TheReligiousLeft.org

Monday, January 31, 2011

Reflections on Egypt

Amidst the hope and chaos in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez, one particularly interesting theme has begun to emerge from progressive religious circles here in the US: the on-going protests in Egypt represent the end of a false dichotomy in Middle Eastern politics that has defined US foreign policy for decades.

Phillip Weiss tackles this dichotomy head-on, suggesting that US foreign policy in the region, which has historically been defined by the toleration of corrupt, autocratic Arab regimes willing to forswear outward hostility toward Israel, has perpetuated a "false choice of secular dictator [or] crazy Islamists" as the only two viable models of government in the region. However, Weiss suggests that the apparent awakening of "true Arab democracy" in the streets of Egypt will evaporate this false dichotomy "by showing that Arabs are smart articulate people who can handle real democracy if they get to make it themselves."

Interfaith advocate Eboo Patel shared a similar sentiment in a passionate plea to President Obama urging the president to embrace the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people. Patel cites the emergence of diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei as the nominal head of the protest movement as "a dream" for Western nations willing to shake off the status quo of regional politics. As Patel explains, with the nomination of ElBaradei as the face of the protests,
"Mubarak no longer gets to say, "Your choice is me or a bearded mullah who will repress women, religious minorities and everyone who doesn't pray five times a day exactly as he does - plus rip up the peace treaty with Israel.""
Patel apparently agrees with Weiss about the nature of the revolution in Egypt, referring to the protesters as "remarkably peaceful, sophisticated, and disciplined," and calls on President Obama to be on "the right side of history" and support the people of Egypt as they work to end the "tyranny" of Mubarak's regime.

With news of an enormous protest scheduled for tomorrow (Tuesday), we continue to keep the people of Egypt, and all those who struggle for basic human rights and dignities, in our thoughts and prayers.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Alleged Mosque Attack Thwarted in Michigan

The Council on American-Islamic relations announced today that local authorities have thwarted an alleged attack on one of the nation's largest mosques, located in Detroit suburb of Dearborn, MI. A 63-year-old California man was arrested in the parking lot of the Islamic Center of America, and later arraigned on one count of making a false report or threat of terrorism and one count of possessing explosives with an unlawful intent. The man is currently being held on a $500,000 bond.
Other recent hate incidents targeting American Muslim institutions and houses of worship have included an arson attack on an Oregon mosque, an arson attack on a mosque in Texas, threats against an Islamic school in Oklahoma, a bias attack outside an Ohio mosque, shots fired outside a New York mosque, an arson attack on the site of a planned mosque in Tennessee, a threat to a previously-bombed Ohio mosque, the defacement of a South Carolina mosque, hate mail sent to mosques, Islamic centers and Muslim organizations in Michigan and Ohio, and a bomb attack at a Florida mosque in May of last year.
And it is against this backdrop of dramatically increased domestic anti-Muslim attacks that conservative lawmakers like Rep. Steve King (R-NY) want to begin congressional hearings on the radicalization of the US' Muslim population. Pardon me, Congressman, but it looks like you and your conservative constituents have a log in your eye.

Update: Imad Hamad of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee responds to the incident on Fox's Detroit station:

Terrorist Threat At Local Mosque: MyFoxDETROIT.com


"The bottom line...a disrespect to any faith is a disrespect to all. Any act of hate, any advocacy of hate, should not be tolerated, should not be accepted, [and] is against our true American values."

Saturday, January 29, 2011

21st Century Sin: Changing the Narrative

By Garrett FitzGerald

After hopefully laying some of the groundwork on the need for a contemporary progressive reconceptualization of sin, it’s time to look at some recent narratives of sin in the media and consider what the Right got wrong. Nothing brings Monday-morning moralizers out of the woodwork faster than tragedy. Even the most cursory glance at media coverage of recent humanitarian crises turns up a whole host of holy hotheads ready to explain away the calamity of the moment as God’s punishment for the sinful behavior of a particular, and often already demonized, group. But behind the dominant conservative narratives of sin, which treat many tragedies as some sort of divine retributive justice, lie the oppressive societal structures with which a more progressive understanding of sin is concerned.

Perhaps the most infamous of contemporary finger-pointing firebrands is Fred Phelps, whose Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church has earned the condemnation of folks on both sides of the theological and political aisle for their explicit protest signs (which range from inflammatory declarations like “God Hates Fags” to cartoon images of armed forces personnel sodomizing one another) and a penchant for protesting military funerals. Phelps was back in the news again recently for the WBC’s plans to protest at the funerals of the victims in Tucson, an outrage narrowly avoided by offering the WBC time on two local conservative radio shows in exchange for not protesting the funerals, including that of 9-year-old Christina Green. As previously reported, in the wake of the tragedy the WBC website ran a statement proclaiming:
”Your federal judge is dead and your (fag-promoting, baby-killing, proud-sinner) Congresswoman fights for her life. God is avenging Himself on this rebellious house! WBC prays for your destruction--more shooters, more dead carcasses piling up, young, old, leader and commoner--all. Your doom is upon you!”
Phelps' group has also linked the 9/11 attacks and the deaths of soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan to God's anger over the "lifestyle choices" of homosexuals in the United States and the permissiveness of our society, which purportedly sanctions such behavior. The decision to protest military funerals follows from the logic that God approves of the death of American soldiers for their protection of such an inherently sinful country and culture.

Despite Phelps’ attempt to corner the market on this sort of hate-infused rhetoric about sin, he is hardly the only social or theological conservative to blame the “sinful” practices of our nation’s LGBT community for inviting God’s wrath. Controversial fundamentalist pastor (and avid John McCain supporter) John Hagee received extensive media coverage for his repeated suggestions that a scheduled pride parade in New Orleans provoked the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. After a significant public outcry at this suggestion, and the presumably rather humbling realization that he himself might not be privy to God’s plans and intentions, Hagee recanted his claim. Jerry Falwell spread the blame for 9/11 around even more during a much-publicized appearance on Pat Robertson's The 700 Club, during which Falwell opined:
"I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say "you helped this happen.""
Along a similar vein, Pat Robertson managed to blame the effects of last year’s devastating earthquake in Haiti on a mythic collective deal with the Devil in Haiti’s distant past. According to Robertson's unique understanding of Haitian history:
"They were under the heel of the French, you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said 'We will serve you if you will get us free from the prince.' True story. And so the devil said, 'Ok it's a deal.' And they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got something themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another."
As outrageous as some of these claims may seem, in many cases they represent a very real danger for the groups that they demonize, and a danger compounded by the persistent lack of progressive religious voices challenging the understandings of sin upon which they rest. Behind each example cited above lies a potential progressive counter-narrative in which unchecked societal sins like religiously sanctioned violence, environmental degradation, racism, and dehumanizing poverty either cause or compound moments of exceptional human suffering.

Particularly given the relatively high level of media attention garnered by conservative narratives of sin like those discussed above, progressives must begin to publically push back against these claims by highlighting the harmful structures of social sin lurking behind each conservative claim. By working to change public discourse around these harmful systems and practices, progressives can begin not only to reclaim the meaning and normative power of the language of sin from conservative religionists, but can actively help reduce the destructive potential of the systems and practices themselves by bringing them to the forefront of public consciousness in a way that already highlights their inherently destructive nature. While progressives must surely work to counter the dangerous narratives about sin that abound in our public discourse, even more so are we called to name and resist the sinful structures that underlie the narratives themselves. By bringing the power of our shared theological resources to bear on these problems, it is possible for us to blot the stain of injustice from the fabric of our society.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

400 Rabbis Call on Rupert Murdoch to Sanction Beck, Ailes

In a full-page ad in today's Wall Street Journal, 400 rabbis from progressive group Jewish Funds for Justice called on Rupert Murdoch to request that
"Glenn Beck be sanctioned by Fox News for his completely unacceptable attacks on a survivor of the Holocaust and Roger Ailes apologize for his dismissive remarks about rabbis' sensitivity to how the Holocaust is used on the air."
The letter specifically cites Beck's recent three-day attack on progressive billionaire and Holocaust survivor George Soros and Fox News boss Roger Ailes' subsequent defense of Beck, in which Ailes claimed that the only people Beck's remarks had upset were "left-wing rabbis who basically don't think that anybody can ever use the word, Holocaust, on the air." The letter follows up efforts by Jewish Funds for Justice, which we covered a few weeks ago, to keep Beck off the air in New York City after Beck's radio program was dropped by conservative talk radio network WOR.

