Thursday, December 23, 2004

Onward, Christian Soldiers

On November 3rd, Bob Jones, the president of Bob Jones University (a Christian college most famous for, until recently, prohibiting interracial dating) wrote President Bush a letter congratulating him on his victory. Here are two excerpts from that letter:

In your re-election, God has graciously granted America — though she doesn't deserve it — a reprieve from the agenda of paganism. You have been given a mandate.

* * * * *

Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ.

The slander that liberals in America are frothing-at-the-mouth atheists who "despise" Christ is, it seems, a common one. I have heard similar comments on Rush Limbaugh's radio show amongst other places (and who could forget Jerry Falwell's rant blaming the 9/11 attacks on "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians..., the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America"?). It is an often-repeated fact that America is the most religious country in the west. A poll from none other than Fox News found that 92% of Americans believe in God (compare that to 61% in Britain).

Let's take what Fox says at face value (wow, I never thought I would say that) and have a look at the election numbers. There were 117,897,556 votes cast for president in the 2004 election. If 8% of the voters don't believe in God, that makes 9,431,804.48 votes from atheists (we'll assume the half vote came from Florida). John Kerry got 57,288,974 votes. Let's assume all atheists voted for Kerry and none voted for either Bush or Nader (an obviously false proposition). That would mean atheists made up 16.46% of Kerry's vote total. Therefore, fully 83.54% of those who voted for Kerry believe in God.

That makes Democrats far more religious than any Western European nation. The problem, it seems, is that Democrats are more likely to believe in things like epistemological modesty and the separation of church and state. According to Bob Jones and his ilk, it is not belief in God that matters. Rather, it is support for the theology of fundamentalist Christians and the legislative agenda they champion that determines who opposes the "agenda of paganism." In his letter to Bush, Jones outlines the legislative goals of the fundamentalists:

Undoubtedly, you will have opportunity to appoint many conservative judges and exercise forceful leadership with the Congress in passing legislation that is defined by biblical norm regarding the family, sexuality, sanctity of life.... You have four years—a brief time only—to leave an imprint for righteousness upon this nation...
Fundamentalist Christians have been largely successful in their efforts to shape the definition of righteousness to their own ends. Their grass-roots organizing and fundraising efforts are legendary. Sadly, the meek voices of liberal and moderate Christians are eclipsed by evangelical bombast. It is critically important for religious people who do not want to be associated with Bob Jones' brand of hate-filled Christianity to stand up and make their voices heard. The most reactionary elements in American society cannot be allowed to own the definition of morality. (I write this fully aware that not all American's are Christians, but because Christians are by far the most dominant group, they carry the greatest responsibility for religious debate in this country.)

Once upon a time, righteous Christian liberals like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. (who is still with us, but truly belongs to an earlier time) helped to shape the moral and political landscape of this country. More voices like these are sorely needed to counteract the intolerance and hate-mongering that all too often pass for expressions of faith.

One place to start is to attack a great weakness of fundamentalist theology: their reliance upon the Bible as the alpha and omega (if you will) in all discussions about morality. You will notice that Jones refers to his desire for legislation "defined by biblical norm regarding the family, sexuality, sanctity of life...." Of course, this is coded language. What he really desires is the outlawing of gay marriage, homosexuality, "fornication" and abortion (but you can be sure that opposition to the death penalty doesn't enter into his definition of the sanctity of life). Obviously the Bible must be quite clear on these matters. Unfortunately for Jones, it's not.

