Debating the proper role of religion in politics, and in particular liberal politics, is all the rage within the Democratic Party, due in considerable part to Jim Wallis’ book, “God’s Politics.” Well, we’re nothing if not trendy here at the Last Chance Democracy Café.
The Last Chance Democracy Café
Episode 31.1: Some Religious Nuts Really Are Nuts!
by Steven C. Day
Horace, who is by far the most religious of the regulars at the large round table, was about to throw out a bomb – a great big ugly God bomb. And, as per the usual, Zach, our young college student friend, was who he was going to throw it to.
“Zach,” he began, “Do you think religious faith is a good thing . . . in and of itself?”
Zach hesitated, suspicious, I suspect, that he was facing a trick question, which, of course, to a certain degree, he was. He studied Horace’s face, searching for some hint as to exactly what game was afoot. As you’ll recall from our last episode, religion was already in the air at The Last Chance Democracy Café this evening. But this was an unexpected turn.
Finally, Zach gave the obvious answer. “Well, yeah, I guess faith is a good thing . . .”
“That’s certainly the conventional wisdom,” said Horace.
” . . . I mean, they say it can move mountains, right?”
Tom spoke up. “They do indeed. But I guess the question becomes whether it always moves the right mountains into the right places.”
Horace said, “Those 19 men who flew the planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and that field in Pennsylvania, they had religious faith, didn’t they?”
Zach shot back, his voice slightly testy, “Obviously, I don’t mean . . .”
“I know you don’t.” Horace smiled reassuringly. “But, you’ll agree . . . I mean, given their willingness to die for their beliefs, these guys did have a strong, if tragically misguided, faith in God, right?”
“I guess you can’t deny that.”
Winston, rousing himself from his traditional mid evening slump, the point where he has consumed just enough scotch to make him a little sleepy, but not quite enough to turn him into a wild man, rallied to offer an observation. “It’s sort of like that thing Bill Maher said . . . you know, what got him into so much trouble . . .”
Tom, with his tape recorder-like-memory, provided the exact quote, “Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”
“And he was right,” said Ned, my minister friend, still nursing his second glass of wine. “They were mass murders of the worst sort. But in their own sick way, they did courageously live their faith.”
“And speaking of sick,” Horace pushed his point forward, “Zach, have you ever heard of Fred Phelps?”
“The name’s sort of familiar.”
“Phelps is a delightful fellow who . . . together with his tiny band of Merry Nuts, likes to do things like picketing the funerals of AIDS victims, sporting signs reading, “God Hates Fags,” and such . . .”
“I’m afraid not.”
“God, what an asshole!”
Winston feigned anger. “Now, wait just one second, young man!” he half shouted. “Speaking on behalf of assholes everywhere, I resent your characterization. Phelps isn’t an asshole . . . he’s the scum of the earth. Something I say, by the way, with all due apologies to scums of the earth everywhere.”
“He really pickets funerals . . . ?”
Tom spoke up. “He travels around the country doing all sorts of crazy things like that. Do you remember, for example, Matthew Shepard, the gay college student in Wyoming who was beaten to death in a hate crime? It happened . . . oh, six or seven years ago?”
“I was pretty young then . . . but, yeah, I do think I remember.”
“They picketed his funeral, carrying signs reading, “Matt’s in Hell.”
Zach had a look of absolute bewilderment on his face. “My God, what kind of a person . . . I mean, who is this guy . . . this Phelps?”
Winston took over. “He used to be a lawyer, but was disbarred a number of years ago. He said it was all about politics. The Kansas Supreme Court said it was all about him being an unethical son of a bitch . . . Well, okay, the son of a bitch part’s mine . . .”
“Can the rest of us have a piece of it, too?” interrupted Tom.
“Certainly. You know I’ve never been one to hog all the good stuff.”
“Good. Then let me add my own personal statement that he’s a God damned son of a bitch.”
“He claims to be a minister . . .” added Horace.
“Although none of the rest of us claim him,” added Ned quickly.
“The Right Reverend Son of a Bitch, hey?” said Tom.
“Some scary things are done in the name of religious faith, aren’t they Zach?” said Horace.
Zach nodded in agreement.
“So, do you still think that conventional wisdom is right in saying that religious faith, in and of itself, is a good thing?”
Zach thought for a moment, his right hand stroking his longish blond hair. Then he said, “I guess it depends on what sort of religious faith you’re talking about . . . right?”