In other Beck news, in perhaps one of the clown prince of conservatism's most bizarre on-air moments, Beck employed his renowned cryptography skills this week to decode the Top Secret Muslim Agenda behind the President's State of the Union address. Beck's use of race and religion-baiting is itself nothing new, but this segment in particular deserves some attention, as Beck's props happen to include a live rabbit and a chainsaw.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

This Week in Unlawful Detention

With all this week's headlines about the President's State of the Union address and it's many follow-ups, a couple of news items seem to have slipped by mostly under the radar. This is probably just as well for President Obama, as the news in question recalls one of his administration's most glaring failures in terms of the protection of human and civil rights: the maintenance of immoral and unlawful Bush-era policies on detention.

The first bit of news came from New York, where Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the bombing of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. Ghailani, a 36-year old Tanzanian national, is the first former detainee from Guantanamo Bay to be tried in a US civilian court. Ghailani's case is viewed by many as a litmus test for the viability of trying further Guantanamo detainees in the US criminal justice system. Ghailani's case raised many anticipated questions necessitated by the inhumane and illegal detention of prisoners at Guantanamo, including the permissibility of evidence and testimony collected using the horrific "extraordinary rendition" tactics employed under the Bush administration. The trial also highlighted the difficulties of extending constitutional protections to detainees whose Fifth Amendment rights to due process have arguably been waived due to their status as "enemy combatants."

The second bit of news this week concerned a change in command at the brig where Pfc. Bradley Manning is being held on charges that he leaked classified information to Wikileaks, including a controversial video of a US helicopter firing on civilians in Iraq, dispatches from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and approximately 250,000 diplomatic cables. The news briefly reignited controversy over the treatment of Pfc. Manning and the conditions in which he is being held. Despite not having been convicted of leaking the documents in question, or of any other crime, Manning has been held since May as a "Maximum Custody Detainee," the highest level of military detention security. For eight months, Manning has been subject to almost total isolation - including solitary confinement for 23 hours out of every day - and has even reportedly been denied the modest comforts of a pillow and sheets for his bed. From a December profile in Salon on the inhumane conditions in which Manning is being held:
"In sum, Manning has been subjected for many months without pause to inhumane, personality-erasing, soul-destroying, insanity-inducing conditions of isolation similar to those perfected at America's Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado: all without so much as having been convicted of anything. And as is true of many prisoners subjected to warped treatment of this sort, the brig's medical personnel now administer regular doses of anti-depressants to Manning to prevent his brain from snapping from the effects of this isolation."
The holdover of Bush-era policies on indefinite detention, and the all-too-common instances of inhumane prisoner treatment that accompany such detention, remains one of the Obama Administration's most glaring criminal justice failures. Candidate Obama ran on a platform of rectifying the gross abuses perpetrated by the Bush administration in the name of justice and national security. Although the issue has been largely pushed from the spotlight by the nation's continued economic woes, President Obama must return to his promise and end these illegal and inhumane practices once and for all. Ghailani's conviction has demonstrated that US civilian courts are capable of delivering justice despite the legal morass created by the implementation and continuation of these practices. It is time to call on the President and Congress to close this shameful chapter in US history and give Pfc. Manning and the detainees at Guantanamo their day in court.

Monday, January 24, 2011

How Spending Priorities Reflect Moral Committments

A couple revealing polls were released this month that illuminate the moral roots of liberal and conservative policies, particularly regarding taxes, spending, and the deficit.

It boils down to this: People who identify as Republicans generally want to cut spending on social services like education, Medicare, social security, and unemployment benefits; people identifying as Democrats want to reduce military spending and, if necessary, raise taxes. Now, that probably doesn't come as a surprise to anyone, but it's one thing to hear that Republicans want to "trim entitlement spending," but another to see the cold, hard numbers.

A recent CBS poll asked a series of "Would you be willing or not willing to reduce spending on..." questions about various government programs. The answers of Democrats and Republicans were close to each other in several areas. The biggest difference? 40% of Republicans would be willing to cut spending in areas such as health care and education compared to only 12% of Democrats. That is nearing HALF of Republican voters!

A different NYTimes/CBS News poll paints an even starker and grimmer picture. In answering the question "If you had to choose one, which of the following domestic programs would you be willing to reduce in order to cut government spending?" 32% of Republicans said "Aid to the unemployed and poor" compared to 13% of Democrats answering the same.

It could not be clearer. Republicans do not want to fund programs that directly benefit their fellow citizens: education, affordable health care, safety nets for the economically vulnerable, a reasonable retirement age. These are the first things to go for Republicans. Democrats, by contrast, opt to reduce spending on the world's most costly military (almost an order of magnitude more expensive than any other country) and, according to that NYTimes/CBS poll, infrastructure. Or, alternatively, 42% of Democrats would opt to raise taxes on people like themselves, compared to 11% of Republicans.

This shines a bright spotlight not just on the policy priorities but also the moral committments of Republicans and Democrats. Republicans want to keep as much of their income as possible, and if this means denying fundamental social services to their fellow citizens, then so be it. This is the purely self-interested pursuit of utility/pleasure/money lauded by Ayn Rand. It's no wonder so many Republians cite The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged as a life-changing book.

Democrats still believe that a moral obligation exists to help the most vulnerable in society. Democrats, in general, are committed to a vision of a single America; one in which citizens make sacrifices for each other, and offer compassionate aid to those who are in need. To the extent that they act contrary to this vision (and there are certainly times when they do), they should be held accountable. Republicans, by contrast, do not even pay lip-service to this moral vision.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Interfaith Coalition Stands Up for Health Care Reform

In a show of defiance against efforts by Congressional Republicans to repeal health care reform, more than 150 faith groups from across the country held a joint rally and press conference in Washington earlier this week to signal their opposition to the repeal efforts. From the folks over at Faith in Public Life:
The message is clear: those who have worked hard for decades to ensure that all Americans have quality, affordable health care are not going to sit on the sidelines while opponents try to play political games with this issue and repeal the important benefits now being enjoyed by millions of Americans.

Today's repeal vote in the House was largely symbolic, but the activism and commitment of the faith community was very real and will persist until the long-term effort to dismantle or de-fund reform is defeated.
Repeal efforts have been treated primarily as political posturing by a Democratic establishment that still has control of the Senate and the possibility of a presidential veto up its sleeve. Even still, it is very encouraging to see interfaith groups take the long view on the potential significance of the Republican efforts in terms of branding and shaping popular opinion about the legislation. Faith groups must continue pushing the argument that affordable health care in this country is not an issue of Democrats versus Republicans, but an issue of justice versus injustice. As Catholic Health Association Senior Vice President Mike Rogers explained during the press conference this week:
"[H]ealth care coverage for everyone, especially for the poor and the vulnerable in our society is a moral priority. It builds on the foundation of the common good. When individuals and families go without health care coverage it's an affront to their human dignity."

Friday, January 21, 2011

More Islamophobic Fear-Mongering from House GOP

Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX), who made headlines this summer by championing the "terror baby" trend and again recently for proposing legislation that would allow lawmakers to carry firearms into the Capitol building, recently signaled his intention to hold hearings in the House on the "creep of Shariah law" in the legal system of the United States. Gohmert explained the need for such hearings on the radio show of Islamophobic "Shariah expert" Frank Gaffney, who we covered two weeks ago for his paranoid insistence on the infiltration of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference by Muslim extremists. From the interview on Gaffney's radio program:
GOHMERT: The biggest shock out of all of this is that the women’s liberation groups have not just gone berserk over this creep into our society that diminishes women as it does.

GAFFNEY: This creep of Sharia law you’re talking about, Congressman Louie Gohmert. You’re absolutely right, they’re nowhere to be seen as this is such an affront to everything that they supposedly hold dear. It’s really extraordinary and it’s why we’re so delighted that you are in place in the United States Congress and that you will be holding forth I know as the Judiciary Committee begins its deliberations this session to look at the creep of Sharia law.

