Thursday, March 31, 2011

Interfaith Leadership: In the Best Possible Light

By Whittney Barth
Cross-posted from State of Formation

We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.
Martin Luther, The Small Catechism, 1529

Martin Luther’s commentary on the eighth commandment may seem like an odd place to begin a reflection on interfaith leadership. And yet Luther’s words succinctly give voice to one of the most important lessons I have learned in my seven years of organizing interfaith activities on college campuses. Let me illustrate.

I am currently a master’s student at Harvard Divinity School in a program I chose in large part because of the religiously diverse student body. Students, faculty, and staff gather weekly to take part in a Noon Service hosted by one of the student organizations on campus. The hosts alternate: one week we are meditating with the Buddhists, the next we are singing gospel with the African and African American students’ association. As you might imagine, Noon Service is a time for sharing and for celebrating our community’s diversity. Yet I have also found that Noon Service can be a time of challenge and growth.

Last year, the atheist, agnostic, and humanist group led a Noon Service, and as a part of their program they invited the choir to sing a song entitled “I Ain’t Afraid.” The song included lyrics that emphasized that no sacred text or sacred being aroused fear, rather it was what the followers of those texts and beings do in their name that was frightening. I left feeling perplexed and hurt. Was this really the kind of experience my colleagues had within our community? Did they feel like those of us within the community who espoused religion were to be feared as hypocrites?

I took these emotions and questions with me and sat with them for a while. After several weeks, I ran into one of the leaders of the group and asked if we might have tea and talk about the Noon Service. He readily agreed and within a couple of days we were sitting in our school’s cafe over a hot cup of tea and deep conversation. I explained to him how I felt coming away from that service and asked him about the song in particular. After stating – half in jest – that there are a limited number of humanist and atheist hymns to choose from, he made it clear the song was not intended toward our community but rather as a commentary on the destructiveness of religious extremism—a concern that I, as a person of faith, also share. At the conclusion of our conversation we shook hands and I left with a renewed understanding of what it means to live into pluralism—that is, intentional engagement with people from diverse backgrounds—on a daily basis.

Right now, my daily environment is a safe laboratory for experimenting with the kind of multi-religious engagement that is increasingly necessary in our multi-religious context in the United States. Intentional engagement can seem like a difficult task, especially if we try to go about building a culture of pluralism without undertaking sometimes challenging conversations. When I took a leap of faith with my fellow community members, I experienced the truth of Luther’s words. When I interpret my neighbor’s actions and motivations in the best possible light I help create a space where trust and mutual understanding can flourish. Pluralism is, after all, a dynamic collaborative effort.

Whittney Barth is a Master of Divinity candidate at the Harvard Divinity School, focusing on civic and ecological implications of religious pluralism in the United States. She is a graduate of Miami University (Oxford, Ohio) with experience in interfaith organizing on college campuses.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Not Theology, but Authority: Rob Bell and the Evangelical Institutional Establishment

Note: Originally posted at State of Formation

The criticism of Rob Bell’s Love Wins is not about theology. It is all about authority.

In case you missed the hubbub surrounding Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, I point you to Sara Staely’s post where she outlines John Piper and the neo-Calvinist establishment’s response to the book. She sums up the conflict nicely:
Over the past few days, one three-word tweet has put the evangelical world into a tizzy:Farewell Rob Bell.  The tweet came from John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN and the veritable Godfather of the neo-reformed evangelical establishment (for more on Piper’s influence, see my previous post on evangelicals and inter-religious dialogue).  Piper was referencing Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Church in Grandville, MI, a celebrated speaker and author among a younger, more progressive evangelical crowd.

Largely based on this two-and-a-half minute promotional video for Bell’s forthcoming book,Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Piper has determined that the book will come a bit too close to universalism for his sensibilities.  And so, with a few clicks of the keyboard, a tap of the mouse and one trite tweet, it seems Bell has been expelled from what Piper deems to be the One True Church.
Sara goes on to discuss her own response to Piper et al.’s theological self-congratulations for securing orthodox evangelicalism, but I want to take things in a different direction. Sara is quite right to dwell on the theological implications of the “Bell’s Hell” controversy, however, I think at bottom the dispute is not about heaven and hell or heresy and orthodoxy. It is about authority.

Rob Bell challenges the authority of the (Calvinist) evangelical establishment and they don’t like it. For example, Bill Walker has compared Bell’s ideas in Love Wins with conservative evangelical darling and Presbyterian Church in America pastor Tim Keller’s ideas in The Reason for God. As Walker lays it out, the two share a lot in common. They both lean heavily on C.S. Lewis for their ideas and Bell even cites Keller’s other book Prodigal God in his “further reading” section of Love Wins. Yet, Keller is beloved by those in the pews and quoted by those in the pulpits while Bell is dangerous. As Walker puts it:
So here’s my second question.  Why is the evangelical right threatened by Bell if his theology is the same as one of their own (Keller)?  Is it because Keller’s allegiances prevent him from being scrutinized?  Or, is this not even really about theology?  Might there a deeper political element of power underlying the supposedly righteous rhetoric?
The short answer to Walker’s questions: Yes.

The controversy is not about the book or its theology. Look at this list of responses to the book from Southern Baptist leaders, put together by the Baptist Press. It seems like half of the respondents have not even read the book. They just know it was written by Rob Bell and so it must be opposed. The ones that do try to engage Bell’s writing either misread it or pan it as erroneous without giving good reasons why.

So, if it is not about theology, then what is is about? Why is Keller in but Rob Bell out? Why are old man Piper and the good fellas at the SBC hassling pastor Bell? Piper, the SBC, and other “orthodox” evangelical critics of the book are defending their own privileged place in American evangelicalism. Tim Keller is okay because he is a PCA pastor. He is inside the establishment. He is safe. Rob Bell is not.  Bell is not part of any major denomination and so, to Piper et al., he answers to no one. He is a rogue pastor with a HarperCollins book deal.

The response to Bell reminds me of the disputes between the Old Lights and New Lights in colonial America. During what some historians call the Great Awakening, pastors like George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards preached and evangelicalism that emphasized God’s grace and personal experiences of salvation. Revivals broke out up and down the East coast as Whitfield preached to crowds. Along with this exuberant evangelical “experimental religion” came challenges to the old guard of church leadership. The revival came because of a new kind of ministry the mended the failures of the old lights.

While Bell is  not giving sermons on “The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry” like Gilbert Tennent, nonetheless, his book and his overall project challenges the power of the existing denominational establishment in America. The Baptists, the PCA, and the various Wesleyan and Pentecostal denominations have provided the institutional structures and the doctrinal orthodoxy for their particular corners of the evangelical community. But Bell and others like him come from outside of these structures, challenging their theology but, more importantly, challenging their authority. There is no assembly, council, bishop or court to drag Bell into and strip him of his post. This lack of control scares evangelical elites like John Piper.

In the pursuit for control over what counts as “evangelicalism” in America, it remains to be seen if love wins or not.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Church and State: Religious Imagery in Public Spaces

The European Court of Human Rights this week upheld a decision supporting Italy's policy of displaying crucifixes in the classrooms of Italian public school. The policy had been challenged by Mrs. Soile Tuulikki Lautsi, an atheist and mother of two, who argued that the presence of the crucifixes in public school classrooms violated her and her childrens' rights to religious freedom.

