TheReligiousLeft.org

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Rick Santorum's Attacks On Barack Obama Are About Theology, Not Policy

By Becky Garrison
Originally posted 2/24/12 at The Guardian 

According to US presidential candidate Rick Santorum, President Barack Obama undermines the United States' "Judeo-Christian values" through his implementation of his policies. Even though Santorum claims he won't question Obama's faith, he attacks Obama's theology instead of critiquing his policies.

Several speeches delivered by Santorum in 2008 offer some insight into how he delineates between "real" theology (one "based on the Bible") and Obama's "phony" theology. Following his speech at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life, Santorum dismissed those Christians who do not hold an inerrant view of scripture as being "a liberal something but not a Christian." Also, while speaking at Ave Maria University, Santorum excommunicated 45 million mainline Protestants (including Obama, who has been involved with the United Church of Christ since the 1980s) by declaring: "We look at the shape of mainline Protestantism in this country and it is in shambles, it is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it."

Santorum's lackluster performance during CNN's latest Republican presidential debate could signal the end of his presidential run. However, his belief that America is suffering from the prolonged attack of Satan continues to have currency among conservative Christians. Evangelical leaders like the Rev Franklin Graham still label Obama as a Muslim while upholding the Christian virtues espoused by Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Even those progressive evangelicals like Sojourners, who express some vague concerns that a candidate's faith not take over the public realm, do not take Santorum to task for some of his more extreme views on issues such as women's reproductive rights and marriage equality.

In the 17th century, this debate over what it means to be a "Christian" first surfaced in the United States when Massachusetts governor John Winthrop anointed the Massachusetts Bay Colony to be a Christian "city on the hill," while Roger Williams, founder of the state of Rhode Island, argued for liberty of conscience.

Fast forward to the 20th century where, as I noted in my article, Deconstructing Dominionism, this strand of American exceptionalism could be seen post-Great Depression with the emergence of the right-wing organization The Family, sponsor of the National Prayer Breakfast. In his research of this organization, documented in his books The Family and C Street, Jeff Sharlet exposed The Family's ultimate goal of "a government built by God" with laissez-faire economics at the heart of their gospel message.

In The Institutes of Biblical Law (1973), Rousas John Rushdoony popularized Christian Reconstructionism, which advanced the notion of "theonomy (government by God)". This belief system starts with the nuclear family, where the man is the head of the household. Next in line is church governance, followed by civil governance. All three levels are subject to biblical authority, in that their interpretation of God's word is the sole authority that governs human ethics. Concurrent with the founding of the Moral Majority in 1979, Tim LaHaye's book The Battle for the Mind (1980) charted the beginnings of a battle specifically against the evils of secular humanism with the ultimate aim to create a Christian global worldview. This revisionist historical quest for a "Christian nation" continues to be advanced by pundits such as David Barton, who is a frequent guest on the Fox News Channel.

One can find a similar melding of church and state among conservative Catholics such as Father Richard John Neuhaus. In the 1980s, evangelical Christians and Catholics set aside their mutual distrust exhibited in 1960 when John F Kennedy ran as the first Catholic presidential candidate to collaborate in the battle against abortion. In this multi-front culture war, an "ecumenism of the trenches" prevails over Reformation-era disputes about doctrine. So when Santorum makes full-throated opposition to gay marriage and abortion his signature issues, he is effectively singing from the evangelical hymnal, while playing a tune that appeals to traditional Catholics as well. 

Becky Garrison is a panelist for The Washington Post's On Faith column and contributes to a range of outlets including The Guardian, The Revealer, American Atheist magazine and Religion Dispatches.. Her books include Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ, Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church, and Ancient Future Disciples: Meeting Jesus in Mission-Shaped Ministries.
Today's image via DonkeyHotey.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Prophetic Encounters: An Interview with Dan McKanan

By Garrett FitzGerald 
February 2012

As a part of our mission statement here at TheReligiousLeft.org, we invoke and claim as our own inheritance "the storied legacy of progressive religious activism in United States." Firmly believing that "the beliefs and practices developed by progressive religious activists have played an integral role in nearly every movement promoting liberty, equality, and solidarity in the history of this nation," we have sought to draw inspiration and understanding from those who have come before us as we labor to keep their visions and struggles alive in the 21st century.

So you can imagine how excited we were when we got wind of a recent book chronicling the very legacy which we here at the site claim for ourselves. In Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition, Harvard Divinity School professor Dan McKanan weaves dynamic accounts of the seemingly disparate movements that have comprised the Religious Left into one coherent, compelling narrative of social and spiritual transformation. Via Beacon Press: 
In Prophetic Encounters, Dan McKanan challenges simple distinctions between "religious" and "secular" activism, showing that religious beliefs and practices have been integral to every movement promoting liberty, equality, and solidarity. From Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the nineteenth century to Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., and Starhawk in the twentieth, American radicals have maintained a deep faith in the human capacity to transform the world. This radical faith has always been intertwined with the religious practices of Christians and Jews, pagans and Buddhists, orthodox believers and humanist heretics. Their vision and energies powered the social movements that have defined America's progress: the abolition of slavery, feminism, the New Deal, civil rights, and others.
I sat down recently with Professor McKanan, and we explored some of the themes featured in Prophetic Encounters.  An audio recording of the interview is available below, and you can find the full transcript after the jump. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

Rick Santorum's Culture Warfare Makes Me Want to Throw Up

By Garrett FitzGerald 

So maybe that's a slight exaggeration. But as controversial conservative candidate Rick Santorum's lead has dipped in the hotly contested Michigan primary, it seems like we are hearing more - and more outrageous- hyperbole from this sweater-vested culture warrior. In his latest assault on the known liberal bastions of history and common sense, Santorum described his fairly visceral reaction to fellow Catholic John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 speech on the role of faith in politics. In the speech, Kennedy - then the Democratic nominee for the 1960 presidential election - sought to quell the fears of Protestants concerned that the Roman Catholic Church would exercise undue influence over American policy through a Catholic president. Kennedy's speech detailed not only how his understandings of his own personal faith would "allow him to make important national decisions as president independent of the church," but also outlined his fundamental vision for a religiously neutral and pluralistic United States.