GOHMERT: I’m hoping we’re going to have some hearings because I’m going to be pushing for them. To discuss this issue because it does diminish the Constitution when you bring any law in that doesn’t allow women to be full equal citizens of the United States.
Gohmert's sudden concern for the rights and dignity of women marks an abrupt about-face for the Representative, who has voted against every piece of anti-discrimination legislation that has crosses his desk, including the Equal Pay Bill of 2007. Gohmert might also be interested to learn that under the very Constitution he is hoping to protect from diminishment, women were not allowed to vote as "full equal citizens of the United States" until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

Gohmert's proposed hearings mark the latest chapter in a rising tide of anti-Muslim action by conservatives in Congress. As we reported last week, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) is going ahead next month with hearings on the supposed rise of "Muslim radicalization" in the United States. Lawmakers and Muslim-American interest groups have expressed concern over the hearings' potential to alienate the country's Muslim population and stoke anti-Muslim sentiment.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Rick Santorum Back In the News, Still a Shameless Bigot

Former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), who currently resides on the increasingly long short-list of GOP 2012 presidential hopefuls, sat down with the news fabricators over at the CNS News network this week to hash out his position on several conservative talking points. In the process of reiterating his particularly galling stance against reproductive rights, Santorum took at shot at President Obama, remarking:
"The question is -- and this is what Barack Obama didn't want to answer -- is that human life a person under the Constitution? And Barack Obama says no. Well if that person -- human life is not a person, then -- I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say, 'we're going to decide who are people and who are not people.'"
So according to Santorum's "logic," our nation's legacy of chattel slavery apparently obliges African Americans to oppose reproductive rights for women. In a follow-up statement released yesterday to David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network, Santorum further elucidated his reasoning:
For decades certain human beings were wrongly treated as property and denied liberty in America because they were not considered persons under the constitution. Today other human beings, the unborn of all races, are also wrongly treated as property and denied the right to life for the same reason; because they are not considered persons under the constitution. I am disappointed that President Obama, who rightfully fights for civil rights, refuses to recognize the civil rights of the unborn in this country.
Santorum's sudden fascination with racial discrimination is an interesting turn for the former Senator, particularly considering his own abysmal voting record on civil rights issues.

Santorum is perhaps best remembered for his wildly inflammatory comments regarding homosexuality and same-sex marriage during a 2003 interview (or for suffering the worst defeat by an incumbent senator since the Reagan administration). According to then-Senator Santorum:
Whether it's polygamy, whether it's adultery, where it's sodomy, all of those things, are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family.

Every society in the history of man has upheld the institution of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman. Why? Because society is based on one thing: that society is based on the future of the society. And that's what? Children. Monogamous relationships. In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.
Santorum revisited some of these claims in his interview with CNS News this week, falling back on the same tired "natural law" and "threat to society" defenses that Matt so expertly debunked in a recent article.

Frankly, as terrifying as I find the prospect of Candidate Santorum in 2012, the return of Santorum's particular brand of hate-mongering to the fore of the Republican establishment can only bode well for progressives. The presence of such a polarizing figure will hopefully galvanize a progressive base justifiably disillusioned by some of the Obama administration's policy decisions over the last two years, and putting Santorum back in the spotlight will only further showcase just the sort of bigoted, reactionary beliefs that mainstream conservatism is willing to embrace.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

LGBT Partners Gain Visitation Rights

Under new federal regulations that came into effect this week, nearly all hospitals in the United States are extending visitation rights to LGBT patients. The new regulations, part of the Obama administration's continuing efforts to expand the rights of LGBT citizens, mandate that all health-care institutions receiving federal aid in the form of Medicare or Medicaid funding must "allow all patients to decide visitation rights, as well as who to entrust with making medical decisions on their behalf, regardless of sexual or gender identity."

The Obama administration's review of discriminatory visitation policies was prompted in part by the tragic story of Janice Langbehn and her children, who were barred from seeing Langbehn's partner, Lisa Pond, after she suffered a brain aneurysm in 2007. Langbehn welcomed the news of the new regulations taking effect, but also described the lasting pain caused by the discriminatory policies the new regulations are designed to prevent:
"Other couples, no matter how they define themselves as families, won't have to go through what we went through, and I am grateful," she said. "But the fact that the hospital didn't let our children say goodbye to their mom... That's just something that will haunt me forever."
To follow up the the implementation of the new hospital regulations and the repeal of DADT, advocates for LGBT rights are now eying further policy changes, including:
The use of more gender-neutral language on federal forms, assurances that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will provide proper assistance to gay and lesbian people and their children during disaster relief efforts, and a nondiscriminatory policy for the Transportation Security Administration that addresses the treatment of transgender air passengers.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

AL Gov. Distorts King's Legacy At King's Church in Montgomery

This year's celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday had no shortage of interesting takes on Dr. King's legacy, with particularly painful examples including the Pentagon's invocation of Dr. King to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Glenn Beck's reassertion of parallels between his own work and the legacy of Dr. King. However, new Alabama Gov. Rob Bentley threw his hat into the legacy-distorting ring with a speech delivered Monday in the very church in Montgomery, Alabama where Dr. King served as pastor from 1954 to 1960.

Shortly after declaring himself to be "colorblind" to the historically African American congregation at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, Bentley went on to claim:
Now I will have to say that, if we don't have the same daddy, we're not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother.
Now, the theological underpinnings of Bentley's claim are fairly common, and he shares them with many contemporary evangelicals. But to make such a claim from the very pulpit where Dr. King once preached is an affront to the legacy of a man who deeply valued not only his own Christin commitment, but who saw shared values and commonalities in other religions as well. It is common knowledge that King's understanding of nonviolent social change drew deeply from the social and spiritual teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, and King's friendship with Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh influenced King's controversial decision to publicly denounce US involvement in Vietnam. Eboo Patel explored Dr. King's commitment to interfaith work in an article published earlier this week, observing:
In his famous sermon "A Time to Break Silence," King was unequivocal about his Christian commitment and at the same time summarized his view of the powerful commonality across all faiths: "This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality" is that the force of love is "the supreme unifying principle of life."
So while Gov. Bentley's narrow vision of religious brother and sisterhood might serve him well, let us please not confuse Bentley's claims with the legacy of a man who saw at the heart of all religions a path of love that led "world brotherhood."

Monday, January 17, 2011

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Here are just a few resources for reflection from friend of the site Be Scofield, who is already well on his way to becoming one of the most formidable MLK scholars of our generation. It remains vitally important, particularly on this day of commemoration, that the truly radical nature of Dr. King's vision for social justice not be lost among the parade of watered down, "media safe" clip shows he receives each January. So in addition to revisiting Dr. King's seminal "I Have a Dream" speech, today please also consider exploring some of the resources below and (re)acquainting yourself with the Dr. King who fought not only racism, but the violent excesses of capitalism, U.S. imperialism, and religious fundamentalism as well.

"Resources for the Radical Dr. King"

Dr. King Resources from God Bless The Whole World

Dr. King's life and work call us all to realize the courage of our convictions. As Dr. King wrote in Strive Toward Freedom:
[A] religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man’s social condition…Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.
So what is your religion concerned with today?

Friday, January 14, 2011

US Conservatives Are Not European Jews

Earlier this week, we covered Sarah Palin's unfortunate use of the term "blood libel" in her self-obsessed response to the tragedy in Tuscon. Not to be outdone for inappropriate word choice, the Washington Times editorial page upped the ante today with a piece declaring criticism of Palin's use of 'blood libel' to be part of "the latest round of an ongoing pogrom against conservative thinkers."

'Pogrom' refers to incredibly destructive riots, and occasionally massacres, that historically targeted Jewish populations within the Russian Empire and other parts of Eastern Europe. And while 'blood libel' is arguably a somewhat archaic term, referring to charges against Jews that were much more common in the Middle Ages, the last wave of anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia raged from 1903-1906 and left at least 2,000 Jews dead.

In addition to upholding Palin's use of 'blood libel,' the editorial suggests,
[Criticism of Palin] is simply the latest round of an ongoing pogrom against conservative thinkers. The last two years have seen a proliferation of similar baseless charges of racism, sexism, bigotry, Islamophobia and inciting violence against those on the right who have presented ideas at odds with the establishment's liberal orthodoxy.
A quick note to Sarah Palin and the editorial staff at the Washington Times, and really to all conservatives out there: as comforting as it might be to identify yourselves with some truly historically oppressed populations - even as you push your racist, sexist, bigoted, Islamophobic, violence-inciting politics - you are not a marginalized people. There is nothing, nothing, in the experience of contemporary conservatives in the United States that comes close to paralleling the suffering of European Jews in the last two millenia. I do not know how to say that more bluntly.