While recognizing atheism as a protected system of belief and acknowledging the crosses displayed in Italian classrooms as religious symbols, the Court maintained that the "passive display" of such symbols do not violate the prerogative of religious neutrality. The Court suggested instead that the crucifixes represent an "acceptable reflection" of the values of Italy's majoritarian Catholic culture, and also noted that students of other faiths are permitted to wear symbols of their faiths in classrooms as well.

In response to the decision, scholar John Witte, Jr., author of Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment, offered a six-point reflection on the parallels between the Italian case and the on-going issue of religious symbolism in public classrooms in the US. Please do forgive the exceptionally long block quote, but given Witte's expertise in teasing out the fine distinctions used by the Supreme Court over the years to define the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment, it seems prudent to defer to Witte's expertise on the subject:
First, tradition counts in these cases. In American courts, older religious displays tend to fare better than newer displays. The longstanding customary presence of a religious symbol in public life eventually renders it not only acceptable but indispensable to defining who we are as a people. In Lautsi, Judge Bonello put this argument strongly in his concurrence: "A court of human rights cannot allow itself to suffer from historical Alzheimer's. It has no right to disregard the cultural continuum of a nation's flow through time, nor to ignore what, over the centuries, has served to mould and define the profile of a people."

Second, religious symbols often have redeeming cultural value. American courts have long recognized that a Decalogue is not only a religious commandment but also a common moral code, that a cross is not only a Christian symbol, but also a poignant memorial to military sacrifice. When passively and properly displayed, the meaning of a symbol can be left in the eye of the beholder -- a sort of free market hermeneutic. The Lautsi court echoed this logic. While recognizing the crucifix as religious in origin, the Court accepted Italy's argument that "the crucifix also symbolized the principles and values" of liberty, equality and fraternity that "formed the foundation of democracy" and human rights in Italy and well beyond.

Third, local values deserve some deference. In America, the doctrine of federalism requires federal courts to defer to the practices and policies of individual states, unless there are clear violations of federal constitutional rights to free exercise and no establishment of religion. The Supreme Court has used this doctrine to uphold the passive display of crosses and Decalogues on state capitol grounds. The Lautsi Court uses the European "margin of appreciation" doctrine in much the same way. Lacking European consensus on public displays of religion and finding no coerced religious practice or indoctrination in this case, the Court left Italy to decide for itself how to balance the religious symbolism of its Catholic majority and the religious freedom and education rights of its atheistic minorities.

Fourth, religious freedom does not require the secularization of society. The United States Supreme Court became famous for its image of a "high and impregnable wall of separation between church and state," that left religion hermetically sealed from political life and public institutions. But the reality today is that the Court has abandoned much of its strict separatism and now allows religious and non-religious parties alike to engage in peaceable public activities, even in public schools. The European Court of Human Rights likewise became famous for promoting French-style laïcité in public schools and public life, striking down Muslim headscarves and other religious symbols as contrary to the democratic "message of tolerance, respect for others, and equality and non-discrimination." Lautsi suggests a new policy that respects the rights of private religious and secular groups alike to express their views, but allows government to reflect democratically the traditional religious views of its majority.

Fifth, religious freedom does not give a minority a heckler's veto over majoritarian policies. Until recently, American courts allowed taxpayers to challenge any law touching religion even if it caused them no real personal injury. This effectively gave secularists a "veto" over sundry laws and policies on religion -- however old, common or popular those laws might be. The Supreme Court has now tightened its standing rules considerably, forcing parties to make their cases for legal reform in the legislatures and to seek individual exemptions from policies that violate their beliefs. Lautsi holds similarly. It recognizes that while the crucifix may cause offense to Ms. Lautsi, it represents the cherished cultural values of millions of others, who in turn are offended by her views. But personal offense cannot be a ground for censorship. Freedom of religion and expression requires that all views be heard in public life.

Finally, religious symbolism cases are serious business. It's easy to be cynical about these cases -- treating them as much ado about nothing, or as expensive hobbyhorses for cultural killjoys or public interest litigants to ride. But that view underestimates the extraordinary luxury we now enjoy in the West to be able to fight our cultural contests over religious symbols in our courts and academies, rather than on our streets and battlefields. In centuries past in the West -- and in many regions of the world still today -- disputes over religious symbols often lead to violence, sometimes to all-out warfare. Far more is at stake in these cases than the fate of a couple of pieces of wood nailed together. These cases are essential forums to work through our deep cultural differences and to sort out peaceably which traditions and practices should continue and which should change.
Perhaps the most relevant part of Witte's analysis, at least for religious progressives, is to be found in his fourth point, in which Witte admonishes the reader that "religious freedom does not require the secularization of society." In the US, where overt religiosity and political conservatism are often considered to go hand in hand, the opposite is often held true as well, in that challenges to public religious expression are often viewed as emerging primarily from the political left. Based on my own experiences and observations, there does indeed seem to be an almost pharisaical eagerness among many liberals and progressives to carry First Amendment protections to the extreme of demanding an absence of religion not only in terms of laws and policies, but in the ways in which we talk about these things as well.

Granted, demands to exclude religion from public discourse are of a categorically different sort than concerns about religious symbols in public schools, with the latter concern deserving a discussion much more nuanced than I can provide here (although Witte's above-mentioned book offers a terrifically comprehensive introduction to the subject). But on the whole, I would argue that pervasive liberal hypersensitivity to religious concepts and language is in part to blame for the virtual conservative monopoly on public discourse about religion in this country. This is an unfortunate and likely self-reinforcing reality, in that I suspect the exclusionary and often bigoted conservative perspectives that define public discourse about religion directly contribute to the hesitancy many leftists feel toward religion.

Members of the religious left must find ways to make common cause with non-religious groups and individuals also laboring for social justice, and both groups must recognize that their collective voices can only be amplified when a diversity of moral, ethical, and theological means are used to justify similar political ends. The religious left ignores the very real concerns of our non-religious comrades at our own peril. In addition to jeopardizing our commitment to cultivating a healthy domestic pluralism, ignoring the rights of non-religious individuals can only weaken the internal cohesion of the left as a whole. That being said, it is also less than helpful to have non-religious leftists respond to religious and theological arguments about social and political concerns with shouts of "Church and State, Church and State."

As we have discussed previously (and as social philosopher John Rawls so expertly explained), groups with dramatically divergent means of understanding and justification can still develop a layered 'overlapping consensus' when they rally around common issues. It should be the prerogative of all members of the religious left to seek out such consensus not only with members of other faiths, but with individuals who ascribe to no faith as well.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Democratic Senator Announces Hearings on Threats to Civil Rights of Muslims

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), the second-ranked Democrat in the US Senate, announced plans yesterday to hold congressional hearings on threats to the civil rights of Muslims in the United States. The announcement follows approximately two weeks after controversial congressional hearings on the threat of domestic Muslim radicalization sponsored by Chairman of the United States House Homeland Security Committee Rep. Peter King (R-NY).

Via the Huffington Post:
Durbin cited a spike "in anti-Muslim bigotry," including the burning of Qurans and an increase in hate crimes and hate speech toward Muslims [as rationale for the hearings]. Durbin will convene the hearings on March 29 as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.

"During the course of our history, many religions have faced intolerance," said Durbin, the assistant Senate majority leader, in announcing the hearings on Tuesday (March 22).

"It is important for our generation to renew our founding charter's commitment to religious diversity and to protect the liberties guaranteed by our Bill of Rights."
The move has been hailed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, with CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper calling the hearings "a very positive development," and describing  the civil rights of Muslims in the US as "a necessary topic to discuss."

