TheReligiousLeft.org

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Post-Catholic Yogi

By Matthew Remski
Originally Posted on the yoga 2.0 blog
 
I became Catholic again, for a single day.

It was spring: there were new buds and a tender sun. I was lonely for youth and family, and especially singing. It was Sunday morning. I biked to Thomas Aquinas Chapel at the University of Toronto with dew on my fenders. I had made first communion there, 33 years gone by. I didn’t know I was about to make second communion that morning.

The choir members are in their early 20s. Babies sing along, or fuss. Little girls shine like pennies in Sunday dresses. Boys pull on sleeves and ask where the priest lives. The hymnbook smells like 1922. I run my hand along a groove in the pew and the wax of an earlier time curls up under my fingernail while the sun pours through rippling leaded glass. An ecstasy grows: of childhood memory,the softest kind, pictures and bodily sensations that echo in a primal womb. I don’t find this space anywhere else. A quiet rapture in the warmth of worn stone and the ambient swell of collective breath. I open, finally, once again, to the openness of children, who watch, and listen, and let the spectacle of life flow in.

As churches go, it’s a good church – social action, thinking people, cultural diversity, folks with hopeful projects. An old Victorian rectory that feels like a union hall cluttered with strollers, a grand piano beside the altar, Jesuits who read Tagore. The chapel is a well-cooked masala of catholic communalism, incense, and old percolators with nasty coffee made palatable by lots of donuts.

It had me that morning. The damn church had me so melted that I could forgive the psychotic Old Testament reading and the goofy homily that tried to whitewash it. I shook hands with an ancient man beside me, and played with the toy truck of my 4-year-old seat-mate on the other side. I took communion (first wafer in 25 years?), shivering at Jesus’ line: This is my body. Yes: this is my body: this bread, these people, this human condition. I couldn’t sing at communion because yearning was a star in my throat.

But what happened after communion sealed the deal. A woman took the podium to give housekeeping announcements for the parish. Mondays: a mentorship programme. Tuesdays: blanket drive for the homeless. Wednesdays: AA meeting. Thursdays: bereavement support group. Friday: teen dance. Saturday: Tiny Shrouds Society.

I turned to the old man. “Tiny Shrouds?”

He had watery eyes of crystal. Underweight, and a quiver in his right hand. He whispered “A few of the gals get together and knit little shrouds for the babies that die every week in the maternity wards.”

That did it: I lost it. Was this the church I’d left so many years ago in a storm of disillusionment and cynicism? A place with such implicit kindness, such organized empathy? And what had I replaced it with? A solitary, counter-cultural path. Sure – I’d developed my breath, my internal observer, powers of inquiry. But now I should probably get in line for the Tuesday blanket, because yoga had made me homeless. Where were the studio food drives? Who was knitting the shrouds? Where was the yoga studio that sat in the middle of this dirty and vibrant life and facilitated all of its movements?

But this is harsh. Yoga is an adolescent in our culture, driving forward on the heady fumes of disillusionment, wanting more than the known patterns, more than what we’re programmed to expect. It wants self-expression and constant redefinition. Young and dumb and full of possibility, yoga’s also looking in the mirror, wondering how it looks. Yoga’s just getting started here, and we do wish it well.

You can’t ask a teenager to suddenly manifest a social service network that the churches have been mothering for generations. The churches have paid their mortgages through centuries of focused intention and issue-driven tithing. (And land-stealing, feudalism, colonial oppression, and church-state power collusion… but don’t get me started.) We can’t expect yogis to run soup kitchens when we’re still making our rent. And as long as there are churches that cover the market in binding people to this love that transcends dogma because it acts, studios will offer a much thinner soup: classes, self-help tools, self-discovery adventures. It may be another generation before the patina of real community starts to glow.

I wonder. Will our yoga studios ever run with children and the tears of alcoholics? Will we tithe ourselves? Will we take all of this self-work and turn it inside out, and show our communities that we have as much food as wisdom, as much politics as peace, as much home as om?

Will we be ready to take over these well-worn catholic buildings when the last clerics fall in disgrace? When the last shreds of moral hypocrisy and intellectual bankruptcy rupture the last congregations, will we rejuvenate their networks with a more functional vision of human relationship and ecology? Can we create leadership based on introspection? Will we buy up dilapidated churches for pennies on the dollar during the next crash and put them in collective trust? If we did, could we finally shake up this alienating commercial model through which we’ve been propagating our yoga?

Will we be up to the task?

But enough about the big picture – let’s get back to me. The morning brought up so much more than the disparity between how yoga and catholic cultures are able to serve baseline human needs. It made me look at the mystery of who I think I am, and how free I feel to meld my various worlds and layers of personal history.

I’m sure I can’t be catholic for more than a day every few years: this rare emotional regression can never withstand the ethical outrage which even now simmers in my gut. For after all, the religious corporation is still what it is: an authoritarian and uncommunicative bureaucracy of conservatism and fear that resists progressive change at every turn, dressed up in a theology as emotionally punitive as it is intellectually absurd. But what a paradoxical life this is! I fell in love that morning with the milk of human kindness, which somehow continues to flow from an abattoir. And how humbling the thought that senseless dogmas and power structures cannot destroy the will to love.

Clearly, I’ve got to bring what I value from this gloriously broken thing into my studio, into my practice. Yoga practitioners can’t let the state-theological complex corner the market on community service. Churches are crashing and social welfare is shredding: we’ll have to do it ourselves.

The morning was moving and strange, and left me disarmed. Now I can see that my feelings were splintered, amplified and scrambled by my own internal conflicts about identity and allegiance, and the scars of conversion. Do I still belong to this group? When I rejected it, did it reject me? How can I feel such warmth and such isolation at the same time? Isn’t this what we ask ourselves about our very families?