Texas Lawmaker Stokes Shariah Fears

Despite a recent permanent federal injunction against a similar law in Oklahoma, a conservative Texas state representative is pushing legislation that would ban "religious or cultural law" from Texas courtrooms. The legislation, proposed by Rep. Leo Berman (R), mandates "A court of this state may not enforce, consider, or apply any religious or cultural law." While the proposed legislation does not explicitly mention Shariah law,
Ibrahim Hooper, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a D.C.-based civil rights advocacy group, says the resolution and similar legislation being proposed in Indiana are violations of First Amendment rights and are essentially hypocritical.

“What we are seeing is those that are trying to enact laws targeting the American Muslim community’s constitutional rights realize they are not going to pass legal muster,” Hooper said. “So they are finding backdoor, roundabout ways to accomplish the same thing.”
Berman is perhaps best known for his recent introduction of an Arizona-style immigration bill and the Texas "birther bill," proposed legislation that would require the submission of birth certificates by all presidential and vice presidential candidates to the Texas Secretary of State. While I am not sure about everything else, based on Bergan's track record it looks like bigots at least may well be bigger in Texas.

Pentagon Dead Wrong on Dr. King

By Garrett FitzGerald

At a Pentagon commemoration of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. held yesterday, Defense Department general counsel Jeh C. Johnson suggested that, were Dr. King alive today, he would very likely approve of US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What a surreal sentence to have to type.

We of course cannot know with any certainty what Dr. King might make of our nation's current military involvement overseas, but if the last year of King's life serves as any indication it seems he would very likely have reserved the same condemnation for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that he leveled against US involvement in Vietnam. In the year or so before his assassination, King turned much of his attention to the escalating war in Vietnam, condemning unequivocally the social, political, and economic structures that motivated such conflict. In a powerful speech delivered at Riverside Church in New York City in April of 1967, King observed:
This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
While Johnson's parallels between the selflessness of our nation's armed forces and the parable of the Good Samaritan - the latter of which which also provided the subject matter for King's last sermon before his assassination - do offer some food for thought, the heroic acts to which Johnson refers remain enmeshed within structures of systematic violence and oppression, both foreign and domestic, which seem to have witnessed little substantive change since King's day. Again, we cannot ultimately know what Dr. King would have to say about our present military endeavors, but I invite readers to listen to the speech below, substitute the phrase "War on Terror" every time Dr. King mentions the war in Vietnam, and decide for yourself whether this luminary of the Religious Left would agree with Johnson's assessment.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Palin Compares Criticism to Medieval Anti-Semitism

Sarah Palin ignited fresh controversy this morning when she accused journalists and pundits of manufacturing "blood libel" with regard to her responsibility for the shootings in Arizona this past weekend. In an apparent attempt to blunt criticism of her use of violent images and rhetoric, Palin took to her Facebook account where she leveled the blood libel charges in addition to claiming that the alleged gunman Jared Loughner's motivations were "apolitical."

The use of the term 'blood libel' drew immediate condemnation from a host of Jewish groups, including pro-Israel lobby J Street, the Anti-Defamation League, the National Jewish Democratic Council, and Jewish Funds for Justice. Blood libel refers to a common slander from the Middle Ages in which religious minorities, and in the European context almost exclusively Jews, were accused of kidnapping and killing Christian children to extract their blood for ritual purposes. Accusations of blood libel were often used to justify anti-Jewish violence and oppression. A timeline of the term's use, provided by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, can be found here.

From a statement released today by David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council:
Instead of dialing down the rhetoric at this difficult moment, Sarah Palin chose to accuse others trying to sort out the meaning of this tragedy of somehow engaging in a "blood libel" against her and others. This is of course a particularly heinous term for American Jews, given that the repeated fiction of blood libels are directly responsible for the murder of so many Jews across centuries -- and given that blood libels are so directly intertwined with deeply ingrained anti-Semitism around the globe, even today.

Perhaps Sarah Palin honestly does not know what a blood libel is, or does not know of their horrific history; that is perhaps the most charitable explanation we can arrive at in explaining her rhetoric today.
In addition Palin's completely inappropriate choice of words, which Harris rightly points out can be attributed at best to her ignorance of their historical meaning, I would be fascinated to know precisely what part of a self-proclaimed premeditated assassination attempt on a sitting Congresswoman strikes Palin as 'apolitical.'

21st Century Sin: An Introduction

The Religious Right has a monopoly on sin. Now, I certainly don’t mean to suggest that religious conservatives are more prone to acts of sin than their fellow Americans. But when it comes to naming, and most importantly to blaming individuals and groups in our society for their supposedly sinful ways, the overwhelming majority of the finger pointing comes from the conservative side of the political and theological aisle. The one-sidedness of this discussion has perpetuated a particularly dangerous conception of sin in our national discourse: a persistent vision of sin obsessed with supposed (and often sexual) venial immoralities, all too often divorced from any sort of social or economic awareness.

It has not always been this way, and for the sake of our country and our faiths, it is vitally important that progressive understandings of sin find their way back into public discourse and begin to direct discussions of sin back to their true focus: justice.

A quick history lesson: In the United States, the pendulum of public perception of sin historically vacillates from a more conservative understanding of sin as the fault – and the responsibility – of the individual, to more theologically and socially progressive indictments of whole societal structures and norms as sinful in and of themselves (for a terrific exploration of this trend pick up James A. Morone’s Hellfire Nation). Examples of the former, more individualized understanding of sin are evident in the Great Awakening movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and more recently in the surge of evangelical Protestant Christianity. The latter, or more progressive articulations of sin have defined many of the paramount movements for social justice in the history of the United States, some of which are listed below. In sharp contrast to the logic of their conservative counterparts, which often claim a direct correlation between an individual’s circumstances and that individual’s piety, progressive understandings of sin seek to alleviate the societal causes of suffering by framing oppressive social structures in theological terms engineered to compel resistance to, and the eventual dismantling of, these structures themselves.

Although progressive understandings of sin continue to strongly emphasize individual responsibility, they actively avoid the demonization of individuals enmeshed in societal structures that promote sinful behavior. This emphasis on social rather than individual culpability is particularly important in the cases of individuals and groups who themselves are made to suffer under oppressive, sinful social systems. To somehow blame the persistence of dehumanizing poverty on the moral or spiritual failings of the poor themselves, for example, smacks of precisely the sort of theological misdirection that we seek to combat.

While the language of sin is sure to make some progressive religionists – and many progressive non-religionists with whom we labor – a bit uncomfortable, progressives of all stripes should recognize that the use of theological language in work for social justice hardly constitutes a novel development. Rather, the language of sin, when strategically marshaled and deployed by progressives, has functioned as an invaluable part of our nation’s struggles for social justice. Some of the greatest progressive victories in US history have followed from the successful branding of otherwise accepted societal practices as unjust not only at the moral level, but at the theological level as well. The movement for abolition, the worker’s movement, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the non-proliferation movement, and even Prohibition (which sought to tackle the perceived social sin of alcohol abuse as opposed to demonizing over-indulgent individuals) all effectively framed the societal ills against which they labored in the highly potent theological language of sin.

The language of sin should not be invoked lightly, and it is vitally important that any rhetoric that relies upon such weighty moral claims be restricted to societal structures, institutions, and practices. Human behavior and its motivating factors, not human beings themselves, must remain the focus of our efforts at reclaiming the language of sin. Assertions about an individual or group’s own inherent sinfulness open the door to precisely the sort of dehumanizing, theologically justified violence against which this site and people of all faiths should labor.

That being said, when approached with the proper respect and caution, branding harmful societal structures with the language of sin stakes not only a dramatic political claim, but a dramatic theological claim as well. The language of sin constitutes the moral framework by which religious individuals call ourselves and others to justice, and juxtaposes contemporary realities with the highest limits of human potential. Consider the moral implications when contemporary social and political circumstances – and individual responses thereto – are measured against the cosmic processes that circumscribe all of human history. Even when justice seems remote in any immediate sense, individual and corporate actions of resistance against sinful societal systems and structures take on new and profound significance when conceptualized as integral to the bringing about of God’s vision for humankind, the achievement of humanity’s own highest potential.