Apparently Kennedy's insistence on the necessity of separation between church and state does not sit too well with Rick Santorum, who doubled down this week on comments he made in October, wherein he claimed that he "almost threw up" the first time he read Kennedy's speech. Via the Huffington Post:
"I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state are absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country...to say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes me want to throw up."
Here's the video, in case you feel the need to challenge the strength of your own stomach:


If you're having a hard time swallowing Santorum's obscenely biological response to Kennedy's speech, you are not alone. Santorum's claims should be taken with more than a grain of salt whenever he starts pontificating on matters of history and religion, and his response to Kennedy's speech demands a heaping spoonful for its willful misrepresentation of Kennedy's message and the historical context that necessitated such a speech in the first place.
 
Santorum's interpretation of Kennedy's message, as a propaganda piece promoting a secular leftist agenda to eliminate religion's role from the public and political spheres, is a perennial scare-tactic among conservative politicians attempting to rally a base increasingly united only by the fear of their own obsolescence. In her 2010 intellectual tour de force, America by Heart, Sarah Palin leveled a similar critique against Kennedy's speech, claiming JFK "essentially declared religion to be such a private matter that it was irrelevant to the kind of country we are." And despite the Religious Right's increased impact on every level of US politics over the last couple of decades, conservatives routinely cry foul on liberals trying to ban religion from politics in what they claim is direct contradiction of the wishes of our Founding Fathers.

In fact, we know that a strict separation of church and state at the federal lever was exactly what the Founding Fathers intended, because it is exactly what they wrote into the Constitution that they themselves created. Not only did they write it into the Constitution, but they continued to defend and elaborate upon this fundamental separation for years afterward, as when Thomas Jefferson echoed Baptist minister Roger William's phrase "wall of separation between church and state" in an 1802 letter to Baptist leaders in Connecticut concerned about the protection of their own religious liberties. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions have further reinforced Jefferson's interpretation of the First Amendment, with the Court finding in the 1879 Reynolds v. United States decision that Jefferson's metaphor "may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [Establishment Clause of the First] Amendment."
As far as I am aware, nobody, not even the most stringent critics of religion's influence in the public sphere, have advocated that people of faith should be denied participation in the political process. Indeed, advocating such discrimination against religious individuals would fly directly in the face of the Constitution's religious test clause, upon which a significant amount of advocacy around the separation of church and state has been built.

While the wall of separation between church and state must remain in place, there has never been a similar wall in place between church and statesmen that would penalize personal religious belief and expression in the way Santorum suggests. The fact that only three Catholics - and perhaps a fourth soon, if Santorum has his way - have been nominated for the presidency by a major party certainly raises questions about whether such a wall could be said to exist for some religious traditions in the court of public opinion. But Santorum's suggestion that Kennedy's speech was in any way advocating that religion and politics should be entirely separate from one another is at best a sloppy reading of a seminally important speech, and at worst a willful characterization of the same.

Consider this other particularly telling portion of Kennedy's speech, and see how well it squares up with Santorum's claims: 
"I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish—where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source — where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials — and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."
Kennedy was running at a time when no Catholic had ever been elected to the highest office in the land, a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was still pervasive, stoked by anti-immigrant xenophobia and trumped-up comparisons between the Soviet Union and the Church of Rome. Despite the embattled rhetoric of conservatives like Santorum, the rise of a politicized Religious Right has demonstrated that public profession of conservative Christianity - be it evangelical Proestant or Catholic - is hardly an impediment to political power. Santorum, in sharp contrast to Kennedy, can quite reasonably claim as some of his most devoted followers many of the conservative Protestants that President Kennedy was once forced to woo.

Even so, there exists a certain siege mentality among conservatives like Santorum, driven by the meta-narrative of "traditional values under assault" that underlies the Religious Right's worldview of permanent culture war. This is a narrative and a worldview that defy any sense of reason or historicity. Religion itself is not, as conservatives like to claim, under attack in this country, and the fact of the matter remains that the United States is still an overwhelming religious nation compared to other industrialized countries. Even the incredible political successes of conservative evangelical Christianity  over the last forty years - culminating in eight years of the lesser Bush - has failed to deflate the tone of Republican rhetoric suggesting conservative Christianity is living in the shadow of some great external threat, rather than slowly succumbing to the weight of its own anachronistic social and theological baggage.

It's no secret that Santorum obviously views a serious re-ignition of conservative culture warfare as a major cornerstone to his bid for the presidency. But in doing so he has shown himself willing to blatantly rewrite history to conform to his own warped beliefs. Despite the shadowy, secular liberal conspiracy imagined by Santorum, religion retains a vital roll in informing the lives of tens of millions of Americans, including many of our political leaders. And one vitally important roll for religion to play in that process right now is challenging claims from people like Rick Santorum who so casually rewrite the history and imperil the future of our Republic.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Faux Birth Control Debate

By Becky Garrison
Originally posted 2/22/12 at The Washington Post

According to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, while most U.S. Catholics support both the new federal directive that health insurance plans provide coverage for birth control and marriage equality, about half of those evangelicals polled appear to be more in sync with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on these topics.

A report by the Guttmacher Institute confirms that most Catholic women ignore official Catholic teaching that prohibits artificial birth control. Conservative evangelical teaching on contraception ranges from the Quiverfull movement that promotes natural family planning to the Focus on the Family’s recommendations for select methods of contraception, as well as their teachings on abstinence for those not in a “traditional” marriage” between a man and a woman. (More progressive evangelical organizations like Sojourners do not view women’s reproductive rights and other topics relating to human sexuality as part of their core issues. To date their voices have been largely absent from this debate.)