The senior minister of Chicago's flagship United Methodist church (disclosure: this minister happens to be my father, and I, the prodigal son) has written an interesting article (.pdf file, requires Adobe Acrobat) on the topic of "Christian" moral values in response to the supposed triumph of these values in the 2004 election (and this illustrates a point: Pat Robertson has his 700 Club beaming out to millions across the land while an important moderate-to-liberal congregation has photocopies of a rinky-dink newsletter in a format not searchable by Google posted on the Internet. This is not the way to win hearts and minds). Dr. Blackwell's focus is on the anti-abortion and anti gay-marriage movements as considered from a scriptural point of view. First he attempts a definition of Christian moral values:

I have two general tests to see if an ethical position is “Christian:” does it grow out of the core of Christian belief and practice based on the New Testament scripture and especially the gospel accounts of Jesus Christ’s teaching; and, is the principle universal in that it transcends particular cultures and epochs and applies to all Christians at all times?
This strikes me as a much better definition than the fundamentalists' total reliance on "inerrant" biblical citations (most often highly selective quotations drawing heavily on Old Testament sources). It also draws one's attention to fact that conservative Christian leaders rarely place any importance on the universality of Christian experience (witness the historical enmity fundamentalists have shown toward Catholics), preferring to focus on theological exclusivity and the over-arching importance of a personal relationship with Jesus.

He has this to say on the subject of marriage:

The anti-gay marriage initiative, often taking the form of defining marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman, is an interesting case. For many of us the conventional marital arrangement is what Jesus refers to when he talks about how a man and a woman shall leave their families and join together as one flesh.

It is curious, however ... that there are very few models for modern marriage in the Bible. Adam and Eve aren’t it. Abraham, Sarah, and the concubines aren’t it. David and Bathsheba don’t help us. Jesus says precious little about it. And Paul advises it because it is better than burning in Hell ... So, marriage of any form is not a major theme in the scriptures.

Of course, in the Roman Catholic Church marriage is forbidden for the clergy and the religious sisters. It is a lesser state, somehow, than being “married” to Christ....

So, there are some “variations on a theme” that ought to caution us from being too hasty to make blanket pronouncements. I think that we can agree that there is great value in monogamous relationships of loving commitment. I consider that a Christian ideal. The fact that some same-sex couples have demonstrated such a covenantal love has been part of my learning over the years. I am interested in us finding ways to encourage such fidelity rather than discouraging it.

This is a crucial point. The moral values here are love and fidelity. How could "between a man and a woman only" possibly be considered a "value"? It is a preference—a way in which some would prefer to see the ideals of love and fidelity restricted—but one that can't possibly rise to the same moral level as the values themselves.

His comments on abortion aren't based on scripture (they couldn't be, as abortion is never once mentioned in the Bible), referring instead to his concept of the universality of Christian tradition:

Undoubtedly, life in some form begins at [conception], and it remains very precious life in all the subsequent forms of development. However, in the past our culture has not treated such nascent forms as full human existence, otherwise we would have established laws that declare every miscarriage as a death, requiring that a name be given, a death registered, and in a religious context, a funeral or memorial service held. No, we might think of a miscarriage as a “loss in the family” because it is death to a certain hope, but it is not considered the death of a viable human life....[T]o assert that there is only one “Christian” way to think about it simply is wrong since Christians think several ways about it.
If abortion is murder, as some would have it, then why isn't miscarriage death? Why not require death certificates? This is a telling inconsistency for a group that prides itself on the infallibility of its source of reasoning.

Here's the article's money quote:

So, what, then, are true Christian moral values? Jesus speaks them in the Beatitudes, the Great Commandment, and the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. I believe that it is universally true for all Christians that we are doing God’s will when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for children, tell the truth, house the homeless, insist upon justice, work for peace, and show mercy. I will be very pleased when we have an election decided on these values.
The emphasis here is on love and ecumenism, not intolerance and divisiveness. These are the values to be found in scripture. So why grant the zealots their definitions and distortions? There can be—and should be—more than one form of political Christianity. At a time when the perils of theocracy are readily apparent, it is vital that there be an energetic counterbalance to groups that insist upon legislating their worm's-eye view of morality.

In mid-January, Dr. Blackwell will convene a conference bringing together liberal theologians with speech-writers for Illinois politicians (including Senator Barak Obama's scribe) to discuss how best to dissemenate a message that can stand up to the religious right while remaining committed to social liberalism and inter-faith dialogue. This is an encouraging move (although a nation-wide effort would help more). It's time for moderate and liberal Christians to start playing political hardball—after all, the other side has been doing it for years.
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