In addition to the direct challenges it poses to oppressive societal structures, the resurgence of a socially and theologically progressive understanding of sin holds incredible promise for the coalescence of the Religious Left. By employing the language of sin to address contemporary societal ills, religious progressives open a discursive space in which diverse theological resources may be brought to bear on shared political goals. In this way, we gain one more venue within which to explore the incredible internal pluralism of the contemporary progressive movement in the United States. Stay tuned for further installments of our 21st Century Sin series, in which we will continue to explore ways in which theological language and resources may be brought to bear against the sinful structures responsible for suffering in our society.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rep. Peter King Doubles Down on Congressional Islamophobia

Serial Islamophobe and newly minted chairman of the Homeland Security Committee Rep. Peter King (R-NY) reiterated his commitment today to holding Congressional hearings on a supposed rise in "Muslim radicalization" in the United States, even as he turned down an appeal to expand the hearings to include non-Muslims.

In the wake of the shootings in Arizona this weekend, ranking committee member Bennie Thompson (D-MS) called on King to broaden the scope of the hearings to include investigations into non-Muslim extremists as well. King, who boasts a history of anti-Muslim rhetoric including the claim that there are "too many mosques in this country," declined.

Rep. Thompson and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim congressman, have expressed concern over the appropriateness of the hearings, citing their potential contribution to racial and ethnic profiling and the alienation of the United States' Muslim community.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Re: Religious People and Political Violence

Interesting piece on HuffPo Religion today from writer and activist Gareth Higgins, who compares the current political climate in the US to the troubles in his native Northern Ireland. Higgins makes a compelling case for a reinjection of accountability and humanism into political discourse, placing a special responsibility on religious people to help foster an environment in which civil discourse between opposing sides becomes possible. As Higgins notes:
Religious rhetoric in the US has too often been put to the service of carving up dividing lines between who "belongs" and who doesn't. The involvement of national religious figures in demanding vengeance for 9/11 and promoting the war in Iraq are only among the most recent manifestations of how religion can be a force for destruction. This shadow side is mirrored in politics -- a means by which massive good can be brought to marginalised people, or by which a nation can oppress an entire people. It is mirrored in the media, where simmering rage can be fuelled into fire, or humanitarian wisdom shared the largest audience possible. Religion, politics and the media are not the problem, but they do have shadow sides that need to be taken seriously.
Higgins is right on the money with this observation, and I’m thankful that someone who has himself lived through a political culture where differences all too quickly become deadly can help us in holding a mirror to the state of our own political discourse in such a painful time. However, there is one part of Higgins' article that has struck a chord with me. Higgins goes on to note:
The fear expressed by many at the pace of social change is real, and needs to be responded to with respectful listening, not mockery. Sarah Palin is a human being. So is Glenn Beck. They speak for a large number of people, whether some of us like it or not. They will not be calmed down by being shouted at or mocked. The degree to which the fears they articulate are genuine will only find its proportion when their political opponents treat them with respect, or at least show willingness to listen. It works both ways of course, but that's not a point I need to make today.
I will admit that Higgins’ call for mutual respect and listening is something that I struggle with personally. Although it is sometimes a struggle, as a Quaker I firmly believe that people like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck remain ever capable of hearing within themselves that still, small voice through which God makes God’s self known to each of us. The Inner Light that informs our conscience and moral sensibilities shines in every person – indeed, it is indicative of our very humanity – but it can be so hard to see that light shining when it has become caked over with layers of bigotry and hatefulness. Yet it is imperative, as Higgins notes, that we find ways to “transcend the dehumanization of those with whom we disagree” and recognize that light, especially in those with whom we most profoundly disagree.

But here is where I differ from Higgins. To people like Palin and Beck, I concur that we do indeed owe respect and a certain measure of conciliation. The door must be left open for these types, for no matter how far from their own integrity they may stray, they retain the potential to recognize at any moment that of God within themselves, and to turn themselves toward the work of justice. But to their ideas, we owe nothing. Higgins is right to point out that on both sides of our nation's political divide are people, and people should be treated with respect and strive toward reconciliation and understanding. But Higgins is wrong to suggest that the viewpoints on both sides should also be given equal credence. As long as figures like Palin and Beck use hatred and bigotry to promote social and economic policies that only serve to reinforce the same, we must stand firm upon the moral strength of our arguments in speaking truth to power and unequivocally opposing any message that threatens the promise of this nation and the ideals to which our faiths call us.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Reflections on AZ

As news outlets continue to sift through the details of yesterday's assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), which left at least six dead including a federal judge and a 9-year old girl, a few reactions to this national tragedy have really stood out to me. The first is Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnick's press conference yesterday condemning the political climate in the US, and in Arizona in particular. According to Dupnick:
When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.

Let me say one thing, because people tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol that we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences.

It was also announced Sunday that infamous arch-conservative, anti-gay hate group Westboro Baptist Church intends to protest the funerals of yesterday's victims, whose deaths they consider divine punishment for Congressional and judicial action against WBC. According to a flier posted on the Westboro Baptist Church website:
Your federal judge is dead and your (fag-promoting, baby-killing, proud-sinner) Congresswoman fights for her life. God is avenging Himself on this rebellious house! WBC prays for your destruction--more shooters, more dead carcasses piling up, young, old, leader and commoner--all. Your doom is upon you!

The contrast between Dupnick's admonitions and the statement from Westboro Baptist Church leaves my head spinning, but also raises a necessary question: how do we push back against the morally reprehensible language and actions of groups and individuals protected by the First Amendment? Doing nothing is clearly not an option; tolerating intolerance does not make you more tolerant, it makes you complicit in the consequences of that intolerance. Groups like WBC, who try the limits of human decency even in the wake of a tragedy like yesterday's events in Arizona, demand the unequivocal moral condemnation of all people of conscience. But Christians in particular have a special responsibility to speak out against this sort of hatefulness and vitriol perpetrated in the name of their faith. It is only by denying moral and religious authority to bigots like the Westboro Baptist Church that we can begin to challenge even more accepted and institutionalized forms of bigotry like the ones against which Sheriff Dupnick warned.

Update: Terrific Paul Krugman op-ed piece in today's NYT pushing back against both a political culture that thrives on hate and vitriol and the false equivalencies being pushed by conservatives claiming that this is a problem for both ends of the political spectrum. According to Krugman:
Where’s that toxic rhetoric coming from? Let’s not make a false pretense of balance: it’s coming, overwhelmingly, from the right. It’s hard to imagine a Democratic member of Congress urging constituents to be “armed and dangerous” without being ostracized; but Representative Michele Bachmann, who did just that, is a rising star in the G.O.P.

And there’s a huge contrast in the media. Listen to Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann, and you’ll hear a lot of caustic remarks and mockery aimed at Republicans. But you won’t hear jokes about shooting government officials or beheading a journalist at The Washington Post. Listen to Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly, and you will.

Bob Cesca shared a similar sentiment earlier today, observing
It'd run entirely contrary to the nature of liberalism for a left-wing authority figure who enjoys similar status to Sarah Palin to suggest that we ought to use "Second Amendment remedies" as a means of pushing our agenda.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Egyptian Muslims Act as Human Shields During Coptic Christmas Services

Thousands of Egyptian Muslims attended Coptic Christmas eve mass services Thursday night, offering their bodies as human shields in a show of defiance against escalating sectarian violence. Among the thousands who turned out in support of Egypt's Coptic Christians, who represent approximately ten percent of the country's population, were several prominent movie stars, religious leaders, and the two sons of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. A bombing on New Year's Day killed up to 23 Coptic worshipers in Alexandria.
“This is not about us and them,” said Dalia Mustafa, a student who attended mass at Virgin Mary Church on Maraashly. “We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together.”

Friday, January 7, 2011

Bumps on the Road to Interfaith Cooperation

Terrific piece on interfaith cooperation from evangelical pastor Skye Jethani. According to Jethani:
As America has become more diverse, young people are encountering and befriending people of different faiths, and the church (still clinging to the illusion of cultural privilege) has ignored this reality. When it is acknowledged, the church often presents young people with a false dichotomy. The fundamentalists say we should condemn those of other faiths and be careful that they do not cause us to stray from the truth. This is a recipe for either isolation or conflict. The liberals, on the other hand, invite us to put aside our theological differences and find what we hold in common with other faiths. But this "all paths lead to God" approach results in denying the unique claims of Christianity.