The only real substance of Rep. King's bigoted congressional dog and pony show was to be found in its many and nuanced critiques, and the hearings demonstrated to anyone paying the least bit of attention that there is absolutely no morally or empirically justifiable rationale for singling out Muslims communities in the US for investigation. Many of Rep. King's critics consider his hearings an extension of (or capitalization on) precisely the sort of dangerous Islamophobia described above by Sen. Durbin. The only surefire way to combat the ignorance that fuels such intolerance is through education and awareness-raising. To this end, Sen. Durbin's hearings seem like one potentially effective way to to reaffirm our nation's core values of religious tolerance and freedom, and to demonstrate to the general populace that despite demonization from folks like Rep. King, Muslims in the US are full and equal partners in our great democratic experiment.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Who Wins When the Bible is Blamed for Gay Bashing? - Mark Jordan at Religion Dispatches

Harvard Divinity School professor, renowned author, and all-around terrific human being Mark D. Jordan recently posted this article on Religion Dispatches. For the full article, follow the link below.

Who Wins When Bible is Blamed for Gay Bashing?
Mark D. Jordan - Religion Dispatches
Originally Published March 22, 2011

The news item is both grisly and depressingly familiar: a young man is accused of killing an older man for making sexual advances. The weapon was a sock filled with stones; the young man told police that he had been instructed in prayer to apply the Old Testament punishment of stoning. You want to stop there, recognizing old stereotypes of cultural homophobia coupled with age-prejudices—but mostly the unpredictability of violent delusions.

Unfortunately the story didn’t stop there. John Aravosis, political blogger and publicist for gay causes, is perhaps best known for leading a boycott against Dr. Laura; or else for outing a conservative “journalist” as a gay porn star. In a recent post, Aravosis says first that “the Bible does say to kill gays,” then quotes a string of alternate (and admittedly “wrong”) biblical translations before reiterating that they are “quite clear about the need to murder gay people,” only to conclude that “Christians do nothing about it, other than quote it against us in order to take away our civil rights.”

Before I say anything more about Aravosis, let me emphasize that some scraps of Christian language do seem to have figured in the delusions of the young man accused of committing the murder. Let me add that there is plenty of evidence (and much better evidence) that Christian churches in many times and places have cited their Bible to authorize crimes against a long list of people—including those accused of same-sex relations. But then let me ask the obvious question: Who gains when a gay activist endorses the most homophobic of marginal interpretations of the Bible after half a century of gay or gay-friendly efforts to establish better readings?

To read the full article (and you really should), visit Religion Dispatches.

Lenten Magic Amidst the Madness

By Nathaniel Katz

I have to confess that there are three holidays that are near and dear to my heart: Thanksgiving, Easter and March Madness. There’s an entirely separate column to be written exploring that triumvirate. For the moment, suffice it so say that this past weekend was the pinnacle of the most secular of my holiday celebrations. My best estimate is that I spent approximately 40 hours watching college hoops from this past Thursday through Sunday. Even though there was nearly always a game to watch between 9 AM and 9 PM Pacific Time, I was exposed to my fair share of commercials. As usual, most of these ads drove me batty – I’m looking at you Bud Light. And despite my love for Alicia Keys and her music, I was nearly driven insane by how often her HP ad ran over the span of those four days.

In the midst of the commercial side of the madness, something jumped out at me. Dove launched an ad campaign for its new line of men’s hygiene and body care products. The campaign’s tagline is “Journey to Comfort” and it features former basketball players speaking candidly about their experiences with pressure and struggle in their lives. The most striking of these talking heads was none other than Earvin “Magic” Johnson. While others thus far have one commercial apiece, at least three separate ads featured Magic over the course of the weekend.

Seeing Magic Johnson in a commercial is nothing new. Magic has been a relatively successful pitch man for a long time running. What drew my attention was hearing Magic deliver the final tagline that runs throughout the campaign – “I’m Magic Johnson and I’m definitely comfortable in my own skin.”

When I heard those words my mind jumped back 16 years in time, to my days as a member of the HIV/AIDS Peer Educators in the New Jersey Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In the fall of 1995, I joined a small group of Lutheran youth from around the state that traveled to churches in our synod and beyond to teach our peers the truth about HIV, how it was transmitted, and that those who had the misfortune of being HIV positive were as human as we were.

At that time, there were few public faces to be applied to the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV took on a life of its own as an alien pariah that warranted fear first, suspicion next, and after that caution at best. There were a handful of celebrities who had gone public with their HIV positive status – Freddie Mercury, Arthur Ashe, and Magic Johnson among them. Sadly, Freddie and Arthur left this world all too soon, and before long Magic stood alone on the public stage.

What I find so amazing about this new Dove ad is that after so many years of struggle and ultimate uncertainty, Magic is able to put himself before the American public and say that he is comfortable in his own skin. Fifteen years ago there was absolutely no way that the American public would have allowed that statement to stand. If you were HIV positive, conventional wisdom dictated that you were live in shame for the remainder of your natural born life. As my colleagues and I began to meet HIV positive folks during the course of our work, we learned that if the disease itself was not wreaking havoc on their body, the weight of its stigma was backbreaking all on its own.

It’s easy to forget that Magic was quickly shunned within the fraternity of pro basketball players in the wake of his diagnosis. When Magic announced his intention to return to the NBA in 1996, Karl Malone famously stated that he didn’t want to walk out on the same floor as Magic for fear that he would contract HIV. Magic’s diagnosis initially hurt the cause of those living with HIV more than it helped. His diagnosis forced many of the most ignorant and intolerant groups and individuals within American society to reckon with the reality that heterosexuals could also contract HIV. It was no longer a “gay disease” inflicted by God upon homosexuals. Magic’s diagnosis opened the eyes of heterosexuals, for sure. But for those who had already committed themselves to the position that HIV’s existence was evidence of divine punishment, it simply meant that punishment clearly extended beyond homosexuals to anyone guilty of “sexual immorality.”

Even those of us who worked as activists to educate the public about HIV were somewhat apprehensive. We stood on the sidelines dreading the eventuality of Magic’s wasting away into certain death. HIV was a death sentence, after all.

So, here we stand in 2011. Magic is still with us, and is living a full and vibrant life. His life now stands as an inspiration to HIV positive and negative individuals alike. His entrepreneurship continues to uplift urban communities around the United States and over all these years we have almost come to forget that Magic Johnson is HIV positive. Long gone are the days when Magic would hold press conferences that would announce his T-cell count. Today, Magic is much more likely to appear in a commercial for T-Mobile.

What are we to make of all this? Should Americans everywhere pat themselves on the back for getting over their fear of HIV? I think the answer to that is clearly no. I think that Magic’s confident appearance provides us with an opportunity to take a closer look at HIV+ life in America. There is hardly any public discussion of HIV in our country today and we’ve come to think of it as primarily an African disease that white westerners don’t really have to worry about anymore. But what about those Americans who are living with HIV? What are their lives like? How hopeful are they that a cure can be found? And are they able to say that they are “definitely comfortable in their own skin”? How would we respond to anyone other than Magic saying that they were?

The truth of the matter is that while Magic may be our longest-tenure HIV positive celebrity, he is not the face of HIV. Magic is a wealthy heterosexual man. He has always been able to afford the best medical treatment that money can buy. He can afford to pay personal trainers, nutritionists, and any expert his heart desires. And if he needed it, he could even afford to pay a team of personal assistants to make sure that he took all his medications on at their appointed times. Needless to say, the majority of Americans living with HIV are not so lucky.