A radiant confusion was deepened and perhaps soured by an immature attitude: to think I switched spiritualities at 16, and left all the rest behind. To think that belief is like citizenship that admits me to one country but bars me from others. To think that a guru can give me a new name and erase the shit and love of my past. To think that because that middle-aged celibate priest doesn’t understand the relationships between the body and ecology, between intimacy and integrity, he is my enemy. After all, he seems to know how to host human beings with more grace and manners than I seem to possess.

I never really converted, I suppose – to Buddhism, yoga, or anything. Perhaps maturity shows that conversion is a shell-game that hides your real continuity. Maturity shows that the catholic incense of my past will waft through my yoga studio for years: how could it be otherwise? Maturity organizes things according to usefulness, instead of identity. Useful: pleasure, community, service, jocularity, inter-generational mentoring, learning, networking, canoeing. Not so useful: priestly hierarchy, metaphysics, vowed celibacy, red robes and silly hats, disembodied ritual that no-one really feels.

I have to take the useful wherever it comes. Maybe I’ll knit tiny shrouds after asana class.

I don’t have to complicate what needs to be done with questions of who I am. I’m sure I’ll never know.

Matthew Remski is an authoryoga and ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. With Scott Petrie he is co-creator of yoga 2.0, a writing and community-building project.

yoga 2.0: shamanic echoesis now available for kindle and other e-readers. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Dana Wiki: Helping Buddhist Organizations Get Involved in Social Service

Dana Wiki's logBy Joshua Eaton

Three years ago I started Dana Wiki, a website to help Buddhist organizations get involved in social service. On Dana Wiki, you can learn how to start and lead a small volunteer group in your Buddhist center or meditation group; get information on different types of social service; read Buddhist reflections on social service; learn about Buddhist teachers and organizations that are involved in social service; and find places to volunteer. The best part is that Dana Wiki is a wiki, which means that anyone, anywhere can contribute to and edit it.

Back in November I did an interview about Dana Wiki and American Buddhism in general with Rev. Danny Fisher for Shambhala SunSpace,Dana Wiki and the Future of American Buddhism: Danny Fisher interviews Joshua Eaton.”

I hope that Dana Wiki will become a hub where Buddhists involved in social service can share what’s working for them, get help with what isn’t, find material for Buddhist reflections on service, and connect with others. I also hope it will be a place where we can learn from religious traditions with a longer history in America about how to do more effective service work. Please join us!

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, http://www.JoshuaEaton.net.

Monday, June 27, 2011

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

Originally Posted on 1/4/11

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. Voilà. 


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.

Friday, June 24, 2011

We Are Daniel

By Caryn D. Riswold
June 22, 2011

Our seven female college students from Illinois perched in plastic lawn chairs under an old awning in a freshly painted bright green courtyard, interspersed with just about as many members of Tejalpa’s Base Christian Community (BCC).  The text for the regular weekly meeting was Daniel 13, the story of Susanna. 
Earlier in the day, we had been served an amazing comida, the mid day meal, at the home of the woman who founded the liberation theology community here on the outskirts of Cuernavaca, Mexico, many years earlier.  She told us stories from her life:  How she demanded an education as a young mother, how she came to consciousness as a feminist activist while trying to extricate herself from a bad marriage, and how it was that she had gone on from this place to advocate for poor women in Nicaragua and to represent her community at a meeting for peace in the former Yugoslavia.  She served us mezcal that had been made by her partner and sold us jewelry and scarves that had made by members of her family.  It was just another day of a BreakAway studying Gender and Social Change in Mexico that my colleague and I were leading.
Carlos Mesters describes three key elements that shape a BCC meeting:  the community (con-text), the reality (pre-text), and the Bible (text).[1]  Additionally, BCC’s typically conclude with planning for action based on the day’s reflections.  In Tejalpa, after a brief opening activity designed to create community, we listened as participants discussed what they saw going on in the community around them.  One woman talked at length about the increase of violence in Mexico, even here in their local community.  She spoke of the way that society was actually decomposing around them.  Another spoke of regional and national politics with a strikingly informed passion.  Still another mentioned the march for peace that was going from Cuernavaca all the way to Ciudad Juarez, one of the flashpoints for the most dramatic violence in Mexico at the moment.
The image of social decomposition stayed with me.  Here we sat in our plastic chairs, on the cool tile floor, with walls stretching to protect us, and society was decomposing all around.  Everyone with whom my small-town students spoke to about this trip before we left was alarmed that we were going to Mexico.  Comments like “It’s so dangerous!”  and “They kidnap people there, you know!” or “Isn’t that where they hang bodies from bridges?” had become commonplace conversation whenever talking with family and friends.
And now here we were in a calm courtyard on a warm and breezy Tuesday afternoon.  Social decomposition doesn’t make the international news, but it was a far more powerful a reality than any gang violence.  What would our students think of this?  Did they see what these people saw?  Would they remember this when they got back home to their comfortable “first world” privileges?
After seeing and naming our collective reality, we moved on to hearing the text.  Read first in Spanish, and then in English, we engaged the full story of Susanna.  A woman stalked by predator men in power, falsely accused and not believed by anyone, she nevertheless continued to speak out in defense of herself.  One point of the text is that the only one who heard her was God.  And, the one who was able to engineer her acquittal was our hero, Daniel.
The text not only spoke to the reality that the women and men in Tejalpa saw, it became for me a model to help our young white Midwestern college women understand their work after this two week trip was over.  My feminist sensibility was initially irritated by the fact that in the text, no one paid attention to the woman.  It had to be a man who saved her.  Typical.
But wait.  Who are we Midwesterners in this story when we sit in Tejalpa?  We are not Susanna.  We are Daniel.  Not the facile “Daniel as hero,” but Daniel as the one to whom society afforded privileges that he had not necessarily earned.  Daniel as the one who used his intellect to ask the right questions and elicit the truth from the corrupt men in power.  Daniel as the one who listened.  Listened to God.  Listened to Susanna.
As we closed the BCC meeting, each of us was asked to offer a word that might contribute to our collective prayer.  My word was Listen.  Now that I am back safely ensconced in my air conditioned Midwestern home, it is time to move to the important action component of the BCC model, I offer a new word.  Speak. 
Because we saw how widespread poverty is doing far greater damage to the people of Mexico than the drug cartels, we listened to the members of the BCC talk about social decomposition.  We listened to the seamstress who told us how hard it is to get a visa to come to the U.S., and how her mother urged her not to migrate as she herself had.  We listened to the economist who showed us how NAFTA has done nothing good for Mexico and brought great harm to the labor class in the United States.  We listened to the NGO director when she explained how they are doing sustainable development work in a radically impoverished indigenous village.  We listened to the Nahua shaman lament the loss of his people’s traditions and how he worked to reintroduce them to their spiritual heritage.
Now we are called to speak and to act.  Speak about how the U.S.-Mexico relationship resembles that of an abuser and his dangerously dependent victim.  Speak about our ignorance and complicity.  Speak about the social impact of economic policies, and how, as the economist described it, “when the U.S. sneezes, Mexico gets pneumonia.”  Speak about the dehumanization inherent in calling anyone an “alien.”  Ask questions, pay attention to politics, look for any hidden agendas behind decisions made by the corporate class.
As I read our students’ final reflection papers after returning from the experience, I see the kinds of actions some feel called to take:  One seeing poverty in her own backyard and donating goods to the shelter in that community, another wanting to spearhead fundraising to help the NGO supply stoves to the impoverished indigenous village, still another trying to simply speak out when friends and family make misinformed comment on international economic policy.
It also seems to me that progressive Christians in the U.S. would do well to learn and practice the type of engagement with sacred texts that Base Christian Communities have been modeling for decades:  Establish community.  Look at reality.  Engage the text.  Take action.  This would contribute much to dethroning the stranglehold that the conservative right has on religious political discourse. 
If we do not, then there will be no one to work for justice on behalf of those to whom no one else listens.
Caryn D. Riswold, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Religion and chair of Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she spends most of her time working with undergraduate students who are learning to find their place in the global community.  Her most recent book is Feminism and Christianity: Questions and Answers in the Third Wave.  You can follow her on twitter @feminismxianity.

