I have been giving a lot of thought lately to how liberals might achieve reconciliation between our secular and faith based traditions.Then it occurred to me: Maybe all we need is a little faith — a little faith in each other.
The Last Chance Democracy Café
Episode 37: The Religious Left Arises
by Steven C. Day
At age 84, my father keeps finding ways to surprise me.
During my semi-regular weekly telephone conversation with my parents last Sunday, for example, I learned that for the first time in my memory, he’s put a bumper sticker on his car.
“A Proud Member of the Religious Left,” is what it says.
“I paid four dollars for it,” he told me.
Four dollars tends to mean more to my parents’ generation than to mine; and not just because money went a lot further back “in their day.”
Growing up in the Great Depression and then living through the Second World War taught them to count every dime — a character trait, by the way, which often proved a supreme frustration to their children.
“No, you don’t need a soda. They cost a nickel, for heaven’s sake! We’ll get you something when we get home” (after a five hour drive).
Dad continued, “I don’t know anything about the organization I’m supporting.”
His voice was matter of fact.
“The one I sent the four dollars to.”
I came dangerously close to suggesting that worrying too much about four dollars might be a little over the top: But I caught myself just in the nick of time.
Once when I was a child, I made the mistake of suggesting that rationing ice cubes (using more than two was frowned upon, though not strictly prohibited) was perhaps a little excessive, since they didn’t really cost anything.
“It takes electricity and water to make ice cubes,” the mildly reproachful response came.
“And both cost money.”
No, I thought to myself, probably best to just leave the matter of the four dollars alone.
“In any case,” Dad finished his thought, “I certainly agree with the sentiment.
I am a proud member of the Religious Left.”
I told him that I thought getting the bumper sticker was terrific.
At that point, I assumed that all discussion of religion would end and the conversation would fall back into the usual routine — discussing the kids, discussing the dog, discussing the weather, and so on until, finally, never more than five minutes into the conversation, Mom would begin the process of trying to bring the call to a close, saying something like, “Honey, it sure was good to hear your voice.”
She worries the long distance charges will cost me too much (see above).
But Dad had a surprise for me.
The God talk wasn’t over.
“So are you getting to church much these days?” he asked.
“Well . . . ah . . . no, not very often, actually. I guess we just got, well, you know, too busy.”
Damn, I didn’t see that one coming.
He sounded just a touch disappointed.
I quickly jumped back in, saying (truthfully), “We’ve been talking about getting back involved with church. The boys are getting old enough that we’d like to get them started with Sunday school.”
“Oh definitely.” His tone of voice was surprisingly strong. “You know, none of the grandkids are involved in Sunday school right now . . . they’re getting no training at all in our religious traditions. I really think that’s unfortunate.”
While you may find it surprising, given that Dad is an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ, the fact that he seemed disappointed by the lack of religious education his grandchildren were receiving took me by surprise. The possibility had never occurred to me.
By my memory, he hadn’t seemed upset at all when I drifted away from religion at a fairly young age.
I wonder if even back then there was more to his feelings than met the eye.
* * *
Does anyone, anywhere, at anytime ever pass through childhood and adolescence without taking along a truckload of resentment? I doubt it. But for many of us, adulthood then brings the gradual, if often reluctant, realization that while our parents had many faults, and at times did treat us unfairly, or at least unwisely, we ourselves had often been, well, full of shit.
As touched upon above, my parents could at times, in my view, take frugality to a ridiculous extreme. If someone had told me when I was 15 that one day Tom Brokaw would forever enshrine my parents’ generation as The Greatest Generation, I probably would have responded, “Don’t you mean the Cheapest Generation.”
But then a few years later they put me through college, and although my sister didn’t end up going to college, they helped her out in her early adult years in a number of ways, as well.
And later, when they retired, they were able to do so comfortably without ever having to rely on their children.
And they did all this without having ever earned more than a fairly modest middle class level income.
Maybe getting along with two ice cubes wasn’t that bad after all.
But I should hasten to add that my point here is not to suggest that greater individual frugality would be the end all solution to the current debt and savings crisis; my parents lived their early and middle years in a very different America than the one we live in today.