Just as Catholic women who use birth control ignore portions of Catholic teaching, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich appear to be functioning as Cafeteria Catholics as well. For example, their pro-life, pro-death penalty views are held by the National Association of Evangelicals but remain at odds with Catholic teaching that affirms the dignity of all people.
 
So when former Governor Mike Huckabee and pundit Glenn Beck proclaim, “We’re all Catholics now,” they don’t mean that evangelical Christians, Mormons, and Catholics will unite over a common theology. Rather, as Richard Land and others noted on this column, these disparate groups found common ground over what they perceive to be a loss of their religious liberties. On this blog, Jordan Sekulow and Matthew Clark states, “No religious institution, and no American, should be forced to choose between obeying the tenants of one’s faith and obeying the law.” Purpose-driven mega-church pastor Rick Warren summed up the sentiments of some conservative Christians when he tweeted, “I’d go to jail rather than cave in to a government mandate that violates what God commands us to do. Would you? Acts 5:29."

Rick Santorum took a more dire tone by proclaiming that President Barack Obama and other liberals are leading people of faith down a path that ends at the guillotine. Also, he joined evangelical thought-leaders Chuck Colson and Eric Metaxas in taking the historical analogy one step further by equating this battle against the Obama administration over contraception with the socio-political climate of Germany circa 1930.

Such hyperbole should be familiar to anyone who has followed the rise of the Religious Right as “family friendly” players in U.S. politics. After all, they crafted a myth that these “family values” conservative evangelicals and Pentecostals first came together when they joined forces with like-minded Catholics to defeat Roe v. Wade. In fact, the Religious Right began to coalesce as a political movement following the court case Green v. Conically (1972), wherein the court decided that racially discriminatory private schools were not entitled to tax-exempt status. The Supreme Court of the United States referenced this case in its ruling of Bob Jones University v. United States (1983), where it stated that the religious clause of the First Amendment does not protect those religious institutions seeking tax-exempt status if their practices are contrary to government public policy such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Marci Hamilton, a constitutional scholar at Cardozo School of Law, offers this observation:
“Courts nationwide have repeatedly ruled that religious groups must follow the same rules as everyone else when holding a government contract. Any institution that can’t in good faith follow those rules shouldn’t apply for public funding.” 
Hence Obama is not exercising “religious bigotry” or “phony theology” in forcing people of faith to choose between obeying the U.S government versus following their particular faith tradition. Rather, this administration maintains the law as upheld by the Supreme Court, which clearly states that religious institutions cannot obtain federal funding and tax exemptions and then refuse to follow the law. To quote Jon Stewart from “The Daily Show,” “You confused the war on your religion with not always getting everything you want...it’s called being part of a society. Not everything goes your way.”

Becky Garrison is a panelist for The Washington Post's On Faith column and contributes to a range of outlets including The Guardian, The Revealer, American Atheist magazine and Religion Dispatches.. Her books include Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ, Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church, and Ancient Future Disciples: Meeting Jesus in Mission-Shaped Ministries.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

“Where Are the Women?”

By Caryn D. Riswold

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) asked the question at the now infamous male-only hearing on contraception as preventative health care chaired by Republican Darrell Issa (R-CA) on February 16.  She and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill) subsequently walked out.  Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) spoke to the issue later in the day.  “Imagine they’re having a panel on women's health, and they don't have any women on the panel – duh!” Chairman Issa insisted that the hearing was not about contraception, it was about religious freedom.

And it was:  The freedom to deny covering contraception, widely accepted to be essential for women’s preventative health care.

As the media picked up on the gender gaffe and ran with it, networks were unable, however to see their own ironic images.  A screen shot of the Morning Joe segment the next day on MSNBC about the hearing shows no less than five men commenting on how terrible it was that no women were invited to speak at the main Congressional panel.  The title of the segment, at the bottom, reflects the producers’ stunning lack of awareness:  “Where are the women?”  Indeed, MSNBC.

When that week’s Sunday morning political talk shows on NBC and ABC featured exactly one female guest each on panels of five to discuss the politics of the contraception hearing, it was just another Sunday:   In 2011, women were 21.7% of guests on all Sunday morning shows.

Beyond the media, it isn’t much better.  Women make up 17% of Congress overall, and the 2010 election brought a net loss of women serving at the national level for the first time since 1987.  Women have about 15% of the bylines in opinion journalism in the U.S., and The Op-Ed Project aggregates weekly data tracking major U.S. newspaper bylines by gender.  It’s usually not good news.

Here’s the thing that only a few will also dare to point out:  The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops is 100% male.  The specific organization to which the Obama administration made concession in the logistics of the Affordable Care Act and women’s health has zero women.  Why is this legitimate?

I know.  Religious freedom.  As a non-Catholic, it’s not really my business if the Roman Catholic Church wants to have an all-male priesthood.  (There are organizations for those who have determined it to be their business, however, like the international group Roman Catholic Womenpriests.)  If I don’t like Catholic theology and ethics because it forbids contraception, then I don’t have to be Catholic.  And I can speak out on why access to contraception is, in fact, important for women.  But I don’t have to accept the legitimacy of U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops’ position on contraception, especially when it impacts the implementation of public policy in a way likely to burden women and privilege men.  As we know, there won’t be separate paperwork for erectile dysfunction medication coverage.

Even Catholics themselves overwhelmingly understand their Church’s position on contraception to be anachronistic.  Despite the few who swear by natural family planning, and its potential for creating and undergirding a loving marriage of respect and self-control, Catholic women use contraception at almost exactly the same rate as non-Catholic’s.  99% of U.S. women have used contraception at some point in their lives, and this is true for 98% of Catholic women.  This specifically refers to methods other than natural family planning.  Guttmacher clarified this now widely reported statistic recently to reinforce it, and point out further that the number of women in the 2011 study “currently using” contraception is 88% overall, and 87% among Catholic women.  Again, official church teaching makes no significant difference.