The experience described here took place in May 2011 as part of an Illinois College travel seminar hosted by Augsburg College's Center for Global Education.

[1] Carlos Mesters, “The Use of the Bible in Christian Communities of the Common People” (1981), in Liberation Theology: A Documentary History. Edited by Alfred T. Hennelly. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1990. 14-28.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

National Organization for Marriage Admits Flawed Methodology, Fails to Justify It

By Nick Sementelli
Cross-posted from Faith in Public Life

In the final days before the New York State Senate vote on expanding marriage rights to same-sex couples, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) released a "flash survey" claiming to show that 57% of New Yorkers think "marriage should only be between a man and a woman."

As Dan explained last week, this poll makes the same mistake as the Alliance Defense Fund's recent poll on marriage which asked about opinions on the definition of marriage rather than the more relevant issue of legality.

But that's not the only problem with this poll. As others have already noted, its sample size is tiny (302 people out of a state population of 19.3 million), and its respondents aren't very representative of the state population, skewing older, more conservative, and more likely to be married (all demographic indicators of lower support for same-sex marriage).

Attempting to respond to the criticism, NOM took to its blog to justify its flawed methodology. Admitting the poll's sample is skewed, they rationalized that their findings should still be taken seriously because their sample matches the age demographics of nationwide voters in the 2010 mid-term elections.

NOM doesn't explain why they think a nationwide demographic is applicable to a New York-specific issue, especially when the state's demographic turnout in the 2010 mid-term elections wasn't as conservative as the nationwide average. New York exit polls showed that 28% of New York voters self-identified as liberal and 32% identified as conservative. In the nationwide House exit poll, 20% self-id'ed as liberal and 42% identified as conservative.

And, as an off-year election in a Republican wave year, the 2010 voter pool is not a very good predictor of future election demographics, particularly for the next election New York legislators will face in 2012 with an incumbent Democratic president back on the ticket in a reliably blue state.

Of course, all this raises two important points:
  1. If NOM wants elected leaders to truly act in the best interest of all New Yorkers, shouldn't they base their argument on something other than a tiny, unrepresentative sample of voters? NOM's suggestion that this skewed sample's opinions constitute a compelling argument shows that they're appealing to political calculation rather than moral principles.
  2. If NOM does want to make a purely political argument for state senators to vote against the marriage bill, they're not giving very good political advice, given that their skewed sample doesn't map onto the New York landscape very well and has questionable relevance going into the 2012 election.
As New York senators decide how to vote on this bill, it's pretty clear they should ignore this poll.

Nick blogs on religion and politics at Faith in Public Life.

Is PZ Myers a Hypocrite or an Anarchist?

By Be Scofield
Cross-posted from Tikkun Daily, June 22, 2011

Prominent atheist and scientist PZ Myers has written a rebuttal called “Myth-bustin’ bad arguments about atheism” to my article “5 Myths Atheists Believe About Religion.” I respond to his criticism below but I must say it seems he largely misunderstood the points I was making. I’m not saying this just to try and prime my audience, but I found myself mostly answering to claims that I’ve never made.

I do appreciate the discussion and hope that it spurs healthy debate. We need more dialogue and engagement with these very important issues. His comments are in blue.