Jethani hits the nail on the head with his closing remarks:
In my view, interfaith cooperation is no longer optional. The realities of globalization and struggling communities mean that people of faith must learn to work together. At the same time, as a Christian, I do not want to deny my theological convictions or have to suppress them in order to engage meaningfully in the world. Instead, I want my interfaith work to be driven by my Christian identity and not in spite of it. And I believe learning to do this will bring strength to the church struggling to find its way in a rapidly changing culture.

Jethani is addressing a very real and very problematic temptation for progressives seeking to do interfaith work: the “identity-erasing approach” of watering down the beliefs and practices that distinguish different traditions in an effort to find some chimerical nugget of sameness at the heart of all religions. The hope behind this sort of reasoning is that if we can just uncover some unifying quality present in all faiths, the differences between religions might finally be recognized as cosmetic variations on the same cosmic theme.

This well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed approach to interreligious cooperation presents a recurring problem for progressives, as the sort of voluntary reductionism it entails weakens the normative potential of the traditions. By sacrificing what it means to be what you are, you can no longer use what you are as a means of promoting how things should be. Pluralism is a messy business, and the challenge, as Jethani so rightly notes, is not to agree to look past our fundamental differences, but to come together strengthened in our shared values because of our abiding commitments to the beliefs and practices upon which those values are founded.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Keeping Beck Out of the Big Apple

Progressive group Jewish Funds for Justice launched a campaign this week to keep Glenn Beck’s radio show off the airwaves in New York City, following news that conservative talk radio network WOR dropped Beck's show, reportedly due to poor ratings.

From a statement released yesterday by Jewish Funds for Justice:
Simon Greer, president and CEO of Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ), applauded WOR’s decision to remove Mr. Beck from its programming. WOR is one of the nation’s leading conservative talk radio stations. Following WOR’s decision to remove Glenn Beck, JFSJ is calling on other New York City area radio stations to keep Glenn Beck off the air.

WOR’s decision to remove Glenn Beck tells me that even conservative listeners are rejecting Mr. Beck’s fear speech, anti-Semitism and Holocaust revisionism,” said Simon Greer, president and CEO of The Jewish Funds for Justice. “This should come as no surprise. For too long, Mr. Beck has been given a large megaphone for his hate mongering. Too often he has crossed the line of decency and blatantly demonized people he disagrees with. We believe that New York City, with its incredible diversity and large Jewish community, is rejecting Beck and we will encourage other radio stations to learn from WOR experience and not pick up his syndicated show.

Coupled with recent reports of dips in Beck’s television ratings, it’s enough to make one hope that folks are finally catching on to the fundamental bigotry underlying the clown prince of conservatism’s antics.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

CPAC Exposes Conservative Fault Lines

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference made headlines recently when a host of conservative groups (including the National Organization for Marriage, Concerned Women for America, and Focus on the Family) pulled out of the event in protest over the presence of the gay conservative group GOProud. This week, conservative columnist Frank Gaffney took to right-wing site World Net Daily to double down on the intolerance, with an added dash of apparent paranoia to boot. According to Gaffney, the CPAC has now been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood in the guise of ex-Bush staffer Suhail Khan and a Republican group called Muslims for America:
But in an article yesterday on World Net Daily called "Now look who else is infiltrating CPAC," Gaffney "told WND that Islamism has infiltrated the American Conservative Union, the host of CPAC, in the person of Washington attorney and political activist Suhail Khan and a group called Muslims for America."

Gaffney has been a go-to shariah "expert" on the right for some time -- he even testified against a proposed mosque project in Murfreesboro, TN, and then said on CNN that the purpose of mosques "is to destroy western civilization from within."

What's going on in conservative circles should give everyone real cause for concern," Gaffney told World Net Daily. "What it bespeaks is an effort to penetrate and influence conservatives, who are the most likely and perhaps only community in America who will stand up to and ultimately help ensure the defeat of this seditious totalitarian political program."
I’m not sure that conservatives need much more help alienating the Muslim community in the United States after last year’s ginned-up controversy over the construction of the Park51 community center in Manhattan (not to mention their protests over proposed mosques in Tennessee, Michigan, and California), but if they did, referring to Islam as a “seditious totalitarian political program” seems like a very effective way to go about it.

These sorts of fissures in the conservative movement represent an important strategic opportunity for progressives. As explained in a previous post, the obsession with homogeneity and internal purity represents one of the primary weaknesses of the contemporary conservative movement. As the conservative movement drifts closer and closer toward embracing outright bigotry as a platform, they have become increasingly willing to jettison even those groups who share many of the same economic and social values, but who deviate from the conservative norm in other respects (be it race, sexuality, religion, etc). Progressives should be trumpeting these exclusionary trends from the rooftops: if you’re not a white, heterosexual Christian, you are not welcome in the modern conservative movement.

Calling All Guest Bloggers!

Our work here at TheReligiousLeft.org relies on the diverse viewpoints of individuals whose beliefs cover the spectrum of religious and non-religious affiliation. In order to promote our country’s invaluable pluralism of perspectives, we welcome all submissions pertaining to themes of progressive politics and religion.

Who: Anyone committed to thinking constructively about the role of progressive politics and religion in the United States.

What: Submissions of approximately 500-1,500 words, and a bio of up to three sentences. We are looking for full-length articles, reflections, book reviews, sermons, etc.

When: Ever.

Where: Our Submissions page.

Why: Because we care deeply about our country and our beliefs, and we refuse to cede them to those who would appeal to either one as a means of denying anyone their basic rights and dignities.

Note: All submissions will be subject to form and content review by a site editor. Article uploads are scheduled for Wednesday afternoons, so please have time-sensitive submissions in by Sunday evening to ensure that they post that week.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Things Fall Apart - Tiffany Stanley at TNR

Reporter-researcher with The New Republic and friend of the site Tiffany Stanley recently published this reflection on Democratic outreach to religious voters.


Things Fall Apart
How Democrats gave up on religious voters

Tiffany Stanley - The New Republic
Originally Published December 18, 2010

When Barack Obama burst onto the national scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he represented—among many things—the shining hope for the religious left. Here was a liberal politician who was not afraid of the language of faith, who just might reclaim territory that the Democratic Party had, willingly or not, ceded to Republicans. Red America did not own religion, Obama declared: “We worship an awesome God in the blue states."

Between 2004 and 2007, when Obama announced his candidacy for president, he became possibly the most prominent Democratic politician who was comfortable speaking about religion—a liberal who gave the impression that his religiosity was heartfelt, genuine, and important to his politics. He spoke with ease about his conversion; of the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr.; and, in a key speech before the Call to Renewal conference in 2006, of the importance of “religion in the public square.” In the 2008 presidential election, Obama’s message seemed to resonate with religious people who had not, in recent years, gravitated toward the Democratic Party. He won more churchgoers than any Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton.

But, in just two short years, the left has become sluggish in its courtship of religious voters, significantly scaling back its faith-outreach programs. While many factors—primarily the economy—doomed the Democrats this fall, the consequences of this abdication nevertheless seem to be severe. In the recent midterm elections, House Democrats lost white evangelical voters in greater numbers than they did in 2004, when “values voters” flocked to George W. Bush. Reversing their Democratic allegiance from the past two elections, Catholics—nearly a quarter of all voters—favored the GOP 54 to 44 percent. Compared to 2008, the drop-offs were steep: a 20-point decline with Catholics, a 14-point decline with white evangelicals, and a 10-point decline with white Protestants. How and why did this happen?

Read the full article here.

The Language of the Left: Why Religious and Why the Left?

It became very clear in the run-up to our site launch that folks find it very difficult to feel neutral about a name like TheReligiousLeft.org. Whether it’s the religion or the progressive politics, most people with whom I’ve discussed the project take the site name alone as a license to air their own opinions on whichever part of the title piques their interest or ire.

Good.

The inspiration behind TheReligiousLeft.org is predicated upon our national need for more discussion placing these two concepts, religion and politics, into conversation in new and constructive ways. Hopefully our site’s original content and commentary will contribute to this much-needed discussion, but if the name alone serves to get folks talking, so much the better.

However, in light of some of the questions and objections that have been raised, it seems prudent to offer an explanation, or perhaps a justification, of some of the strategizing behind our name. For the folks out there who object to religion or progressive politics themselves, let me be clear: I have nothing for you, at least not right now. Take some time, explore the articles and resources on the site, and hopefully our work here will help you understand the urgent need to re-envision the nature of and relationship between religion and progressive politics in the 21st century. If you’re still not convinced, don’t worry; we’ll get to you soon.