Disobedient Catholic women aren’t the only ones to think this way.  A significant historical point has yet to meaningfully rear its head in this most recent debate:  In 1963, Pope John XXIII established The Papal Commission on Population, the Family, and Natality.  Six men, three clergy and three laity, studied the issue and recommended relaxing the absolute ban on artificial contraception.  These were trusted and educated leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.  But even their recommendation was not sufficient to overcome millennia of tradition.  Unhappy with this result in 1964, Pope Paul VI expanded the commission to 72 Catholics, included only five women, and weighted the commission presumably in his favor with majority clergy and bishops.  In 1966, the Commission concluded, and “the overwhelming majority (including nine of the 16 cardinals and bishops) favored not only approving the pill, but lifting the ban on all forms of contraception.”  The Holy Father simply rejected this, and reiterated the total ban on artificial contraception in 1968.

Among other things, this history reveals that it’s not just about including the women.  It’s about grasping the reality of people’s lives, and working for equal access as well as justice.

When Darrell Issa added two women to the afternoon panel of his hearing on the religious freedom to deny women coverage of preventative health care, they were not women in support of the mandate.  Achieving justice for women is not just about adding women to the pot of patriarchy and stirring.  Nevertheless, efforts of The Op-Ed Project to increase the diversity of bylines in major newspapers, of Emily’s List to elect more women to office (Democratic pro-choice women in their case), and of the advocacy group Women in Media and News to increase “women’s presence and power in the public debate” are important.  As this most recent episode fades in memory, we need to keep asking of the media, of our electoral ballots, of our churches:  Where are the women?

Or, we could just take advice from the Twitter feed based on The West Wing character, deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman, on February 10:

“72 women serve in the House. 17 in Senate. My idea: all bills about women’s health have to pass the Women’s Supercommittee.”

I second that motion.

Caryn D. Riswold, Ph.D., is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition, and works as Associate Professor of Religion and Chair of Gender and Women’s studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. Her most recent book, Feminism and Christianity: Questions and Answers in the Third Wave, is available in print or for Kindle.  You can follow her on Twitter @feminismxianity.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

An Ash Wednesday Offering

By Chris Saxton

So. Why are we here? No, No. I don't propose to answer the big existential question "why do we exist?" But rather why do we go to a place of worship on Ash Wednesday. If we were early Christians the answer would be easy. Christian converts in the first couple of hundred years of Christianity would begin their journey toward Baptism on this day. They would have forty days of prayer, fasting, and repentance, mirroring the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert preparing for His Ministry. On the great Vigil of Easter Saturday they would be baptized as Christians and would celebrate the rising of Christ from the tomb with the Eucharist. We no longer make people wait and prepare for baptism in that manner. And as for taking communion, all baptized Christians are welcome at most of the tables of various denominations today and any day.
 
So, why are we here? Why are we acknowledging that we are broken. And why are we having the ash from last years palms smeared on our foreheads?

Today as we begin a forty-day journey…We will reflect. We will be reassured that although we are broken, we are loved. And we will be penitent. We Anglicans (my own particular denomination) are a penitential people. Some might even accuse us of groveling in the sight of God. We humbly beseech God…”We are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under His table”…”Thou O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders.” These are un-comfortable words. And doesn't it get even worse during Lent? We are asked to prepare for the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ for the next forty-days by acknowledging that we are not perfect, doing some work and making some sacrifices. Sacrifices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving

Twenty-odd years ago I was the stage manager for Canadian comic coloratura soprano Mary Lou Fallis. She, her accompanist Bruce Ubakata, and myself were on tour in the great state of Kansas and were in the city of Salina on Ash Wednesday. We decided that we needed to attend an imposition of the ashes service and found ourselves at Christ Episcopal Cathedral that morning at a service presided over by the late Bishop John F. Ashby who preached a sermon that I have never forgotten.
             
The Bishop was decidedly of the fire and brimstone variety, "Lent is a time of sacrifice! It is about experiencing the suffering and sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. I don't hold," he said, "with any of this eastern, pinko, liberal nonsense about Lent being a time for being a better person. Lent is not about 'I'm going to call my mamma every week.' It's about giving things up. Me, I am giving up peanut butter for Lent. And for those of you who don’t think this is a sacrifice let me tell you I love peanut butter. I have been known to fly into a rage when there is no peanut butter in the house!"
            
 As you can imagine, when the Bishop said, "eastern, pinko, liberal he looked directly at the three of us. I still shudder to think on it. But I do find that all these years later his sentiments still resonate with me. Can I just be nicer to my momma or do I have to give up chocolate-chip cookies?
              
I ask: Why be penitential, why sacrifice? Why do we even have this season of Lent, these forty days of self-denial? Why would we need to prepare ourselves for the triumph of Easter? The answer is so easy and so hard.
             
Grace.

Christ offers Grace to us. It is crazy! We are offered something beyond price. We are redeemed from our transgressions by Christ's ultimate sacrifice. He came in total humility, and was born, and lived as us. He was tortured, reviled, and died horribly for us nailed to a tree. We are given this unreasonable gift of His Grace and love. And as unworthy of it as we are, all we have to do is accept it. We have to be open and humble and receptive. We stand at the base of a Niagara Falls of Grace and all we have is an eyedropper to collect it. This is why we have to prepare. This is why we repent, to make room in our hearts for this unreasonable abundance of love and forgiveness. We have to look around and see what we can empty out to catch this waterfall of Grace in.
             