Liberal and Moderate Religion Justifies Religious Extremism. Scofield has completely missed the point. Liberal religion isn’t blamed for promoting illiberalism, it’s guilty of promoting religion. Nobody is arguing that the antithesis is responsible for the thesis, but that liberal religion and extremist religion hold something in common: the abdication of reason in favor of faith. They are both philosophies that undermine critical thinking. And without that safeguard of demanding reasonable evidence for propositions, they’re left vulnerable to bad ideas.

PZ Myers proves my point exactly and simultaneously points out his own hypocrisy.

Liberal and extremist forms of government also share many of the same harmful common foundations: the use of propaganda, social control, loss of self identity for the country (nationalism), stifling of critical thinking, faith in leaders, manipulation…etc. When these are taken to the extremes the results are horrific. For militant anarchists the answer is clear: ALL government is the problem because moderate government is an “open invitation to extremism.” They BOTH share the same problem – government and the things that go along with it. Unless Myers also believes the same is true for government then he is already able to make the meaningful distinctions that I’m asking him to make about religion. Whatever the reasons that Myers might give for seeing gradations and variations in government without denouncing it entirely, (despite the presence of shared harmful and irrational elements in both its liberal and extremist forms that can lead to very dangerous outcomes) I am asking him to make the same types of distinctions in regards to religion. If he can do it in relation to government he can do it in relation to religion. Otherwise he needs to explain why religion should be singled out to be denounced entirely when many of the same extremely irrational and problematic conditions (faith in the state/leaders and stifling of free/critical thinking) have existed in government. Why doesn’t tolerant and democratic government receive the same blame that liberal religion does when they both share harmful elements of their extremist counterparts? If a shared common foundation of things that stifle critical thinking is the reasoning for denouncing an entire category then it must apply to government. 

And secondly not all liberal religion stifles reason and chooses faith, nor does all liberal religion undermine critical thinking. Therefore the premise of his logic above is flawed as there are liberal religious expressions which don’t share the things in common he stated with extremist religion. But certainly there is much liberal/moderate religion that does share the same disregard for belief and stifling of critical thinking that the more extremist forms do.

Religion Requires a Belief in a Supernatural God. This is a familiar and contemptible dodge, pure and simple. Let us pretend all atheists believe all religious people are Pat Robertson; therefore, when we mention someone who is not Pat Robertson, the atheists are routed! Huzzah!..So what about Pat Robertson? And Tony Perkins? And John Boehner? And the local Catholic priest? Are these not religious people? This pretense that criticism of religious gullibility can be dealt with by a tactical denial of the reality of religious belief is absurd and dishonest. If those believers really did just consider their god a metaphor for the natural world, we wouldn’t be having a problem here, now would we?

Either religion requires a belief in the supernatural or it doesn’t. The evidence is overwhelming that there are numerous religious expressions which don’t carry supernatural beliefs. Thus, having supernatural beliefs is not required to be in the category of religion. It’s as simple as that. I’ve never claimed that any of those people aren’t religious. I’m merely claiming that both groups are religious.

Myers is completely confusing the issue here. By some twisted logic he thinks that my merely pointing out the existence of non-supernatural religions is somehow trying to give cover for all of the unreasonable and fundamentalist aspects of religion. This is Myers logic: Be states religion includes people who don’t believe in the supernatural –> Thus he believes religious fundamentalism and irrationality is justified. This is what Myers is claiming that I’m saying. It is patently false.

You can be a tolerant, liberal, generous, kind-hearted Christian who rejects fundamentalism, and that does not grant your goofier beliefs protection from criticism.

I never claimed anyone’s belief should be protected from criticism. It’s astonishing how easily PZ Myers can manufacture things.

I’m merely trying to point out that there are millions of people who deny the supernatural and god but yet worship in religious services, use sacred texts, practice in community and find support and meaning in life. Religion includes both Pat Robertson and my atheist friend who is in seminary studying to be a minister and religious leader. That’s all I’m asking be recognized. This is simply an undeniable fact. Myers obviously still has a problem with religious people who consider God a metaphor for the natural world because he is completely unwilling to acknowledge them for what they are.

FYI: Hitchens might disagree with Meyers on what would allow an atheist to not have a problem about religion. In my recent post “Is Christopher Hitchens a Religious Apologist?” he claims that he could be indifferent to all of the weird exhorations in the Koran as long as a religious person behaved kindly. I then used a quote from Greta Christina saying how problematic Hitchens’s line of thinking is.

Religion Causes Bad Behavior. Scofield’s evidence for this is the claim that atheists like to list evils done in the name of faith or by the failthful and then denounce religion as the cause. Strangely, he then cites Hitchens explaining that religion is only a reinforcer of a very human tribalism that is the actual root cause. So apparently this isn’t a myth held by atheists. How strange then to say it is!

Hitchens has also argued against his own position above. If I had more room I would have included it, but the piece was already long. He stated, “[Religion] has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.” His arguments that religion does cause bad behavior closely represent what I have seen from other atheists and really make up the thrust of his work. I pointed out his double standard in a post called “Does Religion Cause Bad Behavior? Hitchens Can’t Decide.”

Atheists are Anti-Religious. In this “myth”, Scofield lectures atheists on what atheism really means. He decides that he, not Greta Christina who wrote that “Atheists, by definition, don’t think any religion has any reasonable likelihood of being true”, is the privileged arbiter of the definition of atheism. And to back that up, he cites a personal friend at seminary who says he is an atheist but thinks that “religion has a lot to offer.” Argument by confused and inconsistent buddy is not very persuasive. I think I’ll trust the ideas of prominent atheists over that of a pair of incoherent seminarians who want to apologize for religion.

