General Convention Update–Blogging the Blue Book

Not me, Scott Gunn. He’s writing a series of posts on the various reports and resolutions to be discussed at General Convention. They are all worth reading–thoughtful and challenging–and often addressing larger issues facing the church.

For example, he raises questions about the political resolutions proposed by various bodies here. Here’s the principle he proposes:

Let us tell the world what we are going to do about political problems, rather than telling the world what they should do about political problems.

So rather than tell corporations to mind the environment, let’s pledge to have environmentally sustainable congregations. Let’s stop killing so many trees (ahem, General Convention legislative binder. *cough*). Rather than tell President Obama to do this or that about various Middle Eastern crises, let’s divest or invest or travel or boycott or something. Let’s stop calling for an end to the boycott of Cuba and instead set up travel programs to take people there. You get the idea.

And, for the love of God, let’s stop telling other governments what to do. What possible business do we have telling the government of North Korea what to do? How are 800 deputies and 200 bishops going to monitor the use of drones in warfare? Why should we wade into the complexities of the US tax code (remember, we are an international church!)?

And remember, one of the few budget items to be increased for the the next triennium is the Governmental Affairs office, while other programs like formation were gutted.

Frederick Schmidt also ponders the relationship between the church and the political realm in “Winning the White House and losing our souls.” Some of what he says is quite pertinent to Scott’s analysis of the place of political resolutions at General Convention:

Three, political speech and theological speech are not one in the same. Yes, theology has collective and corporate implications and, therefore, political implications. But the church is called upon to think about those issues from a fundamentally different point of view. Methodists are fond of talking about the resources of Christian theology as lying in Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. That list is inadvertently read as a list of two resources unique to the church (Scripture and tradition), alongside two resources shared in common with everyone else (what goes on inside our heads and what goes on in our lives). But when Christians talk about reason, we are talking about reasoning with the church, and when we talk about experience, we are talking about the experience of the church. When we use political language as if it were theological language, or when we use theology as if were a surrogate for politics, we fail to live and think as Christians were meant to live and think.

Was Jesus apolitical? Hardly.

Andrew Sullivan’s essay “Christianity in Crisis” has received considerable attention. I regularly read his blog. I find it highly intelligent, thought-provoking, and offering links to fascinating material I would otherwise not encounter. Sullivan is gay, libertarian, Roman Catholic. He writes:

This Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It does not seize the moment; it lets it be. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement. And it is not afraid. In the anxious, crammed lives of our modern twittering souls, in the materialist obsessions we cling to for security in recession, in a world where sectarian extremism threatens to unleash mass destruction, this sheer Christianity, seeking truth without the expectation of resolution, simply living each day doing what we can to fulfill God’s will, is more vital than ever. It may, in fact, be the only spiritual transformation that can in the end transcend the nagging emptiness of our late-capitalist lives, or the cult of distracting contemporaneity, or the threat of apocalyptic war where Jesus once walked. You see attempts to find this everywhere—from experimental spirituality to resurgent fundamentalism. Something inside is telling us we need radical spiritual change.Sullivan wants to extricate Christianity from the “christianists” as he calls them, the right-wing Christians who use their religion politically. He argues that Jesus was profoundly non-political and appeals to Jefferson’s idea of a Jesus who taught practical doctrines.

Others have offered insightful criticism, Kyle Cupp, for one, here and here.

I think the deeper problem with Sullivan’s argument lies in a series of category mistakes. Was there such a thing as “politics” distinct from religion in the Roman Empire? Not when the Emperor in some sense was responsible for assuring the performances of the rituals of Roman public religion. Not when the emperor in the East assumed titles like “Divine” or “Savior.” Not when the cross itself was an instrument of political power.

One of the problems for contemporary people is realizing that our categories of “religion” and “politics,” even the “secular” which Sullivan uses to describe St. Francis before his conversion, are the products of historical and cultural developments, that the boundaries between them, however contested they are in contemporary culture, exist in our minds. It’s not clear that such boundaries existed in the medieval or ancient world, that a term like “secular” would have made sense to St. Francis.