Theirs was a time when, through hard work and careful savings, a middle class couple stood a real chance of educating their children and still having enough left over for a comfortable retirement. Those days, sadly, are now largely gone; and the fact that Americans today have piled up historic levels of personal debt, as compared to their parents, many of whom piled up historic levels of savings, is only partially due to excessive consumerism. The unfairness and inequality that permeates today’s economy is at least as much to blame.
But then that isn’t the point I’m here to make.
To get to that point, I’ll need to tell a story.
One of my clearest memories from my father’s years as a minister with the United Church of Christ (he later went back to school and became a college professor) is of the time a large sad looking man came to our house.
Dad talked to him for a few minutes, then, to my surprise, took out his wallet and handed over some money; I don’t know how much, but it was a fair sized wad of bills.
After the man left, I asked Dad what had happened. He told me the man had just gotten out of prison; he’d landed a job, but needed work clothes and other sundries. Dad loaned him the money.
Now, obviously, loaning someone a few bucks was a fairly modest act of philanthropy: Mother Teresa had little to fear from my father in the competition for most famous do-gooder of the second half of the 20th century. But for me, seeing my skinflint father, presumably with the agreement of my skinflint mother, willing to chance what to us was a significant amount of money on a stranger, especially one who’d been in trouble, left a lasting impression.
That’s what I thought religion, or at least the limited circle of religion I was exposed to back then, was supposed to be all about: Helping people.
Religion was supporting the Civil Rights Movement.
Religion was opposing the War in Vietnam.
Religion was helping to feed the hungry.
As I’ve mentioned before, I knew that the “other kind” of Christians — the fundamentalists — were out there somewhere, but they had little impact on my life.
And so I left childhood holding an essentially favorable opinion of religion, even as I drifted away from it myself.
I guess you could say that religion and I parted as friends.
* * *
Lunchtime at the Last Chance Democracy Café is very different from the evenings, when most of our episodes take place — louder and more harried. Servers rush about like a swarm of CPAs at tax time, racing against the clock to serve up the Liberal Burgers and Chickenhawk Caesar Salads within the customers’ finite lunch breaks. People come, people go and people wait anxiously for a table, sometimes glaring menacingly at anyone dining at a bit too leisurely a rate. Hardly an inviting environment for a long, easy going political discussion. So Horace, whose time is now his own, usually doesn’t come by until around 2:30 in the afternoon on the one day each week we share lunch. Then we talk and we talk, often until well after the after-work crowd begins to arrive.
As much as I love Wednesday evenings with the whole gang, I have to admit there’s something special about my one-on-one time with Horace
“I’ve got to get one of those,” Horace grinned broadly in response to my telling him about Dad’s new bumper sticker.
“Do you think there’s any hope?” I asked
“Hope for what?”
“Hope for the Religious Left?”
“I guess that depends on what you’re hoping for.”
Well, now, that was certainly informative.
My voice likely displayed a hint of irritation as I said, “Okay, you got me on that one, but I really would like to know what you think . . .”
“Honestly, Steve,” Horace interrupted, “I wasn’t trying to mess . . .”
“. . . with you. It really does depend on what you’re hoping for. If you’re asking, for example, if there’s hope that the Religious Left will become the kind of force in favor of the Democrats that the Religious Right is for the Republicans . . . then as much as I hate to say it, no, I think there’s very little chance of that. So-called liberal denominations are much more politically diverse than their right wing opposites. They also tend to be a little pickier about things like, say, the tax laws precluding partisan political activity.”
I nodded my agreement. “Right. Methodists and Presbyterians tend to be theologically liberal as compared to, say . . .”
“Exactly. But there are a lot of Methodists and Presbyterians who vote Republican.”
Horace paused for a second as he finished chewing a bite of his Republican Pork Barrel Sandwich. “So, there’s not much chance we’ll be seeing mainline protestant churches, or progressive evangelicals, for that matter, handing out pro-Democratic voting guides the way the right wing churches do for the bad guys.”
“Would you even want to see that happen?” I asked skeptically.
“Not on your life. That crosses the line whoever does it.”
“Yeah, I agree.” I sighed heavily. “Which, I suppose, goes back to your original point. The Religious Left will never provide the Democrats with the armies of political automatons the Christian Right gives the Republicans.”