While, as I’ve mentioned before, I like and admire many individuals who attend fundamentalist churches, I’ll confess I have no use whatsoever for their religious outlook. I don’t just disagree with the theology of Biblical fundamentalism — I find it offensive.
Consider this passage from the Book of Exodus where Moses tells Pharaoh of the final plague that will befall Egypt:
And Moses said, “Thus said the Lord, ‘About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt. And all of the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh that sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts. And there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there was none like it, nor shall be like it any more.’” (Exodus 11:4-6).
I’m sorry, but how can anyone claim to square this story with the belief in a God of Love? A loving God who murders thousands of innocent children to settle a score with a national leader? And, remember, we’re not just talking about killing a child of the leader himself, although that would be an unholy enough act in itself. No, God is accused of slaughtering all of the firstborn of Egypt, “even to the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the mill.” And, of course, similarly brutal depictions of God are spread throughout the Old Testament.
There is also, for example, the time (mentioned in episode 17) when Moses, speaking for God, expressed great anger upon learning his commanders had spared the lives of too many of the Midianites. He ordered:
Now therefore kill every male among the little ones (boys of all ages), and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.
The fundamentalist response (both Christian and Jewish) to this story is, shall we say, enlightening. Fenced in by a belief system that regards every word of the Bible as literal truth, written by the hand of God, they are precluded from following the lead of non-literalists who generally regard such stories as, at best, parables, and, at worst, false history.
Forced to defend the “Holiness” of Divine genocide, fundamentalist authors do — well, they do the best that they can. To begin with, in the specific case of the story of Moses and the Midianites, they go to great lengths to prove that when Moses told his men to keep the virgins for themselves, he wasn’t suggesting that they rape them. Having done this, however, these same authors then seem disturbingly undisturbed by the decision to kill all of the little boys and the non virginal women.
Ellen G. White, an important historical figure in the Seventh-Day Adventist tradition, for example, spoke for many fundamentalists today when she wrote over 100 years ago:
“It is those who have not a keen sense of the exceeding sinfulness of sin that are ready to question the justice of God in punishing with such severity the sins of the Amalekites, Canaanites, and Midianites. Those who love sin are unable to comprehend God’s dealings with His subjects.”
So there you have it. The problem isn’t with belief in a God who slaughters innocent woman and children (call me a Secular Humanist, but somehow I can’t bring myself to accept that the women lost their status as innocent victims merely because they had “known man by lying with him”). No, the slaughter of innocents isn’t the problem. The problem is with those of us who dare question the justice of such an action because we lack “a keen sense of the exceeding sinfulness of sin.”
Are you ashamed of yourself yet?
And White’s musings are far from unique. Try Googling, “Moses” and “Midianites.” You’ll find many similar sentiments expressed, including a quote from Pat Robertson in which he describes the slaughter of the Midianites as an act of God’s love.
And you wonder why these people scare the hell out of me!
Horace set his empty beer down on the coaster. No sooner had it touched down, then Molly whisked it away, leaving a full one in its place.
Our servers sure make me look good.
“We need to be clear on something,” Horace told Zach, as he admired his newly replenished mug. “People are free to hold to whatever religious beliefs they want . . . no matter how unorthodox, or even nutty, they may seem to most folks. And to ridicule someone’s private faith is wrong, it’s intolerant and, well, it’s just plain tacky. But . . . and this is something a lot of people don’t want to face up to, but the very moment someone takes that private faith and uses it to advocate for political action this all changes. When that happens . . . when someone puts their religious beliefs at issue as part of the political process, they become fair game for attack.”
Zach frowned. “But didn’t you tell me earlier that there’s nothing wrong with people bringing their religious faith into politics?”
“Actually, it isn’t really even a question of what’s right or wrong. It’s about what’s inevitable. We’re all motivated in our politics, at least in part, by our moral values. At least we should be. And for most Americans, those values are . . . to one degree or another, religiously based. And, obviously, we can’t check them at the door when we enter the political process.”
Zach was sipping his beer, taking it all in. He looked up at one of the televisions; CNN was covering the Michael Jackson trial. He shook his head and muttered something about how there must be more important things going on in the world. Have I mentioned lately how much I like that kid? Anyway, he then turned, looked straight at Horace and asked the million dollar question: “But wouldn’t it be better if we just kept religion completely out of politics? I mean, wouldn’t that mean that there’d be no need for anyone to attack anyone else’s religion?”
Horace didn’t answer. Winston didn’t give him the chance.