And of course, to assert that Jesus was “apolitical” is itself a political statement, when it is challenging the right of others to use Jesus or Christianity for political ends.

David Sessions points out that Sullivan is interpreting Jesus along the lines of liberal individualism (not surprising then that he begins with Jefferson’s Bible):

Andrew describes Jesus’ ideas as “truly radical,” for example, “love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth.” His project is to convince us that these “radical” ideas are also “apolitical,” that when salvaged from the tangle of theological and political movements that have distorted them, they are something pure, spiritual and otherworldly. Like a good liberal individualist, he reads all of these virtues as a kind of private interior experience, something I’m not sure Jesus ever intended them to mean.

It reminds me of two comments I received after a recent sermon. One person congratulated me for not preaching about political topics. Another person, in response to the very same sermon, congratulated me for taking a political stance. Apparently, I confused everybody.

We Americans have trouble with politics and religion.

Take up your cross–A sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B

March 4, 2012

The news recently has been full of stories about the intersection of religion and politics. There’s been all the talk about Mitt Romney and debate whether a Latter Day Saint can be president. There’s been Rick Santorum and his criticism of JFK’s famous speech. We’ve heard the Roman Catholic bishops complaining about the implications of healthcare reform for their faith, and their claims that their religious freedom is being violated. We thought the presidential election was going to be about the economy, and it turns out after all, that it’s going to be another front in the culture wars. Continue reading

The Virgin on a Dollar Bill: The Future of the Religious Right?

A great deal has been written about the religious right’s role in the current GOP presidential campaign but recent events have left experts scrambling to make sense of it all. There’s the issue of Romney’s membership in the Latter Day Saints; the Catholicism of Gingrich and Santorum, and now, whether Gingrich’s marital history will make it difficult for Evangelicals to vote for him (or if not all Evangelicals, then Evangelical women). There is even the story last week about the religious right leadership meeting in Texas to decide who they should support (and cries of vote-rigging from the Gingrich camp afterwards).

Reflecting on this weird mix, Michael Kazin posits “The End of the Christian Right.” His argument is this: 1) They’ve lost the culture wars–support for gay marriage now tops 50%; 2) They lack the leadership of earlier generations (there’s no Jerry Falwell among the current crop); 3) most importantly, they are losing the demographic battle. Of course, he makes this argument while acknowledging the continuing potency of conservative Christians in the Republican primary fights.

Kazin has received some pushback. Ed Kilgore disagrees.

But if they haven’t been able to pull their muscle behind a single candidate, that’s not a sign that they are on the wane—it’s a sign that, as far as the Republican Party is concerned, they have already won.

Look at the potential nominees: Unlike 2008, no candidate in the field is pro-choice by any definition. Only Ron Paul seems reluctant to enact a national ban on same-sex marriage. Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum. and Herman Cain have been vocal in fanning the flames of Islamophobia; again, only Paul has bothered to dissent to any significant degree.

I’ve got no particular insight on this matter. But an image I came across on a Mother Jones blogpost strikes me as very interesting:

We may yet see new realignments, with closer cooperation among conservative Evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics. It’s already taking place, of course. That evangelicals might have endorsed Santorum would have been unthinkable a generation ago (and is probably as difficult for many to swallow as voting for a Mormon). But what battles in the culture wars would an army led by the Roman Catholic bishops and supported by the American Family Association and the National Association for Evangelicals win?

An outsider’s perspective on Occupy Wall Street and Religion

From Michael Greenberg on The New York Review of Books (oddly the post on the website has gone missing):

organizers had been in talks with some of New York’s religious leaders for at least two weeks, negotiating support for the movement around the city. On Tuesday, coincidentally, they had been planning “a move” as one organizer put it to me. “The clergy would give us [an alternative] space to de-concentrate Zuccotti, to lessen the need for Zuccotti, to diminish its importance.”