For me, it is always pride and self-will that must be emptied out. And this, I think, is what repentance is for all of us. We recognize that we are not the centre of our own universe. That perhaps we could use a little help. And, this is where Bishop Ashby and I depart, I think that the empting out of pride and filling it with compassion is a penitential act. The "I will phone my mamma" is a recognition that love and service is beloved in Jesus eyes. When we look at the person that most that must ticks us off, this Lent, with compassion, this is an act of repentance. Repentance that we can only offer with the complete confidence that Grace is bursting into our lives.
             
We Pray. We ask for, and give thanks for, His presence and love in our lives. We crack open a Bible and read some scripture daily. This is an acknowledgement that we are part of a greater whole, part of a greater story. In humility we pray, we admit that we are broken, and are in need. We ask for and accept help. This is an act of love. 
             
We fast. Bishop Ashby renounces peanut butter. I give up cookies (I have been known to fly into a rage when my son comes home and raids my secret stash of cookies)… How will you fast? What sacrifice will you make that you may keep in your heart to remind you of His sacrifice? This also is an act of love.
             
We give alms. A few coins in an outstretched Micky D’s cup. Money to ease suffering at home and abroad. We do service and give help to others. We give our compassion to those in need, especially those who most irritate us. This is perhaps our greatest act of penitence and love.
            
 But we do it quietly. Matthew's Gospel tells us today that we are not to make a big fuss over this. We are told not to sound a trumpet when we give alms, not to look for praise from others, but rather be assured that God sees all. Fast but don’t make a commotion about it. Don't moan and whine over your sacrifice - which is something my wife Nadine has been known to accuse me of during Lent when I am "Jonesing" for a sweet and moaning about my own martyrdom. Be quietly joyful. Be quietly penitential.
             
We don't put on sackcloth and sit in a pile of ashes bewailing our lot. Rather we have a small amount of ash smeared on our foreheads. When Bishop Ashby imposed ashes on Mary-Lou, Bruce and me that Ash Wednesday he said, "Oh Man, Dust thou art!" and I am sure that when I get the ashes from last year’s palms imposed on my forehead today I will hear similar but more inclusive words. But it is a sobering thought. "You are dust and to dust you shall return." This must be a profoundly moving moment for the priest imposing the ashes. I have heard of a young minister, imposing the ashes for the first time on the head of his newborn daughter breaking down in tears with this reminder of our mortality and fragility.
             
We are so easily broken, and this season of penance and preparation for Christ's Passion reminds us of this.
         
This is why we are here today, to remember.

We remember the strong, tough verdant fronds from Palm Sunday, carried in triumph. A year later dried and fragile. Burnt and returned to dust… Dust thou art.

Dust but loved. Full of sin and broken but still redeemed. Unworthy, but given unreasonable grace. We do small acts and make small sacrifices trusting not in our own worthiness but in Christ's great love for us.

We show love and compassion.


We are penitent and grateful.

We deny ourselves small pleasures.

We fast, and we pray, and we give.

We become witnesses to Christ's love for his people.

We recognize that we are broken, but that we are loved.

“The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit: / a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise.”

Chris Saxton is in his final as an year MDiv student at Trinity College, Canada's oldest centre for theological study in the Anglican Church of Canada. Like the college he is liberal and catholic in his views, and also rather old coming to Divinity after a long career as a sommelier, and a wine educator. You can follow him on Twitter at @ckwsaxton
 

A special thanks to the Center for the Study of World Religions for today's image.

Occupying the Fruit - or the Roots?

By Micah Bales
Originally posted 2/21/12 at The Lamb's War  

Over the past five months, I have had the opportunity to participate in many organizing meetings for the Occupy movement. These gatherings have taken place in public parks and the middle of the street, as well as in church basements, offices and homes. The earliest of these impromptu gatherings took the form of public General Assemblies, the organizational engine that got the Occupy movement off the ground. Since those first days in McPherson Square, many dozens of sub-groups have spun off, each one engaging in its own particular mission.

The McPherson Square camp began to take a back seat to off-site organizing in late 2011, and most of my energy has gone into Occupy Faith DC, and Occupy Church. Spending most of my time doing organizing within faith-based, and especially Christian, communities, I got used to operating within a certain context. The meetings that I have been attending have been largely based in a shared set of values and worldview grounded in the Christian tradition.

Of course, I neither expected nor desired to cloister myself within the Christian community. There a lot of really important work being done right now in foreclosure resistance, and these efforts are by no means limited to faith-based occupiers. We all need to pitch in for the struggle to secure the right to housing for everyone, especially those who are being robbed by predatory banks. This crucial work has drawn me back into the wider activist scene, where occupiers from all backgrounds and worldviews are drawn together in our common struggle for economic justice.

Engaging with this wider circle will take some getting used to. I had begun to take for granted the rhythm of shared prayer and reflection within the Occupy Church, and the pace and feel of the secular activist community is quite distinct. Many of our friends in the wider movement are admirable in their emphasis on getting things done in the most efficient ways possible. For people who are busy with work, school and family commitments, getting tasks accomplished as quickly and effectively as possible is important. Yet, in my life as a Quaker, and as a participant in the Occupy Church movement, I have experienced a different way of relating towards the work before us.

Within Occupy Church, there is a great value placed on fellowship and worship, not primarily as a means to an end, but as a way of building up the gathered community. During our organizing meetings, we spend only about half of our time actually doing business. The rest, we spend in simple conversation, potluck meals and worship. All of this seems quite practical to us. While eating and worshiping together does not necessarily make us more likely to acheive our objectives in the world, it does make us more likely to love one another, to place our trust in God, and to grow together as a community.

At the heart of the matter is a question of priorities. Which is more fundamental: The strength and unity of the community that does the work, or the fact that we "get the job done"? While we obviously aim for victory in our campaign for economic justice, the Occupy Church has charted a course that emphasizes building up the community itself, trusting that a healthy community will produce positive results.