“Afraid so,” continued Horace. “And that’s not the end of the bad news . . . well, if you consider our unwillingness to completely stoop to their level to be bad news. But the truth is that the Religious Left is in an extremely weak position right now . . . starting the race laps behind the conservatives.”
I was starting to feel a little down. I figured I could count on Horace to find a positive spin in the end, but the end was starting to look awfully far away.
Horace continued, “Recent polling has shown, for example, that people who say that they attend church frequently vote Republican by a margin of 2-to-1; and statistically, the more religious a person is, the more conservative he or she will tend to be politically.”
I shook my head hard, the way I imagine a drunk in detox might upon seeing a herd of pink elephants dancing a waltz around his bed.
“These are primarily Christians we’re talking about, right?” I asked incredulously.
“And you’re telling me that the more devout these, quote, Christians become, the more they tend to adopt a political philosophy that advocates pampering the rich, while ignoring the needs of the poor and middle class? Have I got that straight?”
Molly, who happened to be walking by on her way to deliver a tray of sandwiches, commented sarcastically, “You remember, it’s in the Bible; blessed are the wealthy, for they shall inherit the earth.”
“I thought it was the meek.”
“Not in the King George W. version.”
Horace smiled sadly. “Yup. When you stop to think about it, it’s a good thing that Jesus was resurrected. Otherwise he’d be spinning in his grave something awful.”
“So it’s hopeless,” I said.
Actually, knowing Horace, I had a pretty good idea that he did not think things were hopeless. But I was getting tired of all the gloom and doom; so I decided to goad him into cheering me up.
“Nonsense,” thundered Horace. “Who said anything about it being hopeless?! That’s not what I mean at all! In fact, let me explain to you exactly why it isn’t hopeless . . .”
Can I manipulate with the best of them, or what?
* * *
Before we hear Horace out, bear with me through another brief story — one that I think may help to put the comments to follow into perspective. The year was 1972; I had just started college. I think, though I’m not sure, it was a sociology class; in any case, the classroom discussion had turned to religion. And for a full forty minutes, I listened as two distinct sides slugged it out.
In the far corner, we had the secular crowd, ridiculing all things religious, flailing away with arguments largely stolen from Spencer Tracy’s portrayal in Inherit the Wind. In the opposite corner, we had the fundamentalists, whose basic response, whatever the issue, was always the same, “We know we’re right because God tells us so in the Bible.” They also made it quite clear that there was little doubt in their minds that the rest of us would soon be burning in hell, an eventuality that seemed to bring them almost orgasmic pleasure.
Finally, I raised my hand.
I told the class that not all churches were fundamentalist; that there are liberal denominations that wholeheartedly reject the literal interpretation of the Bible and which have long histories of commitment to the fight for social justice.
They looked at me like I was a three-eyed monster from Planet X.
I didn’t realize it then, of course, but looking back now it occurs to me that this classroom discussion was a near perfect premonition of what today has become the predominant media cliché regarding the Christian religion in America: The one that assumes the nation is neatly divided into two warring factions, the Religious Right (into which the media increasingly lumps Roman Catholics) and nonbelievers.
It’s a picture which, obviously, leaves absolutely no room for a Religious Left.
* * *
Horace continued, “I’m actually very optimistic about what we’re starting to see happen in regard to liberals and religion. I’ve always felt that there are two things . . . relating to religion that have to happen before liberals can hope to again become a power to contend with in American politics. And to at least some degree, I think they’re both finally underway.”
Horace paused for a sip of ice tea.
“Okay, I’ll bite,” I said after a few moments. “What two things?”
Horace put down his glass.
“Religious liberals need to become a lot louder about politics; and secular liberals need to become a lot smarter about religion.”
“Smarter . . . ?”
Horace rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and then offered a small mischievous smile. “This always gets me into trouble,” he said, “but the truth is that many secularly minded liberals are hopelessly uninformed about religious matters. A lot of them simply don’t understand that many religious people agree with them pretty much across the board, including strong opposition to breaching the Separation of Church and State. They tend to assume that all religion is politically right wing . . . causing them to freeze out, and worse still, ridicule, potential allies within the faith community.”