For now, however, let’s focus on the people with sympathies toward many of our goals, but concerns about our proposed means of placing progressive politics into conversation with religion. For some of these individuals with whom I’ve spoken, a project calling itself TheReligiousLeft.org represents an uncomfortable foray into the politics of identity, an arena they rightly consider best approached with caution when it must be entered at all. Interestingly enough, apprehension about the identity politics around our website’s name seems to come primarily from two groups with fairly divergent political projects: individuals with a commitment to postmodern, often deconstructionist theory, and individuals concerned with the increasing polarization of the political climate in the United States. In addressing the concerns of these two groups, we can hopefully further contextualize the work we hope to do here at TheReligiousLeft.org.

A Palliative for Postmodernists

A quick primer for those not predisposed to postmodern thought. In the context of the discussion at hand, postmodern theory suggests that descriptors such as gender, race, culture, sexual orientation, disability, age, economic circumstances, religion, political affiliation, occupation, and other such designations are themselves not defined concepts, but arguments: social constructs whose meanings and connotations are themselves entirely contingent on the discourse about and around them. So to put it bluntly, for all intents and purposes these concepts mean whatever enough people say and consent to acknowledge that they mean. When it comes to identity politics, many postmodern theorists rightly point out the problematic nature of using categories like “progressive,” “religion,” and “society” as descriptors, as if these concepts represented concrete things instead of fluid, perpetually contested social constructs. Such a critique raises some obvious problems for a website whose stated mission includes exploring the role of religion in society from a progressive perspective.

Yet despite the cautionary red flags being waved by postmodernists, the arena of political commentary itself functions as a cottage industry fueled by the haphazard flinging about of broad generalizations. And therein lies the rub. Theoretical limitations notwithstanding, there is real and demonstrable efficacy in the use of the sweeping generalizations that define our national political discourse. Despite the contingency and contestation of the categories employed in these generalizations, they retain powerful normative sway over the emotions and opinions of our national body politic. When a conservative pundit opines something like “America is a Christian nation,” such a claim carries with it not only the force of it’s “factual” claim (regardless of its veracity), but also a capacity to impact, however imperceptibly, the meanings of the terms being used.

By allowing such assertions to go unchallenged, we yield to not only the substance of such claims, but to the conservative influence such claims exert on the very meaning of these terms themselves. At present, a small but vocal minority of conservative individuals and organizations wield disproportionately large influence on public discourse around religious issues within the United States. When we allow these voices to promote their dehumanizing brand of religiosity unchallenged in the public arena, we effectively cede the power to define religion, along with the power to equate religion with oppressive, reactionary beliefs and social practices, to our nation’s conservative elements.

So here is where our work here at TheReligiousLeft.org enters the picture. By strategically challenging conservative claims about religion and society with our own narratives, we are helping to define what it means to be religious and progressive in the 21st century. Although our site name certainly relies on concepts whose meaning we know to be contingent, by explicitly identifying our work with those concepts we stake an internal and authoritative claim to their meaning and significance. By popularizing the connotations and associations that we ourselves define for these concepts, through our discussions we may actively shape the meaning of “politics” and “religion,” and actively redefine the ways in which these concepts are understood in relation to the host of other identity markers discussed above.

The Polarization Express

It shouldn’t take more than a quick glance across the political landscape to recognize the apparent need for more conciliatory political discourse. If the news is to be believed, more people are currently Hitler than ever before, and political fault-lines seem to be deepening into increasingly polarized cultural divides. So won’t intentionally using the highly politicized language of Left and Right just further divide an already polarized country? Perhaps, but only if we buy into the prevailing narratives about what these two categories, Left and Right, actually represent. As discussed above, by making fresh progressive voices heard in contemporary discussions about religion we begin to push back against the dominant conservative narratives about religion's meaning, and can actively promote a definition of religiosity increasingly associated with progressive goals. In much the same fashion, by strategically deploying terms like “the Left,” “progressive,” and “liberal,” we can impact the meaning and connotations of these terms and their use in political discourse in such as a way as to lessen their derisive and divisive potential.

Media coverage of “the Left” often carries with it a fairly explicit set of connotations, and is peppered with vivid descriptors like “radical,” “loony,” and similarly dismissive language. But our intentional positioning of progressive politics in relationship to moral and religious resources of meaning serves as a potentially powerful and wholly necessary means by which to legitimize the former and reclaim the latter. In addition to obliging our detractors to refute the political premises guiding progressive efforts, we must force conservatives to contend with the moral and theological foundations upon which our political views rest as well. Employing moral and religious argumentation to support political viewpoints often labeled with the dismissive language mentioned above places those individuals who would seek to discredit these views on new and uncertain ground. And while conservative politicians and pundits have demonstrated remarkable aptitude at branding political initiatives intended to benefit the most vulnerable among us as thinly-veiled communist or socialist plots, the legacy of historical progressive victories buoyed by the strength of religious language and resources stands as a testament to a latent power we need only adapt to 21st-century circumstances.

Our discussions aim to promote an understanding of progressivism, and progressive politics and religion in particular, synonymous with opposition to practices that deny basic rights and dignities to others, with tearing down social structures that relegate whole demographics of our populace to the status of second-class citizens, and with speaking truth to those who wield power to promote hatred, fear, and divisiveness. And by defining ourselves in part by our opposition to conservative elements, in the process of defining our own values and the significance of our efforts we simultaneously impact the meaning of theirs. In such a way, we not only contribute to the discussion about the role of religion in society, we define the terms of the debate.

So how does our work placing progressive politics and religion into conversation propose to reconcile increasing political and cultural polarization while apparently identifying ourselves very much with one of the poles? The logic is simple: we shift the center. Rather than bridging contemporary theological and political divides as they are, we work to redefine the opposing sides in such a way as to make identification with the Right or conservative side as morally and theologically uncomfortable as possible. We refute the media narratives that promote false equivalencies of between Left and Right – the recurring “loonies at both ends” trope – by continually reaffirming our principled commitment to justice, even as we hold the Right responsible for the views of its most hateful and bigoted proponents.

This may seem a tad ambitious, but conservative pundits make the job easier with every hateful sentence they utter. We simply repeat, refute, and redefine. Repeat the most reprehensible of conservative talking points, refute these points through principled moral and theological support of progressive counterpoints, and redefine contemporary conservatism until it has become synonymous with reactionary support for intolerance and injustice. With religious and political conservatives ever more eager to winnow their numbers down to only the truest of believers, we force the just and the humane into the center and let those who cling to unjust and dehumanizing forms of belief and practice wither at the fringe where they belong. And fewer people willing to embrace the conservative mantle means less overall polarization. VoilĂ .

Moving Forward

So while the use of potentially polarizing and seemingly outdated identity markers may well trigger attacks of the screaming heebie-jeebies in all of the political conciliators and reputable postmodernists out there, please rest assured that we here at TheReligiousLeft.org commit ourselves to proceed cautiously and thoughtfully in our efforts, remaining aware of the fluidity and contestation of the terms we use and their potential to foster division. In the process, as we examine the relationship between progressive politics and religion, we will strive for the redefinition and reclamation of discursive resources too long considered the province of our nation’s conservative elements. Check back for regular updates to our 'Language of the Left' series, in which we will continue to explore the language we use as a frontier for justice.

Welcome to TheReligiousLeft.org

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Wikileaks, Dr. King, and “War Psychosis”

By Be Scofield 
Crossposted from Tikkun Daily

In the wake of the latest Wikileaks releases and the predictable response to them by the powers that be we can look to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of someone who persistently and emphatically rejected the standard fear mongering of the political and media establishment. It wasn’t just his powerful critique of the Vietnam War or U.S. foreign policy that deserves attention. We should also remember his explicit distrust of the government fed sound bytes that were designed to evoke base emotions and win popular support for an often illegal and unethical foreign policy. King was so skeptical of his government that he actually advised, “the more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for those who have been designated our enemies” (emphasis added). The tribalistic demonization of entire groups, whether communists or the Vietnamese people was due partly to, King believed, an America gripped by a “war psychosis” that needed to be confronted head on. He stated, “We must demonstrate, teach and preach until the very foundations of our nation shake.” And while it is speculation or perhaps an educated guess on my part, I believe King may have viewed Wikileaks as one of those necessary forms of protest.