To me, it the timing of these Dove commercials could not be more perfect. We find ourselves in the midst of Lent, a season in which Christians are called to be penitent and reflect on the consequences of our actions. This is a time in the Christian calendar when we are meant to question how well we are living out the message of the Gospel – to love our neighbors, especially those out on the margins. As the rector of my home church of All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena, CA likes to say, “Lent is not about giving up chocolate and cheap white wine.” These forty days are a time for us to take stock of our lives as Christian individuals and Christian communities.

I have to admit that I have been struggling with my Lenten practice this year. I considered giving up caffeine on the premise that it would truly impact my daily life and force me to reflect. But after this weekend of dedicated basketball watching, I think I have found my answer. I want to know what the real state of HIV in America is today. How far have we come? Who is the face of HIV today? What is their life like? And does their life reflect the kind of love that Jesus challenged us to live out in his life and death on the cross?

That is the Lenten journey that I have staked out for myself, thanks to Magic and the good folks at Dove. I encourage you to come with me and do some real soul searching. As Rev. Bacon challenged his congregation this past weekend, use this Lent as an opportunity to go outside your comfort zone. Put yourself in a place where you don’t feel comfortable in your own skin and see what happens. Who knows? You might even find the face of God out there on the margins.

Nat Katz currently serves as the Epps Fellow for Undergraduate Ministry at The Memorial Church at Harvard University. In May 2010, he completed his studies in the Master of Divinity program at Harvard Divinity School. He is seeking ordination in the Episcopal Church and is sponsored through All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA. In addition to being a self-proclaimed Reinhold Niebuhr fanatic, Katz is interested in the intersections between religion, culture and politics.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Calling All Guest Bloggers!

Our work here at 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, or email articles to
  • Why: Because we care deeply about our country and our beliefs, and we refuse to cede them to those who would appeal to either 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.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Dear Bill Maher, Ignorance is Not Funny

By Garrett FitzGerald

I find Bill Maher to be an incredibly frustrating individual. Despite the fact that the man can often get a chuckle out of me with his social and political commentary, Maher insists on routinely maligning organized religion through some of the most hackneyed critiques available. While some of Maher's critiques do highlight very real problems and excesses within certain religious traditions and communities, Maher belongs firmly to the New Atheist school of religious debunkery, and as such regularly conflates his occasionally poignant particulars with grand claims and sweeping generalizations about religion writ large.

Consider a recent segment from HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, in which Maher interviews Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim elected to Congress, about Ellison's role in decrying the recent congressional hearing on Muslim radicalization. For the most part, I agree with everything Maher says for the first few minutes of the interview. But Maher dramatically oversteps the line of the appropriate - and the factual - as soon as he starts weighing in with his personal feelings about Islam as a religion. The really objectionable stuff starts around the 7:10 mark.

What is really frustrating about Maher's claims, aside from their offensive, baseless assertions, is that although Maher's whole smarmy schtick is predicated on how well-informed he is supposed to be, every one of the claims he makes as been repeatedly debunked by much more credible sources. Rather than offer anything approaching a new or novel contribution to the way in which his audience can think about Islam, religion in American civil society, or issues of national security, Maher trundles out a short hit parade of New Atheist and conservative Islamophobic talking points, and then has the gall to up his already dangerously high levels of smarm when the actual Muslim to whom he's speaking takes some issue with his wildly inaccurate claims.

Let's look at Maher's specific assertions about Islam:
1) "It's been going on a thousand years, this problem between Islam and the West. We are dealing with a culture that is in its medieval era."

2) "It comes from a hate-filled holy book, the Qu'ran, which is taken very literally by its people."

3) "They are trying to get nuclear weapons [...]"

4) "It's a culture of suicide bombing"
Ok, for starters we've got a classic Samuel Huntington The Clash of Civilizations type narrative which pits these monolithic entities, "Islam" and "the West" against one another. Huntington's "clash" thesis has been so expertly debunked by scholarly luminaries like Edward Said, Amartya Sen, and Paul Berman for its over-reliance on problematic concepts like "civilization" and "culture" that I won't even get further into it here, suffice it to say that the only people who still take this idea seriously are conservative social and political commentators (and apparently Bill Maher) who have likely never cracked The Clash of Civilizations, much less read its many and expert critiques.

Next, the "hate-filled holy book" that is the Qu'ran. Not a lot of surprises here, considering who Maher indicates as having shaped his understanding of the holy text of some 1.4 billion people across the globe. Rather than ask, say, any of these 1.4 billion Muslims themselves about the Qu'ran, Maher instead cites New Atheist poster-boy Sam Harris, who has absolutely no credentials regarding the study or practice of Islam as a whole or the Qu'ran in particular. In the past, Harris has made repeated anti-Muslim and Islamophobic claims, including a 2004 statement in which Harris observed, "It is time we admitted that we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam."* When quoting someone with such a blatantly skewed, not to say outright bigoted viewpoint, Bill Maher and all Harris' readers should know better than to repeat claims like "On almost every page the Qu'ran instructs observant Muslims to despise nonbelievers," without a Sam Harris-sized grain of salt (which, given Harris' striking physical resemblance to Ben Stiller, I would put at approximately 171 lbs (h/t Google)).

For the sake of brevity, let's lump claims three and four together, as they are guilty of the same rhetorical sins: generalization and reductionism. Maher is completely unapologetic about his use of incredibly broad generalizations ("They are trying to get nuclear weapons," "It is a culture of suicide bombing"), despite the fact that it is precisely these sorts of generalizations which defined the hearings he and Rep. Ellison had just spent minutes picking apart. Absurd generalizations remain just that whether they are being spoken by a conservative congressman or a self-professed liberal political commentator. While Maher immediately backtracks on these claims when challenged by Rep. Ellison ("No one is disputing that the vast, vast, giant majority of Muslims are not the problem"), he then qualifies his generalizations with the equally outrageous claim that "We're talking about a very small percentage, but it just takes one." So in under a minute Maher effectively swings from the unqualified assertion that Islam is a "unique" threat because all Muslims ("they") apparently want nukes and belong to a culture ("it") that supports suicide bombing, to the claim that Islam is a "unique" threat because, as a religion with 1.4 billion followers (can't stress that enough), there might be one person who can distort the teachings of Islam enough to consider obtaining nuclear weapons and carrying out suicide attacks to be in line with that religion's teachings. Let's be real: the first claim can be dismissed outright as a baseless over-generalization, and the second claim, that "it only takes one" individual with distorted beliefs to implicate all of Islam, completely eradicates Maher's rationale for the "unique" threat of Islam over any other religious, political, or economic system of belief by which an individual has ever justified the taking of a life.

The interview above is regrettable for a number of reasons. Not only does Maher rehash some of the most tired claims and stereotypes in currency with Islamophobic circles in this country, but his willingness to do so and the apparent conviction behind his assertions drives home the point that these harmful distortions are not the sole purview of conservative pundits. As Maher's uninformed remarks demonstrate, ignorance and Islamophobia remain very real problems at both ends of the political spectrum. And if individuals like Maher are going to claim to be a part of the left, religious leftists must be ready to stand up and challenge the debunked arguments and generalizations upon which he and others of his ilk rely.