One way to conceptualize this is by thinking of a fruit tree. A fruit tree itself is not particularly valuable to human beings. We cultivate fruit trees first and foremost because they produce apples, pears and peaches. Yet, we obviously cannot fail to care for the tree. If the tree itself is not healthy, neither will the fruit be. It is imperative that we care for the tree, nurturing it in its growth, so that it can bear the best fruit possible.

The Occupy community is just such a tree. Clearly, we exist as a community for the purpose of bearing fruit. We desire to see the fruit of social justice take shape in our society, and we want to see these results as soon as possible. Yet, this growth simply will not materialize unless we prioritize care for the activist community. We need to nurture those roots - human relationships, networking, leadership development, and the bonds of mutual concern and sympathy - that will spur us on to greater love and bolder action.

Without this vital root structure, the Occupy movement is unsustainable. We will be like a plant that sprouts quickly, but because of shallow soil is unable to come to fruition. If we truly want to keep our eyes on the prize, to "get things done" and see our dreams of economic justice take shape, we may have to slow down and care for one another. We occupiers are not machines. We need love and care. We need friendship, beauty and meaning in our lives. Without these things, we will not bear fruit.

How can we in the Occupy movement embrace a culture of long-term growth, grounding ourselves in the relationships of care that we require to sustain our fruit-bearing community through the years of work that our dream of justice demands of us? How can we seek not only immediate results, but also to tend the relationships that make victory possible? How can we embody - right now, in microcosm - the society that we seek to give birth to?

Micah Bales is a founding member of Capitol Hill Friends, a new Quaker church in Washington, DC. He coordinates outreach and web strategy for Earlham School of Religion, and publishes a personal blog, The Lamb's War.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Racial Component of Santorum's Obama Attacks

By Garrett FitzGerald 

Newly resurgent GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum waded into a significant theological controversy this week by decrying President Obama's policy decisions as "not based on the Bible" and motivated by what he calls a "phony theology."

The former Senator from Pennsylvania is no stranger to controversial religious rhetoric, having routinely referred to his deeply conservative interpretations of Catholic teaching in the past to justify his own anachronistic stances on issues like same-sex marriage and women's reproductive rights. But Santorum's recent remarks about President Obama's personal faith, coupled with his heated critiques of the Administration's recently-announced policy on contraceptive coverage, mark an apparent transition to a more personal assault on the President's religious identity, which could well signal that Santorum's camp is outlining strategy with sights set well beyond the GOP primary. 

Of course, calling the President's personal religious commitments into question might have another potential political perk for Santorum, and one with much more immediate collateral consequences. In a volatile GOP primary field, Santorum's most significant competitor remains former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, whose Mormon faith has proven cause for some hesitancy among the more insular elements of the Religious Right. By introducing a critique of the President's theological orthodoxy, Santorum has managed to bring a specific construction of legitimate conservative religious identity to the fore - an identity which poses continuing challenges of legitimacy for Romney - without ever explicitly naming his chief rival in the race for the GOP nomination.

For all of its potential political savvy, Santorum's critique of President Obama's theological beliefs feels fairly vacuous. The Huffington Post's Paul Brandeis Raushenbush deftly picked apart Santorum's critique, highlighting a number of valid concerns over Santorum's attempt to inject theological orthodoxy into the presidential campaign, and no doubt other pundits will have an easy time punching holes in Santorum's claims as well. But with Santorum sitting pretty in many polls in the run-up to Super Tuesday, he likely has his eyes on a bigger prize than just the GOP nomination. To that end, beyond the critiques raised by Raushenbush regarding the immediate substance of Santorum's theological challenges, it seems fairly evident that Santorum is hoping to lay the groundwork for a possible general election run by resuscitating the tired conservative rumors around President Obama's exotic and terrifying religiosity.

And here is where the under-handed art of implication comes into play. In the same way that Santorum's construction of his own supposed orthodox religious identity implies and excludes the alterity it perceives in Mitt Romney's Mormon faith, so too his oppositional construction of his own religious identity vis-à-vis that of President Obama necessarily implies a clearly negative heterodoxy in the President's religious views as well. Or, to use Mr. Santorum's words, he is setting his own supposedly authentic religious identity and beliefs up against the "phony theology" of President Obama.  
 
But unlike its implicit critique of Mitt Romney's Mormonism, Santorum's decision to go after the President's personal religiosity carries with it a significant amount of baggage bound up with the racial and religious bigotry that has been common currency among many in Santorum's voter base for the last several years. 
Had Santorum's comments about the President's religion been made in a cultural vacuum devoid of racial and religious intolerance and bigotry, they would still, at their very best, remain a matter of dubious theological value and fairly poor taste. But President Obama's presidential campaign and tenure in office have been dogged by competition between the Right's irrational, and frankly contradictory, concerns that he is either - hell, why not both? - a radical black liberation theologian or a secret, possibly Kenyan, Muslim. In either case, the rumors uniformly uphold the normative value of whiteness and a very particular articulation of conservative Christianity and rely on ignorant, reductionist constructions of the President as some sort of exotic, terrifying Other.

Considering how much of the misinformation about President Obama's faith has either found its genesis or its champions among the rank and file of the Republican party, the contender for that party's most coveted position cannot claim ignorance of the implications of his critique. And as the Santorum camp has scrambled to contain the fall-out from Santorum's dig at the President's religion, it has become clear that some of Santorum's staff certainly has President Obama's secret adherence to Islam on their minds. In attempting to defend Santorum's remarks about the President's faith, a slip of the tongue by Santorum campaign spokesperson Alice Stewart caused Stewart to shift from maligning the "theological secularism" underlying the Obama Administration's environmental policies to denouncing the President's "radical Islamic policies." Paging Dr. Freud.

Religious belief and religious identity are fluid, with internal and external forces constantly acting upon them, vying for legitimacy. Marshaling normative arguments in such discussions often function as an effective way to jockey for legitimacy, and identity politics play a large role in how such normative arguments are framed. As such, theological critique is not, in and of itself, a negative thing, and can actually be quite healthy for a pluralistic culture and the religious traditions that comprise it.