I never lectured “atheists on what atheism really means.” My only statements that had anything to do with the meaning of atheism stuck to the definition that is widely accepted. Atheism is lack of a belief in gods. Is there any debate about this definition? Seriously? When someone claims atheism is something other than this like Christina did by saying atheism was belief about religion then it violates the definition. It’s pretty simple actually.

For some odd reason Myers believes that I think I’m the “privileged arbiter of the definition of atheism,” because I included a quote from an atheist who supports religion and is religious herself. But including her voice had nothing to do with my definition of atheism as atheism is again a lack of belief in gods. Rather I included her voice to illustrate merely that atheists can be religious and support religion.

The point of describing the evils isn’t to claim religion is the exclusive cause, but to show that a primary claim, that it encourages greater morality, is patently and empirically false.

I’ve challenged the idea that the religious are morally superior. See my post “We’re All Born Atheists: A Religious Person Defends Atheism.”

Atheists will not accept the widely held beliefs of the religious that there is a supernatural, personal force influencing their lives. We will not accept faith as a substitute for evidence in any way. We will not pretend that your beliefs in magical forces or unseen involved entities is in any way rational or supported by science.

Uh, ok. Cool. I never suggested that anyone do any of the above. Again, Myers is coming out of left field with his claims. He thinks that because I’m arguing for a more nuanced definition of religion that I’m asking atheists to accept faith claims. I’m only suggesting that if most Americans support U.S. Wars then don’t claim all Americans do. If most men are sexist don’t claim all men are sexist…etc. If most religions contain supernatural beliefs then don’t claim all of them do. It’s very simple. Plus I don’t believe in “magical forces.”

All Religions are the Same and are “Equally Crazy”. To Scofield, all atheists equate Martin Luther King with Osama Bin Laden, and see no difference at all between different religions.

Many atheists treat the religion of Dr. King and the religion of Osama Bin Laden equally. If Greta Christina were to claim all government crazy as she did with religion, what meaningful distinctions or qualifications would there be between Costa Rica vs. Stalin? All government is crazy – no exceptions. This flattens all governments into one category…crazy. Myers doesn’t say that some religions have some flaws and others are crazy. Nope. The same negative word (crazy) is applied equally to Dr. King and Bin Laden. This is what many (not all) atheists do. PZ Myers himself claims that all religion is crazy. Therefore he flattens Dr. King and Bin Laden into one category…crazy religion. If all of one thing is crazy and therefore dismissed it is hard to convince me that the person is actually interested in understanding the variations among them. Again, as I mention in my first point, PZ Myers doesn’t call all government crazy despite the presence of disturbing elements such as propaganda, control, manipulation. Thus he is already demonstrating the ability to not call all of something crazy merely because of some elements that are. All I’m asking is for Myers to apply his same thinking about government to religion.

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.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

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 500-2,500 words, and a bio of up to three sentences. We are looking for full-length articles, reflections, book reviews, sermons, etc. In an effort to simultaneously broaden and deepen the convrsaiton, we ask guest authors to engage their particular interests and passions through the lens of their own traditions.
  • When: Ever.
  • Why: Because we understand our commitment to progressive politics to be inextricably bound from the ways in which we think about questions of belief and practice, and we refuse to cede the public debate about religion in this country  to those who would appeal to religion 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. Please indicate time-sensitive submissions to ensure that they post as soon as possible.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

5 Myths Atheists Believe About Religion

By Be Scofield
Cross-posted from Tikkun Daily, June 17 2011

Despite their emphasis on reason, evidence and a desire to see through false truth claims, many atheists hold surprisingly ill-informed beliefs about religion. Many of these myths go unquestioned simply because they serve the purpose of discrediting religion at large. They allow for the construction of a straw man i.e. a distorted and simplistic representation of religion which can be easily attacked, summarily dismissed and ridiculed. Others who genuinely believe these false claims merely have a limited understanding of the ideas involved and have never thoroughly examined them. But, myths are myths and they should be acknowledged for what they are.

I’m not saying that atheists aren’t knowledgeable when it comes to religion. To the contrary, atheists in general know more about the particularities of religion than most religious people do. A recent study confirmed it. I have no doubt that they can rattle off all of the myths, falsities, fanciful claims, dangerous ideas and barbarous actions committed by the religious. It makes sense as a targeted group will generally know more about the dominant group than the other way around. But of course simply knowing more than other religious people about their traditions doesn’t preclude holding to false beliefs of their own.

There are certainly more than five myths about religion that are perpetuated by some atheists (and in some cases the religious). However, I’ve chosen what I feel to be the most significant false claims made by atheists to help provide a more accurate understanding of religion and to pave the groundwork for dialogue between these seemingly two opposing groups.

Now, let’s examine these myths.

5. Liberal and Moderate Religion Justifies Religious Extremism

While this often repeated claim seems logical at first glance, upon examination it is nothing more than another simplistic idea that provides a feel good rallying cry for those who want to denounce religion in its entirety.

Sam Harris states that moderates are “in large part responsible for the religious conflict in our world” and “religious tolerance–born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God–is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.” And Richard Dawkins states, “The teachings of ‘moderate’ religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism.” Christopher Hitchens has called liberation theology “sinister nonsense” and compared the liberal Unitarian tradition to rats and vermin.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it leads to some unwanted logical conclusions when applied equally to other ideas. It is hypocritical to selectively apply the principle where it suits one’s needs but not elsewhere.