According to Ellick, 1,400 “faith-based leaders in and around New York” were throwing their support behind Occupy Wall Street. When I asked him what defined a “leader,” he answered, “anyone with a constituency.” But what did support mean? For Ellick and John Merz, an Episcopal priest at Ascension Church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, it meant opening church kitchens and giving protesters a place to shower and sleep “even though we’re not a shelter.” It would involve public support as well, talking to the press and urging parishioners to join the protesters in their various anti-corporate actions.

And his take on Trinity Church, Wall Street:

Trinity Church, the historic Episcopal church located a block south of Zuccotti Park, had been cautious in its support of the occupation, allowing protesters to hold meetings on its steps and, on occasion, use its bathrooms. Trinity is one of the largest landowners in the city, and its main business is the management of its properties, among which is a large open space on Canal Street and Sixth Avenue. The space abuts Duarte Square, a half-acre city park. Organizers had been in negotiation with the church to expand their encampment to the Canal Street space. Despite pressure from more radical Episcopal priests from other parishes in New York, Trinity ultimately decided to forbid access to its land. One priest I spoke with who preferred not to be identified, was indignant at Trinity’s decision—“Its meekness,” he called it, “its fear of antagonizing authorities who are responsible for upholding so many of its privileges. Let’s face it,” he added, “they’re more a corporation than a place of faith. They have fewer parishioners than I do.” He said that meetings at Trinity had been heated. “This is a basic challenge to our values. If we don’t support Occupy Wall Street, what do we stand for?”

Trinity has made its views clear in a letter and in its acquiescence in the clearing of Duarte Square, property owned by Trinity, but leased to another group.

Meanwhile in London, the St. Paul’s controversy continues.


Why Niebuhr now?

Jordan Smith on Diggins’ Why Niebuhr Now?

Smith writes:

Ever alert to the perils of fanaticism, as well as undue optimism or bleak pessimism, Niebuhr remained a small-d democrat who prioritized the possible over the ideal through his various political incarnations. And yet the problem with balanced thought is that it can easily be manipulated. Niebuhr’s principles were so elastic and general that they can be plausibly interpreted and applied in nearly infinite ways.

As an example, he uses the Libya intervention:

It should come as no surprise that Niebuhr’s spirit has been invoked in a variety of conflicting ways in our current Libyan crisis. David Brooks of the New York Times cast the intervention as Niebuhrian on the grounds that it was done reluctantly, (at least originally) with the modest goal of stopping an impending massacre, and with an awareness of the moral complexities on the ground. At the same time, in the American Prospect, Adam Serwer made the case that it was anti-Niebuhrian. The intervention, he argued, was justified by the purity of its intentions, and President Obama invoked American exceptionalism, both ideas Niebuhr persistently opposed. Similarly, even while writing that “pressing Niebuhr into service on behalf of any and all causes will make him irrelevant,” Andrew Bacevich has appropriated the pastor on behalf of anti-interventionism, calling him a “prophet” who foresaw that America would fall prey to its messianic instincts. Ultimately, though, Niebuhr’s diversity and unpredictability make applying his thought with any precision to contemporary problems an impossibility. The answer to the question “What would Niebuhr say?” is: We don’t know.

Is America a Christian Nation?


What would it look like if it were?

Adam Lee points out:

In reality, there’s such a huge diversity of opinion among self-professed Christians past and present that the term “Christian values” could mean almost anything.

Christians have been communists and socialists (including Francis Bellamy, the author of the Pledge of Allegiance); Christians have supported empire and dictatorship (including Mussolini, who made Catholicism the official state religion of fascist Italy). Christians have advocated positions across the political spectrum, from environmental preservation to environmental destruction, from pacifism to just war to open advocacy of genocide, from civil rights to segregation and slavery.