But Rick Santorum's attacks on President Obama's religious belief this past week go well beyond the bounds of theological difference. By breathing life back onto the still-glowing embers of bigotry and intolerance whose burning hatred for the person of this president has so consumed conservatives for the past few years, Rick Santorum has begun to set the tone for his possible general election bid. And if this past week's remarks are any indication, it looks like Santorum is ready to tread most anywhere in order to hit his base's lowest common denominator.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Deconstructing Dominionism

By Becky Garrison
This article will appear in the 4th Quarter 2011 issue of American Atheist Magazine

Even before Rick Perry’s Maple syrup slurs in New Hampshire made Howard Dean’s “I Have a Scream” speech seem downright normal, the man dubbed by the late Molly Ivins as “The Coiffure” and “Governor Goodhair” espoused views on issues such as economics, human sexuality, foreign policy, and evolutionary science that put him alongside other religious right-wing presidential candidates like Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Pat Robertson.  In addition to flaunting Hair-That-Praises-Jesus  personas, these “Christians” espouse a God ʼn’ country rhetoric that seeks to drape the cross on the American flag using the text of Genesis 1:28, whereby their God gave them dominion over the earth.

Those outside the evangelical Christian bubble might see such praiseworthy politics as fodder for late night comics. True, the sight of any political candidate running for office who deep-sixes science by embracing creationism and praying away the gay sounds more like the premise for a Saturday Night Live sketch than an actual presidential campaign platform. But the message behind these megawatt smiles and rather bizarre statements is downright dangerous. One can hear in the lingo of Perry, along with Bachmann, Gingrich and Palin, the stirrings of this Puritan spirit of Christian Dominionism that employ scriptural mandates to bring about Godly rule in every aspect of society including education, business, health care, and government.

As reported by Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst at Political Research Associates, author Fred Clarkson lists three characteristicsthat define Dominionism

1. Dominionists celebrate Christian nationalism, in that they believe the United States once was, and should again be, a Christian nation. In this way, they deny the Enlightenment roots of American democracy.
2. Dominionists promote religious supremacy, insofar as they generally do not respect the equality of other religions, or even other versions of Christianity.
3. Dominionists endorse theocratic visions, believing that the Ten Commandments, or biblical law, should be the foundation of American law, and that the U.S. Constitution should be seen as a vehicle for implementing Biblical principles 

Dominionism breaks down into two main branches: Christian Reconstructionism and Kingdom Now Theology.  Rousas John Rushdoony popularized Reconstructionism in The Institutes of Biblical Law (Ross House Books, 1973). This viewpoint continues to be advanced by David Barton of Wallbuilders, who is a frequent guest on the Fox News Channel.
Those who fall into this camp espouse “theonomy,” a belief system of three levels of government, which start with the nuclear family, where the man is the head of the household. Next in line is church governance, followed by civil governance. All three levels are subject to Biblical authority, in that their interpretation of God’s word is the sole authority that governs human ethics.

The Kingdom Now theology influenced the New Apostolic Reformation which Religion Dispatches Senior Editor Sarah Posner describes as “one strand of neo-Pentecostalism that draws on the ideas of dominionism and spiritual warfare. Its adherents display gifts of the spirit, the religious expression of Pentecostal and charismatic believers that includes speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing, and a belief in signs, wonders, and miracles. These evangelists also preach the ‘Seven Mountains’ theory of Dominionism: that Christians need to take control of different sectors of public life, such as government, the media, and the law.”

Posner also offers this succinct analysis of Dominionism: 
For the Christian right, it’s more a political strategy than a secret “plot” to “overthrow” the government, even as some evangelists describe it in terms of “overthrowing” the powers of darkness (i.e. Satan), and even some more radical, militia-minded groups do suggest such a revolution. In general, though, the Christian right has been very open about its strategy and has spent a lot of money on it: in the law, as just one example, there are now two ABA-accredited Christian law schools, at Regent (which absorbed the ORU law school) and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. There are a number of Christian law firms, like the Alliance Defense Fund, formed as a Christian counterweight to the ACLU. Yet outsiders don’t notice that this is all an expression of dominionism, until someone from that world, like Bachmann, hits the national stage (ibid.). 
Thanks to the prayer-led entries of Palin, Perry, and Bachman into the presidential race, Dominionism quickly became a political buzz word bandied about by pundits and journalists. In this faith-based frenzy, they tended to run roughshod over the historical antecedents to this movement. So when journalists like Washington Post’s Lisa Miller express concern for her profession to display a certain amount of dispassionate coverage of religion, citing that “'Dominionism' is the paranoid mot du jour,” she downplays the history of Dominionism, as well as its ongoing influence on the contemporary U.S. political landscape.

Jim Wallis, CEO of the social justice advocacy organization, Sojourners, expresses similar sentimentsin his blog, “God’s Politics,” on sojo.net. A. Larry Ross*, publicist to such evangelical powerhouses as the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention, and Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) takes this analogy one step further by penning a piece for “The Daily Beast” website entitled “Chrisitian Dominionism is a Myth.”

Gone are the days when one could simply gauge the religious right's position on a given issue by procuring a sound bite from a spokesman with an established organization like the American Family Association, the Christian Coalition, or Focus on the Family. In Religion Dispatches, religion scholar Athena Butler observes, “If journalists and others want to understand the last ten years of the religious right movement, they will need to pay attention to the theological, religious, and ethnic diversity among evangelicals, Pentecostals, and non-denominational churches. They will at least need to recognize the old and new leaders of the religious right, and the complex network of leaders, conferences, and teachings if they want a reductionist argument they can spin out in 800 words.”