We can ask whether or not all liberal and moderate expressions of something are responsible for their most extreme forms. Are the people who casually smoke marijuana in any way responsible for the death of someone involved in a violent heroin drug trade? Is a social drinker of alcohol creating the environment that leads to alcoholism? Should they be shunned for supporting conditions that cause tens of thousands of alcohol-related unwanted deaths? Is a pediatrician responsible for Nazi medical experiments simply because he or she participates in the field of medicine? How about politics? Is a liberal democracy responsible for forms of government such as totalitarianism or fascism? Is a very progressive Democrat like Dennis Kucinich responsible for George Bush’s torture policies because he merely participates in the U.S. political system? If so, it means that one’s participation in a political system should be blamed for the worst crimes of any government leader.

I could list example after example, but to state my point simply, the more rational and tolerant uses of science, religion, medicine or government cannot be blamed for the destructive and harmful uses of them.

4. Religion Requires a Belief in a Supernatural God

This claim, expressed by Christopher Hitchens as “to be religious is to be a theist” seems to be a difficult myth for some atheists to abandon. Many seem content with this intellectually inaccurate definition of religion. However, if you open any “Religion 101″ textbook you will find a variety of traditions that don’t require belief in any god, miracles or supernatural entities including Taoism, Jainism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Unitarian Universalism doesn’t require belief in any divinity either. And of course there are non-theists such as deists, pantheists and panentheists who are practicing members of Christianity, Judaism and Islam as well as other progressive traditions. There are many Christians who don’t literally believe the stories of the Bible. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of them. Thomas Jefferson, as well as other “founding fathers” are prominent examples of deists within American history. Jefferson created his own Bible in which he removed all references to miracles and supernatural claims. But yet he was still religious. He stated,
“The whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills. –Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, January 24, 1814
Others simply describe God as the natural order, the healing and renewing power of existence or the creative principle in life. Yet, despite all of these non-supernatural God forms many still attend religious services, draw inspiration from sacred texts and enjoy the benefits of a spiritual community.
I understand why anti-religious atheists are so reluctant to accept the fact that being religious doesn’t mean belief in the supernatural. The simplistic and convenient myth they’ve constructed would be shattered. It would be much harder to attack religion as it would mean a more sophisticated and refined critique, one that would be more difficult to arouse the passions of dogmatic religion haters.

3. Religion Causes Bad Behavior

A common way for atheists to denounce religion is to simply list all of the horrors that have been done in the name of religion and then say, “Look how awful religion is!” Religion becomes synonymous with all of the bad things done by religious people. But is religion the cause of bad behavior or simply a mitigating factor? Christopher Hitchens provides some surprising insight: “What’s innate in our species isn’t the fault of religion. But the bad things that are innate in our species are strengthened by religion and sanctified by it… So religion is a very powerful re-enforcer of our backward, clannish, tribal element. But you can’t say it’s the cause of it. To the contrary, it’s the product of it.” Amen! Hitchens says that religion is not the cause of bad behavior! Many of us religious progressives have been making this point for a long time. Of course religion is also a very powerful re-enforcer of our most beautiful, inspiring and profound aspects as well. It can inspire the best and worst in us.

This point is very important because it focuses the attention on the real source of bad behavior which is human nature, not religion. Understanding this is important when defending against attempts to dismiss religion because of the bad things done in its name. Certainly, religion plays a role in conflicts but it is just one factor among many such as ideological, political and sociological ones. If religion were the cause of bad behavior getting rid of it would simply make all divisiveness and conflict disappear. But of course this would not be the case. And, if religion were to be eliminated other forms of associations with the same group dynamics and dangers would arise.

Religion is like a knife which can be used by a surgeon to save lives or as a dagger to kill someone.

2. Atheists are Anti-Religious

This false belief stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what atheism and religion are. Atheism is not in any way shape or form related to an opinion about religion. It is simply the assertion that god does not exist, nothing more and nothing less. Religion is a broad category that encompasses traditions which include supernatural belief and those that do not. And, as I’ve already stated there are many atheists who are already religious practitioners.

Despite atheism being quite a straightforward concept, many continually misrepresent what it means. A prominent example comes from the atheist writer Greta Christina. She recently stated, “Atheists, by definition, don’t think any religion has any reasonable likelihood of being true.” Wrong. Atheists by definition assert that god does not exist. Besides, what does it mean for a religion to be true or not true when a religion doesn’t require any supernatural belief? Again, being an atheist has nothing to do with ones position on religion. A fellow atheist seminarian friend of mine at Starr King School for the Ministry clearly demonstrates this point:
First, I think there is a difference between being an atheist and being anti-religious. They are orthogonal. There is also a difference between being anti-religious and being opposed to the effects of particular religious traditions. These terms should not be conflated. Since when did not believing in God mean that you are opposed to other people believing in God and or practicing religion regardless of whether they believe? I am an atheist. Just to be clear, by that I mean I don’t believe that there is a god, a higher consciousness, or a spirit. I am also opposed to the effects of certain religious traditions. But I am not by any means anti-religious. I don’t deny the value that religion or religious practice, (whether actual belief in god and the afterlife, or simply liking the pretty candles at mass and multiple opportunities for community) brings to people including myself. Religion has a lot to offer and to deny that is to deny the complexity of the human condition.
The concept of an atheist who practices religion is hard to swallow for many. Yet, the simple facts reveal millions of people who practice religion and are simultaneously atheists.

Elsewhere there are examples of atheists and agnostics who support and work in relation to religion. Bruce Sheiman, author of “An Atheist Defends Religion,” has done great work on the subject. Chris Stedman of NonProphet Status is an atheist who has worked with Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core and is now the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard. In fact, the silent majority of atheists are not militant, but because of popular anti-religious voices like Christopher Hitchens atheism becomes associated with the most stridently militant.