*As a passing thought, given the incredible similarities between the views of arch-conservative religionists and New Atheist demagogues like Sam Harris, one can hypothesize a bizarre sort of circularity to the spectrum of belief and non-belief. Perhaps going far enough in one direction just pops you out the other side. This is something to be investigated further, and may change the way we view the most extreme atheists and conservative Christians forever. Assuming, of course, that anyone can stomach the practically unparalleled vitriol upon which the research process will necessarily have to focus.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

'In God We Trust': House GOP's Motto Muddle

House Republicans have taken a break from their busy schedule of slashing budgets for crucial social programs to focus on something as truly momentous as it is worthwhile: a reaffirmation of "In God We Trust" as the official motto of the United States.
The US House of Representatives will have a chance to vote on a resolution to affirm the phrase "In God We Trust" as the nation’s official motto after it was approved by the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Congressman J. Randy Forbes (R-VA), the founder and chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, sponsored the legislation. It would encourage the public display of the motto in all public buildings, public schools and government institutions.

He said he introduced the bill in January because he was troubled by a pattern of omitting God from the nation's heritage.

"There is a small minority who believes America does not have the right to trust in God, who believes the United States should not affirm trust in God, and who actively seek to remove any recognition of that trust," Forbes said.
'In God We Trust' replaced the previous de facto motto of 'E Pluribus Unum' when it was adopted as the official US motto in 1956, one year after the phrase "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.

Critics of the motto, and of the resolution to see it re-affirmed, contend the motto violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which holds "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion."
"The phrase ‘In God We Trust’ does not apply to the more than 16 percent of Americans who identify themselves as atheist, agnostic, nonreligious, or unaffiliated, and it does not apply to religious Americans who do not have Judeo-Christian beliefs," said Sean Faircloth, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America. "Branding our secular country with a religious motto only creates division among its citizens and erodes the wall of separation between church and state."
I tend to agree with Mr. Faircloth on this one. Affirming the right of individuals and groups within the US to publicly profess their religiosity is one thing, but shoe-horning God into what should theoretically be the single most inclusive phrase in US public life dramatically oversteps the affirmation of this right. Despite Forbes' half-assed attempt at inclusivity in declaring the resolution and motto are not "just about Christians," he of course absolutely neglects the sizable and increasing population of US citizens who claim no religious affiliation, and also the millions of religious people in the US for whom the Divine is not reducible to the idea of 'God.' No, it seems like it might be about time to consider a new motto for the country. Any suggestions?

Social Change and the "Prophetic Position"

There is a beautiful piece up on Huffington Post Religion right now from Fr. Richard Rohr, entitled "Life on the Edge: Understanding the Prophetic Position," in which Fr. Rohr reflects on the unique challenges and opportunities of the prophetic position. Fr. Rohr's words are particularly relevant for those of us who find ourselves situated on the religious left, as the religious left has historically been at its best when it has raised its voice in prophetic critique of the institutions and systems to which it is tied.

At the heart of Fr. Rohr's article is an exploration of the "unique and rare" liminal space occupied by the prophet:
He or she is always on the edge of the inside. Not an outsider throwing rocks, not a comfortable insider who defends the status quo, but one who lives precariously with two perspectives held tightly together -- the faithful insider and the critical outsider at the same time. Not ensconced safely inside, but not so far outside as to lose compassion or understanding. Like a carpenter's level, the prophet has to balance the small bubble in the glass between here and there, between yes and no, between loyalty and critique.
This liminal space, that location of the 'connected critic,' is one often inhabited by the icons of the religious left. Calling ourselves and our communities to justice only succeeds when we engage authentically with the resources native to the systems that help us understand what justice truly means. When those systems themselves, our communities of belief and practice, become implicated in the perpetuation of injustice, the responsibility of calling the community back to the way of justice, the way of God, falls to the prophetic voice. As the prophetic voice often challenges deeply entrenched systems of power, the role of prophetic speaker is not without its hazards; just consider the examples listed by Fr. Rohr of contemporary prophetic voices:
If you look at some who have served the prophetic role in modern times, like Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, John XXIII, Simone Weil and Oscar Romero, you will notice that they all hold this exact position. They tend to be, each in their own way, orthodox, conservative, traditional clergy, intellectuals or believers, but that very authentic inner experience and membership allows them to utterly critique the very systems that they are a part of. You might say that their enlightened actions clarified what our mere belief systems really mean. These prophets critiqued Christianity by the very values that they learned from Christianity. Every one of these men and women was marginalized, fought, excluded, persecuted, or even killed by the illusions that they exposed and the systems they tried to reform. It is the structural fate of a prophet.
But though these figures at times seemed intensely critical of the shortcomings of their own traditions, the powerful spiritual resources of those very same traditions allowed them to go on, and continue to work and witness for justice. Such is the power of the prophetic voice, and at our best, such is power of the religious left.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

New Poll Finds Majority Of Americans Support Same-Sex Marriage

Encouraging news this week in the struggle for marriage equality. According to a new ABC News/Washington Post survey released this week, for the first time in over a decade of polling a majority of Americans support the legalization of same-sex marriage.

From TPM:
In the poll, 53% of American adults said they think same sex marriage should be legal, compared to 44% who said it should not be. ABC found support for same sex marriage up six points from just one year ago, when 47% of Americans told the network it should be legal, while 50% said it should remain illegal.
The poll follows a significant administration policy shift on the issue, with the White House announcing last month that it will no longer defend certain provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, whose constitutionality is currently being challenged in a number of high-profile court cases. Emboldened Democratic lawmakers have introduced bills in both the House and the Senate aimed at repealing DOMA, and the issue of same-sex marriage, long thought to be a mobilizing issue for the conservative base, is increasingly being considered a potential political wedge issue now favoring Democrats.

While this shift in public perception about marriage equality is certainly encouraging, it is shameful that the legislative and judicial branches have bowed to popular pressure on the issue for so long by passing DOMA and its state-level equivalents, and by allowing such laws to stay on the books. Our constitutional protections were put in place to prevent precisely the sort of majoritarian abridgment of rights that has kept same-sex partners disenfranchised for so long. Among House GOP leadership, who have indicated their intention to defend DOMA in lieu of the administration, we see remnants of an intolerant and reactionary culture that is, by every available rubric - morally, theologically, and now, according to this recent poling data, empirically - on the wrong side of history. Speed now the day when we recognize the question of equal rights for all people should be no question at all.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Intercontinental Ecumenical Effort to Reduce Nuclear Arms

Four ecumenical councils - the World Council of Churches, the Conference of European Churches, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, and the Canadian Council of Churches - have issued joint letters urging NATO to remove US nuclear weapons based in Europe. The joint letter refers to the approximately 200 US nuclear weapons deployed in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Turkey, as “remnants of Cold War strategies,” and calls on NATO to move past deterrence as a viable security policy and work on"creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons" instead. The move would reduce from 14 to 9 the number of countries worldwide currently housing nuclear weapons on their territory.

The on-going crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in northeastern Japan underscores the incredible risks posed by ostensibly safe nuclear power. The prospect of catastrophic events such as Japan is currently experiencing compounds the already unacceptable environmental and security hazards created as a by-product of nuclear power. That is to say, even when nuclear power goes entirely according to plan, the nuclear waste material produced in the process still poses an unacceptable risk to human health and safety. And those are the risks of non-weaponized nuclear power.