He discusses what forms of government are sanctioned in the Bible and points out that democracy is nowhere mentioned. Then he provides a lesson in constitutional history, observing that the constitution is a “godless” document.

… it’s easy to see just how unique, unusual, even unprecedented the Constitution is. The United States of America was the first modern republic that was created on the foundation of reason, without seeking blessings from a god, without imploring divine assistance or invoking divine favor. And, as I said, this fact was not overlooked when the Constitution was being debated. Very much to the contrary, the religious right of the founding generation angrily attacked it, warning that ratifying this godless document as-is would spell doom for the nation.

Tom Ehrich answers the same question from a very different perspective:

If we were a genuinely Christian nation, we would be gathering the harvest of this abundant land and sharing it with the hungry of our own land and of many lands. We would forgive our enemies, speak truth to power and go forth to serve and to sacrifice, not to rule.

We would stand with the poor when predators circled around them. We would stand with sinners when the self-righteous picked up stones. We would join hands with nonconformists and strangers.

We would become God’s beacon to the nations. And when the tired and poor followed that light to our borders, we would greet them with open arms and make room for them in our communities.

That’s what Jesus did, and that is what it would mean to be a Christian nation.

Still more on Dominionism and the Religious Right in 2011

A thoughtful conversation between Sarah Posner and Anthea Butler concerning the various movements that influence politicians like Rick Perry. Both caution against careless dismissal or over-exaggerating.

Frank Schaeffer on Michele Bachmann’s “anti-feminism.

Greg Metzger offers a roadmap to the media discussion of the religious right in recent weeks here and here.

Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Dominionism, and the pundits

Julie Ingersoll defends the coverage of Dominionism by herself and others here. Douglas Groothuis, of Denver Seminary, challenges the media’s narrative concerning Bachmann’s relationship to Dominionism.

Meanwhile, outgoing NYTimes editor Bill Keller wrote a piece in the Sunday Times Magazine in which he calls for close scrutiny of the religious beliefs of candidates. The list of questions is here. Pascal-Emanuel Gobry’s takedown of Keller is well-worth the read.

And it’s rather unfortunate that in a piece advocating questioning of presidential candidates’ concerning their religious belief and practice, Rick Santorum was identified originally as an Evangelical, not a Roman Catholic.

Be not afraid of evangelicals

Lisa Miller brings some necessary perspective to Progressives’ bashing of Perry, Bachmann, and “Dominionism.”

Among her arguments, the “dominionism” that has received so much attention is relatively unknown among conservative Christians, that Evangelicals have not united between a single candidate, and that “Christian conservatives are not more militant than ever.”

But the most trenchant piece of her essay is her observation that for many on the left, anyone who confesses faith in Jesus Christ and identifies themselves as Evangelical, is bent on political hegemony in the US.

There have been responses to Miller’s essay. Here’s one from Peter Montgomery on Religion Dispatches.

In the midst of the name-calling back and forth is this thoughtful piece by David Sessions on Patrol. Sessions writes:

Here’s the reality: Dominionism as a term or a school of thought is virtually unknown even to conservative evangelicals of the type who adore Bachmann and Palin. There is no widely-agreed-upon definition of what constitutes “dominionism”; it is used describe everything from garden-variety religious right (“soft dominionism”) to the insane, totalitarian Christianism of Rushdoony (“hard dominionism”). It is difficult to overstate how fringe it is in its purest forms, how tiny the number of people who are aware of and embrace its arguments.

Sessions goes on to say that, yes, many Evangelical Christians believe that America is a Christian nation and that a return to traditional values is necessary. Moreover,

But, and this is the most important thing, most of their political concerns arise organically from their relatively orthodox Christian views, and have nothing to do with ideological movements like dominionism . Far fewer evangelicals are the red-meat voting machines than certain members of the media imagine. And most of them, even if they have a revisionist, whitewashed, Christianized understanding of the American founding, still accept that they live in a multicultural nation that is not and will never be a theocracy.

Well said.