“But I gather you think that’s changing?”
“I don’t think there’s any question about it. The Democratic Party, in particular, is showing every sign of being serious about trying to improve its standing with religiously inclined voters. And I also think that more and more nonreligious liberals are coming to understand that partnering politically with the Religious Left is in no way inconsistent with maintaining the fight for a secular government. Christian liberals are every bit as opposed to theocracy as secular liberals. And as for the other half of the equation, the Religious Left is finally starting to show some real, if tentative, signs of political life . . .”
I jumped in. “Like the popularity of Jim Wallis’ book God’s Politics, right?”
Horace nodded in agreement.
“And then there’s the founding of the new Christian Alliance for Progress, a group dedicated to advancing the agenda of the Religious Left.”
“And as the son of an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ,” I added, “I’m particularly proud of some of the things the UCC has been doing lately.” My voice was becoming more enthusiastic as we went along. “That commercial, the one on gay rights that CBS and NBC refused to air, was just dynamite.”
Horace concurred: “I’ll do you one better. I think that what the UCC has been doing lately may one day be remembered as a turning point of sorts in this country. It’s that important. At long last, a major denomination has come out full throttle, in a very public way, against at least some of the excesses of the Religious Right.”
“And you know what’s especially cool about this? Last Sunday when I was talking to my father, I asked him whether what the denomination has been doing, with gay rights and the like, has been controversial in the small town UCC church he and Mom attend. And you know what he told me? He said it was just the opposite. That everyone is getting really pumped about all the excitement this is generating and the attention it’s bringing to the denomination. Apparently, in the time immediately following the controversy over the commercial, they got 70,000 hits on their web site’s UCC church locator page.”
“Hallelujah!” said Horace.
Then we clinked our ice tea glasses together.
Then, as always, it fell to Horace to put the period at that end of the sentence.
“But you want to know something strange?” he asked.
“Of everything we’ve discussed today, what makes me happiest is finding out about your father getting that Religious Left bumper sticker.”
“Why?” I smiled.
“Because all by itself it blows the hell out of Karl Rove’s master plan . . . his grand scheme of building a permanent Republican majority by framing the issue as though America can somehow be neatly divided into two opposing camps, pro-religious conservatives and antireligious liberals.”
“That’s certainly his plan.”
I looked up at the Republican Darts corner of the lounge, secretly hoping that at that moment someone might by chance be landing a dart directly on the bridge of Karl Rove’s nose.
Horace was looking particularly upbeat. “But, don’t you see? That’s the beauty of this: By the mere act of driving the car down the street with that bumper sticker on it, your parents . . . who I’m sure are well respected members of their community, prove that Rove is full of it: Prove that there really is a Religious Left, and that it’s made up of people who are to be taken seriously. It’s the perfect metaphor for what needs to happen . . . for what is already starting to happen. And bit by bit, as religious liberals become increasingly politically active in communities across the country, often in response to well founded fears over the growing power of the Religious Right, Rove’s daydream of a Republican Christian nation will fade quicker than a cheap T-shirt washed in hot water.”
“One problem,” I played the spoilsport. “Conservative megachurches are getting bigger all the time, while liberal mainline churches keep shrinking . . .”
“That’s true. Mainline churches have been losing ground since about the 1970s.”
“So how can we realistically expect the Religious Left to ever catch up with the Religious Right?”
“They won’t . . . at least not for a long time.”
“So . . .”
“But that’s really not the point. Remember, even with the current dominance of the Religious Right within faith based politics, the Republicans still barely managed to scratch out victories in the last two presidential elections. Religious progressives don’t have to bury the Christian Right to swing the political equilibrium significantly to the left. They just have to put a dent into it. And that’s something they’re definitely capable of doing.”
And with that we both dived wholeheartedly into our respective, and by this point completely cold, lunches.
* * *
As a postscript, I guess I’m headed back to church. My wife and I agreed — beginning in the fall, we’re going to start taking the kids to Sunday school at a local UCC church. And, of course, that means we’ll be attending too.
I guess that’s the thing about old friends. You can be separated from them for decades at a time, but in the end, they’re still always a part of you.
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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