Last year's New START treaty, heralded as a major step forward for nuclear arms reduction, still allows both the US and Russia to maintain 1,550 deployed nuclear weapons at any given moment, and does nothing to limit the thousands of operationally inactive nuclear warheads stockpiled by both nations. The continued existence of such weapons represents perhaps one of the greatest dangers for the health and security of life on this planet, and as such the maintenance of nuclear arsenals can only be considered theologically unconscionable. We celebrate the cooperative efforts of these ecumenical associations, and join them in the call for a more peaceful, nuclear-free world.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Birth, Old Age, Sickness, and Taxes: Buddhism and Fiscal Policy

By Joshua Eaton

With the recent controversy over a compromise to extend all of the Bush-era tax cuts for two years, with congress threatening to de-fund everything from AmeriCorps to NPR, and with fiscal battles raging at the state level, government spending and revenue have made a lot of headlines lately. Many people are surprised to discover how much ancient Buddhist thinkers have had to say on such a pertinent—and mundane—topic. Now is a perfect time to look at some of their ideas. Rather than serving as a liability, these thinkers' cultural, political, and historical distance
from us can give us some much-needed perspective on our own very modern difficulties.

In the Acts of the Buddha 2:43, the Buddhist philosopher-poet Asvaghosa (80-150 AD, northIndia) praises the Buddha's father, King Suddhodana:
43  He did not wish to raise inordinate taxes,
      he did not with to take what belonged to others,
      he did not wish to reveal his foes' unrighteousness,
      he did not wish to carry anger in his heart.
Three things jump out immediately. First, Asvagosa's focus doesn't seem to be on taxes so much as on greed for taxes. Second, he equates this greed with theft; for Asvagosa, the desire for taxes is always a desire for another's property. Third, greed for taxes and theft appear alongside the much more obvious—and, we might think, much more serious—transgressions of vengefulness and hatred. Overall, Asvaghosa seems less concerned with how much taxes are actually collected than with the motivation with which they are collected, and he takes the matter just as seriously as the more personal shortcomings that we're use to hearing religions preach against.

Asvaghosa's critique of greedy taxation is subtle, but the Scripture Requested by Surata—written in India but found in the Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist canons—is blatantly obvious. In the following excerpt, the bodhisattva Surata upbraids the corrupt king of Sravasti (I have written
more about this scripture here):
     Your Majesty, you levy harsh taxes
      And punish the innocent for no reason.
      Infatuated with your sovereignty,
      You never heed
      The future effects of your karmas.
Surata obviously objects to the king's high taxes because they are a result of his greed for power and wealth, and because they hurt Sravasti's citizens. Like Asvaghosa, he equates this greed with
the much more obvious crime of punishing the innocent; after all, harsh taxes hurt people who have done nothing to merit punishment. Finally, Surata identifies two causes for the king's greed:
megalomania and disregard for future consequences. Surata is telling us that a person with both of these qualities is willing to hurt others to satisfy their own greed; those of us who witnessed the behavior of many in finance, banking, and real estate during the 2008 economic crises can hardly disagree.

Surata is concerned with both the greed that motivates harsh taxes and the pain it causes the
citizenry. In the Precious Garland 4:252-253, Nagarjuna (150 - 250 CE, north India)—perhaps the most famous Buddhist philosopher of all time—objects to high taxes almost entirely for the latter reason:
252 Provide stricken farmers
      With seeds and sustenance.
      Eliminate high taxes levied by the previous monarch.
      Reduce the tax rate on harvests.
253 Protect the poor from the pain of wanting your wealth.
      Set up no new tolls and reduce those that are heavy.
      Also free traders from other areas from the afflictions
      That come from waiting at your door.
Here Nagarjuna isn't just concerned with taxes' financial effects but also their emotional ones. He advises the king to whom he is writing to protect the poor from pain and to free traders from afflictions—both affective terms. What's interesting here is that Nagarjuna is laying out a position at odds with both stereotypically liberal and conservative positions. He believes that taxes are painful to the citizenry, but he also clearly believes in government subsidies. (Earlier in the Precious Garland, Nagarjuna tells the king to implement extensive social welfare programs.)Finally, his sophisticated awareness of the needs of different constituencies—farmers, the poor,foreign traders—is a testament to Buddhism's overall political sophistication.

So, Asvaghosa equates excessive taxation with more personal transgressions, especially theft; Surata objects to the covetousness that high taxes inflict on a king and the financial pain they inflict on the citizenry; and, Nagarjuna objects to the financial and emotional pain that the undue hardship of high taxes cause. The renowned Nyingma Buddhist philosopher and teacher Jü Mipham Gyatso (1846-1912, eastern Tibet) sums up all of these sentiments nicely in his Advice on the Way of the King, saying,
     Forcefully taking a reasonable tax from the wealthy,
      even when they haven't offered it,
      is like being compensated.
      This is not theft.
      Forcefully taking from the poor
      can be either wrong or not:
      In order to prevent gamblers and prostitutes
      from wasting their illicitly-obtained wealth,
      if you take from them, it is said to benefit both
      you and them, and is not wrong.
      When someone has lost property through fire, etc.,
      tax them lightly.

     If one doesn't care for those sentient beings
      who haven't any means, this is wrong.
Mipham goes on to reiterate,
     If one doesn't collect taxes that are reasonable,
      and doesn't take equally from the rich and poor
      according to their situation, is that just?
      From all subjects who pay taxes
      take in accord with their land,
      the season, and their wealth, without harming their home.
      Do not burden them unbearably;
      Like a cow eating grass,
      one shouldn't destroy the roots.
Mipham's attitude toward prostitutes and gamblers aside—the latter have always had a special place in my heart, since they include most of my male relatives—one cannot help but appreciate the sophistication of his position. It underscores much of what's best from all of these thinkers: that taxes must be reasonable and harmless; that the circumstances of a citizen's life, livelihood, and wealth must be taken into account when calculating their tax burden; that special care must be given to those in need; and that rulers are morally responsible for how they handle their citizens' wealth.

Buddhism is often called the middle way. These Buddhist thinkers offer us a middle way between our liberal and conservative extremes by proposing a morally-grounded government that is both limited in its reach and focused on those in need. It might be an ancient idea, but it could hardly be more timely.

Joshua Eaton recently graduated with a master of divinity in Buddhist studies from Harvard University, and is currently editing an anthology of Buddhist teachings on social justice. His full bio can be found at his website, Formed From Within.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Defend the Dream: Rally Against Austerity on Tuesday 3/15

Rallies and political actions are scheduled in all 50 states tomorrow to protest the rising tide of disastrous conservative budget cuts around the country. The deep cuts conservatives are trying to pass off under the guise of austerity and fiscal responsibility target significant percentages of federal and state allocations for vital social programs. As such, the proposed cuts represent a very real hazard to some of our nation's most vulnerable demographics. Proposed budget cuts just at the federal level place potential job losses between 700,000 and 1,000,000 nationwide. House Republicans are attempting to slash funding desperately needed to support early childhood education, student loan and scholarship programs for higher education, low-income housing programs, family planning and services for pregnant women, homeless assistance grants, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), programs to aid unemployed workers, and many others.

Opposition to the proposed budget cuts must be understood not only as matter of fiscal responsibility, but as a matter of moral and theological responsibility as well. To paraphrase seminal liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez: if you are hungry, you have a material concern; if your neighbor is hungry, you have a theological concern. Faith traditions across the theological spectrum share in common a concern for the most vulnerable members of society: the poor, the sick, the hungry, the widows, the orphans. Looking across the list of proposed conservative budget cuts, one can see dire consequences for each of these and other similarly vulnerable groups if the proposed cuts are accepted.