So, lest anyone feel this represents a new movement in Americana Christianity, any student of U.S. history can easily discern that this 21st-century mantra for the U.S. of A to become a Christian nation has been repeated in various incantations starting with the 16th-century debates between Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop and Roger Williams, founder of the state of Rhode Island, when Winthrop anointed the Massachusetts Bay Colony to be a beacon of light and a Christian “city on the hill” while Williams argued for liberty of conscience. 

In the 20th century, this strand of American exceptionalism could be seen post-Great Depression with the emergence of the right wing organization The Family, sponsor of the National Prayer Breakfast. In his research of this organization documented in his books The Family and C Street, Jeff Sharlet exposed the Family's ultimate goal as “a government built by God” with laissez-faire economics at the heart of their gospel message. 

Websites like The Revealer, Religion Dispatches, and Alternet post articles which chronicle the alliances between non-charismatic evangelicals and the neo-Pentecostals in a quest to secure God's reign here on earth starting in the late 1970s. Also during this time one saw the rise of more populist groups like the Moral Majority, co-founded in 1979 by the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye, co-author of the apocalyptic Left Behind fiction series. With the publication of LaHaye's book The Battle for the Mind (Fleming H. Revell, 1980), one can find the beginnings of a battle specifically against the evils of secular humanism with the ultimate aim to create a Christian global worldview. More recently, in early 1990s, Peter Wagner created the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) after he left Fuller Seminary and Ralph Reed led the Christian Coalition to recapture Congress in 1994.

In my book, Jesus Died for This?, I reflect on how the right wing’s old guard is appearing to fade into the sunset, yet their demise does not indicate that their ideas no longer have any currency. This movement remains embedded at the grassroots level. These Christian cockroaches know how to burrow their way into even the most innocuous-looking church casserole. Through the power of the electronic media, they tug at America’s heartstrings like a well-worn country song pining for the return of an imaginary Americana that only exists in TV Land. 

Here one must be careful not to paint all evangelicals with the same unbiblical brush. Not everyone who spoke at The Response (Rick Perry’s all-day event of prayer and fasting last August, which was repeated so far in Iowa,  South Carolina and Florida with additional cities scheduled) or at the 2011 Values Voter Summit could be classified as a Dominionist. Most members of the Religious Right choose to distance themselves from these more radical views, lest they be tarnished as “Christian crazy” à la Glenn Beck. For example, most godly souls would never advocate the killing of another person—unless they were on death row or fighting to destroy their Christian freedoms. So while they would never come out and say “homosexuals” should die, their rhetoric demonizes LGBT teens to the point where they get bullied to death. 

Examine the flight patterns and funding streams of those orchestrating many of these events, and its utterly creepy to see who functions as the wingmen beside many of these wing nuts. The political players may change, but this Christian chessboard remains the same. Check out People for the American Way's “Right Wing Watch for the latest news on this front. 

Also, while one can find “dominion” language present in the work of more moderate evangelical thought leaders like Gabe Lyons, author of the bestselling book UnChristian:What a New Generation Thinks of Christianity…and Why it Matters, their stances on social justice issues such as poverty and the environment tend to reflect a collaborative stance willing to engage with others that runs counter to Dominionist beliefs. However, these “moderates” utilize scripture to justify an affirming but not welcoming issue towards LGBT people that sex columnist Dan Savage describes as “God Hate Fags with a Smile.” Also, they remain ambivalent toward other sexuality issues relating to gender equality such as reproductive rights.

Unfortunately, in a country where John Winthrop’s view of a Christian nation continues to eclipse Roger Williams’ cries for “soul liberty,” U.S. politicians feel they must play the God game when speaking to specific demographics. In this current socio-political climate, one must distinguish between spin designed to garner votes and belief in a system that will set us back to the 1950s, replete with a resurfacing of McCarthyism. Given the increasingly pluralistic nature of global politics, any presidential candidate's faith must be examined in order to ascertain if they intend to do a reach-around of the U.S. Constitution because they got the A-OK from the Almighty. 

As former presidents John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter demonstrated, someone who professes to believe in God can govern the United States without imposing their personal religious beliefs on the world. Along those lines, one can find a long history of those from liberal religious traditions like the Interfaith Alliance and Believe Out Loud, whose members have taken the road less traveled by following Roger Williams in choosing to actively engage with range of voices, including Atheists. 

However, should Gingrich or someone of his mindset get elected to higher office, they will govern the country according to the laws of their particular brand of the faith, without even scant regard for the liberty and conscience of anyone who subscribes to a different belief system. Hence when politicians strike up the band and start singing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” journalists need to illuminate how these leaders march to the beat of a deadly drummer.


*SIDEBAR
While the name A. Larry Ross may not be familiar to most Americans, his client list reads like a who’s who of Purpose Driven power players. Since establishing himself as Billy Graham’s spokesperson in 1981, he’s branded himself as the go-to guy for Bible believers looking to sell their Christ-centered messages to unsaved secular souls. For example, he helped to engineer the negative spin on religion scholar Jeff Sharlet’s research connecting The Family to the “kill the gays” bill in Uganda and other ungodly atrocities.

In fact, Ross is so influential that Mel Gibson's Icon Productions enlisted his help in selling The Passion of the Christ to evangelicals and conservative Catholics, two crowds that don’t frequent mainstream movie theaters. In addition to downplaying the Dominionist influences in the 2012 election and hawking creationist backed ventures like Answers in Genesis, Ross tries to sell a kinder, gentler version of evangelicalism by serving on the steering committee for An Evangelical Manifesto and repping emergent theology guru Peter Rollins. Despite all this responsibility, Ross still finds time to pass off press releases as editorial opinion via “The Huffington Post” and “The Daily Beast.”

Becky Garrison is a panelist for The Washington Post's On Faith column and contributes to a range of outlets including The Guardian, The Revealer, American Atheist magazine and Religion Dispatches.. Her books include Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ, Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church, and Ancient Future Disciples: Meeting Jesus in Mission-Shaped Ministries.
 
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