King left a staunchly anti-Imperialist legacy which questioned the very fabric of the American Empire. From his early days in graduate school King wrote of the dangers of the “False God of Nationalism” (PDF) which he referred to as a religion.

The watchword of this new religion is “My country right or wrong.” This new religion has its familiar prophets and preachers. In Germany it was preached by Hitler In Italy it was preached by Mussilini [sic]. And in America it is being preached by the McCarthy’s and the Jenners, the advocators of white supremacy, and the America first movements.

The preachers of this new religion are so convinced of its supremacy that they are determined to persecute anyone who does not accept its tenets. And so today many sincere lovers of democracy and believers of the Christian principle are being scorned and persecuted because they will not worship the god of nationalism. We live in an age when it is almost heresy to affirm the brotherhood of man…
According to King the U.S. was the “largest purveyor of violence in the world.” He criticized its economic policies that made possible the racist Apartheid government of South Africa, denounced the use of American military force to crush people power revolutions in Latin America and spoke out against the dangerous pairing of capitalism and the military industrial complex to exploit third world countries. Capitalism according to King had “outlived its usefulness” and was “like a losing football team in the last quarter trying all types of tactics to survive.” The triple evils so perpetuated by the U.S. were poverty, racism and war and he boldly used his public position as a religious and moral leader to speak out against them. He sought to bring a direct challenge to “the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long.”

In his critique of the Vietnam War King provided a thorough historical context of the situation to undercut the political myths of his day. He described Ho Chi Minh, the American foe in Vietnam as a selfless and dedicated leader who led a resistance movement against one of many corrupt regimes that the U.S. had propped up. In backing Premier Diem, “our chosen man” in South Vietnam the U.S. “supported one of most vicious modern dictators.” And King acknowledged that our support for Diem came after our previous support for Ky, a mercenary in the French army who thought of Hitler as his greatest hero. He described in detail the U.S. caused death and destruction brought against the Vietnamese institutions of the family and village.

They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers…They must see Americans as strange liberators.
Given the long history of the struggle for freedom by the Vietnamese people he suggested that we seek to understand the feelings of the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front, the group responsible for killing U.S. forces, while not condoning their actions. So egregious was the U.S. intervention and occupation of Vietnam that King drew a parallel between the Vietnam War and the Holocaust, “What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?” He also employed a rather astute analogy that perhaps he believed would resonate strongly with his fellow Americans. He said our invasion of Vietnam was “as if the French and British had come here during the Civil War to fight with the Confederacy.”

After King delivered his speech “Beyond Vietnam” on April 4th, 1967 he faced severe backlash from the highest levels of government, the media establishment and even from some of his fellow civil rights colleagues. The American ruling class was threatened by King’s perfectly legal public protests. President Lyndon B. Johnson, a strong ally in the civil rights movement was apparently “flushed with anger” from King’s “Hanoi” line speech and used racial epithets against him. In a personal conversation with King, Johnson told him that his criticisms of the War were equivalent to King telling him that he had raped his daughter. The FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover warned Johnson, “It is clear that he is an instrument in the hands of subversive forces seeking to undermine our nation.” The labels traitor, communist and treasonous were also applied to King by Hoover and some of his agents (as well as many others). Adam Fairclough describes what happened when Johnson supported increased attacks against King, “the Bureau stepped up its attempts to nullify Kings influence by, among other methods, ‘disseminating’ unfriendly newspaper articles, passing on Bureau-inspired editorials to cooperative editors and publishers, furnishing reporters with ‘embarrassing questions’ for King, and hampering SCLC’s funraising efforts.”

He also faced antagonism and hostility from the establishment press as the majority of newspapers harshly criticized him, some of which predicted his career over. Life magazine editorialized “Much of his speech was demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post described King’s speech as “sheer inventions of unsupported fantasy” and said, “Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people. And that is a great tragedy.” In an interview on the Mike Douglass television show which is still particularly relevant today, King faced hostile and somewhat patronizing questions but always responded insightfully. Douglass asked, “Don’t you think your remarks have created doubts about the Negroes loyalty to his country?” King brilliantly answered, “I don’t think our loyalty to the country should be measured by our ability to kill.”

King also warned of encroachments of the 1st amendment right to free speech and increasing government oversight, “If Americans permit thought control, business-control, and freedom-control to continue, we shall surely move within the shadows of fascism.” When Julian Bond was elected to the Georgia legislature in 1965 he was blocked from taking a seat for supporting an SNCC resolution that criticized the war. Both Bond and SNCC were attacked in the press. King came to Bond’s defense stating that the U.S. was “approaching a dangerous totalitarian periphery where dissent becomes synonymous with disloyalty.” He also was concerned that numerous Americans were deeply troubled by U.S. foreign policy but they didn’t “want to be considered unpatriotic” and so remained silent.

King recognized that our invasion of Vietnam, the use of U.S. troops against revolutionary movements in Latin America and our dubious meddling in other countries affairs was “supporting a new form of colonialism…that can only lead to a national disaster.” No amount of firepower could win against the psychological and political defeat that America suffered from its continued reckless and aggressive behaviors. King believed the way to end any hatred and animosity against the U.S. was to address the root of the problem; the “bitter, colossal contest for supremacy” that defined the U.S. Empire. Simply put, King believed America was on the wrong side of the world’s revolutions. In a day when the term communism was the standard tool used for discrediting and demonizing opponents he advised, “We must not engage in anti-Communism…we must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, injustice and racial discrimination.”

Dr. King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968 exactly one year to the date after he delivered his “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

It’s the Threat That Matters, Not the Method

I’ve placed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the context of Wikileaks because it is important to remember that it’s usually not the form of protest but the damage that can be done to U.S. foreign policy and interests that determines the response from the ruling political and media classes. If someone had released 250,000 completely benign and superficial diplomatic documents, the act, while being “unacceptable” would most likely illicit a rather negligible response from the powers that be. On the other hand, if someone as powerful as King seeks to “shake the foundations of the nation” and subsequently undermine U.S. foreign policy by only employing perfectly legal means of speech, protest and organizing the highest levels of government will no doubt try to neutralize and destroy him. If either through speech or action you call for a “radical distribution of economic and political power” and think we need to usher in “a new era, which must be an era of revolution” and do so backed with substantial power as King did you will be targeted. The U.S. has a particularly brutal track record of eliminating and bullying people, leaders, governments and movements that threaten its interests. If Julian Assange had somehow been able to achieve the same worldwide effect as the release of the diplomatic cables has by other more “acceptable” methods I’m quite certain that he would still be America’s #1 public enemy.

My other main point is to illustrate that King, who is a widely respected religious and national figure held opinions which are still labeled as anti-American, treasonous or subversive when expressed today. It’s impossible to begin a conversation in the public sphere without being marginalized that correctly roots the cause of terrorist attacks against the U.S. with its own aggressive, ruthless and Imperialistic global agenda (or any of the other issues he raised). King did exactly that by rejecting the dominant narrative and sympathizing with those designated as our enemies and seeking to understand their motivations. The images he saw in Ramparts magazine, one of which was of a Vietnamese women holding her dead baby killed by the U.S. made him realize that despite what his government was telling him these people were no enemies of his. He courageously stood up, spoke his conscience and reminded us that “Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions.”

I hope it’s true as the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer claims that the Wikileaks release has caused “quite specific damage to our war-fighting capacity.” As the U.S. government continues its illegal wars, occupation of foreign countries, repeated lies, failure to prosecute for torture, and its indefinite imprisonment of people without charge Wikileaks is a form of protest that is much needed in the world today.

We cannot remain silent as our nation engages in one of history’s most cruel and senseless wars. During these days of human travail we must encourage creative dissenters. We need them because the thunder of their fearless voices will be the only sound stronger than the blasts of bombs and the clamor of war hysteria…To be honest is to confront the truth, however unpleasant and inconvenient the truth may be. – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Robert James Scofield, "Be," is a San Francisco based activist working to combine spirituality with anti-racism and social justice. Be is the founder of God Bless the Whole World, a free online resource with hundreds of videos of leading visionaries related to social justice and spirituality. He writes for Tikkun magazine and his work has appeared on Alternet.org, IntegralWorld and FactNet.
 
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