Compromise on these issues should not be considered a viable option for progressives, as meeting conservative proposals even halfway would, in many cases, still put the interests and well-being of millions of Americans at risk by cutting budgets for vital social programs. Adding insult to injury is the conservative insistence on maintaining tax breaks for the wealthiest individuals and corporations while calling for their social spending cuts. These tax breaks, if modified or allowed to expire, could easily account for the budget deficits which conservatives claim necessitate their proposed cuts. As the Daily Kos' Chris Bowers explains:
Working and middle classes are being forced to pay for tax breaks for the wealthy, corporate giveaways, wars, and economic crashes caused by Wall Street. Money continues to flow upward, and our already undemocratic level of inequality is worsening.
It is time for religious progressives to join people of conscience across the country and take a stand against conservative budget proposals that put our most vulnerable populations even further at risk.

Search and sign up for Defend the Dream actions near you.

*Picture via

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Scott Walker, the Non-Innovative Non-Progressive

Shortly after signing into law the hugely unpopular bill curtailing the collective bargaining abilities of his state's public employees, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) chose some interesting and unfortunate language to suggest that the bill will become more popular in time. In an interview this week with the Associated Press, Walker explained:
"What we're doing here, I think, is progressive. It's innovative. It's reform that leads the country, and we're showing there's a better way by sharing in that sacrifice with all of us in government."
Let me stop you right there, Governor. Your anti-union, anti-middle class pet legislation is neither progressive nor innovative. In fact, your rollback of basic workers' rights is as regressive as it is antiquated, which in this case would be by about a century.

The Progressive Era, which existed in the United States from approximately the 1890s to the 1920s, heralded just the sort of vital labor reforms and regulations - the eight-hour work day, the living wage, improvements in the regulation of safety and health conditions in factories, child labor laws, workers' compensation laws, collective bargaining rights, and minimum wage laws for women - that now, a century later, conservatives like Scott Walker appear hell-bent on eliminating. Despite Walker's insistence that stripping workers of their collective bargaining rights is a matter of economic necessity, history seems to indicate quite the contrary, with healthy labor protections appearing directly linked to a healthy middle class. The labor reforms and increased regulation introduced during the Progressive Era ushered in an era of relative economic prosperity, with the rise of an industrial, urban middle class during this period arguably pulling the country out of the economic nosedive caused by the Panic of 1893.

But even beyond the economic impact of these reforms, the new laws and regulations protecting of workers' rights also represented a profound moral achievement for a nation struggling with the ethical implications of the rise of urban industrialization. Early industrial capitalism proved itself to be wholly inadequate to the task of moral self-regulation, with financiers and business elites willfully exploiting workers - especially women, children, and recent immigrants - who were left with no means of legal redress. Progressive labor reforms helped mitigate these exploitative excesses, and established the real possibility of a stable, middle-class lifestyle for generations of working Americans.

In addition to our concern for the well-being of the working people of Wisconsin, the Religious Left has a vested interest in setting the record straight on the inextricable bond between the progressive labor movement and progressive religion. Papal support for the labor movement in the 1890's, the Protestant Social Gospel movement, and the rise of the Jewish Labor Movement were all vital to the progressive victories listed above. The Religious Left was there, in the factories and on the picket lines, when working Americans won their hard-earned labor rights the first time around. And we are still here, ready to challenge the Scott Walker's of the world as they try to strip our nation's middle class of the rights that have protected it for the last century.

There is no moral or empirical justification for eliminating workers' rights, Governor. Try as you might to mask your rollback of workers' rights in the language of progressivism and innovation, the working people of Wisconsin know just what you've done. And fair warning, Governor: placing yourself between people and their rights is a surefire way to find yourself on the wrong side of history.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Religion Dispatches' Sarah Posner on the "Shari'ah Conspiracy Theory Industry"

Excellent piece up this week from Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches that profiles the conservative cottage industry that has grown up around the demonization of Islam, and the fear about Sharia law in particular. Posner's terrifically comprehensive article goes behind the scenes of recent conservative political posturing to illuminate the amorphous network of conspiracy theorists and self-styled 'experts' routinely trundled in front of the media to reinforce an uninformed, reductionistic account of Islam and the grave threat it poses to life as we know it.

To this end, Posner identifies a unifying narrative underlying the recent trend of Islamophobic conservative fear-mongering:
If one untangles what that cottage industry is saying, one can detect five claims of the shari'ah conspiracy theory: that the goal of Islam is totalitarianism; that the mastermind of bringing this totalitarianism to the world is the Muslim Brotherhood, the grandfather of all Islamic groups from Hamas to the Islamic Society of North America; that these organizations within the United States are traitors in league with the American left and are bent on acts of sedition against America; that the majority of mosques in the United States are run by imams who promote such sedition; and that through this fifth column shari‘ah law has already infiltrated the United States and could result in a complete takeover if not stopped.
In contrast to this narative, Posner offers a brief reflection on the historical contestation and incredible diversity of opinions regarding Sharia law and the ways in which it is understood and practiced. This dynamism presents an understanding of Sharia quite contrary to the rigid, monolithic presentation that dominates the conservative narrative described above. In particular - and not that this would necessarily assuage the fear of many conservatives, especially given their recent fixation with President Obama's "anti-colonial worldview - Posner notes the function of Sharia law as a locus of post-colonial resistance to the imperialistic imposition of European systems of law and government, but explains that even in these contexts "there is no single school of thought on what shari‘ah, or divine law, is or means—and there is no single, accepted legal code."

Of particular note for progressive religionists, Posner highlights that the threat posed by Islam and Sharia law is being framed by conservatives not only in political language - Islam and Sharia both being antithetical to the Constitution, of course - but in theological terms as well. Posner highlights the far-right conservative religious organizations, both Christian and Jewish, involved in funding and promoting the anti-Islamic conservative narrative. Challenges against Islam offered by such organizations range from the denial of the legitimacy of Islam as a religion, to more militaristic lingo that frequently utilizes imagery from the Crusades and presents Islam as locked in a "theological war" with its Abrahamic siblings, Christianity and Judaism.

Given the national platform provided the Islamophobic conservative misinformation machine this week during Rep. Peter King's controversial congressional hearings, Posner's article is as timely as it is vital. Conservative pundits, state politicians, and now increasingly potential 2012 GOP presidential hopefuls like Rick Santorum are using popular ignorance about Islam to stoke fear among heir constituents and rally the conservative base. Posner's article does a terrific job of attacking the credibility of the conservative anti-Islamic narrative, but also of offers an important alternative to this narrative by presenting readers with contradictory views and evidence from legitimate experts and actual Muslims. If the conservative spin machine is going to continue to utilize theological language and concepts to justify its bigotry, religious progressives must be prepared to take a similar tack in not only challenging the theological arguments put forward by conservatives, but by simultaneously offering informed, constructive theological alternatives that demonstrate the myriad values, beliefs, and practices shared by Islam and the other faiths that make up the pluralistic mosaic that is the United States of America.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Conservative Spending Priorities Are Morally Bankrupt

We ran a story some weeks ago about how the spending priorities of progressives and conservatives reflect markedly different moral priorities. This week, the Center for American Progress released a disheartening chart that concretely illustrates the stark differences in moral priorities when tax breaks are privileged over funding for social programs.