1. All Religions are the Same and are “Equally Crazy”

Many atheists often claim that they are wrongly accused of not understanding the differences between religions. “Of course we do!” I’ve heard them say. But yet this is meaningless unless they are willing to treat these differences differently. Case and point is the latest article from Greta Christina where she asks, “Are All Religions Equally Crazy?” and answers a resounding, Yes. She describes a number of strange Mormon beliefs and practices, but then realizes that other religions aren’t any better. If her point was to illustrate that some religions have strange beliefs, she succeeded. She concludes,
But all religions are out of touch with reality. All religions are implausible, based on cognitive biases, and unsupported by any good evidence whatsoever. All of them ultimately rely on faith — i.e., an irrational attachment to a pre-existing idea regardless of any evidence that contradicts it — as the core foundation of their belief. All of them contort, ignore, or deny reality in order to maintain their attachment to their faith.
This conclusion is simply false. Her reasoning sweeps up all religious expressions including those which aren’t reliant upon any supernatural beliefs, miracles or magical claims. For example, by using the term “all religions” she conflates a church attending atheist Unitarian Universalist with a Bible believing, homophobic theist. The venerable Vietnamese Buddhist religious leader Thich Nhat Hanh becomes synonymous with Pat Robertson simply because they are both religious leaders. Dr. King is in the same category as Osama Bin Laden. Deists are conflated with theists. Those who reject literal religious claims are placed in the same category who believe snakes talked in the Bible. Christina leaves no room for religious people who are tolerant, non-believers or those who view religion metaphorically. Writing an article that concludes all religions are equally crazy is like saying that all Americans are nationalists and imperialists and then pointing to the part of the population that supports U.S. wars.

Where is the evidence that many of these atheists can make any meaningful distinctions between religions? It’s one thing to make the claim but where is the recognition of humanistic, non-literal and progressive religious traditions? Hitchens calls Unitarianism rats and vermin. Christina calls all religions equally crazy. Dawkins says the teachings of moderate religion lead to extremism. Harris claims that moderates are responsible for much of the conflict in the world. If there were any serious attempts to show they know the difference between religions, these leaders in the movement would have exhibited it by now. But time and time again all we get from these prominent atheists something akin to “all religions are equally crazy.”

I think we can move beyond the religion = crazy/atheism = dangerous dichotomy that so dominates our day. To do so we must honestly examine the myths and misunderstandings of both positions. Genuine dialogue between the religious and non-religious is possible. We are better at finding points of agreement politically, socially and ideologically and seeking common ground to organize around. We certainly won’t agree on everything, but in the end all parties should leave more knowledgeable and better prepared to deal with the way religion impacts our everyday lives and the global sphere.

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.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Islamophobia Not Up for Debate in GOP Primary Face-Off

As the field heats up for the 2012 GOP primary race, Herman Cain has doubled (or by now it might be more like tripled or quadrupled) down on his previous claims of being "uncomfortable" at the thought of appointing a Muslim to his administration or to a position as a federal judge. During Monday night's debate, which also featured presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and Michelle Bachman, Cain was pressed on his past comments regarding the appointment of Muslim officials, and offered the following by way of response:


In all fairness, Cain's willingness to express some positive sentiments about American Muslims places him half a rung up the ladder from the worst of conservative Islamophobes. Instead of a monolithic conception of American Muslims as as blood-thirsty, Shariah-creeping sleeper terrorists (I'm looking at you Frank Gaffney), Cain instead promotes a relatively complex, binary theory of American Islam: "You have peaceful Muslims, and then you have militant Muslims, those that are trying to kill us." As Cain explained, in his previous comments he was referring only to those Muslims in this latter category, and who can blame Cain for feeling uncomfortable at the thought of being forced to name an imaginary, otherwise-qualified Muslim candidate bent on Cain's murder to his cabinet?

What is important here is that Cain is obviously backpedaling. Whether he is concerned about the Constitutionality of explicitly freezing Muslims out of public office or whether he is simply trying to garner that small but vital block of PC conservative Islamophobes, Cain's harping on the distinction between his own personal discomfort over hiring Muslims and a flat-out refusal to hire Muslims does constitute a modest roll-back of his posture over the last few months.

Yet despite the fact that all federally appointed officials are required to swear an oath to uphold the Constitution (which, remember, Cain considers to be diametrically opposed to the evils of Shariah law), Cain's concerns cannot be sufficiently assuaged to allow him to feel comfortable in appointing a Muslim-American to office. What if that appointee had their fingers crossed when they took the oath to support the Constitution? Might not the new Muslim appointee still be secretly attempting to promote the creep of Shariah law? And why is it that Shariah is always creeping, anyway?

No, the risk is simply too great, as Newt Gingrich interrupted John King to point out. After Romney responded to Cain's fears over Shariah law with a lukewarm but nevertheless reasonable-sounding endorsement of religious tolerance. Not to be outdone by Cain, and likely sensing an opportunity to stick one to Romney for being soft on Shariah, Gingrich explained his position on this non-issue as follows:
“Now, I just want to go out on a limb here...I'm in favor of saying to people, 'If you're not prepared to be loyal to the United States, you will not serve in my administration, period.
We did this in dealing with the Nazis and we did this in dealing with the communists. And it was controversial both times, and both times we discovered after a while, there are some genuinely bad people who would like to infiltrate our country. And we have got to have the guts to stand up and say no.”
Now, Newt has never been one for subtlety, but lumping American Muslims in with Nazis and Soviet spies strikes me as beyond disingenuous, and approaching downright dangerous. Think for a moment about the implications of this grouping. This is the pantheon of legendary baddies, the perpetual Enemies of the US of A, the very antitheses of what many consider this country to stand for. Put perhaps most poignantly, these are the guys that Indiana Jones fights.

