting liberal principles such as fighting poverty, economic fairness, environmental protection and the defense of individual liberties.”
“Now, I don’t agree with Wallis on everything . . . especially his advice that Democrats downplay their support for abortion rights. But I do think he’s right when he says it’s possible to frame the debate, on even that issue, more effectively.”
Zach drained the last of his beer. Then he asked, “So are you saying liberals should talk about religion all the time the way Bush does?”
“Good God, no! That would be stupid, especially for liberals who are not particularly religious. The idea here isn’t to add yet another layer of hypocrisy to the process. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak in terms of values. In terms of what’s moral, and of what’s right. It’s all about framing, as George Lakoff puts it. We need to make it clear, for example, that we don’t favor protecting the environment just ‘cause. We’re fighting to protect it, in large part, because passing a clean environment on to our children is the morally correct thing to do. The same is true all across the waterfront of liberal positions, from supporting increased aid to education, to fighting to protect civil liberties. As Wallis says, most progressive issues are inherently values issues. We just need to learn to talk the talk.”
“And one other thing needs to happen,” said Ned in a slow thoughtful voice. “Those of us in the Religious Left need to start speaking up more . . . like Wallis is doing. We need to start taking back Christianity from the people who’ve been abusing it.” Ned’s voice was becoming tense, almost angry. “I mean, look what’s going on right now. We have the Religious Right advocating the privatization of Social Security! The single most successful poverty reduction program in the history of the nation, and these so-called Christians want to destroy it! Just like they favor tax cuts for the rich, even when that means taking food out of the mouths of hungry children.”
Ned shook his head in disgust. “Then, of course, we have the self-professed Christian president taking us to war . . . killing thousands upon thousands of people based upon a lie. A lie! And he has the temerity to imply that God told him to invade. So did God also tell him to spread a bunch of lies so the killing could begin? Well, I for one am sick of it. Whether we like it or not, there’s a holy war going on in this country. They started it, and it’s damn well time we started fighting back.”
“From your mouth to God’s ears,” said Tom.
Horace shook his head. “No, we can’t expect God to do our work for us. This is one we’re going to have to win ourselves.”
Winston had the final word: “In that case, I guess there’s nothing left to say except, to borrow the words of our Fearless Leader, “Bring it on.”
* * *
Coming next episode at The Last Chance Democracy Café: Some Religious Nuts Really Are Nuts.
* * *
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at [email protected].
© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001
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