“Speaking as a confirmed agnostic,” began Winston, “I used to think so. I used to agree with Katha Pollitt . . . she’s a columnist with The Nation, and she doesn’t have much use for Jim Wallis and others like him who argue that the left should embrace religion more than it has in recent years. She thinks bringing religion into politics does nothing except reduce the range of ways of thinking about social problems . . . enthroning religion as the principal source of wisdom . . .”
“I have to say I think she’s got a point,” said Zach.
“So do I. Unfortunately . . . and it took a long time before I was willing to admit this, but the truth is, as much as you and I may agree with what Pollitt has to say, it really doesn’t have diddly-squat to do with the America we actually live in . . . So, you don’t like religion in politics? Tough shit! I don’t like the fact bourbon gives me a hangover. But we’re both going to have to learn to live with it, aren’t we? Because the fact of the matter is under the First Amendment, Religious Right boneheads have an absolute right to shout about religion as much as they want. And the United States is a very religious place . . . far more so than in Western Europe, for example. So faith based arguments hit home with a lot of voters.”
Horace spoke up, “And by failing to oppose social conservatives on religious questions, those of us who are both religious and liberal have allowed the political face of religion to be sketched in almost exclusively conservative, and sometimes even nutty, terms. Now, I don’t agree with Wallis on everything . . . and I’m certainly not about to climb on board with his argument that liberals, while continuing to fight for things like social justice and protection of the environment, should, nevertheless, become more conservative on social issues.”
“And don’t get me wrong, Zach,” said Winston, “I have no intention of trying to become a preacher.”
“For which we preachers are all truly grateful,” smiled Ned.
Winston chuckled. “But the fact I’m not a religious man . . . and have no intention of pretending that I am doesn’t mean I’m not happy to break bread with those who are.” He slapped both Horace and Ned on the back.
“We also need to remember,” said Horace, “according to a Harris poll only about 18 percent of Americans call themselves liberals . . . which would seem to imply that we’ve still got lots of space available in that big tent. Surely there’s room enough for both religious and secular liberals.”
“So then why are you saying it’s okay for people to attack other people’s religious beliefs in politics?”
“Because this is a democracy and not a theocracy . . .”
“Thank God!” interjected Tom.
“Thank God is right,” agreed Horace. “And that means a lot of different things. And one of them . . . as we talked about earlier is that no religion has the right to try to impose its beliefs on others. You can’t just proclaim that God’s on your side. You have a duty to prove that the policies you’re proposing are in the best interests of the community as a whole, nonbelievers as much as believers.”
Zach clearly wasn’t satisfied. “I’m sorry, but I don’t get it. What’s that got to do with attacking someone’s religious beliefs?”
“Attacking is a strong word: But, challenging their beliefs? Criticizing bad theology? Sure, that’s fair game, absolutely. This is a democracy. You don’t get to bring arguments to the table in a democracy and then deny the other side the chance to take a shot at them. That goes for faith based arguments just as much as any other.”
Ned jumped in. “Zach,” he said. “Maybe I can give an example that will help. Speaking as a minister for a mainline Christian denomination, I don’t have much use for religious based objections to the science of Evolution. But, hey, this is America, so if fundamentalists want to believe in Creationism, well that’s their prerogative. Now, if I were to meet some of them in a bar . . . which isn’t very likely, by the way, because most of them are opposed to drinking . . .”
“Heathens!” barked Winston.
Ned laughed, then pushed ahead. ” . . . if I were to meet a few of them socially somewhere, I might give them a good argument as to why I think their theology stinks. But if it turned out that they didn’t want to talk about it, then it would be churlish of me to push the point . . . I mean, people are entitled to keep their religion to themselves if they want to, don’t you think?”
Zach did agree.
“But let’s say, instead, this same group of fundamentalists starts a political movement trying to mandate the teaching of religious based Creationism, or as they like to call it now, Intelligent Design, in the public schools. Well, now, of course, we’re no longer just talking about people believing what they want to believe, and worshiping in the way they choose. Now we’re talking about them trying to force those beliefs onto my kids. And you can bet I’m going to fight them with everything I’ve got. And sure, I’m going to talk about Separation of Church and State . . . go to court if I have to. But I’m not going to stop there. I’m also going to do everything in my power to try to prove that these folks are pushing bad religion, bad theology. They aren’t just dumb about science. They’re dumb about God, too.”
“With all due respect, my friend,” said Horace thoughtfully, “I have to disagree just a bit with that last part. The problem isn’t primarily that their religious beliefs are dumb. It’s that they’re as scary as hell.”
* * *
And here’s the scariest part: We haven’t even gotten to the really nutty stuff yet.
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