But we fought a war with Germany, and we locked ourselves into decades of nuclear brinkmanship with the Soviet Union. And despite our on-going $1.2 trillion efforts to ostensibly root out the meager handful of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims who would use their faith to justify attacking the United States, we have never been at war with Islam. The demonitization of American Muslims for the sake of political pandering tugs at the frayed hole left in the fabric of our this nation's pluralistic birthright by the events of 9/11, and prevents a nation desperately in need of unity and understanding from realizing these lofty purposes.

Both Gingrich and Cain have proven themselves once again to be all too willing to perpetuate the conservative myth that Muslim-Americans are somehow less patriotic than their fellow citizens. (And for a quick case study that explodes this myth, check out the first installment of the Washington Post's new series, "American Muslims," which profiles a Palestinian-born man who sells American flags and loves Fleetwood Mac). But by lumping Islam, and American Muslims in particular, in with the two perpetual boogie-men of Nazism and communism, Newt appears to have leap-frogged right over Cain to take of the ignoble position as most the most blatantly Islamophobic member of the 2012 GOP field. 

It is unacceptable for public figures to continue playing upon ignorance and the fear it breeds to further their own political careers. Gingrich and Cain must be held accountable for their blatant fear-mongering and Islamophobia. Muslims have been in the United States since before the United States were the United States, with many thousands brought over on slave ships from sub-Saharan Africa. And despite the strides made in religious tolerance and civil rights in the intervening centuries, the invaluable contributions of Muslims to the American experiment remain incalculable to individuals like Gingrich and Cain, blinded as they are by ambition, fear, and prejudice.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Amazing Grace (But not if you get elected)

By Tammy Waite

I’ll start with a confession; I am a sinner.

I was a sinner before I uttered a single word, or committed a single ill-conceived deed – sin is in our nature, we are selfish beings who like to please ourselves in any way possible. The fact that we are sinners and couldn’t follow rules very well prompted God to send a savior to build a bridge between His holiness and our immanent unholiness.

People of the Christian faith accept this as our central truth; we are sinful people who will inevitably mess up repeatedly and need bucket-loads of forgiveness over the course of our lifetime.

If we accept this as one of the tenets of our faith, how then should we deal with people in leadership or roles of authority when they fall (or even dive) from grace?

If a man walked into our church, confessed that he had been mentally unfaithful to his wife and had flirted lewdly with a stranger online, we would (in theory) offer him grace, love, and forgiveness. “There, there, man, we all mess up. Just tell Jesus you’re sorry and get back on track. It’s all good.”

We would not launch a media campaign designed to crucify or humiliate him, would we? Oh, I hope not. We would not post his unsavory photos and e-mails on TV and we would not demand he quit his job.

Unless he’s elected to public office. What happens to our notion of “grace” when someone is a public figure? It seems to evaporate from view. Grace fails even appear as one of the listed options of response. Christian beliefs recede and mob mentality takes its place. Recently I have watched believers and non-believers alike line up to crucify any poor sap that chose to become a public servant for a living and dared to sin.

U.S. Rep Anthony Weiner is a married man, and he probably shouldn’t have sent racy photos of his genitals to another woman. John Edwards was married man with  a wife who was dying from cancer and he cheated on her.  A bad choice on his part, too. Are we appalled by their behavior? Sure. Should we offer them the same grace we would offer anyone else who came asking sincerely for forgiveness? Absolutely.

Sexual sin is not as shocking as we pretend. According to the website for Craig Gross’ XXX Church – the average age people start watching porn is 11, and 40 million adults in the U.S. view porn daily. That’s staggering.

We can assume that since there aren’t 40 million members of Congress, that some porn viewers and sex-texters are say…postal carriers, hair stylists, grocery cashiers, truck drivers, doctors, dog-groomers, and… church goers.  In fact in a 2007 study, 70% of Christians admitted to struggling with porn. (Here’s the link to the stats on the XXX church website - http://www.xxxchurch.com/whyporn/ )

I had a debate about this with my friend Pastor Jordan Brawner, he said “Should we forgive all? Yes. Does forgiveness mean consequences are avoided? Nope.”

Perhaps he’s right, but my question is who determines the consequence for a man’s sin other than God? Can anyone trust our moral outrage when we ourselves as a nation wrestle with this same sin? If our elected officials truly represent us, and 40  million U.S. adults are watching porn and visiting adult websites daily, perhaps those people who wrestle with sexual sins DO represent us.

The rush to pass judgment also seems less than genuine when it lines up along the lines of any given political party.

Each party quietly (or not so quietly) rejoices when a representative of the opposing party falls, yet makes excuses for their own. I hate to break the news, dear readers, but while the GOP has a slight edge in sex scandals, it’s a pretty tight race.  (See the score card at http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-03-30/which-party-has-more-sex-scandals/)

If we decide as a nation we won’t tolerate marital infidelity or sexually inappropriate web viewing from our leaders, then we need to make that part of the deal when someone runs for office. Even rules across the board. “Sin is not tolerated from office holders.” Of course that would greatly narrow our field of candidates since it appears only 12 of us aren’t watching online porn.

As believers I think we must offer grace to those who come seeking forgiveness. If their sin caused their job to be compromised, if they broke a law in pursuit of their sin, if they misused federal funds to pay for their sin – then yes, by all means they must resign. But if they did not, the judgment and penalty for their sin should only come from their spouse and God.

Matthew 7:1-5 from the Message translation says: 1-5 "Don't pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It's easy to see a smudge on your neighbor's face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, 'Let me wash your face for you,' when your own face is distorted by contempt? It's this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.

 
Tammy Waite is a freelance writer based in San Diego, CA. She currently works at the Rock Church in San Diego, the 5th fastest growing church in America. She was a Political Science Major at the University of Akron and did a political internship on Jimmy Carter's Presidential campaign in 1980.
 
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