From the Center for American Progress:
The chart below compares the 10 safety-net programs slated for deep cuts with the cost of the tax breaks that should also be considered for reduction or elimination to bring the budget into balance. The column on the left is a list of safety-net programs that have already been targets of the House leadership’s budget ax. The column on the right is the cost to specified tax breaks.
Sources for the quoted figures are available on the CAP website.

Ideology be damned, warped spending priorities like this place the most vulnerable in this society at an unacceptable risk, while the invisible hand of the market flips a big middle finger to our middle class. Our economic system does not have the tools or the impetus to morally self-regulate, and it is up to us to provide the moral calculus that proves conservative budget plans just don't add up.

Please Help Relief Organizations in Japan

The Huffington Post has compiled a list of aid organizations currently mobilizing aid and relief efforts in Japan, including:

Red Cross

Save the Children's Children's Emergency Fund

International Medical Corps

Doctors Without Borders

and The Salvation Army

Please consider donating to these organizations' relief efforts, and keep the people of Japan and all those around the world affected by this catastrophe in your thoughts and prayers.

So Much for Compassionate Conservatism: NH Rep. Suggests Sending Mentally Ill to Siberia

Forget the prisons and the workhouses, New Hampshire State Rep. Martin Harty (R) has a novel new idea about how to deal with the homeless the mentally ill. The freshman Republican state representative stirred controversy this week by suggesting that such "defective" people should be sent to Siberia to die.

During a conversation over a proposed House Republican state budget featuring significant cuts to mental health services, State Rep. Harty explained the following to a shocked program manager at a local behavioral health and developmental services agency: "The world population has gotten too big and the world is being inherited by too many defective people." When asked to clarify whether he was referring to mentally ill and developmentally disabled persons, Rep. Harty responded "I mean all the defective people, the drug addicts, mentally ill, the retarded — all of them."

Rep. Harty went on to elaborate:
"The population keeps doubling. It's not hitting us too hard yet; we're not running out of food and we're not running out of drinkable water. But we're getting damn close. The homeless people that every state has their share of are mostly mentally ill. You can't really help those people. You can keep them alive, but there's only so much you can do for those people."
When pressed on his recommendations for what to do with mentally ill and developmentally disabled people, Rep. Harty concluded "I believe if we had a Siberia we should send them to this and they would all freeze and die and we will be rid of them."

The conservative fetish for slashing funding for social programs is no secret, but rarely do we hear such unabashed callousness from elected officials toward the individuals who would be effected by such cuts. And while wide-spread Arctic deportation might not be the most commonly prescribed conservative remedy for these incredibly vulnerable groups, there can be no doubt that Republican plans to cut desperately needed state and federal funding for social programs will leave many out in the cold.

"The King's Speech" - Tiffany Stanley at TNR

Terrific article on Rep. King's bogus 'radicalization' hearings by friend-of-the-site Tiffany Stanley, a reporter-researcher over at The New Republic.

"The King's Speech: The unraveling of Peter King's hearings on radical Islam "

Tiffany Stanley - The New Republic
Originally Published March 11, 2011

Everyone was expecting the Pete King hearings on Muslim radicalization to be the second coming of Joseph McCarthy. Yesterday, an hour before they began, a line already snaked around the third floor of the Cannon Office Building, as reporters queued to catch a glimpse of demagoguery. Dozens of cameras lit up the hallway, bulbs on or flashing; and the press seemed to far outnumber any protestors or concerned citizens on hand. As it turned out, though, while the hearings were certainly controversial, they were, in terms of substance, fundamentally anticlimactic. There were no bombshells from King, nor much in the way of revealing testimony, and there was certainly no drunken congressman reeling off names from a secret list of Communists. Instead, what we got was a debate about the legitimacy of the hearings themselves: Instead of Islam on trial, a trial on trial.

To read the full article, visit The New Republic.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Shame On You, Rep. King: Controversial Radicalization Hearings Begin

Controversial Congressional hearings on the threat of Islamic radicalization in the United States began today, despite wide-spread concern that the hearings might harm or alienate domestic Muslim communities. Acknowledging the controversy generated ahead of the hearings, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Peter King (R-NY) described the hearings as the "logical response" to warnings against future acts of home-grown Islamic terrorism.

Even as the hearings get under way, Rep. King still fails to see that there is absolutely nothing "logical" about his pet hearings. In fact, the reasoning behind the hearings is not only deeply flawed from a logical perspective, but from a moral perspective as well. Focusing these hearings only on radicalization among our domestic Muslim community perpetuates the dangerous conservative narrative that somehow the conflates the actions of a handful of radicals with the beliefs and practices of the millions of Muslims living in the United States. This sort of guilt by association not only displays a deep-seated intellectual dishonesty on the part of Rep. King and his supporters, but an ignorance, either genuine or willful, on the part of these individuals regarding the incredible internal diversity of Muslim belief and practice in the United States.

The stated focus of the hearings, namely the willingness of US Muslims to aid law enforcement officials in preventing Islamic terrorism, itself belies the incredible double standard to which conservative ideologues like King hold American Muslims. As Jon Stewart observed in a particularly poignant moment on his program this week,
"It's not enough for American Muslims to be law abiding. To avoid Congressional investigation they have to be actively stopping terror plots."
A short time ago, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim-American elected to the US Congress, gave a powerful testimony before the Committee. Rep. Ellison, who has been outspoken on the potential hazards of the hearings, calmly explained to the Committee that although violent extremism is a legitimate security concern, the Committee's approach to the issue is "contrary to American values, and threatens our security." As an alternative to the divisive and potentially dangerous hearings, Rep. Ellison called for increased understanding and engagement with Muslim American communities as a more just and effective way to keep the United States safe.

From Rep. Ellison's testimony:
Throughout human history, individuals from all communities and faiths have used religion and political ideology to justify violence. Let's think about the KKK, America's oldest terrorist organization; the Oklahoma City bombing; the shooting at the Holocaust Museum by James von Brunn; and bombings at Planned Parenthood clinics. Did Congress focus on the ethnic group and religion of these agents of violence as a matter of public policy? The answer is no.

Stoking fears about entire groups for a political agenda is also not new in American history. During World War II the US government interned Japanese Americans and spied on German Americans. During John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign, his opponents portrayed a dire future for an America with a Catholic president. We now view these events of our past as a breach of our treasured American values.
In perhaps the most powerful episode of the hearings so far, Rep. Ellison was moved to tears recounting the story of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a 23-year-old first responder and New York City police cadet who died after rushing to help people trapped in the World Trade Center. Rep. Ellison explains how Hamdani's reputation was later smeared due to his faith.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca also spoke before the Committee today, and deftly exposed many of the dishonest, immoral assumptions underlying the 'logic' of the hearings. Sheriff Baca, who is the only law enforcement official called to speak today, explained how the hearings presume that some religious groups (Muslims) are more prone to radicalization than others, when violent extremism is in fact on the rise among "people of all religious backgrounds and all kinds of faiths." Sheriff Baca also cited figures demonstrating that domestic Muslim communities have actively assisted in thwarting 7 of the last 10 al-Qaeda-linked plots targeting the United States or its interests abroad, and called the question of whether or not American Muslims are willing to collaborate with law enforcement officials an "established fact."

And as one final point of fact, what does it say about hearings ostensibly focused on the willingness of Muslim Americans to cooperate with law enforcement officials that only calls one law enforcement official to testify, and one who was added to the panel by Democratic lawmakers at that?